Monday, September 21, 2009

The American Jewish Committee and Iran

Today I received an e-mail from the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The AJC says it "has worked since 1906 to safeguard and strengthen Jews and Jewish life worldwide by promoting democratic and pluralistic societies that respect the dignity of all peoples". Their objective is laudable and sensible, and indeed has much to commend it. The AJC has chosen an objective that is both pragmatic and stirring. I support their stated idealism. Life is difficult, injustice is pervasive, and genuine peace so often seems elusive. As a minority population, the Jewish people have been acutely aware of this for thousands of years. Their history makes a compelling case for their goal—their idealism is firmly rooted in the knowledge that when the dignity of all peoples is respected, everyone benefits, especially minorities. Their idealism is grounded in realism.

How strange it is, then, that their e-mail contained a video produced by them which could hardly do more to contradict their ideals. The video highlights alleged and actual Iranian government acts, encouraging viewers to take action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. These acts include the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Center in Argentina (an act for which no one has yet been proven guilty in a court of law, which the video does not mention), public hangings within Iran, and recent Iranian government action against protesters. The public hanging scene is extremely disturbing, showing the twitching legs of a man in the last moments of his life. The method the video uses to convey its message is intriguing. It combines the familiarity of everyday things—trucks, motorcycles, and cranes, as well as homely music—with sights that are meant to be perceived as grotesque and jarring. Here it draws upon Sigmund Freud's idea of the uncanny. In this video, the Iranian government is familiar, yet monstrous. It is like us, but unlike us in the most awful ways imaginable. Given the frequency with which the uncanny occurs in cultures worldwide, Freud was onto something, which the producers of the video cleverly exploit.

The AJC is hardly alone in producing a video of this character. Naturally, videos and e-mails are commonly produced by individuals, organizations and governments that highlight what they see as monstrous acts by the Israeli government. An abundance of imagery exists of large numbers of civilians being killed by not only Israeli military weapons, but everyday things like bulldozers. An Israeli soldier once told me a story about some of his colleagues who were convicted for playing football with a Palestinian boy's head. They had made a video of themselves doing it. Important, influential intellectuals within Israel, such as Yehezkel Dror, openly advocate the use of Israel's nuclear weapons in the case of a "sufficiently grave" threat.

What I find so strange is that the AJC is so willing to give us simply more of the same. It thus gives the appearance of being nothing more than a partisan in the midst of a propaganda war that it is determined to win. How refreshing it would be if the AJC mustered the imagination to do something different. For example, the AJC could make a video that showed the effects of violence on ordinary people regardless of their nationality or religion, and then demonstrate how this is ultimately a threat to everybody's well-being. That would be keeping with their stated ideals.

Jewish men Muslim children

Tragically, Israel and Iran have been both victims of mass violence, heavily marking the psyches of their peoples. But they have both been perpetrators of it too. It would be courageous if the AJC were to acknowledge the violence inflicted by the Israeli state, and the ongoing pain and injustice this has caused for its victims. It would be wise if they were to advocate for a truth commission to examine the many varieties of violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories—violence that strips away the dignity of everyone living there, regardless of religion, race, gender, age or nationality. The AJC could vigorously campaign for for a world free of nuclear weapons, including Israel's. That would certainly respect all people's dignity.

Is the AJC ever likely to do any of this? I remain hopeful. Conflict between and among peoples is inevitable, and can even be healthy. But mass violence is neither inevitable or healthy. To work toward its own objective, the AJC needs to practice conflict transformation, not contribute to the world's already overflowing cesspool of manipulative propaganda.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A riot of color

Click on the image to view the slideshow

Politics plays with words, images and ideas, tossing about the known and the imagined as if they were one. Art does too.

I have my own words and ideas about Iran, but here I want these images—snapshots in time of what I have seen in this vast and beautiful land—to convey the feeling I have in my heart.

What do you think? Leave your comments below.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learning Farsi in Isfahan

I am three weeks into a Farsi course at International Scientific Cooperation Office (ISCO) at the University of Isfahan. There is very little information available on the Internet detailing student experiences of learning Farsi in Iran. I have therefore decided to share some impressions and personal experiences.

