Sunday, March 29, 2009

Franz Kafka International

I'm pretty sure I've been through this airport. Or maybe it's just that all airports start feeling like this after a few consecutive days of air travel.

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

Blogging at Work!

I can't believe it, I'm blogging from work! I know that for most of you, this isn't a revolutionary concept, but things work a little differently in the wonderland that is Army. See, for the longest time, all DoD internet connections have blocked anything having to do with blogs. Anything that even had "blog" somewhere in the URL was automatically blocked, on the assumption, I presume, that all bloggers are either ne'er-do-wells intent on compromising national security or inane timewasters. Because we wouldn't want our soldiers reading such trash as Tom Ricks, Kings of War, or Abu Muqawama. They should be reading serious commentary such as they'll find on "real news" sites like CNN or FoxNews.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Let Them Fight, Already

Tom Ricks has been talking deployments, specifically, why on Earth is there still such a large contingent of Soldiers and Marines who have never deployed? An Army officer familiar with these matters weighs in. After explaining several case examples of eager soldiers who've unwillingly spent their whole careers in non-deploying positions, he explains the heart of the problem:
So, my point is the numbers don't tell the whole story... The vast majority of those who haven't deployed can be reasonably explained based on current personnel policies. Yes, some people are avoiding deployment, but nowhere near all of them.

Current personnel policies are the true problem... We are operating our service personnel programs under a peacetime model. There is no appetite for creative thinking. There is no willingness to examine and understand the issue. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that manpower management does not exactly attract all-star players. It's hard to think outside the box when you don't really understand what's inside the box.

Is there an answer? Maybe. We could throw some money at the problem. If we are going to deploy Soldiers and Marines we could come up with interesting ways of taking care of families without jerking them around with unnecessary PCS moves. We could force the G1s [personnel branch] and G3s [operations branch] to talk to one another. Maybe if the 1s understood the scope of the operational requirements they would have a greater motivation to provide viable solutions. We could also take a chance that non-traditional career patterns won't hurt chances for promotion and retention.

Here's my own suggestion: find the flexibility to make use of those soldiers who are chomping at the bit to deploy again and again. I would happily have spent my entire contracted service in Iraq, with maybe a few months between tours at most. I know I'm not alone in this either; a goodly proportion of my buddies are of the same mind. Many of us have never planned anything but a five-years-and-out Army career path, so burnout or interrupted career advancement are irrelevant. It doesn't make the news, probably because it's far more difficult for civilians to identify with, but for every soldier profiled on CNN, burnt out and struggling with the separation from his wife and kids after his third or fourth deployment, there's a single soldier languishing in garrison who would give anything to get back to the desert. I know the Army isn't a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but it really grinds my gears to see soldiers with critical skills that are desperately needed in theater scraping paint and pulling weeds in garrison, particularly when those soldiers would give anything just for the chance to do their jobs. I've heard of soldiers in my unit get denied a transfer to sooner-deploying units because their job is listed as "Critical Need", so they had to stay here and pull weeds for a year before we deploy again. Rather than wrap their minds around that one, most of them just left the Army instead. Fighting multiple long wars isn't going to "break" the Army. Hopelessly squandering the human resources we need to win them just might.

Down With Big Cul-De-Sac

I hate modern subdivisions. I hate getting lost in the cul-de-sac maze with no way to escape but to retrace my route, because Morningheatherspringwood Lane doesn't actually connect anything to anything else. I hate having to get in my car to get anywhere. And we can be bipartisan on this: Matthew Yglesias gives some progressive reasons to hate them, too, as they force people to drive far further and also make biking and walking less practical:

In reality, there's no reason for this to be a necessarily partisan issue. Last time I checked, the Republicans weren't in hock to Big Cul-De-Sac. And the New Urbanism is, at its roots, profoundly conservative. It is saying "lets build cities the way we did 100 years ago". Yglesias's final point is also a conservative one, or at least a federalist one: "Fundamentally, though, the role of state and local agencies is always going to be important to this kind of decision-making, and things will only improve if people pay more attention to politics at this level." Agreed.

