USS Clueless

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040827.2353

(Captain's log): In response to a rather peevish announcement I added to the top of this page a couple of weeks ago, to try to get people to cease sending me breathless letters about a grand breakthrough in fuel cell technology which was (not) going to revolutionize the world and was (not) going to end the war, David send me the following letter:

You said:

"I find I must be very blunt: I do not want to descend..."

But... but... Steven,

Don't you understand that it's your OBLIGATION to:

1. Entertain us

2. Put up with our endlessly repetitive and thoughtless ignorance

3. Educate us -- WITHOUT disturbing our misconceptions in any way, and

4. Endure the brickbats of our baying mobs whenever you disappoint us for any reason?

I just thought I'd clear up your obvious ignorance of this matter.

Don't thank me. I'm always glad to help.

Here's the reply I sent him.

One of the things I noticed during the last two weeks was that I had something of a feeling of relief. It's sort of like the feeling you have when you suddenly notice that your hiccups are gone, or that the throbbing headache you'd been feeling was suddenly over.

I don't actually get very much hate mail. Most of my mail is at least polite, though in some cases it approaches the indignant.

But nearly every article I write draws anywhere from 5 to 50 letters containing corrections, disagreements, comments about things I "left out" because "I didn't know", or other forms of kibitzing.

In the last two weeks, that has trailed down to nearly zero. (Not all the way, however. Yesterday I received a letter from someone who wrote 3000 words trying to refute something I posted two and a half years ago. At the end of his letter, he asked whether in light of his comments, I might now want to retract and rewrite my post. I answered thusly: "Nope.")

I'm finding that it's quite a relief not to receive a constant flow of email griping about everything I post. No matter what I write, and no matter what I say, there are always people who either think I was wrong, or think that there were things I left out and should have included. I've been putting up with that for two years, and I guess I'd gotten used to living with a low-level throbbing headache all that time.

But for the last two weeks it's been gone. And I'm not so sure I want to go back to doing the activity which caused that headache.

In one of the cases where Kevin Drum rained ridicule down on my head, last April, most of the comment thread was predictably nasty (towards me), with different commenters competing to find the most clever rhetorical dismissal.

There was one comment in that thread, from someone named "Terry Ott", which was different -- and perceptive:

Jed says..."we are living in a world of skimmers". SDB's site is not for skimmers, and it is not for commenters either. DenBeste's archives contains what I found to be a very interesting article about how and why he writes, and his rationale for running his site the way he does. It's a hobby, basically, like some people do crossword puzzles.

He writes about what interests HIM, he writes in great detail, he painstakingly explains things, he is analytical and rational (like an engineer), he is inquisitive. He is not humorous or flippant.

What DenBeste does, in my opinion, is not much different than what a painter does. He decides what he wants to paint, he lets the concept of it percolate for a while until the image starts to form, and then he sits and canvass and pours it out. In SDB's case, he paints large, serious works with lots of details, in his own style. Then he hangs it where others can see it. He is not particularly interested in criticism; like any human, he probably gets satisfaction when someone praises the piece --- but he also knows it's not for everyone.

I go to art galleries and shows sometimes. Maybe 5-10% of the works displayed catch my interest. But when something does that, I soak it in and try to understand what impact it has on me and why I am reacting to it. So it is, for me, with DenBeste's essays. I "skim" the gallery, but I devour the few individual pieces that strike a chord.

It's the difference between a tradesman doing good, honest work to fill a demand that's out there, and an craftsman/artist who is into self expression for the satisfaction it gives him. And artists can be temperamental you know.

The blogosphere is big enough for all kinds.

I don't necessarily agree with that 100% (occasionally I do write things just to be humorous) but in its essence he's right. And that's why I don't really appreciate letters from people who think they're fans and who think they're helping me by pointing out ways they think my posts could be changed so as to improve them. I don't want to improve; I wrote it the way I wanted to write it, and the result is my expression. If I wrote it the way they think I should have written it, it would no longer be my expression.

For three and a half years I've been writing, and posting my stuff here. But for the last year, my production rate has been ramping off, and one of the reasons is that I am tired of the constant carping.

I know that you're trying to be funny and to commiserate with me, and I appreciate that. My response is serious because it's a serious problem. I've actually been thinking hard about whether I want to start posting again. I suspect that I will, but the idea of just giving up on it all is not unattractive.

Since then, I've realized that I don't want to write any longer. I've been thinking about it, and I realized that I stopped enjoying it about a year ago, which is also about the time that I began to post less and less often. Several times in the last year I've tried to tell my readers what I was feeling, in hopes that it might change things, but it didn't help. I even made graphic one time and put it at the end of a post I knew was going to draw a particularly robust response:

For the last few months, each time I published a post, I mentally cringed a bit, thinking about all the kinds of letters I knew I'd get, things I could predict. You've sometimes seen me try to preempt those with DWL's.

Several times in the last three weeks I thought of something which would make a good post, and then I stopped, and said to myself, "Better not."

I've learned something interesting: if you give away ice cream, eventually a lot of people will complain about the flavors, and others will complain that you aren't also giving away syrup and whipped cream and nuts. I put together this page which contains two days worth of my email, just so you could get some idea of what it looks like. It isn't all bad; it isn't all unwelcome. Very little of it is abusive. But the majority of it is burdensome.

To slice the email a different way, here's a collection of email regarding my last article about terrorism. Again, it wasn't all unwelcome, but much of it was more burden than pleasure.

Far too much of it was from people who knew better than me what I should have written, and wanted to tell me how to rewrite it. Those are the people who have made me cease getting pleasure out of my writing.

I put off making this post because I knew what kind of email it would draw. (For example: yes, I know that the people who write to me with those kinds of comments are a small and vocal minority. But they're numerous in absolute terms, and they won't leave me alone.)

However, I've been receiving email from people worried about whether something was wrong. So I felt I owed it to my long-time readers to explain. (Thus the irony which I'll point out before Ydrumsias does: umpteen thousand words explaining why I don't want to post any more.)

Yes, there's something wrong. I'm tired. Does this mean I'll never post again? Damned if I know. But it won't be soon.

Update 20040829: How to say this?

Now that 75 people have all mailed to suggest that I not read the email, or that I take my email address offline, or that I impose some kind of email filtration, or etc, I would greatly appreciate it if no one else suggests that.

Update: In fact, I'd really appreciate it if people stopped sending suggestions of any kind.

Update 20040830: Thanks, dude. You're all heart.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040731.1408

(Captain's log): There may be few words today which are more politically important, more widely used, and less understood than the word terrorism. Even trying to come up with a dictionary-style definition for the term is not easy. Having every radical out there suddenly decide that their mortal enemies are "terrorists", in some way or other, doesn't help any. Nor is the situation clarified by supporters of terrorist groups who deny that they are terrorists.

The basic doctrine of terrorism as a form of warfare developed in the 20th century. In the era of industrial warfare, God fights on the side with the biggest guns, and terrorism was one of two major doctrines of "asymmetrical warfare" which were developed which would permit small, badly-financed forces to engage in war against opponents who were overwhelmingly larger and more powerful.

The other was guerrilla warfare. They share similar problems and some aspects of them are similar, but they are definitely distinct. The most important goal of both is to maintain initiative so as to control tempo.

Both were developed primarily as forms of domestic warfare, either by a resistance movement against foreign occupiers in a conquered nation, or by a revolutionary movement against the existing government. (Terrorism as a form of offensive war is new. I've been thinking about it a lot lately.)

In all warfare, there are five critical elements: objectives, strategy, tactics, logistics, and morale. In the era of industrial war, logistics became the most critical of those five, which is why interdiction and attrition are the most important features of industrial war, and why God seemed to fight on the side with the biggest guns.

The doctrines of terrorism and guerrilla warfare both aim to neutralize the logistical superiority of their stronger foe. They maintain initiative in order to control the tempo of war at a level which is logistically sustainable for the weaker opponent, thus avoiding defeat through attrition.

In terms of classic doctrine, the critical difference between terrorist warfare and guerrilla warfare is that attacks made by guerrillas are primarily intended to directly harm the enemy, whereas attacks made by terrorists are primarily intended to provoke reprisals.

For the remainder of this article, I will use the words guerrilla and terrorist to refer to combatants fighting their wars in accordance with those two classic doctrines.

In order to discuss these doctrines, it's necessary to speak of seven critical groups: our forces, our people, our allies, their forces, their people, their allies, and everyone else.

Our forces and their forces include both leadership and military formations.

For resistance movements, our people is the population of the conquered nation, and their people is the citizenry of the conquering nation. For revolutionary movements it's more complicated and fluid. Basically, our people are the portions of the nation which are at least mildly sympathetic to our revolutionary cause, and their people are those who generally support the government. (But these things are always driven by specific circumstances; the devil is always in the details.)

Terrorists make their attacks and then fade away into the population. They tailor their attacks to inspire the maximum horror and anger from the enemy's people, bringing irresistible pressure to bear on the enemy's leadership to do something, while depriving the enemy leadership of any obvious target to do something against. If the enemy leadership does nothing or does something token and useless, it will look weak to our people and make us look like winners, increasing support. It can decrease support from its own people.

But if the enemy leadership does respond strongly, we hope it will target our people (as distinct from our forces, which the enemy can't actually locate). That will anger our people, again increasing support for us. In many cases it will also help discredit the enemy leadership, making them look brutal rather than weak. (That depends enormously on who the enemy people are and how they view themselves.)

We also hope that our allies will become more committed, and their allies will become less so. We hope that the world's uncommitted may come to support us.

Which is why propaganda is an essential part of both doctrines. It is not enough to organize, to plan, and to carry out acts of war. It is vital to try to control perception of events. Both sides are fighting a dirty war, but it is vital that they be portrayed as dirtier than we are.

Guerrilla war and terrorist war, when fought according to classic doctrine, are long slow wars. These are marathons, not sprints.

But terrorists and guerrillas can be defeated, in the sense that they can be weakened and marginalized enough so that they have no hope of victory. Usually defeated guerillas and terrorists fade away slowly, caught in a downward spiral of decreasing support, decreasing resources, and decreasing ability to operate offensively.

Those doctrines were developed incrementally, by groups who studied and built upon previous groups. Much of it was developed by sundry Communist and/or Marxist movements around the world.

Baathist forces in Iraq continued to fight after Baghdad fell last year. Iraq's conventional military forces were decisively crushed by a combined Australo-Anglo-American conventional military force. Most news coverage and most common discussion tended to refer to their campaign as being "terrorist", but in fact it was a sort of hybrid, primarily relying on the doctrine for guerrilla war but adopting some elements of terrorist doctrine.

The strategic foundation was the assumption that America had no staying power. This was based on observation and analysis of such events as the American response to the takeover of the embassy in Tehran, American operations in Beirut and Somalia, and responses to various attacks made by al Qaeda. The strategy was to try to turn Iraq into a "quagmire" in hopes that the American people would lose heart and rapidly give up in a matter of weeks or at most months.

Of course it didn't work, in the sense of actually achieving the political goal of causing us to "cut and run".

There was also a bit of a hope that they could provoke reprisals, or at the very least induce American soldiers to fear and distrust Iraqis collectively, and thus to poison all interactions between the occupation force and the people of Iraq. The main purpose of that wasn't so much to rally support for the resistance as to seriously impede "nation building" by the coalition. It was hoped that gradually American and British troops would cease being thought of by Iraqis as liberators and more as conquerors.

That, too, ultimately failed; that, too, did not achieve the political goal. Its ultimately failure took place on June 28, when sovereignty was transferred to a transitional Iraqi government.

Thus the insurgency now has been unwillingly transformed, forced to change from resistance movement to revolutionary movement. It now fights against an Iraqi government.

Let it be clear that there really isn't one single unified "insurgency". There are many, and their goals are not necessarily totally congruent. What I'm mainly discussing here is the Sunni insurgency, which right now is generally identified with Falluja.

They're trying to portray themselves as a resistance movement by trying to portray the government as a puppet of the conquerors, but I don't think that's working very well.

In terms of my seven critical groups, "their people" are more or less the Sunnis. That's where they hope they can build strength and support.

But what I noticed today is that they have also largely abandoned classical doctrine. That's because classical doctrine will no longer serve. Time is against them.

They've adopted an entirely different doctrine now, one which could also be thought of as terrorism, but one which has nothing to do with the terrorist doctrine I described above (and also described here and here). They have ceased relying on the teachings of Mao and Guevara.

The fundamental personality of their campaign has changed, and it is coming more and more to resemble the revolutionary fascism of Mussolini.

There are two primary strategic targets now, one of which serves the other.

They have given up on inducing Bush to cut and run. If Bush loses this election, it might end up being a good thing for them, but any benefit from that will be delayed by months, and they can't afford to wait. Instead, they have begin to target weak links in the coalition. The insurgency inside Iraq was a beneficiary of the Madrid attack, but almost certainly was not involved in it directly. However, that showed them the way, and they had their first solid success with the Philippines.

They are not exclusively focusing on foreign governments. They're also going after individual companies. The preferred tactic seems to be kidnapping and threats of brutal decapitation against nationals of a target government or employees of a target corporation. They demand to be paid, and they demand that the target withdraw from Iraq.

Obviously any ransoms they might collect directly aid them. But the demand for withdrawal is the more important one.

Like classic terrorist warfare and classic guerrilla warfare, this kind of warfare is cheap and easy. Potential victims are plentiful and can be captured easily with little risk. Each success is huge; each foreign target which capitulates is a huge victory. When a foreign target stands strong, the terrorists can brutally murder their captive and put video of his death online, making it that much more difficult for the next target to stand strong.

The only real significant way this could lead to "failure" would be if the gangs engaged in these kidnappings were found and taken out within days of a kidnapping, or if they encountered unexpected resistance in a kidnapping attempt. So far, neither risk has been significant. (The risk of the latter is very much a function of victim selection. Some victims are more likely to fight back.)

As foreign targets capitulate and withdraw, the insurgency has also begun to issue threats against foreign forces which are considering getting involved.

A militant group has posted Internet warning that threatens attacks against any Islamic or Arab nation that contributes troops to a Saudi-proposed Muslim force for Iraq.

"Our swords will be drawn in the face of anyone who cooperates with the Jews and the Christians," the group said in its statement. "We will strike with an iron fist all the traitors from the Arab governments who cooperate with the Zionists secretly or openly."

All of this serves the long term goal of trying to cause political damage to Bush in the election campaign, but that's not the primary purpose of it.

The primary strategic target now for the insurgency is Iraqi support for the new government. In fact, the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq has always been the primary battlefield.

Last September I wrote an article called "Decompressing Iraq", where I talked about the fundamental problem we faced there.

In the Antarctic, penguins nest on land but hunt at sea. There are leopard seals and killer whales who think that penguins are delicious, and who know where the rookeries are located. They hang out in the ocean nearby and wait, looking for a meal. If a group of penguins want to go to sea to hunt, the first few to enter the water take the greatest risk, and no one wants to be the first. So they collect on the edge of the ice, and jostle themselves, and eventually one or two lose their balance and fall in, and then the rest of them dive in after them.

Iraqis are not penguins, obviously, but there's something like that going on. After 25 years where expressing any kind of independence could earn you a horrible death, or earn such a death for everyone you love, it's hard to believe that it's changed. They were told that it was changed, but was it really true? And was it permanent?

There was a natural tendency for most to not take that chance. But a few took small chances, and didn't suffer for it. That encouraged others to try a bit more as time went on. ...

In 1991 after the Gulf war, when Saddam had been weakened, the Bush administration gave speeches supporting revolution against Saddam, and many Iraqis responded by rising in revolt. Then they discovered that we weren't willing to back that up with actions, and without our help they didn't have a chance. It's not unreasonable for them to wonder if we're really determined this time to see the whole thing through. Even now, with Saddam deposed and in hiding somewhere, will the mercurial Americans suddenly lose interest and pull out, leaving a power vacuum which Saddam will once again fill by reestablishing Baathist rule? Were I an Iraqi, I could not dismiss that possibility.

And those who speak freely today, might discover that their names had been added to a list of "those to be liquidated" after the Americans cut and run and Saddam returns to power.

I don't think anyone there believes anymore that Saddam himself will return to power, but if they think there's a significant change that the current government could fall and the Baathists could once again return to power, then they would certainly have to worry that any significant public support for the current government would mark them for a dreadful fate come the day.

Over the last year, as I predicted in that article, support for the process and Iraqi commitment to it has been growing stronger and stronger. The Baathists must reverse that if they are to have any chance of victory.

Their campaign against foreign powers is part of that effort. They hope to induce a rout, and there definitely is a chance of that happening. That would seriously damage the credibility of the interim government, and cause increasing doubt as to whether the whole thing might end up collapsing.

The insurgents are also targeting government officials. The ongoing campaign of increasingly-random bombings is intended to make Iraqis lose confidence in the ability of the government to keep them safe. And the police are also a target.

Could it work? Yes, I'm afraid it could. But it could also backfire badly.

Ultimately this is psychological warfare, and expectations are key. Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure.

It can work; it is working to the extent that individual Iraqis believe it has an increasing chance of working. When individual Iraqis doubt, and thus reduce their support for the government, then the insurgency grows stronger.

But if enough individual Iraqis think that the insurgency is unlikely to win, then they are more likely to be willing to take the chance of helping the government. That means being willing to give tips to the government helping them to find the insurgents.

I think it's obvious that the nation-building process in Iraq was not seriously harmed by Spanish and Philippine capitulation to withdrawal demands. But if the US cuts and runs, then the new government of Iraq is doomed and everyone knows it. So I think there's no doubt that the people of Iraq are watching the American presidential campaign very closely.

If they knew and believed that the US commitment to the new Iraqi government would remain strong no matter who won the election, that would be immensely helpful. Sadly, they have no basis right now for any such conclusion. On this issue, as on so many others, Kerry seems hellbent on avoiding any perception of having taken a stand. Even the Boston Globe, the NYTimes, and the Wapo have noticed.

He's said he won't pull out. But he's also said that going in was a mistake. And he's talked about ways of pulling out. He's on all sides of this issue, just as he seems to be on all sides of nearly every other substantive issue.

However, based on more blunt statements made by other prominent Democrats, as well as the way the Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign have embraced Michael Moore instead of publicly castigating him, surely Iraqis cannot avoid the strong suspicion that Kerry does not intend to continue to support the government there. There would have to be a strong suspicion that Kerry has been vague about this because he knows that if he were honest he'd lose the election. And given press coverage claiming that the campaign is a dead heat (or that Kerry is actually in the lead), they can't categorically reject the possibility that he would win.

Increasingly strong enthusiasm about Kerry in Europe cannot be comforting, either. The same people in Europe who are perceived in Iraq of having done everything they could to derail the ongoing process are hoping Kerry will win.

An article in the Wapo has the headline, "Voters want more specifics from Kerry". It's important for us to have some idea what he truly stands for (if anything) so that we can make a good decision when we vote. If Kerry continues to waffle, I think it will strongly contribute to his electoral defeat.

But on this one issue, his refusal to break character by speaking frankly, speaking to the point, has significant foreign policy ramifications. It increases doubt for Iraqis about American commitment, and therefore makes an insurgent victory seem more plausible.

And that is a victory for the insurgents. It actually does make an insurgent victory more likely.

Update 20040801: As to misuse of the word "terrorist", here's an example. (The real terrorists are the Republicans. Or so it is claimed.)

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040728.1502

(On Screen): Yesterday, Randy sent me this email:

I'm rather new to the BlogWorld, but after reading a bit of USS Clueless I thought you might answer an engineering question for me. I heard on the radio today that the nuclear power plant in Iraq that the Israelis blew up some years ago (sorry, I don't recall the name of the plant), was not capable of producing material that could be used in an atomic/nuclear bomb.

What do you think, is that true? Assuming it's true, what do you suppose would have been the Israeli rationale for destroying the power plant?

Today I learned that it was my old friend Regis Le Sommier who made that claim on the radio. I might have known...

I answered Randy by email, but I thought I'd post an answer, too, now that I know the source of that claim.

In one sense Le Sommier is correct: the French-built nuclear plant in Iraq is not capable of producing material which could be used in nuclear weapons.

That's because the Israelis destroyed it with their air strike before it went into operation.

I don't think that was what he meant. I think he was trying to contend that even if the plant had been finished and had gone into operation, it would not have aided Saddam's quest to develop nuclear weapons. That would exonerate France of any charge that it was helping Iraq develop nuclear weapons, and it would permit Le Sommier to argue that Israel's air strike wasn't justified.

If Le Sommier claimed that the French-built reactor in Iraq could not have produced anything that could be used in atomic bombs, either he was lying or he is dreadfully misinformed.

Theoretically speaking, there are a lot of ways of building power plants based on nuclear fission, and a lot of potential fuels which can be used. But right now, all civilian power plants use the same fuel, low-enriched uranium (LEU).

Naturally occurring uranium contains 0.72% of isotope 235 and negligible amounts of isotope 234. All the rest is isotope 238. U235 is fissionable, but U238 is not. Low-enriched uranium is uranium which has been processed to remove U238 so that the concentration of U235 is greater than 0.7% but less than 20%. Usually in fuel rods for power reactors it's between 3% and 5%.

You can't make a working atomic bomb out of low-enriched uranium. The threshold of 20% was adopted in the definition of LEU precisely because uranium consisting of 20% or less of U235 cannot form a critical mass. (A large mass of LEU would get extremely hot very rapidly, and would melt. If it was exposed to oxygen, it would also burn. The resulting mess would make Chernobyl look minor by comparison. However, it is physically impossible for it to detonate in a nuclear explosion.)

In a power reactor, energy is released because atoms of U235 undergo fission. Their nuclei break into pieces, and it's impossible to predict what the pieces will be, or how many there will be. Usually there are two big pieces, and nearly always one or more neutrons will also be released.

Some of those neutrons escape from the reactor core entirely and have to be absorbed by shielding. Some of those neutrons strike other U235 nuclei, and can cause them in their turn to fission almost immediately. But a lot of those neutrons strike other atoms in the reactor core. Some of them strike U238 nuclei and many of those are absorbed. If the fuel rods are based on LEU, it is impossible to prevent this from happening.

If U238 absorbs a neutron, it becomes U239. U239 β- decays with a half-life of 23.5 minutes, yielding Np239. That, in turn, also β- decays with a half-life of 2.35 days, yielding Pu239.

The fuel rods have to be replaced once a significant amount of the U235 in them has been used up. That usually takes many months, and sometimes takes years. By that point, a non-negligible amount of U238 will have been converted to Plutonium.

It won't all be Pu239. Plutonium is much better at capturing neutrons than U238, and it turns out that Pu240, Pu241, and beyond will make up a considerable percentage.

But that doesn't matter. What does matter is this: plutonium is chemically different from any of the other components of the fuel rod, and if the spent fuel rods are dissolved with acid, plutonium salts can easily be separated out using chemical means. Purified plutonium salts can then easily be reduced to plutonium metal. (Understand that "easy" is a relative term. It's dreadfully difficult and hazardous to do any of this, but it's extremely easy by comparison to what you have to go through to produce highly-enriched "weapons grade" uranium.)

The reason that matters is that if you have enough plutonium metal, on the order of a few kilograms, it is possible to build an atomic bomb. It isn't necessary to isotopically purify the plutonium.

The Manhattan Project ran two parallel development efforts. One developed a bomb based on highly-enriched U235, and the other developed a bomb based on plutonium. For technical reasons not worth going into, the plutonium design was much more complicated and risky, and the powers that be decided they needed to test it before using it in war. So the first atomic explosion in history, a test code-named Trinity, was a plutonium weapon.

The atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima was based on U235. The atomic bomb which destroyed Nagasaki was based on plutonium.

Some reactors are deliberately designed to produce isotopes which can be used in weapons. Such "breeder" reactors produce little power (or none at all) but the yield of isotopes suitable for use in atomic weapons is much greater. Most of those are designed to optimize conversion of U238 into plutonium.

The Iraqi reactor complex which Israel bombed was not such a reactor. It was a conventional civilian power plant. It may be that this is what Le Sommier was trying to claim.

But let's be very clear about something: all existing civilian nuclear power plants produce plutonium when in operation, even though they don't produce as much as breeder reactors. The Iraqi reactor would have produced plutonium if Israel had not destroyed it. After a few years of normal operations, it would easily have produced enough plutonium for more than one atomic bomb.

There's little doubt that's exactly what Saddam had in mind. And that is why the Israelis decided they had to destroy it.

If Le Sommier claimed that the Iraqi reactor represented no risk to Israel, and therefore claimed that the Israel's attack was not justified, either he was lying or he doesn't know what he is talking about.

UPDATE: I have a long-time reader who is an expert in this area, and he sent me the following email:

Osirak was a 40MWth Materials Test Reactor (MTR) - not designed for the production of power. It was above the threshold at which the IAEA considers it possible for a small reactor to produce a significant quantity of Pu in a year (the threshold is 25MWth).

It was HEU fuelled (giving you a higher, harder neutron flux from a smaller core). The fuel was 93% enriched - well in the weapons grade range - but they would have really only had enough to produce one HEU weapon.

The programmatic justification for building an MTR is to do the basic research that lets you design and build other, larger reactors. For example, Australia has an MTR (10MWth) that was built in 1958 that was used for just such a purpose. When they realized that they weren't going nuclear they converted it for use in radioisotope production.

An MTR is designed for you to be able to introduce material into a neutron flux without shutting down the reactor - it is generally made so that you have fairly precise control of the integral flux and the rate of flux reaching your targets. This makes it ideal for producing Pu of a precisely known grade (not efficient, but effective and quite precise).

The Osirak reactor was clearly a part of the Iraqi weapons program - they did not need to do the basic research that an MTR is designed for because they clearly had no intention of building their own power reactors from scratch (apart from it being cheaper and safer to buy a proven design, the Iraqis did not have the scientific, technical or engineering resources necessary to start from scratch).

Any suggestion that this reactor was not suitable for use in a weapons program is sheer fantasy and an insult to the intelligence of a reader (Le Sommier's readers/listeners not yours).

I was not aware of that. It certainly makes the French decision to build it look bad, doesn't it?

Update: Via Will Collier I find this about the Osirak plant.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040727.1609

(Captain's log): Hitting the old mailbag, Rob wrote:

I'm a frequent reader and enjoy your writing immensely. As a non-engineer your articles on engineering give me great insight into the mind of engineering types and help to point out problems that do not occur to laymen. In my work, I often interact with engineers and programmers and this has helped me understand their constraints and dispels the myth of the Obstinate Engineer. That is, the can't vs. won't syndrome and in some cases has helped me figure out who is full of it and who isn't. That said, I find myself more drawn to large and ambitious engineering projects. Previously, I emailed you about the Freedomship which you said is likely a scam and pointed me to an article you wrote on it. While I agree on it's infeasibility, I didn't think it's a scam so much as a delusion. However, I've been tracking the progress (or lack thereof) and think you are probably right.

