Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Hokey Pokey

The US is going to deploy about 100 troops to Uganda to help in the pursuit of the Lords Resistance Army and it’s certifiably insane leader, Joseph Kony.

This is an unequivocal good thing.  Kony is the worst kind of small bore war criminal, a local madman who kidnaps and indoctrinates children, using them to intimidate, murder, mutilate and rape the local rural populations throughout multiple Central African nations.  Almost unbelievably brutal, his forces stay on the move, stealing what they need, committing horrific crimes in the process.

Sure, the US is an economic basket case, with flat GDP growth, near 20% real unemployment, increasing poverty and crumbling infrastructure, but we have a tremendous amount of military capability sitting idle, and this is one of those opportunities where the US can apply some of those military resources to try to solve a real-world humanitarian problem without causing additional unforeseen geopolitical problems.

A company of Rangers with some associated air and intelligence assets doesn’t even constitute a rounding error on the budget, and yet that tiny injection of twenty first century combat power changes the calculation for the entire region, and might offer the best chance for a blighted people to finally rid themselves of this madman.

Even in present circumstances, the US is the most economically and militarily powerful nation in the world.  There is much good the US could do, from disease control to agriculture to education, but there is a tremendous lack of political will for projects like that, not only in the global south, but even here in America there are hard and fast limits to our willingness to direct public resources at these sorts of problems.  Oddly, however, the US has always been willing to deploy military resources regardless of cost - as long as the solution required highly professional and technologically advanced killing, we were at the head of the line of volunteers.  Many times, those projects benefited despots, or resulted in such an unimaginable slaughter as to render the accomplishment of the original goal Pyrrhic.

Within these odd and arbitrary constraints, perhaps humanitarian military intervention is the best we can do.  If we helped with clean water and schools and roads and digital communications it would be a better thing, but with our dysfunctional political system controlled by authoritarians and racists, perhaps the best we can do is agree on who the bad guys are, and then kill them.


Also today, there have been credible reports that the Obama administration has abandoned it’s bizarre attempts to keep an American military force in Iraq after the December 31st deadline specified in the SOFA.  In spite of an endless stream of promises during and after the campaign to end the US involvement in Iraq, Obama has in the last year sought a deal to keep some number of troops, probably a Brigade Combat Team, renamed as a Training Unit, in country after the new year.  The thing is, Prime Minister al-Maliki could agree to allow the troops to stay in spite of the SOFA (and as long as they actually then DID remain to protect him and his Cabinet from retaliation), but in order for them to continue to operate with complete immunity from the Iraqi criminal justice system as the US Command insists, there would have to be a vote in Parliament for which Maliki readily admits he does not have the votes.

So either the Obama administration is finally acknowledging reality, or they are trying a last-ditch hardball tactic to attempt to frighten the Iraqis into backing down and asking for a continued US presence.  There are a lot of factions in postwar Iraq, and some of them depend quite heavily on the US military to enforce their positions and protect their lives.  Many would like to see the US military continue to operate in Iraq, but it is politically unwise (except for the Kurds) to say so out loud.

The invasion of Iraq was a monumental blunder for the US, one we will be paying for in a variety of ways for many years to come.  But it's important to remember that the Iraqis paid a much higher price for our blunder, and will be trying to recover from it for the better part of a century.  There is nothing to be gained by staying, no fences will be mended and no interest served beyond the desperate grip on power that those who played along now find growing tenuous.  It's well past time to cut the cord...

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gee, Y'Think?

Right out there for the whole world to see.  There was the Clinton Impeachment.  Then there was Bush v. Gore.  Then there were the battles over judicial nominees.  Filibusters, Recess Appointments and Budget Reconciliation   The ugly battles over Health Care Reform (remember the "Cornhusker Kickback"?).  The year-end negotiations (that looked unpleasantly like extortion) to trade extensions to the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthy for a few months more Unemployment Insurance.  Finally to non-stop talk of defunding and even shutting down government, leading to the debt ceiling debacle.

Anybody who has been able to find a basis for a belief in an effective, functioning American system of governance in the last decade has clearly not been paying attention.  It was a system, designed before the invention of the telegraph to intentionally be ponderous and heavily biased against change.  From the founding documents to the bicameral legislature to the three co-equal branches, the American political system of governance has always functioned only sporadically, and even then on the basis of a set of norms and gentleman's agreements that had no power behind them.  Can you imagine a functioning parliamentary system that depends on Unanimous Consent for it's most basic operational functions?

And yet, we pretended.  Our politicians pretended, our pundits pretended, our journalists and historians and political scientists and economists all pretended that everything was working just the way it was intended, and that while we were perhaps seeing a particularly virulent outbreak of partisanship, there was nothing inherently wrong with the system itself - when you talk about Washington DC, when you talk about Congress and the Senate and the President you were talking about America, a sacrosanct set of institutions that made this country the BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!

Sure, there was a kerfuffle in 2005 over the Filibuster, then being wielded by a Democratic minority, with Bill Frist threatening to go Nuclear to put an end to those Democratic filibusters, and there have been a few half-hearted discussions around Congressional reform, but it's almost impossible to imagine anything coming of it - it's like asking third graders to police the playground.  And I assure you, when the Republican Senators talk about how close they came to what would have amounted to unilateral disarmament in '05, they shudder and promise sheepishly NEVER AGAIN.

And yet, suddenly, today we find the Internet all abuzz over a speech given by former military/intelligence honcho Bob Gates two weeks ago in Philadelphia, where, in the finest tradition of young men in the presence of dishabille emperors, he called attention to the somewhat desultory functioning of America's governing institutions:

"I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system--and it is no longer a joking matter...It appears that as a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance."

Now, Robert Gates is the consummate DC insider, an impeccably credentialed Republican who has served at the head of a number of gigantic American bureaucracies, so you have to realize just what a Cassandra-like cry of impending disaster this really is - and you can't be overly disappointed that he didn't come out and name names (and parties).  The truth is there to be seen, between his carefully chosen lines, and even for those who reserve all blame for the Democratic party and the godless liberals and socialists they empower with their misguided policies, there is no longer room to pretend the system continues to function on any level.

It's not the tea party, or budget policy, or levels of taxation or government spending that is why we are doomed, any more than it is Medicare or Social Security or the Affordable Care Act.  It is a system of governance designed for a different time, governing a smaller, more homogeneous nation in a time of horse and sail, one that is simply unable to meet the demands and challenges of the twenty first century, and one that continues to be exploited by small, venal, greedy men and women who stand to gain more wealth and power through a strategic failure of governance than they ever would have were they to act in the interests of their constituents.

This system that cannot govern, that cannot be repaired by those who busily exploit its every failing, that is readily co-opted but cannot be used to solve real problems, this is ultimately why we need Occupy Wall Street and similar movements.  Their focus at this point is on the banks and financial "Masters of the Universe" who are using creative new methods to make certain that more and more of the available wealth in the world accrues to them, and them alone, but ultimately, when their message can no longer be ignored and, without legitimacy, their opponents have lost every fight, when their movement seeks to implement the justice they will have spilled blood to regain, they will discover that nothing can be implemented, that lone rump wholly-owned corrupt politicians can block them every step of the way, and they will discover at long last what this fight was really about.

So just as it is a straight line from Tahrir Square to the Wall Street protests, so is it then to Bob Gates.  This coal mine has a canary, and while the message is subdued and somewhat cryptic, it is the very first crack in the wall that protects dysfunction in the name of democracy, and hides from change behind the bastions of the status quo.  It's hard to predict what America will look like with a new system of government, but it increasingly looks as if we're going to have the opportunity to find out.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Message is the Message

This guy could kick your ass
So on one of the dozen or so interchangeable Sunday morning Republican TeeVee talkfests, one of the pundits got around to asking the ubiquitous John McCain (R-Dementia) about the debate audience lustily booing that gay soldier in Afghanistan.  As a side note, I think it's worth mentioning that exactly none of them would have booed if that dude was actually in the building - he looked like he could kick the entire Republican Party's ass.  But anyway, the exchange went like this:

SCHIEFFER: Do you think that the Republican candidates should have spoken up at that debate about [the booing]?
MCCAIN: Yeah, I do. But a lot of times when you’re in a debate you think about what you’re going to say, what the question is going to be. It’s hard to react sometimes. But I’m sure…I would bet that every Republican on that stage did not agree with that kind of behavior.

