Monday, August 29, 2011


After I first got back to the U.S., I was watching TV with my brother one night when a commercial for some kind of medicine came on. I honestly can't remember what kind of medicine it was, except that it was targeting men around their 60s.

The main character of the commercial said something along the following: "Before XXX, my life was awful. I couldn't do this, I couldn't do that, this and that were always hurting... Then!" And he took on a very positive tone. "Then! I discovered such-and-such medicine. Now, I can play ball with my grandkids, barbeque..." He was walking in a green area with a fence as he said this. "This doesn't hurt anymore, and this actually feels good! Plus!" The tone of his voice was truly joyful now. "Plus! This can cause backache, headache, kidney failure, migraines, heart failure, brain aneurisms, etc. etc. etc.!!!!!"

It was only toward the end of the litany of potential disastrous side effects that I realised that he was listing potential disastrous side effects.

After all, he just sounded so happy about it that I almost missed the fact that there were side effects at all.

I mentioned this to my brother who told me that there's a new law stating that side effects need to be an active part of the commercial, not just a quick mutttered-off list at the end. Well, ok. This commercial followed that rule, but the side-effects sound better, not worse, when communicated this way.

THEN... I learned about the new rules for cigarette label advertising. The FDA is also wanting to make sure customers really, really, really, understand the risks. So much so that now cigarette companies need to advertise anti-smoking campaigns on their products. They need to advertise against themselves. Not just warn, but promote... in pretty graphic ways! Check out these ads from the FDA site if you haven't already seen them...

I don't know, I tend to think they're going a bit overboard. Exaggerating can have the opposite effect, can't it? This all just seems a bit weird to me, that's all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

bloggers in Libya

This article is fascinating! A bit long, though, so here are some of my favourite quotes:

Six months on and it is heartbreaking to look at how eerie the Libyan blogosphere is, row upon row of bloggers in Libya are silent because of the on-going war. From the silent ones you realize that they are in the cities under Gaddafi control and therefore have no access to the internet.

[Ghida's] old blog is gone and only the one with poetry is left up.

Six months on and it is heartbreaking to look at how eerie the Libyan blogosphere is, row upon row of bloggers in Libya are silent because of the on-going war. From the silent ones you realize that they are in the cities under Gaddafi control and therefore have no access to the internet.

So if you are in the liberated parts of Libya you can expect to express yourself freely against the Gaddafi government...

I don't know yet if you can criticize the National Transitional Council though!

one of the few blogs which is not with the rebels... If posting from Libya then it must be manned by Gaddafi's electronic army because ordinary Libyans in Tripoli do not have access to internet unless they got hold of a VSAT or Thuraya phone. However, obviously the person running the blog is putting a lot of effort into finding news, links and photos that aim to counteract the news in the MSM about rebel gains...

The blogger is wondering why his or her voice is not featured in the media...

Thanks for the insight...

when a good idea goes terribly, terribly wrong

A few months ago, I blogged about how an anti-female circumcision campaign MAY have resulted in an increased rate of girls being circumcised. Well, today I have another example of a well-intentioned (I think) idea that may have made a problem worse: Fake Cigarettes.

I suppose I could post a photo here of them, but I'd rather not advertise them. Here's why...

I have now encountered these items three times.

The first time was on an airplane. As I walked up the aisle to the w.c. I noticed a man sitting slouched in his seat with a relaxed look on his face. A trail of smoke was wafting up by his face. I followed the line of smoke down to his hand and found a cigarette there. Alarm bells screamed in my brain as I envisioned the fumes reaching a smoke detector somewhere on the ceiling of the plane, setting off whistles and causing an emergency landing. Plus, he was only three rows behind me and I hate that smell! So I started glancing around the cabin in search of a flight attendant. Not immediately sighting one, I looked at the man again and realised that there was a little glowing light bulb where the embers would usually be burning, and then realised I couldn't smell anything. It was not a real cigarette, just a brilliant imitation.

The second time was actually a sales booth hawking the things on a Friday afternoon on Canary Wharf, near all the young professionals in suits chilling at pubs. A friend and I stopped to ask more about these strange inventions and the sales rep was thrilled to give us a demo. He said he especially enjoys selling them to non-smokers, as my friend and I were. I have no idea why he likes that particular challenge, since we didn't have much positive feedback to offer him and certainly didn't buy any. He explained to us that they still burn, but not enough to exceed regulation levels of fumes - they work a bit like arguile (i.e. hookah or shisha). Fake cigarettes do have nicotine, but much less than regular cigarettes. Actually, they come in three different strengths: almost-full nicotine, reduced nicotine, and no nicotine. In that sense, they can be used for cutting down. But the sales rep said that he doesn't see that as the point. He likes that he can smoke without having to worry about no-smoking zones and without feeling like he's inconveniencing others with the stench. They make being a smoker easier.