Onward: I've also been following the creation of the "Palm Project" and "The World" project in Dubai. Similarly, the Hydropolis is fascinating. I know the two Palm projects are underway as is "the world" but Hydropolis appears to be stalled in the concept stage. My question (yes, I'm finally there) is something as ambitious as the Palm project possible b/c it's driven by one may (the Sheik) with massive wealth and political power? I'm not a subscriber to the "Great Man of History" theory but he appears to be thinking big and looking forward far moreso than his neighbors. I guess I'm looking for your thoughts about grand engineering projects in general as you don't seem to write about them much.

Care for another engineering aphorism? Don't start vast projects based on half-vast ideas.

I happen to think the "Freedom Ship" project is a scam, but such projects can be evaluated without reference to the motivation of those who propose them. It often doesn't matter all that much whether they are crooks or deluded fools, or just unwise.

I can't say I've heard of either the "Palm Project" or the "Hydropolis Project", and I don't really have the inclination to delve into them deeply. Based on a quick look at the home page, the Palm Project seems large and very ambitious but there's nothing inherently silly or misguided about it. That kind of thing is not unprecedented, though. (Consider, for instance, the Kansai airport.)

The Hydropolis project is a lot more speculative, but I don't see any fundamental problems with the concept. I'm not at all certain that it's wise, however. Such an underwater hotel, open to the public, would be particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It would not take much initial damage caused by gunfire or small bombs to initiate a cascading failure which would destroy the entire place and kill everyone in it.

As to the idea of "great men", a lot of things can be done if the backers are willing to lose vast amounts of money, or if they aren't even thinking in terms of "making/losing money".

I don't write about "grand engineering projects in general" because they can't be discussed in general. Some grand engineering projects are boondoggles which will never be finished; some are technically feasible but make no commercial sense. Some are completely reasonable commercially. Some could be reasonable but fail anyway because those in charge make stupid decisions.

The devil is always in the details. They can't be discussed in general because there's little they have in common in general except scale and ambition.

The Chunnel was financed with a mixture of government money and private investment. It was successfully built, and it's been operating ever since. Is it a "success"? It depends on what you think was the project goal. It was partly a prestige project, and it is probably successful in those terms. But it will never make back the investments; so from a commercial standpoint it is not a success.

Another "great project" was the annihilation of smallpox worldwide. That one was motivated almost entirely by humanitarianism. It was financed with a mixture of government money and money from private foundations, and so far as we know it was a total success in eliminating one of the great diseases which has plagued the human race throughout history.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) project is one I've been watching for a long time, and I've always been very impressed with it, and I've written about it several times (e.g. here). It's a scientific instrument in Chile built by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), financed by European governments. It's an amazing engineering achievement, and will end up being an extremely valuable scientific asset as well.

By contrast, the Superconducting Super Collider project in the US did not get finished. Ultimately Congress decided that the price tag was just too great compared to the benefit. About two billion dollars were spent, and a huge tunnel was drilled, but nothing was ever installed in that tunnel.

There have been a lot of "grand engineering projects". Some were clearly successful; some were clear failures. Some are difficult to evaluate.

But the differences between them are much more important than any apparent similarities. And that's why I haven't written about such projects in general: there's nothing to say.

Bob wrote:

I don't hear a thing about North Korea. What's going on there?

The same as before. The Bush administration continues to pursue a strategy I approvingly referred to as "Engaged apathy".

There won't be any significant progress until after the November election. If Bush loses, there won't be any progress until after the inauguration. (If there comes a point somewhat before the election where there's no longer any serious doubt that Bush will win, progress might also resume. If there comes a point where there's no serious doubt that Kerry will win, that would guarantee there would be no progress at all until next year.)

In any situation where the real power balance is shifting, or if the situation is fluid and unpredictable, it's very rare for there to be diplomatic progress in negotiations.

Remember that negotiations have nothing to do with justice, and indeed very little to do with the issues. It's all about relative power and relative urgency.

The original reason the NK's began to kick up a fuss was the hope that they could get a sweet deal in order to shut them up while we were busy in Iraq. This year they're hoping to get bought off before the election. But Bush isn't going to do that.

The NK's hope that if they don't get bought off, they can make themselves an issue in the election campaign and help get Bush defeated. Then, perhaps, a Democratic administration might be more inclined to return to a policy of appeasement. Their potential to affect the campaign is the reason they hope Bush will capitulate and buy them off.

The only way the US can "make progress" in the short term is by making a particularly generous offer, but that isn't going to happen while Bush is president. Absent American capitulation, there will be "progress" only if the NK or the PRC want progress.

Thus nothing important will happen until after this presidential election is settled, one way or the other.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040727.1209

(On Screen): In an editorial originally from the Boston Globe, Charles M. Sennott says that Europeans are rooting for Kerry in this election.

‘‘The foreign policy establishment in the Democratic Party is not substantively different from that of the Republicans, certainly not in the Middle East,’’ the diplomat said. ‘‘But with Kerry the feeling is that there will at least be a dialogue, an attempt at understanding.’’ Steven Everts, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank, said, ‘‘This is a foreign policy election for the U.S. and a critical election for the world.’’ ...

‘‘If Bush is defeated, Europe will say this was a difficult period, but an aberration,’’ Everts said. ‘‘Four more years of Bush, however, will have a long-term impact on European policy, and the development of a permanent rift between the U.S. and Europe.’’ ...

Many pundits in Europe regard Kerry’s public comment in March that foreign leaders preferred him over Bush as a clumsy political gaffe, but it reflects a widely held European view that Bush embodies much about America that the world loves to detest. The long lines at cinemas from Paris to Prague for Michael Moore’s ‘‘Fahrenheit 911’’ attest to that. Newspapers and magazines and television talk shows and speeches in parliaments across Europe make the sentiment apparent on a daily basis. Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School and a top economic adviser in the Clinton administration who is now advising Kerry, said, ‘‘It’s important to note that this election is about America and its superpower status.’’

So for the Democrats, when you vote, "Do it... for the Europeans."

For the Republicans, when you vote, "Do it... to the Europeans."

I know which of those appeals more to me. Easy choice...

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040726.1255

(Captain's log): I really resent it when someone assumes I'm a gullible fool. Anthony Cospito did so today, when he sent me email which began:

Dear Steven,

I'm an avid reader of your blog and thought you would want to know about a new book  that's been getting quite a bit of buzz. Bishop Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and Newt Gingrich read it and highly recommend it. The book is called...

...but I'm not going to quote any more, because I have no intention of doing this guy any favors.

Bishop Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Newt Gingrich? Quite a list, don't you think? Between the three of them, they pretty much cover the political spectrum. Bishop Tutu made a critical contribution to ending apartheid in South Africa, and recently hit the news when he bitterly denounced the invasion of Iraq. Common Dreams thinks highly of him.

Gorbachev, of course, is (ahem) the guy who really should be given credit for ending the Cold War rather than Ronald Reagan. So between Tutu and Gorbie, you've got the left covered. Gingrich, of course, is there for anyone on the political right.

So that's quite the short list of celebrities who "read it and highly recommend it". However, I'm skeptical.

This email made my bullshit detector buzz loud enough to be heard next door. Everything about this rang false. It reads like a publicity blurb. It sure doesn't read like a message composed by an "avid reader". I get enough of those to have some idea what they're like.

So I started looking into it. The email header indicated that it had been sent from IP [], which a reverse-DNS translates as "", a RoadRunner cable modem in New York City. But the email address he gave isn't on RoadRunner. Rather, it is associated with a site belonging to one "James Cospito", presumably a relative. It seems to be a media/advertising agency, and it's obviously not a big-budget operation. (He's placed his portfolio on "" instead of hosting it himself.)

I got onto my server and grepped my referer logs for that IP, and found exactly what I expected to find: [] has never visited my site before today.

He arrived at my main page with a puzzling refer from Yahoo:

I don't know enough about Yahoo to know exactly what that indicates. (My first thought was that he was running through Yahoo's online list of politically-oriented blogs, but if he was that should have been the refer; I've seen those before. It also doesn't make sense as a search-engine result; I've seen those, too.) (update: Aha! the answer below.)

Whatever it is, Yahoo responds to it with an HTTP 302 redirect to my main page. From there, he only accessed two other pages on this server. First he followed the "contact" link to get my email address, and then he followed the "biography" link. I suspect that was so he could find my name, so that he could personalize the greeting.

That's odd, to say the least, since the biography link text on my sidebar is "Steven Den Beste's Biography". You'd think that would be a big hint, wouldn't you? But if he was in a mass-mailing groove, then "find and follow the bio" would be step three.

Here's the email he got in response:

On Mon, 26 Jul 2004 13:21:22 -0400, you wrote:

>Dear Steven,
>I'm an avid reader of your blog...

Uh-huh... Sure you are. I really resent being taken for a gullible fool who can be snowed with shallow flattery.

Never mind the small detail that you have never visited my site before today, and that the only thing you did today when you visited was to go directly to the "contact" page to get my email address, and then to my "biography" page to find out that my name is "Steven" so you could personalize the above greeting on your form letter.

>...and thought you would want to know about a
>new book that's been getting quite a bit of buzz.

Or rather, you hoped you could con me into helping to create such a buzz.

Welcome to my Bozo Bin.

I really resent this kind of thing. Did he actually think that I'd fall for it? Was I supposed to be taken in because he addressed me by name, and told me how big a fan he was?

Answer: he didn't know if I would fall for it, but there was no harm in trying. If I did, he got free publicity for his client's book. If I didn't, maybe another political blogger would be more gullible. I'm confident I'm not the only person he sent this to.

Anthony Cospito, for conspicuous service above and beyond the call of duty, you have been awarded the Order of Bozo. Wear it in good health.

Update: Regarding that Yahoo refer, Dave writes:

I'd say your first thought is dead on.  When I go to Yahoo's list, all the sites are linked to with links, and the link to your site is exactly what you posted.  I expect those links point to a script that logs clicks before sending the redirect, to gather data for their "Most Popular" section.

For a moment that confused me. When I had looked at that page, all the URLs looked clean. Then I remembered that I had Proxomitron's "Unprefix URLs" filter enabled, which removes that kind of crap. When I disabled that filter and loaded the Yahoo "political weblog" page again, the URL for my site was exactly the one I found in my referer.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040724.1758

(On Screen): Man, you just can't make up stuff like this:

BOSTON (Reuters) - Security officers won't be the only professionals coming to Boston in unprecedented numbers for the Democratic National Convention.

Practitioners of the world's oldest profession are seeking reinforcements to help service some of the 35,000 visitors -- plus untold numbers of police reinforcements -- expected in the coming week when Democrats name Sen. John Kerry their presidential candidate.

"Every convention brings in more people, and women fly in from all over the country to work it," said Robyn Few, a prostitute on probation who runs the Sex Workers Outreach Project, an advocacy group.

"There will be girls from California and from the South in Boston this week," she said. "I hope a lot of women make a lot of money and make a lot of men really happy."

While Boston has played host to a number of conventions, a national political convention draws larger crowds than the city is accustomed to and security for the event is said to be unprecedented amid terrorism concerns.

For weeks, escort services have plastered advertisements in magazines and on the Internet asking women to work the convention.

Even local strip clubs are putting out the word that more women are needed.

"We are looking for more girls right now," said Frank Caswell, who runs the Foxy Lady club outside Boston. "Obviously, hospitality and beauty are expected and the girls must bring something that is enticing to see."

Local agencies said they charge anywhere from $200 an hour for a little company in a delegate's hotel room; rates at national agencies can be five times that much.

Several sex workers said political conventions were often particularly lucrative. Democratic organizers wanted to point out that many delegates are bringing their families.

"This really is a G-rated event," said DNC spokeswoman Mariellen Burns.

Write your own punchline!

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040724.1347

(On Screen via long range sensors): Pej points to a news report about CIA infiltration of al Qaeda. In Pej's comment thread, Conrad responds:

Infiltration was always a logical plan. It should have been done better in the 90s, but better late than never.

As I posted one moderately long comment, I spotted Conrad's comment. It needs an answer, and rather than add another long comment on Pej's site, I decided to write here.

We engineers have an aphorism: The fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible.

Encarta Dictionary defines feasible as "possible: capable of being accomplished or put into effect", but that definition is wrong. Something is "possible" if it is not "impossible". As long as it doesn't embody a logical contradiction or violate the laws of physics, it is possible.

Feasibility is much more restrictive. Feasibility is fundamentally pragmatic; it's about practicality. For something to be feasible, it must be possible to accomplish it within an acceptable schedule, at an acceptable cost, using resources which are available to you. It means that you as a manager would be willing to accept it as an assignment because you had a plan which demonstrated that you had reasonable expectation of success without relying on miracles or magic.

In my previous life as a technology consultant, I was often handed plans in which the critical step seemed to entail the use of expensive equipment that the client didn't have, and had no intention of installing. It was not unheard of, in fact, for plans to require equipment that hadn't actually been invented. The first time it happened, I naively went to my project manager to inquire about it.

"What happens here?" I asked him, pointing to the space between the two steps that I couldn't quite figure out how to bridge.

His eyes crinkled with a sort of world-weary sympathy as he nodded towards that pregnant space. "That," he intoned solemnly, "is where the magic happens."

We engineers get told to produce all kinds of things which are viewed as being desirable. But sometimes they are not feasible, and when we try to explain the reasons why, we soon get used to being told, "Don't tell us why you can't do it, tell us how you're going to do it." We get accused of being defeatist, unimaginative, gutless, stupid, uncreative, doctrinaire, inflexible, uncooperative. We get admonished to "think outside the box". We are preached at about how we should be thinking "Yes" instead of "No". We're told to stop thinking about "problems"; we are told that we should refer to them as "opportunities". (One engineering wag responded, "We're surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.")

Which is to say that we get beaten about the head and shoulders with platitudes.

That demonstrates another rather bitter engineering aphorism: "Everything is easy for the man who doesn't have to do it himself." He sees something he really wants, and doesn't want to be told that he can't have it, even if it is a fact that he can not have it. He doesn't want to hear "No" even if "No" is the real answer. Engineers are magicians, and we're supposed to make magic happen. We've pulled off so many miracles before, so why not this one?

A lot of people know what they want. This certainly happens in politics: "Win without war." "Get cooperation and support from traditional allies." But they're quite often woefully short on plans. The more idealistic they are, the more likely it is they'll deny that they should even be required to contribute such a plan. Someone else should figure out how to make it happen; the idealist's job is to show us all the real destination.

Every once in a while someone comes up with the "obvious" solution to this war: switch to "alternate energy sources" so that we cease needing Arab oil, and perform that switch without drastically changing our lifestyle or economic activity. Do it in a small number of years (e.g. five), and implement it worldwide so that there is no longer any market for Arab oil. There are a lot of problems with this basic idea, but one in particular is that it isn't feasible.

I have tried a couple of times to explain why (most recently here/here/here). It's not that I think we should totally ignore "alternate energy sources"; it's that I am quite sure that they cannot be developed soon enough, large enough, cheaply enough, to yield the proposed political consequences.

But every time I say that, I get dismissed as being someone who "doesn't have enough faith in American engineering genius". I get flooded with mail from people who send me links to reports of some new cool thing (e.g. petroleum made from turkey guts, or "biodiesel", or something even more obscure) who think that if only I were informed about such a thing I would suddenly undergo an epiphany and wave my engineering magic wand and make it all happen. That's why "alternate energy sources" is one of small number of subjects I always fear to even mention here.

I do not propose to enter that lion's den again. [DWL!] about it. (The Bozo Bin awaits those foolish enough to ignore this warning.)

Infiltration is obviously a good thing. But Conrad is wrong in referring to it as a plan. Infiltration is a goal, not a plan. A goal is what you want to achieve; a plan tells you how to achieve it. A goal is a destination; a plan is driving instructions for reaching that destination.

"Win without war." "Infiltrate al Qaeda's leadership." Yes, but how? Those are wonderful goals, but what is the plan?

If you were chosen to replace George Tenet as the head of the CIA, how would you go about infiltrating the top ranks of al Qaeda without relying on miracles? (They're the religious zealots, OK? Let them rely on miracles!)

You'd have to find and identify very special people, reliable traitors. Since that's almost a contradiction in terms, such people are not at all common. You have to find people who can be bought (or blackmailed), who will stay bought, and who will be able to avoid being spotted by others as having been bought.

Either they will already be in al Qaeda, or they will have a good chance of getting themselves recruited into al Qaeda into positions of significant responsibility. That's hard enough to do when you're talking about above-the-board organizations such as large foreign corporations or foreign governments. With a small shadowy organization like al Qaeda, it's a whole lot tougher.

Identifying potential recruits, locating them, making contact with them, and making a deal with them, is non-trivial. Historically speaking, usually they contact you rather than the other way around. For instance, the KGB didn't recruit John Walker Jr. He originally contacted them. If someone like that does contact you, it's obviously a golden opportunity. But that's also luck. You shouldn't make a plan which relies on luck.

If no such potential candidate contacts you, how do you propose to actively identify and seek out potential candidates? It's a tough problem. It may come close to being insoluble.

When it comes to engineering wet dreams, if I could wish for one major technological advance right now, I'd wish for a portable electrical power source with 1000 times greater energy density than anything we have today. I want a power pack with the following characteristics:

  • Weight <= 5 kg
  • Manufacturing cost in quantity <= $100
  • Usable energy >= 100 megajoules
  • Usable power >= 5 kilowatts
  • Compact shape
  • Quiet (no significant sound generation in operation)
  • Not dangerous (i.e. no significant release of radiation or toxic fumes, no explosion hazard)

Give me that, and I'll change your world completely. Give me that one thing, and I'll give you technological miracles beyond your wildest dreams. I'll give you flying cars, flying backpacks, exoskeletons, powered prosthetics. I'll create entirely new industries. I'll completely change the office, the manufacturing floor, the street, the home. And I will totally change the battlefield.

But I'm not going to get that power pack. It's a wonderful dream, but it isn't even remotely feasible now. In fact, we don't even have a theoretical basis for such a thing.

Battery technology hasn't been improving very rapidly, because it's a fundamentally difficult problem. Over the last 30 years, energy density in portable power sources has improved by less than a factor of 5, and unless there's a major breakthrough in fuel cell technology it's unlikely to improve by more than about another five-fold over current state-of-the-art in the foreseeable future.

That's nowhere near enough, and it means a lot of really cool things must stay on the drawing board. We could build them, but we can't adequately power them except by plugging them into the wall.

That power pack would be a miracle. But I don't believe in miracles. (That's why I was successful as an engineer.)

By the same token, it's obvious that we would really, really like to buy some top members of al Qaeda. But the fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible.

Sometimes you can't get there from here. You don't get to ignore issues of feasibility. You don't get to make plans which include a "miracle mile" or which rely on magic.

Anyone can solve any problem if they don't have to concern themselves with gritty details. And that's why everything is easy for the man who doesn't have to do it himself.

Identifying goals is easy. The difference between success and failure is differentiating feasible goals from infeasible ones. That's where the magic really happens.

Update 20040725: I changed the super-battery capacity from 1 megajoule to 100 megajoules. I keep forgetting just how little energy 1 joule is. At 5 kilowatts, 1 megajoule gets consumed in 3 minutes, 20 seconds. 100 megajoules would last about five and a half hours, which is much more reasonable.

Also, Francis W. Porretto points out that this article nicely complements two posts by the Missus.

Update 20040726: Lexington Green says that we could infiltrate al Qaeda if we just try hard enough. He also shows that he doesn't truly understand the distinction between possible and feasible.

I don't think this is really a feasibility issue. It is more a deployment of assets issue and an institutional/legal issue. There is probably no organization in the world that cannot be penetrated given enough time, willpower and resources. You need to have lots of people who speak the language, who understand the culture, who can pick up in nuances, and who can get around in the appropriate areas without being obviously an American spy. Such people can be hired or trained or both. You need to have the patience to let them insinuate themselves and get involved in activities which will bring them in touch with promising contacts. You must have the resources to bribe or otherwise reward and protect those who help you. You need to maintain secrecy. All of this is feasible, though difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

The key word in there is "time-consuming". Yes, the kind of things he describes can be done. And fifteen years from now, once we have actually done those things, we will finally have the resources required to permit us to insinuate moles into the top brass of al Qaeda.

But if al Qaeda still exists by then and is still enough of a threat to be worth infiltrating, we'll already have lost this war. Part of feasibility is timeliness. A solution which is too late is no solution. A solution which requires resources which don't exist is a solution which relies on magic.

TMLutas also responded, though not to the main point of this article. His point is valid, though it is not as important as he might think it is.

Sometimes Pointy Haired Bosses (PHBs) ask the infeasible of engineers and are unsatisfied with the engineer's realistic response that it's not going to happen. But other times, the PHBs ask for something that is feasible but either beyond the imagination or beyond the work ethic of the particular engineer. The response by the engineer in this latter case is verbally indistinguishable from the former case. The PHB can't tell the difference. This leads to guessing on the part of the PHB as to when the engineers are lying and two bad outcomes, infeasible projects going forward and feasible projects getting stopped.

Engineers are just as prone to lying as anyone else is, and burying the non-technical with baffling jargon has a long and notorious history. But there's an obvious solution: the manager should ask for, listen to, and try to understand the explanation given by the engineer. The two cases are only verbally indistinguishable if you don't understand what the words mean.

So the socially useful question is what is the appropriate tool set for PHBs and other non-engineers to tell when the engineers are lying, mistaken, or correct.

Those are three distinct cases. If the engineer is sincere but mistaken, there's really nothing you can do. You have to rely on your people. If your engineer employee tells you he doesn't think what you want is feasible, then assuming you believe him you have to assume he's correct, or terminate him and hire someone else.

It should also be pointed out that part of feasibility is "working with the resources available". What he's telling you is that he doesn't think he can do it. The fact that someone else might conceivably be able to is an unhelpful observation: you don't have "someone else" working for you. So in a real sense, Lutas's third case is an example of magic. All you have to do is assume the existence of an employee smarter and more informed than the ones you've got, and you're all set.

On the other hand, Lutas's other two disaster scenarios – giving up on projects that are feasible or attempting infeasible projects because the engineer was lying – have the same imperfect solution: the PHB has to learn enough so that the justification given to him is no longer a mountain of meaningless jargon and buzzwords.

But there's no perfect solution to this. That's life in the big city.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040721.1341

(Captain's log): Michael writes:

You've written on a couple of occasions about, as you put it, "The Bush Masterstroke". It seems to me that we've gone quite a while now without one.

I'm wondering if you see one coming, or circumstances under which such a play could be made. The obvious assumption would be that such a move would, by necessity, have to come before the election.

One such case was this article, in which I wrongly predicted a masterstroke for late January 2003. (You know how it goes...)

I've thought about that. Of course, such a masterstroke isn't always possible. Opportunities for such things don't come along every day. Also, when I wrote about that I was talking about cases where Bush eventually made some specific critical speech, or enumerated some specific critical policy, which fundamentally changed everything. I doubt anything like that is coming.

There's a more generic sense of this, however, which some refer to as "rope-a-dope" (in reference to the famous tactic used by Muhammad Ali to some of his last major boxing matches). Bush is also distinctive because of the fact that he seems to largely ignore his critics, and tends to let themselves wear themselves out and use up their ammunition. When he thinks the time is right, he then opens up on them and tends to bury them. I think something like that's coming, and it's going to be even more important than any of the previous ones.

A common lament by people who hate Bush begins with the fact that in the 2000 election, Gore got more votes total nationally than Bush did. That is not unprecedented; there have been several previous Presidential elections in which the loser got more total votes than the winner.

Their claim about the popular vote in 2000 is true. But the popular vote is irrelevant, and the claim itself is specious. We don't choose the President using the national popular vote; we choose the President via votes in the electoral college. Both the Bush and Gore campaigns tailored their campaign strategies towards prevailing in the electoral college. If our Constitutional system selected the President based on popular vote, both campaigns would have been run entirely differently, and there's no way to know who would have won.

Similarly, I think it's clear that a lot of the attention being paid right now to polls of voter preference is misguided. You see a lot of articles and blog posts which say, "If the election were held today, this is how the electoral votes would probably split."

Those poll numbers don't matter. They also don't predict anything. The election isn't being held today. It will be held in November, and the only poll which will really matter is the November election. If the election had been scheduled for now, both campaigns would have behaved much differently this spring, and the poll numbers we'd be seeing today would be much different. But the election isn't being held today, and the Republicans haven't started their campaign.

I don't know exactly when the Republican campaign will finally get serious. It doesn't seem likely they'll wait until October, so my best guess is it will be in September some time.

And I am pretty confident that when they do really get serious, the consequences for the Kerry campaign will be catastrophic. After the November election, a lot of people are going to wonder why it was that anyone ever thought that Kerry had a substantial chance of winning.

And part of the reason it's going to go so badly for Kerry is that there is very careful low-level preparation going on.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq last year, there was broad consensus among observers (including me) that there would be one to two weeks of air preparation before ground ops began (which was still viewed as a radical change compared to the six weeks of air preparation before ground action in 1991). CENTCOM crossed everyone up when it began ground operations on the first day of active hostilities.

It turned out that CENTCOM had already done most of the important air preparation in the previous year, slowly, gradually, subtly. Some of that hit the news (e.g. a bombing attack that took out a critical fiber communications junction and cut off telecommunications between Baghdad and southern Iraq) but most of it did not.

I can see hints of that kind of careful preparation being done politically and diplomatically, which will turn out to be critical for the campaign. I think that some of Bush's international actions recently have been partially intended to undermine Kerry.

Let's make clear that I do not think that has been the only motive for the Bush administration. I do not see any case in foreign policy where I have concluded that they seriously sacrificed the nation's interests solely to gain a campaign advantage. (Domestic policy is a different matter, but I don't want to go into that.)

But there have been cases where choices have been made and policies selected in part because of their effect on the campaign.

Bush has by no means embraced the leftist position regarding international law and governance and institutions. In all cases where reliance on such structures would have been catastrophic for us, he has unambiguously rejected them. (Two examples: the Kyoto accords, and the International Criminal Court.)

But there have been a lot of cases where the cost to the national interest in trying to deal with such international institutions has been low, and quite often in such cases the Bush administration has chosen to attempt to work within those institutions. The results have uniformly been unimpressive, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Bush campaign.

