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Cost and Benefit

[ 0 ] January 12, 2006 |

Yglesias on the Stiglitz study:

They make a solid case for a $700 billion to $1,000 billion direct cost plus some fairly uncertain macro consequences. Of course, on the one hand this seems like an odd way to think about a question of war and peace.

But on the other hand, the very high direct costs are something that has to be kept in mind when considering the humanitarian benefits of the war. This is a staggerly large sum of money that could have been directed at much more useful causes if people really felt that a $1 trillion humanitarian initiative was something they wanted to get behind.

Why does a cost-benefit analysis seem like an odd way to think about a question of war and peace? Every decision about whether or not to engage in a war (either offensive or defensive, really, but particularly in the case of wars of intervention), is about purchasing some probability of some good at some probability of some expense. The good may be peace, security, democracy, whatever, and the expense will include blood and treasure. Evaluating whether the expenditure of blood and treasure is worth the achievement of the good in question seems to me to be a perfectly natural, and appropriate way of deciding to engage in a war.

I’m not trying to pick on Matt, because his is not the first implication I’ve seen that the decision on whether to go to war shouldn’t follow a rational decision-making calculus (whether it actually is historically descriptive or no), and he comes to the correct answer. Nevertheless, I’m curious why people find this formulation even mildly troubling.

Wiston House

[ 0 ] January 10, 2006 |

The Others freaks me the hell out, even after the fourth or fifth viewing. Part of this has to do with the creepy little girl theme, perfected in Kubrick’s The Shining. The English gothic, with the mist and the grey and the big house and so forth, however, also plays a part. You can imagine my consternation, then, when I showed up a Wiston House, hopelessly sleep deprived and easily frightened. Wiston House, home of the Wilton Park conferences, is an old English manor.

There has been a manor at this location since before the Conquest. The House that stands today was built in the 16th century, although the original structure was much larger and differed in other important respects. The foundations of the church next to the house date back to Norman times, although the building is considerably newer. The graveyard dates back almost to the Conquest. This is a view of the manor and the church from the east. The drive up to the manor was a good deal creepier on the day I arrived, because a low mist hung over the entire area. The fields around the manor are crowded with sheep.

The manor house was altered considerably during the 19th century. Since that time, it has played host to, most notably, the Canadian Army during World War II, which used Wiston House as its headquarters during the D-Day invasion. Wiston House is now home to various conferences and similar events. I imagine that this tree must look less freaky in the summer; it has apparently been hit by lightning half a dozen times, but continues to grow and to bloom in the spring. The tree dominates the driveway up to the manor. I’m staying in a cottage off to the left of the main house and behind the church.

The hills surrounding Wiston House include Chanctonbury Ring, which is a grove of trees planted around a 7th century BC hilltop fortress. The Romans built a temple n the fort around 300 AD, although apparently very little remains. During free time tomorrow, I plan to walk up an investigate. Tomorrow or Thursday I’ll drift down to the village of Steyning, which was apparently a happening place in the 11th century.

Whither NATO?

[ 0 ] January 10, 2006 |

Every session at this conference revolves around the question of what NATO’s future should look like. One speaker pointed out that this is not a new question; it has been asked in one way or another since the earlier 1950s. Concerns about the relevance of NATO have arisen in response to the re-arming of Germany, the withdrawal of France, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of Ostpolitik, and, of course, the end of the Cold War. Remarkably, NATO hasn’t really “re-invented” itself in response to any of these, with the exception perhaps of the last, and even that did not produce a significant structural change.

In my view, NATO is and ought to be a collective security organization of limited regional scope, one that is committed to defending the values and physical security of the North Atlantic community on a regional basis. This mission should include the establishment of stable democracies within and on the borders of the NATO alliance. I do not hold to the view, put forth by Jose Maria Aznar, that NATO ought to dramatically expand its geographic scope. The proposal doesn’t really make much sense to me; adding Japan, Brazil, India, and other major democracies would certainly emphasize the values of aspect of NATO’s mission, but at a cost of giving up its regional focus. Moreover, the administrative structure of NATO would make no sense in the context of adding these large democracies; why would Japan be interested in seriously investing resources in an organization where it held no more official power than Belgium or Portugal? This is not to say that some formal organization including the world’s major democracies is undesirable. It is to say that such an organization ought not start with the NATO framework.

