Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Churchill's romantic percision

Churchill’s use of language to describe statistical concepts shows up in the middle of nowhere. Every time I pick up a book of his I find some phrase that gets a complex idea across with words in a new way and fresh way.

Page 87, from a speech given in the House of Commons, July 6, 1908, reprinted in Liberalism and the Social Problem: A Collection of the Early Speeches as a Member of Parliament, Manor, MD.

Here he is arguing for a bill that increases worker protection in coal mines. He is answering the objection that it will reduce efficiency and production. He could attack his opponents for being cold hearted. He could deny that it has that effect at all. But he will never dumb himself down. He says,

“If it be admitted that there may be a certain reduction in output as a consequence of this Bill, that reduction must be considered, not by itself, not in isolation, but in relation to the steady and persistent movement of coal production for the last fifty years. To me it seems certain that the small temporary reduction will be lost in the general tendency to expansion, as the eddy is carried forward by the stream and the recoiling wave is lost in the advancing tide.”

“…as the eddy is carried forward by the stream…” it is like Tuffte’s visual statistics applied to words. The air to information ratio is so high. The eddy carried forward by the stream phrase not only captures a multivariate idea of competing causal influences where those in one direction are larger than those in another, but it also carries the idea of time, the time scale of the river being longer than the time scale of the eddy. A single metaphor that reveals two relationships. Again, so much of the florid language that makes people dismiss Churchill as a romantic is a tool to communicate his ideas in the most precise manner possible.

The Poverty of Liberalism by Robert Paul Wolfe

He is one of the first to make the argument back in the 50s that American liberalism’s blithe assumption that all religions can get along works with religions that are tolerant, tame, and business friendly. But what about a religion that regarded the presence of an opposing faiths as an anathema? How does it work then? For this we have no ready answer, no answer that lives within the liberal tradition. Liberal democracy is a set of rules and procedures that works only if it have a 'liberal' population to work on.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Nice site with a compendium of information on Haditha massacre. Unfortunate lack of opposing viewpoints and sources. Still, imagine the what the fate of our soldiers would be at the world criminal court.

Liers' roundup

Nice compendium of mostly liberal lies. Not the "your not telling the whole story" kind of thing but flat out fabrications. Mainly in mass media but some academic.

Historical Revisionism and Vietnam

What? Our president dares to disagree with professional historians? I wonder what Churchill would say?

Lawyers and the WOT

Terrific story from Newsweek about the failure to find bin Laden and other high value targets in Afghanistan. Technology allows you to program a cruise missile with great accuracy to hit a target in the middle of nowhere. It also allow a confederacy of dunces to tell men fighting in the middle of nowhere to fill out forms in triplicate before firing, and do so in real time.


the Ambassador walks around without his flack jacket. He should have had a better comeback ready when asked about it.

Notice how the improvement in security progresses in the absence of agreement among the Grandees in the capital. No, their absence period.

The religion of peace in Thailand

Well, at least Orwell could sympathize. Still, blowing up Buhddist monks. Is someone going to tell us stories now about the bitter legacy of Thai imperialism?

unintended consequences of affirmative action

Great example of a possible counterintuitive effect of a policy.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


I came across a volume of Alfred North Whitehead's essays written while in North America.

In the first place it is remarkable the range and seriousness of the opinions he presumes to set forth. He talks about the flow of civilization for the last 6,000 years, comments on the turning point of the Greeks, compares the civilized to the uncivilized. He is a mathematician--what mathematician in an academic chair would dare to make such vast judgments today from a university chair. This is a different age already. His was an age of the liberal arts, an age which expected an educated man to be able to speak about anything and bring to bare all streams of human knowledge on whatever were the great political questions of the day.

But even more striking is what opinions. He was writing after the end of the Second World War, but already this well respected liberal's opinions on such things as civilization versus what he understands as savages is already beyond the realm of polite dinner conversation today. He makes as if it were unexceptionable the observation that the discovery of North America was a great expansion in the opportunity for fulfillment for mankind. No throat clearing about the Indians. The discovery of, "a half-empty continent," is celebrated for opening up opportunity for mankind's fulfillment and those subgroups within mankind that didn't do so well out of the deal are expected to sit tight and not spoil the proceedings. In his two paragraph treatment of the discovery of the New World there is not a hint of the prevaricating language that at least hints at some sort of guilt about the displacement and ruin of native peoples. "The problem of existence was not solved, but hope entered into human life as never before."

All this from Whitehead's essay on postwar reconstruction written in 1942.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Master Narratives

John Leo has some great comments on the Newsweek wrap up on the Duke Lacrosse scandal.

The game was given up by this priceless quote, "We had the right story, it was just that the facts were wrong."

