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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.


[ 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.

[ 0 ] January 6, 2006 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Frodo and Pip

BSG Blogging I: Civil-Military Relations

[ 0 ] January 5, 2006 |

This is the first of three posts on Battlestar Galactica, which resumes its second season on Sci-Fi tomorrow night. This first post deals with the question of civilian and military authority in BSG, while tomorrow’s post discusses the Cylons, and Saturday’s contains my general appraisal of the series.

Why devote an entire post to civil-military authority in BSG? In BSG humanity suffers near-complete devastation, to the tune of the annihilation of all but a residue of 50000. The Cylons, an alien race, threaten to destroy the remaining human. In the face of the disaster and threat, the surviving humans must decide on how to arrange their civil and political life with the hope both of escaping the Cylons and of maintaining some semblance of their old lives. As such, BSG presents an interesting thought experiment on the endurance of authority during a crisis, and particularly on the balance between civilian and military authority during a time of extreme military vulnerability.

The first BSG did not deal seriously with the question of authority in the Colonies or in the Fleet. The desire for peace on the part of President Adar, a kindly old man, led the Colonies to destruction. Adama tried to warn Adar by reminding him of the true nature of the Cylons

Surely, you don’t cling to your suspicions about the Cylons. They
asked for this armistice. They want peace.
Forgive me, Mr. President, but they hate humans with every fiber of
their existence. We love freedom. We love independence. To feel, to
question. To rebel against oppression. It’s an alien way of existing
they will never accept.

Adama’s argument in 1978 was designed for a post-Vietnam Cold War audience, one expected to be aware of the dangers of both the Soviet Union and of accomodationists and appeasers on our own side. It’s remarkable, though, how little the rhetoric needs to be adjusted for the War on Terror. It’s admirable that Ronald Moore avoids the temptation of giving Adama or Roslin a similar speech in the new BSG.

In a few other episodes of the first BSG a well-meaning civilian Council of Twelve attempts to disrupt Adama’s plans, usually by being excessively peaceful. At no point is there any genuine consideration of the importance of maintaining civilian control during a state of emergency. Glen Larson could be excused if he simply hadn’t thought about civil-military conflict in the first series, but this isn’t the case. Rather, his position is quite explicit; during war, civilians should stand aside and allow the military to make decisions. By interfering, civilians will only serve to mess things up.

This position is not surprising, given the post-Vietnam context. BSG, among other outlets, fell victim to and propagated the notion that civilian officials, rather than military officers, were the real culprits behind the defeat in Vietnam. Toughness, as evinced by Commander Adama, never fails. Weakness and appeasement, the province of civilians, never succeeds. The obvious conclusion of such thinking is that, in times of crisis, civilians ought to step aside and allow the military to do its job.

BSG 2003 radically alters this formula. There is no appeasement, and the only treason is unintentional. The military, with its attachment to advanced gadgets that fall easy prey to the Cylon attack, is just as culpable in the destruction of the colonies as civilians. In the wake of the attack, the new President (43rd in line of succession) asserts civilian power as quickly and forcefully as possible, dissuading Adama from carrying out a clearly suicidal counter-offensive against the Cylons. Over the course of the first season, Adama and Roslin come to an unstable set of compromises regarding their shared authority. The end of the season and the first half of the second season is about the shattering of those compromises and the assertion of legitimate authority by both sides.

Moreover, both the military and the civilian authority are internally plausible. One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: TNG is “Chain of Command” which, incidentally, was also written by Ron Moore. Picard is captured in this episode, leaving the Enterprise crew to the tender mercies of another Starfleet Captain, one who has the audacity to expect them to actually behave like officers. The Enterprise crew does not react well. Galactica, on the other hand, feels like a military ship. Even the instances of lax control make sense; Galactica is an aging vessel on the verge of retirement, and discipline has clearly suffered. Nevertheless, a chain of command exists, and most everyone understands his or her place and acts accordingly. In “Fragged”, episode 2-3, a classic conflict between a senior NCO and an inexperienced junior officer develops, leading to a bad situation. Also, the sexual fraternization between crewmates, a hallmark of any television program focusing on the military, ends up producing truly disastrous results for Galactica.

The civilian political side is also taken seriously. The officers of Galactica (and the viewers) are not inclined to think of the politicians as professionals that can be relied upon, but rather as problems that need to be managed. President Roslin and her lieutenants, however, demonstrate deft touch in an extreme situation. The decision of the military to seize some civilian functions in the second season proves disastrous. After a particularly bad press conference, Commander Adama remarks “Remind me not to do that again,” to which Colonel Tigh replies “It always looked easy enough when Roslin did it.”

The first BSG was about the Cold War, and the model for the attack was akin to a Pearl Harbor attack gone bad. The model for the second BSG is obviously September 11, although with a much more powerful, ruthless, and competent opponent. In this context, and given the ease with which such a project could go bad, it is extremely impressive that Moore and company have managed to maintain such a balanced and complex portrait of authority in crisis. Even in the worst possible scenario, the Schmittian extreme does not take hold; at no point is the need for Decision so extreme as to shred the norms and rules that hold society together.

Texas Sucks

[ 0 ] January 4, 2006 |

USC draws first blood.

Let this serve as an open game thread.

UPDATE: Texas rules. Congrats to the Longhorns.

Wal Mart or the Mines?

[ 0 ] January 4, 2006 |

Redbeard has a nice take.

Stand in your neighborhood Wal-Mart, on its linoleum floors, under its fluorescent light. Imagine wearing the blue vest day in and day out for 29 hours a week at $8 an hour. And the think of the men who travel two miles under a mountain, two miles away from sunlight and fresh air, where a single spark spells doom. For them, that dark shift was better than a slow death at a Wal-Mart job.

