Veterans Day with a B-29 crew member

We went to the New England Air Museum today, home of a beautifully restored B-29, and met two former B-29 crew members. One is 92 and one is 94. Both were navigators, which meant a lot of radar work (identifying islands and cities both for navigating and bombing through clouds). Every B-29 crew member endured missions 12-15 hours in length and horrific weather encounters (see “Plowing through the weather in a B-29”).

It is a great museum in general, but it was wonderful to be there on Veterans Day and have a Huey crew chief from Vietnam show us around the Huey, two B-29 crew members show us the B-29, etc.

Sad to think that the World War II veterans will be gone soon.

Full post, including comments

Saddam Hussein: Mr. (Reasonably) Nice Guy?

Afghanistan and Iraq are in the U.S. news these days, partly because the locals are killing each other and partly because the locals are killing occupation forces (see “G.I.’s in Iraqi City Are Stalked by Faceless Enemies at Night” from today’s New York Times).  The problems in both countries seem to center around the inability of a central government to control the population.  In Afghanistan the Kabul government governs Kabul and the rest of the country is essentially independent (my summer 2002 trip report advocates splitting the place up into regions where everyone has something in common).  In Iraq there are so many problems that, in Europe at least, people were openly saying that the average Iraqi was better off under Saddam’s government.


If you flip on European TV you find that the post-invasion Iraqis have joined the Palestinians as the officially designated “most miserable people on the planet” in the media and their plight is an ever-present top story.  The British are donating money and sending care packages to help out Iraqis who are without reliable clean water and electricity.  .


Iraqis complain on TV: their neighbors are breaking into water mains, thus wrecking the water system; their neighbors are looting; Iraqis with guns who don’t like certain other Iraqis are shooting them; Iraqis love Allah and want an Islamic state; Iraqis love Allah but in a slightly different way and want a slightly different kind of Islamic state, which will necessitate the death and/or suppression of anyone who doesn’t love Allah their way; Iraqis hate Americans and Jews and want U.S. troops out of Iraq and the Jews out of Israel; etc., etc.


The executive summary seems to be the following: (1) Iraqis hate each other, they have lots of guns, and aren’t afraid to use them; (2) the U.S. and its allies deposed Saddam because he was unsuccessful in creating a quiet Swiss or Belgian-style bourgeois democracy; (3) the U.S. and its allies so far have failed to make any headway in getting Iraqis to adopt a Western bourgeois lifestyle and political outlook; (4) Saddam was able to restrict looting and killing to a handful of friends and family; (5) under U.S. occupation every Iraqi is free to get in touch with his Inner Looter and Inner Murderer.


By the standards of wealthy Western countries Saddam’s regime was harsh.  They tortured and/or killed political opponents.  They controlled the press, the mosques, and the schools.  If a town were restive they might kill its entire population or at least many hundreds of people from that town.  This would seem like gratuitous cruelty if done by the governments of Vermont, Dijon, or Bavaria.  But in the Arab world more or less every government employs the same tactics as Saddam’s Iraq.


In fairness to the defeated dare we ask whether Saddam’s regime wasn’t employing the minimum amount of violence necessary to maintain public order in Iraq?  It seems quite possible that Saddam did not enjoy terrorizing his subjects but did it because he understood the divisions within his arbitrarily drawn borders and thought keeping his subjects in fear was necessary.


It really seems to be tough to coerce people into doing following something other than their inclinations.  Death from AIDS is pretty terrifying and yet people still have sex.  Despite massive fines, automated ticket-issuing cameras, and license revocations, I didn’t see anyone in Britain obeying the 70 mph speed limit on the Motorway (I was so happy to get my Ford Mondeo out of Wales, whose principal highways bear an uncanny resemblance to a North Carolina plastic surgeon’s driveway (narrow and lined with stone walls), that I zipped along at 77 mph and was passed every minute by someone doing 90 in the fast lane).  If you’re caught with a small amount of drugs the U.S. government can take your house and your car, and put you in jail for the rest of your life, yet people still sell, buy, and use drugs (just ask George W. Bush, former coke-head).


