Sunday, August 31, 2008

Faves: The Power Broker

 Photo by the brilliant Arnold Newman
Mein Frau tells me that when Obama took up politics, he was told to read several essential books.  One of them was Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  Too right. This Pulitzer winning biography explains the hidden politics that underlies public life.  Its not concealed, just below the journalistic radar.  What I learned particularly is how power is wielded through institutions.  Nobody but a king has intrinsic power.  Everyone else needs to hold an office to exercise power.  You either gain a powerful office, or you create one.  President of the United States is an example of the former, Beloved Leader is Kim Jong Ill's example of the latter.  Caro shows that power has structure, and explains the principles of that structure, the underlying pattern.

Apart from the politics, and the nauseous Mr. Moses, the book is well worth reading because of Caro's writing.  The man could write the telephone book and make it interesting.  Besides being a biography of Moses, the book is a first-rate biography of New York City from 1900 through 1970.  And a fascinating biography it is.  Caro also provides mini-biographies of the many interesting and important people that Moses crossed paths with.  They include Fiorello La Guardia, FDR, Nelson Rockefeller, Al Smith, Tom Dewey and Averell Harriman.  Some of these, like La Guardia's are brilliant in their own right.

Its a long, dense book.  But for anyone that wants to know how power really operates in a democracy, this is a must-read.

The Power Broker on Wikipedia
The Power Broker on Amazon
Robert Caro on Wikipedia
Robert Caro's site


You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun.
Al Capone

Saturday, August 30, 2008


The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.
Douglas Adams

WTF Department

Nice couch. Anchorage Daily News/MCT—Landov via NY Times

Leftish bloggers have been ranting for months about how John McCain is really crazy and people should be scared of him. I haven't paid much attention for two reasons. First, I'm not an American, so as long as someone reasonably competent non-ideologue gets elected, I don't really care who it is. Second, most leftish bloggers are as idiotic as most rightish bloggers. But this time, they may have been right.

I don't get to vote in US elections, but the election has a big impact on Canada's politics and economy. So it matters. For the first time, it seems possible that there could be a worse President than George Bush. And by worse, I mean more incompetent. And this is an incredibly incompetent decision. The woman hasn't enough experience to run a mid-sized city. After less than 24 hours, enough dirt on her has already surfaced to threaten her hold on the nomination. She will be gone by the end of next week and McCain will look a lot dumber than George McGovern looked in 1972.

Picking her is the dumbest decision I have ever seen in modern American politics. Worse than Dan Quayle, worse than Tom Eagleton. Worse than Larry Craig's wide stance or Wilbur Mills' drive past the tidal basin. Worse than Ed Muskie's tears, worse than Carter's rose garden strategy. This is supposed to be the big leagues. World's biggest economy. World's biggest military. Nukes. Nobody should be able to get to where McCain has gotten and then make such an error. You are supposed to have people who protect you from this kind of thing.

Politics is a profession after all. There are skills. These skills help you be successful and avoid career killing errors. Unless its someone like Lyndon Johnson (and you need to steal the election), the VP pick can't help you much, but can hurt you plenty. It's like baseball. You play the odds and get someone safe. Just look at the exposure this creates. After attacking Obama's lack of experience, McCain has picked someone with no national experience at all. Skirting with ethical issues himself, he picks someone who's under investigation for an amateur abuse of power. McCain's age and health guarantees that his VP pick is going to get a lot more scrutiny than usual. Its not just bad politics, its stupid politics. He's given Obama the greatest election slogan in history. "Do you want Sarah Palin answering the phone at 3am?" The only answer a sane adult would give to that question is, "no fucking way".


I don't necessarily agree with everything I say.
Marshall McLuhan

Faves: A Night At The Opera

This is just about the only movie made before 1970 that I can get my kids to watch.  The Marx Brothers made a lot of good movies.  This one has that something special.  I can watch it again and again, still laughing at the same jokes.  The manic edge is just enough under control so the story, such as it is, can unroll properly.  So it seems like a real movie rather than just a bunch of sketches strung together.  But its not like they let the story get in the way.  And the manic moments are among their best.  There are lots of little touches I love.  Like when the orchestra plays Take Me Out To The Ballgame, or when Groucho says "booga booga".

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dr. Snow's Cholera Map

I've gussied up Dr. Snow's map for ease of reading in a web context.  Click on the image to see the real map at WikiCommons.

British physician John Snow invented the science of epidemiology with this map.  It shows the location of deaths from a London cholera outbreak in 1854.  The map was sufficient proof for city officials to remove the Broad Street pump's handle, ending the outbreak.  His subsequent statistical analysis of this and other outbreaks proved that a water borne agent was responsible for the disease.  This fitted nicely with the new germ theory of infection.

Its only 150 years since we began to understand the actual causes of disease.  Disease has been the single biggest cause of human misery.  Smallpox killed at least 300 million in the 20th century.  It is only a recent phenomenon that parents could expect all their children to reach adulthood.  And that's by no means true everywhere.  But the situation improves slowly, steadily in many parts of the world.  Every year that fewer parents have to bury their children as a matter of routine is a better year than the one before.

Anyway, epidemiology is the profession closest to detectives as portrayed in movies and books.  Anyone interested in the type of work shown on CSI ain't going to find it at their local police department.  Better to go into epidemeology where the real detectives work.

CDC page on Cholera
CDC Disease Index
Wikipedia page on Infectious Desease

The Iran War: No News Is Good News?

As I've noted before in several posts, I do not believe the US will make a substantial attack against Iran during the remainder of the Bush Presidency.  I've also noted that if I'm wrong, now would be the best time to stage such an attack.  Tonight is a new moon and the US prefers to kick things off in the dark, in order to maximize their technological superiority.  However, a near total silence has descended upon the issue.  Usual sources are not providing updates on the location of US carriers.  Cheerleaders like Debka News are all focused on Georgia.  Apparently, the Middle-East "realists" see Georgia as the opening battle of WW3.  With Saakashvili playing Prince Ferdinand, The South Ossetians playing Serbia, and Russia playing, well Russia.  I'm not buying this one either.  There's no reason the Georgian situation shouldn't settle down to the back-burner issue it deserves to be. 

Back in the Gulf, last month's WW3 incubator, the silence is a bit unnerving, at least to me.  Under normal conditions, an all-out attack by the US against Iran would require some causus belli, like the Persian Gulf of Tonkin incident I predicted for a few days ago.  A complete absence of political/propaganda buildup is untypical of US practice.  Unless its somehow linked to the Really Bad Thing, I'd have to say that notwithstanding the force build-up, no news is good news.  Meaning if they were going to attack, Bush and his associates would be cackling like flock chickens on amyls (to quote Hunter S. Thompson out of context).  They are going wonky alright, but over Georgia, not Iran.


After the mini fiasco with the last Ferrari picture, here is a genuine photo of a '60s Ferrari taken in Italy in the '60s.  This one is a 1968 365 GT Daytona.

Yuri Gagarin

Юрий Гагарин
Apropos of nothing, here are some photos of Yuri Gararin, the first man in space.  Above is Gagarin in the capsule.  Below the front page of Komsomolskya Pravda for April 12, 1961.

