Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

A few days ago I counted the books I had "on the run," that is, books that I had started reading, had not finished, and had not chucked into the "never going to finish" or "not worth the effort" piles. Some were books I owned, and some were from the library. By the way, our local library system, the Pikes Peak Library District, is very nice. There is a small branch more or less across the street from me, up at the Village Center shopping center, and the much larger East Branch is only a couple of miles away on Union Boulevard.

I had sixteen books going, not counting the NIV Study Bible, which I began on November 1, 2007, under a program which will have me completing it on October 31, 2008. Sixteen! Some I had started a long time ago, and had not touched in months. Others I had been reading at the rate of a chapter or so a day, for a greater or lesser period of time. And a few had only recently been started.

Therefore, my first New Year's resolution is this:

Read these 16 books [on an attached list], plus the prescribed parts of the Bible, before buying any other book.

I understand this to mean that I will not only not buy another book, but that I will also not withdraw any from the library, nor will I start any of the other books (read or unread) in my collection.

Thanks to this resolution, I have already been able to diminish the disorder in my house, as I shelved a number of books I had taken down, with the idea of reading them soon. Now I have acknowledged I won't read them any time soon, so back on the shelves they go!

This profusion of books is partly due to the networking or referral system on which I read. That is, a couple of months ago I was reading Paul Theroux's travel classic The Old Patagonian Express. In the course of the book, Theroux mentioned that he was reading The Adventure of A. Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allan Poe, and, later, that he read and enjoyed Boswell's Life of Johnson. So I found my copy of the complete works of Poe and set it aside. Then I got Boswell out of my (incomplete) set of the Great Books of the Western World, and put it next to my bed.

I also read Wittgenstein's Poker recently. This is a fascinating little book about a confrontation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper on October, 25, 1946, at King's College, Cambridge (the one whose choir one often hears at Christmas time). That led me to get out the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Now all of those books are back in their rightful places on the shelves.

My other resolutions are:

2. Maintain weight in the range of 170-175 pounds.

3. Exercise regularly, including the walking program, workout tapes, and yoga.

4. Practice meditation.

5. Eliminate short-term debt.

6. Complete PMP [Project Management Professional] certification.

Today I finished the first of the books on the list, The Ultimate Weight Solution, by Dr. Phil McGraw. I found this book for $2.00 in the bookshop at the East Branch library (proceeds go to the library), and it was in very good shape: no highlighting or underlining. Reading it has obviously been in pursuit of my resolution # 2, although McGraw also talks about exercise and meditation.

McGraw's book isn't bad, for the kind of thing it is. A lot of it is the kind of commensensical advice that seems inane, but is all too easy to forget in the stress of daily living. Set realistic goals, don't expect miracles, make it easy to do the right thing, eliminate excuses - that sort of thing. I'll probably write more about this on another occasion.

Oh, since mid-October I have lost about 30 pounds. I am now down around 175, on my 70.5-inch frame, and it is a far more comfortable weight for me than what I had been maintaining for the past several years. So I think it's important to maintain it until it is really stable.

And now I have another 15 books to read.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Coincidence and Astrology

In my recent post, "Wittgensteins Everywhere," I noted the coincidence that I ran across a couple of references to Prince Wittgenstein, in two different books, on different topics, on the same day. I adumbrated (facetiously, I assure you) the possibility that there was some "Grand Plan" causing these apparently coincidental events in my life. A friend has since cautioned me about attributing events to "grand plans."

That's always a good caution. After all, as is well known, incompetence (greed, normal human foibles) is a better explanation of untoward events than conspiracy. (Yes, I think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. And, while I found Kevin Phillips' book American Theocracy interesting, I don't for a moment believe that there is a conscious, intentional, conspiracy underlying the events Phillips finds to be so suspicious.)

Moreover, if one has a sufficiently large sample, one will often find "strange coincidences" that are not strange at all. One of my favorites in the realm of statistics is that there was a perfect correlation between the price of rum and the salaries of Congregational ministers over quite a long period of time. Was there a secret compact between the rum dealers and the Congregational Church (which was, after all, the established church in Massachusetts)?

