Monday, January 31, 2011

Dan in Real Life

Last night I watched the movie Dan in Real Life.  Dan (Steve Carrell) is a widower with three daughters who writes an advice column (I think).  They head off to his parents’ house on the coast of Rhode Island for a family reunion.  Dan drives into town to buy a newspaper when he is quite taken by a woman he meets at the bookstore.  The spend a couple of hours in conversation and exchange phone numbers.  He drives back to his parents’ house, wherein he is introduced to his brother’s girlfriend Marie . . . the woman from the bookstore.

What to do . . .

This very question drives the dramatic tension of the movie, and quite successfully so.  Dan’s torment is aggravated by the kind of family he has:  a large (four brother’s and sisters, plus their spouses and offspring), hyperkinetic (The adults play football in the yard!  Just like the Kennedys! ), bunch that feels entirely comfortable nosing into each other’s lives.  This environment reminds the naturally reticent Dan how unbearably alone he is, and the contrast illustrates that aloneness for the audience.

Dan works through his dilemma between loyalty and desire in a very human way.  Not to say a perfect way, but then very few of us would, and I don’t object to movies that show people muddling through life as best they can.

What I do object to is when a movie falls prey to the desire to make a “statement”.  In this case, the statement is conveyed by alleging a parallel between Dan’s feelings for Marie and his 14 (maybe 15; the movie doesn’t say specifically) year old daughter’s feelings for her boyfriend Pedro.  (He’s Hispanic!  How progressive!)  Now, as a father with daughters myself, I am obviously in sympathy with Dan’s opinion that 14 is too young for a girl to be “dating”, especially in its modern secular context, and especially when the girl in question displays this level of emotional self-possession:

Murderer of Love

I mean, is this the kind of behavior I have to look forward to?

It seems not to occur to the filmmakers, as it does not appear to occur to Marie (from her comments to Dan) how this very scene illustrates the difference between the two situations.  Dan, whatever his mistakes, at least has the presumptive maturity to recognize the tradeoffs involved and the responsibility to deal with the consequences of his actions.  His daughter, in contrast, knows only her own momentary passion.  Her insistence that she is in love reminds me of the account of a man who needs no introduction:

[P]recisely what is meant by the assertion that the young woman was “madly in love?” Love may be the ultimate weasel term, so for purposes of clarification, let me oppose to the author’s anecdote a short one of my own.

I had occasion recently to make some visits to a nursing home. Most of the residents never receive visitors; they just sit, bound to wheelchairs, waiting for death. Such care as they get is provided by low-wage workers speaking Swahili, Amharic, and a Babel of other tongues. Heaven knows where their children or grandchildren are. But a few cases, I noticed, are different. A man who once navigated bombers past Hitler’s Luftwaffe was there, unable to feed himself. Every day his wife appeared and sat by him, patiently spooning the food into his mouth. Was he an “alpha male?” Did he make her swoon with passion? Did he support her any longer? Did he, for that matter, provide her with any benefit at all? No: yet she continued to appear every day for months on end, never complaining, until the day he died. This behavior cannot be explained in terms of rational self interest, and I submit that it might reasonably be called “love.”

As a side question, I’m beginning to notice what is fast becoming a Hollywood cliché in the way it presents the families of its protagonists.  These families have several characteristics.  First, they are outsized.  The median number of children among native born white families is well below two, yet these families have three or four adult siblings who, furthermore, manage to spend what seems like a lot of time together.  Second, they are socially progressive and irreligious.  This is particularly telling when you consider that most large families are found among religious conservatives.  Thirdly, they are wealthy in that peculiarly Rhode Island / Northern California / Cape Cod way:  they have large houses in scenic or bucolic locations that a moment’s thought tells you must cost a fortune, yet their denizens are conspicuous in their rustic non-pretentiousness.  For instance, I can guarantee you that the family patriarch will be wearing a flannel shirt.  The trick, it seems, is to be rich yet strive to look middle class.  And finally, as I said, they are hyperkinetic.  The adults roughhouse with each other, both verbally and physically.  They all have fashionable hobbies, like woodworking, and the time and energy to indulge those hobbies.  A family in this mold is the subject of the television series Parenthood (of which I was an avid fan until the second season when I realized that I didn’t actually like any of the main characters).

Does anyone have a family like that?  Does anybody know of one?

