Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Concerts à Emporter

Photo courtesy of Peadar

An old friend from Paris days, a longtime Irish expatriate musician named Peadar, sent me this link from the French music blog, La Blogothèque. It's a collection of videos of mostly the current crop of Indie musicians playing in the streets of Paris. But it's also a long tradition, the street musician in Paris. Some make an intentional career of it. And I know of at least one current well-known musician who came up through playing in the Parisian streets and rather accidentally found fame and fortune, Peadar's friend and former playing partner, Madeleine Peyroux ("Maddy").


State Department Decides Murder Is OK

The State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month's deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, The Associated Press has learned.

As a result, it will likely be months before the United States can — if ever — bring criminal charges in the case that has infuriated the Iraqi government.

"Once you give immunity, you can't take it away," said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

Monday, October 29, 2007

BibliOdyssey, The Book

One of Phronesisaical's favorite image-bloggers, Paul K at BibliOdyssey, has published a book based on the blog. It's called... BibliOdyssey, published by FUEL Design. (I'm a bit embarrassed to say that it took a browse of 3QD today - which has a very nice interview with Paul K here - to discover the publication - hadn't been to BibliOdyssey in a while, I guess). Congratulations!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Two Climate Change Resources

I'm putting these here so that I have the reference too. These are two nice climate change sites, one from Nature, the other from the UN Chronicle.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

Some time ago a crazy dream came to me,
I dreamt I was walkin' into World War Three,
I went to the doctor the very next day
To see what kinda words he could say.
He said it was a bad dream.
I wouldn't worry 'bout it none, though,
They were my own dreams and they're only in my head...

[the narrator recounts the dream to his psychiatrist]

...I was feelin' kinda lonesome and blue,
I needed somebody to talk to.
So I called up the operator of time
Just to hear a voice of some kind.
"When you hear the beep
It will be three o'clock,"
She said that for over an hour
And I hung it up.

Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then,
Sayin, "Hey I've been havin' the same old dreams,
But mine was a little different you see.
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me.
I didn't see you around."

Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody's having them dreams.
Everybody sees themselves walkin' around with no one else.
Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time.
But all the people can't be all right all the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
"I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,"
I said that.

- Bob Dylan, "Talkin' World War III Blues," The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

Simonetta Stefanelli Lives!

From a newsletter I receive:
Newsday interviews Simonetta Stefanelli, an actress made famous for her role as the Sicialian girlfriend of Micheal Corleone in the movie The Godfather. Stefanelli is plagued by reports that she is dead, which, she says, is bad for business. "While it is hard to get bad information off the Internet, some sites like Wikipedia can be easily self-corrected, said Peter Levine, an information expert at the University of Maryland who is an advocate for funding by government and institutions of reliable Web portals. Stefanelli said her lawyer, Rosanna Grillo, has asked without success for information about the source of postings. Grillo couldn't be reached for comment yesterday. Stefanelli said she hasn't gone to the Italian media about the problem, fearing more unpleasant publicity. But she decided to talk to Newsday because she recently opened a boutique on Rome's Via Chiana, called Simo Bloom, and wants people to know she is alive."

Thursday, October 25, 2007


UNEP Global Environmental Outlook

The UN Environmental Programme puts out its Global Environmental Outlook report today (about half an hour ago). You can download assessment brochures at the hyperlinked site.

The Herald Tribune gives a general assessment of the report's contents:
"The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns," Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP, said in a telephone interview. Efficient use of resources and reducing waste now are "among the greatest challenges at the beginning in of 21st century," Steiner said.

UNEP described its report, which is prepared by 388 experts and scientists, as the broadest and deepest of those the UN has issued on the environment, and called it "the final wake-up call to the international community."...

Persistent problems identified by the report include a rapid rise of so-called dead zones, where marine life no longer can be supported due to depleted oxygen levels from pollutants such as fertilizers, as well as the resurgence of diseases linked with environmental degradation...

Steiner said environmental tipping points, where degradation can lead to abrupt, accelerating or potentially irreversible changes, would increasingly occur in locations such as a particular river or forest, where populations would lack the ability to repair damage because the gravity of the problem would be far beyond their physical or economic means.

Looking ahead, Steiner said parts of Africa could reach an environmental tipping point if changing rainfall patterns stemming from climate change turned semi-arid zones into arid zones, and made agriculture that sustains millions of people much harder...

The report said 250 percent more fish are being caught than the oceans can produce in a sustainable manner, and that global fish stocks classed as collapsed had roughly doubled to 30 percent over the past 20 years.

The report said that current changes in biodiversity were the fastest in human history, with species becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate in the fossil record. It said 12 percent of birds are threatened with extinction; for mammals the figure is 23 percent and for amphibians it is more than 30 percent.

Steiner said another tipping point triggered by climate change could occur in India and China if Himalayan glaciers shrink so much that they no longer supply adequate amounts of water to populations in those countries...

