an in-between move

Cool kids read The Bellman.


Don't read this blog!

I mean, thanks for dropping by my little corner of the blogospheric backwaters, but the blog you should be reading is The Bellman. The stuff I post there is much, much less likely to be imbued with dormitive powers.


[German, from zwischen, intermediate + zug, move

Literally an "in-between move". A move in a tactical sequence is called a zwischenzug* when it does not relate directly to the tactical motif in operation. |source|

image copyright TWIC

From this position, black played a zwischenzug: 19…d5
(Linares 2002, 1-0)


about your blogger

David Rowland studies philosophy at the University of Illinois - Urbana / Champaign, where he's an active member of the Graduate Employees Organization. He used to play a lot of chess, but wasn't all that good. He has a blog. And email.


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$zwichenzug$ sell-out zone





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some folks I know

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a daily dose of architecture
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ambivalent imbroglio
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some blogs I read

strip mining for whimsy
It's Matt's World
School of Blog
Fall of the State
Dru Blood
Echidne of the Snakes
Colossal Waste of Bandwidth
Running from the Thought Police
Bionic Octopus


some philosoblogs

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Confined Space
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Dispatches From the Trenches
Labor Blog
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some A-list blogs

This Modern World
Matthew Yglesias
Andrew Sullivan
Political Animal
The Volokh Conspiracy


some other links

Rule 33
This Week in Chess
War Nerd
National Priorities Project
Bible Gateway
Internet Archive
A Weekly Dose of Architecture
Orsinal: Morning Sunshine
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Safety Sign Builder
Get Your War On


some philosoblogging

Six views about reasons
Seidman on reflection and rationality
And another thing
Tiffany's argument for strong internalism
Internalism v. Externalism
What do internalists believe anyway?
Rationalism and internalism
The experimental method in philosophy
Advertising to children
On moral skepticism
A linguistic argument
More on Williams
Williams on reasons
General and particular
Normativity and morality
Political intuitions
What it is, what it was, and what it shall be
Objectivity and morality
Thinking revolution
Abortion and coercion
Moore on torture
On the phenomenology of deliberation
Even more Deliberation Day
more Deliberation Day
Deliberation Day run-down
He made a porch for the throne where he might judge, cont.
He made a porch for the throne where he might judge
Every shepherd is an abomination
Droppin' H-bombs
ad hominem

Thursday, July 29, 2004


Objectivity and morality

It's very common to think that moral reasons must be objective reasons. One result of the prevalence of this assumption is that those who are skeptical of objectivity transfer this skepticism to morality. For myself, I'm much more confident that action is subject to ethical constraints than I am that there is anything to be made of the notion of objecivity. So it seems to me that the proper target for objections is the supposed link between morality and objectivity.

What is the source of this link? Well, one source, historically, is that moral theories have been constructed by men deeply committed to the idea of objective truth. More importantly, though, there seems to be a conceptual link between the idea that moral reasons are authoritative and the idea that they are objective.

Consider this typical case: Mary arrives home and finds two messages on her answering machine. The first is from Joseph, inviting her dancing. The other is from her Rabbi, reminding her that she is scheduled to help out at the soup kitchen. Mary finds that she is conflicted. She wants to go dancing with Joseph and, perhaps, consumate their relationship. But she also feels that she should do as the Rabbi says.

The most natural way of understanding Mary's conflict is as arising between her personal desires and something else. She wants to go dancing, but demands are made on her from outside. Subjective desire is in competition with, well, what? If it's just the desires of the Rabbi, or even of the soup hungry masses, then it's a conflict of like against like. There may be some way of showing that the Rabbi's subjective desires outweigh Mary's, but because they are essentially the same kind of thing the Rabbi's desires can't trump Mary's personal wants in the way that moral concerns are commonly thought to trump merely subjective desires.

Again, there is a natural move. This time it is to the position that the demands of morality are objective. The problem then becomes that of showing that objective concerns trump subjective interests, and the prospects here look better.

That is, the prospects looked better until postmodernism, pragmatism, or Goodman, depending on your predilections. At any rate, the project of defending an objective point of view doesn't look as simple as it once did. Nowadays the challenge is to show that you can get what you wanted out of objectivity from something less.

