Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Decisions

As many of my readers are no doubt aware, I'm currently preparing to go back to school this fall in order to get my MBA.  The latest step in the process has been choosing a school, and it's been a hard decision.  Each of my options had a lot to recommend it, which, as my future father-in-law very helpfully pointed out, meant that there was no wrong choice to make.  That didn't make the decision any easier, but it did take most of the stress out of it.

Faced with a decision between three good options, I did what any military intelligence veteran and prospective MBA would do: I made a spreadsheet.  I compiled a list of competing criteria, including everything from program rankings and student body attitudes to proximity of family and friends and survivability in a civilizational-collapse scenario.  I rated each school on these criteria as impartially as possible, then ranked the criteria by subjective importance to me, had my fiancée do the same*, and multiplied the average of our rankings by the schools' ratings to come up with a value-weighted score for each school.  And of course, my approach failed completely, leaving two of the three schools perfectly tied.

What next?  Time to cook the books.  I went back through the theoretically impartial ratings columns and adjusted them until one school started to pull ahead.  Was I intentionally tipping the balance toward one school?  Probably, but even in that case, my spreadsheet still did its job by revealing to me which school I truly most wanted to attend.  And what was the result?  Well, I'm happy to announce that I am now officially a member of the Wisconsin School of Business Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management Class of 2013.

It is a bit ironic, since I had initially considered it my third-place school, and I nearly didn't bother to finish the application after I was admitted to the school I had considered my number two.  I only went to the interview and class visit out of a grudging sense of obligation to finishing what you start, but was so impressed during that visit that it suddenly became the school to beat.  In the end, it was the only program I felt like I would regret missing if I went somewhere else, and that's what ultimately tipped the scales.  I guess it's a good lesson in not closing doors or burning bridges.

So Madison-area friends, see you soon! And Chicago and Twin Cities friends, we'll only be a few hours away, and we're planning to have a guest room.


*My fiancée's independent prioritization of school selection criteria was nearly identical to mine.  I'd say that's a good sign, no?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Against Intervention

Opinions regarding the proper response to the situation in Libya cut across partisan lines, with the full spectrum from not-our-problem isolationism to something-must-be-done interventionism represented on both sides.  The Right is convinced President Obama's handling it poorly, of course, but there's nothing approaching a consensus about what ought to be done.  The confusion is clear at the conservative flagship National Review, whose editorial now supports a no-fly zone (though they initially opposed it) opposite a column from Victor Davis Hanson (one of the preeminent cheerleaders of the Iraq invasion) who opposes intervention.

It's appropriate that opinions are all over, I suppose.  It's a fraught question.  As VDH sums up the humanitarian argument,

Libyans have been living an ungodly nightmare since Qaddafi’s coup in 1969, and it would be a fine and noble thing to lend them a hand to end their four-decade-long misery. The world would be a better and safer place without Qaddafi and his odious clan in power.
 Yes.  But Qaddafi will have to be replaced.  There is simply no indication that there is any significant core of individuals among the rebels who would be any better, and it is a deeply dangerous folly to suggest that things could not get any worse.  Libya's modern history -- a lawless span of coast that nobody else wanted, so the Italians got it -- uncomfortably parallels Somalia's.  And the probably-doomed rebels?  Well, they're the enemy of our enemy, but it's not at all clear that they're our friends:

On a per capita basis, though, twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya -- and specifically eastern Libya -- than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East.
It would be whistling in the dark to suppose that whatever demographic cohort sent so many to fight and die in Iraq is not also front-and-center in the ranks of the rebels we are currently debating whether to support.  The most cynical part of me might support a no-fly zone simply to even things up, to prevent this struggle from ending before it has worn down both sides.  Like the Iran-Iraq war, it's a war you wish both sides could lose.  Sadly, the real losers, as always, are the Libyan people, the majority of whom are by all accounts friendly, hospitable, and desirous of rational government.  

