Saturday, February 28, 2009

Whose Babies Do We Mourn?

All the photographs in this collection "Portraits from the Congo" are deadly serious. But that didn't stop me from have a fleeting thought on seeing this picture:

"Huh. Mail order baby."

Back to a serious note, my sister wonders whether the world only cares when white babies die. I don't think that's true. It's just that which brown and black babies the world cares about is desperately subject to fashion. We care about Tibetan babies, but not Uyghur babies. We care about Darfuri babies, but not Congolese babies. And the fashions for which suffering peoples get highlighted in the international media and NGO racket seem dependent on which cases better support the worldview of those communities. A racist conflict over water and exacerbated by climate change becomes a cause celebre. Where a tyrant has, in one generation, succeeded in making the continent's healthiest and wealthiest nation into the poorest and sickest in the world? Well, you don't hear too much about that. Why not? Because what Robert Mugabe has done to Zimbabwe seems to argue — rather forcefully — that decolonization was a disaster and Kipling was right. And rather than confront ugly realities and have the difficult discussions about their implications, it's a lot easier just to focus on those conflicts that support our worldviews.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Best Thing Ever (Yet): Ukrainian Army Recruitment Video

While the current US Army recruitment campaign continues to blather on about building true virtue, with videos exploring the theme of "strength" to a soul-stirring martial soundtrack, the Ukrainian military has apparently decided to go for a slightly less nuanced approach: being in the Army counts bigtime with the ladies:


Girl 1: would you take us for a ride on your BMW?
BMW-driver: even to the end of the world!
Soldier: hey, I'd like to down some vodka, girls!
Girl 1: just a second!
Girl 2: where do you live?
Soldier: right here- daytime at work, and at night in the clubs!
Girl 1: which work?
Soldier: contract of course!
Blonde girl: contract? marriage contract or what?
Girl 3: army contract, stupid!
BMW driver: hey, don't you wanna ride in my car?
Girls: forget it, take yourself for a ride!
Narrator: it's about time for new heroes! with contract based service in the Ukrainian armed forces!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

The line I'd like share tonight isn't even properly a Lenten hymn, tho' the "Evening" section of the hymnal does seem ever more appropriate in this season:

Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die that so I may
Rise glorious at the awesome day.
--Thomas Ken, c. 1674

I really am a Dark Lutheran. There's no denying it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Opposition

I read lefty blogs for my intellectual health. Not HuffPo mind you, but comparatively reasonable liberal writers. This morning "publius" at Obsidian Wings had an interesting comment on the GOP in opposition with regard to the stimulus.
The House GOP is playing a long-term game. In the spirit of parliamentary opposition, they're looking ahead to the next election. What the public thinks now is not necessarily relevant to what the public will think 18 months from now. They've gone all in but haven't seen the flop yet. It's important for Obama, then, to do all he can to make sure the policy works as best it can -- and fraud or waste needs to be met with swift Old Testament-style vengeance. Because if the stimulus doesn't work, the GOP is going to be able to draw a very clear contrast on the issue.
He later goes on to mention how the Democrats have not historically been this good in opposition. I agree, but I'd argue he's missing his own point. The GOP's opposition to the stimulus is not just playing politics for the next election; it is also shaping Democratic policy for the better. Here's the key: "It's important for Obama, then, to do all he can to make sure the policy works". Whatever your position on it, nobody is even trying to argue that the stimulus bill is a lean, targeted affair. By reminding overreaching Democrats that they'll be waiting in the wings if the thing fails, congressional Republicans have given them a very powerful incentive to make it succeed. A functional opposition, even if it doesn't have the votes to change a single outcome, still has an invaluable role to play.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Saturday Dinner: Pasta Two Ways. And Then Pie.

Yeah yeah yeah, it's Tuesday night. Sue me. Djyah want your recipes or no? Yeah, in the plural. Moving on.

So Saturday night my congenital indecisiveness got the best of me, leading me to make a ridiculous amount of pasta. See, the idea of making pasta alla puttanesca had gotten lodged in my brain, (probably triggered by an unwitting reference to A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, a charming book which features the puttanesca in a subplot). Sadly, several of our dinner guests expressed an aversion to olives, which feature prominently and irreplaceably in the puttanesca. I suppose I could have just chosen a different dish. One of our guests, however, had expressed a love of olives, and this guest, for multitudinous reasons, particularly deserved a very special meal. In conjuction with my own strange compulsion to attempt the puttanesca, this left the matter completely out of my hands. Two pastas it would simply have to be.

