25 June 2007

On Iran

My good friend Henry asked me to share my thoughts with him on Iran, and the prospects of war with that nation. Below is my response:

Iran is a complicated issue. I hear the drumbeats of war. The United States has four carrier groups in the Persian Gulf, and has the capacity to stage an assault from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Iraq. I highly doubt that we would go through the motions of setting up forward bases and moving hundreds of ships without really intending to launch an attack. We are amassing a dossier of crimes that could be used to legitimate an attack: Iranians are holding American citizens hostage currently, we've heard much about Iran providing materiel for some of the Shia insurgents in Iraq, and just tonight I've read claims from the British that the Iranians have made incursions into Iraq. Information like this is strategic, and is released to the public only when it is advantageous to a particular cause - and this cause is military action against Iran.

If indeed the Iranians succeed at their nuclear program, we would be within our right to launch a strike. My worry is that we will attack before we have exhausted the various diplomatic options and covert operations.

I've read a bit about Iran, and I'll recommend this article for you:


In it, Peter Hitchens sounds a cuationary note about how Iran defies description, and I think he's right. The notion of "Islamofascism," a stereotype if ever their was one, may lead us into war, but a keener understanding of what Iran is about, and what role it has played in the middle east historically, may yet lead us to what we desire without firing a single shot.

I honestly think that two things work in our favor here. First is the Iranians' general incompetence. This is a country that sits on vast reserves of oil, yet has to import energy and will soon be forced into rationing fuel. This is a country that took a generation to build a proper international airport. Their nuclear effort may yield a result a notch above North Korea's pathetic test, but still...I'm not sure they pose the dire threat that we in the US are told they do. I find it amusing that allegedly the Iranians are looking to the North Koreans for technical assistance in developing long-range missiles, when apparently the DPRK failed to properly detonate an atomic bomb and tossed several "long range" missiles a few miles out to sea last year.

Another thing is the survivalist intentions of the Iranian regime. For all of Ahmedinejad's apocalyptic bluster, I'm not sure the mullahs are prepared to expend their country on the altar of Ahmedinejad's dispensationalism. The only way that Iranian theocracy has survived the last generation is by carefully balancing the crazed religious ideals that form the nation's raison d'être with the need for continued legitimation in the eyes of its people. Unlike the Taliban, who were singularly self-destructive, Iran has at least kept up the pretenses of regular elections, economic development, and engagement with the modern world. I honestly think that Ahmedinejad will be sacked long before he has the opportunity to push the nuclear button. I also think, however, that hopes for a secular revolution are ill-founded. The theocracy is entrenched and is probably not going anywhere soon. A future Iranian president (who isn't the real power anyway -- indeed why are we treating Ahmedinejad like a real head of state when we didn't give the same courtesy to his predecessor, Khatami?) will probably preserve the infrastructure of a nuclear program, as he might see the strategic necessity of being just a few turns of the screw away from an assembled bomb.

Rather than embarking on a military adventure that would cause significant loss of life (these people have no compunction against using human shields) and further slander our name in the Middle East, we should focus our efforts on exacerbating the cleavages that exist within and without Iran. Within Iran we have the secular vs. the theocratic. Outside Iran, there is the natural animosity between Shia and Sunni. We should work these, somehow, to our advantage.

A few longer term thoughts:

I'm far more frightened about Pakistan than I am Iran. For all its failings, Iran's regime appears to be more stable than Pakistan's. Musharraf's days may be numbered and after him, who knows who will pull the levers of power there? Pakistan is a known nuclear power that is perpetually on the brink of unrest.

Radical Islam is a grave threat to us, and we in the United States haven't come to terms with the fact that the Saudi Wahhabi sect has given much of the Muslim world the religious justification to do significant violence against the West. And yet we turn a blind eye to this and continue to prop up corrupt and corrupting regimes in the Middle East with our oil money. The sooner we move away from oil, the sooner we will provoke change - by economic necessity - in the Middle East. I'm all for bringing our troops home, raising taxes, and working with the EU and our other allies on a bold project to develop a new energy source as soon as possible. That is where our long-term security lies.

31 May 2007

Long Live the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!

For those of you who thought that communism was dead, take a quick trip to downtown Lexington, Kentucky, where (for a little while, at least) you can park for free thanks to the efforts of the Bluegrass Cell of the Red and Anarchist Action Network, who commemorated the fifth anniversary of their "diverse radical activity" by pouring industrial glue into the coin slots of 150 parking meters.

Read the full story here.

17 May 2007

Torture Regime

For all of my grievances against the Republican machine in the last several years (a mismanaged war sold on false pretenses, fiscal profligacy, negligent occupations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, blurring the lines between church and state, and forsaking the common good in order to maintain a small but devoted political cadre) nothing causes me more sadness and anger than the party's general equivocation or outright endorsement of torture in the course of our military campaigns. It is nothing short of heinous.