Kerry has made a lot of nebulous pie-in-the-sky statements about involving NATO (and "traditional allies") in Iraq and in the larger "War on Terror". Recently Bush went to NATO and asked for help in Iraq, and he got rebuffed.

Bush went to NATO after the transfer of sovereignty to the new provisional Iraqi government. "Traditional Allies" in Europe (i.e. France) had previously said they would be willing to help in Iraq, but only if asked by a sovereign Iraqi government. But when both the US government and a sovereign Iraqi government did directly request NATO assistance, they (the "traditional allies") still said "Non!"

As it turns out, NATO assistance would have been useful at the time it was requested, but it wasn't really vital. The majority of NATO members are already helping out, and as the Iraqis themselves take more responsibility for their own internal security, there will be less need for foreign troops. Bush was publicly rebuffed, but that harmed NATO's reputation more than Bush's reputation.

When the Republicans finally start campaigning seriously, if Kerry continues to talk about NATO involvement, the Republicans will be able to respond by saying that Bush tried to involve NATO, and certain hostile nations within NATO blocked any NATO involvement.

There's been a lot of that kind of thing going on. What I see is the political equivalent of slow, relatively surreptitious air preparations intended to set up eventual rapid large-scale ground operations. Critical targets are being carefully targeted and addressed, slowly and carefully.

I think this may be one of the reasons the Bush administration has not kissed off the UN. Realistically, the UN is much more useful to our enemies than it is to us. It would be emotionally quite satisfying for the US to formally walk out, formally cease paying dues, and to formally give the UN five years to leave US soil. But the Bush administration has continued to deal with the UN, and continued to at least make an attempt to work within the framework of the UN. Doing so is utterly futile and permits our enemies to score short term points. But it also prepares the political ground for any debate in the campaign about the UN.

The primacy of the UN (as the only thing which exists now that looks even remotely like a "world government") is a fundamental leftist foreign policy doctrine, and another which Kerry has gingerly mentioned in his campaign.

Rather than formally breaking with the UN, the Bush administration has continued to work within it when doing so did not seriously jeopardize American interests. And the UN has not acquitted itself well. The record will pretty cleearly show just how useless the UN is, and how dreadfully irresponsible it would be for this nation to formally accept a requirement for UNSC approval for any active or aggressive foreign policy, including military intervention.

Rather than outright rejecting leftist proposals, the Bush administration has been trying to show how deeply flawed they are in practice, by trying to partially implement them when there's little risked by doing so. Rather the publicly denounce the UN and NATO in response to leftist calls for more reliance on both, the Bush administration has tried to deal with both, fully expecting failure.

Winning an election is like preparing a multicourse meal. There's skill involved, but there's also timing. You not only have to prepare all the dishes correctly, you need to make sure they are finished at just the right time. I see undercurrents of a lot of preparations which will bear fruit in the October time frame.

I think one of the most notable and important decisions made by the Bush administration was to schedule the transfer of sovereignty several months ahead of time, and to stick to that schedule. There were a lot of legitimate strategic and tactical reasons for doing that, but it will also have consequences for the US election.

By October, it's possible that everything in Iraq will have gone to hell, but I don't expect that. I also don't expect the insurgency to collapse and for Iraq to have been transformed into an idyllic and peaceful land of brotherhood and acceptance. What I do expect is that by October the interim government in Iraq will have firmed up and will largely have come to be seen as "legitimate" and will generally be doing a pretty good job in face of terrible challenges.

And that will mean that by October it will no longer be possible for leftists to portray the invasion of Iraq as "American imperialism". By then I think it will be very difficult to characterize the new Iraqi government as some kind of American puppet regime. It will no longer be possible to portray the insurgents as "patriots fighting to repel foreign invaders", since they'll be primarily fighting to overthrow the native Iraqi government and primarily fighting against and killing Iraqis. (Sure, they can try to portray the situation in those terms, but I don't think they will convince many undecided American voters.)

The US Army and Marines aren't going to leave Iraq, but by October they'll no longer be significantly involved in day-to-day patrolling. "Defensive" operations like patrols will be Iraqi; our forces for the most part will only engage in combat in large operations, such as the inevitable day when Falluja finally gets cleaned out. (I don't know if that will happen before the election, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

The Republicans are also going to benefit from other things which will likely happen over the next few months. If the Palestinians do collapse into full-scale civil war, it will help Bush more than hurt him. As Chirac's political situation in France continues to weaken, that too will help Bush. Continued revelations about UN corruption (particularly UNSCAM but not confined to that) will be helpful. The Republicans are starting to lay groundwork for making Iran an issue in the election.

(There are other possible events whose political consequences are impossible to predict: a new major terrorist attack on the US which was successful or unsuccessful or partial, a new major terrorist attack elsewhere (especially if it was in the UK), North Korea detonating a nuke, Iran detonating a nuke, a revolution in Pakistan, any of several critical world leaders either being assassinated or deposed from power, etc. Since the consequences of such events are impossible to predict and could just as easily benefit Bush as Kerry depending on circumstances, I do not factor any of these into my conclusion in this post.)

As the US economy continues to improve, and as lagging economic indicators (such as hiring) finally respond, and as international diplomacy continues to spiral into madness, and as the Republicans continue careful preparations, then come October I think the Kerry campaign is going to discover that it doesn't have any issues remaining to it which it can use to try to appeal to the American center.

The Republicans will have no such problem coming up with issues. When the Republicans finally get serious, one of the things they're going to do is to shine a strong spotlight on one of Kerry's great weaknesses, which I wrote about a couple of days ago: the fundamental anti-American values held by the left pole of the Democratic Party. During the period last year when Kerry was trying to out-Dean Dean in order to woo the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party", he said a lot of things on-camera which the Republicans are going to make damned sure come back to haunt him come October. In my previous post, I said:

And this is the millstone around John Kerry's neck: a substantial proportion of the core supporters of the Democratic party largely agree with Bancroft-Hinchey's view of the US, and Kerry dare not repudiate their beliefs. At the same time, he doesn't dare acknowledge those beliefs for fear of alienating the majority of American voters.

If he alienates those leftists, some significant percentage might decide to vote for Nader. The bigger risk is that a considerably larger percentage might decide to not vote at all if he convincingly repudiates their beliefs. Yet their beliefs are in many ways profoundly repugnant to the American center, who would be repelled if Kerry convincingly embraced those beliefs. And so he prevaricates.

The Republicans won't let him get away with that. The graphic image from the 1984 election which comes down to those of us who were adults then is "teflon". Reagan was the "Teflon candidate". (Mondale was occasionally referred to as the "Velcro candidate".) I think the graphic image we will retain from the 2004 election is the waffle.

The Republicans will comb (have already combed, in fact) his record of attributable public statements (i.e. statements Kerry cannot deny making), especially while on the campaign trail last year but also during this year's campaign and from his career in the Senate, and will try to portray Kerry's position on various issues in terms most likely to alienate the American center. The Republicans will try to portray Kerry as a politician who is willing to say anything to anyone on any issue, but who secretly is fully in sympathy with the most repulsive left wingers in the Democratic coalition.

For some particular issue they'll quote his own words and show that he's been willing to take multiple contradictory positions on that issue, with bonus points for lame explanations ("I voted for it before I voted against it"). Then they'll point to his voting record in the Senate on that issue to demonstrate that he's really, deep down, one'a them Liberals. They can, and will, try to do this on almost every major issue in the campaign.

(Foreign readers who are not intimately familiar with American politics need to know that in the US the word "Liberal" is used to refer to a political position which is essentially socialist and redistributionist. It's not dissimilar to European "Third Way Social Democracy", but it has little to do with liberalism in the classic sense. American "Liberals" are not liberal. American liberals are generally seen as "Conservative". And American "Liberals" are a distinct political minority whose fortunes have been falling since the Reagan presidency.)

The Republicans will portray Kerry as a Liberal and a liar.

Unless Kerry wants to cede control of his public image to the Republicans, he'll have to cease equivocating. He'll have to take a stand on the issues, and try to convince voters that he really does mean what he says. There are a wide variety of ways this can turn out, but all of them end up being bad for Kerry. He either drives too many voters away because they reject his sincere position, or he drives too many voters away because they decide he's lying about his position, or he drives too many voters away because they decide he is an opportunist who doesn't have any principles at all beyond personal ambition.

By October, the Bush administration will also have a significant record of achievement it can use in the campaign. Absent some unexpected and unpredictable catastrophe, the economy should be strong and growing, unemployment will have fallen considerably, and the situation in Iraq will have improved drastically in terms of political value (which, let me emphasize, will have little to do with any rational evaluation of the situation there). The overall situation will be far from perfect, and the war won't be over, but the Bush administration will be well placed to say, "We've made a great deal of progress, and we intend to make even more in our second term."

The Democrats will try to attack that record, but even if they are partially successful they will not be able to damage Bush anything like as much as the Republicans are going to damage Kerry.

Even if the Democrats weren't revealing themselves as incompetent clowns, come October they would still find themselves in deep trouble.

So what I conclude is that the next Bush "masterstroke" is going to be the November election. The Republicans and the Bush administration have been biding their time, and conserving their money. They have been carefully accumulating political ammunition and have resisted the urge to expend any of it too soon. They've laid the groundwork for a very effective campaign this autumn, and the Democrats are going to get routed.

Last October I wrote an analysis of the American party system and primary process and tried to show why it meant that the Democrats had no hope of winning the White House next November. In that post, I said:

Any political position or locus of policies which is viable within the Democratic primary process will be fatal in the general election. Any locus of policies which would be even remotely viable in the general election (such as the one held by Lieberman) is fatal within the primary process. Like Groucho Marx, who said that he wouldn't want to belong to any club which would have him, the Democrats will refuse to nominate any candidate who actually would have a chance of winning.

I still feel comfortable with the analysis in that article. As a presidential candidate, Kerry is deeply vulnerable. The Republicans are carefully preparing the groundwork for a full-scale assault on his greatest weaknesses. Once they open up active hostilities, it's actually going to end up being very much like the other Bush masterstrokes, where everything changes permanently and no one can again look at the fundamental issues the same way.

Update: Will Collier comments.

And it seems that Gerard van der Leun has been thinking along some of the same lines as I have.

JBC wonders why Joshua Micah Marshall and I have come to such diametrically opposite conclusions. All I can say is that I'm not responsible for what Joshua thinks. But I do think Joshua should read this.

In other words, you must act stupid so that those you are trying to outwit will never suspect that you are trying to outwit them. But this means you must also actively encourage other people-not just your enemies!-- to think you stupid as well, lest they accidentally blow your cover. And you must make absolutely no effort to change their minds by showing that you are in fact less moronic than they take you to be. And, indeed, the logic of the situation means that your power over your enemies will increase in direct proportions to the contempt with which they view your claims to intellectual competency. In short, the dumber, the better.

And this is enlightening, too. And then he might want to meditate about the possibility that he might be inferring desperation because he would be feeling desperate if he were in their shoes, and because he assumes that they think just like he does.

Of course, if they did think just like Joshua does, they'd be Democrats.

[There's no risk here of "blowing Bush's cover". Even if they read what Harris says, they'll never believe it.]

Update: Wind Rider has an example of accumulating political ammunition.

Update 20040723: Comments from Jay Reding and Sacha.

Update: Peter Schramm comments.

Update 20040725: Robert comments.
And so does the Missus.

Update 20040726: Orrin Judd makes similar comments about the Bush reelection campaign.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040721.0303

(On Screen): A Filipino was kidnapped in Iraq, and the group which took him demanded that the Philippines withdraw all its forces ASAP or else they'd cut his head off. They also apparently demanded money.

The Philippines government demonstrated its strength of will and steadfastness by dropping to their knees, begging for mercy and giving the kidnappers everything they wanted.

The technical term for their behavior is "groveling".

The government of the Philippines has taken its foreign policy cue on dealing with terrorists from Spain. And it seems as if it is taking its foreign policy cue on dealing with the US from France (i.e. "Knife them in the back, and then loudly proclaim your eternal friendship"):

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the Philippines will remain a strong ally of the United States, which argued that the pullout would encourage terrorists.

"We still consider the United States as our big brother in the security arena," he said. "Our long-standing and maturing relationship with the United States will survive this hostage crisis. We will maintain our strong stand against terrorism in the face of this isolated event."

So what does it mean for the Philippines to be a "strong ally" of the US? The Philippines government just royally shafted all the other nations who have troops in Iraq, and one thing "strong ally" means that the Philippines government really would like it a lot if the US would just forget about that and pretend nothing had happened.

I would venture to guess the other thing it means is that there should be no limit on the amount of commitment the US should make to help the Philippines should it ever get into trouble and ask for help. It means, "Never mind that we let you down when you needed our help. Just be there for us when we need you."

They're talking to the wrong folks, however. (For two reasons. I don't think the Bush administration will be amused by this.) What they just did puts others at risk, but we're not the "others".

The terrorists have long since given up trying to intimidate the US. They know it won't work. So they're concentrating now on "allies". And since they got such a gratifying response from the government of the Philippines, the next nation in the crosshairs is Japan. Japan will reap the crop planted by the Philippines.

The government of the Philippines better start emphasizing to the Japanese government just how good of friends they are, because when Japanese citizens in Iraq start getting kidnapped, the government in Tokyo is liable to have a hard time remembering it.

In the mean time, I have a quick pointer for the government of the Philippines about American psychology: When someone tells us what good friends they are, we usually assume they are trying to take advantage of us. Real friends don't need to say such things, because real friends demonstrate their friendship with actions, not with words.

Update: The Arroyo government might also want to reassure India, Kenya, Egypt, Poland, Bulgaria, and maybe Australia, too. Ozguru asks why there's any reason to believe that Australians might not also become victims because of this.

It's entirely possible that individual Australians might become victims. It's quite likely more Americans will, too. But they're not as likely to concentrate on Australians and Americans for a couple of reasons. First, neither government is seen as being willing to give in to extortion. Second, individual Australians and Americans are likely to fight back against those who try to capture them.

Muggers don't want a fight, they just want money and are unscrupulous about their means of getting it. Muggers prefer to prey on people who are small, weak, and fearful. Muggers are less inclined to try to take on men who are large and young and walk with their heads held high, because the risk is much greater that the victim would fight back instead of meekly handing over their wallets. (Muggers also don't like working in states which have issued a lot of "concealed-carry" licenses, because there's a greater chance that even those who appear to be small, weak and fearful will be armed and will fight back.)

By the same token, these terrorists in Iraq would rather kidnap Kenyans, Indians, Filipinos, Spaniards and the like. I think they are somewhat less inclined to try to take on Aussies or Yanks, because Aussies and Yanks who are out working in Iraq are likely to be packing and are more likely to defend themselves.

That said, there's no doubt that before this is all through more Americans are going to have their heads sawed off to a musical background of chants of "Allahu Akbar!" I wouldn't want to bet that no Australians will face that fate. But our people won't be primary targets, because the insurgents know that our governments won't make concessions, and know that our people will defend themselves.

There is one major exception, and it is most ironic: the one major group of Aussies and Yanks that the insurgents won't fear are left-leaning reporters and leftist activists who are nominally sympathetic to the insurgency.

During the 1980's, a lot of westerners were taken hostage in Lebanon. The Church of England sent Terry Waite to Beirut to serve as a non-partisan negotiator, but in the end he himself was taken hostage and was held for five years. In 2001 in Afghanistan, a group of reporters died because their car was ambushed; they had been responding to a tip about a story.

The most vulnerable Americans and Aussies in Iraq, those least likely to violently defend themselves, and those most easily conned and captured, are Americans and Aussies who think that they are nominally aligned with the insurgency. Though I hope it doesn't happen, if one of them does end up savagely decapitated it will be very interesting to watch the international reaction.

Update 20040723: The Arroyo government is having just about as much success with its French tactics as the French did. The US government is very unappy, and the US ambassador has returned to the US "for consultations".

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040719.2133

(On Screen): Rob Foote writes about the new anti-Americanism.

The Twentieth Century was the site of the battleground of socialism and capitalism. Towards the end of the century, capitalism won. Its victory was unexpected, and unexpectedly swift, but near-total and unqualified. The free market triumphed over the command economy, and liberal democracy defeated the secret state, virtually everywhere they were in conflict....

In 2002, long before the Left became exercised by the USA's war plans for Iraq, Icon Books in the UK published a curious little book, entitled Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar, a postmodernist cultural critic, and Merryl Wyn Davies, said to be a writer and anthropologist. It was written as a commentary on the events of September 11. Not encouragingly, its cover carries an endorsement from Noam Chomsky.

It's not a non-mainstream book. It is commonly found in bookshops around Canberra, and presumably elsewhere in Australia. So it can be reasonably taken to be a book with some popular cachet. From page 195 on, it articulates what the authors see as the principal reasons for the hatred in which America is allegedly universally held.

First, the existential: "The US has simply made it too difficult for other people to exist." The USA has contrived to structure the international economy to guarantee perpetual enrichment of itself, and abject poverty for everyone else (at least, the non-Western world).

Second, the cosmological: America has replaced God as the "cause of everything". Further, imperial America is engaged on a project that involves the consumption of all time and space, and aspires to consuming all non-American people; "Inducted into the cosmological structure of America, the rest of the world will vanish."

The third is ontological: America has replaced the notion of "good" with the notion of itself, as the binary opposite to "evil". Thus, America can only be good and virtuous, and only America can be such.

The fourth is definitional: American has assumed the right to define what it means even to be human, and that only in terms of its own identity. American values are therefore the only ones that any longer actually are.

Two things might immediately be said about this. One: it is transparent nonsense, evidencing a seriously deformed kind of intellectualism. (The whole world is no more than items on America's fast-food menu - literally the imperialist's snack, for heaven's sake.) Two, and more disturbingly: replace "America" with "the Jews", and you begin to get some idea of where this is coming from.

The "facts" of American evil and the hatred felt for it are not argued from circumstance or evidence: they are derived from an intellectual horizon wholly indifferent to logic. The evil is pre-assumed, cosmic and all-encompassing. It impacts the very basis of our reality, evidenced by the philosophies by which we understand it. America's evil is inherent, insistent and inevitable. And it is intended, deliberate and engineered, out of a spirit of pure, unadulterated malignance towards the non-American world. To Sardar and Davies, America is not a country at all, but rather a poisonous psychic space, and an infectious effluvium.

Think that's hyperbole? I don't. May I present, for your viewing pleasure, Mr. Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey? He writes for Pravda, and as we all know, Pravda means Truth. His online bio is really quite bizarre:

I incidentally became involved with the world of music and even became one of the leading English song-writers of the 1980s. I took part in three Eurovision contests, released three albums, two maxi-singles and five singles. That was the time when I started establishing contacts with the press. "I had to give a lot of interviews for television and newspapers. I noticed that facts were reinterpreted on numerous occasions, almost always, in order to make an article correspond to ideas of a reporter. One fine day I realized that there was only one way to strive for the truth: to write a true story and to send it to mass media outlets. That's what I did."

I showed my first articles to a friend, a reporter, who expressed his interest in them and asked my why I did not take up journalism seriously. After that, I finished journalism courses, and worked as a freelance journalist at Portuguese, Spanish, Latin American, English and Romanian media outlets. However, journalism was not my only occupation. "I believe that there is nothing more boring for a journalist than to sit at table, working on the so-called news, which has already been picked out from the Internet by someone, retelling someone else's stories. In addition to that, it is proof of the absence of professionalism, it is not worth it, in the long run. I like to visit new places, to collect new material for my own articles."

Why the quotes? The entire bio is written in first person, so why is some of it quoted and some not? It feels as if it was actually written by someone else on his behalf, based on interviews and his body of work, and the unquoted parts were written by the ghost.

Or it feels like it was written by someone whose grip on his own identity is weakened, and who simultaneously sees himself as both self and as other.

Bancroft-Hinchey's bio includes links to some of his columns. So let's see if you can get some inkling of his political point of view from their titles, shall we?

Pretty cool, huh?

Clearing up after NATO. Yugoslavia was an idyllic land of multicultural brotherhood and peace and prosperity, and then the evil Americans forced the Europeans to go in and screw it all up.

Before this however, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a prosperous country with a motivated, happy workforce which enjoyed a relatively high standard of living.

Along came NATO, its strings pulled by Washington, to create havoc and chaos in the region by means of its criminal intrusion, against which Serbia had to fight to protect its citizens, thousands of which were slaughtered by the Croats and Muslims and Kosovar terrorists. Yet Milosevic was the one dubbed the Butcher of the Balkans, a label easy to stick since he had been systematically isolated by the arms of the octopus whose head resides on Capitol Hill....

Social integration? This would never have been necessary had NATO not interfered and provided the steam for the pressure cooker to explode, after sealing the lid and buying the ingredients.

Kosovar Albanians and Serbs lived together like brothers, side by side, for centuries, before the west decided to stick its imperialist nose into an area which did not belong to it and which it wholly failed to understand.

This act of criminal intrusion destroyed the social fabric of large areas of the Balkans, sowing hatred where none existed and reaping the benefits of the ensuing chaos.

The world's greatest travesty of justice is the trial of Milosevic, of course.

A sick, elderly, frail man sits in court, his face flushed due to high blood pressure and the injustice of the last four years, as he strives to defend himself against the crimes he is accused of by a kangaroo court which is not recognized by the USA and which is derided by Israel as having no jurisdiction....

No mention of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by NATO, which strafed trains full of civilians, buildings, schools, buses, killing hundreds of innocent people.

No. It was much easier to blame one man, isolate him and kidnap him, hold him in detention illegally and then trump up a myriad of charges against him which everyone knows he did not commit. This was Clinton's Freedom and Democracy. As for Bush's, well, recent history speaks for itself.

So what about Bush? Well, he should be on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Bush should follow Saddam into the dock. After all, Bush is worse than Saddam. Is there anything Saddam has been accused of that Bush hasn't also done, only worse? And hasn't Bush done other terrible things which Saddam wasn't even capable of? Besides which, the US is actually responsible for all the crimes Saddam is accused of.

Saddam Hussein is accused of a number of crimes committed during his Presidency of Iraq. An analysis of four years of government under the Bush regime reveals some shocking parallels.

Saddam Hussein is supposed to have sent people to their deaths as President of Iraq. George Bush sent people to their deaths as Governor of Texas.

Saddam Hussein is accused of being responsible for acts of torture committed during his presidency.

However, George Bush was President when the prison at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad was turned into a medieval torture chamber by US military personnel and George Bush is today President and the tortures continue at Guantanamo Bay....

Saddam Hussein is accused of committing acts of mass murder. Would these mass murders be including the need to put down armed insurrection inside his own country after the United States had interfered, financed and armed the insurgents/terrorists? And is George W. Bush not responsible, as Commander in Chief of his country's Armed Forces, for the ten thousand civilian deaths during this illegal war, including one thousand children? Is George W. Bush not responsible for the mutilation of thirty-five thousand people, their legs and arms and faces and futures blown away by his Armed Forces? Is George W. Bush not responsible for the cluster bombs deployed in civilian areas or the Depleted Uranium munitions which left swathes of Iraqi territory radio-active?

Does George W. Bush think he can target civilian infra-structures with precision weaponry, destroy sewage and water and electricity supply systems, hand the contracts without tender to his friend Richard Cheney and walk free?

Are the United States and the international community not ultimately responsible for millions of deaths inside the Iraq that Saddam Hussein was trying to govern, his task made impossible just because he refused to allow the Americans access to control his economy?

This is not Saddam. In fact, Bush should precede Saddam into the dock, because the man they're putting on trial isn't actually Saddam. (And the murders of Uday and Qusay were also faked.)

When a liar is clever and careful, he is convincing because he is plausible and covers all his tracks. However, the longer the lie is spun out, the more clues are left. The Bush regime has been neither clever, nor careful nor plausible in its disastrous foreign policy, which culminates in parading a "Saddam" before the cameras who is certainly not the real Saddam Hussein, ex-President of Iraq....

Next was the story of the murder of Saddam Hussein's sons, Ouday and Qusay, who were mysteriously together (when common sense would tell them to split up) with another man and a boy in a farmstead in the middle of a plain west of Baghdad. The story went as follows: hundreds of troops and a fleet of helicopter gunships finally killed the four after several hours of fighting.

This story sounded like the child trying to justify the fact that he had forgotten his homework, claiming that the dog ate it, the house caught fire and that someone stole his school bag on the way into the classroom. The photographs were not shown to the public immediately and when they did appear, Iraqis across the country shook their heads in disbelief, claiming that these were not Saddam's sons.

Then came the pictures of the hitherto clean-shaven, articulate, educated and proud Saddam Hussein, crawling out of a hole, disheveled, bearded and dirty, supposedly in December but with the date trees laden with mature fruits, which only takes place in August in that part of the world. Another strange occurrence....

Now, the Holy Grail is offered by Joe Vialls, who sent his article "Shaddam Shaddam's new Vaudeville Scam" to Pravda.Ru this morning. In this piece he points out that all photographers were banned from photographing "Saddam" in court for security reasons but then the CNN arrived in the person of Christiane Amanpour, who immediately started shooting hundreds of metres of video footage, which was then transformed into stills.

Here was the mistake. As Mr. Vialls points out, the real Saddam Hussein had a fine set of teeth, completely even, in which the upper jaw closed over the lower (overbite). The figure paraded in court, as it is easy to see, has highly irregular lower teeth and a condition called "underbite", when the lower teeth close in front of the upper.

Touche. Dental records cannot lie. The set of teeth of the President of Iraq and the set of teeth of the man paraded before the cameras pretending to be Saddam Hussein are wholly and totally different.

The man they have in court is not the real Saddam Hussein. Yet another lie by this Bush administration is exposed. How much lower can this clique of criminals sink?

Let's take a quick detour for a moment and consider Joe Vialls. Google turns up this home page. And this one. He seems to be a big one for conspiracy theories, such as his contention that the Bali explosion was actually caused by an Israeli micro-nuke:

It was precisely 11.30 p.m. on Saturday 12 October 2002, when someone somewhere pressed a button that sent a single coded radio-squirt to an underground aerial located in a monsoon drain outside the Sari Club in Bali. An unseen circuit closed and a primer fired, then one-millionth of a single second later, a terrible fireball formed under the street. Less than six inches in diameter and burning at a staggering 300,000 degrees centigrade, the fireball was a perfect shimmering sphere, made possible by 99.78% Plutonium 239 manufactured at the Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev Desert.

Five microseconds passed while this fission monster from hell expanded, then the already-cooling fireball tore its angry way out into the street above, vaporizing all victims standing within thirty feet while simultaneously spreading two tons of deadly microscopic roadbed shrapnel in a lethal arc across Kuta Beach. Every survivor standing in direct line-of-sight of its awesome ultraviolet emission received terrible flash burns, the like of which three eminent Australian burns surgeons would later claim on TV they “had never seen before”.