The third time was in a Target superstore. As on the airplane, I saw the distinct fumes of cigarette smoke and traced them to a man's hand. As on the airplane, my first reaction was that he was dangerously breaking the rules. But then I remembered the airplane and the demo, and understood what was going on. And I thought to myself, How strange that this commodity allows this man to smoke in a place where he usually can't. He can now be a true chain-smoker and not adapt his lifestyle at all.

The first story was in Egypt. The second story was in England. The third story was in the U.S. This is an international phenomenon.

In all three stories, a man (yes, a "man"... I wonder if that's significant) was able to use this device to smoke more, in places and at times where it is now illegal and inappropriate. Even if he is cutting down on the nicotine, he's still smoking more, not less.

Were these things created by a corporate monster who saw a great new market for smokers in a world that has grown unfriendly to smoking? Or were they created by a well-intentioned group hoping to help people quit? If the former, clever move. If the latter, OOPS.

Have I helped make the problem worse by writing this blog? Have I become publicity for a bad idea? Oh well.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

glazed eyes

After a full month doing "other stuff" which has included a good bit of resting as well as things I love doing like writing, I went in to the office this week. I'm not really working, just catching up with various colleagues, doing a bit of networking, and gearing up for starting a new project soon. It's not really that intense, and it's nice to see my colleagues again after a full month not really thinking about work.

Wow. I'm tired.

Right now my eyes are having trouble opening completely, my limbs are dull, and I'm having a bit of trouble putting together complete thoughts in this blog.

Here's what I think happened. I was more worn out than I thought. I knew that the last several years of traveling and working in intensive zones took a lot out of me, but maybe they took even more out of me.

Then again, maybe it's just pure old culture shock. After all, things like driving cars and ordering food at restaurants are disproportionately irritating to me. That's usually a symptom of culture shock.

I'll get there. Tomorrow's a new day, with fresh energies. There's so much exciting stuff I want to do, and I can't wait to do it. After I just lay my head down and sleep for... just a... few... minutes...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Libya... freedom or stability?

The news services of the world are going crazy. The media is having a heyday. Reporters have something glorious to report.

Not only is it big news, but it's happy news. We don't get happy news very often that's also worth sharing and selling. But today we have it.

The rebels are finally going to win in Libya. Gaddafi's claim to rule will shortly be over. In fact, the latest news I've seen reports that all he's really ruler of right now is his own compound. The rebels have won the rest.

We are supposed to be celebrating. This revolution of the Arab Spring has not gone smoothly as did Tunisia or Egypt, but in the end everyone's efforts are paying off. Freedom has won. Dictatorship is over.

Or is it?

I don't know much about Libya, but last month I spent an hour with a man who had lived in Libya for the last 15 years. He said that, while he never felt free under the previous government, he also has little hope for the future of Libya. The rebels are not really freedom-loving teenagers; they are actually Muslim extremists supported by big money in support of a religious movement. I don't know if he's right, but his stories reminded me that Libya is a complicated place.

My friends in Egypt, the home of the famed mass of humanity that overturned a regime in 18 days, are now facing the reality that revolutions don't actually end in 18 days. Or six months. The so-called revolution in Egypt was the end of the prelude, the end of the introduction, the end of the launching event. The real revolution is a long, dragged out, painful process.

I'll be surprised if it's different in Libya. After all, Libyan people don't know much about running a country and they don't have much experience with democracy. They've always had a dictator taking care of those details for them.

So, a Western-style democracy of majority rule with minority rights and respect for human rights, may be the end product, but it will take a long time to get there. Or, maybe some amazingly dynamic leader of the rebels, someone who reminds us a bit of Mr. Muammar, may just step in and take over. Or, a religious authority may exert itself and become the new leader, ensuring majority rule but with little respect for minority rights.

Either way, it's a long road ahead. I'm glad the media is celebrating today, but I hope we don't forget Libya tomorrow.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


During my vacation back in June, I read a book called Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley. It's about spiritual disciplines based on liturgical practices. And it met such a precise need in my life at that moment that I copied quite a bit of it into a journal that is almost always with me. From time to time I pull it out and follow the instructions the book set out for a particular discipline.

I just opened it and opened to my notes on the introduction: "Longing"

And thought to myself that I'm having a trouble longing at the moment. Usually I very much relate, perhaps too much so, to longing. But not here, not now. At the moment I'm seated in a shop near Georgetown in D.C. Everything around me is so geared to satisfaction - the opposite of longing. Good food, conveniently located cafes, shops, predictable traffic. At the moment we even have good weather.

I don't know that I am really satisfied, but there's too much effort going into my satisfaction that I'm left with little effort available to long.

Longing in the book is for a number of things... Life, healing, change. It asks, "Isn't there something better I should be doing with my time?" And then acknowledging authentic desires to touch the reality of God at heart and of how much God himself longs to do things for us.

That's good stuff, more satisfying than life, even.

Ironic, then, that I've known this longing intimately when in places like a walled compound in Darfur, a desert monastery in Syria or a rice field in Indonesia... But find it so elusive when at home in more 'familiar' surroundings.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Angry Birds

"Can I play some Angry Birds?"

