Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stating the obvious

David Kilcullen says governments have won about 80% of counterinsurgencies when one of the following was true: they were fighting on their own territory or they had a well organized local ally.

P.S. 1 Sep: George Packer notes:
For almost all purposes, Iraq has no government. Almost six months after national elections, the country’s politicians remain unable to compromise and cut a deal, showing the persistent lack of maturity and vision that has earned the political class the justifiable contempt of the Iraqi public.

A billionaire jumps the shark

Last month Steve Schwarzman, the billionaire chairman of the Blackstone Group, the private equity giant, compared proposals to end tax loopholes for hedge fund managers with the Nazi invasion of Poland.
-- Paul Krugman

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I've just finished Zeitoun. It does the job. Eggers and his eponymous Zeitoun discovered 'something broken' in America during his imprisonment without trial. A fragment of the cultural context in which that imprisonment occured comes in an interview with Robert King who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, and for more on the implications of that see Atul Gawande on solitary as torture.


I make no judgement here on Timothy Taylor's suggestion that man is an artificial ape, but he is probably on target with regard to memes:
memes simply don't make sense. And the reason is that when you look at an artificial object like a chair, for instance, there is no central rule that defines it. There is no way to draw a definite philosophical boundary and say, here are the characteristics that are both necessary and sufficient to define a chair. The chair's meaning is linguistic and symbolic - a chair is a chair because we intend for it to be a chair and we use it in a particular way. Artificial objects are defined in terms of intention and entailment - and that makes artificial things very different from biological things.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Older than life on Earth

A reservoir of rock that remained intact for nearly the entire history of Earth could tell us about how our planet was built. Its chemistry hints that Earth's building blocks may have had a rough time of it, losing their skins before they could unite.

The rocks were thrown up by volcanoes in the Arctic wastes of Baffin Island and Greenland only 62 million years ago, but it seems they came from a store of rock in the mantle that formed 4.5 billion years ago – just after Earth formed.
-- report

At the edge

The Inughuits thought they were the world's only inhabitants until an expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Ross came across them in 1818.
-- report

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The 'special' junior partnership

Private Eye (No 1268) recently made fun of David Cameron's claim that Britain was the junior partner to the United States in 1940 when it was fighting the Nazis.

If Cameron wants to brush up on his history he could do worse than read Brian Urquhart's review of Max Hasting's new book:
In 1940 the United States [which did not enter the war until 11 December 1941] was by no means wholly sympathetic to British war requirements, and a large majority of the people and in the Congress were determined to stay out of another European war...Of the disastrous year 1941, Hastings writes:

American assistance fell far short of British hopes, and Churchill not infrequently vented his bitterness at the ruthlessness of the financial terms extracted by Washington for supplies. "As far as I can make out", he wrote to Chancellor [of the Exchequer] Kingsley Wood, "we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone."

St Margaret's Bay

The sprint of folly

Goldberg, after conducting dozens of interviews with senior members of Israel's national security establishment as well as many top personalities in the Obama White House, concludes in his must-read piece that the likelihood of Israel unilaterally bombing Iran to curtail a potential nuclear weapon breakout capacity is north of 50-50.

...He tallies the consequences [of an Israeli attack on Iran] as:

sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally, of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel's conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper of nations.
-- Steve Clemons

Goldberg concludes with unconvincing bromides about win-win for the U.S. and Israel. Also instructive are his blindspots. Justice for the Palestinians is one. Goldberg, he points out, fails to mention that UAE ambassador and others strongly emphasized that the most important radicalizer in the region is the unresolved Palestine-Israel dispute. Another issue, though, is that Goldberg writes as if the only significant players in this game for domination of greater west Asia were Israel (U.S.) and Iran, with the Arabs as worried bystanders. No mention of China or others.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Monday, August 09, 2010

The politics of Jeremy Clarkson

Road safety cameras have played a significant part in a 45% reduction in road fatalities in Britain in the last decade, says Mick Giannasi.

The government says their abolition is an attempt to end 'the war on the motorist.' But the savings are relatively trivial and the real reason is obviously cheap populism.

Cheap, that is, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of a speeding car.

A suggestion: for every death additional to the number that occurred in the last year in which cameras operated, a greeting card expressing congratulations should be sent to Jeremy Clarkson. This could start in Oxfordshire, the first county to switch off its cameras and the county where Clarkson lives. Oxfordshire had 30 fatalities in 2009.

Computation and the tragedy of cognition

In an op ed calling for separation of computer science and religion, Jaron Lanier writes:
What bothers me most...is that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.

