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    SpaceX and The Evil That Men Do

    Posted by James McCormick on 28th April 2011 (All posts by )

    Welcome to the big leagues, rookie!

    Rand Simberg reports that the Russians have suddenly become concerned about the safety of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket when used as a supply vessel for the International Space Station … now that that rocket seriously threatens the near-term Russian monopoly in heavy lift transport of people and materiel.

    SpaceX’‘s story, for those who aren’t space enthusiasts, is a tale of new technology, dot-com money, and threatened “iron rice bowls” from one end of the high-technology world to the other.

    Started in 2002 by Elon Musk with money he acquired after co-founding PayPal, Musk’s vision was to develop a new American liquid-fueled rocket engine and use economies of production and scale to reduce per-pound launch costs to a fraction of current commercial rates. Rather than a game of giant consortia, he thought that a relatively small private company could launch commercial rockets safely and much more cheaply.

    In the early years, the Falcon 1 rocket, using a new Merlin engine designed and manufactured by SpaceX, was subject to several flight failures that insiders largely attributed to lack of company access to the vast body of engineering lore used in past rocket launches. Not enough engineers. Not enough expertise. Whether that was true or not, the Falcon 1 (single engine) rocket had its first successful launch-to-orbit in 2008. Six years from blank piece of paper to orbit. Nonetheless, Musk has often been dismissed by other commercial space launch organizations as a dilettante, wasting his own money on a venture that would never amount to much, and would certainly never deliver any service cheaper than the giant aerospace companies of Russia, China, the EU, and the United States.

    All that started to change when less than two years after the successful launch of the Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 (running 9 Merlin engines in tandem) was able to reach orbit. Suddenly SpaceX had a rocket big enough to deliver serious weight to space, and compete with the biggest commercial and state-sponsored launch services. Musk’s philosophy of rocket modularization (and cost reduction) had been proven out. A mere six months later, the company launched a second Falcon 9 to orbit with a pressurized “Dragon” capsule on top. SpaceX became the first private firm to launch and recover a crew-capable space capsule, with a splash-down off the Pacific coast of the US. To successfully launch a brand-new model of rocket, twice, with complete success, defies the laws of probability in the space launch industry. Maybe Musk really had stumbled onto a new way of designing, manufacturing, and operating rockets.

    The idea that a private firm could deliver cargo, let alone crews, to the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost of the Space Shuttle or Russian Soyuz capsules would have been inconceivable a decade ago. And yet here we are in 2011 with an American dot-com multi-millionaire announcing new rockets and successfully delivering them.

    Just recently, SpaceX announced plans to develop the “Falcon Heavy” which would run three Falcon 9s (3×9=27 engines) as a single first stage, delivering a proposed 117,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit … more than the capacity of all other currently available commercial heavy-lift rockets. More, in fact, than has ever been lifted in single launches since the Saturn V carried the Apollo moon missions star-wards. First launch of the Falcon Heavy is scheduled for 2013, from Vandenburg Air Force Base. Characteristically, Musk isn’t shy about his dream for the Falcon Heavy. Hypothetical trips to the Moon, to Mars, to an asteroid, now fill his speeches.

    Musk’s earlier claims of “game-changer” technology and corporate process appear to be coming true. If he delivers on his recent promises with anything near the success rate of his earlier claims, almost every space-faring nation or corporation is going to be deeply affected.

    Let’s be clear, also. Musk has played the taxpayer-dollar game skillfully as he’s found initial technical success and grown his company’s staff and technical capacity. He’s received several multi-million dollar contracts from NASA for demonstration flights and future cargo delivery to the Space Station. He’s parked his corporate facilities in California (HQ and manufacturing), Texas (engine test-stand), and Florida (Cape Canaveral launch facilities) … covering his political bases by hedging good relations with US senators who already know what kind of money and jobs are created by space industry. The only senator not to dip his beak, as far as I can tell, was from Alabama (Huntsville). So Mr. Musk knows his domestic politics, or has learned its harsh anti-market lessons. And he’s successfully squared the circle of NASA bureaucracy, launching rockets on the one hand, and reassuring various government agencies that he should be allowed to.

    But the opening salvo by the Russians is a prelude to a new playing field that Musk will need to master. International politics.

    There are a lot of rocket engineers around the world who’ll be out of work if Elon Musk and his company can deliver cargo and people to space for half of what it costs the current aerospace giants. And even the Russians and Chinese, who can subsidize launch costs to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, still can’t afford to give away those launches indefinitely. Both nations operate in the market economy to the extent that they can, at the very least, estimate their per-launch losses trying to undercut SpaceX’s prices.

    As an amateur who’s thrilled by the appearance of a private space industry in the last ten years, I enthused about SpaceX’s successful December launch to an colleague (ex-military) who specializes in high-tech project management. His response was “now the sabotage begins.”

    And he may well be right. Whether Musk has been smart, or just plain lucky, the progress of SpaceX over the last decade has been (to my mind) dramatic. My sense is that it’s a matter of capital investment leveraging a backlog of knowledge (in technology and operational process). As long as he was a unproven minnow at the government trough, he could be ignored. Now however, SpaceX is getting big enough to put a dent in established companies’ profits and executive bonuses. There’s no reason why nations or large corporations could not have duplicated what Musk has done … but they either had no incentive or had organizational and social impediments. An “installed base.”