Sunday Battleship Blogging: IJN Yamashiro

[ 0 ] January 1, 2006 |

Yamashiro and her sister Fuso were the first super-dreadnoughts built by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Yamashiro entered service in March 1917, but played no important role in World War I. Yamashiro displaced about 35000 tons, carried 12 14″ guns in six twin turrets, and could make close to 24 knots. A modernization in the 1930s gave Yamashiro a “pagoda mast” and added a knot to her speed. Although fast and powerful, Yamashiro probably was not as well protected as her American contemporaries. In my mind this was a good trade off, as faster ships simply proved more useful than slow ships in World War II.

In spite of her high speed relative to other battleships of her era, Yamashiro was not used to much effect in World War II. She and her sister pursued the American carriers Hornet and Enterprise after the Doolittle Raid, but suceeded in catching only a Russian merchant ship. In the Midway operation, Yamashiro supported the decoy Aleutian landings. Yamashiro’s moment would not come until 1944, when an American fleet approached the Japanese-held Philippines.

In October 1944, the United States Navy prepared a fleet of enormous size to protect and support the invasion of Leyte Island in the Phillipines. The US fleet included six fast battleships, 6 slow battleships, a dozen fleet carriers, and hundreds of other vessels. The IJN by 1944 was simply incapable of defeating this force in open battle, so the Japanese high command developed a plan designed to decoy the main US fleet away from Leyte, allowing Japanese battleships to destroy the invasion vessels. A force consisting of two battleships and four aircraft carriers would be used as bait for Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, which included the six fast battleships. In the absence of protection from Halsey, a force of five battleships under Admiral Kurita would attack the Leyte armada from the north, while a force of two battleships and four cruisers would attack from the south. Yamashiro was flagship of Admiral Nishurima, commander of the southern force.

The plan was not necessarily a good one. No allowance was made for the squadron of six slow US battleships, which remained close to the invasion beach. Utter air supremacy on the part of the USN meant that the Japanese ships would suffer devastating air attacks on their way to Leyte. Finally, while outright victory would delay the invasion of the Philippines for a time, it would probably result in the destruction of most of the strength of the IJN. The IJN was desperate, however, and decided to gamble. The operation began poorly. Massive air attacks on the US fleet by land based Japanese air sank only a single American carrier. Attacks by US carriers destroyed one of Kurita’s most powerful battleships, Musashi, and three of the carriers in the decoy force before they could lure Halsey away. Shockingly, however, the basic ruse worked, and Halsey moved his six new battleships away from Leyte, allowing Kurita access to the invasion fleet.

Things did not go so well for Yamashiro. Nishurima’s force was expected to reach Leyte through the Surigao Strait, a fairly narrow body of water between Leyte and Dingnat. American forces, alerted to Nishurima’s presence by air recon, were well prepared. Squadrons of destroyers and PT boats lined either side of the Strait, which was capped by Admiral Oldendorf’s battle squadron. Around 3am, American PT boats began to attack the advancing Japanese column. Yamashiro’s sister, Fuso, took a hit amidships and fell out of the battleline, slowing and eventually reversing course. Destroyer attacks began around 3:30am, and Yamashiro received between two and four torpedo hits. The first hit slowed Yamashiro to five knots, although she was soon increased her speed to eighteen.

At the end of Surigao Strait lay the battleships and cruisers of the American Seventh Fleet. Five of the six battleships (Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, California, and Tennessee) had survived Pearl Harbor. West Virginia, California, and Tennesee had been radically reconstructed since 1942, making their fire and fire control systems state of the art. On the best of days, Yamashiro might have been expected to tangle with Pennsylvania or Mississippi with some chance of success. The other four American ships were out of her league. This was not, however, the best of days. The battleships were accompanied by eight cruisers and numerous destroyers. Moreover, the American squadron had accomplished the apogee of 20th century battleship tactics, the “crossing of the T” The American ships were capable of firing full broadsides against Yamashiro, while the Japanese ship could only reply with its forward turrets.

At 3:53am, the American ships opened fire. With advanced targeting radars, Tennessee, California, and West Virginia were able to find Yamashiro with several salvos each. Maryland also successfully engaged Yamashiro, and Mississippi was able to fire one salvo. Yamashiro, with no targeting radar and under heavy assault, responded with generally uncoordinated fire. Admiral Nishurima ordered the Fuso to support Yamashiro, but Fuso had unfortunately exploded twenty minutes earlier. Fuso broke in half but did not sink, leaving her crew of 1400 to contemplate the uselessness of a broken-in-half battleship. Just after 4am Admiral Oldendorf ordered a cease fire, because American shells were hitting American ships close to Yamashiro. Miraculously, Yamashiro was still capable of maneuvering, and managed to turn away from the American ships at nineteen knots. As she was moving away, however, she was caught by two additional torpedos, and quickly capsized.

Three survivors from Yamashiro were picked up by US destroyers. The US record indicates that the remaining survivors did not want to be picked up. The crew of the Fuso, according to the USN, also refused rescue. I am suspicious of this account. The Pacific War was a nasty conflict, and it was not uncommon for either side to treat surrendering enemy forces brutally. The Imperial Japanese Navy did not condone surrender, and a “cult of suicide” existed even before the Kamikaze, but it is by no means clear to me whether the refusal to rescue was on the part of the Japanese or the Americans.

The destruction of Yamashiro was the last clash of battleships in the twentieth century.

Trivia Question: The two largest battleship clashes of the twentieth century came at Tsushima and Jutland. First, name the last surviving battleship of each clash. Second, specify the connection between the two battleships.

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