Archive | March, 2008
March 29, 2008

Russia’s latest export: Woolly mammoth tusks

Seriously. Thanks to global warming and the subsequent thaw of Siberian tundra, Russia is increasing its exports of mammoth ivory:

The trade, given a lift recently by global warming, which has melted away the tundra and exposed more frozen remains, is not only legal but actually endorsed by conservationists. They note somewhat grudgingly that while the survival of elephants may be in question, it is already too late for mammoths. Mammoth ivory from Siberia, they say, meets some of the Asian demand for illegal elephant ivory, and its trade should be encouraged.


While mammoth tusks may not be as valuable as Russia’s deposits of oil and natural gas, they are plentiful. The Siberian permafrost blankets millions of square miles, ranging in depth from a few feet to more than a mile and resembling frozen spinach.

Hidden in one of the upper layers of this mass, corresponding to the Pleistocene Epoch, are the remains of an estimated 150 million mammoths. Some are frozen whole, as if in suspended animation, others in bits and pieces of bone, tusk, tissue and wool.

Woolly mammoths are actually the last of three extinct elephantine species that inhabited Siberia. They appeared about 400,000 years ago and lasted at least until 3,600 years ago — the age of some mammoth remains found on an island off the northern coast of the Russian region of Chukotka in 1993.

The tusks emerge with the spring thaw or after heavy rains, or along the eroding banks of rivers. A boom in gas and oil investment has added another source, as crews dig wells and pipeline ditches. Fresh from the permafrost, mammoth ivory is nearly pristine, though with a characteristic green patina. But if left outside and exposed to the elements, it will disintegrate within three years into worthless splinters.

March 28, 2008

Houston: It’s worth it?

As most of you know, unless something amazing happens, (i.e., an opportunity in London or a winning lottery ticket and subsequent move to Hawaii) I’m planning to relocate to Houston in the near future. I get plenty of flack from my friends and family about this, because they tend to view Houston as a humid cesspool full of Bush fanatics and traders who stole money from our poor grandmothers. And really, I don’t blame them. I certainly held those same views before I actually visited the city and discovered that it wasn’t such a bad place after all (ok, the humidity does suck, but I’ll take that over snow any day). Read this article by Joel Kotkin (a college professor from SoCal, no less) in which he claims that Houston is “emerging as one of the world’s great cities”:

In an era when many other cities try to position themselves with trendier distinctions (as “smart growth” exemplars or as magnets for high-income households, for instance), Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, is happy for Houston to be known simply as an “opportunity city,” which is a pretty good description of what the place has been since its inception: a venue where people who work hard can get ahead.


The area also abounded in natural resources such as timber and rich soil that was ideal for growing cotton. And when oil drillers hit a gusher in Spindletop, about 90 miles from Houston in East Texas, in 1901, Houston suddenly found itself positioned as the nearest city to some of North America’s richest oil and gas reserves.
None of this, however, adequately explains Houston’s ascendancy. Other cities enjoy better locations for shipping, richer agricultural resources, or similar proximity to oil fields. The answer, I have come to understand as I have worked in Houston as a reporter and consultant, echoes something that the late Soichiro Honda once told me: “More important than gold and diamonds are people.” This critical resource, more than anything, accounts for Houston’s headlong drive toward becoming not only the leading city of Texas and the South, but also a player on the global scene: it is emerging as one of the world’s great cities.

It took a certain type of settler, back in the 1830s, to look at a sun-blasted, humidity-drenched, mosquito-infested flatland far from any major river or port and think: “Here is where I’ll make my success.” That tradition of hopefulness and determination can readily be found in the city to this day. As Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg notes, roughly 80 percent of Houstonians, according to his annual local surveys, consistently agree with the proposition that “if they work hard, they can succeed here.”

March 24, 2008



Check out Tucker’s awesome new toy:


Yes, it is a plush pink high heel from the pets section of IKEA. He LOVES it. (And yes, he is wearing a t-shirt as well.)


I have warned my roommates that they might come home one day only to find that I have left for Texas and taken the dog with me.

March 23, 2008

Peeps Show

Some of these entries in the Washington Post peeps diorama contest are hilarious. I especially loved Thrilla in Manila (photo #5).

I had completely forgotten that the WP was holding this contest. If I had any artistic skill whatsoever, I would have submitted a There Will Be Blood diorama involving peeps. I would probably recreate the well blowout scene, with a popsicle stick oil derrick on fire and bunch of half melted peeps running around.

March 15, 2008

Lessons from the Balkans: How to express your displeasure with a Western military alliance

anti-NATO graffiti in Trebinje

anti-NATO graffiti in Trebinje

It’s missing an “F” but I think you get the message that this particular graffiti artist was trying to convey.

I snapped this particular photo in April 2005, while Crystal and I were on our “three countries in one day” Balkans extravaganza. We had taken a bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Trebinje, a small town located in the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Although Trebinje was mostly spared the overwhelming destruction that was inflicted upon other Bosnian cities such as Mostar, the scars of war were still very much apparent when we visited ten years later. It was in Trebinje that Serbian and Montenegrin units of the JNA launched an artillery attack on the beautiful city of Dubrovnik during the Croatian War of Independence. Later, during the Bosnian War, Trebinje’s Muslim residents were forced to flee the town during a campaign of ethnic cleansing, while their mosques were burned to the ground by Serb militants. At present, NGOs are still clearing landmines from the area, ethnic tensions occasionally flare up, and Radovan Karadžić, a former poet/psychiatrist/politician turned war criminal, often takes refuge in Trebinje, where, to this day, he remains very popular with the Bosnian Serbs that populate the city. As such, despite the thousands of leaflets distributed by NATO peacekeepers (now EUFOR), don’t expect one of the residents to collect on the $5 million bounty the U.S. Government has placed on Karadžić.