Less than ten-millionths of a second after the monster achieved critical mass, its searing thermal wave set fire to twenty-seven buildings in the immediate area, and spontaneously ignited automobiles parked two blocks away from ground zero. But as you will read later in this report, no ordinary Geiger counter from any nation could detect radiation from the weapon.


The years rolled by and top-secret projects were initiated in America and Israel to replace the old SADM with its overly heavy weight and excess radioactivity, culminating in the successful development and testing at Dimona during 1981 of the “new” micro nuclear device. Using advanced nuclear physics, the scientists found a way of detonating the new “suitcase” bomb without the use of a Uranium 238 reflector, and further refined the Plutonium 239 in its core to 99.78%. These measures resulted in a weapon considerably smaller and lighter than SADM, which also had another enormous advantage.

The new Dimona micro nuke was the very first critical weapon that could be used in “stealth” mode. Gone was the dirty Uranium 238 reflector, and up went the purity of the smaller Plutonium 239 core. You see, Plutonium emits only alpha radiation, which for all practical purposes is “invisible” to a standard Geiger counter. If you do not believe me then ask the American Environmental Protection Agency, whose staff will confirm this.

Having established the bona fide of Mr. Vialls, here's the article about Saddam which Mr. Bancroft-Hinchey found so convincing and so damning for the damned Americans:

Before getting technical about the problems with Shaddam, it is probably wise to understand why the Zionists took this massive chance in exposing an obvious fake, best summed up by the sheer desperation of American-appointed & controlled Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati, a loose-tongued Iraqi traitor who was stupid enough to admit yesterday, ""I think the trial will slow down the attacks and the insurgency because Saddam Hussein loyalists will lose hope."...

Allowing Shaddam to open his mouth at all in court was a serious error of judgement, because like fingerprints used by law enforcement agencies, teeth and dental work are absolutely unique, in this case proving one-hundred-percent that Shaddam never was and never could be President Hussein. If you look closely at the photo-composite at the top of this page, you will see four small inset photographs of President Hussein. In all of them you can clearly see his neat white even teeth, made possible in part by the fact that Iraq has [or had] more dental surgeons per head of population than any country in the world apart from Libya. This expert dental service was free to all Iraqis, and President Hussein's teeth were and are in pristine condition.

Mr. Bancroft-Hinchey himself is at his mouth-foaming raving best in the article which first drew my attention to him: Iraq, the crowning glory of George W. Bush. It is a masterpiece. I almost feel as if I am despoiling a great work of art by extracting out only small portions of it, but it is much too long to fully quote, let alone to give each section the response it merits, thus I urge you strongly to read it in its entirety. If you only choose to look at one of his posts, this should be the one.

Rarely have I seen such a pure and concentrated distillation of leftist anti-American talking points. I'm hard pressed to think of any he's left out. Here, for instance, is his summation of all issues Iraqi:

Bush's Freedom and Democracy campaign, winning hearts and minds through shock and awe tactics is a stunning reminder of how jingoistic and xenophobic beliefs held by simpletons, applied as crisis management policies by the organisms of a nation such as the USA, can step over the line containing the lunacy which has only been seen before in cases such as Hitler's Nazi Germany.

The slaughter of innocent civilians is there, the torture chambers are there, the targeting of civilian homes with Weapons of Mass Destruction is there, the murder of kids is there, the rape of countless innocent women is there.

It's all there, as Iraq descends into a spiral of chaos. Is Iraq a better country? Do Iraqis have job security like they had before? Are the civilian infrastructures better after they were targeted with precision weaponry? Is Iraq any more secure? Is Iraq free from the massacre of civilians? Is Iraq free from torture? Apparently not.

The legacy of Bush is that Iraq's society has been destroyed, the country's infrastructures have been trashed, the country is in chaos and brimming with terrorists. There is no connection whatsoever between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism and the Bush regime knew it all along.

I have also rarely seen such a marvelous demonstration of what the SCOTUS refers to as "reckless disregard for the truth".

Mr. Bancroft-Hinchey ends his piece thusly:

George Bush and his regime have stuck a knife into the back of the diplomatic community. Washington's diplomacy these days is seen as intrusion, bullying, blackmail, forgery and barefaced lies.

George Bush and his regime lied systematically about any cause of war in Iraq. They lied to their nation, they lied to the international community, they lied to the world. Curiously, comparing Saddam Hussein and Bush, the one telling the truth was the former. About Bush we can now say "This man stiffed the world".

Tens of thousands of civilians have been murdered in cold blood. Cluster bombs have been dropped in civilian areas. DU weaponry has been deployed, leaving high radioactive levels in parts of Iraq. The Geneva Convention has been broken. Torture was committed on a widespread scale and with the full knowledge of high-ranking officials in the Bush regime. The UN Charter was broken by Washington, now derided as a pariah state in the world, which wants to move on in unison.

Washington has divorced itself and the American people from the hearts and minds of the international community. It is time for regime change.

This is the legacy of Iraq, the crowning glory in the crown of the clown, George W. Bush.

This is the face of raving paranoia, of a disconnect from reality so vast that it may not be possible to bridge it. This is the worldview of a man who is utterly consumed and driven by hatred of America. This is the deep end, folks. This is insanity.

Sadly, this is also not particularly rare. Certainly his opinions are not rare, though few others are quite as frank in declaring them. And this is the millstone around John Kerry's neck: a substantial proportion of the core supporters of the Democratic party largely agree with Bancroft-Hinchey's view of the US, and Kerry dare not repudiate their beliefs. At the same time, he doesn't dare acknowledge those beliefs for fear of alienating the majority of American voters.

And that is why he prevaricates. He is compelled to speak ambiguously, or to contradict himself, in hopes that both the hardcore leftwing of the Democratic party and the uncommitted center of the American electorate will see things they like in what he says. Yet in the end he cannot succeed. In trying to please everyone he will ultimately please no one. In trying to avoid alienating anyone, he will be perceived as having no position at all, or even worse, he will be perceived as being unwilling to reveal his true position.

That's why Kerry's best weeks in the opinion polls have been those weeks when he was not in the spotlight. But as the campaign continues, he cannot continue to avoid the spotlight.

Update: No matter what happens, the left's faith in its solutions are unshakeable. The Guardian notes the revolt against Arafat. It really, really wants to blame Israel for it all, but can't ultimately bring itself to do so. Nonetheless, the solution is a familiar one: Israel must "offer incentives for moderation". Appeasement is still the answer.

And Arafat must be saved, for if Arafat falls then there would be no one with whom to negotiate.

And please examine this report regarding Senator Max Cleland. In what way does his position really differ from that of Mr. Bancroft-Hinchey?

Update 20040720: V-man comments. (He asks whether ever-increasing anti-Americanism in Europe and embrace there of Socialism would be "a back-door victory of sorts for communism?" I would say that it will rather lead to yet another defeat for Europe, since socialism will yet again fail.)

Update: Howard Hansen responds. He attempts to distill the foreign policy question in this election down to nine points, and offers brief summaries of how "Neo-cons" and the "Looney Left" stand on each of those nine.

I've come to the conclusion that there are really only a few, simple, fundamental disagreements in politics these days.

"Neo-cons" (I hate that term):

  1. 9/11 was exactly analogous to Pearl Harbor -- it brought us into a full-scale war
  2. War is sometimes a necessary evil
  3. The United Nations is a corrupt, untrustworthy organization
  4. Saudi Arabia is the biggest problem, but we need their oil
  5. Arabs use Israel as an excuse and a diversion; they use Palestinians as a way to divert public opinion away from their failed regimes
  6. Islam is a fundamentally flawed religion in serious need of reformation
  7. People are responsible for their actions
  8. Killing terrorists will eliminate the terrorist threat
  9. The majority of the world admires and trusts the United States

"Loony left" (I hate that term too):

  1. 9/11 was a crime and the perpetrators should be found and punished
  2. War is bad
  3. The United Nations is trustworthy
  4. Saudi Arabia is the biggest problem -- we should go after them first
  5. Arabs would make peace if Israel would just [fill in the blank]
  6. Islam is a religion of peace
  7. "Oppressed people" [them] are victims of their circumstance, "opressors" [us] are responsible for the actions of the oppressed
  8. Killing terrorists will breed more terrorists without end
  9. Most people in the world revile the United States and hate our pre-eminence

What do you believe?

LL#4 is not stated correctly. The Looney Left thinks we shouldn't go after anyone at all, not even the Saudis. (LL#5 is the real solution to Saudi Arabia.)

The first seven of his nine "Neo-con" positions are not really ideally stated, but they're not too bad. I had significant problems with the last two. I explained why in a comment I left there:

"Killing terrorists" is a necessary part of the war because it reduces the danger to us over the short run. But it is not sufficient in the long run. It is a holding action, but holding actions are worthwhile.

In the long run the only way to win this war (the big war, the war that people on the left deny even exists) is to induce political and cultural reform in the mid-East.

Oddly, I at least somewhat agree with both versions of statement #9. There is a core group of people out there in the world who feel only hatred and contempt for America. There is a different core group which is unabashedly Americanophile. There is a substantial body of people who don't actually have any opinion about us either way.

But for the most part, people in the world tend to hold very conflicting views of us. They generally hate America as an abstract symbol, an icon, a looming presence off in the distance. But they generally like and admire Americans individually when they meet and get to know them, and they listen to our music and watch our movies and wear our fashions and eagerly flock to our franchise chains. (If the French hate McDonalds so much, why haven't those stores failed due to lack of clientele?)

Most of the abstract expressions of hatred turn out to be inverse expressions of frustration and anger about their own collective failures as nations and as cultures. They hate America because it sets the standard for success, and no one else can measure up.

Obviously that's a gross generalization. But it also makes clear that much of that resentment is irrational and fundamentally apolitical. Despite Chomskyian litanies of American misdeeds, an American cab driver said it best: "These people don't hate us for what we've done that's wrong. They hate us for what we do that's right."

Thus my own statement of #9 would be this:

World opinion of the US is not and should not be the primary focus of American foreign policy.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040718.1619

(On Screen): The headline reads:

How could it be otherwise? If they weren't evading justice, they wouldn't be fugitives. And if they ceased being fugitives, some other lesser-rated fugitives would move up into the top spots as the top two most-wanted fugitives evading justice.

Update 20040719: This just in: U.N. Says Fugitives Escaping Prosecution.

That's why they call them fugitives.

Update 20040726: Richard Eriksson points out a headline reading, "Fugitive couple held in custody". He's right; they're not fugitives. If they're in custody, they're prisoners.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040717.1315

(On Screen): Anatole France is credited with this observation:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

Is this truly equality? It depends on how you look at it, I guess. Objectively speaking, it is equality. Those acts are indeed forbidden to everyone. (Whether the law is applied equally is another matter, of course.)

But the obvious point France was trying to make was that the rich don't actually want to do those things. Subjectively speaking, those laws aren't really equal, because they prevent the poor from doing the things they want to do, without similarly impeding the rich.

His observation is wry and witty. But should the law be written in objective terms, or in subjective terms?

We have chosen in some cases to include subjectivity in the law (e.g. justifiable homicide). However, in general, our legal system attempts to be objectively equal, not subjectively equal. It proscribes acts which are described in objective terms, and does not usually take into account the feelings of the person performing the act.

The law forbids both honest men and embezzlers equally to steal from their employers. It forbids both honest men and liars equally to commit perjury. And Anatole France's sarcasm notwithstanding, I would claim that the law is equal if it forbids both rich men and paupers to sleep under bridges.

Of course, that's an idealized view of our system, and the practice is not so clean. In times past the practice has not even come close. The apartheid laws in force in some states when I was born were certainly not objectively equal.

Some tried to argue that they were. White children could attend schools designated as being for whites, and black children could attend schools designated as being for blacks. It's the same, right?

I don't think so. A specific school could be attended by white kids but not by black kids if it was "white only". A particular drinking fountain could be used by whites but not by blacks if it was similarly labeled. That's not objectively equal. That's discrimination.

Note that neither of those arguments, claiming equality or denying equality, is based on desire. I think segregated schools would be discriminatory even if no black kid wanted to attend a particular white-only school, and even if no black ever wanted to drink from a particular white-only fountain. Those laws were discriminatory because in objective terms some people were permitted to do particular things and others were forbidden to do those same particular things, irrespective of whether the latter group had any urge to do them, and irrespective that the latter group could do analogous things.

I am very cautious about making any kind of absolute ideological statement about any political issue. I have seen far too many people who have let absolute ideological principles lead them off the edge of a cliff. So I present ideological statements as generalizations and emphasize that there will always be exceptions. Thus it is here: in general it is desirable for laws to be objectively equal, which means that such laws will forbid certain acts both to those who want to do them and those who do not.

When we debate a particular law, we debate whether certain actions should be forbidden, usually without reference to the motivation behind those actions. We should debate whether we think that our society would be better off overall if we choose to permit such acts or legally forbid them. (That then gets into an entirely different discussion about the "law of good" versus the "law of right". I, myself, strongly favor "law of right", but many do not.)

The reason our system places legislative power in bodies whose members are elected is to permit us as a citizenry to debate these kinds of questions and to influence the laws which are made. It's an imperfect solution, but none better has ever been found.

I started thinking about this stuff when I read this post by Andrew Sullivan, where he responds to arguments made by Rich Lowry. They are debating gay marriage: Should it be legally permitted? Should it be legally forbidden?

I believe that it should be legal. I explained my reasons in this essay from March of 2001. So on the basic question, I side with Andrew. But I don't find Andrew's argument compelling.

Andrew makes five numbered points. The first is a distraction, an empirical disagreement about an irrelevancy.

Andrew's second point relates to interpretation and consequences of one particular proposed statute. That is not irrelevant, and Andrew convinced me that Rich is being disingenuous about it. However, that's not the central question.

Andrew's third point is another distraction. He questions the motives of those behind a particular law passed in Virginia. He claims that the law "was rooted quite clearly in animus against gay couples", and tries to discredit the law on that basis. In so doing, Andrew makes an "appeal to spite".

Andrew seems to implicitly assume that bad motives can never yield good results. That's straight out of the PoMo playbook, and it's the reason why most leftist arguments against the invasion of Iraq focus on defaming President Bush. If "Bush lied!!!" then the motive for the invasion was bad, and thus the invasion itself was wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences resulting from the invasion.

Does Andrew really believe that? He certainly hasn't shown himself to believe it when writing about the war. And if he does not, then the motives of those supporting that Virginia law are also uninteresting.

Andrew tries to use that to tar Rich as either being a hypocrite or a secret sympathizer with the evil motives of those behind that law. But that is also uninteresting; what has it got to do with the question of legal gay marriage?

Judging from the fourth point Andrew makes, it would seem as if Rich has also been engaging in a degree of tar-flinging. Andrew defends himself against charges of being bigoted against Christian Fundamentalists.

Up to this point, I have seen no substantive debate over whether gay marriage should be legal. But buried in the end of Andrew's fourth point is one sentence which reveals his case:

But I have long defended the fundamentalists' religious freedoms, support their civil rights in every respect, would fight for their right to marry, to serve in the armed forces, be protected against discrimination and on and on. But they would deny all of that to gay people. So who's the real intolerant here?

I think his argument is that laws forbidding gay marriage are implicitly discriminatory, and that any such law would violate the civil rights of gays, because they would violate the "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment.

At first it seems as if that's a very strong position for him to seize, since it would mean that legal gay marriage would be constitutionally mandated. But it actually leaves him very vulnerable.

At the beginning of his fifth point, Andrew quotes Rich as follows:

He says he supports my civil rights and I oppose his. Is Andrew capable of writing anything on this topic that's not question-begging? Opponents of gay marriage like myself don't believe that a civil right to marry someone of the same sex exists. We obviously aren't for denying to gays the rights to speak, vote, own guns, etc. If Andrew reformulated the point in neutral, non-question begging terms, it would be something like: Lowry and I disagree about the definition of civil rights in this instance.

Andrew responds:

Yes: but it has long been a tactic of those who oppose civil rights to argue that they don't. Those opposed to education integration denied that they were against black civil rights - they just wanted separate but equal education for both blacks and whites. Those who opposed inter-racial marriage said exactly the same thing - since blacks and whites were equally constrained by the anti-miscegenation laws, there was no discrimination, etc. It wasn't that Bull Connor opposed civil rights. It's just that he had a different conception of civil rights than his opponents!

The fact that Rich's argument superficially resembles arguments made by people we do not respect doesn't mean Rich's argument is wrong. The Atheism Web's description of fallacious arguments includes this description of one form of ad hominem:

A less blatant argumentum ad hominem is to reject a proposition based on the fact that it was also asserted by some other easily criticized person. For example:

"Therefore we should close down the church? Hitler and Stalin would have agreed with you."

Continuing with Andrew's fifth point:

What cannot be denied, however, is that Lowry does indeed oppose a gay person's right to enjoy the same rights he has - the right to marry, the right to serve your country, the right to be protected from workplace discrimination, and so on. It couldn't be starker. Lowry believes that heterosexuals have civil rights as citizens and as heterosexuals. But gays should have no rights as homosexuals at all. He is defending his own privilege, while posturing as someone who believes in equality. It's an old gambit. But it is as transparent as it is intolerant.

Having built his argument on the foundation of the 14th Amendment, Andrew is thus logically compelled to claim that any law forbidding gay marriage is implicitly unequal. And this is the point in his argument which did not convince me, because he justifies that on the basis of subjective inequality rather than objective inequality.

His analogy to the apartheid laws doesn't survive close scrutiny. Take, for instance, the laws about miscegenation to which he referred, which forbade interracial marriages. Under those laws, Bob Blonde-and-Blue could legally marry Suzie Snow-White, but Clyde Coal-Black could not legally marry Suzie Snow-White. In objective terms, therefore, the law was discriminatory.

But that is not the case for the law Rich supports. Under that law, Gary Gay-and-Proud would be forbidden to marry Quincy Queer. Harry Hetero would also be forbidden to marry Quincy Queer. However, both Gary and Harry would be permitted to marry Flora Feminine. Objectively, the law treats Gary and Harry equally.

It is true that Gary doesn't have any interest in marrying Flora, and Harry isn't even slightly interested in Quincy. It is true that subjectively the law is unequal, because it forbids Gary from marrying the man he loves, while permitting Harry to marry the woman he loves.

But that's exactly the Anatole France argument: the law forbids both the wealthy and paupers from sleeping under bridges. That law, too, is objectively equal because it applies identically to all. It is irrelevant that only paupers wish to sleep under bridges, and that the law only thwarts paupers.

And I think it is irrelevant that Rich's proposed law only thwarts Gary.

Virtually every law is subjectively unequal. The homicide laws forbid both me and Hannibal the Cannibal from killing people and consuming their flesh, even though I am not even slightly inclined to do such a thing.

Though I agree with Andrew on the issue, I think Andrew makes a deep mistake by trying to base his arguments on claims of civil rights and unequal application of the law. It is a poor tactical choice for him because it forces him to contend that any law which forbids gay marriage is automatically discriminatory. And that isn't true. They may well be bad laws, but they aren't necessarily objectively unequal.

Andrew should not be trying to argue about equality. This debate should focus on whether laws permitting or banning gay marriage would be good law or bad law.

I am a "Conservative" because I am a classical liberal. I believe in liberating people from unnecessary limits imposed by government or society. My basic view of law is strongly oriented towards the principle of "law of right" over "law of good". I oppose laws which try to enforce "good", and I oppose laws which meddle just for the sake of meddling. We choose to make some kinds of decisions collectively, and we choose to let individuals make other decisions for themselves. Liberals favor letting individuals make such decisions, and only favor collective decisions if the benefit is strong enough to offset the axiomatic harm of reducing liberty for individuals.

I argue that in this case we should not collectively decide whether gays should be permitted to marry other gays. I argue that the choice of whom to marry is one we should permit each adult to make for themselves.

We as a society, have reached consensus that it is none of society's business what sexual practices consenting adults engage in behind closed doors, and I assume Rich agrees with that. I claim that gay marriage is no different. (I consider it unimportant that government clerks issue the marriage licenses.)

The true measure of civil liberties is the extent to which each of us can scandalize our neighbors without landing in prison. In other words, in general the more ability we have to make decisions for ourselves without concern for how others will react, the more free we are. (See above about "generalizations" and "exceptions".)

Prudence Prim would certainly be scandalized if she knew what Gary Gay-and-Proud and Quincy Queer do with each other when they get horny, but we as a society pretty much have reached a consensus that it isn't any of her business as long as they keep it behind closed doors. Her discomfort is the price she pays for her liberty. She chows down on a big steak every Sunday night, and in turn doesn't have to worry about how Vegans Gary and Quincy feel about that.

Prudence would also be scandalized if Gary and Quincy got married. But I don't consider that sufficient justification for forbidding their marriage. Nor have I found any other arguments about consequences sufficiently compelling to justify abridging their liberty in this regard.

I think the only debate on this issue can be fruitful is if it examines the question of whether legal gay marriage would harm our society enough to justify legal restrictions on it.

I agree with Andrew that such laws are wrong. I agree with him that gays should be permitted to marry. But I agree with Rich that laws forbidding gay marriage are not automatically discriminatory.

Andrew does himself no favor by trying to argue that they are discriminatory because they are subjectively unequal. I am hard pressed to think of any law which is not subjectively unequal.

The only possibility would be laws that virtually everyone is tempted to break. Maybe "tax evasion". Or the 55 MPH speed limit.

Update: Floyd the Chimp says, "Equal protection under the law does not imply equal benefit."

Update 20040718: Brian Chapin comments.

Update: JohnCross comments.

Update: By the way, this isn't the first time I've visited these arguments. Last time I pointed out that if gay marriage advocates explicitly claim that there should be a constitutional right to marry those they love, that opens up a major can of worms.

Gays are not the only people who prevented from legally marrying those they love. California also does not recognize plural marriage, marriage to children, marriage to animals, and marriage to dead people. (You think I'm joking about that?)

California also won't issue a marriage license to a man who wants to marry his life-like love-doll. California doesn't permit marriage to inanimate objects. (Even if he claims she's more than just a pretty face...) As soon as you argue that equality under the law requires that everyone be permitted to marry those they love, all kinds of strange and wonderful relationships might end up legally recognized by the state of California.

The case law on this kind of thing I think is pretty clear: desire is not legally relevant. We are not legally differentiated by what we want to do. If the overt opportunity is the same, it doesn't matter whether people desire different things and some of those desires are thwarted by the law.

I agree with Andrew's objectives, but I think the strategy he has selected is not well considered. This is another reason why.

Update: Brian O'Connell writes about something many have also sent me by email. The basic claim is that the proposed law actually is discriminatory after all, because it treats the sexes differently. Therefore it isn't actually objectively equal.

That argument is specious. It doesn't help Andrew. Brian and my many readers argue that it discriminates against men and women, but even if that is true, it does not discriminate against individual people based on whether they are gay, straight, bisexual or monosexual. Thus even if Brian and my many readers were correct, Andrew's argument would still collapse.

If I understand Andrew's fundamental argument, the foundation is "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment. Andrew's argument requires us to accept the proposal that it is impossible for a law to be written which forbids gay marriage without discriminating against gays. If that were true, the 14th Amendment would constitutionally justify legalization of gay marriage.

But claiming that such laws discriminate on the basis of gender doesn't prove that such laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Another problem with that argument is that its conclusion is oxymoronic: such laws discriminate against everyone equally. (They discriminate against everyone who has a gender, and everyone has a gender.)

The proposed law would permit any man (gay or straight) to marry any particular woman but would forbid any woman (whether gay or straight) from marrying that same woman. Thus, it is argued, it discriminates against women.

It would also permit any woman (gay or straight) to marry some particular man, but would forbid any man (gay or straight) from marrying that man. It would also discriminate against men.

But if everyone is discriminated against, and if the discrimination is equal (even if not identical) for everyone, it isn't discriminatory. It restrains but it does not discriminate.

And even if you still claim that it is discriminatory, albeit equally against everyone, it would not violate the 14th Amendment requirement for "equal protection".

Anyone who tries to claim it isn't actually equal because adults are permitted to marry and children are not flunks the civics course and will be consigned to the bozo bin. Anyone who tries to claim that "equal" is synonymous with "identical" likewise flunks. That is not how the courts interpret the 14th Amendment.

Dave Schuler wrote to say that the relevant term is "disparate impact". Nothing in the Constitution prohibits disparate impact, and laws which have disparate impact are not intrinsically "unequal".

Update: Kathy Kinsley offers a different commentary. In Christian tradition, "marriage" was a religious ceremony which had deep spiritual significance. For many people even today, a marriage license is just a way for the state to extract a fee from those who wish to engage in that religious ceremony. (Which is why one Christian I ran into online was confused about why atheists would want to get married.)

But like Christmas, marriage is also a secular institution, and one of the most important legal consequences of a marriage license is that it is a contract with the state. If the marriage ends in divorce, a state judge must approve any arrangements made about the fate of any children, and both parties to the marriage are obliged to consult that judge and to abide by his decisions. In principle this is intended to protect those children. Kathy argues that if gay couples are prevented from legally marrying, the children of a gay couple are denied that legal protection, and this is discrimination against them.

Perhaps. However, in making that argument Kathy also begins to examine the basic issue in exactly the terms I think we should consider. What do we as a society think marriage is? What societal function should it perform?

Let's be very clear on the real point I am trying to make: the issue of gay marriage should not be slipped through using arcane legal arguments before a court. It is fundamentally a political question, and it should be decided using political processes, taking into account the attitudes and opinions of the collective citizenry.

Advocates of gay marriage should focus on making their case to their fellow citizens, and part of that is a general examination of the institution of marriage itself. That's what Kathy is beginning to do, and I'm all in favor.

Update: Clayton Jones comments on the 14th Amendment.

Update 20040719: TMLutas comments.

David Schneider-Joseph comments.

By the way, I just thought I'd mention that the "Brown versus Board of Education" SCOTUS decision is widely misunderstood. It did not categorically declare "Separate but equal" to be unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment also does not categorically ban "separate but equal". That's why sexually-segregated restrooms are still permitted.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040715.1723

(Captain's log): When I was a kid, my parents were sticklers about correct use of the words "can" and "may" for some reason I never really understood. If I had asked, "Can I go over to Tim's house?", I would get told, "May I?" And would have to repeat the question correctly, "May I go over to Tim's house?"

I understand the difference, of course. "Can I?" Do I have the capability? "May I?" Do you grant permission? But I never understood why it bothered them so much.

