Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Reader

I read a lot, but most of what I read is not literary. From time to time I tackle a book blessed by the literary types, possibly just to try and convince myself I'm not a Philistine. Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest are a couple of bricks I've read but been left more disappointed than impressed. Not that the authors lack talent and skill. I rather liked the books of Delillo and Franzen that I read - again just one of each, but I've never been impressed enough to read another, yet anyway.

Haruki Murakami is often compared to the first three of these, but I'm already reading my fifth Murakami novel - this time, A Wild Sheep Chase, and as always, I'm sucked right in. Murakami is more accessible, I think, and his imaginative power more impressive. Also, his characters, who are all Japanese, feel more real and vivid to me than the Americans who populate the novels of the American writers mentioned above.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Dereliction of Duty

I'm tempted to send a copy of the book the National Security Advisor General McMaster. Think he would get it if I sent it to him at the White House?

Bombing Dayton Ohio

When Curtis LeMay took over the Strategic Air Command (SAC) near the end of 1948, he found a disastrously unprepared force with no experience in realistic training. After some bloody pruning of the staff, he ordered a realistic simulated attack on Dayton Ohio by every aircraft SAC could get in the air. Richard Rhodes:

Since Air Force intelligence could supply only vintage prewar aerial photographs of Soviet cities, LeMay gave his crews 1938 photographs of Dayton. He instructed them to bomb by radar from thirty thousand feet and to aim for industrial and military targets, not radar reflectors.

“Oh, I’ll admit the weather was bad,” he recalled in retirement of the January 1949 mission. “There were a lot of thunderstorms in the area; that certainly was a factor. But on top of this, our crews were not accustomed to flying at altitude. Neither were the airplanes, far as that goes. Most of the pressurization wouldn’t work, and the oxygen wouldn’t work. Nobody seemed to know what life was like upstairs.”1550 Not many crews even found Dayton. For those who did, bombing scores ran from one to two miles off target, distances at which even Nagasaki-yield atomic bombs would do only marginal damage.1551

LeMay called the results of the Dayton exercise “just about the darkest night in American military aviation history. Not one airplane finished that mission as briefed. Not one.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 341). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

If Stalin had chosen that moment to overrun Western Europe, the US could not have responded effectively for months. This, right in the middle of the Berlin airlift (the Soviets having shut off train and road traffic to Berlin), was a big fail for Truman and especially, for his defense team. Truman was relying on almost entirely on a nuclear deterrent that at that point was a paper tiger.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Siberian President

Josh Marshall:

Though I wrote about the particulars yesterday afternoon, the picture only fully crystallized for me this afternoon. President Trump’s visit to Brussels/Europe wasn’t just another grab bag of impulsive aggression and gaffes. It wasn’t scattershot. It was quite clearly focused on destabilizing and perhaps eviscerating the NATO Alliance and somewhat secondarily, but relatedly, the European Union. This has been the strategic goal of Russia and before it the Soviet Union for decades. The sum total of everything that happened on this trip casts the entire Trump/Russia story in a decidedly more ominous light.

...

Again, let’s go back to Brussels and NATO. Trump now has around him a number of advisors who if they are reasonably criticized on various grounds hold conventional pro-NATO views on Europe. Defense Secretary Mattis appears to be the most important of these. McMaster, Powell and others figure in the mix too. They apparently worked on him closely to make a clear statement of honoring Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – our commitment to come to the defense of any NATO member threatened with external aggression. It was even apprently in the speech he was supposed to give. But Trump nixed it and insisted on these entirely fraudulent entirely fraudulent claims of the Europeans owing the US vast sums of money.

Again, he’s malleable, a veritable changeling on everything but this. This isn’t a decision that’s the President’s to make or a judgement call. It’s a binding treaty commitment every President since Truman has lived under and honored.

Whether Vladimir Putin has something on Donald Trump or somehow has him in his pay hardly matters. If he doesn’t, he apparently doesn’t need to do since Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own. Does this sound hyperbolic. Yes, it absolutely does. I’m even surprised I’m writing it. But look at the evidence before us. A simple statement on a decades old security commitment is the simplest, most pro-forma thing to do. And yet he refuses. Again and again.

The evidence of something rotten in the Trump-Russia connection continues to pile up. Jared Kushner's apparent attempt to establish a secret channel to the Kremlin through the Russian embassy is just the latest and most bizarre manifestation.

