Archive for June 2010

Who’s Spookin’ Who: Worth-What-You-Pay Speculation on the latest round of the Great Game, Post-Cold War Follies Edition

June 29, 2010

So, bearing in mind that I routinely rail in this space about the propensity of pundits to opine wildly beyond their competence and knowledge, herewith my one bit of blather on the recent great victory in the war against post-Soviet perfidy of the sort of, kind of, journalism/schmoozing spying nature.

I first heard of the arrest of 11 people charged with being agents of a foreign power while sitting in an undisclosed foreign capital with a member of another nation’s diplomatic corps who has had extensive experience in and around some of the rougher trades in international relations, along with a second observer in a senior policy position in an administration unconnected to either power in this dispute…people with bullsh*t sensors well trained over a number of years but with no connection at all to the current foofaraw.

Their reaction, almost instant on hearing the BBC report?

This was the weakest-sauce espionage ring they’d ever heard of, and the timing smelled from the eastern seaboard to our undisclosed location.

Coming after a ten year investigation, as claimed, and yet  so soon after  Obama foreign policy successes, (anti-nuke advances, Iran sanctions agreements and all that…) with a restarting of useful relations with Russia so badly damaged during the Bush years, it appeared to my much-more-canny-than-I interlocutors that someone or ones in the US intelligence service is throwing a monkey wrench into this newly warming relationship.

As noted above, I ain’t got any chops in this area.  My associates, you will have to take on faith from me, do actually have relevant experience — but taking on faith is another way to say this is yet more random noise.  But I will say that reading this today in the NYT made me think that if they are already making excused for the timing of the arrests, then that issue is an issue.

There you have it.  As noted above, worth every penny it has cost you to acquire this (sic) “intelligence.”

Image: Film poster for Hitchock’s The Secret Agent, 1936

Marc Ambinder, General McChrystal, My Uncle, and Gays in the Military

June 26, 2010

American policy on gays in the military has been a self inflicted wound for years now.  The loss of Arabic (and Farsi) language specialists at just this moment in our strategic history was an own goal if ever there was one.  But the firing of General Stanley McChrystal has brought into sharp relief another truth about the chicken hawk quality of arguments against an end to the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” farce.

Marc Ambinder, continuing in a really sterling transformation of his work from that of being a villager in training to a serious, independent reporter, wrote about the McChrystal connection and the implications of military reality (and or closeness or distance to the sharp end) on assessments of the ability for gays to perform in the armed forces (and for those forces to perform with gays openly in their ranks).

(I’ve harshly criticized Ambinder in the past, and stopped reading him after what was for me one too many retellings of conventional wisdom; picking up on cues from the folks at Balloon Juice who are much more conscientious than I in following folks through their twists and turns, I’ve started up again, and it is as if there is a whole new Marc reporting, rather than retelling what his sources feed him.  To be acknowledged and encouraged.)

The short form of Ambinder’s story is that (a) McChrystal is genuinely a social liberal, untroubled by (among other things) gays in the military, and that (b) the special forces he used to command are much more focused on the job that their fellow soldiers, gay or straight, actually do than on who they happen to sleep with.  Money quote:

As one former member of a special missions unit put it to me recently, “It’s really about competence. If you’re competent, it doesn’t matter who you are.”  And then, switching instantly from an analytical posture to a machismo mode, he said, “If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it.”

Exactly so.  The folks who worry most about gays in the military are chickenhawks, those who never get close to the real work of an army:  fighting the enemy, supporting your comrades.*

This struck home in a deep way recently as I helped my family mourn the death of the senior surviving male member of our parent’s generation, my beloved and much missed Uncle David, who, among much else in a life well-lived, served as a career officer in the Royal Artillery, fighting the United Kingdom’s wars from 1943 to the early nineteen sixties, retiring at the rank of Major and having served as a battery commander.

Long ago, in the early eighties, I visited David after I’d finished my college degree, hanging out mostly.  For some reason the issue of gays in the military came up (maybe the Dutch had just opened up their ranks — I don’t really recall).

David surprised me.  He was, after all, an Eton-educated former career officer (and the son of a Colonel) — not obviously the sort of person who would readily dissent from what remained then the British military norm.