OK.  But here's the thing.  My first thought when I read that was "Horseshit.  EVERY Republican on the stage agreed with that sentiment, whether or not they felt it was politically worthwhile to denounce it."  Because a political movement has no choice but to own their key messaging.  Sure, there can be ideological elements on which a given candidate can take a heterodox position, but a certain sort of tribal hatred has been such a core plank of the Republican platform, a key underpinning on which their entire worldview is constructed for so long that is has literally become part of the Party DNA.  Whether it's hatred and intolerance for Gays, African-Americans, Women, Muslims or Hispanics, these kind of divisive tribal politics have exemplified the Republican message at least since Reagan.

So you wind up with a condition where a Huntsman or even a Romney can, with at least some credibility, accept the science on Global Warming or that an individual mandate exists to protect the interest of private insurers and is therefore part of a free-market belief system, but to allow a path to tolerance for Gay Americans, like a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, is simply impossible.  To question the tribal structure of the Republican constituency is to open the door just a crack to the possibility that their definition of "Real American" might be artificially narrow.  And without a broad strategy of demonization, they would be left only with issues, which is distinctly unfavorable territory for them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

There's Crazy and then There's...

There are today three levels of crazy represented by the American Political Right and it’s mainstream political organization, the Republican Party.  In order of increasing derangement, they can be summarized thussly:

1.  Denial of scientific findings, norms of behavior, established facts and methodologies, false victimhood and perceived bias

2.  Belief in outright impossibilities, a few examples being “Expansionary Austerity” or increasing government revenues by reducing taxation or thirty years of offering only tax cuts and reduced regulation as the preferred solution to every domestic political and economic problem faced by the US

3.  Bitten-by-a-Bat, spittle - spewing paranoid schizophrenic sweating and trembling ought to be medicated mental illness.

We’ve been fortunate that the vast majority of the outbreak of insanity and delusion that has subsumed a significant portion of the American population in recent years has been mostly limited to the first two types.  But political movements are a big tent, and there’s always a few who come by their crazy in the old fashioned way.

Yesterday we got two classic examples of that third level of crazed delusion.  When these dark fantasies go this far over the edge of reason, it simply has to be assumed that they are not manipulative fear mongering, but an actual glimpse inside the mind of a madman (and, in this case, a madwoman too).

You’re probably familiar with Wayne LaPierre.  He’s the obsessive extremist Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association.  Under LaPierre, the NRA doesn’t merely support the 2nd Amendment right to firearms ownership, but espouses a particularly virulent kind of unrestricted right to own any weapon up to and including field artillery and tactical air power.  But for people like Wayne LaPierre, and by that I mean people who probably should be institutionalized for their mental and emotional disorders, it’s not enough to affirmatively support those specific rights granted to Americans under the 2nd Amendment.  Because he can see people all around, notably ‘liberals’, ‘leftists’ and ‘communists’, constantly plotting to abrogate those rights, confiscate the guns and put good American firearms owners and enthusiasts in concentration camps.  Sometimes these plots are somewhat harder to see than others, but when that’s the case then Mr. LaPierre will help you see just exactly what you’re up against.

As you’ve probably noticed, even with a Democratic President, the gun lobby has been pretty much unchallenged, not just in the realm of effective, reasonable controls on the availability and accessibility of increasingly lethal firearms, even to the most vulnerable inner-city children, but in pushing the envelope of what might be deemed prudent handgun and concealed carry regulations to the point of absurdity.  Do we really need to pass a law allowing handguns to be carried in BARS?

But where you and I see utter political capitulation, our steadfast Executive Vice President sees connivance afoot:

LAPIERRE: They’ll say gun owners — they’ll say they left them alone…In public, the president will remind us that he’s put off calls from his party to renew the old Clinton ban, that he hasn’t pushed for new gun control laws…The president will offer the Second Amendment lip service and hit the campaign trail saying he’s actually been good for the Second Amendment. But it’s a big fat stinking lie!…It’s all part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment in our country…Before the president was even sworn into office, they met and they hatched a conspiracy of public deception to try to guarantee his re-election in 2012.

That’s right!  By doing nothing other than mildly enabling the gun lobby, that socialist President has tipped his hand.  His nefarious plan becomes clear, starkly defined in his apparent unwillingness to take even the minimal political risk of addressing the issue.

Besides the deeply paranoid quality of this kind of analysis, it can also be useful in virtually any other political argument.  Because if the utter lack of political action on an issue is a sure sign of an extreme agenda, than there is virtually no limit to the things we can expect out of President Obama’s second term.  We can certainly expect him to construct those concentration camps on the moon, because, as we have seen, he can go before the voters and say his administration has done nothing to advance the cause of further manned travel to the moon.  QED.

Of course, there are also our regular standbys for blithering insanity, people we can count on to regularly spew something so bizarre and unexpected that we find ourselves transfixed in a kind of awe.  Not just that there are some poor souls who have these kind of mental delusions, but at their ability to acquire an audience eager to accept their demented ramblings and, in most cases, tremble in fear at the risks contained in such hallucinatory threats.

And so, once again, I give you Congresswoman Michele Bachman (R-Some Other Planet), who apparently once read that there was another superpower that challenged the US for global hegemony.  To the extent that she is aware that there is no more Soviet Union, she is certain that just about any other nation on earth could fill those godless shoes, and if you don’t have a sufficiently scary nation, there’s always small political parties halfway around the world.

BACHMANN:  "There are reports that have come out that Cuba has been working with another terrorist organization called Hezbollah. And Hezbollah is looking at wanting to be part of missile sites in Iran and, of course, when you are 90 miles offshore from Florida, you don't want to entertain the prospect of hosting bases or sites where Hezbollah
could have training camps or perhaps have missile sites or weapons sites in Cuba. This would be foolish."

Well, in Congresswoman Bachmann’s defense, Hezbollah HAS been known to shoot missiles.  Little bitty ones.  From Lebanon.  Where they are part of the coalition government.  It always fascinates me when I see a lunatic construct like this and, inevitably, the issue of why Hezbollah would want to put missiles in Cuba is left unaddressed.  Obviously, the underlying assumption is that they just hate us Americans so damn much they want to find a way to, you know, kill us.  In this case, it requires the further logical leap that even now, in 2011, the Castro regime hates us Americans so much to allow a political party dedicated to armed resistance against Israel to threaten the US with missiles because, well, ok, it’s complicated.

If you wonder at the gross unfairness of it all, why they get the likes of Michele Bachmann and Wayne LaPierre and Ron Paul while the best we can do is Dennis Kucinich and the guy from New York now out of politics and spending quality time with his penis, I think it’s a very simple matter of looking at the question from the other side.  In most cases, people like us, the well - known reality based community, would be deeply uncomfortable having an unhinged lunatic arguing for our political agenda on the basis of paranoid hallucinations.  But across that aisle, there is that stubborn thirty-odd percent who actively seek out the mentally unstable and embrace them without hesitation.

Sure, under present circumstances it probably means an accelerated implosion for the grand American experiment, but at least we’re guaranteed a few laughs on our way down...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Shooting Bears*

I don't come here today with the specific intention of transforming 'Consider the Source' into the default go-to Bear Blog, but this story appeals to me on a number of levels, from its "Rain on your Wedding Day" characteristics to its contribution to the whole "Hunting is TOO a sport" argument to the always piquant reminder that while there are those that say alcohol and firearms don't mix, the truly toxic combination is incompetence and firearms.

First of all, we can't help but notice that, as is so often the case, at the very root of the sequence of catastrophic events that followed was a simple case of target mis-identification.  It's Black Bear season.  Blacks are smaller than Grizzlies, and if you are hunting a specific species, one of the key skills one would expect you to have mastered before loading weapons and pulling on camos is the ability to identify that species in the wild.  That just doesn't seem like raising the bar unreasonably.  But even so, if you are on a Black Bear hunt and you DO shoot a Grizzly in error, there are a number of compelling reasons to do nothing but run away immediately - think of it as the Venn Diagram of bad outcomes.  First, the only thing more dangerous in the American wilderness than a Grizzly Bear is a wounded Grizzly Bear.  If you are going back-country in Montana, this is one of the primary things you should be aware of, along with the terrain and the weather.  But if that's not enough, Grizzly Bears are endangered.  It is illegal to shoot them.  Now, sure, anything can happen, but let's recognize the demands of pragmatism here, and agree that if you DO shoot a Grizz in error the thing to NOT do is allow yourself to be associated with that shooting by the nice men at Fish and Game.