Below is a photo sometime in the mid-late '60s. He was killed in a freak accident while re-training for fighter re-qualification in 1968. The USSR would never allow him to fly in space again. Had he been killed in a space accident, the blow to Soviet prestige would simply have been too great. Gagarin was just too valuable.

Although blameless in the accident that killed him, he suffered a peculiarly 20th century fate. I can't remember who said it, but they noted that Elvis and Gagarin had suffered a peculiar 20th century fate, they were coddled to death. To that list, I'd add JFK junior, John Lennon and Princess Diana.


Image: MBG Library click image for printable size.  Its just a nice picture.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fun Facts To Know And Share

25 million
Rounds of infantry ammunition expended by the German 6th Army in September 1942 during the 5 month battle of Stalingrad.  Does not include ammunition used by tanks, mounted machine guns, anti-aircraft guns of the Luftwaffe.  Imagine the industrial infrastructure required to deliver this volume of war materiel.  It demonstrates the economic black hole moden war represents for everyone but the arms manufacturers.


It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it.
Steven Wright

Faves: Abbey Road, The Double White Christmas Album

Sooner or later I was going to have to deal with the Beatles.  Let's do it now.  Abbey Road and The Beatles are two of my alltime favorite albums.  Abbey Road is the only album I invariably listen to in its entirety.  IMHO, the finest work they did individually and together can be found on The Beatles.

After the Beatles broke up, Abbey Road was long considered their best album, apart from Sgt Pepper which had instantly gone to the top of the pantheon and was no longer discussed in comparison to anything else.  As time went on, through the mid-late 70's, opinon shifted with The Beatles being favoured more highly.  Nowadays, Rubber Soul and Revolver are more highly thought of.

At the time it came out, Abbey Road was a sensation for side 2.  Nobody, as far as I know, has really tried something like it, at least not with any success, until Jesus of Suburbia by Green Day.   Anyway, I like Abbey Road because it is so comfortable, cozy, like your favorite comfy chair.  It really delivers a bit of everything the band did well.  No rough edges, no outraged political statements, no wild experimentation, just a good solid, thorough album from a band that had not actually tried to do this in some time.  Not to impugn their previous efforts, but they did have other things on their minds besides a solid, professional, fast-ball-across-the-plate type album.  As it turned out, this was their last release.  How many other bands have delivered such a great last album?  Not a lot.  Just a note that although Abbey Road came out in 1969 and Let It Be in 1970, Abbey Road was recorded after Let It Be and released before.  She's So Heavy was the last track all four recorded together.

Until sometime in the '80's, I had never heard The Beatles referred to as anything except the double white christmas album, or the white album.  It came out in December 1968 and its length was considered by fans to be a present from the band.  Younger readers may not remember how tumultuous 1968 was.  It started out with the Tet Offensive and went downhill from there. A lot happened.  But the year of epic upheaval ended on an epic high note with the excellent white album and Apollo 8 orbiting the moon.

The funny thing about The Beatles was that they evolved into a backup band, backing up each other.  This arrangement worked pretty well, and never better than on the white album.  Sexy Sadie, Revolution, Back in the USSR, Blackbird, Helter Skelter, Mother Nature's Son, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Long, Long, Long; these are among the best songs the three wrote.  For an album so contentious in its making, there are a lot of magic moments.  Not all of it stands up, particularly John Lennon's material.  But the best stuff is among the best stuff ever by anyone. 

I like both of these albums better than any of the earlier ones, even the deified Sgt Pepper.  The only thing the earlier albums have is a 100% there John Lennon.  His sad life became an object lesson in the danger of drugs. Except for a few very notable exceptions, he went away some time in 1967 and never really came back.  By the time of his death, he was a shadow.  Nothing more than another self-indulgent, coddled junkie in a terminal stupor.  When asked his opinion of Elvis Presley's death in 1974, Lennon replied that Elvis died in 1957 when he went in the Army.  This was cruel, but entirely true.  The ironic thing is that John Lennon didn't die in 1980, he died in 1967 when he became consumed by drugs and Yoko Ono.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965
Photo: Neil Leifer

I believe Mr.Ali, is requesting that notwithstanding his current indisposition, Mr. Liston regain his feet.   He (Mr. Ali) does not feel that they have satisfactorily resolved the evening's business and that should Mr. Liston allow, he (Mr. Ali) would like to knock Mr. Liston out several more times.


I've never been a millionaire but I just know I'd be darling at it.
Dorothy Parker

Faves: Rear Window

Hitchcock's cage match.  He wanted to see if he could make a film in what amounts to one room.  The camera is trapped with James Stewart in his apartment.  Of course, he pulled it off.  Its a terrific movie.  The kind of movie where if you happen across it on TV and watch for two or three minutes, you always end up watching the whole thing.

I have a theory about Hitchcock and Grace Kelly.  This was the second of three films he made with her; Dial M for  Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch A Thief (1955).  In 1956, she married Prince Ranier, moved to Monaco and stopped making movies.  I think she broke Hitchcock's heart.  He was so mad, he killed her twice in Vertigo (1958), again in Psycho (1960), then tormented her on and off for the rest of his career.  This theory is refreshingly free of facts, but its plausible.  Hitchcock was an exceedingly strange man.  I'm tempted to say he could never have flourished in the modern media microscope age.  But as this media culture developed in the 1960's, he not only survived, he mastered it.

In any case, there are few directors that have ever combined such thinly disguised examination of personal obsession with such  unadulterated artistic and commercial success. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


      click image for wallpaper size
Do I have a fetish for 60's Italian sports cars?  Not at all.  Not even when thety are photographed as nicely as this one. 1964 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso.  Steve McQueen owned one of these.  This photo is one of the millions of nice car photos floating around on the net.  As alway, if anyone can provide info, I will happily give credit where it is richly deserved.  Note: I finally figured out what GT means for Italian cars.  Literally, it means Grand Touring.  But really it means you can get in and out standing up.  You're not laying down in the seat.  GTO, on the other hand means twice as expensive as anything else.
Update:  This is not a Ferrari 250.  Now that I think about it, I have no idea what it is.  A quick look through Wikipedia suggests its not a standard model of Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati.  I will stay on it until I figure it out.
Update 2: Its a Ferrari 1962 250 SWB, but rather than the normal Pininnfarina bodywork, this is a special design by Bertone.  Ferrari delivered a stock 250 chassis to Bertone, who added their own body.  There were probably no more than a few dozen made.  Very rare.  Gorgeous.

Monday, August 25, 2008


“There are no atheists in foxholes” isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes. 
James Morrow


Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. 
Seneca the Younger

Eight Heroic Athletic Performances

I stopped watching the Olympics half way through the first week.  It was spectacular on the HDTV, but between the IOC's money grubbing and the Chinese dictatorship, I just couldn't watch.  I'm sure I missed a lot of really interesting things, but its over now, so that's that.
The big stories seem to have been Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.  What a name for a sprinter, Usain Bolt.  Great competitors, true champions, but not quite heroic.  Here are some heroic athletic performances that stand out in my memory.  Not all are from the Olympics.  Not all won.  One isn't even a human.  Argue as you please, but its my blog, and these are my heroes.