We haven’t figured out what level of governmental coercion will result in an Iraqi society that is both orderly and submissive to a U.S. occupation or whatever American-friendly government follows. Saddam may yet go down in history as the kindest and gentlest 21st century leader of a unified and stable Iraq.


[Given the depths of poverty and lack of industry in Wales and the Northern UK it seemed odd at first that these folks would want to help out their defeated enemies before assisting unfortunates closer to home.  Or that they wouldn’t instead prefer to help the hundreds of millions of Indians who have never in their lives had clean water or electricity.  Berlin, The Downfall 1945 describes a similar phenomenon: “[German civilians] queued at Red Army field kitchens, which began to feed them on Berzarin’s orders.  The fact that there was a famine in Soviet Central Asia at that time, with families reduced to cannibalism, did not influence the new policy of attempting to win over the German people.”]

Full post, including comments

Brits want to know where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction

Folks in the UK are upset that no weapons of mass destruction have
been found in Iraq, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tony
Blair on the theory that he lied to Parliament about Iraqi
capabilities.  People have a difficult time believing that
intelligence reports could have been so wrong.  This is ironic because
Berlin, The Downfall 1945 is currently on the UK
bestseller charts, an authoritative work by the British historian
Antony Beevor.  Page 171 discusses the Soviet belief that the Germans
would use nerve gas to defend against the Red Army’s attack across the
river Oder.  Russian soldiers were ordered to drill and sleep with gas
masks on based on reports from multiple sources in multiple countries.
Top German leaders made grand claims about their Wunderwaffen (“Wonder Weapons”) and appeared unconcerned about the fact that their
forces were outnumbered by more than 10:1.  In the end it turned out
that the Germans hadn’t ever had a very large nerve gas supply and
apparently destroyed nearly all of their chemical weapons as the
Russians advanced.


[The historical analogy only goes so far.  Nobody back in Russia ever
called for Comrade Stalin’s resignation over his misestimation of the
German capabilities.  Nor were there mass protests against Russian
occupation following the victory.  At first a few Russian soldiers
were picked off by German die-hards (“partisans” then but today we’d
call them “illegal combatants”).  The Russians presumed that the
partisans could not operate without some support from local villagers
so they simply killed everyone in any village where one of their
soldiers had been shot.  The German resistance evaporated.]


Here’s a snapshot from York, England:


People in York, England angry that weapons of mass destruction were promised but not found in Iraq.

“> Full post, including comments

Can we predict economic growth by looking at our enemies/competitors?

The number of science and engineering students in the United States peaked in the early 1990s.  Despite substantial population growth and a big influx of foreign students, our country is producing fewer scientists and engineers.  Why is this a problem?  Economic growth comes from technological innovation.  A lot of wealth can be skimmed off by managers, lawyers, etc. (e.g., Carly Fiorina, the CEO of HP, majored in medieval history as an undergrad) but the wealth is created to begin with by engineers and scientists.


Why don’t Americans want to study engineering and science?  Look at today’s newspaper.  Chances are that you’ll find stories about Shiite clerics, Islamic fundamentalism, illiterate warring tribes in Third World nations, government bureaucrats directing American forces in benighted corners of the globe, etc.  These might inspire young readers to study medieval history, Islam circa 680 AD (when the Shiites began hating the Sunnis and vice versa), and law or government.  But when our enemies are essentially pre-industrial it is tough to see how engineering and science could be central to American society’s needs.


It was not always so.  Consider World War II, one of the fastest periods of technological innovation.  Our enemies were the Japanese and Germans, who were sophisticated enough to, during WWII, develop novel communications codes (inspired the development of electronic computers), state-of-the-art airplanes (inspired the development of RADAR), state-of-the-art submarines (inspired the development of SONAR, the mapping of the seafloor, and the consequent discovery of mid-ocean ridges and therefore plate tectonics and continental drift), nuclear weapons, rockets, guidance systems, etc.


