Sunday, September 23, 2012

Looking Back to the Suez Crisis

I've been thinking lately about the Suez Crisis of 1956, because that was one time when the United States did not feel it necessary to back Israel. President Barack Obama doesn't feel that Israel should get unconditional US backing for a shot at Iran. That seems like a change in US policy, but that policy has been sliding more and more toward Israel for several decades now.

I was looking for material on the subject and found this BBC documentary from 2004, which is excellent. It evokes the sense of that time. It focuses on Britain, rather than Israel, and it is from the viewpoint of the recent invasion of Iraq, to which there are a number of parallels. Some of those parallels are still fresh.

Worth watching all the way through.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Does Romney Talk The Way He Does? He's a Consultant!

Steven Walt today ponders a Mitt Romney mystery that occurs to me off and on. And then I come up with the answer, which I will now share with you.

The mystery is why the guy says so many dumb, fact-free things; sometimes counterfactual, in fact. Then there's the tin ear, which is part of it, but perhaps more difficult to understand through my hypothesis.

Back in the eighties, when management consulting was really ramping up, a great many consultant studies were inflicted on the Los Alamos National Laboratory. At the time, I was doing system studies, for which some consultant reports appeared to be relevant. IIRC, at the time, there were a lot of jokes about the uselessness of management consultants. There was a reason for that.

The consultants would arrive at the Lab, take up a great amount of a great number of people's time, and produce a report that a) missed the point
b) betrayed little or no understanding of how the Lab worked, and
c) appeared to have been written from a standard template, sometimes including basic facts.

The consultant reports that I tried to use in my systems studies were superficial and seldom provided any usable information or insight.

I've had the opportunity in the past few weeks to read a report by Bain and Company in an area of my interest. Nothing has changed. Correction: the motivation for the report was clearly predatory in ways that I don't recall the earlier ones being. But that may be my perceptions getting sharper.

This is where Mitt Romney received his training. Facts superficial and arbitrary, apply a predetermined template, give the customer what they want, if you can figure it out.

Looks to me like this explains a lot.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bits and Pieces - September 18, 2012

Cool photos of Helsinki then and now. Plus captions in Finnish.

As I noted yesterday, the Romney videos have been around for a while. Here's the story.

Climate change may have driven humans out of Africa and into later migrations.

The Swiss family who worked with A. Q. Khan to distribute nuclear knowledge and then worked with the CIA to nail the recipients of that knowledge avoid prison.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Bits and Pieces - September 17, 2012

Well, let's help spread this:

I first saw this maybe a month ago, but it was being handled carefully because the provenance wasn't clear. I don't know if David Corn has convinced himself it's legitimate, but I would hope so.

Charles Cameron compares the Muslim reaction to that other video clip to Christian reaction in 1988 to the film, "The Last Temptation of Christ.

Marc Lynch compares the reaction to reaction to the Danish Muhammed cartoons and finds quite a difference.

Prehistoric cave artists animated their drawings of animals.

Added later: Paul Pillar on why the neocons should be extinct, but aren't.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Diplomacy - The Work We Don't See

We don't hear much about ambassadors and other foreign service officers unless something goes wrong, as it did in Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen last week. Their job is to keep things going right, and we don't hear much about that. Embassies are the liason between the United States government and the host country's government, the people on the ground for rapid response.

Nicholas Kralev looks at the many things foreign service officers do and the risks they run.

Jon Lee Anderson observes that things are getting better in Somalia with a peaceful presidential transition and argues that it's time to put an embassy back in Mogadishu.

There are a couple of important points in those two articles: diplomats are most needed when things are difficult, and they can do their jobs only if they do them with a minimum of protection. Since 9/11, the physical isolation of US embassies with concrete barricades and razor wire has been counterproductive. The job of a diplomat is to interact with the citizens of the country to which she is assigned.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Joe Klein Calls Bibi Out

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I'm not much a fan of Joe Klein, but he gets it exactly right on Morning Joe.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Moody's Might Downgrade the US. And Why Shouldn't It?

