Archive for the ‘Encounters around the world’ Category

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull & Profoundly Unfair Exam

Monday, March 14th, 2016

(originally published on March 14 2016 in;

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe

United States
TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe
March 13, 2016 • 10:00 PM

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“Who is Alicia Keys?” Amina’s voice over the Viber connection to Afghanistan was faint but her puzzlement was clear. I didn’t think I was going to have to give lessons on American pop culture when I set out to tutor Amina, 16, and her brother Ahmad, 17, for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Truth was, I didn’t know much about Alicia Keys either, and that hadn’t interfered with my life so far.

I’d met Amina and Ahmad in their home town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan in 2002, when they were 3 and 4 years old. We took to each other from the start. And I kept visiting their family—and staying in their big family compound—at least once a year up until 2011. For most of that time, Afghanistan in general and Mazar in particular seemed to be on an upward path.

Amina and Ahmad both go to the local Afghan-Turk High School—run by the Turkish Gulenist movement and rather peculiar but the best option among the not very impressive selection of local private schools. Everything was going well for Amina and Ahmad until this year, when the Afghan government began what looks like a meltdown. This summer, the girls’ Afghan-Turk school received Taliban death threats, and the Taliban’s success in capturing Kunduz briefly this fall didn’t bode well for Mazar, just 100 miles away. So, this fall Amina and Ahmad’s parents asked me to help them apply to boarding school in the United States.

To apply to American boarding school or college, foreign students must take an English language test, usually instead of the PSAT or SAT. For all the boarding schools we were interested in (and for the vast majority of colleges) the TOEFL is required. While there are TOEFL junior and primary tests for ages 11+ and 8+ respectively, the TOEFL iBT, or Internet-based test, which Amina and Ahmad will take, is suggested for “16+”. They will be competing with students five or 10 years older—they are lucky enough to attend a local TOEFL prep course, and the other students are at the local university. The TOEFL IBT takes four and a half hours and incorporates reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections.

I’d assumed Amina and Ahmad would have a tough time with the TOEFL, as they have little experience with English. Uzbek, a Turkic language, is their home language. Dari—a dialect of Farsi and, along with Pashtu, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan—is what they speak outside the house. Turkish is the second language of their high school. They also study Pashtu in school, as it’s obligatory for Afghan students to study both Dari and Pashtu. But not English. So, I was prepared for an uphill battle to improve Amina and Ahmad’s English. And I adjusted to the fact that the Internet is slow in Mazar, and it takes a long time to download files or refresh a screen.

What I didn’t expect was the esoteric cultural content embedded in the test. In three months of working an hour a day with Ahmad and Amina, seven days a week, I’ve come to see the TOEFL as almost always dull and often profoundly unfair to students from the more remote parts of the developing world.


Alicia Keys came up in a practice reading selection on the Empire State Building’s switch to LED lights—an event which wasn’t exactly of earth-shattering importance for me or anyone else I know in New York. “What does Alicia Keys suggest the Empire State building is a symbol of?” the question asked. The explanation involved my explaining to the Afghan siblings why New York is called “The Empire State.” Another question about the lighting of the Empire State Building referred to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This also puzzled the young Afghans, as this isn’t a car available in Afghanistan.

It also took a lot of work—and I mean, a lot—to explain the worldview embodied in the test. Two of the 10 questions in the Empire State Building selection focused on the environmental effects of the building’s shift to LED lights, using the phrases “to become more green” and “environmentally conscious,” which make no intuitive sense to non-English speakers from the developing world. For those who live in a largely pre-industrial society like Amina and Ahmad, getting electricity is a much more familiar concern than saving it. (Viber makes our sessions possible even when the city power is down.)

The TOEFL, I came to see, is less a test of proficiency in the English language than it is a test of students’ familiarity with fashionable American media and pop culture references and with current topics like global warming and the greenhouse effect. For instance, the Empire State Building passage includes this:

The LED system has “16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes,” says Phil O’Donnell, of Burlington, Mass.-based Philips Color Kinetics that’s responsible for the system and worked with a resident lighting designer. It’s the sum of all possibilities – a huge palette.

