Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Twenty-First Century Alchemical Imagination

Last night, I fell asleep thinking of ethanol (I had been drinking bourbon and had a brief, sleep-threatening panic: what if ethanol demand affects bourbon supply? Cold sweats ensued.)

I woke thinking of a book I’ve been reading – Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (thanks to Ethicurean for the recommendation). Among Grescoe’s principal arguments is the suggestion that eating lower on the oceanic food chain is both safer (it’s in the big, old, meaty fish like tuna that toxins accumulate over time) and smarter. Little, delicious critters – the gently-fished (by international standards) Portuguese sardine, grilled and healthy-oily; the oyster (now 95% farmed, a good thing for oysters and the bodies of water they’re farmed in) – replenish more quickly than the disappearing fish at the top of the food chain and they eat stuff we can’t eat – algae, plankton, and all the other even tinier things at the very bottom of the food chain.

More importantly, however, farming of the bigger fish is threatening to deplete these more plentiful smaller, younger fish faster than would our simply eating them directly, given the desire to raise marketable fish quickly. That short-circuiting of the oceanic feeding cycle – accomplished in order that we can continue to eat fish that are disappearing and take too long to grow big on their own – may mean we wind up with nothing to eat, in the end. But farming species like salmon (DO NOT EAT), steelhead trout, and bluefin tuna requires huge inputs of the smaller fish.

Industrial fishing off the coast of Senegal, Grescoe writes, has reshaped that country’s national dish, thieboudienne, traditionally made with grouper. A ship like “Ireland’s Atlantic Dawn, the largest fishing boat in the world . . . which works off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania, has been known to haul in 400 tonnes of such small fish as horse mackerel and sardines a day” (140). The result? Though the grouper has largely disappeared because of overfishing of both it and the species it eats, and though the Senegalese have “taken to making thieboudienne with sardines” which they have to import in cans back from Europe, sardines themselves are becoming more dear, given that “much of the sardine catch off the coast of West Africa is now being sent to bluefin-tuna-fattening farms in Australia. Concentrated up the food chain, the protein that should be going to feed the world’s poorest countries is ending up in the sushi bars of Los Angeles and Tokyo, in the form of bluefin tuna sashimi” (141).

In other words: we’re not thinking carefully enough about the inputs it takes for the outputs we desire. In fact, we’re quite deliberately not thinking about it at all: it strikes me as a peculiarly 21st century kind of alchemical fantasy: we can drive our cars on ethanol, we can eat farmed bluefin tuna and corn-fed cow, we make plans to bury our carbon dioxide in the ground (tellingly, we're a lot more concerned with how to burn coal cleanly than how to mine it ethically -- who gives a shit where it comes from or what mountain disappeared today?), we can air-condition Phoenix and water its lawns with the Colorado river. We can have what we want – isn't the refrain that Americans shouldn’t have to sacrifice any of their comforts and conveniences? – and not have to pay for it. Ourselves.

Friday, May 30, 2008

How to Profit from Immigration

We've explained this before, but it's worth saying again: if you want to make a lot of really easy money, just imprison you some immigrants. It really works! All's you have to do is pull these people out of the labor force and put them in jail, and then hire different people to look menacing all day.

Who knows how we pay for it? The feds just print more money, I guess, but, also, who cares? It's like, free money, and these people must deserve to be in jail, otherwise they wouldn't be in jail, right? This is moneymaking you can feel good about.

From The Paris News, here's an example of a town run by really smart, forward-thinking people:
CLARKSVILLE — Clarksville could be the site of a secure correctional facility that would provide 600-700 jobs for the Red River County area.

If selected, the City of Clarksville could receive a much needed economic boost from the facility to be built by Emerald Correctional Management, L.L.C.
Emerald! Oooh, good choice! They run a real shitbarn at the edge of my community! When you're trying to profit from the misery of the untenable detention bubble, could you do worse than a privately-held prison company from Louisiana? I mean, these people are deeply committed to cutting every corner they can, so that you can share with them more of every taxpayer dollar! They'll make your town rich. Laissez les bon temps roulez! (Note: Les bon temps have not exactly begun to roule in my little town, several years after the opening of the $25+ million facility, and people have been laid off . . . but any day now, any day, I'm certain we'll see the promised hotels and restaurants and shops).

The genius mayor of Clarksville, Ann Rushing, has this to say:
“Community acceptance and cooperation are vital... If we are selected, the good will definitely outweigh any negative aspects,” Rushing said.

Emerald Correctional Management is an industry leader in private prison management services, correctional health care and programming services for offender populations.
Yes, "the good will definitely outweigh any negative aspects." I envy Rushing her ability to see so, well, definitively into the future of her town. But I know she's right! It's so obvious!

Of course, the mayor didn't say that last part, about what a great company Emerald is -- evidently, the newspaper reporter just "went the extra mile" and did some independent digging into company PR materials. Such ethically responsible journalism is so rare these days.

Friday Evening Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

Angela Carter, in a 1984 London Review of Books review of, among others, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook:
The cook-proprietor of 'Chez Panisse', Alice Waters, says in her Introduction: 'I bought Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking and I cooked everything in it, from beginning to end. I admired her aesthetics of food and wanted a restaurant that had the same feeling as the pictures on the covers of her books.' It seems an unusual desire, to create a restaurant that looks like a book-jacket, and most of the cooks from whom Mrs David originally acquired her recipes would think it even more unusual to learn to cook from a book instead of from Mum. But all this must spring naturally from the kind of second-order experience that lies behind the cult of food. Alice Waters is a girl from New Jersey who earned her culinary stripes by resolutely cooking her way through a compendium of French recipes assembled by an Englishwoman, using ingredients from Northern California and serving them up to the me-generation in a restaurant named after an old movie. The result is a Franco-Californian cuisine of almost ludicrous refinement, in which the simplest item is turned into an object of mystification. A ripe melon, for example, is sought for as if it were a piece of the True Cross. Ms Waters applauds herself on serving one. 'Anyone could have chosen a perfect melon, but unfortunately most people don't take the time or make an effort to choose carefully and understand what that potentially sublime fruit should be.' She talks as if selecting a melon were an existential choice of a kind to leave Jean-Paul Sartre stumped.

Grease Rustler Blues

In my defense, I have always asked for the stuff. And brought my own barrels.

Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

More on Biotech from HTTW

Andrew Leonard, in How the World Works, responding to the Bush administration's call for "science-based regulation" of bioengineered foods:
How the World Works has always thought it unseemly for the U.S. government to act as the bag man for the biotech industry -- it may be excusable for Schafer to slap himself on the back and tout how much food the U.S. is already giving away, but it's a lot less justifiable to propose solutions to the world's food security needs that are really just thinly disguised marketing pitches for American corporations. But that's a story for another day. Right now, I'm still having trouble believing a representative of the Bush administration thinks it is kosher to lecture other nations on the necessity for science-based regulation.

I know what he means: the U.S. position -- again, at the behest of the biotech industry -- is that other nations should not be able to ban genetically modified food products unless they can prove, scientifically, that they post a real danger to human health or the environment. But has there been any other American administration, this century, that has been more dismissive of science, or more brazenly political in its policymaking? The disemboweling of the EPA, the rank politicization of agencies like the Fish & Wildlife Administration, the attempts to crack down on outspoken climate researchers, the repeated efforts to water down climate research ... the list goes on and on and on.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What, Me Shift My Thinking?