The report said concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were about one-third greater than 20 years ago, and that the threat from climate change now was so urgent that only very large cuts in greenhouse gases of 60 to 80 percent could stop irreversible change.
It might be a happy thought to believe - as is central to the faith of neoclassical economics - that technological innovations can save the day. Here and there, they might, but only in terms of small-scale, patchwork solutions. The ecological problems far out-pace any human innovations on the horizon both on the scale of rapid, short-term ecological developments and long-term environmental harms, given the complexity and enormity of the problems. The remaining alternative, of course, is adaptation rather than mitigation in the case of, say, climate change. But we don't need to do any serious analysis to assume adaptation. We'll simply be forced into it - we already are. The question is the more serious policy question. Are we willing to do some hard work in reevaluating our short-term interests and desires in order to sustain our communities into the future? If we use standard economic tools, which typically discount the future given increasing uncertainty of theoretical models and empirical information as we extend analyses into the future, we can end up giving short shrift to the nature of the problems we face, even going so far as to misidentify them. Again, collective decisions to truly mitigate ecological damage, and to sustain communities we have reasons to value, may have nothing at all to do with economic assessments. Policy must absolutely be driven by such non-economic policy questions, and only the economic ones when relevant (after all, economics is mostly about efficiency of means, not appropriateness of ends, even if many economists assume otherwise). It's a huge mistake to do it the other way around.

Running Out of Water in the West

Photo: A fish-cleaning station in Las Vegas Bay, now abandoned by the West's sinking waters;
BLDGBLOG on the Western US's water problem.

Plus, Columbia Journalism Review on the Atlanta water crisis. The coming "water wars"?

And Pruned on the "ensanguining" of the Fontana di Trevi.

Photo by Maurizio Brambatti / ANSA / LI

Iraq to Pakistan

John Robb, in Phronesisaical's book, has a reputation for being right on target, often far before anyone else. This is because he has developed quasi-theoretical models for understanding insurgencies and counterinsurgencies that make current US military strategizing look like naptime in kindergarten.

John's assessment of what's up with al Qaeda these days looks to be another accurate take on this nasty, complicated series of wars and embedded wars.
With Iraq locked-into a feudal patchwork adorned by a hollow government, al Qaeda's role as a catalyst (or foco) for disorder is over. It outlived its usefulness, although it will quickly return to support the status quo the moment it is threatened by open civil war or an American change of heart re: the local militias it currently supports. This isn't, as some wrongly assume:
  • A victory over a networked insurgency. In fact, just the opposite. The only US "success" in the "surge" was to accept the regional dominance of the open source insurgency and rebrand them as "legitimate" militias.
  • A political victory over al Qaeda's political goals. Al Qaeda is a classic 4GW insurgency (Maoist) aimed at state replacement. It has the neither power, aspirations, nor the organization to propose a political replacement for the central state. All it does offer is the loose feudalism of an imagined Caliphate. A hollow state is a sufficient milestone, which is exactly what we have in Iraq.
  • Acceptance of the US presence in Iraq. The current arrangement between Iraq's insurgency and the US military is one of convenience. It is in no way an acceptance of a long term US presence in the country. When this relationship sours, which is inevitable (which may occur at the most inopportune time), blood will flow again, and a chastened al Qaeda will return in a supportive role to aid local groups.

On to Pakistan

Al Qaeda's departure from Iraq frees it up for a new focus on Pakistan, where it will:
  • Extend the reach of the Taliban supported tribal revolt in the northwest territories into the major cities.
  • Hit social and infrastructure systempunkts (critical nodes), as demonstrated by the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The intent of these attacks will be to create cascades of disorder that sweep the country.
  • Manufacture a plausible promise (a compelling act that demonstrates the viability of further warfare) of an open source insurgency that will cobble together hundreds of violent groups unearthed through waves of disruption.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Being an Iraqi Refugee in Syria

Riverbend updates from Syria, to which she and her family recently fled from Baghdad.
It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children. A cousin of mine is now attending a school in Qudsiya and his class is composed of 26 Iraqi children, and 5 Syrian children. It’s beyond belief sometimes. Most of the families have nothing to live on beyond their savings which are quickly being depleted with rent and the costs of living...

...I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own... especially their own.

We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too... Welcome to the building.”

Another Mistrial of the War on Terror

At some point any so-called "war on terror" should have to have a sound basis in basic legal principles and procedures, rather than extra-legal assumptions based on alleged secret evidence. The US GWOT runs between two poles: the state of exception, in which even the bounds of morality are broken; and the state of confusion, in which legal cases are built upon secrets, puppydog tails, and a hole in the ground in Virginia. Both end up persecution rather than prosecution.
A federal judge declared a mistrial on Monday in what was widely seen as the government’s flagship terrorism-financing case after prosecutors failed to persuade a jury to convict five leaders of a Muslim charity on any charges, or even to reach a verdict on many of the 197 counts...

But at the trial, the government did not accuse the foundation, which was based in a Dallas suburb, of paying directly for suicide bombings. Instead, the prosecution said, the foundation supported terrorism by sending more than $12 million to charitable groups, known as zakat committees, which build hospitals and feed the poor...

The case involved 197 counts, including providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. It also involved years of investigation and preparation, almost two months of testimony and more than 1,000 exhibits, including documents, wiretaps, transcripts and videotapes dug up in a backyard in Virginia...

David D. Cole, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, said the jury’s verdict called into question the government’s tactics in freezing the assets of charities using secret evidence that the charities cannot see, much less rebut. When, at trial, prosecutors “have to put their evidence on the table, they can’t convict anyone of anything,” he said. “It suggests the government is really pushing beyond where the law justifies them going.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Jungle

Front patio, Yang Min Shan. Photo: Helmut's dad

Once upon a time,... Yang Min Shan ("Grass Mountain"), the green ice cream mountain overlooking the valley in which rests the city of Taipei, wasn't yet awash in the housing developments of the East Asian Tiger. The mountain was carpeted mostly with wide swathes of jungle dotted by a few neighborhoods bunched near a main road that meandered up and across the mountain. Near the top of the mountain were small rice paddies and banana groves, now and then a one-acre peanut field, mostly for use by the Taiwanese farmers' homes at their edges. For me and my friends, however, the jungle was vast in time and space and extended far beyond a long day's wading through the lush and dense subtropical and tropical vegetation.