Earlier this week, the GOP candidates for the 2008 presidential election were posed an intriguing question. The following is from The Washington Post:

The scenario posited by questioner Brit Hume supposed that, after suicide attacks in several U.S. cities, a group of attackers believed to know about further strikes was captured off the coast of Florida and taken to Guantanamo. "How aggressively would you interrogate . . . ?"
John McCain was the only one of the ten to have explicitly stated that torture is unacceptable. The other candidates dithered, equivocated, or worse acclaimed the value of acts of torture. Rudy Giuliani (who Andrew Sullivan mused could become an American Vladimir Putin if elected) offered that he would tell interrogators to use "every method they could think of."

But to me the most scandalous response came from Mitt Romney. What he said was appalling. Again from the Post:

Mitt Romney, noting that "some people" have said we ought to close Guantanamo, boasted that "we ought to double Guantanamo," presumably doubling the international damage. He added that he liked to have suspects in Guantanamo because "they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil."
The question of torture is existential. It cuts at the heart of who we are as Americans and what this republic stands for. To be so glib as to suggest that Guantanamo ought to be expanded when even the current administration is trying to find a way to shut it down is shocking. Whatever Mitt Romney is, he is definitely unready for the stark moral choices a President must face. Since the GOP is unwilling to take a firm stand, let me offer one: America is a beacon of democracy and good government.These are the principles upon which this nation was founded, and we must always strive to attain them. Therefore, we do not torture.This is a position I am willing to live by, and die by as need be. As a voter, I will not support a party that is silent on the matter of torture.

15 May 2007

Desktop Cartographer

I loved to draw maps as a kid. I would scrawl out maps of imaginary lands and fantastical cities. As some of you may know, I haven't entirely grown out of the habit.

I've found a romance and excitement in maps, and briefly I entertained the idea of going into cartography. My life took me in other directions, however, although in the last couple years I've been given the opportunity to produce maps using the amazing and powerful ESRI ArcGIS software. Although sitting at a computer hitting commands isn't what I had in mind when I envisioned cartography, I've found the end products to be just as rewarding. I spent the last two days preparing an informational map on West Valley City for our economic development staff. It's a rough draft still, but here it is. Enjoy. I hope all is well with you.

09 May 2007

Fly Away

Vox Civitatis is going to the European Union in the fall. my good friend Henry has plotted out a road trip that will take us through five countries in about as many days. Sounds insane, yes, but apparently it's payback for a road trip I took him on, through the great American desert. I'll also be spending a few days in Madrid, a city I've always wanted to see. While in a perfect world I'd have six weeks to roam Spain, it will be nice to genuflect before Guernica and Las Meninas before heading to Austria for eight days. That alone will be worth the airfare.

As for the road trip, our general plan (I think) is as follows:

Day 1: A scenic drive through Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Arrive Zurich late afternoon.

Day 2: A liesurely short drive from Zurich to Geneva via Bern and Lausanne. After spending some time in Geneva, proceed to Lyon, France, for the evening.

Day 3: Lyon

Day 4: Head to Geneva early. Spend some time in Geneva and proceed to Verona. We may or may not spend the evening in Verona before returning to Graz, Austria.

I can't wait! Thank you for putting this together, Henry.

07 May 2007

Consumer Debt

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

- Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I thought I would commemorate the retirement of all my consumer debt this week, with the exception of my car payment. I've been paying for the mistakes I made during college, when I didn't have the sense to treat credit properly.

I'm celebrating by going to Europe in September. But I'll be paying cash for it.

26 April 2007

Oh Those Utah Republicans

Although there was once a day when I called myself a republican, there are many reasons why I can't support the GOP these days, especially the Utah GOP. Here's one to add to the list. A GOP delegate from Utah County believes that the devil is responsible for illegal immigration. Actually no, available jobs are the source of illegal immigration. Undoubtedly this guy loves his cheap lettuce and strawberries, nicely cut lawns, and sparkling toilets.

Besides, in a world of problems begging for practical solutions, shouldn't we be leaving the devil-banishing to the most qualified, like our religious leaders?

18 April 2007

Life in the Big City

I have to wonder if Manhattan's rental market isn't a wee bit overheated. A friend of mine sent me this advertisement from Craigslist, for a walk-in closet!

Am I ever glad I don't live there, though New York is a lovely place to visit.

17 April 2007

VisionWest 2030

My colleague and I just finished developing a logo for the general plan update we're working on. It started over a week ago, when I drew a conceptual sketch of a West Valley City "skyline." I had initially pressed for "FocusWest" as the name of the plan effort, but those in our office who had vision overcame those of us who had focus, so the name changed.