That's the general project, anyway. In specific contexts you have to deal with the legacy of the old program before you can try to rebuild along different lines.

In The Possibility of Altruism, written about 35 years ago, Thomas Nagel claimed that, "Given any subjective principle, one can construct a corresponding objective principle which accords primary objective value to acts of the sort justified by the subjective one." This was a move in an argument ultimately intended to show, "that the only acceptable reasons are objective ones." Nagel thought that if he could get to that conclusion then the next step, the step linking objective reasons to morality, would be relatively straightforward.

As Nagel notes, the correspondence claim is only interesting if the correpsonding objective principle implies more than the particular subjective principle from which it was derived. Which is to say that Nagel needs the result that there is a set of subjective principles which don't correspond to one another, but do correspond to the objective claim. An example from math might make this more clear. Consider the statements '2=2', '4='4', and '99999=99999'. The objective version of these statements is 'for any x, x=x'. The idea is that you could use your knowledge of, say, '2=2', to arrive at the objective principle. Once you had gotten there you could then derive from the objective principle all of the other equivalencies. So Nagel thinks with reasons that you can use your subjective reason to arrive at an objective formulation, and that for this to be a useful result the subjective reason you actually used must just be one of many that could have been used.

Why is this requirement necessary? Well, if it didn't hold then it would be hard to see the point in making the move to objectivity, since there would be a one to one correspondence between objective and subjective principles. This would mean that objective principles (and hence morality) would be no more general than the subjective principles with which we started. And without such an increase in generality, Nagel thinks, the prospects for additional authority are dim. Put another way, it would make the whole business of deriving objective principles look like a whole lot of hoo haw.

What do these objective principles look like? Something like this:
  • Any person P in circumstances C should do act A
The problem for both Nagel and his critics is specifying C. Nagel needs a specification which retains generality without oversimplifying the complex particularity of concrete cases. So, for example, Nagel couldn't agree to a principle of self defense that said:
  • Any person P whose life is threatened may use deadly force to protect her life
Why not? Because sometimes you can't permissibly use deadly force, as when your life is threated by someone who you have unjustly attacked or when you could avert the threat by stepping out of the way of the bus. What this means for Nagel is that any plausible principle will have to have a whole lot packed into C. And the worry is that if you do too much packing then the principle will lose its generality.

Critics want to deny that useful objective principles can be derived. Their most natural course is to point out ways in which proposed objective principles fail to capture the complex particularity of concrete cases. Their maddening problem is that for any concern they raise, Nagel can just say, "I'll pack that into C." The whole debate threatens to become a contest of endurance.

What critics need is some kind of general reason to believe that general reasons aren't possible. But that presents a bit of a paradox, doesn't it?

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


Another query

How deep is Dan Rather's navel?


A query

When precisely did jumping the shark jump the shark?

Tuesday, July 27, 2004



C-Span has archives of its convention coverage on its splash page. Why sleep when you can watch Al Gore's speech?

Monday, July 26, 2004


What's in a name?

My soon to be ex-neighbors down the street have a badly behaved dog with the unfortunate name of Party. As a result they can frequently be heard, while stone cold sober, standing on their porch yelling, "Party!"


Writing tools

A little while ago, I was talking (ok, emailing) with The Bellman about the tools we use for writing. About a year ago, he and I discoverd that we had hit upon the same methodology for organizing (so to speak) our writing. That is, each of us kept open a long text file (called 'notebook' in my case) where we kept everything we wrote and then we just moved text into more polished documents as needed.

In our recent conversation The Bellman asked how I had dealt with a problem he had experienced, namely that it had become difficult for him to locate the things he remembered writing. He wondered if I had found any tools that made this easier.

I hadn't, not really. In fact, I've pretty much abandoned the generalized notebook format that I had been using. Instead I keep my notes in a couple dozen themed files. I did say that I wished Apple Computer had ported the System 6 era Notebook program to OS X. (I did find a shareware version, but it seems kind of clunky and I'm not sure if it's worth $50)

The thing I always liked about Notebook was how, well, simple it was. As far as I know it only supported one font. There was a tab in the bottom right corner that you used to jump to the next page. Best of all, you didn't have to worry about saving the file. Once you typed it, it was there come Hell or high voltage.