8. Elvis Stojko - Men's Figure Skating - Nagano 1998
      Source: Unknown -  Stojko during the Figure Skating Final, Nagano 1998
It was finally Elvis' year.  He was the best skater in the world and the gold was pretty much his for the taking.  Several days before the final, he caught the flu, then suffered a groin injury.  That would have ended the games for anyone else.  Elvis skated anyway.  It was obvious during the performance something was wrong.  His signature quadruple-triple combination became a triple-triple.  It was a great performance, but not as good as the Russian Ilia Kulik. Kulik got the gold, Elvis the silver.  The extent of his injury only became apparent during the medal ceremony immediately following the event.  Elvis could barely walk, and had to wear running shoes to the podium.  A guy who was in so much pain he could barely walk, and still turned in a performance worthy of being second best in the entire world.  That's more than willpower, that heroism.  I think that silver medal is worth far more than any gold he could have won.

7. Emil Zatopec - Men's Marathon - Helsinki 1952
      Source: unknown - I believe this is the marathon, but its certainly Helsinki
Zatopek did brilliantly in Helsinki winning gold in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres.  As he was on a roll, the Czech team decided to let him have a go at the marathon, despite his never having run one before.  He won, setting an Olympic record.

6. Tiger Woods - US Open - Torry Pines 2008
      Image: Getty - Woods shows pain on his backswing
In future, this may be seen as his greatest victory of all.  With a severe knee injury, he like Stojko, could barely walk.  Yet he played 90 holes over 5 days and won.  This incredible accomplishment has been overshadowed by the Olympics.  However, I think in future Woods' triumph will be thought of as the significant athletic event of 2008.

5. Abebe Bikila - Men's Marathon - Rome 1960
       Image: Getty
An almost literally last-minute addition to the Ethiopian delegation, Bikila did not have a  properly fitting pair of shoes from the team sponsor Addidas.  So he ran barefoot as he had in training.  This caused some derision at the start of the race.  But Bikila won, becoming the first African to win an Olympic gold medal.  In 1964, he ran with shoes, but did so only 40 days after having his appendix removed.  He still won, finishing an incredible 4 minutes ahead of the silver medalist and setting a world record. Bikila is one of only two men to win the Olympic Marathon twice.

4. John Akhwari - Men's Marathon - Mexico City 1968

An hour after the medal ceremony, with just a few people left in the Olympic stadium , a lone figure entered the field.  He was John Akhwari of Tanzania, the last man to finish the 1968 Olympic marathon.  Early in the race, Akhwari had fallen badly, damaging his knee and suffering deep lacerations.  He got up, accepted bandaging from the medical personnel and continued.  Hours later, barley able to walk, he stumbled into the stadium.  The few thousand spectators gave him a thunderous ovation.  Some said that they made more noise that the full stadium had for the winner.  Akhwari crossed the finish line and collapsed.  He was taken to the hospital.  The next day, a reporter asked him why he had persisted long after any hope of coming in anything but last had faded, he replied: "My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race."  Fortunately, his finish was caught by a documentary crew and is included in the video African Runners, part of the Olympiad Series.

3. Muhammad Ali - Ali Vs. Foreman, Kinshasa 1974
      Image: Neil Leifer, Sports Illustrated
Games within games. How could the older, slower, outgunned Ali possibly hope to match the juggernaut of George Foreman? Foreman had trained for months to eliminate Ali's only advantage, his dancing movement around the ring. It looked grim. Everyone agreed that if Ali could be cornered, Foreman would pulverize him. Even Ali seemed to believe it. But what the old lack in strength, they often gain in cunning. Instead of dancing around as usual, Ali stood still. He leaned against the ropes and let Foreman pound him. Veteran fight observers couldn't believe it. Was he giving up? Throwing the fight? His coaches were apoplectic, confused, hysterical. But Ali had figured out the one way to beat Foreman, and he told nobody. Not his trainers, or his entourage, or the journalists who pounded him with questions for months before the fight. His strategy was simple, he called it "rope a dope". Instead of his trademark dancing, he stood still, leaning against the ropes. He put his arms up and let Foreman hit him as hard as he could. Ali's arms and abdomen could take the blows, and the ropes absorbed the force.  Ali taunted in a whisper only Foreman could hear.  "Is that all you've got George?" "You can hit me harder than that."  As an enfuriated Foreman exhausted himself, Ali came off the ropes with his strength intact and knocked Foreman out. It was a brilliant boxing match. My favorite documentary "When We Were Kings" tells the story. I highly recommend it, even to non-sports fans.

2. Tiger Woods - The Masters - Augusta 1997
      Image: TexNews
He was the youngest (21) and the first African-American to win. And he did so with the lowest score in 32 years.  But that's not why he's on this list. Its because he tore the course and the competition apart.  He started Sunday morning with a nine stroke lead.  He finished with record 12 stroke lead.  If they had given him another 18 holes, he would have won with a 20 stroke lead.  Tiger won it going away.  It, along with Secretariat at Belmont, was the most electrifying athletic performance I've ever seen.

1. Secretariat - Belmont Stakes - 1973
      Source: Unknown - Possibly Belmont Downs
I'm not a fan of horse racing, but everyone in North America watched this race on June 9, 1973.  Secretariat had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.  A successful Triple Crown would be the first in 25 years, and only the 9th in history.  Like Tiger Woods at the '97 Masters, he won it going away.  His margin was 31 lengths.  Had they given him another 1/4 mile, it would have been 41 lengths.  It was the fastest 1 1/2 miles on dirt in history at 2:24 flat.  Not only has that record stood, but no other horse has ever gone below 2:25.  More than 5,000 winning bets were not redeemed, the holders kept the betting chits as souvenirs.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Elegance is refusal.
Coco Chanel

Faves: The Stranger Song

Songs of Leonard Cohen - 1967

I've spent my life looking for the card that is so high and wild I'll never need to deal another. Card sharps, artists, opportunists, entrepreneurs, addicts... they're all strangers. This song is kind of the other side of Bob Dylan's "Shelter From The Storm"  You can listen to a snippit here at Amazon.

The Stranger Song - Leonard Cohen, 1967
It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.
And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much
not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

But now another stranger seems
to want you to ignore his dreams
as though they were the burden of some other
O you've seen that man before
his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.

Ah you hate to see another tired man
lay down his hand
like he was giving up the holy game of poker
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.
It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.

You tell him to come in sit down
but something makes you turn around
The door is open you can't close your shelter
You try the handle of the road
It opens do not be afraid
It's you my love, you who are the stranger
It's you my love, you who are the stranger.

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
When he talks like this
you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this,
you don't know what he's after.

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
upon the shore, beneath the bridge
that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping car that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind ...

And leaning on your window sill ...

I told you when I came I was a stranger.


A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.
Oscar Wilde

Intellegent Design's Worst Nightmare

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

"Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer."

One student replied:

"You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn't make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

"Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer."

"Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper's shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper."

"But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g)."

"Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up."

"If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building."

"But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him 'If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper'."

The student was Niels Bohr, the first Dane to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

Dr. Bohr had interesting friends, here he is with Albert Einstein, Brussles 1930

Dr. Bohr with Werner Heisenberg, probably Copenhagen late 1930s.

