The Battle at Lake Changjin was sponsored by the Chinese government and deliberately timed for release before the country’s National Day holiday

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

The Battle at Lake Changjin is a three-hour-long war epic about the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, and it has grossed $769 million in China since its release less than three weeks ago:

It’s currently on track to become the highest-grossing film in Chinese history, surpassing “Wolf Warriors II,” which made $882 million upon its release back in 2017.

As the Chinese box office is the largest in the world, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is technically the biggest film in the international movie market, even outearning the new James Bond flick, “No Time To Die,” according to the industry outlet.

[…]

“The~ Battle at Lake Changjin” was sponsored by the Chinese government and deliberately timed for release on Sept. 30 — a day before the country’s National Day holiday.

The release of the big-budget blockbuster — which cost $200 million to make — also comes just months after China’s Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The film’s release also coincides with Beijing’s growing aggression against Taiwan.

Over the weekend — as millions of Chinese moviegoers flocked to watch the film — it was reported that China has recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

We want to replace much more than 100% of current gas, coal, and oil with zero-carbon sources of electricity

Sunday, October 10th, 2021

Over the centuries, Matthew Yglesias reminds us, people have invented many different kinds of machines that help us do things and improve living standards:

But in a very general way, what most of these inventions do is let us substitute some form of power for human effort. And as long as we were totally ignoring the costs of burning coal and oil, this was a great mechanism for progress — you invent new ways to do things by burning coal and oil, so then you burn more coal and oil.

But since the mid-1970s we’ve been increasingly aware of the limits and problems with this model, and it’s put us on an energy diet. Now when we invent something cool, we often have to say “too bad the energy requirements are so high.”

But as Ryan Avent (from whom I borrowed that chart) and others have written, this is a backward way of looking at things. The turn toward conservation and efficiency was a necessary evil in an era when we couldn’t come up with a better way to deal with geopolitical instability linked to oil and pollution linked to all forms of fossil fuels.

Instead, we should raise our clean energy production ambitions. We don’t want to replace 100% of our current dirty energy — we want to generate vastly more energy than we are currently using and make it zero carbon.

What difference does it make in how you look at it?

In the “energy is a necessary evil” frame, we look at our current electricity needs and then ask, “How can we generate all that from zero-carbon sources?” In the alternate framing, you say that to the extent we can develop affordable, zero-carbon sources of electricity, we want to generate tons and tons of electricity. Ideally, we would want to replace much more than 100% of current gas, coal, and oil with zero-carbon sources of electricity and use that to literally power a bold new era of rapid economic growth.

I find that this vision tends not to be intuitively compelling to a lot of people who are accustomed to living in the efficiency era. But let’s just imagine a world with small modular nuclear reactors and advanced geothermal energy production — a world in which we have plenty of baseline power. As our ability to make batteries gets better and better, we can put them all in vehicles rather than using them to address intermittent renewables. Then when the sun shines or the wind blows, we have even more power that we can use for stuff that doesn’t need to be on all the time. It’s a world of energy abundance — Lewis Strauss’ dream of electricity that’s “too cheap to meter.”

John Lennon was embarrassed by his former radicalism

Saturday, October 9th, 2021

Today is John Lennon’s birthday, and I’d like to once again remind people that by 1979 Lennon was embarrassed by his former radicalism — at least according to Fred Seaman, who was his assistant at the time:

John, basically, made it very clear that if he were an American he would vote for Reagan because he was really sour on Jimmy Carter.

[...]

I also saw John embark in some really brutal arguments with my uncle, who’s an old-time communist… He enjoyed really provoking my uncle… Maybe he was being provocative… but it was pretty obvious to me he had moved away from his earlier radicalism.

He was a very different person back in 1979 and 80 than he’d been when he wrote Imagine. By 1979 he looked back on that guy and was embarrassed by that guy’s naivete.

He would not respect rules and regulations that threatened to prevent him from achieving his mission objectives

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

The troops and officers from some of the least belligerent nations in the world — namely, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway — turned out to be quite adept at both using force and playing the odds in the high-stakes political game played in Bosnia:

In late 1993, a reinforced Swedish-Danish-Norwegian mechanized battalion (Nordbat 2) deployed to Bosnia as part of an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission, known as UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force). The battalion was under Swedish command, and with the exception of a Danish tank company and a Norwegian helicopter detachment, was comprised of Swedish former conscripts, led by active-duty officers. The former conscripts had volunteered to return from civilian life to serve in a professional capacity. These Swedish troops, coming from a nation that had not experienced war for almost 200 years, faced a rigid UN bureaucracy, an unclear mandate, and the UN-imposed rules of engagement bordered on the absurd. However, the Swedes had one thing the others didn’t: a culture of mission command that had grown and developed for decades.

