Projectile magnet

April 21st, 2003 § Five comments § permalink

If you are one of the many people who have not thrown anything at me recently, let me take this opportunity to thank you for your kindness.

If, however, you are the sullen young man who tried to drop a water balloon on my head in the Haight a few weekends ago, or the guy who hurled a handful of change at my head in Santa Cruz on Sunday, or the person who threw a lit firecracker in my general direction in Sunnyvale tonight, I have a question: Why me? Am I just having a run of bad luck, or am I doing something that causes total strangers to lash out at me?

Why Baghdad is stripped bare

April 21st, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

In an earlier post about the looting of Iraqi museums and libraries, I asserted that the United States military could have stopped the looting. The writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden makes a different and more convincing claim:

We don’t have the manpower [to stop the looting]. Our guys couldn’t protect Baghdad’s hospitals, so 39 out of 40 of those are gone, stripped to the walls. The banks are gone too; and if you think that’s trivial, imagine you’re an elderly Iraqi whose savings were in a bank that’s not only been robbed, but stripped of its computers, filing cabinets, furniture, light fixtures, and plumbing. Mom-and-pop stores are being pillaged. The offices responsible for dull but essential social services are being plundered for their office equipment and furniture. It’s ugly.

And why are our troops stretched so thin? Because when the war was in its planning stages, Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly dismissed and overruled the experienced military planners who told him how much force would be needed to invade Iraq. We have the troops. We have the equipment. Our annual military budget could practically have bought the country. More conventionally, we could have gone in with massive force and done everything in an orderly fashion, the way all our military doctrine says we should do it. But Rumsfeld said no.

America started war with the goal of dismantling Saddam Hussein’s government. The people who planned the war—Rumsfeld and all the rest—ought to have known that once the government was gone, looting would become a problem. Either they did not realize this, which is unlikely, or they did not care, which is horrifying. It makes little difference now. There were not enough troops in Baghdad to maintain order after the government fell, and so the entire city has been plundered.

Farewell to history

April 15th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

Of all the senseless and unnecessary consequences of the senseless and unnecessary war in Iraq, the most lasting will be the looting of Iraq’s National Museum and the burning of the National Library and Archives.

As the BBC explains, “The national museum was home to artefacts that dated back 10,000 years, from one of the world’s earliest civilisations. The development of writing, abstract counting, the wheel and agriculture were all charted in its exhibitions.” Up to 170,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum after American troops seized Iraq. The vast majority of those artifacts are gone forever. As for the library, a witness to the blaze found handwritten documents dating to the Ottoman Empire blowing through the streets.

Troops from the United States stood by as Iraqis looted the museum and burned the library, which is bad enough. Worse yet, scholars warned the Pentagon for months that historical sites—especially the museum—would be looted and urged the military to protect them. The military promised to do so. And yet U.S. soldiers did almost nothing.

Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld appeared on Meet the Press and made pathetic excuses. Looting, he said, “isn’t something that someone allows or doesn’t allow. It’s something that happens.” Bullshit. The United States has thousands of troops on the ground, armed with enough materiel to kill everyone in Baghdad. They can allow or not allow almost anything they want. The National Museum was looted because the United States military couldn’t be fucked to do anything about it.

Banana nut muffins

April 6th, 2003 § One comment § permalink

The aforementioned banana muffins turned out rather well–so well, in fact, that I’ll post the recipe here. This is adapted very slightly from a recipe in The Joy of Cooking. You can replace 1/2 cup of the regular flour with whole-wheat flour, should you have any (I didn’t).

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Grease a standard 12-muffin pan or line with paper cups.

Whisk together thoroughly:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Stir in:

  • 2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Whisk together in a large bowl:

  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3 mashed ripe bananas
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Add the flour mixture and mix together with a few light strokes just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overmix; the batter should not be smooth. Divide the batter among the muffin cups.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in 1 or 2 of the muffins comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Let cool for 2 to 3 minutes before removing from the pan. Serve as soon as possible, preferably the day they are baked.

Alice Waters I ain’t

April 5th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

This has been a lousy day for cooking. I started to make tapenade this afternoon, but the olives I was using were nearly tasteless, and the anchovies were seven different shades of awful. So much for tapenade. Tonight, when I tried a fish recipe that includes a feta cheese sauce of sorts, I discovered that I had inadvertently purchased cow’s milk feta. Who the hell makes feta with cow’s milk? Some dairy cooperative in Wisconsin, that’s who. (Serves me right for buying feta from Wisconsin.) Anyhow, cow’s milk feta is wretched, and it didn’t help matters that I used four times as much yogurt in the sauce as the recipe called for.

I was planning to make banana muffins tomorrow morning, but now I’m not so sure. Apparently I am no longer capable of assembling an entire recipe’s worth of decent ingredients.

Business plan

April 4th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

If I ever open a furniture store, I’m going to call it “The Ottoman Empire.”

Institutions

March 28th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

I just finished reading a book called A New Theory of Urban Design, written by the architect Christopher Alexander and several of his students. After they describe their theory, Alexander and his co-authors document an experiment in which a group of students used the theory to redesign a small part of San Francisco. The students paid no attention to zoning laws or bank lending policies. They even ignored the issue of property ownership; they simply grabbed chunks of land as they needed to and proposed things to build on them. The authors acknowledge that existing laws and institutions would prevent anyone from replicating their experiment in real life. Their proposed solution is to develop new institutions, but they admit that they have no idea what sort of institutions might be needed.

I also read Jonathan Schell’s recent articles in Harper’s, in which he argues that many wars could be prevented, if the United States and other democratic countries were willing, by creating a new set of international institutions—not the United Nations, but other institutions with a different character. Again, though, he isn’t sure what sort of institutions are required.

Finally, while I was in Cambridge in October, I bought a book called The Ingenuity Gap, which argues that our ability to create social and environmental problems is outstripping our ability to find ways of solving them. The book touched briefly on the point that our existing institutions (regulatory bodies, resource management agencies, and so on) are inadequate to solve the problems we face. Once again, I don’t think the author said much about what sort of institutions we need, just that we need different ones.

So there are interesting questions underlying all of these problems. How are institutions created? How do novel types of institutions develop—do they tend to emerge fully formed, or do they evolve from existing institutions? Once an institution is created, how does it adapt to changing circumstances?

I’m sure there are raftloads of books and journals that attempt to answer these questions; do you have any recommendations?

Pox Americana

March 18th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

Empire, the embodiment of force, is the antithesis of democracy and self-determination. It violates equity on a global scale. No lover of freedom can give it support. It is especially contrary to the revolutionary tradition and founding principles of the United States. Can a nation that began in rebellion against the greatest empire of its time end by turning itself into a still greater empire? Perhaps it can, but not if it wishes to remain a republic.

From Jonathan Schell’s article “No More Unto the Breach, Part Two: The Unconquerable World,” in the April 2003 issue of Harper’s.

Bad timing

March 16th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

Had I known that a mysterious respiratory illness was spreading across several continents, I probably would have been less eager to watch 12 Monkeys last night.

HEEEEEEELIUMMMMMM!!!

March 10th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

August Strindberg & helium. Utter genius. This is why Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

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