My family had a lovely home on the mountain with a panoramic view of the valley (top photo). We lived in a small neighborhood of pretty, simple houses occupied mostly by expatriates. Down the road from our house was the Venezuelan Embassy, whose backyard swimming pool was a target for our bottlerockets, especially when empty since the pop gained a satisfying reverberation. Beyond the embassy, further down the mountain, was what our parents sardonically called "the Great Wall." It was a barren side of the mountain prone to erosion which washed the road in mud during the rainy season. Construction workers over the three years we lived there attempted to cover it with concrete tiles in order to stem the erosion. Each heavy rain recreated the Sisyphean task by peeling off all of the tiles and depositing them in the road in a mess of concrete chunks and mud. Each violent typhoon season demanded that the "Great Wall" be built again.

Just beyond my family's backyard wall was a small peanut field, then "The Rocks," and then deepest, darkest jungle. We called it, simply, "The Jungle." It wasn't merely a one-word descriptive moniker - as in, it is a jungle - it was The Jungle, a place to be treated with respect and awe. Many times it represented outright fear. This was our playground for three years - an archipelago of The Rocks, The Bamboo Forest, The Thousand Steps, The Jar, The Cliffs, and The Caves, all of which were landmarks in the otherwise thick forest.

Entering The Jungle (I'm the one without the helmet). Photo: Helmut's dad

We were explorers who had set out in the wild jungle naming places as we went, uncovering lost civilizations and their artifacts, creating mental maps of the terrain and what might lie beyond its mysterious unexplored fringes, carefully examining colorful specimens of flora and fauna, now and then injuring ourselves and returning to civilized Britannia to heal. I once went blind for three days after having caught a bright green tree frog, handling it among my friends at school and at some point rubbing my eyes full of its poisonous alkaloid secretions. On other occasions, we avoided some of the most poisonous snakes in the world, including the dangerous bamboo viper and the one we called "habu." A likely apocryphal story that some Taiwanese tell says that, at the end of World War II when the Japanese left Taiwan, the Japanese opened all the cages of venomous snakes they had used for chemical weapons research and left the northern part of the island full of the dangerous serpents. We sometimes carried weapons in case of such dangers - a nice bamboo branch with a sharpened tip, and almost always a firecracker or two, ubiquitous in a place like Taiwan. We learned survival techniques - how to make a poop successfully in the jungle (it involves elephant ear plants). We drank rainwater trapped in leaves. It was all very ordinary; we were learning our actual world.

Photo from here

Sometimes we wish to go home, but we face the famous Thomas Wolfe dilemma of never being able to go home again. Heraclitean, really. We may not be able to step in the same river twice because the river itself is a constantly changing flux. But we also can't step in the same river again because we're no longer the same person, even if the same river were temporally frozen. Yet, for many of us, even if the river - our homes - remained more or less the same, we might still wish to be something approximating that person again who resonates so forcefully throughout who we are now. I'm a believer in both the lightness and the difficulty of the Nietzschean self-creator, not by blustery theoretical indulgence, but by cumulative experience. This commits me to facing a never-ending flux shot through by sites of relative permanence. Sometimes it's bearable, even effortlessly joyful. At other times it's wholly in deeply melancholic tension with those salient experiences that have defined who I am. I can't be the boy trekking in The Jungle or carousing on the klongs in Thailand or playing pick-up baseball games with Japanese construction workers in Tokyo. But this is all so much there in the permanent elements of my self. So much there and still so impossible a home. The impossibility is not simply that the past is the past. It's that there is nothing stable in these actual places of my memory except for fallible remembrance itself, slowly dimming around its edges, and how I choose to self-narrate what it leaves me.

The Rocks were giant boulders the size of large cars haphazardly piled on top of each other. I have no geological explanation for their formation. Too large and wild to be moved by human beings, they were also too perfectly jumbled together into tunnels and hollows and the bows of ships - perfection to our little Columbian explorers - to have been merely serendipitous. The Rocks were our home base for excursions into The Jungle. "Meet me at The Rocks," we would say. Across the Peanut Field. We will plan something, the ensuing voyage as well as the dramatic narrative to frame it. But we were rather stunted in terms of creating such pre-arranged narratives. They were typically dull, childish war fantasies or pirate-ish adventures. This was all much less important than The Jungle itself because our experience in it created new narratives by chance. The Jungle was that rich. Its confined, dense spaces were completely open and resourceful. All we had to do was enter it with imaginations prepared and blazing.

Photo: benghazii

Beyond The Rocks we truly entered The Jungle. We had some paths to follow. Rough and often muddy things created simply by the regular footsteps of the invisible peanut farmer. They were good for a while until they led to a little farmhouse, a thatch-roofed shack really, maybe with a wisp of smoke from a stove. We would push off into the undergrowth, seeking our own footholds in a forest that grew thicker and more tangled not only under our feet but also over our heads. Vines and large leaves sometimes intertwined so thickly as to create little huts for us. And I remember the smells vividly. Damp, almost excremental life and decay. Life has a more subtle, regular odor than death. But this is us - our olfactory systems and categorizing interpretations of perceptions - and nature couldn't care less. The Jungle smelled like death. Rich, necessary, and wonderful death. The thing that gave it life. It is absolutely vivid to me now. At nature's most alive, it smells most like death. We project the odor of life to the ridiculously extravagant bits of nature, like roses and magnolias. It's almost irresponsible how we allow our sense of smell to avoid the real and the inevitable.