[…]

The Swedish Armed Forces were consequently trained to respond to a massive Soviet invasion force, which was expected to attack over land (via Finland), across the Baltic Sea, and by deploying airborne units. The Swedish Army estimated that a breakdown of command and control was a likely scenario as the Soviets would inevitably disrupt communications, destroy command centers, and seize territory, thereby isolating segments of the Swedish Army. In order to cope with this contingency, all units were trained to engage in what was known as “the free war,” (i.e. autonomous operations against local targets, without centralized command). The free war was intended as a last resort, which would only end when the invader had finally retreated. The official doctrine stated that all Swedish citizens were to, without exception, consider any order to surrender to be false, regardless of its origin. This was even printed in all phone books, which also contained instructions for the civilian population in case of war.

Considering that all Swedish Army units were expected to be able to operate autonomously, the culture of mission command completely permeated the entire organization. The officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), all the way down to the lowest-ranking enlisted men, were taught that the only truly mortal sin was to hesitate. To seize the initiative and act was the primary imperative. There was no priority higher than that of achieving the mission objectives at hand. Orders could be disobeyed, rules could be broken—as long as the mission was successful.

The battalion commanders who deployed to Bosnia to take charge of Nordbat 2 had spent their entire professional lives in this culture, and their men had known it since the earliest days of their own military training. To them, it was as natural as breathing.

[…]

Shortly after it had been deployed to Bosnia in December 1993, Nordbat 2 found itself in its first serious hostile encounter. A Swedish platoon was sent to relieve a Canadian company which was providing security for a mostly abandoned hospital compound in a remote area. As soon as the Canadians left, a Croatian battalion-sized unit showed up and promptly mined the only road leading to the compound, ensuring that the Swedes would be unable to receive reinforcements.

Then they issued an ultimatum: hand over the three Muslim nurses, and we will leave you alone. The Swedish platoon leader, Captain Stewe Simson, radioed battalion command, and was told that it was his call to make, since he was the one in charge at the location. Captain Simson refused to hand over the nurses and instead ordered his men to prepare for combat.

Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, Captain Simson realized that it was unrealistic to expect that his unit would survive a full-out assault. Nevertheless, he was determined not to give in. The Croats started to fire mortar rounds, but the Swedes held their positions. After a few hours, the Croats issued a new ultimatum: the nurses could stay if the Croats were granted free passage to the compound. Again, Captain Simson refused. The situation remained tense throughout the night, with the Swedes maintaining full combat readiness. In the morning, the Croats negotiated with the Swedes and eventually left, quietly dropping their ultimatums. Nordbat 2 had shown resolve even in the face of hopeless odds, achieving a strategically important victory as a result of a decision made by a platoon commander.

Other incidents followed. When fired at, Nordbat 2 often shot back, frequently disregarding the UN rules of engagement. Colonel Henricsson made it clear that he would not respect rules and regulations that threatened to prevent him from achieving his mission objectives. When his own government tried to rein him in, he simply told his radio operator to pretend that the link was down until he had a fait accompli to present to Stockholm.

In one particularly infamous incident, the Bosnian Serb Army set up an ambush for the battalion’s Danish tank company. By launching a feint attack against a remote outpost, the Bosnian Serb Army lured a detachment from the tank company to drive straight into a trap. Anti-tank missiles and heavy guns opened up from concealed positions. Once the Danes started to take fire, their response was furious. The detachment commander simply told his crews to neutralize the anti-tank positions. The Leopard tanks directed accurate and deadly fire against the Bosnian Serb Army positions, using up no less than 72 main gun rounds. One by one, the anti-tank missile batteries and gun positions fell silent. During the fight, a Bosnian Serb Army ammunition supply was hit, resulting in a large explosion. After the engagement, Nordbat 2 estimated that as many as 150 troops may have been killed, although the Bosnian Serb Army denied this.

