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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Tsunami Relief Efforts 

THIS IS A TEMPORARY STICKY POST THAT IS BEING CONSTANTLY UPDATED. PLEASE LOOK FOR UPDATES AT THE BOTTOM. RELIEF AGENCIES ADDED SINCE DAY 1 WILL BE MARKED AS *NEW*

I have spent the past couple of days pretty much paralysed in front of the TV and the computer not knowing what to do that could be remotely constructive. However, from my minimal experience of helping to raise some money during the Gujarat earthquake, I realised lots of people who wanted to help somehow did not know how to go about it. This post is an attempt to link probable donors with oppurtunities to donate time, money etc.

First, let's be real about what just happened. The Red Cross estimates that over 120,000 people are now feared dead and that number is likely to be revised upwards as reports come in from the remoter parts of the Andaman islands and Indonesia. This is going to take an incredible international relief effort to even remotely rebuild the lives that have been destroyed, and I think all of us have a responsibility as human beings to do the best we can. All it would take for most of us is to forgo a meal at a restaurant or not pay obscene cover charges at some New Year's eve party.....might not be a big deal for us, but it would make a huge difference in the affected areas. So, I beg you to give and give generously and give generously again.

Before I list out the charities, let me first list a couple of places that attempt to find information about missing people. These web efforts are known to work.

Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Tsunami Thread -- you don't need to register to post or respond. UPDATE: LP has shifted Found Persons here to make more room for missing persons on the earlier thread.

Tsunami Disaster Forum

CNN E-Mail Appeals

Asian Quake Disaster is running a very useful thread that helps with information on missing people. They also have a list of emergency contact details.

As Mash has already posted, the best one-stop site for all tsunami related information is tsunamihelp.blogspot.com -- I cannot begin to emphasise how good this blog is. Suhit, Dina etc, you guys are doing an amazing job with the blog.

The best place to get some comprehensive information on the current tsunami along with a comprehensive set of links is the Wikipedia earthquake and Tsunami page. Columbia University has the scientific information on the Tsunami. Finally, Wave of Destruction has the most comprehensive photo/video evidence of the destruction.

List of places you can donate to --

I did think of collecting some money via ZS but have rested the idea temporarily unless someone can provide me with logistical support. The bottom line with donations is to find an agency with low overheads and where you can get a tax deduction. Of course, if you can get matching grants, that's even better. While this list is by no means exhaustive, I have listed every single prominent site on here. In addition, most of the organisations I have listed on here accept online donations which makes giving a lot easier. I have also avoided explicitly religious organisations on here since their agenda is suspect.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent allows you to specifically mark your contribution for 'tsunami and earthquake relief' if need be. You can also contribute to the Red Cross via Amazon which has already raised over $6 million since its appeal went up. Music for Relief is also raising money for the Red Cross. As is Yahoo.

You can also contribute to local chapters of the Red Cross -- India,Thailand, Indonesia, Britain, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Brazil, Denmark,Sweden, Finland, Russia etc. Needless to say, there are plenty of countries not listed on here. This is just a small sample of countries from where I have noticed Zoo Station readers.

The incredible Medecins Sans Frontieres lets you pay in USD, Sterling or Euros. You could also donate to MSF here. In addition, MSF also provides oppurtunities to volunteer, though you need to contact their offices to find out more.

CARE is an organization that was on the ground in most of the countries struck by the Tsunami and is therefore logistically well suited to help.

Direct Relief International has been helping with health related issues in the disaster struck region about which you can read more.

The World Food Programme, the world's largest humanitarian organisation allows you to make tax-free donations as part of its Tsunami Disaster Appeal.

ASHA for Education, the well known Indian charity that does remarkable work in promoting children's education in India is collecting donations. Several Zoo Station readers and at least one ZS blogger (Anand) are actively involved with ASHA and will vouch for the organization.

Though I am skeptical of handing any money over to the mangy Indian bureaucrat, the Prime Minister's Relief Fund is accepting online donations and is a place many of you might consider. Apparently, Anil Ambani trusts the Fund enough to personally contribute over $200,000. Gopal suggests that you could also contribute to the PM's relief fund via Citibank.

The Tamil Nadu government has set up the Chief Minister's Relief Fund. The problem of the Indian bureaucrat remains.

In light of the fact that over one-third of the victims of the disaster are little children, UNICEF is accepting donations. So is Save the Children. So is Vibha. Meanwhile, PLAN USA has already raised $1.5 million towards helping affected children, but will need a great deal more. Child Relief and you (CRY), the well known Indian children's charity has launched a Tsunami Relief Fund.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has launched an appeal even as they launch operations in Aceh, southern Sri Lanka, Thailand and also in East Africa, which has been hit pretty badly too.

SEEDS is a voluntary organisation in India that has launched relief operations in the hard-hit Andaman and Nicobar Islands where I suspect we will see a substantial increase in the death toll once rescue teams do a proper assessment.

The America India Foundation, set up in the wake of the Gujarat quake with Bill Clinton as honorary chair, has set up the Tsunami Relief Fund with the stated goal of raising at least $2 million in the next 90 days. AIF plans on matching dollar for dollar the first $1 million received in contributions. UPDATE: Just got an update from AIF. They have raised $120,000 in the first week, meaning there's another $880,000 to go. AIF promises that 100% of your money will be used for Tsunami relief.

Habitat for Humanity, an organisation known for its rebuilding efforts will be involed in rebuidling homes in the affected areas. They estimate that for between $50 and $150, a house can be made habitable again, depending on damage. Needless to say, they'll need a great deal more to rebuild from scratch as seems to be the case in a lot of southern Sri Lanka.

The Hindu, South India's leading English newspaper has launched the Hindu Relief Fund. Given that they're based in Madras, they are probably well suited to help people severely affected in Tamil Nadu. The Times of India too has launched an appeal, though they're not online yet.

The Association for India's Development (AID) has also set up a rehabilitation fund for families in Southern India. Sulekha.com has set up a matching fund with AID with donations from its members and corporate clients/partners worldwide. The matching fund has currently raised a little over $110,000.

AmeriCares is a disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization providing immediate response to emergency medical needs.

Sarvodaya, the largest civil society organisation in Sri Lanka with a large presence on the ground is trying to collect food and medical supplies. UPDATE: Indi is right. I have heard from several people now that Sarvodaya is doing excellent work on the ground in Sri Lanka. Folks looking to contribute to the Sri Lanka relief effort (and I hope that includes a LOT of you), please have a good look at the Sarvodaya website.

*NEW* Seva International, the charity known for its work in eye care has also set up a fund to help with relief efforts in Sri Lanka and India. In Sri Lanka, they are working with IMPACT Sri Lanka to set up health camps while in India, they are working with the Aravind Hospital system and is focussing on relief efforts in Cuddalore district.

