January 24, 2012

No-second-acts watch

"With him [Gingrich] were Colonel Michael Steele, the company commander made famous for Jason Isaacs' depiction of him in the movie Black Hawk Down"

--GQ.

Small correction: Steele wasn't brought into the public eye by an actor, not exactly. Mark Bowden's original Black Hawk Down articles and later book famously portrayed him, rightly or wrongly, as a company commander, uncertain under fire and disrespected by his subordinates. Then, as a brigade commander in the Iraq Iron Triangle murders incident in 2006, he was investigated, reprimanded, and denied a general's star for allegedly telling his men, "kill all military-age males."

Apparently he's close to Gingrich now. His kind of soldier, I guess.

Posted by BruceR at 02:39 PM

Best line of the night

"President Mitt will restart the space programme, presumably to shoot his tax records for the past two decades into the ionosphere."

--Guardian

Posted by BruceR at 12:26 AM

January 23, 2012

Someone's sunk, anyway

Mark Steyn laments that shipwreck victims couldn't all go down like the men on RMS Titanic and HMS Birkenhead before her.

Leaving aside the Birkenhead victims--who, well undeniably admirable, were all active duty soldiers in one of the most stiffly disciplined militaries in history, and so might not exactly be the best example of people forgoing their best interest in a disaster situation--the tragedy of RMS Titanic isn't the greatest example either, surely. It's hard to look on a tragedy where the survivors in lifeboats sat on their oars and refused to help hundreds of dying swimmers as an example of human greatness.

And while MS Costa Concordia's captain this month deserves everything that's come and is coming at him, and more, it is also a known fact there is no record of Titanic's captain giving one useful order after his ship drove into that iceberg, overcome by an apparent catatonia. A perfectly understandable failure of leadership, but in the end if you're on a boat going down and you have a choice before the captain who flees or the one frozen in a stupor, it's hard to say which would be better.

Ultimately, of course, the survival rate on the Italian cruise ship, panic and all, will be over 99 per cent, whereas Titanic's was 60%... if one counts the 710 survivors as a percentage of the 1178 lifeboat spaces available in those days before laws were passed on such things. The simple fact is that survival percentage could have been much higher, too, if the rule on women and children first hadn't been quite so strictly followed by the ship's officers, or all those third-class women and children who ended up trapped below when the ship sank had been sought out and encouraged to join their social betters before the davits swung out.

And that's the really cloying phrase in Steyn's piece, the one that showed he gave no real thought to this analogy at all: "the social norm... held up under pressure and across all classes." That is simply not a true statement, as Penalver outlines.

There is no question there were admirable and memorable actions aboard RMS Titanic. One always seeks and hopes for stoicism in ourselves and others in the face of great tragedy. But the social norm Steyn is pining for is one which doesn't see the deaths of over 240 third-class women and children who missed out on the whole "women and children first" thing, as quite so tragic as to outweigh the stylish example set by the 175 doomed first-class men who died with them. That's a social norm society can do without.

Posted by BruceR at 10:37 PM

January 22, 2012

The candidate America doesn't need, but definitely deserves

Amy Davidson asks if when Gingrich was talking about his admiration for Andrew Jackson killing America's enemies, he meant the 4,000 dead Cherokee on the Trail of Tears.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Jackson's and Tennessee's brutal war against the Creek Indians in 1813-14, which is what I immediately thought of. Three thousand estimated dead in that one. Or maybe the 1817-18 First Seminole War, back when the U.S. Army fought to defend the institution of black slavery (the Seminoles tolerated and intermarried with slave runaways, you see).

The corporate body that would vote for a Newt Gingrich (or a Santorum, or a Romney, or a Bachmann, or a Perry) is the America the rest of the world fears for all the vileness it could potentially do. And we know those Newt-voters think that's a feature, not a bug, right there.

Posted by BruceR at 11:09 PM

January 16, 2012

OMFG

I'm continually horrified this insensitive, ignorant clown is a candidate for anything, other than yahoo of the year, possibly. The idea he'd ever be responsible for anything as important as foreign policy when he's more worried about the hurt feelings of Marines over a little matter of apparent Geneva and UCMJ violations is just appalling. But apparently he is in the race, for a little while longer anyway.

