World War II Revisionism

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Adam Kirsch of The New Republic discusses some new books about World War II in the New York Times, bringing up a number of revisionist points:

Americans who learn about the war in Europe from a book like Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers” (1992), for instance, could be forgiven for thinking of the defeat of Germany as the work of doughty G.I.’s. Yet in “No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945” (2007), the British historian Norman Davies begins from the premise that “the war effort of the Western powers” was “something of a sideshow.” America lost 143,000 soldiers in the fight against Germany, Davies points out, while the Soviet Union lost 11 million.

And if the main show was a war between Hitler and Stalin, he wonders, wasn’t World War II a clash of nearly equivalent evils? “Anyone genuinely committed to freedom, justice and democracy is duty-bound to condemn both of the great totalitarian systems without fear or favor,” he concludes. As a historian of Poland, Davies is especially aware of what few Americans remember: that World War II began with a joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of that country. For the first two years of the war, Hitler and Stalin were allies; the fact that they then turned against each other, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, doesn’t change the moral equation. “If one finds two gangsters fighting each other, it is no valid approach at all to round on one and to lay off the other. The only valid test is whether or not they deserve the label of gangsters.”

Davies’s deliberately provocative book had a mixed reception, in part because of the way his account of the war in Eastern Europe seemed determined to minimize the importance of the Holocaust. No such objection can be made to Timothy Snyder’s morally scrupulous book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010), which also spotlights Eastern Europe — in particular the region comprising the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, Western Russia and Poland that Snyder calls “the bloodlands,” because they were the greatest killing field of the Second World War. This was the site of the titanic battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army: it was also the scene of 14 million noncombatant deaths between 1933 and 1945. This figure encompasses 10 million civilians and prisoners of war killed by the Nazis — including six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust—and four million civilians and P.O.W.’s killed by the Soviets.

By grouping German and Soviet casualties together, Snyder is making an implicit point. The Soviet Union was America’s ally, Germany our enemy; but both regimes were guilty of killing millions of people for ideological reasons. Weren’t the three million Ukrainians starved by Stalin in 1932-33 deliberate victims of state aggression and ideological terror, no less than the three million Soviet P.O.W.’s starved by Hitler in 1941-42? “Only an unabashed acceptance of the similarities between the Nazi and Soviet systems permits an understanding of their differences,” Snyder maintains.

I suppose modern “liberal” progressives have distanced themselves enough from their pro-war, pro-Communist past that they can make such paleo-conservative points:

The New Republic was founded by Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann through the financial backing of heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney and her husband, Willard Straight, who maintained majority ownership. The magazine’s first issue was published on November 7, 1914. The magazine’s politics were liberal and progressive, and as such concerned with coping with the great changes brought about by America’s late-19th century industrialization.

The magazine is widely considered important in changing the character of liberalism in the direction of governmental interventionism, both foreign and domestic. Among the most important of these was the emergence of the U.S. as a Great Power on the international scene, and in 1917 TNR urged America’s entry into World War I on the side of the Allies.

One consequence of World War I was the Russian Revolution of 1917, and during the inter-war years the magazine was generally positive in its assessment of the Soviet Union and its communist government. This changed with the start of the Cold War and the 1948 departure of leftist editor Henry A. Wallace to run for president on the Progressive ticket.

Married Couples Are No Longer a Majority

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Married couples no longer comprise a majority of American households, according to the recent census:

Married couples represented just 48 percent of American households in 2010, according to data being made public Thursday and analyzed by the Brookings Institution. This was slightly less than in 2000, but far below the 78 percent of households occupied by married couples in 1950.

An Act of Virtual War

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

The Pentagon has concluded that computer sabotage can constitute an act of war:

“If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks,” said a military official.

