Archive for November, 2003

Packer: How We Got Here

Sunday, November 30th, 2003

Given enough time and motivation, smart people will eventuallly figure things out. I think that’s what’s happening now in terms of identifying what went wrong in the time before, during, and immediately after the “major combat operations” phase in Iraq, such that we’re in the mess we’re in now.

See, for example, George Packer’s lengthy but excellent article in the latest New Yorker: War after the war. What Packer presents is the detailed back-story that confirms what seemed like a pretty likely explanation all along: that the neocons who sold the war to Cheney & Co. (or, if you prefer, to Bush & Co.) let their ideological zeal blind them to the advice of people who had a much clearer idea of the likely nature of the post-war challenge.

Ignoring the advice of experts because you have a compelling vision of the future that their hidebound expertise prevents them from seeing can sometimes be a good thing. But there has to be a balance. Taken too far, you get what we have now in Iraq: a slow-motion clusterfuck brought on by ignorance, arrogance, and hubris.

Which is nothing new. It’s human nature, after all, for the ambitious to oversell their abilities, for their reach to exceed their grasp, and, when things subsequently go bad, for them to refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for the result.

Feith, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush: they gave it their best shot. But their best shot wasn’t particularly good. In fact, it was pretty much awful. As time goes by that fact becomes harder and harder for them to obscure.

Do It Yourself Art Forgery

Thursday, November 27th, 2003

A fun little toy to amuse yourself with on your day off — assuming you live in a country that likes to eat lots of Turkey today. (requires flash)

Asya Schween Is… Interesting

Tuesday, November 25th, 2003

Funky/interesting self-portraiture by photographer/artist Asya Schween:

The Spirit of the Season: Eat a Homeless Mute Boy

Monday, November 24th, 2003

This time of year, many people get into the spirt of giving, and donate food/money to programs that help feed the Homeless — particularly homeless children. Other people kiddnap them, tie them up in a sack, tell people they are a stray dog, and sell them to be used as food.

Happy Holidays!

Bush’s Love/Hate Legacy

Monday, November 24th, 2003

Interesting cover story from Time concerning the fallout of Bush’s divider-not-a-uniter approach to governing: The love him, hate him president.

Natalie Maines Still Pissing People Off

Monday, November 24th, 2003

The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines continues to mouth off about what a lame president George Bush is, most recently in an interview with NBC’s Today show: On top of the world once again. Meanwhile, she won a silly award from VH1. Woo! Go Dixie Chicks!

Tom the Dancing Bug on Bush’s Revisionism

Monday, November 24th, 2003

Great cartoon from Tom the Dancing Bug: Presidential revisionist comics.

Dean vs. Bush on Avoiding Vietnam

Saturday, November 22nd, 2003

Jerome Doolittle makes a great observation about today’s front page NYT story on the medical deferment that kept Howard Dean out of Vietnam: The character issue.

Digression: I especially like the image he used to illustrate the item. Heh. You know, I sincerely do not believe those are George Bush’s real balls. I don’t really care enough to make an issue out of it, and yeah, they certainly could be real. But if so they’re definitely the jumbo-economy size. So which seems more likely: That Bush just happens to have a really prominent package? Or that his image team had the great idea of stuffing a sock in his shorts to underscore the manly look they were after?

Johnny Hart Slams Islam. Or Not.

Saturday, November 22nd, 2003

One truth I hold pretty dear is the notion that as somone gains expertise in a particular domain, he (or she) begins to be able to draw confident conclusions from increasingly subtle data. At its extreme, this gives you phenomena like Sherlock Holmes, who despite being a fictional character rings true to me in those scenes where he astounds Watson by examining a few indistinct marks on the ground and from them reconstructing an accurate description of past events.

Now, on some level I think everybody would like to believe he (or she) is Holmes, rather than Watson. And that’s a dangerous desire, because another aspect of the Holmes stories that rings true to me is the way Watson repeatedly tries to mimic Holmes’ deductive leaps, only to arrive at conclusions that are completely, ludicrously wrong. It’s not enough to want to be like Holmes. Holmes got to be as good as he was only by combining a lot of native intelligence and energy with many years of diligent effort aimed at honing his talent. It required a brutal self-analysis, the holding of himself to an impossibly high standard of perfection as he sought to identify and eliminate the sources of error that drive all of us to conclusions that are comfortable rather than correct.

I’m aware that I’m closer to Watson than Holmes in a lot of ways. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to shift myself further along in the Holmesian direction. I think that’s why I’m so fascinated by ambiguity, by stories that can’t seem to decide if they mean one thing or some other very different thing, and that challenge me to figure out which one it is.