From a Dallas Morning News story, "Texas Governor Rick Perry asks College Leaders to Shift Their Thinking,"

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry exhorted state university and college leaders Wednesday to fundamentally alter higher education by shifting how public money is spent, how professors are rewarded and how success is graded.

Mr. Perry spoke to about 60 regents, all of whom he appointed, and touted an accountability system that would basically shift power from tenured faculties and university institutions and put more emphasis on performance, such as demonstrated teaching skills, how much research money is brought in and how many students are taught and graduated.

[ . . . ]

The summit of regents and chancellors was hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank, which invited other speakers and handed out reading materials that suggested great American universities have been blunted by intellectuals and left-leaning doctrine.

That's right. In my spare time, I create my own set of leftist reading materials. You wouldn't believe the damage I can do in a single summer session of English 4309, Advanced Grammar. My lefty colleagues and I have a good laugh at our secret name for the class, Advanced Gramsci! Ha ha! Suckers! They think they're learning about the non-finite verb phrases functioning nominally, but they're actually being indoctrinated!

The NYT is pandering to Phronesisaical, again

It's pretty clear they're looking for Phron readers with titles like "A Tiny Fruit that Tricks the Tongue." Maybe I'm getting old, but I don't think my esophagus is ready for an hour's worth of eating lemons and thinking they're sweet:
They were among 40 or so people who were tasting under the influence of a small red berry called miracle fruit at a rooftop party in Long Island City, Queens, last Friday night. The berry rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so, rendering lemons as sweet as candy.

"shore up the library"

Robert Darnton, in the NYRB, on "The Library in the New Age"

I realize, however, that considerations of "feel" and "smell" may seem to undercut my argument. Most readers care about the text, not the physical medium in which it is embedded; and by indulging my fascination with print and paper, I may expose myself to accusations of romanticizing or of reacting like an old-fashioned, ultra-bookish scholar who wants nothing more than to retreat into a rare book room. I plead guilty. I love rare book rooms, even the kind that make you put on gloves before handling their treasures. Rare book rooms are a vital part of research libraries, the part that is most inaccessible to Google. But libraries also provide places for ordinary readers to immerse themselves in books, quiet places in comfortable settings, where the codex can be appreciated in all its individuality.

In fact, the strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl (the terms vary along with the technology) through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper. No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed page. But the Internet delivers data that can be transformed into a classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out comes a printed and bound volume. Perhaps someday a text on a hand-held screen will please the eye as thoroughly as a page of a codex produced two thousand years ago.

Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don't think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don't count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Open-Source Eating

Shouldn't food be open source?

A few weeks ago, Andrew Leonard, in his Salon-based blog How the World Works, sensed that "Malthus is in the air," writing that rising food prices are, among other things, encouraging folks to rethink their opposition of genetically-modified foods:
Biotech proponents see genetically modified crops as one more weapon in the arsenal of technological productivity enhancers that will enable humanity to continue slipping out of the tightening noose formed by a burgeoning population rapaciously exhausting finite resources. Biotech opponents variously see genetically modified organisms as a crime against nature, a Pandora's Box of ecological catastrophe waiting to happen, and fundamentally dependent on a petroleum-based infrastructure that itself is not sustainable. The tension at play here -- will science save us, or destroy us? -- is an ever-popular theme at How the World Works. The surge in food (and oil) prices is suggesting that a showdown between the opposing camps is far more imminent than might have been suspected, even just a year ago.
The post, in general, is a good one (as much of Leonard's stuff is), but something about the above paragraph struck a sour note. It's that summary of the issues concerning "biotech opponents." They're not represented as particularly enlightened objections; in fact, they're religious. And this seems to be the standard representation -- if not the standard understanding -- of opponents of genetic modifications of foods.

So if it's not for some fear that fish-gene tomatoes are going to result in catastrophic, planetary retribution, what's the problem with the fact that the Bush administration will only give food aid if the recipients are willing to take GMOs along with it? (Even the article linked here, from the Washington Post, reduces the claims of biotech opponents to fears of allergies and environmental issues) The problem is that GMOs are intellectual private property. Though Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland want you to believe that, after decades of poisoning poor Americans (demonstrably the case for the former), they suddenly give a shit about feeding poor people elsewhere? Does anyone believe them?

Have a look at this month's Vanity Fair story on Monsanto, "Harvest of Fear." It's a good piece, a look at Monsanto's approach to "protecting" its intellectual property -- its phalanx of investigators and lawyers threatening farmers (and some non-farmers) who they suspect of planting their GMO seeds without paying for them. This is food-as-intellectual-property, and it scares the hell out of me. We don't need more of this, in more parts of the world.

Seeds should be open-source. I don't care so much about creating weird slimy monsters who will eat our children's brains. I care about shrinking common knowledge of agriculture, about the aggressive concentration of that knowledge into fewer and fewer hands. I don't think I'm alone in that, so why is it that folks opposed to biotech are always cast in the same mob-with-pitchforks light?

The mordita . . .

Guess which state has the highest number of customs and immigration officials being investigated for corruption of various kinds?

The Villarreal investigation is among scores of corruption cases in recent years that have alarmed officials in the Homeland Security Department just as it is hiring thousands of border agents to stem the flow of illegal immigration.

The pattern has become familiar: Customs officers wave in vehicles filled with illegal immigrants, drugs or other contraband. A Border Patrol agent acts as a scout for smugglers. Trusted officers fall prey to temptation and begin taking bribes.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Rose Hips

These Days

Dear Friends,

I'm having surgery tomorrow morning and will be out of commission for at least a few days. The surgery is moderately serious and will require a fair amount of time for rehabilitation. The cause isn't anything life-threatening, but that hasn't prevented me from mulling my mortality the past several days. Pure self-indulgence. It's not easy to face up to the failures of the body (I think I reconciled with my failures of the mind long ago). Nevertheless, in this case, all signs point to a quick and full rehabilitation.

Barba will try to keep some posts coming. If you haven't read his stuff in the past, you're in for a treat. I'll be back in a few days.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bacterial Computers

Ubiwar leads us to this fascinating and somewhat disturbing article on bacteria engineered to do basic computing problems.

Scientists have built the first living computer and tasked it with solving an important problem: flipping pancakes.

Researchers genetically engineered the bacterium E. coli to coax its DNA into computing a classic mathematical puzzle known as the burned pancake problem. Molecules of DNA have the natural ability to store and process information, and scientists have been performing computations with bare DNA molecules in lab dishes since the mid-1990s. But the new research, reported online in the Journal of Biological Engineering, is the first to do DNA computation in living cells.

“Imagine having the parallel processing power of a million computers all in the space of a drop of water,” says Karmella Haynes, a biologist at Davidson College in North Carolina. “It’s possible to do that because cells are so tiny and DNA is so tiny.”