But OK, let's all assume that even after the shot went downrange there is complete consensus that it's a wounded Black Bear that we're tracking.  A wounded Black Bear is not a Care Bear, or even that obnoxious little Charmin Bear that lacks the skills to wipe himself after he, trite though it may be, shits in the woods.  If you are going to approach a wounded bear, even if you think it's dead, you do so with extreme caution, with a clear view from a significant distance.  If you go into dense cover after a wounded bear, it will very likely kill you.  The right answer in this case would have been to go back to camp and track the bear tomorrow, after it has bled out.

Finally, if a bear is chewing on your friend and you are going to attempt to discourage it from further dining adventures with a firearm, take a moment to consider your tactical approach.  On the range a very common exercise involves shooting a target in close spatial or temporal proximity to a "no-shoot", that is, a target that represents a friendly or innocent bystander.  Essentially, what you're working with is seventh grade geometry, or, for those of us who mis-spent our youth, shooting pool.  Angles and vectors.  You set up your shot in such a manner that a large portion of the target is exposed as opposed to a small portion of your friend.  Your goal is not so much to immediately kill the bear as it is to encourage him to have something else for lunch.  You err on the side of a clean miss rather than a dirty one, and you shoot chunks off the bear rather than looking for a heart/lung/liver shot.

Hey, I'm all about your right to arm bears, but sometimes that very common insouciant American arrogance just strikes me as a cautionary tale.  One of those 'teachable moments', like when you have ten thousand spoons, and all you need is a .300 Win Mag.

* This amuses me because this was my mom's euphemism for farting.  I never heard another human being on the planet use it in that fashion, and to this day it cracks me up with it's eloquent non sequitur...

Update:  Oooopppppsss.  Just discovered that the incomperable Bouffant has already covered the nuts and the bolts.  Think of this as Op Ed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Apropos of Nothing

In recognition of the coming of Autumn, I give you...

Bears With Pumpkins!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fleeting Moments

I had a roommate and friend back in 1980.  He sold cocaine to enhance his income.  Geoff didn’t particularly like cocaine, which made him unusually well suited to sell it, as he absorbed very little if any of his profits.  We worked at a lumber yard, toiling for hourly income, a paycheck on Friday.  Geoff was fearless, he spent big, dressed well and never thought about tomorrow.  I was more cautious - I knew there was that particular week when rent came due.  One of those early lessons in resource management.  While I spent my paycheck carefully, Geoff invested his.

Geoff’s dealer lived in the hills above Mill Valley.  It was a small collection of people, family, friends, hangers on, I never got the chance to grasp who was part of the house and who was part of the marketplace.  But I can tell you this.  To this day, I have never known a place so filled with peace.  We’d go up there on Fridays after work.  It was a dirt road off a rutted asphalt track, the kind you know if you know Mill Valley, but this one was even deeper in the tall trees on Tamalpais' flank.  The house was always, in my experience, under construction. There was the smell of framing lumber and drywall compound, doors framed without their constituent parts, or with prehung doors leaning next to their designated opening.  Geoff and his dealer would disappear to the back of the house to do their business, but everyone treated me with kindness and dignity.  They all had tasks (I always wondered who designated and delegated the work, but it never seemed to matter that much), and I always tried to get them to let me help out.  Paper cups of rich Napa Valley red wine and 2x4 Douglas Fir.

Later, Geoff and his dealer would reappear, and his dealer, the predictably big, bearded blond with long hair and a denim shirt, would take a moment to offer me a hit of the purest China white heroin, the kind of thousand dollar per gram indulgence he and I both knew was eternally out of reach to me.  And then I’d walk out on the half-finished redwood deck, with the evening fog already dripping off the overhanging trees, the sweet smell of the framing lumber twisting together with the crackle of the woodstoves smoke.

It was a moment, a mere tick of the clock, but I remember it to this day.  I often wonder what ever happened to those people.  I hope it all worked out, but of course I fear for them.  The chances are they’re dead or in prison, that house either torn down and rebuilt or finished and occupied by the kind of clean fingernails financial professional who will never understand what it felt like when it was full of love and promise.

Life is a slog, a slow trudge into an increasingly drab and uninteresting future.  But there are moments, brief moments that often mean nothing, yet nonetheless capture everything we ever hoped to be in one fleeting moment that cannot be forgotten.  Just a few magic, timeless interludes when we understood what we wanted, even as we understood how unlikely it was we’d ever actually have a chance to find it.  We live nigh a hundred years, and if we’re lucky, we’ll know an hour or two of true happiness, of peace, of belonging.  Looking back, I feel like the world was trying to teach me something there in that house, to guide me in a particular direction, to make me understand that there were things worth taking a risk to persue.  And typically, I stood back and observed, I cataloged the moment and went looking for another sensation.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fourteen Months

The President has announced his 'Jobs Plan'.  It's essentially a half a trillion dollars in fiscal stimulus, divided about evenly between government spending and tax cuts.  On the spending side, the plan is well targeted, providing infrastructure spending along with aid to state and local governments and an extension of the federal unemployment benefits that will expire in December.  That's all good, although the amount of spending is quite meager in comparison with the output gap it is intended to (at least partially) fill.  As to the tax cuts, out here where real people live, the only tax cuts that have ANY value are those, like payroll tax cuts, that result in larger paychecks.  Everything else simply disappears into the background noise of bills, debts and living expenses.

So, in general, good policy, delivered in deeply insufficient volume.  But there is policy, and there is politics, and it's the politics here where it all goes pear shaped.  In the current composition of the American Congress, with all its veto points, delays and friction, this bill would require a non-trivial amount of Republican support to pass.  And the Republicans are very good at keeping their voting bloc together.  There is some minimal possibility that Obama's plan would pass the Senate, although even that is unlikely, and there is simply no hope whatsoever that it will pass the House.  It's true that Obama, and for that matter the Democratic party, will have the opportunity to exploit the political fallout from the Republican party's ideological intransigence, but that merely serves to point out the sickening reality.

It's not a policy argument.  It's purely a political argument, with every player doing nothing more than positioning for November, 2012.  That's fourteen months from now.  With 26 million people unable to find full time work.  With the economy in recession again, whether or not the economists of record are willing to assign it that official designation.  And it's worse than that.  Because even if you assume the best possible electoral outcome in the upcoming General Election (whatever that best case scenario might look like to you), it will still be another 90 days at least before the new office - holders are sworn in, the new bills are written and passed, and then more time before implementation.  So the BEST we can hope for is something close to TWO YEARS of this - the toxic status quo, helpless in the face of any crisis, unable and even worse, unwilling to even begin to seriously address the overwhelming systemic problems facing the United States.

This is plainly outrageous, and ought to be utterly unacceptable to the American people, no matter what their ideological stripe.  Our highest elected officials are essentially going to take a couple years off from governance, the job we hired them to do, to run a campaign.  We're going to sit here, mired in an economic recession, teetering on the brink of a depression, and watch them do nothing but strut and preen, trying to gain some minimal political advantage in an election well over a year away.  Certainly, there has always been a fairly strong bias to the status quo in American governance - the system was built from the ground up to be resistant to change - but here we're acknowledging a very serious set of problems and agreeing that we'll do absolutely nothing about them for a couple more years.  At least.

Because there's the rest of this problem.  The jockeying is for the only political advantage that can matter in a system so thoroughly broken as ours.  The way our system has been co-opted by the wealthy and powerful, the only way to assure accomplishing your ideological objectives is to occupy the executive while simultaneously holding a veto-proof majority in both houses.  In a very real sense, we have learned over the last few years that it really doesn't matter who wins the Presidency - without a large enough majority in Congress, the President's governing agenda is stillborn.  If, at the end of this long, corrupt campaign cycle we end up with another divided government, toxically focused only on derailing the other party's agenda and concentrated wholly on the next election, it's hard to imagine how this nation as currently conceived can survive...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Small (Air)Craft Advisories

The frighteningly totalitarian sounding Homeland Security Department has issued a nationwide warning that al Quaeda terrorists might be plotting to use small airplanes something bad to us.  Or something.  Now, they readily admit they have no “specific or actionable intelligence” that these plots are taking place, but they couldn't see any reason why that should prevent them from demanding that all Americans across the country, all 300 million of us, cower in terror before another nonexistent small-bore plot to harm a few people.