Zuckerberg's Doctorate

Luboš and Mark Zuckerberg are both Harvard dropouts. Zuckerberg dropped out as a Sophomore when he got a zillion dollar idea. Lumo dropped out of the professorate for some other kind of reason. Like many who have actually earned a doctorate, Luboš is none too thrilled when rich guys like Z get one for just being rich. What really annoys him though, is that Zuckerberg said something about climate that conflicted with the Lumonator's climate delusions.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thug

It looks like my former Montana compatriots are going to put Greg Gianforte in the house. Gianforte is one of those rich guys who puts the thug in Rethuglican, getting his fifteen minutes of national fame for beating up a reporter on election eve. Quite likely many of the voters had already voted before the incident made news, since MT has a lot of early voting, but it's not clear that the assault would have made a difference if it had occurred a week ago.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roads to Serfdom

One of the bibles of Libertarianism is Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. It argues, so I read, that state control of the economy and centralized planning lead to the enslavement of the individual.

I should note that I haven't read it, and don't actually plan to. Most of what I know of it comes from Wikipedia, linked above. At any rate, it seems clear to me that as with any religious document, its fans like to oversimplify and distort its message, usually to suit their own economic benefit. In particular, Hayek recognized an important role for government, especially in matters like protection of the environment, one of the favorite targets of many Libertarians.

Hayek's book had many fans, including John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell, but Orwell, in particular, was careful to point out that there was more than one road to serfdom. From the linked Wikipedia article:

George Orwell responded with both praise and criticism, stating, "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of." Yet he also warned, "[A] return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state."

The real serfdom, we ought to remember, was not servitude to the state, but to the great landowners, and variations on that kind of serfdom have existed for thousands of years. The modern counterpart is a kind of servitude to the corporation. Of course we aren't bound to the corporation in the same way serfs were bound to the land - or are we? Old institutions like the company store may have faded away, but a potent new one is health insurance, which, in the US, is tightly linked employment in one of the sectors of the economy where providing such insurance is common.

Paul Krugman's May 22 column details many of the ways the policies of the so-called liberty loving Republicans have conspired to make American workers less free:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.

And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by...

At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.

At this point, in other words, noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs...

You might say, with only a bit of hyperbole, that workers in America, supposedly the land of the free, are actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land. And the people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry “freedom” the loudest.

In case anyone was wondering why I hate Libertarianism. What most Libertarians seem to be looking for is the freedom to enslave others.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Smart's Don't It?

In what the NYT has labelled an "enormous success" a big genome wide association study is reputed to have found a number of gene variants associated with intelligence:

In a significant advance in the study of mental ability, a team of European and American scientists announced on Monday that they had identified 52 genes linked to intelligence in nearly 80,000 people.

These genes do not determine intelligence, however. Their combined influence is minuscule, the researchers said, suggesting that thousands more are likely to be involved and still await discovery. Just as important, intelligence is profoundly shaped by the environment.

Still, the findings could make it possible to begin new experiments into the biological basis of reasoning and problem-solving, experts said. They could even help researchers determine which interventions would be most effective for children struggling to learn.

I'm not too impressed with the story. The second quoted paragraph is misleading - I think it should say that the individual influence of the genes is miniscule (not the combined influence.) I'm also under the impression that the genes are not actually correlated with IQ test results, but with educational attainment, which is taken as a proxy for intelligence.

One of the more interesting bits in the story was this (about height, not intelligence):

But other gene studies have shown that variants in one population can fail to predict what people are like in other populations. Different variants turn out to be important in different groups, and this may well be the case with intelligence.

“If you try to predict height using the genes we’ve identified in Europeans in Africans, you’d predict all Africans are five inches shorter than Europeans, which isn’t true,” Dr. Posthuma said.

It's not obvious to me that much has been learned about the biological roots of differences in intelligence.

Sink Hole

News reports say that a small sinkhole has appeared in front of Mar a Lago, but the one that's going to suck the proprietor down is the one he is making with his own stupidity. The latest revelation is that Trump personally asked intelligence officials to shut down the Russia investigation:

The Washington Post reported, citing unnamed current and former officials, that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny that any evidence of collusion existed.