*NEW* SOS Children's Villages is an organisation that I forgot to add on here initially. They were on the ground in both India and Sri Lanka before the Tsunami hit and are logistically well prepared. For whatever its worth, this is an organisation people in my family have worked with in the past and have an excellent opinion of. UPDATE: My mum informs me that SOS has plans of adopting as many children orphaned by the disaster as their resources will permit. So, once again, please have a look at how SOS adopts children and provides them with the closest thing resembling a real family in both Sri Lanka and India.

*NEW*: Some of you know that I did my dissertation research among the coastal fishing communities of southern India -- precisely the communities that have been utterly devastated by the Tsunami. During the course of my research, I had the opportunity to meet with officers from SIFFS, the South Indian Fishermen's Federation. According to an e-mail that I received, SIFFS constituents have been very badly hit and SIFFS is now looking to raise funds rehabilitate and rebuild within these communities and especially to restore destroyed fishing equipment so these fishermen can get their livelihoods back in the long term. I have nothing but the highest regard for this organisation and if any of you are looking to make a contribution that will have an immediate impact on the ground in south India, I would urge you have a look at SIFFS. The details on their fundraising are outlined here. UPDATE: SIFFS now has a dedicated page for its relief efforts.

*NEW* Give2Asia, a U.S. non-profit established by the Asia Foundation has started the Tsunami Recovery Fund. With offices in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India, the fund aims to help with mid to long-term reconstruction efforts.

*NEW* The UN Foundation has set up the UN Foundation Tsunami Relief Fund which lets you make tax-deductible contributions to the UN's relief efforts in the region.

*NEW* The well known Helen Keller International has joined in on the relief efforts, focussing on assisting people in Indonesia. HKI is distributing vitamin A, iodized oil and dispersible zinc tablets, which constitutes one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives and prevent disease in disaster situations, to children under five years of age. HKI is also distributing a monthly supply of multivitamins suitable for cooking or non-cooking conditions to enhance health. You can find more information and donate here.

Oxfam lets UK taxpayers increase their gift by 28% under the Gift Aid scheme. UK residents can also contribute directly to the Tsunami Earthquake Appeal. Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) offers UK tax payers the same deal as Oxfam.

International Medical Corps is on the ground in Aceh. Donate here. The International Rescue Committee is also on the ground in the Aceh province. In fact, their offices in Aceh are said to have been devastated and two of their aid workers are missing.

Give World has set up a tax-deductible Rehabilitation Fund to support initiatives to help those affected by the disaster in South India, in association with GiveIndia and ICICI Communities (with the largest private bank in India). You can also check how they managed the money they raised during the Gujarat Quake.

Swiss Solidarity, the Swiss NGO which supports emergency programs for people suffering from the consequences of natural disasters has already raised 11 million CHF as part of its relief efforts, of which 7 million came in yesterday. They are working with 10 partner organisations including Caritas Sri Lanka and MSF.

Jiva Institute, the pioneering organisation founded by my friend Steve Rudolph, has launched the Jiva Relief Fund. They have created low-cost Health Packs for tsunami survivors. The packs will prevent and cure diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery, diarrhea, and gastroenteritis. Each pack costs USD$10 and provides a week’s medicines for one person.

Project Concern is targeting its efforts in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.

Project Hope is on the ground in Thailand and working on prviding health care and supplies.

Operation USA is a privately funded organisation with extremely low overheads with administrative costs running at a mere 2%.

Northwest Medical Teams have already dispatched doctors and medical professionals to Thailand.

Relief International provides emergency, rehabilitation and development services.

Action Against Hunger tells you exactly how your contribution will be used and also provides the option of matching funds from your employer.

World Emergency Relief is donating food and blankets and will focus on Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Catholic Relief Services plans to raise $25 million for humanitarian services.

Mercy Corps is collecting money for emergency disaster relief.

American Friends Service Committee -- all contributions are tax deductible.

International Relief Teams (IRT) has made a commitment to send a substantial shipment of medicines – enough to sustain 20,000 people for 3 months.

Tsunami Victims provides an exhaustive list of donating and volunteering opportunities in India.

Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation of Sri Lanka has put out an appeal for donations. So has Lanka Page.

The Sri Lanka Academic Network are also collecting online donations. Here's how they use your money.

The Sri Lankan govt has details on the sort of assistance they need immediately.

Akanksha, an organisaton I knew well during my college days in Bombay is collecting clothes, tarpaulin, bed sheets, utensils, dry ration, candles, match box, torch & batteries, water purifier tablets, medicines etc at collection centers in Bombay.

Muslim Hands is sending emergency response teams to Malaysia and Indonesia.

KARUNA Trust of Sri Lanka is collecting money towards relief efforts.

NETAID has set up an Asian Earthquake Crisis Fund.

Architecture for Humanity is another organisation that will be involved in rebuilding efforts. You can read more about their reconstruction efforts here.

GOAL, the Irish humanitarian organisation has set up a major feeding operation in Tamil Nadu and wants to expand to Sri Lanka.

Switzerland based Medair is sending emergency medical kits and water drilling equipment to Sri Lanka.

In Singapore, you can make contributions via SMS using the Singtel Donation Hotline.

The UK-based Hindu Forum is collecting money, clothes and medicines.

Lutheran World Relief

International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Islamic Relief.

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

World Concern.

International Relief and Development Foundation.

Adventist Development and Relief Agency International.

B'nai B'rith Disaster Relief Fund.

Tear Fund New Zealand.

BAPS Care.

The Ramakrishna Math.

Most places are currently seeking cash contributions though I am sure volunteers will be needed soon (Indiserve would be a good place to look), especially medical professionals and individuals who have experience getting the infrastructure back in order. Until the call for non-local volunteers is made by the specialists, let us make sure there is enough money to fund whatever relief effort is necessary. I will post whatever information I come across on here.

Some people have asked me what a good contribution would be. The simple answer would be that no amount is enough for a disaster of this magnitude. That said, you could use some simple parameters. For example, you can donate the amount of one dinner foregone or of one night out on town avoided and spent reading a book instead. Better still, you could donate a couple of hour's pay or even a day's pay. Those who can afford it should donate a great deal more. Trust me, it doesn't take much to put this in perspective.

I have no intention of asking any of you to donate to any one set of organisations, but since many of you asked, here are the criteria I would use. As I have mentioned earlier, it would be good to contribute to someone who has low overheads. In addition, they must also have the logistical capabilities to deliver aid, have the ability to coordinate with other relief agencies and have been around for long enough to be credible and know hard this is going to be. You could also search the database on Charity Navigator to see how efficiently your funds will be used.

On a personal note, we have donated money to MSF and Save the Children though we plan on donating some more money in the coming week. Please do not let our opinion bias your choice though. You must donate to what you think is most appropriate. That said, if you know of someone personally who is doing good work on the ground, I would certainly urge you to help fund them over everything else and let us know at ZS in case we haven't linked to them already.