Classic Moments In Soldiering: The Guy Who Just Left Did It

There's a weird phenomenon in the Army, which apparently also happens in civilian life as well: people who are about to leave the unit suddenly get incredibly proactive in their last few weeks. They reorganize storage units, delete important documents, and generally just make a slew of unilateral decisions right before they leave the unit forever. At least, that how it plays out for the month or two after they're gone:

Classic Moments In Soldiering: Sketchy Booze

When the 'arf-made recruity goes out to the East
'E acts like a babe an' 'e drinks like a beast,
An' 'e wonders because 'e is frequent deceased
Ere 'e's fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

--Rudyard Kipling, "The Young British Soldier"

Things haven't changed much since Kipling's day, and we soldiers still love our drink. In the last few months, a collective fashion for Carolina wines has hit our barracks. A buddy of mine (who we know by his nickname "Ice") recently picked up a suspiciously cheap bottle of North Carolina "Pomegranate" wine.

Me: So whatchya drinkin' on tonight?
Ice: Some of this here "Pomegranate"?
Me: Wait, how does that work? Is it actually made from pomegranates?
Ice: Hmmm... label says "real grape wine with added flavors".
Me: Wow, that sounds pretty sketchy.
Ice: Yeah.... Not sketchy enough for me not to drink it.

A Great Movie

Bruce Gee reviews The Lives of Others, one of my very favorite movies, over at Pagans and Lutherans. My own review finds its way into the comments.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dretful Scorn Goes Viral

Daniel Hannan sounds a bit befuddled by the viral breakout of the verbal blitzkrieg he launched at Gordon Brown on the occasion of the Prime Minister's visit to the European Parliament. The clip became the most-watched video on YouTube in less than 48 hours. As he says, he has "been making similar speeches every week and posting them on YouTube for the past seven months." But for whatever reason, the wisdom of the masses chose this particular speech, and in 24 hours an obscure representative to an opaque transnational government that few Americans know or care much about has gained an international following:
How did it happen, in the absence of any media coverage? The answer is that political reporters no longer get to decide what's news. The days when a minister gave briefings to a dozen lobby correspondents, and thereby dictated the next day's headlines, are over. Now, a thousand bloggers decide for themselves what is interesting.

Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It's all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it's good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.
All Hail the New Media!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dretful Scorn

If only we had politicians who could stand up and give a browbeating like this (HT Strange Herring):

I aspire some day to achieve Daniel Hannan's mastery of dretful scorn. Is there any way we could lure this guy over here? Maybe we can offer him asylum if Britain sinks beneath the waves, as seems likelier by the day.

The Four Deadly P's

A perennial topic of conversation in the barracks is, unsurprisingly, what's wrong with the Army and what could be done to fix it. I've argued for a while now that all our biggest frustrations have common roots in that top leadership is trying to be a wartime and a peacetime army at the same time. It's the mindset that has soldiers in Iraq returning from long patrols to get browbeaten because their pants are bloused below the 3rd eyelet of their boots. It's the mindset that has soldiers coming back from a year's deployment to an atmosphere not of "we're going to try not to waste your time so you can spend some more of it with your families", but rather "better buckle down, because we've got a year's worth of hoops to jump through and boxes to check". Well, leave to it Tom Ricks to have already given it a catchy name: The four deadly P's, the Persistence of Peacetime Personnel Processes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Longest Weekend Ever!

... but in a good way. An "I can't believe we did all that stuff in just two days!" sort of way. A spontaneous road trip built on the ashes of a plan that fell through, we headed out with no plan, just a vague destination: the Outer Banks. And this is what we ended up with (click to embiggen):

Along the way: open-faced turkey sandwiches, the Plymouth lighthouse (which is literally just a house with a light on it), an ironclad replica, a German tourist commenting to her husband how much she liked my hair, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the Wright Brothers' memorial on Kill Devil Hill (not actually in Kitty Hawk!), far too many billboard innuendos, the Bodie Island lighthouse, several completely inappropriate posed shots with said lighthouse, driving on the beach, some remarkable multi-colored sand dunes, a big bridge, a bromantic sunset, ribs and shrimp with some very friendly (and very drunk) rednecks, an invitation to go deep-sea fishing with aforementioned drunk rednecks, a very dated motel so lovingly maintained it was like going back in time, a delicious breakfast on styrofoam plates, the most iconic lighthouse in the country, more adolescent photo ops, another beach, off to the ferry terminal to see if the schedules might line up for us, a decision to go for it, a short ferry hop to the next island, then a furious drive down the length of it to arrive just as the next ferry is loading up for our trip back to the mainland, and an uneventful return trip. What a weekend, and a highly-recommended itinerary for anyone road-tripping in the area.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Third World America: Sacramento Tent City

Sacramento is considering routing utilities to a tent city that has grown in the shadow of the California state capital. Do we really need to explain why its a bad idea to haphazardly legitimize and make permanent establishments out of unauthorized housing (or tenting, as the case may be)? Anyone who doesn't think this is a problem, I've got a movie you ought to see.