While it is possible to imagine the person for whom this kind of breathless virtue-signaling might be a source of near-physical pleasure, it is hard to argue that properly parsing word-combinations like “ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes” is crucial for academic success in America. While I was trying to teach Ahmad and Amina grammar, vocabulary, and test smarts—read the first paragraph and the last, then look at the questions to see how many you can answer and what you need to attend to as you read the rest—what I couldn’t teach were dozens of references to things, places, and experiences that Afghans have no acquaintance with.

An internationally famous ballerina, Maria Tallchief, demonstrated that the quality of ballet in North America could equal those of the ballet in Europe.

If you don’t know whether a ballerina is a scientist or a dancer, or that the words “ballerina” and “ballet” are related, how are you supposed to answer the question?

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the behemoth that runs the TOEFL, insists that cultural context has little to do with the accuracy of the test. ETS’ Manager of Public Relations, Allyson Norton, emailed answers to my questions about cultural context. She responded,

One of the key principles of passage selection is that the passage needs to stand alone, meaning no prior knowledge is needed to understand the passage. … Further, background knowledge of content within test passages does not significantly impact scores.

But is it realistic to think that students who have no background knowledge on any question, like Ahmad and Amina, generally do as well as, say, test takers from a European country?

Norton sent me an internal study that showed that:

reading passages were neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to those who had physical science backgrounds or were familiar with a certain culture, and this holds for both the lower and higher proficiency groups.

The paper that Norton sent me referred to two types of mental processing used in reading comprehension, top down and bottom up. Both are used in most reading. Those who rely too heavily on top down, context-based understanding may make errors. But Norton also sent me a document that proves my main point: a country-by-country breakdown of average scores on the TOEFL’s four parts. There is a clear correlation between countries that are poor, isolated, and less linked to the world economy and countries with low average TOEFL scores. No surprise, Afghanistan ranks near the bottom with an average score of 69 out of a possible 120.

The rankings are fascinating. It’s no surprise that Equatorial Guinea stands dead last at 59, but Saudi Arabia is also at 59. Meanwhile Israel is 93, just two points below English-speaking New Zealand, and the highest scores belong to Austria and English-speaking Northern Ireland tied at 100. So, what are these tests actually measuring?

As the variation in country scores suggests, the common-sense hypothesis that success on the TOEFL is correlated with coming from a richer, more developed, more globalized country is true. The TOEFL tests cultural knowing-ness as much as it tests English skills. Of course, there’s a correlation there, too: If your English is really good, chances are you spend time on English language websites, listen to English language songs, watch English language movies, and so on.

The research also shows that test takers who are applying to high school have the highest average scores, higher than applicants to graduate or professional schools. My hypothesis is that apart from anomalies like Ahmad and Amina, most foreign teens who apply to boarding school in the United States are from rich, sophisticated families who have sent their children to excellent schools where they are immersed in American culture.

There’s also another issue, which has nothing to do with cultural literacy. Many of the TOEFL reading selections are simply deadly dull. Some are poorly written, vague, and confusing; others are clear but concern subject matter like geology that would get very few page views if posted on an online news site. I can understand that graduate-student test takers ought to be ready to tackle tedious material—adults often have to read boring articles for work. But why is this necessary for teenagers applying to high school? Why not pick excerpts from famous speeches by Churchill or Lincoln? How about some easy English poetry? When I asked Amina and Ahmad to read some poems by Robert Frost, they were much more interested than in anything the TOEFL practice tests have put before them.

Ironically, though there is not much to say in favor of the Afghan school system, public or private—they don’t teach evolution, for instance; and brutal physical punishment, though officially prohibited, is not uncommon—Afghan students know well the glories of Persian literature. They study the great Persian (and Pashtu) poets. Ahmad and Amina have memorized poetry in Farsi and Turkish (the most celebrated Afghan poet, Rumi, also wrote in Turkish). It’s sad that nothing they have encountered in prepping for the TOEFL has given them a hint that English is a powerful, economical, and supple language that has produced libraries full of magnificent novels, essays, and poetry.