Not really. Over a very long period of time, prices have trended upwards. This is due to a number of things: rising populations, exhaustion of some resources, a constant tendency of governments to debase the currency, the discovery of gold and silver in the New World, and so on. Since prices of most goods and services are rising most of the time, all prices are positively correlated to some extents. (This is how your stockbroker can assure you that the stock market always, in the long run, rises. However, as Lord Keynes once said, in the long run we're all dead.) If one has a sufficiently large universe of prices, two of them will be perfectly correlated.

There is an old trick question illustrating this phenomenon. How many people do you have to have in a group before the chances of two of them sharing the same birthday go above 50%? Well, you might reason, there are 365 (and 1/4) days to choose from, so there would need to be 183 people in room before one of them has the same birthday I have. True, but that wasn't the question. The correct answer is, as I recall, 24. (Corrections and explanations are welcome.)

So, it doesn't really take all that many cases to have a sufficient universe for various "coincidences" to appear. If I ask, "Isn't it strange that two very different books happen to mention the same man?" - that looks like a coincidence. If, on the other other hand, I ask, "Out of the hundreds of men mentioned in the dozens of books I've read this year, wouldn't it be odd if some of them weren't mention in more than one book?" - then I'm looking at a predictable regularity.

Part of the fortune-teller's bit is to throw out so many vague predictions that some of them are bound to agree with some future event. But even more of it is due to our constant need to create patterns. When the patterns really do exist, as in the natural selection of biological traits, this human propensity is quite useful. When, however, the pattern isn't really there, one ends up with a specious theory. Astrology, for example, isn't just wrong because the stargazers can't agree on which predictions to make for which combinations of signs. Rather, it's wrong because it is based upon the positions of the constellations in the heavens. And the constellations do not exist. The stars really are randomly distributed, with respect to their visibility to a viewer on the Earth, so that any so-called "constellation" is purely a creation of the observer. Since the constellations don't correspond to any real pattern, they can't be predictive of events.

Unless, of course, you want to contend that the particular constellations we "see" are a result of some hard-wired characteristics of our minds - characteristics which also determine how we react to various circumstances. Sort of a celestial Rohrschach test.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wittgensteins Everywhere

As is often the case, I am reading a number of books concurrently. As is surprisingly often the case, I find that I run across something in one book which relates, somehow or other, to material in another book, without any apparent reason for the connection.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a well-known philosopher. In fact, a quote from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the masthead for this blog. Wittgenstein wrote much of the Tractatus while serving as a forward artillery observer with the Austrian army during World War I. At the moment, I am somewhere in the middle of a work called Wittgenstein's Poker, which is ostensibly about a ten-minute argument between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, which took place in Cambridge, England, in 1946.

There are all sorts of places one could go from there, and Messrs. Edmonds and Eidinow, the authors of Wittgenstein's Poker, go to many of them.* They bring in the backgrounds of the two protagonists, social, religious, and political, as well as philosophical.

The Wittgensteins, though they converted to Protestantism years before Ludwig was born, were Jews, and the original family name was not Wittgenstein, but Maier. Ludwig's grandfather, Moses Maier, took the name from the Sayn-Wittgensteins of Hesse, for whom he was an estate manager. The Times stated in its obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein that he was descended from that "Prince Wittgenstein who fought against Napoleon." (See Edmonds and Eidinow, page 113.)

Now, that in itself is, I think, an interesting phenomenon. Jews taking the names of the estates on which they worked has a certain resonance to the United States after the Civil War, when black freedmen took the names of their masters and the plantations on which they had labored. It recalls the manner in which the Romans adopted promising young men into their families, and gave them names similar to, but not exactly the same as that of the gens.

