Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reply all.

This is some truly wretched incompetence. Someone working for the House Judiciary Committee should lose their job over this.

Remember the World Trade Center.

Not the least odd thing about this entire episode [9/11] is that it marked the only time in its twenty-five-year history when the World Trade Center got reverential reviews. At the time it was built, you never heard a good word for it, from architects or anyone else. In general New Yorkers decried it as an out-of-scale, monotonous monster, a giant exercise in featherbedding imposed on lower Manhattan by the then governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, who filled it with floor after floor of government offices. Nobody loved the thing until two planes hijacked by Arab fanatics made it compulsory for Americans to do so.
Robert Hughes, "Master Builders," The New York Review Of Books 46, 48 (Sep. 27, 2007) (a review of Martin Filler's Makers of Modern Architecture). But nobody loved the thing after 9/11, either -- they just mourned its absence.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Americans in Oz.

Startled workmen discovered a 55kg (8st) alligator snapping turtle living in a drain in Sydney in 2000. The turtle, a native American species with a tough, beak-like jaw, is believed to have come from a batch of babies stolen from the city's Australian Reptile Park decades earlier. Nicknamed Leonardo, after one of the characters in the cartoon television series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it is now a well-loved animal in the city park.

The loss of Aldo Moro.

Aldo Moro was a several-times prime minister of Italy who was kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists in 1978. After about 50 days, in which the terrorists alternately interrogated Moro and let him write letters to the outside world begging for his life, he was murdered. Maybe "several-times prime minister" doesn't do his stature justice -- imagine, G-d forbid, that something similar happened to, oh, Bob Dole or Dick Gephardt. An important politician widely recognized as a national leader, taken by terrorists making outrageous demands who could kill him at any moment. Short of an actual nuclear bomb, that's one of the worst things imaginable in a democracy.

At one point in the crisis, General Dalla Chiesa, the head of the team trying to unravel the kidnapping, was asked permission to torture a Red Brigades sympathizer who was in jail, for information that might free Moro. His response? "Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."
Lionel Artom-Ginzburg. Moro was later found dead.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

No risk, no fun.

Alex Tabarrok explains why small children with an aptitude for economics self-select out of the population:

The boys were tossed out of the ball pit for rough-housing. The wife began to sternly lecture them "Why are you so wild? Don't you know you could get hurt?!" The 5-year old retorted, "Mom! No risk, no fun."

Naturally I burst out laughing. Need I explain why this was not wise? I should have kept quiet, but I learned another tradeoff; no fun, no risk.

Peskov's screensaver.

Dmitry Peskov, official spokesman for the Russian president, likes a joke. Visitors to his Kremlin office last week noticed that the screensaver on his computer is a series of revolving quotes from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Big Brother is watching you”, “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”.

Since Mr Peskov works from the same building from which Stalin operated – and now speaks for Vladimir Putin, who is often accused of establishing a new Russian autocracy – this is all rather daring. Or tasteless. Possibly both.

Gideon Rachman.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Those Santa Ana winds.

Geronimo Ruiz foams the roof at the home of producer Jeffrey Katzenberg where a wildfire driven by powerful Santa Ana winds threatened a university and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes Sunday in Malibu.

This and other photos at

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Nice gig.

Tim Noah gets a whole column out of the coincidence that the title of Lynne Cheney's new memoir is similar to a soft-core novel he read in high school in the 1970s. Nice work, if you can get it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The opening ceremony in Urandá.

. . . When I walked into the director's office, he was speaking on the phone to the minister of public works, a man of tyrannical temperament and draconian decisions, who at that time figured as a future president. My superior repeated two sentences over and over again in a kind of litany: "Yes, Minister, we will" and "I don't see any problem, Minister, don't worry sir, we'll take care of everything." Life looked bleak for whoever had to turn those promises into reality. If I had any doubts as to who that man might be, the director dispelled them when he hung up the telephone.

"Listen carefully. In ten days' time, in exactly ten days and not a day longer, we have to have everything, and I mean everything down to the last detail, ready for the opening ceremony at the pipeline terminal in the port of Urandá. Our minister of public works and the minister of mines will be there, as well as ministers and the company's regional directors from neighboring countries, and church and civic leaders from the provincial capital and from Urandá. The good news is that their wives will not attend. You have to stay on top of the situation at the Urandá airport and arrange accommodations for the guests in the event their return flights are canceled at the last minute. They'll be flying in on government or company planes. After the ceremony at the terminal and the bishop's blessing, a first-class luncheon has to be served, of course. Don't forget that church dignitaries will be there. You studied with the Jesuits. I don't think you'll have any problems on that score."