Playing to Our Strengths (the USS Georgia)

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

originally published in The Weekly Standard, 12/21/2015
MAGAZINE: From the December 21 Issue
Playing to Our Strengths
A visit to an Ohio-class submarine redesigned for counterterrorism

Dec 21, 2015 | By Ann Marlowe

Key West

It’s one thing to read debates about Navy budget decisions and the aging of our submarine fleet, and quite another to visit one of our 71 submarines and see what the fuss is about. This November, I spent 24 hours on the USS Georgia—one of four Ohio-class subs redesigned in 2004 for counterterrorism, with Tomahawk cruise missiles replacing nuclear warheads and some missile silos retrofitted as lockout chambers to allow Navy SEALs to exit in combat zones. I came away with a profound respect for the submarine culture.

Many of my expectations were wrong. Happily, I didn’t feel claustrophobic for a minute. In fact, being on the 560-foot-long Georgia was blissful compared with getting on, which involved a rough trip of about an hour off Key West on a “rigid inflatable boat” out to the surfaced sub, then a short scramble up a well-worn rope-and-wood ladder. Topside, you’ve got 18,750 metric tons beneath you, and it feels very stable indeed.

Public affairs officer Lieutenant Lily Hinz (who accompanied me on my visit) and I descended from topside through a hatchway about 20 feet down a narrow fixed metal ladder in what’s called the port lockout chamber (another former missile silo). We were led to our bunkroom: very compact, but not much tighter than a sleeping compartment on a train. Down the hall was the “head” with two stalls and a shower; a sign on the door could be shifted from “Male” to “Female.” The ceilings hold a jungle of wires, cables, and pipes, but the Georgia’s faux wood paneling and speckled tan linoleum tiles reflect its 1979 vintage.

Then we climbed up a longer internal ladder to the cockpit, where the officer of the deck leads the ship when on the surface. This is part of the bridge—the area that includes the Ohio-class sub’s two periscopes, one visual and one digital. Captain David Adams and Lt. J.G. Jake Christianson were standing on the top, on what’s called the sail, tethered to the periscope tower. A junior officer, Ensign Laura Wainikainen, was getting certified for a “man overboard” recovery. Ensign Wainikainen would be directing the crew in the control room below to stop the submarine and reverse course to enable recovery of the “man” (a foil-covered box). This was accomplished in about 15 minutes in rough seas.

I was able to visit the Georgia because she was certifying for combat readiness, and boats were going out to her almost daily, bringing SEALs and others involved in training. I saw some drills that did look claustrophobic: A group of SEAL divers spent hours in a lockout chamber and then entered a tiny sub, called a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV), that was playing damaged. The SDV holds six divers, submerged in water, breathing from air tanks. Again, the crew had to turn the Georgia abruptly to find and lasso the SDV.

Ohio-class subs are facing mass retirement now, just as military budgets are under pressure. Their estimated useful life has been extended 10 years, to 40 years, because the Navy’s ship-building budget is $17 billion a year, and building one Ohio-class sub is estimated to cost $7 billion.

This sounds ridiculous, until you see what a complex, profoundly unnatural ecosystem such a sub is. To put the cost in perspective, the $25 billion the United States spent training and equipping Iraqi troops who ran away from the fight would have bought three new Ohio-class submarines. The argument can be made that putting more of our military budget into technology and less into training dubious foreign fighters is a vote not only for American industrial might and innovation but for American military culture. In fact, the Navy is arguing for a special budget just for the Ohio-class replacements.
The USS Georgia arrives at Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Martinez)

Adams points out that the more reluctant the United States is to commit boots on the ground, the more sense it makes to rely on precision-guided missiles and on special forces delivered from stealthy platforms like the retrofitted Ohio-class subs. The Georgia’s sister ship, the Florida, fired more than 100 Tomahawks on March 19, 2011, at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. These took down some of Qaddafi’s air defenses.

“Our advantage is massive underseas,” Adams says. “We can take on anyone, though China has a lot of good subs and is gaining. Why not play to our strengths?”