The incident greatly upset the UN regional command, which threatened to relieve Nordbat 2′s battalion commander and have him sent back to Sweden. Nevertheless, Nordbat 2 had once again refused to let the parties to the conflict dictate the terms of its deployment. In several other incidents, Nordbat 2 personnel intervened to protect refugees and took action to prevent the cover-up of ethnic cleansing operations. On several occasions this took the form of forcing passage through roadblocks. During one such event, the battalion commander himself forced a sentry to remove the anti-tank mines used to block passage by threatening to blow the sentry’s head off with a heavy machine gun.

(Hat tip to Dominic Cummings.)

Harden’s Folly

Friday, October 1st, 2021

Steve Sailer describes Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery as Harden’s Folly:

After years of trying out on the science conference circuit her arguments for why the Woke shouldn’t be so anti-genetics, The Genetic Lottery is finally here. It turns out to be an elaborately contrived triple-bank-shot attempt to head off growing Ibram X. Kendi-style science denialism by claiming that ignoring the influence of genetics upon human differences just enables the Real Bad Guys, led by archvillain Charles Murray, to easily dunk on the libs:

When social scientists routinely fail to integrate genetics into their models of human development, they leave space for a false narrative that portrays the insights of genetics as a Pandora’s box of “forbidden knowledge.”… Why would we want to hand people opposed to the goals of social equality a powerful rhetorical weapon, in the form of a widely prevalent and easily understood methodological flaw in social research?

[…]

The Genetic Lottery is all over the map. Some people try not to get canceled by adopting an obscure prose style. Harden, instead, artlessly expresses herself, and then goes back and says the opposite later.

[…]

Harden is proud of her book’s title:

A lottery is a perfect metaphor for describing genetic inheritance: the genome of every person is the outcome of nature’s Powerball.

But, except for the potential big payoff, lotteries are boring. In contrast, how a particular baby gets made is fascinating on multiple levels: scientific, sociological, romantic, and erotic. A less bad metaphor for how humans are conceived would be poker, a game that combines luck, strategy, and psychology. Murray, by the way, plays poker.

Moreover, Murray is an Aristotelian. The Greeks valued excellence not just for what it could do for the poor, but for its own sake.

This can lead to excessive Nietzscheanism. Yet, Harden’s Rawlsian conviction that society must be organized around helping the lowest potential people narrow gaps seems comparably unbalanced. The old Benthamite notion of the greatest good for the greatest number seems more sensible (but is out of fashion for its majoritarianism).

Harden propounds a sophomoric view that intelligence is “socially valued, not inherently valuable,” and follows that up with a conspiracy theory that early-20th-century eugenicists plotted to get us:

…to see intelligence (as measured on standardized IQ tests) and educational success, perhaps more than any other human phenotypes, in terms of a hierarchy of inferior and superior persons is not an accident. It is an idea that was deliberately crafted and disseminated.

In truth, intelligence has been viewed as valuable for a lot longer than that. For instance, the most famous work of ancient philosophy, Plato’s Republic, is basically about why philosophers deserve to be kings.

More reasonably, the Greeks felt it smart to invest the most in the education of the highest potential students. Thus, it used to be seen as a good thing that Plato had Socrates for a teacher and Aristotle for a pupil. Similarly, society invested heavily in the young Harden’s potential, granting her a full ride to a private college due to her high test scores.

The ideology of The Genetic Lottery seems motivated in sizable measure by Harden’s maternal feelings for her two very different children. One of her children is healthy and bright, while the other, to whom Harden devotes more of her efforts, was born with a congenital defect.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell

Thursday, September 30th, 2021

I had been meaning to read the copy of The Quiet American on my shelf for some time, when I finally got the audiobook and listened to it instead. As Wikipedia explains, Greene worked as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954 and was inspired to write The Quiet American while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province in October 1951, when he was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”.

The two main characters are the first-person narrator, Thomas Fowler, a jaded British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than two years, and the quiet American of the title, Alden Pyle, an idealistic Harvard man working for the recently renamed OSS.

I wasn’t even aware of the 2002 film, but its casting seems perfect: Michael Caine as Fowler, and Brendan Fraser as Pyle. There’s a reason I hadn’t noticed its release:

The first rough cut was screened to a test audience on September 10, 2001 and received positive ratings. However, the September 11 attacks took place the next day, and audience ratings dropped with each subsequent screening. Reacting to criticism of the film’s “unpatriotic” message, Miramax shelved the film for a year. It was finally screened publicly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The film received an Oscar qualification release in November 2002 and a limited release in January 2003.