How many Americans will die at the hands of drunk drivers this long holiday weekend?  Why should we not fear that, as those horrific deaths and maimings will actually happen?  Instead, we are breathlessly warned about a bizarre itty-bitty version of the 9/11 attacks, starring a small single engine airplane and a couple hundred pounds of fertilizer.  Frankly, if any American has both the imagination and the mental and emotional bandwidth to actually find it within their capacity to work up any real concern over a plot like that, they probably should find something to do.  Like watch TeeVee.  Or take a nap.

Think about this.  They’re hyping a threat they have no reason to believe is taking place, and that threatens approximately the same number of American lives as a particularly bad house fire.  Who actually believes this serves the public good in some way?  If it was a serious threat, it would be pointless, because there’s nothing an individual can do to mitigate his or her risk.  Stay out of buildings that small planes fly over?  Sorry, I don’t have access to Dick Cheney’s bunker.  It’s the kind of mindless cowering in fear of big, bad al Quaeda that the American government has been doing since before the first tower fell ten years ago, and it benefits no one as much as it does al Quaeda themselves.

Of course, we know why they make these ridiculous announcements.  Fear of the political exposure if something bad happens over the Labor Day or 9/11 weekends - this way they could say they were on top of the threats.  Sadly, it continues to be the political calculation that they take less political fallout for stupid, pointless fear-mongering like this than they would if they had been silent before an attack.  It’s simple, and stupid, and endless.

Imagine how much healthier our society would be if the amount of day-to-day thought we American citizens put into international terrorism was proportional to the amount we actually suffer from it.  If our national law enforcement organizations worked quietly with international counter-terror community to disrupt plots and prevent violence, without undue fanfare or visibility.  If the face we presented to the world was one of fearless confidence, going about our business undeterred by the feverish machinations of extremists and madmen.

That would be what a victory in the “War on Terror” might begin to look like.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Count me Out

Two Sundays hence, in a frantic paroxysm of that particularly garish nationalism we Americans like to identify as "Patriotism", coupled with our endless capacity for angry victimhood, the entire country will come together in an outpouring of overwrought emotion, jingoistic bigotry and tribal hatred to once again revel in our one and only homeland experience of the horror and brutality of warfare.

For a few hours that bright summer morning ten years ago, we endured a bloody attack by a foreign enemy, not in any meaningful way dissimilar to the kinds of raids, invasions, incursions and "security operations" regularly experienced by the largest percentage of the human population, endlessly and repeatedly, for thousands of years.  For us, it happened once in 200 years.  We lost some buildings, something just over three thousand lives, and our collective minds that morning.  In many other places in the world, they call that a pretty good month.

It’s hard to even begin to grasp the worst outcome of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but there is little doubt now, with the perspective of a decade lived in their shadow, that the least of them is the death and destruction suffered at the hands of Mohammed Atta and his gang of murderers.  But I think we can make a fairly clear judgement now that, of all the misguided reactions, widespread destruction and abject cowardice Americans have demonstrated in the face of what, to much of the world’s population, was nothing more than just another violent convulsion of a world ruled by madmen with powerful weapons, our utter capitulation in the face of a single al Quaeda provocation is by far the worst.

In spite of the horrors and loss of that day, all the very worst damage to America and everything it means to be an American has been entirely self-inflicted.  Indeed, the outcome could not have been worse if it were none other than Osama bin Laden himself directing the American response.  The pointless destruction and bloodletting of a virtually random military response.  An opportunistic and manipulative political response that played on its own citizens' fear and anger.  A collective willingness to run away from all the best American values in a pathetic cowardly demand that our government KEEP US SAFE!  A government, for that matter, that seemed only too eager to embrace the worst instincts of police states since Torquemada.  None of this even to mention the trillions of dollars wasted destroying Iraq, propping up dictators, creating the appallingly named Homeland Security infrastructure - the loss of those funds now especially scandalous in our current dismal economic straights.  Virtually every step of the way we had a chance to act thoughtfully and effectively, and every time we quickly and with minimal deliberation decided to follow bin Laden’s playbook.  That is the original sin, the root cause underlying our shame.

Was 9/11 a tragedy of the first order?  Certainly, to the extent that thousands of innocent lives taken in a tantrum of hubris and hate are all tragic.  But every response, any act of commemoration at this point seems simultaneously petty and excessive.  With trillions of dollars wasted, more than a hundred thousand humans dead, millions more lives ruined and entire cities destroyed with no ‘victory’ to show for any of it, it’s very hard to understand what it is we’re marking.  We showed the world our fear and tribal bigotry, we unleashed a massive war machine on many more innocent civilians than were in New York and Washington that day, we ran away from our unique American values in sobbing terror - our response to that tragedy was to kill, to torture, to imprison, to destroy, and most of all, to cower is mindless fear.  And for all that, the overarching message you’ll see repeated not just Sunday but over and over through the week?  Pride.

We’ll stand up and say how proud we are to be Americans, and how special a people we must be to have survived this dreadful attack.  At no time will we notice that a woman in Darfur, or a child in Kandahar, or an old man in the Congo, along with millions of others, has stoically and courageously withstood orders of magnitude more.  We’ll beat our chests and tell each other how we beat back the existential threat of Islamic terrorism, for you see, as Americans we are bred to believe that violence is a perfectly reasonable and effective way to solve disagreements.  We’ll exchange breathless “where were you that day?” stories and never notice that for almost ALL of us, not only were we nowhere near the attacks, but we have suffered not the slightest from them.

Well, not me.  I’d like to mourn the dead, I suppose, but their loss seems somehow distant and even trivial at this point.  And today, every thought of that September morning a decade ago merely evokes disgust and loathing.  For the perpetrators, certainly, but also for the ugly, venal, manipulative, stupid and misguided who found a way to turn a spasm of tribal hatred and political violence into an unspeakable, global human tragedy unmatched in recent history.  There’s nothing to mark, nothing to ‘honor’, nothing to commemorate, just a dark decade wherein we came to see the outline of our own decline and fall.  There is much to mourn, for much has been lost.  But as for 9/11?  You can count me out...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Internet is Annoying Me

You would think that the Internet would, at this point, merely be a digital representation of society at large. It is, after all, comprised of the same people you interact with at work, at the grocery store, at Home Depot and the local Thai eatery.  And yet the Internet is filled to overflowing with ignorance, mindless idiocy, conspiracy theories, thoughtless tribal partisanship, magical thinking, easily debunked beliefs and assumptions and Cubs fans.  It is deeply ironic that the very medium that provides access to the collected knowledge and wisdom of mankind should also be populated by so many whose lack of knowledge, illogic and utter inability to think critically makes one despair for the public schools system.

You see this in any discussion on any topic on the Web - there are always people who simultaneously hold strong opinions and minimal expertise.  There are others who are deeply invested in a single topic, point or position, and refuse to allow any discussion to drift away from their well cared for pet peeve.  I have no doubt that you will find the same kind of belligerent idiocy on knitting and furniture making forums that you find in science, firearms or literature threads, but there is one area that stands above all others for the mindless anger and tribal partisanship of it's denizens - politics.  Public policy, economics, international affairs - here it seems that for every couple of thoughtful, well-meaning people who have put in the time and effort to educate themselves and understand both the primary issues and the second - order questions that arise, from unintended consequences to ethical considerations, there is a snarling hater, a bloviating oaf or a Rah Rah cheerleader to whom "our" side represents goodness and light and can do no wrong and "their" side, an abyss of evil and foul intentions that must never be given a drop of credit.  And despite their willful, even joyful parade of ignorance and blinkered vision, there is no point, absolutely zero, in confronting them.  With the inexplicable exception of Bruce Bartlett, nobody on the Internet ever changed their mind about anything.

These tireless characters can take many forms, and even shift between them at will.  But there are a few that I find particularly trying:

1.  Conspiracy Theorists
I've always been fascinated by people, and man, there are a LOT of them, who will tell you of dark plots and deeply - held secrets, so foul and dangerous that people have disappeared just for discussing them.  But they never seem to notice the odd contradiction that THEY know all about these world-changing secrets and, in fact, anyone who doesn't is a "sheep", falling for 'their' patently ridiculous cover stories.  If you ask them how they know these things that are supposed to be the well-kept secrets of governments, they will, at best, refer you to a website, often one that lists links to other websites - none of the operators of which, sadly, have yet disappeared.

