It’s more a lift than a shove by mattsteinglass
July 31, 2008, 11:02 pm
Filed under: Drugs, United States, Vietnam

The US Embassy was gracious enough to invite me to check out the training program a

A Vietnamese counter-narcotics officer handcuffs an American playing the role of a drug offender during DEA training exercises. Hanoi, July 30, 2008.

A Vietnamese counter-narcotics officer handcuffs an American playing the role of a drug offender during DEA training exercises. Hanoi, July 30, 2008.

team of American Drug Enforcement Agency officers have been conducting for 80 Vietnamese counter-narcotics police, border guards and customs officers in Vietnam for the past week. Most of it seemed to be pretty physical: planning and executing raids, getting into and out of the building, arresting suspects. There were some entertaining sessions involving paint-pellet pistols. (US firearms and tactics instructor Joe Boix to the Vietnamese officers whose performance he was reviewing: “In the first incident, we had two misses at close proximity. We have got to be careful with our shooting and make every shot count, so we can all get home safely.”)

There were a couple of things I found interesting. The first was that the training seemed so far removed from the intricate questions of the drug trade; it didn’t seem much different from what an Israeli Army friend of mine once showed me about how he’d been trained to “take a room”. Well, no, that’s not true — his training involved spraying the room with automatic weapons fire, so I guess that’s different. But still, it was just surprisingly physical; one instructor was showing the police how to put a man on the ground, handcuff his hands behind his back, move him to a sitting position, and then hoist him to his feet. (“It’s more a lift than a shove.”) Almost like a very hostile yoga session or something.

The second point was how seamlessly, for a law enforcement officer, thinking about your own safety translates into thinking about effective use of force against the person you’re arresting. (See that above statement by Boix.) And that in turn just reinforced, for me, the reasons why the introduction of weapons into a situation always heightens everyone’s risk. One person’s safety is another person’s threat. I realize the gun-control issue is off the table in American politics for the foreseeable future, but I still can’t really understand how someone can think that a world where everyone is armed is a safe world.


A note to whoever is bugging my phone by mattsteinglass
July 31, 2008, 8:50 pm
Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , ,

Dear sirs,

Please inform your superiors that the Soviet-era equipment you are using to bug both of my telephone lines is primitive and of unacceptable quality, and I demand that you replace it with something more sophisticated and up to date. Your bug produces a loud crackling noise on the line much of the time, preventing me from recording broadcast-quality telephone interviews with sources for radio reports. I am sure that quieter and less obtrusive bugs are widely available, if not in Vietnam, then at Pantip Plaza in Bangkok. I understand why you might be interested in monitoring potentially disruptive communications with sources outside of Vietnam, but I hardly think that my recent interview with an American poet who wishes to preserve ancient Vietnamese ideographic script falls into this category.


Matt Steinglass

The American firewall by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 10:36 pm
Filed under: United States

Regarding Sam Brownback’s outrage (via Yglesias) at the idea that China would monitor internet usage at hotels, despite the fact that the US has been doing exactly the same thing (illegally) for 7 years, and Brownback just signed a law making it legal:

When I came to Vietnam in 2003, I was looking for leads for articles, and I talked with an Israeli businessman here who knew a bit about the companies, some of them supposedly Israeli, that were helping Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with its internet firewalling and surveillance activities. And the first thing he put on the table when we starting talking was that the surveillance and censorship Vietnam was doing, though it got a lot of press, was comparatively penny-ante stuff. “You know which countries do by far the most surveillance, monitoring and interception of internet and email traffic in the world, right?” I was silent. “The US and the UK,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”

I chalked that up to the kind of paranoia that often accompanies the ostentatiously disillusioned attitude which that ilk of business and security types like to affect, and went on with the conversation.

Silly me.

Let our neighborhoods be our gyms by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Health, Transportation

Recently, in a span of 3 weeks, I went from being somewhat out of shape to being reasonably in shape. I lost about 1.5 kilos, my posture improved, my skin got healthier. What exercise regime did I follow to accomplish this? I stayed in a rental house in the Netherlands for 3 weeks. In other words, I carried lots of stuff around and rode a bicycle about 10 km a day, just in the normal course of living.

Last summer, in a span of about 4 weeks, the same transformation occurred. What exercise regime did I follow to accomplish that? I stayed at my parents’ apartment in Manhattan. In other words, I carried lots of stuff around and walked about 6 km a day, just in the normal course of living.

All of this is by way of response to the new Johns Hopkins study suggesting 86 percent of Americans could be obese by 2030. As Ezra Klein says in response, “if we stopped subsidizing corn (and thus, high fructose corn syrup), sugar, meat, soybeans, and related foods, and put that money instead towards subsidizing fruits and vegetables, towards increasing the accessibility of healthful food, towards making cities more walkable, towards putting calorie information on menus, you could probably make a dent.” Making cities more walkable and bikeable (bikable?) is huge. When you live in places like that, you lose weight and become healthier without even trying. And as someone who’s basically lazy and lacking in willpower, let me tell you, I like things that make my life better without me even trying.

Add: here’s a link to my post explaining the utterly different and smart-planning-heavy way the Dutch lay out their streets and various other transit systems.