Ezra Klein:

Moody’s warning is simple: “Budget negotiations during the 2013 Congressional legislative session will likely determine the direction of the US government’s Aaa rating,” the agency said in a statement. “If those negotiations lead to specific policies that produce a stabilization and then downward trend in the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the medium term,” then the U.S. will keep its Aaa credit rating. If those negotiations fail, it will probably be knocked down by one notch.

And why shouldn’t it be? How many times should the American political system be permitted to fail to accomplish its stated aims before we begin concluding that there’s something structurally wrong in American politics that needs to be priced into our predictions of how well Washington will manage its budget going forward? How many times should one party in Congress be permitted to threaten that it will force the country to default on debts that it could pay before investors begin wondering whether the United States is as responsible a borrower as they believed it was prior to this kind of continuous brinksmanship?

Pollia Condensata

Apparently, the "shiniest object in the world" is the African fruit, Pollia condensata. Details in this study.

Photo: Vignolini et al / AP

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bits and Pieces - September 10, 2012

Joseph Stieglitz: Mitt Romney's fair share.

Joe Biden and bikers.

Barack Obama and pizza parlor owner. (autoplay video)

BBC worries that the French are losing the formal vous. I hope they don't give up the differention between singular and plural, because that's something I'd like to see in English.

Losing bats to white-nose syndrome.

Bacteria grow in a high-radiation environment. Deinococcus radiodurans is already known to be highly resistant to radiation. Maybe here are a few more.

The 1957 plutonium fire at Rocky Flats. This is something I'd like to know more about, but this article presents a lot of claims without presenting anything about the sources for them. It's an interview with  Kristen Iversen, who wrote a new book on the subject: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. Presumably the book provides sources.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Stupid Inspection Games

The CIA has declassified a retrospective report on what went wrong in its assessment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities. Even now, a great deal of the released document is classified and blanked out.

It’s worth looking at to see if there is a parallel to today’s back and forth with Iran. Not so much in the details: the question in 2003 was whether Hussein had WMD, including biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, and today’s question is whether Iran intends to build nuclear weapons. The situation in Iraq was much tenser than today’s situation with Iran. Iraq had already been invaded in 1991. The inspectors were from UNSCOM, a special agency mandated by the United Nations Security Council and having more powers than IAEA inspectors.

Getting locked into looking at the evidence too narrowly on both sides and missing opportunities is the danger.
Hussein wanted to present a façade of strength and invincibility internally and to his regional enemies. His motives in dealing with the UN inspectors were mixed, at first involving deception and destruction of materials and records that the inspectors wanted and then becoming more cooperative. However, the destruction, particularly of records, undermined his ability to prove that he had destroyed his WMD. Many of his subordinates were deceived into believing that WMD existed and could not testify to their destruction.

The inspectors found that they were constantly playing a game of cat and mouse, which led them to pursue more inspections more urgently in spite of Iraqi revelations. This aggressiveness was interpreted by Iraqi officials as being politically motivated, so they became more resistant.

Let’s look at Iran.

Iran’s leadership has numerous reasons, historical and practical, to try to appear strong internally and externally: citizen resistance , a complex governmental structure that can breed competition for power, and condemnations and threats from the outside. They have hidden the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, along with other materials like heavy water at Arak, from IAEA inspection until they were exposed by others. They have refused to make documents relating to their nuclear weapons program available. They razed the Lavizan site rather than allowing IAEA inspection and have been demolishing buildings and moving earth at the Parchin site, while finding reasons not to allow the IAEA to inspect the site.
Iran is claiming political motives on the part of the IAEA in its requests for inspection of Parchin and, as a result, is insisting on more conditions for such a visit than the IAEA is willing to grant.

Iran appears to be attempting to move forward in its nuclear program as far as possible without crossing an American red line, while ignoring the Israelis’ danger zones (Laura Rozen, Kate Gould). Or is it goading the Israelis?

Israeli leaders appear to be playing a role something like that of the neocons in the Bush administration, goading the US to bomb Iran. Are they trying to press the P5+1 to tighten the sanctions screws further and more rapidly? Are they simply expressing their anxieties in public?