While the potential computational power of programmed bacteria is immense, the DNA-computation system that Haynes and her colleagues designed can only solve problems by flipping and sorting data. It doesn’t have the open-ended computing flexibility of a laptop computer or even a solar-powered calculator, so the bacteria can only handle a limited set of mathematical problems. “We’re not going to have bacteria running iPods just yet,” Haynes says.

Now, re-listen to Computer World.

Waning Days

Ezra Klein has this just right:

Clinton can, and should, finish the campaign. She has come too far at this point to drop out. The issue is the content of her continuing campaign. Were she running on her issues and blasting McCain, most would probably think that a boon -- more free media for Democrats, more focused criticism of McCain. But what Clinton is actually doing is giving wildly misleading speeches trying to poison the well in Michigan and Florida, opportunistically telling the voters of two major states that a decision she supported until it become inconvenient is a reason to believe that Obama and the Party dismiss or seek to repress their votes, and only Clinton cares for their democratic rights. As a message, it's a mixture of toxic lies and scorched earth campaigning. It doesn't help her win the nomination, but it makes the nomination worth a little bit less for the likely nominee.

Put simply, it's her message, not her presence, that's attracting criticism.
For some reason, Clinton supporters don't seem to understand this. The zealotry by which they misunderstand - always mutually supporting - is what is damaging ultimately to both their own longer-term interests and those of Obama supporters.

Prototopological Watershed Map

Via Strange Maps.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Wine Raspberries

Macro-Micro Love

Dani Rodrik thinks that the divisions between macro-economists and micro-economists in development economics is dissipating. In a brief essay discussing, in part, the merits of experimentalist approaches, he concludes,
So my bottom line is that the practice of development economics is at the cusp of a significant opportunity. We have the prospect not only of a re-unification of the field, long divided between macro- and micro-development economists, but also of a progression from presumptive approaches with ready-made universal recipes to diagnostic, contextual approaches based on experimentation and policy innovation. If carried to fruition, this transformation would represent an important advance in how development policy is carried out.

But we need more work. Macro-development economists will have to recognize more explicitly the distinct advantages of the experimental approach and a greater number among them will have to adopt the policy mindset of the randomized evaluation enthusiasts... Micro-development economists, for their part, will have to recognize that one can learn from diverse types of evidence, and that while randomized evaluations are a tremendously useful addition to the empirical toolkit, the utility of the evidence they yield is restricted by the narrow and limited scope of their application.

In the end, macro-development economists have to be humbler about what they already know, and micro-development economists humbler about what they can learn.

It's hard to care about synthesizing trends within the field if you're not an economist. But what is crucial for development policy, since economists have such a heavy hand in such policy, is this trend: "a progression from presumptive approaches with ready-made universal recipes to diagnostic, contextual approaches based on experimentation and policy innovation." The inverse - the orthodox practices and theoretical frameworks, that is - has long been a source of deep frustration for those of us who work on international development issues from other fields or from the ground up. "Development" has come to entail something that did not have to be the case, constructed upon a linear conception of historical progress, and theoretical tools operating far beyond their legitimate bounds of application and accepted as foundational. See this earlier discussion on what I personally think is a more fruitful direction within applied economics.

The Immigration Criminalization Industry

To update the Iowa immigration raid story referred to earlier (see here and here)... and to link it to the immigrant prison stories (see here and here).... The NY Times reports today that 270 of the 389 mostly Guatemalan immigrant workers rounded up in raids in Iowa last week have been sent to prison and sentenced to five months. Quietly intensified criminalization is the direction of US immigration policy.

One missing element in the Times story is where they're being sent. It's worth exploring further, especially in light of Barba's earlier posts.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Via Balloon Juice, here's Hillary Clinton today:

Hillary Clinton today brought up the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy while defending her decision to stay in the race against Barack Obama.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it," she said, dismissing calls to drop out.


"...The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator [Edward] Kennedy and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive. I certainly had no intention of that, whatsoever. My view is that we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and give us a lot to live up to, and I'm honored to hold Senator [Robert] Kennedy's seat in the United States Senate from the state of New York and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family."

Improvement in Burma

At least conditional good news: Junta agreement opens door to more Myanmar aid. This would seem to eliminate the need for considering interventionist approaches.

Skeleton Ball in the Straight Talk Closet

That would be five dumped lobbyists running McCain's "straight talk" campaign, whose handiwork includes stints with Burma's junta and Zimbabwe's Mugabe. Conrad Black is still on the McCain team - his work includes Angola's Jonas Savimbi, Somalia's Mohamed Siad Barre, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Zairean kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko as clients.

That's just the surface. Here's more. And more. And more.

Plus, two dumped pastors as of today: John "Hitler was doing God's work" Hagee and Rod "Let's Destroy Islam" Parsley.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Over and Done With, Dammit

For the past couple of months, I've been geared up for Obama vs. McCain. Now, Terry McAuliffe and Hillary Clinton are still saying that they can pull off a win in the primary. Whaa? Here's how it goes, according to the fine blog with the self-explanatory name, 2008 Democratic Convention Watch:
Option 1: No FL & MI: Pledged Delegate Majority (PDM) Clinched with the Oregon polls closed.
Option 2: Seat MI as 69-59. PDM Clinched with the Oregon polls closed.
Option 3: Seat FL with 1/2 votes (supers get full vote). No Michigan delegates. PDM Clinched with the Oregon polls closed.
Option 4: FL 1/2 vote, MI 69-59 split. PDM Clinched with the Oregon polls closed.
Option 5: Seat FL & MI based on the elections that have taken place. Not clinched tonight.
That is, Clinton has a very slim chance to win only if Florida and Michigan are counted entirely according to Clinton's wishes. (More here on the various scenarios). Recall that Obama was not on the ballot at all in Michigan, and did not campaign in Florida. The Option 5 scenario would hardly be a case of voter enfranchisement, as the Clinton camp is saying. It would be the opposite. No one but a handful in the Clinton camp and pro-Clinton zealots wants this scenario. No one but a few in the Clinton camp and pro-Clinton zealots thinks that such a scenario would be anything other than unmitigated disaster for the party. Obama has now wrapped up the pledged delegates. (And, by the way, the only way Clinton can say she has won the majority of the popular vote is if she includes Florida and Michigan, but also does not include five caucus states. In other words, that claim is a bald lie.).

Fortunately, crack prognosticator Al Giordano reveals,

1. Senator Clinton has made direct and private overtures to Senator Obama regarding the path ahead.

2. Keep your eye on superdelegates, particularly in California, but also elsewhere, that had committed to Senator Clinton, but who are gathering together by the exit sign.


Sullivan cries "shameless!" as he is wont to do. At this point, I can only conclude he's right. It's increasingly difficult to have any whit of respect at all for this woman. Here's Clinton today speaking in Florida,
Now, I know that Senator Obama chose to remove his name from the ballot in Michigan, and that was his right. But his choice does not negate the votes of all those who turned out to cast their ballots, and we should not let our process rob them and all of you of your voices...

I say that not counting Florida and Michigan is changing a central governing rule of this country - that whenever we can understand the clear intent of the voters, their votes should be counted. I remember very well back in 2000, there were those who argued that people's votes should be discounted over technicalities. For the people of Florida who voted in this primary, the notion of discounting their votes sounds way too much of the same.
Sullivan writes,

How do you respond to a sociopath like this? She agreed that Michigan and Florida should be punished for moving up their primaries. Obama took his name off the ballot in deference to their agreement and the rules of the party. That he should now be punished for playing by the rules and she should be rewarded for skirting them is unconscionable.