I have a faulty mental map of distances. If The Jungle I knew still existed today, I might find the distances to be about like walking a few blocks to the grocery store to buy milk. This assessment might, on the other hand, also be the adult ridiculing the child. I have no way of resolving this dispute. My Jungle is mostly housing developments now anyway.

Beyond The Rocks, beyond the farmer's path, into the realm of thick and unstable redolence under foot, we trekked for what seems like miles. Eventually we arrived at The Bamboo Forest.

Bamboo forest. Photo from here

They truly do whisper up above in the breeze - bamboo is as beautiful for its sound as its appearance. I imagine that bamboo's use as a musical instrument in much of Asian music had its origin less in its shape and more for the suggestiveness of its natural music. The Bamboo Forest seems dark in my memory. Bamboo is a lovely tree, the most common forms having vibrant green trunks and even more vibrant leaves. But we were thick into The Jungle by this point and the sky and colors had been muted by the whispering canopy. The bamboo trees were tall and bare at their creaking trunks. The Bamboo Forest also grew on a slope. This made it possible to choose a sturdy but young tree to run towards, grab onto and allow the tree to slowly bend over to deposit you further down the slope. We adored this. It required a good choice of tree. Older bamboo were too thick and unyielding. Younger, supple trees were right for our size. You had to jump as high as possible onto the tree to get the full bending effect, and try to hold on. Our favorite spot had a natural terrace. Done correctly, you could gently place yourself on the next terrace down the slope, but we hardly ever did it correctly. We nonetheless imagined a mountain full of bamboo forest through which we would travel like Chinese Tarzans lowering ourselves down the entire mountain in gentle arcs, one whispering bamboo tree at a time.

Past The Bamboo Forest were The Thousand Steps. We were terribly excited when we first discovered them. They were thick slabs carved from stone, almost completely covered in vegetation, long unused. We didn't know where they began from up above, but we often followed them down to the little smoky village at the foot of the mountain. We endeavored to find their source and purpose on many occasions, only to tire before we ever reached their lofty origin.

I once found a place that we never revisited. We called it The Caves. They weren't caves so much as natural shelters in the side of a rocky part of the mountain. I came upon them one day when we were far into The Jungle and it had begun to pour rain. Sitting at the mouth of the shelter watching the rain and poking at the wet ground, I unearthed some shards of Chinese blue and white pottery. Bits and pieces. They were ancient, I thought, and maybe they truly were. But they were also frightening. Someone had been here before us, even far beyond the abandoned Thousand Steps. There were no nearby houses - this was not a waste dump. It was pottery suggesting that someone had not only passed through - some ancient troglodyte - but that the caves had been inhabited by someone with a sense of domestic permanence. How ancient were they? The shards were things I might have normally gathered for my ongoing collection of curios (which I have to this day in little wooden boxes), but I left these artifacts alone. This place in The Jungle was somehow sinister. Perhaps the imagined curse was due simply to the fact that our conquest of this place in The Jungle hadn't been the first.

Not long before my family moved away from Taiwan for good, a friend and I were exploring the area we called The Cliffs. The Cliffs were a favorite place, and it didn't take long to get to them from my house. We passed a lot of time at The Cliffs, sitting and talking and watching the activity in the valley below like entomologists. This particular day, however, was unusual. There was something we had never noticed before, and we had been at The Cliffs just a couple of days earlier. A large earthen jar was perched at a prominent point on the cliffside, the point most exposed to the mountainside air. It took a bit of a scramble along the rocks to get to the jar. It was a reddish color with a crude reddish-brown glaze, and quite large (much rougher than in the photo above, the closest approximation I can find to my memory of it). My friend and I approached The Jar slowly, uneasily. Sometimes you sense foreboding out of an unfolding situation that would otherwise suggest nothing other than benignity. I peered into the jar to find a dessicated human skeleton delicately folded into a permanent, lonely shrug.

It was a rather small human skeleton, upon later reflection, and possibly one of a woman. I also later learned that burial jars were traditionally used by some of the peoples in Asia. They're found in Japan, dating from the Yayoi Period, and particularly in Kyushu. They were used in Chinese burials, Philippine and Southeast Asian customs. Our Taiwanese amah told me that the bones are sometimes exhumed after a time to be placed in such jars so that the spirit of the dead person can be released into the air. Apparently, although increasingly rare, one could still find such practices in Taiwan.

At the time, however, my friend and I weren't pondering ancient cultural practices. We ran terrified and excited all the way back to the house, crashing through the plants. The vines and groundcover entangled our limbs, trying to hold us back in The Jungle. Once home, we told our scotch-sipping fathers about The Jar and its skeleton. It took some convincing. We had gained a reputation for jungle-inspired fantasies. They may have all been true in large measure, but they were unbelievable for adults. We convinced our fathers - who never entered The Jungle - to come with us to The Cliffs. It was getting late, almost dusk, but we all made the little trek. My friend and I couldn't believe it, but the jar was gone. We briefly wondered if we had come upon some previously undiscovered duplicate of The Cliffs and double-checked our landmarks. We insisted to our fathers that we had seen it, that it really had been there just hours before. Again, there were no human beings other than us in The Jungle,... and perhaps the invisible peanut farmer. Had he seen us observing The Jar from some hidden spot and worried we would disturb the spirit he was trying to free into the mountain's breezes?....