What came next was another in a long series of lessons in the risks of assuming individual qualities from group characteristics.  David told me two things, one an observation in principle and the other a specific story, both with the same point.

Principle first:  David told me that his objection to gays in the military had been based on the notion that the potential for relationships to form between different ranks in the same units raised the possibility that a commander would be faced with an impossible command dilemma if he had to assign hazardous or likely fatal tasks to members of the unit.

But, he said, once women were admitted to the military, that objection failed…or rather it seemed that the military had decided it could manage that potential problem, and there was no reason other than bigotry to assert that gay soldiers would be more likely to fall afoul of such a dilemma than straight ones.

The story was more direct, and more on the point that Ambinder made in his story.  One afternoon, relaxing after a day’s work on the farm that was his second career, he told me about an experience he had just after he joined his battery in northern Europe in late 1944.  Then nineteen, and a newly minted junior officer, he commanded a towed gun — a 155mm howitzer, I think, though don’t quote me on that.

One day he sought out the battery adjutant.

What was the problem? the adjutant asked.

Well, said David, it seems that my loader and my driver are sharing the same sleeping bag.  What should I do?

How does the lorry run?

Fine — perfect; starts every time, is maintained and fueled each night (not morning … crucial under the circumstances — ed.); shines as much as can be expected under the conditions.

How is the gun?

No problems, none at all.  The ammunition is in good order, the gun never jams, everything works as it should.

And what was the problem you wished to discuss, Lt. S-M?

Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.

Which is to say exactly what Ambinder’s sources told him:  what matters in combat is what you do in combat.  Wasting time, and worse, depriving yourself of good soldiers, is worse than bigoted.  It is stupid, and it costs the most at the very point where we can afford it least.

Did I mention I revere and hugely miss my uncle?

*It is true, as Ambinder points out that there are plenty of serving military who oppose gays in uniform who are not chickenhawks; I’m referring here to the much larger number of those who never wore the uniform, or did so always at many safe removes from combat who stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent some Americans from serving their country.  For these, the full measure of contempt is not enough.

Image: Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.

They keep us alive to serve the machine: vacation edition

June 21, 2010

Through a concatenation of circumstances too complicated to explain (involving as it does an odd personal slice through 20th century history and a bit of the dynamic of globalism in recent years) I am sitting in the drawing room of the residence of the South African ambassador to Sweden.

It is a glorious day here in Stockholm, made better in my corner of it by the two-nil halftime lead enjoyed by Bafana Bafana.

But, as the kind of sophisticated readership that this blog enjoys I’ll have inferred, I’m on something of a holiday just now, and will be until early July. So while it may seem I’ve been enjoying an extended excursion for the last month or so, now it’s for real.

And in fact I actually hope to do a bit more blogging over the next little while than I’ve managed lately — something about long lazy days with no office phone (and I do mean long: sunset at 11 pm plus tonight) — but now you know.

Now for a bit of cured fish and a suitable libation. See y’all soon.

Carly Fiorina Reveals the Source of Her Failure at HP: Can’t Walk, Chew Gum at the same time/shouldn’t be a Senator edition.

June 17, 2010

So, stylist/Senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina is turning her attention away from her opponents ‘do to more serious matters.

Unfortunately, she brings the same gravitas to the question of confronting the gulf oil disaster that she did to the matter of Barbara Boxer’s hair.

The AP reports today that while she supports President Obama’s success in compelling BP to come up with a $20 billion escrow fund to cover local losses, she disapproves of another part of his handling of the crisis:

Fiorina, who is trying to unseat Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, said the president should be focused on capping the leak and cleaning up the oil, not working with Boxer on greenhouse gas legislation.

“President Obama’s emphasis right now should be on cleaning up the spill, something (Sen.) Dianne Feinstein clearly recognized when she said, ‘cap-and-trade legislation isn’t going to clean up the spill,'” Fiorina said.

Instead, she said the president is planning to meet with Boxer to discuss the climate change bill.

“I think our commander in chief’s attention should be devoted exclusively to cleaning up the spill and to making sure that the residents of the Gulf Coast receive the relief that they so desperately need,” Fiorina said after her visit to Rex Moore Electrical Contractors and Engineers in Sacramento.

Oh FSM! Where to begin?