Now what, you may well ask, does this have to do with Intelligent Design, AKA Creationism? The funny thing is Evolution may be the best understood and most extensively tested of all the major scientific theorems. Things like gravity are far less understood, or proven. But if Creationists get all huffy over Evolution, its only because they've never heard of Bohr's little baby, Quantum Mechanics. This is a far more subversive idea. Even a casual understanding (all I can muster), throws the entire deterministic universe (that includes God's will BTW), out the window. It so irritated Einstein, he said "God does not play dice with the universe". And he didn't even believe in God. The best I can do in a few sentences is to say that Quantum Mechanics explains there is no there there. Matter is not shiny little billiard balls flying around in Newtonian perfection. Matter is fungible. It hardly makes sense to describe it as being a particular thing in a particular place. In any case, you can't say "this is an electron, and can be found at the following location, exhibiting the following characteristics". The best you can do is devise a set of probabilities about what it is and where you can find it. Matter is not hard irreducible bits, its a cloud of probabilities. Heiseberg took it farther by pointing out that the act of measuring certain characteristics of the electron precluded knowledge of other characteristics. The uncertainty theorum. So much for absoloute knowledge of anything. The day someone from the creationist camp figures that out, they're heads will blow up like the fembots in Austin Powers.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.
Herman Melville

The Iran War: Where's The Carriers?

Oh look. Its the USS Harry Truman at Newport on Google Earth. Kind of hard to hide an aircraft carrier.
The US Navy has gone all quiet and vague about where their carriers are. It pisses me off. You can't hide an aircraft carrier from satellites . The Iranians have satellites . Even if they didn't, the Russians would tell them where the carriers are. So the only people who don't know are, well me. And I have a pretty good idea. So why go to the trouble?

Remember about 2 years ago the Iranian spy satellites was one of the red lines for Israel. They were really going to do something before the Iranians had their satellite. But they didn't. There was another red line over advanced Russian SAM systems that may or may not have been on their way to Iran. The Russians seem to have misplaced the SAMs and just never got around to delivering them. But that was then. After all the White House pouting and spitting over Georgia, the Russians can now do as they please in the Middle East. I think Putin's boys may have just found those SAMs in a warehouse somewhere, and will now ship them to Tehran. So the price for an attack on Iran just went up a few notches. If the on-again, off-again war was on, it's probably now off. So why bother being coy about the carriers?

Anyway, I said in the last post that if the US were of a mind to proceed, we would have a Persian Gulf of Tonkin incident around the 25th. That would coincide nicely with a new moon at the end of the month. After all the blustering and bullshit they'll either do it by the end of August, or we can all stop pretending its "on the table" as they like to say over and over.

By the end of October, adult supervision will be at hand and there won't be any more silly war talk from people in Washington who should know better.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
Neils Bohr

I just want to point out to those not familiar with Dr. Bohr that he was no dope. Its not funny because he doesn't know what he's saying. Its funny because he does.


I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.
William Tecumseh Sherman

Heroes: Eugene Smith

Eugene Smith was possibly the most eloquent photographer ever. He was certainly the bravest. In the photo above, he is standing up while everyone else is cowering. His caption was: sticks and stones and bits of human bones, blasting on Iwo Jima. In the photo below, a Marine attempts to shrink into the ground during a mortar barrage on Okinawa.

Smith, again, is standing up to get the picture. His luck ran out a few days later as he stood during another barrage to photograph those taking cover. Hit with shrapnel and nearly killed, he underwent 32 operations over the next two years. During that time, he took no photographs. He wondered if he would ever be able to hold a camera again. It turned out he could, but he found a new problem. He worried that after immersing himself so entirely in the horrors of war, he might never again be able to conjure the belief necessary to continue photographing people. Simply, without a fierce belief in what he was doing, he could not work. One day in 1947, he went out for a walk with his children and for the first time since Okinawa, he carried a camera. He took the photograph below, and proved to himself that he could believe again.

  • I tweaked the photos a little bit in photoshop. This was not done lightly. Smith was also a fanatic about printing. He would print a photo hundreds of times if necessary to achieve exactly what he wanted. As a result, his prints are as close to perfect as it is possible to get. I cannot improve on them in any way. However, through scanning and reproduction on the web, things get added and removed. My minimal tweaking was only to fix obvious flaws from that process.
  • Despite research, I was unable to determine who exactly owns the copyrights to these photos. If anyone cares to clarify, I will give proper attribution. However, I assert fair use in posting them to this blog. Smith's images are so emotional and powerful that once seen, they can never be forgotten. They belong to everyone who has ever seen them. I think that is what Smith was trying to acheive.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Black Power - Mexico City August, 1968

Tommy Smith, John Carlos, medal ceremony men's 200m August 16, 1968

I don't think its possible for anyone who doesn't remember this moment to understand how shocking it was. There was outrage around the world. I can remember, as a 9 year-old, thinking this was a violation. The Olympics were above politics. In a world being torn apart by war and chaos (as it was in 1968), the Olympics was one of the very few institutions that held any hope. 40 years later, I think the Olympics are a racket, and that these men were very brave. The image is no longer scandalous, but heroic.

I'm not surprised to learn now that the two men suffered for their gesture. Even Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist, was punished for his support. Americans were incensed that these men, sent to represent the best of America, used the occasion to protest. Many felt betrayed. Besides, anger, there was fear. American society had agreed that blacks should have rights, but power was another matter. Carlos and Smith were saying "I do not accept definitions, I will define myself." To a lot of Americans, that sounded like a threat. But in a way, the gesture was aimed not at whites, but at blacks. Don't simply accept the rights you are given, take the freedom you deserve. Carlos and Smith were also announcing that the death of Martin Luther King was not the end of the civil rights movement. To quote Churchill, it was just the end of the beginning. And they were right. In the 1970's Black culture blew out of its niches to become mainstream American culture. Blacks entered swathes of American life on their own terms.

As for the Olympics, how naive we were. This was the first crack in the Olympic facade. We only found out later about the student massacre that proceeded the Olympics. 1972 brought the Munich hostage crisis, and politics was in the Olympics for good. 1976 was staggeringly corrupt. Then came the boycotts of 1980 and 1984. By the time the Bejing Games were announced, it was clear to everyone that the lily-white best-hope of humanity was a commercial racket, and the IOC racketeers. How could one explain such a deal with the devil? Money. The games, the sponsorships and the spectacle are designed to make money for the IOC, the broadcast networks, the games corporate sponsors and those few athletes who succeed in spinning their performances into business opportunities.

After 40 years, this image seems less to me a political statement, as an announcement. Things are going to change. And that change will come on our terms. They were right. Fortunately, they lived long enough to be widely recognized as heroes. There are statues, schools named after them, awards, speaking tours and best sellers. Who says there's no second acts in American life?

Monday, August 18, 2008

More Dylan

Coincidentally with the Dylan quote that went up a few days ago, I watched I'm Not There, the 2007 film about Dylan. It was good but not great. Not quite as good as I had expected. Still pretty interesting for anyone that likes Bob Dylan.

The film made me realize something. For most of his songs, I haven't got a clue what Bob Dylan is talking about. Even for some of the ones I really love and play often. Watching the film and reading some other stuff on the web, I realized that nobody else has much clue either. And Dylan has either forgotten what he meant or isn't saying. Or maybe never had a clear meaning in mind to begin with.

