Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Viktor Suvorov summarizes Thomas More’s Utopia in a way that makes certain parallels clear:

More describes a society in which there is no private property and in which everything is controlled by the state. The state of Utopia is completely isolated from the outside world, as completely as the bureaucratic class rules the population. The supreme ruler is installed for his lifetime. The country itself, once a peninsula, has after monumental efforts on the part of the population and the army to build a deep canal dividing it from the rest of the world, become an island. Slavery has been introduced, but the rest of the population live no better than slaves. People do not have their own homes, with the result that anybody can at any time go into any home he wishes, a system which is worse even than the regulations in the Soviet Army today, in which the barracks of each company are open only to soldiers of that company.

In fact the system in Utopia begins to look more like that in a Soviet concentration camp. In Utopia, of course, it is laid down when people are to rise (at four o’clock in the morning), when they are to go to bed and how many minutes’ rest they may have. Every day starts with public lectures. People must travel on a group passport, signed by the Mayor, and if they are caught without a passport outside their own district they are severely punished as deserters. Everybody keeps a close watch on his neighbour: ‘Everyone has his eye on you.’

With fine English humour Thomas More describes the ways in which Utopia wages war. The whole population of Utopia, men and women, are trained to fight. Utopia wages only just wars in self-defence and, of course, for the liberation of other peoples. The people of Utopia consider it their right and their duty to establish a similarly just regime in neighbouring countries. Many of the surrounding countries have already been liberated and are now ruled, not by local leaders, but by administators from Utopia. The liberation of the other peoples is carried out in the name of humanism. But Thomas More does not explain to us what this ‘humanism’ is. Utopia’s allies, in receipt of military aid from her, turn the populations of the neighbouring states into slaves.

Utopia provokes conflicts and contradictions in the countries which have not yet been liberated. If someone in such a country speaks out in favour of capitulating to Utopia he can expect a big reward later. But anyone who calls upon the people to fight Utopia can expect only slavery or death, with his property split up and distributed to those who capitulate and collaborate.On the outbreak of war Utopia’s agents in the enemy country post up in prominent places announcements concerning the reward to be paid to anyone killing the king. It is a tremendous sum of money. There is also a list of other people for whose murder large sums of money will be paid.

The direct result of these measures is that universal suspicion reigns in the enemy country.

Thomas More describes only one of the strategems employed, but it is the most important:

When the battle is at its height a group of specially selected young men, who have sworn to stick together, try to knock out the enemy general. They keep hammering away at him by every possible method — frontal attacks, ambushes, long-range archery, hand-to-hand combat. They bear down on him in a long, unbroken wedge-formation, the point of which is constantly renewed as tired men are replaced by fresh ones. As a result the general is nearly always killed or taken prisoner — unless he saves his skin by running away.

What Modern Family Says About Modern Families

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Bruce Feiler of the New York Times looks at what Modern Family says about modern families:

The particulars of the Pritchett-Tucker family may be different from those of the Huxtables, Bunkers or Cleavers. There are second marriages to immigrants, adolescent husbands who never grew up, gay dads. But the core values are the same. Perhaps that’s why a study last year listed “Modern Family” as the third-most popular show among Republicans. In its fundamentally conservative vision, “Modern Family” turns out to be not so modern after all.


Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The Russian word razvedka translates as reconnaissance, spying, or intelligence gathering. One very important form of recon rose to prominence during the Cold War, when the West deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Europe, to prevent a Soviet-led war of “liberation”:

The destruction of the tactical nuclear weapons which render Soviet aggression impossible or pointless could be carried out only if the whereabouts of all, or at least the majority, of the enemy’s tactical nuclear weapons were established. But this in itself presented a tremendous problem. It is very easy to conceal tactical missiles, aircraft and nuclear artillery and, instead of deploying real missiles and guns, the enemy can deploy dummies, thus diverting the attention of Soviet razvedka and protecting the real tactical nuclear weapons under cover.

The Soviet high command therefore had to devise the sort of means of detection that could approach very close to the enemy’s weapons and in each case provide a precise answer to the question of whether they were real, or just well produced dummies. But even if a tremendous number of nuclear batteries were discovered in good time, that did not solve the problem. In the time it takes for the transmission of the reports from the reconnaissance units to the headquarters, for the analysis of the information obtained and the preparation of the appropriate command for action, the battery can have changed position several times. So forces had to be created that would be able to seek out, find and destroy immediately the nuclear weapons discovered in the course of war or immediately before its outbreak.

Spetsnaz was, and is, precisely such an instrument, permitting commanding officers at army level and higher to establish independently the whereabouts of the enemy’s most dangerous weapons and to destroy them on the spot.

