Beauty of Gray

Friday, January 18, 2002

More on airport lines

Thinking about it a little more, since the lines at the airport don't persist all through the night, obviously the system isn't, on average over a whole day, overtaxed by the number of passengers. So some sort of planning that spreads them out could help people avoid missing their flights and generally reduce aggravation. But, if the system's capacity is exceeded during peak times, to keep lines short this means you'll have to force some people to get to the airport very early. So in effect, this system would help people avoid missing flights at the potential cost of a longer wait time. It's sort of an insurance premium, only paid in time rather than in dollars. And, of course, this is really the system already in place, informally, since the point of coming to the airport early (and hence being forced to wait longer and losing time) is to reduce your risk of missing a flight.

So, this sort of a schedule/pass system won't really reduce waiting times on average, it will just reduce the amount of time spect standing in line, so you'll do your waiting at the terminal bar rather than in the security line, which everyone can agree is a good thing. (Well, except the Women's Christian Temperance Union, but I don't think they're much of a force anymore.)

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:48 PM

Rationalizing airport lines

Interesting article via Virginia Postrel on how the Department of Transportation has asked for help managing security lines from an engineer who worked for the Disney Corporation. As she points out, one of the more interesting ideas is a time-pass that you pick up, which then gives you access to an express line. This is one of those features that computers make possible, since they can automatically schedule and issue such passes.

In fact, I could see the basic idea spreading across the entire airport experience--not only would you schedule your flight, but you would also schedule your security check and even your baggage check. I'm not sure exactly how you would make the entire system work, but it could help speed up the entire process for everyone. Of course, it only works if the underlying systems are capable of handling the passenger load. A queueing system has a maximum throughput capacity, and if you exceed that it doesn't matter how perfectly and rationally you organize the system, it's still going to result in long lines. To put it another way, if the security checker can handle 1 passenger per minute, and there are 75 passengers every hour who want to get through, it doesn't matter how you set it up, but 15 people aren';t going to make it.

In fact, thinking about it a little more, it seems to me that security checkpoints are simple enough systems that the problem is not so much their organization, but the fact that more people are trying to go through them at peak hours than they can really handle, at least with the new security regulations. Unlike traffic on the highways, there's no synergistic or non-linear effects that clog up a security line, since the checker is always putting the same number of people through per minute no matter how many people are waiting.

Of course, my knowledge of queueing theory is very limited, so there could be some wrinkles I'm missing.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:36 PM

US Aid

A great post over on the USS Clueless about the value of US aid to the world. Check it out, then stick around to read all of the other interesting stuff he has on his site. When I get around to putting up links, he'll be one of the first.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:24 PM


This is an absolutely fantastic post on men, women, and housechores. Go read it.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:19 AM

Frodo Lives!

Well, maybe not, but Bjorn Staerk, who writes a great blog, has an interesting take on the value of Sci-Fi/Fantasy and what he calls "nerd culture."

What you will find in nerd culture, though, is rationalism and a belief in Good and Evil. And I'll bet you can find more and better discussions of philosophy, psychology, sociology and history in science fiction, fantasy and horror than in anything they call serious literature these days.
Tolkien and his followers give us a frame of reference for evil and courage. Horror explores our own evil, made manifest in zombies, vampires, ghosts, demons and killer clowns. All of this is unrealistic, and has even been accused of being entertaining, but it's not escapism. It tells us, or forces us to ask ourselves, who we are, and where we can go. In my case, it also tells me to support war against mad islamo-fascists, but maybe that's just me.

I half agree with him, but think this is a case where backlash takes a proper corrective and exaggerates it. It is true that there are serious issues in much science fiction and fantasy. But Tolkien is escapism, there's no way around that. AS the introduction to my edition puts it, one of the wonderful attractions of Tolkien is the way it makes his readers want to go and visit Middle Earth.

Staerk argues that the strong moral underpinning of much SF ties it back to the real world. But I would argue that it is exactly that black and white, good vs. evil morality of these books that is part of what makes them escapist. The world is a messy hodgepodge of shades of gray (natch), so it is comforting to go to a movie or read a book in which these complications are eased out and you can comfortably know exactly where you stand.

I also think that she overstates her case in claiming that SF has more and better discussions of serious issues than literary fiction. I don't know if this opinion is fostered by the excesses and irrelevancy of recent literary criticism, or the way it's tried to turn everything into a discussion of race and sex, but there's plenty of literature that rises to the challlenge of engaging important issues and ideas. Just to take the example of my favorite author, Richard Powers, he has written books that explore codes, genes, behavior and music; game theory and human behaviors and instincts; artificial intelligence and the nature of humanity; and the impact of technology and capitolism on everyday life and how it has both empowered us and rendered us helpless. And that's not even all his books. Not bad for one author.