PS: I urge Indian readers of ZS to contribute not just to Indian aid agencies, but also to aid agencies based in other countries. In some ways the Indian (and the Thai) economy can probably cope with this disaster, but Sri Lanka and Indonesia will need every ounce of help they can get.

PPS: Please send these links along to as many people as you know. In addition, if you know of any links that have been missed here, please let me know and I'll add.

UPDATE: Tsunami Help has a call for volunteers here if you happen to be anywhere near Madras. They also have a specific set of contacts to help Aceh, where the toll is really going to be mind-numbing.

UPDATE: Mercy Corps has an excellent website that lets you find whether your company will match your charitable contribution. For example, a search for Microsoft tells you that MS will match your donation 1:1 to a maximum match of $12,000.

UPDATE: Via Tsunami Help, I found Kapruka, where you can directly purchase products like Paracetamol, Ciproflaxacin, Aspirin etc which will directly be delivered to the Red Cross in Colombo. What's more, the medicines are bought in local Colombo pharmacies, so you are paying local rates, not much higher western prices. Seems like a great site for those among you who are concerned about how your money is put to work.

UPDATE: (Via Subhashish) ICICI Bank, India's most prominent private bank has announced a new initiative to help with relief efforts. ICICI Bank is doing the following : First, demand drafts to any NGO for Tsunami relief work will not be charged. Also, they are ready to provide, at par facilities, for specific cheques for the NGOs involved in the relief activity. Anyone who wants to avail of this facility write to surabhi.gupta@icicibank.com.

UPDATE: In Bangalore, these folks are collecting stuff (no cash).

Prakruti Mudrana
Contact Person - Sashi Kumar/ Uvaraj
Phone: +91-80-26713894/ +91-93412 12691 / +91-94483 71389

If anyone is interested to do rescue work for affected people in Madras please contact Shihan Hussaini +91-98411-618386. You could help with old clothes,water bottles, blankets, food packets. People willing to do rescue work in Nagapattinam there please contact the following numbers - +91-4635 242 999 and 4635 248 777

UPDATE: The South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) has put up an extensive list of tsunami-related resources. In particular, this site will be very useful for anyone in the media looking to cover the situation in South and South East Asia.

UPDATE: MSF is looking for volunteers with medical experience in Indonesia. Here's who you need to contact --

Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium (MSF B) - Indonesia
Jln. Kemang Utara No. 32
JAKARTA 12730
Tel. + 62 - 21 - 719 5947
Fax. + 62 - 21 - 719 5948
E-mail : msfb-jakarta@msf.be

UPDATE: ACEH IT-Media Center has set up a comprehensive site to help with relief efforts in Aceh. It includes a missing persons billboard, list of needs and links to Indonesian media. Folks, we need as much information as possible about Indonesia since its woefully under-represented here. If you have information on aid agencies working in Indonesia, please sent it along.

UPDATE: AID is collecting a list of volunteers who want to work in India. Australian Volunteers is looking for just that.

UPDATE: I forgot to add yesterday that you can also help by donating your unused air miles. Tsunami Help has the details. For example, Continental accepts miles for the Red Cross and AmeriCares, Delta accepts miles for CARE, Northwest for Oxfam and UNICEF besides the ones mentioned above and so on. Have a look.

UPDATE: The folks at Tsunami Help have now launched the Tsunami Help Wiki, which categorises information much better than the blog does. You can drill further into the categories listed on the right navigation bar. Their hosting and bandwidth needs have been met by Wikinews, so I am taking down the bandwidth appeal for now. On an unrelated note, the US govt has upped its aid for the affected areas ten fold to $350 million with promises of more aid. Kudos to the Bush administration for announcing this increase even if all of us know a great deal more will be needed. UPDATE: Japan has upped its aid to $500 million, making it the single largest donor so far.

UPDATE: Folks, if you find an organisation on here that you like but cannot find on the Charity Navigator database, you might want to consider submitting the organisation for evaluation.

UPDATE: Feroze Jamal has a pretty exhaustive list of ways you can help on the ground in India. This is a good place for those looking to volunteer in India to pick up some ideas.

UPDATE: Kauai Aerospace Institute is willing to donate helicopters to aid agencies involved in the relief effort. The Bell 206 Jet Ranger features dual VHF communication and navigation radios and 5 place intercom for relief/search/rescue and utility equipment for delivery of supplies, reconstruction efforts and repairs.

*UPDATE*: The Wise Giving Alliance has an excellent watch-list for donors. I would urge every one of you to go through it begore deciding which organisation to donate to. Highly, highly recommended.

UPDATE: Indonesia Help is a new blog that's trying to help the disaster victims in Aceh. I can only hope these guys can swing more resources Aceh-wards. The bloggers among ZS readers should consider linking to this site to give it as much visibility as possible.

UPDATE: The Sri Lanka Medical Association of North America is accepting donations to buy water purification tablets and medicines. Besides the paypal system, they have also organised several collection points in the New York and New Jersey region with details on what they're looking to collect.

*UPDATE*: An urgent appeal for aid from Indonesia. Please see if any of you can help. It seems to indicate that there were parts of Indonesia (the islands off the coast of Aceh close to the epicentre) which were much harder hit than anything we have seen or heard in the media.

UPDATE: Organisations looking for volunteers in all of the affected areas should go to Tsunami Help Offered.

UPDATE: The Daily Record is reporting that a massive Live Aid style concert is being organised in the third week of January to be held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It appears the concert will be headlined by U2, Coldplay and Robbie Williams. In addition, a charity single is also being planned by Cliff Richard and Boy George. This is yet another channel for those of you in the UK and Europe to donate money.

UPDATE: MSF has apparently made a most surprising announcement -- that donors stop sending money, saying MSF had collected enough money for its Tsunami relief effort for now. Mind you, this holds true ONLY for the MSF. The other agencies are in desparate need for donations to fund relief efforts. As someone from the UNICEF said, the MSF tends to concentrate on emergency relief work while others like the UNICEF stay on longer for the rebuilding effort. So, this is merely a FYI to those of you considering donating money to MSF. You may want to donate money elsewhere for the time being.

UPDATE: Propoor.org, the South Asian organisation working on sustainable development initiatives has launched a Tsunami blog which attempts to match volunteers, resources and ideas with opportunities. For those of you looking to volunteer, this might be an excellent place to start.

*UPDATE*: The Times Foundation (set up by the Times of India group) has set up a Tsunami Relief Fund. In addition to soliciting donations for immediate relief and rehabilitation, the Foundation also provides concrete information on volunteering opportunities in India with contact persons and so on. Once again, a great place for volunteers to have a look.

UPDATE: Sara makes a valid point in the comments section. Those of you making donations to the big international aid agencies should consider giving them carte blanche on where and how they can use the money. I really worry that this tremendous outpouring of support may completely displace huge problems like the crisis in Darfur, AIDS etc off people's radars. If you'd like to read more on this, please read this column by Nick Kristof where he touches on the problem. UPDATE: Timothy Garton Ash too touches on some of these issues in the Guardian.