In one recent example, Clay Shirky...has suggested that when people engage in seemingly trivial activities like “re-Tweeting,” relaying on Twitter a short message from someone else, something non-trivial — real thought and creativity — takes place on a grand scale, within a global brain. That is, people perform machine-like activity, copying and relaying information; the Internet, as a whole, is claimed to perform the creative thinking, the problem solving, the connection making. This is a devaluation of human thought.
There is a parallel to Shirky's argument in Dawkins's Selfish Gene (although Shirky's reductionism is 'upwards', perhaps, instead of 'downwards'):
Now [genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.
The physiologist Denis Noble argues in The Music of Life that this passage is largely a rhetorical trick not a statement of empirical fact and can be rewritten with equal validity as:
Now [genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.
Lanier thinks that computer scientists tend towards cultism because they are "as terrified by the human condition as anyone else." But what is really needed, he says, is to get on with the everyday tasks of making life better by creating new technologies that serve people.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A kill

She had a blog.

The obits report:
Dr. Woo, a Briton, had a similarly adventurous spirit. At 16, she trained as a contemporary dancer and then worked as a wing-walker for a flying circus, performing stunts while strapped to the upper wing of a biplane, dressed in a scarlet jumpsuit.

At 22, she entered medical school and eventually volunteered for missions in South Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Trinidad and Tobago. Two years ago, after visiting a friend in Kabul, she quit her $150,000-a-year job to move there. There, she kept pet tortoises and found time for a fashion show to raise money for charity. She was just weeks from her wedding.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Our cousins in the East

Francis Spufford expands on the observation by Stephen Kotkin that the Soviet Union was "booby-trapped with idealism":
The 1961 party congress adopted the imminent end of all scarcity as its official programme, thus making possibly the rashest and most falsifiable promise in the entire politics of the 20th century. An act so foolish can only be explained through idealism: Khrushchev's own, for he was a man whose troubled relationship with his conscience required a happy ending to give him retrospective absolution, but also the idealism coded despite everything into the structure of the régime. It was the same heedless true-belief at work which would manifest itself a generation later in Gorbachev...

...Alongside our well-documented, well-founded knowledge that Soviet history was a tragedy ought to run a sense of it, too, as a comedy...But this shouldn't be the kind of comedy in which we laugh from a position of comfy security at the fools over there; and not just because the ascent of the Soviet piano was achieved at a monstrous price in human suffering. It should be the comedy of recognition we register, at this point in the early 21st century, when we're in mid-pratfall ourselves.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Beyond What is the What

Girls in south Sudan are still more likely to die in childbirth than they are to finish primary school.
-- Achak Deng and Dave Eggers build a school

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


We knew that the Afghan security forces were a disaster, even after we had spent twenty-seven billion dollars to train them. But knowing specifically what happened to a sixteen-year-old girl and to the man who stood up to her alleged rapist—and knowing that her attacker may have been in a position to do what he did because he was backed by our troops and our money—is different.
-- Amy Davidson

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bravery and bigotry

Being human, she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.
-- Roman Krznaric recalls Kipling's observation about Mary Kingsley.

Worse than a crime

According to a U.S. Navy cargo manifest obtained by the Sunday Herald (Glasgow), the substantial military equipment Obama has dispatched includes 387 "bunker busters" used for blasting hardened underground structures. Planning for these "massive ordnance penetrators," the most powerful bombs in the arsenal short of nuclear weapons, was initiated in the Bush administration, but languished. On taking office, Obama immediately accelerated the plans and they are to be deployed several years ahead of schedule, aiming specifically at Iran.

"They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran," according to Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London. "US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours," he said. "The firepower of US forces has quadrupled since 2003," accelerating under Obama.

The Arab press reports that an American fleet (with an Israeli vessel) passed through the Suez Canal on the way to the Persian Gulf, where its task is "to implement the sanctions against Iran and supervise the ships going to and from Iran." British and Israeli media report that Saudi Arabia is providing a corridor for Israeli bombing of Iran (denied by Saudi Arabia). On his return from Afghanistan to reassure NATO allies that the U.S. will stay the course after the replacement of General McChrystal by his superior, General Petraeus, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen visited Israel to meet IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and senior military staff, along with intelligence and planning units, continuing the annual strategic dialogue between Israel and the U.S. The meeting focused "on the preparation by both Israel and the U.S. for the possibility of a nuclear capable Iran," according to Haaretz, which reports further that Mullen emphasized that, "I always try to see challenges from [the] Israeli perspective." Mullen and Ashkenazi are in regular contact on a secure line.
-- Noam Chomksy.

Maybe he is right, but ever since George W. Bush was reinstalled in 2004 I have quite often thought an attack on Iran was imminent only to see that proved wrong each time.

Can they really be so monumentally foolish? If the U.S. does attack it will look as if the American government-military complex is subaltern to extremists in Israel and to AIPAC.

P.S. 4 Aug: Gwynne Dyer says the chances of a U.S. attack on Iran are practically zero.

P.S. 5 Aug: There's a chance sanctions are working, says Andrew Sullivan.

P.S. 7 Aug: David Bromwich on one more war

Appetite, an universal wolf

Elizbeth Kolbert has a couple of useful reviews here and here.

Good to see the acknowledgment in the second of An Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts