Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I believe in Bob Huggins

I've missed a lot of my writing because I've missed a lot of school, broke a computer, and have generally had a tough time getting caught back up. But I'll get on that soon. Maybe even (but probably not) as soon as tomorrow. But until then, my favorite sportswriter wrote about my favorite coach. Joe Posnanski's bit on Bob Huggins is as much required reading in my world as anything by Carpetblogger or Joshua Foust.
They would play with a fury until the final whistle and then beyond that whistle if the ball was still out there. They would play with rage because their rage never subsided. That, he was saying, was what Cincinnati basketball was all about. That, he was saying in his barely audible way, was what Bob Huggins was all about.
I can't think of a better way to live life than that. I never really thought about how much watching those mid-90s Bearcats teams may have affected my life, even if I did have an 8th grade Autobiography with Kenyon Martin on the cover.

not like this, though

Work hard and be quiet about it. Sounds pretty cool. And because I don't have much else to say because "read the article" I'm going to close with another quote.
You don’t get it,” he said, and he shook his head because for decades now he has been thinking about this. “People who try to do too much are taking the easy way out.”
...and a youtube

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Antonio Maria Costa on Sinister Affairs

Today I had the opportunity to hear Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) give a short talk on what he does and what he is trying to do. He had lots of interesting things to say (as someone who went to University of Turin, Moscow State, and Cal-Berkeley in the 60s and 70s should) and had the incredible quip of "I lead prosecution against Terrorism, Drugs, Organized Crime, and Corruption. I basically am the United Nations' point man for Sinister Affairs." There were lots of good questions and he made lots of good points, and only a few were truly relevant to what we focus on here. I'm going to focus on one of them that I thought was particularly interesting.

One of the main things Mr. Maria Costa brought to light was the connection between drug use and drug abuse and a dearth of what he calls "Palliative Care," particularly in the developing world. Using Central Asia as an example, it is very difficult to find a clinic or to find basic pain relieving medication in, say, Turkmenistan. It is also very difficult to deal with depression, post-traumatic stress or other similar ailments through legal means. Drug abuse is, in many ways, the only means of relief for anyone without the correct connections, and Turkmenistan's current tiff with Medecins Sans Frontieres only accentuates that. There isn't only a deficiency of general medical competency in Turkmenistan, many of the global initiatives go towards issues such as AIDS, landmines, etc. Post-hoc AIDS treatment, though, is far more expensive per-patient than peremptory anti-needle-abuse care. AIDS education still really really has to happen, though.

Another thing I thought was interesting, from a legal perspective, is the utter lack of jurisdiction over what he termed "sovereign non-state actors. ISAF, NATO, UN, etc. treat these transnational terrorist groups with a certain amount of respect when they collate every anti-state actor in Afghanistan as "The Insurgency" in the press, but they and we also realize that they aren't a monolith at all. Perhaps the greatest success of, um, The Insurgency has been its ability to operate extra-judicially. Even bad folks like ETA, the Medellin Cartel, Sendero Luminoso or what have you were able to be targeted in courts of law. Some were able to overcome that (say, by killing judges who held against them) but the judiciary was still able to be implemented as a weapon against the insurgency. In Afghanistan, the judiciary has been impotent for a whole myriad of reasons. It'll take some clever reformation in order to form a legal basis that will be able to be used against a transnational insurgency...Guantanamo and the ICC aren't going to cut it.

Finally, the bureaucratic balancing act between fighting drugs and fighting terror is difficult. Real, real, difficult. For every head-slap where folks realize that resource smuggling and drug abuse go hand-in-hand, there are issues where really legitimate medical operations get attacked for their security value. I'm not sure I believe in the existence of a String Theory of violence, state destabilization, and drug trafficking, but I do believe that any state-building solution involves attacking the issue as a whole and not allowing bureaucratic pillow-fights to win the day.

Things are a bit of a mess, yes, but there are some really sharp minds trying to find solutions (Maria Costa, not me). I'd be interested in seeing a more localized form of clinical care get up-and-running where drug abuse is treated as a health risk, not a criminal act. It's really a place where religious groups could come into play under state control as well, which seems to be a mutually beneficial idea in our region where state secularism clashes against Islamic identity. As for jurisdictional matters, well, let me get a bit more educated first.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thinking Big, Thinking Small...

...or perhaps not thinking. Not at all. Terrible Seuss-ian writing aside, there are a few different ways to view how ISAF is trying to change the built environment in Afghanistan. I've been bullish on architectural changes for a while now, and the military wings its way besides. I'd imagine the impulse to make wholesale changes is a bit too colonial and a bit too expensive, but the costs of just throwing up a base on the outskirts of town are pretty severe too. More than just creating a divide between the locals and the security, poorly planned bases are at least partly responsible for a couple of serious blunders. This is actual stuff. And its becoming apparent that nobody really knows how to do it.