What Bryan Caplan would say to Amy Chua

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Gayle Trotter asks Bryan Caplan what he would say to the infamous Tiger Mom, Amy Chua:

So in her book she says that on the one hand, as a dutiful Chinese daughter-in-law she could never actually argue with her mother-in-law, but nevertheless she said she had to ignore all her mother-in-law’s parenting advice because she knew that it was doomed to fail and I would have to say, “Why would you say that her advice is doomed to fail when your husband, her son, is a Yale law professor and a best-selling author?” Seems like that is a very strong piece of evidence against you that someone can raise a child in a way that you think is totally unacceptable and not only does he become a huge success, but you married him.

Doctors Move Left

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

As more doctors move from business owner to shift worker, they also move from political right to left:

Doctors were once overwhelmingly male and usually owned their own practices. They generally favored lower taxes and regularly fought lawyers to restrict patient lawsuits. Ronald Reagan came to national political prominence in part by railing against “socialized medicine” on doctors’ behalf.

But doctors are changing. They are abandoning their own practices and taking salaried jobs in hospitals, particularly in the North, but increasingly in the South as well. Half of all younger doctors are women, and that share is likely to grow.

Notice how this shift gets framed by the New York Times:

Indeed, after opposing almost every major health overhaul proposal for nearly a century, the American Medical Association supported President Obama’s legislation last year because the new law would provide health insurance to the vast majority of the nation’s uninsured, improve competition and choice in insurance, and promote prevention and wellness, the group said.

Rise of the Llamas

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Oribatid mites thrive in llama dung, which means you can trace the rise of domesticated llamas — and thus the Inca empire — by counting mite remains in sedimentary layers:

Tracking social and economic change in Andean societies prior to the invasion of the Spanish has always been a difficult task, especially given that these cultures failed to develop any form of written record. Here we present a new method of reconstructing socio-economic shifts in a rural setting from the analysis of the frequency of oribatid mite remains present in a sedimentary lake sequence.

Oribatid mites are soil-dwelling microarthropod detritivores, some of which inhabit areas of grassland pasture. One of the primary controls governing their abundance in such habitats is the level of animal dung present. We propose that past fluctuations in mite remains can be related to the density of domestic animals using the area of pasture and, by extension, may provide a proxy for broad-scale social and economic change through time. To test this hypothesis, we analysed a high-resolution (6 years) mite record from a sequence of well-dated sediments from Marcacocha, a climatically sensitive lake site located close to an important Inca trading route across the Andes.

The timing and magnitude of mite fluctuations at Marcacocha since the 1530s show remarkable correspondence with a series of major, well-documented socio-economic shifts in the region relating to political and climatic pressures. This provided the confidence to extend the record back a further 700 years and reconstruct changes in domestic herbivore densities for a period of time that lacks historical documentation and thereby infer changes in human occupation of the basin. In particular, high mite abundances appear to correspond clearly with the rapid rise and fall of the Inca Empire (c. AD 1400–1532). We argue that small lake basins such as Marcacocha may be particularly suitable for obtaining continuous oribatid mite records and providing the possibility of reconstructing large herbivore abundances in the Andes and elsewhere.

(Hat tip to io9.)

All Sports Commentary

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

I love this description of all sports commentary — “also, all financial analysis, and, more directly, D&D”:

Children growing weaker

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

It comes as no surprise that today’s children are weaker than previous generations, but the rate of decline is staggering:

Academics led by Dr Gavin Sandercock, a children’s fitness expert at Essex University, studied how strong a group of 315 Essex 10-year-olds in 2008 were compared with 309 children the same age in 1998. They found that:

  • The number of sit-ups 10-year-olds can do declined by 27.1% between 1998 and 2008
  • Arm strength fell by 26% and grip strength by 7%
  • While one in 20 children in 1998 could not hold their own weight when hanging from wall bars, one in 10 could not do so in 2008.

“This is probably due to changes in activity patterns among English 10-year-olds, such as taking part in fewer activities like rope-climbing in PE and tree-climbing for fun,” Sandercock said. “Typically, these activities boosted children’s strength, making them able to lift and hold their own bodyweight.”

The fact that 10% could not do the wall bars test and another 10% refused to try was “really shocking”, he added. “That probably shows that climbing and holding their own weight was something they hadn’t done before.”