Still, that difference is an important one. You have to have capability, but you don't always need permission. Admiral Grace Hopper is credited with saying that, "It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission."

And sometimes you don't need either, because busybodies who claim to be in a position to grant or withhold permission don't really matter.

Form and substance. De jure and de facto. Permission and capability. Authority and power. Credentials and knowledge. Awards and achievements.

Appearance and reality. That's what it's all about. It's a fallacy to assume that they are the same thing. The difference between them has become a major factor in politics and diplomacy during the last 3 years.

Sometimes appearances do ultimately matter more. If your enemies can control the perception of your success so that it is widely viewed as a failure, that can have severe consequences. Hence the incessant drumbeat of quagmire! quagmire! quagmire! played by those who want us to lose this war, or who have other reasons for wanting it to look as if we are losing this war.

In April, shortly after the simultaneous uprisings of Sunnis based in Falluja and of some Shiites led by al Sadr, Kevin Drum wrote a triumphant post:

War supporters are forever complaining that things are going great in Iraq and the only reason we don't know about it is because of media bias. You know, that nasty SCLM wants us to lose in Iraq.


So here's my question: it's pretty clear that things have, in fact, gone to hell. We may eventually clean up Fallujah, arrest Muqtada al-Sadr, end the riots in Sadr City, and retake Najaf. But even if we do, it's pretty obvious that Iraq is close to meltdown, we don't have enough troops to keep order, and media reporting about all this has been perfectly accurate.

So how about it, guys (and you know who you are)? Are you going to step up to the plate and admit that the media has been pretty much right all along and things really do look pretty bleak? Or are you going to continue to complain that reporters are just ignoring all the good news about school openings and electric grid repair?

I am no regular reader of Kevin's site, so I have no idea whether, in light of later events, he in his own turn "stepped up to the plate" and admitted that Iraq wasn't actually all that close to meltdown.

Because it doesn't matter. In the short term, the reality in Iraq didn't actually matter; what mattered was how it was perceived elsewhere, especially by voters in the US. Contrariwise, in the long run, the perception didn't matter; the reality of what was happening in Iraq can not ultimately be denied.

Unfortunately, the "long run" is made up of a lot of "short runs". On July 13, Kevin no longer seems to be talking about meltdowns, but was still referring to the invasion of Iraq as "a mistake". Why? Because he's making another form/substance error, and confusing justification with purpose.

Leaving aside questions of 20:20 hindsight (it was not at all clear in March that the inspections had proved anything), and of historical revisionism (the US did not give UNSCOM detailed info about where to look, because UNSCOM leaked like a sieve), his basic point is irrelevant even if he is right about it:

The fact is that by March 2003 we didn't have to rely on CIA estimates or on the estimates of any other intelligence agency. We had been on the ground in Iraq for months and there was nothing there. There was nothing there and we knew it.

Did the CIA screw up? Probably. Did it matter? No. George Bush invaded Iraq in March 2003 not because he was convinced Iraq had WMD, but because he was becoming scared that Iraq didn't have WMD and that further inspections would prove it beyond any doubt. Facts on the ground have never been allowed to interfere with George Bush's worldview, and he wasn't about to take the chance that they might interfere with his war.

Whatever faults the CIA has, let's not blame them for the war in Iraq. We all know exactly whose mistake it was.

WMDs were never the real purpose of the invasion. WMDs were the focus of the spotlight, however, because of serious diplomatic efforts to gain UNSC approval for an invasion. Within the context of the UNSC, the only way to justify an invasion was to claim that Iraq had not fully cooperated with UN inspectors. Which, despite what Kevin would like to pretend, Saddam's government had not, even as late as March 2003.

But the public justification made in the UN had nothing to do with the real purpose, the real strategic goal which required the invasion. Kevin makes casual reference to that, when he says, Facts on the ground have never been allowed to interfere with George Bush's worldview, and he wasn't about to take the chance that they might interfere with his war.

Except that "facts on the ground" did not interfere or contradict the real purpose, which was to depose a corrupt dictator and to "nation build" so as to make one core Arab nation a better place for the people living there. By so doing, the goal was to infect the imaginations and aspirations of the citizens in other nations in the region, to "destabilize" the corrupt dictatorships in charge and to try to bring about long term change to the whole region. And that could not be publicly proclaimed at the time without deeply imperiling the strategy for the overall war.

So why were we at the UN? Mainly because Tony Blair needed to fulfill a promise made to the more leftist MPs in his party that he would not take the UK to war without a UNSC resolution or an "unreasonable veto". There were other reasons as well, but that was the most important one.

So we went to the UNSC to seek permission for something we actually had the capability of doing. (The only permission Bush actually required was granted to him by Congress in October of 2002.) And when it finally became clear that permission would not be forthcoming, we went ahead and did it anyway.

For some, that made it an "illegal war". It was a "war of choice", not a "war of necessity". It was a "violation of international law".

None of those distinctions actually matter. They're all aspects of form and appearance; there's no substance. They're also all matters of opinion, subject to considerable dispute. Why was a war without UNSC approval "illegal"? Where did the "international law" come from which this violated, and how did that "international law" become binding?

Why is a distinction between "war of choice" and "war of necessity" even important, and even if it is, how do you tell them apart? I happen to think that the invasion was necessary. But it wasn't necessary in order to gain revenge for direct Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attack (there's no significant evidence that Saddam's government was directly implicated in that) or to prevent "imminent danger". It was necessary in order to prevent significant non-imminent danger.

Much of this obfuscation is motivated by post-nationalism. The plan for a long time had been to bypass questions like "Is there any such thing as international law, and is it desirable for such a thing to exist?" by assuming that it already does exist and is already somehow universally binding. "Is there any such thing as a world government, to which all nations must submit? Should there be one?" That's another embarrassing question; so they just assume that it already exists and all nations are already obligated to submit to it, at least if they're located in North America and aren't Canada or Mexico.

If I can do something, and if you can't stop me from doing it, then your only hope of preventing me from doing it is to convince me that I should not do it. (In military analysis those are known as capabilities and intentions.) If the US is building up military forces in Kuwait with full intention to invade Iraq, then if you don't want such an invasion your only hope is to somehow convince the US government that it should not invade.

One way to do that is to actually satisfy the US government short of invasion, but if you also don't want to do that, then you try to emphasize permission or authorization. You try to deal at the level of justification, and try to ignore purpose.

In a sense, you deliberately make the very mistake my parents were such sticklers about. You say, "You can't invade" when what you really mean is "You may not invade". You refuse to grant permission, and then you wave your hands really fast to try to make sure no one asks why your permission is required at all, and why absence of permission implies absence of capability.

One would be hard pressed to find a better example of this than the recent pre-ordained decision by the "World Court" that Israel is violating "international law" by building a fence around the core of the West Bank in anticipation of unilateral enforced separation between the Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians went to the "World Court"; Israel kissed it off and said it didn't recognize that the World Court had jurisdiction.

Even so, a "trial" was held, and the Court released a decision condemning Israel and "ordering" that the wall be torn down. The Palestinians were jubilant. Arab nations asked the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution, which is virtually certain to happen.

There's only one problem with all of this: the wall's still there. Israel is still working on it. It continues to get longer. Amazingly enough, it didn't vanish in a flash of light when the World Court released its decision. And it won't vanish when the General Assembly passes a resolution.

Jack Chalker said, "A bureaucrat doesn't believe in heaven or hell, church or state. A bureaucrat only believes in paper." It's noteworthy that the EU's big response to the looming terrorist threat there was to create a new bureaucracy.

The EU is trying to pretend that nothing happened, and is hoping the whole thing vanishes off the radar screen as soon as possible. They're "studying it". And here's the reason they're treading lightly:

The Union has made supporting international courts and institutions a key pillar of its common foreign policy.

They're in serious peril of being exposed as posturing fools for doing so, as it becomes increasingly clear that said institutions have little or no real power, irrespective of how much authority is claimed for them.

France said, "No, America, you cannot invade Iraq." But America actually could, and Iraq got invaded. The World Court is saying, "No, Israel, you cannot build a wall around the Palestinian territories." But Israel actually can build such a wall, and the wall continues to get longer.

Here's another rhetorical catch-phrase which emphasizes form over substance: "traditional allies". It's become an issue in the election.

It's been decades since the "platform" drafted by each party actually made any difference, but sometimes they're amusing, and often they're highly revealing. Consider this news report about the Democrat's platform:

Half of its 35 pages are devoted to national security issues at a time when terror alerts and the war in Iraq dominate political discussion.

"This is a reflection of John Kerry's strength on these issues," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "The Democrats are stronger than ever on national security issues and are going to the election confident of winning the debate on who can keep Americans safe."

The draft is laced with criticism of the Bush administration, which it said alienated allies, ignored U.S. military leaders' advice, and sent inadequate numbers of soldiers to Iraq "almost alone with the target squarely on their backs."

"They rush to force before exhausting diplomacy. They bully rather than persuade," it said. The Democrats said they would build an America that "extended a hand, not a fist."

The draft acknowledged disagreement within the party about whether U.S. troops should have invaded Iraq but said leaving before security is restored would make Iraq "a breeding ground for terror."

The platform called for expanding the U.S. active-duty military by 40,000 soldiers, upgrading military training and equipment and employing diplomacy to build "an America that is respected, not just feared."

"We will never wait for a green light from abroad when our safety is at stake but we must enlist the support of those we need for ultimate victory," it said.

That last sentence is a straddle worthy of the master. It's also boilerplate. For what this really says is that the Democrats think it is more important what reputation the US has in "the world" than what the US accomplishes to reduce the threats we face. The goal of foreign policy should be to get the Europeans to pat us on the head and to praise us for being good boys and girls.

Who are these "allies" we've alienated? Who are "those we need for ultimate victory" we must enlist? It wasn't the UK, clearly, or Australia. It wasn't Japan. It wasn't the majority of the members of NATO, given that more than half of them have contributed troops to operations in Iraq. We got those.

Er, um, France and Germany, mayhaps? Are those the allies to which they refer?

And what's this business about "extending a hand,not a fist"? What's with this dedication to persuasion instead of bullying? Sounds an awful lot like exactly the kind of foreign policy the EU, and many nations in Europe, have been relying on in the last couple of years, which have been notable failures.

The underlying message in all this has been consistent: Approval is more important than achievement. Awards are more important than accomplishments. Credentials are more important than knowledge and capabilities. Justification is more important than purpose.

Form is more important than substance. Motives are more important than results.

You can't do anything if you may not. If you go ahead and do it anyway, it is "a mistake", even if the result doesn't turn out to be "a meltdown".

Perhaps my parents were wiser than I gave them credit for being. They never confused permission and capability. "Can I?" and "May I" really are unrelated questions.

Update: Kevin (a different Kevin) has an eye chart for Kevin Drum.

Update: Ah! TBogg reminded me of another example of the form/substance dichotomy: snide dismissal versus substantive response.

Update 20040716: Francis W. Porretto comments.

Update 20040718: Mikey comments. (He explores the implications of the form/substance dichotomy.)

Update: By the way, President Bush actually did publicly declare the true purpose for the invasion of Iraq in February of 2003. (It was not strongly emphasized for exactly the reasons I explained in this post and again in this post.)

Update: Another example here of people deliberately assuming something (in this case, "social contracts") exists so as to avoid uncomfortable debate.

Update 20040720: Jeremy Bowers comments.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040713.1405

(Captain's log): Continuing yesterday's post about anime I've been watching recently:

Video Girl Ai

The Specs: Six episodes on one DVD

The concept: Youta is a high school boy who has his heart broken when the girl he loves (Moemi) confesses that she loves his best friend (Takashi), who says he is not interested in her. Youta walks home, crying, but he cries for her and not for himself. He finds a strange video store, and is given a special video tape. When he plays it, a girl comes on the screen and commiserates with him. She promises to help him, and then things get strange. She actually emerges out of the TV screen and lands unconscious on his bed.

Problem is that his videotape player was malfunctioning, and she's changed. For one thing, her boobs are smaller. For another, she's a bit bitchy and a bit crude. She explains that she is a "Video Girl" named Ai, and that she can stay with him until the tape stops running, in approximately 4 weeks.

Ai's job is to help Youta feel better, and perhaps to help him get the girl he wants. But she finds herself falling in love with him, despite the fact that Video Girls cannot fall in love.

General comments: This was an OVA (Original Video Animation, a series created for direct sales on DVD and VHS without being broadcast) and it was made in 1992. The art style is quite different from modern anime. It was based on a very successful manga published between 1990 and 1993, which eventually was collected in 15 volumes. Of those, 13½ were about the character Ai, and the rest were about two other video girls. The OVA is based on the first two volumes.

The good: I was impressed by the way the storyline developed. It didn't turn out anything like I expected it to. Three of the four main characters turned out to be much deeper and more complex than I thought they would be. (I ended up more than a bit contemptuous of the other one; damned if I know what Youta saw in her besides a pretty face and figure.)

The bad: The art style is unfamiliar, but that was OK. The problem was either that the transfer from film to DVD was handled badly, or the film had faded before the transfer. The colors tended to be washed out, and the brightness level and contrast were poor in most of the series. It seems as if it should have looked better than it actually did.

My friend Bill explained to me that the animators hoped they'd be permitted to do more episodes.

The ending: Which is why the ending is completely ambiguous. It's extremely dramatic; I'll give them that. It's also a total surprise, which I obviously don't want to ruin. And it does resolve one major and important question quite conclusively, both for the characters and for the audience.

The problem is the other question. The narration at the end implies the answer is "no". But the visuals playing under the closing credits strongly suggest the answer is actually "yes". So in that sense it's a bit frustrating.

The judgment: I don't consider that to have detracted from my enjoyment of the series. It's a nice look back in time, and it's a very interesting story which does not follow well-worn paths.


The Specs: 24 episodes on 6 DVDs

The concept: "Persocomms", personal computers in android form, have become cheap and plentiful. A hick moves to the big city and sees them everywhere, and by a fluke acquires one of his own, which he names "Chi". He also experiences the way that persocomms changed human social patterns more than any invention since the automobile. What will be the effect on human society if any man and woman can buy Pygmalion's dream for less than $5000, and if most of them do so?

General comments: The series protagonist is Hideki, 18, who grew up on his parents' farm. He wants to attend university in Tokyo but fails the entry exam, so he moves to the city anyway and attends classes at a prep school in hopes of passing the exams the next year.

Hideki is the "man from mars". The series shows us a society which is fundamentally different than our own, and we learn about it as he learns about it.

Persocomms are everywhere, and he wants one, too. But though they are not really all that expensive, they're well beyond the reach of an impoverished would-be college student like Hideki. But when he walks home one night, he notices (well, eventually) a deactivated persocomm in a trashpile, apparently discarded by its previous owner.

He picks it up and carries it home, and eventually figures out how to activate it. "It" is in the shape of a girl with long blonde hair, and he's more than a bit stunned when she starts moving on her own and crawls towards him (nude, I might mention) and peers at his face. But he becomes captivated when she suddenly looks very happy, leaps on him and hugs him enthusiastically.

Hideki's next-door neighbor is Shinbo, who is also 18 and attends the same prep school. Shinbo is very cosmopolitan, and he has a miniature persocomm named Sumomo.

Chi turns out to be a mystery. Shinbo uses a keyboard to access her OS, and discovers that she apparently doesn't have one loaded. (The strange shells on the sides of her head can be opened, and reveal cables and connectors of various kinds. Most persocomms have something similar.) But if so, how is she able to move? She also isn't labeled with a manufacturer logo or model indication in the customary location.

The series has fun with this. The customary location turns out to be on the chest between the breasts, and Hideki is totally scandalized when Shinbo looks there. (But that's nothing compared how scandalized Hideki was earlier when he finally figured out the location of Chi's on/off switch.)

Shinbo networks Chi to Sumomo and asks her to analyze Chi. After a few seconds, Sumomo's system crashes completely. Fortunately, there was no hardware damage and Shinbo is able to restore her from backups, but in the mean time he gives Hideki directions to the home of a hardcore computer freak, a kid named Minoru who lives in a very fancy mansion, apparently entirely alone except for persocomms, especially his highly advanced custom-built persocomm Yuzuki, who is his constant companion, best friend, and ongoing development project.

Minoru also can't figure out what Chi is, but confirms that she must be a custom-built PC, since her appearance does not match any model of persocomm ever manufactured. He does notice that Chi has a learning program, and tells Hideki that she can be taught things.

Minoru speculates that Chi might be one of the "chobits". The chobits are an urban legend on the internet. Supposedly they were a special series of persocomms of mysterious origin, which could move of their own will. The chobits are purported to be "something human-shaped and not human, with free will and emotions".

To begin with, all she seems to be able to say is "Chi!". It was inevitable that he would choose that for her name. When he tells her, she looks delighted, and leaps at him to give him a big hug.

Hideki begins to teach her Japanese, and the practical aspects of life, and she becomes more and more a person to him. And though he doesn't realize it, she's also learning about him. (One running gag in the series is the way that Chi imitates the things he does. I thought it would get old, but it didn't.)

Hideki lucks into a job working in a bar. The boss's daughter is in high school and is cute and sexy and seems interested in him. She teases him, because he is inhibited and totally inexperienced with girls, and gets embarrassed easily. (When she notices that he is looking at her breasts, she casually informs him that "they're E-cups", totally freaking him out.)

Hideki also gets to know other people, and through them we get more of a view of the various ways that persocomms have changed people's lives in unexpected and profound ways.

The series hopes to inspire us to think about whether it would actually be a good thing if people could buy friends and lovers at a store. Would they stop relating to other humans? And would it be good or bad for the persocomms themselves for this to happen?

The good: I think that in most ways the side-stories were nicely handled. This series presents us with a thought problem, but it doesn't moralize about it. It wants us to think about the problem, but it doesn't presume to preach to us about what the right answer should be. So the side stories are complex, and don't lend themselves to easy judgment. Each of them shows us a different part of the larger question.

The idea itself is an intriguing one, and the writers did a nice job thinking through the societal effects of the postulated persocomm technology. Arguably, this series is a response to previous series' like Hand Maid May.

It is interesting and enjoyable to watch Chi develop and learn. And I really ended up enjoying the character Sumomo. She's just a joy; and is very nicely conceived. (Her seiyuu did a superb job. Her "Hai!" is wonderfully enthusiastic.)

The bad: There were aspects of Hideki which began to grate a bit, mostly because they were treated as running jokes which they used too often. I really started to get tired of the way that Hideki tended to panic and massively overreact to things.

In retrospect the plotline was entirely too contrived. Tokyo seems like a small village, with only a few people in it who seemingly all know one another. You'd think he would meet and become friends with at least one person who didn't have a relevant story to tell, wouldn't you?

My friend Bill warned me ahead of time that the show was excessively sweet and should be taken in small doses. I can see how it might come off that way to some people, but it didn't really affect me like that.

The ending: is impressive as all hell, but also a bit confusing. I guess I would say that it was a satisfying ending, but that I felt a bit uncomfortable about the way it ended. And maybe that was deliberate on their part, for the fundamental questions they ask in the series are not ones with easy answers.

The judgment: When I first watched the series, I found it quite compelling. But in retrospect it didn't really stay with me as much as Fruits Basket or Mahoromatic. The characters in this series are distinctive, but also in the end rather simplistic. I understand why they wanted Hideki to be naive and unsophisticated, but I wish he had been a bit more thoughtful and resourceful. Frankly, I think they tried too hard to put humor into the series, mostly by using Hideki for comic relief. I wish he had been more complex and sympathetic.

Even so, I did like it quite a lot and didn't regret watching it at all.

Angelic Layer

The Specs: 26 episodes on 7 DVDs

The concept: Misaki Suzuhara, age 12, arrives by train in Tokyo to attend middle school and live with her aunt. She gets a bit lost in the train station and finds herself outside on the street, and sees a big TV screen on a building which shows some sort of battle. One of the two combatants is much smaller than the other, and is dressed all in white, and when the battle seems to go against her, Misaki (who is very short, and is a bit self-conscious about it) becomes dejected. But she then is surprised when the white one suddenly takes control of the match, sprouts wings and flies, and then wins convincingly. She gets really excited.

A rather strange man in a white lab coat appears out of nowhere and tells her that they were "angels", animated dolls full of high tech stuff, and that anyone who wanted to could buy one. She rushes away, and ends up spending all her money to buy all the things she needs to create her own angel, which she names Hikaru.

Angels only are able to move when on the "layer", a special platform found in certain game centers. The player, who is referred to as the "Deus", wears a special visor and headset, and can control the angel by thinking about what she wants it to do. It's the big craze in fighting games, and most of the players are girls.

The strange man, who introduced himself as "Icchan" (and whom she thereafter refers to as "Icchan-san" – don't worry if you don't get the joke) shows up without warning every so often to give her advice or help or to push her into the game. He enters her in the Tokyo qualifying round of the annual Angelic Layer tournament which is set to begin just a week after she buys Hikaru.

And she turns out to have an unusual talent for the game, and Hikaru begins to build a reputation. Misaki meets people through the game, and many of them become friends.

But there's an ache inside her. Misaki knows that her mother is working in Tokyo, somewhere, on something important, but Misaki last saw her seven years previously, when she was 5 years old. And even after she moves to Tokyo, she never sees her mother or even learns where she is or what she's been doing.

General comments: The pile of DVDs in my shopping basket at Fry's was frighteningly large already when I spotted this series on the rack. They had all seven DVDs, but I decided to buy just the first three, since I wasn't really sure if I'd like it. As it turned out, I thought it was superb and ordered the other DVDs by mail order. And I also suffered for doing so, because DVD 7 was backordered and didn't ship until a week after the others.

This is a lot of kinds of stories being told simultaneously. For instance, it's an absolute classic sports story, about the unknown and underestimated outsider who stuns everyone by performing better than expected.

The good: There are a hell of a lot of good things about this series. Misaki is a wonderful protagonist, one we grow to care deeply about. We see her deal with people, and make friends, and learn to play and become good at Angelic Layer. We also see how she is affected by the absence of her mother.

The battles never become repetitive or boring because there is such a wide variety of different kinds of angels and fighting styles, but even more so because there are so many different kinds of Deuses. In some of her matches, Misaki faces opponents who have special "tricks" she hasn't seen before, and in order to win she has to solve a problem. In some of her matches, Misaki faces her own weaknesses inside, and is unable to help Hikaru be strong enough to win without herself becoming strong. The game also gets changed as she rises through the tournament, in ways I don't want to reveal. In the end, every battle we see is unique and important and exciting.

The basic idea is a wonderful one. I wish such a thing really existed; I'd love to try it. (But I'd probably suck. Very few boys get good at it.)

I'll give full points to whomever came up with the English names for the DVDs. DVD 2 is named "On a Wing and a Player", which is a doubly magnificent pun (given the legendary L/R confusion of Engrish).

The best thing in this series is the characters and the way they interact. In the end, this is a character-driven story. Some of the people that Misaki ends up playing against have "issues", and end up working through their issues after they play against her. (I know that sounds bad when I describe it like that, but it really does work dramatically and in character terms, and it is actually part of the attraction of the series.) However, it works both ways: at least three different Deuses end up helping her in important ways.

And the single most important character interaction is the one which somehow doesn't happen, between Misaki and her mother.

The bad: The backs of the DVD cases are loaded with spoilers; do not look at them before you view any DVD the first time. Also, the "next episode" teasers on the disks are loaded with spoilers. Skip over them the first time you watch.

And there is one boy-girl relationship which develops which made me feel a bit uncomfortable in some ways.

The ending: took my breath away. When my copy of DVD 7 hadn't yet arrived, I ended up overloading J Greely's mailbox with long letters predicting what was going to happen in the last three episodes of the series. It turned out that I didn't come even remotely close to being right, and after my copy of DVD 7 finally arrived and I'd watched it, I ended up writing to him to say, "My story was a good one, but the one they told was even better."

All the right things were there. It all happened just as it should have, to leave me satisfied, a bit numb, and warm inside. I can't think of any way it could have been improved. In a series which contains so many dramatic and exciting battles, the last one made all the others look tame.

The judgment: This is by far the best of the titles I have recently watched and have written about in the last two days, and one of the very best I've ever watched since I got into anime.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040712.1426

(Captain's log): I continue to be fascinated by anime, Japanese animation. I am continually amazed by the variety, the vitality, the quality of work I have been finding. There's a lot of crap, of course; there's imitation, and exploitation, and one has to pick and choose. But it's really astounding how much good stuff is out there.

And it's astounding how much of it I've ended up buying and watching. About a month ago I went bozo and loaded up. I picked up the first two volumes of the series Full Metal Panic at a video store, and ended up ordering the rest of the series by mail order. Then I ordered another series I'd read about, Chobits, and about that time I found myself at Fry's in the DVD anime section (at gunpoint, I tell you, at gunpoint) and ended up with a pile of other stuff. The heap of DVD cases building up in that shopping basket started looking a bit scary, and I finally exercised a modicum of self-restraint and headed for the checkout.

So here's what I've been watching lately, written to avoid spoilers as much as possible:

Sakura Wars

The Specs: 25 episodes on 6 DVDs.

The concept: In an alternate reality, in 1920's Japan, the capital is under assault by mystical forces. The primary attackers are called Wakiji, and they are partly mechanical, partly biological, and partly magical. They are also virtually invulnerable to conventional weapons which the military tries to use against them, and can only be defeated by rare individuals who have very strong spirit power and who can learn to control it.

They can use their spirit power with weapons such as swords or even pistols, but with sufficient training, they can also use their spirit power to move armored suits called Koubu, which are far more powerful. But that is very difficult. And there are four special enemies, particularly powerful and particularly menacing, who show up now and again who are not so easily defeated. Nor do the defenders know why the city is being attacked, or what the attackers hope to accomplish.

A small number of young people identified as having the greatest potential spirit power are collected together, in the desperate hope that they will master their power and bond as a team in time to be able to fight and defeat the enemy before its plan is completed. As an aid to development of discipline and teamwork, they operate as a theater company. But the enemy plan continues to unfold, and the team doesn't seem to be pulling together. Time is running out.

Sakura Shinguji is the last girl to join the group, and she is potentially the strongest of them all, for she carries the blood of the destroyers of evil, as her father did before her. The series begins as Sakura arrives in Tokyo to join the company, and culminates with a climactic battle between the Imperial Flower Division and the mysterious enemy seeking to destroy the capital, which can only end in total victory or complete defeat.

General comments: My first exposure to Sakura Wars was the movie, which I really didn't like at all. It concentrated heavily on whizbang computer graphics, but was weak on characterization, motivation, logic, or compelling story telling. I found its setting both preposterous and offensive. I decided that the series on which the movie was based was probably a waste of time.