UPDATE: A note of caution -- According to the FBI, several donors (especially those using Internet Explorer) are liable to be open to cyber attacks involving Trojans, 419's and so on. The best way to avoid this is to donate only to reliable organisations (leave those bleeding-heart stories you get in your inbox alone) and by using any browser but Internet Explorer (Firefox, Opera, Safari etc) while making secure online donations.

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: The U.S. Congress has passed a resolution to extend the last date for claiming tax deductions for charitable contributions from Dec 31 2004 to Jan 31 2005 providing an additional incentive for the Americans among you to donate. To claim the exemption, you need to donate to registered tax-exempt organisations. In passing the resolution, members of Congress asked the American public to donate generously to help Tsunami victims.

*NEW* Rough Guide, of travel guide fame, has launched the Rough Guides Tsunami Appeal Fund. All donations made through the Rough Guide before Jan 31, 2004 will be matched by the Pearson Group (effectively doubling your contribution) which owns the Rough Guide. All donations made this way will be sent to CARE International.

*NEW* The World Health Organisation (WHO) has launched an urgent appeal to raise $66 million to address the public health needs in the badly stricken areas over the next six months. The WHO also has details on how exactly your money will be used.

UPDATE: Smart Travel Asia has an update for probable travellers about the situation on the ground in all the Tsunami hit areas. Vijay Verghese, the editor of STA lists a bunch of reasons why you will be contributing to the rebuilding of the hard-hit local economies and doing the region a favour by not cancelling your travel plans.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Tsunami victims - Missing or Dead makes a difference  

Apart from simply affecting the numbers, classifying tsunami victims as missing or dead is affecting the survivors - at least in India and especially Andaman. Apparently, monetary aid is given to victims' families only if the person is dead (in other words if the body has been found). Civil rights groups have begun to pressure the government to declare missing people dead in the next few days and awareness of this issue will only help their case. Of course, there would becases of people falsely reporting their family members missing - but a genuine victim not getting aid is only worse. Further, in a small island one could simply use peer pressure and social monitoring to make sure such cases are reduced.

*UPDATE*: According to the the Australian, common law require(s) a person to be missing for seven years before he or she could be declared dead.

Tsunami orphans 

In addition, what is outrageous is the gradually increasing reports of orphaned kids getting smuggled or kidnapped. I hope that aid agencies speed up the process of finding these kids a home and not wait till basic amenities are disbursed (doing them parallely will surely help). I think it might be time for more aid to be directed to organizations who are specifically doing this. Apart from SOS Children's Relief (See Tsunami relief effort link above), what are the organizations doing this (especially in Indonesia and Thailand) ?

Whale Suicides and Tsunamis 

This is new post, but since I wanted Tsunami Relief to remain the primary post on the blog, I have adjusted the dates to ensure this comes up below the main post.

(Via Aditya) This was a post made by an Indian nauralist on a Princeton mailing list on Dec 4th, 2004. Absolutely surreal.

To: nathistory-india@Princeton.EDU

It is my observation, confirmed over the years, that mass suicides of whales and dolphins that occur sporadically all over the world, are in someway related to change and disturbances in the electromagnetic field coordinates and possible re-alignments of geotectonic plates thereof. Tracking the dates and plotting the locales of tremors and earthquakes, I am resonably certain that major earthquakes usually follow within a week or two of mass breaching of cetacians. I have noted with alarm, the last week's report of such mass deaths of marine mammals in an Australian beachside. I will not be surprised if within a few days a massive [earthquake] hits some part of the globe. The inter-relationship between the unusual 'death-wish' of pods of whales and its inevitable aftermath,the earthquake, may need a further impassioned and unbiased looking into. Dr Arunachalam Kumar

Tsunami Blog 

The South-East Asia Tsunami and Earthquake (SEA-EAT) blog is a great resource for information on what is happening in the aftermath of the Tsunami disaster. Among other things, this blog contains information on country-specific helplines, organizations that are performing relief work, places where you can donate money, and of course information on, and pictures of the Tsunami. I encourage people to check this out.

Reuben will put together a list of agencies that are looking for volunteers and donations real soon, but for now this website contains a list of URL's and addresses that are accepting donations either online or through cheques.

On a different note, it is indeed heartening to observe the overwhelming response to the relief efforts, and a willingness to help from so many civilians in some of the affected countries; as well as the speed with which NGO's and other agencies have organized themselves to react to this tragedy. This journal entry on the Association for India's Development (AID) website is a very inspirational account on how various relief organizations are collaborating with one another to organize, plan, and handle the relief operations in Tamil Nadu, India.

An Appeal 

Folks, I have been thinking about how we can constructively help with the relief efforts in the Tsunami-stricken parts of South and South East Asia. Some of us can volunteer on the ground, though I urge you to check with authorities and charities to make sure you are being helpful and not being a hindrance. For the most part though, I think we can contribute financially to help fund the relief effort. So, I am going to compile a list of sites/people/agencies looking for contributions to help with relief. I will also try and compile as comprehensive a list as possible for volunteer opportunities, news roundups and so on.

I have already collected a bunch of links, but I need a lot more. So, this post is an appeal to request those of you who have ideas, links etc to please send them to me as soon as possible. I hope to make a comprehensive post sometime tomorrow (29th) evening or 30th morning, Eastern Standard. Thanks in advance.

UPDATE: I have been asked by more than one person whether it might be worthwhile for ZS to collect money (via paypal) and then distribute it to a particular agency. My initial reaction would be skeptical since it will involve being responsible for someone else's money and I think relief agencies are logistically better equipped to handle something like this than any of us. On the other hand, we might be able to get it to the ground easier. My personal preference remains to direct people to sources they feel comfortable donating to, but if you feel strongly either way please let me know either via e-mail or via the comments section on here.

UPDATE: Folks, I am absolutely knackered by jetlag, so I will post the links tomorrow first thing in the am rather than do something incoherent tonight. Apologies for the delay.

The Hookies 

Sorry I went off the radar for such a long time. I haven't really had the time to trawl the Net or even come up with much to say. But I did come across these two brilliant compilations by David Brooks in the NYT (published as Part I and Part II). Here, Brooks lists some of the best essays written in 2004 as part of a self-created award called the Hookie (named after public intellectual Sidney Hook). Most of you may have read some of these essays, but I'll guarantee you this, they are all worth a second, third and fourth read. Happy holidays and a stimulating 2005 to everyone.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Freak Tsunami 

I never thought I would live to see the day a tsunami hit the coast of India. What an absolute freak of nature!! And even more so when you realise it happened exactly one year to the day after the quake in Bam, Iran. The current death toll seems to suggest 1000 dead in southern India, 1500 dead in Sri Lanka, 250 dead in Indonesia, about a 100 dead in Thailand and so on. The tidal wave even hit parts of Kerala somehow and 2/3rds of the Maldives are under water. I fully expect the toll to go up much more as the govts begin to account for missing people.

