September 29, 2006

In India, Water Crisis Means Foul Sludge

NEW DELHI, Sept. 28 — The quest for water can drive a woman mad.

Ask Ritu Prasher. Every day, Mrs. Prasher, a homemaker in a middle-class neighborhood of this capital, rises at 6:30 a.m. and begins fretting about water.

It is a rare morning when water trickles through the pipes. More often, not a drop will come. So Mrs. Prasher will have to call a private water tanker, wait for it to show up, call again, wait some more and worry about whether enough buckets are filled in the bathroom in case no water arrives.

"Your whole day goes just planning how you'll get water," a weary Mrs. Prasher, 45, recounted one morning this summer, cellphone in hand and ready to press redial for the water tanker. "You become so edgy all the time."

In the richest city in India, with the nation's economy marching ahead at an enviable clip, middle-class people like Mrs. Prasher are reduced to foraging for water. Their predicament testifies to the government's astonishing inability to deliver the most basic services to its citizens at a time when India asserts itself as a global power.

The crisis, decades in the making, has grown as fast as India in recent years. A soaring population, the warp-speed sprawl of cities, and a vast and thirsty farm belt have all put new strains on a feeble, ill-kept public water and sanitation network.

The combination has left water all too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for millions who are flooded each year. Today the problems threaten India's ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities healthy and habitable. At stake is not only India's economic ambition but its very image as the world's largest democracy.

"If we become rich or poor as a nation, it's because of water," said Sunita Narain, director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

September 21, 2006

If Islam is the religion of peace, it should act like it

I applaud the pope for his refusal to cater to the ridiculous demands by Muslims to recant his innuendo supposedly disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad ["Iraq Al-Qaida sends warning to the pope," Sept. 19].

I have a few questions about the Muslim concept of jihad.

If Muhammad is so powerful, why does he need Muslims everywhere to defend him? Shouldn't he be able to see to his own affairs and not need angry mobs to enforce his will?

If Allah is a god, and all-powerful, let him show the world in a way other than hordes of insurgents burning flags and blowing things up.

Islam would gain a lot more respect in the world if its followers would cease committing random acts of violence and actually begin to practice the "peace" they purport to represent.

Build some schools, generate some jobs, do something good for the world.

My next complaint is the lame argument that says something along the lines of "Islam (the religion of peace) doesn't promote violence; remember Christians are just as violent, and never forget the Crusades." Can we move past then and just look at now?

Muslims all over the globe threaten to start World War III from a cartoon, or the mere mention of something construed as negative against Muhammad.

How many Christian riots were sparked by Madonna doing her crucifix-and-lingerie routine in Rome? None. No violence reported anywhere by those rabid Christian extremists lurking in small towns everywhere.

I personally thought about burning a few tires in my cul-de-sac, but I couldn't fathom the uproar from my HOA.

Can you imagine the ensuing holocaust if Madonna had pulled that stunt posing as Muhammad? Need I say more?

Craig Patton

Spotsylvania

 

Who's afraid of Hugo Chavez?

Latin America, as the late Venezuelan author Carlos Rangel once wrote, has always had a "love-hate relationship" with the US. The love is expressed in its purest form: imitation. The hate -- more akin to resentment -- boils down to a frustrated desire to get Washington's attention.

Cuba's Fidel Castro pulled it off in the 1960s, torturing the Kennedy brothers with his cigar and his Marxism; and now, in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is giving us a rerun. At least, this is the refrain of Nikolas Kozloff, a British-educated American who has written Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Emerging Challenge to the United States.

Kozloff apparently believes that Americans have much to fear from Venezuela. His admiring study of Chavez, an up-by-the-bootstraps lieutenant colonel who tried and failed to take power in a coup and subsequently succeeded at the ballot box, is peppered with phrases like "in an alarming warning sign for George Bush," and, "in an ominous development for [US] policy makers."

From the Ground Up, Cuba Is Crumbling

HAVANA At the intersection of Marina and Jovellar streets, more than 50 people wait along a potholed sidewalk and broken curb for a bus that wheezes up to the stop already full.

Somehow, a dozen or so manage to squeeze into the windowless contraption that dates to the days when Moscow provided much of the means to keep the Cuban economy moving. Today, the buses barely keep Cubans moving. Many people spend as much as two hours each night getting home from their jobs in the center of Havana.


Their homes are also in a sad state, with at least 500 buildings in the capital collapsing each year, by the government's own count. Their utilities are decrepit too: Water and power distribution systems are corroded patchworks predating the 1959 revolution, and olfactory evidence of the state of the sewer system wafts throughout the city.