But in May I picked up the Sakura Wars OVA collection on a whim while at a video store. And in fact I enjoyed it immensely. So I made a mental note to watch for the regular TV series as a potential future acquisition.

It turns out that the movie, the OVA ("Original Video Animation", which means it was developed to be sold on DVD and VHS without being broadcast first) and the TV series are all in a sense related, but not really very closely. They all use characters which look the same and have the same names, and the basic scenario in each case is about the same, but they each tell different stories about what are actually different characters. Effectively, the way to think of them is as three attempts to tell the same story, as if three authors worked independently from the same basic starting concept. The differences between them are more important than the similarities.

The first OVA DVD covers about the same material as the first two-thirds of the TV series, but not really. Both tell the story of how the team comes together and how they develop their powers. But the characters are different, and the story arc is unrelated.

The movie could be interpreted as being a sequel to the TV series, but only very loosely so. For all practical purposes, the movie and OVA and TV series should not be considered unrelated.

And for all practical purposes, you should shun the movie like it was covered with anthrax dust.

I really liked the OVA, but the TV series was even better. Several of the characters were much more vivid and believable in the TV series, especially Ri Kohran, who was wasted in both the OVA and movie. I was surprised by the fact that the TV series had a much darker feel to it. There's a sense of dread, of foreboding, as the series goes on.

The good: Characterization. The TV series concentrates much more on the characters and how they interact than either the OVA or movie, in part because it has the luxury of time to explore those things more fully. Some of the characters are so different as to be unrecognizable in the TV series compared to the first OVA. Sakura, the protagonist, is a vastly more interesting character in the TV series.

Iris Chateaubriand, the little blonde French girl, was entirely different, and at the beginning of the TV series she is a very troubled little girl. It is wonderful to watch as she begins to come out of her shell, and eventually becomes an essential part of the team.

For me the greatest suprise and pleasure was Ri Kohran. I hardly even remembered Kohran from the movie. In the OVA she is primarily used for comic relief. But in the TV series she is a complex character, and an extremely important one. It would not be going too far to say that she is the single most essential member of the team. She probably helped Sakura more than anyone else did, in terms of developing and mastering Sakura's spirit power, and in terms of becoming comfortable with herself.

Kohran also had the single best character moment in the entire series, which I must describe in only the most general of terms in order to avoid spoilers. Her self-confidence gets shattered by a certain revelation, and someone takes advantage of extremely unusual circumstances to come to her in heavy disguise in order to help her in the depths of her despair. It was amazingly well handled, and I am still in awe of the audacity of the concept involved. I made a wrong guess, and I was pleased when Kohran made that same guess, and then decided it was wrong. The writers anticipated my guess and wanted to disabuse me of it so I wouldn't be distracted. After that, neither Kohran nor I had any idea who it really was until the very end of the conversation. Yet once I learned who it was, it suddenly became obvious that it could not have been anyone else. I'm hard pressed to think of a more amazing character moment in any of the series I've watched.

The bad: As always, I watched the series with the original Japanese dialog and subtitles. The sound track loudness varied wildly and apparently randomly, forcing me to constantly adjust the playback volume when it suddenly became much louder or much more quiet.

At a certain point while watching the series I found myself muttering, "Shut up, Sumire!" a couple of times per episode. Sumire's "issues" were the last to get worked out, and in terms of the overall plot arc it pretty much had to be that way, but in terms of viewer discomfort I wish she had dealt with them earlier, so that I didn't have to suffer from them quite so long myself.

The ending: is extraordinary. The whole series is a unified plot arc in a sense, but the final sequence covers the last four episodes, all of which are on the sixth DVD. Things get really bad for the group, and it's looking damned dicey for the good guys. In the end, they have to go for broke and gamble everything on a single battle, where they will either win it all, or lost it all. Many, many people make incredible sacrifices simply to get the six of them to a certain place where they will have a chance, just a chance, of redeeming the situation and preventing catastrophe.

It's not really a spoiler to reveal that the good guys win in the end, of course; this isn't the kind of series where that's in doubt. But until the last instant we don't know how they will win, and there is definitely no confidence that they will pull it out. When they actually did, I was bubbling inside and I felt like cheering.

The judgment: This series is excellent. But it is not for children. There is a lot of graphic violence, and there are many character moments which would be much too intense for children. That's especially true since some of the most intense character moments happen to Iris. She is much younger than the other members of the group and it would be natural for kids to identify with her, which would amplify the terror and the pain Iris experiences.

But for anyone above about age 13, this is superb. It's actually difficult to put this into any single genre, but in a sense it's kind of a cross between science fiction and gothic horror, and it induces the same kind of dread as gothic horror, except that it doesn't have a tragic and horrible ending.

Full Metal Panic

The Specs: 24 episodes on 7 DVDs

The concept: It's a "fish out of water" story. The core tale is the developing romantic involvement of the two primary characters, both of which are very distinctive and unique.

Kaname Chidori is a 16 year old high school student in Tokyo. She is gorgeous and stars nightly in the wet dreams of every boy at the school. She's also got a sharp tongue and a vicious temper and doesn't put up with crap from anyone.

Sousuke Sagara is also 16, and is a mercenary soldier who works for a rather mysterious organization called Mithril. He's also a damned good one, despite his young age. His face is scarred and he is in superb physical condition. Mithril becomes aware of a very serious threat to Kaname and sends three people to protect her: Sergeant Sagara, Sergeant Kurz Weber, and Master Sergeant Melissa Mao. Kurz and Melissa are much older; Kurz is a blonde German and Melissa is Chinese-American. Sagara is Japanese and the right age, so he is given forged papers and enroll in Kaname's high school to serve as "inside man" to protect her.

But Sagara has never known anything but war. He's been a soldier since he was eight years old. He did not have a normal childhood and doesn't know how to operate in the real world. At the high school, he is on a hair trigger and overreacts to harmless things which his instincts tell him are potential threats to Kaname. She abuses him for it, verbally and physically, but at the same time finds herself intrigued by him. He's a mystery, he's a challenge. She finally decides he's a military otaku, someone who is obsessed with study of military affairs and imagines himself to be a soldier. But when she is kidnapped, and he rescues her, she finds out that he's the real thing. And the hair trigger which had caused so much trouble at the high school saves both of them time and again when the bullets start flying.

But when the situation becomes most desperate, strange images begin to flow into her mind, and she tells him things over the radio that he needs to know to stay alive and to save her, things she herself doesn't even understand.

General comments: The first three episodes concentrate on Sagara's misadventures as a high school student in Tokyo, and are main intended to introduce us to the primary characters and to set up their relationship. By the end of the third episode, Sagara has totally alienated Kaname and is royally on her shit list.

Just about the time I began to get tired of watching Sagara screw up, they changed gears entirely. The kids from the high school plan a trip to Okinawa, and the bad guys hijack the jet in order to kidnap Kaname. The resulting action sequence covers four episodes and is riveting. It also completely changes her feelings about him, as she realizes that she had utterly misjudged him.

Most of the series turns out to be action, and I was thankful for that because it meant I didn't have to squirm in discomfort as I watched Sagara screw up.

The action sequences also make clear that Kaname has guts, which surprises no one more than she herself. She adapts to Sagara's world much better than he does to hers. There are three more major action plot arcs, and Kaname is pulled into two of them. The one she isn't part of (the third of four total) is very intense and fills in Sagara's back story.

It also hurts a lot to watch. It was supposed to, because it helps us to understand why Sagara is the way he is. I'm glad I watched it, but it's the part of the series I'm least inspired to watch again.

The last action sequence of the series is the longest, and by far the most desperate and intense. Kaname and Sagara end up working together closely without being able to communicate well with each other, and they only are able to do what they do because they trust each other and understand each other's moves.

The good: The primary characters are extremely well conceived. There is strong comic potential because of Sagara's hair trigger, his general cluelessness about normal life, and his stoicism. But there's also dramatic potential for the superb action sequences when she enters his world. Everyone else clearly sees the romantic sparks flying (and nearly all of them approve). But Kaname is strongly conflicted about Sagara, and Sagara doesn't even recognize his feelings for Kaname as they begin to develop.

They're both extremely likeable. They're both quite believable, although they're also both unique. And the romantic sparks between them are completely believable. Watching Kaname wrestle with her mixed feelings and confusion about him, and watching Sagara wrestle with having those kinds of feelings for anyone for the first time in his life, is wonderful.

And the action sequences are all excellent.

The bad: The villain is not believable at all. Obviously, I'm not supposed to like the villain, but at the very least I should understand him and believe in his character and motivation. But I didn't believe in this guy at all, for several reasons (which I won't go into). Frankly, he's the weakest part of the series. He's a caricature, not a character.

The ending: It doesn't end. It doesn't even feel as if they're through with the beginning of the series. At the rate they're unfolding the underlying plot, this series will run longer than Dragon Ball Z. These 24 episodes feel like the first chapter in a very long book.

Which, it turns out, is not far from the truth. It seems to be based on the first part of a manga which is very long and has been going on for years, and is nowhere close to finished. In fact, my comparison to Dragon Ball Z is pretty accurate. The last action sequence in the anime is excellent, and there's definitely a feeling of catharsis at the end. But none of the major mysteries raised in the series get answered, and the romance story line is left totally unresolved.

The judgment: If you don't mind the fact that the long term story arc isn't resolved, this series has much to offer. The action sequences are superb, and it's fun to watch Kaname and Sagara interact and to watch Sagara as he starts, slowly to gain experience in socialization. At one point, Kaname talks quite frankly to someone else about herself and her life, and in the end says, "As long as Sousuke settles down, I'll have no complaint."

"Is Sagara-san bothering you that much?", she is asked.

She replies, "He's pretty bad. Because he has no common sense, he is always causing trouble. I understand that he doesn't mean it though. It makes things even worse. He's awkward, but trying hard. I can't leave him alone."

That pretty much summarizes their relationship, and it's fascinating to watch how it fares in peace and in war.

Dirty Pair: Flight005 Conspiracy

The Specs: It is a one-hour OVA movie on one DVD.

The concept: Yuri and Kei are two top operatives working for the WWWA, a trans-stellar law enforcement agency which gets called in to deal with extraordinary situations. They have been extremely successful, too, but they also have left an amazing trail of death and destruction behind them. The WWWA central computer has invariably determined that it wasn't their fault, so it continues to assign them to new missions. But they are also notorious and are known far and wide as "the Dirty Pair", a name they resent.

In this movie, an interstellar passenger liner explodes in space, killing everyone on board. The company which owned it has made a claim for insurance money, but no one seems to have asked for any insurance for the 300 passengers on board. There is also a separate problem relating to a missing scientist, and the WWWA central computer seems to think the two cases are related and assigns Yuri and Kei to solve them both. There are the usual brushes with death, and violent combat sequences, and there is a satisfying amount of destruction, all of which is either not their fault or is totally justified (as always).

The good: Yuri and Kei are as much fun to watch as always. They banter with each other in a way which reminds me of Kelly and Scott in "I Spy". The story is good, and develops nicely. (And they're both babes.)

The bad: Alas, there's essentially no fan service this time. (I also have, but have not yet watched, the other two OVA movies, and reportedly "Project Eden" more than makes up the fan service deficit.)

The ending: Like any action story, what you want in the end is the good guys in deep trouble, with time running out, and lots of stuff blowing up. And that's what you get.

The judgment: It's a good escapist action story about two characters I really like a lot. That's all it is, but that's still worthwhile if you like that sort of thing, and I do.

Ghost in the Shell

The Specs: 82 minute feature film on one DVD

The concept: With all cultural and technological developments, there also appear new kinds of crime and new kinds of law enforcement and crime investigation. As prosthetic technology continues to improve, eventually nearly any part of the human body can be replaced with a prosthetic device which is actually better than the original. This even includes the brain, and some people retain essentially none of their original flesh. But how do you know who you are, if everything making up your body has been replaced? How can you be sure of anything, if someone else can remotely hack your brain and alter your memories?

General comments: The primary story is about two characters who are "full-replacement" cyborgs. One is a man and one is a woman, and they are close to each other. They work for a special government agency that specializes in high-tech cybercrimes, and engages in other "special" missions now and again. One particular case which comes their way in the end changes one of them forever, and leaves them both uncertain of who they really are – if, indeed, they are actually anyone at all.

This is one of two "essential movies", or so I've heard, that every anime fan has to watch eventually, so when I saw it at Fry's I picked it up. I gather that this is one of those cases where everyone has a strong opinion; either they love it or they hate it. I thought it was superb. Visually it is marvelous, and intellectually it is very challenging. It works very well as an action movie, but it also has a deeper message (which caused me to write this after I watched the film).

The good: The characters are excellent, and the vision of the society they live in is consistent and believable. The story is well crafted and told well; the art is superb.

The bad: I don't think there really was anything bad about it, but I can see how others would be repelled by it all.

The ending: In a good story, at least one character should face a life crisis and emerge from it changed forever. That happens here, and in the end that turns out to be the story told by the movie. But afterwards, we are also left with questions about just what changed, and what the change really meant. In a sense, the entire movie is one big thought-problem which asks us to consider what it really means to say "I".

The judgment: It's another one which isn't appropriate for children. I'd put the age line at 16 this time. For anyone older, it's outstanding and a good demonstration of just how serious, important, and effective anime can be at telling stories.


The Specs: 124 minute feature film on one DVD.

The concept: There are some things man was not meant to know. What if he learns them? What if we access the power of gods before we have become gods?

In 1988, Tokyo is totally leveled by a huge fireball. It is not clear what caused it; it doesn't seem to have been a nuke, for instance. 30 years later, Tokyo has been rebuilt, but it is no utopia. The streets are dirty, there's constant unrest and lots of crime. The protagonists in the movie are what my parents referred to as "JDs", juvenile delinquents. They're in high school and are members of a motorcycle gang, and spend a lot of time rumbling with other motorcycle gangs, doing drugs, getting lucky (if they do), and ignoring the teachers at the school they attend. But they get caught up in larger affairs, and one of them begins to change. Akira seems to be calling to him, but who is Akira, and why is he calling?

General comments: This is apparently the other "essential" anime movie, which also inspires only strong opinions. I wouldn't quite call it "post holocaust", but it certainly borrows much from that genre. There are a lot of things going on, and some very puzzling people with odd abilities who start showing up and participating in events as they unfold.

The good: Yet another visual extravaganza. The story hangs together well, and it is very gripping as it unfolds. This movie doesn't really leave you full of questions and doubt like Ghost in the Shell, but it does offer ideas and images which I hadn't encountered before in quite this form, which meant that I was challenged by the movie as I watched and tried to figure it out.

The bad: It's easier to get pulled into a movie if you can like and begin to identify with at least one character in it. But the protagonists in this movie are all lowlife scum and are presented unsympathetically. Nor do they really expose much of a noble side, or become more sympathetic, as the film proceeds. The two most important characters are driven and determined, but neither is admirable.

The ending: I thought it was excellent. But I really can't talk about why without giving away a lot of things. I didn't come away full of unanswered questions, and I thought that the ending was not contrived.

The judgment: This movie is also definitely not for kids. I think I might actually put the age line at 18. It is extremely violent, and much of the violence is very graphic and explicit. I definitely agree that this is a must-see movie for anyone trying to understand the kinds of things which can be done with anime.

I've got three more titles to discuss, but since CityDesk tells me I'm at 4000 words now, they'll have to wait for another post.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040711.2144

(Captain's log): I was going to write an article today. I really was. I've been composing one about the contrast between form and substance in all its many manifestations: de jure versus de facto, authority versus power, credentials versus capabilities, awards versus achievements.

But instead I ended up writing a really long letter to Greely about the anime series Angelic Layer. He bought the 7 DVDs of the series about the same time I did, and liked it just as much as I did.

I ended up turning that letter into a separate article here. It's loaded with spoilers, so don't read it if you think you might want to watch the series. And you should watch it; it's superb. One of the reasons I've been overloading Greely's mailbox lately is because it reached me so strongly.

There's a major surprise revealed in the last episode; it made me gasp. Fortunately for me, I hadn't looked at the back of the DVD case and I had skipped watching all the "coming next episode" sequences at the end of each episode, because the idiots gave away the surprise both in the preview for episode 26 and on the back of the DVD case. That's not the only thing they gave away; if you buy and watch this series, don't read any of the DVD cases before you watch all the DVDs, and skip all the episode previews!

Anyway, my letter to Greely offered two explanations for that surprise, two entirely different ways of looking at the series which are mutually exclusive.

I'm also going to be writing in non-spoiler terms about the anime I've been watching lately, and I'll include Angelic Layer when I do.

Update 20040713: Matthew Yglesias seems to be hard up for things to be smug and condescending about. He says the following about the first paragraph above:

Things I find amusing

There is so much joy out here on the inter-web:

2. Steven den Beste's failure to adequate sum up "the contrast between form and substance in all its many manifestations." That's a budding Aristotle they've got up there.

How, exactly, is that paragraph a "failure"?

Update 20040716: I finally got that post about form and substance written.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040709.1543

(On Screen): Once I discovered Belmont Club last year, I soon became a regular reader. I'm happy that Wretchard has gotten a lot of exposure, because what he writes is both good and important.

As part of commentary about Iraq, yesterday Wretchard discussed the Battle of Waterloo, and included an extensive quote from a work by Conan Doyle which imagined the end of the battle.

For students of military history, Waterloo must occupy a special place. There are few battles in history more famous. Waterloo was the last battle of the Napoleonic era. And in that battle, Napoleon was defeated so decisively that he was forced to return to Paris and to abdicate for the second – and final – time.

The Waterloo campaign was a desperate one. Napoleon's first defeat had been at the hands of a coalition consisting primarily of the British, the Prussians, the Russians, the Austrians, and the Swedes.

In 1810, the Swedish king died leaving no heirs. The Swedes offered the crown to Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, who at that time was one of Napoleon's top generals. Napoleon consented, and Bernadotte accepted the Swedish throne. His loyalty thereafter was only to Sweden, and in the end it was Bernadotte who was most critical in creating that coalition and holding it together. It was Bernadotte who came up with the overall strategy which defeated Napoleon in the campaigns of 1813 to 1815.

After Napoleon's return from Elba, the nations which had combined to defeat him once again prepared for war. Even if Napoleon had won the Waterloo campaign, it would not guarantee his survival as Emperor or ultimate victory for France.

But he had to win the Waterloo campaign if there was to be any chance at all. The Russians and Austrians were not yet ready. However, the British and Dutch collected their forces under Arthur Wellesley, 1st duke of Wellington. And the Prussians collected a large force which the King placed under command of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Napoleon scratched together a force to face them, as best he could in the short time he had.

The French overall were badly outnumbered, but had at least some expectation of being able to defeat each enemy army individually as long as the other was kept away from the battlefield. The Anglo-Dutch army and the four corps of the Prussian Army were bivouacked in Belgium, in preparation for the anticipated campaign.

But Napoleon stole a march on his enemies, and showed up before they expected him. His goal was to try to fight each enemy separately, in hopes he could defeat them in detail.

The first day of battle in the campaign was 16 June 1815, with the parallel battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. Marshall Ney commanded a relatively small French force which made a demonstration against the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras, while Napoleon took the bulk of the French force and attacked the Prussians at Ligny. The Prussians were viewed as the weaker, more vulnerable of the two armies, and Napoleon hoped that if he defeated the Prussians decisively, they'd shatter.

Ligny was a ferocious battle, and it is generally viewed as a significant French battlefield victory, Napoleon's last. But the Prussians were not shattered, and continued the campaign.

17 June was a day of maneuver. Napoleon determined to try it the other way. He detached Grouchy and gave him orders to pursue the Prussians and to make sure they did not join up with the Anglo-Dutch army. He took the remainder of his force and marched to join up with Ney, in hopes of engaging the Anglo-Dutch army and defeating them.

Wellington gave him that battle, the one which comes down to us as "Waterloo". And what is most remarkable about Waterloo is that for the last 150 years the standard account of the battle was wrong. It was a fabrication. In its essence, it was historical fiction.

Few battles in history have inspired more books than Waterloo, and virtually all of them repeated the same basic fable. Historians writing those books relied on earlier books, whose authors in turn used even earlier books.

About 20 years ago, David Hamilton-Williams set out to write yet another history of Waterloo. But unlike so many previous authors, he sought out original sources of material, located in libraries and collections all over Europe. And as he did, something puzzling became impossible to ignore: they didn't seem to be describing the battle he thought he knew about.

In the end, he wrote his own book. I recommend it highly. Not only does he write a deep and important analysis of the Waterloo campaign as it actually happened, but he also explains why the standard account was so badly wrong.

It turned out that a book written in the early 1840's by Captain William Siborne became the definitive history of the campaign. All later accounts were directly or indirectly based on his.

Siborne was not a very successful man in life. He was deeply in debt. He had tried to create a massive diorama of the battlefield which would have included some 70,000 figures, for instance, and had engaged in other similar projects.

To keep these projects going, he had borrowed money from many wealthy Brits who had participated in the actual battle. As his financial situation deteriorated, he wrote his history of the battle, and he presented the events of the battle so as best to flatter his benefactors. Hamilton-Williams eventually sought out Siborne's own papers.

Scrutiny of Siborne's own correspondence relating to the development of his models revealed a sad and sordid story of a man pursuing an obsession to the detriment of his health, wealth, and ultimately, his good name. In 1833, Captain Siborne, already heavily engaged in his project, was informed by the British government of the day that public funds would no longer be provided to finance what was a private endeavor being carried out in hope of private gain (monies to be paid by the public to view the model). The government agreed only to settle his account to date. Determined to continue, Siborne raised a private loan of £1,500, an enormous sum at the time. He was thus able to continue his work for a further period, although it represented a considerable burden in addition to his military duties, and there was also the worry of carrying such a large debt. By 1836 he was in an extremely embarrassed financial situation. In desperation he decided to try to raise loans from some of the veteran officers with whom he had been in correspondence, to be repaid from the proceeds of the eventual fee-charging exhibition. One such request, which may be seen in the manuscript collection, asked the recipient for £5, but was amended to read £10. Sir Richard Hussey Vivian, who had commanded 6 Cavalry Brigade at Waterloo and was, when solicited, Siborne's own commanding officer, agreed to lend him £1,000.

From now on the objectivity which had marked Siborne's approach to his project became a luxury he could no longer afford. He felt constrained to enlarge the roles played by his benefactors, and correspondingly to suppress the evidence of other officers that tended to contradict those who had paid. He pressed on with the preparation of the model, haunted by the spectres of a bankrupt's disgrace and the debtors' prison. The completed model was placed on exhibition in 1838, but it never made enough money to pay half its cost. Nor did his 'investors' see their loans repaid, although Siborne tried to repay them with a coin of a different stamp. ...

With the financial failure of the first model, Siborne remained deeply in debt. To ameliorate his situation, he decided, with a perverse persistence, to make another model such as the one which had already nearly ruined him and had consumed years of his life. The second model, too, was a failure as a speculation, and served only to increase Siborne's heavy weight of debt. However, the campaign history which he produced in 1844 became at once a best-seller in military circles around the world. Naturally the book, which had been written to support the models, could not contradict what they showed.

In his story, the British were the heroes. The Dutch infantry were depicted as being unreliable. The Prussians tried to help but just didn't have what it took. Finally, the British ended up defeating the French all by themselves.

When his book was published, many men who had been at Waterloo were still alive, and some of them objected to his account of it. Yet somehow their objections (including articles printed in magazines of the time) got lost, and Siborne's account became canonical. For 150 years, his story was "the truth".

As Hamilton-Williams looked deeper into the battle described by primary sources and compared them to Siborne's account, what he found was that Siborne had deemphasized or totally omitted nearly every major contribution to the victory by anyone besides the British. He had written a morality play which claimed that the British had done it all.

Siborne's single most astounding omission concerns the way the battle ended.

In the standard story, the Anglo-Dutch force held its position through most of the day, in face of every assault the French could throw against them. Prussian forces appeared in the distance, and a Prussian corps, and then eventually two of them, engaged the French right flank. They were fought off and the flank was held by the French Young Guard, with help from the Middle Guard. With a third Prussian corps finally entering the battle, Napoleon gambled desperately and sent the Old Guard against the British. The Grognards marched resolutely, confidently, and came up the British position. But British units in front of them did not waver. In the end, it was the Old Guard which routed, for the first time ever. And as word spread, the entire rest of the French army broke and ran, in one of the largest routs in military history.

Here's one description of the events leading to the rout, based on the standard story:

The Middle Guard threw back the British battalions of Halkett’s Brigade but were assaulted by the Belgian and Dutch troops of General Chassé and Colonel Detmers who drove them back down the hill. The 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs approached the ridge opposite Maitland’s Brigade of Foot Guards (2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Foot Guards). Wellington called to the brigade commander “Now Maitland. Now’s your time”. One authority had him as saying “Up Guards, ready”. The Foot Guards stood, fired a volley and charged with the bayonet driving the French Guard back down the hill.

The last of the French Guard regiments, the 4th Chasseurs came up in support as the British Guards withdrew back over the ridge. Sir John Colborne brought the 52nd Foot round to outflank the French column as it passed his brigade, fired a destructive volley into the left flank of the Chasseurs and attacked with the bayonet. The whole of the Guard was driven back down the hill and began a general retreat to the cry of “La Garde recule”.

Within fifteen minutes Wellington appeared on the skyline and waved his hat to give the signal for a general attack in pursuit of the French troops. The British, Belgian, Dutch and German troops poured forward and the French retreat became a route [sic].

So in the end, not even the Old Guard could defeat the strong, resolute, heroic British, who were gracious enough to let the Dutch and Prussians watch as they defeated the French, which they most certainly could have done anyway even if the Dutch and Prussians hadn't been there. Ah, we British are really something, aren't we?

They say that the victors write the history books, and this self-congratulatory Victorian British account of the battle, written by a frightened man trying to convince his creditors not to toss him in gaol, somehow became accepted wisdom.

The standard story offers an explanation for a famous decision made by General Ziethen, commander of the Prussian I Corps. He was last to arrive on the battlefield, and ended up in a position between where II Corps and IV Corps were engaged with the French right flank and the position held by Wellington. Blücher sent him a courier carrying emphatic orders that he disengage and march to join II Corps and IV Corps, but Ziethen decided to disobey those orders. He continued to fight where he was.

In Siborne's story, Ziethen is given much credit and praise for this decision, because he chose instead to reinforce the British left flank. He gets praised for being a good supporting actor in the play.