The Georgia will be deploying in the general direction of the Middle East this spring, relieving the Ohio-class USS Florida, with which she rotates deployments, and she could well be used to support U.S. operations against the Islamic State.

Besides us, only the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and India have nuclear-powered submarines. Our new nuclear submarines don’t have to refuel during their estimated life of 30 years; conventional diesel-and-battery-powered submarines must keep returning to the surface for oxygen, limiting their ability to stay at depths where they can lurk undetected.

Submarines are zero-tolerance-for-error workspaces. As Adams put it, “The people are the platform. One man can kill all of us here by making a mistake.” (The United States hasn’t lost a submarine since 1968, when the USS Scorpion suddenly disappeared in the Atlantic under circumstances that remain unclear.)

So it makes sense that submariners are a tiny elite, just 6 percent of the Navy, 20,500 people in all including 2,500 officers. You have to be in the top half of your Annapolis class to apply for billets on submarines or nuclear surface ships, that is, aircraft carriers. You also must be interviewed in person by the top sub officer, a four-star admiral. There’s no other service where this is the case.

After commissioning, whether through Annapolis, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, all officers go through six months of Naval Nuclear Power School and Naval Nuclear Prototype School to learn to run the nuclear reactors, then a three-month Submarine Officer Basic Course in Groton, Connecticut, to learn to drive the ship. So they have 15 months of graduate school before they even deploy on a sub.

Ohio-class subs have two separate 160-person crews, “blue” and “gold,” which spell each other so that the sub can spend as much time as possible deployed. The crew I met, the blue crew, will leave the Georgia in early December and return to Kings Bay, Georgia—the home port of the Georgia and Florida—for training, while the gold crew takes the sub to its next deployment, usually about six months. After that, the blue crew will take over again. Since the Florida can’t come home until the Georgia relieves it, pressure was on the Georgia blue crew to certify as combat-ready as soon as possible.

Unlike the Army’s brigade combat teams, where enlisted personnel, NCOs, and officers deploy as a unit, submarine officers rotate on and off (in groups) every six months or so, while the enlisted sailors and chief petty officers (“chiefs”) may remain attached to the same submarine for five or six years. Sub officers serve three years on a submarine, then two to three years off, then three years on. This puts a premium on a unified culture throughout the submarine service, so that everyone can quickly find his or her place—and it attracts the kind of people who have no sharp edges.

Every submariner I interviewed on the Georgia said that the main reason he or she applied for the submarine service was the caliber of people.

Lieutenant Emma McCarthy, a 2011 Naval Academy grad and the Georgia’s strike officer, has been on the Georgia for three years.

“[Submariners] held themselves to a very high standard,” she said. “For me it was either Marine Corps or submarines, and in 2010 the first group of women were authorized to be on submarines. I had an engineering degree, which helps.” She’d only spent one day on a submarine when she made her career choice, but it turned out to be a good fit: McCarthy has won one of four scholarships for graduate study awarded to submarine officers annually and plans to use it to get an MBA.

As McCarthy took me around, I realized that life aboard is relentlessly disciplined and focused. Copies of Travel + Leisure and Popular Mechanics in the head and two enlisted sailors watching a boxing video for a few minutes in the evening were about it for amusement. I got glimpses of the bunkrooms of the female officers, and they were almost devoid of personal decorative touches, unlike the Army officer tents I’d seen in Afghanistan.

The Georgia is also as close to a social-media-free zone as one finds these days. Underway, subs get communications from shore only every 12 hours. At periscope depth—about 80 feet—the captain can send and receive email, slowly, but when I was on the Georgia it was usually around 200 feet under the surface. (It has an unclassified depth limit of 800 feet.)

So the young people—average age 23—who run the Georgia spend their spare time working their way through loose leaf binder paper manuals explaining every aspect of the operation of a 560-foot-long traveling nuclear reactor carrying up to 154 3,000-pound, 20-foot-long Tomahawk missiles as well as a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant.