What are the rules your brain works by?

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Erik Barker shares his notes from reading John Medina’s Brain Rules, which explains that exercise boosts brain power, people can’t multitask, and sleep is very, very important:

Take an A student used to scoring in the top 10 percent of virtually anything she does. One study showed that if she gets just under seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and about 40 minutes more on weekends, she will begin to score in the bottom 9 percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals.

That seems… extreme.

The Nature of Genius

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Garry Kasparov was hoping that the new Bobby Fischer biography, Endgame, would explore the nature of genius more thoroughly:

The nature of genius may not be definable. Fischer’s passion for puzzles was combined with endless hours of studying and playing chess. The ability to put in those hours of work is in itself an innate gift. Hard work is a talent.

Generations of artists, authors, mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists have pondered what exactly it is that makes for a great chess player. More recently, scientists with advanced brain-scanning machines have joined the hunt, looking for hot spots of activity as a master contemplates a move. An obsessive-competitive streak is enough to create a good squash player or a good (or bad) investment banker. It’s not enough to create someone like Fischer.

This is not meant to be a compliment, necessarily. Many strong chess players go on to successful careers as currency and stock traders, so I suppose there is considerable crossover in the pattern-matching and intuitive calculation skills required. But the aptitude for playing chess is nothing more than that. My argument has always been that what you learn from using the skills you have — analyzing your strengths and weaknesses — is far more important. If you can program yourself to learn from your experiences by assiduously reviewing what worked and what did not, and why, success in chess can be very valuable indeed. In this way, the game has taught me a great deal about my own decision-making processes that is applicable in other areas, but that effort has little to do with natural gifts.

Pirate Economics

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Let’s look at pirate economics:

In the first three months of this year, Somali pirates attacked 97 ships (and captured 15), compared to 35 attacked in the first three months of 2010. Last year, pirates got paid over $200 million in ransom. Most of that was taken by the pirate gang leaders, local warlords and Persian Gulf negotiators who deal with the shipping companies. But for the pirates who took the ship, then helped guard it for months until the money was paid, the take was still huge. Pirates who actually boarded the ship tend to receive at least $150,000 each, which is ten times what the average Somali man makes over his entire lifetime. Even the lowest ranking member of the pirate gang gets a few thousand dollars per ransom.

The general rule is that half the ransom goes to the financiers, the gang leaders and ransom negotiators. About a quarter of the money goes to the crew that took the ship, with a bonus for whoever got on board first. The pirates who guard the ship and look after the crew gets ten percent, About ten percent goes to local clans and warlords, as protection money (or bribes).

There is no shortage of eager young Somalis seeking to join the pirate gangs. Most will not get much more than weapons, food, and the use of a speed boat. If they want to make more, they have to capture a ship and hold it for ransom. The dozen or so pirate gangs, led by men who were local warlords or tribal leaders, get really rich. There are plenty of local warlords and merchants who will finance new pirate gangs, in return for up to 50 percent of whatever that gang gets in ransoms over a certain period. The money men will advance several hundred thousand dollars, often selling needed weapons and equipment, as well as providing technical advice. For the pirates, it’s a business.

There are three basic strategies for dealing with pirates:

You can do what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The rule appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won’t stop the pirates from capturing ships. Establishing a similar anti-piracy patrol off the east coast of Africa would cost over half a billion dollars a year, at least.

A second approach is to be more aggressive. That is, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of “unarmed” men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat, or larger mother ship. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media.

The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too. The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships as last year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. Total cost to shipping companies (ransoms, extra fuel, security equipment and services) is over $5 billion a year.

For example, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $300 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia.

The Wrestlemania VII Dead Pool

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

One-quarter of Wrestlemania VII’s performers have died in the 20 years since the 1991 show:

The list of wrestlers who have died since 1991 include some of the biggest stars in the sport like Savage, Andre the Giant, Miss Elizabeth and The British Bulldog. Causes of death include suicides, murder and heart attacks, some the result of years of anabolic steroid use. Savage died last week after suffering an apparent heart attack behind the wheel of his truck. His ex-wife, Miss Elizabeth, passed away after overdosing on a variety of drugs in 2003.

