Friday, May 29, 2009

Banishing waste

The Japanese town of Kamikatsu plans to ban waste by 2020:
...This is a town singularly focused on banishing waste – all waste – by 2020. The 2,000 people of Kamikatsu have dispensed with public trash bins. They set up a Zero Waste Academy to act as a monitor. The town dump has become a sort of outdoor filing cabinet, embracing 34 categories of trash – from batteries to fluorescent lights to bottle caps. On a hill overlooking Kamikatsu are 15 windmills, just completed, that it will maintain in cooperation with two neighboring towns...

“Towns everywhere are dealing with the same issue – how to be sustainable,” he comments. The Internet has boosted his fellow citizens’ sense of themselves as international players who should observe and be observed, exchanging tips with counterparts around the world. He also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. “We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it’s used. If it can’t be recycled in any way, then you can’t produce it.” The town now has an 80 percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the busload to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually (about $72,000) and reducing its CO2 emissions.

Vacation Needed

Superfrenchie rubs it in.

Preferential treatment

Yglesias on Michael Goldfarb searching for "preferential treatment" in Sotomayor's background:

Beyond the simple observation that conservatives really and truly are fanatical in their defense of the prerogatives of white people, the obvious observation to make is that everyone in life has been treated preferentially by someone at some point. Sometimes if you face a lot of disadvantages in life, people recognize that and extend you an extra helping hand. Or maybe, like John Roberts, you were educated at a private boarding school before attending Harvard. Or maybe you’re Irving Kristol’s son. Or maybe because your ideology pleases Rupert Murdoch, he agrees to cover the losses of the magazine you work at. The only reasonable question to ask about someone like Sotomayor is whether or not you think it’s reasonable to conclude that, on balance, poor minority women benefit from more special advantages in life than do middle class white men. I think that would be a difficult case to make. It’s hard to look at the composition of the United States Senate, or the Washington Post and New York Times op-ed pages, or the roster of Fortune 500 CEOs and reach the conclusion that the system has been working overtime to promote underqualified Latinos into positions of prominence. Unless, that is, you want to argue that we’re so intrinsically deficient in our ability that we’re structurally underrepresented despite the massive advantages we receive in life. Maybe that’s what Goldfarb really thinks.

My guess, though, is that they haven’t thought this through at all. And that one reason they haven’t thought this through at all is that to the best of my knowledge there are no Hispanics working in high levels at The Weekly Standard and thus nobody around to point out what an ass he’s being.

Empathy for the Devil

My god, these people (almost exclusively white male Republicans) are creating their own little Balkans over the nomination of Sotomayor. They're pressing the case to the point of outright sexism and racism. It's outrageous - outrageous intellectually, morally, and politically - and profoundly cynical to say things such as these:

G. Gordon Liddy:
"Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when [Sotomayor]'s menstruating or something, or just before she's going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then."

Newt Gingrich:
"If Civil War, suffrage, and Civil Rights are to mean anything, we cannot accept that conclusion. It is simply un-American. There is no room on the bench of the United States Supreme Court for this worldview."

"She brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court.... How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive."

Michael Gerson (coiner of "axis of evil" and "mushroom cloud" language):

By Obama's empathy standard, Sotomayor is a natural choice. She has argued: "The aspiration to impartiality is just that -- it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others." And these culturally conditioned choices are not just "different." She contends that a "wise Latina woman" will "more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

None of this is particularly controversial at Obama's University of Chicago or Sotomayor's Princeton. In elite academic settings, it is commonly asserted that impartiality is not only a myth but also a fraud perpetuated by the privileged. Since all legal standards, in this view, are subjective and culturally determined, the defenders of objectivity are merely disguising their exercise of power. And so the scales of justice -- really the scales of power -- need to be weighted by judges to favor the "weak" and the "powerless."

Apparently, Gerson has one way of assessing Sotomayor's claim, and his political interests and background have pre-determined the outcome of that assessment: he judges her observation about empirically testable reality as a claim of radical subjectivism.

Of course one's background familiarizes oneself with people from a similar background. Is this really even necessary to say? And coming from a non-white background might make one more familiar with the lives and thoughts of other non-whites, more so than white men from privileged backgrounds. Right? And given that the justice system is overwhelmingly white and those sentenced to prison disproportionately non-white, might it not be a good thing to wonder whether to constantly reassess whether the fairness of the system?

