Dumb and dumber

30 11 2011

Complete and utter blog theft from Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, but so nicely done, I couldn’t pass it up:

Gedankenexperiment

by Henry on November 29, 2011

Let’s imagine that we lived in an alternative universe where some of the more noxious nineteenth century pseudo-science regarding ‘inverts’ and same-sex attraction had survived into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Let us further stipulate that the editor of a nominally liberal opinion magazine had published one purported effort to ‘prove’ via statistics that same-sex attraction was a form of communicable psychosis, which invariably resulted in national degeneracy when it was allowed to persist. One of this essay’s co-authors had chased sissies in his youth, but claimed he had not realized that this was homophobic; he also had occasion to observe the lack of real men on the streets of Paris, and to deplore the resulting sapping of virility in the French national character. His efforts, and the efforts of fellow researchers (all of the latter funded by and/or directly involved with the Institute for the Suppression of Homosexual Filth) succeeded in creating a significant public controversy. Some public commentators embraced the same-sex-attraction-as-psychosis argument because they were, themselves, homophobes, others more plausibly because they were incompetent, or because they enjoyed being contrarians, or both. This, despite the fact that the statistical arguments on which these extreme claims depended were demonstrably incompetent.

Now, let us suppose that the same editor who helped release this tide of noxious homophobia in the first place still played a significant role in American public debate, and still refused to recognize that he might, actually, be wrong on the facts.  . . .

I wonder, if we lived in such a world, what Andrew Sullivan would think of that editor?

(Go read the whole thing—and definitely click through the embedded links.)

A fine response to Sully’s inability not only to wipe the shit from his shoes, but even to admit he stepped in it.

There are, of course, substantive responses to Mr. Sullivan’s flogging the pc-egalitarianism-is-killing-research-into-racial-differences-in-IQ-and-I-am-brave-for-pointing-the-way-to-truth-justice-and-the-American-way line he periodically burps up, even while admitting that “I certainly don’t have profound knowledge of the deep research of experts in the field.”

Or, you know, any knowledge, beyond that of an editor publishing the execrable Murray-Herrnstein “bell curve” thesis that blacks are dumber than whites (even as he complains that “No one is arguing that ‘that black people are dumber than white,’ “—oh yes, Mr. Andrew,  these two ‘no ones’ did exactly that).

Anyway, here’s the entire stupid thread thus far (original, response, responseresponse, response), as well as smart rebuttals by TNC here and here (read especially the comments for links to research from people who do have “profound knowledge” of the field).

In any case anyone is listening, yes, I believe that intelligence has a biological substrate, that evidence points to a multifactorial construction of intelligence, and that as a general matter there are genetic differences across populations, differences worth studying.

But that’s a damn sight away from sloppily heated declamations on race and IQ, refusal to consider the definitional (and thus methodological) problems with the terms “race” and “intelligence”, or, for that matter, on the role of “truth” in the research enterprise.

Pfft. Platonists.

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If I had a hammer

29 07 2011

President Obama is smart. Very smart.

You can see it in press conferences and prepared statements, his grasp of the whole of an issue and its part, its relationship to other issues, the uncontroversial and the contested pieces, costs, benefits, risks. . . the guy’s got it down.

All of that analytical might, however, does not translate into political savvy.

It’s not unconnected, of course: the man ran a highly disciplined and ruthless campaign against a very strong primary opponent (Hillary Clinton, who is not lacking in the candlepower department, either), was solid against a less-strong Republican opponent, and quietly brilliant in his patience as the economy blew apart: Where McCain flailed, Obama hung back, projecting an image of calm competence as he moved in concert with the White House, Treasure, and Congress.

It worked.

That’s good, at least for those of us who wanted Obama to become president. And I think he’s been pretty good: the Lily Ledbetter law, the Affordable Care Act, the end to DADT, the reworking of diplomacy—all good. I’m well to the left of the president, but as I knew that when I voted for him, I’m not particularly chagrined that he turned out to be the moderate I thought he was.

No, my differences with the president are less about policy (tho’ there are those), than with his tactics and strategy.

Strategy: Unclear.Would be nice if there were some stated positive purpose to the Democratic party in general and his presidency in particular.

Tactics: he has only one—hang back calmly, try to work in concert with the powers-that-be.

Yes, that worked in the fall of 2008, but it is the summer of 2011 and at least some of those powers are rather uninterested in working in concert.

You need new tactics, Mr. President. Holding out your arms and waiting for everyone to gather within them ain’t gonna cut it, now. You have one approach, and when that one approach fails, so do you.

(Oh, christ, did I just address the President? I hate that shit when columnists and commentators do it, and here I just did it. Can’t keep my inner pundit down, I guess.)

Anyway, to restate this in more analytical terms, all me to state (in all obviousness) that any successful leader needs multiple tools, implements, arms, routes—however you  to put it, you need more than one option.

And having a clear purpose might help, here, if only in creating some urgency in developing those new tactics. When he has a purpose—winning elections, passing ACA—Obama is willing to pull out more than one stop.

In any case, I get it: the president runs cool, not hot. His VP, however, can rile himself tying his shoes, so why not unleash the Biden? There are folks outside of government who’d really like to be allies who could rally and provoke and stoke all of those passions of which Obama is clearly leery.