Fowler is painfully cynical, and Pyle is painfully earnest, leading to remarks like these:

  • I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.
  • That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
  • Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?
  • I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
  • He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.
  • God save us always from the innocent and the good.
  • They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about…

The novel seems oddly prescient — and, like Cassandra, unheeded:

However, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticised by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people. According to critic Philip Stratford, “American readers were incensed, perhaps not so much because of the biased portrait of obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism in Alden Pyle, but because in this case it was drawn with such acid pleasure by a middle-class English snob like Thomas Fowler whom they were all too ready to identify with Greene himself”.

One small line from the novel caught my attention: “the restaurant had an iron grille to keep out grenades.”

Nobody will pay you more for cleaner air directly

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

Alex Tabarrok finds it puzzling that there isn’t more attention given to air filtration and UV light disinfection in hospitals, since these techniques have been shown to kill superbugs:

The authors installed portable air filters with UV disinfection on two COVID hospital wards in the UK. The air was tested for viruses, bacteria and fungi before the filters were turned on, during the time the filters were on and then again after the filters were turned off.

The results:

Airborne SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the ward on all five days before activation of air/UV filtration, but on none of the five days when the air/UV filter was operational; SARS-CoV-2 was again detected on four out of five days when the filter was off.

Importantly, in addition to greatly reducing SARS-CoV-2 the portable filters and UV light also greatly reduced multiple viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens.

A commenter explains why this hasn’t become common practice already:

The main regulation rests largely on ASHRAE 170-2017. That in turn has been addended over a dozen times since the pandemic began. We have done things to change how air is handled in light of these and the more direct regulators (e.g. the Joint Commission) are adapting.

But it is not trivial to do all of this. Some hospitals have ductwork that is over a 100 years old. Adding in UV creates problems for reactive species in the air. And then there is the problem that any refits (e.g. to handle higher pressures/volumes) often means opening up the ceilings inside the ICUs or going through the floor in the the floor above. These are highly disruptive activities at the best of times. When you are (or may soon) be at or above bed capacity, well not the best time to bring in a small legion of contractors to close large areas of the hospital.

Then, yes, money is a huge thing. Funny thing is, nobody will pay you more for cleaner air directly. You might be able to eke out some sort of capital return through fewer nosocomial infections or uncharged readmissions, but those are speculative returns at this point and pretty long run things when, again, right now beds in many places are still exceptionally highly utilized. Worse, when you do open up the tubes and start mucking around there is a very high risk that you will disturb some collection of spores that has found some dark corner to accumulate in over the last few decades. When you have a bunch folks who already have respiratory compromise, this is a particularly bad time to risk that sort of contamination.

So faced with high upfront costs, a strong litigation risk, and remote cost savings, this is not a priority right now. If you want a massive overhaul of the air system right now it is going to need liability waivers and giveaways to the AHA crowd. A slower roll out via changes in ASHRAE and the like is already underway, but I figure it will be over a decade before everyone updates.

New York City’s police commissioner on 9/11 sounded like he was right out of central casting

Sunday, September 12th, 2021

When I listened to a recent interview with Bernard Kerik, who was New York City’s police commissioner on 9/11, he sounded like he was right out of central casting — a New York tough guy that I couldn’t quite trust.

His goes from dropping out of high school, to joining the army, to working security for the Saudi royal family, to joining the NYPD, to becoming Rudy Giuliani’s personal bodyguard, to taking over as commissioner of the city Department of Corrections, to becoming police commissioner, to being appointed Interim Minister of Interior of Iraq!

Men are abandoning higher education

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels:

At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.

This education gap, which holds at both two- and four-year colleges, has been slowly widening for 40 years. The divergence increases at graduation: After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018 compared with 59% of men during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.

No reversal is in sight. Women increased their lead over men in college applications for the 2021-22 school year — 3,805,978 to 2,815,810 — by nearly a percentage point compared with the previous academic year, according to Common Application, a nonprofit that transmits applications to more than 900 schools. Women make up 49% of the college-age population in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.

[...]