Siborne didn't think we needed to know that the Prussian I Corps broke the French line. That was easily the most astounding thing Hamilton-Williams discovered from primary sources that Siborne had omitted.

The Old Guard didn't rout because they saw resolute English in front of them. They routed because they were within minutes of having Prussian cavalry behind them. Steinmetz's 1st Brigade had opened a massive breach in the French position, and Prussian troops pushed through it and began to fan out to both sides, to roll up the French line. Ziethen had 8 regiments of cavalry (2 Dragoon, 2 Uhlan, 1 Hussar, 3 Landwehr) organized in two brigades, and at the time the Old Guard routed, one of those brigades had already moved through the gap.

In his book, Hamilton-Williams provides a map with this wry caption:

Battle of Waterloo: situation at 7.30 p.m. showing the Old Guard going forward and the brigade of von Steinmetz smashing through the right-angle of Napoleon's line, thus arriving behind the French lines. At this point the French army dissolved into a panic-stricken mob.

At the moment when Blücher's courier found him, Ziethen saw the weakness of the French position facing him, and recognized that he had an excellent opportunity to win the battle by breaking through. That was why he ignored a direct order from Blücher.

Wretchard's post includes an extended quote of Conan Doyle's visualization of the battle. Conan Doyle's description is firmly based on Siborne's fictional account. Conan Doyle, in his turn, fictionalizes it even further. (Of course unlike Siborne, Conan Doyle didn't claim to be writing history.)

But a sight lay before me which held me fast as though I had been turned into some noble equestrian statue. I could not move, I could scarce breathe, as I gazed upon it. There was a mound over which my path lay, and as I came out on the top of it I looked down the long, shallow valley of Waterloo.

Except that the valley wasn't named "Waterloo". The battle was not named after the place where it was fought.

Blücher suggested that it should be given the name La Belle Alliance, but Wellington ignored him and continued his practice of naming battles after his HQs. Thus it is that one of the most celebrated battles in history carries the name of a small village near Brussels which was nowhere near the battlefield, because Wellington had been sleeping in an inn there.

It was that up the long slope of the British position was moving a walking forest-black, tossing, waving, unbroken. Did I not know the bearskins of the Guard? And did I not also know, did not my soldier's instinct tell me, that it was the last reserve of France; that the Emperor, like a desperate gamester, was staking all upon his last card? Up they went and up--grand, solid, unbreakable, scourged with musketry, riddled with grape, flowing onward in a black, heavy tide, which lapped over the British batteries. With my glass I could see the English gunners throw themselves under their pieces or run to the rear. On rolled the crest of the bearskins, and then, with a crash which was swept across to my ears, they met the British infantry. A minute passed, and another, and another. My heart was in my mouth.

They swayed back and forward; they no longer advanced; they were held. Great Heaven! was it possible that they were breaking? One black dot ran down the hill, then two, then four, then ten, then a great, scattered, struggling mass, halting, breaking, halting, and at last shredding out and rushing madly downward. "The Guard is beaten! The Guard is beaten!" From all around me I heard the cry. Along the whole line the infantry turned their faces and the gunners flinched from their guns.

That's the standard story, in all its (exclusively-British) glory. The French Old Guard, the most feared military battalions in Europe, which had never been defeated, engaged the British. British doggedness prevailed over French élan, and it was the French who fled.

"The Old Guard is beaten! The Guard retreats!" An officer with a livid face passed me yelling out these words of woe. "Save yourselves! Save yourselves! You are betrayed!" cried another. "Save yourselves! Save yourselves!" Men were rushing madly to the rear, blundering and jumping like frightened sheep. Cries and screams rose from all around me. And at that moment, as I looked at the British position, I saw what I can never forget. A single horseman stood out black and clear upon the ridge against the last red angry glow of the setting sun. So dark, so motionless, against that grim light, he might have been the very spirit of Battle brooding over that terrible valley. As I gazed, he raised his hat high in the air, and at the signal, with a low, deep roar like a breaking wave, the whole British army flooded over their ridge and came rolling down into the valley.

The image of Wellington waving his hat and causing his entire force to advance on the French is quite poetic. The standard story implies that the advance was the final straw which caused the French army to break.

However, it's much more likely that he ordered that advance because the French were already routing. And even if the British "flooded over their ridge and came rolling down into the valley", they didn't go beyond that.

It was actually Prussian cavalry which pursued the French. Despite being bone-tired, they were able to prevent the French from rallying and reforming. That converted victory on one battlefield into victory in the campaign, and in the war.

Napoleon spent the rest of his life confined to the island of St. Helena, closely supervised by British officers. He was treated with respect, but they made sure he didn't return yet again to France, to rally the people and once again plunge Europe into bloody war. (Of course, eventually the Europeans found other reasons, and other leaders, to plunge them into bloody war.)

About 25 years ago, someone sat down and worked out a family tree of all the tigers then kept in American zoos. When they got done, they were appalled to discover that all of them were descended from just three original tigers. They were massively inbred. Almost in a panic, American zoos started to borrow tigers from European zoos for breeding purposes to try to improve the genetic stock.

Zoo tigers had nothing on historians of the Waterloo campaign when it comes to inbreeding. At least they had three original sources; the historians had only one.

By the way, if you'd like to see the "standard story" on the big screen, you can watch "Waterloo", with Christopher Plummer as Wellington, and Rod Steiger chewing the scenery as Napoleon. As battle reenactments on film go, it's one of the best. Of course, as history it's a total crock. I first watched it at a gaming convention about 30 years ago, and the audience rooted for the French. Probably the biggest cheer was when the French Lancers countercharged the British cavalry.

Update 20040710: Wretchard responds.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040708.0833

(On Screen): Muqtada al-Sadr is a half-pint Shiite cleric in Iraq who is almost certainly being funded and controlled by Iran. When things got nasty in Falluja, he (or his owners) decided it was a great time to rise up in armed revolt.

The Mehdi Army wasn't big enough to actually have a chance of winning, but that wasn't the point. I think that the hope was that simultaneous uprisings among Shiites and Sunnis might cause the Americans to come down hard militarily, using indiscriminate and excessive force, angering and polarizing Iraqi Arabs and inspiring further unrest and opposition.

al-Sadr's primary power base was certain slums near Baghdad, but he soon got chased out of them. Eventually he moved his forces, and other militants who rallied to him, to the south and seized a couple of major cities there, ones considered holy by Shiites. In so doing, he (or his owners) hoped that American military response against him would be viewed as sacrilege by Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere. That would put a squeeze-play on Sistani and other Shiite clerics who had been supporting the Governing Council and cooperating with the Coalition. If they refused to change sides, they would be discredited with the broad mass of Shiites because they did not respond to desecration by opposing the desecrators. But if they did acknowledge and condemn such desecration, there'd be no half-way. They'd have to fully switch sides.

Initially there was much hand wringing about it all, and even barely suppressed triumph amongst many, as they saw what they thought (and hoped) was the long-awaited eruption of Iraqi resentment against the evil Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. After all, "everyone knows" that the invasion was illegal, and Iraqis are worse off than they were before the invasion, and that they all have been seething in hatred and resentment. "Everyone knows" that it would just take a spark to make all of Iraq go up in flames, finally (at long last) giving Americans the bloody nose and comeuppance that they so strongly deserved which fate has been so uncooperative in dishing out to them. Nemesis, so long delayed, would finally reward American hubris. Then the Americans would (at long last) meditate about why they were so hated, hang their heads in shame, and apologize to the world and promise to change. (And ratify the Kyoto Accords and the ICC treaty.)

For a while it got pretty exciting in Iraq. The rate of American casualties rose. It looked to some as if the castle of cards was about to come tumbling down.

The American response to the simultaneous uprisings didn't achieve everything many of us hoped for, "us" being supporters of the war. Falluja is still a nest of resistance. But military operations rarely achieve perfect success, and evaluation of "success' depends on your goals. It now seems that the primary objective of the American military strategy (and it was American forces who did nearly all the fighting) was to prevent the uprisings from gaining popular support and causing Iraq to boil over in revolt – exactly what al-Sadr hoped would happen. And after the militants were defeated, it was important to try to minimize the chance they'd be able to coordinate another mass uprising later.

"Killing all the militants" was not on the list, because the strategies and tactics required to do so could very easily have inspired exactly the mass uprising al-Sadr hoped for.

To prevent the uprising from spreading, the response was slow, methodical, and relatively cool. 1st Armored Division got the job of fighting against the Mehdi Army, and it refused to give al-Sadr the provocations and incidents he needed and hoped for. Even when members of the Mehdi Army used major holy sites and at least one major cemetery for military purposes (a war crime, just in passing), the Americans didn't respond by flattening them.

Thus it was that the average uncommitted Shiite saw that the Americans treated those holy sites with more respect than the Mehdi Army did.

Shiites did consider those holy sites to have been desecrated. Sistani publicly condemned the desecration, and those responsible for it: al-Sadr and his forces. There was no general Shiite uprising.

The Mehdi Army found itself surrounded, isolated, and on the losing end of a massively lopsided campaign of attrition. They tried to borrow the tactics used by the Chechens against the Russians with considerable success, but the problem was that those same tactics failed miserably against American troops.

They were on the receiving end of small raids, increasingly tight siege, and constant predation by snipers. Occasionally the Americans would drop a precision guided bomb, which infuriatingly always seemed to kill militants or take out supply dumps. The Mehdi Army suffered hundreds of casualties and in the end had nothing to show for it.

Days turned into weeks, and it became clear that they had failed. al-Sadr started looking for a way out. So did a lot of the surviving men who had rallied to his flag; the Mehdi "Army" (such as it was) began to melt away through desertion. In the end, al-Sadr's uprising ended with a whimper, not with a bang.

al-Sadr is still alive, and he's still loose in Iraq. It would certainly be nice if he were behind bars (or six feet under), but what's mainly important is that his power is shattered. Iraq did not rise in revolt. What looked in March like a potential catastrophe won't end up being even a footnote in most history books. (Or at least, most honest history books.)

A few days ago al-Sadr sounded his defiance and tried to look strong:

"We pledge to the Iraqi people and the world to continue resisting oppression and occupation to our last drop of blood," al-Sadr said in a statement distributed Sunday by his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where his al-Mahdi militia battled American troops until a cease-fire last month.

"Resistance is a legitimate right and not a crime to be punished," he said.

But his minders almost immediately "clarified" that to make clear that we're talking peaceful resistance here, guys, not armed rebellion, and please don't send 1st Armored after us again, OK?

Al-Sadr issued a statement Sunday from his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf calling the new interim Iraqi government "illegitimate" and pledging "to continue resisting oppression and occupation to our last drop of blood."

But Sadr's spokesman in Baghdad, Mahmoud al-Soudani, called a news conference Monday to clarify that the statement was not a call to arms. He said that many of al-Sadr's supporters in Baghdad had begun taking up arms again and he needed to correct their misperceptions.

"We are still committed to the cease-fire," al-Soudani said.

Nope, no armed rebellion here. We're just another political party, OK?

The week before, the Coalition Provisional Authority handed over power to an Iraqi government, two days ahead of schedule.

The military response to his uprising ultimately has to be considered a victory by the only standard that really counts: achievement of political goals. al-Sadr hoped to inspire a general uprising and to prevent us from transferring power to an Iraqi government. We hoped to avoid a general uprising, and to transfer power to said government on schedule, without the transfer being seen as us cutting and running.

Whose hopes were fulfilled?

You have to keep your eyes on the true goal, and you have to be willing to be patient. Sometimes slow-and-steady wins the race, even though it looks as if you are falling behind at the beginning.

al-Sadr rallied his forces to Shiite holy cities mainly because of their symbolic value. He hoped that the devout would rally to defend those holy sites against the infidels. He also hoped that the Americans could be provoked into actions which would be seen as desecration by devout Shiites.

From a military point of view, however, they were dreadful places to try to defend against American soldiers, as the Mehdi Army ultimately discovered. He rallied the most violent amongst the discontented to his flag, and gave 1st Armored a concentrated target and a legitimate excuse to reduce it.

It isn't just al-Sadr who is now discredited. Any other Shiite firebrand who tries the same thing will have little luck. A lot of the Mehdi Army eventually got away, but how many of them are still dedicated to the cause? How many of them will rally the next time?

The twin uprisings this spring resulted in a lot of negative headlines (for the US), the now-traditional wildly inflated predictions of gloom and doom, and a lot of combat. But both threats were decisively defeated. The militants in Falluja have been reduced to use of car bombs, and most of their victims have been Iraqis, making them increasingly hated.

Al-Sadr is still loose, and he still has some supporters. But he took his best shot, failed utterly, and he won't get a second chance. He is now marginalized, little more than a leader of a criminal gang which once again rules over a couple of slums on the outskirts of Baghdad, a minor but tolerable pain waiting to be eliminated when the time is right.

War is conflict, but not all conflict is war. Nonetheless, some conflicts which are wars have things in common with conflicts which are not wars. In the latter you don't fight with bullets and bombs, and defeated opponents don't necessarily die or land in jail. But the defeat can be just as real, even if less deadly. And sometimes the stakes are actually higher.

A few days ago I read an editorial in the Telegraph about Michael Moore, by Matthew d'Ancona. It seems to overly emphasize Moore's influence and impact in Europe, but that's not really surprising since that's where d'Ancona lives.

The morning after I saw Michael Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, I visited my local book shop to inspect the titles it stocked by the director himself and by other writers implacably hostile to George W Bush. On the counter was a pile of Moore's most recent bestseller, Dude, Where's My Country?. And his 2001 polemic, Stupid White Men, which has sold 350,000 copies in Britain alone, was also prominently displayed.

In the same genre, though not by Moore, the shop offered such gems as The Bush-Hater's Handbook, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, Ugly Americans, What's Wrong with America?, and Amerika Psycho: Behind Uncle Sam's Mask of Sanity. According to the assistant who served me, there are now so many of these instant America-bashing books that the store simply cannot stock them all. When I told her that Moore's new film was compelling cinema and had to be seen, whether or not you agreed with its politics, she snorted with derision: "You just wonder how many people in the States will get to see it, since they live in a country under censorship."

Now, one angry bookseller does not a political trend make. But when you bear in mind that Stupid White Men has already sold more than three million copies worldwide and that Fahrenheit 9/11 took $24 million at the US box office last weekend - the first documentary ever to top the American film charts in its opening days - it becomes less easy to dismiss the fat man in the baseball cap as a marginal figure. Indeed, it looks to me as though Michael Moore is pretty much at the centre of things these days. The subculture has invaded the mainstream: it is an army of occupation.

What I found myself wondering, after I read that, was whether Michael Moore may, in the end, turn out to be the American Loonie Left's Muqtada al-Sadr.

He's become the rallying point. He's raised the flag, and the most motivated LL's are flocking to support him. He's become their poster boy, their public face. He provides a focal point; he's a magnet around which they can gather and organize.

He has chosen the ground they will defend – and it is dreadful ground indeed.

His movies and books sell really well in Europe. But that isn't as important as D'Ancona thinks.

As I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 - a ferocious attack on Bush's record since September 11 and a clarion-call for "regime change" in Washington - it struck me that Michael Moore's critics are missing the point by directing their wrath at the dodgy detail of his work. Certainly, some scenes in the film are downright offensive. In particular, the slow-motion images of an allegedly idyllic Iraq before last year's liberation campaign - children smiling, kites flying - are an insult to the one million or more Iraqis who died as a consequence of Saddam Hussein's policies.

Other sequences are plain daft. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Moore insinuates, was the result of a wicked plot by big business to build a natural gas pipeline across that benighted country - in spite of the fact that the pipeline scheme was ditched in 1998. As part of its bid to portray the Bush family as hopelessly beholden to the Saudis, the film also claims that the White House improperly authorised the flights from America of bin Laden family members immediately after the September 11 attacks. But guess what? The flights were personally cleared by none other than Richard A Clarke, Mr Bush's former counter-terrorism chief, who has since written his own book attacking the President's wartime record and has consequently become something of a hero to the Moore-istas.

Yet the forensic demolition of Fahrenheit 9/11 which has already been carried out in the American press has apparently done nothing to diminish Moore's appeal or his popularity around the world. He has himself said that the film is not meant to be fair. Nor is it aimed principally at the liberal elite, however much they may endorse its conclusions: Fahrenheit 9/11 is a movie for viewers reared on MTV and video games, not on arthouse cinema. This is popcorn politics, militancy for the multiplexes. And, as such, it is extremely successful. Moore uses all the techniques of modern mass entertainment with supreme skill: comic intercutting, brilliantly-selected music, shocking images of civilian casualties, a laconic voiceover interspersed with scenes of untrammelled emotion. I confess that I found it gripping.

Successful at what?

There are some who think that Moore is quite cynical. (He's even made comments which could be interpreted to support this reading of him.) While there's little doubt that Moore does really hold the political position he espouses, the cynical reading of Moore is that he is primarily interested in selling books and movie tickets, and in winning awards. The cynical reading is that his goal is to become rich, famous, and notorious. And he's been very successful at that.

Moore's stuff sells very well in Europe. It is comforting for the many Europeans who fear and hate America. They've found an "honest" American who bravely and forthrightly tells "the truth" about America: that the vast majority of us are stupid, venal, unsophisticated, uneducated, provincial, oblivious, and self-absorbed.

Moore's stuff sells in Europe precisely because it seems to justify and reaffirm the prejudices many there have about Americans. It is unlikely that Moore is actually changing any minds, however. The Europeans who buy and read his books and pay to watch his films are the ones who already agree with him. They consume his material so they can laugh as he makes fun of us, and nod sagely as he explains how Big Oil and Corrupt Businesses are actually behind it all. (And the Jews. And the Saudis.)

His primary audience here in the US is exactly the same. He's preaching to the converted. Non-LL's who have gone to see his movie have concluded that it was a total crock.

If one accepts the cynical evaluation of Moore, then it would be clear that he doesn't care. If someone watches his film and finds it shoddy and totally unconvincing, he still gets a piece of their ticket price, and laughs all the way to the bank.

Nonetheless, as D'Ancona says, the LL's have rallied to his flag. They've moved to his holy city. They've adopted positions on the terrain he's chosen for the battle. And they're using the arguments and evidence he provides as ammunition.

In the short term, it may seem as if the LL's are mobilized and fighting hard. But it also leaves them concentrated and vulnerable. And they are fighting on just about the worst ground they could have chosen.

Unlike Moore, I supported the destruction of the Taliban regime and the liberation of Iraq. But I also have to acknowledge the aplomb of his campaign, and the cunning of his strategy. He has not only touched a nerve; he has filled a vacuum. He has identified the feebleness of the campaign to persuade the public that the war on terror is necessary and exploited that weakness to the hilt.

In the process, he has done much to nurture the delusion that the war is simply the folly of a deranged President and his greedy acolytes, rather than a deeply-rooted global crisis and the defining challenge of our time.

Moore may or may not believe that, but a lot of the LL's who have rallied to his flag do believe it. However, will it really be the case that he nurtures that delusion? Or merely bring together those who already suffered from it? Will his flag inspire LL's to loudly proclaim that which they already believed, thus ultimately making their paranoid delusion blatantly clear to the broader electorate?

Will the LL's rallying to Moore's flag be able to inspire the broader electorate to join them? Or will they end up isolated, discredited, and ultimately disillusioned, to slink away quietly when the uprising doesn't materialize?

One reason for al-Sadr's failure was strong suspicion among Iraqis that he was an Iranian puppet and served Iranian interests. LL's rallying around Moore's flag will end up delivering many unpalatable messages, and one of those will be that France was actually right all along. Moore is no French puppet, but his movie was endorsed by France, which blessed it with the Palme d'Or at Cannes. D'Ancona is concerned because Moore's material sells so well in Europe overall. Will his popularity in Europe increase or decrease his prestige and credibility with the broad American electorate?

It strikes me that for all the short-term hoopla and enthusiasm about Moore from the left, and trepidation about him from the non-left, that in fact he may turn out to be just the man the non-left needs, appearing exactly when and where the non-left needs him most. A non-left mole couldn't have done a better job framing the LL position to their disadvantage.

Moore has planted his flag smacko in the middle of the Holy City of anti-Americanism. To defend that position, the LL's will now vocally proclaim something many have long believed but avoided admitting: they hate America and everything it stands for. That is not a message that will sell well to the broad electorate. They will proclaim that they love this nation, but... and then make clear that they despise most of the people who live in it, and despise the very features of this nation that the majority of us see as its greatest virtues. And they will poison the leftist political position even for non-loonie leftists. (Since Moore's supporters constitute a significant base of support for the Democratic Party, they're going to represent an ongoing headache for the Kerry campaign by their antics. And that will force him to continue to equivocate about his position on major issues, to avoid alienating them, and at the same time avoid alienating the broad electorate.)

It may well be possible to make a rational and convincing argument for the leftist position. It may well be possible to present that argument in ways which persuade the broader electorate. It's possible that there is actually a reasonable case to be made against the war. I haven't seen such a thing, but I don't deny that such a case might be made.

Bush may be vulnerable to substantive criticism of his personal capabilities and his policies and motivation. There might be a rational and convincing argument to be made for voting for "anyone but Bush".

But we won't find out in 2004. Michael Moore has done more than any other single man to guarantee that. Someone on the left may voice such an argument, but he'll be drowned out by rabid LL jihadists as they stridently deliver a message tailor-made to alienate the broad electorate in style of presentation, in attitude, in substance, and in underlying message. Moore holds a locus of extreme political positions, and most Americans will consider at least one of them to be utterly odious. (For instance, Moore strongly favors gun control, but Americans actually own more guns per capita than do the citizens of any other nation.)

It is rare for a political faction to be blessed with an opponent who is so charismatic to his fanatical supporters, so repulsive to non-supporters, and so vulnerable to criticism and caricature. I can't think of a high-profile leftist I'd rather have "at the centre of things" than Michael Muqtada al-Moore.

If one was particularly cynical, one might entertain the suspicion that Moore secretly hates the left, and is laughing twice as hard. Not only is he getting filthy rich off them, and laughing all the way to his bank, he's also helping to engineer their marginalization, and laughing all the way to their political destruction.

If I couldn't have Moore leading my opponents, my second choice would be Ted Rall. But Rall blew his chance a long time ago, and he's a distant second anyway.

Update: Brian Tiemann comments.

Update 20040709: Via Room 101, comments about al-Sadr written by an Iraqi.

Update: TMLutas is not as optimistic.

Update 20040711: What hath Moore wrought? Brian Tiemann found an example of the rot.

Update: Jay Currie comments, and Ian Welsh responds. His post defends Moore and Moore's message, and it is a perfect example of exactly what I predicted.

Welsh says, "The deliberate confusion of anti-Americanism with anti-Bushism is tiresome." There's no confusion. The LL is both anti-Bush and anti-American.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040706.1950

(Captain's log): Tom writes:

I live in Northern Ireland and really appreciate the way you explain the working of the US government and was wondering of you could explain this: how is it that riders can be attached to bills going through the Senate? This seems to me, an outsider I admit, to be an odious way of blackmailing the Senate to pass a bill and bypasses the openness of debate on the merits of the amendment.

Please understand I am not criticising how Americans govern themselves. It may be that there are advantages to this system that aren't apparent to me. I would really like to know.

I think you may be under the impression that the US Senate is America's equivalent of the British House of Lords, with our House of Representatives corresponding to the House of Commons.

I don't fully understand the British system. The way it was explained to me is that as a practical matter Commons has all the power. Bills which pass Commons are sent to Lords, and Lords can vote to approve or reject the bill, and can vote to amend the bill. But regardless of what they do, the bill will then go back to Commons, who can vote to reverse any changes Lords made, and can vote to approve the bill even if Lords rejected it. Lords doesn't have any real power to directly prevent adoption of legislation. All they really can do is to try to focus attention on anything in a bill they think is particularly pernicious.

The role of the House of Lords in the UK is not at all similar to the role of the Senate in the US Congress. Constitutionally speaking, the House and Senate are considered more or less peers. The Senate is generally thought of as the senior chamber. There are some differences between them, though.

The biggest difference between the House and Senate has to do with their numbers and how their members are elected. The Constitution says that each state shall have exactly two US Senators. The 17th Amendment says that each Senator will be elected by state-wide popular vote. In 1959 Hawaii and Alaska became states, raising the number of stars on the flag to 50, and since then there have been 100 Senators.

Since there will always be an even number of Senators, the Constitution states that in cases of ties, the Vice President has the power to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Unlike Senators, the number of Representatives is not directly specified by the Constitution. The Constitution requires that each state must have at least one Representative, and each House district must have at least 30,000 people in it according to the most recent census. Aside from that, it's pretty much up to the House itself to decide the number of Representatives. In 1910, the House adopted rules fixing the number of Representatives at 435, which are divvied out to the states based on their populations as of the last census.

There are a small number of powers uniquely assigned to the Senate. The President has the power to negotiate and sign treaties, but treaties have to be ratified by a 2/3rds vote in the Senate in order to go into effect. The Senate also has to approve by simple majority nominees for federal judgeships, nominees for cabinet positions and certain other appointed positions in the Executive branch. The House is not involved in these matters (at least, not formally).

In the impeachment process, it is the House that impeaches. An impeachment is analogous to an indictment. It forces a trial. The trial is held before the Senate, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. A small group of Representatives (usually from the House Judiciary Committee) prosecute the case. The federal officer who was impeached may send his own lawyers to defend him. After the trial, the Senate votes on whether to convict. If they do the impeached government official is removed from office, but there are no other direct consequences.

Impeachment in the House requires a simple majority. Conviction in the Senate trial requires 2/3rds vote.

The only power uniquely granted to the House is listed in Article I, Section 7:

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

For most practical purposes, especially with respect to legislation and budgeting, the two chambers are essentially peers. For a bill to become law, it has to pass both chambers. It then goes to the President, who can approve it, veto it, or do nothing. If he approves it (by signing on one line), it becomes law. If he vetoes it (by signing on a different line), it is returned to whichever chamber originated it, and they may decide to drop it, or to try to override the veto. If ten days pass and he doesn't do either of those, it becomes law without him.

Aside from tax measures, any bill can originate in either chamber. That chamber will debate it, perhaps amend the original proposal, send it to sundry committees, and if the chamber eventually votes to approve it, it goes to the other chamber.

The other chamber might well not approve it at all. (They might not even consider it seriously.) Or they may choose to amend it and pass the amended version.

It's not uncommon for the same text to be introduced into both chambers more or less simultaneously, but they're not formally considered the same bill. What that really does is permit both chambers to debate it simultaneously. That's what happened in October of 2002 when Congress debated passing an authorization under the War Powers Act to permit invasion of Iraq. All the nasty debates about amendments and suchlike take place on what amount to separate bills. Then one chamber drops its bill, accepts the one from the other chamber, and if it previously had amended its version of the bill, it will hold a pro-forma vote to amend the new one the same way. Then they take a real vote to approve or reject.

