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Change We Can Believe In, XVII

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Drone Warfare

David Cloud’s story in yesterday’s LA Times on a US drone attack 14 months ago in Afghanistan is a must-read. (Hat tip: James Fallows.) Here is an excerpt from its opening:

Nearly three miles above the rugged hills of central Afghanistan, American eyes silently tracked two SUVs and a pickup truck as they snaked down a dirt road in the pre-dawn darkness.

The vehicles, packed with people, were 3 1/2 miles from a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, who had been dropped into the area hours earlier to root out insurgents. The convoy was closing in on them.

At 6:15 a.m., just before the sun crested the mountains, the convoy halted.

“We have 18 pax [passengers] dismounted and spreading out at this time,” an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. He was flying a Predator drone remotely using a joystick, watching its live video transmissions from the Afghan sky and radioing his crew and the unit on the ground.

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying. They are praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.”

“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: “All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time.”

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

“Oh, sweet target,” he said.

None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

In a post on the war in Afghanistan last month, I raised the question of what our goal there is at this point, nearly a decade into the war. In revealing the horrors of drone warfare, Cloud provides further evidence that this is a war we can’t “win”, whatever winning would look like.

It’s Obama’s war now, drones and all. As Glenn Greenwald suggested in a tweet today, “The only sensible response to this story is to award a second Nobel Peace Prize.”

Categories: Technology, War

Stopping in at the Met, Addendum

April 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Jacopo Bassano, The Baptism of Christ, Unfinished 1592, Oil on canvas

Gail has reminded me that in the post I just wrote on Stopping at the Met, I omitted one of the highlights of last Monday’s visit: Jacopo Bassano’s baptism of Christ. As we were working our way around the European paintings in order to see recently stored works by Filippino Lippi, Velasquez, and Hans Memling, our host suggested we also look at the Bassano, a relatively recent Met acquisition.

At first glance, as we entered the room, I imagined the painting to be a depiction of one of Christ’s stops along the Stations of the Cross, while Gail thought specifically that it looked like a deposition. The Met’s online catalogue entry makes the very same point:

Spectral figures of Christ, Saint John the Baptist, and three angels are shown in a nocturnal landscape. John leans forward and, turning back, baptizes Christ, who is also depicted leaning forward, as though shedding his scarlet robe. His tormented face expresses foreknowledge of his tragic destiny. The three angels serve as counterpoints: one, holding Christ’s robe, gazes at him ecstatically while a second angel looks upward, at the mystical apparition of a dove in the black sky. The horizon is lit by the rays of the setting sun.

This extraordinary picture—deeply expressive and unique in Renaissance painting for showing the Baptism of Christ as occurring at night—is the last known work by the great Venetian painter Jacopo Bassano, who left it unfinished when he died in 1592. It was viewed by his heirs as his artistic testament and was retained by them rather than completed and delivered, as would have been the normal practice. They evidently felt that, as in the case of Michelangelo’s and Titian’s unfinished works, the picture fully expressed Jacopo’s intentions. …

… Bassano here explores an expressive intensity—dark in mood as in palette—that is a direct and deeply personal response to Titian’s late pictures (in particular Titian’s two versions of the “Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” and his unfinished “Pietà”, painted to decorate his own funerary chapel). The pose of Christ is as though taken from a “Way to Calvary” and this analogy must have been on Bassano’s mind.

It’s quite a powerful painting. Next time you’re at the Met, be sure to see it.

Categories: Art, Museums

Stopping in at the Met

April 9, 2011 Leave a comment

John Monteleone, Archtop Guitar, Sun King, 2000, Spruce, maple, ebony; sunburst finish (yellow to red), cutaway

We flew off to New York early last Saturday morning, returning very late Tuesday night.
Other than recounting the loss of part of a tooth and complaining about the absurdly late broadcast times of major sporting events in the eastern time zone, I haven’t reported on any of our activities. It being a family visit and all, there’s not much to say, really. But perhaps a few words are in order about our short stop Monday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are so many tempting exhibitions at the Met right now that it was difficult to choose from them. We started with Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. The initial objects on display are some extraordinary examples of stringed instruments of all types, from violins of Stradavari and Amati to a Stradavari guitar and a variety of mandolins. The Stradavari guitar, pictured below, is described as follows:

The Rawlins is one of four known surviving guitars made by the famous Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari. These instruments are unusual among extant Baroque guitars because of their lack of decoration, but they are probably more typical of the guitars created at the time. Stradivari used the same woods for his guitars—spruce for the top and maple for the sides and back—as he did for his violins. His guitars are the oldest surviving examples using these woods, which are standard for modern archtop guitars and mandolins.