Dark Knight: more darkness please by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 1:45 am
Filed under: Film

A.O. Scott’s excellent piece on the limitations of the superhero genre seems to have been cut off mid-thought at the end, but I’d just note that for me what’s still missing in every one of the big superhero flicks of the past 20 years is any really convincing or interesting representation of evil. In the real world, we have people like Radovan Karadzic walking around. Screenwriters will have to do a lot better if they want to top that; the closest I’ve seen is the X-Men’s conception of evil emanating out of racial/demographic conflict. Though I haven’t seen The Dark Knight and I understand Heath Ledger is pretty interesting, so I reserve judgment.

Vanishing ink: Vietnam’s Nom script by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 1:06 am
Filed under: Literature, Vietnam

I’m gradually putting together a little feature on the Nom Preservation Foundation, a group set up by American poet John Balaban that supports the digital archiving and preservation of literacy in Vietnamese Nom script. (Nom is the Chinese-style script that was used to write Vietnamese from the 10th century until the French promoted the modern Romanized Vietnamese alphabet, which took over by the 1930s.) Anyway, Balaban sent me a recording of a poem by the great woman poet Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822), and it reads like it was written yesterday:

Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.
Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside down in sad puddles.
Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

You know this is for real when you hit the heaven upside down in the puddles; that’s one of those lines that leaps across the centuries, for me. And partly the modernity of the poem is the effect of Balaban’s lovely translation, but that last line, “nine times out of ten”, is perfectly faithful to the Vietnamese: “chin ro muoi”. I can’t think of a Western poet who would have written such a slangy, demotic expression of probabilistic attitude in 1800. Anyone?

Afghanistan, Vietnam, Heroin by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 3:25 pm
Filed under: Drugs

As anyone who’s seen American Gangster “knows”, US troops in Vietnam all started shooting heroin, thereby creating the Golden Triangle — then the world’s largest opium-poppy cultivation zone, in Laos, Thailand and Burma. After the war the Golden Triangle spread to include parts of Vietnam itself, which had about 18,000 hectares of opium poppies under cultivation in 1991, which would make it the third-largest cultivator in the world today. (There are no more opium poppies cultivated in Vietnam; an increasingly efficient government has stamped the practice out.) Today, as we all know from reading the NY Times Magazine, the world’s biggest opium poppy and heroin producer is Afghanistan, with Burma coming in a distant second. According to the UN Office of Drug Control’s 2007 report, Afghanistan produced 8200 metric tons of opium in 2007, Burma 460 tons. The summary of production increases in 2007 reads like some bizarre parody of a glowing World Bank development report:

Opium production reaches a new record high Global opium production reached record levels in 2007: led by production in Afghanistan, it increased for a second year in a row to 8,870 mt. This is by far the highest annual level of production recorded in the last two decades and roughly double the annual average for that period. This is related to the shift in cultivation from Myanmar to Afghanistan which has taken place over the same period. In the latter country, opium farmers achieve more than two and a half times the per hectare yield. In 2007, Afghanistan alone accounted for 92% of global production, producing 8,200 mt of opium at an average yield of 42.5 kg/ha. In Myanmar, opium production increased by 46% from 315 mt to 460 mt due to the combined effects of cultivation increases and higher yields. However, opium production in Myanmar represented only 5% of global production in 2007. The total farmgate value of opium production in Afghanistan rose 32% to US$1 billion dollars in 2007 on the strength of the enormous increase in production.

So, who’s buying all this heroin? The report says that in the US in 2007, heroin cost $87.70 a gram wholesale, $172 a gram retail. (That’s a huge drop in the wholesale/retail spread from 2006. What’s going on there? Just-in-time delivery practices by big-box heroin retailers?) In Europe, meanwhile, heroin was going for just $67.10 a gram retail or $30.70 a gram wholesale. Prices have been low and steady in Europe and the US for years after hitting highs in the early ’90s.

What does that price differential portend for drug user populations? In North America users are stable at 0.4% of the population. And…ah! In Europe, user are 0.7% of the population. And so we see that tolerant European drug policies allow low prices, which means more drug abuse…oh, no, wait. Actually, opiate use rates in Western Europe, which includes drug-tolerant Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc., are just 0.5%, not much different from the US, especially considering how much cheaper the drug is. So where are all those drug users?

In the (non-tolerant) East. Opiate users in Eastern Europe, including Russia, average 1% of the population. In Russia it’s about 1.4% of the population. So that’s who’s buying Afghanistan’s dope. Russia, of course, has a drug policy that’s based entirely on interdiction and on getting addicts to “kick”; little harm reduction (some clean needles), no methadone. Oh well. In a piquante fashion, of course, one could write a lyrical drug-trade movie (“Russian Gangster”, say) illustrating how Russia’s heroin injection problem got started when…it invaded Afghanistan, and its troops started shooting up. And so it all comes around in circles again.

Except that as Afghanistan’s drug production has shot up over the past few years, Russia’s drug use population has remained largely stable. So who’s buying all the extra heroin? According to UNODC, it’s new heroin users in Pakistan, India, Iran and the rest of South and Southwest Asia. It’s actually being consumed locally. The large country with the single biggest opiate abuse problem in the world? Iran, where 2.4% of the population uses opium in one form or another each year — six times the rate in the US.