The thing that has happened to The Bellman and I, writing-wise, since we first had this discussion is that both of us have begun blogging. Nowadays I'd rather write online, in a blog interface, than on a word processor. And that's true even though writing online means messing about with HTML tags.


I think it comes dow to the sheer joy of tabbed browsing. When I'm blogging I can jump between tabs effortlessly, and that means that all of the information I'm trying to tie together is, more or less, in front of me. It's only a little more difficult to switch between windows in a word processor (especially since the advent of Expose in Mac OS X) but that little diffierence is, somehow, a big difference.

It makes me realize what I liked so much about Notebook, and what I want in a word processor. What I liked in Notebook was the ease with which I could jump from one document to the next. What I want is tabbed word processing.

So, if you're listening Mr. Gates, get to it!


America's ass kickingest bluegrass band

You know who I'm talking about. Split Lip Rayfield. Woo ha.

On second thought, make that Yee Haw.


Sunday, July 25, 2004


Sunday reading

I've been reading James Reston Jr.'s Sherman's Last March and Vietnam. The following passage about Major John Brinsfield, the man who taught ethics at West Point in the early eighties, caught my eye.
For in the course of the day we spent together, Major Brinsfield emerged as something of an ethical mole within the stony ramparts of Thayer Hall, an advocate of nuclear freeze, a soldier who believes there can be no such thing as "rules of conduct" in modern warfare, and to whom the modern battlefield is akin to a microwave oven. He spoke in the most disarming fashion about America losing the Vietnam war because its conduct on the battlefield was contrary to the values of American society, and therefore lost the support of the people. These are thoughts for which I believed the walls of Thayer Hall would have very big ears. But the major spoke them unperturbed and felt that so long as his research was solid, he was safe in embracing such ideas. It would not occur to me until later that perhaps Brinsfield's ideas were tolerated because they weren't taken seriously. Moral scruples were not on the minds of military scholars ten years after Vietnam. Rather, they were hallucinating about what American firepower might have done to win in Vietnam, had it not been so constrained by civilian meddlers.
Biased? Certainly. Still, I think it offers a clue about Abu Ghraib.

Saturday, July 24, 2004


Hagiography interrupted

Over at The Bellman I just posted something about my Lance Armstrong fandom. I didn't get to it in that post, but I also wanted to mention an episode that took place during Friday's 18th stage. That stage was a rolling road race, 160 some kilometers long, with a few climbs but nothing serious. It was a day for sprinters to get out front and make a run at the green jersey. Since none of the sprinters have a chance at the tour title, Armstrong and his main rivals were content to sit in the peloton and rest up.

There was, though, a little bit of drama early in the stage. Filippo Simeoni, an undistinguished Italian rider, sprinted out of the peloton in an effort to join a group of six low ranked riders on a breakaway. Rather than letting Simeoni go, as good race tactics would dictate, Armstrong took off after him. When the two men reached the breakaway Armstrong explained that he would allow the group to remain in the lead only if Simeoni rejoined the peloton. Simeoni did, Armstrong backed off, and the breakaway group went on to build an eleven minute lead on the peloton.

Simeoni testified in an Italian court in 2002 that one of Armstrong's advisers, Dr. Michele Ferrari, furnished him with illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong, whose triumphs have been shadowed by doping allegations, subsequently called Simeoni a liar in a French newspaper interview in 2003. Simeoni then sued him in a case that is pending. |link|



Had a chance to do some actual organizing today for the first time in months. You forget how rewarding it is when you don't do it for awhile. I enjoyed being on the bargaining team during the contract campaign, but I'm glad to get back to the work that really builds the union.

Thursday, July 22, 2004


Thinking revolution

John Dewey developed a theory of mind according to which the content of thought is largely determined by categories of experience, categories which are themselves a function of the activities which one engages in or finds useful. In the article Interpretation of the Savage Mind he writes that, "If we search in any social group for the special functions to which mind is thus relative, occupations at once suggest themselves." Dewey then turns his attention to the mind of the Australian aborigine, and proposes that the aboriginal mind is formed by the occupation of hunting.