From everything I've heard, Madras was very badly hit and both Marina beach and Elliott's beach dissapeared for a while as water crashed in almost a kilometer inland. I hope all ZS readers based in Madras (and there are several) are all safe as are your friends and family. Not sure there's much else I can say at this point.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

MERRY CHRISTMAS 

Folks, greetings from Switzerland. Just got online for a little while to wish every one of you a Merry Christmas. In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, I celebrated the day by watching the British zombie/horror spoof, Shaun of the Dead. And a very uplifting movie it was :) Highly recommended.

On another note, virtually every ZS blogger is travelling some place or the other right now. So blogging will be very light until New Year's eve or thereabouts, when I return to New York. Until then, have fun...

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Big Mac Index for 2004 

So the latest and final 2004 Big Mac Index was released by the Economist this week. Continuing the trend of past BMI, China is at the bottom of the list, with a US $1.26 burger.
This implies that the yuan is 58% undervalued relative to its Big Mac dollar-PPP. On the same basis, the euro is 25% overvalued, the yen 17% undervalued.
So as we wind down the year, any predictions from the smart folks who read/write this blog?

Is the freedom of speech the freedom to offend? 

BBC takes a look at this question in a recent piece. Two interesting quotes from the article:

Today, the "growing deluge" of artists graduating from college, means many resort to causing offence, says Mr Walker, simply as a means of standing out from the crowd.

The right to freedom of speech is still relatively new and we are like adolescents, insufficiently mature in how we should use it.

The article also points out that, in the arts, any publicity tends to benefit the artist - another reason for the observation Mr. Walker (author of a book on Art and Outrage) makes. There remains an important distinction that appears to be absent.

If the sole purpose of one's expression (speech or not) is to offend the other, and nothing more, then it is indeed a sign of 'immaturity in the use of the freedom of expression'. Of course, one could justify all sorts of reasons other than intended offense as the objective - this is what makes the issue so subjective.

By the same token, if the sole reason for silence is driven by the desire to not offend anyone, then we are not far away from 'immaturity in the use of the freedom of expression.' In this case however, it is upto the individual on how much silence affects his or her happiness. For most people, there is clearly a balance based on factors such as where you are, who you are with, how important is it for you to express your point and does it actually encourage an exchange of ideas (of course, you wouldn't know this unless you expressed what you want to). To me, It appears that this balance is tilted more towards 'political correctness' than should be.

Finally, there will always be people (those who live off the expression of ideas) that will benefit from social trends of what gets covered. Why then does offensive material get on an average more coverage than an average non-offensive piece? Is society, in its desperate craving for political incorrectness, turning to artists? Is it the case that more politically correct societies are also societies where offensive art gets more coverage?

Monday, December 20, 2004

Republicans Visit India 

I'm wondering how many folks have read this blog post, about the recent US congressional delegation which visited India. This was highlighted on Kevin Drum's Washington Monthly blog, and comes from The Road to Surfdom blog. It summarizes comments from India "government people":
We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That's our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You've encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix - terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don't care about sanctions.
Seems about right. Folks in India and East Asia generally see the US campaign in the Middle East as a misguided lark. Any reactions, or other reports on this delegation?

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Glorious Improvisation 

I have been looking out for artists who are trying to do new things with Jazz and here's someone who I came across - Django Bates. He's been a creative force in the UK Jazz scene, mixing classical and rock influences with Jazz. The Times has called him "simply prodigious talent" and you can find BBC and The Guardian raving about him on his website, where you'll also find a few songs.

p.s. Zappa Fans might find the guy particularly impressive.

Quote du Jour 

"All science is either physics or stamp collecting" -- Ernest Rutherford :)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Persian-Arabian Gulf 

A follow-up to Reuben's post. I was browsing through Bernard Lewis' introductory book on The Middle East at this Italian restaurant called Di Napoli Pizzeria. The restaurant happens to be one of these inconspicuous places on a street I have never been on before, and I thought I would check it out. Anyway, I found this little piece of trivia in the first chapter.

Strictly speaking, Persia, or Persis, is the name not of a country nor of a nation, but of a province - the southwestern province of Pars or Fars, on the eastern shore of the gulf which takes its name from it. The Persians have never applied that name to the whole country. They have, however, used it of their language, since the regional dialect of Pars became the dominant cultural and political language of the country in the same way that Tuscan became Italian, Castilian became Spanish, and the dialect of the Home Counties became English.

I would think that the term Arabian Gulf might also be reasonable, given that only a small
portion of Pars is actually adjoining the Gulf. In any case, a significant section of the Arabian Peninsula is definitely on it. Renaming gegraphic regions can of course be quite a sensitive issue. A few weeks back, the Iranian government banned the sales of National Geographic for using the term in maps, and even banned National Geographic journalists from entering the country. National Geographic has issued a Press Release.

The Society does not follow any single source to make such determinations, and seeks to be
accurate, apolitical and objective. Decisions regarding nomenclature assigned to geographic places, locations, bodies of water, and the like are checked against a number of external entities, including the Board on Geographic Names, recognized reference books such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and geographical dictionaries. The Arabian Gulf is recognized as a variant naming of the Persian Gulf by many such entities. In fact, the Society first used the primary-secondary dual listing on a Middle East map published in 1991.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Brad on China 

Brad DeLong thinks out aloud about the politico-economic arithmetic of China. I reproduce Brad's post in full.

China's current GDP (at current exchange rates): $1,690 billion
China's foreign exchange reserves (stock): $540 billion
China's foreign exchange reserves (change in 2004): +$130 billion

Thinking that the long-run value of the renminbi is two-thirds of its present value leads to the conclusion that at the moment China is spending about $40 billion a year--2.5% of GDP--on its currency-support program. This sum is not recognized in China's budget or on its balance sheet. But it is very real.

Is this a big number--one that deranges China's internal political economy and cannot be sustained for very long? Or is it a small number--a cheap way to buy some insurance against shocks that would otherwise produce large-scale urban unemployment? I cannot decide.

Firefox hits 10 million 

ZDNet reports that Forefox has crossed 10 million downloads of Ver 1.0. IE's share has dropped to less than 90% while Firefox's share has grown to 7.2%. Microsoft disputes these numbers saying they dont register corporate users. On Zoo Station, Forefox's share has gone up from 17% a couple months back to 23% today.




To the 69% of ZS readers who still use IE, I ask why? Why aren't you shifting to a superior, safer browser? What're more, Forefox gives you some seriously cool extensions and yes, IE View lets you shift to IE should you run into idiotic sites that don't work well with Firefox.

