March 2009

2009 03 31
Yeah Yeah Records and Friends Festival

Posted by in: Music

If you’re in or close to Brooklyn, Yeah Yeah Records is curating a month of Fridays in April at I-Beam. It’s a nice line up, spanning from avant garde jazz to New Music.

Yeah Yeah Records Festival – Every Friday in April.

April 3rd, 2009
8:00pm soloists: Akiko Sasaki (piano) and Miranda Sielaff (viola)
9:00pm Yoon Sun Choi and Jacob Sacks Duo
10:00pm Matt Renzi Trio

April 10th, 2009
8:00pm Dan Weiss (drums)
9:00pm Jacob Sacks Quintet
10:00pm Ok/Ok

April 17th, 2009
8:00pm Khabu Doug Young
9:00pm Stacken/Knuffke Duo
10:00pm Bishop/Cleaver/Flood Trio

April 24th, 2009
8:00pm Josh Sinton
9:00pm Vinnie Sperrazza/Matt Blostein Quintet
10:00pm Jacob Sacks and Eivind Opsvik’s Two Miles A Day with Mat Maneri

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2009 03 27
Decree: All web pages will scale fonts gracefully

Posted by in: Decrees

I like to set the font of whatever I’m reading to about 20 pixels. (You think that’s funny? See if I care.) But some web pages are designed so that when I increase the font size, the width of the page increases too, forcing the right side of the text off the screen or under some other element on the page. Therefore, I decree that henceforth all web pages will scale fonts gracefully.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 03 13
Cramer versus Stewart

Posted by in: Media criticism

I have very little patience for radio or television, so I don’t get to hear a lot of interviews. Even so, I don’t live under a rock, and like everyone else I’ve seen and heard my share. And I think this is probably the most remarkable interview I’ve ever watched. Almost every other interview I’ve seen has left me frustrated at all the tough questions that went unasked, and the follow ups that might have clarified matters—frustrated even though I can well imagine how difficult it is to conduct an interview in even a half-assed way. But Stewart, Stewart, sweet jumping jelly beans that man is smart. He’s helped by the fact that Cramer knows he’s been caught and essentially rolls on his back and whimpers most of the time. Still, the interview is like the perfect fantasy of an interview, with every question, every comeback hitting in exactly the right place. I sometimes find Stewart’s attitude to his guests too fawning, but not this time.

Why can’t the real world be like this? Are there journalists out there who do this and I just haven’t heard of them?

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 03 11
Recently read: Cradle to Cradle

William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

The environmental movement has invested significant time and energy over the last few decades trying to move us to a “sustainable” way of life; much of that effort can be summed up in the slogan “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” William McDonough and Michael Braungart find the goal of sustainability flat and uninspiring—they ask us to imagine our reaction if someone described his marriage as “sustainable.” Their book is an invitation to think in a radically different way about environmental issues, starting (but by no means ending) with conventional recycling efforts.

The basic problem with conventional recycling is that it would often be better described as “downcycling”: products that were never designed to be recycled are transformed into inferior products which are themselves only one step away from the landfill anyway. Moreover, the process of transformation often uses chemical processes with harmful byproducts and consumes a significant amount of energy.

Because it was not designed with recycling in mind, paper requires extensive bleaching and other chemical processes to make it blank again for reuse. The result is a mixture of chemicals, pulp, and in some cases toxic inks that are not really appropriate for handling and use. The fibers are shorter and the paper less smooth than virgin paper, allowing an even higher proportion of particles to abrade into the air, where they can be inhaled and can irritate the nasal passages and lungs. Some people have developed allergies to newspapers, which are often made from recycled paper.

The creative use of downcycled materials for new products can be misguided, despite good intentions. For example, people may feel that they are making an ecologically sound choice by buying and wearing clothing made of fibers from recycled plastic bottles. But the fibers from plastic bottles contain toxins such as antimony, catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers, and antioxidants, which were never designed to lie next to human skin.

And so on. The moral is that recycling—or downcycling, rather—shouldn’t be an afterthought. Rather, we should design products from the start with the expectation that they will be reused. This is certainly possible—the book is filled with examples—but it does require a radical rethinking of the process of industrial design. M and B also challenge the idea that this needs to be especially expensive, claiming that a careful design process can actually help companies make money at the same time that they benefit the environment. M and B, it seems, never met a cake without dreaming up some way to have and eat it at the same time.

In an interesting twist, M and B have decided to make this point using the very materials on which their book is printed.

Imagine if we were to rethink the entire concept of a book, considering not only the practicalities of manufacture and use but the pleasures that might be brought to both . . . .