Here's how the logo began. Isn't it funny how things grow and change with collaboration and discussion? I rather like the process.

Here was one iteration of the "Focus West" logo that I kinda liked...

16 April 2007

A Trip to the Gardens

Last Friday, I took Noni (my grandmother to the uninitiated) to the Thanksgiving Point Gardens in Lehi, Utah, about a 40 minute drive from where I live. Thanksgiving Point is a remarkable place - really the type of place that could only happen here. Apparently one of the founders of WordPerfect (a Utah innovation) and his wife remarked at the beauty of an alfalfa field to the west of Interstate 15 between Salt Lake City and Provo. To save it from commercial development, they purchased the land -- and developed it themselves. They called it Thanksgiving Point, to commemorate the land and the blessings that God had bestowed on them.

As I said the project is quite unique. The enterprise is a not-for-profit company whose stated mission is to provide education and enlightenment to anyone who comes by. To this end, the project includes a couple restaurants, a movie theatre, a great interpretive archaeology museum, a model farm, exhibition and meeting space, a golf course, and these gardens. The whole effort possesses the slight fragrance of Mormon noblesse oblige. The gardens are too new to be spectacular, but in a generation or so, given the proper care, they will be. Here are some photos of the first annual Tulip Festival at the Gardens at Thanksgiving Point. Enjoy.

Where I Work

City planners are taught to be cognizant of the environment that surrounds them, so I felt perfectly justified in indulging in a field trip of my employer/city, West Valley City, to take some pictures. It's a big city, with an area of nearly 36 square miles and a population of around 120,000. It will take some time to compile a comprehensive portfolio of Utah's second largest city. But I thought I would share with you a few pictures to start.

West Valley City is one of Utah's oldest communities, and also one of its newer ones. The agrarian communities of Hunter, Granger, and Redwood were settled in the 1850's, shortly after Brigham Young's hardened pilgrims arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley. As the county grew into the 20th century, these small communities found themselves surrounded by larger cities, not the least of which was Salt Lake City. A revolt over taxation and county governance prompted the three communities to incorporate in 1980, giving rise to West Valley City. By that time, though, county planning authorities had done a lot of damage, resulting in poor roads, substandard services, and inadequate housing. West Valley City, though the second largest municipality in the state, lacks any center or real identity. In the 1990s it was known as a center for gang-related crime. Today, it is regarded as a place where the working class and the working poor live, it's known for its ethnic diversity and it's a great place to buy new tires, watch a hockey game, or order a semi truck or an earthmover, if you're in the market for one.

Yet, as a city of such size, it defies the stereotype. West Valley boasts some of the region's strongest employers, including Alliant Tech Systems, Wheeler Machinery, UPS, Discover Financial Services, and some significant home-grown enterprise, including FranklinCovey, Harmons, Winder Farms, and USANA. It also is home to a thriving multi-ethnic Chamber of Commerce, a municipally-funded center to celebrate cultural diversity (how many Utah cities have a folklorist on the payroll?), a halfway-decent theatre company, two golf courses, a state of the art city-funded fitness center, and some good schools.

Anyway, here are some photos:

This is Centennial Park, the city's main park. To the right of the image are the ballfields and on the left is the city's Family Fitness Center, a community amenity that gives Gold's Gym a run for its money, and at a fraction of the cost to the residents.

The oldest part of West Valley City is the neighborhood of Chesterfield. Nestled in the bottom of the Salt Lake Valley along the meandering Jordan River, Chesterfield exudes a rural feel - an improverished rural feel. Much of the initial platting established shortly after the pioneers founded Salt Lake remains: plots that are 20 feet wide by 150 deep -- problematic for modern development. Nonetheless change has come, even to Chesterfield. Area Muslims recently erected the Khadeejah Masjid down the street from a Samoan Evangelical Church. In two years, the region's light rail network will come through Chesterfield.

Some limited agricultural activities are acceptable in Chesterfield, although it's in the heart of a valley that's home to a million people. Long-standing residents consider this horse country, or even llama (above) or shetland pony (below) country. It's an odd neighborhood to have in a big metropolitan region. This neighborhood evokes some very strong feelings - there are those who see it incongruous in the middle of a big city, and others who value it just as it is.

A mere mile from Chesterfield is the state's most beautiful office park development, a project called Lake Park. Conveniently located near two highways and the Salt Lake International Airport, Lake Park includes a golf course and some ecologically-sensitive landscaping. The building above is a customer service center for Discover Financial Services.

Intermountain Healthcare, the state's largest hospital and health insurance provider, is headquartered in this building at Lake Park. The golf course and a dedicated wetland meanders in between the office buildings. The parking is typically hidden behind berms or landscaping.