It's very difficult for me, reading Dewey one hundred years later, not to bristle at his categorization of aborigines as savage but the problem I see in his analysis doesn't lie in that rhetorical point, though it may be related.

No, the problem is that aboriginal society is complex and to say that it is organized around hunting is to oversimplify. What's more, to focus on hunting is to privilege a particular perspective in that society in a way that is both predictable and unfortunate, since hunters are likely to be high status males. To privilege their occupation and to say that it is the source of the categories relevant to an understanding of the aboriginal mind is to adopt a perspective which renders invisible the minds of other groups in aboriginal society, particularly the minds of aboriginal women.

It's not clear to me to what extent this critique undermines Dewey's analysis of the aboriginal mind, but it does seem to me that it points to an underlying barrier to the project of analyzing the habits of thought of any society. The problem illustrated by the critique is the difficulty of picking out a defining occupation given the complexity of any human society.

And yet, there does seem to be something to the idea that each society has a particular way of seeing things, and that this way of seeing things is linked to regularities in the way that members of the society interact with the world. Nor was Dewey the only person who held this view in the early years of the twentieth century. Notably, revolutionary Marxists shared much of Dewey's outlook.

The Marxist term for what Dewey called habits of thought is ideology and the Marxist would say that ideology is closely linked to, and necessary for, the society's means of production. The Marxist will also say that the ideology is a tool of the ruling class and exists for their benefit.

It is this last point which marks disagreement with Dewey, for he would say that the habits of thought of the ruling class must also be a product of material conditions.*

Note that this difference makes it easier for the Marxist to answer our difficult question, since the Marxist can say that one only needs to work backwards from the interests of the ruling class.

Finding easy answers to difficult questions, though, doesn't make the Marxist account superior.

One of the glaring facts about the legacy of communism is that the revolutions didn't happen where they were supposed to. Marx said that industrial capitalism suffered from internal contradictions, and that it was these contradictions that would bring about the revolution. This implied that the revolution would take root in the most highly industrialized states, Britain or Germany, and then spread throughout the industrialized world.

Instead, the first successful revolution was in relatively backward Russia. Since then, the most fertile ground for communist insurgencies has been the developing world. The most successful communist state is China, but though it has made strides towards industrialization, its industrial centers are the regions where support for communist ideology is at its lowest ebb. By contrast, support for the party remains quite strong in the agrarian countryside.

What this history suggests to me is that the revolutionary critique of industrial capitalism has more traction in pre-capitalist agrarian societies** than in societies with a developed economies. This is an embarrassment to Marx, but it is quite consistent with the general thesis shared by Marx and Dewey, the thesis that habits of thought are strongly linked to material conditions.

The Marxist error, I think, is strikingly similar to the mistake Dewey makes in his analysis of the savage mind. Namely, the Marxist attempts to simplify something that is irreducibly complex.

None of this, of course, contributes to solving the difficult question, and I don't have much to add that doesn't amount to the platitude that each society is what it is and not something else.

*--or maybe not. Dewey thought that once we understood the origin of our habits of thought we could utilize intelligence to modify the categories in ways that are useful to us. This modification, though, is going to be constrained by our actual interactions with the world, so this point is unclear.

**--though it should be noted that, with the exception of Russia, all of the pre-industrial agrarian societies that went for communism were, to some extent, colonies of European powers. Clearly the legacy of colonialism is relevant to their critique of capitalism since, for them, communism and nationalism are closely tied together. But this is also a point where an embarrassment for Marx is perfectly consistent with the more general thesis.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004



First, a note about the suffix -oid. It connotates 'less than', so a factoid is something that's less than a fact. I used to think that this meant that the producers at CNN were dumb, but now I realize that, philosophically speaking, they were quite sophisticated.

Anyhow, I just came across the following passage while rereading the introduction to John Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy:
As for philosophy, its profession of operating on the basis of the eternal and the immutable is what commits it to a function and a subjectmatter which, more than anything else, are the source of the growing popular disesteem and distrust of its pretensions; for it operates under cover of what is now repudiated in science, and with effective support only from old institutitions whose prestige, influence and emoluments of power depend upon the preservation of the old order; and thi at the very time when human conditions are so disturbed and unsettled as to call more urgently than at any previous time for the kinds of comprehensive and "objective" survey in which historic philosophies have engaged. To the vested interests, maintenance of belief in the transcendence of space and time, and hence the derogation of what is "merely" human, is an indispensible prerequisite of their retention of an authority which in practice is translated into power to regulate human affairs throughout—from top to bottom.
It would take a lot of unpacking to make clear precisely what Dewey is saying here and why I think that he's basically right. But the general idea is that those in power typically oppose social change by alleging that certain facts are fixed.

