March 19, 2012

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This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

New York Times Magazine:

Daniel Gillen is afraid of heights. The young American architect didn’t think to tell me this until we had already climbed up a construction ladder and started walking gingerly across the curved roof of an unfinished building in northeastern China.

It was a frigid day in late February, with temperatures dropping to 15 degrees below zero, and the roof’s undulating steel surface made it feel as if we were surfing on a frozen ocean wave — one that, at this height, promised a very hard landing.

“We’d never get away with this in the U.S.,” Gillen said with a nervous laugh.

From the roof, Gillen and I gazed out at a vast new city that didn’t exist two years ago. Row after row of 20-story apartment towers radiated out in every direction, in regimented monotony as far as we could see. There were hundreds of towers, almost all of them empty. “When I first came here two years ago, this area was just a bunch of fields covered with construction cranes,” said Gillen, who is 32. Now the farmlands outside Harbin have been transformed into one of the dozens of insta-cities rising around China. “Standing here,” Gillen said, “you just have to be in awe of what China can accomplish.”

The building beneath Gillen’s black leather boots inspired a different sort of wonder. A whimsical, torquing 660-foot-long tube sheathed in stainless steel, the Harbin Wood Sculpture Museum is the architectural fantasy of Gillen’s boss, Ma Yansong, and his team at MAD Architects in Beijing. The building’s design evokes the natural world — an iceberg, say, or a piece of driftwood — but given its backdrop, I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like a shimmering spaceship that had touched down unexpectedly in an alien urban landscape.

In that respect, it is not so different from Gillen himself, whose shaved head, muscular build and thick silver thumb ring make him something of an oddity in this city on China’s northern frontier. When Gillen was laid off in December 2008 by Asymptote Architecture, a New York firm, he hunkered down in his Brooklyn apartment, trying to stave off the “vibe of hopelessness.” Six months passed. His profession had been flattened by the financial crisis that put an abrupt halt to new construction. Gillen sent out dozens of résumés, but no offers came. Then, in early summer, he spotted a job posting for MAD Architects on a design Web site. The firm’s acronym seemed to sum up the outlandish proposition. “China was not on my radar at all,” he told me. The starting salary at MAD was half of what he earned in New York. Desperate, Gillen jumped.

Up on the museum’s sloping steel roof, his fear under control, Gillen marveled at his good fortune. “This kind of project,” he said, “could not be built anywhere else in the world today.” Nor could Gillen have found such an opportunity if he hadn’t journeyed 6,000 miles from home.

Over the past three years, foreign architects and designers have poured into China, fleeing economic crises at home and pinning their hopes on this country’s explosive growth. It is, after all, a place that McKinsey & Company predicts will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next two decades, the equivalent of 10 New Yorks. MAD’s staff consisted almost entirely of mainland Chinese when Gillen arrived in mid-2009; today, nearly half of his 50 colleagues are foreigners, with designers from Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Colombia, Japan and Thailand. “The economic crisis,” Gillen says, “is a heavy factor in everybody’s thought process.”

This is the expected global economic formula flipped on its head: instead of American workers losing out to the Chinese, China is providing jobs for foreign architects. Even more surprising is the degree of imaginative license that China offers, even demands of, its foreign building designers. With new cities materializing seemingly overnight, international architects are free to think big, to experiment with cutting-edge designs, to introduce green technologies. All at a frantic pace. In a top-down system that favors political will and connections over regulatory oversight and public debate, large-scale projects in China can be designed, built and put to use in the space of just a few years.

China, of course, is not new terrain for international architects. Many top American firms have run offices inside China for a decade or more. Nearly all of the country’s iconic modern buildings have been designed by foreigners, from the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, (by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron) and the gravity-defying China Central Television Tower (by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas) to the 128-story Shanghai Tower (by San Francisco’s Gensler), which will be the second-tallest building in the world when it’s completed in 2014. The new arrivals, though, come not by invitation or out of curiosity but because they need work. They are, as Michael Tunkey, head of the China office for the North American firm Cannon Design, says, “refugees from the economic crisis.”

The scale and speed of China’s expansion is like nothing these architects experienced in their home countries. Fueled by rising prosperity and the largest rural-to-urban shift in history — some 300 million Chinese became city dwellers over the past two decades — the boom has utterly transformed the eastern seaboard around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The fastest growth now is taking place deep in the country’s interior or on its outer edges in cities little known in the West: Harbin, Changsha, Chengdu and dozens of others. “It’s still shocking to me,” says Manuel Sanchez-Vera, a 43-year-old architect who shuttered his own Madrid practice two years ago and joined a midsize Australian firm in Shanghai. “I just got out of a meeting to design a hospital for a city that will grow from 4 million to 10 million in the next few years. How do you design for an explosion like that?”…

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The New Republic:

When Michael Ratner argued in a February 2002 lawsuit that British citizen Shafiq Rasul had a legal right to challenge his detention at Guantanamo Bay, there was little reason to believe he and his colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) would play any role in shaping America’s national security landscape. The country was still seething with anger over the attacks of 9/11, and longing for revenge. The few legal precedents that existed were not very encouraging. (“Never in American history had the [Supreme] Court tried in any way to interfere with a war in progress,” noted Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Imperial Presidency.) And the Ratner-led CCR was a far-left legal advocacy organization—the group had previously represented the Attica rioters, the Chicago Eight, Nicaraguan contras, and assorted other “violent radicals, Communist front-groups, cop-killers, and sworn enemies of the United States,” in the words of conservative critic Marc Thiessen—that had few friends in the Washington, D.C. establishment.