Cuba is falling apart literally


http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-decay19sep19,0,6418253.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Soyinka lashes Arab League over Darfur

International Affairs Editor

NOBEL prize winning author Wole Soyinka accuses the Arab League of "studied indifference" to the situation in Darfur, Sudan, in a speech to be delivered in Paris today.

In a text prepared for delivery he says the world community has not acted with enough speed and will to prevent atrocities in Darfur.

In the emotional text, he questions why the United Nations (UN) has been able to do nothing in Darfur when it reacted "with speed" to bring about a cease-fire in Lebanon.

Soyinka will make the remarks in an address to the 50th anniversary of the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists. The speech says "it is depressing to observe the studied indifference of the Arab family to the criminality of one of its members, a nation historically placed as a cultural bridge between two races".

"The Arab family," says Soyinka, "has steadfastly refused to call Sudan to order, indeed placed obstacles in the way of sanctions."

The writer says the Jajaweed, the militia accused of waging campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region, are the "arrowhead of a state policy of ethnic cleansing," who have a "naked language of racial incitement" with "claims of race superiority, complemented by the language of contempt and disdain for the indigenous African".

Soyinka says should the African Union's (AU's) peacekeeping mission in Darfur depart, it would be "preparing to abandon the peoples of Darfur, leaving them to the mercy of murdering, raping and burning gospellers of race doctrine".

His speech comes on the eve of a meeting in New York of the AU's Peace and Security Council, which could pave the way for the AU's observer mandate in Sudan to be extended.

It may also provide for assistance for the force from the UN.

Sudan has resisted the conversion of the mission into a UN one, and China and Russia, which have veto rights, have refused to consider more effective action in the Sudan.

Soyinka also points to the ineffectiveness of the UN in the face of the crisis.

"When a deviant branch of that family of nations flouts, indeed revels in the abandonment of, the most basic norms of human decency, is there really justification in evoking the excuse that protocol requires the permission of that same arrogant and defiant entity?"

If the UN were to enter into Sudan, it would require the permission of the government in Khartoum.

Soyinka goes on to say that those who did not stand up against Khartoum would be stigmatised as collaborators.

September 17, 2006

Fortune's Fools: Why the Rich Go Broke

Published: September 17, 2006

GEORGE FOREMAN — bald, smiling and gigantic — is propped atop a stool in Gleason's Gym, the venerable boxing haunt in Brooklyn, watching a videotape of his heavyweight championship bout in 1994 with Michael Moorer.

Mr. Foreman is paid millions to endorse products, but says he does not know his net worth.

Mr. Foreman once devastated opponents with brutal, staccato punches short on artistry and long on force. He disposed of formidable pile drivers like Joe Frazier, traded blows with dangerous magicians like Muhammad Ali, and dropped the undefeated 26-year-old Mr. Moorer in the 10th round with a right to the jaw.

Mr. Foreman was 45 at the time of the Moorer fight, a roly-poly 250-pounder who had just reclaimed the heavyweight mantle that Mr. Ali had snatched from him 20 years earlier. By knocking out Mr. Moorer, Mr. Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion in history and he hailed his victory at the time as one "for all my buddies in the nursing home and all the guys in the jail."

As Mr. Foreman watches the tape of Mr. Moorer crumpling to the mat, part of a boxing retrospective that ESPN is shooting at Gleason's, he beams. "Play that again," he says to no one in particular, softly chuckling to himself. The knockout was the culmination of an unlikely return to the ring that Mr. Foreman staged in his later years, well after he had retired. He has often said that he ended his retirement to prove that nobody is too old for a comeback.

Estonia and the free market

I've heard and read and seen(on dw-tv) about Estonia and its economic miracle, a large part delivered through its shrewd taxation system, the flat tax and corporation tax. Below are a series of links that discuss the baltic tiger.
 
 
Flat tax champion who ignored the economists
 
 
The good side is that ambitious people in Estonia have prospered markedly during the past nine years, the down side is that the weak, the less ambitious, those that plan their lives stupidly or impractically (from the standpoint of making money) have fallen by the wayside. The social net in Estonia has large holes in it, and you can't avoid seeing that many poor people live among the outwardly prosperous majority of Estonians.