2.  Motivation Matters
When someone tells me that Barack Obama is helping the terrorists, or that the Department of the Interior is in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to implement Shari'a law in the US, or that various political, judicial, government and military leaders are working with our enemies to bring down the United States, or that lifelong Climate scientists are actively involved in a far-reaching hoax, I tend to ask them "why".  What is their motivation?  Why would someone who has risen to a leadership position in America be working to destroy it all?  Why is a Cabinet secretary from the Midwest so invested in Islamic law?  Why would ANYONE assist terrorists?  Why would someone put their career, their family, their community, their reputation and their nation at risk?  Now there might actually BE reasons, from money to blackmail, but if you can't provide a plausible explanation for this kind of massive betrayal you're just a crank.

3.  Repeaters
These are truly a blight on my bandwidth.  People who are too lazy and/or stupid to form their own arguments, they arrive at nebulous, ill formed and often incoherent conclusions and merely repeat other people's arguments to support them.  Talking points, quotes, historical anecdotes, they typically are not familiar with their own arguments, and often do not even understand them.  They are usually seen falling victim to some kind of correlation/causality fallacy, which, when it's pointed out to them, only confuses them more, or they are caught depending upon a historical event that never happened, or using a famous individual's words stripped of context so they appear to be saying precisely the opposite of what was originally intended.

4.  Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
You know the ones.  They haven't learned a single new thing since high school.  They don't read, and critical thinking skills have never been part of their repertoire.  They know only one thing: Which "side" they're on.  That leads them to a simple, black and white conclusion in every event.  You can usually identify them on the Internet for their use of less-than-clever slurs, such as Demoncraps or Rethuglicans. To them it's no different than Cardinals/Phillies or Patriots/Colts.  There is nothing "our" team can do wrong except lose, and there is no possibility that "their" team can mean well, or do good.  And if one of 'our' guys does something that DOES disappoint them, well, that's easily explained - deep down, he was one of 'their' guys all along.  It is the simplistic case of our tribe good/their tribe bad, and while this is often a wingnut position I am often disappointed by how many self-identified "liberals" do precisely the same thing.

Seriously.  If you want to have an intelligent and productive discussion about anything, at least take the time and put in the effort to understand it at some reasonable level.  At the very least read through the
Wikipedia treatment on a given topic or event before invoking it as some kind of persuasive touchstone, OK?


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Alas, the World Just Isn't That Interesting a Place

Just stop it.  No.  There are no "aliens" here.  They aren't visiting us in their cool little spaceships, they aren't abducting hillbillies and subjecting them to all sorts of proctological research, and most importantly, they haven't come here for our resources, our planet, or lunch.  They are not here.

How can I be so sure?

Look.  We've been suspending our disbelief for so long now, from the guys who went to the moon with a cannon to Flash Gordon to Captain Kirk to Battle:Los Angeles that we've forgotten the salient point in all this.  That is, if in between unlearning evolution and basic climate modeling, we ever actually understood it at all.  But it's simply this.  The Galaxy is a VERY big place, the stars are VERY far apart, and it would take decades or even centuries to go from one to another.  It would require a HUGE craft that could support a giant crew for generations, growing food and synthesizing an atmosphere and water and all the things a good sized city needs throughout it's entire life.

If you assume a civilization built this craft, powered it with massively redundant nuclear ion propulsion and plenty of fuel, along with all the systems it would need to support and maintain itself and it's crew, and assume that it was advanced enough to achieve a cruising speed of 0.5C (one half the speed of light) then to reach a star only 100 Light Years away would take well in excess of 200 years. What would be the point?  It wouldn't be to increase their knowledge - half a millennium at least just to return the knowledge gained from the first mission to the home world?  I suspect that civilization would find better, more immediate uses for those resources.

As much as we love the ideas of interstellar travel and meeting new species, we have allowed our imaginings to blind us to the indisputable fact that FTL travel is impossible.  You might not want that to be true, but just as learning that Santa Claus is your mom and dad, Jesus didn't have blue eyes and Glocks are much cooler to look at than they are to shoot, there is no getting around it.  Here's a little math problem for you:  At the speed of light, mass becomes infinite.  Try to work out how much energy it would take to move an infinite mass.  Extra credit if you don't use crayons.

An interesting special case might be in star clusters.  Probably not in Globulars, which tend to be old, metal-poor stars that wouldn't likely give rise to intelligent life, even without considering the UV, gamma rays and radiation resulting from having so many stars in such close proximity.  But in a galactic cluster, a few hundred stars all the same approximate age within a few light years of each other might give rise to at least one spacefaring civilization, perhaps more, and might develop quite a robust multi-stellar community, replete with trade, wars and shifting alliances.  One can at least hope.

While I don't expect an abrupt end to the "Star Wars" kind of fantasy we have all come to love, I'd like to see these realities come into the discussion whenever people see bright lights in the sky, and from the standpoint of science fiction, it might be interesting if someone actually approached the genre within the constraints of the actual physical laws of the universe.  I'd read that book.

Oh.  While we're on the subject.  In a vacuum, outside the gravity well, changes in velocity are linear.  That is, spacecraft can't turn the way aerodynamic vehicles can within the atmosphere.  They can accelerate, and they can change their attitude and accelerate again.  That is, they would have to rotate 180° and fire their engines again to decelerate.  So in a space opera, when you see the spaceships in "dogfights", let's be clear - that's utterly impossible.  Rather, an engagement between two spacecraft in deep space would very likely be a single pass, with a very high closing speed and one shot, likely with a vectored thrust missile as directed energy weapons require larger power generation capacity than these smaller spacecraft would have.  Interestingly, this was the same air combat tactics adopted by the American airmen in the Pacific early in WWII.  The Wildcat and Lightning pilots couldn't turn with the Zeroes, so they tried to get above them and dive through the formations at maximum speed, inflicting what damage they could, then continued their max-speed dive down to the deck. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I hope I haven't ruined your enjoyment of the next Aliens vs. Humans movie that comes along - that certainly wasn't my intention.  I guess I just don't have enough to think about these days, and I wanted to talk about something other than Barack, Rick and Irene.

Carry on...

Friday, August 26, 2011

I Has An Orb Weaver

Though the dawn may be coming soon
There still may be some time...
Fly me away - to the bright side of the moon
And leave tomorrow behind
Ooohh Orb Weaver...
I hate spiders.  In fact, it's safe to conclude that anything that wants to bite, poison or beat me up is going to be something I emphatically dislike.  So when this guy showed up outside my dining room window a few weeks ago, I made a brief, attention-span limited and somewhat desultory attempt to kill him (her?).  But there was no good way to get there without taking off the window screen, and I find that half the time, when you do that, you end up with a damaged or ill-fitting window screen.  And since the toxic creepy-crawly was actually outside, it seemed the rules or at least the guidelines of human-arachnid warfare mitigated against the use chemical weapons.  So I stepped back, flummoxed.

Alright, I decided, as long as you stay out there, we'll see if we can coexist in peace.  As the days passed, I began to notice his routine, and his behaviors.  I noticed that if I tapped on the window, he'd start frantically jiggling the various structural components of the web, I suppose in some spider-based attempt to locate the presumptive insectoid snackage.  I watched him with some regularity (I do not have a job, and money is quite tight, so it's not like I was sacrificing a tremendous amount of productive activity in order to monitor the life and times of my fast-growing araneidae friend), but I never got to see him (I'm presuming the male because he looks tough - I don't know if there's a way to actually determine his gender, and besides, c'mon, who freaking CARES?) actually bite anything.  Mores the pity, that would have been cool.  Unless it was me.

Objects in Window May be Creepier than they Appear
So the other day, inspired by the cool butterfly, bee and bird pictures along with the charming commentary at Thunder's place, I decided to provide my newfound spider buddy a bit of immortality of his own.  First things first.  I needed to know what he was, in somewhat more exacting detail than "scary looking".  But then, that's what the Internet's for, right?  So I found this page.  It seemed to describe him physically and got his behaviors down precisely, including his bizarre propensity to hang upside down in the center of his web.  What the hell, is he some kind of Kiwi or something?

