About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

The Extraordinary Aside

Bond contracts and diplomatic notes aren’t the only places where the casual asides can be more rewarding than the main text.

NASA announced yesterday that its Kepler space telescope has helped scientists identify an exoplanet clearly positioned in an orbit that would allow it to have liquid water on its surface.

Twice before astronomers have announced planets found in that zone, but neither was as promising. One was disputed; the other is on the hot edge of the zone. Kepler 22-B is the smallest and the best positioned of the more than 500 planets found to orbit stars beyond our solar system to have liquid water on its surface — among the ingredients necessary for life on Earth.

Good news of course, and with its mass size estimated at 2.4 times Earth’s, it’s the closest match yet to our own. But did you see what the author did right after the word “of”? Mentioned that, just by the by, humanity has now found more than 500 planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system. Five. Hundred.

Moreover, “With the discovery, the Kepler space telescope has now located 2,326 potential planets during its first 16 months of operation.” I’ve written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze. This is what living in the future is like.

ps Six years ago, the smallest confirmed exoplanet had a mass size of about seven times Earth’s. The intervening years have tripled the precision of humanity’s detection capabilities.

Science Fiction?

“What do I think about the legacy of Atatürk, General? Let it go. I don’t care. The age of Atatürk is over.”
Guests stiffen around the table, breath subtly indrawn; social gasps. This is heresy. People have been shot down in the streets of Istanbul for less. Adnan commands every eye.
“Atatürk was father of the nation, unquestionably. No Atatürk, no Turkey. But, at some point every child has to leave his father. You have to stand on your own two feet and find out if you’re a man. We’re like the kids that go on about how great their dads are; my dad’s the strongest, the best wrestler, the fastest driver, the biggest moustache. And when someone squares up to us, or calls us a name or even looks at us squinty, we run back shouting ‘I’ll get my dad, I’ll get my dad!’ At some point; we have to grow up. If you’ll pardon the expression, the balls have to drop. We talk the talk mighty fine; great nation, proud people, global union of the noble Turkic races, all that stuff. There’s no one like us for talking ourselves up. And then the EU says, All right, prove it. The door’s open, in you come; sit down, be one of us. Move out of the family home; move in with the other guys. Step out from the shadow of the Father of the Nation.
“And do you know what the European Union shows us about ourselves? We’re all those things we say we are. They weren’t lies, they weren’t boasts. We’re good. We’re big. We’re a powerhouse. We’ve got an economy that goes all the way to the South China Sea. We’ve got energy and ideas and talent – look at the stuff that’s coming out of those tin-shed business parks in the nano sector and the synthetic biology start-ups. Turkish. All Turkish. That’s the legacy of Atatürk. It doesn’t matter if the Kurds have their own Parliament or the French make everyone stand in Taksim Square and apologize to the Armenians. We’re the legacy of Atatürk. Turkey is the people. Atatürk’s done his job. He can crumble into dust now. The kid’s come right. The kid’s come very right. That’s why I believe the EU’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us because it’s finally taught us how to be Turks.”

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, pp. 175-76

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

From the BBC

In 1971 Manoli [Pagador], who was 23 at the time and not long married, gave birth to what she was told was a healthy baby boy, but he was immediately taken away for what were called routine tests.

Nine interminable hours passed. “Then, a nun, who was also a nurse, coldly informed me that my baby had died,” she says.

They would not let her have her son’s body, nor would they tell her when the funeral would be.

Did she not think to question the hospital staff?

“Doctors, nuns?” she says, almost in horror. “I couldn’t accuse them of lying. This was Franco’s Spain. A dictatorship. …”

“The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year, when two men – Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona – discovered that they had been bought from a nun. “

The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain’s social services including hospitals, schools and children’s homes.

Nuns and priests compiled waiting lists of would-be adoptive parents, while doctors were said to have lied to mothers about the fate of their children.

The name of one doctor, Dr Eduardo Vela, has come up in a number of victim investigations.
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In 1981, Civil Registry sources indicate that 70% of births at Dr Vela’s San Ramon clinic in Madrid were registered as “mother unknown”.

He refused to give the BBC an interview. But, by coincidence, I had recently given birth at a clinic he founded, so I was able to book an appointment with him.

We met at his private practice in his home in Madrid. The man painted as a monster in the Spanish media was old and smiley, but his smile soon disappeared when I confessed to being a journalist.

Dr Vela grabbed a metal crucifix which had been standing on his desk. He moved towards me brandishing it in my face. “Do you know what this is, Katya?” he said. “I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers. Enough.”

Babies’ graves have been dug up across the country for DNA-testing. Some have revealed nothing but a pile of stones, while others have contained adult remains.

Are these crimes limited to Spain?

