March 31, 2009

March 27, 2009

goals, without players

photograph by Maximilian Haidacher, from the series "Block" [seen at the excellent Polar Inertia]

March 26, 2009

on solitary confinement

Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker on solitary confinement (via Ross Douthat and Ta-Nehisi Coates) caused me to question something (the morality of that punishment) which I had never questioned before, and so I highly recommend reading it. Perhaps the single thing which stuck most with me, concerned as I am with the question of whether the human experience is essentially similar or dissimilar over the course of history, was the revelation that the widespread and long-term use of solitary confinement in America is a practice that is essentially contained to the past twenty or so years. The piece builds, though, to a very important argument, which is not so much about our policies as it about how our policies reveal us. I am extremely sympathetic to this argument, because it extends my concerns about the moral and pragmatic futility of torture:

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America's moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement--on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

March 25, 2009

now with category-based archives

As it says, on left-hand side. Been meaning to add these for a while, but hadn't. Next up, and likely never to occur: a tag cloud.

March 24, 2009

a brief history of culture11

via Ross Douthat, Charles Homan's piece at the Washington Monthly is worth reading, though the last sentence ("In the end, the market will decide--and what could be more conservative than that?") might be taken to indicate that he didn't give Culture11 as close a reading as you would expect from the author of a retrospective (to be fair, its at least as likely that he just thought it was a clever way to wrap up the article):

When [Jonah] Goldberg got to the line about the moving sidewalk, Friedersdorf and Poulos looked at each other. Poulos made the finger-twirling "crazy" gesture. When New York Times columnist David Brooks, the panel's moderator, opened up the floor for questions, Poulos walked briskly up to the microphone.

"Hi gentlemen," he began. "Um ... in the interest of fun I'm going to taunt the panel first, and then try to justify running the gauntlet by phrasing it as a serious question." Poulos was wearing a charcoal suit and a brightly colored tie, which stood out in the ballroom's sea of navy blue and khaki but was subdued by his standards, which tend to run toward things like monochromatic three-piece suits and velvet jackets. (He also has sideburns that are shaped like New Hampshire and almost as big; the combination of muttonchops and fine tailoring suggests a character in a Victorian political cartoon, or one of the white guys in Superfly.) Poulos's writing was prone to densely cerebral sentences that unfurled over the course of a whole paragraph, and he addressed the panel in a similar tone. "One concern that I and others might have," he began, "is that conservatives are particularly good at doing a kind of cultural criticism that results in inaccurate or radically incomplete observations about things going on in this crazy culture of ours. So, just sort of moving quickly down the line, right? Like, Jonah gives us a portrait of a college campus where everything is taken care of and no one buzzes anyone else's vibe--but of course, you know, the dark side of college life is that everyone is buzzing everyone else's vibe in private--terrible breakups, attempted suicides, school counseling, and threesomes gone wrong." Threesomes gone wrong. The Hillsdale professor looked like someone he had never met had just walked up and thrown a glass of water in his face. Several of the other panelists were friends or acquaintances of Poulos's, and they looked mildly amused as he moved on to the great conservative shibboleth: "The valiant working class, culturally robust and upright Americans? Well, yeah, but a lot of these people also enjoy Cheetos and watching Family Guy.

March 23, 2009

the city of toledo, being colonized by her suburbs


We typically think of the city as an expansive organism, propelled by its growth; but if the city is shrinking, then there is no reason to think that it could not be invaded by the inhabitants, typologies, and rules of surrounding municipalities. Which is exactly what has happened to Toledo, Ohio.

March 20, 2009

the portland timbers


The recently resuscitated Pitch Invasion brings us a quality piece exploring the history of the Portland Timbers, who have just joined Vancouver and Philadelphia as confirmed future members of MLS:

On the other hand, the team itself exuded an agreeable, wacky vibe. When I interviewed the supposed star signing, ex-MLS (and ex-everything else) player Darren Sawatzky, he met me for a cocktail at the Driftwood Room in the old Mallory Hotel. He brought along his brother, whom I believe was working concessions at PGE.

The general manager, a full-bore football fanatic named Jim Taylor, would have sent his cobbled-together side of kids, journeymen and semi-pros out against Arsenal in half a heartbeat, such was his enthusiasm. The head coach, an old-school ex-West Ham man named Bobby Howe, was straight from Central Casting. I recall a concerted effort to turn the "lads" into gossip-column sex symbols. The team also boasted perhaps the greatest mascot in sports history: Timber Jim; a man in Carhartts; a man with a chainsaw; a man who sliced a hunk of wood off a loge every time the Timbers scored and brandished it at rival goalkeepers in a threatening manner. Timber Jim added a jolt of deranged American genius to the Europhile world of soccer fandom.