Within the narrow focus that I suggest, NATO can still do good work. For all of its problems, the Kosovo operation was a success. Critics rightly point to the difficulties of coalition warfare, but in my view there is no Kosovo War without NATO; critiques of execution are beside the point. NATO played a critical role in convincing the major players that a problem existed, and in maintaining consensus for the duration of the operation. A NATO that maintains its regional focus can carry out other, similar projects along its borders, as well as maintaining and encouraging stability in developing democracies. For operations outside this purview, other options will always exist; simply because NATO will not be involved does not mean that an operation cannot be undertaken.

Wilton Park Conference

[ 0 ] January 9, 2006 |

I’m currently at a Wilton Park conference on the future of NATO. The Wilton Park conference series began in the late 1940s, and focused on fostering a democratic culture among German POWs. As far as I can tell, there are no German POWs here now… This conference is being held at Wiston House, a lovely old English country home that is creepy in a The Others sort of way. Pictures tomorrow…

Sessions thus far have been good. The first was on the role of technology in stability operations. The Pentagon has added stability operations to its main portfolio of missions, yet retains a commitment to a technologically advanced fighting force. I have two main concerns about this. First, I’m unconvinced that technology can really provide an answer to counter-insurgency. Second, I’m inclined to think that advancing US military technology is going to produce real interoperability problems with NATO allies, not to mention less advanced military organizations.

These questions weren’t answered today, but they were discussed in a serious fashion by serious, knowledgeable people. The rest of the conference should be fun.

Imperial War Museum

[ 0 ] January 9, 2006 |

Visited the Imperial War Museum yesterday, before almost passing out. If you like war, imperialism, and museums, accept no substitute.

This is the entrance of the IWM. The left gun is from HMS Ramillies, and the right from HMS Resolution. The British 15″ was one of the finest weapons ever installed on a battleship, and it’s pretty nifty to see a pair of them together, in turret style. The gun on the right was also installed on the monitor HMS Roberts, which provided shore bombardment on D-Day.

The main hall on the first floor of the IWM contains artifacts from various 20th century British wars. They have about half a dozen tanks, plus armored cars, artillery pieces, and aircraft. The weapon come from both British and foreign stocks. This is a T-34/85, probably the finest all-around tank of World War II. The 85mm gun was big enough to kill even the heaviest German tanks, assuming you could hit them in the right place. The T-34 was the best tank not because it was the fastest, or the best armored, or the hardest hitting. Rather, it had good tank qualities, good survivability, was very easy to mass produce, and very easy to repair. The Soviets realized early on that a tank with a battlefield life expectancy of 3 weeks did not require an engine that could last for 5 years. They also realized that tanks that could move from battlefield to battlefield on their own power, rather than on railcars, were valuable. The T-34 could also take a hit, which differentiated it from the American Shermans.

The Lawrence of Arabia exhibit cost extra, and I didn’t have a lot of time, so I missed it. The best of the other exhibits was the extensive reproduction of a World War I British trench system. The WWI and WWII exhibits were quite extensive, although a bit more general than I had hoped. It was nice to see a lot of kids there, though. There are also some exhibits dedicated to post-WWII conflicts, including Suez, the Falklands, and Gulf War I. I suppose that there will someday be an exhibit devoted to Gulf War II.

The IWM also maintains the HMS Belfast, a WWII light cruiser. Belfast carried 12 6″ guns, making her a light cruiser in name, if not in fact. After Japan and the United States exhausted their quota of heavy cruisers in the interwar period, they began to compete in light cruiser construction. Heavy cruisers carried 8″ guns; legally, anything carrying lighter guns was, by definition, a light cruiser. The Japanese and Americans responded to this legal environment by building ships that were as large as heavy cruisers, but carried 15(!) 6″ guns. The Belfast and her sisters were the British response, and were generally more balanced ships. Belfast participated in the sinking of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst on December 26, 1943. The Tower Bridge is in the background.

Incidentally, the last of the big American light cruisers was the General Belgrano, transferred to Argentina after World War II. General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine in the Falklands War.

London Calling

[ 0 ] January 8, 2006 |

9:45am: Arrive at Gatwick. Have never suffered as much turbulence in one flight as the flight from Detroit. On the upside, won the aircraft trivia game three times.

10:00am: Deal with snarky, irritating entry agent. We saved your ass in World War II!!!