International Talk Like a Berlin Parliamentarian Day

With further proof that a five-party system is much more fun for analysts than for candidates or for governance, city-state elections in Berlin put out the previous coalition, returned the personally well-liked mayor, decimated a party that was a long-time kingmaker in West Germany, and put members of the Pirate Party into a German state legislature for the first time. Just in time for pirates’ international holiday.

Klaus “und das ist auch gut soWowereit (Social Democrat, SPD) will continue to serve as Mayor of Berlin, a post he has held since June 2001. The Free Democrats, who played a crucial role in the three-party system of West Germany, appear to have polled less than 2% in this election. In 2006 they won more than 7% of the vote and gained 12 seats; they will have none in the coming parliament.

The Left Party, post-communists and often prominent in Berlin, lost four seats and can no longer serve as a junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats. The Greens thought they might win the mayoralty, after gaining their first state premiership earlier this year in Baden-Württemburg. Though they gained 4.5% and six seats, they will at best be a junior coalition partner. The SPD may also choose to govern with the Christian Democrats (CDU). In the past, this would have been called a grand coalition, but with the second-place CDU polling just 5% more than the third-place Greens (and indeed none of the parties pulling in more than 30% of the vote), it’s hardly a sweeping coalition. Look for a Red-Green government, but with the SPD clearly in the driver’s seat because it has other options.

And then there are the Pirates. Their success in this election is, first, a reminder of electoral volatility at the state level. Anyone remember the Schill Party? Second, it’s a sign that the Greens have a generational problem. Post-materialist voters have tended to be Green voters, but the issues that drew people to the Greens 25 and 30 years ago aren’t as salient now. I’d like to see some polling on how many Pirate voters are first-time voters; I’m willing to bet it’s a high percentage. Third, it may be a signal that the FDP is well and truly toast in Berlin. The kind of discourse about freedom that the Pirates have embraced is something that the FDP could have taken up, but has proven too hidebound to do. Fourth, the Berlin tech-computer scene is engaged, experienced and has both a long history and a deep bench. The city is the home of the Chaos Computer Club and the first location for Blinkenlights, among many other highlights. There’s a big natural constituency for the Pirates, and they turned out. Fifth, digital issues and a diffuse sense of protest can motivate nearly 10% of an urban electorate. That’s enough to tip some more elections. Arrrr.

Mark Duggan, Rodney King

Surprising no one with a memory for these things, the Guardian reports,

Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked London’s riots, did not fire a shot at police officers before they killed him, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said on Tuesday.

Releasing the initial findings of ballistics tests, the police watchdog said a CO19 firearms officer fired two bullets, and that a bullet that lodged in a police radio was “consistent with being fired from a police gun”.

Police force with history of institutional racism, check. Confrontation with a member of a minority group, check. Suspicious death, check. Initial statements from the police that are misleading at best, check.

I’m sure that people who study urban policy and policing can provide both a longer list of ingredients and of riots. You can’t really say which bad police incident will lead to a riot, but with the ingredients above, especially with a heaping helping of economic dislocation, eventually there will be a riot.

The work of prevention should have been done long ago — the Lawrence report is more than a decade old — and the hard work of preventing the next round will begin as soon as the fires this time are out. Many media outlets will say controlling the riots will be a test of Cameron’s premiership. Nonsense. The test is what he and his government and that of the Mayor of London, fellow Conservative Boris Johnson, will do to keep a repeat from happening. There won’t be many headlines, just lives saved and improved.

Collapsing Case Against Strauss-Kahn?

The New York Times talks to its sources in the NY Police Department and prosecutor’s office and reports:

The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper who charged that he attacked her in his Manhattan hotel suite in May, according to two well-placed law enforcement officials.

Although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a French politician, and the woman, prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.

More key phrases include “repeatedly lied” to investigators, “issues involving the asylum application,” and “possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering.”
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Flight of Fancy

If there are, famously and waggishly, only two places in France — Paris and the provinces — what of other European countries? In the common imagination, the literary tradition, in culture as a whole, and of course for a fanciful exercise like this, in gross stereotype. For the UK, which I do not know very well, maybe there’s London, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Germany seems much trickier to me, perhaps because I do know it well. Berlin of course, and Bavaria, and then? German Suburbia? In the case of Germany, The Past, and specifically that part of the past from 1933 to 1945, looms largest in the world’s imagination. But I am not sure whether that fits with this scheme. Russia, fittingly, has more: Moscow, St Petersburg, the Caucasus, Siberia, the Gulag, the Provincial City, the Rural Provinces and maybe the Far East. Smaller countries, I will rashly opine, waver between one and two: the Capital City and Everywhere Else or just the Capital. What do you think?