Whatever their reasons, the very public discussions of the past few weeks may have made it easier for the Iranians to believe that the United States and/or Israel will not attack it in the way Iraq was attacked. The United States has only recently extricated itself from Iraq and plans to leave Afghanistan. The pressure by Israel has brought forth statements from high-level US officials seeming to indicate an unwillingness to attack. Israel’s inability to carry out decisive strikes and its vulnerability to Iranian missiles have been widely discussed, including by retired Israeli officials. So Iran may think it can continue to defy the inspectors with impunity.

That’s a very similar set of circumstances to those preceding the Iraq invasion. There are a number of differences. The CIA and other intelligence analysts have the lessons of this report to consider. Presumably the IAEA leadership and inspectors also are heeding these lessons. Iraq had been weakened by invasion a decade before. Iran is a much larger country, making a strike more difficult.

Does Iran have an internal intelligence report assessing Saddam Hussein’s mistakes in dealing with the inspectors? Is their assessment different? Will the leaders take note of this report?

Saddam Hussein, the UN inspectors, and the CIA analysts all boxed their expectations in and came up with the wrong answers. We can’t afford to have something like that happen again.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker

I’ve had the feeling that humans are behaving better ever since I started reading medieval history. The ease with which people accepted torture and public and bloody executions. Roving bands of knights raped, killed, and sacked. Later on, the genocide of Native Americans. Child labor in mines and factories. Lynchings. We don’t do that any more.
Even in my lifetime, there have been improvements. Civil rights for African-Americans, women, and gays. Hazing is no longer acceptable on college campuses. And no great-power wars for the last half-century.

Steven Pinker includes all that and more in The Better Angels of Our Nature, on how humans have moved away from violence since prehistory. That’s not to say that all is well and no more improvements are necessary; it’s a long process that is still going on. My view in the first two paragraphs is from a rather protected position in the United States.

Peter Singer nicely summarized the book in his New York Times review. So did David Runciman in The Guardian. Better Angels was published last fall, and those reviews are from then. I am frequently a little late in coming to new books.

So take a moment to read one of those reviews, and then come back, because I’m going to take off from those summaries. It’s important to understand the structure of Better Angels. Pinker amasses an enormous amount of data to support his contention that violence has decreased. Much of the criticism ignores that first part of the book to argue that of course we are more violent now than we ever have been: we have the technology to do it better. That’s the argument that Pinker refutes early on; he is quite aware that many people believe it.

Remarkably, most measures show that violence is decreasing. I was surprised at some, even with my optimistic outlook. Because of the large number of trends all in the same direction, Pinker’s argument is robust: several or most of these trends must be refuted to refute his overall argument. And the refutation must be in the same terms, using data from respected sources. I haven’t seen any of that yet. Most of the attempts at refutation, like John Gray’s, simply ignore the numbers and speak from personal beliefs as to whether violence has declined and the causes for that. Ross Douthat presents the same kinds of arguments.

As Pinker investigates (and supports) a thesis I’ve been interested in, he uses evolutionary psychology, a field I am extremely dubious of, to make some of his arguments. However, he relies on other evidence as well.

Evolutionary psychology depends on reconstructions of what primitive societies must have been like. Not much of psychology gets fossilized – thoughts and brains don’t lend themselves to that, although as brains leave traces in the size and internal shape of skulls, so do thoughts leave traces in artifacts and graves. Unfortunately, this isn’t anywhere near enough information to reconstruct a society or how people participated in it. So the logic of various arrangements must be thought out. This thinking comes from modern people who have attained professorships or equivalent positions in today’s society. It’s obvious now that earlier reconstructions came from a male-dominated professional class’s mindset and expectations. In response to that, attempts are being made to make those reconstructions less vulnerable to justification of today’s inequalities.

I’m a chemist and uncomfortable with the nature of psychological proof anyway. I can usually think up multiple interpretations of the data and questions or procedures employed. I can see how, if I were an experimental subject, I might have problems figuring out how to respond to some of the experiments, providing data for opposing interpretations with varying moods, and suspect that others might do the same.