Because the ISCO does not provide a handbook for new students, most of the information I've provided here you need to figure out by yourself or with your fellow students. My hope in writing this blog entry is that some people will find it helpful.

In the classroom

As a warning to the reader, I must say at the outset that I am not especially good at learning a new language. I have little natural talent for it. I am almost always the slowest student in the class. I was not taught grammar in when I was a student in New Zealand. Furthermore, I did not undertake any formal study of Farsi before coming to the course. I had done a little self-study with the Rosetta Stone Farsi language CDs.

Before arriving, the University applied for a three month student visa on my behalf. It took about five and half months for it to be issued. It took so long that I had to change my plans and shorten my course of Farsi study. Shorter length tourist visas, suitable for shorter periods of study, can take much less time to be issued.

As of mid 2009, the classes are small. This provides many opporunities for individually tailored language instruction. Classes run from 8:30am till about 11:45am, with a small break in between. The teachers are all women. They are interesting, engaging and friendly teachers. They have without expception been patient, polite and a pleasure to learn with. They are all well educated. Almost of them speak adequate English, which is helpful for beginners like me, when explanations are needed. However those who are more advanced in their knowledge of Farsi will of course prefer their teachers teach in Farsi.

Sheikh Loft Allah Mosque, Isfahan
Sheikh Loft Allah Mosque, Isfahan

The classrooms are located in a very beautiful part of the campus, beside a lovely garden. Nearby insects can sometimes be heard creating a enticing symphony of chirps, which can be a welcome respite from the feeling of being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar and strange sounds of a new language.

In the beginners class, a text book called Let's Learn Farsi is used. It can be purchased from a bookshop near Siosipol Bridge (a teacher will tell you where to buy it from). Accompanying the text book is an audio CD, which is not for sale. However this is not a problem as the MP3 files from the CD can be copied from computers at the ISCO. The book is helpful. It contains helpful phrases which are immediately useful in places like shops and homes. It is professionally produced, and has some interesting music to accompany it. However in the accompanying audio, the dialogue can proceed at such a tremendously rapid rate that it is impossible for the beginner to keep up. This can be frustrating. The aim is laudable—ordinary Iranians are inclined to speak fairly rapidly, and the student needs to learn to listen to conversational Farsi sooner or later. However, in my opinion, it would be useful for the audio guide to include the option of dialogue spoken more slowly, in addition to the existing dialogue. Furthermore, new words can be introduced without an explanation of what they mean. Sometimes the meaning can be guessed, but it means that without a dictionary, the teacher's guidance is truly essential.

Fruit and vegetable market, Isfahan
Fruit and vegetable market, Isfahan

Fellow students may be fluent in Arabic (which makes it far easier for them), or may have English as a second or third language. One of my classmates is from Korea. It is very difficult for him to pronounce Farsi. He is much better at understanding Farsi than I am (he has been in Iran for more than a year), but I have an impossible time understanding what he is saying when he speaks Farsi.

I have found it very helpful to continue using the Rosetta Stone Farsi language CDs outside of class. They are logical, and the accompanying audio is always extremely well spoken. I also appreciate the pedagogy they use, where written words and audio accompany images, without any translation into English. Although the text book uses a similar approach, personally I strongly prefer Rosetta Stone to the text book, because of its structure and pace (of course, there is nothing like being in a classroom to ask questions and have errors in pronunciation corrected). To use Rosetta Stone you'll need your own computer, obviously.

Friday Mosque, Isfahan
Friday Mosque, Isfahan

I recommend bringing your laptop, if you have one. You can use it in the accommodation to connect to the Internet using a LAN connection in your room. Otherwise Internet access on campus is not easy. A Internet cafe not far from the Guest House is basic, and closes during summer, when most students are on their break.

The University of Isfahan has a truly vast campus—easily the largest campus I have ever seen. Free buses are available to transport students and visitors to various points throughout the campus. The campus rests on a gently sloping hill, providing a splendid view of the city. Gardens, lawns and at least one orchard are scattered about the campus. Unlike any other University I've attended, fences dominate the campus . One gets the impression that the planners deliberately made it difficult to walk from one place to another using a direct route. Instead of handy gates or walkways between building and fences, one must circumnavigate them to get where one needs to go. That can occasionally add many minutes to one's walk.