The facts in this case were those of the Duke Lacrosse scandal. The facts are still in dispute but what does not seem to be in dispute is that the players in question were not guilty of rape, not even consensual sex. It is also clear that the prosecutor and now disbarred lawyer Mike Naiphong withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, an offense for which he was disbarred.

The story was of racist white youths from privileged backgrounds preying upon black women. This story started to unravel early on, though not after the team was treated to collective punishment, public humiliation and millions in lawyers' bills.

The problem, though, is not that the press had a narrative they tried to impose on the facts, it is that they had only one. They should have been testing not if the facts can be rendered consistent with the privileged racist narrative, but if the privileged racist narrative did better or worse than the, in the words of Tom Wolfe, "The Great White Defendant" narrative.

Imposing a story on the facts is what the human mind does. One cannot avoid trying to impose some model/frame/template/story on the facts. without some background causal theory you don't even know what constitutes a relevant fact in the first place. There is a large body of research in fields as diverse as artificial intelligence to social psychology to attest to the human mind's power and proclivity to impose a schema on the facts.

So, if we must inevitably impose narratives on the facts, the important thing is to at least have an alternative narrative to test it against. Having one is dangerous because often a narrative works, it is just that another one works even better. and because we are, as Simon says, 'cognitive misers', we are apt to stop with the first one that works.

The 'privileged racist white boys' narrative had an initial plausible fit with the facts, it is just that, not being interested in testing an alternative narrative, the press continued with it long after it had become apparent to those willing to test another narrative that it didn't work.

Of course, there were, in the end, enough inconsistencies to break the fit between the original narrative and the facts without having an alternative narrative. But observers who were willing to test two narratives at the same time were much more quick to notice these inconsistencies. If "The Great White Defendant" story had been in the running from the beginning in the minds of the press observers, the "Rich Privileged Racists" story would have dropped out of the race long before it had done some much damage. Who knows, maybe Naiphong would even still be a lawyer.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Negotiating with Iran

Michael Leden's chronicle of the sad history of American presidents trying to negotiate with Iran ends with a quote from Jonathan Swift: You can't reason a man out of something he didn't reason himself into.

The point that Leden makes with this quote is that the Iranians cannot be reasoned out of their hatred for us. But if anything it applies even more to us. We have negotiated with Iran in spite of an unbroken chain of failures out of an unreasoning faith in negotiation. It is an axiom of our analysis that there is always a common ground, if only one can find it.

Indeed, I am not sure it is even fair to apply Swift's comment to the Iranians at all. Their hatred may be unreasoned, but their policy is not. Indeed, they have learned well from history, do whatever you want to the Americans and wait for them to come with an offer to negotiate.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Quote from Obama that is causing some consternation:

“We’ve got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there,” Obama said.

This is clearly not put well, but I think I understand what he was trying to say. Our over-reliance on air power leads to a lot of civilians getting killed and is not very effective in really protecting people from the insurgents. If this was his point then I think it was an important and correct one.

I think it is also a little dated and perhaps slightly disingenuous.

It is dated because the whole strategy of the surge is precisely to start doing proper counter insurgency, putting boots on the ground and protecting people. It is disingenuous because it is the democrats who to a large extent have dictated or at least encouraged a policy of stand off bombing instead of proper counter insurgency. Perhaps the most unfortunate, or at least extreme example of this, was during the Clinton administration's bombing of Kosovo. It is very hard to provide protection from guys going house to house raping and slitting throats with jet airplanes, but it is mmore politically palatable.

There is, to change subjects, a way in which Clinton's policy got it right. The main effect of the bombing campaign was not its direct effect on the insurgents but on their masters in Serbia. They didn't make any pretense of effecting to invade and occupy Serbia but they did pressure them through a very effective bombing campaign. At that time no one thought that a bombing campaign implied invading and occupying a country. Now, when we talk about holding Iran accountable for the actions of its proxies people hysterically assume we are going to invade. Why assume that? Iran is if anything even more vulnerable to pressure from the air.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Oren Interview

Michael Totten, and independent journalist in Iraq, has a nice interview with Michael Oren, Author of the new history of the US and the Middle-East. The book was a great read, as was his history of the 1967 War.

A couple of things I had forgotten from the book. Jefferson was the great anti-tribute leader. Even though he bobs and weaves tactically he is very clear on principle.

Jefferson reports a North African leaders answer to Jefferson's offer of peace:

"There was the case in 1785 where Thomas Jefferson is sent to negotiate with the envoy of the Pasha of Tripoli. Jefferson says to him that America only wants peace with the Barbary states. And he says to Jefferson “No, we want war with you. We have a holy book called the Koran which says that we have to conquer and enslave all infidel states. And the United States is an infidel state. And moreover our holy book the Koran tells us that if we are killed in the course of carrying out this war that we’ll go directly to Paradise.” So I didn’t think I even had to put the label jihadist on there. I figured that remarkable report of Jefferson’s at the Continental Congress would suffice to alert contemporary readers what Jefferson was dealing with in the Middle East."