Antonio Stradivari, Guitar, The Rawlins, 1700, Spruce, maple, ebony

The heart of the show is the work of three New Yorkers, as explained on the show’s webpage: “Since the 1930s, makers from this tradition in the New York region have become especially well known for their extraordinary archtop guitars. This exhibition examines the work of three remarkable craftsmen from this heritage—John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone—their place in the extended context of Italian and Italian American instrument making, and the inspiration of the sights and sounds of New York City.” There are so many examples to choose from. I’ll display one below, as well as the one up top:

James D’Aquisto,Archtop Guitar, Blue Centura Deluxe model, 1994, Spruce, maple, ebony

You can explore more guitars from the show here.

We were, alas, one day too late to see the Lod Mosaic, Roman mosaics circa 300 CE that were discovered in 1996 during a road construction project in Lod, Israel.

We raced over to the mosaic exhibition site, but the mosaic had already been removed.

I should perhaps explain that the Met is closed to the general public on Mondays, but open to lots of people nonetheless, from staff to assorted hangers-on. We were in the hanger-on category and, had the good fortune to be taken around by a staff member with access to many areas, which is why we were able to get to the place where the mosaic had been, in hope that some portions of it hadn’t been lifted off the floor yet. As consolation, we headed up to the Islamic Galleries, currently closed for renovation, expansion, and reinstallation, where we got a sneak peak of a small new room with wooden ceiling and walls being carved as we watched by Moroccan craftsmen. This will be a must-see when the space re-opens near the end of the year.

What next? A Renaissance Masterpiece Revealed: Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child. As the webpage explains: “Filippino Lippi is one of the great artists of fifteenth-century Florence. Among his principal patrons was the wealthy banker Filippo Strozzi (1428–1491), who commissioned a Madonna and Child for his villa at Santuccio, west of the city. This painting was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum by Jules Bache in 1949. In preparation for an exhibition on the artist that will be held in Rome next year, the picture was taken to conservation for examination this fall. A test cleaning revealed that beneath a thick, discolored varnish there was a beautifully preserved, richly colored painting. So striking is the transformation that the picture seems a new acquisition.”

Madonna and Child, ca. 1485, Filippino Lippi, tempera, oil, and gold on wood

Richly colored indeed. The colors were ravishing. And we had the pleasure of enjoying the painting at our leisure, with the room to ourselves.

Our host then suggested we see two more recently restored paintings. First was Velasquez’s 1624 portrait of King Philip IV:

Velázquez, Philip IV, King of Spain, probably 1624

And then a painting I’ve long loved, Hans Memling’s Annunciation:

Hans Memling, The Annunciation, 1465–75, Oil on wood

Finally, the briefest of stops at the exhibit of Cézanne’s Card Players, among which were the fellows below:

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, ca. 1890–92, Oil on canvas

And then we had to head off to Long Island, with so much left unseen.

Categories: Art, Museums

Change We Can Believe In, XVI

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Fear Trumps the Rule of Law

I’m a little late getting to this, because of our trip to New York, and by now what needs to be said has been said widely elsewhere.

On Monday, Attorney General Holder announced

that the Obama administration “will prosecute Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other people accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks before a military commission and not a civilian court, as it once planned. …

[This shift] marked a significant moment of capitulation in the Obama administration’s largely frustrated effort to dismantle counterterrorism architecture left behind by former President George W. Bush. President Obama, in one of his first initiatives, had announced his intention to close the Guantánamo prison in a year, a goal that he failed to fulfill.

Mr. Holder said Monday that he stood by his judgment that it made more sense, based on the facts and evidence of the case, to try Mr. Mohammed, described as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and the four others in a federal court.

The NYT editorial page didn’t pull its punches the next day, in an editorial titled Cowardice Blocks the 9/11 Trial:

On Monday, Mr. Holder’s dream for demonstrating the power of the American court system crumbled when he announced that the trial would take place not in New York City or anywhere in the United States but before a military commission at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.

That retreat was a victory for Congressional pandering and an embarrassment for the Obama administration, which failed to stand up to it.