Lake Park offers a commanding view of the Wasatch Range, specifically (from left to right) Storm Mountain, Twin Peaks, and Lone Peak.

Finally, here are a couple views of my cubicle:

15 April 2007

Starting Anew

My blog has been silent for a few months now, and for that I am deeply sorry. I'm sure there are probably one or two readers left, and I'm pleased to let you know that I am alive and well. The past two months have been challenging and exciting, indeed. There was lots to blog about, but no time or energy it seemed to sit down and write it.

You could say it all started the week of Valentine's Day. My dad and I were preparing to visit my Aunt, Uncle, and cousin in Saint Louis, with the primary intent of repainting Aunt Anne's bedroom. Uncle Bob is living in a long-term care facility, having suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2001, and the last thing my Aunt needed was a home improvement project to contend with, so we decided to relieve her of the task. That week, I fell into a fit of pique at work, where I felt unappreciated, unmotivated, and uninterested in the job and the organization I worked for. I had applied for a city planning job with the Salt Lake County Government a few weeks prior and, despite interviewing, it came to no avail. I was pretty despondent about the situation, really.

I took some time during Valentine's day to examine job opportunities, and I found one. It was a strange job announcement from West Valley City, Utah that advertised for several positions, inviting applicants to apply for any or all. Adopting the analogy that if you throw enough darts, someday you're bound to hit the bull's eye, I applied for every position they offered. The application was due the day after I read the announcement, so I thought, what the hell? Given the time I took in preparing the application (next to none), and my feelings of mediocre performance at the University, I figured I wouldn't stand a chance at any of the job prospects available, which included two grades of city planner and and two economic development positions.

That Thursday, I had Rob drop me off at the West Valley City Hall on the way to the airport to catch my flight to Saint Louis, so I could drop off the application. I made it in about ten minutes prior to the deadline. I thought nothing of it - honestly I didn't think anything would happen, so I decided to focus on the trip instead. It was going to be a lot of work, but it was also going to be some good quality time with my dad and my extended family.

Saint Louis was nice, and Dad and I conducted ourselves efficiently, completely repainting Aunt Anne's room, floor to ceiling, over two days.

When I returned, I had a voicemail waiting for me at work. It was West Valley City, and they wanted me to interview for a planner position at the beginning of that next week. Now that I was invited to interview, I decided it was time to take the prospect seriously (I didn't even include a cover letter in my application - that's how bad I was). The weekend before the interview, I drove from one end of West Valley City to the other, noting the land uses and any discontinuities that struck my eye. I also read the city's general plan. The interview went quite well, I thought, although you never know how first dates really go. I was asked that question I hate ("what is the one aspect about your work habits that you would like to improve?") and I gave an honest answer that didn't pander to the interviewer. I was later told that my candor held me in good stead against the other applicants. I demonstrated in the interview an extensive knowledge of the community's general plan.

The interview got hung up on the matter of salary. Because the advertisement did not specify salary ranges for any of the positions they were advertising, I decided I had nothing to lose by aiming high and placing a rather high number as a minimum acceptable salary on my application. The Planning and Zoning director was reviewing my application as he and two others were interviewing me. I saw him worry over a part of the application, and he said, "oh...did human resources tell you about the starting salary for the planning job?" I said no, there was no information as to the salary in the job announcement either. The director commented something to the effect that he was surprised that HR didn't cull my application because my asking salary was quite a bit higher than what they had budgeted for the position. I replied that I wanted to be considered anyway, and that they were welcome to make the most competitive offer they thought they could. Later that afternoon, I wrote the director a thank-you email, clarifying in writing that if they could match the salary I made at the University, I would definitely consider. Within minutes, he wrote back, thanking me and saying I interviewed very well!

Within a week and a half, I went from not caring about the job prospect to wanting it desperately. It's funny how situations can change your attitude about a thing. My work at the University was becoming more interminable by the day, and the interviewer's plaudits of my performance, followed by several other emails querying me on the type of benefits package I had at the University, made me quite anxious for the job. Still there was that matter of pay. For as much as I didn't like working at the University, I was not in a position to accept a significant salary decrease.

The call came in on Thursday, the first of March. I was their pick for a Planner II (a more senior grade, no less!). Within a few days they returned with a formal salary offer, one which actually resulted in an increase in salary - admittedly only $10 a week or so, but still... I have always wanted to be a planner, and this was a tremendous opportunity - indeed, a gift - to enter into a mid-level planning position without any prior direct experience (I was hired in part because of my applied research skills I learned at the University and my experience on the South Salt Lake Planning Commission). The position they intended for me was a long range planner, specifically I would be producing an update to West Valley City's general plan, a document that sets forth the city's development and planning goals for the next 30 years.