Speaking for myself:  I love the company my own family.  I enjoy spending vacations at my parents’ or in-laws’ houses.  But I have absolutely no desire to pack those houses with yet another family at the same time, including even (or perhaps especially) that of either of our siblings.

And while I have fond memories of some of the family get-togethers of my own childhood, never once, not once, can I recall ever seeing grownups play football.  My uncles might be prevailed upon to toss football with me in the yard (as I had no first cousins within a decade of my own age), and they certainly watched football on television if it was on, but play football?  Again I ask:  who’s family does this?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tourist Game

From The Tourist:

Mysterious Woman on the Train [Jolie]:  Ask me to dinner?

Tourist [Depp]:  Will you have dinner with me?

MWotT:  Women hate questions.

Tourist:  Have dinner with me.

MWotT:  Too demanding.

Tourist:  Have dinner with me?

MWotT:  No, that’s another question.

Tourist:  [Thinks for a moment.]  I’m going to dinner, if you’d care to join me.

MWotT:  [Smiles.]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Φ’s Ethnic Stereotypes

Scandinavian Feminists:  Most energetic.  Like the Taliban, they fight for what they believe in.

Americans:  Most likely to “take ownership” of the mission at hand.  Which is appropriate, considering.

Britons:  Most cheerful.  Theodore Dalrymple’s dystopia is nowhere in evidence.  Monty Python’s just-a-flesh-wound parody really does capture something of the British national character.

East Europeans:  Most loyal.  They dutifully fought for the Warsaw Pact, and now they fight for NATO, all the while knowing that our project, like theirs, is doomed eventually.  And yet they serve.

Frenchmen:  Most indifferent.  They look on the mission as a bad joke that we Americans just can’t get.  A view with which I have some sympathy . . . but they’re still assholes.


The closest thing I have to a friend over here is a Dutchman.  His family originated in France in the 1700s, moved to Holland, and moved again to Indonesia.  There they sufficiently married into the local population to appear fully Asiatic by this century, all the while keeping the French surname.  His grandfather fled back to Holland the collapse of the Sukarno dictatorship.  Both he and his father took “white” wives, so the Asian appearance is now working its way out.

Anyway, I just thought that was an interesting story.

One of the things that impressed me about him was his optimism about the future, even though he faces career uncertainty as all NATO forces are drawing down their militaries in the wake of the financial crisis.  He has spent a fair amount of time in the U.S., and some of his relatives have done well there.

He’s very patriotic, a quality he shares with many of the officers of Southeast Asian extraction I have known.


Via Dexter’s comment, an article by an Air Force Academy instructor:

Afghanistan and the Afghans provide such a limited foundation to build from that "by, with, and through" simply may not be feasible. In many ways, we are multiplying by zero. The Afghans have limited infrastructure; limited agricultural capability; limited to no indigenous industrial capacity; an immature consumer economy; an impotent and incoherent security apparatus; and a fledgling Western-style government overseeing a decentralized, tribally based population. No foundation exists to to build on. The lack of an existing infrastructure prevents the creation of second- and third-order economic effects, construction of a security force, and the development of functioning public transportation and communication services. The United States is investing in a country in which there is literally nothing to invest. Virtually everything the U.S. uses has to be imported because Afghanistan is fundamentally underdeveloped.

What I witnessed in Afghanistan is best summed up in Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth. Kaplan notes that when the United States began the Peace Corps in the 1960s, both Sierra Leone and India required basic agricultural know-how. Thirty years later, India had become a net food exporter and a producer of high technology with no further need of farm assistance. Sierra Leone, on the other hand, remained exactly where it was in the 1960s when the Peace Corps first arrived. The message of Sierra Leone was brutal: The end was nigh in the failed battle, fought valiantly by the liberal West, to equalize cultures around the world. The differences between some cultures and others (regarding the ability to produce exportable material wealth) appeared to be growing rather than diminishing. I could substitute Afghanistan for Sierra Leone. It was difficult to make my interpreter understand this, but he knew it when I asked where the ISAF would get its water, its rental cars, and its Internet service. He knew that whatever we needed would come from somewhere other than Afghanistan.

Lt Col Veneri doesn’t say specifically when he was last in Afghanistan, but my inference is that it was in June of 2009.  I would be interested to read his impressions on a more recent visit, since this is the most critical appraisal of the war I’ve read in the mainstream press since I’ve been here.  Gen. Petraeus, and the military’s media management operation in general, have generated nothing but puff pieces from establishment journals (the exceptions have been totally wrongheaded), and the political figures who visit offer only fawning praise.