11:00am: Arrive at London Victoria.

11:10am: Give directions to clueless looking trio. Lord knows where they ended up.

11:40am: Arrive hostel. Clerk is pleasant young American woman.

12:00pm: Face imminent crash. 23 hours since last sleep.

12:10pm: Drink enormous cup of coffee. Purpose dramatically renewed.

12:30pm: Arrive at Imperial War Museum. “Kid in a candy store” does not begin to express my mood. They have a T-34/85. Will post pictures.

1:45pm: Note that London weather very much resembles Seattle weather.

2:00pm: Crash at hostel.

2:10pm: Renew struggle. Off to see the HMS Belfast, then the Tower.

2:40pm: Arrive at HMS Belfast. Study. Take pictures. London is cold and rainy.

3:30pm: Face imminent loss of all bodily function. No sleep for 27 hours. No food for 7 hours. Give up quest for Tower.

3:35pm: Pass sports betting parlour on way back to hostel. Consider putting down some money on some team in some sport that I don’t understand. Decide that my inability to determine winner would prove embarassing.

3:45pm: Clueless looking trio asks “Where is the London Bridge?” I respond by pointing in random direction.

4:00pm: Return to hostel. Note that I forgot to bring an alarm clock and an outlet converter. Pray that I’ll be able to get up in the morning.

4:05pm: Crash.

5:30pm: Arise. Food now takes precedence.

7:00pm: Eat roast beef and fried camembert. Converse with pair of Kiwi rugbiers. Grow increasingly incoherent.

Off to Jolly England

[ 0 ] January 7, 2006 |

Leaving soon for conference in Steyning, West Sussex. Blogging may be light, depending on connectivity. Will post pictures accompanied by trenchant observations when possible.

Sunday Battleship Blogging: Almirante Latorre

[ 0 ] January 7, 2006 |

Chile was the final entrant into the South American battleships race. Chile ordered Almirante Latorre and Almirante Cochrane from Armstrong-Whitworth in 1911. The ships were very similar to the excellent British Iron Duke class, except that they carried 10 14″ guns rather than 10 13.5″. Unfortunately for Chile, World War I intervened, and both ships were purchased by the Royal Navy. Almirante Latorre was completed as HMS Canada in October, 1914, and joined the Fourth Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet.

As mentioned, Almirante Latorre was a well armed, well designed ship. The armament of 10 14″ guns compared favorably with most foreign competitors, and made Latorre more powerful than her Argentinian and Brazilian contemporaries. Latorre displaced 32000 tons fully loaded, and could make almost 23 knots. As HMS Canada, she participated in the Battle of Jutland, but did not play a large role. Following the war, Almirante Latorre was refit and sold back to Chile. The Chileans decided not to re-purchase Almirante Cochrane, which was converted into an aircraft carrier, renamed Eagle, and sunk by a U-boat in World War II.

Almirante Latorre served as flagship of the Chilean Navy. In contrast to her Brazilian counterparts, Almirante Latorre was kept in good condition up until an engine room fire in 1951. In 1929 she underwent an extensive modernization in the United Kingdom. In 1931, in protest of a pay cut, the crew mutinied. Chilean Air Force planes, attempting to put down the mutiny, successfully hit Almirante Latorre with one bomb.

Following the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, the United States Navy offered to purchase Almirante Latorre. The reasons for this are unclear, as the USN did not really suffer from a shortage of battleships. Three of the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were returned to service in short order. In fact, the USN withdrew the Tennessee, only lightly damaged at Pearl Harbor, from service for an extensive two year refit. West Virginia and California also underwent much longer than necessary refits. The USN made no effort to bring Wyoming, demilitarized under the terms of the 1930 London Treaty, back to active service, although this probably would have been cheaper and quicker than buying the Chilean ship. Almirante Latorre would have been roughly equivalent to the USS New York, which served most of the war in shore bombardment and convoy escort duty. In any case, the Chileans declined to sell their flagship to the United States.

After the engine fire in 1951, Almirante Latorre spent its last few years inactive. In 1958, she was sold to a Japanese company for scrapping. In 1959, Admiral Chester Nimitz was supporting a project to refurbish the Japanese battleship Mikasa, last survivor of the Battle of Tsushima. Mikasa had suffered some damage in World War II and had generally been neglected since the end of the war. Nimitz provided financial and administrative support for the restoration of Mikasa to her original state. Almirante Latorre, being a rough contemporary of Mikasa, was canibalized in the service of this restoration. Thus, parts of the last survivor of Jutland were used to restore the last survivor of Tsushima.