Monday, December 13, 2004

More signature Ipods 

In the wake of the success of the U2 Ipod, Apple have apparently decided to come out with a whole series of signature Ipods. Artists include Coldplay, P Diddy, Ramones, Nirvana and Toby Keith. Have a look. You are guaranteed a laugh :)

More news from the telecom front 

Idea Cellular India has new owners as Telekom Malaysia and Singapore Technologies Telemedia have taken over AT&T's stake in the company. The rest of the firm continues to be owned by the Tata and Birla groups. Interestingly, the sellout happened in the wake of Cingular's $41 billion buyout of AT&T Wireless. Clearly, Cingular wants to consolidate its American footprint and is getting out of any business seen as non-core in this context.

Even as the western giants exit India -- last week France Telecom sold its stake in BPL to the Essar group -- the south-east Asians are muscling their way in. In the case of France Telecom, they clearly need all the money they can get because of the money they flushed down the 3G drain. It's interesting nevertheless that Singapore are Malaysia see opportunity where France and the U.S. don't.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Commies want TRAI disbanded. If you ever needed evidence these guys were cuckoo, this is it. Telecom is pretty much the only core sector where India is getting to be world class, and these jokers want to ruin that because they want to 'protect' the incumbent, BSNL? The buggers!!

How birthrates color the electoral map 

[From Eugene Letuchy] Steve Sailer writes The American Conservative magazine cover story on the correlation between Bush's vote in 2004 with the white total fertility rate. Given the degree to which the swing states affected the campaigns and the outcome in this election, overall nation-wide statistics might not appear very significant, but lost in the arguments about the role of values in Ohio might be the role of nation-wide demographic trends. The degree of correlation is remarkably high (0.86), even if the statistical sample is small. Steve Sailer argues why the correlation might be more than statistical.

Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility (just as he did in 2000), and 25 out of the top 26, with highly unionized Michigan being the one blue exception to the rule. (The least prolific red states are West Virginia, North Dakota, and Florida.)

Couples attempting to raise children in a big blue city quickly learn the truth of what bond trader Sherman McCoy’s father told him in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities: "If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate." Manhattan liberals all believe in celebrating diversity in theory but typically draw the line at subjecting their own offspring to it in the public schools. With Manhattan private K-12 school tuitions now approaching $25,000, insulating multiple children rapidly becomes too expensive for all but the filthy rich.

The late socialist historian Jim Chapin pointed out that it was perfectly rational for parents with more children than money to ask their political and cultural leaders to help them insulate their kids from bad examples, even, or perhaps especially, if the parents themselves are not perfect role models.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Travelling Bra Salesman 

(Via Cogwheels) Every year, Shell and The Economist conduct a writing contest and this year's topic was 'Import workers or export jobs?' This year, the prize was won by Claudia O'Keefe from Frankford, West Virginia for her first-person essay titled 'The Travelling Bra Salesman.' Here is the synopsis of her essay which can be read in full here.

When a former middle-class professional is stranded and falls into poverty in job poor West Virginia, she finds parallels between her depressed local economy and the debates on outsourcing and immigration raging throughout her country and the world. She remembers an important lesson taught to her by her stepfather decades ago, a traveling salesman who cruised Route 66 with a trunk full of bras, selling to variety stores and making a good living for his family until his way of life was threatened. Know when to let go of the past and reach for the future.

The question we face is not whether it is good or bad to import workers or export jobs. The problem is that society has hit an emotional road block, with pro-worker and pro-business factions stubbornly pitted against each other, completely inhibiting progress. Many jobless are angry at the withering of something considered a natural right, The American Dream. Nothing can be solved until we acknowledge that one dream is ending and another waiting for us to recognize it. Only then will we open ourselves to solutions we haven’t yet considered or invented, to a more inclusive and thrilling successor to outmoded 20th century ideals of employment and immigration. It is not The American Dream we should seek, but The Global Dream.

Google Suggest 

Google has released yet another search tool -- Google Suggest. As you type in something into the search box, Google tries to guess what you're trying to look for via a drop-down menu. Though it might sound a bit annoying from the description, it's pretty effective. For example, type in 'Zoo Sta' and you get 'Zoo Station blog' as an option. Even better, type in 'How to Di' and you get How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. :))

The oldest domain names of all 

Yesterday I came across Jottings, a blog that lists among other things, the 100 oldest currently registered .com domains. Most of these were registered in the period 1985-87. Among the biggies, the list includes Northrop, Xerox, IBM, Sun, Intel, Lockheed, 3Com etc. Have a look. It's interesting to see how many of the big firms of today were prescient enough back in 1985.

PS: Jottings also offers an interesting spam fighting tool called the E-mail Obfuscator which uses clever JavaScript to fight spam generated from e-mail links. This tool could be a real blessing for those of who maintain blogs and so on.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Books of the Year 

The Economist has published its list of the year's best books. The list includes The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Chain of Command by Sy Hersh, the 9/11 Comission Report, Wodehouse: A life by Robert McCrum, Why Globalization Works by Martin Wolf, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K.Prahalad and Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan. There is also a separate section on books written by writers from the Economist itself.

Dan Gillmor leaves SJMN 

Dan Gillmor, the fantastic technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News and author of We the Media, announced today that he was leaving the paper for an as yet unknown "citizen-journalism project." I do hope he will continue to write on his well known blog even as he heads into the world of start-ups.

In the meanwhile, Andrew, why do I get the feeling you more about Dan Gillmor's new project than anyone in the media? Care to share or this all too hush-hush?

Some more U2 

Since the blog is named after a U2 song, I might as well throw is some more U2 news in here, hey? So, MTV showed a 30 minute documentary on the secret Brooklyn concert as part of a new program called MTV Jammed. They will replay it again on the 14th at 2 am EST for those of you who missed tonight's show. Was pretty awesome since it also showed little bits of U2's little traffic stopper through Manhattan, including a shot of the guy who was behind me in line delivering 4 Guinesses to the band.

In addition to the MTV shows, iTunes has the concert EP (4 songs) available for sale at $3.96 and boy, the soundboard has incredible sound quality. I also see where U2 are headed now. They are probably going to put up soundboards from every single concert from their upcoming world tour up for sale on iTunes, thereby opening an entirely new revenue stream for the band. This on top of the constant playing of the Ipod commercial which has sent the album to No:1 status in 24 countries including the U.S. and the U.K. This tie-up with Apple is beginning to make more and more sense to me now, beyond the fact that Bono's New York apartment (the San Remo) was bought from Steve Jobs.

On another note, Dimebag Darell, the lead guitarist of now defunct thrash metal band Pantera (a band I truly hated) was killed in a senseless nightclub shooting in Ohio. Whats eerie about the killing is that it happened exactly 24 years (to the day) after John Lennon was killed by Mark Chapman, another crazed fan.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Futuristic transport system - not so far in the future? 

