Friday, March 30, 2007

Comoros & Mayotte Telephone Codes

For telecom trivia freaks, today, 2007-03-30, is a red-letter day, because something that I believe is completely without precedent happened today in the Indian Ocean islands off the east coast of Africa. The Comoro Archipelago consists of four major islands; three of them form the Union of the Comoros (Udzima wa Komori or اتحاد القمر). The fourth island, Mayotte, forms the French Departmental Collectivity of Mayotte. When the Union of the Comoros declared independence from France in 1975, the citizens of Mayotte opted to stick with France as an overseas territory. The Comoros still claim Mayotte, since the four islands were governed as a single territory prior to independence, but the people of Mayotte overwhelmingly reject any suggestion that they should be "liberated" from French "colonialism"; indeed, Mayotte is now moving towards becoming an overseas département.

The telecom part of the equation has to do with the telephone country codes. Up until yesterday, Mayotte shared the +269 country code (i.e., 011–269–xxxxx from the U.S.) with the Union of the Comoros. If the next digit is a 3 or a 7, the number is in the Comoros; numbers beginning with 2 and 6 were in Mayotte. Starting today, though, Mayotte shares the +262 code with the nearby French overseas département of Réunion Island.

Fixed (landline) numbers in Mayotte were changed from +269–xxxxxx to +262–269–xxxxxx; mobile (cellular) numbers changed from +269–xxxxxx to +262–639–xxxxxx. Callers within metropolitan France and other French DOM-TOMs can now dial Mayotte as 0269.xx.xx.xx (landlines) or 0639.xx.xx.xx (mobiles).

The unprecedented aspect is that this is, to my knowledge, the first time that any territory has split off from one country code to merge with another existing code. There have been cases in which a territory splits off to form a new code, and cases in which an entire country code merges into an existing code, but Mayotte is the first-ever realignment of country codes.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Catholic priest sentenced in Vietnam

News just came over the AP wire, appearing on the New York Times web site, that caught my attention, in part just because of the peculiarities of dealing with a time zone on the far side of the earth. You see, Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was sentenced (past tense) tomorrow. On to the substance of the issue, though. Father Thadeus was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his anti-government, pro-democracy activities. As he stood in court for sentencing, he seized the occasion to denounce the communist party.

Although Vietnam theoretically has freedom of speech, just as China and Iran and the United States, but there are limits on that freedom. In Vietnam or China, you can't even suggest that it would be a good thing to have more than one political party; in Iran, you can't suggest that the government should be secular; in the United States, you have to go a bit more extreme to be jailed for political speech.

What the situation brings to my mind, though, is the situation in Iraq. George W. Bush is trying to install democracy in Iraq, but democracy by its very nature requires an anti-establishment voice to inspire it, to move the people to fundamentally alter the status quo. I don't know if Father Thadeus is that sort of inspirational figure, but it's pretty clear that Nouri al-Maliki is not. Iraq needs to find its Thomas Jefferson or Robespierre or Simón Bolívar, and he can't be appointed by President Bush.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

From Accra to Selma, Let Freedom Ring

Fifty years ago today, on 1957-03-06, Ghana became the first European colony in Africa to achieve independence. Eight years later, the "Bloody Sunday" attack of 1965-03-07 against civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, marked a pivotal moment in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. The exact dates are coincidental, but there is a strong connection between the struggle for African independence and the struggle for African-American equality.

In the 19th century, even as the United States fought a Civil War over the issue of slavery, the major powers of Europe carved up much of the rest of the world into grand empires. Britain and France had the largest, circling the globe, but even Germany (in modern-day Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, and Tanzania) and Italy (Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, and briefly Ethiopia) got into the game in Africa, as well as Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. For many years, the only parts of Africa not under European colonial rule were Liberia (founded by freed American slaves) and Ethiopia. Despite pretensions of bringing civilization to the poor "savages," almost all of the benefits of colonialism accrued to the Europeans. World War II threw the entire world into turmoil, with global focus on the necessity of destroying Hitler and his allies, but afterwards, the people in Africa sought to be free not only of the Nazi threat but of their colonial overlords. Likewise, the African-American people sought to make real the promise of freedom and equality.

However, the two movements did not grow in isolation: each encouraged the other. Fifty years ago, at the ceremonies marking Ghanaian independence, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke, and incidents like an African U.N. ambassador being denied service in a restaurant in the United States, highlighted the need for change in this country. The juxtaposition of the independence of Ghana with the routine denial of voting and other fundamental rights to dark-skinned Americans in large portions of the United States, could not stand.

