Thursday, November 29, 2007

L is for Leader

In the news today, lots of coverage of the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, stepping down as leader of the military. The common wisdom is that this is an important step towards fully democratizing Pakistan, but a dangerous one since the army is one of the few effective national institutions.

Before going on, it is important to remember that Musharraf was a dictator who seized power in a military coup. He has, at the very least, been unreceptive to allowing dissent and opposition parties. And even if he did appear thoughtful and well-spoken on The Daily Show a few months back, he is not exactly in the mold of the ideal democratic leader.

Keeping those caveats in mind, his resignation from the military reminds me of Washington stepping down as General of the Continental Army. That army was also the only effective national institution. And Washington declined to use his position, and his personal popularity, to shape the early United States as he saw fit. He stepped aside. I've often thought that, despite his "origin" as the leader of a coup d'etat, Musharraf had similar potential in Pakistan. He has not delivered on that potential yet, but this move seems a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Now that the presidential election is actually, sort-of, in a way, beginning for real now (primaries begin in a few weeks), I think we'll hear even more use of quagmire in the news. Popular opinion seems to be in agreement that the war in Iraq is something less than a brilliant success. Being historically minded, I wonder where in the spectrum of military operations this conflict will come to rest. I don't think it's a WWII, the now uniformly admired "Good War" (if such a term is even applicable for such a thing). I don't think it is even a Spanish-American War (Add two cups Manifest Destiny, one cup Declining Old World Monarchy, and dash of International Incident; cook over fire of Yellow Journalism. Serves one regiment of Rough Riders). But does it hit the bottom of the barrel?

I don't think so. Because the bottom is so very, very low. The biggest, most pointless disaster of a war, for my money, is the War of the Triple Alliance. Never heard of it?

In 1864, Paraguay managed to get into a war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Take a moment and consult your atlas; Paraguay started the war almost surrounded. The only neighbor it wasn't at war with was Bolivia, which lay on the far side of the region known as the Gran Chaco, which is somewhat desolate even today.

It was not as bad as it sounds, though. At the time, Paraguay's army and navy outnumbered the combined totals of the Triple Alliance. But over the course of the next 6 years, Paraguay was beaten like few nations ever are. The navy was routed at the Battle of Riachuelo, losing control of the River Plate which was the only connection to the outside world, and gave the Triple Alliance free access to the most populated sections of Paraguay.

Records are incomplete, and there is great disagreement on the actual casualties. The Paraguayan people were very devoted to their president, and the war. So they "stayed the course" like no one else has before or since. One conservative estimate says that of a pre-war population of more than half a million, only 221,000 were left alive. Only about 28,000 men survived. This was beyond decimation - this was 9 times as bad as decimation. Demographically, the nation would not recover for generations. Meanwhile, even the victors were in difficult straits, with massive debt, significant losses of their own, and internecine squabbles over spoils and territory.

I find this war instructive for a number of reasons. First, it helps us to understand just how bad war can be, which is something no one should ever forget. Second, it serves as an anchor for one end of the spectrum of military failures and successes. And lastly, it illustrates what can happen when a nation "throws good money after bad" and continues a conflict beyond the point of reasonable hope.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Covet House

I love books. And I have a weakness for gadgets and gizmos. So, naturally, things like the Sony Reader interest me a great deal. Today, Amazon unveiled their e-book reader, the Kindle. It looks like it might meet their goal of being "an iPod for books." I do like the name, though; it recalls the quote at the bottom of the page from Plutarch. "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."

These products are problematic for me. I love to read, and these things are just so cool. However, I'm also a confessed bibliophile. A lot of people who call themselves "book-lovers" are actually what I would call "readers." They love books for the ideas they contain. I think of myself as a reader, but also as a true bibliophile. The books themselves, the substance of them, is important to me. There are great books, like say Coming into the Country, which would be just as good on these devices as the are in paperback. But I don't see how House of Leaves would be quite the same. A fine hardcover edition of your favorite book can be a prized possession, in a way a Reader or a Kindle never could be.

So my reaction to these devices, and the prospect of their widespread adoption, leaves me somewhat ambivalent. I am sure I will eventually get something like Kindle someday, but I doubt I will ever stop buying books.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


My old friend Aaron, who is in the Air Force, was in town this week. We got a chance to meet for dinner at Pizzeria Paradiso and catch up. This time last year he had his first son, Ben, who just started walking. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to see the whole family either at Christmas, or on the way to San Francisco in January.

We were able to meet up a second time at our Army friend Steve's house in Springfield. Steve made us dinner, delicious steaks, and we got to meet his new son Nathan. I feel guilty for not doing it sooner. Steve is a good friend, we ran track and cross country together in high school, but I almost never make it down to see him and his family. And they're only about a half hour away.

I've often taken comfort in the idea that while I don't have a wide circle of friends, those I have are individuals of the highest character. It occurs to me that friends like that demand better friendship than what I often give. Knowing this is a good thing - how can we correct our flaws if we don't learn about them first?

It was a great pleasure to see both of my friends and at least one of their families. Steve's sons, Tyler and Nathan, are a lot of fun. I had an extensive conversation regarding Scooby-doo with Tyler. And Nathan is awesome because he is a second son with red hair. People like that can't help but be cool.

Meanwhile, at work we have been doing a lot of research, reading academic papers and studies. Simultaneously, Sarah went to Italy to present a paper she co-authored, and Zina received word that one of her papers was selected for publication. So I've started to give more thought to trying to write a paper of my own. I've started doing some reading, to survey the literature in a few topics. I'm just not sure if I have any original insights that would warrant a paper, but in the meantime at least I will learn a few things.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Not Exactly Hints from Heloise

I think this strip is hilarious. It is creepy how similar my taste and sense of humor are to the author's. I picked up on all of the Battlestar Galactica references, and one to Big Trouble in Little China. I hope, for your sake, you do not. Check out more here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Damned Windy

I read about a very interesting idea today. In truth, it sounds like it is little more than a funnel that channels more wind into a turbine. I'd have to go back into my old aerodynamics textbooks, but I think this would increase the incident speed of the wind on the turbine blades. If memory serves, high-speed turbines are more efficient, so not only would it generate more power since there is more wind, but it would be more effective at harnessing the wind power flowing over the blades.

However, this strikes me as one of those crazy capers or zany schemes that never gets built, like Project Pluto or the Illinois. Intriguing idea, though I have to wonder what would happen if it got backwinded.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Sic the Tiger on it!

You can vote for Ryan's video here from now until November 12th. Apparently you have to register as a YouTube user in order to vote, but it is worth it to win Ryan money to spend on my Christmas and birthday gifts.