Many Finns expected Estonia to build a Social-Democratic style welfare state, and were surprised and to some degree miffed that Estonia, which they wanted to regard as a little brother, chose to model itself after America rather than after Finland. The good side of this is that Helsinki and Tallinn, close as they are, have very different atmospheres and are thus quite fascinating for people who know one but not the other, or who are familiar with both.

What is the status of Finnish/Estonian relations ? Are they warm or cold ?
 
 
 
Can Estonia and Finland span gulf?
 
 
Finland keeping its eye on the new-look Estonia
 
 
 
Pioneer of the 'flat tax' taught the East to thrive
 
 
Lessons of smaller states
 
 
Freedom Flourishes in Former Soviet Satellite Estonia
 
Flat tax: ideas and interest
 

September 15, 2006

Las Vegas in the Arabian Desert

Dubai has sold its soul to globalization like few cities have. A glittering capitalist fantasyland has taken shape at the heart of the Arab world. It's a center of international trade, a holiday paradise and a carnival rolled into one.

High above the Persian Gulf, in Vu's Bar on the fifty-first floor of Dubai's Emirate Towers Hotel, a woman calling herself Nikita drinks pink mai tai cocktails like tap water. She smokes pearl-white Cartier cigarettes. She's moody and irritable -- a thin whore from Kazakhstan at the heart of the strict Islamic world. "Get lost if you don't want me," she says. "You're bad for business, here in my little rat's cage."

Men linger around the tables, locals and vacationers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They're wearing snow-white dishdasha robes and their heads are framed in the traditional kaffiyeh head garb. These are the men who play the moral authority in their families, and then to go out late at night and drink Johnnie Walker Gold Label. They're guzzling sin down greedily, Cuban cigars in hand. Desire for a woman like Nikita flickers in their eyes.

September 14, 2006

No Dearth of Births in This Town

CLOPPENBURG, Germany — Children are scarce in Germany, but not in this farming region of slaughterhouses and churches, where stores close before sunset and there's a baptism every weekend.

Some credit tradition, some God. Some say it's the return of Germans whose families were trapped in the Soviet bloc after World War II. A bit of all these things has made this town the nation's baby machine. But even Cloppenburg's higher-than-average fertility rate will barely sustain its population in coming decades.

 
Germany's birthrate is the lowest in Europe, a continent that is aging faster than any on Earth. Demographers and politicians are studying Cloppenburg's reproductive inclinations in hopes they can be transplanted to other regions. Reversing the downward birth spiral across Europe is crucial: Without more newborns, the ranks of workers will diminish, threatening the public purse and the ideal of social democracy.

Germany had 686,000 births last year, or about half as many as the early 1960s, according to the Office of Federal Statistics. The consequences of that trend are particularly disturbing when compared with the nation's 830,000 deaths in 2005.
 

September 10, 2006

Satellite TV in India

It is only in 2006 that satellite tv has finally made its appearance in India. Dish tv has been in India for a while but it was targeted at rural customers(who being simpletons, are not aware or demand of any intelluctual channels.) This means that customers in urban areas whose tastes are more sophisticated are deprived of viewing options. Tata sky is adverstising its services on tv but it's not really a wise option because it has only 55 channels and it is no different from what the local cable operator provides. I am aware of how prevalent tv dishes are in the US, Iran, europe and other countries. These countries have had satellite tv for a decade or more.
 
The point I'm trying to highlight is how backward India is in this area. Repeated govt intervention against companies who want to bring satellite tv to India has left Indians deprived of viewing options that people in other countries consider a given. I spoke to my local cable tv operator and the tv cable company is not planning to introduce set-top boxes in bangalore without a court order. This is their decision but it is not a wise one because they are unilaterally deciding what the customer wants or not wants. As and when another tv company decides to provide a better package, this cable operator will suffer for its arrogance. And I won't feel pity for them.

Ali Mohammed and 9/11

Today the Nat Geo channel had a feature on al-qaeda terrorist and us army sergeant Ali Mohammed. The program revealed how incompetent the US army, FBI, state dept and the US govt was. Read more about his exploits and doings at these pages. http://www.s-t.com/daily/11-01/11-14-01/a01wn017.htm and http://www.rotten.com/library/bio/crime/terrorists/ali-mohammed/

It baffles the mind that such incompetence can exist within the ranks of the American govt. The govt is instead targeting people like these (
http://brokentooth.livejournal.com/11916.html) instead of keeping an eye on radical muslims in the US.

http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2005/10/jamaat-ul-fuqra-in-virginia-part-1.html
http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2005/11/jamaat-ul-fuqra-in-virginia-part-2.html