The US Army Special Forces, or green berets, were tasked with leading guerrilla forces in unconventional warfare behind enemy lines in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe.

California’s ‘big one’ might be a megastorm

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

California’s ‘big one’ might be a megastorm, rather than an earthquake:

In the scenario — powerful back-to-back storms — floods could require about 1 1/2 million people to evacuate [by twosies, twosies] and cause more than $300 billion in property damage. The economic loss would be four times that of a very large earthquake.

The simulation was based on the most severe storm event on record in California, a 45-day series of storms that started in December 1861 and, according to the Geological Survey, caused such extensive flooding that the Sacramento Valley was turned into “an inland sea, forcing the state Capitol to be moved temporarily from Sacramento to San Francisco, and requiring Gov. Leland Stanford to take a rowboat to his inauguration.”

Geologists studying prehistoric flood deposits found evidence of even larger storms that occurred about every 300 years.

The Limits of Science

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Nothing makes clearer the limits of science, Don Colacho notes, than the scientist’s opinions about any topic that is not strictly related to his profession:

Nada patentiza tanto los límites de la ciencia como las opiniones del científico sobre cualquier tema que no sea estrictamente de su profesión.

Little Golden Book-Style Illustrations

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Josh Cooley has produced a number of Little Golden Book-style illustrations based on famous movie scenes that clearly do not qualify as age-appropriate for Little Golden Book readers:

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Spades and Men

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Viktor Suvorov speaks of spades and men:

Every infantryman in the Soviet Army carries with him a small spade. When he is given the order to halt he immediately lies flat and starts to dig a hole in the ground beside him. In three minutes he will have dug a little trench 15 centimetres deep, in which he can lie stretched out flat, so that bullets can whistle harmlessly over his head. The earth he has dug out forms a breastwork in front and at the side to act as an additional cover. If a tank drives over such a trench the soldier has a 50% chance that it will do him no harm.

At any moment the soldier may be ordered to advance again and, shouting at the top of his voice, will rush ahead. If he is not ordered to advance, he digs in deeper and deeper. At first his trench can be used for firing in the lying position. Later it becomes a trench from which to fire in the kneeling position, and later still, when it is 110 centimetres deep, it can be used for firing in the standing position.

The earth that has been dug out protects the soldier from bullets and fragments. He makes an embrasure in this breastwork into which he positions the barrel of his gun. In the absence of any further commands he continues to work on his trench. He camouflages it. He starts to dig a trench to connect with his comrades to the left of him. He always digs from right to left, and in a few hours the unit has a trench linking all the riflemen’s trenches together. The unit’s trenches are linked with the trenches of other units. Dug-outs are built and communication trenches are added at the rear. The trenches are made deeper, covered over, camouflaged and reinforced. Then, suddenly, the order to advance comes again. The soldier emerges, shouting and swearing as loudly as he can.

The infantryman uses the same spade for digging graves for his fallen comrades. If he doesn’t have an axe to hand he uses the spade to chop his bread when it is frozen hard as granite. He uses it as a paddle as he floats across wide rivers on a telegraph pole under enemy fire. And when he gets the order to halt, he again builds his impregnable fortress around himself. He knows how to dig the earth efficiently. He builds his fortress exactly as it should be. The spade is not just an instrument for digging: it can also be used for measuring. It is 50 centimetres long. Two spade lengths are a metre. The blade is 15 centimetres wide and 18 centimetres long. With these measurements in mind the soldier can measure anything he wishes.

The infantry spade does not have a folding handle, and this is a very important feature. It has to be a single monolithic object. All three of its edges are as sharp as a knife. It is painted with a green matt paint so as not to reflect the strong sunlight.

The spade is not only a tool and a measure. It is also a guarantee of the steadfastness of the infantry in the most difficult situations. If the infantry have a few hours to dig themselves in, it could take years to get them out of their holes and trenches, whatever modern weapons are used against them.

This is in contrast to how the spetsnaz (special forces) use their spades:

These soldiers never dig trenches; in fact they never take up defensive positions. They either launch a sudden attack on an enemy or, if they meet with resistance or superior enemy forces, they disappear as quickly as they appeared and attack the enemy again where and when the enemy least expects them to appear.

Surprisingly, the spetsnaz soldiers also carry the little infantry spades. Why do they need them? It is practically impossible to describe in words how they use their spades. You really have to see what they do with them. In the hands of a spetsnaz soldier the spade is a terrible noiseless weapon and every member of spetsnaz gets much more training in the use of his spade then does the infantryman.