The college gender gap cuts across race, geography and economic background. For the most part, white men — once the predominant group on American campuses — no longer hold a statistical edge in enrollment rates, said Mr. Mortenson, of the Pell Institute. Enrollment rates for poor and working-class white men are lower than those of young Black, Latino and Asian men from the same economic backgrounds, according to an analysis of census data by the Pell Institute for the Journal.

There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization

Tuesday, September 7th, 2021

So what would persuade the unvaccinated?

A recent iteration of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey asked unvaccinated Americans about their reasons for putting off or refusing vaccination against COVID-19, and allowed them to select more than one option, resulting in a set of ranked concerns for COVID-vaccine skeptics. Just more than half of the respondents listed the potential side effects of the vaccines as a major concern. Perhaps they’ve been paying attention to the news. The New York Times recently reported that myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, is more common after COVID-19 vaccination; likewise, NPR featured a story earlier this month on university researchers looking into thousands of claims of menstrual changes following vaccination, and two days later Reuters ran a news article noting that European regulators were probing a skin rash and a pair of kidney disorders as possible side effects of the vaccines. None of these potential side effects has yet been verified by rigorous research. I think the vaccines are worth the slate of (what appear to me to be) relatively minor known risks (particularly when weighed against the risks of severe complications from getting COVID-19), and I haven’t had any sort of trouble since my Pfizer shots, which I got back in April — but that set of concerns is at least distinct from the total recalcitrance sometimes imputed to the unvaccinated.

Down the list we go: Nearly four in 10 unvaccinated Americans don’t trust the vaccines, which might be an expression of concern about either efficacy or side effects; a similar proportion want to wait and see whether they’re safe, which, again, is a deflatingly concrete concern, if not the decision I would (and did) make in the same situation. A third don’t trust the government (brothers and sisters: same here), and only then do we arrive at the just less than a quarter who don’t believe they personally need a vaccine. A rung down, after the 22 percent who aren’t sure that the vaccines are actually protective, are another 17 percent who don’t see COVID-19 as a major threat — a fairly small minority, all things considered.

What strikes me about the responses of the unvaccinated — as opposed to the tempting caricature presented by their worst representatives in pulpits and politics — is that there does seem to be significant willingness to consider vaccination, though I doubt that persuasion lies in lurid accounts of death or allegations that the unvaccinated themselves are guilty of killing those who end up infected. There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization — the god-awful inclination of each political faction to double down on its worst tendencies when opponents satirize or criticize them — worsened by the gross incentives of traditional and social media. But skepticism precludes certainty. That means there’s still openness — to the right kind of persuasion.

If the process is meritocratic, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top

Monday, September 6th, 2021

Humans are social learners, Arnold Kling reminds us:

We have to trust other people in order to gain knowledge and to make decisions. Our social epistemology will not get better by simply showing less deference to people who have a reputation for expertise.

I believe that the fundamental issue in social epistemology is the process by which people climb the status hierarchy. If the process is meritocratic, as in a chess tournament, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top. If the process is corrupted, by rules that are unfair or easily gamed. then the high-status people are not so worthy of our trust. But the solution to corruption is to improve the process, not (just) to belittle high-status people.

[…]

How do I determine that you are knowledgeable in a field? If I knew enough to independently verify your knowledge, then I would not need your expertise. Since I cannot personally evaluate your knowledge, I rely on a signal. The fundamental social challenge is to make sure that these signals are accurate.

Incumbents with high status in a field usually participate in setting up and operating the signaling system in their field. To at least some degree, this is desirable. You want doctors involved in the system that decides the qualification for who becomes a doctor.

But you also need a system that is open to innovation and capable of discarding conventional views that turn out to be wrong. If there is insufficient competition, an entire field can decay. I saw this happen in macroeconomics in the 1980s, as Stanley Fischer all but monopolized the placement at prestige universities of young macroeconomic specialists. Students who did not want to conform to Fischer’s approach ended up avoiding macroeconomics and/or accepting low-status placements. The result, in my opinion, was the atrophy of macroeconomics.

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies

Sunday, September 5th, 2021

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies than the U.S. military:

Since the days of its Office of Strategic Services forebearers, the CIA has been able to get two core principles of covert training and support missions right: Politics is local, and people fight for their families, beliefs, and survival. Obligation to community — or for many, religion — trumps flags and oaths to relatively new constitutions of artificial states ratified by distant strangers to whom these soldiers have no personal or communal loyalty. Training and support, therefore, isn’t an off-the-shelf solution but rather a custom fit.