These aren't "pomo" remarks, as Andrew Sullivan snidely puts it. These are pretty basic observations about the world. Are white Republicans so far removed from the diversity of the world that they have absolutely no grasp of this? And, frankly, who wants to live in whatever that alternative world is that they would have us all live in?

But on the other hand, John Cole:
Obama is seriously the luckiest man on the planet to have these guys as the opposition.

Thursday, May 28, 2009



(From MT) E&P: tomorrow's TIME magazine. Reporter Bobby Ghosh writes, “The most successful interrogation of an al-Qaeda operative by U.S. officials required no sleep deprivation, no slapping or ‘walling’ and no waterboarding. All it took to soften up Abu Jandal, who had been closer to Osama bin Laden than any other terrorist ever captured, was a handful of sugar-free cookies.”

Former interrogator/member of the FBI Ali Soufan, who testified to Congress last month, tells TIME: “He was a diabetic ... We had showed him respect, and we had done this nice thing for him .... So he started talking to us instead of giving us lectures.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Guantánamo Prison Blues

I discussed a few weeks ago the not very good options for what to do with Guantánamo detainees. Absolutely astonishingly given their incompetence, the Republicans are leading the Democrats around by their noses in Congress on the issue. So we have the denial of funds for Obama to close the prison. And a leak today from DoD says 1 in 7 prisoners return to "terrorism or militant activity." That's out of 534 prisoners already moved out of Guantánamo. Doing the math, that's 76.29 former prisoners. (One guy was apparently not too into it... or maybe someone was particularly exuberant).

Be skeptical of the words "terrorism or militant activity." Remember, hundreds or even thousands of prisoners across the global network of US prisons were detained based on the slightest suspicion or hearsay about connections to "terrorism or militant activity." Should we trust Defense to be able to make the important distinctions now?

Further, be skeptical of the word "return." One of the most significant outcomes of US detainee policy is the radicalization of former prisoners (and bringing more fighters to the anti-US cause). In their cases it may not be a return at all. The DoD numbers don't make that crucial distinction.

76.29.... To be honest, I'm surprised the number is so low. We should be celebrating.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Luban Testifies

David Luban testifies on torture to the Senate Judiciary Committee. A snippet:
The first Bybee memo also wrenches language from a Medicare statute to explain the legal definition of torture. The Medicare statute lists “severe pain” as a symptom that might indicate a medical emergency. Mr. Yoo flips the statute and announces that only pain equivalent in intensity to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” can be “severe.” This definition was so bizarre that the OLC itself disowned it a few months after it became public. It is unusual for one OLC opinion to disown an earlier one, and it shows just how far out of the mainstream Professor Yoo and Judge Bybee had wandered. The memo’s authors were obviously looking for a standard of torture so high that none of the enhanced interrogation techniques would count. But legal ethics does not permit lawyers to make frivolous arguments merely because it gets them the results they wanted. I should note that on January 15 of this year, Mr. Bradbury found it necessary to withdraw six additional OLC opinions by Professor Yoo or Judge Bybee...

This morning I have called the torture memos a legal train wreck. I believe it’s impossible that lawyers of such great talent and intelligence could have written these memos in the good faith belief that they accurately state the law.

Fruit Crimes Update

Yet another fruit crime:

Sheriff's office: Man tries to rob store using a banana [then eats the evidence]

Illegitimate Love

Nice new tune by the enigmatic Ukrainian punk-pop duo, Ean Eraser, courtesy of Noise Is for Heroes, who says, "Power-poppers hold hands and rejoice."

More on the band at World of Wümme.

Poverty's Prices

Very solid piece on the costs of poverty in the Washington Post. As it goes, the poor generally pay higher prices than many other people for basic commodities. For example, in many poor neighborhoods across the US, the only place to buy groceries is a corner store, not a grocery store. Two results: 1) as a simple matter of economies of scale, corner stores are more expensive than bulk stores - thus poor people pay more than those who have grocery stores in the neighborhoods or can drive elsewhere; 2) poor diets - corner stores in the US aren't known for their fresh produce. The diet can end up essentially a fastfood diet; thus, the strange combination of extreme poverty and obesity.

Read the piece.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Obama's Military Tribunals

The US Supreme Court ruled last year in Boumediene v. Bush that habeas corpus rights extended to the detainees held at Guantanamo (note that the ruling does not necessarily entail that habeas extends to all detainees held elsewhere). Importantly, the ruling found the 2006 Military Commissions Act suspension of habeas to be unconstitutional. The MCA had asserted that detainees had no access to the US civil court system.