Still, I love some of his stuff in an odd way. I'm not a Dylan fan. I don't own a significant number of his albums. Most of his stuff I've never listened to. But the stuff I do like, I've worn out. Literally. I wore out copies of Highway 61 and the Basement Tapes back in the vinyl days.
I think the thing with Dylan is that people see their own meaning in his lyrics. Kind of like a musical rorsach. But the pictures he conjures aren't completely abstract, like the rorsach pictures. He writes about specific things, like ingratitude, or spurned love, or a thrilling ride, but in such a way that we can project our own experience onto the words he provides.

Apparently Obama likes Dylan. His staffers let it be known he had Dylan and Miles Davis and Yo-Yo Ma among many others on his iPod. Clearly they were highlighting a broad range to polish Obama's image. But they actually said he really likes Maggie's Farm. That he listens to it often. I believe it. Maggie's Farm is about ingratitude. About all the ways you can get screwed on the job and the kind of people who do the screwing. It was Dylan's break with the Folk movement. My guess is that anyone with a career in public service could relate, and add a few verses of their own. Obama's liking that song enough for them to mention it tells me a lot more about him than if they said he really likes Hey Jude or Stairway to Heaven or Papa's Got A Brand New Bag.

The Iran War: Closer

Last week when I posted about the Iran war, it was on again. By Friday, it was off again. Now its said to be back on again. At least Debka is reporting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait believe its on. Debka is semi-reliable. Its very much in tune with Israeli Military Intelligence. Frequently, things are presented as fact that are opinion, guesses or spin. But they do have information nobody else does, so you have to put up with the editorial line.

As I noted last week, the end of August will be critical. There will be three US carrier task groups, two US Marine expeditionary forces in the area and a new moon. If they did plan to attack, that's what they would need. Look for a Persian Gulf of Tonkin incident around the 25th.

Nevertheless, I still think there will be no war. The Pentagon and its constituent groups have been not only opposed, but unusually publicly opposed. Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary has himself spoken against an attack. Gates is a very experienced Washington operator. Since taking office he has taken numerous actions to gain stronger bureaucratic control over the military. This control has been at the expense of the White House, and Dick Cheney in particular. If the White House wants to engage in a new war over the public opposition of a cohesive Pentagon, they will need huge political leverage. George Bush's performance over the last two weeks suggest he is not a man with much in the way of leverage. Specifically, I'm talking about his apparent public drunkenness at the Olympics and the impotent threats directed at Russia. He has lame duck written all over him.

Apart from the institutional and political problems Bush would need to overcome, there are a lot of facts on the ground that recommend against attack. First and most importantly, there is no possibility of deposing the Iranian Islamic government or ending their nuclear development via air strikes. So what would be the point? As I detailed last week, the only logical attack plan entails a huge operation. This would deplete America's strategic reserve, cause political and diplomatic problems worldwide, and probably cause a domestic political crisis just before a hugely important election. And that's without any Iranian response.

Last week I promised an examination of possible Iranian responses. But spinning scenarios for a series of events I'm arguing will never happen seems wrong somehow. Let's just say that the Iranians have three possible avenues for counter-attack. Direct and proxy military action against the Strait of Hormuz and US forces in Iraq, proxy action via Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria aimed at Israel, and unconventional action (i.e. car bombing US Embassys in 3rd countries and the like). The Iranians could cause significant disruption of traffic in the Strait, but would soon be blown to smithereens by the US Navy. Their ability to harass Israel via proxies is doubtful in my mind. None of the named organizations are Iranian puppets. All have limited will or capacity to do much damage. Attacks against US targets in 3rd countries that kills locals is simply stupid, and the Iranians aren't stupid. The only area where the US is vulnerable is Iraq. The Army and Air Force depend on a long and difficult to defend road that runs through Shia country from Basra to Baghdad. The Iraqi Shiite groups are most emphatically not the errand boys of Tehran, but conditions inside Iraq could make it desirable for one of the Shiite players to get involved.

There is little Tehran can do to materially blunt the US attack. They could get some traction from closing the Strait, if only briefly. They might also get a lucky shot from a land-based missile against a US carrier. In addition, a coordinated and sustained attack against US supply lines in Iraq could cause significant problems. Any direct or proxy attacks against Israel are likely to yield little of value. The IAF would love an excuse to hammer the Syrians, but the Army can't be very enthusiastic about another invasion of South Lebanon. They suffered a humiliating defeat there two years ago. In the complex world of Arab politics, an attack on Iran would be cautiously welcomed, an Israeli attack on Syria undesirable, but tolerable. Further de-stabilization of Iraq would be a serious problem. They don't want a stronger Iran, but they also don't want a bruised Iran making trouble for them as payback for supporting the Americans.

The Europeans would have mixed reactions. Brown is weak and the support of the UK is critical. US strategic bombing would be seriously degraded if they were unable to use bases in the UK and at Diego Garcia. The French seem keen to kick someone's ass in the Middle-East, so they might be a surprise. The Germans, Italians, Spanish, Dutch and Belgians will be against the war and unlikely to allow their bases to be used. The Eastern European EU members will be conflicted. Russia will be 100% in the Iran camp. That's significant because the Russians can supply lots of intelligence, including real-time satellite and signals intelligence. China will be very unhappy, but will probably stay out. That guarantees the UN will be no help to the US.

To summarize, the US has the means on hand to attack, and the timing is right. All they need is an excuse. However, the chance of removing the Islamic government or ending the nuclear program are nil. There is significant opposition to the operation within the US Military. Regular US allies will not provide substantial material or political support. Israel is not in a position to provide material assistance, or capitalize on the crisis to re-order their immediate neighborhood. The Arab countries are scared that any outcome will be bad for them. A big US attack would extend their weakness in strategic reserve, creating vulnerabilities elsewhere. An attack, no matter how it turned out, would strengthen Russian influence in the Middle-East, and could draw China into the region. All of this would have to be dealt with by a lame duck president unable to bring political leverage to the problems being created. It would also be done immediately in advance of a key US election. The outcome of that election could have an impact on the personal fortunes of those making the attack decision.

Put that all together and the whole thing looks crazy, as indeed, it is. I don't be a war. The USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Pieliu will go home at the end of the month, and the USS Ronald Regan soon after. Everything will settle down until Obama is inaugurated. That's what I think will happen.


Church of the Holy Trinity
Monastery of the Trinity and Saint Sergius
Sergiyev Posad, Russia

May 1992
Kodak High-Speed Infrared

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Asked how he chose his career:
Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas "before and after" ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy — he ain't so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?
Bob Dylan - Playboy interview, February 1966

From a great article at New York Magazine: The Ten Most Incomprehensible Bob Dylan Interviews of All Time.  This was #1.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Eric Lafforgue
A very good photographer visits North Korea. He's posted a ton of really good photos on Flikr. Well worth a look.

Fun Facts To Know And Share

Bamboo plants can grow up to 36 inches in a day.

The Cortez Bank

Photo: Robert Brown/BillabongXXL
At the edge of the continental shelf, one hundred miles south-east of San Diego, there is a chain of undersea mountains called the Cortez Bank. The tallest peaks of these mountains come within 20 feet of the surface. Gathering energy from 7,000 miles of open water, the ocean swell breaks over these peaks like a beach. The result is enormous breakers, the biggest waves in the world. Its an eerie and dangerous place. I'm not much interested in surfing, but the video below is haunting. Well worth a minute to watch. Remember this is 100 miles away from the coast, in the open ocean. Even professional surfers find the place frightening.