After the war our enemy was Russia and her enormous pool of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.  The Russians kept us on our toes with things like their early lead in the exploration of Space.


After the Cold War we didn’t have enemies anymore (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we didn’t realize that anyone hated us).  The focus changed to economic competition against the Japanese and Europeans.  If you want to build cars that are as good as Honda’s you need to hire some pretty clever engineers.


Ever since September 11th we as a nation have been focussed on our Muslim enemies.  They don’t invent the jet engine, like the Germans did; they buy Chinese-made copies of the Russian AK-47.  They don’t build cars better than Detroit; they use Saudi oil money to buy Toyota pickup trucks.  They don’t invent new military tactics (hijacking commercial airline flights was a specialty of Yasser Arafat’s PLO 30+ years ago).


At some level it makes sense to focus on our enemies.  After all, our friends aren’t trying to kill us.  Furthermore the population trends imply that in the long run our friends are going to fade into demographic insignificance–the groups that are most enthusiastic about killing  us have among the world’s highest rates of population growth:  nearly 5 percent per year for the Palestinians, 3.27 percent for the Saudis; a friendly country such as Japan grows 0.15 percent per year.  Perhaps if we all study these folks carefully enough somehow we can predict when and where the next attack will come.


On the other hand, our military superiority is derived from economic growth.  If our economy stagnates because our heads are stuck in the 7th Century AD, so will our military power.  By contrast, if we had sufficient economic growth and technological innovation we could, for example, develop and deploy the army of robotic infantry of which a physicist friend dreams.  His robots would be shaped like centaurs with the body and four legs of a horse and a human-like head and arms.  The robot would have a Gatling gun in its chest.  Iraqis would presumably find something to do with their time other than looting if an infantry robot were standing in front of every building in Baghdad.


Putting military conflict aside, a focus on extracting oil from Arab countries takes resources away from the purely technical challenges of producing clean and renewable energy.  With sufficiently improved engineering we could run our society on wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power.  (If we really wanted to have a go at a tough engineering problem we could try making nuclear power work.)  I.e., the only reason that our politicians have to spend so much time appeasing Muslim dictators is that our technology is insufficiently advanced.  The point of this blog entry is that there is some circularity here.  Our focus on the Muslim world, the most technologically backward portion of the globe, slows down technological development in the West and in Asia, thus forcing the modern societies to continue focusing on the Muslim world…


A new pet theory:  it is human nature that we can only “Give 110 percent” and the reference is the amount of achievement being put forth by our perceived enemies or competitors.  Until we shift our focus away from troubles in the Islamic world the U.S. economy will be stuck in the mud.


[Note that this blog entry does not presuppose that there is anything inherently superior in the Western way of life or Modernity itself.  It is quite possible that an illiterate Afghani with 10 kids is happier than a divorced childless MIT Aero/Astro PhD.]

Full post, including comments

War is Hell

A favorite quote from today’s New York Times article on Qusay’s $1 billion cash withdrawal from his dad’s personal bank:



“Sometimes they [the Hussein kids] would come in for small amounts, maybe $5 million,” the official said.


One of the theses of my Israel Essay is that every Third World kleptocrat has a doppelganger among the managers of America’s public corporations.  Derrick Jackson identified Qusay’s counterparts as the CEOs of American defense contractors in this Boston Globe editorial.  Here are some comparisons from the article:



“… the average army private in Iraq earns about $20,000 a year, the average CEO among the 37 largest publicly traded defense contractors made 577 times more money in 2002, $11.3 million.


“Since 2000, the 37 defense contractor CEOs … have taken home $1.35 billion. That may not be Bill Gates, but it still means that just 37 men have made enough money in the last three years to, for instance, pay for two years of running the Boston public schools.