And while Tolkien and other authors might provide a prism through which to view real world struggles against evil, why go for analogy when you can find the real thing? There's plenty of novels around which dramatize the individuals struggle against totalitarianism and evil ideologies. Solzhenitsyn, Ivan Klima, Millan Kundera, Heinrich Boll, and others are all writing or have written great works of literature on this subject. And all of them were far superior to anything I ever ran across when I was younger and read mostly SF.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:50 AM

Cynicism is not a sign of greater insight

James Lileks gets it right (as usual):

Apparently there is a certain point at which your intellect and sensitivity are so advanced that you have nothing but bitter contempt for the world. That’s fine when you’re 21 and you’re still infuriated by the inability of mankind to perfect itself by next Tuesday, but in adults it just sounds like an adolescent hissy fit.

It's a big beautiful world out there. If you're in your room fuming at how awful and irrational everyone and everything else is, then you're the one with the problem that needs fixing.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:53 AM

The Saudis aren't our friends

Of course, this isn't exactly news to anyone who has been reading warblogs. But according to the Washington Post many high Saudi officllas want the US military to get out of Saudi Arabia. (Especially enjoyable is the Saudi whine that the US is charging them too much for spare parts for the high tech military equipment we sold them. This coming from a regime whose main foreign policy is to price gouge the entire world on oil.) Now, given that the Saudis are craven despots who are the prime funding source for terrorism, and who are still on their jewel-encrusted thrones only because the US came to their rescue in 1991, the first response is naturally "why those ungrateful little bastards!"

But on stepping back, I think they're right. They're not our friends, and pretending that they are serves no purpose. The only reason we're there is because those bases are convenient to Iraq. If we do end up attacking Iraq, it certainly would be nice to have some forward airfields there. But are those irreplacable? I think we might be able to work through Turkey and with our (potential) Kurdish allies in Northern Iraq, rather than coming from the south. And at least so far, Kuwait and Bharain are still accepting of the US presence there, which gives us some forward basing in the region.

So there's a situation where we're basing troops in a country that, by all rights, should be our enemy. They don't want us there, we have no real interesting in protecting them. The best solution for everyone concerned might be for us to pull out. Until, that is, we come back and throw the oppressive anachronistic Saudi royalty onto the trash heap of history where it belongs. And if the Saudi regime is toppled by internal dissent while we're gone, well then that would just give an even better excuse to come back in and bring some rational government with us.

Of course, this could also just be grandstanding by the Saudis, a bit of diplomatic showmanship. If the US is pressuring them behind closed doors to come around, this could be a gambit on their part to try and get us to back off. "Leave us alone or *this* could happen. Get the picture?" Either way, I say we call their bluff.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:41 AM

Computer security

Very interesting note in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (what the heck is an intelligencer?) It appear that Bill Gates has issued a command directive that security needs to be a prime concern for Microsoft. This is great news--as I wrote below, if someone just wanted to cause economic damage to the US, it's hard to beat a good cyber-attack, and because of their dominant market share, the main avenue of attack runs through Microsoft.

Of course, cyber-terrorism might not be that likely, since it requires some highly trained hackers (and whatever else it produces, I don't think militant Islam is really the right environment to nurture hackers.) It also lacks the ablity to induce terror that is the main goal of most terrorist attacks. But it's also possible we're into a new phase of terrorism, in which it simply lashes out trying to damage the US with the intent to destroy it, and terror is secondary to damage caused. In that case, this one memo might do more for homeland security than all the nail-clipper confiscations in all the airports of the world.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:20 AM

Thursday, January 17, 2002
Plus ca change...

From Founding Brothers, page 186:

Jefferson was fairly typical in this regard, lamenting the chasm between long-standing colleagues while building up the barricades from his side of the divide. Federalists and Republicans like accused their opponents of narrow-minded partisanship, never conceding or apparently even realizing that their own behavior also fit the party label they affixed to their enemies.

As a not so interesting book on political districting that I recently read pointed out, gerrymandering is rarely used completely for the benefit of a single incumbent party, but is rather usually a cooperation between both parties to secure as many comfortable seats for incumbents as possible. This, along with the natural advantages of incumbency, have made it so almost all representatives have safe seats, which frees them up to be as partisan and divisive as they want. They don't have to medorate biews to play to the center, because their district is likely solidly liberal or solidly conservative.

It doesn't seem likely to happen, given case law, but the potential for one of the biggest revolutions in American political history is there if the Supreme Court (or a popular upswell) ever mandated that states use rational and impartial means to draw political boundaires. Of all the measures designed to restore vigorous health and civility back to the political process, I can't think of any more promising.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:18 PM

Press ignorance

Excellent post by Rand Simborg about the problems of reporters covering the military without any military expertise. This is not limited to the military, of course. Most science reporters have a very limited knowledge of science, if that, which a big part of why "press-release" science has become so commonplace. It's less excusable in the military field, however, since (a) there are literally hundreds of thousands of veterans that do have military expertise (although it could be argued that having reporters who weren't in the armed services is good, since they might have better critical distance) and (b) coverage of military matters is of a direct interest to people in a way science is not because of its relation to national security.

I remember reading an accurate comment somewhere that everything in the newspaper is perfectly plausible, but whenever you read something about which you have direct firsthand knowledge, you usually notice several mistakes and inaccuracies. Which kinds of kills your trust in all the other stories, too.