The more things change....

He also reminds us of the Christian restorationist movement that was mainstream and very strong throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The current evangelical support for Israel is just a return to longstanding practice.

He also makes the point that you have to give battle on the ground the enemy invades, not where you would like him to invade:

"America has to get involved in theology. We’ve been fighting a theology with an ideology. It doesn’t work. We have to get in the business of promoting a reformist Islam. It’s important. It’s controversial, but important.

MJT: How do we do that? Do you mean by promoting the moderates who already exist?

Oren: Well there are some moderates who exist. They don’t have any places where they can go out and speak and speak free of harm. We can help disseminate their ideas. Right now the extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam predominates in schools across Europe. The West has basically given up the field to these people."

Caesar's Gallic Commentaries

I am reading Carolyn Hammond's translation of Caesar's Gallic Commentaries.

There is a parallel with Churchill, as usual. Both were the greatest statesmen of their age and both wrote definative accounts of conflicts they were involved in. Caesar's style is almost the opposite of Churchill's. It is almost a lack of style. He lays out events in spare prose that seem to have not a single wasted word. He concentrates on the outlines of events, the big moves on the chessboard made by him and his "peers" (since he doesn't consider any of his barbarian opponents his equal). On occasion he tightens focus to a detail in a battle where some extraordinary act of bravery was performed by a common soldier. The spareness of the prose, the fact that he has, in the commentaries, kept commentary to a rather bare minimum, makes the final evaluations of these actions, "...and so died nobly," all the more affecting.

Honor, as opposed to material gain, is the unquestioned motivator of the actors involved.

This is most easily seen at the level of individual soldier. "This action took place on high ground and in sight of our army, and a loud shout went up on both sides. Thus each man tried his best to be noticed, and to have his courage marked and witnessed, by exposing himself to the missiles and fire of the enemy." 8.42

It has more in common with a high school football game than what, since the trenches of WWI at least, have thought of as warfare. It is both more and less civilized than war in our age. For the soldier there is a more direct connection between courage and skill on the one hand and survival on the other. However, for civilians it is less civilized. The consequences for non-combatants are often slavery or slaughter.

But honor drives all the parties from top to bottom. Caesar never reports amounts or values of property taken or taxes and tributes garnered, but the length of the Thanksgiving that is ordered for him in Rome. He fights for adulation and honor.

The Gauls are also motivated by honor. The reasons for their rebellions are not material, in many cases they are better off under the Romans, particularly tribes that went over to the Romans and were thus freed from having to pay tribute to other tribes or face the constant danger of raids. The causes for the revolt are constantly reiterated as being desire for their former independence and to regain their former military glory. They keep coming back and revolting, in essence re-fighting their battle of independence, for the same reason that high school football teams come back to play the next season, for their reputation.

There are many acts that we would consider dishonorable but that they had no problem with. Caesar reports how, after an especially treacherous attack by the city of Avaricum, the Romans, on breaking through the city's walls, put all to death, even women and children, instead of taking them as slaves. Caesar is actually rather proud of this since it means that they are passing up money in favor of justice, at least justice of a sort. The deaths of women and children does not give him pause.

7.28: "Not one of our men gave a thought to booty. They were so severely provoked by the massacre at Cenabum and the effort they had put into the siege that they spared neither the elderly, nor the women, nor even the little children. In the end, of a total number of about 40,000, barely 800 reached Vercingetorix safely; these had run from the town as soon as they heard the shout."

Hammond states that the triple anaphora of 'non's, neither the old, nor the women nor the children, to highlight rather than to hide the soldiers' actions, pointing out their "disinterested" desire for revenge over profit.

On the other hand, when they use perfidy to try and assassinate a particularly troublesome Gallic leader the soldier charged with striking the blow hesitates because, Caesar speculates, because of the "unusual" nature of the order.

Vercingetorix spends a lot of his time having to talk his men into not deserting him. He is democratically elected, several times in fact. But this represents a weakness as much as a strength. After every reverse he is forced to re-argue his strategy. Caesar faces both of these problems but at different levels. He has politics to deal with but they are back in Rome. At the level of a commander in field he is never challenged and this seems a clearly more efficient arrangement. His speeches to his troops are about his strategy as well but the purpose is never to preserve his command but only to encourage his solders and increase their confidence. Thus the difference isn't between the decision making mechanism (democratic voting is common to both) but in institutional stability. Among the Romans, once command is conferred that is the end of the matter. Vercingetorix's command is only as firm as his last victory or last explanation for defeat.