I think she has now made it very important that Obama not ask her to be the veep. The way she is losing is so ugly, so feckless, so riddled with narcissism and pathology that this kind of person should never be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

I've got to agree. No VP. Today, I'd also say no SCOTUS seat either. No cabinet position. Nothing.

Enough with the blackmail. That's what this is, narcissistic blackmail.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I'm grading papers.... Here's some stuff to read and listen to:

Greenpeace exposes a serious whale meat scandal in Japan. [thanks, YF]

A very beautiful car, a 1961 Ferrari California Spyder, goes for nearly $11 million.

Dennis Perrin wonders about the eerie silence at the recent report on the 1950-51 massacres in Korea. The US was on the side of the mass executioners. See also Chris Floyd on Americans paying attention.

More Errol Morris on the Abu Ghraib photographs.

Great investigative work on the Iowa immigrant raid.

Another piece on the ethics of climate change.

And in the Kentucky primaries today, 20% of voters - nearly all of them white Clinton supporters - say race played a role in their vote.


Some Latin-tinged Pakistani music.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Diplomacy as Diplomacy

From The American Conservative, Daniel Larison does the smackdown (via Sullivan),
Diplomacy is much closer to haggling and pazari than it is to rhetoric. In fact, a good diplomat doesn’t really care whether his opposite number has been persuaded by the virtue of his argument, but is most concerned to know that his opposite number is operating in good faith and will follow through on the bargain that has been reached. There are things that will be non-negotiable for other regimes, just as there are for our own, and part of the art of diplomacy is to make maximal gains towards that limit of the non-negotiable for your side. Or you can pretend that diplomacy has something to do with being nice and yielding to your rivals, as I assume Mr. Bush must believe for him to equate it with appeasement, which is almost the exact opposite of what proper diplomacy is. It doesn’t matter to me that much whether or not Bush was referring to Obama. I think he was, but that isn’t my concern. What concerns me is that idea that Mr. Bush’s style of foreign policy can still be presented as self-evidently right and competent in the face of a mountain of evidence that it is neither.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Young Jackfruit

My Little Empire

I am apparently, unintentionally constructing a city in my dreams. It grows through bits and pieces of detritus from childhood and adult memories of various cities that fall gently like feathers into puzzle places, creating neighborhoods and streets and an evolving overall experience of the place. The city isn't one whole that's gradually coming into view through a mind's-eye lens, but the parts; not from the ground up, adding trees here and a shop there, but as already living, thriving, quarters of a city rich in history. The city is constructed from bits of real places transcribed faithfully by the dreams and also from images of places never visited. Some parts are both: real memories distorted into imaginary pictures. Sometimes a piece of the dream city is not based on the visual appearance of a real city, but rather on a particular area of it reinterpreted through non-visual elements into dream-visual representations. An event, a smell, sounds, complexity or simplicity, the people, a mood, warm nostalgia and urban rawness, food, books, livelihoods are foundations of the visualizing picture.

In separate dreams, I've long revisited the same neighborhoods, fleshing out further details, building more complex histories to them through different experiences. This isn't accomplished through some kind of architectural intentionality, but through walking, and seeing and hearing what appears at and beyond each footstep.

It was only this week, however, that I realized, while walking with a friend in a dream from one Parisian neighborhood into another, that I was also walking from one dream into the separately constructed urban world of another dream, and that that dream neighborhood was connected at its edges to another previous dream neighborhood. In a moment of epiphany in the interior of the dream, I gained the basic contours of a map, a rough picture of north and south, east and west, not of many distinct cities but of one city coming to life.

I may not have yet understood what other parts of the city already exist in previous dreams, but as of this week I do have the initial map composed from the separate dreams.

The first part of the city - although I'm no longer sure there is an original first part - is Italian and Greek and Japanese and Balkan nestled in a hilly landscape. It begins from an elevated Acropolis standpoint in the center of a dry, overcast city, which slopes softly downward on all sides from this point. Here, one has a panoramic view, which I describe with some authoritative familiarity to visiting friends. The subway system converges here and radiates from this point, extending to distant neighborhoods I've never visited. Most immediately, in the heart of the city, there are monumental architectural forms of marble, granite, and limestone. These give way to residential neighborhoods. Towards the south, the subway system ends at an industrial, Osaka port. There are no modern high-rise buildings, only sculpted Italian cypress trees standing over the neighborhoods. This perspective of the city is like looking at a subway map - an elevated position above the concreteness of the city and its daily lives.

The connections between this view and the second part of the city are tenuous. I'll have to await further dreams to clarify the geography, if they're so willing. But two parts of what I now know is the northern part of the city are closely connected. One is busily urban - lights from advertisements mirrored in long rainy avenues, traffic, crowds of people as shoppers, workers, tourists. It is Paris near Opéra or midtown Manhattan or Tokyo's Shinjuku or Seoul,... all of them combined in one buzzing din. As one walks further north, one arrives at the old city, which is a network of narrow Japanese alleys of low wooden structures overhung with wide eaves as shelter from the elements. The shoji doors often have red or saffron paper. These are shops that only local people frequent, and mostly only the older, dying generation. I love this neighborhood deeply precisely because there's so much of it that I don't understand, and I wander here for hours. Here, you can buy bags of rice or supplies for Buddhist ceremonies or vast varieties of salted plums. Each shop is different. Many offer wares or foods that are unrecognizable to my Western eyes and tastes. I want to try so much, but I don't know how to start or even how to ask.

Further north and moving towards the west are neighborhoods where I lived as a youth in Bangkok and Taipei. They appear very different now, but the feeling of the places is similar. My father's work is here, a concrete bureaucratic building given organic form by the mossy black stains from decades of tropical rain. Plants charge out of the gray urban landscape as they're not supposed to do, in their slow, colonizing way. There is a soccer field, brilliant green from a recent downpour. Coconut palms rising from walled compounds seduce the imagination with lush, hidden gardens. Behind the buildings with their official plaques, the embassies and institutions, the mountainside rises in whispering tall grasses before becoming dense jungle.

To the west are the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. More specifically, the antique bookstores at its St. Michel edge. I browse the bookstores for medieval texts on geological activity, wander the narrow stone streets, reemerge somehow at rue Mouffetard. In between, I rest in a sunny square belonging to Amsterdam or Prague, full of pigeons and lovers. One street appears repeatedly. It is part Cairo, part Paris's rue de la Roquette, part medieval Spain. It's an active street of tiny restaurants, bars, and stores. I visit in the daytime and at night. I apparently know this neighborhood well as the people almost always greet me with friendly familiarity. Yet, it also has the mood of disinterested transience that neighborhoods have when they're listed in tourist guides.