Part of the problem might be that reporters are trained as journalists in general, rather than in any sub-field. A reporter is expected to be able to go to a foreign country, to do man-on-the street interviews, to cover domestic politics, to cover the Pentagon, etc. So that it is a culture of generalists, rather than specialists. And I doubt career paths in journalism really inculcate expertise, either, with some exceptions. We don't expect doctor's to get a one-size-fits-all education, and then to go out and be assigned as cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons, etc. Why should journalists be any different?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:12 AM

Summers blunders badly

Harvard President Larry Summers has made what I think is a serious mistake, denying the appointment of a professor on the grounds that he's too old. (The professor, not Summers. Summers is a sprightly 47, while the lecturer is question is a decrepit 54.) The key sentences from the story for me are:

Dr Hont was selected for tenure — a lifelong professorship — in Harvard’s Government faculty after a worldwide, year-long search, and positive references from 20 outside experts.


He [Summers] is said to be acutely conscious that the abolition of compulsory retirement ten years ago has left less room for new professors: the average age at the time of appointment across the country as a whole rose from 47 in 1993 to 49 in 1999.

While I'm sympathetic to Summers' goal here, I think this is a mistake on many levels. First, I think it's a political blunder. He's intruding on what is usually considered the domain of academic departments--the appointment and hiring of new faculty. And he's doing it in a public way that's guaranteed to piss off everyone who was involved in the hiring process, since he's basically come back and told them all that they've made a mistake. Many professors (especially ones prominent enough to be appointed at Harvard) have healthy egos and probably don't appreciate the public criticism or Summers butting in on what they feel is their turf.

Second, while he'll try to spin his decision so that it won't be illegal, he basically admits that this is a case of age discrimination. I find this questionable morally and it's also likely to further alienate the faculty of Harvard, since many of them are themselves the same age as Dr. Hont or older. Summers is basically telling them that he thinks they're all washed up old fogeys.

Third, from the article at least, it seems like Summers might be wrong on the merits. Dr. Hont was a refugee, so he's about 8-10 years behind in his academic career--which puts his past/future work ratio closer to a professor of 45 than 55. ANd he was selected after an exhaustive search, so presumably he's got an exceptional record.

However, as I said, I more or less agree with Summers' goal, which is to lower the age of the Harvard faculty and bring in some new blood. So how should he have done this? I think it requires a two-pronged approach. The first, which Summers was trying to address here, is to hire younger faculty members. But this was the wrong place to make that argument. Instead, Summers should have gone behind the scenes and let departments know that he wanted them to bring in younger professors. Doing it in such a public and confrontational way is counter-productive.

It's also worth noting that the age of the faculty is part of the reason Harvard is so widely regarded. It is very tough to get a tenured appointment there, and few professors make it who haven't already made notable contributions to their fields. This naturally biases their selections to older candidates, since they've had more time to become eminent. As Summers rightly points out, though, these major contributions are usually made at a younger age. So hiring a younger faculty member is more risky, since they may not achieve the same fame and importance that an older hire will already have, but it's also a higher reward, since the younger hire is of the age where he's more likely to make new contributions to a field. (as an example, a friend of mine who went there for grad work in political science said that it was essentially impossible for an assistant professor at the Kennedy School to be granted tenure there. Instead they would go out and pick someone who was already a major figure.)

Any department looks to achieve a balance betwen these two--elder statesmen who bring reputation and eminence (and in fairness, many professors go on doing important work well into their 50's and 60's) and young guns who are at the cutting edge, pushing the limits. Harvard, because they are able to cherry pick top faculty from all over, has slanted towards the elder statesmen and greybeards. Summers wants to tilt the balance back the other way. So SUmmers has the right idea, but did it in a poor way.

The other method, which Summers is less likely to adopt, is to try and ease out professors as they get older. Universities generally don't do this, since the presence of older professors helps the reputation and eminence of the school. With Harvard this is less of an issue, since they get the best faculty anyway. They don't need to support older dead weight to maintain their reputation.

While forced retirement is no longer allowed, the same effect could easily be achieved simply by maintaining a minimum required workload for professors. If they aren't publishing regularly, then they should be required to teach a couple of classes per term. This is the case with younger faculty members, who need to either be bringing in research money or teaching classes in order to ear their salarey. But at most schools, tenured professors, especially older tenured professors, teach relatively little, in some cases only 1 class in one semester per year. This allows professors to coast with a very light workload, which can keep them around past when they are really making a contribution to the school.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:10 AM

Monumental Stupidity

For the critics, the World Trade Center firefighter memorial could be worse.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:55 AM

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

George, that is.

"Men may speculate as they will, they may draw examples from ancient story, of great achievements performed by its [virtue's] influence; but whosoever builds upon it, as a sufficient basis for conducting a long and bloody War, will find themselves deceived in the end....For a time it may, of itself, be enough to push Men to Action; to bear much, to encounter difficulties; but it will not endure unassisted by interest."

"It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted further than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it."

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:07 PM

They really exist

Here they are, the Reservoir Dogs action figures. Be sure to surf down and read the descriptions.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 3:10 PM

More on cyber warfare

One thing I neglected to mention in my post below is that, the movie War Games notwithstanding, you cannot access classified computers from the regular internet. For exactly these security reasons, in the US no classified information can be stored on computers connected to the internet. This protects the US from computer espionage and, more importantly, protect US warfighting capabilities and ther national security infrastructure from a cyber-attack.