The New York Times ran a story about the Cortez Bank earlier this year.


French thermonuclear test "Licorne", Moruora - July 3rd, 1970. From a photoset at Flikr by Pierre J.

The Licorne shot was a hydrogen bomb suspended by a balloon at 500m. The yeild was 914 kilotons. Low for a hydrogen weapon. The French Canopus test in 1968 was 2.6 megatons. Although it looks like the explosion is right in front of you, it is actually 25 kilometers away. My guess is that the fireball is about 1,500 meters in diamater and the entire mushroom cloud is 5,000 meters. By six minutes after the explosion, the cloud had risen to 25,000 meters or 78,000 feet.

I find this really beautiful as a visual spectacle. Some may not be able to get over the content. Just remember it was a test and nobody got hurt.

Here is a page about the 1970 French test series.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Iran War: On Again?

From Google Maps
The on-again, off-again Iran war seems to be on again, for the moment. I've argued in earlier posts that the US will not attack Iran before George Bush's term ends. Since that argument was explicitly based on speculation, it could easily be incorrect. However, despite the build-up I will describe below, my feeling is still that it won't happen.
Multiple sources indicate a major Middle-East naval build-up by the US, France and the UK. This, in itself, is nothing new. Every few months, the US rotates aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. That inevitably leads to cries of immanent attack based on the presence of two carrier task groups in the Gulf area. Every time, there has been an overlap of several days, and then the old task force sails home. In truth, an attack, if it were to be mounted, would take place during such an overlap. But it hasn't happened yet. In addition, every few months, the US Marines do a similar hand-over for their Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEF). These hand-overs are less routine. Sometimes there are two MEFs around for weeks. They follow an entirely different schedule than the carriers, so the rotations take place at different intervals.
What's different now is that there are not one, but two carrier task forces on their way. In addition, the Marines are also sending a second MEF. There are also assorted British and French naval assets over and above their normal deployments. All this is important because there are two very visible things required for a major US attack on Iran: 1) a new moon - the Americans like to attack in the dark until they acquire air superiority, 2) at least two, and better three, aircraft carriers. With a new moon on August 30, both conditions will be satisfied.
A proper analysis of the strategic positions of the players and possible outcomes will be a separate article. This article will lay out the military options and their operational requirements. A nuts and bolts analysis. We will leave out the political complexities and as far as possible Israel. Just to keep things simple.
In terms of an attack on Iran, the US has five separate operational goals. They could mix and match a bit, but some are required if you want the others.

Disrupt Iranian training of Iraqi militias

This is easy. A few cruise missiles launched from destroyers in the Persian Gulf would do the job. Little chance of a miss, little chance of civilian casualties, low likelihood of significant retaliation. The last is especially true because the Iranians cleared out the camps in the spring when the Americans were making a lot of noise over them. The camps named by the US currently sport no more than a skeleton crew of extremely nervous sentries who probably spend most of their time in the bomb shelters. Such an attack would be mostly symbolic. That's why Bill Clinton loved them so much. No downside, lots of flag waving and message sending potential. George Bush expressed contempt for such exercises early in his first term, but the option remains on the table. This option could be pursued independent of the others and could include airstrikes as well as cruise missiles.

Gain control of Iranian airspace - attack Iranian air force & SAM sites

This option comes in two flavors. First is a local superiority over the Straits. This would require at the least destruction of Surface To Air (SAM) missile sites in the area. The Iranian Air Force is not strong and could be interdicted rather than destroyed in this scenario. For anything more ambitious than local control of the Straits, a full air-superiority operation would be required. US war doctrine requires total control of the air. In any widespread attack against Iran, air-superiority missions would comprise the bulk of operations. The aim would be to destroy the Iranian Air Force on the ground or in the air, destruction of Iranian Air Defense networks and command, and destruction of regional and key local SAM assets. The operation might include attacks on air defense batteries (guns rather than missiles) at key locations as well. For the most part, batteries are useless against US strategic bombers, but could be a problem for low-level strike aircraft. These attacks would be carried out by US Air Force and Navy planes, cruise missiles and possibly UK planes as well. As mentioned, darkness is preferable for air superiority operations because the US has an enormous technological advantage in the dark. Expect an attack to begin on or just before a new moon. The new moons for the remainder of 2008 occur on August 30, September 29, October 28, November 27 & December 27.
A related, but separate operation would also be required to prevent Iranian retaliation against the US Navy. Iran is thought to have a large stockpile of anti-ship missiles. It would be logical to expect air and cruise missile strikes against all Iranian military installations along the entire Gulf and Arabian Sea coasts. Some landing raids might also be necessary to eliminate any chance of a successful Iranian attack against the carriers. In the event of hostilities, the carrier task groups become a liability in one sense, they have to be defended at all costs, pushing the US into attacks unrelated to their strategic objectives. One of many hidden costs and escalations built in to any US offensive operations.

Destroy Iranian government and military command and control assets

This operation is flexible and could range from small local strikes to a complete decapitation like the 2003 attack on Iraq. The aim there was to completely eliminate the ability for the Iraqi government to function. The operation included air strikes on telephone exchanges, government office buildings, military communications facilities, TV & Radio stations, power plants, and key road & rail bridges. In addition, there were electronic attacks aimed at disrupting electronic communications that eluded airstrikes. Obviously, these attacks would primarily target Tehran and important regional capitals. During the 2003 war, there were also airstrikes aimed at killing important government and military leaders. Such personalized attacks don't seem useful against Iran. Its a fully developed modern state and you can't paralyze the entire government by killing a few key individuals.
Depending upon US plans for use of ground forces, or fears of Iranian retaliation, attacks might also be carried out against a wider range of transportation targets across the country. For example, any plan to land Marines in the Straits area would call for destruction of all road and rail links to the area to prevent Iranian reinforcement. There could also be actions against Iranian military and transportation targets near the Iraqi border. However, any movement of Iranian troops towards or across the Iraqi border would represent a huge escalation. It would turn an air war into a ground war. Neither the US, the Iraqis or the assorted allies have enough troops on hand to fight a ground war. If the US felt it needed to neutralize such a threat, it would be another hidden escalation.

Gain strategic control over the Strait of Hormuz (or at least deny Iranian control)