The southeastern part of the city is a working class area, famous for its flea markets and bulk goods. The concentrated buildings and activity that comprise the core of the city taper off here. The city is coming to its end. This is outside Budapest, dusty Mediterranean Beirut, the limits of Paris' suburbs, old Tien Mu; its artery is one broad, dusty street of Mexico or East Africa running parallel to the sea. It's an area that, in ten years, will be full of high-rise hotels lining the beach. For now, even without seeing it, one knows the beach is filled with trash and tar. One walks too far here before seeing anything other than dust and drab stores selling commercial cookware or building supplies. But there is the flea market and its endless tarpaulin-covered stalls with gaudy Eastern European trinkets, World War II weapons, and Chinese candies. I am constantly looking for something in the flea market. My mission is carried out with such focus that I lose whoever I'm with at the time. This gives this entire area of the city, to me, an overwhelming sense of loss. I am trying to recover something when I visit this part of the city.

Moving back into the city from the south, one eventually enters a very chic world of beautifully restored stone houses and cobblestone streets, elegant lighting, and Italian gardens. The streets are marked quaintly with signs matched to the architecture, unlike the utilitarian signs elsewhere in the city. High cultural events take place here, glimpsed occasionally through perfectly clear doors of glistening glass. Only the very wealthy live here. Like the working class area to the southeast, no one walks the streets here either, but for very different reasons. It's an extremely pleasant and safe area, but closed off by its residents in response to imagined aggressions. I visit here only in passing. Every time I am in this neighborhood I am meeting someone somewhere else. I always think that I'd like to spend more time here because I have the streets to myself....

I'm not sure when the construction of this city began, but it has been a long time. I love Italo Calvino's book, Invisible Cities, but I haven't opened it since I first read it in the 1980s. In that book, the cities are recounted by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Each individual city is a part of a larger atlas of Kublai's empire. The Venetian's descriptions are ultimately fantastic interpretations by Kublai. They are creating a mythical atlas together. But note this passage at the end of the book as the Great Khan contemplates the waning days of his empire. Marco says,
At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.
Has the book, largely forgotten over more than two decades since reading it, resonated through that twisting parallel world of dreams? Has it bidden its time not as a set of particular descriptions or as generic literary appreciation, but as a secret project I would consciously uncover later in life? And what about the discovery that my landscape is one continuous city rather than many, as I had always thought?

Calvino's passage above hints at Plato's Republic. The Republic is, of course, a foundational masterpiece of political philosophy. In the Platonic craft of dialectical synthesis of content and form, the dialogue's detours into ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology arrive harmoniously in a final, ideal city. The construction of the book is, in fact, the constitution of the ideal city-state, the republic of the title. But since it is a purely ideal city without earthly reality, its constitution has played another Socratic role. Socrates and the young Glaucon have also constituted the nature of the soul through the dialogue. The soul and the ideal city have the same basic structure, and both exist only beyond empirical reality. Socrates has educated Glaucon by constructing the ideal city within Glaucon, in nurturing Glaucon's soul. Could it be that a series of dreams are attempting to reconstruct my own fragmented soul?


From the Washington Post today:

Monday's raid on the Agriprocessors plant, in which 389 immigrants were arrested and many held at a cattle exhibit hall, was the Bush administration's largest crackdown on illegal workers at a single site. It has upended this tree-lined community, which calls itself "Hometown to the World." Half of the school system's 600 students were absent Tuesday, including 90 percent of Hispanic children, because their parents were arrested or in hiding.

Current and former officials of the Department of Homeland Security say its raid on the largest employer in northeast Iowa reflects the administration's decision to put pressure on companies with large numbers of illegal immigrant workers, particularly in the meat industry. But its disruptive impact on the nation's largest supplier of kosher beef and on the surrounding community has provoked renewed criticism that the administration is disproportionately targeting workers instead of employers, and that the resulting turmoil is worse than the underlying crimes.

"They don't go after employers. They don't put CEOs in jail," complained the Postville Community Schools superintendent, David Strudthoff, 51, who said the sudden incarceration of more than 10 percent of the town's population of 2,300 "is like a natural disaster -- only this one is manmade."...

...For now, Postville residents -- immigrants and native-born -- are holding their breath. On Greene Street, where the Hall Roberts' Son Inc. feed store, Kosher Community Grocery and Restaurante Rinconcito Guatemalteco sit side by side, workers fear a chain of empty apartments, falling home prices and business downturns. The main street, punctuated by a single blinking traffic signal, has been quiet; a Guatemalan restaurant temporarily closed; and the storekeeper next door reported a steady trickle of families quietly booking flights to Central America via Chicago.

"Postville will be a ghost town," said Lili, a Ukrainian store clerk who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld....

This isn't a matter of illegal immigrants doing jobs American citizens would otherwise do. It isn't a matter of hardened criminals entering the US. It isn't a matter of national security.

It's a matter of legal categories of proper residency and a matter of the very real human lives of workers. But let's consider the other side of the equation. Driving across the middle United States, the so-called "heartland," you'll find town after town that has been abandoned by previous industries that once essentially established the towns - the steel towns of Pennsylvania, the farming towns of the midwest. Those shifts in economic activity, usually the result of the financial whims of corporate revenue-seeking, have left ghost towns across the US as nearly a matter of national policy. In towns with newer immigrant-hiring industries - usually meat processing plants - there's re-energized economic activity beyond the plants - shops and restaurants and schools and real estate. It's true that in some cases Guatemalan, Mexican, and other immigrants have not been openly welcomed by older residents, but most towns have come to terms with the life-giving activity they bring to them.

Why not, rather than criminalizing immigrants and ignoring the clearly illegal hiring practices of American company owners, build an immigration policy that seeks the best for immigrants and for towns in the US that are otherwise economically and culturally dead? Apart from the racism that seeps into the views of American commentators and is often a subtext of American immigration policy, given that the US has largely allowed its mythical Heartland to die, why not a new, real Corazónland?

And for some further context, see here: Big Ag Sway Clear in Senate Farm Bill

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Anti-Roma Attacks in Italy

...In a second poll, 81% of Italian respondents said they found all Gypsies, Romanian or not, "barely likeable or not likeable at all", a greater number than the 64% who said they felt the same way about non-Gypsy Romanians.

Young Neapolitans who threw Molotov cocktails into a Naples Gypsy camp this week, after a girl was accused of trying to abduct a baby, bragged that they were undertaking "ethnic cleansing". A UN spokeswoman compared the scenes to the forced migration of Gypsies from the Balkans. "We never thought we'd see such images in Italy," said Laura Boldrini.

"This hostility is a result of the generally inflammatory language of the current government, as well as the previous one," said EveryOne director Matteo Pegoraro. "Italian football stars at Milan teams assumed to have Gypsy heritage, such as Andrea Pirlo, are now also the subject of threatening chants."

Commenting on the attacks in Naples, Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League party said: "People are going to do what the political class cannot."

The thing is that nationalistic and ethnic aggression is always prompted by political manipulation of simmering racist sentiment.

China in Africa

Here's a terrific photo-essay by Paulo Woods and Serge Michel on China's rapidly growing relationship with Africa. We Make Money Not Art has the basics. And here is the full collection of Woods' photos.

For the 500.000 Chinese who have emigrated to the 'dark continent' there is the promise of a 21st century Wild West. Some have struck gold and run large conglomerates that span whole regions of Africa, others are still selling their cheap goods on the burning hot roadsides of the poorest countries in the world.