So, for example, it has been claimed that the traditional nuclear family is, somehow, stamped by nature as the ideal building block of human society, and this contention has been used in the defense of all sorts of retrograde social policies. But whether or not the nuclear family is a good thing isn't a timeless natural fact. Rather, it has to do with whether the nuclear family serves the particular interests that we have right now.

Dewey's criticism of philosophy here is that its mistaken assertion that there is some set of timeless natural facts invariably gives ammunition to those whose entrenched power gives them an interest in saying that the status quo is justified in virtue of the commonsense view of what those natural facts are.

(Yes, yes, I know that social progressives often deploy arguments that substitute one set of natural facts for another. The point is that this yields an advantage to conservatives, since their preferred set of facts is the set that everybody grew up with)

Sunday, July 18, 2004


Abortion and coercion

It's pretty clear that the Bush Administration's objection to China's efforts to curb population growth has more to do with opposition to abortion than it does to the fact that some of those abortions are coerced. All the same, it's also pretty clear that those of us who favor legalized abortion do so largely because we see the prohibition of abortion as a way of coercing women in matters relating to the control of their own bodies. Given that, it's hard to see how we could favor coerced abortion.

But, as sometimes happens in the real world, things aren't so simple.

The population explosion in China (as in other developing countries) is really serious. If population growth doesn't get under control, and I mean soon, then the world is going to become a much worse place to live. Moreover, it doesn't look like the problem is going to solve itself, since the rational thing for any individual in a developing nation to do is to have a large family.

So what we've got is a looming catastrophe that can only be averted by reducing birth rates in developing nations, but we can't rely on individuals to make the choices that would bring about that result.

This is what philosophers call a Collective Action Problem.

One thing I don't know is how coercive China's policy is. Do the police show up in the middle of the night and drag pregnant women off to abortion clinics? Or, do authorities just do a lot of pestering and threaten not to give the family a voucher for a larger apartment? Such news reports as I've seen suggest the latter, but all of the rhetoric I've heard suggests the former.

I guess it goes without saying that the preferred policy would be to up the incentives for not having children, or for not having more than one. The hope there would be that people would then choose to limit family size of their own free will. But that seems so obvious that I don't know why China wouldn't do it, unless merely economic incentives haven't proved to be sufficient to outweigh the preference for a large family.

In such a case we'd have a true moral dilemma. Allowing the population to continue to grow would be indefensible, but so would any of the policies that might solve the problem.


Hey look, metablogging!

Over at TheBellman I just posted this tidbit that I found on Michael Froomkin's blog. My guess is that everybody had already seen it.

Last night I was talking to a bunch of acquaintances of mine at a bar (my drink? Booker's) and among the topics of conversation that people brought up were the fact that Miami is now the most cosmopolitan city in the world and the the idea that BushCo will try to steal the election by announcing the threat of an imminent attack on the afternoon of election day (just in time to suppress the working class vote in California).

So, basically, we were talking about things on Froomkin's blog. I just didn't know it.

Friday, July 16, 2004


Low hanging Google fruit

The title is left over from something I was going to post a few days ago before blogger broke. Now I feel like I have to post it, but it doesn't seem like its worth the effort. It was one of those things that's ok to post if you dash it off in five minutes, but isn't really worth waiting for.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Scary stuff, continued

First, a little bit of background info. Ever since The Cuban Missile Crisis American ICBMs have been outfitted with what are called 'Permissive Action Links.' These are modules built into the launch control mechanism that require a secret code to be entered before the missiles can be launched. These codes are meant to be kept secret from the missile crews so that rogue crews -- or rogue generals for that matter -- can't start a nuclear war. You probably remember the codes from Wargames.

Got it? Okay, here comes the scary bit.