Last time I looked, American presidents have to be able to think about more than one thing at a time — and to do so beyond the next quarter’s results.  Actually, as people have been pointing out for a while, that’s President Obama’s particular strength.

Fiorina , it seems, would rather have it that Obama do nothing but don his scuba outfit and put what one blogospheric type called his magic tampon down the Deepwater Horizon well.  (Apologies to the mystery wit; lost the link in the day’s surf madness Thanks to commenter Courtney below for pointing to the correct attribution.  We love the blogosphere. ;)

Heaven forfend that he should also think about the context of the spill:  the fact that the need to drill in conditions in some ways more difficult than those of outer space is the direct consequence of an unsustainable dependence on oil as one of our chief sources of energy.

“Cleaning up the spill” is a critical task, of course — but after organizing the executive branch to do so, while fending off GOP resistance to, say, “making sure the residents of the Gulf Coast” get the help they need, there is a limit to the number of hours Obama can usefully give to that job out of every 24.  But there is a larger concern, one with several levels — which is how to prevent repeats of the disaster.

Clearly that involves looking at what went wrong at both the drill site and in the regulatory process that allowed BP and its drilling partners/subcontractors to get away with as many shortcuts as it appears they did.  Making the drilling process work better is clearly a good thing

But there is, of course, a larger context, which is that dependence on oil as a primary energy source is a long term loser, not simply in the sense that the peak oil concept suggests, but given the fact that exploitation of oil compels us to accept risk that over time will produce various disastrous outcomes.  Bad spills, cash flows to unstable regions and hostile folks, wars from time to time are all part of the cost of oil. They aren’t “accidents,” “natural disasters” or acts of God.  They are anticipatable, if not precisely predictable outcomes of what you have to do where to get oil out of the interior of the earth. Not to mention the use of oil carries with it significant, real environmental costs (and not just global warming).

Note also this map — versions of it been making the round of  the ‘tubes lately.  Note, as many have , just how much of that fossil fuel infrastructure is concentrated around the Louisiana coast in particular, and the Gulf Coast more generally

Put all that together, it seems to me that trying to work out how to reduce the role of oil (and other fossil fuels) as energy sources is an integral part of responding to this specific catastrophe — and it even seems like it would be directly relevent to what the folks on the Gulf Coast need if a total disruption (and/or extinction) of a lot of ways of life down there isn’t going to recur every few years.

To repeat: Presidents have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The last GOP hopeful who denied this lost, badly, to the man now in the office that requires such mental agility.

So:  Fiorina is an idiot.

But we knew that.

I’ll leave you with the thought that what’s actually interesting about Fiorina’s inadvertent self-revelation here is that her reaction is precisely that of someone incapable of thinking past the immediate horizon — nothing matters more than hitting the next quarter’s numbers, in the context of her experience.  That’s a crappy way to run a business — and it is a much worse way to run a government.

Image:  General view of Funkville in 1864, Oil Creek, Pennsylvania

On the matter of an extended walk around Dublin

June 17, 2010

SEK (Scott Kaufman) explains it all to you. (via LGM).

I am feeling stately, plump.  I rarely dine with anti-Semites (never knowingly).  I do not eat with relish the internal organs of beasts and fowls. (The occasional fois gras excepted.  Sweetbreads too.  My tante Helen’s chopped liver also. Oh hell.)

Happy Bloomsday, all, a day late, in the greatest traditions of this blog.

Image:  Wandering rocks (1967-1970) by Tony Smith

Completely Outsourced Eye Candy: Jedi Bear edition

June 17, 2010

I know that reposting something from Andrew Sullivan’s blog is sort of pointless, given that outlet’s reach, but on the off chance you haven’t seen this, you should.  It’s true snort material.

For a good time in Edmonton (Crack o’ Dawn edition)

June 16, 2010

Anyone in the greater Edmonton/University of Alberta area tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. can come and hear me talk about “Newton’s coins and Einstein’s letters: living lives in science and society.”

I’ve been very kindly invited by folks running the first university-wide celebration of graduate student research in engineering to talk about some aspects of life beyond grad school, so I’m going to talk on what those giants have to say about life beyond the cocoon of pure research.

Time: 8:30
Place: The student center on the campus of the University of Alberta.

Come one, come all!


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