For the Africans, the arrival of the Chinese is perhaps the most important event of the forty years of independence. The Chinese do not look like the former colonialists. They build roads, dams and hospitals and win over the people. They speak neither of democracy nor transparency and they win over the dictators.

Woods and Michel conclude their presentation of the work with these words: These are rare images: Beijing wants to keep a low profile for its conquest. But though it remains largely unexposed these photographs portray a phenomenon, a new dimension of globalization, that threatens to leave the West behind.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mp3 Find of the Day

Music for Maniacs has two tunes from Burma. I prefer the one by U Kyaw Nyunt & Yee Yee Thant. For most Western ears it will sound like psychedelic, ritualistic madness. Awesome.

More on Intervention in Burma

Yesterday, I briefly discussed some of the issues regarding humanitarian intervention in Burma. I linked to Rob's solid essay arguing against intervention.

A few more pieces discussing intervention - or, as those opposing intervention are putting it, "invasion" - have popped around the internet. See, for example, Robert Kaplan's piece yesterday in NY Times. I don't read Kaplan as actually supporting an invasion, though others interpret the article this way. The central take-home message from Kaplan's article is that "the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward." He points out the glaringly obvious example of the current Iraq invasion and occupation. The analogy is a false one, however, and insidiously so. It shouldn't color the moral arguments about a Burma intervention. The Bush administration may have used the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention in Iraq (as a human rights issue) at the time, but it wasn't the true motivation, and made little sense given the the crucial "last resort" criterion of any intervention that I mentioned yesterday. Military invasion in the name of shoring up resources (in this case, oil) is illegal in the international system. That argument simply couldn't be made publicly by the administration for political, moral, and perhaps especially legal reasons.

For some reason, however, almost all commentators these days can see only two general foreign policy options: either an interventionist policy or a non-interventionist policy. That's far too simplistic and fallacious. Iraq was and is a mess. That was always going to be the case. Powerful moral and practical arguments against the invasion were in heavy circulation, but were ignored. The Iraq invasion was a bad idea before it even began. But this doesn't mean that all intervention is bad or doomed to failure. A general non-interventionist foreign policy completely ignores important moral arguments about providing assistance to those who are suffering. Each potential case of intervention has unique qualities, unique obstacles, and unique logistical issues. To take a non-interventionist stance, a priori, is to take a simplistic and dangerous moral route that excludes any moral considerations tout court. It's simply dumb.

But this also doesn't mean that a generally interventionist foreign policy is a good idea either. The US certainly has a poor record on intervention in terms of motivations, means, and outcomes.

Last resort means not only that any and all other avenues for resolving the problem have been tried. It also exists as a principal criterion because, as I also mentioned, any intervention faces other, often unforeseeable, outcomes that can exacerbate the situation. For Kant and Mill, even if there is a powerful moral imperative to provide assistance, it must always be weighed against the strong possibility that things can go seriously awry and that the intervention can become something much bigger and more harmful than itself. That is a serious practical consideration which shapes the moral argument.

In other words, even if we accept the moral imperative of assisting those who are suffering (and Burma may be rising to the level of genocide), that imperative must be tempered by sober and sound assessments of the practical logistics of carrying out any particular humanitarian intervention. Mark Goldberg makes a crucial point:
...Without intelligence on the ground (i.e. where to drop the relief) and a ready-to-go distribution mechanism, airdrops can do more harm than good. The strong will fight off the weak and people with guns will sell the relief on the black market. The aid will not go to the people who need it most.
In one of the most important reads thus far on the issue, Barbara Stocking discusses the logistical problems of airdropping supplies:

For a start it requires excellent intelligence. Yet no one knows exactly where the worst affected areas are, or how many people are suffering in each place. We don't know if people are on the move, or what diseases are starting to appear, or exactly what state their homes and infrastructure are in.

Without good intelligence it's very hard to run an effective humanitarian operation - especially an airborne one. It would be only too easy to drop the food miles from the nearest village, or even in water or swamp. Food is perishable and leaving it outside for too long could ruin it. You can't drop a well or a sanitation system from the sky without specialists to set it up. Communities could find themselves with aid completely inappropriate to their situation.

The final stage of food aid distribution is often the most difficult in the whole operation. Aid workers don't turn up at a starving, desperate village with a truck full of food without having organised the trip with village elders or officials first. Things can easily go wrong when giving food to hungry people, and there have to be staff on the ground to organise the process. There are other problems too. Arriving unannounced could lead to a riot, with the strongest getting the food and the weakest leaving with nothing. Crowd control is vital.

Basically, helping the Burmese people requires careful organization the distribution network on the ground, which the junta is resisting. Politically, in light of the last resort condition, the best approach at this point is likely one Goldberg mentions, although the rhetoric of frothing at the mouth isn't terribly helpful,
The way to fulfill that [moral] obligation is not to froth at the mouth for toppling another odious regime, but by working diplomatic channels to force the junta to relent their obstruction of humanitarian relief efforts. This may mean taking a harder line with China over its support of the junta. It certainly does not mean we need to ready the gears of war to invade and occupy the country. That, frankly is a distraction and counterproductive to first imperative of helping those in danger.
Negotiations with China on the UN Security Council are fraught with difficulties for a UN-mandated humanitarian intervention. But not impossible, especially as China suffers through its own natural disaster and reluctant need for international assistance.

There are very good practical arguments against "invasion," but that term does this particular case a disservice because it moves us back into the falsely dualistic interventionist / non-interventionist logic that has such currency these days. Invasion is, of course, a non-starter. Much more importantly, and reasonably, there are legitimate arguments against a forced airdrop-type of intervention or other limited forms of intervention. There are nonetheless interventionary instruments at our disposal, namely via the UN, which did have some degree of success in East Timor and Kosovo against oppressive states. Examining these in light of the political context of Burma is where the difficult work of combining moral imperatives with hard practical considerations ought to take place.

Today, Joshua Marshall writes,
I have an even simpler idea. Why don't we not invade any more countries for a while?

I know that will strike some as too flippant or isolationist. But it's not meant as the former and I'm confident it is not the latter. Many of our foreign policy thinkers seem to be developing the kind of character damage suffered by children who can buy the best toy every time their parents go to the mall -- the inability to distinguish between necessities, simple wants and the mere desire for kicks which is born of pervasive moral boredom. Add to this the fact that we are now managing two foreign occupations -- one of which is going poorly and a second which can only be described as a national catastrophe of historic proportions -- and you see the true level of the disconnect.

It's not simply a matter of having our hands full. More than this, it's an obliviousness to the reality of the downsides of our proposing to invade or actually invading countries more or less for the hell of it -- both in the sense of creating a more dangerous global political environment and the squandering of material resources and global political capital in advance of actual threats to our security we will likely face in coming decades. In the 90s, when most of our global rivals were flat on their back, such thinking may simply have been arrogant and short-sighted. Now it's just nuts.