Of course, once elected to command Vercingetorix can met out punishments. 7.5: "In his command he combined extreme conscientiousness with extreme severity." He would inflict the death penalty by means of torture. At other times he would gouge eyes out and return the offender home as a warning to others.

The Gauls have so much trouble cooperating among themselves that they have to give hostages to each other to solidify their pact against the Romans. It is a mark of Vercingetorix's leadership that he can command enough respect to keep a conspiracy together without exchanging hostages, thus enabling them to keep their revolt secret from the Romans. They solemnize their pact by putting their standards together, an act which Caesar reports is "a rite of the greatest sanctity." 7.3

It makes sense. This is the most important commitment a group can make, saying your safety is the same as our safety, your fate is our fate.

Caesar's decision making constantly choses to ignore the past and look toward the future. Punishment of the guilty in itself is of no interest to him. His only concern is the effect an action will have on the future. This effect lies in the reputation it builds and the evidence it constitutes to onlookers that being a friend of the Romans is good and being their enemy is bad. It is also a judgment driven by costs of enforcement. An example is the attempted revolt of the Senones (6.3) which is preempted by a forced march and Caesar's early arrival.

"They were obliged to abandon their purpose and sent envoys to Caesar to beg for mercy, approaching him through the Aedui (for a long time their state had been under teh Aedui's protection). At the Aedui's request Caesar freely pardoned them and accepted their excuses, for he judged that summer was a time for active campaigning, not for holding inquiries." 6.4

Thus Caesar strengthens the authority and standing of his friends the Aedui and conserves the valuable resource of summer weather for the higher valued activity of attacking people that actively oppose the Romans. This strategically sensible and rational course, ignoring the past and sunk costs and focusing on the expected value of actions in the future, is precisely what is not possible with the judicial approach to such conflicts.

Another departure from the military/diplomatic history is the ethnology of Gaul and Germany.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Roman, the first thing he thinks worth reporting about the Gauls is the prevalence of faction, something which his Commentaries highlight as a weakness. 6.12: "In Gaul there are factions, not only in every state and every village and district but practically in each individual household as well."

In addition to faction there is oppressive hierarchy: "The ordinary people are considered almost as slaves: they dare do nothing on their own account and are not called to counsels. When the majority are oppressed by debt or heavy tribute, or harmed by powerful men, they sear themselves away into slavery to the aristocracy, who then have the same rights over them as masters do over their slaves." 6.13

He remarks on the strange religion of the Gauls, the Druids. The interesting thing here is that they do not want their teachings "spread abroad." Therefore, they do not commit their teaching to writing.

Caesar says that they were constantly at war with each other before his arrival.

They practice human sacrifice before battles and at festivals. There are state sacrifices as well, where the victim is placed in the wicker arms of the god's image and burned alive. "They believe that the gods are more pleased by such punishment when it is inflicted upon those who are caught engaged in theft or robbery or other crimes; but if there is a lack of people of this kind, they will even stoop to punishing the guiltless." 6.16

There is an interesting thought on free speech which is the exact opposite of our understanding. It is not permitted to discuss state affairs except openly at the assembly. It is rather like our rule that a trial may not be discussed outside of court. "The states that are thought to run thier public affairs most judiciously have a legal ordinance that if anyone hears rumors or tidings affecting the state from neighboring peoples, he is to report it to the magistrate and not to discuss it with anyone else."

The Germans are really barbaric. They know nothing of the gods and have no interest in any other than a few such as can be connected directly with a benefit, such as their sun god or Vulcan.

They do not have sexual intercourse before the age of 20. The sexes bath openly together. They hold land in common and are reassigned a plot each year. this prevents anyone from making improvements. The reasons they cite are that it keeps people interested in war and directs all their energy from economic gains to making war. Also, everyone can be sure that their possessions are equal to one another. 6.22

He reports that the Germans have no way of measuring distance in their language. This is almost impossible to believe. It seems one of the most basic functions of language and would be invaluable in war. Perhaps all distance is reported in terms of how long it takes to get there, a 'metric' that combines terrain and distance?

Caesar describes, second hand, the appearance of an animal called the unicorn. He also describes what must be Moose as animals whose legs have no joints. They never sit and if they are ever knocked to the ground they are done for.


Monday, August 06, 2007


A lot of people are talking about privatizing bridges. They think about it in terms of saving the public money. They should think about it from the point of view of the real victims--the children of trial lawyers.

I mean, it is one of the great yet-to-be-made alliances: privatizers and trial lawyers. After all, when the government owns the bridge, who can sue who? How are trial lawyers to put their kids through school?

That is the answer to the perennial question of social scientists: why no socialism in the US? Forget no feudalism, etc. If the government owned everything, no one could sue anyone. What belongs to all belongs to no one. What belongs to no one means no defendant. The trial lawyers would never allow it. No capitalism, no parasites.