UPDATE: To be clear: I know young men do stupid stuff, but if our ideas of "strategic corporals" mean anything, they require steadfast discretion and judgment at all military levels. If that level of discipline is not possible, the whole venture is going to be unsustainable. And this is my point: these are not kids in a playground, they are Marines, people we trust as Western society to exert the power of life and death on our behalf ofttimes, and this was an apparent act against their orders and their commander's mission, and needs to be treated by their superiors as such, of only to prevent its repetition. (And that's leaving aside Perry's idiotic comparison between urinating in a large river and urinating on a body.)

Now, that said, one could charitably interpret Perry as saying all the ISAF gains in Afghanistan to date aren't even worth the discomfiting of a couple wayward American teenagers, and that might not be a totally crazy position to take. And yes, certainly if one's gains are so fragile this would seriously damage them, we would have no significant net gains to speak of. And yeah, compared to all kinds of crimes and sins from history one could mention, it's not that big a deal. But candidates for high public office should still do a better job of laying out the expected standard of behaviour for the soldiers they might hope to lead (shudder!) one day. See also Sebastian Junger. And Pat Lang.

Posted by BruceR at 12:27 AM

January 14, 2012

Best. Sentence. Ever.

From Missouri's new creationism bill:

If biological intelligent design is taught, any proposed identity of the intelligence responsible for earthís biology shall be verifiable by present-day observation or experimentation and teachers shall not question, survey, or otherwise influence student belief in a nonverifiable identity within a science course.

So you can teach your creationism just as soon as you can verify the existence of your Creator God through scientific observation or experimentation. Um, well, yeah, hard to argue with that.

Posted by BruceR at 04:00 PM

January 13, 2012

When the levee breaks

Hadn't heard about the Kandahar poo pond flood until today. Anyone who's spent time in KAF should really take a look at the first picture.

Addendum: The article itself is junk, of course, with Tim Lynch criticizing the Obama pinata he's hung in his mind ("I canít listen to him and donít really know or care what heís saying," he candidly admits). But I couldn't resist following one of his links back to Belmont Club's Richard Fernandez, still as always a logorrhoeic windbag who must like to read his pieces to himself late at night, because I can't imagine why else he'd write that way.

I see Fernandez in turn links to the late Michael Crichton's speech on "complexity" in another of his entries, to prove he's smarter than the president, or something. Sigh. This is of course the Crichton speech with the famously silly statement about what was wrong with Yellowstone Park, and wildlife management practice in general, "The Indians hunted the large animals, elk and moose, to the edge of extinction. White men refused to follow that practice, and made things worse."

Right. The Indians did, and "white men" refused to hunt. Check.

Look, Crichton's piece is garbage, always was. You don't have to be a rabid environmentalist to know that Yellowstone's problems were almost entirely due to issues involving big game hunting and ranching encroachment around the turn of the last century. The park's keepers stocked up on elk and hunted wolves because the human hunters, who they felt they needed to court to keep the park a naturalist's preserve, wanted them to. As Crichton admits, most of the damage was done and had been observed by the 1930s. Everything since then has been a long balancing act back, between what the state of nature and the human economy in the area can withstand. Yellowstone has at times been a conservation horror story, sure, but the basic problem at its heart is the same with conservation efforts everywhere.

What it's not, and never was, was some sort of model of irreducible "complexity," which Crichton tried to twist it into. Even he didn't likely think that was true, as evidenced by his statement that the Indians just solved the whole problem by hunting indiscriminately. If it was that simple a problem to solve, obviously it wouldn't be complex, or you would think. What it really was was a relatively binary balancing act of basically human interests, between some humans' interest in preserving nature and others' in exploiting it, which human politico-economic processes, in the long run, seem perfectly capable of sorting out.