And yet, a decade later, it’s now clear that Ratner and progressive activists like him have had an outsized impact on national security policy—though not exactly the one they would have wished. CCR would win landmark Supreme Court cases that challenged executive authority. But those achievements came at an unexpected price: They ultimately helped cement the political and legal consensus in support of the counterterrorism policies that emerged at the end of the George W. Bush administration, and they enabled Barack Obama to continue those policies. By successfully challenging the government’s authority, Ratner and his friends mostly ended up strengthening it. In that irony lies the most important constitutional lesson of the last decade.

BY JUNE, 2004, Ratner’s hail-mary lawsuit had produced a famous Supreme Court victory. That month the Court set off on a new course in American history by holding that Rasul and every other detainee at GTMO could challenge in court “the legality of the Executive’s potentially indefinite detention.” The Rasul litigation led the Bush administration to tighten its detention standards and contributed to the discharge of 308 detainees from GTMO. More broadly, as Justice Antonin Scalia predicted in his dissent, the decision precipitated the projection of “the cumbersome machinery of our domestic courts into military affairs.”

It was a high-profile win, and the antiestablishment activists at CCR were soon bombarded by pro bono offers from hundreds of attorneys, including many from America’s most elite law firms. These lawyers—who came to be known as “the GTMO Bar”—quickly flooded federal courts with habeas corpus petitions from detainees seeking release. That initiated a series of convoluted legal and political battles that ultimately seemed to affirm their efforts. Congress enacted laws in 2005 and 2006 that extinguished habeas corpus rights and replaced them with a system of military and judicial review. But the Supreme Court, in the summer of 2008 in a case calledBoumediene, declared that habeas corpus must apply to GTMO as a matter of constitutional law. It was the first time that the Court had invalidated a wartime measure that had the support of Congress and the President.

In the heady days after Boumediene, Ratner and his colleagues, the momentum on their side, assumed that the GTMO detentions would not survive judicial review. They grew more confident when former constitutional law professor Barack Obama—who as a candidate had campaigned against George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies, and who had received an endorsement from 70 members of the GTMO Bar—was elected president. Some at CCR predicted that the Guantanamo Bay facility would be closed within the year. “Rule of law, baby!” they shouted on Obama’s inauguration night.

We now know that things would not turn out as the GTMO Bar hoped. Ratner and his colleagues overestimated the civil libertarian commitments of Barack Obama and misunderstood how the burdens of the presidency would affect his judgment. They also underestimated the breadth and depth of the legal consensus in favor of executive authority.

Two months after Barack Obama’s inauguration, his administration filed its first brief in a constitutional habeas corpus case from GTMO. To Ratner’s astonishment, the brief argued for a broad power of indefinite military detention over GTMO detainees. “We really thought that Obama wouldn’t fight us in court on the rights of the detainees, that he would get the detainees either to another country or he would charge and try them,” Ratner later said.

But Obama did fight them. An administration task force determined that—as the Bush administration had long argued—few of the GTMO detainees (fewer than forty) could be brought to trial and that many of the rest remained dangerous. And Obama’s responsibilities as Commander in Chief caused him to see the dangers in a new light. Faced with these twin realities, and newly appreciative of congressional and judicial authorities established after 9/11, the administration decided it must defend military detention without trial at GTMO before the lower courts.

The subsequent court cases subverted the civil libertarians’ once-high hopes. The most important principle to emerge from them is that the President can, as the Bush and Obama administrations have claimed, detain without trial Al Qaeda and Taliban members, including those captured outside Afghanistan, “until hostilities cease.”

TO BE SURE, in affirming this authority, the judiciary placed procedural and evidentiary requirements on it, and in the process established what Judge Stephen Williams described as “an entirely new role [for the federal judiciary] in the nation’s military operations.” These new judicial requirements are certainly not trivial, and some are burdensome. And they have had an impact on the behavior of the government. Though courts approved most government detentions between 2009 and 2011, they did grant habeas relief to detainees in fourteen cases that the government did not subsequently challenge, a number that amounts to almost a quarter of the habeas cases then brought by GTMO detainees. The government also released others because it believed that in those cases they could not meet the detention standards announced by the courts.