I found it very easy to say 'yes' to West Valley City. But then I was wracked with guilt over telling the University good bye. Why? I had a bad experience there that spoiled my desire to cultivate a career there. I was well paid, but not trusted and appreciated as such. Indeed, my boss used some of my research for a project for which he was being paid as a consultant. I don't know why I should feel guilty about terminating a relationship with such a mistress, but I did. My stomach was roiling as I wrote my letter of resignation. My colleagues were gracious, but in the end they didn't do anything to commemorate my time there, or my departure. Rumor had it that my boss pondered taking his staff out to lunch on the last day, but when the Dean informed him it would be an improper use of the University's resources, he backed away from the plan. Thursday, the 22nd of March was just a normal work day, although it was my last.

Leaving for the last time was such a relief. I've never been in a really bad relationship before, but the divorce certainly felt great. West Valley City appears at first blush to be an organization quite different from the University. First, there is a four-day workweek. Employees are expected to put in a ten-hour work day, starting at 7:00 am. The trade-off for such a brutal schedule is that I get every Friday off. I've always believed that so many of us suffer an imbalance in the dynamic between work and life. I for one do not live to work, I work to live. And a three-day weekend gives me one more day every week in which to live. I love it. West Valley City is one of the few municipalities in the United States to have opted out of Social Security, so there is no social security deduction from my salary. Instead, that money is allocated into a municipal pension fund and employees are invited to invest it as they see fit. It's challenging, but exciting. If I make the right decisions, the return on the investment will be well in excess of social security.

Most importantly, in the three weeks I've been in the employ of West Valley City, I've been treated with the dignity and respect I feel I am entitled to as a professional adult. People are friendly, considerate, and open to my ideas. I've been given significant latitude to determine how a general plan revision should take place, so I've had fun working on a logo, developing a program of steps to accomplish the plan, and developing an education initiative to reach out to school-aged children to get them engaged in their community.

Thanks for your patience in all this. And it's good to be back. In the coming days, I'll update you with the excitement in Rob's life, in a blog post entitled "Impounded." I'll also talk about the changes I've made to our bedroom. Stay tuned!

14 January 2007

A Stew for a January Night

With temperatures in the mid-teens yesterday, I decided that it was an ideal night for a delicious, hearty stew. After looking at three recipes from three good cookbooks, and being quite unhappy with each, I decided that I was just going to make it myself, without the assistance of a recipe. When I'm feeling confident in the kitchen, I love to cook without a recipe, just using the techniques I learned over the years and hoping for the best. Sometimes, disaster strikes and I end up ordering a pizza. Other times, I create something new, unique, and tasty. The stew I made last night was - dare I say it? - perfect! ...for my palate, at least. We served it in soup bowls with some good crusty bread and a hearty spinach salad with apples, cucumbers, bacon, and hard boiled eggs, tossed with a roasted garlic vinaigrette that Rob made. The stew was simple, but the flavors were bright and full, as they should be. It was hearty without being too rich or greasy. I decided I had to write a recipe for it, and I thought I would share it with you. Feel free to add or change it to fit your tastes. Bon appetit!

A Stew for a January Night
By Francis Xavier Lilly

  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 1½ pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1½ - to 2-inch cubes
  • ¼ to ½ cup olive oil, butter, bacon drippings, or any combination thereof
  • ½ cup full-bodied red wine, such as a burgundy, pinot noir, or merlot
  • Approximately 4 cups low-sodium beef stock (1 32-ounce container)
  • Approximately 3½ cups pureed tomatoes (1 28-ounce container)
  • 1½ pounds fingerling potatoes
  • 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered, or ½ pound pearl onions, peeled
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled, halved, and cut into 1-inch sticks
  • 4 celery stalks, halved and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously season ⅓ cup of flour with salt and pepper. Pour the flour mixture in a large plastic zip top bag. Place the cubed meat into the bag, and shake and squeeze until all the meat is lightly covered in flour. Place a large-volume oven-safe stock pot or Dutch oven on the stove and turn on the heat to medium high. Add the oil to the pot. When the oil is hot, add the meat to the pot, in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan. Sauté the meat until is it a deep golden brown on all sides, and transfer to a plate and set aside. Add more oil between batches if necessary.

Pour the fat out of the pot. Pour in the wine and simmer it for a few minutes while loosening the fond from the bottom and sides of the pot with a wooden spoon. Allow the wine to reduce by about a third before adding the beef stock and the pureed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Add the meat and any juices that collected on the plate. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the potatoes, onions, carrots, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover the pot, and place the pot in the oven.

Cook the stew in the oven for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste the stew and add salt or pepper as desired. Add the celery. Continue cooking for another half hour or until the meat and potatoes are fork tender. If any fat has pooled on top of the stew, remove it with a spoon or ladle. Taste and season again. Remove the thyme stalks and the bay leaves. Serve with some good bread and a hearty salad.