The first thing he has to teach himself is precision: to split little slivers of wood with the edge of the spade or to cut off the neck of a bottle so that the bottle remains whole. He has to learn to love his spade and have faith in its accuracy. To do that he places his hand on the stump of a tree with the fingers spread out and takes a big swing at the stump with his right hand using the edge of the spade. Once he has learnt to use the spade well and truly as an axe he is taught more complicated things. The little spade can be used in hand-to-hand fighting against blows from a bayonet, a knife, a fist or another spade. A soldier armed with nothing but the spade is shut in a room without windows along with a mad dog, which makes for an interesting contest.

Finally a soldier is taught to throw the spade as accurately as he would use a sword or a battle-axe. It is a wonderful weapon for throwing, a single, well balanced object, whose 32-centimetre handle acts as a lever for throwing. As it spins in flight it gives the spade accuracy and thrust. It becomes a terrifying weapon. If it lands in a tree it is not so easy to pull out again. Far more serious is it if it hits someone’s skull, although spetsnaz members usually do not aim at the enemy’s face but at his back. He will rarely see the blade coming, before it lands in the back of his neck or between his shoulder blades, smashing the bones.

The spetsnaz soldier loves his spade. He has more faith in its reliability and accuracy than he has in his Kalashnikov automatic. An interesting psychological detail has been observed in the kind of hand-to-hand confrontations which are the stock in trade of spetsnaz. If a soldier fires at an enemy armed with an automatic, the enemy also shoots at him. But if he doesn’t fire at the enemy but throws a spade at him instead, the enemy simply drops his gun and jumps to one side.

Ex-Spy, Duane Clarridge, Runs His Own Private CIA

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Duane Clarridge, 78, left the CIA two decades ago, when he was indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal. (He was later pardoned.) Now he runs his own private intelligence operation, which he calls Eclipse:

Over the past two years, he has fielded operatives in the mountains of Pakistan and the desert badlands of Afghanistan. Since the United States military cut off his funding in May, he has relied on like-minded private donors to pay his agents to continue gathering information about militant fighters, Taliban leaders and the secrets of Kabul’s ruling class.

Like-minded private donors? Well, these aren’t disinterested third parties:

Hatching schemes that are something of a cross between a Graham Greene novel and Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” Mr. Clarridge has sought to discredit Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Kandahar power broker who has long been on the C.I.A. payroll, and planned to set spies on his half brother, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in hopes of collecting beard trimmings or other DNA samples that might prove Mr. Clarridge’s suspicions that the Afghan leader was a heroin addict, associates say.
His dispatches — an amalgam of fact, rumor, analysis and uncorroborated reports — have been sent to military officials who, until last spring at least, found some credible enough to be used in planning strikes against militants in Afghanistan. They are also fed to conservative commentators, including Oliver L. North, a compatriot from the Iran-contra days and now a Fox News analyst, and Brad Thor, an author of military thrillers and a frequent guest of Glenn Beck.

I take back what I said about it being an intelligence operation:

To get around a Pentagon ban on hiring contractors as spies, the report said, Mr. Furlong’s team simply rebranded their activities as “atmospheric information” rather than “intelligence.”

Good Intentions

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

An American conservative would say, The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A Colombian reactionary would say, El liberal se equivoca siempre porque no distingue entre las consecuencias que atribuye a sus propósitos y las consecuencias que sus propósitos efectivamente encierran:

The liberal is always mistaken because he does not distinguish between the consequences he attributes to his intentions and the consequences his intentions effectively include.

Test-Taking Cements Knowledge Better Than Studying

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

A recent Science paper shows that students who read a passage and then took a test on it recalled 50 percent more than those who either studied the material repeatedly or drew detailed “concept maps”:

The researchers engaged 200 college students in two experiments, assigning them to read several paragraphs about a scientific subject — how the digestive system works, for example, or the different types of vertebrate muscle tissue.

In the first experiment, the students were divided into four groups. One did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions.

A third group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.

The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

A week later all four groups were given a short-answer test that assessed their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions based on the facts.

The second experiment focused only on concept mapping and retrieval practice testing, with each student doing an exercise using each method. In this initial phase, researchers reported, students who made diagrams while consulting the passage included more detail than students asked to recall what they had just read in an essay.

But when they were evaluated a week later, the students in the testing group did much better than the concept mappers. They even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.

The abstract eschews the dowdy term regurgitation and instead refers to it as retrieval practice.

Jack LaLanne

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Jack LaLanne just passed away, at the age of 96, so I decided to take a look back at the first episode of The Jack LaLanne Show, from 1951. In its own way, it’s both way ahead of its time and very, very dated.