Scandal! Outrage!

Get the torches and pitchforks, friends. Have you heard? AIG spent nearly 1/10th of 1% of their government bailout money to pay previously-contracted bonuses for employees who had no connection to risky securitizations! Scandal! Outrage! Wait, that's not quite how you've heard it on the news? Huh.

Randall Monroe has great commentary, as usual:

Of course, when you live to be outraged, it's a lot more fun to pretend the latter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Straw Men and Chimney-Sweeps

Sometimes I wonder what we could accomplish in the realm of education in this country if we could all actually debate each other rather than our own strawmen. For instance, I'm sure Matthew Yglesias and I could have a great conversation about education policy, once I managed to convince him my ideas weren't all just a secret plot to turn poor kids into chimney-sweeps.

More of that Change We've Been Hearing About

The Obama administration doesn't believe it should need so much as a search warrant to get cell tower records on American citizens, which can be used to track callers. And after all the (mostly justified) caterwauling about "warrentless wiretaps" during the Bush administration, where's the outrage here? At least the good folks at Wired's Threat Level are still paying attention.

Incidentally, this is a great lesson to conservatives who defended the Bush administration's stance on wiretapping. Any increase in government power &mdash even when wielded for good by an administration you trust &mdash will be inherited by future administrations, for good or for ill. And then they might just go and one-up you in the process.

Monday, March 16, 2009

African Obamamania

The enigmatically-named Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing blogs today about the personality cult of Obama in Benin. Even surrounded in a such a warm cocoon of Obama-love, however, she can't help but throw a barb back at our former President:
Bush, as I recall from being here previously, did not enjoy any such popularity, and for good reason. He dropped by Benin in 2008, but is said to have spent all of three hours in the country, never once leaving the airport.
Oh, really? What do you think, Ms. Jardin, are the odds that President Obama will find his way to Cotonou in his presidency? I'm going with slim to none, seeing as Bush was the first US President ever to visit Benin, (not to mention a host of other heretofore neglected statelets). Were many Beninoises disappointed he only spent three hours in their country? I'm quite sure they were, but that in itself is a measure of how remarkably well-liked Bush was in most of Africa. You don't hear many Europeans complaining a Bush visit was too short, after all.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On Festivals

I've got mixed feelings about participating in the rites of religions I don't hold to. On the one hand, outside the West, nominally religious festivals are simultaneously cultural and civic events, and it can be great fun to seek out these events when visiting foreign countries. On the other, however, active participation in a ritual could potentially violate my own faith, and in a way disrespects those who do believe in it. I guess it comes down to a case-by-case basis. Anywho... this is all by way of introduction to Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, which just looks like way too much fun.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Here's another reason to love the stimulus that hasn't gotten much press: the developed world's insatiable hunger for global capital to fund their fiscal stimuli is going to leave the developing world fighting for the leftover scraps of sovereign debt. All the unwashed masses who had presumed to aspire to first-world standards of living in their lifetimes will now stay mired in their destitution. If we can seal the deal with the next-generation Kyoto Protocol, we'll have them successfully locked in abject poverty forever. The delicious irony that we will claim to be doing it for their sake is just icing on the cake.

Help Me Wrap My Mind Around This

So when the Democratic Party holds a contest to create a billboard denigrating a private citizen for the unpardonable sin of publicly wishing for the failure of an agenda he believes disastrous, this constitutes "leav[ing] behind partisan attack politics"? Good grief.