This is all a bit old news at this point - to an extent. There's still a tremendous confusion over the benefits of going Big or Small Footprint in Afghanistan. Take embassies. The one in Kabul is more known for its guards then what they're guarding, sure. And for the $200 million expansion to make sure it keeps up with the arcologies in Baghdad and Islamabad, it is still a big frightening structure behind concertina wire and killing zones. The new-style embassies look more steampunk than something out of 21st century defense.

Will Wiles has a very good write-up on his blog about the new American Embassy in London. Completely different environment, I know. But the embassy still treats itself like its in a warzone. It's worth quoting at length:
It's worth taking a step back to really admire what we're looking at: a building designed with explosions in mind. A shape formed by the manipulation of spheres of destruction. It could be the first London building built with attack from the ground in mind since the Second World War. (It's also a testament to the extraordinary power of terror: the fact that a few hypothetical malcontents with A-level chemistry and a driver's licence can race to the head of the queue ahead of a whole gang of other diplomatic considerations.) So, what new forms are these? Going back through my notes from that terror conference is a dispiriting experience; the bureaucratic jargon like "hostile vehicle mitigation" and "exponential decay of blast effect" does not exactly induce good cheer. There are some aspects of HVM that might give pause to Londoners. Firstly, it doesn't stop attacks, it just makes them more difficult and limits their impact. Secondly, it's primarily meant to protect facilities, rather than people. Obviously some people are protected into the bargain - I'm not saying that to make some Spartist the-Yanks-care-more-about-their-office-furniture-than-the-lives-of-honest-cockneys point, it's just a fact of life. 30m stand-off will prevent a truck bomb causing massive structural collapse, but said bomb could still cause horrific death and injury. Thirdly, HVM only protects the one facility, not the buildings around it. The plans for the new embassy show new glass blocks surrounding it at street's edge. Will they still be glass when they're built, I wonder.
And this is in the United Kingdom. The Kabul (and Islamabad, et al) embassies are even more startlingly imperialistic. The "new forms" are the old forms, and the embassy is still built to withstand direct kinetic attack like some fort of yore.

So that's what's going on at the core of the state-building. At the periphery? More small-scale projects that get so lost in NGO Bureaucracy so as to have a minimal affect. Danger Room is referring to Haiti in this particular example, but it's a good read on the dangers of throwing money at problems: local context gets lost, and most of the money makes it back to the +01 country code regardless.

Some of the smaller, fleeter, projects tend to work better. Projects that are run by smaller staffs not bloated by interns, run by people who have more of a stake in it than a resume line. There are people out there who can say more about this than I can, but there are definitely a couple operations I have a lot of respect for. Turquoise Mountain is impressive. I've written about my awe of the Aga Khan before (and poorly).

The state-building taking place has to be done at a local level - this is a surprise to nobody. What is a surprise is why the United States feels the need to have a Death Star Presence in Kabul in order to make it so.

Book Review: Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Unfortunately, I left this book in Cleveland where I've been with my family for the past couple of weeks.

I'm also a very bad book reviewer. I care less about telling YOU what I think about the book, and more about having a record of reading it.

A friend got me to watch Scent of A Woman once. He explained it, generally, as, "You'll ask yourself why you're watching it for most of the movie. And then the ending will come and you'll be happy you did."

I feel the same way about Museum of Innocence. The narrator is a rich playboy who is about to be engaged to a woman who is, by all counts, incredible. He then starts an affair with an 18-year-old who is, by all counts, incredible. The entire time, I got the feeling that if this was Museum of Innocence and Zombies, where zombies attack whenever a character does something against their better judgment, you would need buckets to catch the lead. There are then 400 pages of longing and questions of sexuality and modernism. Then there's a denouement.

The denouement is fun. Anytime a writer gets to say, "Hello, this is Orhan Pamuk!" it's pretty amusing. And, I mean, I'm a museum nerd, so the fact that Pamuk actually went to all sorts of tiny museums to get at the essence of collection is kinda fun.

There are probably huge chunks I don't understand, not having any crippling questions of Modernity swelling up inside of me. There are lots of fantastic descriptions of Istanbul in the spring, making this sort of a partner-book with Black Book and its focus on winter. And it was nice for Celal Salik, Ka, and Pamuk himself to show up, thus shifting his books into a whole other shadow universe. Fun stuff. And Orhan Gencebay shows up? Fantastic!

This was probably my least-favorite Pamuk book (White Castle is still my favorite), and while I respect what Pamuk does in his work, and how he tries to build up all of his books along the same thoughts....this was 400 pages of longing in a 500 page book. I can't take that much longing, from such an objectionable character, myself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting Sci-Fi in the Altai

First off, apologies for being absent these past couple of weeks. Some remarkably serious stuff has gone on in my life outside of my internet persona, and I haven't had the chance to even think about these sorts of topics recently. I only just got caught up with my news yesterday. So I haven't forgotten about Central Asia, I merely had to leave it for a bit. OK, on to other things.