View from the Mehmansara

The accommodation provided for most students in the course—those who do not already live here in Iran, or who do not have families with them—is in the University Guest House (Mehmansara). It is a bit like budget hotel. The rooms are spacious and functionally furnished. I have not needed to share my room, but that could change if the number of students were to increase. The quality of room you will receive may vary dramatically depending on exactly which room you get assigned. In the first room I stayed in, the telephone and Internet did not work at all. The shower hardly worked and the toilet was problematic. The balcony was very dirty. After a couple of weeks, when despite repeated requests to the Mehmansara staff it became clear they would not be fixed, I requested a room change from the ISCO. My new room is far superior.

The quality of the Internet connection varies. Sometimes it works without issues. At other times, it does not work at all, or runs very slowly. Naturally, censorship of the Internet is in place, as required by the Government.

There is no laundry facility in the Mehmansara, and it is unclear as to where the nearest laundromat is. The restaurant at the ground floor of the Mehmansara is vegetarian unfriendly. The only suitable vegetarian dish is a mediocre salad. There are a couple of stores a few minutes walk away, selling dry goods, as well as fruits and vegetables. However almost all the rooms in the Mehmansara are not designed for cooking in. If you're lucky, you might be one of the few people to be provided with a small heating element, but don't count on it. If you're going to stay here for three months, that could be a problem.

Armenian Orthodox Church, Isfahan
Armenian Orthodox Church, Isfahan

Not far from the Mehmansara is a handy bus stop, which is regularly served by buses that can take you straight into the center of town. If you are contemplating learning Farsi in Iran, and you've never been to Iran, it is helpful to know that Isfahan is a very beautiful and often charming city. Its architecture can be stunning. Some of my photos of Isfahan (also spelled Esfahan) can be found here and here.

Update, August 13 2010: You can view a followup to this blog entry here:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why I wrote Rapid Photo Downloader

I am the developer (author) of Rapid Photo Downloader. This is a free software program written for professional and amateur photographers. It helps photographers by downloading photos from their memory cards onto their computer, renaming them in a format specified by them. It can also backup the images as they are downloaded. It includes features to help them do this as efficiently as possible. For example, it can download from more than one card reader at the same time, which is especially helpful when a photographer returns to their computer with hundreds if not thousands of images (which is more common than you might imagine, especially for people like wedding photographers).

It has taken more than a thousand of hours of my time to do this. Why would I do such a thing, and charge nothing for it? I have several motivations. First, I see it as an act of service. Second, I see it as part of a contribution to a bigger movement, the free software movement, which was founded by Richard Stallman.

Let me first discuss the second motivation. Free software refers to not only the price, but especially to freedom. In the words of the Free Software Foundation:
Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

With free software you can be a good neighbor and share it freely with others. You are encouraged to do so! People can use it without having to pay money for it.

I firmly believe that free software is a much closer fit with human rights and global solidarity than the combination of proprietary software and capitalism. Proprietary software—which by its very nature is not free—has led to a small number of people becoming incredibly wealthy, with significant control over what users can and cannot do with their software and their data. This goes against the central tenet of democracy, which is that people have the option to meaningfully participate in decisions that affect their lives. Free software is more democratic and respectful of the user.

Currently proprietary software is the dominant form of software on most people's laptops and desktop computers, but free software like the Firefox web browser is becoming increasingly popular. Linux is the most popular free operating system. Millions of people use it on their desktops everyday, in government and industry, at home and in civil society organizations. It has already proved a marvelous success. But compared to Windows and Mac, not enough people use it. I wrote my program so that I can help free software, and Linux in particular, become more popular among photographers. Only a small percentage of serious photographers use Linux. Many more could be using it in future. My humble little program is a small but important tool that can help prompt photographers to see what free software has to offer photography, and to be part of a movement that encourages the development of better free software programs for everyone.