Although by now my assignment came as no surprise, I must confess that my prospects were fairly grim. A series of adverse factors combined to make the task almost impossible. Urandá is a port. Half of it is built over marshes that flow into the sea through an impenetrable tangle of mangrove swamps; the other half is on a hill and consists almost entirely of a red-light district. The region boasts the highest rainfall on the planet, and as a consequence the airport is closed for most of the year. The heat is suffocating, and the prevailing atmosphere of a Turkish bath exhausts all initiative and undermines all enthusiasm. At dusk, the occasional visitors, who by this time have been turned into true zombies, desperately seek a little cool shade and the glass of whiskey that perhaps will revive them. Both can be obtained without too much difficulty. Shade is taken care of by the night, which falls all at once and brings its entourage of mosquitoes and aberrant insects that seem to have escaped from a science fiction nightmare: great hairy, slow-moving butterflies with black wings insist on attaching themselves to tablecloths and bath towels; horned beetles, their color an iridescent, phosphorescent green, crash endlessly against walls until they plunge into the glass you are drinking from or fall onto your head, where they struggle until they are trapped in your hair; pale, almost translucent scorpions display their expertise in complicated couplings and deliriously erotic ritual dances. As for the glass of Scotch, it can be obtained at the bar of the only habitable hotel in the port, which bears the strikingly original name of Wayfarers Hotel. A ramshackle cement structure streaked with mold and rust, its three floors constantly ooze an evil-smelling, oily mildew on the inside and outside walls. This is a typical building designed by an engineer, with gratuitous spaces that are either outsize or far too small, depending on the mood of the capricious foreman in charge of construction: an immense dining room, with high ceilings stained by suspicious leaks from ill-fitting pipes; a long, narrow reception area, where the asphyxiating atmosphere, heavy with vaguely nauseating odors, brings on instant claustrophobia; each room with the most absurd proportions and shapes, and many, for some reason, ending in an acute angle that can disturb the most peaceful slumber of any guest. The bar runs along a cramped, windowless corridor that leads from the reception area to the patio, where a pool of murky greenish water is visited by indefinable fauna, creatures that are part fish and part bulging-eyed dwarf reptile. A row of tables fastened to the wall faces the bar made of tropical woods carved with indigenous and African motifs, all as spurious as they are hideous. The solace that could have been derived from whiskey, despite the ice of an unsettling brown color floating in the glass, vanishes immediately in the tainted ambience of that passageway, worthy of a police station, which some administrator with a macabre sense of humor named the Glasgow Bar. The hotel was surrounded by a sprawling extension of shacks built over a marsh that gave off the fetid smell of decomposing animals and garbage adrift in dead, muddy waters.

Urandá also had a district of buildings constructed on the solid ground of a small hill, where a merciful but short-lived breeze passed by from time to time. As one might expect, the madams lost no time in moving in and establishing their brothels, in which visitors familiar with the port would frequently take a room with air-conditioning and a few relatively predictable hotel services in order to avoid the sinister Wayfarers Hotel. The prostitutes were not too insistent about offering their companionship; their preferred clients were sailors who brought the dollars, marks, or pounds they longed for, not guests carrying a devalued national currency. Furthermore, the houses were staffed by undernourished, anemic, toothless creatures, many of them suffering from exotic tropical diseases, the most prevalent of which was pian, a terrible vitamin deficiency that eats away the face so that the victims never show themselves by day and at night avoid electrical lighting. The women, their faces covered by improvised handkerchiefs and whimsical veils, attend to their clients in semidarkness and dispatch them with so much skill that the men never suspect anything, especially after a few glasses of adulterated rum.