Fiscal Responsibility, Two Ways

Fearless Comrade has a piece of earth-shattering advice on the economy: let's at least consider listening to people who've been proven right. And while we're at it, let's stop listening to (and appointing to high office!) people who've been repeatedly and embarrassingly wrong:
If an economist didn't see it coming, why listen to anything he says about how to fix it? If you had a heart attack, would you go to the curmudgeonly, slightly bonkers doctor who had been warning you about an impending heart attack for the last two years, or go see the affable, soft-spoken guy who gave you the 2nd opinion and told you everything was fine?
And on the microeconomic side, consider this radical program to revolutionize your family's finances:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Paglia On Limbaugh

Camille Paglia at Salon, writing on the Obama administration and Rush Limbaugh:
President Obama -- in whom I still have great hope and confidence -- has been ill-served by his advisors and staff. Yes, they have all been blindsided and overwhelmed by the crushing demands of the presidency. But I continue to believe in citizen presidents, who must learn by doing, even in a perilous age of terrorism. Though every novice administration makes blunders and bloopers, its modus operandi should not be a conspiratorial reflex cynicism.

Case in point: The orchestrated attack on radio host Rush Limbaugh, which has made the White House look like an oafish bunch of drunken frat boys... Has the administration gone mad? This entire fracas was set off by the president himself, who lowered his office by targeting a private citizen by name. Limbaugh had every right to counterattack, which he did with gusto. Why have so many Democrats abandoned the hallowed principle of free speech? Limbaugh, like our own liberal culture hero Lenny Bruce, is a professional commentator who can be as rude and crude as he wants.

And I'm sick of people impugning Rush's wealth and lifestyle, which is no different from that of another virtuoso broadcaster who hit it big -- Oprah Winfrey. Rush Limbaugh is an embodiment of the American dream: He slowly rose from obscurity to fame on the basis of his own talent and grit. Every penny Rush has earned was the result of his rapport with a vast audience who felt shut out and silenced by the liberal monopoly of major media. As a Democrat and Obama supporter, I certainly do not agree with everything Rush says or does... Nevertheless, I respect Rush for his independence of thought and his always provocative news analysis. He doesn't run with the elite -- he goes his own way.
Paglia actually understands what opposition is all about.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Japan

Does it feel strange to hear Japan referred to as the world's second economy? They've played such a background role since the last time they tried to, you know, take over the world, that it's easy to forget abut them. But then again, I'm one of those that thinks the Japanese really deserve to play a stronger role in international geopolitics than they recently have, so that probably makes me a fascist in and of itself.

Building Bridges

China is building bridges in Africa (h/t Tom Ricks), both literally and figuratively. The question is, bridges to where?
I am not sure what China is up to in Africa. But I have the nagging thought that we will figure it out in 15 years and be sorry.
Yeah, that thought's been more than just nagging me.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Special Relationship

Here's a question the White House Press Corps is unlikely to ask: Does the administration confirm or repudiate the claim by an unnamed State Department official that there is no longer a "special relationship" between the U.S. and Great Britain? Because that would be, you know, kind of a story.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

On Wal-Mart

A Round Unvarnish'd Tale shares Charles Platt's fascinating apologia for Wal-Mart. I really suggest you read the whole thing. All other things aside, the crux of his argument comes to two points: one, Wal-Mart's business model and treatment of employees are typical of the retail sector in general, and better than any of its competitors; and secondly (emphasis mine)
To my mind, the real scandal is not that a large corporation doesn't pay people more. The scandal is that so many people have so little economic value. Despite (or because of) a free public school system, millions of teenagers enter the work force without marketable skills. So why would anyone expect them to be well paid?"
The truth hurts.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

On Irony, Again

I find it a bit odd that a computer game I purchased legitimately with my own hard-earned money obstinately refuses to run with the official disc in the drive, but when I rip a disc image and mount it on a virtual drive as if I had pirated it, it runs just fine.

Monday, March 2, 2009

See Slumdog Millionaire, No Matter What Rushdie Says

Salman Rushdie is a brilliant author, but he's apparently a bit deficient in irony. He recently criticized the plot of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire as a "patently ridiculous conceit". The conceit? That a boy from the slums of Bombay could have an incredible series of experiences in which he learned precisely those facts he needed to win on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". Unlikely? Of course. But "patently ridiculous"? Mind you, this two criticism is from an author whose most celebrated novel begins with two men who survive their jetliner exploding 35,000 over the English Channel, and who won the Booker Prize for a novel whose protagonist has telepathic powers by virtue of his superhumanly runny nose.

Postscript: If you haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire, please do. It's easily the best movie I've seen in several years.