Sunday, December 30, 2007


Photo: Helmut

...Though not sure I'm ready to blog yet.... Barba has been doing a terrific job. It's great to have him back and I hope he'll be hanging out regularly again. This is a 500% better place for it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays, From the Road

Now both Helmut and I are a-travelin. Hoping you all are having great holidays, from the snowy northwest.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

He's Makin a List, He's Using a Computer to Check It Constantly

From the Washington Post:

CLARKSBURG, W. Va. -- The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to build the world's largest computer database of peoples' physical characteristics, a project that would give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals in the United States and abroad.

Digital images of faces, fingerprints and palm patterns are already flowing into FBI systems in a climate-controlled, secure basement here. Next month, the FBI intends to award a 10-year contract that would significantly expand the amount and kinds of biometric information it receives. And in the coming years, law enforcement authorities around the world will be able to rely on iris patterns, face-shape data, scars and perhaps even the unique ways people walk and talk, to solve crimes and identify criminals and terrorists. The FBI will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees who have undergone criminal background checks so the employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law.

Should we be surprised? In today's NYT:

A newly declassified document shows that J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison some 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty.

[ . . . ]

The names were part of an index that Hoover had been compiling for years. “The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven per cent are citizens of the United States,” he wrote.

Helmut's also makin a list.

More on Yesterday's Theme

How about one animal, stuffed with another animal, stuffed with another animal shipped frozen from an online bookseller?

Saturday, December 22, 2007


An unpleasant resonance in a couple of pieces linked in the Ethicurean digest for today:

First, this bad news about global food supplies:
In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned Monday.

The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

To blame: a decrease in farm subsidies in the interest of free markets, climate change, and a heavy US demand for virgin biofuels like ethanol:

Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling their corn to make subsidized ethanol.
And this, on the outcry by meat and dairy producers (among others) about rising costs of grain:

But now the price of some foods is rising sharply, and from the corridors of Washington to the aisles of neighborhood supermarkets, a blame alert is under way.

Among the favorite targets is ethanol, especially for food manufacturers and livestock farmers who seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops.

[ . . . ]

“We did get whipped,” said Jay Truitt, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association,.“We continue to be caught up in this fervor, almost spirituality, about ethanol. You can’t get anyone to consider that there is a consequence to these actions.”

He added, “We think there will be a day when people ask, ‘Why in the world did we do this?’”
Did, uh, what, exactly? Elected to produce meat on an absurd and monumental scale, industrially, in feedlots, with corn? Decided everybody in America needed to eat some cow or chicken every single goddamned day? Concluded we all needed to haul around -- in addition to our fat selves -- several tons of not especially aerodynamic steel and plastic because this makes us safer? Or believed we wouldn't have to change anything -- our diets, our cars, our idling with the air conditioner running -- because market-based science would save us?

How did bread get mixed up in economies of scale? Is this the legacy of the Green Revolution?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

[ . . . ] He'd no sooner got his fire to burn than he saw across the prairie in the darkness another fire. Like his it twisted in the wind, like his it warmed one man alone.

It was an old hunter in camp and the hunter shared tobacco with him and told him of the buffalo and the stands he'd made against them, laid up in a sag on some rise with the dead animals scattered over the grounds and the herd beginning to mill and the riflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the bore and the animals by the thousands and tens of thousands and the hides pegged out over actual square miles of ground and the teams of skinners spelling one another around the clock and the shooting and shooting weeks and months till the bore shot slick and the stock shot loose at the tang and their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow and the tandem wagons groaned away over the prairie twenty and twenty-two ox teams and the flint hides by the ton and hundred ton and the meat rotting on the ground and the air whining with flies and the buzzards and ravens and the night a horror of snarling and feeding with the wolves half crazed and wallowing in the carrion.

I seen the Studebaker wagons with six and eight ox teams headed out for the grounds not haulin a thing but lead. Just pure galena. Tons of it. On this ground alone between the Arkansas River and the Concho there was eight million carcasses for that's how many hides reached the railhead. Two year ago we pulled out from Griffin for a last hunt. We ransacked the country. Six weeks. Finally found a herd of eight animals and we killed them and come in. They're gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they'd never been at all.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Thursday, December 20, 2007

You Must Burn It Like We Tell You To

At some point, I'll probably get busted for burning homemade biodiesel in my VW.
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday denied California and 16 other states the right to set their own standards for carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles.

The E.P.A. administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, said the proposed California rules were pre-empted by federal authority and made moot by the energy bill signed into law by President Bush on Wednesday. Mr. Johnson said California had failed to make a compelling case that it needed authority to write its own standards for greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks to help curb global warming.
I feel confused about states' rights.

Like Some Coca Cola (TM) With Your Odwalla Bar?

As you munch on your bowl of Kashi and Silk this morning, check out this post by Bonnie P. at Ethicurean.
You’ve probably seen the work of Phil Howard, even if you don’t know his name. He’s the professor behind those massive colored charts that show how most organic brands — usually the ones with the bucolic farms on the packages designed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy — are actually owned by large multinational corporations.