(Despite the Federales’s fondness for buying weapons and applying them to recalcitrant foreigners, the shareholders of defense contractors aren’t doing especially well, as evidenced by this five-year comparison of the infamous Halliburton versus the S&P 500, or consider Northrop, Lockheed, and Raytheon.  But if there is pain among the employees or owners it is not being shared by the top managers and Board members…)

Full post, including comments

Weekend in Gettysburg

Richard and I flew down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over the weekend to visit his brother, a professor at Gettysburg College.


On the way down we stopped at the Kingston-Ulster airport and were picked up by Richard’s friend Annie, a flying kinetic whirl of activity whose mass could only be characterized by a probability distribution.  We drove a few miles to Bard College’s new auditorium, designed by Frank Gehry.  From the air this had seemed like a misshapen metal-clad lump.  From the ground it still looked misshapen but not ugly.  It cost $60 million to build.  Running a not-for-profit college would seem to be a very good way to accumulate cash.  Even after spending $60 mil the school had enough money left over to pay lots of security guards.  A performance was in progress in the small theater and every door was locked and guarded.  Annie was not be deterred.  We walked around the back and walked in the stage door with the members of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, unchallenged past the security guard who was reading a book.  Lesson:  never hire a hippie college kid to work security.  The main theater did not impress but the backstage was amazingly huge and intricate.


While the local swells attended a play the students played Frisbee and sang folk music in front of the Student Center.  Posters advertised a show of “Palestinian Art; Four Decades of Response to Oppression” (with the world’s fastest-growing population (5% per year) and most of their money being siphoned off by kleptocratic rulers perhaps the Palestinians are now going to support themselves via indigenous arts and crafts).  We walked past the booths selling tie-dyed clothing and through the campus until we arrived at a mansion on the Hudson River, complete with formal garden.


After a late lunch in Rhinebeck we got back into the DA40, bound for Gettysburg.  We flew up a beautiful river valley that crammed together an enormous open-plan new prison, an enormous fortress-like old prison, a golf course, and a scattering of McMansions around the fairways.  We followed a ridge of uplifted hills, cut through by rivers and highways, then climbed to a more efficient altitude of 6500′.  We passed near Harrisburg and over the Three Mile Island nuclear power plants (two cooling towers dead; two blowing steam) before landing at the Gettysburg Airport.  This airport is right next to a mobile home park in which you could buy a nice trailer for $20,000 then rent a hangar for $200 per month.  All the convenience of an airpark without the expense!


The Gettysburg battlefield park is one of the best-preserved and most interesting among those in the U.S.  This was the pivotal battle of the War of Northern Aggression (know to the victors as the “American Civil War”).  The Southern armies under General Robert E. Lee had come to bring the fight into the North and were briefly in a position to reach the big cities of the Northeast.  After the South went home on July 4, 1863, the outcome was inevitable.  This was the first time that artillery, the rifle, and the digging of trenches came together to give the defense a huge advantage.  The Civil War was thus the first modern war in terms of tactics, in terms of press coverage (photographers were embedded with the troops), and in terms of the total mobilization of industrial civilian economies.  The offense did not gain the upper hand until Hitler’s air power, tank columns, and mechanized infantry conquered Europe in the 1930s and 40s (we’re still in the “offense wins” epoch of war, apparently, if the invasion of Iraq can be considered typical).


[To see what an improvement in political leadership can be achieved via professional speechwriters and Microsoft PowerPoint, check out the Gettysburg Address (original and improved).]


Being a professor at Gettysburg College seemed like a lot of fun.  First of all, even on a professor’s salary you can afford a large newish house on several acres of land, typically part of a recently subdivided farm (subdividing farms is to this decade what day trading was to the 1990s).  Now that you’ve got the big house you can start throwing parties for your colleagues.  Most of them will show up because there isn’t much else to do in Gettysburg.  Thus your life consists of going from one party to another, mixing with academics from every area of inquiry.