Hard drives or diskettes containing classified information are treated as classified materials (obviously) and are locked up when not in use. In order to allow communications, there are networks between secret computers, but there is no connection between these networks and public computers. Any information transferred from one side to the other has to be done by hand, by saving it on a disk and reloading it into the public computer. The accidental transfer of classified info onto a public computer is treated as a very serious security breach and will often result in numerous hard drives and e-mail records being wiped to make sure the info doesn't get out.

So, while a cyber attack is a threat, it's mainly a threat to the commercial sector, not directly to the military. A hacker can't waltz into NORAD and order the US to launch a nuclear strike.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:51 PM

More on Afghanistan government

A nice bit from Robert Kaplan in a Slate dialogue:

Afghanistan has never had a government in Kabul that controlled the provinces. Zahir Shah was on the throne for 40 years, and he never succeeded at it. Thus, to expect the new regime there to control chaos, warlordism, etc., is to ignore Afghanistan's own history and to set an impossibly high standard of success. What can be achieved is the sort of weak central control and peaceful chaos engineered by warlords operating on the basis on mutual self-interest that will, in its own way, replicate the modest progress made from 1933 to 1973 under the royal government. We should be generous in terms of time, money, and diplomatic support for such a project. But with the exception of hunting for the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida leaderships, we should have as small a troop presence as possible in Afghanistan.

This is basically what I was saying below--a strong central government in Afghanistan in the immediate future is very unlikely. I'm less sanguine than Kaplan is about the ability of the Afghans to come to a peaceful solution without significant US involvement, although like him I feel that involvement should mostly be behind the scenes and in the form of diplomatic and economic pressure. But he seems to think that the previous civil war was almost solely the fault of Pakistani involvement, rather than a natural result of the political, military, and ethnic structure of the country.

The likely government in Afghanistan will probably be similar to early feudal European monarchies, ion which the King has nominal authority over the whole country, but really only rules in one particular region, while other regions have their own rulers (Dukes in the feudal model, warlords in Afghanistan.) The King is usually the strongest of the factions, but not strong enough to subjugate all the others.

Gradually, with the advantage of the Kingly powers and authority, they were able to consolidate their power and eventually achieved real sovereignity over the entire countries, but this was a slow process, and very often uinvolved skirmishes, battles and sieges to put down nobles who did not respect the Royal authority. Central rule was not achieved by holding elections, it was achieved by force, with an authority subjugating the country and putting down any dissent, usually fairly ruthlessly. (This is true of most developments of central authority from anarchy. The takeovers of Russia and China by the Communists are prime modern examples.)

On the same topic, there's a nice piece in the Washington Post talking about the fractured situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and the way the country is divided between local warlords.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:44 PM

CEO Salaries

I made a snide comment about CEO salaries below. This periodically comes up when someone is trying to score some populist points, and they'll talk about the huge salaries, golden parachutes, and just all-around fantastic compensations that corporate CEO's get in America. The apologists for this treatment claim that these huge payments are necessary to attract top managers, and that these top managers in turn are necessary to make profits and create value for the company and its shareholders.

Now, I'll leave aside the issue of whether it makes sense to pay CEO's in large part in stock options, since this combines their great power to manipulate a company's stock price with a strong incentive to do so. But it seems to me that this question (of whether companies are getting their money's worth when they pay $25 million to a CEO) could be easily answered with some research. If you could find the data, it ought to be relatively straightforward to look at companies profits and stock prices (or whatever other measure you wanted) and compare them to the salaries earned by their CEO's. Then you could check whether there was a correlation between high salaries and subsequent success of the company. Sure, there would be some subtleties with normalizations and control groups and similar issues, but it's not so hard that it couldn't be a good Master's thesis. I wonder if anyone out there has done this work. If not, any economics students reading this are welcome to the idea. You're welcome.

My guess is that the correlation is very weak, if there at all. The high salaries are less because of economic need than because the people that set the salaries are, as a group, the same people that are getting or are likely to get these same salaries in the future. The high management and trustees of companies are the ones setting CEO salaries, and it's in their interest to raise the salary bar for high management as high as possible. The inmates are running the asylum.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:25 AM

Irrelevant lexicographical note

My comment about weighing in reminded me of something that, at first sight, struck me as odd when I was reading a book by a British historian. (AJP Taylor, if you care. It was his seminal history of 19th century European diplomacy, which you all should go out and read.) He referred to wars or negotiations getting "under weigh," rather than "underway" as we do now in America. Presumably this is a sailing or nautical term, that was then adopted in general usage. It might be of interest only to me, but I'm always fascinated to learn where odd phrases like this come from.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:12 AM


Well, everyone else seems to be in a tizzy about the Enron "scandal," so I might as well weigh in. There are fairly predictable reactions from politically interested parties on the right and left. The Democrats are atwitter, thorwing vague allegations and hoping some of the mud sticks somewhere. At the very least, they hope to hurt the reputation of the Bush administration, since people are more likely to remember the Enron scandal and less likely to remember just how hollow it was. Meanwhile, Republicans are appalled that someone would be stirring up a fake scandal against a sitting president, going on and on about smoke where there's no fire. Does anyone wonder why so many Americans have lost all respect for the hypocritical clowns in Washington?