The courts’ influence extends beyond GTMO to the battlefield. By ruling on who could and could not be detained, the courts have effectively defined the scope of the global conflict with Al Qaeda under the 2001 congressional authorization of force. When Obama administration lawyers determine how far they can go in targeting terrorist threats—especially threats outside the traditional battlefield in places like Yemen and Somalia—they are guided in part by the analysis and basic restrictions in these cases. They are also guided by these sources in their detention operations in Afghanistan.

In these and other ways, the judicial review established by Ratner and CCR have had a constraining impact on the President, his senior national security advisers, and soldiers in the field. So why are civil libertarians disappointed in these results? It’s not just because the courts’ decisions have been less than absolutist. It’s also because the constraints that the courts have imposed have actually served to empower the government. “Our opinion does not undermine the Executive’s powers as Commander in Chief,” asserted Justice Kennedy in his opinion for the Supreme Court in Boumediene. “On the contrary, the exercise of those powers is vindicated, not eroded, when confirmed by the Judicial Branch.”…

Read it all.


In March 2009, Golan Levin, the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s interdisciplinary STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, invited an enigmatic and famed computer programmer known to the virtual world only as “Why the Lucky Stiff” or  “_why”—no, not a typo—to speak at a CMU conference called Art && Code—also not a typo—an event where artsy nerds and nerdy artists gather to talk shop.

_why came to Pittsburgh and presented his latest project to a room full of a student programmers and artists. He was scruffily handsome, seemingly in his early- to mid-30s, with shaggy brown hair falling in his eyes and a constant half-smile. He looked like a member of an indie band—he actually was in anindie band—or the leader of an experimental improv troupe.

At this symposium, he wore a pair of oversize sunglasses and a tidy sports coat with a red pocket square, a silly riff on a stuffy professor’s outfit. He introduced himself as a “freelance professor.” “I don’t know exactly why I was invited here today. I’m not associated with anything of repute,” he admitted to giggles from the packed crowd.

He riffed on his nom d’Internet, Why the Lucky Stiff: “Some people want to call me Mr. Why. My nametag was filed under ‘L.’ The thing is, it’s just a middle name. There’s no first or last. It’s just one middle name. That’s just the nature of it,” he said.

Then he introduced his new product, a free interactive application called Hackety Hack, which he had built from scratch to solve a problem he called the Little Coders Predicament” in a 2003 manifesto.

The Little Coder’s Predicament arises from the following problem: We live in world of astonishingly advanced technologies, easy to use and all around us. Your grandmother has a smartphone. Your 2-year-old can play with an iPad. But the technology behind such marvels is complex and invisible, abstracted away from the human controlling it. Nor do these technologies offer us many ready chances to do basic programming on them. For nearly all of us, code, the language that controls these objects and in a way controls our world, is mysterious and indecipherable.

Back in the old days, you could hack your Commodore 64 without too much trouble. But just try to get a sense of the millions of lines of code controlling a Windows computer, or the Google search engine, or your Android or iPhone. For starters, the user interface and legally enforced sanctity of the code will prevent you from even seeing it. And even if you managed to take a look, the code would be so complex you would struggle to understand it, let alone manipulate it.

For that reason, _why explained in the “Little Coder’s Predicament”—and over and over again at conferences and panels—too few people were learning to code. The learning curve was too steep. There needed to be a simple, fun, awesome way to draw people in.

“We need some instant results to give absolute beginners confidence. Simple methods for sending an email, reading a Web page, playing music,” he wrote. Moreover, novice programmers—especially kids—needed that ecstatic moment where they understand that they are controlling the computer, that programming ensures that the computer answers to them.

That’s what Hackety Hack did.

Hackety Hack begins by introducing kids to Ruby,  _why’s programming language of choice. Then it explains that programming is nothing more than giving a stupid, unthinking computer your commands. You are its boss. It answers to you. And you can make it do nearly anything with simple keystrokes and enough practice.

Within a few minutes of using Hackety Hack, you can use real code to order a turtle to draw a line or a shape. In an hour, you can create a virtual library of your comics, or put jokes in pop-up boxes. Instantly, you are empowered as a creator. And eventually, the mysteries of how a computer works do not seem so mysterious after all.

Hackety Hack solved the “Little Coder’s Predicament”: It was fun enough to engage a kid, and smart enough to teach her something to boot. But just a few months after launching it, to the astonishment of the community of Ruby programmers who treated him with something approaching messianic worship, _why vanished.

On Aug. 19, 2009, his personal site stopped loading. He stopped answering email. A public repository of his code disappeared. His Twitter account—gone. Hackety Hack—gone. Dozens of other projects—gone.

The popular Ruby message boards, listservs, and blogs descended into a state of panic. Had he been hacked? Who had heard from him? Was he in physical danger? And there was one especially pressing question, the irony of which hardly went unnoticed by passionate Rubyists: Why?….

Read it all.

View From The Left

March 19, 2012

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View From The Right

March 19, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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