All of which leads me to Johnny Hart, the creator of the B.C. comic strip. He’s gotten himself into some hot water lately over his November 10 strip. According to an article in the Washington Post, the Council on American-Islamic Relations is up in arms because they say the strip amounts to an anti-Islamic slur: Cartoon raises a stink.

Hart denies the charge.

Asked about the outhouse strip this week, Hart denied that it was about Islam at all. He said that interpretation stunned him.

“My goodness. That’s incredible. That’s unbelievable!”

He said it was just a “silly” bathroom joke, wrapped around the cliche “Is it just me, or . . . ?” According to Hart, the joke was about the ambiguous authorship of a bad smell. The SLAM, Hart said, was simply there to show that the caveman had walked into the outhouse. The crescent moons were there to indicate it was nighttime, and because outhouses have crescent moons.

“This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam — subliminal or otherwise,” he said. “It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people’s beliefs. If you should have any further silly notions about malicious intent from this quarter, you can save yourself a phone call.”

So, there are at least two possibilities here: Hart really intended no slur against Islam, at least consciously, when he created the strip. Or he did intend the slur, and he’s lying now. Which explanation is correct?

The Post article’s authors actually went to considerable effort trying to answer that question, soliciting the opinions of an expert in semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), along with 6 cartoonists who are admirers of Hart’s work. All but one of them, after looking carefully at the strip, concluded that the Islamic-slur interpretation was the only one that made sense. The lone holdout was Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, who said, “We cartoonists are simple folk. We don’t write on that cryptic a level. Leave Johnny alone.”

I’m inclined to say that the slur was, on some level, intentional. But am I being Holmes or Watson when I say that? I honestly don’t know.

Drezner on Lileks on Pax

Friday, November 21st, 2003

Proving once again the he is a rare beacon of reason among his right-wing brethren, Daniel Drezner points out that really, the people of Iraq deserve a little slack if they choose to be less than enthusiastic about having been bombed, maimed, burned, killed, dispossessed, and otherwise liberated: Why James Lileks is flat-out wrong. (Warning: Academic using the F-word ahead.)

The Cat in the Hat Sucks

Friday, November 21st, 2003

I haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll hope you’ll forgive the title. But it seems a pretty safe bet, based on the assembled comments on this Defective Yeti page: The Bad Review Revue: We Did Not Like It, Not One Little Bit.

Bring on the Sludge

Friday, November 21st, 2003

I recently linked to an article by Arnold Kling in which he criticized Paul Krugman for making “Type M” (as opposed to “Type C”) arguments. By a Type M argument, Kling meant an argument that focused on the other side’s motives, rather than the consequences of the other side’s proposals. I observed at the time that while Type C arguments were certainly preferable, it was actually Krugman’s right-wing opponents who had first lowered the debate to that level, with a steady outpouring of Type M arguments.

Another nice example of that is the Republican party’s first campaign ad, due to begin airing this Sunday. It features images of Bush delivering the last State of the Union address (no, not the part of it that subsequent events have shown to be lies, but you have to admire their chutzpah even bringing up the speech at all). As they show Bush delivering lines that absolutely no sane person would disagree with, they run the following words underneath: “Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists.”

Note the classic Type M argument. It’s all about motivations. And not only does the argument focus on the motivations of Bush’s critics, but it also completely mischaracterizes those motivations.

Howard Dean (and others) who have been criticizing Bush’s Iraq policy have not been criticizing him “for attacking the terrorists.” In fact, their argument has been just the opposite: They have been criticizing him for not attacking the terrorists. By dropping the ball on al Qaeda and going after Iraq instead, Bush gave Osama bin Laden the breathing room he needed to rebuild and reorganize. By alienating our traditional allies around the world, Bush undercut the international cooperation that is essential to effective anti-terror efforts. By overthrowing the Iraqi government without having an adequate plan for the aftermath, he has saddled the US with a costly and deadly quagmire of an occupation that seems likely to increase, rather than decrease, the anti-US sentiment that fuels terrorist funding and recruiting. And so on.

Note what’s going on: Bush’s critics have been making a nice, rational, Type C argument about the consequences of Bush’s policies. But rather than debate with them on that level, the very first Republican campaign ad descends immediately to Type M: Bush’s opponents are criticizing him because they don’t want him to attack the terrorists!

Which is really a pretty pathetic argument. Were I to stoop to Type M arguments myself, I’d probably observe that the people running this ad must believe they can’t win an objective Type C argument, since everyone pretty much knows that Bush’s policies are objectively failing, with many of the strongest justifications he previously offered for them having turned out to be lies. As a result, mischaracterizing his opponents’ motivations is all they have left.