The wound inflicted on New York City from Mr. Mohammed’s plot nearly a decade ago will not heal for many lifetimes, yet the city, while still grieving, has thrived. How fitting it would have been to put the plot’s architect on trial a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, to force him to submit to the justice of a dozen chosen New Yorkers, to demonstrate to the world that we will not allow fear of terrorism to alter our rule of law.

But, apparently, there are many who continue to cower, who view terrorists as much more fearsome than homegrown American mass murderers and the American civilian jury system as too “soft” to impose needed justice. The administration of George W. Bush encouraged this view for more than seven years, spreading a notion that terror suspects only could be safely held and tried far from our shores at Guantánamo and brought nowhere near an American courthouse. The federal courts have, in fact, convicted hundreds of terrorists since 9/11. And federal prisons safely hold more than 350 of them.

. . . Monday’s announcement represents a huge missed opportunity to prove the fairness of the federal court system and restore the nation’s reputation for providing justice for all.

Shortly after Holder’s announcement, Jane Mayer wrote:

Today’s news that K.S.M. is slated now for a military commission in the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, rather than facing a criminal trial in the civilian justice system that Holder believed was more fitting, may indeed be the defining moment for the Obama Justice Department, defining it, unfortunately, as incapable of standing up to to the political passions still stirred by the threat of terrorism.

Holder and some of the smartest prosecutors in the country had prepared what they believed was the strongest case possible against K.S.M. Lawyers involved in the effort told me they had spent years on it, and had files filled with killer evidence, just waiting for trial. Careers had been devoted to compiling an impeccable case. By using the civilian justice system, Holder had wanted to send several important messages, among them that terrorists are criminals, not some new breed of super warrior, and that the U.S. legal system is the strongest, fairest, and most credible system in the world. A guilty verdict arrived at in front of the world, in a public trial, with ordinary citizens sitting in judgment of K.S.M., would be internationally accepted as legitimate, in a way that no military tribunal ever will be. Or so the thinking went.

Despite Holder’s defiant reiteration today of his preference for trying K.S.M. in the federal courts, human-rights advocates were critical. “The administration has gone to great lengths to defend its authority to make these decisions, but has done little to exercise it,” Human Rights First president Elisa Massimino said. “Holder’s defense of executive prerogative today is stirring, but it comes too late without White House backing. The administration had months to act before Congress tied its hands on this. It failed to do so. There’s no substitute for leadership on this issue—and it has to come from the top. Without it, you get what we have today: capitulation to the agenda of fear.”

Obama left Holder high and dry, choosing the politics of fear over the rule of law.

Categories: Law, Politics, War

TV Sports Idiocy

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

This idiocy is an old theme, but one we west coasters don’t pay the price for. I paid the price this past week, though, what with flying into New York on Saturday, the day of the NCAA men’s basketball final four round, and then being in New York Sunday for the women’s final four and Monday for the men’s championship game.

The idiocy? Games that start at 9:20 PM or 9:30 PM eastern time. For the semi-final rounds, that was the start time of the second games. And on Monday night, the championship game started around 9:30.

It’s not like I actually care all that much, but believe me, I don’t care enough to stay up that late. On the other hand, we did just get in from Seattle, so we weren’t exactly on eastern time. Which is to say, I did catch the end of the UConn-Kentucky men’s semi-final Saturday. As for Texas A&M’s upset of the UConn women on Sunday, I missed that one. And the UConn men beating Butler Monday? Well, I was reading, but still awake, so I turned it on to catch the end. However, if I lived in the eastern time zone and were going to work the next day, I would have skipped it.

By Tuesday, I was fully adjusted to east coast time, but that was our night to fly home, so we would be missing the the women’s championship. Plus, with our 8:00 PM flight delayed and our arrival in Seattle scheduled for near midnight PDT (or 3:00 AM EDT), I mostly wanted to sleep. As it turned out, I could have watched the entire game, since a selection of TV stations was available via satellite on the small screens in the airplane seat backs, but this didn’t even occur to me. After a late dinner, I went to sleep. When I awoke somewhere around 2:00 AM EDT, I turned my screen on for the first time and stumbled on the game highlights on ESPN.

I watched about as much of the basketball as I wanted to. It remains a mystery to me why the powers that be think it’s in anyone’s interests to have games end at 11:30 on weeknights. Or later. I’m just thankful that I’m usually here in the Pacific time zone.

Categories: Sports, Television, Travel

Travel Nightmare, 2

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, okay, it wasn’t really a travel nightmare, but it wasn’t such a great experience either, and my last post was called Travel Nightmare, so this seems like as good a title as any for this one.