I wish there were an easy answer, but there just isn't.  This is the world we live in.  Foreign policy is really hard.  As I've mentioned before, my biggest concern about President Obama at his inauguration was that he seemed convinced that foreign policy is easy and everyone else had just been doing it wrong.  He does seem at least to have been disabused of that notion.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Free Story Concept: Super Bowl Anti-History

While watching the Super Bowl on Sunday (Packers won the Super Bowl! Packers won the Super Bowl! Packers won the Super Bowl!), I was struck by a thought during the ads for commemorative Super Bowl champions gear.  I'm sure that these days they do most of the printing to order, but there's still a non-trivial amount of swag printed with the losing team as champion, "Dewey Defeats Truman"-style.  It's a fair guess that all the Super Bowl XLV Champion Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirts then get dumped on the second-hand clothing market and ends up in the developing world.  So there's my trope, free for the taking: all the "Super Bowl Champion" commemorative swag in the developing world tells an anti-history of the Super Bowl.  Someone could make something of that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Project: Fish Tank Stand Bookshelf

I recently decided that while I'm happily unemployed, I can occupy my time by making myself some things that I will find useful in the future.  The fact that I currently have my father's well-appointed garage workshop available is another incentive, as is the desire to develop my basic woodworking skills in the more challenging realm of furniture-making.

For my first big project, I settled on something that will accommodate a small portion of my absurd private library, as well as display a pursuit of mine that I don't think has come up before, tropical fish.  This was also my opportunity to learn how to use Google Sketchup.  Here's what I came up with:


The thin lines on the lower portion are dowels which will support the bookshelves.  You may notice I neglected to include them on the rear verticals; Sketchup was giving me fits with the cylinders. The shelf above the tank will hold a deep tray for plants, with growlights for them mounted in the topmost frame.  I don't know yet what I'm going to do for a finish.  I'm leaning toward a dark stain to try to minimize the "clearly-made-from-2x4s" look, but I might just embrace that, put on a clear poly coat and use shiny hardware all over it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dinner: Sausage and Spinach White Bean Soup

This is an original creation that worked out pretty well for a quick weeknight meal.  I know dried beans taste way better and are a lot cheaper bla bla bla, but they also require something in exceedingly short supply for a lot of people: planning.  You want to make it with dried beans, I'm not going to stop you.  For the rest of us, here goes (sorry, no pictures):

2 fresh bratwurst
1 medium onion 
1 box (9 oz) frozen chopped spinach
2 cans (15 oz) navy or great northern beans
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp lemon juice (adjust to taste)
salt to taste

Squeeze the sausage out of their casings into a medium saucepan over low heat, breaking it up as it starts to brown.  Chop the onion.  Add to saucepan and increase to medium heat, continuing to break up sausage as it cooks until onions are translucent and sausage is well browned.  If you've had the foresight to thaw the spinach, add it to the saucepan now.  If you haven't, no worries, just put it in the pan frozen, cover it, turn the heat down low, and wait a few minutes until your spinach block thaws.  Add the beans and enough water or stock to bring it to the consistency you prefer.  Heat to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so.  Add lemon juice and salt to taste.  Enjoy.

30 minutes or so.  Serves 3-4 as a meal, more as a soup course.

A New Direction?

I've been having a hard time deciding whether I really have a reason to keep blogging. While I'm as plugged into politics as ever, I really don't have the expertise to justify opining about much, and Facebook has really become my venue for the daily heylookitthats. For that matter, my blog reliably gets more comments on Facebook than on the website. So instead of kicking myself that I really ought to be commenting on this or that world event (cough cough Egypt cough), I'm going to be blogging things that do matter to me personally: daily life observations, recipes, projects I'm working on around the house, that sort of thing. Dretful scorn will, of course, continue to be in the offing. It'll still be irregular and haphazard, but that's life.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Essay

Hello, friends. Long time, no see, I know.