With transportation woes and environmental concerns both on the rise, this personal transit system appears to be an attempt in the right step. It has even managed to garner interest among governmental agencies (e.g., with the new jersey state! - see link on their webpage). At the bottom of the skywebexpress webpage, you'll find a simple and short demo - check it out.
On the downside, a range of operations and scheduling problems, especially in populated areas, stare straight at you while watching the video; but i am assuming these guys can figure that out.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Mobile Movies 

I remember the time a few years back (around the time of the 3G auction madness in Europe) when everyone was getting ready to watch full-length movies on 3G handsets. This, in turn, was going to drive usage and windfall revenues for the operators. Of course none of this materialised, to the great amusement of skeptics like Andrew and me, and 3G is still enduring birth pangs and will in all likelihood be bypassed by technologies like WiMAX.

Seems like mobile movies might be enjoying a second lease of life. Kinda. Sorta. Not the much touted 3G phones of Europe though, but rather from EDGE-enabled handsets provided by Bharti/Airtel in India. Apparently, Airtel is airing the world's first full-length feature mobile on a phone. And not just any movie, but all 3 hours of a Bollywood movie called “Rok Sako To Rok Lo.”

Besides the obvious novelty value, I really dont see how people can be convinced to watch 3 hour movies (or a shorter Hollywood film) on a tiny mobile phone screen and pay money for the service. Needless to say, I'd also love to see a handset whose batteries can last through the length of a Bollywood movie.

The French court India 

It seems like the French understand the changing geopolitical balance of the world better than most other western powers. Katrin Bennhold reports in the Herald Tribune on how the French have been aggressively courting India and China, though this particular story focusses on India.

Since Chirac visited New Delhi in 1998, France and India have maintained a regular strategic dialogue, with the French leader never failing to mention India as one of the world's multiple poles, along with America, Europe and China. When most of the Western world expressed outrage at India's nuclear testing in May 1998, Chirac's response was distinctly moderate. Last year, he backed India's longstanding ambition to join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member.

But economic ties have not matched the intensity of political sympathy between the two nations, a shortcoming that Loos says he wants to address during his talks in Bombay and New Delhi. As the ninth largest foreign investor in India, France ranks well behind the United States, Britain and Germany. French nonmilitary exports, worth €1 billion, or $1.34 billion, per year, account for only 1.2 percent of Indian imports, a share Loos wants to triple over "the next few years." The figure for total French exports is only slightly higher - 1.4 percent of Indian imports, according to the Indian Commerce Ministry. On the table for discussion are a host of deals across several industrial sectors, most notably a long-awaited sale of 43 Airbus A320 planes, worth about $2 billion, to Indian Airlines, and the sale of six military Scorpene submarines for $2.5 billion.

In some ways, India may become a more important economic partner for France than China in the long run, analysts say. India accounts for 20 percent of world software exports, and some of its high-technology and pharmaceutical companies have become global brands. "India is ahead of China in the sense that it has produced truly global brands," Loos said. "China hasn't." India is unique among developing countries with what Jaffrelot calls an "almost post-industrial" structure: The booming service sector now accounts for half of gross national product, with manufacturing and agriculture each making up a quarter. Ten years ago, the share of services was only 38 percent. With its highly trained, English-speaking work force and sophisticated technological infrastructure, India has some advantages over China. "In the years ahead, India will be more important as a place of scientific research," Jaffrelot said. "If China will be the world's workshop, India will be its laboratory."

Hong Kong Blog 

I'm going to toot my own horn very briefly, but a new site by my students has just gone live at Chatter Garden. It's a site that discusses regional politics and public affiars for HK and China, so I welcome anyone who wants to visit or contribute. It's part of the growing trend of citizen journalism, and this is an attempt to try it for Hong Kong.

My first post is about the story that is hot right now in HK - the demolition of perfectly good, fully built and finished high rise buildings because the developer feels they can get better with even higher buildings built in a luxury style. This was a botched public housing estate, and there is public outcry over the sale of the property and flats for a price below market value, providing perhaps a HK $6 billion (US $800 million) windfall. See for yourself whether this is a scandal.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

MSN Spaces 

What with the Scobleizer blog and the sql junkies blogs, I was wondering when Microsoft would come out with their own public blog service. So, it is finally here. Microsoft is launching MSN Spaces on Thursday. Microsoft might be able to attract some of its established user base and communities from MSN and Hotmail to MSN Spaces, but it remains to be seen how well Microsoft is able to leverage its presence in various other disparate domains from messenging to online music.

Microsoft is closely integrating MSN Spaces with its Messenger and Hotmail programs, with the idea that people will hop from one Microsoft product to another for online communications.

For example, users can set up a system that alerts friends on MSN Messenger when they have updated their Web journals. If a blogger chooses to limit access to his or her Web journal to a select group of guests, those people will need to use Microsoft's "Passport" to log in. The most common way to get a Passport login is to sign up for a Hotmail or Messenger account.


UPDATE : [From Sean Lloyd] It appears that the Terms of Use with MSN Spaces grants Microsoft certain legal rights over your published work. The wording of the terms of use appears to be pretty broad.

For materials you post or otherwise provide to Microsoft related to the MSN Web Sites (a "Submission"), you grant Microsoft permission to (1) use, copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, modify, translate and reformat your Submission, each in connection with the MSN Web Sites, and (2) sublicense these rights, to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law. Microsoft will not pay you for your Submission. Microsoft may remove your Submission at any time. For each Submission, you represent that you have all rights necessary for you to make the grants in this section. To the maximum extent permitted by applicable law, Microsoft may monitor your e-mail, or other electronic communications and may disclose such information in the event it has a good faith reason to believe it is necessary for purposes of ensuring your compliance with this Agreement, and protecting the rights, property, and interests of the Microsoft Parties or any customer of a Microsoft Party.

Microsoft responds that it is "all about granting us the right to post your content and share it out on MSN". It is anybody's guess as to what will happen if they do violate your copyright. Microsoft has not shied away from suing individuals in the past. I, for one, am planning to stay away. From Sean :

I do not plan on putting anything else on my space until this is cleared up, though. I'm a firm believer of being held to what I signed. What I signed says something more than the lawyer accounts for. Better safe than sorry, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Farewell IBM PC 

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that after 23 long years in the business, IBM plans to sell its PC unit to concentrate on higher margin businesses. While its hard to imagine a computer world without the IBM PC, what is even more interesting is who IBM PC's buyer may be. If all the rumours are true, Lenovo Computers of China (formerly Legend) is ready to pony up the $1-2 billion required to complete the purchase.

Lenovo, part owned by the Chinese government, is already the dominant player in the Chinese market, though they have been facing up to increasing competition from HP and Dell. Buying IBM will clearly give Lenovo a greater hold over the world's third (soon to be second) largest PC market. That said, Lenovo still faces a problem with global markets. It has a tiny 2.6% of the world PC market. Buying IBM will give it a 8% share, still well short of Dell and HP. Lenovo also has a brand recognition issue globally, something that the association with the IBM brand may help solve. Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch a major Chinese company muscle its way into the top echelons of the hardware market.