He might prefer his passion furled, but people are rarely moved by reticence. And if you can’t move the House and you can’t move the people, then you can’t move the country, period.

This isn’t meep-meep or 11th-dimensional chess, but a mud-and-blood political fight. So the president doesn’t want to step into the cage himself. Fine, not his thing.

But he still needs those fighters.





Dirty War

22 02 2010

I love war movies.

Spy movies, dirty tricks, government and intrigue—love ’em!

Can’t say exactly why. Oh, sure, I have this ongoing affair with politics (don’t know why that is, either), but while I enjoyed West Wing and Dave, I don’t swoon for the up-front political movies the way I do for the backstage stuff. Even Bob Roberts, which was more backstage than on-, didn’t turn me on. A good—a very good—movie, but nothing I want to watch over and over again.

Unlike Dirty War. I saw this movie for the first time while living outside of Boston. I didn’t have cable then, either, but I did have a t.v., and PBS broadcast this HBO production over the freewaves.  I think I saw it twice.

Well, now three times, since I just watched the DVD from Netflix. Christ, if this movie streamed, I’d probably watch it once a month.

The set-up is simple: We’re shown nuclear smugglers in central Europe, and cops, fire fighters, government ministers, and terrorists, in London. We see radioactive material smuggled into London, cops trying to track down terrorists cells, a government minister who knows better nonetheless lying so as to reassure the public, and the terrorists themselves, as they meet, assemble the bombs, and prepare to carry out their allegedly divine task.

No, no spoilers here. Watch it for yourself.

Again, I”m not quite sure what the attraction is. The movie is well done, and, to this civilian, utterly plausible. The moviemakers note the research behind the movie, and while I can’t vouch for a smidgen of it, I’m still left thinking Yep, that’s how this could work.

I don’t worry about terrorism on a regular basis. I moved to NYC in 2006, aware that it remains a target, but not terribly concerned about it. I don’t know if it will be hit again, but were I afraid that it would be, I’d have moved somewhere else.

I don’t think of this as denial so much as the same kind of practical calculation that eight million of my neighbors have made. I want to be here, so I am.

Still, there is one possibility which, mmm, tweaks me a bit: the detonation of a dirty bomb.

I was the kid who had nuclear nightmares, who was sure that the world would end before I, well, before I’m the age I am now. This could have been the adolescent impossibility of imagining oneself at middle-age, the morbid outlook of a self-destructive depressive, and/or my rational political concerns mutating into nighttime irrationality.

I don’t have dirty bomb nightmares. But I do think, rationally, that if some group really wanted to fuck over a city, their best bet would be through a detonation of a conventional bomb packed around radioactive material.

A nuke itself would be too hard. Even if a group could manage to get its hands on one, there’s the matter of access to a detonator, as well as that of transport and concealment. Yeah, I remember the material on backpack nukes and worries over uneven security of the nuclear stockpile of various nations, but nuclear weapons, even thousands of nuclear weapons, are still relatively rare things.

What about biologicals? The issue here is one of predictability. Anthrax was used to kill a number of people and frighten a hell of a lot more in 2001 and 2002, but the total number directly affected was relatively few. That’s no comfort to the victims, of course, but as a weapon of mass death, biological agents leave much to be desired.

First, there’s the matter of accessing the biological agent. If it’s controlled, as with smallpox, one has to find a way to get hold of it; if it’s not controlled, one has to find a way to get it and control it before it kills you. Ebola is a nasty disease with a high mortality rate, but it is precisely its nastiness which makes it difficult to handle. Flu is capable of killing tens and even millions of people, but to create a flu like the one which hit the world near the end of WWI requires decent lab facilities and highly trained people—and even that is no guarantee that one could derive a virus both highly transmissible and highly virulent, which could then be released in a maximally controlled manner.

Radioactive material isn’t just scattered like pennies on the streets, but it can be culled from college campuses, hospitals, research facilities, and, of course, nuclear power plants. Further, to make uranium or plutonium suitable for a true nuclear explosion requires extensive processing; the cast-offs from low-grade processing can be used as is.

And it’s use can be controlled. Conventional home-made bombs are apparently not that hard to make (I wouldn’t know, not being the bomb-making or -throwing kind); once the radioactive material has been obtained, you steer your van or boat or truck to the location you want to hit and BOOM. Blast damage, fire, death, and mayhem. And long-term radioactive contamination.

My understanding is that New York City has a very good intelligence network (although in the wake of  the apparently mishandled investigation of Najibullah Zazi, the FBI might disagree), and that agents almost certainly are on alert for any and all kinds of bombs, be they dirty or clean.

So I mostly don’t worry. It’s not that I think the cops and intelligence agencies are infallible—hah!—but given that certainty isn’t possible, the best that can be expected is vigilance. Hell, even with the errors of the Zazi case, they did manage to  stop the guy.

But certainty isn’t possible, and bombs do go off.

It’s this sliver of knowledge that has worked its way deep under my skin. It doesn’t bother me on a daily basis, but sometimes, when a train is stopped too long on its tracks, or I notice all  the trucks in the Financial District or the boats in the harbor, I remember it’s there, and I wonder.