Pasta alla Puttanesca: (heavily adapted from Wikipedia, which will reveal the meaning of this dish's slightly scandalous title) :

olive oil
3 cloves garlic
6 anchovy fillets
1 tiny jar (around 1/4 cup?) capers, rinsed
1/2 cup good green olives (like, from the deli, not a can)
1/2 cup Kalamata olives
2 15oz. cans diced stewed tomatoes

Heat some oil. Sautee the garlic and anchovies until the little fishies dissolve into stinky nothingness. Toss in the capers and olives. Since I really don't know what the heat is accomplishing at this point, throw in the tomatoes, too. Heat it all until it's hot. (This isn't a particularly tricky dish). Oh, and hopefully you threw in some entertainingly-shaped pasta before you started with the sauce. Otherwise you'll be eating this on bread, which is also seriously delicious, I promise.

Sidenote: I never understood the whole anchovy thing until this dish. And... wow. It's seriously just cheating. If you didn't already know what they were, you'd never know they were there. You'd just wonder "huh, it tastes like someone is kicking me in the mouth with a boot made of pure deliciousness".

Pasta Arrabiata (this one's all me)

1 lb hot Italian sausage
1 green pepper, halved and sliced into 1/4" strips
1 sweet onion, halved and sliced in 1/4" strips
4 cloves garlic, brutalized
2 15oz. cans diced stewed tomatoes
1 tsp. red pepper flake
grated parmesan to impress the ladies

Brown the sausage. Chop up your pepper and onions while that's happening. That whole 1/4" thing? Yeah, do whatever you want with that. It's seriously not going to matter. Short of tossing the pepper and onion into the pan entire, you're not likely to mess this step up. Set the sausage aside when it's cooked through, leaving as much delicious sausage grease in the pan as possible. Sautee your onions and pepper in the delicious sausage grease. And by sautee, I expect to see some browning on those veggies. Feel free to burn 'em a bit, if need be. We're looking for Torquemada here. Good. Now toss in the garlic. Toss it all around for just a minute or so and add the tomatoes and red pepper. I actually didn't have red pepper flake on hand, but powdered cayenne worked pretty well, too. It's all a matter of taste, people. Let that heat up and simmer for just a few minutes and you're ready to serve. Again, assuming you started a pot of pasta about 20 minutes ago. Yeah, I'm not going to get nominated to write any cookbooks anytime soon. And throw some grated parmesan on top. We're all about gilding the lily around here.

And after all of that, our friend A. made pie. This post really belongs in the "Are Ya Serious?" category. Yeah, she's serious. How serious? This serious:

Yeah. Life's not all bad 'round here. 'Specially not on Saturday nights.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dubai's Good Times Come to an End

I've never understood the fascination many people have with Dubai. The whole idea of the place has never really appealed to me. It's one enormous open-air shopping mall, and that in one of the world's most miserable climates. It's the Paris Hilton of world cities, a mockery of what fashion and celebrity once stood for. It seems that even in Dubai, people are starting to catch a whiff of reality.

The New Iraq's First Tourist

Serious tourists (who, of course, would never let themselves be called that; they are travelers, scoff, scoff) live to one-up one another by dropping mentions of exotic destinations: "Oh, yeah, Thailand's nice, I guess, but it's a bit too commercial for me. You should really visit Burma." Visits to crime- and disease-ridden third-world countries are of course played like trump cards. This guy, then, has all-time hands-down bragging rights.

Are Ya Serious? : Citibank Falls for Nigerian Email Scam

Well, they weren't quite sending their account numbers to an exiled prince in exchange for a cut of his fortune, but this is pretty close. Really?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Three Laws and Then Some