He made that request after former FBI Director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee that his bureau was conducting an investigation into whether there was any “coordination” between Russian officials and Trump’s associates during the campaign, according to the Washington Post.

Two unnamed current and two unnamed former officials cited in the report said that Coats and Rogers deemed Trump’s request inappropriate and refused to do so.

Trump made the request to Rogers in a phone call, according to the Washington Post, and a senior NSA official documented the conversation in an internal memo written at the time.

It's no longer his corruption that shocks, but his total, moronic, stupidity.

One and A Third

George Marshall:

George Marshall, who replaced Byrnes as Secretary of State in January 1947, told a Pentagon audience some years later, “I remember, when I was Secretary of State, I was being pressed constantly, particularly when in Moscow, by radio message after radio message, to give the Russians hell. . . . When I got back I was getting the same appeal in relation to the Far East and China. At that time, my facilities for giving them hell—and I am a soldier and know something about the ability to give hell—was one and a third divisions over the entire United States.1250 That is quite a proposition when you deal with somebody with over 260 and you have one and a third.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 282). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The drastic US disarmament after World War II left the US at a drastic strategic disadvantage that made professional soldiers very nervous, especially when they looked at Stalin's quite different behavior. Truman probably did this because of his confidence in the nuclear bomb, but in fact, the US nuclear arsenal, and it's means of delivery, were both quite limited at that point.

Air Force General Curtis Lemay:

war. “The same thing happened here as everywhere else,” a disgusted Curtis LeMay would write a friend from Europe the following year. “Everyone dropped their tools and went home when the whistle blew. The property is in terrible shape and we do not have enough people left in the theater to properly take care of it.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 281). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That lack of preparation likely led to the Korean War and the US defeats there.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Big I

We have a thoroughly Republican Congress and they would like to impeach the current Republican President almost as much as they would like to suffer the Mongolian fire torture. Nonetheless, I think that it's pretty likely that the President will not complete his term in office - not so much because of the misdeeds already committed as because of those he has yet to commit. This is a guy burning with resentment with next to no impulse control, an ignorant fellow with no self-awareness, who moreover is showing signs of incipient senility. Essentially all his troubles today are of his own making, caused or at least initiated by his lack of impulse control and terrible judgement.

My guess is that sooner rather than later his own terrible judgement, or perhaps his response to external events, will collapse his remaining support and send the Republican Congress heading him for the exits.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Schadenfreude

I wish I could just enjoy mine at Trump's troubles, but unfortunately he can still destroy the planet, not to mention his capability to harm in a million smaller ways, not least by incompetence.

For actual malice, though, this is a good one (Jordan Weisssman in Slate):

According to Politico, President Trump told his staff this week that he wants to cut off a crucial set of subsidies that are paid to health insurers under Obamacare, a move that could potentially bring about the collapse of the law's coverage marketplaces. ...

Many of Trump's advisor's, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, apparently oppose the plan, because they “worry it will backfire politically if people lose their insurance or see huge premium spikes and blame the White House.” Which is a reasonable fear. Americans tend to blame their president for their personal misfortunes, particularly when they can easily trace them back to the discrete, rash actions of the man in the Oval Office.

Ya think?

On Speed

Seth Myers via the NYT:

“During a press conference this afternoon, President Trump said that his administration is getting things done at a record-setting pace. For example, most presidents take four years to finish a term, and it looks like Trump’s gonna get it done in, like, eight months.” — SETH MEYERS

Derek Hartfield

I learned a lot of what I know about writing from Derek Hartfield. Almost everything, in fact. Unfortunately, as a writer, Hartfield was sterile in the full sense of the word. One has only to read some of his stuff to see that. His prose is mangled, his stories slapdash, his themes juvenile. Yet he was a fighter as few are, a man who used words as weapons. In my opinion, when it comes to sheer combativeness he should be ranked right up there with the giants of his day, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sadly, however, he could never fully grasp exactly what it was he was fighting against. In the final reckoning, I suppose, that’s what being sterile is all about.

Hartfield waged his fruitless battle for eight years and two months, and then he died. In June 1938, on a sunny Sunday morning, he jumped off the Empire State Building clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left. Few people noticed, though— he was as ignored in death as he had been in life.

Murakami, Haruki. Wind/Pinball: Two novels (pp. 4-5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Classic Murakami, from his first novel.