Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

War commentary is hell

The usually reliable Dsquared slips:
In which I disagree with Paul Krugman, about something that was once very important

America’s other great moral war, World War II, was similar. The war movies I watched when I was a kid always had plucky, individualistic American heroes beating superbly equipped Nazis, but the reality was mostly the other way around. We had many heroes, but the truth is that Americans were never as good at the art of war as the Germans. What we were good at was the art of production, of supply. Honor the heroes who stormed Omaha Beach — but it was the floating harbors, the trans-Channel fuel pipeline, and the air superiority achieved through production miracles that really did it.

True but false. In the European theatre, maybe so, but then in the European theatre there weren't really all that many face-to-face, head-to-head, like-for-like scraps between the US Army and the Germans. In the Pacific, on the other hand ... it was indeed US industrial power that got them to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but once they were there, it was nothing more nor less than exactly the kind of man to man combat that we were talking about. And the USA won. As I've noted elsewhere, it's surprising that the US Army has pockets of the "Warrior Ethic", because their finest hour was also the destruction-testing of "imperial martial culture versus citizen-soldiers of a democracy", and the right side won.

Bottom line is that it's a common and romantic notion (with roots in Ruskin, Nietszche and other Romantic types many of whom had a "complicated" relationship with sexuality) that industrial societies, for all their worldly wealth and productive capacity, somehow produce a slightly less worthy figure of human being; the triumph of the Last Man. Not true; actually they're better people as well.

Let's not let the line "in the European theatre there weren't really all that many face-to-face, head-to-head, like-for-like scraps between the US Army and the Germans" pass without comment.
The adjectives here do seem to be doing a lot of heavy lifting, erasing most of the fighting in Italy, Normandy, and Germany. In which fighting, there appears to be virtual unanimity among military historians, German soldiers couldn't be shifted without (a) air superiority, overwhelming material support, many more tanks, many more guns, and all the paraphernalia of the 'art of production, of supply, and (b) two-to-one (or four-to-one, to be safer) superiority in numbers. They were, man for man, better soldiers. Such books as Overy's 'Why the Allies won' phrase this as something requiring an explanation specifically because an explanation is needed for why worse soldiers could defeat better soldiers. Overy points to various reasons why some of the factors that led to Germans being better soldiers on the ground contributed to them being worse war-fighters in the big picture, but he doesn't contest the specific superiority.
I really can't see that Krugman's point is even debatable.
And in the Pacific, it's really very hard to judge how face-to-face combat would have gone once you remove the handicap that stemmed from, for example, the US being able to supply each of its soldiers with four tons of supply compared with four pounds of supply for each Japanese (see Max Hasting's Nemesis). You can say "I think it is hard to argue that a country which made use of the tactic of literally building aeroplanes for the sole purpose of crashing them was facing an utterly binding resource constraint", but at the end of the war those planes had to be fueled by getting turpentine from pinecones - and even then, the Americans actually had more warships than the Japanese had planes.
Yes, it's true that in a fight between an "imperial martial culture versus citizen-soldiers of a democracy" the right side won, but it certainly wasn't because the individual citizen-soldiers were better: it was because the system that produced those citizen-soldiers was much more effective as a whole than its rival, and in the end that prevailed. To put it another way, it's complicated.
To put it another way still, the besetting fault of American and British soldiers was that when they met with stiff opposition they fell back and waited for air and artillery support to smash the opposition before they pressed forward. Sensible enough, and certainly as much or more than I would have done, but not what the Germans did, and not a method showing as much confidence as DD shows in their soldierly superiority.
Better people, perhaps, but worse infantrymen. And insisting the two should go together seems to me to be conceding quite a bit too much to the cavalrymen.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lard lad

I participate in a barney over at John Quiggin's blog.
Ooh, goody gumdrops. I get to be a denialist.I've always wondered what it was like.
Possibly not entirely, in that I’m prepared to concede, in very general terms, that if you eat more you’ll get fatter. However…
Whatever the aesthetic appeal of unfatness, in terms of the bigger picture it’s just not that unhealthy.
(1) If you control for social class and activity, greater weight doesn’t have a massive effect on all-cases death rates (see, for example, ‘Obesity: How big a problem? by I. Wikelgren, Science, 1998, Vol. 280 no. 5368 pp. 1364-1367′)
(2) if you look at the epidemiology, it’s very hard to see any input from obesity. Australian life expectancy has been rising at the rate of three months a year virtually uninterruptedly for the past century (see here). Whatever year you date the start of the obesity epidemic to, and whatever the age group you think it’s concentrated in, I defy you to find any signs of it on the graphs. Yes, of course, you could say that the rise is due to other factors such as better health care or more aggressive medicine and that without it we would be improving by six months a year - hell, if we could punch our present rate up by a mere four times we could all live for ever - but that’s a hypothetical.
(3) Whatever effect obesity does have is almost certainly swamped by the effect of where you stand in the social hierarchy (see the Whitehall studies, passim).
OK, now hit me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


While the Americans have been collecting all their iconic newspaper comic strips - Peanuts, Popeye, Pogo, Gasoline Alley - the Poms have been very slack indeed. They seem to have no idea of the meaning of the word 'complete'. And the very greatest strip, Flook, is lamentably unrecorded.