Meanwhile, there are some interesting, nuanced takes from third parties, whose primary goal in all things isn't to wring electorial advantage from it. I'd particularly recommend the responses from Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) on FoxNews, and from Ken Layne on his site.

Me, I'm pretty well in the cynic camp with Reynolds. The big problem is not any particular improprietry in the current case, but the larger system in which companies are able to purchase favoritism with huge campaign contributions. There's rarely any blatant quid pro quo, but assuming that the companies are at least marginally rational, they must be getting something for their millions, otherwise they'd be using them on something more important, like inflating their CEO's salaries.

A big deal is being made by the defenders of the Bush administration that, although Enron executives called high officials in order to ask for some favors, they did not receive them. This is good for the Bush administration, but what struck me is that the calls were placed at all. Unless the Enron managers were just so desperate that they'd try anything, the fact that they bothered to make the calls means that they expected it to have some chance to succeed. In other words, either from direct experience or indirect knowledge, they thought that their status as a big donor might entitle them to direct government action on their behalf. Why would they think this, unless it were true? Maybe the Bush officials avoided improprietry this time, but it's hard not to be suspicious of the entire system when something like this happens.

Of course, Bush apologists can try to explain it away as another example of Clinton corruption. But now that the new sherrif is in town all that influence peddling no longer works. And I've got a bridge to sell to anyone who really believes that one...

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:06 AM

Tuesday, January 15, 2002
Cyber warfare

Interesting blurb from a UPI story:

Meanwhile on the cyber-front, Pakistani computer hackers have made several attempts to break into Indian security sites, including databases linked to India's nuclear weapons program, Indian security officials are complaining to their U.S. and British counterparts. Suggesting that Pakistani computing skills are too crude, they suspect that Pakistan has brought in Chinese experts to help break the Indian security codes. So far Indian counter-espionage teams, reinforced with hastily conscripted computer experts from the Institutes of Information Technology in Bangalore and Hyderabad, have fought off hacking attempts at the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, the Nuclear Science Center and the Bhabha Atomic Research Center. No word so far that the Indians computer jocks have gone onto the offensive against Pakistani nuclear sites, but it would be odd if they had not.

If you hang around defense planners or read trade journals, you're likely to run across the term "cyber warfare." It sounds a bit far-fetched or Sci-Fi, but it exists, and is both a US capability and a threat to the US.

It sounds like in the India-Pakistan conflict so far the only cyber-attacks have been some cases of attempted espionage, which probably goes on all the time at a lower level. But if the conflict got serious, this is a front of the war to keep an eye on. No war has ever been fought between two powers with both significant reliance on computer networks and the offensive capability to attack the enemy's networks. I'm sure it's been wargamed by various people, but it's a tough area to analyze, so no-one really knows what would happen, and how much of an impact a cyber attack could have.

The results of this part of the war could be a harbinger of things to come, as the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War showed many of the features that would devastate Europe in WWI. This is also a potentially fruitful area for terrorists. It's tough to find the trained people, but if you can really knock out an enemy network, then a sustained cyber attack could cause tremendous damage to a country and its economy. And while it's hard to say just how much effect it would have, the widespread problems recently caused by some worms and viruses doesn't inspire confidence in the ability of the internet to withstand a dedicated assault.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:57 PM


A nice piece over on the Junkyardblog by Bryan Preston about the need for tolerance on all sides. I'm skeptical towards many claims of victimhood on behalf of Christians, considering how dominant they are in US society. But Bryan doesn't go that far, and is merely pointing out the widespread prejudice that exists towards Christians, particularly evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, on the part of many liberals.

I am not a Christian, but I have had enough personal experiences with friends and acquantances to know how widespread this particular prejudice is. It is the acceptable prejudice on the left wing, just as anti-gay sentiment is on the right wing. And while I am not a believer, this doesn't blind me to the benefits that religion can bring to people and to society. It can bring costs as well, but life is like that. Ultimately, in my experience, a person's character is more important in determining their moral stature, rather than what religion they profess. Religion just provides the justification, whether it be for peace and love or for intolerance and closemindedness.

While this widespread feeling of ill-will towards Christianity is unfortunate, it is the clear fruit of the fundamentalist church's involvement with politics. They have achieved influence in national politics and brought their issues before the public, but this has generated rancor in those opposed to their political goals, a rancor which has spread beyond those directly involved to embrace evangelical Christians as a whole.

This should not have been unexpected, although perhaps the leaders of the poltical wings of the religious right didn't know or didn't care. But exactly this side-effect was one of the main reasons Locke advanced for the seperation of Church and State in his Letter Concerning Tolerance. He argued both that it was good for the people, who would regain freedom of conscience, but also less obviously good for the Church, which avoid the inevitable backlash that over-involvement with wordly affairs is bound to bring.