Take a moment today to reflect on the history of Africa and of African-Americans, no matter your own heritage. The paternalistic colonialism of 19th-century Europeans finds a clear echo in the view of many Americans that it is our duty (you might even say our Manifest Destiny) to liberate and democratize Iraq, not least in the ulterior motive of liberating the natural resources of the subjugated lands. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a crucial milestone in African-American political participation, but only four months ago there were substantive charges that systematic efforts were undertaken to suppress the black vote. We must celebrate our successes, but not lose sight of the work that remains to be done.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Deaf Social

Friday evening, I went over to the 3 Dollar Bill Cafe for their monthly LGBT Deaf Coffee Social. I started learning American Sign Language when I was 8 years old, because my mother came home from class and used us kids to practice. Over the years since then, I've taken a couple of classes here and there, but mostly had very little opportunity to practice [left hand closed with index finger extended, right hand closed with thumb extended, rub right fingertips back and forth along the left index finger]. I can still fingerspell a mile a minute, although it probably comes out more like amieaminte — it's incredibly useful to be able to sign like a drunken sailor. However, when it comes to reading someone else's signing, unless they keep it verrry slow and at the vocabulary level of a typical preschooler, I get lost, catching maybe every fifth word. On the other hand, I find with all the languages I've studied that native speakers (or native signers, as the case may be) are usually remarkably patient with anyone who is sincerely trying to learn the language. After all, learning someone else's language is a compliment to their culture as well as the start of building a bridge.

Being in a group of people mostly communicating in sign language, though, adds some surreal elements that you won't encounter in spoken languages. For one thing, you can have a dizzying array of non-conflicting simultaneous conversations. With four people at a table, you can have two completely separate exchanges going on, and it scales up pretty well from there. You can also have conversations across a room without doing anything analogous to shouting. More noticeable in a social context, though, is that you hear little more than background noise until suddenly someone tells a joke — it's like watching a sitcom with no sound but the laugh track. (Yes, deaf people do generally laugh out loud.) The other thing is that some signs make sounds of their own, including slapping, snapping, and the ever-popular "raspberry" (part of the sign for "birthday," among others). I found, though, that the most distracting sounds were the few spoken conversations in the room. It's remarkably difficult to tune out a nearby conversation in your native language to focus on a language so completely different.

If you want to start out learning sign language, you can get pretty far with just 26 signs, and branch out from there. Be careful, though, of the transatlantic chasm: English and American don't even use the same alphabet!

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Al Sharpton on the Daily Show

A few days ago, on 2007-02-25, news broke that genealogical records indicate that the Reverend Al Sharpton's great grandfather was a slave owned by a relative of Senator Strom Thurmond. Thursday night, the Reverend stopped by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the revelation and its real and symbolic significance. The video clip is not yet up on the Comedy Central web site, but you should check it out when it pops up. In the mean time, here's my commentary on their interview.

Jon introduced the segment with a summary of the news story, peppered with Daily-Show-esque spin, musing on what Hollywood might do with the plot line, showing a "preview" for a film starring Bernie Mack as Sharpton and Seth Green as Thurmond's grandson.

Jon Stewart: Now, people, it's March 1st. Black History Month is officially over. But did you know, black history continues — almost all the time! [summary of news story that Al Sharpton's great grandfather was owned by a relative of Strom Thurmond]
Reverend Sharpton: I assumed that my forefathers were slaves, but the connection to Strom Thurmond is something that I couldn't've imagined in a worst nightmare.
Stewart:How big of a dick must Strom Thurmond be, that slavery isn't the worst news you hear? "Listen, Reverend, your ancestors were slaves — now here's the bad news ... Thurmond's involved!" [etc.]

[Reverend Sharpton enters.]

Stewart: Reverend, how would you, as a prominent civil rights leader, counsel you, someone who just found out this news, on where you proceed? It's somewhat difficult to even conceptualize, is it not?

Sharpton: Well, it is. I didn't solicit it; it came. I think the real story is that it brings home to a lot of Americans how brutal the idea of owning people was, which African-Americans went through. Whether there's a DNA test done or not, the stark reality that my great grandfather was owned, and named after the owners, and then given to someone else to work to pay off their debts — I mean, I arrived the other night at Miami airport, and a guy asked me for an autograph: first time in my life I had to think about the reason I'm named that, is because my great grandfather was owned by someone named Jefferson Sharpton, who was married to Julia Thurmond Sharpton. So, it's a real personal wakeup call, but I hope the country learns some of what we have had as an ugly past, so we can stop the continued ugliness in today's life. So the good news is, it could bring people to a realization of what we need to correct in this country.

Stewart: Do you actually have hope that that will happen?

Sharpton: I fight every day that it will happen, and when I have a bad day I watch you at night. Then I know that we cannot lose.

Stewart: Reverend, the amazing thing to me in the story is that it's your great grandfather. I knew my great grandfather. This is not — you know, it's very easy to look at slavery as our ancient history —

Sharpton: This was my grandfather's father.

Stewart: Your grandfather's father — a man that you knew well.

Sharpton: Just three generations: I knew my grandfather — his father. I think a lot of us do have this notion that we're talking about something thousands of years ago. I mean, this directly impacts you, because it happened within a span that is reachable. I think Americans need to realize that.

Stewart: It always amazes me when there's this sense that, you know, this had nothing to do with us, this was our ancestors and we didn't have anything to do with it — you remember the woman that sued to get into Michigan Law School, she was a white woman who didn't get into the law school of her choice, and she sued and raised a ruckus and 15 years later she's still steaming mad about it. Imagine that — she can't get over not getting into her perfect law school choice, but slavery is one of those things that people should just go, "Ah, yeah."