And so planning a six-course buffet with three different fine wines, the kind found in any hotel along the Riviera, and serving it in Urandá, was a feat that exceeded the limits of the possible and moved into the realm of the utterly lunatic. Then there was the problem of landing and takeoff at the airport, where the precarious control tower usually lost its electrical power at the first drizzle, even though it was located in an area with almost permanent rain, a fact that also accounted for minimal and ephemeral visibility on the highway. It is easy to imagine my state of mind when I left for the provincial capital, where I checked into hotel I knew very well. It was run by couple from Luxembourg, who gave the establishment a special appeal and provided impeccable service. The capital of a prosperous sugar-producing region, the city enjoyed a moderate, pleasant climate, a certain lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and a life free of serious alterations or surprises. It was like an island in the storm of unrestrained political passions that devastated the rest of the country and kept it submerged in blood and mourning. I enjoyed spending long hours at the hotel bar, located on a veranda cooled by a breeze heavy with intoxicating vegetal aromas. The days passed, and I found no solution to my problem. My visits to the city's private clubs produced nothing but incredulous looks from dining room managers, who listened to me as if I had lost my mind.

A new bartender, also a subject of the grand dukes, was working at the hotel, and as I evoked the years I had spent in Belgium, and my frequent visits to Luxembourg, I easily established a friendship with him. He was much more imaginative and enterprising than most of his compatriots. One day when I happened to be in a mood for confidences, I told him about the critical situation I was facing. After listening to me attentively, he walked over to the bar without saying a word, brought me a Scotch that was somewhat more generous than usual, and stood beside me in a meditative attitude. He finally broke his silence to ask:

"Do you have any budgetary constraints for this piece of madness?"

"None at all," I replied, intrigued. "I have carte blanche."

"In that case, I'll take care of everything," replied my savior, who was named Leon.

When he saw what must have been my expression of astonishment and disbelief, he unfolded his plan with the utmost naturalness.

"Look, my friend. I've worked in places on the coast of equatorial Africa that make Urandá look like paradise. And I've served buffets there that the guests still remember as something extraordinary. The problem is simple, but very expensive: it's merely a question of having adequate, reliable transportation, lots of ice, and perfect coordination. Every minute is decisive. The highway to the port is hellish. I came in on it, and it's not easy to forget. We need three trucks to stay in Urandá, with their motors and tires in perfect condition, prepared to replace the three that will leave here with the food, wines, dishes, and flatware; we'll install two-way radios in both fleets of trucks, and if there's a landslide on the highway, or one of the vehicles breaks down, an emergency call to Urandá will bring assistance. As to the menu, for a varied and elegant buffet I suggest six dishes, most of them cold. I can prepare the sauces and the aspic when I get to Urandá. Don't worry, I have a good amount of experience doing this kind of thing. As to the cost, I can give you a detailed list of expenses to present to your director. You can tell him as of now that everything's been arranged. Trust me, I won't make you look bad: Urandá is no more difficult or dangerous than Loango or Libreville." I confess I felt an impulse to kiss this loyal Luxembourgian on the forehead. I stopped myself in time and drank to his health instead, draining the glass he had brought me. . . .
Alvaro Mutis, "Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships," in The Adventures And Misadventures Of Maqroll 476-79 (NYRB, 2002) (Edith Grossman, trans.).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hello, Kitty.

For that hard-to-shop-for someone on your Xmas list: A Hello Kitty AK-47.

Undercover economics.

Tim Harford is blogging now.

Monday, October 15, 2007

All's fair in love and war.

To a lot of conservatives, cost-benefit analysis seems to go out the window if there's a chance to regulate female sexuality or bomb foreigners.
Scott Lemieux.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Crazy French people.

BASE jumping is nuts to start with, but these folks are taking the insanity farther. H/t to foxy hedgehog.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Who loves PC?

New York Times to Harold Bloom: You are a dope.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why I don't buy things on eBay.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The descent of High Broderism.

The President's defense of an essentially responsible foreign policy position was encased in rhetoric as shabby as that of the moratorium orators he was answering. The country would certainly have been better served had he devoted his talk to a realistic discussion of the problems and prospects of disengaging from Vietnam, instead of knocking down the straw man of "precipitate withdrawal."
--David Broder, Washington Post, Nov. 11, 1969
Democrats brushed aside concerns about the impact of their votes to cut off funding for the troops in Iraq or the larger implications of a precipitous withdrawal from that country.
--David Broder, Washington Post, June 7, 2007
Via Atrios.

Thin air and hot water.


The end of innocence, again.

Lawrence Weschler:
With metronomic regularity, the United States, for one, always seems to be losing its innocence -- the Kennedy assassination, the urban disturbances of the sixties, Vietnam, the Church committee's CIA revelations, Three Mile Island, the smoking cancer scandals, the John Lennon assassination, Iran Contra, the priest pedophile imbroglio, September 11, Abu Ghraib (to detail just one recent trill) -- and yet Americans never seems to learn anything, repeatedly emerging as resolutely innocent (which is to say, unknowing) as they were before the latest brief seizure of lucidity.
More here, prompted by Norman Rockwell.