At the same time, I've been reading The Book of War. Perhaps I should explain. A few years ago, at the height of the drought in Colorado, my wife and I took a week's vacation at a timeshare resort in Pagosa Springs. While there, we came across a small bookstore selling quite a number of books with black marker stripes across the bottoms of the pages. Naturally, these sold at quite a discount, and I bought several books. To this day, I do not think that I have finished reading any of those books. There may be a reason that they were relegated to the remainder shelves.

But lately I took to reading The Book of War: 25 Centuries of Great War Writing, edited by John Keegan. From pages 155 to 169 Keegan excerpts a work by Helen Roeder about her ancestor, Franz Roeder, who served in a Hessian (note that location!) regiment: the Lifeguard Regiment of the Grand Duke of Hesse. At page 158 Ms. Roeder quotes the Captain's journal as saying, "I begged a piece of bread from Prince Wittgenstein, and then gave it to Amman because I thought that his need was the greater."

Obviously, this is the Prince Wittgenstein for whose family the Jewish Maiers, later the Vienna Wittgensteins, were estate managers. So I have a line connecting page 133 of a book about two twentieth-century philosophers with page 158 of a collection of excerpts from books about a variety of wars. But there's more, because on page 161 of Keegan's collection, we take up the story from the point of view of a Russian memoirist, also writing about the retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow, in which we find this line: "... Count Wittgenstein was approaching from Tschasnik with his corps reinforced by General Steinheil, in order to link up with the Army of the Danube." Not only is Count Wittgenstein not the same as the Prince Wittgenstein of Hesse to whom we were just introduced, he is on the other side! Count Wittgenstein's forces are chasing those of Prince Wittgenstein and his colleagues across the Beresina. Meanwhile, Prince Wittgenstein's estate manager is appropriating his name and moving to Vienna, where his descendants will become the wealthiest family in Austria.

Once again the disparate elements of my reading combine to cast light, or maybe shadows, one upon the other.

Is this merely coincidence, or is there a grand plan operating behind the scenes?

*David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of A Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Off-Shoring in a Changing World

The editor-in-chief of Information Week, Rob Preston, has a weekly column in the magazine. In the October 29, 2007, issue, Mr. Preston commented on the shifting state of competitive advantages. (I don't think this term should be identified with the economic concept of comparative advantage, though the two ideas have commonalities.) There should be general agreement on the main point of the column, which is that things change. That is such a commonplace thought that one might not think it worth a column, let alone comments upon that column, except that some of the examples Preston raises are often discussed in terms that would have us think that these are immutable and irreversible trends, rather than the ebb and flow of global economic life. Thus, I think Preston does his readers a service in reminding us that "this, too, shall pass."

His first point about high-tech labor is that American and European firms, seeking lower labor costs, have sent some work to India, China, and other offshore providers. At the same time, foreign workers have been allowed to enter the U.S. and Europe on favorable terms. So, foreign workers have some advantage over American workers in obtaining certain kinds of employment. However, as Mr. Preston points out, salaries for high-tech workers in India have been climbing, due to both local and international demand, while concerns about quality and public relations have dampened the ardor of American employers for off-shoring customer-facing functions. Thus, the pendulum swings back the other way.

At this point, let me insert a note about the new EU "blue card." The October 27 issue of The Economist reports on the European Commission's plan to issue a new document making it easier to recruit and retain highly-skilled foreign workers. The Economist understands countervailing trends as well as Mr. Preston does. A better immigration card "would do nothing to make Europe's economies more attractive in themselves. As long as those economies remain relatively undynamic, the most talented (especially English-speakers) will use their wits to look for work elsewhere." (Page 60) Interestingly, The Economist says that the EC estimates that the "blue card" will push the number of highly skilled non-Europeans in the work force up to 100,000, from about 70,000 today, while Information Week sets Europe's goal as attracting 20 million workers "over the next several decades." I suspect that the lower number is far more in line with what Europe might be willing to absorb.