As I mentioned, I also wrote this program as as act of service. I see it as one way of giving back a little of what I have received from others. I would not have been able to create this program were it not for the hard work of many others—including especially my teachers, and those who wrote the software without which my own program could not be developed or run. I was fortunate to receive an excellent education in computer science—two years at Victoria University of Wellington, and one semester at the University of California at Berkeley. Many people do not have access to the quality of education I received, even when they have the talent and desire. With free software, not only can they run the program, but they can study it and improve it if they wish.

The knowledge that we cannot be fully human without recognizing our dependence on others is reflected in the name of one of the most widely used distributions of Linux, Ubuntu, who says:
Ubuntu is an African word meaning 'Humanity to others', or 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.

I am very pleased to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the free software movement. For some time it has been one of those things I would like to achieve before I die.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Student contributions to peacebuilding

The theme of the International Student Festival held on 20 February to 1 March 2009 in Trondheim, Norway was on how peace can be built and maintained. The festival emphasized student contributions to peacebuilding. The organizers published a 128 page book (PDF, 72MB) with contributions from students and professionals, including three of my photos from Israel / Palestine.

I am very pleased to be associated with this project. I have always believed that the more people who study peacebuilding systematically and seriously, the more likely peace is likely to be established. The world needs a will to peace—to believe that it is possible, and to know what it takes to achieve it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The truth behind the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis, probably the most loved of all Christian saints, was born as Francis Bernadone, in Assisi, Italy, in 1181 or 1182. A remarkable prayer has been commonly attributed to him, called simply the Prayer of St. Francis. As one might expect, there are a few variations of it, and this is one:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

This version was taught to me by my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran. Sri Easwaran had a deep love for St. Francis. I suspect it was Sri Easwaran who added the words "to self" in the last line—no doubt to emphasize the idea that eternal life means mystical union with the divine, as opposed to the idea of spending eternity in heaven.

The NY Times today reported that this prayer is not believed to have come directly from St. Francis, a fact widely understood within certain circles of the Catholic Church. In fact, no one knows for sure who exactly wrote it. It was very likely inspired by St. Francis's life, and some of his phrases might be reflected in it, but he didn't write it.

When I first heard this news from Fr. Michael McGarry, when staying at Tantur in 2006, I was initially somewhat shocked. On Sri Easwaran's recommendations, it was my first meditation passage. I imagined that St. Francis himself had composed it based on his own experiences living the best life he possibly could.

In time, I concluded it didn't matter who wrote it. It remains one of the most stunningly inspiring religious passages we have available to us in the modern world. It's direct and to the point, from the first line to the last. It's an especially powerful passage to turn to when struggling to be good among difficult people who in their ignorance are behaving badly. And it is faithful to St. Francis's life. The real truth behind this prayer is that it speaks of the truth of humanity's highest ideals.

Shortly before my mother died, she and I watched the marvelous film on St. Francis's life, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon". She was moved by it. I read out the prayer at her funeral. I very much hope it will be a part of my life till the day I die.

Two pieces of good news from the U.S.

Great news! President Obama seems to be making good on his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison complex. This is a victory for human rights campaigners—and ultimately a victory for those who seek to make the world a safer place in which to live.

Equally important, to my mind, is an observation from PepsiCo manager Bryan Lembke: "If you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it". He was referring to PepsiCo's initiative to measure the carbon footprint generated by the production of their orange juice. He is absolutely correct. I applaud the people responsible for undertaking this initiative within the company for their work in this area, and I hope it is the one of a series many meaningful steps to improve the sustainability of their industry.

If Mr. Lembke's simple observation was applied more widely, fantastic changes for the better could be made. I have long believed that measuring economic performance by primarily relying on GDP (or GNP) is foolish and dangerous. Wonderful alternatives to exist that can be used to help societies more wisely measure socioeconomic wellbeing. Many are outlined here.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

New websites

Today I launched two new websites. The first is the beginnings of my personal website:

The second site relates to a free and open source software project I have been working on for some time:

They're both currently rather modest, but I hope that changes in time! For instance, I plan to put links to my academic research on my personal site.