Recently Phil, who is an assistant professor of community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies at Michigan State University, alerted me that he had collaborated with Skye Bender-deMoll, an author of Stanford University’s SoNIA program (for Social Network Image Animator), on a short animation of the consolidation of the organic industry since 1997.
Have a look at this piece, if you have a chance. It's mesmerizingly disturbing.

Other good stuff at or from Ethicurean (a daily favorite for me . . . I'll try to add it to the sidebar here soon), lately: ongoing Farm Bill analysis there is always good, lucid stuff. Try this piece on the recent defeat of subsidy reform; they also link to Michael Pollan's most recent piece in the NYT Magazine: "Our Decrepit Food Factories."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reinventing the Stainless Steel Liquid Oxygen Zero Gravity Boost Valve

Or whatever it's called. I watched a bit of "Wired Science" (which could, for the record, be better produced) on KLRN tonight, and the first segment dealt with NASA's new charge to return to the moon and to Mars by such-and-such a date. The president said something about this, it seems, between the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it appears NASA has taken it very seriously.

However, they no longer really know how to make them there space rockets. So they looked in their archives for guidance. I mean: We the People already built this motherfucker, right? Let's just unroll the blueprints, make it lighter and meaner with microchip tech, give it fuel tanks and ethanol enough for a Mars Trip, and crank it till it goes. It'll be like a fuel-injected 64.5 Ford Mustang with power steering and a factory ipod interface and cupholders and airbags. Right?

It turns out -- this is so embarrassing -- we didn't really keep a lot of records of the technical doodads. Like, we kept some of the drawings of things and stuff, but not really any of the rationale for why, say, a certain valve might open at a certain level of atmospheric pressure. Or not. Or whatever. Lucky thing is, a lot of the Saturn rocket parts are still out there. We didn't have the foresight to demand that developers share their technology for posterity, but we did see to it that many of the actual parts wound up in high-end junkyards:
All this space detritus ended up here courtesy of a federal rule that required government contractors to return all their built hardware - or sell it for scrap. So Norton Sales made discarded space gear the centerpiece of its business. Their customers used to be mostly souvenir hunters and set decorators for science-fiction movies. But now, rocket scientists and engineers are calling, looking for pieces of the intricate rocket plumbing that haven't been made in four decades.
So. We're reverse engineering, spying on our own past. It makes sense: after all, the president wants us to get back into that frame of mind, to situate ourselves in that Edenic space-race yesteryear when spying and the simplistic vilification of our enemies and solid-state engineering led us to the kind of symbolic victory everybody in the world could understand.

But, yeah: we didn't really write any of it down, because we were -- and are -- so committed to the idea that information and ideas and plans have to be somebody's property. Then, it would have been embarrassing to suggest that America's Best Minds simply pitch in on Apollo just because they were committed to the advancement of civilization or science! Pshaw! We knew then as we know now that people are motivated only by profit to build things of lasting value and usefulness. We knew then as we know now that only the "private sector" will provide us with the solutions we need to travel to Mars, to end our dependency on carbon-based fuels, to educate our young people. Look, the private sector has educated our young thinkers so well that they can meticulously reconstruct the most important parts of a 40-year-old rocket engine . . .

I'm posting, by the way, from a linux box (and this is partly all just another appeal to Helmut to put all of Phronesisaical under a Creative Commons license).

Yer Lizard Brain

Dave Hickey, interviewed by Sheili Heti for The Believer:
In my experience, you always think you know what you’re doing; you always think you can explain, but you always discover, years later, that you didn’t and you couldn’t. This leads me to suspect that the principal function of human reason is to rationalize what your lizard brain demands of you. That’s my idea. Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It’s a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. The problems arise when we try to domesticate the practice, to pretend that it’s a normal human activity and that “everybody’s creative.” They’re not. Honestly, I never sit down to write anything without thinking, This is a weird thing to be doing! Why am I sitting here writing? Why am I looking at the Ellsworth Kelly on my wall? I don’t know. It feels funny to do these things, but it feels funnier not to, so I write and look. My only justification for the lizard brain thing is that, whatever I’m writing about and whatever I’m writing on, it all comes out the same. If I’m writing about furniture, Dick Cheney, Palladio, or surfing—if I’m writing on coke, speed, acid, smack, booze, panic, sorrow, or just cigarettes, it all comes out Dave writing, so, if altering one’s consciousness doesn’t alter the outcome, maybe it’s not about that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Jails for Jesus!

(Barba here, for the first time in a long while (I've been adjusting to the world of academic administration over the last year, and I've missed the Phronosphere and its inhabitants; as things are presently quiet here on campus, I told Helmut I'd post a bit while he's in Hawaii)).

I got a call yesterday from a concerned citizen of Leonard, TX -- which is northeast of Dallas -- who had read my primer on leaseback financing for private prison development in the South (available in this packet, if you're interested); she told me that Bill Robinson was lobbying the Leonard City Council to issue bonds to build itself a new prison to house out-of-state inmates. Robinson has developed a plan to run a holy hoosegow, and he has pitched it to a number of Texas cities and counties over the past few years. Unfortunately, the Leonard local government appears to be taking him seriously.