While nosing around the web looking for a quote from Curtis LeMay (for use in this post over at TheBellman) I came across this frightening nugget:
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970s, during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed. Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel. SAC remained far less concerned about unauthorized launches than about the potential of these safeguards to interfere with the implementation of wartime launch orders. And so the “secret unlock code” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at OOOOOOOO. [link]
Pleasant dreams.

Sunday, July 11, 2004


All the right moves

I don't want to bash too much on the study of history or women's studies or whatever it is that Marilyn Yalom does, but if this story about her latest book, The Birth of the Chess Queen, is accurate, then I think she's writing checks on an overdrawn account.

The problem Yalom set out to solve, apparently, is how the queen went from being a relatively weak piece -- able to move only a single space, and only diagonally -- to the most powerful piece on the board. The change occurred in the late middle ages which, you'll recall, is before women's lib. That puzzles Yalom, and while she doesn't have an explanation she outlines three factors that she thinks might be relevant. First there is the fact that the Virgin Mary was venerated in medieval culture, second there was the rise to power of Isabella in Spain, and lastly Yalom notes that in southern Europe (the region where the change took place) women generally had more expansive rights than elsewhere in Europe.

I'm quite skeptical of Yalom's search for an explanation that looks for a strong link between European culture's understandings of women and the rules of chess. Keep in mind that two (or three, depending on how you count) other changes in the rules of chess took place at about the same time. First, the practice of castling was introduced and refined (originally castling took several moves -- you began by moving your king towards the rook and then the rook was allowed to jump the king). Second, pawns were allowed to move two spaces on their first move -- this led to the en passant rule, which is arguably a third change.

Maybe there are grand socio-historical explanations for each of these changes as well. I would argue, however, that the adoption of these rules, together with the increase in the queen's mobility, combined to make chess a better game. So, on this theory, the explanation for why the rules are the way they are now ultimately comes down to playability.

Of course, that's only part of the story. It leaves hanging the question of how the decision was made to try these particular changes in the rules. Was there a medieval John Nash who looked at a chess board and declared that the rules should be thus and so in order to attain strategic parity? Were a number of variants tried and these three settled on based on their success? Did some monk get the rules fortuitously wrong?

These questions may well be unanswerable. But it is here, if anywhere, that work like Yalom's might be able to tell us something. As theories for the changes in the queen's mobility go, I like Yalom's hypothesis that some bright social climber introduced a more powerful queen into the game in an effort to curry favor with Queen Isabella. Unfortunately, Yalom's only proof seems to be that this makes a good story, and that's just not enough.

Friday, July 09, 2004



Here are a few stories making the rounds:
  • The New Republic quotes Pakistani intelligence officers who claim that highly placed figures in the Bush Administration have pushed for the capture of high value al Quaeda targets in late July -- a timetable that would eliminate any electoral bounce the Democrats might see from their convention. (via TPM)

  • According to The New York Times the Defense Department's Freedom of Information Office now says that Bush's National Guard payroll records were inadvertently destroyed during a "project to salvage deteriorating microfilm" in 1996 or 1997. A spokesman said that he didn't know why the destruction hadn't been announced before.

  • Tom Ridge has warned that al Quaeda plans a massive attack on the U.S. this year in an effort to "disrupt the democratic process."

Ridge's terror warning, like every terror warning I can remember, came at an extremely convenient point in the news cycle. That is, it came right after Kerry tabbed Edwards as his running mate. I'd really like to believe that the Department of Homeland Security is playing it straight, but when it comes down to it I just don't. I think Ridge had this non-specific threat in his pocket and was waiting for a politically advantageous time to announce it.

As far as the TNR story goes, Mathew Yglesias notes that you either have to believe the story, believe that TNR made it up, or believe that the Pakistani sources were lying. I don't think TNR made it up and I don't see any reason for Pakistani sources to lie. Supposing that the story is true, the question is: is the timing calculated for political effect? I'd like to believe that its not, but I don't.

What about the Bush/Guard story? Again, I'd like to believe that the Pentagon is playing it straight when it comes to Freedom of Information requests -- especially FOIA requests that don't have anything to do with national security. But I also remember that the Dept of Justice claimed a little while ago that it couldn't fulfill politically sensitive FOIA requests because its computers are too old (can't find a link, sorry). So I'm inclined to think that this is nothing but a politically convenient cover story.