To be fair, this coverage doesn’t happen ex nihlo; we can put on quite a show of accomplishment:  infrastructure built, troops trained and equipped, territory cleared and held, etc.  But the question is whether we have only succeeded in creating a zombie state, one with no life of its own independent of the international aid that accounts for some half of the country’s GDP.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is Afghanistan’s potential?

The armed services administers a test to all potential enlistees called the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). This exam consists of nine subtests in different subjects. As Steve Sailer has explained on numerous occasions, four of these subtests are combined to constitute the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), a highly g-loaded (i.e., roughly correlated with IQ) exam that determines enlistment eligibility. Additionally, the subtests are combined in different ways to determine eligibility for specific career fields.

For instance, the Air Force has an enlisted career field (AFSC) designated "3E032: Electrical Power Production". Admission to this career field requires meeting thresholds along two different aptitude dimensions: mechanical (M) and electrical (E). These dimensions are calculated from ASVAB subtests using the following formulas:

M = MC + GS + 2 x AS
E = AR + MK + EI + GS

The indicated subtests are:

MC: Mechanical Comprehension
GS: General Science
AS: Auto & Shop Information
AR: Arithmetic Reasoning
MK: Math Knowledge
EI: Electrical Information

The thresholds for these tests are:

M: 56th %-ile of U.S. population
E: 40th %-ile of U.S. population

These percentiles aren't especially high.  We aren’t talking about an engineering degree here, merely the aptitude to work as a technician in a power plant.  No doubt any reader of this blog would qualify for this AFSC. (Full disclosure: according to the ASVAB site, I know next to nothing about automobiles, although I made some shrewd guesses on the shop questions, which are broken out separately.) The electrical dimension is substantially g-loaded, two of its subtests being used to calculate the AFQT score. In theory, the other subjects should be teachable; significantly, however, the Air Force declines to teach these subjects as part of the technical training it provides to members of the AFSC.  Rather it expects them to know the information before they enlist, or to learn it on their own.

Of the two dimensions, E is the more g-loaded, as two of its subtests are also used to calculate the AFQT score.  Note that these percentiles are to some degree cumulative, depending on the degree of covariance between the dimensions.  I tried in vain to find this covariance; the best I could do was this 2006 paper that identified correlations between several of the subtests.  The relevant correlation is between AR and AS:  .35, not especially high.  On the other hand, the GS subtest is a factor in both dimensions, and its correlation with itself is obviously 1.  As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, we will take the midpoint between these two numbers as representing the correlation between the two dimensions:  .672.

A quick Monte Carlo simulation in Matlab tells us that with two dimensions this highly correlated, the overall qualifying percentile is only slightly above that for M:  58th.  I shall refer to this value as ME58.

Armed with this overall percentile, I can now use the inverse Gaussian cumulative density function to calculate that this is about .2 SDs above the population mean, equivalent to an IQ of 103.

Question:  What would this look like in Afghanistan?

Lynn and Vanhanen measured the Afghan IQ as a full SD below the American mean.  If we assume:  first, that the IQ variance among Afghans is the same as among Americans; and second, that the distribution of ME aptitude mirrors the distribution of IQ, then we can see that the aptitude cutoff for Electrical Power Production is 1.2 SDs above the Afghan mean, which corresponds to the 88th percentile.

Now, on the one hand, in a nation of 21 million, the 88th percentile still holds plenty of people capable of running the country’s power plants.  But on the other, this requirement must compete with all the other demands of the kind of technical society that USAID and USACE are determined to foist upon the Afghans.  When you add to the consideration the superior opportunities open to the 88th percentile (e.g., looting USAID contracts), you begin to wonder if there is really enough aptitude in Afghanistan to run the society we want them to have.

Monday, January 17, 2011

ISAF Priorities II (Non-snark Version)

My earlier post on ISAF deserves some nuance.

The installation known as ISAF HQ has, I believe, some 2200 full-time residents and some unknown number of local service contractors (even though it was originally built for only 1000, but that’s another story).  Many of these people are in support roles; somebody has to manage the utilities, chow, mail, vehicles, armory, etc. etc.  The business end of the operation is Gen. Petraeus, his direct staff, and a dozen deputy chiefs of staff that track various aspects of the operation.  One of these is the chief of the Stability Division.  Subordinate to Stability is a section called Development, charged with, well, developing the country in all aspects except governance, which has  its own section.  But when I say “charged with”, I should point out that this section does staff work.  We have no power, and no budget, but we manage the information flow up the chain of command and communicate priorities and expectations down the chain.

