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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Special Bonus Post: My Absentee Ballot

I got my absentee ballot the other day and I noticed something odd. There's a picture of an eagle next to the Republican oval and a picture of what appears to be a chicken next to the Democrat oval. Guess the folks on the ballot procurement committee decided to have some fun.



Friday, October 17, 2008

Relax, the CIA is not all powerful

When most of the people think of the CIA, they imagine powerful, secretive bureaucrats, elite commandos, and high-tech equipment. They can go anywhere and do anything; they are unstoppable. These ideas are reinforced by popular entertainment. However, a strong case can be made that the agency is hilariously inept.

Great CIA blunders, in no particular order:

#1: They blew up the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by mistake. The reason? Their maps were out of date.

"There were three basic failures. First, the technique used to locate the intended target – the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement (FDSP) – was severely flawed. Second, none of the military or intelligence databases used to validate targets contained the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. Third, nowhere in the target review process was either of the first two mistakes detected."

"U.S. officials who had served in Belgrade were aware that the Chinese Embassy had moved sometime in 1996. The information, however, was not entered into the data bases we rely on for our targeting and mapping."

Source

"Of course, everything is overshadowed, as we expect, by this one very, very bad mistake."

-NATO spokesman Jamie Shea

#2: They tried and failed numerous times to assassinate Fidel Castro. Exploding cigars? Did they really think that would work?

"If surviving assassination were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal." -Fidel Castro

#3: Bay of Pigs.

#4: Failed to predict Iranian Revolution- even when crowds were chanting "Down with the Shah!" and "Death to America!"

#5 Gave money and weapons to Pakistan's ISI, which in turn gave money to groups like Al-Qaida.

#6 Some guy shot a bunch of CIA employees outside the entrance to CIA headquarters.

Honorable mention: During a meeting to plot the overthrow of the Sandanista regime, former CIA director William Casey mangled the name of Nicaragua, saying something like "Nicawawa." This prompted someone to exclaim "You can't overthrow the government of a country whose name you can't pronounce!"

The standard retort to these incidents is to say that the CIA's failures are public while their successes remain secret. This is not true either. The CIA has managed to overthrow and handful of governments in poor, unstable countries (Guatemala & Chile). How much expertise is required to do that?

Since the CIA is the organization responsible for monitoring the activities of foreign governments, you'd think that they'd have a lot of people who can speak more than one language. However:

"In 1984, President Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board found that only 20 percent of the CIA officers in the Mexico City station had even a working knowledge of Spanish."

Source

OK, out of date, but I imagine the situation has not changed much.

I'll conclude by paraphrasing Lewis Black. They should just put me in charge of the CIA, because I can read Newsweek and guess as well as anyone else.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Outcomes of Some Wars

Today I thought I'd give a brief summary of the results of some of the wars the US has been involved in since 1945. The format was inspired by the table in William Easterly's book.

Korean War

Main Effects: 2.5 million dead; war never officially ends; North Korea goes on to become the world's most abominable police state; South Korea turns out well.

Upshot for the US: Hyundai cars & Samsung phones

Vietnam War

Main Effects: about 5 million dead; communists win anyway; Soviet Union goes down without a fight 15 years later; China abandons most of Communism's economic policies; Vietnam still one of the world's poorest & least free countries.

Upshot for the US: Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are both great movies.

First Iraq War

Main Effects: about 50,000 dead (figure is disputed); Saddam's regime left more or less intact; Shia uprising ruthlessly suppressed.

Upshot for the US: Americans get to feel good about winning a war again; cheaper gasoline for a few more years; Three Kings is a pretty good movie too.

Second Iraq War

Main Effects: at least 150,000 dead (mostly civillains); no WMDs found; no Al-Qaeda link; democracy getting off to a shaky start.

Upshot for the US: Economy receives boost from sales of patriotic bumper-stickers; Rush Limbaugh stops talking about Bill Clinton for a change; lots of great stock footage for the History Channel.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Social Activism

Global Warming, Iraq War, Population Growth....the list of causes clamoring for my involvement is endless. I'm not indifferent to the world's problems or suffering of others; it's just that there isn't a whole lot I can do (as an individual) about it. Putting a bumper sticker on my car is going to stop someone from being oppressed in a country on the other side of the planet.

The success of these various social movements depends on the participation of large numbers of people. My participation most likely won't affect the outcome. Even if I was* the most persuasive person alive, I doubt I could convince enough people to alter things significantly. Even if I could, would I be doing the right thing?

If you think Global Warming is going to melt the polar ice caps, cause sea levels to rise, and flood low-lying areas, move to higher ground. That's easier than trying to get millions of people to pollute less isn't it? I'm not saying you should stop caring about public issues, but there is a limit to what can be accomplished through mass movements, especially when there are opposing mass movements.

Nothing can alter the fact that the world is just a collection of indivduals doing whatever they think is sensible. No matter how many laws are passed or repealed, or whoever gets elected or thrown out off office, the world would not be fundamentallly different than it is now. Mass movements succeed in changing things from time to time, but in my opinion, you're better off focusing what you can do on your own.

I think I'll finish off with this quote from Herbert Spencer:

"If in these personal affairs, where all the conditions of the case were known to me, I have so often miscalculated, how much oftener shall I miscalculate in political affairs, where the conditions are too numerous, too widespread, too complex, too obscure to be understood . . . when I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried; how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment; how I did but pauperize the relative I sought to help; how my carefully-governed son has turned out worse than most children; how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good; how while the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained, most of my pleasures have come from unexpected sources; when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society."

*Proper grammar would be "If I were," however, I feel that rule is stupid. A singular subject should take a singular verb.