Serves six.

Cook's Notes

  • I use an enameled, cast iron Dutch oven, and it does a beautiful job of cooking this stew. The advantage of bringing the stew to a simmer on the stovetop and then placing it in a hot oven is that it will better aid in the even distribution of heat throughout the dish. A good Dutch oven will also make for even heat distribution.
  • Bacon drippings? Absolutely! It's a staple fat in French cooking, and for good reason: it provides an intensity of flavor that is unmatched.
  • The wine is a personal thing. If you want to add more wine, add more, substituting the wine for the stock. You can also do what some French chefs do when they make a Boeuf Bourguignonne - marinate the meat overnight in the wine.
  • If you don't like wine, you can substitute it for a nice, flavorful vinegar, such as balsamic, sherry, or apple cider vinegar. You could also use beer.
  • Consider using pork, lamb, boar, or venison as an alternative to beef.
  • Use a quality stock. I prefer the Kitchen Basics brand.
  • The same goes for the tomatoes. If you can get your hands on some imported Italian tomatoes, all the better. The pureed tomatoes will thicken the stew nicely.
  • Fingerling potatoes are lightly sweet and possess a nice, creamy texture when cooked. They are a delicious addition to a stew.
  • I added the celery stalks later, because I like the celery to be a bit crisp and to maintain its fragrant taste. You can also add other vegetables, such as fresh green beans or peas. Add these vegetables in the last few minutes of cooking.

11 January 2007

Father Mychal's Prayer

The Rev. Mychal Judge, OFM, was the former chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, and he died while ministering to the fallen at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. I just came across this beautiful prayer, which he wrote.

Lord, take me where You want me to go;
Let me meet who You want me to meet;
Tell me what You want me to say, and
Keep me out of Your way.


07 January 2007


Last Friday, I saw "Children of Men," a grim but thrilling picture by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, and Michael Caine in three magnificent roles. The film, based on a book by P.D. James, ponders the notion of a society bereft of children. It is a near-future dystopia set in London in 2027, in a world where "only Britain soldiers on." The norms of democracy have eroded, a security state has emerged, immigrants are hunted and held in camps, and innocent civilians are being bombed as they get their morning coffees.

As far as an adaptation, I can't say how good this movie is. I haven't read the book, though I intend to now. As far as a film that stands on its own merits, it's outstanding. Like any good speculative fiction, "Children of Men" is intended to be a reflection on today's world. One of the gifts of the science fiction genre is that the visions of a future or an alternate reality estrange us, the viewers or readers, from our own world and our own modes of living. In this estrangement, we can perceive possibilities or even realities that we otherwise might not have noticed. Good (or bad) science fiction or fantasy for that matter is almost always political. Sometimes the messages can be overbearing or preachy. Other times, the author or filmmaker finds that perfect note, conveying a brilliant and compelling message in a manner that is subtle and respectful of the viewer's intellect.

In "Children of Men," Cuarón did a remarkable job of treading that fine line and striking, in the end, a perfect note. I should say that, after seeing it on Friday, I wasn't sure if I liked it. It's relentless and bleak. The visuals are intense and Cuarón confronted the tragedy of war in a way that recalled images from the past few years. Clearly, his palette drew from the post-9/11 worldview that gripped America and Britain. My initial adverse reaction to the film was due to the proximity and veracity of the events Cuarón portrayed. But I suppose that was the point. It wasn't until Saturday that I realized how great the film was: it left me thinking and pondering all weekend. "Children of Men" is a film that poses challenging questions, many of which are unanswered. Unlike many big-budget science fiction or fantasy tales, the futurism is in service to the story, so it blends into the background in a way that is plausible and interesting. Indeed, the technology imagined in the film only serves to remind us that some aspects of humanity are timeless.

Dystopian fiction is compelling to me, and I don't know why. From my childhood, I was facinated with the radio show and movie, "War of the Worlds." I found the threat of natural disasters and nuclear war to be frightening, but somehow intriguing. I derived some enjoyment (and still do) from imagining an event that could so radically alter the form of my life. As I got older, I realized that the dystopia genre is a powerful tool to explore political conditions. I've amassed quite a collection. Feminism and the dignity of women are themes touched upon by Sheri Teper ("The Gate to Women's Country"), Margaret Atwood ("The Handmaid's Tale"), and Octavia Butler ("Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents "). Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a great book called "The Left Hand of Darkness" pondering the concepts of cold war and gender identity. Ray Bradbury wrote "Fahrenheit 451" about a world in which books were banned, and what life in such a world might entail. There is a whole sub-genre of science fiction called military science fiction and most of these are dystopian as well, including the great new TV show, Battlestar Galactica. Robert A. Heinlein penned "Starship Troopers" and Joe Haldeman wrote "The Forever War." These books stand out as strong allegories of war, especially America's wars in the 20th Century. One of the most interesting books of this type I've ever read is "Arslan" by M.J. Engh, dealing with America's downfall at the hands of a third-rate central Asian dictator