CENTRO - Hong Kong's Cinematic Powerhouse 

You've heard of Pixar, Dreamworks and Industrial Light and Magic by now. Their animation and creative talents have set the trends for much of the Hollywood film industry in the last decade. But now that elite club has an emerging Asian counterpart.

2005 will be a breakout year for one of Hong Kong cinema's big success stories - Centro Digital Pictures. Their latest project with Columbia Pictures, Kung Fu Hustle, is ready and loaded for movie theater release this December. From reactions to initial screenings, this thing is going to pack a whallop. Set in 1940's Shanghai, it's an high octane tribute to chop-shlock kung fu movies and action comedy directed by and starring Stephen Chow, one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong and Asia. Describing Chow to those who have never heard of him is always challenging. Imagine Jim Carrey stirred up with Jackie Chan, the shape of Bruce Lee, a dollup of Robin Williams, and a dash of Moe, Larry and Curly, and you start to get an idea.

So what about Centro Digital Pictures? I visited their offices in Hong Kong's Cyberport, a special high tech facility in the south west corner of the island, to get a first hand look at their creative team. While their "bread and butter" has been CG animation for advertisements and video games, their forays into feature film have been a series of successes. Founder and CEO John Chu is particularly proud of their 1998 film Storm Riders, which was a breakthrough in CG for Hong Kong film and set box office records. Shaolin Soccer was their 2001 megahit with Stephen Chow. The over-the-top special effects combining sport and martial arts were expertly blended by the creative team at Centro. That, and a storyline of Bad News Bears meets Seven Samurai, had audiences mesmerized. And to drive it all home, they also did the special effects for Tarantino's latest tribute to the Shaw Brothers, Kill Bill.

The newest Kung Fu Hustle, says Chu, will be "five times more" in terms of features and intensity. Kung fu film vet Sammo Hung and famed choreagrapher Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) inject a whole new level of martial arts magic. From the trailer they screened to me in their digital HDTV projection theater, audiences should get an exhilirating experience. The offices of Centro look like many other computer graphics animation firms - a large but dim open space with numerous animators at computer workstations. Even though Cyberport has a gorgeous panoramic view of the South China Sea, the windows are all blocked off with curtains in order to create the ambient light conditions of a movie theater. (I guess there's always lunchtime to enjoy the seascape.)

The computer workstations at Centro are covered with miniature action figures, comic books and other objects of creative inspiration. But the interesting thing is that nearly all the talent appears to be local - young, thin, bespectacled and lanky Hong Kong kids. One clutches a pillow like a five year old kid, while she's hunched over the keyboard and digital drawing pad. Another in jeans and black T-shirt slouches back in a zombie-like state in his chair while scrubbing through a series of animation frames of a pink cartoon creature. When I asked animation director Tommy Tom about the prevalence of Hong Kong locals, he said many, like himself, had studied in Canada's film or animation schools. Places such as Sheridan College in Toronto have been a great training ground for Hong Kong's next generation of filmmakers. It's one of the interesting side effects of the 1997 handover, when large waves of Hong Kongers immigrated to Canada, Australia and the US as a hedge on the reversion to China. As an aside, this should convince Hong Kong government, more than anything else, that diversity for Hong Kong's education system and college community is a good thing.

Just this year, Shaolin Soccer was released in the US with English language trailers and a marketing splash. CEO Chu says the reason for the two year delay in releasing it in the U.S. was a confusion over how to present the slapsticky, fast paced movie to Western audiences. American moviegoers have a reputation for hating subtitles. Whether this is a truism or not, is questionable. But overdubbing Stephen Chow's frenetic movie style would certainly ruin the experience as well. This state of limbo will not be a problem for Kung Fu Hustle, since Columbia Pictures has had American audiences in mind from the beginning. While some reviewers have expressed doubts whether all the references will be appreciated by audiences not familiar with the Hong Kong kung fu genre, it will be the biggest stage for Centro. And so far they have only had successes.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Pilgrimage to Trinity, a nice essay at K5 

Do you know what Trinitite is? Well, you're about to find out.

Over at Kuro5hin, freelance writer Roger Williams has crafted a beautiful essay about America's use of atomic bombs in 1945. It is both informative and moving and, as a bonus, it is very well written, and I do mean very (I mention this only because the quality of writing is far above the average for a Kuro5hin article).

Set aside some 20 minutes to read it, and comment freely on this blog.

Interesting electoral statistic 

The Economist points to some of the more interesting numbers that emerged out of the American presidential election.

People worth $1m-10m supported Mr Bush by a 63-37% margin, whereas those worth more than $10m favoured Mr Kerry 59-41%.

What does that translate into? The Republicans are the party of the rich while the Democrats are the party of the super-rich?

What do they know that we don't? 

A friend of mine got this amended contract in the mail from State Farm, the giant insurance company.

There is no coverage for bodily injury resulting from:
A. Nuclear Reaction
B. Radiation or Radioactive Contamination from any source
C. Any accidental or intentional detonation of any Nuclear or Radioactive device.


As my friend said, what does State Farm know that we don't? Or is this just a standard clause these days?

Mobile VoIP? 

Via Slashdot, I found Xcelis, a company that offers unlimited calling on your mobile phone within the U.S. and Canada. Very briefly, you pay $9.99 per month for the package and depending on your carrier, you call a designated number which gives you a new dial tone. Any call you then make is then routed over the Internet or over POTS. Sounds great so far.

Why would you use this service though? It seems like you already need a service provider to access this service and most providers in the U.S. provide with you X minutes for unlimited calling. So, if you already have unlimited calling, why would you use this service? Okay, it makes sense if you have a pre-paid card, which you can buy for as little as $10 and is valid for a year. You can then use the Xcelis plan on top of a pre-paid card, I presume. However, since most subscribers in the U.S. use calling plans, I fail to understand the target market. I imagine you would also have to pay for incoming minutes since there is no way to get to your specific phone unless of course you change your number.

Anyone use this service at all? Am I missing something here? Will cell phone companies beat this challenge off by simply increasing the number of minutes on each plan?

UPDATE: From their FAQ -- "To use this service you MUST make sure that you have unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling activated on your wireless service calling plan." Errrmmm, whats the point then? To call landlines?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Year of the Blog 

The BBC has an article today that announces that the word 'blog' has been picked as a top term for 2004. The article goes through various blog-based statistics, Merriam-Websters definition of the term - "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks" (interesting, that last one...), and closes with what might someday prove to be a key socio-technical phenomenon: "In many repressive regimes and developing nations, blogs have been embraced by millions of people keen to give their plight a voice".

Quote du Jour 

Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum (I think that I think, therefore I think that I am) -- who else, but Ambrose Bierce.