Marshall is right about his own remarks, this is flippant. It turns the discussion into one in which practical logistics seem to matter more than anything else, including the complex problem of how logistical difficulties hang together with the moral imperatives of assistance. Just as I worry about this administration's disastrous interventionist policies, I also worry about a moral compass turning away from a people for whom the very notion of humanitarian intervention exists.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Kei Apples

The Food Crisis: India Strikes Back at Bush

Many Indians felt that the remarks of President George W. Bush on May 2 were more of the same, though this time they seemed to breed a widespread sense of "We're not going to take this anymore." During a news conference in Missouri, Bush mentioned India's growing middle class, and said "when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up." This came on the heels of a similar statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that had already upset many in India.

Americans eat an average of 3,770 calories per capita a day, the highest amount in the world, according to data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, compared to 2,440 calories in India. They are also the largest per capita consumers in any major economy of beef, the most energy-intensive common food source, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The United States and Canada top the world in oil consumption per person, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"George Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics," Jairam Ramesh, the minister of state for commerce, told The Press Trust of India after Bush's remarks, which he said proved again how "comprehensively wrong" Bush is.

"To say that demand for food in India is causing increase in global food prices is completely wrong," Ramesh said.

Politicians and academics in India cite various other reasons: diversion of arable land in the United States and Europe into ethanol production; trade subsidies by the United States and Europe; and the dollar's decline.

Subsidies to Western farmers have undercut agricultural production in fertile areas of Africa for decades, Kamal Nath, India's minister for commerce and industry, said by telephone. Meanwhile, he added, Americans waste more food than people in many other countries, in part because they buy in such large quantities...

Bush's "ignorance on most matters is widely known and openly acknowledged by his own countrymen," The Asian Age argued May 5 in an editorial, but he must not be allowed to "get away" with an attempt to "divert global attention from the truth by passing the buck on to India."

Burma's Humanitarian Disaster

The developing humanitarian disaster in Burma/Myanmar has its direct cause in natural catastrophe but the cause has now shifted to the Myanmar government's response. Food, water, and healthcare assistance exists, but the government refuses to allow outsiders to distribute the aid and provide for people who are at serious risk of disease and death, especially in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, now facing the monsoon season and possibly another cyclone. The junta's intransigence has risen to the level of genocidal intransigence. The junta's paranoia amounts to deliberate starvation of Burma's people. Thus, it's time for the rest of the world to consider intervention. Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister of France, has called for direct assistance to the people of Burma with or without Myanmar government approval.

Peter Singer, three decades ago, made a very simple argument (which he has since revised and updated). He asked whether you agree with two basic assumptions. The first assumption is that suffering and death from lack of food, water, and decent healthcare is bad. Agreed? The second is that if it is in our power to alleviate this suffering and death without giving up something of comparable moral significance, then we ought to do it. Still agreed? The question is what is of comparable moral significance. This can be a feasibility issue as much as a matter of balancing moral considerations. At an individual level, it may mean, for example, not spending away your children's future in order to feed someone who's starving now. Or putting your own well-being at risk by giving too much. But it also challenges us to consider where the line of comparable moral significance exists. Is giving up your truffle oil morally significant? Your Play Station? The greater convenience in driving to work rather than taking public transportation? That extra $100 you add to your mutual funds account per year?

Humanitarian intervention rests on the moral assumption that we are obligated to help when we can do so. But the notion of comparable moral significance is important here as well. The question is now not one of money. The international "community" is wealthy enough to feed everyone on the planet, if there were truly the political will. The question here is also not feasibility or efficiency. Yes, there's a huge amount of waste in the world of humanitarian organizations and certainly in the world of the large poverty-solving agencies where very few are willing to give up their six figure incomes in exchange for more resources for attacking poverty.

The big questions for humanitarian intervention are moral and political. The classic obstacles to intervention are the sovereign autonomy of states, the self-determination of peoples, and consensual legitimacy. Intervention of any sort must also be a last resort policy. These "obstacles" exist in the international system for good reason. Intervention has a long history on the side of imperialism and colonialism, often conducted in the name of ostensibly helping an oppressed people. Interventions, even when based on purely humanitarian reasons, can lead to further harms and such harms are notoriously difficult to foresee or predict. A long tradition of writing on intervention - since at least Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill - details the ways in which intervention can function at cross-purposes with even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention. Kant and Mill presented powerful moral and political arguments against intervention. An interventionist step is never to be taken lightly.

What about the current Myanmar/Burma case? If it is indeed true that the junta's inaction amounts to willful harm of its own people, soon to rise to the level of genocidal harm, at what point is intervention justified? Does it matter if the junta does not intend genocide, but is calculating a tradeoff between saving its people and resistance to any outside intervention? What are the costs? On the other hand, would a non-interventionist approach that led to the deaths of tens of thousands more Burmese make the international community morally culpable?

Here's one, not terribly reflective response.

Robert Farley
has a much better assessment, although he assumes an intervention would necessarily take the form of a military invasion. I'm not so sure of this.

And (via Andrew Sullivan) here's the similar case of food politics in Zimbabwe.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg

The post-abstract expressionist artist and American cultural giant, Robert Rauschenberg, died Monday.
...Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, [John] Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”

Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated. “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”...

“I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop,” he said in an interview in the giant studio on Captiva in 2000. “At the time that I am bored or understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”

McCain's Climate Plan

It's difficult to see much here at this point, and the candidate has a spotty record on environmental issues, but David Roberts gives McCain's plan the run-down.

Racism on the Campaign Trail

One question I have, probably an unanswerable one, is the extent to which this is a kind of racism that continues to exist regardless of it being a campaign year and regardless of the candidacy of Obama, or the extent to which this is a racism that has been given rebirth and sustenance by the oblique racist comments of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their surrogates. Many Obama supporters assume it's the latter.
For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president...

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: "It wasn't pretty." She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"...

In a letter to the editor published in a local paper, Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball explained his support of Hillary Clinton this way: "Barack Hussein Obama and all of his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don't know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can't convince me that some of that didn't rub off on him.

"No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office."

Again, take a look here.

Pop Culture and Emissions Trading

Sitcom writers get a bad rap, but let this be said: They do their homework. Working in something like emissions trading -- an arcane topic now, and even more so 15 years ago -- into a sitcom plot takes some skills....
Isaac Smith spots an amusing connection between sitcom tv and carbon emissions trading.

An Essay on Japanese Painting

Trees in Fog, Hasegawa Tohaku, 16th century

Here's a lovely essay by Elatia Harris, writing at 3 Quarks Daily.
This shattering masterpiece [Trees in Fog, above], 24 feet long, and according to a 2001 poll, Japan's best loved painting, is neither juxtaposed areas of color nor line in the sense of outline. Using enormous brushes, Tohaku made a brush stroke the very shape of a trunk, a bough, a clump of pine needles. So that line is never exactly descriptive, in that you can't separate it from form. The radiant fog here is what establishes distance, some trees standing before us, roots to crown, others veiled. You know the forest is dense, for you can see trees that are pushed aslant by the growth of others, yet a shimmering bright fog is everywhere moving in and out. The painting itself has almost an aural quality -- of deep hush. You can tell that if it were not for Chinese civilization, which changes everything it impinges on, and has always done, this work would not have come into being, but it's also yamato-e incarnate.
The essay is also a love letter to the little books that English speakers in Japan grow up with. For Elatia Harris, the cherished author is Elise Grilli, a writer on Japanese art history. Personally, my little Japanese world was created through the famed works of Japanese aesthetics translated into English and published by Kodansha or Kenkyusha: Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, Okakura's The Book of Tea, and also, later, the masterpieces of Japanese literature, including the very first novel, Lady Murasaki's early 11th-century work, The Tale of Genji, translated by the ubiquitous and apparently tireless Arthur Waley. Kodansha also reproduced the magical essays of the 19th century Greek-Irish-American (and finally Japanese) expatriate, Lafcadio Hearn. But... these are just small personal connections to Harris' wonderfully transporting essay.