Is it just me, or do the British have a particular taste for dystopia? "Children of Men" was set in London in 2027, just on the heels of "V for Vendetta," another near-future British dystopia. Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and Huxley's "Brave New World" were also British. I also vividly remember from last year "Smallpox," A British mock documentary that tells of a smallpox epidemic that sweeps the world. Am I sensing a theme? Is there something in the British psyche that makes them unusually prone to fearsome and emiserating visions of the future?

05 January 2007

Vox Askew

If you've noticed, my banner image has drifted off to the right. I had to update my blog template to gain the full functionality of the new Blogger Dashboard interface and what you see is the result. Generally I like the new interface, and it allowed me to add a couple lists on the right side.

But 'tis a puzzlement how to get my image back into the center of the page. I've even used center tags. If anyone has a recommendation, pass it along to me.

Thanks as always for reading.

Update: as you can see I got it fixed. It was a simple matter of returning to the code with a fresh perspective after a couple days.

Roads That Get Us Nowhere

I came across this picture of a traffic jam in Xiamen, China. This is clearly evidence of the limitations of a roundabout...look at the outbound routes that are almost empty while the lanes feeding into the circle are backed up for thousands of feet (look at the upper left corner of the photo). This is what we call in the trade "bad traffic design." My mom would call it a "cluster-fuck."

For over a decade, China has aspired to a "western" lifestyle, and this is one of the results. In the past twenty years, China has built from the ground up a highway system that is the third largest in the world. Their network of limited-access expressways (motorways) is second only to the United States. The road building shows no sign of stopping, either. The Economist has an interesting article on the emerging car culture in China and what this might portend for that nation, and for the world.

One of my professors once explained to me how building more roads can actually make traffic worse. By building more roads, you increase capacity to allow people to travel farther distances in a short time. This in turn makes land at the edge of an urban area more attractive for development. When the land is developed, say a worksite or a major residential community, traffic volumes increase, and planners respond by commissioning yet more roads that open up more land at the edge of an urban area for development, and...well, you get the idea. The point is, roadbuilding induces sprawl, which requires a driver to make more and longer trips. More and longer trips result in more cars on the roads for longer periods of time. And one of the consequences of the sprawl-roadbuilding relationship is ever more pollution (see a piece on the land-use/transportation/air quality connection here).

Just as metropolitan regions across the United States are confronting the need for alternate modes of transit (the Salt Lake region alone has committed to 90 miles of commuter rail, four light rail extensions, at least one streetcar line, and at least three bus rapid transit lines by 2030. By that time, 90 percent of the region's population will be within one mile of a light or heavy rail stop), it's amusing to see China go through the same motions that the United States did when we rapidly suburbanized our cities from the mid-1940s onward -- until you realize that America has barely topped 300 million people while China accounts for one fifth of humanity. China's desire to build western style cities may have deep and far-reaching impacts on the global environment and economy well before they realize the need to establish alternative modes of development.

04 January 2007

And Now, Madam Speaker...

At noon today, the Democrats reclaimed control of both houses of Congress for the fist time in twelve years. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, California took the chair as Speaker of the House, the first woman and the first Italian-American to do so. In the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada takes the leadership of a razor-thin majority that hangs in the balance pending the successful recovery of fellow Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

In November, I predicted that the Democrats would regain control of the House, but that the Republicans would retain a bare majority in the Senate. In my prediction, I underestimated the depth of the change, which is still relatively minor. As much as the Republicans deserved the "thumpin'" that they received, I was sad to see so many moderate Republicans, including Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, take the fall for the excesses of their party, most of which were committed by the more ideological wing of the party. The 2006 elections, especially in the House, resulted in an ideological winnowing of the GOP, and there's no reason to believe that they won't be as hard-line as they ever have been. No doubt the new GOP minority in the House has been chastened and hopefully they'll be better statespeople. That said, the interventionist, expansionist, and evangelical character of the republican delegation was only intensified.

As for the democrats, they won because Congress under the GOP was such an abominable failure (definitely read this link). Throughout the election, I never got a sense that they offered a clear message, a clear alternative - other than a few light policy prescriptions such as a minimum wage increase and ethics reform, and of course greater oversight of the executive branch and more trenchant criticism of the war in Iraq. All of these objectives are worthy, but I would have preferred a bolder platform and a stronger announcement of intent, rather than the legislative fast-food they plan to offer in 100 hours of floor time in Congress. The Democrats won, but they have not found their voice yet. It's essential that they do, before the 2008 election cycle, which, by the way, started before the mid-term elections.