Military tribunals allowed under the MCA were not only unconstitutional. There are further problems for a policy reinstituting military commissions. From a forthcoming piece on detention policy and government accountability:
...closed military tribunals do not inspire confidence... [they] can provide a forum for shaping the guilt of the accused for extra-legal reasons... [and] may also serve as a means of deflecting scrutiny for otherwise criminal abuses committed in the course of evidence-gathering. From a political perspective, especially once connected to demands for accountability for government abuse of detainees, this option appears entirely untenable.
Unfortunately, Obama is apparently taking this Bush administration route, having chosen the policy from a range of other options, including the try-or-release approach encouraged by the UNHRC and others. The details on the proposed tribunals remain sketchy, with simply a few vague reassurances that,
the changes were designed to give defendants stronger legal protections, such as a ban on evidence "obtained through torture, or by using cruel or degrading interrogation methods," like waterboarding; limiting use of hearsay evidence; granting the accused more say in who represents them; and protecting detainees who refuse to testify from legal sanctions.
Of course, Congress likes it:
The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the changes "essential in order to address the serious deficiencies in existing procedures." Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said the announcement was an "encouraging development."

"It's a difficult legal situation, and I think this is really the only rational choice to make," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who opposes bringing detainees to the military's maximum security prison located in his state.
And what is this "difficult legal situation"? It is that the US government tortured at least many and likely most of the detainees whom these tribunals are designed to process. Further, many detainees were originally picked up with the slightest of evidence, including hearsay accusations. Evidence from torture and evidence from hearsay are obviously inadmissible in a fair court of law in pretty much any country not run by authoritarian government. Thus, of the hundreds of present and former Guantanamo detainees, the cases against the couple of dozen who are thought to be actual dangerous terrorists are actually quite weak. Since the US suspects these detainees to be dangerous, it doesn't want to risk releasing them after a fair civil trial. So, the US has created tribunals with the intention of finding the detainees guilty and ordering their indefinite detention based on evidence that would not pass in a civil court.

In fact, the entire process has been corrupted by Bush administration detention policy and torture. The "difficult legal situation" was created by the Bush administration.

Obama is assuring us that no evidence from torture, other abuses, and hearsay will be admitted in his version of the military tribunals and the detainees will receive due process. What will qualify as evidence?

And if these tribunals involve more rights for detainees, then why not use civil courts? The central reason is that, no matter what the reality of their actions and affiliations (which is in doubt anyway, given the abuses), military tribunal policy entails that these detainees, a priori, do not have the right to be potentially found innocent of the charges made against them.

It may be possible ultimately to twist and turn one's way through technicalities of constitutional law and end up with military tribunals. But the defense of the spirit of the law, which was a central motivation for many Obama voters, is now a slippery slope eroding under the Obama administration.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

Our friend CM Mayo has published her most recent book, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. You buy.

Lake Victoria Sinks

Village communities in Western Kenya alongside ones in Niger, Nigeria and China could become the key to unlocking the multi-billion dollar carbon markets for millions of farmers, foresters and conservationists across the developing world.

Catchments in and around Lake Victoria have been chosen as a test-bed for calculating how much carbon can be stored in trees and soils when the land is managed in a sustainable, climate-friendly ways.

The initiative, known as the Carbon Benefits Project, was launched today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Agroforestry Centre, along with a range of other key partners. The project is being funded by the Global Environment Facility.

Under the United Nation's climate convention and its Kyoto Protocol, developed countries can offset some of their greenhouse gas emissions by paying developing economies for implementing clean and renewable energy projects such as wind, solar and geothermal power.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Infinite Runway

Pruned finds the work of Hubert Blanz. Pretty stunning.

A Quick Torture Round-up

I've been writing a fair bit outside of blogworld... only really enough energy to post these links:

Zelikow meets Congress

Summary of today's torture hearing

Holy Grail of torture memos

Congressional review of CIA

Obama's military commissions


This discussion about whether or not Supreme Court justices ought to be empathetic is pretty ridiculous. The alternative, as this seems to be playing out, is not something like "analytically rational," but rather more like "crassly pragmatic."