I'm currently working on applications to business schools, which means I've been writing a lot of essays.  Tonight I was working on an essay about a time in my life when I took a risk.  I'm going to have to do some major revision in the morning, but I think this is too good not to share, even in its rough state.  Let this be an object lesson of the risks of writing application essays late into the night:

When a paratrooper is asked about risks he’s taken, the immediate thoughts are of risks quite concrete, of literal leaps of faith out the doors of perfectly good airplanes, but I don’t expect anyone wants to read about all the routine parachute jumps I remember.  Rather more interesting is the jump I can’t remember, the one that nearly killed me, but since everything I know about that jump is hearsay, I don’t feel right repeating that, either.  I took more than a few risks in Iraq, too, some for better reasons than others.  I took a risk every time I entrusted my life to a complete stranger with a GED and an ASVAB waiver, but in a combat zone that’s a risk common enough to become banal.  It was a greater risk when I entrusted my safety to Iraqi soldiers who might well have been al-Qaeda sympathizers, if not active members, but that’s how building legitimacy works, and anyway, I had orders to follow.  So maybe it’s more useful to take a couple steps back and look at the first big risk I took, the one that got me into the Army in the first place.

Unlike most servicemembers, the military wasn’t something that loomed large in my family background. The last contact my family had had with the Department of Defense was my grandfather’s service in the occupation of Japan, and I made it to my senior year of college without ever considering military service a plausible option.  I was on a solid path to an undistinguished but comfortable career in academia when a visit to the Commonwealth cemetery at the World War II battlefield of el-Alamein, Egypt, challenged my assumptions about my role in the world and planted the seeds of my dissatisfaction with the prospect of a sedentary academic life.  As I approached graduation seeking opportunities for intensive applied language training, I was pointed again and again toward the military’s language training program.  I looked into what the military language program had to offer, and something just clicked.  It all made perfect sense: I would enlist in the US Army as an Arabic linguist and make my career as a military man.  All that stood in my way was the minor practical matter that I was 70 pounds overweight and so desperately out of shape I couldn’t run a quarter of a mile without stopping.

The reality of weight loss and exercise is irredeemably dull, and if this essay were a movie, this sentence would no doubt be replaced by an eighties-rock montage.  Suffice it to say that over the course of the summer following my college graduation, I had lost weight and gained stamina sufficient for me to ship off to Basic Training in the fall.  I arrived at Fort Knox with absolutely no context or outline of what to expect beyond the vague Hollywood conception of “Boot Camp”, and faced a culture shock more extreme than any I ever felt circumnavigating the globe.  I had joined the US Army as an Arabic linguist during the darkest period of the Iraq war.  I knew where I was headed.  What it would take to get there was a bit hazier.

I realize I’m writing an essay, not trading war stories at the VFW, so I suppose I should get to the point: what I learned from taking my big risk.  I learned a bunch of little things, only some of which are motivational poster cliches:  Meritocracy is the ideal, but patronage is the reality.  Compliance is generally valued higher than competence.  Always, always, always pay your mercenaries.  I also learned a few big things: I am capable of working harder and enduring more than I ever thought possible.  Individualism is bunk; my proudest moments have been as a cog in the best machine.  And the antithesis of fear is not courage, but trust in the man ahead of you and behind you.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Train Madness

Okay, this high-speed rail madness needs to get addressed.  Most of the opposition to HSR attacks it either as a wildly expensive boondoggle, which it is, or comes from people who aren't concerned about the fundamental expected benefit of HSR, emissions reduction.  But HSR doesn't work even on its own merits.  Adding nationwide HSR would increase net emissions.  Let me explain.  A friend of mine recently shared this infographic from Yglesias:



Yes, but. The thing missing from this infographic is that these numbers need to be broken down by BTU per passenger mile per pound and compared to the other things they're replacing, that is, the marginal cost of what else we could be using those rails for. Air travel is fuel-inefficient, so we only use it for lightweight, time-sensitive cargoes like passengers and priority mail packages.  Rail is very efficient, but isn't currently very fast, so we generally use it to move the heaviest things that need moving, i.e. bulk goods and freight.  All the HSR proposals out there right now are trying to get comparatively lightweight passenger trains onto our rails and make them go faster than freight trains currently do, but none of these proposals address the reality that this will displace several times that weight of freight onto comparatively inefficient trucks on our highways, multiplying net emissions. Even if we built brand new dedicated rail corridors for HSR (which is what we'd have to do if we actually want shiny 200mph bullet trains, instead of just 90mph express trains like we had in the 1930s) we'd still reduce more emissions using those new rails for heavy freight than for  light passengers. We'd save a lot of money on highway maintenance, too, since semis are responsible for the overwhelming majority of wear-and-tear on our roads.  If we really wanted to be preventing emissions, we'd certainly be looking at ways to encourage and expand use of our nation's railways, only for freight rather than passengers.  We would also be looking at what it would take to get our canal networks back into commission, since barges are an order of magnitude more efficient even than trains. As it stands, the current advocates for HSR are more interested in seeing shiny, sexy new passenger trains (and handing multi-billion-dollar construction contracts to political backers in the case of the politicians) than in actually reducing net emissions.  It is fundamentally unserious.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Going in Circles

Do you ever feel like you're just going in circles, like no matter how long you drive, you find yourself back where you started? I've felt that way in these first 850 miles of my epic post-Army cross-country road trip.  And for a good reason: I have been going in circles, one big one, specifically:



I had to come back to Fort Bragg this morning to tie up some a few loose ends, and tomorrow morning I'm taking the GMAT here in Raleigh, my last big hurdle in the business school application process.  After that's done, the road trip proper can commence.  Up 'til now I've been making my way around Virginia and North Carolina, enjoying the natural and historic beauty of this part of the country, as well as good times with some old friends in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Norfolk.  

You'll notice my path on the map above looks for all the world like I took an extended detour into the Atlantic.  They're too narrow to show up on this zoom level, but I assure you North Carolina's Outer Banks are there, and they are absolutely beautiful.  They have easily the nicest beaches I've visited in the US, and I'd put them comfortably in the top three beach regions I've enjoyed worldwide, along with Egypt's Mediterranean coast and Thailand's Andaman coast.  Prices for vacation rentals are also shockingly reasonable, particularly in the off-season, and things just get cheaper the further down the banks you go.  Most of the construction boom in the Outer Banks happened in an era when Americans were much more willing to drive a couple hours of two-lane road to spend a week doing nothing much, rather than just flying off to an all-inclusive resort. Which is to say, if you make the Outer Banks your next vacation destination, you will be being simultaneously counter-cultural and nostalgic.  All right, enough boosterism.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Out

I apologize for the lack of posting these past ten days.  I was a bit overwhelmed with the process of getting out of the Army, and since then I've been trying to focus all my energies on studying for the GMAT, which I'll be taking a week from today.

You read that right, though, I'm out of the Army.  Getting out was a miserable process, but I managed to get all the checks in all the right boxes and all the signatures on all the right forms, and I am now officially a civilian again.  It's a great feeling.  One day I'll get around to reflecting on my Army experience generally, but right now I've got a bit too much on my plate for that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Failure

Everyone can celebrate the accomplishment and heroism of a man like Joseph Kittenger, who took the "long, lonely leap", skydiving from the edge of space in 1960 and setting a record that is yet to be broken.  The Art of Manliness blog recently profiled his story for their "A Man's Life" feature.  But what about the "magnificent failure" of the man who tried to break his record, Nick Piantanida, whom Art of Manliness profiled in a sequel to Kettinger's story.  After a life of shoestring exploits, Piantanida died from the effects of a failed attempt to beat Kittenger's record. AoM sums up the question of Piantanida's legacy well:

Was Nick a reckless daredevil? His jumps were never about the thrill; he genuinely wished to aid scientific progress, to push the limits of what was out there, and to accomplish something no other man had done. Did he prepare enough? He did the best an ordinary civilian could have but inevitably lacked the opportunities for rigorous testing and the access to the very best and most experienced minds in the field.