Asimov had one critical failure in imagination when dreaming up his future worlds inhabited by robots, or maybe he was just giving humanity too much credit. He completely missed the possibility that the greatest initial demand for highly autonomous robots would come from the military. He may not have considered them, but the military is certainly not ignoring him. The Office of Naval Research has released the first full military report on the potential ethical considerations of using semi- and fully-autonomous robots in combat, "Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design" (.pdf). It's fascinating, if slightly disconcerting, but it's an important topic. Congress has mandated that 1/3 of deep-strike aircraft be automated by 2010, and the same portion of ground vehicles by 2015. Whether we decide to allow a gun-toting robot to pull its own trigger, questions of robot ethics are important for more mundane 'bots, too. The first fully-autonomous ground vehicles will likely be transports for convoy operations. Just autonomous trucks. But how will the truck react if a child runs into the street? What if there are crowds on the sidewalks? It seems straightforward that robots would be programmed to be pure utilitarians; after all, we can expect a computer to successfully calculate the course of action leading to the least human suffering, at any rate far better than a human operator can. Then again, human cost can't be the only consideration: if autonomous trucks can safely be forced to crash simply by jumping in front of them, they wouldn't serve their purpose very well. Any fully-autnomous robot bigger than a Roomba might have to make a life-or-death decision; we need to be ready to face the implications of that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

States Rights and Such

Introduced in the Texas legislature, a bill demanding that the federal government actually, you know, uphold its founding document (.pdf!). Scary thought, I know. But never you mind, John Derbyshire assures us, "whoever was responsible will be hunted down and brought to justice."

Dry Spell

It's been a pretty good while here since my last post, particularly since I had been hitting such a stride. A lot of factors involved, but it's mostly been application of the great kindergarten lesson "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all". Also, one of these days my gracious corporate overlords at Time Warner will get around to spending some of their precious time to address my humble petition that they, you know, provide me the service that I'm paying for. It's not like they're in any hurry, I mean, what am I going to do? Just give up the Internet? Some days, I tell ya...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Talk Amongst Yourselves, I'll Give You A Topic: Funistrada

What amazes me most about the strange story of funistrada, the only food known solely for the fact that it doesn't actually exist, is that nobody has yet created a dish to fit the name.  I mean, we should be able to pull this off, right?  The -strada makes me think "strata" as in layers.  How about an Italianate vision of moussaka, layers of winter squash and panchetta baked in a casserole under a creamy blanket of bechamel?  Game on, folks, what does funistrada sound like to you?

Unholy Union

Conservatives distrust the government and celebrate the free market.  Liberals are wary of corporations and are big fans of most things prefixed by "public".  I wish both sides would recognize that one of the biggest threats to both good business and good government comes from the unholy union of the two.  You know, like when red-light camera companies collude with the police to rake in additional fines.  Or when kiddie prisons bribe judges to send more juvenile felons their way.  When government contractors waste billions intended to rebuild Iraq.  And worst of all, when mercenaries private security contractors endanger American soldiers and hinder our success in Iraq by alienating, enraging, or massacring the locals.

Advice For Young People

John Derbyshire shares practical wisdom for today's youth, specifically for "academically non-brilliant young from un-wealthy families":
If you have a high threshold of boredom and cherish financial security above all else, get a government job — any one will do. Master a few bureacratic survival tactics — avoiding responsibility, advancing by stealth, etc. Settle back. Life's a couch.

If you're more adventurous and independent, learn a useful skill that you can parlay into a small business and take with you to another country if you get the travel bug, or if the U.S.A. folds. Stay clear of the college racket and the student-loan sharks. Keep fit. Life's an adventure playground.
Don't get me wrong, I loved college and it was great for me, but I won't deny that it's basically a racket.  Seriously, how much of a typical humanities program is spent reading a book and then discussing it with a group of people?  You can do that for free, it's called a "book club".  And at a real book club there's a higher likelihood that the others had actually read what they're opining about.  I'd probably be evaluating the value of my college experience very differently if I were still paying off my loans, instead of handing them over to the American taxpayer.  (Thanks guys!)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Climate Day at Boing-Boing

It seems to be climate change day over at the ever-worthwhile internet digest Boing-Boing.  Guest blogger Charles Pratt quite knowingly opened a can of worms this morning with a series of posts on "Climatic Heresy", that is to say questioning "the interdisciplinary scientific consensus on the reality of deadly human-caused climate change", as Cory Doctorow puts it in one of a series of refutations.  Boing-Boing's ideological eclecticism and tolerance of dissenting views are pretty atypical for the blogosphere.