Rob Preston goes on to look at the impact of currency fluctuations. For those of your who thought that the fall of the dollar vis-a-vis the loonie was a joke, in the past five years the dollar has fallen 39% against the Canadian dollar. If I were living in Ottawa now, as I did from 1986-1989, I would be a poorer man with my U.S. dollar-denominated salary, and the government would find paying for my housing much more expensive than it was 20 years ago. So, he says, "Suppliers in China, India, and elsewhere aren't as attractive as they once were, as they adjust the dollar prices of their products to ensure that they sell at the correct value." Therefore, some firms are turning back to U.S. workers for jobs they might have considered outsourcing to an offshore firm.

I have read elsewhere that the cost differential needs to be at least 20-30% before a firm considers off-shoring work now done in the U.S. Given the administrative headaches, the supervisory problems, and the risks in the quality-control area, there has to be a pretty good premium to justify taking this step.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Commentaries on Foreign Affairs: "Time for Detente with Iran"

Commentaries on Foreign Affairs: “Time for Détente with Iran”

Ray Takeyh, “Time for Détente with Iran,” pages 17-32 in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007.

It seems that, for every adversarial regime the United States has faced in its history, there is some group of Americans promoting the idea that we need only appeal to the “moderates” in the other regime in order to stymie the “hardliners” who are the source of all that hostility. There are a number of problems with this view, not least the invisibility of the “moderate” forces just when their influence would be most helpful. With regard to Iran, whose relations with the United States have been troubled for the past three decades, Ray Takeyh is a member of that optimistic group.

I should mention that Mr. Takeyh is the author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. I have not read that book, so I cannot draw upon it for further elucidation of Mr. Takeyh’s views.

First, from the title of this article, we can see that Mr. Takeyh is advocating détente with Iran. This by itself places Mr. Takeyh on the liberal end of the American foreign policy spectrum. Détente is a perfectly fine word with a simple definition: “a relaxation of strained relations or tensions (as between nations).” It was most popular when indicating the relaxation of American-Soviet tensions during the early 1970s, under the aegis of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, by Raymond L. Garthoff (1985) indicates in the sub-title the progression of the reputation of the word. Conservatives came to associate détente with the granting of a form of legitimacy to the Soviet Union, and they asserted a preference for confrontation, returning to that old Republican desire for a “rollback” of Communism.

The problem is two-fold: First, more conservative observers think that tensions are only relaxed when the United States makes concessions to the other side; and, second, any improvement of relations generally rests upon some sort of commitment not to take military (or other strongly damaging) action against the other party. It is, after all, hard to relax and enjoy friendly relations when the other party keeps threatening to invade you. Conservatives of the stamp of Vice-President Cheney are made uneasy at the thought of the renunciation of the military option.

So far I haven’t said very much about what Ray Takeyh actually says in this article, so it’s time to turn to his very own words.

“[Iran’s} regime has not only survived the U.S. onslaught (sic) but also managed to enhance Iran’s influence in the region.” (Page 17)

“Ever since the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, the United States has pursued a series of incoherent policies toward Tehran.” (Page 17)

“If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away any time soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente.” (Page 18)

“In order to develop a smarter Iran policy, U.S. leaders must first accept certain distasteful facts – such as Iran’s ascendance as a regional power and the endurance of its regime – and then ask how these can be accommodated.” (Page 21)

“Iran’s need for a foreign policy better adapted to changes in the Middle East, the regime’s perennial factionalism, and, perhaps most significant, the rise of a new generation of leaders in Tehran have sparked important internal debates within the regime. If the United States plays its cards right, it could become an important arbiter in those deliberations.” (Page 22 – emphasis added)

Aha! Here’s where the United States can appeal to the “moderates” within the Iranian regime, and, the next thing you know, we’ll “normalize” relations with Iran. Why, Iranian politicians will begin to show up at diplomatic receptions and try to keep pace with American political officers at downing ice-cold vodka martinis. (It can’t be done.) Then they’ll welcome American contractors, such as Halliburton, back to Iran to recondition their petroleum infrastructure. And the next thing you know, Iran will be the new Pakistan. (Won't that be nice?)