University of Texas - Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
In any armed conflict between Iran and the West, control of the Strait of Hormuz will become critical. Almost 40% of the world’s seabourne traded oil transits the Strait. That’s 16.5 million barrels or $1.9 billion (@$115/bl) per day on 15 or 16 tankers, plus ships for other petroleum products and liquefied natural gas. Or 25 – 30 ships traveling each way. Most of the oil and natural gas is on its way to Asia, particularly China and Japan. The prestige of the US Navy and the credibility of US power rests on guaranteeing the free flow of tankers through the Straits. The Iranians have threatened to close the Straits in the event of hostilities with the US.
How a struggle for control would unfold is difficult to predict. The Iranians have shore and air anti-ship missiles, mines and patrol boats that could make hay of unarmed tankers. The US would have the entire Fifth Fleet plus whatever Air Force, Marines and Special Forces assets required. The Americans have more than enough force to eliminate any Iranian threat, but the Iranians have speed, surprise and flexibility. The conservative thing to do for the US is assume the Iranians will attempt to close the Straits, and preempt them. I’d imagine airstrikes against any building, boat, vehicle or donkey cart that looked capable of launching a missile. In addition, the maximum scenario would include Marine landings on the Tunb and Abu Musa Islands and possibly in the region around Bandar Abbas. The Islands provide strategic control of the Gulf entrance to the Straits. They belong to the UAE, but have been illegally occupied by Iran since 1971. Their liberation by US Marines would be most welcome by the UAE. Any landings on the Iranian mainland would be short-term, there’s no reason for the Marines to stay once the conflict ends. The Islands, on the other hand, would be a strategic prize the US would hold on to (with UAE permission, of course) forever. Besides the military equation, there are political dimensions to a struggle over the Straits. Iranian action to close the Straits would be extremely unpopular with everyone (except Russia who would still pretend to be outraged). Pressure for them to back-off would be intense and wide-ranging. On the other hand, Iran has one great advantage. Both the tankers and the oil they contain are valuable. Their owners cannot risk loss by sailing into a war zone. Iran need do very little to achieve a de-facto closing. Or put another way, the US Navy needs to defend everywhere and everything to be successful. The Iranians only need to hit one tanker to be successful. This reality would tend to make a US preemption more desirable, from the US point of view. Yet another built-in escalation.

Destroy Iranian nuclear development capabilities

After all the destruction and death discussed, we finally get to the supposed point. The Israelis might be able to successfully hit several Iranian nuclear facilities with a one-off surprise attack, but they probably can’t do sufficient damage to justify the risk. For the US, such an attack is out of the question. They need to prevent retaliation in the Straits and Iraq. That means all the operations discussed above must be carried out before, or along with, operations against Iranian nuclear facilities. There is no gain in half-measures. The risk and preconditions are the same. The logical thing to do would be to wipe out the Iranian program entirely. One would expect multiple strikes against dozens of targets, mainly delivered by B1, B2 & B52 bombers. Combinations of bunker-buster and conventional munitions would be required. Problems with limited intelligence and the strength of key sites might yield unsatisfactory results. Lastly, the key to the program is not the infrastructure. Equipment can be replaced. To destroy the program, you need to kill the people with the expertise. Iran is a very large country with almost 70 million citizens. How do you find the key personel? At the first sign of trouble, they will scatter from the facilities and disapear into the general population. The only effective way to do the job is with nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles or B2 bombers could also do the job if they were launched in such a way as to synchronize their arrival at all the targets. Besides the obvious crime of using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country that has not attacked the US, there are other risks. Cruise missiles and bombers can be shot down, or crash for mechanical reasons. They are reliable, but not 100% reliable. Ballistic missiles are a nightmare. If Russia, or China, or India, or Pakistan thought the missiles were headed towards them, they would have to respond instantly. Nobody wants to head down that path. You can't warn them first, because the Russians, and probably the Indians and Chinese, would tell the Iranians. I don't believe an American President would order first use of nuclear weapons, and I don't believe the US military would carry out such an order.
Given the effort required and the uncertainty of the results, the operation is far from a slam-dunk.

The Means

A full-on attack by the US would be delivered by aircraft operating from Air Force bases and Aircraft Carriers. The Air Force would probably use bases in Iraq, Qatar, and Afghanistan for F-15, F-16, and other assorted strike aircraft. The new F-22s would probably not be used because US Defense Secretary Robert Gates nixed their deployment to Iraq a few months ago. However, they could be ferried in quickly if required. Heavier aircraft like the B1, B2 and B52 would have to fly in from the US, Britain, Guam and Diego Garcia (assuming UK permission). Its possible re-fueling and rearming might be done at bases in Iraq or Afghanistan, but that is not the usual procedure. Also, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has publicly stated Iraqi bases cannot be used to attack Iran. When push comes to shove, it might not matter much what al-Maliki says. By design, the Iraqis have no means to prevent the US from doing what it wants.
Naval air support would come from the carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan are said to be on their way to the area, joining the USS Abraham Lincoln which is already in the Arabian Sea. Depending on the plan, one would probably park near the head of the Gulf opposite Bushehr, another near Qatar and the last outside the Straits in the Gulf of Oman. Right now, the Lincoln is in the Arabian Sea. A passage of two carriers through the Strait, especially if one is the Lincoln, would be an indicator of imminent action. The Navy doesn't like having carriers in the Persian Gulf because they feel vulnerable. The admirals would need a good reason to send two in there. The Lincoln is due to go home, and doesn't need to enter the Gulf to do so.
The Marines have an MEF on the USS Peleliu in the Gulf of Aden, keeping an eye on Somalia. They are also sending another on the USS Iwo Jima to the area. The passage of one or both into the Persian Gulf would be another possible tip-off of imminent action. Each is a self-contained landing force with combat troops, transport and air-support.
In the next post, I'll discuss the possible Iranian response, and the overall strategic situation.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
Oscar Wilde 

IMHO, this is a really important idea.

New York Rooftop Gardens

Originally uploaded by jwilly

There are some beautiful gardens in this photo set.  I find a rooftop garden very appealing for some reason.  I like them better than a real garden.

Georgia Plays Us For Suckers

The first rule of statesmanship is: Don't get into unnecessary wars.  If you break rule 1, then go to to rule 1a: Make sure you win the war.

Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili has broken both rules in his four day old war with Russia.  The Georgians have obviously been preparing this war for some time.  However, there is no reason for this war besides Georgian calculations that they had better try their chances before George Bush leaves office. They apparently expected the "big bad Russians vs. the heroic underdogs" to play well in the Western Media.  But, having embarked upon this unnecessary war, they immediately lost it.  Joshua Trevino points out that the one strategic task for the Georgian army is blocking the road from Tskhinvali through the mountains to Russia.  The best Georgia could hope for would be a stalemate in the mountains until the inevitable cease-fire.  Remember that while everyone was paying attention to Stalingrad in the fall of 1942, the Red Army fought the German's main force to a draw in these mountains.

Despite having the advantage of surprise, and no organized opposition for the first day, Georgia failed to block the road.  Its not even clear they tried very hard.  They didn't even secure the airport at Tskhinvali.  By the second day, Russian tanks were pouring through the pass and paratroopers had flown into to Tskhinvali.  Game over.  Having sought to avoid an early intervention by the UN, Georgia is now claiming they have withdrawn from South Ossetia and are very keen on a cease-fire. 

The Georgian's plan didn't work.  They expected the West in general and NATO in particular, to intervene politically and stop a slow Russian counter-attack.  That would hopefully freeze  their forces in place, in control of Ossetia.  They miscalculated, and by killing Russian peacekeepers on the first day, guaranteed a swift Russian response.  The Russians were clearly expecting the war.  You don't just happen to have a brigade of tanks deployed, fueled-up, crewed-up and ready to roll on a remote road in the mountains.

At this point, there are only two questions: 1) how much will Russia punish Georgia?, 2) what, if anything, will the West do about it? The answer to the first question is probably "as much as they like".  Having chased the Georgians out of Ossetia, the Russians can pick apart the Georgian military at their leisure with GPS guided bombs.  The answer to the second question should be "nothing".  Georgia is squarely within the Russian sphere of influence. NATO has no business discussing anything more important than the weather with Georgia.  Besides, the less International pressure the Russians face, the less need they will feel to disregard it, the sooner they will lay off attacking Georgian military assets outside Ossetia.  Its unlikely the Russians will carry the war into Georgia proper and risk lots of civilian casualties.  The Georgians started this war, let them deal with the consequences.  