March 13, 2008

Lessons from the former Soviet Union: How to make an ice cream sundae

bizarre ice cream sundae in Yerevan, Armenia

Deposit several scoops of ice cream into a tall glass, garnish with an entire orchard’s worth of fruit and one ice cream cone. Serve with a dash of disinterested Eastern European customer service.

bizarre ice cream sundae in Yerevan, Armenia

This is the most bizarre sundae I’ve ever seen in my life, and that’s saying something, considering how much ice cream I eat. I love ice cream, and, in particular, that delicious soft serve ice cream that costs less than 25 cents and can be found throughout the former Soviet republics.

Late one evening in Yerevan, after finishing dinner at a decent Chinese restaurant, everyone hopped in their respective SUVs (American diplomats, natch) for a morozhenoe run. We ended up at some outdoor pseudo Middle Eastern cafe that looked as if it had been jacked from a Hollywood movie set and deposited in downtown Yerevan. All that mattered, though, was that they served ice cream and coffee. I opted for a traditional vanilla/chocolate combination, but Andrew decided to be the brave man in the group and order the descriptionless “Sharm-El” sundae. The above photo shows what he ended up with. I’m glad I stuck with my highly unoriginal ice cream order, as a smörgåsbord of fruit only serves to defile the ice cream. Too damn healthy.

March 9, 2008

Nixon, Kissinger, and Operation Giant Lance


Wired has a great article (The Nukes of October: Richard Nixon’s Secret Plan to Bring Peace to Vietnam) on recently released documents outlining Kissinger’s application of game theory in an effort to end the war in Vietnam. In particular, this involved 18 B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons and en route to the USSR, with Nixon doing his best to convince the Kremlin that he was an absolute madman:

During his campaign for the presidency the year before, Richard Nixon had vowed to end that conflict. But more than 4,500 Americans had died there in the first six months of 1969, including 84 soldiers at the debacle of Hamburger Hill. Meanwhile, the peace negotiations in Paris, which many people hoped would end the conflict, had broken down. The Vietnamese had declared that they would just sit there, conceding nothing, “until the chairs rot.” Frustrated, Nixon decided to try something new: threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its leaders think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out of control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North Vietnamese to start making concessions at the negotiating table or risk losing Soviet military support.

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it’s clear that Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the “madman theory”: Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel.


The nuclear-armed B-52 flights near Soviet territory appeared to be a direct application of this kind of game theory. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary that Kissinger believed evidence of US irrationality would “jar the Soviets and North Vietnam.” Nixon encouraged Kissinger to expand this approach. “If the Vietnam thing is raised” in conversations with Moscow, Nixon advised, Kissinger should “shake his head and say, ‘I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but [the president] is out of control.” Nixon told Haldeman: “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

(Insert obligatory Kissinger/Dr. Strangelove reference here)

March 9, 2008

Lessons from the former Soviet Union: How to park your car in Kiev

Mercedes parked on a sidewalk in Kiev, Ukraine

Mercedes parked on a sidewalk in Kiev, Ukraine

If you were under the impression that sidewalks existed solely for the use of pedestrians, you would be wrong. At least if you were in Kiev, where it is quite common for drivers to park on sidewalks. With Kiev’s horrendous traffic, you’re also likely to see cars driving down the sidewalk, as we did while on our bus coming back from Chernobyl. Our bus driver felt it was appropriate to drive on the sidewalk rather than wait at a busy intersection. Amazingly, no pedestrians were harmed in the process.

March 8, 2008

Azerbaijan: The nicer side of Baku

view of Old Town Baku from Maiden Tower

Poor Baku just can’t get a break. It’s like the Houston of the Caucasus. Forbes magazine recently listed it as the dirtiest city in the world, which is quite a blow to their long shot aspirations of hosting the 2016 summer Olympics:

Unless you’re in the oil business, there’s little reason to brave the choking pollution of Baku, Azerbaijan. Fetid water, oil ponds and life-threatening levels of air pollution emitted from drilling and shipping land the former Soviet manufacturing center at the bottom of this year’s list as the world’s dirtiest city.

On the contrary, I found Baku an interesting city to visit. It’s not all leaking pipelines and fetid pools of oil (but yes, there is plenty of that to see).

view of Old Town Baku from Maiden Tower

This is a view of Old Town Baku from the top of the Maiden Tower. Besides a large population of carpet salesmen, the Old Town consists of the aforementioned Maiden Tower (12th century), the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (15th century), and beautiful, narrow streets that would rival those in Dubrovnik. In 2000, the Walled City of Baku, the Maiden Tower, and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs were deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If this doesn’t quite win you over, you could always visit the gigantic Dubai like “Death Star” hotel they are building on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The beach, as shown in the artistic rendering of the hotel (complete with tiki torches and beachside dining), sure does look tempting.

March 7, 2008

Lessons from the former Soviet Union: How to fix a leaking pipe in Yerevan

leaking water pipe in Yerevan

In many cities throughout the former USSR, the utility lines (gas, water, etc.) were run above ground rather than buried below. This particular water line was right in front of Liz’s apartment, and surrounded by a large, and constantly growing, pool of water. Check out the awesome “repair” job performed by the local utility workers (or, most likely, a frustrated local). At the very least, the pipe was no longer hemorrhaging water.

leaking water pipe in Yerevan