Mr. Takeyh identifies a “new right” group, which is itself divided, so that a “pragmatic” group of educated younger political types is ripe to establish more normal relations with the U.S. Lest we think that the religious leadership would put the kibosh on such openness to Western influence, Takeyh asserts that Supreme Leader Khamenei “has tentatively supported the pragmatists’ drive for negotiations with the United States.” Page 27)

Mr. Takeyh then lays out a strategy (with four negotiating tracks) for the United States to pursue, and urges U.S. policymakers to “focus on the challenge of managing [Iran’s] that power constructively.” (Page 31)

In conclusion, Takeyh says, “A new paradigm cannot preclude tension, or even conflict, but it could persuade Tehran that its interests would be best served if it voluntarily restrained its radical tendencies. Iran will remain a problem for the United States for the foreseeable future; the question is how best to manage its complexities and contradictions. An offer by the United States to normalize relations and start talks on all outstanding issues between the two states would give Iran a chance to choose whether it wants to be a nation defending legitimate imperatives or one guided by self-defeating delusions. And for the first time in decades, there is an indication that Iran may opt for the former.” (Page 32)

What can I say? Well, lots, because Takeyh is so eager to see us offer the world to Ali Larijani (his number 1 “pragmatist”) that he ignores a few problems with his analysis and his thesis. First, by his own account, Takeyh notes that the new right is divided, and, at this point, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is on top. Moreover, he admits that Khamenei, due to his “deficient religious credentials,” is forced to “rely on reactionary elements.” So the United States should make an offer to Iran designed to appeal to a minority of a minority of the political class, and we should make that offer generous and comprehensive. And the people at whom we are aiming the offer, may be in no position to consider it, let alone accept it.

Then there’s Tehran’s “need” for a new policy. Didn’t Mr. Takeyh spend the first half of this article pointing out how successful Iran has been at foiling all of the American plots and initiatives in the area? Didn’t he tell us that Iran’s “growing regional influence cannot be limited”? So, where is the pressing need for Tehran to turn to the United States? Normal relations with the U.S. would make some things easier for Tehran; they might finally be able to get spare parts for any F-4 Phantoms they still have lying around. I don’t see the compelling driver for a new policy.

Given that the United States as been unrelentingly, if also unsuccessfully, hostile to Iran for the past 28 years, why should Tehran trust us? We backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, in which about 500,000 Iranians (and an equal number of Iraqis) died. We even shot down a civilian Iranian airliner. (See Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation for a full account of that murderous fiasco.) We’ve tried – and failed – to mess up Iranian relations with Russia and China, which tells them that we are both hostile and weak, a really bad combination.

Then there’s all this talk of “managing” Iranian politics. Isn’t that where we came in, in 1954, managing Iranian politics for the benefit of U.S. and British oil companies? Isn’t that one of the reasons the Iranians view us as the source of all evil? Haven’t we figured out yet that no foreign government can successfully “manage” the internal politics of any country sophisticated enough to have politics? From West to East, we have Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. We’ve managed to mess up in all four of them, and Ray Takeyh thinks we should try to “manage” the internal politics of Iran, the only one in which we don’t have any American lives at risk at the moment.

Finally, on the question of whether one should let foreigners tell you how to run your country, there are no “moderates.” There are patriots and corrupt sellouts. From Benedict Arnold to Ahmad Chalabi, we have found that the corrupt sellouts don’t make good partners. Not just because they’ll rip off their sponsors, but because they cannot deliver the goods.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Knight's Reading List III: March 2007

In March 2007 I finished reading the following books:

fx-9750G Plus User’s Guide. xxv + 455 pages.
A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden. (1968, 1972), 453 + xiv pages, including Index.
Peter Wells, The Complete Semi-Slav. (1994) 304 pages.
The Mauritius Command, by Patrick O’Brian. (1977) 348 pages.
Eric Flint and David Drake, The Dance of Time. (2006) 468 pages.
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. (2005) 309 pages.
I also listened to the audiobook, The Majesty of the Law, by Sandra Day O’Connor.