Nat Geo Channel's Whitewash of the Ali Mohamed Story

http://news.yahoo.com/s/huffpost/20060829/cm_huffpost/028270

http://www.peterlance.com/plcrit.htm

But that was only half of my story. The other half was the astonishing saga of how the two bin Laden "offices of origin" -- the FBI's New York Office (NYO) and the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the SDNY, allowed Mohamed to operate with impunity for years. How key special agents in the bin Laden Squad (I-49) like Jack Cloonan desperately played catch-up as Mohamed planned the Embassy bombings. How John Zent, Ali's west coast control agent was totally outgunned by him, getting caught up as a material witness in a grisly triple homicide in Fresno in 1992 when he should have been riding herd over the al Qaeda sleeper. How it was Zent who vouched for Ali and got him released from Canadian custody in 1993 - allowing him the freedom to help plan the Blackhawk Down operation and the Embassy bombing plot.
My most astonishing, findings involved Patrick Fitzgerald, the former head of Organized Crime and Terrorism in the SDNY, who had allowed Ali to remain free as early as 1994 even though he named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Day of Terror case. Another of my key findings was that Fitzgerald buried probative evidence of an al Qaeda New York cell in 1996.
Beginning in January 1996 Fitzgerald effectively ran Squad I-49, but I learned that despite wiretaps on the key cell members and hard evidence in 1997 that Ali Mohamed (an FBI informant) was a major player in the Embassy bombing plot - he allowed him to remain free.
Most shocking were two face to face meetings Fitzgerald had with Mohamed in 1997. After the first meeting in April "Fitzie," as Cloonan called him, declared Ali "the most dangerous man" he'd "ever met" and announced that "we cannot let this man out on the street."
But Fitzgerald did, even though in October of 1997 Ali told him that he loved bin Laden and didn't need a fatwa to declare war against the U.S. where he'd become a naturalized citizen. Fitzgerald had convicted blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and 9 others for seditious conspiracy two years earlier, yet he permitted Mohamed to operate in the open and didn't arrest him until after the simultaneous truck bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7th, 1998 which followed Ali Mohamed's 1993 surveillance with surgical precision.
Fitzgerald and Cloonan then took more than 18 months to get a plea bargain out of Mohamed, who never truly betrayed al Qaeda. They kept him in Manhattan Federal jail for 9 months on a John Doe warrant for fear the media would get wind of their negligence and actually prevented him from testifying in the Embassy bombing trial in 2001 because of the embarrassment that cross-examination of Mohamed would cause the Bureau and the Justice Department which had allowed bin Laden's top spy to work as an FBI informant. Worse, while they had Ali in custody for three years, Fitzgerald and Cloonan failed to extract the 9/11 plot from him, even though they knew that the plot had commenced in 1994 in Manila, almost four years before Ali's capture. As the man who had lived with bin Laden and personally trained his security detail, Mohamed knew every twist and turn of it. Within days of 9/11 Cloonan rushed backed from Yemen and interviewed Ali, whom the Feds had allowed to slip into witness protection, and demanded to know the details of the plot. At that point Ali wrote it all out - including details of how he'd counseled would-be hijackers on how to smuggle box cutters on board aircraft and where to sit, to effect the airline seizures. In effect, my telling of the Ali Mohamed story holds Cloonan, Fitzgerald and a host of other key Feds responsible for not stopping the 1998 Embassy bombings or the 9/11 plot.
And yet not a word of that story showed up in the two-hour documentary entitled "Triple Cross: Bin Laden's spy in America" which aired Monday night on the Nat Geo Channel. Why? Because Nat Geo allowed Jack Cloonan to become the effective "narrator" of the film. He never once suggested that Fitzgerald was in any way at fault. He never mentioned how Fitzie had failed to keep Ali off the street. Nor did Cloonan name John Zent, Ali's hapless California "control" agent, who was snookered by him for years.How did this happen? In June, in the midst of script writing the doc of which I was to be the principal narrator, executive producer and editorial voice, the Nat Geo Channel and Towers Productions knuckled under to Cloonan and two other key Feds: former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White and former NYO Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator Det. Tommy Corrigan.