I’ve been particularly unhappy with the recent crop of books that glibly say we can’t trust our own minds – subconscious elephants lumber in one direction or another, transforming our veneer of rationality into rationale. If that’s the case, and if we can’t do anything about that, then I can stop writing now and you can stop reading. We are stuck with our evolutionary needs and can’t be changed. I’m now reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and it doesn’t quite say that, but it's close.
Pinker takes on this issue from a number of directions. Are humans evolving genetically? He examines the evidence and decides probably not – the changes are awfully fast for genetic evolution. He also translates Haidt’s moral foundations into the outcomes of relational models. Relational models describe how people interact. Moral foundations are givens, whether of biology or some sort of divinity. Thinking about interactions versus givens makes a difference in the kind of conclusions you will reach.

In the first half of Better Angels, Pinker shows that people’s relationship to violence has changed. He tries to find the reasons for the changes he documents. One he puts forward is the increasing ability to imagine ourselves into others’ places. Wars have decreased as we have had the technology to broadcast their action immediately from the battlefield. As our imaginations are stretched by books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we become less willing to kill, torture, or humiliate others. He documents the “Rights Revolutions,” civil rights and the decline of lynching, women’s rights and the decline of rape, children’s rights and the decline of spanking, gay rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality, animal rights and the decline of cruelty to animals.

Then, and only then, does Pinker go into possible explanations for these changes, including but not limited to evolutionary psychology. He is much more careful about invoking simple explanations for both the violence and its decline than other recent writers. He agrees with the general view that human history has molded us to a blend of individualism and cooperation, the two often in tension.

I’ll go beyond Pinker to suggest that we humans have been engaged in a long experiment in cultural evolution. Not by “memes”, but we are changing our environment in ways that pressure us to act in less violent ways and lessen our support for the societal forms of violence. Our actions and expectations shape our environment, and then that environment shapes our actions and expectations.

Pinker’s book is well worth reading and thinking hard about. It will inform my thinking from now on. I’m hoping to find something that might help with the difficult situation of Israel and Iran.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bits and Pieces - Too Much Iran Edition

Israel has been managing to keep Iran in the news, with continuing threats of bombing, mostly from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. I don't respond to every hiccup and alarum because things keep going back and forth so rapidly and because each statement, leak, or rumor is likely to have been released for a purpose. Barak's comments a week or two ago about US intelligence were striking enough to take notice of because they so flouted international norms of keeping another nation's secrets secret.

Netanyahu and Barak seem to have been a bit chastened by the reaction to that escapade, both within Israel and from the United States. The US is downsizing its involvement in a joint military maneuver with Israel this fall, but both sides say it has nothing to do with Israel's recent hysterics, which is what they would say in any case. Barak seems to be walking his statements back, but it's hard to tell what that may mean. Or is there any walking-back at all?

The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said "I don't want to be complicit if they (Israel) choose to do it [attack Iran]," which could be taken to mean that if Israel attacks, they will have to do it alone. And a report is now surfacing that such a message has been conveyed to Iran. I've said that I find it likely that President Barack Obama's message to Prime Minister Netanyahu last spring was just that.

The reasons Israel shouldn't attack are the ones that have been discussed all along: it would destroy any hope of negotiating peaceful limits on Iran's nuclear program; it would be very damaging to Israel; it would provoke a war involving much of the Middle East and likely the United States; it would set back Iran's nuclear program two or three years, if that much.

Update: Former CIA Director Michael Hayden tells Israel to cool it. One more in the long parade.

If you're as tired of hearing it all as I am, you probably haven't clicked any of the links. But do click this one and read a long interview with a former head of Mossad (Israel's equivalent to the CIA), Efraim Halevy. He says some different things in his argument against Netanyahu's finger on the trigger.

The Washington Post ombudsman considers the silence about Israel's nuclear weapons.

Frank Munger, of the Knoxville News, has been covering the break-in at Oak Ridge's Y-12 enriched uranium facility by three peace activists, one of whom is an 82-year-old nun. The latest on how it was done and the continuing fallout is here, but you can find much more by scrolling through the blog.

And now, a reward for getting through all that nuclear stuff: Beautiful tattoos on a princess and her guards from one of my favorite places in the world, the Altai Mountains.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Only Coverage To Watch Of The Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina Tuesday through Thursday this week.

Angry Black Lady (ABL, Imani Gandy) and John Cole are driving from Cole's home in West Virginia to the convention. I think their purpose is to act as journalists.

You can follow their adventures on Balloon Juice.