I returned to Taiwan on my own about fifteen years later as an adult exploring Asia again. I endured the kindness of an overly friendly host family, old friends of my father's, who insisted that I see the new sites of modern Taipei. The city was no longer the one I knew. The downtown in my previous life was interspersed with rice paddies and interlaced with potholed, unpaved roads. Tien Mu, now a thriving and even trendy area, was a dusty place set amidst the rice paddies. My clearest memory of Tien Mu, apart from my nearby school, was of a young boy I saw beating a puppy. I told him to stop, but felt vague moral discomfort with my judgment of the boy since I was a foreigner.... Now, I couldn't recognize anything of the city. An insanely rapid urban modernization has completely transformed most Chinese and Taiwanese cities since the 1980s. A degree of cosmopolitanism has followed. When I was young I had bright blond hair. People would touch it in the streets in Asia; they would come to me and gently brush fingertips across my head. Most had never seen this color of hair. I got used to the passing fingertips. Now, however, I was an anonymous foreigner. My hosts took me here and there. Fervent Kuomintang, they took me to the relatively new Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, an utterly absurd, bloated monument of generalissimo worship.

All I really wanted to do - my entire reason for returning to Taiwan - was to go to Yang Min Shan, to see our old house and to visit The Jungle. I planned even to hike through The Jungle. I excused myself after a day or two of non-stop advertisements and political arguments for the new, modern Republic of China and took a taxi up Yang Min Shan. It was much different than I recollected and I couldn't quite remember where to go. I stopped the taxi at what seemed a familiar spot and let him go. I would find the rest of my way on foot.

The house had been left to rot in the shadow of ostentatious new mansions where the peanut field and The Rocks used to be. I couldn't see The Rocks anywhere. It must have taken Nubian slave labor to move them. The Jungle had been carved up and domesticated by backyards and gardens. I wondered about The Thousand Steps, about the people who had left The Jar, about the old banana groves and tiny rice paddies. The old farmers had died or were forced out or perhaps had sold their places to developers for a tidy sum.

The house itself was abandoned. I hopped over the wall surrounding it, avoiding the broken glass defenses, to take a look. It was in shambles, the ceiling inside had partially collapsed and water had soaked the floors allowing some vegetation to make its home. Weeds grew tall from cracks in the driveway and patio. The backyard garden had gone feral.

The Jungle beyond our backyard was now gone. What did remain of it was its creeping, wet growth throughout the rooms of the house, a place now redolent of the life-giving death of The Jungle. It had internalized itself. The places I had inhabited, where I slept and ate and learned and played, had become one.

Photo: benghazii

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Still Here

Yeah, I'm still here. I started a long-ish story and have a lot to blabber about in the ongoing reality/fantasy community. But I'm a bit nackered with a ton of deadlines (I'm a procrastinator - my own fault), new career directions/opportunities/necessities, ongoing academic projects, probably a big move for me coming soon, and personal vicissitudes. There will be some gaps in posting in the coming weeks. None of these things are easy and I'm a terrible manager of time and obligations. Always have been. But life intrudes, and I'll be making a move.

Please stick around. We'll keep this outfit running. There will simply be some gaps in posting and some half-assed posts (a specialty of Phronesisaical). A ringing endorsement,... I know. But this ain't The Nation here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Twelve-Tone

A nice little piece in the Times (via 3QD) on Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. The composition that eased me into the contemporary music camp as a youngster was Schoenberg's now overly romantic-seeming Verklärte Nacht of 1899, which is pre-12-tone, but a lovely introduction to the coming "emancipation of dissonance."
...if the application of the technique is loose, the aesthetic of 12-tone music — its deliberately disorienting sound world, its burst-open harmonic palette, its leaping lines and every-which-way counterpoint, its gleeful avoidance of tonal centers — is very much alive among exciting composers of otherwise strikingly different styles. Think of Judith Weir, Stephen Hartke, Kaija Saariaho, Steven Stucky and Thomas Adès...

Schoenberg revered order, form and tradition. So he took a conceptual leap. If all 12 pitches in the octave are to be used more or less equally, why not devise a system that ensured a kind of equality?

Instead of the old tonal hierarchy, or his short-lived experiment in harmonic free-for-all, Schoenberg specified that the 12 pitches be put in an order, or row. Once a pitch was sounded, it was not to be repeated until the entire row had unfolded. There were countless ways around this dictum, however, because Schoenberg adapted his technique so that the row could be transposed, gone through backward or upside down, broken into smaller units that were mixed and matched, and so on. Wiggle room was built in from the start.

Friday, October 12, 2007


A Future American Mythology of Our Present

Bartle Bull, writing in American Prospect, argues that the Iraq War has accomplished the big goals it set out to accomplish.
...three and a half years after the start of the insurgency, most of the big questions in Iraq have been resolved. Moreover, they have been resolved in ways that are mostly towards the positive end of the range of outcomes imagined at the start of the project. The country is whole. It has embraced the ballot box. It has created a fair and popular constitution. It has avoided all-out civil war. It has not been taken over by Iran. It has put an end to Kurdish and marsh Arab genocide, and anti-Shia apartheid. It has rejected mass revenge against the Sunnis. As shown in the great national votes of 2005 and the noisy celebrations of the Iraq football team's success in July, Iraq survived the Saddam Hussein era with a sense of national unity; even the Kurds—whose reluctant commitment to autonomy rather than full independence is in no danger of changing—celebrated. Iraq's condition has not caused a sectarian apocalypse across the region. The country has ceased to be a threat to the world or its region. The only neighbours threatened by its status today are the leaders in Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran.

The entire piece, unfortunately, could be picked apart point by point on moral, political, logical, and strategic grounds. Bartle likely knows this and is wringing his moist hands in anticipation of the waves his article will make. I'll leave the analysis to others with greater patience.

