Notes From All Over (August 2013) Wars, Graphs, and Biospheres

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


How To Lose a War: A Primer
Mark Safranski. 28 July 2013.

Since Pakistan is now attempting to get its victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals. 

It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs 

We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking: for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory….

This is one of the best posts I have read this year. I cannot recommend it enough.

Harvesting the Biosphere
Bill Gates interview with Vaclav Smil. Gates Notes. July 2013.

An outstanding multi-media introduction to Vaclav Smil’s most recent book, Harvesting the Biosphere. Mr. Gates states near the beginning of his interview that “there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.” I agree wholeheartedly. Gates continues:

He understands a phenomenal range of subjects, from energy to agriculture. On any page he might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the average human life span during the Roman Empire. Plus he is rigorously numeric, using data to illuminate every topic he writes about. The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.

One cannot read a book by Mr. Smil without being both delighted and intimidated with his staggering level of knowledge in both the physical and human sciences. Perhaps more importantly, Smil never stoops to polemics. Dispassionate, data-driven, and empirical to a fault, Mr. Smil is my preferred guide to every subject he writes on. 

Which is pretty much everything.

Understanding the EU Regime: 5 Charts
Crag J. Willy. 28 July 2013.

Craig J. Willy explains how the EU really works. Substantive essay organized around 5 charts.


Modern Economics is ‘Built on the World’s Dumbest Idea‘”, “The ‘World’s Dumbest Idea Killed the U.S. Economic Recovery” and “FT Urges Business Schools to Stop ‘Teaching the World’s Dumbest Idea‘”
Steve Denning. Forbes. 9, 22, and 29 July 2013.

Steve Denning has declared war against ‘the world’s dumbest idea’, maximizing shareholder value. Denning understands something most observers do not recognize: this idea has transformed the political economy of the United States of America. Every single meta trend from the 1970s to now can be traced back, in one way or another, to corporate America’s adoption of ‘maximizing share holder value’ as its raison d’etre

The Washington Post also ran a report on the idea and its troubling history:

Maximizing Shareholder Value: The Goal that Changed Corporate America
Jia Lynn Yang. The Washington Post. 26 August 2013.

Karen Ho devotes around 100 pages or so to this topic in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.


Banquo in Bandit Country
Adam Elkus. Abu Muqawama. 2 August 2013.

Benghazi is the Banquo’s Ghost of the post-Bush counterterrorism wars, a lingering symbol of a dangerous flaw within a consensus national security policy that many in Washington have convinced themselves is the way to fight the wars of future while avoiding a heavy ground presence. To be sure, the Macbeth analogy here is not a one-to-one mapping. The “ghost” here is a metaphor for the lingering specter of the disaster, its dead, and what the torching of the consulate represents for the indirect strategy. Like Banquo, the specter lingers during what should be a feast and time of celebration. But a review of the strategic landscape in the so-called “arc of conflict” reveals little to celebrate…

You Will Be Gamed
Lynn C. Rees. 10 August 2013.

Kill the Department of Defense
Lynn C Rees. 12 August 2013.

Real politick inside the Department of Defense. Humorous and essential reading.

Infinity Journal, Vol 2, Issue 2

Newest issue of Infinity Journal. Requires free registration to read.


Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol 4, Issue I

The latest issue of Cliodynamics is a good one and the essays by Peter Turchin and Jack Goldstone on the ‘Rise of the West’ are simply superb. Here is a quote from Goldstone’s essay “The Origins of Western Superiority: A comment on Modes of Meta-History and Duchesne’s Indo-Europeans Article”:

We can put this story in terms of the dynamics of complex systems. The great civilizations spawned in the early part of the 1st millennium—Latin and Greek Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, Hindu India, and Confucian China—proved remarkably resilient over the following centuries. Despite wars and conquests, epidemics and famines, dynastic struggles and heterodox religious movements, they remained basically true to their founding visions. Even in Europe, the ideal of the Holy Roman Empire did not die until 1806, some fifteen hundred years after Constantine created a Christian Imperial Rome. 

These civilizations thus had the property of stable equilibria—even when greatly disturbed, they had self-restoring features, such as an elite committed to a core culture, key sacred defining texts that maintained their role at the center of that culture, and principles of rule including hereditary leadership, elite privileges and religious support for both. 

In order for a truly modern science to emerge, it would be necessary to break out of that equilibrium, overturning the authority of the sacred texts and the power of the monarchies and aristocracies to ban or punish skeptical and heretical ideas. This proved very difficult to do. Even when presented with evidence of new realities, new instruments, and new ideas, the traditional systems of Catholic authority in southern Europe, Caliphal and kadi authority in Islam, brahmin authority in India, and mandarin authority in China remained entrenched and prevailed. 

It took a number of discrete and cumulative disturbances, or divergences, occurring over several centuries, to break free of this equilibrium so that radical changes could occur in northwestern Europe and particularly in Britain….

The entire issue is worth perusing.

A Southeast Asia Reading List
Al West. West’s Meditations. 10 August 2013.

Al West compiles an annotated(!) list of the best 30~ books of pre-modern Southeast Asian history and pre-history. Fantastic.

Archeology: the Milk Revolution
Andrew Currey. Nature 21 July 2013.


New Dawn For China? Corruption crackdown nets big and small officials
South China Morning Post. 15 August 2013.

A complete list of all CCP officials who have been sacked, suspended, or formally investigated for corruption since Xi Jinping announced the corruption crackdown in November 2012. Comes with an interactive map. H/t to Blood and Treasure for this one.


The Process Of Video Verification – Rabaa, Egypt, August 14th 2013
Brown Moses. Brown Moses Blog. 15 August 2013.

Using a 15 second clip of Egyptian protestors as a case study, Brown Moses shows how to use Google Earth to pin-point a Youtube video’s exact location. 

“Researcher controls colleague’s motions in 1st human brain-to-brain interface”
Doree Armstrong and Michelle Ma. University of Washington News Release. 27 August 2013.

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