Even the most conservative estimates suggest Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Lebanese Armed Forces in the early to mid-1980s and billions building national armies in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, only to see these forces collapse in the face of what Americans perceived to be their enemies. The reality, of course, was that these national armies comprised soldiers who were being ordered to face opposing forces, in some cases from their own communities, or to sacrifice their lives in contests that had no meaning for themselves, their families, or their clans. And they were often led by officers to whom they felt no loyalty or connection apart from a common uniform.

Politically, bureaucratically, and logistically, the U.S. military blueprint tends to assume an integrated force in which the fighters are loyal to the central government and the officers under whom they serve, regardless of their superiors’ ethnicity, religion, or clan. Order of battle, strategy, and tactics are likewise aligned to U.S. strengths and norms, rather than tailored to cultural, historic, geographic, educational, or topographic local realities. Washington then proceeds to arm such troops with weapons too complex and expensive for their use and often unsuitable for the terrain or the enemy’s tactics (for example, Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the Lebanese army or MD 530 helicopters to the Afghan army). Furthermore, there is often no way to measure effectiveness or monitor corruption.

In 2016, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) acknowledged to Congress that, in many cases, “U.S. funding dedicated to the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] was wasted, whether inefficiently spent on worthwhile endeavors or squandered on activities that delivered no apparent benefit.” Moreover, SIGAR listed five major challenges confronting U.S. efforts to develop the ANDSF that were never overcome: 1) limited oversight visibility; 2) questionable force strength numbers; 3) unreliable capability assessments; 4) limited on-budget assistance capacity; and 5) uncertain long-term sustainability.

The CIA is by its own culture focused on people and relationships. Whereas the U.S. defense establishment is replete with unrivaled experts in their vocational fields, the CIA assigns people to such programs who blend technical prowess with interest and depth in the local history and culture and whose approach is informed by intelligence. The drawback of this approach is that there aren’t enough personnel with Arabic- and other foreign-language skills to scale the program. Nevertheless, CIA officers work more intimately with their foreign counterparts and often remain in such programs, rotating repeatedly with the units they support. Rather than being separated in distant fortresses, CIA teams are more typically collocated with their partners without walls or other barriers between them.

People begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics

Thursday, September 2nd, 2021

I was aware that a gutta percha walking stick was used in the famous caning of Charles Sumner, but I had assumed that gutta percha was simply a hard wood, ideal for walking sticks, but gutta percha in much more interesting than that:

The stick is made of gutta percha, the hardened latex of the Palaquium gutta tree, originally native to Malaysia. This is a natural “thermoplastic” substance, meaning it can be softened with heat and shaped into a form that is retained on cooling. Gutta percha was introduced to Europe in 1842 by Dr. William Montgomerie, a surgeon serving with the British army in the East Indies who had come across the substance in Singapore, where it was being used to make handles for machetes. He thought the substance would be useful to produce handles for medical devices as well as splints for fractures.

Victorian society quickly took to gutta percha. Chess pieces, mirror cases and jewelry were fabricated with it, and dentists found it useful for filling cavities. But perhaps the biggest impact was on the game of golf. At the time, golf balls were made of feather-stuffed leather, were expensive, and not exactly aerodynamic. Balls fashioned out of gutta percha were cheaper and flew further. When they were dinged up, these “gutties” could be repaired by softening in boiled water, and then reshaping in a hand press. The ball’s popularity increased when it was discovered that grooves cut into the surface allowed for a longer flight. Gutties were the ball of choice until about 1900, when they were replaced by the Haskell ball, made of a solid core of rubber wrapped tightly with rubber threads.

Interestingly, rubber, which is also an exudate of a tree, and gutta percha have almost identical molecular structures. They are both polymers of a simple molecule, isoprene, so can be termed as polyisoprenes, but different “kinks” in the long molecules, referred to as “cis” or “trans,” allow for different properties. While gutta percha is thermoplastic, rubber is thermosetting, meaning that once formed into a shape it cannot be reshaped with heat. The rubber used in the Haskell ball was “vulcanized,” a process introduced by Charles Goodyear, who discovered that treating natural rubber with sulphur allowed it to be made into a very hard material. It turns out that the sulphur atoms cross-link the cis polyisoprene units to form a tough latex.