But this is not the whole of the effort obviously.  As you can see from the ISAF org chart, there are subordinate units where the work actually gets done:  the regional commands (RCs), who manage the combat operations and many of the small-bore infrastructure improvements; and the training mission.  The RCs do, in fact, have their own staffs, including a fair number of engineers (or at least that is my understanding).  And this doesn’t even count the two biggest players in the infrastructure development business:  U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  This is where most of the money and most of the engineering talent resides, although it’s important to keep in mind that most of the work is done pursuant to contracts . . . billions of dollars worth of contracts.  Whatever theoretical independence these organizations have, their leadership knows perfectly well that Petraeus has the informal clout to get his way.  Indeed, the fact that we are still here owes much to Petraeus’ personal credibility and political standing.

So . . . why are we still here?

My personal answer is:  momentum.  Ask the average red-state American about our presence in Afghanistan, and he may have a vague recollection that the Taliban gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda, the architects of the 9-11 attacks.  But I can testify that, here at ISAF HQ, Al Qaeda is almost never mentioned.  Our war against the Taliban has degenerated into simply playing the side of the Afghan civil war that we happen to be on.  Yes, the Taliban brought theocracy and oppression of women, but the Northern Alliance (for want of a better term to describe the government we support) has brought corruption and buggery . . . and none of it is our business. 

Against my better judgment, I might be persuaded that the opportunity to bring religious freedom to Afghanistan might make our presence here worthwhile, but not only are we not doing that, but we are actively collaborating with the government’s Islamizing ambitions.  The Afghan military, for instance, has established “Religious and Cultural Affairs” RCA units – commissars, basically, that enforce Islamic religious conformity among the ranks.  Once upon a time, we in the West made much sport of these when the Russians had them; now, of course, our own military is rife with commissars enforcing various aspects of political correctness in the name of Diversity.  So perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that we are facilitating contacts between these RCA units and Islamizing organizations in Great Britain.

We are, however, putting some effort into Women’s Liberation.  This is where the power of staff members with specific agendas gets exercised.  They are conducting a number of programs in health and education that are directed specifically at women, and have plans to establish “gender” set-asides in facets of the mining industry.  This last was most clever; there will be far less official resistance to all-female workplaces than there would be to mixed-sex shops that hire by merit.  Internally, these staffers speak the language of the feminist left; operationally, however, they don’t seem to be stupid, and they know enough to probe for weaknesses and back away from strength.  Time will tell how the population greets the changes they create once they become more manifest, but thus far they have been picking their fights and only pushing on doors that are open.  Even the Taliban recently began to moderate its public statements about the role of women, realizing that their absolutist vision isn’t selling all that well.

But then, the Taliban vision has become a tough sell across the board.  From what I have seen thus far, I have come to believe that Gen. Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy might actually work – if by work we mean suppressing the Taliban to the point that the Afghan National Army can contain it.  But it is important to understand why this is working.  We are, in essence, buying the cooperation of the populace with all this free stuff:  billions of dollars’ worth of buildings and roads and power plants and medical supplies, so much so that even after the government steals most of it, the lives of Afghans are materially improved.  The Taliban offers them only the opportunity to sit in the cold and dark at best; at worst, to get shot and bombed in the name of an “authentic” nationalism that appears increasingly abstract, since our forces do almost everything we can to respect the local traditions.

The problem is, what happens when we leave?  What happens when the Afghans are called upon to fund, operate and maintain all this infrastructure we have given them?  What happens when government officials don’t have any more USAID contracts to loot and began lining their pockets with the sustenance of the population.  These were the very conditions that gave rise to the Taliban back in the 90s. 

Gen Petraeus, at some level, gets this fundamental problem, which is why he now speaks openly of creating five permanent bases in the country.  His counter-insurgency strategy involves never leaving, and continuing to pour what remains of America’s wealth into this dusty rat-hole of a country.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

ISAF Priorities

Number of staffers in the Development section who are engineers:  2.

Number of staffers in the Development section dedicated to establishing Scandinavian standards of feminism:  3.

Number of staffers in the entire theater dedicated to ensuring “our” government doesn’t throw Christians in prison for their faith:  0.