Today, I came across a good editorial written by Dick Meyer at CBSNews.com. He writes of a precipitous decline in "civic maturity" both on the part of the citizens and their elected officials. This decline, he argues, explains the general malaise that has stricken political discourse in recent years. Here's why:

The seasons of American civic life are messed up by the global warming effect of the ceaseless campaign. This January, not only will a new Congress be sworn in, but people like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mitt Romney and John McCain will officially declare their campaigns for a presidential election that's still 20 months away.

Meyer's argument doesn't bode well for our polity: our politicians are always campaigning, and never governing. The other day, David Brooks, in a discussion on News Hour With Jim Lehrer, noted the decline in "sophistication" in the congressional delegations over the years. Under Republican rule, they spent fewer and fewer days in Washington, a place where relationships are forged, bridges are built, and coalitions are made. A congress that meets three days a week, he argued, never got to the point where they could know each other well enough to build the trust necessary to forge coalitions. It's no wonder that Congressional politics have devolved into bitter partisanship. So I suppose the Democrats' call for a five-day workweek is probably a good thing for the country. It is, at least, a start.

I worry, though, about reprisals from a newly-emboldened Democratic congress, whose members were justifiably abused in previous republican-led Congresses. That will only serve to set the stain that has already been created. I also worry about a stubborn, reckless, and imperious president who is loath to admit error. I found it interesting that of all the aspects of Gerald Ford's life his eulogizers chose to emphasize, they chose his fundamental decency and his ability to heal the country. These are the characteristics we need from our politicians now, as we are plunged into yet another long national nightmare, this one involving a culture war at home and a far deadlier war abroad. To this end, I wish the Democrats godspeed.

01 January 2007

More on the Execution of Saddam

Yesterday, I spent some time reading some of the details that surrounded the execution of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. I even watched the video of his hanging, shot by a cellphone from someone in the agitated crowd of observers. The video gives some shocking insights into the true nature of politics in Iraq, and is worth watching if you can stomach it.

I stand by my belief that the world is probably better off without Saddam, and I can't say I'm sad to see him go. However, those are personal beliefs and little more than knee-jerk reactions. Justice systems in liberal democracies are not designed solely to mollify the public's blood lust or a victim's desire for revenge. The institutions in place that render judgement and execute punishments are also intended to preserve law and order and to give citizens the comfort and freedom in which to live their lives as free from fear as the state can possibly allow. For this reason, I am opposed to capital punishment. Since the death penalty does not appear to deter criminal activity, I see no good to society in terminating an individual's life, and I hate to think that we, in Utah for example, commit substantial resources in providing state sanction to the desire of some people to avenge a heinous crime.

But at least in America, the gravity of the penalty demands an almost ritualized solemnity in the execution chamber, and in the time between sentencing and execution. The process of execution is intended to be as dignified as possible (insofar as state-sanctioned killing can be dignified). Since we have been so keen on holding ourselves as the gold standard of democracy and statecraft to the emerging Iraqi government, the manner in which Saddam was disposed was a travesty, and a terrible setback on the road to building a stable, peaceful, and democratic Iraq. The pleadings of people within and without Iraq were ignored by the government, and the Prime Minister summarily swept aside a suite of laws that were intended to ensure that due process was met in the execution of a death sentence.

The video of Saddam's execution reminded me of the grainy, amateurish video of the beheading of Nick Berg in 2004. Saddam and his captors were exchanging taunts as the noose was positioned around his neck. The men in the audience shouted "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" (Muqtada al-Sadr is the Shi'ite cleric and lightning rod from An Najaf ) and Saddam leered at them. Apparently Saddam and his executioners told each other to "go to Hell." The trap door was pulled, and the men erupted into cheers as the former dictator's neck was broken. It dawned on me that the show trial and subsequent execution wasn't about justice as much as it was about fulfilling a vendetta. Saddam wasn't turned over to Iraqi authorities for the execution of a sentence. He was handed over to a Shi'ite death squad.

Instead of compelling Iraqis to move toward peace and reconciliation, the execution of Saddam Hussein pushed the country closer to dissolution and sectarian genocide. Where two years ago there was broad consensus on the need for Saddam to be punished, his undignified treatment at the hands of masked Shi'ite thugs may make him a martyr in the eyes of Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere. Unfortunately, we are entangled in this mess. The failures of the Iraqi government are ours to bear as well. Saddam's execution is but one more example of how spectacularly mismanaged our efforts have been in Iraq; it affirms my belief that we are no more secure now than we we were before the invasion.