Let us hope that their first season begin in the same fashion as their arch-rivals, the sounders, has -- with a solid thrashing of the metrostars.

when you eat factory-farmed pork, you ride with mrsa

Nicholas Kristof:

Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That's unconscionable.

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were "a major component" in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation's entire human population.

"We don't give antibiotics to healthy humans," said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. "So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?"

The answer is simple: politics.

March 15, 2009

sunday morning soccer notes

a. "... Goals have a rarity value that points and runs and sets do not, and so there will always be that thrill, the thrill of seeing someone do something that can only be done three or four times in a whole game if you are lucky, not at all if you are not. And I love the pace of it, its lack of formula; and I love the way that small men can destroy big men (watch Beardsley against Adams) in a way that they can't in other contact sports, and the way that the best team does not necessarily win. And there's the athleticism (with all due respect to Ian Botham and the England front row, there are very few good fat footballers), and the way that strength and intelligence have to combine. It allows players to look beautiful and balletic in a way that some sports do not: a perfectly-timed diving header, or a perfectly struck volley, allow the body to achieve a poise and grace that some sportsmen can never exhibit."
- Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

b. Alain Giresse's assist for the second goal is astonishing in its spatial perfection, while Vasily Rat's goal is less subtle, but more obviously brilliant:

c. I can't talk about Arsenal (Hornby's book is about his relationship with Arsenal) and beautiful soccer (see b) this morning without noting what Andrei Arshavin did to Blackburn yesterday: on the Run of Play here and full match highlights here.

March 14, 2009

March 12, 2009

March 11, 2009

la hague

The French keep all of the nuclear waste from the last thirty years of energy production in one room, the storage vault at La Hague.

la hague in penisular context

portion of la hague facility [google maps]

If, as the landscape theorist Beth Meyers has suggested, sublime sentiments can be stirred by the juxtaposition of knowledge of invisible danger with the regimented beauty of industrial architecture, then this gymnasium-sized room (and, by extension, perhaps the whole of La Hague) might be the most sublime place on the planet.

I was alerted to the existence of this room by a single sentence in an article on Infrastructurist about the closing of the Yucca Mountain facility. The author of that article, William Tucker, has written at length about the French nuclear program; but it is his description of a tour of La Hague which fascinates me:

And suddenly, there it is before us. Like some benthic organism being hauled out of the deep, a complete fuel assembly is slowing rising out of the floor, lifted by an overhead crane, until it reaches the full height of the room. With its steel frame and vertical black lines - the fuel rods - it looks eerily like a miniaturized version of the World Trade Center. Yet its blank and featureless face has the soulless menace of a shark's eye.

"What's the radiation coming out of that thing?"

Naugnot consults quickly with a nuclear engineer who speaks only French.

"Un million millirads," says the engineer. A million millirem. Quick calculation -that's 1000 rems. The highest exposure people got standing near ground zero at Hiroshima was only 500 rems. This is truly the most powerful and dangerous material on earth. Yet here we are, perfectly shielded by a foot of lead-laced glass. If we suffer the slightest exposure, the full-body radiation detectors will catch it when we leave.


"How long has it been since someone was in that room?"

"Not since it was built. And they won't be in there again until years after it's decommissioned. If you walked in there now, you'd be killed instantly."

I have not been able to locate a image of that first room, which may not be a bad thing for the purposes of this post, as I suspect that being able to see the space -- and its apparent emptiness -- would likely trick the mind into thinking it less threatening than it really is. Better to imagine it as an invisible yellow hole than to see a photograph which cannot capture the flood of radiation.

The second room is bathed in an gorgeous blue glow -- the visible signature of Cerenkov radiation from stacked spent fuel, held harmless underwater.

the swimming pool at la hague [source]

The next stop is the "swimming pool," a larger version of the storage pools that hold spent fuel at almost every nuclear plant. This one is near-Olympic size. The blue Cerenkov glow is fainter, giving it the color of one of those horrible kids' kool-aid flavors. As we scan the perimeter I suddenly see something wildly incongruous and yet perfectly appropriate - life preservers hanging about every twenty yards along the guardrail - a perfect conjunction of high- and low-tech.

The water is apparently so effective at neutralizing the radioactivity of the spent fuel that Tucker tells the French tour guide of American nuclear plant workers who have snuck illicit swims in storage pools -- though Tucker gives the impression that he is not entirely convinced by those claims.