Next, for some photographs.  On the upside, he lives on a glass sheet, so getting good pics is fairly simple.  On the downside, I only get pictures of his nether regions, as, due to the effectively 2-dimensional arrangement of his domicile, I've never actually even seen the top of him.  For all I know, he could be paisley and psychedelic.  But the Orb Weaver web page probably would have mentioned that, so I won't dwell on it.  Much.  Anyway, I got a few pretty good shots of his striped spindly legs and creepy mouthparts, which I am delighted share with you.


Update:  In the couple days since I took the pictures and got around to posting them, he has left.  I can only assume that he's had significant trouble with paparazzi before, and when I broke out the camera he knew it was time to mosey along.  Can you mosey in base eight?  Kind of a pity, I was getting used to him, and when you've lived alone as long as I have, you don't find it at all bizarre to spend an hour or so talking to a spider.  They're good listeners!  Vaya con dios, mi amigo...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Future of Consumer Technology

Steve Jobs resigned.  At least he turned over his CEO duties to Tim Cook.  He's still there, still in charge.  And people everywhere are buzzing with two questions.  First, why now.  I think that's an easy one, and everybody knows it.  They just are loathe to say it.  I'm not - I'm nobody, so it's easy for me.  He has an expiration date.  His docs have told him the clock is running, and even given him a number of options for how long it has to run.  So he pulls the trigger on the transition strategy, occupies the Chairman position to cement the business strategy and moves up the publication of his biography to make sure he has control of his legacy.  For a Cancer and transplant survivor beginning to show his age, this doesn't seem to be a great leap.

The second question concerns the future of Apple in a post-Jobs world.  But when people ask this question, they're not asking about Apple, not really.  For Apple defines the arc and trajectory of consumer technology, and consumer technology defines this century, from culture to lifestyle, from creation to consumption, from books and music to movies and teevee,  how we gather information, entertain ourselves, work, date and learn  What Apple does, and what Apple doesn't do, will be seen as describing and defining the way digital content is created, distributed and consumed in the twenty first century.  Apple's plans are usually regarded as a great mystery, an untold future as well analyzed by prophesy as by analysis, a fuzzy portal to a black box behind the legendary Jobs Distortion Field.  But is this really the case?

MP3 players, SmartPhones and Tablets were well known long before Apple defined their final form.  We were not shocked by the capabilities of the iPod, just it's size and the way it worked.  We had digital music, Jobs just gave us the right way to consume it.  Likewise iTunes.  We'd known for years we would eventually be buying our music this way.  Jobs was the one with the power, wealth and vision to create it.  The iPhone didn't signify any great technological breakthrough - it was really nothing more that what RIM SHOULD have done with the BlackBerry, the handheld digital communications device updated with readily available technologies.  But Jobs did it better than they might have, with bulletproof software and a genuinely usable interface.  And Tablets?  Tablets have been around in various forms for literally decades.  What Apple did was wait until all the pieces of technology were ready for prime time, from displays to processors to batteries and all the little bits that make them so broadly useful, like GPS and accelerometers.  Then, when they knew they could produce something people would want to buy, they took the iPad to market.  Again, no real breakthrough, just good design and a finely honed sense of market demand.

In that light, we shouldn't have trouble discerning what the future of digital consumer technology might look like.  It is increasingly evolving to an "always connected" model with minimal demands for local storage.  That leads to a complete transition to the "streaming" consumption model, where we have access, either paid or free, to books, music, movies and teevee shows.  We have a pretty good idea of what the devices we consume this media will look like - HDTV, Notebook computers, tablet computers and SmartPhones - So the battle comes down to efficiently and effectively delivering that content, and delivering the broadest variety.  That essentially leaves the market to a few Datacenter powerhouses with the resources to fight that battle: Apple, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Comcast, those sorts of players.

There's really nothing new to deliver, and no new way to consume it, so the breakthroughs will have to come from the other end of the wire -  mostly invisible, except that they'll be easier, faster and, perhaps, cheaper.  The extent to which these content delivery services are actually cheaper will be entirely dependent upon the existence of real competition - and the barriers to entry are gigantic.

One area where there IS substantial space for innovation and development is in content development.  As we naively complained decades ago, there were "a thousand channels and nothing on".  Now there are infinite channels - and millions of consumers beginning to see the value in paying for content.  Sometimes.  Under some circumstances.  There might be a number of new form factors that people will want.  Short non-fiction e-books, 10-20,000 words.  Episodic series in the 10 to 15 minute-per-episode range, whether animated, CGI or real actors.  Participatory entertainment, with HD Webcams and real-time networks.  The system supports a myriad different ways to inform and entertain, and people will find new ones they like.  Whether they represent a viable market remains to be seen.

What we can recognize at this point was the perfect timing of Steve Jobs.  Just as the technologies became available, he oversaw the infrastructure buildout, from the consumer consumption devices to the global marketplace to the delivery mechanisms.  Apple may continue to dominate this market, but there are challenges ahead for Cook and the people at post-Jobs Apple.  The consumer hardware is in a purely evolutionary mode, with the rest of the industry starting to catch up with Apple in both hardware and software.  And we learned something critical over the weekend, when people rushed out to buy a Tablet they had already rejected merely because it reached a critical price point - the storied $99.  Apple has to know that they cannot maintain market dominance if they are confronted with a significant price disadvantage - and you can bet that this phenomena did not go un-noticed by some of the larger global manufacturers of consumer electronics.  Also, the next big steps in the evolution of these technologies will not be at the consumer end, but will be in the datacenter, and with the telcos and ISP that provide the access.  And these backend technologies have not traditionally been Apple's strength, although the Cupertino braintrust has not shirked their recognition of this reality, building one of the largest state-of-the-art datacenters in the world in North Carolina.

My guess is Apple will do just fine in the Post Jobs environment.  They are a mature company, steeped in the Jobs ethos of building excellent products and controlling every bit of the user experience.  They have a passionate base of consumers who are the opposite of price sensitive, and they still enjoy a one to two year hardware development advantage over the competition, even as the software gap (between iOS and Android) closes rapidly.    For everything I've always found annoying about Jobs and Apple, we as consumers are better off for what they built, even if we don't own a single Apple product.  And that should be enough legacy for anyone...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

God - Bad Designer, Poor Manager, Pathetic Motivator

I suppose it was predictable, just as the sun follows the rain, as diarrhea follows Mi Puebla's deep fried goat burrito, today we have the professionally stupid invoking God's punishment to explain the Washington earthquake.  This time it's Worldnet Daily's Joseph Farrah, also known as the Man With MY Mustache, saying “Occasionally God really does shake things up as a sign to us of the consequences of disobedience and indifference to our Creator...”

Let's just quietly sneak past Farrah's unabashed belief that he understands the actions and motivations of the creator of the universe.  Let's even duck behind the hedge in order to avoid his hubristic expectation that the people will unquestioningly accept him as God's interlocutor.  OK, now let's just sit down on the curb here with a lemonade and think this through.

God's, like, omnipotent, right?  I mean, he can make anything happen.  Hell, he made the whole universe 'happen', right?  So if he wants humans to act a certain way, why doesn't he just MAKE them?  Just control their behavior so that they do things exactly the way HE wants them to.  Mission accomplished n shit, right?  Now I don't pretend to understand the motivations of the people who collectively pretend to understand God's motivations (go back and read that again, I dareya), but I suspect their answer to the "God's just a big bully" hypothesis would go something like "Something something Free Will Yadda yadda".  I dunno, I think it's kind of quaint that he sets up these rules restricting his own superpowers, probably to make the game more interesting because he's been around forever and most of that time he didn't even have a universe, let alone a Teddy Bear, and he's BORED!  So I guess the rules say he can coerce people with death and destruction, but he can't actually get in their heads and drive.  OK.  I'm not sure where it says that in the New Testament, but what the hell - I'm in.

But because we've all grown up steeped in the tradition of a vengeful old-testament Yahweh, we let a lot of this rubbish go by without considering how deeply weird and twisted these loonies believe their master of the universe to be.  I mean, think about it.  He makes the universe.  Eventually he makes some intelligent bipeds on planet Earth.  He makes them clever social creatures, with agile minds and a propensity to explore.  He endows them with free will and some sense of right and wrong and sends them on their way.  But then they DO things.  Things that bug him, that piss him off, that get right under his all powerful skin.  "Dammit", he thinks.  "Why are they doing that?  I don't WANT them to do that."  Now, he has a whole universe to tend to, he's a busy, busy supreme being, but those annoying homo sapiens just keep irritating him.  So he keeps coming back and trying to make them change their wicked ways, but he always plays by the rules of the game.  So he wipes out New Orleans.  Hey, the little bastards LIKED New Orleans.  Surely THAT'LL get 'em back on the straight n narrow.  But sure enough, they kept up all that stuff that just makes God CRAZY, so he came back by yesterday and gave Washington DC a good shaking - just a warning, you see, to go back to living the way he WANTS you to.  Then it was a quick hop over to let Joseph Farrah know what he was doing and why, and it was back to that pesky universe.