My caller reported that, at the end of a city council meeting the other night, an attorney representing the city trumped some citizen concerns by explaining that, "If you're not supporting this project, you need to go home and pray on it, because Satan is working on you."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Holidays

Posting is going to be light or non-existent for the next ten days or so (unless Barba has time to post). I'm headed off for some much-needed vacation time in tropical climes.

Happy holidays to all.

Ongoing Wreck of War

Tomas Van Houtryve for the International Herald Tribune

This is a heartbreaking story about a Hmong group who were hired by the CIA in Laos and were promptly abandoned at the end of the Vietnam War. They've been struggling to survive against hunger and the Lao military in the Laotian jungles ever since.

It's worth remembering that war always runs deep.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best Music of 2007: The Rest

Here's the rather long list of other music that was a turn-on this year. This one covers pop, folk, rock, a couple of jazz albums, R&B, and a dash of some of the great psych stuff that came out this year. Some of these musicians are known quantities. Others are relatively unknown. Please give them their due and consider purchasing their albums. As always, these are in no particular order, although I've listed Oren Lavie first since he gave us one of the loveliest songs of the year, "Her Morning Elegance." Fionn's up there too for his blisteringly brilliant "Zone."
Best Music of 2007: Latin
Best Music of 2007: Electronic
Best Music of 2007: French
Best Music of 2007: International
Best Music of 2007: Hip Hop

Magical Politics

James Wolcott on the magic dolphin effect:

Peggy Noonan, Charles Krauthammer, and some of the honkers at NRO's Corner are issuing distress calls about the overegging of religion in the Republican primaries.


The Republican race looks--at the moment--to be determined primarily by one thing, the question of religious faith. In my lifetime faith has been a significant issue in presidential politics, but not the sole determinative one. Is that changing? If it is, it is not progress.


This campaign is knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse. I'd thought that the limits of professed public piety had already been achieved during the Republican CNN/YouTube debate when some squirrelly looking guy held up a Bible and asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?"--and not one candidate dared reply: None of your damn business.

Back in 2000, when Noonan endorsed George Bush for president, his muscular Christianity reduced her to rhetorical mush:

George Bush is a compassionate conservative. He sees the needs other, older conservatives did not always see, or did not always think they must or could address. But he applies conservative solutions to these needs: more freedom, more choice, the inclusion in the public sphere of faith-based approaches. All the money in the world, he knows, cannot and will not turn around a troubled child’s heart. But God can, and his workers are eager. Bush does not fear faith as an opposing power center to the state. He likes it as an opposing power center to the state. After all, faith freed Poland; perhaps it can free a tough 16-year-old in inner-city Detroit too. that Mike Huckabee has flapped his arms and scattered the pigeons, jeopardizing the candidacies of expensive empty suits such as Romney and Fred Thompson, not to mention Giuliani's big-state gameplan, the media's collective bobblehead brain trust has rediscovered the virtues of secular firewalls and tucking faith in the vest pocket rather than draping yourself in velvet yards of it.
Keep reading.

Bali Roadmap

IISD Reporting Services has been monitoring the UNFCCC negotiations in Bali.
The “Bali roadmap” refers to a decision by COP 13 and a series of COP/MOP 3 decisions that are designed to give direction and shape to a two-year negotiating process to finalize a post-2012 regime by COP 15 and COP/MOP 5 in December 2009. In the words of COP President Rachmat Witoelar, the roadmap has “several tracks and numerous milestones.”

Under the Convention, the COP launched “a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action, now, up to and beyond 2012, in order to adopt a decision at COP 15.” To achieve this, the COP decided to establish an Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action that will complete its work in 2009, and will hold its first session no later than April 2008.
It's a good step. The US yielded a bit, but keep in mind that their agreement is basically to seek GHG emissions reductions. It's a matter of yielding from what was formerly an intransigent, absolutist position. On the other hand, developing nations have also yielded a bit on their claims that the industrialized countries responsible for the vast bulk of emissions should take on most if not all of the responsibility for reductions. It's something, and the beginning of the post-2012 post-Kyoto treaty. The real work will be done between now and the meetings in Copenhagen in two years.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Obama or Edwards

Obama or Edwards.
Obama or Edwards!
Obama or Edwards?
Obama? Or Edwards?
Obama! Or Edwards!
Obama. Or Edwards?
Obama? Or Edwards.
Obama! Or Edwards.
Obama. Or Edwards!
Obama or Edwards...

Obama or Edwards??

Best Music of 2007: Hip Hop

Well, I don't listen to a lot of hip hop. What we've got here is a list of hip hop/house mostly from the margins (with two that show up on previous lists). Hope you like them.
  • Rench - Gangstagrass (Milwaukee - Country Hip Hop)
  • Tim Fite - Over the Counter Culture (Brooklyn)
  • Flying Lotus - Reset EP (California)
  • Move.meant - The Scope of Things (Los Angeles)
  • RJD2 - The Third Hand (Philadelphia)
  • eDIT - Certified Air Raid Material (Los Angeles)
  • Clutchy Hopkins - Walking Backwards (California)
  • La Mala Rodríguez - Malamarismo (Spain)
  • Kidkanevil - Problems and Solutions (UK)
  • Quio - PHIU (Germany)
  • Talo Beez presenta Raptefactos Vol. 1 compilation (Chile)
  • Dälek - Abandoned Language (Newark, NJ)
  • Saul Williams - The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! (NY/LA)
  • Galactic - From the Corner to the Block (New Orleans)
Best Music of 2007: Latin
Best Music of 2007: Electronic
Best Music of 2007: French
Best Music of 2007: International

Barba's Figs

Photo: Barba de Chiva

Rendition Institution

This account in Salon by former rendition prisoner, Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, must be read. Note the details all the way along: reports coming from Washington, newly fitted cells placed adjacent to each other apparently in an airplane hangar, silent and masked American guards in black, medical and psychiatric staff, special equipment, innocent victims, etc.

Despite what some say in the US public discourse on torture, all torture is psychological, whether physical or non-physical. Torture is about breaking the human will and destroying an individual's autonomy through extreme psychological and physical pain and humiliation. This makes it a difficult thing to pinpoint with definitional accuracy, since some victims are capable of resisting longer than others and particular techniques may affect victims in different ways. The account relayed here by Bashmilah is torture. And this is an institutionalized system of torture, which is bound to torture innocents. There is no question.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

“[T]he anti-war protesters remain clueless. They’re still planning their marches.

Instead, they should be apologizing.

Before the war, they told us that 500,000 Iraqis would be killed in Dresden-like bombing, that we would precipitate an eco-catastrophe by pushing Saddam to set fire to his oil wells, that millions of people would flee the country, that thousands of our own troops would be killed, that the Arab ‘street’ would rise up, that terrorist attacks would resume ferociously on our homeland, that Iraqis would tenaciously resist our colonization of their land, that we would become bogged down in urban warfare, and on and on.

In fact, none of that has happened. It has been a war unmatched in history, with relatively few civilian and allied casualties and the prime objectives—control of the capital and the destruction of Saddam’s regime—achieved in only a few weeks.

Conscientious opponents of the war should say they were wrong, wrong, wrong—on all counts.”

--James K. Glassman, nominated by President George W. Bush to replace Karen Hughes as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs; in his “Peacemongers Should Be Apologizing Not Marching” (Capitalist Magazine, April 14, 2003)

From John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best Music of 2007: International

I don't know what else to call this category but "International." Since I've already compiled the French and Latin American lists, and since I'm in the US, "International" basically means "Music Not from the US, France, or Latin America, and of Which English Is Not the Principal Language." I'm not even sure this will hold up over the next couple of lists.

Is it the case that the Smithsonian Field Recording is a thing of the past? Are there still Alan Lomax types out there? It seems to me that the Smithsonian recordings are increasingly indistinguishable from many other "world music" recordings on sometimes fairly large labels. The sound is crisp and "produced." Twenty or thirty years ago a group such as Mali's Tinariwen likely wouldn't have had a label simply because the music industry was oblivious and because there was no market-constituting audience that possessed the aesthetic to take up this beautiful music. At best, maybe the Smithsonian or some other cultural research organization would have pressed their music to a very limited number of vinyl copies. Is it that today everyone can find a way to record, that recorded music is known and possessed almost everywhere? Or is it that the global music industry has sucked the planet dry of its roots? Or is it that we've come upon a synthesis of local music and what's available to a mass market? Or are we all out of fields?

The musical world is infinite, and there's always plenty more interesting stuff to discover. I'm sure this list misses a lot. Nevertheless,... here's some more music from 2007 that's definitely worth your time.
Best Music of 2007: Latin
Best Music of 2007: Electronic
Best Music of 2007: French
Best Music of 2007: Hip Hop

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Company Tapes

Good point from Ned:
Besides the obvious, generally arrived-at conclusions in this business of the CIA "destroying videotapes" of torture, it strikes your correspondent that this story seems a trifle anachronistic...

The fact of the matter is, videotape that can be taken into the woods and burnt has been an outmoded technology since the mid-Nineties. It's true that digital recording media can be destroyed just as easily as a box of tapes, but surely -- surely -- an operation as technically sophisticated as The Company would make backups, and backups of backups, of any and all recordings. In 2007, it strains credulity to the breaking point to try to convince a Congressional committee that the record of an event that was recorded on digital video was destroyed utterly, without a chance of reconstruction.

Immanuel Kant: Wrong for America

From 3 Quarks Daily.