What are we to make of a man like Nick? Was his inability to admit the risk of failure, and the chance he might leave his children fatherless a form of hubris? Or should we cheer his adventurous spirit, DIY effort, and manful demonstration that great daring is not reserved for the loners or the lucky?

I'm reminded of another great failure in history, Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.  Sure, that Norwegian fellow made it there first.  And none of Scott's party made it back alive.  Still, I think there is a place to celebrate heroism even in failure.  Scott himself thought so, as he wrote in his journal these words, recorded on a memorial to the Terra Nova expedition in Queenstown, New Zealand:

For my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks; we knew we took them.  Things have come out against us, and therefore we have cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Continuity

Indexed is a charming little webcomic that's almost always good for a quick morning chortle.  It's a lot of fun to see the way she plays with graphs to tell stories, but it does often betray a somewhat blinkered lefty view of the world, though in a way that's not at all off-putting.  Today's comic is a particularly good example.




The commenters spot the problem right away. Do you?

Dinner: Fasinjoon

I finally got a chance to try out the recipe for fasinjoon that I got off one of my Iraqi teachers three years ago.



It turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself, so I figured I'd share the recipe again, including my updates of what I changed. It's truly one of the world's great sauces. It would pair just as well with other meats, particularly lamb, but here's how I made it with chicken:

2+ lbs. chicken thighs
1 large onion
1/2 bottle (2 dl) pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern groceries or online)
8 oz. walnut pieces
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp salt
Parsley and lemon to garnish

Chop the onion and begin sautéing in a deep frying pan with a little vegetable oil. Meanwhile, rinse the chicken thighs and skin. Toss skins into the pan to sauté with the onions so they release their chickeny deliciousness. Once the onions begin to caramelize, add the chicken thighs and enough water just to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Remove chicken skins. With a blender or food processor, grind the walnuts finely. Add walnut meal and pomegranate molasses to the pan, stir to combine. Cover and continue simmering for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cinnamon, pepper and salt when 10 minutes remain, uncover as needed to allow sauce to thicken to desired consistency. Serve over rice (basmati is most appropriate, but any will do). Garnish with parsley and lemon slice (I didn't, and the dish suffers visually, as you can see above).

Enjoy!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why They Hate Him

I wrote a bit the other day about the ongoing hate speech trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders.  The Wilders trial, of course, encompasses issues broader than  freedom of speech.  There's an apparently credible allegation (I can't really judge, other than that the Dutch media is covering it in earnest) that his trial has been orchestrated by his political opponents, who hate him perhaps more than his Islamist enemies do.  Despite the fact that his party's platform on every subject but one is mainstream European social-democratic -- which is to say hard Left by American standards -- he and his party are regularly described as "far right" by their opponents and the media.  Why the disconnect? It comes down to that one subject left out: immigration, which in the Netherlands mostly means Muslim immigration.

Wilders is loathed by his political opponents because he dares to argue that European nations should be proud of their cultures and should pursue policies of immigration and assimilation that will maintain and strengthen those cultures for the future.  Why on Earth is this controversial to the point of being labeled hate speech?  Firstly, the practical matter: there is simply no other way for a nation like the Netherlands to remain anything you or I would recognize as Dutch while continuing to welcome immigrants. Secondly, being a culturally-defined nation is one half of being a nation-state, and such cultural definition is positively uncontroversial elsewhere.  The Arab League is made up of 21 countries that proudly declare themselves Arab nations and seek to maintain and strengthen their Arab cultural identity.  The Organization of the Islamic Conference consists of 57 nations that declare themselves officially Muslim and enshrine Islamic jurisprudence in their constitutions.  Is it really so offensive then for a Dutch political party to argue that the Netherlands should be proud of her Dutch culture and Enlightenment political philosophy?  If this is hate speech, Europe is surely doomed.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Justified Jingoism