In contemporary society, we mainly think of the establishment clause as protecting minorities from the imposition of religion by the state. Less well understood is the way it protects religions themselves from alienating the population by becoming embroiled in political issues. In my opinion, both of these barriers are under attack by some elements on the religious right. The second has fallen before the first, since the Constitution can regulate government action but not private sentiment.

"But I know that today many are lost and do not not where to turn. To them I say, doubt everything, but don't doubt yourself. Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it. There is more light in Christ's word than in any other human word. That is not enough, it seems to me, to be a Christian. One must also believe. Well, I do not believe. Having said that, I am your brother."
---Andre Gide

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:43 PM

Illinois Wins!

They beat Iowa tonight in a big conference match-up, with the loser essentially out of the title hunt. They'd had some letdowns earlier in the season but seem to be coming together now. And it's never hard to get up for Iowa, a team whose coach lies about being Big Ten champ and who had a previous assistant lie to get Illinois put on probation. A sweet 77-66 victory tonight. I'll be sleeping well.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:19 PM


One of the chapters in Founding Brothers covers some of the maneuvering which led to the selection of Washington DC as the capitol of the United States. As it turns out, there was quite a debate about the site, and the Potomac had pretty much lost out by 1790. The most likely site at that point seemed to be somewhere in Pennsylvania, because of its geographic centrality. However, with some clever arguments and backroom dealing, Madison and Jefferson eventually got enough votes to select a site on the Potomac for the future capitol. Philadelphia was thrown the bone of being the provisional capitol, although most residents figured that that it would eventually become the permanent capitol, since it would be too difficult to build an entirely new city and relocate the government there.

This illustrates, first of all, how conditional and uncertain many events in history are. I'll have more to say about this later, but the basic point is that choices which are seen in hindsight or presented in history books as inevitable rarely seem that way to people at the time.

But what really struck me was the importance of having a new site for the capitol, rather than locating it in one of the existing cities in the US. This shielded the representatives from undue influence by a hosting city or state, which is the justification for the odd existence of the District of Columbia. But this also seperated the center of political power from other centers in the country, which, in its way, prevented an overconcentration of power in any one place or among any small group of people in the US.

This decentralization has continued to the present day. Washington DC is the center of government, but New York is the financial center. Chicago is the main transportation hub (less true than it was in the age of railways, but still partially true), Los Angelos is the cultural/entertainment center, while numerous centers of commerce and industry have sprung up around the country.

This is in contrast to Europe, where most western countries were dominated by a single, giant capitol city. Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin to a lesser extent, St. Petersburg, all dominated their respective countries much more than any one city in the US ever has. In part, of course, this is becasue European states are so much smaller than the US, but I think this decentralization in the US is one feature that has helped limit in its own small waythe power of government in this country in contrast to the strong central states in Europe. (Obviously there are many other factors, but this is one that you rarely hear much about. I'm sure it also has other, perhaps more interesting sociological effects, but I don't know enough to speculate on these.)

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:13 PM

There's a new sheriff in town

So the Redskins have pulled the trigger and fired Marty Schottenheimer, replacing him with former college coach and evil genius Steve Spurrier. I have to say that, as a fan, I'm excited by the move. Schottenheimer did a decent job as coach, and probably didn't deserve to be fired purely on the football merits. If he had stayed, it's likely the team would have gone 10-6 or thereabouts next year and made the playoffs, starting a long run of solid performances of the same type Schottenheimer had in Kansas City.

But under him, the Redskins were boring and had little offense. And while the defense was good, it wasn't good enough to make up for the offensive deficiencies and carry the team to the Super Bowl. In contrast, an offense led by Spurrier promises to be exciting and enjoyable to watch. And Spurrier knows he's not a defensive coach, so unlike Marty he won't get in the way of a defensive coordinator developing a top-notch defense as well. In other words, while there's a higher risk with Spurrier, there's a much higher reward. And while he may end up failing, he will do so in an enjoyable fashion which is good for fans like me. A losing Spurrier team is less likley to alienate fans than a winning Schottenheimer team. And the only thing that the move costs Snyder is some reputation (which he's lost already) and some money (which he has plenty of.)

And I think Spurrier can do it. A downfield passing attack can work in the NFL. St. Louis, Denver, and Green Bay have all recently won Super Bowls with passing attacks that looked downfield rather than settling for 5 yard dinks. It's nice to have a balanced attack, but the Skins have that, too, in the form of Stephan Davis. There are certainly holes--they need some new talent at QB, DE, WR, and LB, but they're not that far off. A lot of the pieces are in place, and I think Spurrier just might be the man to assemble them. My dream draft: Round 1--a stud DE or LB (they need some help in the front 7 on D); Round 2---Josh Reed (the best WR in the draft, he'll slip because shortsighted scouts won't like his height and speed. He just gets open like nobody else.) Round 3---Kurt Kittner (the perfect QB for Spurrier's offense. Smart, with a great touch on balls thrown deep.)