I'm not going to delve deep into this issue here, as there are far more who write about it far better than I could, but I do want to address again this idea of scientific consensus, which Doctorow expressed so stridently.  Firstly, science simply does not work by consensus.  To borrow an example from the late Michael Crichton, one would never say "the scientific consensus is that the Sun is about 93 million miles from the Earth".  It just sounds wrong, because we know intuitively that science doesn't work that way.  Secondly, I can't even fathom the cognitive dissonance of someone who praises great scientific pioneers like Galileo and Copernicus while shouting down all skeptics, saying "we've reached a consensus, the science is settled, no alternative hypotheses are worthy of examination".

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fitting the Narrative

One can only imagine what the media would be saying if a hypothetical President McCain had dined on Wagyu beef in the now-subtropical West Wing after a storm killed scores of poor people and left millions without power in freezing temperatures, while FEMA responds even more ineptly than they had following Katrina.  Thankfully, we don't have to consider such an ugly situation.  Since this is President Obama we're talking about, the media simply aren't saying anything at all.

Google Becomes Self-Aware, Declares Entire Internet "Harmful"

That's about the only way I can take this story.  I mean, it's the only thing that makes sense.

Saturday Dinner: Chicken Groundnut Stew

One of my only frustrations with my living situation here in the barracks is that we have kitchen available. Our rooms have a fridge and microwave, but there's no range or oven available anywhere. I have a (technically contraband) hot plate and toaster oven, but there's only so much you're willing to do with one burner and no ventilation, especially when you're cooking in your bedroom. It's also a huge event to get everything out of the boxes I keep it hidden in, cook, clean up, and pack it back up again. Long story short, I don't cook during the week, which is why I'm really glad we've gotten into a routine of holding Saturday evening dinner parties at a buddy's house. While I'm hardly one to start competing with all the fantastic food blogs available, I figured it'd be fun to start sharing what goes through my head, culinarily speaking. Last night our coterie feasted on a sack full of extremely ill-tempered blue crabs, courtesy of our host, and I made up a big ole' pot of chicken groundnut stew. Enjoy.

Chicken Groundnut Stew (adapted from Epicurious)

2 lbs chicken (recipe calls for a whole chicken in pieces, I just used 2 packages of drumsticks for ease of eating out of the stew)
1 qt chicken stock
1 15 oz can diced stewed tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1 large sweet onion
4 cloves garlic
1/2 c natural creamy peanut butter (or Skippy. I doubt anyone'll notice)
1 1/2 tsp African cayenne (or your favorite hot stuff)
2 sweet potatoes
1 lb bag frozen cut okra

Salt the chicken and let stand for a few minutes to draw off surface moisture. Set a skillet heating. Pour your stock, tomatoes, and tomato paste into a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat to start heating up. Pat chicken dry and brown off in hot skillet with a bit of oil. No need to be fancy, just get some nice color on the skin. (Or just forget this step and drop the chicken into your stewpot as is; this dish is hardly going to be lacking in depth of flavor). Add chicken to stewpot with stock and tomatoes. When stew comes to a boil, turn it down to a simmer and make note of the time. While stew simmers, rough-chop the onion and toss in skillet. Cook on medium-high heat until onion is translucent and beginning to brown on edges. Turn down heat and allow onions to continue to caramelize while you make use of your favorite technique to turn garlic cloves into smashed garlic paste. Toss garlic in with onions for just a few minutes to heat up, and add to stewpot. Now's as good a time as any to add the cayenne and peanut butter. When the stew's been simmering a good 30 minutes or so, peel and chunk the sweet potatoes and add to stew. Toss in the frozen okra, and bring the whole thing back to simmering until the sweet potatoes are fork-tender but not falling apart, about 12 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve in bowls or stew plates, over rice or by itself.

You'll understand quickly why I like using just the drumsticks in this stew, because then you can just pick them up out of the stew with your fingers. I suppose there's more mannerly ways to eat this, but that just strikes me as way too much work.

Next time I'll try to remember to take a picture or three, but I won't be emulating the Pioneer Woman anytime soon.

Digging Holes

An important reminder from N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist, to be skeptical of government "stimulus" spending, and particularly of the statistics used to justify it:
If you hire your neighbor for $100 to dig a hole in your backyard and then fill it up, and he hires you to do the same in his yard, the government statisticians report that things are improving. The economy has created two jobs, and the G.D.P. rises by $200. But it is unlikely that, having wasted all that time digging and filling, either of you is better off.
HT to John Derbyshire, who suspects "there'll be a lot of $100-hole-digging in the nation's near future".