Trivia Question: What was the oldest dreadnought battleship to serve in a combat capacity in World War II?

A Brief Note on Spoilers

[ 0 ] January 7, 2006 |

I hate “spoiler alerts” because they detract from our ability to carry out meaningful discussions of movies and television. Nevertheless, I make allowances for this modern age that we live in.

However, if, like someone I recently conversed with in Seattle, you consider learning that the ape dies at the end of King Kong to be a “spoiler”, then you, sir, are an idiot.

Good to get that one off my chest.

BSG Blogging III: A Damn Fine Show

[ 0 ] January 7, 2006 |

BSG Blogging I

BSG Blogging II

Political relevance aside, the new BSG is just a damn fine show. The twenty-seventh hour screened last night, and, for my money, the twenty-seven hours thus far compare favorably with just about any comparable stretch of an hour long drama outside the Sopranos.

On the question of whether television has improved over the past ten years or so, you can put me squarely in the camp of Steven Johnson. Dana Stevens is right that comparing The Sopranos and Starsky and Hutch is inappropriate, but this doesn’t get us very far. There simply is no analogue for The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Buffy, or a handful of other late 1990s and early 2000s television programs in the 1960s and the 1970s. Even shows from the 1980s lack the sophistication and complexity that we have grown to expect from a given program today. Nor are the reasons for this improvement very hard to find. HBO alone has made a huge difference in allowing television writers and producers to explore new areas and more complex story lines. The huge number of channels available to a given viewer means that idiosyncratic programming doesn’t need to reach an audience as large as it did during the 1970s. In 1980, the very best programming of the last ten years could not have been made; Sopranos, Buffy, Six Feet Under et al never achieved an audience large enough to command a prime time network slot in the age of network dominance. The DVD has made it easier to construct season long themes and plots that won’t confuse an audience. Moreover, I’m convinced that the improvement isn’t just in the upper echelon of shows. Say what you want about ER, but it is much better acted, written, and produced than you would expect from a similar program twenty-five years ago. This isn’t to say that older television doesn’t have something to offer, but I do think that we’re still in the midst of a golden age of TV.

It’s good that series television is finally offering us its best, because the medium offers opportunities to writers and actors that film cannot provide. It is no longer plausible to suggest that the best actors and best writers work in film. Tony Soprano is, simply put, a character too complex and too interesting to be convincingly portrayed in a two hour period. The rewards of watching his character grow and display different aspects over the course of a season (or five) are immense. The same could be said of dozens of other characters in the best series we have today. Some of the opportunities implicit in the medium have been pursued by writers since the beginning of television, while some seem only to have been taken fullest advantage of in the past ten to fifteen years.

In any case, the improvement of BSG II over its predecessor is hardly accidental. It’s part of a trend in television that has been established over the past ten years. Ron Moore has done excellent work with the BSG raw material Moore established from the beginning that he was not squeamish about genocide. The Cylons, in their attack, use nukes rather than some sort of advanced weapon that would be more distant from us and, correspondingly, less frightening. Moore also manages to capture the desperation and the difficult decisions that face the survivors of the Cylon attack. Critically, none of this detracts from character development; Moore doesn’t let the science fiction aspects get in the way of giving the characters room for growth.

The acting has been good, if not outstanding. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell turn in predictably excellent performances as Commander Adama and President Roslin. Katee Sackhoff is remarkable as Lt. Starbuck, and James Callis gives a marvelously creepy performance every week as Gaius Baltar. Michael Hogan is very playing a deeply flawed Colonel Tigh. The rest of the acting is at least adequate. It’s hard to say whether the problem with Jamie Bamber’s Captain Apollo is weak acting or weak writing. Same thing with Kate Vernon as Ellen Tigh. The supporting performances tend be very, very good. One notable example is that of Richard Hatch, who played Apollo in the first series. The less said of his acting in 1978 the better, but his performance in BSG II has been a pleasant surprise.