Anyway, here are some of his sayings — which may or may not qualify as ironic:

  • Anything in life is possible if you make it happen.
  • Anything in life is possible and you can make it happen.
  • Your waistline is your lifeline.
  • Exercise is King, nutrition is Queen, put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.
  • Don’t exceed the feed limit.
  • The food you eat today is walking and talking tomorrow.
  • Ten seconds on the lips and a lifetime on the hips.
  • Better to wear out than rust out
  • Do — don’t stew.
  • People don’t die of old age, they die of inactivity.
  • First we inspire them, then we perspire them.
  • You eat everyday, you sleep everyday, and your body was made to exercise everyday.
  • Work at living and you don’t have to die tomorrow.
  • I can’t die, it would ruin my image.
  • If man makes it, don’t eat it.
  • If it tastes good, spit it out.
  • What’s it doing for me?
  • Your health account is like your bank account: The more you put in, the more you can take out.
  • If one apple is good, you wouldn’t eat 100.
  • It’s not what you do some of the time that counts, it’s what you do all of the time that counts.
  • Make haste slowly.
  • Eat right and you can’t go wrong.

Never trust a ferret

Monday, January 24th, 2011

You may think that pet ferrets are cute, but you shouldn’t forget that they’re big weasels with a taste for rabbits — and other small mammals:

A 4-month-old baby boy from Grain Valley, Missouri, was in critical condition after a family pet ferret ate seven of the infant’s fingers, and the boy’s parents are under investigation for neglect and failure to obtain a $100 license for the exotic pet, police chief Aaron Ambrose told CNN Tuesday.

Be a train, not a bus

Monday, January 24th, 2011

The conservative case for public transportation includes the point that middle-class riders like trains but hate buses. Garry, of Posterous, makes the same point when he explains how to keep things nice:

  1. Enforce rules.
  2. Be a train, not a bus.

The MUNI bus system in San Francisco is a complete disaster. You are guaranteed to run into insane street people and misanthropic hoodlums.

Contrast this to Caltrain, the local commuter train system on the Peninsula. I’ve often felt unsafe on MUNI, but never even slightly threatened on Caltrain. Why? Caltrain has conductors. They roam the trains making sure people have correct tickets. They throw people off and fine them if they try to sneak free rides. They must be strict in enforcing rules and they patrol it with almost an air of tradition. You can’t even put your feet up on the seats. That’s disrepectful. That’s how things are on trains.

Buses don’t have this tradition. Nobody every yelled at you for putting your feet on a seat on a bus. In fact, if you give someone a the dirty look or talking-to they deserve for their behavior, you’re liable to catch a beating. Why doesn’t a bus driver have the same capacity to kick people out and command authority? They really should.

Damn it, people. Turns out you need law and order and authority to keep things from degenerating into anarchy. Or worse, MUNI. This applies to online communities as well. You need rules and restraint to keep bad things from happening. Like 11 year old children getting stabbed for no reason.

The Waiting Game

Monday, January 24th, 2011

To remind the younger generation what life under Communism was like, Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has created a Monopoly-like game, called Queue:

Just like in the original Monopoly, acquisition is the name of the game. In this case, however, that means struggling to get basic necessities such as food, clothing and furniture. “In the game, you send your family out to get items on a shopping list and they find that the five shops are sold out or that there hasn’t been a delivery that day,” the IPN’s Karol Madaj told Spiegel Online Thursday, explaining that the game “highlights the tough realities of life under Communism.”

Indeed, there are many ways in which the game, which is called “Kolejka” after the Polish word for queue or line, builds frustration. Some rules allow other players to jump the line and get the last of a certain product, while others force players to give up their place in the queue.

The article describes the game as “about communism rather than capitalism,” but the original Monopoly started out as a piece of semi-socialist propaganda called The Landlord Game.

Huis ten Bosch

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Huis ten Bosch (“House in the Woods”) is the name of one of the four official residences of the Dutch Royal Family, located in The Hague in the Netherlands.

It’s also the name of a theme park in Japan, on Hario Island in the southern part of Sasebo, facing Omura Bay — in the Nagasaki Prefecture, not far from Hirado, where the Dutch opened a trading post in 1609.

The park opened in 1992, reached a peak attendance of 4.25 million visitors in 1996, and declared bandkruptcy in 2003, with debt of 220 billion yen.

The $3 billion theme park qualifies as a monumental mistake:

Sprawling as it does over 152 hectares (375 acres) of Omura Bay shoreline in the western Nagasaki Prefecture city of Sasebo, the park is more than three times the size of Tokyo Disneyland and still bigger than Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea combined, awing the resident-visitor of these cramped lands with its sheer scale. Add in the 250 holiday homes in the 50-hectare Wassenaar zone, named after a chic suburb of The Hague, and the entire development is roughly the size of the Principality of Monaco.

Naturally I now want to visit.