I mention all of this stuff not to make some point about how evil the Bush crowd is but to make a point about me. In each case there's an interpretation available that reflects well -- or at any rate, doesn't reflect badly -- on the Bush Administration. But in each case I'm strongly inclined to accept a more negative interpretation.

The fact is that I just don't trust these guys even a teensy weensy little bit. One thing that worries me about this is that it's not too far from where I'm at now to the kind of cognitive space occupied by people who thought Bill Clinton murdered Vincent Foster.


This just in

Spiderman 2 is a steaming pile.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004



I generally like Mathew Yglesias' blog, but sometimes he says stuff that just scares me. F'rinstance in the midst of a post making a philosophical point I generally agree with he let this slip:
Some colonial situations are inherently unworkable. Nothing France did short of genocide could have made Algeria into an integral part of the Republic. British policies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, however, demonstrate that there were approaches that the United Kingdom could have taken to the thirteen colonies that would have led to a workable form of political association. [link]
Ouch. So what happened in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand was short of genocide. I'll be sure to let the natives know.

I know this is just a blind spot, and I don't think it means that Yglesias is some terrible racist or anything like that. But I will say that Yglesias often remarks that his readers are further to the left than he is and I'd suggest that maybe some of that has to do with blind spots like this one. Just a thought.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


Practical intersubjectivity for the sophisticated gentleman

I don't usually kill spiders. Big hairy ones, yes. Conspicuous web weavers, yes. Killer Brown Recluses, yes. But I give most spiders a pass.

I figure spiders play an important role in the ecosystem of my house. They eat bugs. Some people prefer cats or exterminators, but spiders are free and they don't sit on your keyboard when you're trying to type.

Spiders offer you very clear terms of cooperation.

"Let me live," the spider says, "and I'll kill bugs."

Thinking about spiders and nukes has got me thinking about Robert McNamara and strategic bargaining.

Strategic bargaining, you'll recall, was the centerpiece of the McNamara Doctrine -- the American nuclear doctrine that replaced Massive Retaliation and preceded Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea of strategic bargaining is that you would have a series of limited nuclear exchanges with a cooling off period between each during which belligerents could negotiate an end to hostilities. So, if the Russians nuked New York we'd take out Moscow, but if they only took out Dallas then we'd only vaporize Vladivostok.

It always seemed to me that the problem with strategic bargaining as a nuclear doctrine is that it makes it look like limited nuclear war is possible and might sometimes be a viable option. But, as W.O.P.R. taught a generation of school children, when it comes to nuclear war, "The only winning move is not to play."

Those pesky spiders have made me reconsider. I had always thought of military doctrines as kind of a crib sheet for generals and Presidents. You know, something they could use as a guide to action in case they got flustered during wartime.

This is dead wrong.

The point of a military doctrine is to communicate to potential enemies the terms on which you're willing to co-exist. Or not.

So the McNamara Doctrine said to the Soviets that we were willing to fight a limited nuclear war. We were willing, for example, to absorb a nuclear hit or two in Florida as the cost of doing business if we felt the need to flatten Havana.

The Soviets took a look at this, said "I don't think so, buddy" and Mutual Assured Destruction was born.

All of which reminds me of a joke a friend of mine told. He called the Iraqi insurgents the 'coalition of the willing.' Pretty funny, huh?

Sunday, July 04, 2004


Patriotism and the flag

I don't think it's exaggerating to say that Jonah Goldberg is the left blogosphere's favorite whipping boy. If you need examples, spend some time reading Pandagon.

But Jonah Goldberg's July 4 column is fine and dandy. Here are most of the good bits:
Meanwhile — sometimes out of angry reaction to America-bashing, sometimes out of political opportunism and sometimes simply because no one else would bother — conservatives claimed patriotism as the exclusive province of the right. In our defense, we conservatives believe in, well, conserving. And if upholding the goodness and nobility of the American experiment when others will not isn't conservative, I don't know what is.