Is it an electronic book? Perhaps—that form is still in its infancy [Cradle to Cradle was published in 2002]. Or perhaps it takes another form as yet unimagined by us. But many people find the form of the traditional book both convenient and delightful. What if we reconceived not the shape of the object but the materials of which it is made, in the context of its relationship to the natural world? How could it be a boon to both people and the environment?

We might begin by considering whether paper itself is a proper vehicle for reading matter . . . Let’s imagine a book that is not a tree. It is not even paper. Instead, it is made of plastics developed around a completely different paradigm for materials, polymers that are infinitely recyclable at the same level of quality—that have been designed with their future life foremost in mind, rather than as an awkward afterthought. This “paper” doesn’t require cutting down trees or leaching chlorine into waterways. The inks are nontoxic and can be washed off the polymer with a simple and safe chemical process or an extremely hot water bath, from either of which they can be recovered and reused. The cover is made from a heavier grade of the same polymer as the rest of the book, and the glues are made of compatible ingredients, so that once the materials are no longer needed in their present form, the entire book can be reclaimed by the publishing industry in a single one-step recycling process.

This passage nicely captures the refreshingly creative approach the author’s take to their subjects. The inspired choice of their own book’s materials to illustrate the principles inscribed on it ensures that the lesson is never far from the reader’s mind. Unless you’re reading it on a Kindle, Cradle to Cradle doesn’t feel like an ordinary book. The plastic pages feel smooth; it smells nice, in my opinion; it’s surprisingly heavy.

Just as they urge us to reconsider conventional recycling, M and B also try to get us to do the same with a host of related concepts that have been an important part of the conventional wisdom among environmentalists for decades. Too much legislation, too much activism, has been dominated by the notion of harm reduction, when in fact we should be trying to dream up ways in which products might benefit the larger ecology to which they belong. And they tell us about buildings that produce more energy than they consume and factories which pump out water used in the industrial process cleaner than it entered the factory. (If you find this all very cool but don’t have time to read the book, you should check out M’s TED talk. Very cool.)

Cradle to Cradle is strongest when it descends from abstractions to the description of actual projects undertaken by M and B—the former is an architect and the latter a chemist. It’s a pity, then, that they don’t do this more often. Instead, much of the book is taken up with an extraordinarily repetitive account of its general principles. This book could and should have been much less tedious, and much shorter. It could also have been better written. I was surprised to read that the book was actually ghostwritten by a poet. The prose was often so awkward, and the material so poorly organized, that the book actually read as exactly the sort of earnest but flawed effort you might expect from two people with great ideas and little ability to write.

Back to the physical materials in the book for a moment. The idea, recall, is that these materials are technical nutrients. This means that when the world no longer needs Cradle to Cradle, the publisher can simply wash the pages clean and publish a new book. But as I mulled the idea over (and discussed it with a friend, who added a nice helping of sceptical mockery), it started to bother me even more than the sheer weight of the book (even I, with my massively powerful upper body, would not want to carry around a knapsack of such books). Eventually I clued in to the fact that nowhere on the book is there any information about where to return unwanted copies. In other words, after putting an enormous amount of effort into making the ideas in their book concrete, and then telling us over and over about how awesome this all is, M and B appear to have completely neglected to actually implement the idea, or rather, to implement to the idea past the point of gimmickry.

Not yet willing to give up, I called the office of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They put me through to someone in the production department who sounded thoroughly stumped when I asked her if it was possible to actually return the book to them for reprinting. “Oh, we get calls asking about the material,” she told me, “but no one has ever asked about returning it.” She promised to get back to me after looking into the matter. After a bit of back and forth by email, I confirmed my hunch that when M and B say that “the entire book can be reclaimed by the publishing industry in a single one-step recycling process,” the “can” here refers to the theoretical possibility of reuse, and does not imply that anyone will ever actually bother to do it.

I don’t want to be a dick about this, so let me just say that I think it’s ok that this reconceptualization of the traditional book has its problems. I bring it up because it illustrates how difficult it is to reconceptualize something traditional without broader and far-reaching changes in consumer habits and patterns of distribution. But if this cheeky takedown of M has anything to it, it also illustrates a general problem M has translating his visionary ideas into actual practice.

So that’s my impression of this book: visionary, provocative, necessary, flawed, and pretty badly written. On balance, I think it’s worth reading and wrestling with in spite of its faults. You can hardly escape it without a fresh perspective on traditional environmentalism and the sense of a whole world of possibilities awaiting us if we approach it the right way.

(If you just can’t get enough about this book, Steve’s review is much friendlier (and more informative, actually).

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 03 04
Recently read: Descent Into Chaos

Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.

Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)

The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.

In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.

After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.

As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.

The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.

The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.

Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.

There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.

* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.

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2009 03 01
Recovering from Grub Error 17

Posted by in: Linux

I’m posting this in case it helps anyone who gets grub error 17 when they boot their computer.
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