The show has not been without its missteps. The Caprica sequences in the first season weren’t well integrated into their respective episodes, and I have reservations about the entire storyline being pursued on Caprica. Episodes 1-6 and 1-9 from the first season are a bit weak. The second season has not been as strong as the first, although eps 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, and 2-10 are exceptional. Last night’s episode, the opener of the first half of season 2, was very, very good.

In any case, I heartily recommend the new Battlestar Galactica. Enjoy.

Armor

[ 0 ] January 6, 2006 |

Military procurement is a disaster.

Incidentally, this is why a free press is critical in times of war. Let’s see if Fox News picks up this story. My guess is no; anything that might reflect poorly on the brass or the administration is too much for the tender ears of America. This is not to say that Rummy or anyone else in particular is responsible for this particular problem; I have no idea. The point is that unquestioning admiration for an organization is not conducive to pressing for positive change.

BSG Blogging II: The Cylons

[ 0 ] January 6, 2006 |

BSG Blogging I

The Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica aren’t quite like any other science fiction race I’m familiar with.

DJW once told me that he hated Star Trek: First Contact (one of my favorite Star Trek movies) because it gave up on the Borg. The Borg, according to Dave, were the only species in the Star Trek universe that had a concept of the individual that differed fundamentally from that of humankind. The Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans, and so forth were just thinly disguised ethnic stererotypes, but the Borg were genuinely different, novel, and scary. Giving the Borg a queen who understand and protected her own individuality ruined the species for Dave. The primary writer of First Contact was Ronald Moore, creator of the second Battlestar Galactica. I’d like to think that he’s redeemed himself.

Moore changed the origin of the Cylons from outer space to the Colonies. The Cylons of BSG 1978 were a conventional alien race, the product of some older group of aliens that no longer existed. The new Cylons “were created by man,” in the same sense as the enemies in the Terminator or Matrix trilogies. I wasn’t terribly happy with this at first, as it seemed derivative of other universes, but the decision has paid considerable dividends. First and foremost, the new origin for the Cylons has given them a close, complex connection with humankind. This relationship is not wholly antagonistic, although it does seem to grant the Cylons latitude to commit near-genocide. The close relationship between the Cylons and the humans also makes the success of their attack, and the survival of the Galactica, plausible.

The Cylons are a blend of the individualistic alien races we are familiar with and the hive mind of the Borg. Each Cylon is deeply tied to the rest of its kind, such that communication and control over wide distance seems to be possible. At the same time, individual Cylons have their own goals and motivations, although its unclear that pride, honor, or competition motivate them in any meaningful way. Moore has succeeded in creating a race whose actions are only partially intelligible, while at the same time convincingly suggesting that something important lies behind the mask.

Interestingly, the Cylons are deeply, deeply religious. Their actions only make sense in the context of their religious beliefs, yet the content of that belief, like any real religion, is not susceptible to rational analysis. The Colonials seem largely to be a post-religious society roughly akin to modern Europe, although a significant fraction of the humans remain committed to a polytheistic religion modeled on the Greco-Roman pantheon. Although the question hasn’t been examined in detail, it’s probably fair to say that the importance of religion has increased in the wake of the genocide. The Cylons, on the other hand, are committed monotheists. They are familiar with the human religion to the point of deep immersion in its texts. The war against humanity is motivated by their religion, but not in an evangelical sense. They have no interest in converting humans; rather, the destruction of humankind seems to fulfill some religious commandment. Even that isn’t the whole story, as its clear that the Cylons have certain plans for what’s left of the human race.

Most important, the Cylons are just really, genuinely WEIRD. The importance of maintaining weird in underrated, especially in the context of series television. At so many points, writers and producers have an incentive to reveal some aspect of “the plan”. While elements of the Cylon plan have been revealed, they tend to reinforce the alien nature of the Cylons, rather than to make them understandable to us. The Cylons do not act according to a wholly alien logical system, but they don’t act according to one accessible to us, either. We have glimpses of what they want, but even those glimpses are confusing and contradictory. That most of what we know about the Cylons is revealed through hallucinatory conversations with a possibly insane human only adds to the weirdness and maintains the mystery.

Maintaining the strangeness of the Cylons will probably be Moore’s most difficult task moving forward. As a television show like BSG develops, in must progressively reveal more of the mystery. In programs like Lost, the X-Files, and Alias this has had a detrimental effect. It will be interesting to see whether Moore can keep the Cylons weird without making them feel Byzantine or contrived.

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