The good news here is that the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent has begun putting the early years online. So far only one year, but one can hope, and pray.

Oh, and there's a later story here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Utter humiliation

Keen as I am on the which, I have just put a hit counter on the site; 6309 hits in what, six years? If that counts my own, that would leave about ten for the rest of the world put together.

Walking to the station

Just for the record,
- from front door to first bus stop: 272 metres
- from first busstop to second busstop:224 metres
- from second busstop to hospital busstop; 332 metres
- from hospital busstop to station busstop: 334 metres
- from station busstop to station platform; 180 metres
making a total door-t0-train of 1442 metres.

All figures approximate, based on a 1 pace = 1 metre.

I believe there's a google maps app that will check distances; must doublecheck.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A well-regulated militia

One thing about the Libyan revolt is that the initial success of the rebels did suggest that an armed and incensed citizenry could stand up against government power, which would, among other things, lend some credence to the arguments of the American right that the right to own guns was a relevant constitutional consideration as a limit on tyranny. I don't think, now I come to reflect, that the rebels were armed with private guns -- they just raided government arsenals - but in any case the point is moot because Gadaffi's trained troops are pushing the rebels aside as easily as one might have expected, and the dissipation of the early rebel gains leaves nothing to explain.

More generally, the American right-wing position on guns and governments does seem rather incoherent; at home they say that guns in the hands of citizens make it impossible for an unpopular government to impose its will on the citizenry, and abroad they expect that the American army should have no real difficulty imposing its will on well-armed subject populations in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan.

No worries no fly

I have, naturally, every sympathy for the Libyan rebels; but Rudd pushing for a no fly zone is rather a let's you and him fight scenario, and I think we should be rather more modest when it comes to asking other people to start wars we're not going to join.

Which doesn't mean I think there should be open slather on the ones we do say we'll join, either.

And see Dsquared, here:


The Sunday Herald Sun had a special earthquake supplement with photos of the devastation and accompanying messages of sympathy (in boxes, one to a page) from Obama, Rudd, Abbott, Gillard, the UK PM, the NZ PM, the Queen, and Justin Bieber.

Friday, March 11, 2011


A woman whose hair is blonde is known as a blonde.
A woman whose hair is red is known as a redhead (or a number of nicknames).
A woman whose hair is brown is known as a brunette.

Why, then, is there no single word for a woman whose hair is black?
Is that because it was the default setting?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Case of the Polo Pony, part 2

The case of the polo pony was held up after lunch for a considerable time while an experiment was made in court. A candle was lit by the puisne serjeant-at-arraigns and the polo pony was brought in in a loose box. It was led out, and on its back were the twelve redheaded dwarfs, bowing to right and left and grinning.

'What are you doing here, you dwarfs?' asked Cocklecarrot angrily.

'We were passing,' replied the ringleader, 'and so we looked in. Quite like old times. This pony is the model for a new rocking-horse we are constructing. We have, alas, no money to spend on books of anatomy, and so we have to study from nature. A polo rocking-horse ought to be just the thing for a child of wealthy parents. Ah! We cannot all be wealthy. When we were small, we had but one hat between us. Did we, you ask, wear it in turn, or huddle all our heads beneath its sheltering crown, like ants under a mushroom? Your curiosity shall be rewarded, judge. We never wore it at all. It rotted in a shed, unworn. And yet, sometimes when the spring wind blows, we remember that old hat and tears well unbidden to our eyes. So, when a weary heart--'

With a great roar of rage Cocklecarrot sprang erect. 'Clear this damnable court!' he bellowed.

(He then repeated the trick with the water-jug and the sunshine, and burnt the court down.)

And here, I am afraid, the saga of the red-bearded dwarfs runs out of plank. There are no more stories to hand, and further researches must be left to Google libraries of the future.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Another man of the same name

One of the reasons why I don't believe that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is that you can't (couldn't then, can't now with most scripting jobs) just send a man round carrying the Earl of Essex's manuscript for the players to perform. The players are going to be calling out in rehearsals - well, they did when I was writing film scripts - saying things like "We've had to cut that scene - can you write a bridge to cover that?" or "My speech should be longer - can you add in a song?" or simply "I can't say that - can you make it simpler?" You've got to have someone sitting there saying "OK, I'll fix it". And given the social relationships at the time, that's not a job any Earl would take to.

They say that no non-earl would be able to write such good dialogue for courts and princes, but that argument has severe consequences -- the people writing scripts for The Sopranos would all have to be arrested immediately, for one thing.

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