Meyer Lemon

Monday, December 10, 2007

Best Music of 2007: French

Music from France has a big role in my life. There's so much that's so bad, there's so much that's so good, and then there's so much that's so bad it's good. I listen to both the latter two categories. But the list that follows is taken from the good category. And it's really nice stuff. That lovely button-hook, Vanessa Paradis, wife of Johnny Depp, has put out the best album of her career. And there are a host of newer musicians doing creative, beautiful, and challenging work to rival anything anywhere else. A couple of demo-level musicians are involved here, although not long of the demo, I hope. I'm really looking forward to Soko's and Cecile Hercule's coming work, both of whom should have some smart label calling them soon. I adore all of this... in different ways. Again, in no particular order.
Best Music of 2007: Latin
Best Music of 2007: Electronic
Best Music of 2007: International
Best Music of 2007: Hip Hop

Torture Hearing

Yours truly gave testimony on torture this morning to the Helsinki Commission, chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). Here's the transcript of my statement passed out to everyone at the hearing.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to speak to the Helsinki Commission....

Historically, physical and psychological torture has been used to suppress dissent, force renunciation of beliefs, extract confessions, punish, force denunciation of others, intimidate a population, humiliate, and gather information. All torturers claim a state of necessity. Recently, some have advanced the claim of significant information once again to justify torture. They argue that the information gained from torture is of greater moral significance than the torture of human beings. Torture, they say, is a necessary evil in the battle against a greater evil. The entire claim is based on the premise that there exists information of great moral significance, that it is discoverable only through torture, and that this legitimizes the use of torture.

As with most ethical issues, how the problem is articulated is of crucial importance. Today, torture is commonly justified by appeal to a state of necessity emblematic in the proverbial ticking time-bomb hypothesis. This frames the issue wrongly from the outset, however, and grounds it in a state of fear. The ticking time bomb example, so corrosive of our moral imagination in the public discourse, provides a crude utilitarian justification for the use of torture: torturing one bad man versus saving many innocent people. This may serve to trump the basic claims of the absolute prohibitionist. But why stop with the one bad man, on this view? If the potential information is of great moral significance, why not torture the one man’s children or everyone in his village? To assume this normative framework appears to allow for the most extensive abuses committed in the name of uncovering the morally significant information presumed a priori.

A better understanding of what is entailed in seeking morally significant information through torture thoroughly belies the information-gathering justification on both efficacy grounds and moral grounds.

Torture “works” in that torture victims speak. The information gained is notoriously unreliable, however, as noted since the time of Aristotle. Accounts of torture from the Inquisitions exhibit how the most delirious tales were elicited from the victims. This information served to confirm the prior beliefs of the torturers. Bad weather, for instance, was thought at the time to be caused by airborne demons in consort with human “witches.” In the delirium of torture, torture victims – those accused of being witches – confirmed these beliefs while providing the names of other “witches” who would reconfirm both the preposterous prior beliefs and the inquisitors’ authority. The information was, of course, not true. Yet, it was meaningful information in that it fit extant prior beliefs in a historical context framed as a medieval version of the state of necessity.

If information, today, must be of great moral significance to justify torture, how would we know it was of such moral significance? First, torturing for information requires the institutionalization of torture. Many commentators have noted this. There must be trained torturers and thus also trainers, a legal and administrative apparatus, a cadre of doctors and lawyers and data analysts, and so on. Non-torturous intelligence-gathering and interrogation activities already require similar institutionalization. The conspicuous difference is that the latter does not demand by its nature that each human link in the apparatus suspend its moral decency. Moreover, many intelligence professionals and interrogators state that there are much better methods of gaining actionable intelligence than through torture, even when conducted under time constraints.

Second, since raw information from an individual torture victim is unreliable, information that rises to the level of morally significant information is highly unlikely ever to be gained from an individual victim alone. Torture must be used broadly. On occasion, the torturers might have prior expectations that the prisoner indeed possesses important information. The justification of morally significant information demands prior knowledge that the torture victim possesses this information. It also demands that the information be actionable such that a serious, imminent threat is actually prevented. It is exceedingly difficult, however, if not impossible, to judge the information gained from torture to be morally significant until that greater evil is indeed prevented. This combined knowledge prior to the act of torture might very well obviate any perceived need to torture. More likely than the time bomb case of torturing one bad person is the case of torturing many innocent people in search of what might hypothetically justify the act of torture.

How does one know when one has true information? When one seeks to justify torture by gaining important information one presupposes that such information exists, and will be discovered only through a morally heinous practice. The information must thus be previously unknown in order to justify using torture. Yet, its moral significance must also be previously known in order to justify the act. It is not meaningful information until one has tortured, gained information, and then verified it. This is where information may become meaningful. Meaningful information may then fit with prior beliefs, assumptions, and modes of interpretation (and in the present case, recall, the context is a state of necessity). But it is not necessarily true information, as illustrated briefly in the example from the Inquisition. Furthermore, the victim’s guilt need never be resolved.

The logic of acquiring true information as opposed to merely meaningful information suggests a more extensive practice. Drew Sullivan, an investigative journalist currently based in Bosnia, recently recounted to me his time spent on the Thai border with Burmese journalists and refugees. Each of the journalists had been tortured by the Myanmar government. In discussions with Mr. Sullivan and others about their torture, the victims explained that during their ordeals they were often confronted by the torturers with information – true and false – derived from the previous tortures of other victims, often relatives or friends who had been tortured many months earlier. It became clear that the military regime of Myanmar maintains a database comprised of information gained through torture. Of course, information from individual torture victims must be correlated with information from other victims and verified or falsified in order to be serviceable. The Myanmar government tortured many people in order to evaluate various individual bits of information and compare them with other bits of information in order to build a coherent account of actual information. All data from the individual torture victims – whether “good” or “bad” information – are logged into the database. The database then serves to uncover patterns in the mass of information and misinformation.