Monday, October 08, 2007

School choice.

Very interesting educational developments in the UK discussed here, here and here.

Non-grizzly news.

Here are two pictures; Megan has the scoop and more pictures.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Burma is bleeding.

A friend recommends The Irrawaddy News as a source for the latest news from Burma. It is grim:
Nothing Else to Give but Our Lives

By Shah Paung

October 01, 2007—“One of them stopped breathing while I was holding him in my arms. I was so sad that I just went home. The young men that were killed were all good people. Yet I am sure more people will have to die. Everyone is so depressed and all we can do is give up our lives.”

This is the experience of a young man who took part in the demonstration in front of Ngwe Kyar Yan Monastery on September 27 after soldiers had conducted a midnight raid on the monastery and arrested more than 250 monks.

The young man lost four of his friends during the demonstration.

He says that he arrived at the demonstration at about noon and saw many other young men, aged about 20.

“The demonstrators were shouting: ‘The military skills that were passed down by Bogyoke (Burmese independence leader Aung San) were not meant to kill people.’

Riot police were standing in front of the soldiers and blocking the demonstrators’ way. The protesters threw stones at the riot police but they still blocked their path. The soldiers standing behind the riot police shot into the air to disperse the crowd,” he recounted.

The young demonstrator said that the crowd retreated after those first shots, but gathered together again and marched toward the security forces.

He confirmed that the riot police moved away, leaving space for the soldiers. A burst of gunfire suddenly rang out. There was panic as the crowd fled.

Four young students who had been marching in the middle of the front row fell. They were dead. The demonstrators managed to carry three of the bodies away but the SPDC troops claimed the fourth body.

“We are paying the ultimate price,” said the young man who tried to save his friend.

According to that article, dissident groups say at least 200 are dead. Reports in other media farther from Rangoon say the toll runs into the thousands. The Daily Mail (UK) quotes a Burmese general seeking asylum as saying:
“I decided to desert when I was ordered to raid two monasteries and force several hundred monks onto trucks.

“They were to be killed and their bodies dumped deep inside the jungle. I refused to participate in this.”

Bush's kind of lawyers.

Here’s one insight from [Jeffrey] Toobin that seems intuitively correct, but I haven’t seen emphasized by anyone else. “Bush had a businessman’s contempt for lawyers generally, and he viewed the process of choosing judges with impatience.” (p. 260) “All of the top officials who were considering Miers’s appointment –Bush, Cheney, Card, Rove, and Miers herself—had relatively little idea what Supreme Court justices actually do all day. . . .Everyone in Bush’s inner circle came out of the corporate world, where they believed that good judgment and instincts mattered more than reflective analysis. The same was true for corporate lawyers. Bush would never have dreamed of asking prospective members of his cabinet for writing samples, and he didn’t require them of Miers either. For the president, it was not a problem that Miers had no writing to offer.” (p. 288) Now think about this in relation to executive power and you have a worthwhile insight into what has been going on at the White House.
Stephen Griffin at Balkinization, discussing Toobin's new book, The Nine.

Brave new world.

In one of their cautionary illustrations, [David] Shipley and [Will] Schwalbe hold up an email exchange between an executive and a secretary at a large American company in China. The executive nastily wrote:
You locked me out of my office this evening because you assume I have my office key on my person. With immediate effect, you do not leave the office until you have checked with all the managers you support.
The secretary wrote back:
I locked the door because the office has been burgled in the past. Even though I'm your subordinate, please pay attention to politeness when you speak. This is the most basic human courtesy. You have your own keys. You forgot to bring them, but you still want to say it's someone else's fault.
She then performed the two-click operation that sent copies of her and her boss's emails to the entire staff of the company. Before long the exchange appeared in the Chinese press and led to the executive's resignation.
Janet Malcolm, "Pandora's Click," The New York Review of Books 8 (Sep. 27, 2007).

It's a wonderful cautionary story. (One minor quibble with the review: "two-click operation"? Either she hit "reply all" before she typed the message and then hit "send," or she had to click rather more to cc or bcc the entire staff. Apparently neither Malcolm nor her editors use Outlook.)

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