Anyway, Dahlia Lithwick does the dismissal work and it's entertaining enough (via Yglesias):
Now, if the GOP really wants to run out on a rail anyone with empathy or anyone who values it, far be it from me to object. Democrats will be more than happy to feel their pain. But to the extent that the debate over empathy may shape every Supreme Court discussion we are going to have this summer, let’s just be clear that the opposite of empathy isn’t rigor. It’s pretty close to solipsism, or the certain conviction that everything you’ll ever need to know about judging you learned from your own fine self.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Philippine Mangos

Correspondence Theory

On the occasion of Obama's first White House correspondents' dinner this past weekend it's worth recalling, as Frank Rich does, that landmark critique of the media delivered by Stephen Colbert at the same event three years ago. Rich focuses on the sorry state of journalism. But there's a theory of truth in here that pretty much defines the State Epistemology of the past eight years.
That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Partisan Torture

Andrew Sullivan:
If you can only see even a moral issue as profound as torture through the prism of pundit egotism and petty partisanship, you really are lost.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Problem of Accountability (Assuming There's a Post-Guantanamo)

I just finished up writing a policy piece on post-Guantánamo detention policy and human rights for a small international thinktank. This took far more time than originally requested. Much of the reason had to do with trying to understand the complexities of two difficult issues. One is the matter of crafting an appropriate detention policy for "war on terror" detainees. This is an absolute mess today mainly because the Bush administration tortured many of the detainees (i.e., evidence is fundamentally corrupted) - this ultimately entails further violations of the law precisely because no good options have been left for Bush's successors. But let's set this issue aside for now (or see this post from last week).

The other extremely difficult issue is, of course, accountability for the torture policy. I don't have much time today to talk more about this, but my own view - developed in that paper - is that there absolutely must be a public accounting for the sake of the country. Not just the DOJ investigations. This has to be a real public discussion guided by a transparent and fair congressional investigation and transparent and publicly released findings (this is Congress' role, after all, as democratically-elected representatives). There will be exceptions on some national security matters. But claiming umbrella state secrets privilege in the name of national security will only postpone the inevitable and further corrode trust in the US government and, internationally, the country as a whole.

Accountability is meaningless if all we're getting is a dry, technical legal analysis. The question of the torture policy itself doesn't go away if DOJ finds that the OLC memo lawyers wrote the memos in good faith and thus should not be prosecuted. It doesn't go away if some CIA interrogators are ultimately locked up. This was large-scale, carefully-coordinated policy - an institution, as I've been saying ad nauseum - for which accountability will only be a full public reckoning with how and why we got to where we are. However the US goes about this public reckoning, it will have profound consequences for the present and future.

On this, Scott Horton had really good stuff yesterday:
Barack Obama appears to be in something of a quandary over the torture issue. On the one hand, he and his senior advisors clearly seem to recognize what the law requires: an investigation of the torture policies of the Bush era, conducted by a prosecutor with a clear mandate to bring prosecutions as the law requires. On the other hand, Obama believes he has met his pledge to end torture as a matter of U.S. policy, and the controversy swirling around the torture question may get in the way of his affirmative agenda—things like the restructuring of the financial services sector, health care reform, and foreign policy initiatives. On one point the White House’s desires overlap perfectly with those of the torture-enablers: they wish this whole issue would just go away. So what’s Obama to do? His White House first gave a signal that as a matter of official policy there would be no investigation or prosecution. That, of course, constituted a gross intrusion of political figures into the criminal justice system, and an embarrassed White House was forced to pull back the next day after the Justice Department made this point.

But Barack Obama does have a Constitutional role to play in this process—he has the pardon power under Article II, Section 2, Clause 1. The Justice Department has written guidelines, routinely disregarded by presidents in the past, which suggest that pardons are appropriate only when the criminal justice process has run its course and the prisoner has served his sentence. These guidelines assume, of course, that the Justice Department has properly played its role; they ignore the fact that, as is copiously evident from the last eight years, the Justice Department misfires, perpetrates gross injustices, and stubbornly refuses to own up to its misconduct. In these circumstances, it would be improper for the president to pay any attention to the guidelines, which serve the interests of the Justice Department, but not of justice. Properly viewed, the limits on the president’s pardon power come from the Constitution alone. That means that Obama would probably be free to issue a blanket and pre-emptive pardon of the torture policy makers, if he chose to do so. (The pardon power goes to “offenses against the United States,” of course, and it may not reach to a jus cogens crime like torture–that is still an open question under U.S. jurisprudence.)