As points out, none of the 44 starters from the Super Bowl played in 1991 have passed away and only two of 44 boxers who held a championship belt that year are gone.

Brown v. Plata

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Judge Scalia wrote a dissent in response to the recent Brown v. Plata ruling that called for the release of 46,000 California prisoners:

Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: an  order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals.

There comes before us, now and then, a case whose proper outcome is so clearly indicated by tradition and common sense, that its decision ought to shape the law, rather than vice versa. One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result. Today, quite to the contrary, the Court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the governing statute, and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd.

The proceedings that led to this result were a judicial travesty. I dissent because the institutional reform the District Court has undertaken violates the terms of the governing statute, ignores bedrock limitations on the power of Article III judges, and takes federal courts wildly beyond their institutional capacity.

How to tell when someone’s lying

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

UCLA professor R. Edward Geiselman has studied how to tell when someone’s lying:

When questioned, deceptive people generally want to say as little as possible. Geiselman initially thought they would tell an elaborate story, but the vast majority give only the bare-bones. Studies with college students, as well as prisoners, show this. Geiselman’s investigative interviewing techniques are designed to get people to talk.

Although deceptive people do not say much, they tend to spontaneously give a justification for what little they are saying, without being prompted.

They tend to repeat questions before answering them, perhaps to give themselves time to concoct an answer.

They often monitor the listener’s reaction to what they are saying. “They try to read you to see if you are buying their story,” Geiselman said.

They often initially slow down their speech because they have to create their story and monitor your reaction, and when they have it straight “will spew it out faster,” Geiselman said. Truthful people are not bothered if they speak slowly, but deceptive people often think slowing their speech down may look suspicious. “Truthful people will not dramatically alter their speech rate within a single sentence,” he said.

They tend to use sentence fragments more frequently than truthful people; often, they will start an answer, back up and not complete the sentence.

They are more likely to press their lips when asked a sensitive question and are more likely to play with their hair or engage in other “grooming” behaviors. Gesturing toward one’s self with the hands tends to be a sign of deception; gesturing outwardly is not.

Truthful people, if challenged about details, will often deny that they are lying and explain even more, while deceptive people generally will not provide more specifics.

When asked a difficult question, truthful people will often look away because the question requires concentration, while dishonest people will look away only briefly, if at all, unless it is a question that should require intense concentration.

He recommends the following tricks:

Have people tell their story backwards, starting at the end and systematically working their way back. Instruct them to be as complete and detailed as they can. This technique, part of a “cognitive interview” Geiselman co-developed with Ronald Fisher, a former UCLA psychologist now at Florida International University, “increases the cognitive load to push them over the edge.” A deceptive person, even a “professional liar,” is “under a heavy cognitive load” as he tries to stick to his story while monitoring your reaction.

Ask open-ended questions to get them to provide as many details and as much complete information as possible (“Can you tell me more about…?” “Tell me exactly…”). First ask general questions, and only then get more specific.

Don’t interrupt, let them talk and use silent pauses to encourage them to talk.

Nuclear Rapture

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

I don’t have much trouble quietly reading a book or working on a laptop, but I’ve noticed that many air-travelers do. A few years ago, a young guy sitting next to me on a not-particularly-long flight seemed anxious to talk — and I was surprised to learn that he was in the Navy and had served on a nuclear submarine.

But what brings this to mind is the more surprising tidbit he shared: he was a good, God-fearin’ Christian, and he expected the Rapture to come anytime soon — and when it did, people would be whisked up to Heaven, leaving their clothes and things behind, just like that. I’m pretty sure his deep study of theology consisted of Left Behind novels.

I didn’t feel so comfortable knowing that our nuclear subs might be crewed by individuals sharing his eschatological views. I just hope the captain of his old boat maintains his purity of essence.