The Georgia has four levels and three compartments (engine room, missile compartment or MC, and forward compartment or FC), but you can’t simply walk all the way up or down on one set of ladders or stairs, nor can you walk all the way through any level from bow to stern. This is to prevent fire or flood from spreading. The control room is on the top level, 1L, while the torpedos are on the bottom level, forward compartment, FC4L. Enlisted men bunk in MC3L, and some visiting officers are housed there. Enlisted mess is on FC3L. The captain and second in command bunk on FC2L, as do the female officers.
A Navy diver and member of SEAL Delivery Team 2 train outside the USS Florida, twin sister of the Georgia. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle)

Young officers begin working in the engine room, where standing watch means monitoring machinery. I wasn’t allowed to visit the engine room, which includes the nuclear reactor, but I did get to see the Tomahawk silos in the missile compartment in the center of the sub, with well-maintained pieces of aerobic exercise equipment and weight stations nestled among them. Along the walls of the missile compartment are the enlisted bunkrooms.

Six of the Georgia’s 19 officers are women, and like other Ohio-class subs she will receive her first female enlisted sailors in a year or two. The presence of women on the Georgia seems a nonissue, though there was a flurry of attention when we became the first nation to allow women to serve on nuclear submarines in 2011. The reason, Captain Adams points out, wasn’t to be politically correct, but to deepen the talent pool for this very selective service. To a woman, the six said they had not met with any hostility on the Georgia, though a couple mentioned instructors at the Naval Academy who opposed women’s presence on submarines. Navy women are currently 17 percent of active-duty officers and 18 percent of enlisted. All new ships are built for habitation by both sexes.

While the drills were taking place, most of the officers, even those who were not on watch, converged on the compact control room to follow the action. It takes two crew members just to adjust the ballast, allowing the submarine to go up and down or maintain a level position. Another group steers—this involves monitoring lots of screens. One, a sonar picture of the Georgia’s (and nearby ships’ or large fishes’) passage through the underwater landscape over time, eluded my efforts at understanding. Passive sonar (listening) is the main way the Georgia makes her way around without bumping into the sea floor or surface ships.

I wanted more time to learn more; basic questions were occurring to me just as it was time to leave the ship. (Who cleans the heads? Answer: everyone, including officers. This is called Field Day. Does the crew ever get to go swimming? Answer: Yes, occasionally when the sub is on the surface the captain orders a “swim call,” and people jump off and climb back up on ladders. How does the Georgia get rid of trash? Answer: They shoot it into the sea, except plastics, which are recycled. Do submariners still adhere to the traditional naval sleep schedule of 6 hours on watch, 12 hours off, where you rotate your sleep times? Answer: No, the Navy recently moved to a watch schedule where each man goes to sleep around the same time every night, though there are still three different watches.)

I left wishing more people had the chance to visit a submarine. A complex, thriving system like the Georgia inspires respect not just for the Navy but for American culture, with its rigorous standards, openness to newcomers, and commitment to teamwork.

My Libyan Friend Didn’t Have to Die

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

(originally published in The Daily Beast, 4/21/2015

The corruption and incompetence of Libya’s “leaders” and the world community has spawned a massive migrant flow into the deadly Mediterranean—and killed my young friend.

My friend Ahmed was killed Monday in Sabratha, Libya, at the age of 22. To most Libyans, this fact would hardly raise an eyebrow; they have become so used to youthful deaths. Three Libyans I got to know during the 2011 revolution have been killed in the last year, but Ahmed was the only one to pick up a gun. The others were assassinated by terrorists in Benghazi.

Ahmed died fighting for what I regard as a terrible cause, on the side of “Fajr Libya,” the Islamist militias who seized Tripoli in August 2014. Most politics in Libya is local, and the people of Sabratha threw in their lot with Fajr. From Ahmed’s standpoint, he was defending his hometown, a picturesque coastal city featuring some of Libya’s most spectacular Roman ruins. It is also one of the ports where migrants are crowded onto boats trying to get to Europe or die, as thousands of them have done. These are the wages of chaos.

Sabratha is a conservative place with a jihadi streak—lots of men from there fought with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and when I visited from time to time in 2011 and 2012, I saw more and more women in full-face veils on the well-groomed streets. But Ahmed wasn’t a political guy. Like other Libyans, and like Americans in our Civil War, he fought on the side of his relatives and neighbors.