The final room -- home to all thirty years of nuclear waste -- is anticlimactic, after the described power of the first room and the vivid reminder of the atomic forces in play provided by the Cerenkov radiation in the second. But this is the glistening heart of La Hague:

the most sublime room at la hague [source]

It is a bit larger than I imagined. Somehow I had seen it as about the size of a small visitors' center. Instead it is more like a large basketball gymnasium. Still, it's one large room. In the floor there are about 40 manhole covers stenciled with Areva's triangular logo. All are so tightly sealed with no visible handles it seems impossible they could ever be removed.

::Article discussing the process at La Hague as well as the potential ups and downs of reprocessing spent fuel (as is done at La Hague).

March 10, 2009

thoughts on discourse and ethics which i endorse

As noted above, from Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings:

They clearly seem to have various narratives in their mind concerning husbands, or people who work in real estate, or whatever, which needed only some trigger to come flying out onto the page. And they clearly did not stop to think: I wonder whether this could have happened in some way other than the one I'm imagining? It's as though they did not consider the possibility that Mr. Harrison might be an actual person, with feelings and a life of his own, as opposed to a character in their internal drama whom they might use or abuse as they saw fit.

This is interesting to me as an ethicist, because almost all the comments reprinted here criticize people on moral grounds. But the person with whose moral character we should be most directly concerned is our own. On almost any account, if morality requires anything at all, it requires that we take other people seriously as people, with their own independent existence, rather than using them as screens onto which we project our own psychological needs at will. So I would think that anyone who was genuinely concerned to do the right thing would recognize this sort of freefloating hostility, and the lack of concern for others that lets it emerge, as vices dressing themselves up as virtues.


March 5, 2009

visual display of quantified incarceration

[detail from "Prison Block" in The Atlantic Monthly]

Nationwide, an estimated two-thirds of the people who leave prison are rearrested within three years. A disproportionate number of them come from a few urban neighborhoods in big cities. Many states spend more than $1 million a year to incarcerate the residents of single blocks or small neighborhoods.

One such "million-dollar neighborhood" is shown above--a half-square-mile portion of Central City, an impoverished district southwest of the French Quarter. In 2007, 55 people from this neighborhood entered prison; the cost of their incarceration will likely reach about $2 million.

The perpetual migration between prison and a few predictable neighborhoods is not only costly--it also destabilizes community life. Some New Orleans officials and community groups are now using prison-admission maps like these to explore new investments--block by block--in the social infrastructure of these damaged neighborhoods. Plenty of money is already being spent on these neighborhoods, in the form of policing and prison costs; the hope is that by spending more money in them, in a highly targeted fashion, the release-and-return-to-prison cycle can eventually be broken.

March 3, 2009

fresh coons

This quality profile (though if you are going to be revulsed by pictures of skinned coons, I suggest avoiding the link) of a man who is living a quasi-rural existence in Detroit as a coon hunter/blues guitarist (which suggests that perhaps the authors of Stalking Detroit sketched more accurate tactics for the future of Detroit than some have given them credit for) goes well with the news that the median home price in Detroit is now $7,500. I am beginning to formulate a new apocalypse survival plan: rather than retreat to the southern ranges of the Appalachian mountains in northern Alabama to subsist on broasted chicken (and join Jess's extended family), we will purchase a two-story bungalow in the city of Detroit and eek out a living as urban farmers/squirrel hunters, sung to sleep at night by the howling of our semi-feral dogs Theodore Roosevelt and The White Whale.

Excerpt from the profile:

"With more time for music, he blended his love for blues and hunting into an annual festival, the Coon Hunters Hoe Down, held for years at small halls in places like Romulus and New Boston, and even on Belle Isle a few times. An old-fashioned revival mix of blues, country and gospel acts would perform while raccoon meat was grilled and served with black-eyed peas and baked beans. Sometimes they'd have rabbit and squirrel too. The event usually drew a couple hundred people, including bystanders who'd wander over, curious about the roots music and the smell of strange meat being grilled.


He bought his little west-side house over 40 years ago. There's a faintly wild game smell to it. Some kind of winged bugs crawl here and there. A copy of American Cooner magazine lies on a couch. There are bars on all the windows, and fading wallpaper on the walls. His mutts whine and howl in his backyard next to their dog houses. He lives a backwoods lifestyle in a house of blues and coons and hounds, an island of country life within the city."

March 2, 2009

a visual representation of my morning commute

the sea of ice.jpg
"The Sea of Ice", Caspar David Friedrich, 1823-1824

I was late to work this morning because my bus driver stopped to help another bus driver who couldn't get up the hill. He managed to get up the hill, but he also managed to impale her bus on a no parking sign, which, last I saw it, was being dragged behind the westbound AT-2 like some poor soul drawn and quartered in the fifteenth century.