Number of staffers in the entire theater dedicated to ensuring “our” president doesn’t rape little boys:  0.

Any questions?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Waiting on the Fat Lady


Surprising, yet appropriate, how little the wars of yesteryear matter anymore.

Today I learned that my Hungarian boss had, in his youth, served in the Warsaw Pact.  This possibility had only dimly occurred to me when I asked him at lunch how old he was when the Berlin Wall came down.  When he told me, I felt . . . nothing, which surprised me considering how seriously I took the Cold War at the time.  Indeed, as well I should have, but it’s a new day, with new enemies.

He had received his initial military education in the Soviet Union.

“What did they teach you about Afghanistan?” I asked.

“Not much, actually.  I was headed to be a staff officer, so we focused on the broad spectrum of military power, not counterinsurgency.  But just about all my instructors were Afghan vets, and most had injuries to show for it.”

“Most of my instructors I had right before coming over here were the same way.”

“I saw the Soviet military,” he continued, “and I’ve seen the American military.  Both of you are very strong, very capable.”

“And yet,” I argued, “we seem to be making much more headway against Afghanistan’s insurgency than they did.”

“It’s not over yet,” he replied, darkly.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

All In: when it’s better to have only girls.


It’s no secret among my readers that, four months hence, I plan to fly out of Afghanistan without so much as a glance aft; and further, I would recommend this course of action as policy.  But not everyone can say this.

The last briefing of the day was from senior officer M leading the anti-corruption efforts.  Summary: the problem is epically bad, from Karzai on down.  Public offices are sold; those offices are then used to enrich their purchasers at the expense of the populace.  The top echelon of ISAF recognizes (because they have said this specifically) that the present alternative to the Taliban isn’t a weak government, but a predatory government.  And our solution is . . . .

“I do,” I said when M asked if we had any questions, “but nobody else wants to listen to my questions anymore, especially right before lunch.”  I had hammered at least three briefers with what should have been a simple question:  what is the recidivism rate among re-integrees?  “Re-integree” is ISAF-speak for captured or surrendered insurgents that we have deemed rehabilitated and then released.  (Answer:  as measured by the number of re-integrees we have captured again, the rate is low, but it grows when you consider the size of the insurgent force compared to the number of detainees.)

“I don’t envy you your job,” I told M after everyone else had left, “and I admire your candor about the size of the problem.  But I have to say,” gesturing to the PowerPoint slide, “that nothing up there under ‘solutions’ looks like an actual solution.  They all look like glittering generalities and wishful thinking.  What concrete successes can we claim against corruption in Afghanistan?)

We talked about this for a while.  “The corruption isn’t just on the Afghan side, “M said.  USAID has poured many tens of billions of dollars into contracts here, a large fraction of which has simply disappeared.”

“I noticed that.  Like, what’s up with this outfit Black & Veatch?  100% cost overruns on a diesel power plant for Kabul, and they still get the contract for a plant in Kandahar.”

“But the worst part is that we estimate some $300M of the missing development aid has made its way to the insurgency.  When you consider that building and placing an IED only costs them $350, you begin to realize just how bad the situation is.”

“But that just leads to the question:  why are we even here?”

M paused a moment.  “Well, I can tell you why I’m here.  Two years ago my son was killed here.  What am I supposed to do, go back and tell Mrs. M – and there are two of them since my son was married – that he died for nothing?”


What do you say in the face of that level of personal investment?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Making Waves

The counter-intelligence officer briefed us on, among other things, the case of Daniel James, the British corporal convicted of spying on ISAF for Iran.  I had never before heard of James, who, his name notwithstanding, had emigrated to Britain from Iran as a child.

“So how many other Iranian born people have the Brits sent us?” I asked during the final Q&A.

I almost felt sorry for the poor CI guy, as this question clearly caught him off guard.  Visibly struggling to regain his footing, he stammered, “Well, I don’t have any specific numbers . . . .  Mainly we rely on you folks to flag suspicious behavior for us . . . and anyway, [finding his stride] there’s no reason to be suspicious of someone just because they were born in Iran.”

“So what you’re telling us, as a counter-intelligence professional,” I replied, “is that there is no relationship between James’ country-of-origin and his successful recruitment by the intelligence agency of his country-of-origin?”

“Well, we wouldn’t think that every person from Iran was a potential spy just because he was born in Iran.”