"No more Angry Birds today. You've already played your fifteen minutes for today."

"Well, then, can I watch you play Angry Birds?"

This conversation has repeated itself almost daily since I've been in Virginia. The lover of Angry Birds is my almost-three-years-old nephew. The nay-sayer could be any adult in the household. The boy is truly enamored by that game. As he drifts to sleep at night, we can hear him over the baby monitor talking about pulling birds in a slingshot, using egg layers and bombs, and hitting the pigs with the birds. The greatest achievement in his short life has been winning levels on Angry Birds.

At first I though that this was my nephew being three. Little kids get obsessed about things, usually the most obscure and unexpected things, right?

Well, not this three-year-old. He's totally down with the latest trends. Last week when I ventured out to visit some extended family, I was reading about smartphones with my aunt. She's looking to buy a new phone. One of the features most commonly advertised was the ability to play Angry Birds on such-and-such a phone. We read the reviews to see what consumers thought of these phones, and some of the comments we read included things like: "This phone gets really hot while playing Angry Birds", or "Angry Birds runs slow on my phone."

That afternoon, I walked by a phone shop and the display was a big picture for a Samsung Tablet featuring Angry Birds. In big bright colours.

I've played a bit of Angry Birds. It's kind of fun. I'm far from addicted and my only motivation for playing is to unlock levels for my nephew so he can play on my phone. But it's kind of fun. I guess. But really? What is it with this game that has taken over the nation?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The demise of the independent coffee shop

After three years without spending any substantial amount of time in the U.S., I am seeing things through fresh eyes. Again.

One of my first destinations upon returning to town was my favourite little independently-owned coffee shop in Northern VA. It's a cozy joint with old overstuffed sofas, rickety chairs painted in pastel colours, mighty good coffee with cheap refills, and a substantial after-school and summer vacation clientele consuming ice cream. I estimate that almost a full half of my novel was drafted sitting at Stacy's Coffee Parlor, which gave me free Internet and a smiling face every afternoon.

I never really bonded with Stacy, but I saw her talking with her old-timer customers and wondered what it would be like to be a part of the community. The staff were also friendly and gracious even after my third hour banging away at the keyboard. I often wished I bought more from them than just coffee, but coffee was all I wanted, and I was broke and unemployed. Once in a while I would get into an interesting chat with another customer, and I remember once someone almost convinced me to go work for an elevator company.

You may already guess where this is going. If not, let me add that there is a Panera Bread right across the street and a Cosi's coffeeshop a block down. Both have opened within the last 4 years or so. There's also the token Starbucks a little further down the road. The road is named Main Street... doesn't that break your heart?

And so it is true: Stacy's is no more. Sometime during my romps around the globe, Stacy closed her doors for the last time. I'd like to think that she joined the Peace Corps or moved her shop to another much larger location. But the plethora of boarded-up shops in the U.S. I've seen this visit, combined with the even bigger plethora of Starbucks I am seeing just about everywhere tells me that this is wishful thinking. It's not just a moral desire to support the little guy that breaks my heart - Stacy's just seriously had more PERSONALITY than any Starbucks ever will.

The other day, some friends and I wanted to go out for coffee. The only place we knew of in the area was (obviously) Starbucks. None of us wanted to support the giant so we asked a local waitress if she knew of any independently owned coffee shops. She pointed us in the direction of a quaint neighbourhood with plenty of cute cafes.

But it was 6 p.m. on a Saturday. They were all closed. C'mon guys! We want to support you but you have to get with the programme! After guzzling our fair share of gas looking for a S'bucks alternative, we gave up - if the indy guys aren't going to hold up their part of the bargain, we can't give them the support we so greatly desire to give.

At the very last moment, right before we pulled into the Starbucks driveway, we were saved. This one awesome coffee and pottery painting joint was open for business, and the joyful smile of an independent barista welcomed us at the entrance. If you're anywhere near West Baltimore or Howard County, please please honour them for good service and flexible hours and free wireless: Find them at their website

(photo credit:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A personal update

I can't remember the last time I've gone so long without posting on my blog! It's been almost three whole weeks. Maybe no one is reading anymore.

But as is usually the case, I've been racking up a list of topics just itching to be talked up. I'll start writing again tomorrow.

In the meantime, let me share what I have been doing.....


I don't think I've slept so much since the summer after my sophomore year at university, that is, after going 9 months averaging 3 hours of sleep a night. This time, I don't have an excuse. Most people are thinking I must need to catch up. Perhaps my soul needs to catch up.

Either way, it sure feels nice, except for the kink in my neck from too much pillow time.

Other fun things I've been doing include playing with my almost-3-year-old nephew, trying to avoid stressing about two visas for which I'm applying, and planning my new blog. Yes... please do get excited, there's a great new blog coming your way. I know it's great because my brilliant brother came up with the name.