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:24 AM


A less optimistic story on Columbia is also found in today's Washington Post. The situation there seems to be deteriorating rapidly, although given the previous equilibrium this isn't necessarilly a bad thing. Basically, a truce that had allowed FARC guerillas a large free operation zone is being rescinded by the Columbian president. He's pledging to drive the guerillas out of the region and is massing the military to do so. Given that the FARC area was also being used as a training ground for IRA terrorists (and maybe others), this could be in the US interests. It's not clear whether the Columbian move was made with encouragement or a pledge of support from the US government, although the article makes it sound like it wasn't.

However, the US is already involved pretty deeply in Columbia due to the War on Drugs, with billions of dollars in military assistance, training, and equipment going to the Columbian military for the express purpose of fighting local drug production. The FARC guerillas, on the other hand, are in bed with the drug producers and in fact may be largely indistinguishable from them at this point. At the very least, they are getting a lot of their money from drug production in areas they control. (Which is yet another one of the terrible costs of the misguided war on drugs the US is determined to wage.)

The US is trying to figure out what we can do to help Columbia. At this point it looks like it may take the form of more aid, since the US's role is limited by law. It's not clear to me that there is such a bright line between anti-drug policing and military action, and I have a strong suspicion that on the ground in Columbia such a distinction doesn't actually exist, but there are forms that must be observed.

While the situation is Columbia might look superficially more favorable than the one in Afghanistan, it may turn out to be much worse. Although we're on the side of the government here, there is still widespread resistance. (In part engendered by oppression and human rights violations by the government and paramilitary groups.) As I've argued before and will again, it's much tougher to impose order and central control than it is to destroy it. To put it another way, it's easier to be a succesful rebel than a successful statesman and governor. Also, while Afghanistan was mountainous, it was relatively open, which meant that spy planes and satellites could observe action on the ground, and planes could easily hit targets. Columbia is more densely forested, which severely limits air power and surveillance. And while the FARC guerillas might not have many friends, as long as they have the drug trade they'll have plenty of money, which will help keep them running. Money can buy not only guns, but loyalty as well. The Taliban had no such source of cash.

I'm not saying that Columbia will be the next Vietnam. I think the US is unlikely to care enough to directly insert significant ground forces. We're likely to continue fighting it as a proxy war. But it is a much more likely candidate for a quagmire and festering conflict than Afghanistan was.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:00 AM

Hopeful sign from Iran

The Washington Post is reporting that a prominent reformist MP (minister of parliament, not military policeman) who was imprisoned has been released. This is very good news. It indicates that the hold on power of the hardliners in Iran could be slipping. When a regime loses the courage of its oppressions and starts releasing the political opponents that it previously jailed, it's almost always a sign that the end is coming. As de Tocqueville analysed many years ago, concessions do not weaken revolutionary movements, they strengthen them, and revolutions usually occur not during the deepest despotism but during perids of attempted reform. The government tries to remain conservative while offering reforms, but the population gets a taste for reform and their desires rapidly outstrip the willingness of the government to provide them. So they decide to have overthrow the government and make one that will respond to their desires.

Now, it's not to that point yet in Iran. No reforms have been made, merely a backing off in one high-profile case of oppression. But it's still a hopeful sign, just as the release of Sakharov or Mandela was in the USSR and South Africa, or the release of Gandhi in India. If the oppressive regime no longer feels strong enough to suppress and silence dissenting voices, then it's likely to topple in the near future.

The best thing about this, if it does turn out as positively as I hope, is that the movement would be entirely internal, with no US (or at least no overt US) contribution, and hence no possibility that we could be blamed for waging war on Islam. It also, like Afghanistan before it, shows the ultimately untenable nature of Islamic government. Islamicist movements may gain short term adherents, but those forced to live under them quickly begin to wish for a more free and better society. This is why, even if every other advantage weren't in our corner, the West will defeat the Islamo-Fascist ideology. People in the US like it here and people want to come here. No-one wants to move to Iran, and the people there hate it.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:24 AM

Deeply disturbing

James Lileks is reporting on his site that there are Reservoir Dogs action figures available for kids. Which makes me wonder first, why these figurines are now in stores when the movie was released 10 years ago. I'm sure there's an interesting story in there. Trademark issues? Contract disputes? Did some storage company recently go out of business and have to clean out their warehouse? (The Reservoir Dogs figures were stored in the next aisle over from the Ark of the Covenant, I believe.) Or did the company, tragically, decide to *really* save some money on shipping instead of going with Federal Express?

Second, and more importantly, what the hell were they thinking when they greenlighted this? Who thinks that robbery and brutal mutilation are something to make toy figures of? Are handpainted Deliverance figurines also available? Complete with pig-squeeling sounds effects! You too can act out inbreeding, murder, and anal rape in your own room, kids!

PS- I can't recommend too much that you all go check out Lileks' site to see some real writing. He's a professional journalist and it shows. His daily scribblings put many professional columnists published to shame, much less blogs like this one.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:47 AM

Creating a Government

There's an excellent UPI interview with the current Afghan Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah. It goes into a little more detail about some of the problems Afghanistan faces in trying to construct a viable government, which I only vaguely referenced in my last post.One quote in particular struck me [it's Abdullah talking]:

"I cannot deny that strongmen in different parts of Afghanistan threaten the national integrity. We can only have faith that a general spirit to cooperate and co-exist that is evident now at a grass roots level and among different regional leaders will materialize into something tangible. A lot will depend on support from the international community and from our neighbors."