I think we can skip lightly over the user's guide to a graphing calculator I bought myself, although it was part of my continuing effort to master some of the higher mathematics. There will be more on that later. I'm also going to ignore The Majesty of the Law, although it was both enjoyable and informative. The Supreme Court is a long-time interest of mine, and there were other books on that subject which came over my desk this year.

The Mauritius Command is another good, workmanlike novel by Patrick O'Brian, and is based upon an actual incident (or series of incidents) on and about the island of Mauritius. Mauritius is, in case you didn't know, in the Indian Ocean, and was the home of the late lamented flightless bird, the dodo. O'Brian has quite a knack for finding obscure theaters of war during the long struggle between England and France in the early 19th century, and placing his characters in them to display their virtues, as well as their faults, in the course of solving the puzzles set for them. The Mauritius Command, for those of you interested in combined-arms operations, illustrates both how difficult it could be to obtain effective cooperation between the naval and the military forces of the some country, and how helpless an enemy could be in the face of such cooperation. These seem to be lessons that need to be learned anew by every military command, in the circumstances of each new war.

One example of good cooperation is that between Grant's army and the Union's naval forces on the Mississippi, during the Vicksburg campaign. If one compares the imperfect state of cooperations during the operations around Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, earlier in the war, to the finely coordinated actions in 1863, one can see how much effort and intelligence is needed to obtain a result, the need for which seems self-evident.

David Drake wrote the outline for The Dance of Time, and Eric Flint then put flesh on that skeleton. This has been a good system for the two writers and their publisher, but, in my opinion, The Dance of Time shows the Belisarius series running out of steam. The trajectories of the actors are determined to a large degree by what occurred in earlier books in the series, rather than by what is between the covers of this book. These books, by the way, also illustrate the successful use of combined arms, but I rather think it comes off a little too effortlessly. I could, of course, be wrong, and I'd have to re-read some of the earlier works in the series to validate my thinking. I might, at least, mention the rather interesting scene early in Drake's solo novel (in his Lord of the Isles series) Servant of the Dragon, in which some of the difficulties of training up a military force are indicated when two oared ships attempt a passing maneuver, and some of the rowers don't get their oars out of harm's way quickly enough.

Which brings me to the great work of this month. I should mention that I have the habit, for good or ill, of simultaneous (or, more precisely, contemporaneous) reading of several books at once. I'll read a chapter in one, and then two chapters in another, and then a chunk of a third, so the timelines of my books all overlap. It is, therefore, indicative of the grip established by Cormac McCarthy on this reader, that I read No Country for Old Men in three days, beginning on March 19 and ending on March 21, 2007. Cliches such as "page-turner," "gripping," "couldn't put it down," come to mind, and are all inadequate to express McCarthy's accomplishment here. The story here is that of a man just a little too stupid to pass up good fortune, and the consequences - the terrible consequences - of his ill-considered action.

In brief, in West Texas in 1980, a drug deal has gone wrong, and the buyers and sellers have managed to kill one another to, it appears, the last man. A trailer-park cowboy comes upon this scene and finds bags of money without apparent owners. He takes some, and, I think, the real hook in this story is that so would you. At least, it is quite believable that, under these circumstances, any of us might say "What the Hell?" and make off with a stash of "found money." From that point on, this becomes a story of violent responses to violent stimuli, all the more compelling because it all follows so naturally from the original situation. Of course, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden; they took the apple, didn't they?

I heard a review of the movie the Coen brothers have made from this book on NPR a few days ago. The reviewer asserted that the movie was "nine-tenths of a masterpiece." The book is closer than that.

By the way, in March of 2006 my friend Al Vogel and I went down through New Mexico to the Big Bend country of West Texas. This has been Cormac McCarthy's homeland since Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses. The stark, dry, deadly landscape is not only a fine setting for the grim story of No Country for Old Men, it goes a long way to explain the characters McCarthy discovers there.