In the case of that War Powers resolution, both chambers ended up approving the original bill without any amendments. After the House voted to approve its version of the measure, the Senate dropped its version, and ended up voting to approve the one sent to it by the House. That went to President Bush, who signed it.

Sometimes (usually, in fact) each chamber ends up approving a different version of the same bill. For instance, one chamber may approve a bill, and will send it to the other, who may then amend it. Or simultaneous consideration of the same bill in both chambers yields different results.

In that case, a few Representatives and a few Senators will be sent to what's known as a "House/Senate Conference Committee". Usually they are chosen from the House committee and Senate committee which originally considered the bill in each chamber. The conferees will negotiate over the differences to try to come to an agreement on a single version of the bill most likely to be agreeable to both chambers. If they do arrive at a compromise, then the compromise bill would go to one chamber for a straight up-down vote, and if they approve it, it would go to the other chamber.

So the answer to Tom's question is that there isn't really anything unusual about the Senate amending bills sent to it by the House. The House quite commonly does the same thing on bills sent to it by the Senate.

Tom also thinks that Senate amendments "bypass the openness of debate on the merits of the amendment". It doesn't bypass anything. Bills can be amended in committee, and they can also be amended as part of the debate when the chamber as a whole considers the bill. Individual amendments are proposed, discussed, and voted on. Eventually there's a motion to end debate, and then there usually will be a vote on whether to approve the bill itself.

Tom implicitly asks the question of why it's like this, and what advantages there are to it. The answer is that it was one of the compromises agreed to in 1787 in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention. Those who attended needed to come up with a structure for government which would work, but they also had to come up with a Constitution which could be ratified. That was going to require approval of 9 of the 13 states.

In this particular case, the problem was an inherent conflict between a few states with big populations and a larger number whose populations were much lower. If there were only to be a single chamber in the Legislative branch, how did you allocate seats? If they were allocated proportional to population, then the big-population states would dominate and could screw over the small-population states. But if they were allocated by states, the opposite would be true: the larger number of small-population states would be able to screw over the large population states.

The compromise was to do both, by creating two chambers, and requiring that legislation pass both chambers. Thus neither large-population states nor small-population states would dominate overall.

Without that compromise (and a few others) the Constitution probably would not have been ratified. That alone is enough to justify our two-chamber system, irrespective of how it works today. The advantage of our two-chamber legislative branch is that we probably wouldn't have become a nation if we hadn't done it that way.

There is still a big-state/small-state conflict in this nation, and the compromise still works. Big states dominate the House, while small states have much more influence in the Senate.

As of the 2000 census, California was the most populous state. California has 53 US Representatives and 2 US Senators. At the other extreme, the states of Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming only have one US Representative each. But each has 2 US Senators.

With 435 Representatives, 218 is a simple majority. Just ten states between them have 223 Representatives. The other forty states have 212 Representatives. On the other hand, the 26 least populous states have 52 of 100 Senators, even though they have just 54 million citizens, less than 20% of the total population of the nation.

But how else do you deal with this problem, given the wide disparity between the states. California has almost as many citizens as the 22 least populous states combined: Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Kansas, Arkansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, Wyoming?

The 2000 census found that California had a population of 33.871 million. Those 22 states collectively had a population of 34.985 million. Our system gives California 53 Representatives and 2 Senators. Those 22 states have 83 Representatives and 44 Senators.

The big-state/small-state compromise still works well enough. It worked well enough in 1789 to get the Constitution ratified, and it works well enough today to keep this nation from falling apart. That seems like advantage enough to justify it.

This was intended as a high level summary, to explain the basics to someone overseas who didn't know anything at all about it. As such, I deliberately left out a lot of pedantic details only of interest to squirrels. That's why I deliberately omitted any mention of the other five members of the House. They can't vote on the floor, and do not matter.

Update: Daniel writes:

I believe that you didn't quite answer the question Tom asked, "how is it that riders can be attached to bills going through the Senate?"

 I understood that Tom meant 'riders irrelevent to the original stated purpose of the bill'; for example, adding a dairy subsidy to a bill on regulating pornography (or vice versa). In many parliamentary systems, such a rider would be deemed out-of-order and rejected by the Speaker of the House; however, it appears to be quite common in US politics.

That's something which happens in both chambers. It isn't unique to the Senate. It happens all the time, on nearly every major bill. I guess the only answer to that question, in general, is the famous one: "Men who love sausage or the law should not watch either one being made."

I would say that the answer is probably that our tradition is that giving the Speaker that power to decide what is or is not relevant is dangerous, since he might use that power to the advantage of his own party. Not giving the Speaker of the House (or the President pro-tem of the Senate) that power means you get sausage bills, but the alternative is concentrating too much unchecked power in one place. We Americans generally believe that concentrated and unchecked power will always be abused, eventually, by someone. Sausage bills are a lesser evil.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040702.1344

(Captain's log): In response to comments here about latency, Bart writes:

As an agronomist (soil chemist) and farmer I work with living systems. My experience is that an overwhelming percentage of the time cause and effect are separated in both time (latency, as you discuss) and space. We are fortunate indeed to pry an R² of 35 out of most work. I'm curious... is something like mechanical engineering 'cleaner' in that respect?

It's different. I don't know that it's cleaner. Our time and space issues were more constrained, but our standard for acceptable performance was much more strict than anything Bart ever has to satisfy.

And for us, latency was one problem among many.

I'm not an ME; I'm a programmer. I spent most of my career doing embedded software. That means I wrote firmware for microprocessors which were incorporated into larger systems. Usually the microprocessor was responsible for the human interface or the control interface fed by another computer, and it also had to control custom hardware in the system and report back what happened. But most of my jobs involved controlling custom electronics. There was the only one time in my career I worked on controlling mechanical systems.

It was at a company which produced robotic arms for the semiconductor processing industry. Our robots operated in ultra-clean high-vacuum environments, and were designed to move silicon wafers around. There were incredible constraints in terms of particulates, vacuum, speed, reliability, and precision.

Our motors had to be outside the clean volume so they could be cooled. (Also, motors are inherently "dirty" and shed particles.) That meant we had to run shafts through the wall from normal air into high vacuum. We had to make sure we didn't leak excessively at the interface. There's always some leakage; it's impossible to avoid. But when you're trying to maintain vacuum at levels below 10-7 torr, you can't tolerate damned much leakage. Sealing rotating shafts without screwing up their ability to rotate is an interesting problem.

We generally had excellent reliability. The requirements were quite strict (but not unreasonable) for mean time to failure, mean time to repair, mean interval of maintenance, and mean time to perform maintenance. (All of which was summarized as an "uptime" spec.)

We had quite challenging requirements for precision. Absolute accuracy was not important at all. But our spec for repeatability was extremely strict: no more than 5 mils worst case (where a "mil" was .001 inch), about 125 microns (one eighth of a millimeter).

We also had major constraints for cleanliness. Every particle which lands on an IC and is present during some kinds of processing steps ruins the die it sits on, so obviously you'd like to minimize that.

We were not permitted to touch the top or edge of the wafer or even to have anything extend spatially above the top plane of the wafer anywhere near it. So we couldn't clamp onto the top of the wafer or hold it in place by its edges.

That meant the wafer sat on three small plastic pads on the end effector, making contact only on the bottom, well away from the edges. The wafer was held in place solely by friction. Given that the wafer didn't weigh much, there wasn't really very much friction. So when we moved, we had to be extremely careful to make sure that the lateral force between pads and wafer did not become so great as to cause the wafer to shift.

The primary challenge in motion control related to the geometry of the robot arms, and before I discuss that it would probably be helpful for me to give you a mental model of the robot.

Imagine a human holding his hands flat, palms face up, in line with his shoulders. His elbows stick out to the side. (That isn't a very comfortable position, but just imagine it that way.) His job is to pick up and move dinner plates, and he is only permitted to touch the bottom of the plate. The robot actually had only one "hand" (the "end effector"), and it was connected to both arms. So imagine that the person's hands are taped together.

The robot had three "motions" it could perform. The "rotate" motion was analogous to the human turning in place over a single spot. "Lift/lower" was analogous to the human using his calf muscles to raise and lower himself with his ankles. The "extend/retract" motion was like the human moving his hands horizontally in whatever direction he's facing, directly away from his chest or towards his chest by straightening or bending his arms.

To move a wafer from one place to another, we executed the following sequence of motions:

1. With the arm retracted and lowered and empty, rotate the robot to face the source station. (this was fast)
2. Extend the arm to the wafer station. The end effector slides under the wafer. (fast)
3. Lift the wafer.
4. Retract the arm, holding the wafer. (slow)
5. Rotate to face the destination station. (slow)
6. Extend the arm carrying the wafer to the destination station. (slow)
7. Lower the wafer.
8. retract the arm, leaving the wafer in place. (fast)

"Lift" and "lower" usually was on the order of two or three millimeters. But most of the robots I worked on could extend to a position more than a meter from the center of the robot, and retract so that the wafer was less than a quarter of a meter from the center of the robot. They also had a rotary range of 370° stop to stop.

What we referred to as "movement profiles" were extremely complex to manage, since our customers wanted wafers moved as fast as possible.

"Fast" motions had to be smooth but didn't have to limit the force used, since there was no wafer on the end effector. The goal was to move as quickly as possible without overshoot or other potentially disastrous miscontrol.

"Slow" motions, when there was a wafer, were a real bitch. The wafer was held in place solely by friction, so we had to make sure that the total force applied to the wafer by the end effector pads never was great enough to exceed friction and cause the wafer to slip.

At all times, we had to know all the force vectors applied to the wafer and had to make sure that the magnitude of the vector sum didn't exceed the threshold which would overwhelm friction and result in wafer movement relative to the end effector.

When we had a wafer and were rotating, if we rotated too rapidly then the centripetal force could cause the wafer to shift. A small shift would violate our precision spec. A medium shift could result in eventual collision. A huge shift would throw the wafer like a Frisbee. Any shift was very bad.

When we were rotating rapidly, there was considerable centripetal force. That meant we couldn't use as much force to accelerate and decelerate. When rotational speed was lower, at the beginning and end of a rotational movement, we could use more force to accelerate or decelerate.

Controlling the motion so we didn't exceed the friction between the end effector and the wafer was tough. But we couldn't "play safe".

Our customers wanted the wafers moved as fast as possible. In a fab, amortized cost of processing equipment is huge even when measured per-day. A modern state-of-the-art fab can cost upwards of $2 billion, and most of that is for the processing equipment. That is by far the largest component of the operation cost for a fab, and most of the other operating costs are also "fixed".

Revenue comes from sales of ICs, and if you want to be profitable, your revenue better exceed your operating cost. Roughly speaking, total revenue per day is the product of the revenue per IC and the number of ICs produced per day. Roughly speaking, that in turn is calculated by multiplying the percentage yield (useful ICs per wafer) by processing speed (number of wafers processed per day).

One tradeoff is part complexity. Small ICs which don't require many processing steps have a low commercial value, but you get a lot of them per wafer and yields tend to be very high. Big ICs which are very complex require far more processing steps. There are fewer per wafer and a larger percentage will be bad. But they also sell for a much higher price.

However, no matter how you decide to handle that tradeoff, the more wafers you can process per day the better. The limiting factor is another tradeoff, because to some extent processing speed trades off with yield. When you process faster, you ruin more dice per wafer, but you can also process more wafers per day.

Wafers have to be moved in order for them to be processed. Time spent moving wafers is time spent not processing them. Our customers wanted them moved as fast as possible with negligible impact on yield.

That meant that when we moved wafers, we had to push the friction limit as close as we could without ever exceeding it. If we "played safe" we'd move too slowly.

The extend/retract motion was by far the most complicated to control. Our actual control mechanism was extremely indirect. Our motors drove the angle between the body and the upper arm member. We had no "muscle" controlling the elbows and wrists; instead, there were passive mechanisms built into the arm which made them behave properly.

So at the first level of indirection, the microprocessor controlled the angular force applied by the motor at the shoulders. Our "sense" was an encoder on one of the shafts which precisely measured the angle of one of the shoulders.

The basic geometry changes as the end effector extends, and constant rotational force at the shoulder yields widely variable force on the wafer at different points of the motion, being lowest when fully retracted or extended, peaking when the angle between the upper and lower arm members is somewhere near 90° (usually, though by no means always). "Fully retracted" and "fully extended" were extremes of permissible motion. "Full retraction" didn't mean 0° angle at the elbow, and "full extension" didn't mean 180°.

The actual physical position (and mechanical response) of the robot end effector (the "hand") as a function of shoulder angle was complicated to even describe mathematically, let alone to control well. Just keeping motion smooth was tough. Stopping was also tough. In these kinds of systems, you may end up with metastable oscillation centered on the destination point, because the control loop doesn't settle.

One potential hazard was that the force profile would have right overall shape, but would have a high frequency oscillation imposed on it. The integral would be right, but if the amplitude of the high frequency oscillation was great it could cause us to exceed the permissible force threshold and result in wafer shift. That kind of oscillation can easily happen in this kind of system if the control loop isn't tuned well. Unfortunately, it isn't always apparent to the eye when it's happening. You have to use accelerometers to find out for sure.

That's one place where latency came into the picture. That kind of oscillation is very often caused by time lag between measurement/command and physical response if the control loop logic doesn't properly take the lag into account.

In terms of how latency affected the robot, there were three primary ways. The simplest one was due to the fact that the microprocessor wasn't infinitely fast. It controlled movement using a pre-calculated motion profile. During motion, it monitored the motion to make sure it conformed to the profile, and compensated for any divergence. There was non-zero time between when the microprocessor measured and detected a deviation from the profile and when it began compensating for it by modifying the commands sent to the hardware.

Another source of latency was motor response. Above I mentioned that at the "first level of indirection" what we controlled was angular force applied by the motors to the shoulders. What the microprocessor actually controlled was how much current passed through a small number of power JFETs. The JFETs controlled phases on the motors.

It's kind of hard to describe how multiphase analog motors work without thousands of words. The short description is that the microprocessor controlled the amount of current fed to different motor phase coils aligned at different angles. That created a polarized magnetic field inside the motor, and the permanent magnets on the rotor naturally tried to align themselves with that field. It was possible to control the angle to a very small fraction of a degree, and to control the field intensity. Indirectly, therefore, that controlled the amount of force applied to the rotor if it wasn't aligned, which effectively was the force applied to the arms at the shoulder.

The JFETs were blazingly fast, but the motor phase coils had significant inductances, and therefore it took some time from when we changed the current to when the induced magnetic field fully responded. (Just to make things even more interesting, the effective inductance of each motor phase coil was partially a function of rotor orientation and the magnetic field orientation of the rotor's magnets, and also of the fields being produced by other phase coils.)

The more force we needed to apply, the more change we made in the current flow, and the longer the delay until the inductor responded.

Processor response time was significant and had to be taken into account. I believe that motor response was treated as one kind of inertia folded in with all the other kinds of inertia, and was handled as part of the overall feedback control loop.

I think the worst latency problem was due to physical resonance in the arm assembly. The arm members (the "bones") were as stiff as we could make them subject to other constraints, but there is always some degree of flexibility, and if you twist one end of a long object, the other end doesn't follow instantly. The force is transmitted by arm "springiness", and there's a small delay in response at the far end.

There was also a secondary resonance. We applied force to the upper-arm member, and its stiffness and mass yielded a resonance. As a function of that resonance, there would be a small delay in response. But once it did respond, that then applied force to the lower arms, who also had a small delay in responding. As they resisted, responded, and resonated, that fed back force to the upper arm member, affecting its response to our motor force.

There's a tendency for such systems to ring. In terms of mechanical design, you try to minimize that by making all the members as stiff as possible and all the linkages as tight as possible. It also helps to make the lower arm members physically as similar as possible in length and mass to the upper arm members. But this can't be eliminated entirely, and the motion control algorithm still had to compensate for it.

Another problem is manufacturing tolerance. You can't insist that every manufactured unit be exactly identical because your yields would be dreadful. You have to allow a degree of variation in manufacturing, and what that meant was that each individual robot responded a bit differently, because the motors were different, the bearings were different, the seals were different, and the arms were different. The differences were small, but were more than enough so that they could not be ignored. That meant that the control algorithm had to be tuned manually for each robot.

So the control algorithm had to be designed to be to be tunable. There needed to be parameters which could be set per-robot and stored in that robot in non-volatile memory, and there had to be a way to test the completed robot and figure out what those parameter should be set to for that particular robot.

I wasn't directly involved in the design for any of this. I helped create some of the tools which were peripherally involved in the testing process, to support the tech who did acceptance testing on completed robots and who figured out the parameters to tune each one.

Originally that tuning process was done by an engineer. (He was quite a character; a really good guy. I enjoyed working with him a lot. He was Persian. His English was so good that I thought he'd grown up in the US. He had no trace whatever of a foreign accent. In fact, to my Oregon-tuned ears he had a slight Boston accent. So I was surprised when I learned that he came to the US for college. He had been an anti-Khomeini activist here as a student, and when he graduated and his student visa expired, after the revolution, he was granted "political refugee" status by the State Department. [They contacted him about that, not the other way around.] Eventually he naturalized, and like every other naturalized immigrant I've ever worked with he was fiercely patriotic about the US, because he knew how much worse things could be from personal experience.)

Setting up those parameters for each individual robot was really hard. If they were set wrong one way, the robot could exhibit jerky motion. Set wrong another way, it could lose wafers. Set wrong yet another way, it would be slower than it should be. There was a lot of art involved, and I don't really know how it was done.

What I do know was that we had long since reached the point where PID didn't cut it. The first robots I was involved with had a hardware PID controller, but the microprocessor had to monitor and supervise it – and override it when necessary. Later robots got even larger, and we abandoned PID entirely. We ended up using a dedicated signal processor which ran a much more complicated control algorithm which I didn't even slightly understand.

I have by no means listed all the problems; there were many others. For instance, when the arm was extended, it sagged a bit. So the end effector faced away a bit. That meant the force we applied wasn't aligned with the wafer plane. When we began to retract, a small part of the force applied to the wafer would try to lift the wafer off the pads rather than trying to move the wafer laterally. Thus the effective "weight" was reduced, and there was less friction holding the wafer in place.

Is this problem "simpler" than the problems Bart deals with in agronomy? In some ways it is. We didn't have to concern ourselves with outside influences which were variable and unpredictable, like weather or banking interest rates. It was possible to analyze our system using statics and dynamics and the principles of classical mechanics. The resulting model was grotesquely complex, but didn't contain any black-boxes labeled "Heere be draggons".

Any feedback system is potentially chaotic, but it wasn't necessary for us to use chaos theory in our design. (If our system became chaotic, we had already failed.)

And though latency was a problem for us, the latency time constants were well understood and quite consistent, and we could influence them to some degree with the mechanical/electrical/software design.

The challenge Bart faces is that his system isn't fully understood or analyzed. There are draggons in his system, it is influenced strongly by external factors which are unpredictable. Our challenge came from the extraordinarily high performance standards our customers demanded.

I can't say one problem or the other is necessarily harder. They're different, that's all.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040701.1834

(On Screen): There's a web site called Expatica, in English, about France. (It has a sister site for Germany, and probably others.) I found the following amazing "letter to the editor" there:

Dear editor,

I would not worry about easing the tensions between France and the USA for the following reasons.

Most of the American people feel the way the French do.

Bush is not the legal President of the country. He was appointed by the Supreme Court even though Gore had the popular vote.

Had Bush won he has started the war in Iraq which voilates the constitution. Congress is the only body that can declare war and they are not empowered to assign that decision to anyone else.

Bush has created the Patriot Act which suspends the rights of the individual so he is holding US citizens in jail without charges.

Bush has killed a number of people by direct order to the CIA to rocket the cars in a foreign country. That violates the constitution which protects us from harm until tried in a court of law. Everyone has the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.

Now these are the first four reasons I can think of. There are many others. Lying, Stealing, Cheating, and Fraud against the people of California in the ENRON scandal.

The most heinous crime of all is that they have closed the Statue Of Liberty to the public. A shameful act and disrespectful of the French that gave us the statue and the American children that paid to display it with their pennies.

Peace on Earth

John D. King

I could take this apart, line by line, even word by word. ("most"?) But why bother? There's nothing new here; we've heard it all before. We've refuted it all before, too. (Actually, that's not true. I honestly don't think I've seen anyone try to interpret the Sixth Amendment that way before. And I didn't know that "us" included al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen.)

We're going to hear it all again, too. Over and over and over and over, during this election campaign, from the people who suffer from what Charles Krauthammer facetiously dubbed Bush Derangement Syndrome. (Which someone named Teresa Simon-Noble felt obligated to argue against, because These Things Are Too Important To Joke About.)

I started suffering from election fatigue months ago. I was tired of the November, 2004 election in November, 2003. But my fatigue may lift a bit in the next few months, because the most hysterical anti-Bush rhetoric is about to start ringing a bit hollow. And then it may stop ringing entirely. (One can hope.)

See, Saddam Hussein is about to go on trial in Iraq. And for western journalists in Iraq, it will be an irresistible story: it will take place in Baghdad, it can be covered with minimum risk to the reporters, it will be sensational. So it won't matter that it's going to seriously undermine the narrative.

Eric M. Johnson served in Iraq with the Marines, and wrote about news bias:

Iraq veterans often say they are confused by American news coverage, because their experience differs so greatly from what journalists report. Soldiers and Marines point to the slow, steady progress in almost all areas of Iraqi life and wonder why they don’t get much notice – or in many cases, any notice at all.

Part of the explanation is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. He spent most of his career on the metro and technology beats, and has only four years of foreign reporting, two of which are in Iraq. The 31-year-old now runs a news operation that can literally change the world, heading a bureau that is the source for much of the news out of Iraq.

... Chandrasekaran's crew generates a relentlessly negative stream of articles from Iraq – and if there are no events to report, they resort to man-on-the-street interviews and cobble together a story from that. Last week, there was a front-page, above-the-fold article about Iraqis jeering U.S. troops, which amounted to a pastiche of quotations from hostile Iraqis. It was hardly unique. Given the expense of maintaining an Iraq bureau with a dozen staffers, they have to write something to justify themselves, even if the product is shoddy.

So it's noteworthy that even Chandrasekaran can't resist reporting on this story.

One reason this is significant is that it's going to bring perspective back into a lot of political discussion. As the trial (and the news reports) cover Saddam's torture chambers, and talks about how prisoners were treated under Saddam, leftist hyperbole about the American Abu Ghraib abuses will lose much of its force. Extravagent claims will be seen for what they are.

Another reason is that leftists are going to find a lot of their rhetoric being usurped by Saddam himself. Bush is a criminal, right? Saddam sure thinks so.

It's also going to make clear just how bad life was in Iraq before the invasion, and therefore how much it has improved.

There is already press spin trying to "balance" this issue, but it approaches the ludicrous.

Saddam Hussein stands accused of gassing Iraq's Kurds, crushing its Shi'ites and condemning thousands to death in his dreaded torture chambers, but some Iraqis still want him back as president.

"I don't know why they are trying Saddam. He is guilty of nothing," said Ahmed Abdallah, a student from Baghdad's Sunni Muslim Adhamiya district, once favored by Saddam.

"If it were up to me, I would bring him back as president today, not tomorrow."

... "He was a president, an Arab leader. I feel all Arabs are humiliated when I see him as a prisoner like this, no matter what he did," said Faleh Jasem, a driver who was watching the first footage of Saddam facing an Iraqi judge.

"I would feel so hurt if they executed him, because he took a heroic position. He stood up to America and that makes him a real man in my eyes."

That was from Reuters. (But then, you knew that already, didn't you?) Never mind peccadilloes like using nerve gas against Kurdish villages; what was really important was that he stood up to the US. That makes him the hero, and we should never have invaded and removed him from power.

I don't think that particular line will fly. (I think it will have the flight characteristics of a brick.) I think instead that reporters concerned about the narrative will spin Saddam not as "heroic leader of a sovereign nation" but as "broken, harmless, silly old man". That's the subtext I read in Chandrasekaran's WaPo report, but that won't fly, either. The facts are going to get in the way.

My fellow countryman John D. King thinks that Bush is a murderous dictator who usurped power and converted the US into a police state. But we're going to see detailed coverage of a real murderous dictator, who really usurped power, and who really ran a police state. And it's going to be increasingly difficult for even the most hardcore BDS sufferers to make those claims about Bush with a straight face. (Well, perhaps I shouldn't go that far.)

Dick Morris wrote an analysis of the election campaign where he suggested that the Kerry campaign stop attacking Bush's foreign policy and instead concentrate on domestic issues.

Voters overwhelmingly believe that Bush would be the better president to wage the War on Terror. In the Fox News survey, voters said that Bush would be better than Kerry at "protecting the U.S. from terror attacks" by 49 percent to 28 percent. (Women said Bush was better by 46-27; men, by 54-30.)

But voters also have more faith in Kerry to deal with a host of domestic issues. Despite the relatively positive economic news of recent months, voters give Kerry an edge of 10 to 30 percentage points on creating jobs, lowering health care costs, protecting Social Security and helping the environment. Even on education, a signature Bush initiative, Kerry has a double digit lead.

The economy still works to Kerry's advantage. His edge shrinks with each good job-creation report — but the lag time in popular perceptions is huge: A plurality of voters still believe we're in a recession, two years after it ended.

This election will hinge on what Americans want in a president. It's not so much a contest between two candidates, ideologies or even parties as it is a clash between two different issues or priorities for the voters.

... If terror is dominating the headlines in November, Bush will probably win. If not, he'll likely lose. Events, more than campaigning, are likely to determine the outcome.

If foreign affairs (not just "terror") dominates the headlines, Bush has the advantage. And Saddam's trial will guarantee that foreign affairs will remain in the public eye.

Obviously BDS sufferers will think it's a conspiracy, right? It's all a Bush plot to influence the US Presidential election, right? "[E]veryone knows this is theater by Bush the criminal in an attempt to win the election." -- Saddam Hussein

Update 20040702: Pej voices skepticism (as did some of my readers).

Update: Stephen writes:

You wrote:

See, Saddam Hussein is about to go on trial in Iraq.

Yeah, sometime next year in 2005. At least that is what Fox News is =
saying. So how is that going to affect the 2004 election?

It isn't as good if the trial is delayed, but it will still be in the news during preparation of the case and pretrial maneuvering. Saddam's lawyers, in particular, will make sure of that.

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