There's a lesson here.  Actually a couple, but we'll go with the cautionary tale at this point:  "Create a universe and you'll never have a moment's rest".

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Despots Fall - Libya Edition

We appear to have reached the endgame in Libya.  With Tripoli cut off, much of the loyalist forces have stopped fighting, allowing the residents of Tripoli to take to the streets, supported by clandestine weapons shipments and reinforcements from the rebels outside the city.  It's really only a matter of time, and blood, before the fight is over and we can begin to see the shape the new Libyan government will take.

I readily confess that I take a certain pleasure in watching the end of the Gadhafi regime.  He was one of the great megalomaniacal autocrats of the twentieth century, a thorn in the side of the West going back beyond Reagan, a leader who took the seat of power at the point of a gun, and will only relinquish it the same way.  From the bombing of the La Belle in Berlin and the resultant US air strikes to that icon of tragedy, to the crumpled cockpit of PanAm 103 lying broken in the verdant fields of Lockerbie, he has always been dangerously willing to translate rhetoric and oil wealth into action in a long, incoherent asymmetric war with the US and her allies.  And despite the bombings, the sanctions and the decisive losses in occasional air battles over the Gulf of Sirte, he relentlessly demanded a position on the world stage all out of proportion to his actual status - and more often than not he received it.  But ultimately, the actions taken by the leader of a single-party police state to suppress dissent and hold onto power erode his support among the people, creating a cycle of increasingly brutal suppression and a more radicalized population.  The ultimate result is very often rebellion or civil war.

Of course, we cannot know at this point how this will all play out.  Libya is another one of those artificial constructs, a nation with borders drawn by arrogant colonialists without regard to Tribal realities.  It remains to be seen whether the competing demands of Tribal politics, ethnic antipathy and religious intolerance can be set aside to allow the establishment of some sort of national identity without the coercive control of a traditional "strongman".  But one fact is, even now, hard to overlook.  For perhaps the first time, the international community came together to provide the appropriate level of military intervention to prevent a wholesale slaughter of innocents and level the playing field just enough for the people to have a fighting chance to win their freedom.  This was done with extremely limited military force, with no ground troops, no occupation and no coalition casualties.  The fact that the world can now have confidence that it can honestly, fairly and decisively intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster should give pause to any despot considering massacres as a method to hold onto power.

Well, why not Syria, you ask.  How can this formula apply to Gadhafi and not Bashar al Assad?  The answer is simple - sadly so.  International intervention can be compared to a medical procedure, and "First do no harm" is a critical guiding principle.  If intervention has the likelihood of starting a regional war, a scenario where it would create far more suffering than it might alleviate, that is a situation in which it cannot be used.  One of the necessary keys to international military intervention, then, is it can really only be used against the more isolated of regimes - those with powerful or local allies (or both) are mostly inoculated against the world community acting against them.

But we should remember Rwanda, and Srebrenica, and we should point to Libya and resolve that we never need let it happen again...

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Terrible Love of War

Waste is a slippery concept.  One man's waste is another man's art, another man's life's work, and yet another man's sustenance.  What we see as waste might actually be fulfillment, or comeuppance, or just another narrative chapter.  If risk is the price tag for reward, then the ultimate price should come with the ultimate reward - but in an odd twist, here the rewards are earned up front, collected throughout a career filled with immeasurable highs and unspeakable lows, and the price is collected last, savagely erasing all the days of effort and nights of terror, all the moments, forever.

30 Americans died at once on Friday, simultaneously, in a pointless war in a valueless place for a meaningless goal, and some might call it a tragedy, and cry out to mourn our national loss.  But to do so would be a failure of understanding, an inability to grasp what, precisely, has been lost, the banal conflation of what and why.  These men were, even in the midst of this most cynical of political gamesmanship, not wasted.  Indeed, it is not possible to waste lives such as this.  There are professional soldiers, certainly, but these were not that - not really.  These were professional warriors, men as there have always been, less committed to the ideal or even the goal than they are simply to the fight, men who have been to war and want nothing more than to go back.  Men for whom the fight is the point, and are therefore willing to do anything it takes for another chance to fight other men to the death.

Mourning them would serve no purpose, indeed it would obscure rather that clarify the way this story ended.  This was the outcome that was always there, the thing against which they measured themselves and their comrades every time they fought, at once the likeliest result and the one so often repeatedly avoided.

On an individual level this was not really a tragedy, and certainly not a waste.  It was, in a very real sense, just another day at the office, the consequences unusual only in number, otherwise no different than a severed finger at the lumberyard or the terminal deceleration of an avid parachutist having a very bad day.  These guys were doing exactly what they wanted to do, what they LOVED to do, and every single last one of them had taken human lives, weighed culpability against responsibility, considered and accepted their accountability and, having seen it and smelled it and tasted both the warm flow and the red mist, opted to return once again to that place where lives are traded, the exchange rate measured in lead.

To be clear, one should not feel compelled to honor them either.  They represent the part of human evolution that has, to this point at least, failed.  They are killers, not by training or by temperament, but at some deeper, vocational level.  Everywhere throughout history you will find similar men in prisons and graveyards, the same drive fueling a different path, but always with similar outcomes.  They have always been amongst us, and they have always been co-opted and recruited by those with wealth and power to serve whatever cause ordered.  They were crusaders and assassins, outlaws and pirates, the tip of the spear and the last line of defense.

Afghanistan is a waste, a waste of resources, a waste of lives, a waste of geopolitical credibility and diplomatic leverage.  Most of the lives lost there are wasted, and most of the lives spent there are wasted too.  America's involvement in Afghanistan fully ten years after the attacks of September 11th is a permanent toxic stain on what remains of her tattered honor, calling simultaneously into question both American political integrity and military capacity.  But for these men, Afghanistan was exactly where they wanted to be, for exactly the reasons we saw play out.  The fact that we'll bury these Sailors all at the same time means they died doing what they wanted to do more than anything in the world, and regardless of how you might feel about that, for them it was no tragedy...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Zombies, Aliens and Robots - Killing in the Name Of...

In the American world of entertainment, nothing beats violence.  Well, technically sex does, but while you'd NEVER allow your precocious pre-teen to watch to attractive people make love, you all happily share a bowl of popcorn on the couch watching heroes unleash heavy firepower on their designated villains.  And those villains are often killers and rapists, pedophiles and madmen, serial killers and terrorists - the lowest, most vile scum of the earth.  This is necessary, as we Americans don't like any moral ambiguity in the vicious bloodletting of our popular culture.

But when you think about it, some stories are about, well, stories.  They include gunfights, car chases and brutal hand to hand combat in order to make them more interesting, more exciting if you will.  But they are still, at the core, a story about policemen or soldiers or even frightened citizens doing the right thing, or at least doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Other stories, though, are somewhat less high-minded than even that.  They are about killing, the chatter of the assault rifle, the bangbangbang of a handgun in rapid fire, the cycling of the action, the clink of spent brass on asphalt, the cries of the mortally wounded.  In a straight line from Rambo to the Terminator to Falling Skies we sit impatiently through the brief homages to storytelling so we can get back to the gunfire and casualties.

But oddly, and somewhat surprisingly, we Americans find we have, at least collectively, a certain moral squeamishness when it comes to the massacre of large numbers of our fellow human beings for the purposes of entertainment.  Oh sure, we're more than happy with a final shootout between that detestable villain and the cops, or even a a denouement in the form of a serious firefight as might be found at the climax of "LA Confidential" or Season One of "Justified", but for our day-in and day-out viewing pleasure, as something we might enjoy after dinner on a school night, a large body count is something we have decided to claim we cannot abide.