I've mentioned it before, but I love BLDGBlog:
Let me repeat that: to call these artificial glaciers is a poetic over-statement, as they are much more realistically described as artificially maintained deposits of snow—what I have elsewhere called non-electrical ice reserves. But the thermally self-sustaining nature of these deposits nonetheless makes them susceptible to glaciological analysis.
Geoff is discussing the art of creating glaciers. It's a practice, by the way, that started in the Pakistani Himalayas and is much more lo-fi and practical than it seems at first. A Norwegian student, Ingvar Tveiten, just wrote a paper on the practice. And very real Climate Change aside, they ain't going anywhere. The whole practice is actually fairly simple: workers bring buckets of ice, rocks, and other detritus to a mountain environment to form the groundspring of a glacier. Once it gets going, which apparently takes about four years, a self-sustaining but small glacier is begun. It can be used more for irrigation and micro hydro power than apocalyptic geomorphing, but still, it is pretty darned neat.

There's lots of different tacks for this. I'd love to go into the history of glacier-making in the Himalayas, or look at the environmental consequences of this sort of irrigation vs. more standard irrigation stuff. But I'm most interested in how creating glaciers can be used for an insurgency. Call it John Robb-ian glaciology.

The ranges of Central Asia (Himalayas, Pamirs, Tian Shan, Altai, etc.) hold an ice cover of ~114,800 km2. This brief has lots of neat stats and pictures for you to chew on what that means. Basically, as much as we love our camels-and-stepps iconography, Central Asia has the greatest convergence of ice and population in the world. And because the scale of ice (and runoff) has decreased since the Little Ice Age, there is plenty of room for man-made glaciers. Moreover, glacier-making is cheap, with BLDGBlog citing the price of $50,000 --and most of that is for manpower.

So why make your own glacier? If I were in the region, I wouldn't be counting on my national government to be looking out for my own interests. Once outside the power structure, its awfully tough to get into it. And at the same time, Roghun and the Turkmen desert-lake show more of a taste for grandiose geomorphing from the center. Here is a way to do small-scale change from the periphery, and in doing so create a new brand (and no, I don't mean the unfortunately-named hipsters at IMU Brand). Environmentalist-revolutionaries capture the imagination.

And there's more than just bringing irrigation and thus more-than-subsistence agriculture. There's also the aforementioned micro hydro power (which could be actually very effective) as well as opportunities for guerilla-pastoralism. Where water means money and power, creating new sources of water is pretty imposing. A four-year lag period ain't nothing.

More nefariously, a lot of the more basic (and I would argue locally effective) cadastral property planning looks at rivers and mountains as boundaries, not GPS co-ordinates. Creating rivers can create property. If I can alter the course of a river or create a new glacier that'll alter mountains, I can give myself land without fighting for it. As preposterous and Jules Verne as this sounds, it actually has happened in the past and is still happening today. In a country without NOAA maps or anything along those lines, this has the potential to create a land power-base to go with an economic power base. Joshua alluded to property rights recently, and there's certainly a whole lot to unpack there. But if you can alter the land, you can not only get around the central government, but you can also get around the NGO industry (as much as I love and respect these guys) and International Community. It's pretty ingenious, if a bit sci-fi. If you want to fight law, you can do it by bending the laws context. There are some pretty heady implications here.

So there's a lot to chew on this idea and a lot more to work with besides. Hopefully I'll be able to do more of these sorts of posts in the future if y'all enjoy them (or enjoy mocking got Tom Ricks an audience and some awards), but I will tell you this: it's good to be back online and writing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Since I've Been Gone

Insanity has struck. That's at least the way I'm going to put the past couple of weeks. That's why my internet persona has been quiet, and that's why I'm not ready to start putting together original content.

All the same, the world has moved on. Rigi was captured (and alleges US involvement with Jundullah), On Violence talks about how District 9 is about the War on Terror, and a drunk chimp is sent to Kazan for rehab. But my favorite is from the Polar Bear Colony, which landed this long-form piece on The Exile.
What The Exile lacked in resources it made up for in ritualistic public humiliation. For one stunt, Ames and Taibbi, armed with forged stationery purporting to be from the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, hired the American public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller to help put a nice spin on the city’s police-brutality problem. Burson-Marsteller, at the time doing a lot of work in Russia on behalf of American companies, happily took the job, and The Exile published the correspondence and phone transcripts.
Rage, pranks, and some killer writing. Oh how I long to work in an environment like that. But preferably without all of the Soddom and Gomorrah stuff, I'm not sure I could be up to that. Too strange to live, too rare to die, The Exile did some incredible stuff. Even if, under it all, they were terrible people not to be romanticized about.