My contract with Towers stipulated that I was to get all interview transcripts immediately after on-camera shoots in order to incorporate the details in the book's manuscript - Yet these three ex Feds demanded that Nat Geo keep the research from me and they simply acquiesced.
I couldn't go on camera to narrate the doc without these key interviews, so NGC cut me out of the production and post production process - even refusing to send me a rough cut of the doc for fact-checking unless I signed a non-disparagement agreement.
All of this is documented in a series of letters between me and Nat Geo Channel executives contained (along with the January 2006 treatment) in a press release on
my website.
In effect, NGC ended up replacing me with Jack Cloonan, one of the very Feds that my research had found grossly negligent. Cloonan had two and a half years from January 1996 to August 1998 to build a file on Ali and interdict the Embassy plot and yet, despite evidence from I-49's own files of Ali's direct links to senior Embassy plotters, Cloonan, Fitzgerald and other top Feds failed to detect the plot.
In February of 2001, Fitzgerald went on to prosecute three relatively peripheral players in the plot and cemented his reputation by convicting them of an act of terror that his own "bin Laden squad" had failed to prevent. The fourth operative, Wadih El-Hage had been on the FBI's radar since 1991. Ali Mohamed had stayed in his Kenyan home in the mid 90's as they plotted the bombings. Another agent in Fitzie's squad Dan Coleman, had searched El-Hage's home a year before the bombings and found direct links to Ali Mohamed and yet Fitzgerald failed to connect the dots.
But the viewers of TRIPLE CROSS - the Nat Geo documentary on Monday night never saw any of this evidence critical of the Feds because Nat Geo Channel, allowed the story of FBI failures in the Ali Mohamed case to be told from the Bureau's point of view. It was like doing Schindler's List from Hitler's perspective.
The casualty of all of this was the truth - and under the guise of a documentary which Nat Geo Channel claimed was "based in part" on my book, they perpetrated a factual distortion unknown in the recent history of broadcast journalism.
Why does any of it matter and why is this not simply a case of a disgruntled writer, unhappy at a television adaptation of his work? Because going in, the Nat Geo Channel bought a documentary from a five-time Emmy winning reporter that, once and for all, would expose the negligence of the Dept. of Justice on the road to 9/11. See the treatment that they green lit. It's at the end of the August 27th, 2006 press release.
This matters because key Feds who covered-up probative al Qaeda intelligence in 1996 remain in senior positions at Justice. Fitzgerald is U.S. Attorney for Chicago and Special Prosecutor in the CIA leak case. Valerie Caproni, who supported Fitzgerald's 1996 burial of evidence of an active al Qaeda cell in New York, is now the FBI's general counsel.
Most importantly, as I discovered after five years of research, the FBI has failed to reform post 9/11. After more than $600 million spent on an updated computer system to track bin Laden, they have scrapped the "virtual case file" system and FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress in 2005 that it will be 2009 before they have the same ability to connect the dots that most Americans have using Google and other search engines.
Just months ago it was reported that many agents in the FBI's flagship "bin Laden" New York office didn't even have access to e-mail - while al Qaeda remains a tightly organized threat. Further, as I report in TRIPLE CROSS (the book) Dietrich Snell, a key SDNY prosecutor who served with Fitzgerald, covered up crucial evidence of FBI negligence before the 9/11 Commission and flushed key links between al Qaeda and the New York cell of blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman that were turned-up in the year 2000 by the Army's Operation Able Danger. Monday night's documentary gave lip service to the tragic Ali Mohamed story but failed to provide a single word of critical analysis to help viewers understand what a disservice Feds like Cloonan and Fitzgerald did to this country in causing citizens to rely on the Justice Department to protect them, while they were continually outgunned by bin Laden's #1 spy.
When my book comes out I'll connect those dots and set the record straight. But for those viewers who thought that they got the truth on Ali Mohamed from the Nat Geo Channel, I can assure them, as the principal investigative reporter to uncover his story, what they got was a whitewash.
Contact: Peter Lance:
http://www.peterlance.com