Michael Faraday, the brilliant English scientist who carried out numerous experiments with electricity, found that gutta percha was an excellent insulator — a property that allowed it to be put to use as a coating for the newfangled telegraph cables. In a monumental engineering undertaking between 1854 and 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, insulated with gutta percha, was laid down. Unfortunately, it quickly failed. But by 1865, improvements in technology resulted in a properly functioning gutta percha-insulated telegraph cable that allowed messages to be sent between the continents in a few minutes. Prior to this, communication was via ships and could take weeks. Gutta percha proved to be a huge triumph and served well until it was eventually replaced by polyethylene insulation.

[…]

In 1856, Democrat Preston Brooks brutally attacked Republican Sumner with his walking stick on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sumner, a dedicated abolitionist, had made a strong speech against slavery, a practice that Brooks favoured. The attack was so violent that Brooks’s gutta percha cane broke into pieces, some of which were recovered from the Senate floor and cut into rings that southern lawmakers wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks, who boasted that people begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)

Dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021

We can divide what went wrong in Afghanistan into three decision-making failures, John Robb says, each owing to an inability to update operating assumptions:

First, a failure to accept that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and adapt to the situation once it was apparent. Second, a failure to adapt to the speed of the Taliban’s offensive by building contingencies to protect the U.S. evacuation effort. Finally, a failure to appreciate the dangers of being besieged in Kabul and to take steps to protect U.S. troops and civilians.

[…]

The leadership’s unshakable attachment to the viability of the Afghan government and the success of nation-building wasn’t based on evidence. It was a belief based on a political and institutional need that it be true. It was necessary to maintain the illusion that the U.S. was there to modernize and globally integrate Afghanistan at the political level. Institutionally, it was needed to justify the losses (thousands of U.S. lives) and vast expense (trillions of dollars) already consumed by the venture and protect the careers of those involved with it. As a result of these imperatives, dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy and by political factions committed to the social-reform effort there.

[…]

Guerrilla wars are slow-moving conflicts fought in the moral sphere. You can picture a guerrilla war as opposing planets competing through gravitational attraction. The way you fight it is to create the highest gravity possible (a moral pull that attracts: incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism) while causing the competing planet to break apart (moral repulsion: corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses). Because of the dynamics of this type of warfare, when victory arrives, it often does so suddenly, with the complete disintegration of the opponent. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and we should have quickly accepted this fact.

[…]

When it became clear in July that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and were conducting a maneuver-based offensive to take the country, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Chief among them should have been retaking the abandoned and defensible (not surrounded by a heavily populated city) Bagram airbase north of Kabul to ensure air support and evacuation missions were always available, particularly if the single runway at Kabul’s airport was damaged or denied. With Bagram swiftly reopened, stepped up air-support missions for the Afghan army could have been provided, slowing the Taliban’s advance. Additionally, special operations units could have been employed to evacuate civilian personnel stranded by the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance. And the leadership should have radically sped up the evacuation of U.S. civilians and accelerated the awarding of visas to Afghan nationals who might be at risk. It didn’t: the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee—more for non-citizens—and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash, up until August 20, five days after the fall of Kabul.

Instead of adapting, the U.S. leadership froze — overloaded by a fast-moving ground campaign that constantly shifted priorities and disoriented by deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo. While the U.S. talked, the Taliban acted. The result: textbook maneuver warfare. It was so effective that when the Taliban began to take major cities in early August, all American leaders could do was plead with the Taliban for mercy.

[…]

As the evacuation dragged on, it became increasingly evident, even to a U.S. leadership unwilling to admit it, that the Taliban could turn the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. To prevent this outcome, the U.S. was undoubtedly forced to make concessions to the Taliban. On the surface, this took the form of government public messaging that increasingly depicted the Taliban as reformed and reasonable rulers of a new Afghanistan — trustworthy partners who would help protect the U.S. mission from harm and assist in evacuations. Behind the scenes, there may also have been concessions on removing the Taliban from terrorist watch lists, removing trade restrictions, and providing access to Afghan government funds. Announcements on such concessions, if they occurred, would obviously be delayed due to the political costs of revealing them now; by the end of 2021, we’ll probably know the extent of the capitulation.

