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Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Costly Withdrawal Is the Price To Be Paid for a Foolish War: "For misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them, Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president's men. If convicted, they'll have plenty of time to mull over their sins." Ouch. The author is Martin van Creveld, who I read in grad school. He does good qualitative studies of military affairs; while I disagree with some of his conclusions, he's a careful thinker.

Napoleon's genocide 'on a par with Hitler' -- A French historian has assembled and published an expose of Napoleon's campaign against Haitian independence, which may have included gassing prisoners in the holds of ships. The quote about being on par with Hitler is clearly hyperbole, but my own research on Haiti can confirm that huge numbers of Haitians were butchered by the French during this period. Napoleon may not have "invented the Final Solution" -- a formulation which trivializes the Holocaust -- but he war clearly a brutal war criminal from a modern perspective. Even in his own era, France's crimes in Haiti were considered to be beyond the pale (although not necessarily illegal, since colonized peoples and slaves had no "rights" to speak of) and several French soldiers disobeyed orders to commit atrocities. I look forward to reading reviews of the book and discussions of its theses.

Wikipedia may not be best source -- An article detailing some of the problems with relying on Wikipedia for academic information. USA Today has a similar article about how one reporter was falsely accused on Wikipedia of being a Soviet spy involved in the Kennedy assassination. He was not amused. Finally, Wikipedia gets Swift Boated describes the back-and-forth over the term "swiftboating" at Wikipedia. I think the moral of the story is not to trust Wikipedia when it comes to controversial or hot-button issues. I've had quite a bit of luck using it for narrow technical questions about software, botany, and geography but the politics and history articles are generally worthless.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Inside Higher Ed has a story about teaching college-level History courses useing Civilization III. I love Civ III and I'm currently playing the heck out of Civ IV. I love history; I was a history grad student for a year before switiching to political science because I preferred its approach to the study of war. However, I'm left with the feeling that these courses are pretty frivolous. Students have to put in 20 hours or so before they get the hang of them game and its rules. That's a huge amount of out-of-class time that could have been spent reading another book or two Moreover, additional time must be spent in the classroom to separate the absurdities of the game (Abraham Lincoln building the Pyramids in 500 BC, for example) from its useful tidbits of knowledge (military spending imposes opportunity costs in developing societies; wars are often fought when seemingly worthless territory turns out to harbor valuable resources). Finally, many of the game's rules were designed for game balance rather than realism. Nuclear weapons are underpowered and global war is the norm; a small bribe can convince your worst enemy to attack its closest ally; people can overthrow any occupying force if their "culture" is strong enough; government sponsorship of religion is always good and never disruptive; religion always makes people more likely to suypport the government; etc. I love history and Civ, but Civ should not be thought of as a historical simulation but rather as a strategy game to which historical decor has been added.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Cheney's Dreadful Lack of Ambition - We'd be better off if the vice president were running in 2008. By John Dickerson: This article brings back memories of "ambition theory," championed by some American politics scholars but applicable to other political systems as well. The theory argues that the best representatives, those looking out for the interests of the country as a whole, are precisely those who are often vilified -- ambitious pols who will say or do anything to get leected and retain their seats. These people aren't satisfied with merely fixing a single problem (discrete ambition) or serving a set of constituents (static ambition); they always seek to move up in the world, ever-willing to betray the ones who elected them in order to gain access to more power. In a democracy, this means they focus on broad national interests instead of the narrow sectarian ones that got them their House or Senate seat (or position in the Executive branch). There are real problems with this analysis (it really does assume that most people work their way up through Congress; it has little to say about political control over information; it cannot predict the behavior of term-limited pols like Bush) but the core is a truism: someone who has to care what people think does a better job than someone who gets paid anyway.

Man sentenced for watching live broadcast of child molestation -- This case illustrates what's wrong with current sentencing practices. I have no problem with giving people who pay for and watch a live kiddie porn video some jail time. However, it seems a bit twisted to give the watcher more time than the guy who was doing the molesting. Why? For the same reason that drug kingpins walk while small fry dealers get life in prison. Drug kingpins can squeal on lots of associates, whereas small fry dealers know little of value to law enforcement. Similarly, the molester was able to give information about a whole network of other molesters, while the perv watching it all didn't know about any other criminals to report. There should be an incentive to help polie, but a kingpin who squeals shouldn't do even less time than the underlings or customers he cultivated. This is, of course, a problem with "zero tolerance," i.e. huge (life) sentences for relatively small-time crooks. If everyone gets a life sentence then the law becomes unable to impose additional penalties on big-time crooks even while jails fill up with small fry. Once you commit a crime, you might as well practice mass murder to protect yourself since the penalty won't increase. Similarly, if everyone gets life then the police have to offer a substantial discount to get information -- but in doing so they reduce the big-time crooks' sentences to below those of their less-culpable (and hence less useful) underlings.

Defense Tech: Pentagon Skimps on IED Defense?: "Keep in mind, the Pentagon's fringe-science arm is planning to spend $38 million next year on giant blimp research, and $200 million on 'cognitive' computers. So $45 million isn't all that much, in Pentagon terms." Yes, you read that right. Giant blimps get about the same budget as anti-IED devices. For those who haven't been following the war, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) account for a rather large fraction of US combat fatalities. (The casualty-tracking site icasualties.org reports that 28% of deaths are listed as being caused by IEDs; this figure may well be understated given the number of cases where exact cause of death is unavailable).

This kind of post is why I read PrawfsBlawg. These are the kind or arcane-yet-accessible questions I find interesting.

Friday, November 18, 2005
Worst President Ever? -- Discourse.net ponders a new anti-Bush sticker and wonders whether Bush is indeed our worst President. My verdict? Not even close. James Buchanan takes the prize. As I wrote in the comments section: Buchanan seems to be the historians' consensus choice as the worst President ever, fiddling while the country descended into civil war. Indeed, his officials did more than just leak a name or break into an office here or there. His people actually shifted arms into vulnerable armories in the South, where they could be more easily seized by rebels in the event of civil war. Mere corruption cannot compare to what amounted to treason, and the results of Buchanan's negligence were surely worse (in terms of lives lost) than the negligence of any other President. Oh, and I forgot that bit about his private conversations with the Supreme Court justices urging them towards their decision in Dred Scott, the case that not only said that slaves didn't become free if brought north but also that Congress could never ban slavery from the US territories, and that by the way African-Americans could never be citizens, even if a state wanted to grant equal rights to freedmen. The decision sparked a reaction that eventually led to the civil war. So no, Bush isn't even close to our worst President. I'd put him in the bottom ranks, but we shouldn't get too carried away.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Irrational Phobias -- A creepy, disturbing Photoshop contest on Worth1000.com. After viewing the entries, I now have a half dozen new phobias. Thanks, contributors.

Friday, November 11, 2005
Katazuke - the tidy table In my day, we had to dump everything on the floor manually. Science marches on.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005
I was wondering what the Burmese junta was up to these days. -- This is one of the worst dictatorships left in the world. I think Turkmenistan is heading in Burma/Myanmar's direction, but it leader has killed far fewer of his own people than the Burmese leaders. Their latest policy has been the forced relocation of the capital to an easily defensible valley in the interior.

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