This young man’s death is part of a uniquely Libyan tragedy. If the Libyan government hadn’t spent 2012-13 funding every militia in sight to the tune of an estimated $2.6 billion, Ahmed would most likely have chosen a different way of life. But Libyan politicians did fund the militias, fearing that otherwise they’d turn against the government. Even when they did turn against the government, they still paid the fighters.

And Ahmed was a naturally talented soldier. After dropping out of high school to work as a fisherman, he found himself in the revolution. He was an ingenious tinkerer and when I met him in a training camp for Sabratha revolutionaries in July 2011, he was a skinny, shy kid with a big smile who told me he wanted to be an inventor. But he also loved war and was both cunning and a born leader. Just after I met him, he captured seven of Muammar Kaddafi’s soldiers without firing a shot.

After Kaddafi was killed, I introduced Ahmed to a general in the Libyan Army who told him that if he went back to finish high school he would help him get into the military academy. But Ahmed didn’t like school and he was making good money for not much work as a thuwar, or revolutionary. Life isn’t difficult in Libya: housing is cheap, food is cheap, gas is cheap. He was also just 19, high-spirited and ready to enjoy freedom for the first time in his short experience. He loved working on cars, fishing, driving fast on Libya’s empty highways, not worrying about Kaddafi’s police everywhere.

In the fall of 2011 Ahmed took me to see his parents and sisters, who lived in a big house in a palm grove: quiet, respectable people. I think I met his older sister, married with kids. Then, in April 2012, Ahmed was in a terrible car accident in Tunisia. His older, married sister had been killed; Ahmed was in a coma for days. He had been at the wheel, taking her for to visit a doctor as many Libyans do in Tunisia.

The West stood by as Libya committed suicide by militia.

People have choices about how to react to tragedy. Ahmed could have decided to go back to school and devote his life to designing systems to improve car safety. Or persuading Libyans to use seat belts; his sister probably would have survived the accident if she’d been using one, but almost no Libyans do.

Ahmed’s reaction was to plunge into frivolity. When I saw him again in August 2012, he had bought a Jetski with a bonus payment he got for being a revolutionary. But he could barely walk, his legs had been so broken in the car accident. His older sister’s husband re-married just two months after her death, infuriating Ahmed’s younger sister.

Ahmed seemed sad that August. He was a kind and gracious host to me, a very Libyan characteristic, but I didn’t see how he would get over what had happened to his sister, and I also felt angry at him on her behalf.

That was my last trip to Libya. In 2013 I heard Ahmed was going to get medical treatment overseas for his legs. And then I lost touch. I tried calling him a couple of times but his phone didn’t work, which happens a lot in Libya. I hoped his bad legs would keep him out of the civil war.

It seems they didn’t. Ironically, I got in touch with both Ahmed and one of his brothers on Facebook just a day before Ahmed’s death. Ahmed sent me his new Libyan phone number. I was relieved he’d survived so far—and the war was drawing to a close.

When Libyans die, even terribly young, the accepted reaction is to post fatalistic quotations from the Quran on their Facebook page. From God we come and to God we return, and so on. But in the case of most Libyan deaths I know, this fatalism is not in order. Something could have been done. All too many of these deaths are preventable.

Stupid, selfish politicians created the conditions which made fighting the best economic choice available to someone with Ahmed’s inclinations and talents. Ahmed was enough of an outlier not to fit in to Kaddafi’s Libya, and typical enough to fit into the militia culture that followed. And by and large, the West stood by as Libya committed suicide by militia in the last few years.

Things might have gone very differently for Ahmed had there been tech incubators in Sabratha rather than militias. Or a new U.S.-organized military academy with exciting engineering courses. Or if the West had pressured Fajr’s foreign funders, the Qataris and Turks, to stop buying weapons for the militias.

Ahmed was a big-hearted, immature young man in a big-hearted, immature democracy: a run of the mill Libyan tragedy. I miss him.