[Why doesn’t this happen at MIT?  First, the young fun people who work at MIT can’t afford to live anywhere near the school unless they want to cram themselves into a studio or 1-bedroom apartment, not suitable for parties.  Second there are all kinds of social and entertainment opportunities in a big city like Boston.  Third, there are too many professors in one’s own department to get to know and therefore one is unlikely to be coerced by circumstance into socializing with people from other fields (the EECS department at MIT has more than 150 faculty).]


Having soaked up the scenery and the smell of the apple blossoms it was time to depart this morning.  We were greeted by a dreary mist, clouds hanging on the hills, and a steady rain.  Flight Service said that the warm front was coming through sooner than expected but that the weather was clear to the northeast.  Richard and I departed under instrument flight rules (IFR).  This is a bit tricky at an airport with no control tower and no radio repeater for the air traffic controllers (ATC).  You need to take off and gain altitude before you can talk to ATC but it isn’t safe, prudent, or legal to climb into the clouds unless you’ve already talked to ATC.  We picked up our clearance with a cell phone call to Washington Center from the airplane as we sat on the ground in Gettysburg.  They cleared out the airspace north of Gettysburg for 10 minutes, giving us enough time to depart (if we’d had a problem taking off we would have called them back to cancel).


Despite a headwind, we were on the ground in Boston 2.75 hours later.  We had climbed up to 5500′ and never entered the clouds.

Full post, including comments

When $57 million of weapons isn’t enough protection….

Back around 1970, Monty Python did a skit in which a mafioso visits a British Army base to shake down the commander for protection money:  “Would be a shame if anything bad happened to all of these tanks.”  Eventually, apparently, life imitates art.


Last week we witnessed the spectacle of George W. Bush being afraid for his security while encased in $57 million of weaponry.  From http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/05/01/bush.carrier.landing/ :



Bush wanted to swoop onto the deck of the Lincoln aboard an F-18 Hornet, but the Secret Service nixed the idea — they didn’t like leaving the president unguarded in a fighter jet that only has space for the president and a pilot.


(specs on the F-18: http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/factfile/aircraft/air-fa18.html)


Thus there is apparently some common ground for George W. and the Iraqi people:  they are both afraid of F-18 pilots.


A deeper issue is when did U.S. voters become so tolerance of cowardice?  Western military leaders traditionally lead from the front and try to demonstrate that they are sharing the hazards of battle with the common soldiers.  Eastern commanders, such as Genghis Khan, thought that this was stupid.  Why put yourself at risk when you can send the rabble up to the front?


It would have been tough to imagine Winston Churchill slipping out of London during the Blitz and yet George W. spent September 11th “at a secure location”.  The risks of being in a big American city were apparently bearable for his subjects but not for his royal personage.  Americans have twice voted, or at least sort of, for men who escaped combat service (Bill Clinton famously dodging the draft, George W. in a slightly less obvious manner).


If present trends continue it would seem that whoever gets elected in 2012 will spend his or her Presidency in an MX Missile-style racetrack silo out in Wyoming (unless the winner is William Bennett, in which case perhaps he’ll command the U.S. Empire from a suite at the Bellagio).

Full post, including comments

Biographical Focus: Jeffrey Amherst, the first biowarrior

It’s Sunday, a time for looking at inspiring biographies.  Today we consider Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America during the French & Indian War (1754-1763).   The town of Amherst, Massachusetts is named after this pioneer in the field of biological warfare.  It was Lord Amherst who came up with the idea of giving smallpox-infested blankets to the Indians.  This theme is explored in a bit of detail on this page at UCLA and more profoundly in tonight’s highly recommended episode of South Park (rebroadcast from Wednesday):  “Red Man’s Greed”.