What struck me, however, is how neatly this plays into the claim (often made by Bush and Cheney themselves) that President Bush is a visionary, a man who has sought noble and lofty goals for peace in the Middle East but knew that he would have to roll up his sleeves to achieve these goals. He would be unpopular, this story goes, and would have to engage in a costly war. But the greater good for humankind would be achieved and, as some have claimed, history would even look back on Bush's war as a great historical event, an epochal turning point.

Stepping back for a moment, then, how do we generally view past moments in American history? When we think of the landmark periods that are thought to define America as a great nation, we usually think of the period of the American Revolution, Constitutional Convention, and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers; the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; possibly the settling of the US frontier; perhaps the US entry into and victory in World War II; perhaps also the Civil Rights movement. As a philosopher, I think of the 100 years between the middle of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, when the greatest philosophers the US has produced reigned (Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Royce, James, Dewey). These are the great epochs in the history of the United States. These are the material out which the American mythology of greatness has been constructed. The mythology of greatness usually doesn't include the Spanish-American War, slavery, Indian massacres, the two periods of the Red Scare, the Vietnam War, US adventurism in South and Central America, etc.

What is common to the grand epochs? They all involve some great struggle in the face of substantial risk. More interestingly, I think, they all involve some example set as a universal claim for the rest of humanity. Think of the wisdom of the founders, for example. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison - perhaps the two greatest intellects of the time - were, of course, writing in the context of their own country's practical concerns and writing for that country. But their thought was also profoundly steeped in the political philosophy and metaphysics of the Scottish and French Enlightenment, and the exaltation of tolerance, reason, liberty, democracy, and scientific knowledge and method. The Enlightenment generally involved a set of claims that displaced the authority of God and the Church as the source of knowledge and truth and replaced this authority with that of reason and science.

Whatever one's criticisms of the Enlightenment for its over-emphasis on foundational reason or over-fetishization of progress defined in scientific terms, what is important here is that this intellectual world was one in which Jefferson in particular was heavily engaged as a political, moral, and scientific thinker. More important than the historical reference is that Jefferson's and Madison's own ideas were not directed purely at "national interests" (again, where those interests tend to be defined today in the constricted language of "economic interests" - we're rather far from Jefferson). Jeffersonian and Madisonian claims about liberty and rights were universal claims. The US Bill of Rights is a bill of universal rights (taking "universal" with a grain of salt, given the history of slavery). The fact that these applied only to the US is simply a matter of the practical considerations of the state system. The moral claims embodied in such rights and liberties, however, were derivative of what Kant called a decade or so later the "dictates of reason." Reason was a human faculty, not an American faculty. And its dictates, the intellectual founders thought, led necessarily to the moral claims embodied in the system of rights eventually negotiated in a context of more mundane and local concerns at historical events such as the Philadelphia Convention.

The common pattern in each of the great events of American history, at least the ones above that I suggest are foundational to the American mythology of greatness, is the appeal to something universal, not merely American. The historical context in each case is, obviously, a context of local American struggles, and these contexts shaped practical content. But the claims that resonate through history are ones that aspire to universality in each case: the Bill of Rights, the rejection of slavery, the rejection of a racial or gendered distribution of opportunity. Even if one exalts the settling of the American frontier as one of the epochal moments, with all its abuses of native Americans, one is still implying some underlying universal claim about human liberty and self-creation.

When we speculate about the future American mythology of the present we are, of course, injecting our own preferences into the speculation. When it comes to the Iraq War or the "War on Terror," those events through which the Bush/Cheney clan wish to define the present moment as a great struggle, we need to look to the universality of the cause if we wish to fit our time into the lineage of great American turning points. As a theoretical and practical matter, we ought always to be suspicious of claims to universality without good reasons to back them up, and of particular interests posing as universals. That's simply a matter of intellectual integrity as well as, when it comes to providing good reasons, respect for others.

What we find when we take our seats in our hypothetical future armchairs is not a claim to a universal good for humankind, but a series of self-interested actions (and, I think, a fundamental disaster). Yes, the administration has laid claim to all this as a matter of fighting in the name of human rights or democracy or peace and global security. Each of these drop away upon the slightest investigation.

The human rights claim is at best secondary or tertiary in the long line of justifications for the Iraq War, and is nonetheless belied by the systematic American abuse of its prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere. It's also belied by the administration's lack of support for global human rights law, as well as its highly selective concerns about human rights abuses elsewhere. The selectivity itself refers us back to strategic self-interests.

The form of democracy the administration has in mind is already just about the most bare-boned imaginable. A vote equals democracy. If democracy also involves transparency, accountability, freedom of opportunity, and other social goods, which happen to be consistently undermined domestically and internationally by the administration, then the administration's claims to democracy-promotion also drop by the wayside.

Peace and global security? Nobody feels any safer, terrorist acts have increased, and many countries are less stable. Perhaps we're all wrong about this and the administration has some special access to wisdom that we don't. Even if we grant this flight of fancy for the sake of argument, we still have to wonder about the administration's clearly intentional stoking and management of its own citizen's fears in the name of the administration's own interests. Why should we actually be safer, but made to feel constantly on edge? Why should we look at various insecurities around the world related to the administration's foreign policy and believe them when they say that in the future we'll all be really thankful? Why should we observe the United States' loss of international standing as a moral leader and then accept the administration's claims that the planet is comprised of people who don't know any better?