Another 9/11 Coverup in the Making?

http://www.alternet.org/story/40693/

Despite the best efforts of the Pentagon to keep the lid on, the story of Able Danger -- the controversial secret military intelligence program that purportedly identified five active al-Qaeda cells and four of the 9/11 hijackers more than a year before the worst terror attacks ever on American soil -- continues to make news.
The latest wrinkle is a nasty public spat between the National Geographic Channel, which plans to broadcast "Triple Cross: Bin Laden's Spy in America" on Aug. 28, and author Peter Lance, whose new book forms the basis of the documentary.
Lance is an Emmy-winning former reporter-producer for ABC News. His book, "
Triple Cross," which will be released in September, accuses law enforcement officials of negligence in tracking down Ali Mohamed, an alleged al-Qaeda agent in the United States for years before Sept. 11. The book says Mohamed was hired by the CIA and worked for the FBI, all the while providing information to the terrorists. The book also contains, according to Lance, "a major new insight" into why the Pentagon killed the Able Danger operation in April 2000.

Make your own conclusions.

September 3, 2006

The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman

This was the sum of Hilario Guzman's ledger as he walked into the grape fields on the morning of his death.

$6,700 to the coyote who smuggled him and his family over.

$2,000 to the bandits who robbed them along the border.

$350 a month to rent a tin shack in the San Joaquin Valley.

$400 a month to feed four children with another baby on the way.

*

He had a job that paid 20 cents for every tray of Thompson grapes he picked and laid out in the 105-degree sun to make raisins. In the two harvests since the family left Oaxaca in the spring of 2003, he had never made the minimum wage, never picked more than 250 trays, $50, in a 10-hour day.

That September morning, with a fruit tub in one hand and a sharp curved blade in the other, he cut enough bunches to make 10 trays, and then he vanished. No one saw the Triqui Indian leave, not the crew boss who thought he saw everything or the men and women picking in their delirious states. He didn't tell them that his baby son, Geronimo, the one born on the right side of the border, had been sick for weeks. He didn't tell them he had been drinking all night and woke up drunk. Later they would hear the story that he went straight from the vineyard to a liquor store near Fresno and drank some more. He must have nodded off halfway home because on Jensen Avenue, just past the crematory where the dairies send their used-up Holsteins to become chicken feed, his '93 Ford Escort began to veer, first to the vineyard on his right and then to the alfalfa field on his left. He tried to slow down but the car hit a dirt embankment, bucked and flipped, and he flew out the window and through the air, landing on his head.

The police found his pregnant wife, Veronica, in a lopsided trailer deep in the vineyards. After they convinced her that they had come not because of her complaints of wild dogs but because a man named Hilario Guzman, 32, the same one in the photo, was dead, she tried to remember everything about the previous 24 hours. She could remember only that he had picked up medicine for the baby the night before and lingered strangely on the child that morning. "Geronimo was feeling better, doing better, and Hilario stood over him and began to speak," she recalled. "He told him, 'You are going to be responsible someday. You are going to be the man of the house. The man of the house,' he said. Then he took his lunch and water and left for work."

 

September 2, 2006

Shanghai by Bike

THE FIRST MORNING I WAS IN SHANGHAI, CHINA, I was awakened at 4:45 by an explosion in the alley just outside my hotel. Naturally, I ran to the window and looked out, filled with those keen fears common to travelers: Were there, like, terrorists here? In my research beforehand, had I overlooked some local guerrilla war?

The explosions kept coming--bam! bam! bam!--followed by a few smaller, sprightlier pops. In time, groggily, I remembered that the Chinese have a tradition of celebrating the launch of new businesses by setting off firecrackers.

I stood there listening, and eventually I saw something emerge from the billowing smoke: a man on a bicycle. He was riding slowly and unperturbed, his posture erect, as a small package rattled in his handlebar basket. A moment later, there were more cyclists: a guy talking on a cell phone, an old woman, and a workman in a hard hat with a cardboard box strapped to his rack. They all glided quietly out of the smoke through the rain-glistening streets.

The sight stirred a certain joy in my heart, for I had come to China with a manila folder crammed with bad news: In a country long celebrated as a kingdom of bicycles, this noble and practical form of transport was, it seemed, quickly becoming a relic, a victim of China's march toward prosperity. According to the news clips, China was racing to emulate the transportation schemes of the most ill-planned U.S. cities--Houston, say, or Los Angeles. It was spending $40 billion each year to construct what would be, in 2008, the world's most extensive interstate-highway system. The state-owned Shanghai Auto Industry Corporation, recently allied in a joint venture with General Motors, now employs 65,000 people.

In 2005, China became the world's second-largest car market, selling nearly 6 million vehicles. Suddenly it was littering its western high deserts with oil pumps and sucking oceans of crude out of Sudan. Meanwhile, Shanghai was cracking down on cyclists, barring them from select vehicle-heavy downtown streets and increasing by tenfold the fines it imposed on two-wheeled lawbreakers. Ridership was way down. While 60 percent of Shanghai's population commuted by bike in 1995, only 27 percent did so in 2000--and the city's power brokers seemed happy about the decline. As one former deputy mayor saw it, "The bicycle is just a reminder of past poverty."