A principal incentive raised by the argument for torture as a means of gathering information is precisely what the Myanmar example suggests. It is ultimately to seek patterns of information rather than attempt to verify or falsify individual bits of data, especially under time and resource constraints. Comprehensive sets of data-points yield more complex patterns. The more extensive the practice and institution, the more successful torture will be. If torture is used indiscriminately and broadly, more complex patterns and a better understanding of what is meaningful in the information will be obtained. Patterns of information by themselves are meaningless, but they serve to corroborate and verify partial bits of information and infer other patterns. They also serve to eliminate or falsify outlying bits of information, the information gained from those innocent of any perceived wrongdoing. A descriptive narrative may be interpreted and assembled from the resulting patterns and regularities.

This is now a far cry, however, from an argument based on the moral tradeoff between torturing the one in order to save the many. At no point has meaningful information risen to the level of morally significant information that justifies torture. In the numbers game of the information-gathering justification (symbolized by the time-bomb), as the number of torture victims grows, the moral justification diminishes, although this element is not included by proponents of the argument. The use of torture as an instrument for gaining morally significant information thus contains its own absurdity. We end up with a swelling institution in search of its moral justification, causing increasing damage to innocents and ourselves, all in search of the supreme moral justification – the time bomb – only to find that, in the end, it is we who have become the moral equivalent of the time bomb.

I have limited this statement to discussion of the justification of torture as an information-gathering instrument because its current proponents state that the information is of greater moral significance than the torture of human beings. Every ethical and religious tradition, however, views torture as abhorrent. The other purposes of torture listed at the beginning of this statement are plainly beyond the bounds of all morality, although the slippery slope of torture often leads to such purposes, as exhibited in the photographs from Abu Ghraib. Since the currently proposed moral justification for torture as information-gathering is itself morally unjustifiable, we are better off treating the prohibition of torture as morally absolute.

The laws of a liberal democracy must clearly and firmly reflect these moral considerations, even if a scenario as portrayed in the time-bomb example should ever arise in actuality. In such a highly implausible case, in which all the conditions of prior knowledge of the victim’s guilt are equally in place, those who choose to torture must nonetheless face the consequences of severe legal sanction. Later judges of the torturers may decide to consider mitigation in their case, but mitigation cannot be determined in advance by a presumed state of necessity. Since liberal democracy – indeed the entire liberal political tradition – is grounded on universal principles of individual autonomy and dignity, to institutionalize their violation is to attack the very foundations of liberal democracy.

Fish Fish

This fish may soon taste like itself.

The NY Times Sunday Magazine does its annual "year of ideas" list. One of my favorites is fish-flavored fish. It will join the tomato-flavored tomato, which, incidentally, was genetically engineered years ago by splicing in a flounder gene to regain the tomato flavor that the tomato had lost through industrialized farming. But, whereas the flounder-tomato is a response to the absurd treadmills that values of production and efficiency place us on, the fishy fish is a response to the watered down (pardon the pun) flavor of farmed fish, which is, in turn, a response to dangerously depleted wild fish stocks. But there's a bonus this time: just maybe the new fishy fish will save wild fish from global warming, so that one day in the future we may once again be able to eat fish-flavored fish from their natural habitat.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Best Music of 2007: Electronic

I have no business doing these lists. I listen to music in an intentionally random way. Organizing it into listy-ness and then suggesting that this might mean something to you, or me, is just wrong. I really don't know anything about electronica/electronic/electro/house/techno/etc. I don't even really know how to categorize these little genres. But I do listen to a lot of music all across the board, and, like all of us, I decide what I like. LCD Soundsystem is big. Pole isn't really, though I've liked him since the blue album in the late 90s, and I've always had a soft spot for Mark E. Smith's Fall stuff and for the peerless Mouse on Mars. I have no idea if the kids listen to the others. Nonetheless, here they are from 2007 in the electro...whatever category.
Best Music of 2007: Latin American Music
Best Music of 2007: French
Best Music of 2007: International
Best Music of 2007: Hip Hop

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bad Climate

Sweden is best, US is 55th (we own you, Saudi Arabia, er...).

Remember, the problem of climate change is not simply the hydro-meteorological phenomena in themselves. It is that some countries are vastly more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than other countries. And, tragically, some of those other countries that will feel lesser effects (e.g., the US) are most responsible for the problem. It's thus not simply a question of national economic interests. It's a question of harm. Historically, that harm may have been unintentional - nobody truly knew that industrial emissions could affect the climate itself. But, today, US intransigence amounts to intentional harm. This is why the Bush administration has constantly pointed to, and fetishized, various remaining scientific uncertainties. They are the only thing that allow the US the self-image of not being a moral pariah on climate change.


Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has done some digging, via Empty Wheel:

For years under the Bush Administration, the Office of Legal Counsel within the Department of Justice has issued highly classified secret legal opinions related to surveillance. This is an administration that hates answering to an American court, that wants to grade its own papers, and OLC is the inside place the administration goes to get legal support for its spying program.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I was given access to those opinions, and spent hours poring over them. Sitting in that secure room, as a lawyer, as a former U.S. Attorney, legal counsel to Rhode Island's Governor, and State Attorney General, I was increasingly dismayed and amazed as I read on.

To give you an example of what I read, I have gotten three legal propositions from these OLC opinions declassified. Here they are, as accurately as my note taking could reproduce them from the classified documents. Listen for yourself. I will read all three, and then discuss each one.

  1. An executive order cannot limit a President. There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it.
  2. The President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President's authority under Article II.
  3. The Department of Justice is bound by the President's legal determinations. [my emphasis]
Here's Empty Wheel:

Obviously, the implications of this OLC opinion go far beyond the warrantless wiretapping of Americans. While it appears that Whitehouse wasn't primarily interested in EO 13292, presumably the OLC opinion governs all Executive Orders. So in other words, the President can declassify at will (well, he could do that anyway). Or more importantly, he could authorize his Vice President to refuse to tell us about his classification and declassification guidelines (as Dick did to ISOO--I'm betting this opinion is why AGAG refused to rule on the ISOO/Dick dispute), and he can unilaterally declassify anything and leak it to Judy Miller or some other hack journalist.

But here's the other key point (and one of the reasons I like the way Whitehouse works). He specifically asked Michael Mukasey about EOs before Mukasey was approved.

2. Do you believe that the President may act contrary to a valid executive order? In the event he does, need he amend the executive order or provide any notice that he is acting contrary to the executive order?

ANSWER: Executive orders reflect the directives of the President. Should an executive order apply to the President and he determines that the order should be modified, the appropriate course would be for him to issue a new order or to amend the prior order.

So Mukasey, unaware that Bush had set aside all common sense, gave the common sense, legally sound answer. "Of course the President can't violate his own EOs! He would need to change them first!"

And now the AG is on record as thinking this whole state of affairs stinks.

And Jonathan Schwarz takes a rip:

In other words, the president is the law. Exciting! At least if you are the kind of person who enjoys watching government agents crush your son's testicles!

Whitehouse concludes:

When the Congress of the United States is willing to roll over for an unprincipled President, this is where you end up. We should not even be having this discussion. But here we are. I implore my colleagues: reject these feverish legal theories.

Stockhausen Dies

AFP / Getty Images

Here's the Washington Post's obituary, and the New York Times'. See also Darcy James Argue.

Friday, December 07, 2007

CIA Tapes, Banana Republic

Three good posts on the CIA's destruction of its torture tapes:
Andrew Sullivan
Scott Horton
Marty Lederman

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Best Music of 2007: Latin American Music

Time for end-of-the-year lists... I do music. Let's start with what I think are the best Latin outputs this year (including contemporary Brazilian stuff), with more to come later in other lists. These are not the industry's version of "Latin Music." And most aren't going to make a Rolling Stone list - at least not as far as I know - but I think these are great ones that are more likely to have been overlooked than not. I've listed only music that has at least some sense of having identifiable roots in a Latin American musical tradition, although several of these musicians break that tradition and do new and clever things with it.

Leave me a comment if you agree, disagree, or have other suggestions. In no particular ranking order, but all really terrific music from 2007. There are some lovely and interesting things going on in Latin American music.
Best Music of 2007: Electronic
Best Music of 2007: French

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

US President Defies Law of Non-Contradiction

1. US itself says Iran has no nuclear weapons program since 2003.

2. President of US says that only acceptable response is for Iran to admit it does have nuclear weapons program, contrary to #1.

(Bonus: President also says no Iran nuclear weapons program since 2003 is proof that Iraq invasion worked).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fruit Stand, Shanghai

Shanghai, 2007 from Shanghai Shopfronts by Mac Kane

Human War

From the New York Review of Books:
"Culturally," he writes, "these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the 'Greatest Generation.' They are kids raised on hip-hop, Marilyn Manson and Jerry Springer." There are "former gangbangers, a sprinkling of born-again Christians and quite a few guys who before entering the Corps were daily dope smokers." While some joined the Marines out of prep school or turned down scholarships at universities, more than half "come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents." Together, he writes, these Marines "represent what is more or less America's first generation of disposable children."

Even in the best of circumstances, Wright notes, artillery fire is imprecise, which leads him to wonder why reporters and antiwar groups concerned about collateral damage in war pay so little attention to it:

The beauty of aircraft, coupled with their high-tech destructive power, captures the imagination. From a news standpoint, jets flying through the sky make for much more dramatic footage than images of cannons parked in the mud, intermittently belching puffs of smoke.
But the fact is, the Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment than on aircraft dropping precision-guided munitions. During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. The impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating.