Greatness involves the creation of something that gives us all hope, that applies equally to all of us and thus allows our aspirations, if not our actual achievements, to gain concreteness, to possess a kind of reality that makes us all think that we might be able to achieve a better future for ourselves and each other. In other words, historical greatness at least aspires to universality and it seeks a language in which to express it that we can all potentially understand. What we have in the present, however, is an insecure world, a tired world, and an America that seems so interior-gazing that it no longer realizes it doesn't have the messages that help guide the world.

The IPCC and Al Gore Share the Nobel Peace Prize

Breaking news: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former US Vice President Al Gore have won the Nobel Peace Prize...
...for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.
[Gore-Obama 2008!]

Quote of the Day

"It is inadmissible... to take all this pornography, kissing policemen and erotic pictures to Paris."

- Alexander Sokolov, Russia's Culture Minister (more here)

Kissing Policemen (An Epoch of Clemency) by Blue Noses

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Costa Rica Votes on CAFTA

Mark Weisbrot at The Huffington Post.

No country has ever had a national referendum on a "free trade" agreement before - which is not surprising since most of these agreements wouldn't be approved by the citizenry. Bill Clinton couldn't even get a majority of his own party in Congress to vote for NAFTA in 1993, and it's been downhill for these types of agreements ever since.

So Costa Rica - the region's richest and most democratic country - will be setting a precedent on Sunday with its referendum on CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement), which was negotiated in 2004.

Costa Ricans might want to watch out for a repeat of presidential elections last year, where current President Oscar Arias squeezed out a narrow (1.1 percent) victory over progressive candidate Ottón Solís, who criticized CAFTA in his campaign. In that campaign, erroneous polls reported by the media showed Arias with a large lead of 11-19 percentage points. This led to a record low turnout at the polls. Costa Rica could very well have a different president, and a different trade policy, if not for the impact of this false polling.

The latest polls in Costa Rica give an advantage to the "yes" vote, but things have been moving rapidly towards "No" since an embarrassing high-level government memo was leaked a few weeks ago. The memo, as the Los Angeles Times described it, "outlined a campaign of dirty tricks intended to sway voters." This included telling mayors that their cities would "not get a penny from the government for the next three years" if they did not deliver a majority of voters for CAFTA. In the words of the memo, the government also needed to "stimulate fear" among the voters, including "fear of the loss of jobs."

War Profiteering

Good for the House. Now... enforcement.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Link Dump

I'm pressed for time today, and am thus "dumping" some links here that I had wanted to write about.

Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times on the torturers of the Bush administration following the model of Nazism.

Another Blackwater incident
in Iraq. [correction: not Blackwater this time, but another private contractor]

Turkey okaying incursions into Iraq/Kurdistan. Turkey has been threatening this for some time. It now looks likely (for more, see this earlier post).

Jeffrey Lewis thinks the target of the Israeli bombing in Syria was a scud missile shipment.

The ten "most insane sports." I'm fond of The Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake (watch the video). But it still has nothing on ferret legging.

Smithsonian Magazine on hula.

At Alternet, "Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer's Order 81."

Barbara Kingsolver on the significance of farming.

Peter Dorman at Econospeak, "The Obama Carbon Plan."

From AskPhilosophers, answers to the question, "Is cybersex a sexual encounter? If you discover that your partner engages in it, is he/she cheating on you?"

From Pruned, an extraordinary Chilean walkway.

Photos from here.

Our Candidates: Tom Tancredo 2

"These mayors [of southern US border towns] have already demonstrated that their hearts and loyalties lie with Mexico," Tancredo said. "Perhaps they'd feel more comfortable if their cities were geographically located there as well."

Quote of the Day

He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

- Darwin (cited in this NY Times article on baboon thinking)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Banana Blossom

Mp3 Find of the Day

Here's another mp3 find of the day (the previous one here). This is the German band, Die Goldenen Zitronen, courtesy of the great WFMU. Here's part of WFMU's blurb:
The band from Hamburg with the enigmatic name started out innocently enough in 1984, playing "punk pathetique" (in Germany it was called "fun-punk") in the vein of such bands as the Toy Dolls or Splodgenessabounds. Two other German bands who started playing similar music at the time were Die Ärzte (The Doctors) from Berlin and Die Toten Hosen (The Dead Pants) from Düsseldorf. All three of those are still around, but Die Goldenen Zitronen quickly established themselves as the most interesting of the bunch. Over time their lyrics became both more experimental and political, and the music also turned into something else.
Me, I go for three of the songs in particular: the proggy "Von den Daemonen des Wesley Willis (FCC)," "Das bisschen Totschlag," and the somewhat danceable (if you dance like I do) "Auf Dem Platz Der Leeren Versprechungen."

Check them out, leave the WFMU folks a thank you note, and let me know what you think.

Sunday Readings

Let's get away from Iraq, Blackwater, and other disasters for a moment. Here are some readings on the margins from the Sunday papers.

I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer
Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth...

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before".
Macao's boom leaving many behind

Like many other Macanese, he complains that the influx of labor across the border with China keeps wages low, while the cost of living - especially rents in working-class neighborhoods - spirals upward.

"Mainland people might be earning 3,000 a month at home. They come here and they earn 6,000," said Kuan. "For them it's a high rate, for us it's too low."

This is the reverse side of Macao's phenomenal growth, out of sight of most visitors to the artificial world created by new casinos like the Venetian, where above the gondolas on the fake canal the sky is always blue and the clouds cheerfully white because they are painted on the ceiling.