But would such a pardon be effective? Inside the boundaries of the United States, the pardon would probably stand up unless a court decides that the Framers did not intend to include jus cogens crimes in the scope of those the president could pardon–not a terribly likely outcome considering the current bench, two-thirds of whose members are Republican appointees and many of whom struggle to disguise their contempt for anything “international.” But a blanket pardon, especially one that preempts specific fact-finding and avoids a determination as to individual culpability, looks suspiciously like impunity, and outside the United States, it might have some unintended consequences. First, it would probably be taken as a violation of our undertaking to prohibit torture and prosecute violators. The crime of torture is a jus cogens crime—a crime of universal applicability and enforceable subject to universal jurisdiction. And torturers have a special position in international law. As the United States Court of Appeals in New York reminds us in the landmark case of Filártiga v. Peña-Irala (1980), they are hostis humani generis, the enemies of all humankind. As such they are not entitled to legal defenses, including pardon or amnesty. And if one nation, in disregard of its obligations to the community of nations, should extent amnesty to torturers, that step has consequences. No other nation would recognize the amnesty. Moreover, under universal jurisdiction norms accepted by the United States, this would actually convey jurisdiction on other nations to punish the torturers.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Intelligence and Asylum

Among others, there are two principal operational rules for those in the US intelligence community who analyze the nature of intelligence gathering, the relationships involved, and the norms that should be brought to those relationships. One is: do not torture; it's counterproductive. Another is: do not strand your foreign agents, informants, assistants in the field; you do not leave them at risk. Both imperatives have deontological and consequentialist justifications. But what's important here is that both of these central norms of intelligence gathering have been utterly shredded in the "war on terror."

We've discussed the torture issue ad nauseum.... This McClatchy article from yesterday, "U.S. allies losing asylum bids over definition of 'terrorist'," discusses the latter issue of the treatment of foreign agents , supporters, etc. The McClatchy piece isn't just a collection of sad stories about those who desire life in America but have come up against stricter immigration policies, although the authors write it that way. Underlying this piece is an under-reported unintended consequence of "war on terror" policies.

Many of them feel betrayed, especially since the trauma and persecution they experienced in the native lands are now being held against them.

An Iraqi Kurd, who was granted asylum and applied for a green card in 2004, continues to wait in vain despite his work as an interpreter for the U.S. military for almost three years. The reason: His relatives supported the U.S.-backed Kurdish Democratic Party that had tried to topple Saddam Hussein.

The interpreter, who asked that his identity be withheld out of fear for his relatives, is especially bitter because he says he helped U.S. military forces break up terrorist organizations in Iraq and detect plots to bomb U.S. facilities. His attorney, Thomas Ragland, showed immigration officers proof of his client's work for the U.S. military, but to no avail.

Of course, that's just nasty to betray the expectations of people who have risked violence to themselves and their families in the name of the US cause. It's a pretty pure form of treating people solely as means and not ends. From purely an instrumental, consequentialist standpoint, however, betraying the expectations of these people in the field makes the next attempt to recruit foreign agents and other "assets" all that much more difficult. You get a reputation for dishonesty and disloyalty which can then outweigh any risk an agent may otherwise be willing to take. Fewer and fewer people are then willing to help, and the US intelligence apparatus loses valuable local information and assistance.

"Liut Ji"

From here. MT sent me the link to this fruit photo. I am a bit nervous there's a conspiracy to overthrow traditional fruit taxonomy. No, really, this is a lotus, although the color in this photo seems odd to me. Its roots are usually used as a vegetable in Asia.

Obama Factoid

Obama had dinner at Citronelle in Georgetown yesterday evening. Left around 8pm. The gathered crowd screamed and applauded.

Tip: Rumor is that chef Michel Richard's famous Citronelle is overrated these days. Try his other DC restaurant, Central Michel Richard.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Pig Shall Lay Down with the Lamb

This is a great little series the Guardian has going: "My Best Shot," a series of photographers discussing, well, their best shot. Taken collectively, it's a perhaps unintentionally fascinating study of the nature of a "best shot," and what kinds of deliberation and judgments lead one to the assessment of "best." I'm not sure I can call anything a "best" unless given only the choice between something really good and something really bad. Too many bests, too many worsts, and all important.

The photos below are clearly not like each another - the very meaning of "best" is something very different in each. One of my favorites is probably Jem Southam's (above - click to enlarge). Something makes me uncomfortable, however, about judging it to be creepy, as Southam does.

From top to bottom, best shots by Ed Ruscha, Polly Borland, Steve McCurry, Roger Ballen, and Rut Blees Luxemburg.