Entering the city with the Marines, Wright gets to see just how devastating the impact has been. Smoke curls from collapsed structures, and houses facing the road are pockmarked and cratered. The corpses of Iraqi attackers are scattered on the road leading out of the city. Run over repeatedly by tracked vehicles, "they are flattened, with their entrails squished out," Wright notes, adding:

We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There's a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She's wearing a dress and has no legs.

Heading north, the Marines find themselves amid the palm trees and canals of the Fertile Crescent, but all around are signs of death. Along the highway are torched vehicles with "charred corpses nearby, occupants who crawled out and made it a few meters before expiring, with their grasping hands still smoldering." Lying beside one car is the mangled body of a small child, face down, whose clothes are too ripped to determine the gender. "Seeing this is almost no longer a big deal," Wright comments. "Since the shooting started in Nasiriyah forty-eight hours ago, firing weapons and seeing dead people has become almost routine." Fick, reaching back to his four years in a Jesuit high school, writes that he found himself "mouthing the Twenty-third Psalm: 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death....'"


The morale of Fick's men continues to erode as they press northward. A new source of tension is added by the need to set up roadblocks to counter the unanticipated threat of suicide attacks. Because these sites tend to be poorly marked, many Iraqi drivers fail to stop at them. When US soldiers fire warning shots, the Iraqis often speed up. As a result, many are killed. After one car has been shot at, a Marine named Graves goes to help a little girl cowering in the back seat, her eyes wide open. As he goes to pick her up, "thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her...the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out," Wright writes. As Graves steps back in horror, his boot slips in the girl's brains. "This is the event that is going to get to me when I go home," he says.

With the battlefield growing ever more dangerous, the Marines' initial inhibitions about firing fades, and even relatively minor threats are met with fierce bursts of gunfire. Civilians bear the brunt, to the consternation of many of the Marines. "I think it's bullshit how these fucking civilians are dying!" rages Jeffrey Carazales, a lance corporal from Texas, after he shoots at a building that clearly has civilians in it:

They're worse off than the guys that are shooting at us. They don't even have a chance. Do you think people at home are going to see this—all these women and children we're killing? Fuck no. Back home they're glorifying this motherfucker, I guarantee you. Saying our president is a fucking hero for getting us into this bitch. He ain't even a real Texan.

Read the rest.

Stems Cells and Punditry

Scott Horton on Charles Krauthammer's deceit - this time regarding stem cell research.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Square America

I've added a new photography site on the sidebar. It's a wonderful and frightening one: Square America. Take a look. It's a collection of informal photos from the 20th-century, a brilliant portrait of American life.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Venezuelan Referendum Vote

As of about 10:34pm, there seems to be confusion regarding whether the referendum in Venezuela has passed or has been defeated. Throughout the evening, reports have stated, based on international exit polls, that the pro-Chávez side has won by 6-8%. Reuters is now reporting that the "Si" vote for the reforms has won by a very small margin. Quico at Caracas Dispatch, however, is saying the "No" won while watching the telly in Caracas. My good friend Arturo Serrano suggests that the reforms have been defeated.

Where do we stand? Venezuelans are having a hard time waiting on the results, the anti-Chávez camp saying that there must be some trickery going on. But it had earlier been announced by the elections committee - the CNE - that results would come between 10 and 11pm.

Finding decent news and analysis on Venezuela is incredibly difficult. If you want to know what is/was at stake, do not go to the regular US media, and certainly don't go to the screechers on the rightwing blogs. I would also avoid places like Salon's absolutely awful The Devil's Excrement and Venezuela News and Views. Both are hugely lopsided on the anti-Chávez side. Venezuelan government sites are, of course, equally useless.

Venezuela Analysis has the best rundown of the referendum that I've found: here and here.

UPDATE (10:54):
The rumors are flying. Chávez is said to be furious.

UPDATE (11:34):
Still nothing. Some blogs are suggesting an 8.5% margin in favor of "No" to the referendum. Discussions taking place behind closed doors. Apparently, negotiations over a concession. But this is all speculation. The vote may simply be too close to call at this point.

UPDATE (11:47):
More rumors: the military is on board with the NO vote. Chávez refuses to concede.

UPDATE (12:06):
Trouble.... Globovision has live coverage.

UPDATE (12:19):
The referendum is defeated. 51%-49%. A 1.4% difference.

Who knows about the rumors that Chávez refused to concede? Now some opposition people are claiming they won by a larger margin but that Chávez demanded it be reduced to a smaller margin. This is the problem with the Venezuelan opposition. The hatred of Chávez is so great that they're often blinded by conspiracy theories of their own creation. We already know Chávez has a habit of doing this himself.

But this is a good result. The proposed referendum was not "evil." It has its good points and its questionable points. This isn't a grand victory for the opposition. But it's a good one. The reason it's a good one is that, although the opposition remains fragmented and often plays an astonishingly self-defeating political game, the NO vote did put the brakes on Chávez. Just maybe, if the opposition can get over its self-negating hatred and Chávez can get over himself, there's a bit of space in there for a real dialogue about the future of the country.