Triumph Does Terry Gross

Thursday, November 20th, 2003

If you’re a fan of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog from Conan, or of Terry Gross, or (especially) both, you definitely owe it to yourself to check out the latter’s interview of the former from today’s show: Fresh Air. It’s great… for me to poop on!

Professional Programmers/Politicians/Soldiers

Thursday, November 20th, 2003

Some interesting items on “professionalism” crossed my monitor this morning.

First up, an old article from Tom DeMarco: Professional awareness in software engineering. DeMarco describes a hierarchy of different conceptions of professionalism, but the thing that struck me as interesting is that DeMarco believes that true professionalism requires careful and continuous monitoring of one’s own behavior to make sure it meets an ethical standard:

There are no simple, general rules in ethics; ethics is about values and value conflict, philosophy and morality, and a willingness and capability to confront intricate and convoluted conundrums. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule may get you to Heaven, but they won’t (all by themselves) make you an ethical promise-keeper. The only thing that will do that is to keep yourself in a permanent state of ethical introspection.

In order to make it clear what I mean by this introspection, consider its opposite. The most familiar form of this opposite is what I call:

THE FATAL PREMISE: Evil is done by evil people; I am not an evil person and therefore . . . I cannot do evil.

The Fatal Premise gives you an ethical blank check: If you did it, it must be OK.

It is my opinionated opinion that about half the world’s population believes the Fatal Premise. One who is governed by this premise is neither ethical nor unethical, but a non-participant. Such a person can never be a true professional, because his or her introspection mechanism is disarmed. The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offers a counter to the Fatal Premise in the following quote:

The line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between parties [individuals] either, but through the middle of every human heart.

To be an ethical human being you need to be aware of your capacity to be evil, your dark side. To the extent that it is our business to foster professionalism, we need to focus mostly on helping people get past the Fatal Premise so they can deal with the possibility of their own evil. Most meaningful evil on earth is done by good people, not by evil people. The capacity to do evil is in each one of us.

So, when he talks about how it is unprofessional to attribute evil to the other side, and thereby excuse yourself from the possibility of committing evil, were you thinking of the same person I was? I know it doesn’t sound quite right to say we need more “professional” politicians, but if you use DeMarco’s definition of the term then I think that’s exactly what we need.

Continuing in a somewhat-related vein, check out these interesting items from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo on the finger-pointing currently going on as the unprofessional folk currently running things in this country try to divert blame for the now-widely-recognized-as-wrong decision to disband the professional soldiers who made up the Iraqi army: here, here, and here.

Homeless-Children Folklore

Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

The story itself is more than six years old, which I guess means that most of the believers it quotes have moved on to other beliefs. But I still found this Miami Times feature on the religious folklore told by children in homeless shelters fascinating: Myths over Miami. Thanks to Yian, again, for the link.

Bobby Kennedy, Jr., in Salon

Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

A great interview with Bobby Kennedy, Jr., is currently running in Salon: Save the earth: Dump Bush. Very much worth watching the commercial to get the one-day Salon pass. An excerpt:

I’m not scared of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. They can never hurt America in any fundamental way. As Teddy Roosevelt said, American democracy will never be destroyed by outside enemies — but it can be destroyed by the malefactors of great wealth who subtly rob and undermine it from within. And I see that process happening today.

Thanks to dangerous free radical Yian for the link.

Bombing Tikrit

Tuesday, November 18th, 2003

Riverbend of Baghdad Burning has some more on-the-ground commentary from an average Iraqi-in-the-street: Difficult days. I must admit, our latest bombing campaign (along with the drive-by shootings and other “shows of force” the US troops have been engaging in lately) reminds me of nothing so much as Xerxes flogging the waves of the Hellespont. I thought it was the other side that was supposed to look desperate.

Boy and His Computer’s Church Signs

Saturday, November 15th, 2003

A little spirituality to bring meaning to your humdrum existence: Church signs.

Niven: Can Superman Reproduce?

Saturday, November 15th, 2003

I first read this about 30 years ago, which is kind of a shocking thing to realize. At the time I believed it to be the funniest thing ever written, and I still think it’s pretty good. As with other recent net.kooks items, though, I make no promises. Humor is awfully subjective, and this isn’t just juvenile humor, but juvenile humor I liked as an actual juvenile.

Anyway, from Larry Niven: Man of steel, woman of kleenex.

Kinsley: Did Bush Mean *Any* of the Speech About Democracy?

Saturday, November 15th, 2003

Michael Kinsley at his best: The limits of eloquence. A sample:

George W. Bush’s powers of persuasion are apparently so spectacular, at least to some, that almost all the pro-Bush voices in Washington and the media have remained pro-Bush even when “pro-Bush” means the opposite of what it did five minutes ago.