Besides the usual news outlets, I used the following sources for this story:
Gary Brecher
Joshua Trevino
Mark Ames


William Tecumseh Sherman. As much a lion as a man. There were a few exceptional photos taken of Sherman. This one is my favorite because of the quality of the photo, and Sherman's more complex expression. There are many things revealed on that face. The magic of a good portrait. The scratches and markings around the edge would have been hidden by a frame. To our modern eye, however, the flaws in the image lend authenticity and context about the media itself.

I can't find a definitive source for the photo, but it was probably taken by Matthew Brady in Washington in 1869. Sherman received his 4th star in March 1869 after assuming command of the Army upon Grant's inauguration. It would make sense to have a formal portrait made at that time.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Fun Facts To Know And Share

30 Trillion - the number of cells in an average adult human.


All the words are gonna bleed from me
And I will think no more
Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes

A Smoking Gun At Last?

This is not THE letter, I can't find an image of that, yet. Its a letter written by Saddam.

 Ron Suskind's new book Way of the World has an explosive snippit about an allegedly forged letter.  The letter from  Iraq Intelligence Chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush to Saddam Hussein ties together Iraq, Mohammad Atta and debunked Niger yellow cake. It was "found" by US Forces and released in December 2003.   Suskind says the letter was in fact a forgery created by the CIA under orders from the White House.  Not only that, but Habbush was in the CIA's pocket before the invasion and had told them Iraq had no WMD.

The notion that the Bush administration deliberately lied their way into Iraq has been fully internalized by the chattering classes in the US, and everyone outside the US.  However, there is still a large slice of the American public that has not come to terms with this.  So the story of the forged letter, if true (and I don't doubt it), could do for George Bush what the 18 minute gap did for Richard Nixon.  The minor detail that gives the game away.  The smoking gun.

You might well ask why is this important?  To any sane observer, there are not only smoking guns everywhere, but smoking corpses as well.  About a million of them.  What makes this different than the hundreds of previous revelations is the White House reaction.  They are reacting in the same way they did when Joseph Wilson penned his op-ed.  Full attack mode.  Wilson only suggested George Bush knew his State of The Union address contained dubious assertions.  This is far more serious.

Suskind has a short piece today worth reading.  This story could be the [insert cliche here].  As Suskind says, "And so, we watch and wait...." I'm keen to watch, and a lot of people have waited a long time.

Memo to EB: STFU

Edgar Bronfman; scion of a bootlegging fortune, would-be media mogul, serial idiot.  I won't call him Mr. Bronfman, that title is reserved for his father, who I respect.  By all accounts, Edgar is a nice guy. But he's an unfortunately bone-headed businessman.  He has made tons of money for various partners over the years, but managed to destroy billions of his own family's wealth.  The sad tale is too long and complex to list here.  You can look it up if you like. He also looks uncomfortably like Seth Green playing a billionaire.

Edgar has made headlines in the past for peevish statements that betray fundamental misunderstanding of the entertainment and technology industries.  For example, he famously whined about the iPod: "We are selling our songs through iPod, but we don’t have a share of iPod’s revenue. We want to share in those revenue streams. We have to get out of the mindset that our content has promotional value only." I would have liked to be there when Steve Jobs heard that.  That's like McDonald's demanding a share of GM's revenue because drive-thrus make automobiles more valuable.

Techdirt reports that Edgar is at it again.  This time, he's upset about the phenomenally successful Guitar Hero and Rock Band games.  These games have invented a new mini-industry.  Bands are clamouring to get in.  Its better than advertising because the customers get really engaged with your music.  They can even buy MP3s through an embedded online store.  And the game companys pay you to include your music.  Bands are enthusiastic.  Metallica is releasing its new album via Guitar Hero the same day it goes on sale at retail. 

But that's not good enough for Edgar.  He said, "The amount being paid to the music industry, even though their games are entirely dependent on the content we own and control, is far too small." Or what?  Warner will pull its artists?  I think Edgar is getting a bunch of STFU memos from his artists today.

Techdirt sums it up nicely:
The industry simply assumes that, if something makes use of their content, all of the value is in the content. That's incorrect. Yes, the content is a part of the value, but it's the game that's making that content valuable. [snip] Until the recording industry recognizes that this isn't a zero sum game, and someone out there promoting your content is helping to make it more valuable, the industry is never going to figure out how to really adapt.
The idea of copyright as zero-sum game is fundamental to the problems with intellectual property. This is a powerful point to remember when evaluating any of the numerous policy issues currently on the table. But that's another post.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Self promotion.  I made the drawing during a stay at the hospital. It was converted to Illustrator for coloring.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Mmmm. The new Porsche 911 GT2. Nice car, nice photo.


There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
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The Really Bad Thing

Its hard to write about US Politics or the Middle-East without making some kind of reference to the Really Bad Thing that nobody wants to mention.  I'm going to mention it now so I can refer to the RBT occasionally without having to sound like a nutjob. 

The Really Bad Thing is some variation on the idea that George Bush doesn't leave office in January 2009.  There are as many scenarios for the Thing as there are paranoid left-wing and libertarian bloggers.  That's a lot.  Nobody who wants to be taken seriously ever discusses the Thing, but you can sense they think about it.  I don't believe the Thing is planned, or will happen, or would necessarily succeed if it did happen.  But the problem is; means, motive and opportunity have converged.  So it can't be entirely ruled out. 

So why bring it up at all?   Because the GOP hasn't yet internalized the reality that they are going to lose in November.  When that sinks in, people will get panicky.  This administration is a lose cannon and could become dangerous in a storm. 

This is the important part.  I am not a conspiracy theorist.  Vast conspiracies exist in books, TV shows and movies, not in real life.  A burning smell is a lot more common than smoke, and smoke is a lot more common than fire.  What I'm describing here is a burning smell, not a fire. 

The key points are:
  1. The Bush administration are a bunch of crooks - if there's any justice, hundreds of them will go to jail, some for life
  2. The likelihood of a 1932-type Democratic landslide in November, increasing the chance crimes will be prosecuted
  3. A huge increase in the President's power to deal with domestic emergencies, including the powers to define and declare emergencies*
  4. A decrease in oversight and the evolution of a hands-off Supreme Court
These constitute the motive and the means.  What's missing is the opportunity.  This could be furnished by a domestic terrorist attack or a war against Iran.  Both unlikely, but not impossible.

Even if the Thing were to start, there's no guarantee it would succeed.  Many people would be in a position to derail  such a project.  Besides, the key hallmark of this administration has not been lawlessness or corruption, but incompetence. Ritual, law and tradition gird the familiar process of handing over power.  Going quietly into the sunset is the easiest thing.  That's probably what will happen.

Now, that's done.  No need to discuss it again.  Sometimes, I will mention the RBT and link back here, but that's it.  

*Here's a semi-non-paranoid rundown
**In The Once Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind reported that CIA analysts concluded bin Laden's October 2004 tape was intended to help Bush get re-elected.  Why?  Bush is the best thing that happened to radical Islam since the last Crusade.