Monday, May 12, 2008

It's Hard

It has become harder and harder in the latter days of the Bush administration for me to tell my hallucinations apart.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Chinese Raisin Tree

Meme: Passion Quilt

Fellow philosophy punk, Steve G, is passing along a meme. Out of great respect for Steve, I'll play, though in a curmudgeonly spirit I won't pass it along. It's really not an easy one to do.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not always sure precisely what I'm trying to accomplish in teaching - information transmission is obviously part of it, but probably the dullest part. Analytical skills are another obvious element. So is a further appreciation that problems can look very different from different perspectives, so that collective problem-solving is always, irreducibly, a matter of both consensus and conflict. Conflict is of rich pedagogical significance in itself if one can only see it as such and as long as it doesn't revert to epistemic tribalisms.

I suppose one thing that is crucial for me to relay is the philosopher's tendency to question and analyze all assumptions, "all the way down," as Rorty liked to say. I think this especially valuable now, being a philosopher in a policy school, when most policy analysis is built upon various quantitative and qualitative models but the assumptions, theorems, axioms, and value claims behind the models are rarely questioned. I don't know how to represent this in an image.

Another crucial element is "experience," a testy, vague, and rich word that connects past and present, reflective analysis and the immediacies of life. What John Dewey called consummatory experience is, technically, the outcome of successful inquiry, the reconciliation of doubt with habit (in the sense that Dewey used that term). Like its French cousin, the term suggests experimentation. There's also a much richer version in American thought. I inherited at least an appreciation for it from my greatest teacher, John J. McDermott. It ties me, through him, to a lush history of intellectual life bound to the concerns and immediacies of living, a direct lineage from teacher to teacher to... Ralph Waldo Emerson. I guess I hope that my students will crack open their lives further to the broadest possible range of experience, even when what they're doing as policy grad students is specializing, becoming "experts." Being somewhat of a dilettante myself, and living in a city in which the label of "expert" (whether merited or not) is rewarded above all, I'm always in doubt about the importance of teaching that the disorientation of experiential and intellectual lost-ness is the originating root of intelligence. Become an expert, get a well-paying job, contribute a few things to society, have a nice car and house, retire and play golf, die (have kids who will do the same). Why not? But then this city of Washington, DC, through its counterexample, reminds me that it often demands a dangerous pact against the other elements I listed above.

My choice of an image is kind of goofy. But it's intended to represent the "web," the life/death cycle, immediacy, history, fact/value, and experimentation/exploration.

So, here's the challenge:
Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about.

Give your picture a short title.

Title your blog post "Meme: Passion Quilt."

Link back to this blog entry.
My image:

Help, I'm a Blog

This is the way incentives wrought from scarcity ought to work: Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders to Mass Transit.

Climate change gambling. Asking the skeptics to put their money where their mouths are. Curiously, they don't seem to be willing to take the bets.

A nice summary on the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

A new series in the Washington Post on treatment of immigrants in US prisons. Another sign of near-criminal policies driven ultimately by irrational fear. Barba has written about this prison network in Texas (see here and here, for example).

Speaking of fear, Dan Froomkin discusses the coming "torture showdown." But, as we've seen repeatedly over the past seven years, "Just because they're willing to show up for questioning, doesn't mean they'll be willing to give straight answers -- or any answers at all, for that matter."

Plus, Marty Lederman on the Hamdan case.

The Bush administration, steeped in the craft of Wonderland story-telling, and perhaps in final tribute to the epistemology of the fantasy-based community, shows off its idea of Iraq progress (and your tax money at work): a golf course and an amusement park. See also this optimistic piece from 2005: "Iraq plans hotel and theme parks for a tourism boom."

Image: Li Wei

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lawrence (and Fisk) in Arabia

Robert Fisk, sometimes accused of having a Lawrence of Arabia complex himself, discusses lessons that could be learned from TE Lawrence regarding western policy in the Middle East.

If insurgents represent a "vapour" more powerful than that which comes from the mouths of politicians (I suppose the "fortified posts" would represent Donald Rumsfeld's useless military "lily pads" in the Iraqi desert), then the Anglo-American invasion force should have known in 2003 that Lawrence's prophecy doomed them the moment a serious military resistance movement opposed Iraq's occupation. In the Sunday Times in 1920, Lawrence might have been addressing his words to George W Bush or Tony Blair. "The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour," he wrote. "They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows . . . We are today not far from a disaster."

One is left gasping at the prescience of such words. For is this not exactly what has happened to us in Iraq since 2003: the lies, the insincerity, the false claims of "mission accomplished" and success when we are trapped in the sands of Iraq, our "statesmen" all the while withholding in formation while they pretend we can retreat with honour? "The Arabs," Lawrence wrote in another letter in 1920 - this one to the Times - "rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects . . . but to win a show of their own. Whether they are fit for in dependence or not remains to be tried. Merit is no qualification for freedom."


Evolution as a bio-material process has no particular value other than that we humans might give it in retrospect. Stupidization is, paradoxically, a willful choice to halt the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. It implies a valuation of inverse evolution. Some examples of male stupidization:
Perhaps a recent article by Carl Zimmer in the NY Times, "Lots of Animals Learn, but Smarter Isn’t Better," helps explain this curious phenomenon of willful stupidization.
...Dr. Kawecki and like-minded scientists are trying to figure out why animals learn and why some have evolved to be better at learning than others. One reason for the difference, their research finds, is that being smart can be bad for an animal’s health...

Forming neuron connections may cause harmful side effects. It is also possible that genes that allow learning to develop faster and last longer may cause other changes...

Dr. Dukas argues that learning evolves to higher levels only when it is a better way to respond to the environment than relying on automatic responses...

Dr. Kawecki suspects that each species evolves until it reaches an equilibrium between the costs and benefits of learning. His experiments demonstrate that flies have the genetic potential to become significantly smarter in the wild. But only under his lab conditions does evolution actually move in that direction. In nature, any improvement in learning would cost too much.
Perhaps (see also Steve G's and commenters' discussion here regarding grade ranges among male and female students - I find that Steve's observation holds generally for my seminars too), male stupidization is a function of an environment in which males have historically had social advantages over females. That social environment involves increasing "costs" to further learning for men operating already within a status quo that favors their position. But it may include far more benefits for women from increased and ongoing learning, potentially resulting in a dramatically changed social status quo. Male stupidization, then, may be a reaction against a shifting status quo. Acts of male autonomy in this context are then expressions against learning-driven changes in the social environment. Programmed male cost-avoiding can only then make reference to an increasingly simplistic version of the historical status quo in which male advantages are socially inherited and automatic.

Or... whatever.