Full post, including comments

Breaking Up Countries Where Citizens Hate Each Other

The only thing more shocking than the airplane engine control falling apart that happened during the trip south was reading an editorial in the Washington Post by Ralph Peters entitled “Must Iraq Stay Whole”.  This is the first time that I’ve seen any sign in the mass media that anyone else has the same thoughts that occurred to me last year regarding Afghanistan (see the Boston-Alaska-Baja-Boston trip report) and this year regarding countries such as Nigeria and the Sudan (see the Israel essay).


In the old days a good argument for being large would have been that a country could thereby defend itself against aggression by other large countries.  In today’s world, however, where even the most armed-to-the-teeth Third World government can be unseated in a few weeks by the U.S. military, it doesn’t make sense for people who hate each other to live together in one country.


Peters makes the seemingly obvious points that (1) the Kurds hate their Arab conquerors, (2) the Kurds demonstrated during the 1990s that they can govern themselves quite nicely, (3) giving the Kurds their own country would really irritate the Turks, which is just what they deserve for not supporting the U.S. [Peters doesn’t say this but presumably it would be a powerful example to foreign governments if the Turks’ biggest nightmare came true as a consequence of their failure to obey U.S. instructions], and (4) the Sunnis and Shiites Muslims don’t seem to like each other.


Follow-Up (Responses to Comments)


To judge by the volume of comments that this posting elicited it is indeed an issue worthy of debate, which was my main point:  “Why doesn’t this question ever come up in the mass media when it seems so obviously debate-worthy?”


Most of the comments point out that the India -> India/Pakistan/Bangladesh split was a failure in their opinion.  From this we can conclude that splitting up a country into the smaller chunks advocated by anthropologists (the book A Pattern Language recommends that countries be no larger than 2 to 10 million inhabitants, and they are talking about developed countries with good road and communication networks) is not necessarily a complete solution to Islamic violence.  However, nobody mentions the successful splits throughout history:  Czech and Slovak from each other, the U.S. from Britain, the former Soviet republics and satellites from each other, Canada and Australia from Britain.  Nor does anyone mention that one can combine political independence with economic and monetary union, thus combining the efficiencies of a large market with the comfort of knowing that the supreme leader of your country is not supremely distant from your local concerns.  I’m not advocating splitting Afghanistan and Iraq before giving them independence, merely advocating a serious debate on the question.


Dimitri asks a good question: “if a country is punished for that (“a consequence of their failure to obey U.S. instructions”) what remains of the democratic ideals and liberty and rest of BS that U.S. tells us time and time again that it stands for?”  The answer to this would seem to be threefold:  (a) the U.S. must have some reason for maintaining the world’s largest military and the most obvious explanation is that we like to be able to push foreigners around whenever we feel like it, (b) the democratic ideals and liberty are for U.S. citizens only; if we cared about foreigners’ welfare we’d be feeding Africans, preventing malaria, getting medical care to the poor in India, removing generic dictators (e.g., nearly any head of government in Africa or the Arab Middle East) rather than only the ones who insist on thumbing their noses at the U.S. (e.g., Saddam), etc., and (c) our politicians like to lay on the syrup just as thick for foreign audiences as for domestic and the result is a perception of insincerity, i.e., the U.S. could have said “We’re removing Saddam because he doesn’t follow our instructions and because we can” but presumably W and Co. thought that it sounded better to paint Saddam as terrifyingly bad and heavily armed.

Full post, including comments

My camera went to Iraq and all I got was this URL…

… and some oil.


Have a look at the following photos from the Iraqi oil fields: http://menzelphoto.com/recent/iraq20031.htm.  They come from my Canon D60 digital camera.  Because I was too busy exploring the wonders of linear differential equations and the impedance method with MIT EE students, I couldn’t accompany Peter Menzel (he and Faith D’Aluisio did the Material World books and Robo Sapiens) to Kuwait and Iraq.  When Peter returned the D60 he included a small vial of Iraqi crude, fresh from the wells!  I’m thus one of the very few Americans who can truly say that he got what the U.S. Army went to Iraq for 🙂

Full post, including comments