In his September Diary, John Derbyshire shares a quote from the American music critic James Huneker regarding Chopin's Etude Op. 25 No. 11: "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it." Derb kindly linked a video of a performance of this piece by young Korean pianist, Yeol Um Son, who made quite an impression on him. Me, too. Here's the video:



I had an interesting thought on watching this. I emailed Derb about it; I'll just share what I wrote him:

Reading your follow-up today I was struck by something you didn't explicitly address: Ms. Yeol is Korean, and yet she's devoted her life to studying and sharing music written by a bunch of dead white Europeans. How many Westerners have taken the time and effort necessary to become virtuosos of another culture's classical music? I would guess the answer is in the dozens. I say this not to tut-tut the West, but rather as a bit of unashamed cultural jingoism. Our culture produced this, and its surpassing worth is so universally evident that millions of students in east Asia -- confident and economically-successful cultures all -- choose to study it rather than the products of their own well-developed cultures. We're happy to share it, of course. Makes me awfully proud of my heritage, and also a bit guilty that I haven't studied it better, at least in this particular realm. I think Ms. Yeol has inspired me to fix that.

And she has. Also to get back to practicing piano.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Speech and Freedom Thereof

This is quite the week for the discussion of speech and freedom. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which hinges on the determination whether standing outside a fallen Marine's funeral with signs reading "GOD HATES FAGS" and "THANK GOD FOR IEDS" qualifies as protected speech. This, of course, is the penchant of the aforementioned "Reverend" Phelps, who with the few dozen blood relatives who make up his "church" has made an avocation of tormenting the bereaved beloved of this nation's fallen heroes, as well as those of gay victims of AIDS. The premise avowed by Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church is, as far as I can stomach to gather, that God is punishing the U.S. with military defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan for our collective sin of allowing closeted homosexuals to serve in the military under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Presumably God would be appeased if we only cleansed the Armed Forces in some sort of gay-baiting witch hunt, after which our Certified Straight® military would win the War on Terror. I'll admit, I'm not exactly clear on the theology involved.

In any case, the question before the court is whether the "Reverend" Phelps, his minions, and their odious ravings fall under the protection of the First Amendment. I believe they do, and I'll be rather surprised if the court doesn't come to the same conclusion. The protest in question was held at the statutory thousand-foot distance from the funeral, and was thus unable to directly interrupt the proceedings. The remaining argument is that their protest might constitute "hate speech".

Ahh, "hate speech". We are right to be a bit queasy about limiting any speech at all, so if we are going to say that hate speech is unprotected, clearly the definition of what constitutes hate speech becomes a very important matter. Much political advocacy is hateful to its detractors, after all, so it would seem obvious that to define hate speech based on the perceptions of the aggrieved effectively grants censorship authority to the thinnest-skinned in society. Our Supreme Court seems to have recognized this, as I understand they have historically worked from an exceedingly narrow definition of hate speech.

Not so in the Netherlands (you knew I was getting to this, right?). After prosecutors chose not to file hate speech charges against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Muslims aggrieved by his short film Fitna took the issue to the Court of Appeals, where they succeeded in forcing his currently-running trial. There is considerable evidence that Wilders's political opponents have been involved in orchestrating his trial. In a way, seeing this trial as just another function of machine politics as usual is comforting, more comforting anyway than seeing it as part of the "legal jihad" to put criticism of Islam off-limits worldwide (as in the UN's ridiculous "Combating Defamation of Religion" resolution). European countries are increasingly embracing a definition of hate speech based on grievance, and the result of the Wilders trial will signal whether Europe continues on the road toward mass censorship by the aggrieved. Speech doesn't become "hate speech" simply because it makes someone cranky. Be thankful that our Supreme Court has upheld that narrower standard.