The high-water mark of this polarization was probably the 1988 presidential election, in which the senior George Bush wrapped himself in the flag, while Michael Dukakis seemed to consider patriotism a lower priority than agricultural subsidies. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton recognized that patriotic people take voting a bit more seriously than unpatriotic people and focused his campaign accordingly. Today's candidates assert their patriotism daily, with John F. Kerry insisting that if you question his votes, his past positions or perhaps even his haircut you are questioning his patriotism.

Although I think it's absurd to argue that questioning a candidate's positions is the same as questioning his patriotism, it's all to the good that Democrats are fighting Republicans for the mantle of who's more patriotic. Indeed, something similar has been taking place on the academic left. Even the left's dashboard saint, Ralph Nader, can speak eloquently about the grand patriotic tradition of citizen activism that stems from the American founding.

What the left is slowly discovering — or rediscovering — is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. A nationalist gives his undying devotion to a people. A patriot gives his devotion to an ideal. " 'My country right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case," the essayist G.K. Chesterton observed. "It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' " Although we can debate how much of an atrocity the abuses at Abu Ghraib were, one reassuring sign was the near unanimity of opinion here at home that such acts were "un-American." In the past, the left was so contemptuous of what America stood for that the idea of something being un-American would have been considered a badge of honor.

Back during the Afghan War a not-yet friend of mine sent postcards to all of the merchants in her neighborhood noting that they had recently begun displaying the flag and asking them what sort of symbolic message they meant to send by doing so. This struck me as an interesting thing to do and I talked to her about it at some length. She was, more than most of the merchants, aware of atrocities and abuses that had been perpetrated by conspicuously flag-waving Americans. Because she had this knowledge and expressed it to those merchants who agreed to discuss the matter with her, it was pretty widely assumed that she was a frothing America hater.

Her position as she explained it to me, however, seemed more complex. She wanted to make a distinction similar to Goldberg's between patriotism and nationalism. The difficulty, she thought, comes from the fact that both ideologies make use of the same symbol. So how do you use that symbol, the flag, to express approval of the noble ideals of the patriot without also expressing approval of nationalism? She thought this was a practical question that anyone who displayed the flag faced, and what she was asking the merchants to do was engage it.

It is, I think, a really difficult question. Part of the answer is suggested by Goldberg. That is, those who want to use the symbol for the purposes of patriotism have to take ownership of the symbol and repudiate its nationalist uses.

I don't know whether or not this can be done. The nationalist use of the flag is entrenched, and I'm not sure that entrenchment is avoidable. All the same, it's probably a battle worth fighting so long as the American nation is a going concern.

(Contrast with the confederate flag. Those who display it today sometimes claim that it has nothing to do with slavery or the maintenance of white privilege. Even if they are sincere in these claims, the entrenchment of those meanings is so thorough that they can't be expunged.)


Scary stuff

Did some research to see if one of my colleages was full of shit. He wasn't. This is what I found out:
The Davy Crockett was developed to give U.S. Army units an effective nuclear capability against potentially larger units of Soviet armored forces. The Davy Crockett was designed in the late 1950's primarily for frontline use by the U.S. infantry in Europe against Soviet troop formations. The Davy Crockett, a recoilless launcher, was the third artillery piece deployed, those earlier being a l55mm piece designed to fire a nuclear round and a 280mm mobile piece, commonly called an "atomic cannon." Nuclear-capable ground artillery pieces were gradually replaced by increasingly accurate, nuclear carrying missiles and aircraft.

The weapon system used a spin-stabilized, unguided rocket fired from a recoilless rifle. It's 51-pound nuclear warhead had an explosive yield of 0.18 kilotons (equivalent to 18 tons of TNT, with an added radiation effect). As a secondary design feature, the system could also fire a conventional high-explosive round for other use, such as an anti-tank weapon.

The Davy Crockett's warhead was launched from either a 120-millimeter (M-28) or 155-millimeter (M-29) recoilless rifle. The 155 millimeter version, which became the standard issue, had a maximum range of 2.49 miles and could be fired from either a ground tripod mount or from a specially designed jeep mount. The system was deployed with U.S. Army from 1961 to 1971, and over 2,100 were produced. [Source]

So, the U.S. had 2100 nukes that were, basically, infantry weapons. That's one hell of an RPG.