That last post described the start of our trip to New York early last Saturday morning. This one is about our return trip Tuesday night. We were on an 8:00 PM flight out of JFK, with an announced delay earlier in the day of at least 15 minutes, and we were through security around 6:30 PM. With time to kill, we headed to the Delta lounge, for which we had privileges, and found a corner with three seats. Joel settled in and plugged in his phone. We headed over to check out the snack options — crackers and cheese, a packaged hummus spread, celery and baby carrots — and I grabbed a couple of the baby carrots as Gail moved on to the bar. As I caught up with her, I started chewing a carrot, and suddenly I bit into something really hard, like a small stone.

I didn’t quite know what to do. I didn’t want to swallow it, but had no napkin to spit it into. And anyway, a carrot? What could be stone hard in a carrot? As Gail ordered something to drink, I deposited the contents of my mouth in my hand, then threw it out. I then got some water, picked up some hummus spread and crackers on the way back to our seats, sat down, and wondered just what it was that I spit out. A clue was that something sharp in the back of my mouth was stabbing my tongue. A little investigation and I realized my tooth had acquired a sharp point. That stone must have been some dental work, or part of the tooth itself.

What it was exactly would stay a mystery for a while. I determined that the troublesome tooth was #18, the one in front of my rear left wisdom tooth. Fortunately, it wasn’t yet 4:00 back in Seattle, so the dentist office would be open. I called and made an appointment for the next day, yesterday.

The plane we were flying home on was late into JFK from Las Vegas. We boarded some 45 behind schedule, but thanks to weak headwinds and the enormous padding built into the schedule (what was once scheduled for 6 hours was scheduled for 6 hours and 40 minutes), we were just a few minutes late, landing a little before midnight Seattle time. Yesterday morning, I was off to the dentist.

The diagnosis — the carrot broke off part of my tooth. I spent the next 1 3/4 hours in the dentist’s chair. When I got home, the left side of my mouth was so numb, and my tongue so uncomfortable, that I could hardly talk. Gail thought I was over-doing it a bit with my mumbling. And I couldn’t eat comfortably either. I tried to eat some cheerios, but gave up. For the next hour, I was convinced some cheerios had lodged under my tongue, but I couldn’t move them out with the tongue and couldn’t feel them with my fingers. Every 5 or 10 minutes, after abandoning the preceding effort and figuring I just had to wait for the anesthetic to wear off, I’d try once again to find those elusive cheerios. There had to be a reason my tongue was so uncomfortable, talking or eating so difficult.

Finally, around 3:00 in the afternoon, I made one more effort and hit paydirt. There was something in there for sure. I grabbed hold, pulled, hoped my mouth wouldn’t turn inside out, and out came one of those hard cylindrical cotton rolls dentists stick in mouths. Relief! I could talk again. My tongue felt normal. Maybe I could even eat again.

But carrots? Forget it. I’m done with them.

Categories: Food, Travel

Travel Nightmare

April 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Not our nightmare, fortunately, but still a painful one to observe. We arrived at SeaTac airport at 5:35 this morning and found ourselves first in line to check our bags at a Delta Airlines counter behind a family of four surrounded by bags. They seemed like a pleasant group, with patient and peaceful children maybe 10 and 8 years old. I heard the father explain to them that no, they wouldn’t be able to fly today. That didn’t make much sense. They were at the airport after all, all packed and ready to go. Maybe it was some sort of inside joke, something he’d been teasing them about in the preceding days. Surely they were going. They were at the counter talking to the agent, clearly finishing up the bag check process. But then he said again that they wouldn’t be going, adding that he had screwed up and let Mommy’s passport expire.

Oh gosh. Can you imagine? At that point I looked over to the Mom and noticed her ashen face. They were presumably booked on the same flight we were on, Delta’s early non-stop to JFK, which is always full of Europe-bound passengers switching at JFK to overnight, overseas flights. But they wouldn’t be flying to Europe tonight.

The agent gave them a piece of paper, said this is the number to call, and off they went, dragging their bags away. Can one get an expedited passport renewal on a Saturday? Will they have to wait until Monday for the renewal and still later for new flights? I can’t bear to think about it.

Fortunately, all our paperwork was in order. We boarded on time, took off, and thanks to the combination of strong tailwinds and a padded schedule (Delta’s never going to be late with this flight), arrived in JFK 45 minutes ahead of schedule. We couldn’t have had a more pleasant trip.

Categories: Travel