Sharpton: We should "just forget about it." And I'll tell you, I called my father Sunday when the news broke, who's now just 80, and he said, "You gotta remember, I didn't have the right to vote until '65 — half my life," (this is my father), "I wasn't a full citizen." And I don't think many Americans just understand it, and maybe the coming out of this story brings it out.

Stewart: Isn't it also the brilliance of America, though, in some respects? A guy who ran as a segregationist in 1948, Strom Thurmond, whose family enslaved people in your family — not 50 years later, you run for President.

Sharpton: I think that it shows what we can do. A lot of people struggled, white and black, and paid a price, so that we can go from a '48 Thurmond for President to a 2004 Sharpton for President, but we got a long way to go, and if we can be serious about it, and not have too many guys doing "Ebony and Irony" jokes, we might get it going.

Stewart: Ahh! You weren't supposed to see that! Do you think, at some point, this moves the country in a different direction, to address it in a different way? What I don't understand is, with slavery, you have this sense that people don't even want to talk about it, because they think it impugns their character.

Sharpton: And I think that we've gotta come out of that denial. I think that we've got to admit what happened, we've got to admit what's lingering, and even on the African-American side, a lot of us want to act like we don't want to just remember the pain. And it's there, it still has ramifications today. Like I said, every time I write my name, I'm writing the slave story of my family. There's nothing for me to be ashamed of. There's a shame there, but there's also a glory there of where we've come. I have options my great grandfather never had, which is why I should never denigrate him by not continuing to build the options for all Americans.

Stewart: And that is the poignancy of it, and that, I think, is the pride of it. And it's an amazing thing. We appreciate your being here.

Sharpton: Thank you.

Stewart: Reverend Al Sharpton! We'll be right back.
When I heard about the grumbling in some parts of the African-American community that Barack Obama is "not black enough." I'm not African-American, but I do know a few things about racism from my relatives on the oppressor side of the coin. The most popular wedding anniversary in some branches of my family is June 3rd, Confederate Memorial Day. I can tell you that my kinfolk wouldn't have cared in the least if your ancestors were slaves brought from West Africa to the United States. If your skin is darker than a deep tan, then you are, depending on who's speaking, an African-American, a "nigra" (nigra : nigger :: arse : ass), or a nigger. One of my ancestors in the late 19th century refused an invitation to join the KKK — not because he disapproved of lynching and burning crosses, but because he thought it was cowardly to cover your face while doing it. On the other hand, Al Sharpton sheds light on the real difference it does still make whether your ancestors were slaves.

Of course, another astonishing "Ebony and Irony" moment this week was the revelation that, due to a wardrobe malfunction on Air Force Two, Vice President Cheney flew instead on a plane named The Spirit of Strom Thurmond. For all of his years of service in the Senate, and the "moderation" of his views on race and other political issues late in life, if I were a politician of any stripe, I wouldn't set forth on an airplane named for Strom Thurmond if there were any other option. Stranded on a desert island with no one but a volleyball, I'd get on the plane, but not for much less than that.

Locally here in San Francisco, there's been an uproar because an op-ed piece ran in AsianWeek under the title "I Hate Blacks." The article gave a litany of ignorant stereotypes about African-Americans as justification for racial hatred, from the perspective of an avowed Asian supremacist. Community leaders are seizing on the opportunity to open a dialogue about race, particularly the stereotypes between Asian- and African-Americans. Still, it is shocking that such a hate-filled racist screed would appear in a serious publication in the 21st century. Racial supremacy is such a destructive myth; our delineation of "races" is inevitably somewhat arbitrary, and any generalization on a racial scale is hopeless. There are brilliant people and morons, athletes and couch potatoes, heroes and cowards, in every race.

If I may be pedantic for a moment (And why else have a blog if not to be pedantic?), I should point out that from Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat candidacy in 1948 to Al Sharpton's 2004 Democratic candidacy was 56 years, which is more than 50 years. Yeah, well, we aren't paying Jon Stewart to teach advanced math, and as for me, I put the hyphen in anal-retentive.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Validating al Qaeda's Strategy

A couple of days ago, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "I think if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we'll do is validate the al Qaeda strategy." It is true that al Qaeda will celebrate if the United States withdraws from Iraq. However, they also will celebrate if we stay. There is an important element of al Qaeda's strategy that Dick Cheney chooses to overlook: al Qaeda seeks to draw the United States and other Western powers into military conflicts in the Muslim world, especially in Arab states. Our military presence in Iraq serves al Qaeda's interests on many levels:

  • Recruitment
  • "Live-Fire" Training
  • Fundraising
  • Turning "hearts and minds" around the world against the U.S. and the West
We cannot win Iraq by military force, especially with the indifference and abuse we have so often heaped on the ordinary citizens. Keeping our army there when there is no achievable military objective isn't steadfastness, it's playing into the hands of al Qaeda.

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