[…]

Despite this failure, it’s likely that nothing will be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. Politicized analysis of the retreat will depict it as a victory for diplomacy. Few U.S. soldiers were killed, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Further, claims will be made that any analysis that doesn’t support this narrative is the equivalent of delusional disinformation. The institutional failures that prevented successful adaptation, from recognizing the failure of nation-building to the danger of relying on a single point of failure during a military evacuation, will be glossed over and forgotten. From the start of the effort decades ago to its ignoble end, nobody responsible for the venture will accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.

How do we build more exceptional institutions?

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

In a world where functional institutions are now the exception, Samo Burja asks, how do we build more exceptional institutions?

A key component of institutional health is personnel — people who understand the social system. Every institution has an official “org chart” and set of protocols, but beneath the org chart lies a deposit of “intellectual dark matter” vital to the institution’s function: private social networks, unwritten plans, roles with more or less power than officially stated, and more. This institutional memory resides in the heads of people who know how to use it.

Such people are essential to the maintenance of existing systems. A healthy organization needs leaders who understand not only what is being done but also why it is being done, which allows them to see which areas are succeeding or failing. Departments may be succeeding according to internal metrics but failing to advance the general mission of the organization. It often takes unusual skill to tell these apart. Without enough such people to repair internal drift and respond to changes in the external environment, an organization will become corrupt and obsolete.

Once an institution has enough people who understand the social system, the second key component is effective meritocracy. Merit must be defined in accordance with the logic of the specific institution. Skilled people must end up in the right roles or their talents will achieve very little. Healthy institutions don’t need to achieve the philosophical ideal of perfection. Rather, they need to get enough good people into responsible positions and put highly capable people into the most demanding roles. In most domains, relationships, soft skills, and effective combinations of skills — such as Scott Adams’s concept of talent stacks — tend to be more relevant to success than marginal differences in pure skill. Moreover, an effective meritocracy does not ignore the problem of trust and coordination between its meritocrats. Trustworthiness, loyalty, and other people skills are as important qualities as narrow skill in a domain. The competent people in an organization have to get along, one way or another, or nothing will get done.

This is especially true in politics. President John F. Kennedy was highly capable as a politician, but his success also depended on his looks, charisma, and family resources. He appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, to be attorney general. An ideal meritocracy would condemn this as nepotism, but it would hardly make sense for JFK to have combed the earth looking for the objectively “best” candidate when he had a loyal, capable brother who was a graduate of Harvard and conversant with his aims. The degree of trust and loyalty between them outweighed any considerations for a marginally more competent lawyer when it came to the question of coordinating on government policy. Historically, dynasties like this were unremarkable, as it was widely recognized that family members would be motivated to work together.

Counterintuitively, this type of meritocracy can sometimes coexist with a rigid class system. For example, Britain in the 1700s was a highly stratified society, with hereditary nobility at the top of the social pyramid. Nevertheless, many of the most powerful people came from the middle class and gentry. Government ministers like Robert Walpole, generals like Robert Clive, and industrialists like Boulton and Watt faced few barriers as they rose to greatness and contributed to the dominance of the British Empire, while less competent nobility retained social privileges without real power. Weaker class barriers could have increased the pool of potential leaders even further, but so long as the pool is large enough, a society can thrive.

Training and education are essential to institutional continuity. A new generation of skilled people must be intentionally cultivated. Autodidacts may sometimes rise on their own, but never in sufficient numbers to make education obsolete. There are no societies of autodidacts; society must instruct its future leaders. Education is indispensable, but credentialism can be a far greater barrier to professional success than a rigid class system and was historically not the dominant system.

The Roman Republic’s cursus honorum put young elites in a variety of military and civil positions to get hands-on experience with the mechanics of power. The Ivy League of the early 1900s taught a broad classical curriculum to young American elites that prepared them for effective leadership, not for a specific profession or area of expertise. Individual companies, professions, subcultures, and other institutions must also pass down their individual traditions of knowledge or see them decay.

Effective institutions must also solve the succession problem. As time passes and skilled people retire or die, an institution must find ways to preserve the knowledge and structures that allow it to function. Existing institutions must solve the succession problem and hand control to people of sufficient ambition and skill. As new power centers arise, elites must find a way to incorporate them into the system. A more recent example is the effort to integrate tech companies into the ruling elite.