The Yellowstone ecosystem itself (like Algonquin Park's here in Ontario) was complex sure, certainly more than was understood a hundred years ago. You can study these ecologies your entire life and still not know it all. But our failure to predict the results of our actions is not because they don't follow the logical rules relating to finding their own equilibrium points, but because we can't as humans, operating in timescales much shorter than nature is used to, ever really offer them that equilibrium: right now, this year, the "problem" in Yellowstone is the reintroduced wolves are killing too many elk and domesticated animals, and angering both hunting and ranching interests. But Crichton's constant portraying of conservation and park management as something akin to a junior scientist's ant farm, which the park managers are just fiddling with and messing around with the ecosystem and getting it wrong because they're stupid, in total isolation from the huge effects of the human society they part of and coming from, was just famously ignorant when Crichton gave his complexity speech, and hasn't improved at all with time.

It's not hard to find real examples where nature's complexity has confounded our predictive efforts, in terms of rapid extinction or invasive species, either. Cod, kudzu, you name it. But Crichton couldn't use those because his rightist personal agenda meant he had to find one where the scientists and the politicians who listened to them screwed it all up for the rest of us, so he derived his tortured Yellowstone story.

Ignorance breeds ignorance, with Crichton's ghost reaching through and messing with the impressionable and relatively empty mind of Richard Fernandez, who in turn becomes a reliable source for insights into American politics for someone who in his own sphere (Afghan NGOs and sustainable development in a warzone) is or should be one of the recognized experts. What the whole thing proves to me is it's really hard to rise above your sources. I really do hope Lynch gets to read more broadly now that he's back in the West.

Posted by BruceR at 10:36 AM

January 12, 2012

Good hairdo article

I don't have much to say on the Afghan hairdo issue itself, but as a former reporter and editor I have to say I was impressed with David Pugliese's Citizen article on the issue. Concise, explanatory, even-handed, sums up a complex issue about as tightly as you ever could. Pure, concentrated information. If all news articles read as cleanly this, we'd be much better informed as a society.

Posted by BruceR at 12:33 PM

January 08, 2012

The great deferrers

I can't help it: I read a piece like this and think, you know, if I'd had five sons, and none of them ever served a day in the military, after I'd taken three draft deferments myself, and maybe I'd not say self-evidently stupid things like "If you find yourself in a position when you can serve, you ought to have a responsibility to do so if you think you can make a difference..." I certainly wouldn't be talking with reporters over who should inherit the mantle of the hereditary politico-plutocratic dynasty.

It's not just the draft dodging in France, although that's certainly indicative. This guy really is the ultimate parasite, never done anything of any real value, skating by on his inheritance and the hard work of others all his life. A complete empty suit. Every word out of his mouth is a lie, and everyone knows it. As a young boy, he dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight he says, we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom, etc. He and the dupes of the U.S. Tea Party deserve each other. He is everything they claimed to hate, and now they are all going to vote for him anyway. Dupes do that.

Posted by BruceR at 04:22 PM

January 04, 2012

Afghanistan update: situation no change

For those who still remember there's a war there, Dan Smock does an excellent job here of dismantling the spin on the latest Asia Foundation survey of Afghan opinion that ISAF pushed out a few press releases on end of last year.

Posted by BruceR at 12:20 AM

Why non-Americans think Americans are hopelessly irrational, #276,567

"'If you guys did some digging, you'd realize we don't know anything about Obama,' said Wilson. 'We don't have his college records; we don't know who he dated in college. I think that birth certificate stuff was pretty stupid, but there are aspects of his career that no [one] has looked at. Look into Jeremiah Wright's church, and Black Liberation Theology. It's a racist church, fundamentally.' Contrast all that with Santorum. 'He's one of us,' said Wilson." --Weigel, Slate

Dude. He's been President for three years. People look for skeletons in people's youthful closets before they run for serious office (*cough* Palin *cough*). At this point, any normal person would conclude they have more than enough evidence to assess the guy based on what he's done, and is doing for better or for worse in office. Or in Iowa do they check the references on your CV only after you've worked for the company a few years?

Posted by BruceR at 12:01 AM