Taking Life Easy in Urban Italy
Cimicchi was mayor of Orvieto from 1991 to 2004, and for several years he was president of the "Slow City" movement, an outgrowth of the successful "Slow Food" concept. "Slow City" advocates argue that small cities should preserve their traditional structures by observing strict rules: cars should be banned from city centers; people should eat only local products and use sustainable energy. In these cities, there's not much point in looking for a supermarket chain or McDonald's.

"Our goal is to create liveable cities," says Cimicchi, a cheerful 51-year-old with a white moustache and laugh lines around his eyes. "We are working, if you will, on the concept of the utopian city, in the same way as the writer Italo Calvino and the architect Renzo Piano have done."...

Residents serve as quiet proof that concentrating on local products and industries can be a benefit, rather than a restriction. And lest they begin to seem like a bunch of ascetics, they make sure to hold wine festivals and riotous feasts on area farms.

To a certain extent, a "slow city" tries to preserve the civic structures from medieval or Renaissance times, while at the same time incorporating the most recent scientific findings of ecology and sustainability. Even modern technology is allowed if it helps to meet the city's goals....
Photo: Stephan Orth

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Last Argument

Andrew Tilghman, writing in Washington Monthly, discusses the last excuse for being in Iraq: fighting al Qaeda. It's an article very much worth reading.

This scenario has become common. After a strike, the military rushes to point the finger at al-Qaeda, even when the actual evidence remains hazy and an alternative explanation—raw hatred between local Sunnis and Shiites—might fit the circumstances just as well. The press blasts such dubious conclusions back to American citizens and policy makers in Washington, and the incidents get tallied and quantified in official reports, cited by the military in briefings in Baghdad. The White House then takes the reports and crafts sound bites depicting AQI as the number one threat to peace and stability in Iraq. (In July, for instance, at Charleston Air Force Base, the president gave a speech about Iraq that mentioned al-Qaeda ninety-five times.)

By now, many in Washington have learned to discount the president's rhetorical excesses when it comes to the war. But even some of his harshest critics take at face value the estimates provided by the military about AQI's presence. Politicians of both parties point to such figures when forming their positions on the war. All of the top three Democratic presidential candidates have argued for keeping some American forces in Iraq or the region, citing among other reasons the continued threat from al-Qaeda.

But what if official military estimates about the size and impact of al-Qaeda in Iraq are simply wrong? Indeed, interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further, al-Qaeda's presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be overstated....

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dragon Fruit

Mr. Unpopularity

Public approval for President Bush and Congress has sunk to the lowest levels ever recorded in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

Only 31 percent said they approve of the job Bush is doing, according to the survey released on Thursday.
Of course, popularity isn't everything. Why not shoot for utter disgrace?

The Cruel and Unusual Administration

An important article in the NY Times today detailing the Bush Administration's and Gonzales' Justice Department's secret orders to continue the harshest possible torture.
...soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.

Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard...

“We were getting asked about combinations — ‘Can we do this and this at the same time?’” recalled Paul C. Kelbaugh, a veteran intelligence lawyer who was deputy legal counsel at the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center from 2001 to 2003.

Three Environmental Links

If you're in the business of monitoring climate change, gazing over charts and graphs of indicators, or even if you're not, this new site based at Columbia is worth a look:
The CIESIN World Data Center

Innovative thinking about energy - footsteps:
Power Harnessed One Step at a Time

And an internet game intended as a pedagogical tool, but you be the judge:
Third World Farmer

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Gorilla in Gabon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

16,306 of 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List are threatened with extinction, reports the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The total number of known extinct species now stands at 785, while a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation. One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70% of the world’s assessed plants on the 2007 IUCN Red List are considered at risk.

“This year’s IUCN Red List shows that the invaluable efforts made so far to protect species are not enough," said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing and we need to act now to significantly reduce it and stave off this global extinction crisis. This can be done, but only with a concerted effort by all levels of society.”...

Many scientists say Earth is presently in the midst of a sixth great extinction, the Holocene. Unlike previous mass extinctions in the past -- the Ordovician, the Devonian, the Permian, the Triassic and the Cretaceous -- the current extinction event results directly from human activities, including habitat destruction, overexploitation, and the introduction of alien species to environments where they do not occur naturally. Scientists estimate that extinction rates are presently 1,000-10,000 times the historical background rate of about 1 species per million per year. They say that extinction rates will significantly increase in coming years, especially as the impacts of climate change intensify.

Another Episode of "If It Were Not So Tragic, It Would Be Comical"

During today's hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked Goldsmith where [the Bybee Memo definition of torture] had come from. "It came from a health care statute designed to define the circumstances under which there was an emergency situation warranting health care benefits," he answered. He explained that "severe pain" is hard to define, and so the lawyers likely cast around for a way to define it -- but that the health care code probably wasn't the best place to look.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Fame and Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry has a new blog. Here he is on fame:
Is it fun? Or, as student journalists always ask, what’s it like? ‘What’s it like working with Natalie Portman, what’s it like doing QI, what’s it like being famous?’ I don’t know what it is like. What is being English like? What is wearing a hat like? What’s eating Thai red curry like? I don’t believe that I can answer any question formulated that way. So, student journalists, tyro profilers and rooky reporters out there, seriously, quite seriously never ask a ‘what’s it like’ question, it instantly reveals your crapness. I used to try getting surreal when asked the question and say things like ‘being famous is like wearing blue pyjamas at the opera. It’s like kissing Neil Young, but only on Wednesdays. It’s like a silver disc gummed to the ear of a wolverine. It’s like licking crumbs from the belly of a waitress called Eileen. It’s like lemon polenta cake but slightly wider. It’s like moonrise on the planet Posker.’ I mean honestly. What’s it like?? Stop it at once.