This short blurb really gets it all, in my opinion, both the problem and the only possible solution. I made a Slate Fray post a while ago comparing the situation in Afghanistan to that in the Congo. In both countries there was a previous regime pretty universally hated and reviled, but which had only tenuous control of the large country. There were numerous rebel factions along different borders, each backed by a different neighbor. Finally, due to an unrelated atrocity, one outside country decided it was time to intervene decisively and backed one of the rebels with serious firepower. The existing regime collapsed like the paper tiger it was, and there was much hope that the new regime would be an improvement.

That's pretty much where we are now in Afghanistan. In the Congo, Kabila quickly turned out to be nearly as corrupt as Sese Seko, and none of the other various rebel leaders (and their backers) were inclined to accept his authority. While Kabila was strong enough to topple the previous government, he wasn't strong enough to exert authority over the whole country, which has remained mired in civil war and anarchy.

How can we avoid this in Afghanistan? The key is US involvement. In any country, there is a competition between centrifugal and centripedal forces. In a country like Afghanistan, the centrifugal forces take the form of local warlords and tribal leaders who have their own armies and are not inclined to bow before any outside power. The problem is exacerbated by the funding that many of these local groups receive from neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan. The central government doesn't have enough power or authority to provide a countervailing centripedal force to keep the country together. If left to their own devices, it is almost certain that Afghanistan will repeat the scenario seen after the war with Russia (and also seen in the Congo), dissolving into a multi-factioned civil war.

The x-factor, and the needed counterbalance, is US force. If we stay involved, and show strong support for the central authorities, then the balance of power is changed and the equation could favor the formation of a real and stable government. Naturally, it will have to be a fairly weak federal system, with much power remaining in regional authority's hands. Even the Taliban ruled through local warlords, as the deal-making and side-switching during the war showed. The new government must, at least at the start, rule the same way. But with firm US support, they can slowly consolidate their position, eventually becoming secure enough to rule on their own.

One factor which paradoxically favors the central government is the relative lack of natural resources in Afghanistan. In the Congo, there are numerous mines (diamonds, copper, etc.) that provide something worth fighting for, and a source of income for rebel groups that control those resources. In Afghanistan, however, the issue is mostly naked power, without money complicating the equation and providing further incentives. Iran is concerned and wants to be involved because they don't want a US client state on their border. But intervening is not a self-supporting or money-making proposition for them, as it is for some of Congo's southern neighbors.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:17 AM

Monday, January 14, 2002
Postwar Afghanistan

I just started reading the book Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. Ellis, for those of you who remember previous news cycles, was the historian that was publically embarassed when it was revealed that he had falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam. An offense which, while disturbing, at least had the virtue of not impugning his actual historical scholarship. Unlike Steven Ambrose, who I may discuss later.

I'll probably write more about Founding Brothers later, but there was a quote I wanted to pull out of his introduction: "With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically imcompatible notions of what they intended." [p. 15]

This is the stage we're in right now in Afghanistan, and I think it's important to emphasize how difficult a feat true nation building will be. It's easy for groups to make a common negative cause. In this case, there were lots of different reasons to hate the Taliban and wish to overthrow them. Now that they are gone, the different goals each faction had and have come to the fore, and problems are bound to arise. Anyone who has ever gone with a group to the video store can tell you that; iot's much easier to agree on what you don't want to see than on what you do.

In the case of the American revolution, the differences were primarilly philosophical, with a debate between Republicans and Federalists. The founding generation in America was able to solve these problems peacefully and achieve a lasting solution, but this achievement is an historical exception rather than the rule. In part, it was the remarkableness of this peaceful resolution that marks the American Revolution and its makers out as heroic and great. But in most countries, a violent overthrow of the existing government is followed by continuing civil war and turmoil.

I'll have more to write about nation building, but the natural difficulty in transferring from an armed resistance to a peaceful government should be kept in mind during the next few months. The US certainly can still play an important role, and will have to ride the different factions when necessary to keep them in line. But some conflict in this case is natural, and it happening does not indicate a failure of American policy. Our main policy goal was to remove Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists and their training. This goal has been accomplished. There are strong secondary reasons for the US to want to build a stable regime there--prevention of future terrorist ocupation, building of trust and reputation with other nations, general goodwill among Arabs, etc. But it should always be kept in mind that these are secondary goals, not primary ones, and no matter what harping may occur from critics, the outcome of the war was an almost complete success.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:31 PM

Just playing around here. Follow this test link to go to the best discussion board on the web for the Illinois Fighting Illini!

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:08 PM

Everyone else is getting their own blog, so I figured I'd give it a whirl too. If anyone were actually likely to read this, I'd welcome you here, but instead I suppose I should just start writing and hope someone notices.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:39 PM

A Renaissance blog: Politics, sports, literature, history, and whatever else strikes my fancy.


Sneaking Suspicions
Crooked Timber
Unqualified Offerings
Asymmetrical Information
Cranky Professor
The Poorman
newsrack blog

Powered by Blogger