Various solutions to this problem have been sought.  The original approach while having been around in one form or another for decades, reached its pinnacle of performance in the TeeVee series "The A Team".  Thousands of rounds expended on full auto, along with grenades and explosives, helicopter gunships on hot runs over the battlefield, with M-16s and Uzis spewing endless streams of hot brass - and yet, in the end, there were no casualties, no gruesome scenes of bodies frozen awkwardly in death, no screaming, bloodsoaked wounded, no tragic collateral damage from the massive volumes of randomly sprayed small arms fire.  This tradition of the firefight as performance art lives on even today with shows like "Burn Notice" where the majority of gunfights are staged for the benefit of frightening or fooling the bad guys - although it must be mentioned that when Michael Westin finds himself in a corner, he can and will take lives hard and fast, a redeeming characteristic of a show that often seems to be unsure if it aspires to be merely a cartoon or something much darker.

But the winning solution to this problem, this demand for large scale violence without the messy moral conundrums often associated with mass murder, has now become mainstream.  It's a simple fix really - just have the humans fight...well...NOT humans.  Aliens, robots, the undead, it turns out there are a surprising number of things that can fill in admirably for what would otherwise be a human enemy, and then can be gleefully killed in very large numbers, in various brutal ways, over and over again without causing the slightest ethical twinge.  Terminators, artificial digital humans in The Matrix, Cylons, aliens from "War of the Worlds" to "Falling Skies",  our producers and purveyors of cinematic entertainment can find an endless stream of near-humans for our benighted species to kill in large numbers, with every kind of weapon from Alice's Kukris to "Predator's" minigun.

It's possible that this observation helps us learn something important about human beings, or at least that particularly pampered and hate-filled sub-species known as Americans.  When confronted with the reality that our preferred form of entertainment was horrific, brutal and inhuman, we recoiled from the necessity that we seek other less nihilistic, more enlightened forms of entertainment, and instead dug deep into our creativity to create creatures that could stand in for other human beings when the time came for slaughter.  As intelligent and capable as we are as a species, we are still primitive, tribal, violent and warlike, and will actively resist allowing evolution to complete the process of making us into something more than we are today...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Debt Ceiling Tea Leaves

Nobody knows what's going on.  The President wants a grand bargain, Boehner wants a smaller deal with no new revenues, the Tea Partiers want to turn America into an agricultural backwater with nuclear weapons and the so-called Gang of 6 unveiled a proposal that everybody wants to talk about and nobody would actually vote for.  So how do regular folks, you and me, get some kind of handle on this whole Debt Ceiling kerfuffle and what it might mean to us?  Well, let's forget about the process and think in terms of outcomes.  There are, ultimately, only three possible ways that this all ends.

1.  Some kind of stroke-of-midnight deal is made, either with a deficit reduction package attached or just a clean increase in the debt ceiling, before the August 2nd econopocalypse.

2.  August 2nd arrives, the market freaks out, everyone panics and comes to their senses and they raise the debt ceiling almost immediately - say, within a week of the freakout, whenever it actually happens.

3.  The deadline comes and goes, the markets freak out, perhaps blow up, and STILL the US House of Representatives is unable to pass a new debt ceiling bill.  The standoff lasts for a month, perhaps several, with the US and the world adjusting to a 'new normal' where US government spending is cut nearly in half, interest rates spike, freezing up credit markets and the dollar collapses relative to other currencies.

There you have it - pretty much the whole universe of possibilities for the next 60-90 days.

The first outcome would, obviously, be the best by far.  It would establish that we are governed by partisan fools, but not madmen.  There would be some economic fallout, but nothing close to catastrophic.  The long term negative effect will be to firmly establish apocalyptic brinkmanship as part of our political process, ensuring that others will again take the entire system hostage and threaten to blow it all up.  Eventually, someone will.  But at least it wouldn't be now.

The second has real costs - to a lot of individuals who need their pension income, their health benefits, their housing assistance.  The economic costs would be significant - most debt instruments, from US Treasuries to Municipal bonds to credit cards would carry a higher interest rate for the foreseeable future, an artifact of the higher 'risk premium' that would be built into US debt going forward.

The third seems unlikely at this point.  The conventional wisdom is that the powerful financial interests have influence over the Republican party, and can somehow coerce them into accepting the kind of compromise they have repeatedly rejected to this point.  But it remains an open question whether those same traditional Republican constituencies have that level of influence with the radical right-wing true believers in Congress, along with those more fearful of a Primary challenge from the right than the of the threats of the traditional funding base.

But unlikely though it may be, it cannot be ruled out at this point.  It would be a historical event, changing nearly everything in one or two mid-summer months in 2011.  Think of it as a sliding scale of economic disaster - the longer the House Republicans resist a compromise deal, the worse both the short term and long term outcomes will be for all of us.

Recession?  Depression?  "Contagion" leading to the collapse of the Eurozone?  Plummeting global trade numbers, falling GDP in China leading to unrest, falling energy and commodity prices leading a brutal deflationary cycle, US unemployment over 20%?  When you think about what a bloc of elected representatives are willing to put at risk in order to advance an unpopular ideological agenda, you are forced to confront just how badly broken our system has become.  It makes a certain sense, though, as a system carefully designed in the late eighteenth century would be expected to lack the flexibility and adaptability to adjust to twenty first century changes in technology and society...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Revolving Door Revolves

Casey Anthony walked free today, having served the sentence imposed upon her by the court.  Of course, there are people from Sarasota to Seattle who feel she somehow avoided the judgement she was due, and champion some poor hero, one lacking in both broad awareness and personal morality, to hunt her down and inflict upon her the physical harm they just know she must have coming.

Now, mind you, I can't speak directly to this issue, as I paid no attention to the events up to and including the trial.  I first became aware of this case when Ms. Anthony's acquittal gave birth to a vast, simultaneous outpouring of bile and hatred.  And once again, I was forced to confront one of the most important facts of American public policy.  You will occasionally hear that Americans are apathetic about their freedoms, but that really isn't the case at all.  Americans, for the most part, HATE their freedoms, are revolted by any manifestation of basic democratic liberty, and regularly state their unequivocal desire to roll back the most fundamental constitutional guarantees.  It is no wonder at all that obscenities like the ironically named Patriot Act and the 4th Amendment shredding Wiretap Bill are passed with minimal objection, that organizations like the ACLU and FEC are so roundly reviled and that calls for vengeance vastly outnumber calls for mercy even in the twentyfirst century.

It is certainly true that the key to empathy is to imagine yourself in the other person's shoes, that it was YOU on trial for your life, and then to imagine the outcome for which you would be so desperately hopeful.  But it really doesn't require empathy, indeed, simple self interest should require the same exercise.  Because if you DID find yourself incarcerated, on trial in a case where you were generally accepted to be guilty, and therefore as evil and inhuman a monster as could be imagined, unfit to be allowed to live among other people ever again, unfit, even, to live at all, your only hope would be within the system - a system so fair, so protective of the rights of the accused, so structured so as to place the burden of proof on your accusers that you might be able to convince a jury of your peers to set you free.  But in general, American people do seem to be inherently optimistic, to the point of irrationality, and widely assume that such things only happen to other, 'bad' people who are obviously guilty and so clearly should be punished.

So the prosecutor was unable to provide sufficient evidence to convince the jury to convict, and they did exactly what they are supposed to do in such cases - a finding of not guilty.  The result of the conviction on lesser charges was a sentence to time served, the appropriate paperwork was processed and today she walks out the door a free woman.  Except, not really.  After years of having her picture splashed across the internet, with a huge population of crazed, understimulated citizens taking up their pitchforks and torches and crying out for her head, she will have to spend many years in hiding, carefully avoiding the kind of public situation that could put her within reach of that most unstable of psychopaths - an American with a feeling of victimization.  I wish her the best, but I wonder if there's much chance that this story ends well.

In the meantime, the prison doors swung open to accept their latest evildoer, that master of ideologically driven tabloid snoopery, Rebekah Brooks, late of the News Corp executive suite.  Just as obviously guilty, but without the baggage that's unavoidable when there's a dead baby in the mix.  This one, however, will have more pre-verdict tempestuousness, with the observers drawn to their chosen side by political ideology, with international intrigue and the personal lives of celebrities and royalty, with money and power, sex and lies, cybercrime and media spin, we'll be watching the evolution of Rebekah's story for years, played out against a backdrop of the shifting media and political fortunes, all as fodder for endless cable news and Internet debate.  Honestly, we're all secretly grateful that as one story ended, this new narrative is at hand to fill our pathetic lives.  It's all we might have asked for...