    At the moment, they don’t seem to be trying to beat him with comparable technology. And he doesn’t seem to want to be bought out. So what competitive strategy is left? Political impediments are cheapest. Intellectual property theft is likely but it still takes time to turn that into a competing product. And what if the technology is just a part of the equation. What if workforce optimization and “one rich, risk-taking, boss” are the essential components of SpaceX’s rapid success? Will sabotage of SpaceX rockets be the only route to slowing the company down? Fulfilling, conveniently, Russian “concerns.”

    Up until now, Musk has been calculating costs based on his technical requirements for design and manufacture (with a fudge factor for domestic political arbitrage). I rather doubt he’s also factored in the burgeoning security apparatus he’ll need to wrap around SpaceX’s activities to inhibit industrial espionage and/or industrial sabotage. And as he takes on more government contracts (both military and civilian), no doubt the bureaucratic restrictions on payload handling and the extra demands for operational oversight will boost company costs dramatically. Will SpaceX be strangled by a combination of bureaucrats, thieves, and saboteurs?

    It’d be disheartening to see SpaceX costs slowly but surely reach equilibrium with pricing in the rest of the industry. But there’s no doubt that, left to itself, the private space industry will make some wealthy men incredibly rich, and some aerospace executives unemployed. How clever people respond to that challenge will be interesting to watch.

    Enough SpaceX technology appearing in other countries in bootleg form, and enough “unexplained” failures of those really big (really expensive) SpaceX rockets, will spell a new and grimmer phase of the private space business. More and more “iron rice bowls” are being broken by SpaceX with each passing year. Hope Elon’s brushing up on his Sun Tzu.

    Posted in Big Government, China, Europe, Human Behavior, National Security, Politics, Russia, Science, Space, Tech | 5 Comments »

    Book Review — Wolff — Tibet Unconquered

    Posted by James McCormick on 9th December 2010 (All posts by )

    Wolff, Diane, Tibet Unconquered: An Epic Struggle for Freedom, Palgrave McMillan, New York, 2009, 248pp. Foreword by Robert Thurman.

    The publisher kindly provided a copy of this book for review.

    A year ago, my Holiday 2009 Book Roundup on chicagoboyz here recommended Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road as an outstanding overview of Central Asian culture from prehistory to the present day. Complementing that title is Diane Wolff’s new and approachable overview of Tibet’s relationship with China.

    It’s hard to imagine an extended American family that doesn’t have at least one member who’s been fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism in some way. The Dalai Lama remains as one of the few religious leaders given wide respect in the Western world. His recent emphasis on the preservation of Tibet’s environment (which forms the headwaters of five major Asian river systems) gives him even more popularity with Greens. As Wolff notes, Buddhism has been the default “cool” religion in Hollywood for many years apart from the recent and occasional forays into Jewish Kabbalah by the Malibu crowd. In turn, Tibetan Buddhism also appeals to adolescents looking for a way to peeve their parents … without getting kicked out of the house.

    A book that tries to give a general reader a solid historical understanding of Chinese-Tibetan relations is welcome. It’s a tangled and tragic piece of history, one fraught with opportunities missed on both sides and historical trends that have largely worked against Tibetan culture. We have a vivid “virtual Tibet” (in Orville Schell’s phrasing) but will we still have a Tibetan culture in 2050? Wolff offers a heart-felt and practical solution to the current style of Han occupation of Tibet. She’s also realistic enough to understand that the current generation of Chinese leaders may not be suited to making the adjustments and compromises necessary to pull a Tibetan thorn from the Chinese paw. A Fifth Generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders may be needed.

    Wolff’s book is written for the non-specialist. It requires close reading (because she often approaches subjects thematically with a certain amount of bouncing back and forth between time periods) but Tibet Unconquered is pitched for mortal readers, without a forest of footnotes.

    An intelligent high school student can easily make their way through this book, with profit. So if you’ve suddenly found your kids flying Tibetan prayer flags in your backyard, Diane Wolff’s book definitely belongs on your 2010 holiday book buying list. You can bask in some of that reflected “cool” yourself. It’s a very affordable, useful introduction to a fascinating subject. It works fine as a springboard to the specialist literature for motivated readers. Those interested in China’s capacity to adapt to a world demanding more transparency, more honesty and more credible self-reflection could hardly find a better ongoing touchstone than Tibet. Educating yourself about how things got the way they did in Tibet (and China) is therefore well worth the time. The Han Chinese have plenty of challenges facing them. Tibet is where the world proclaims they are most “uncivilized.” That’s a slur the Han cannot, cannot bear after a millennium ruled largely by northern barbarians and more recent humiliations by industrial nations. So the Roof of the World is where the Han must come to a successful solution without losing face. For them, let alone the poor Tibetans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s a situation worth watching.

    Even better for those of you racing into the e-book world, Amazon offers an even more affordable Tibet Unconquered. Consider this title as a gift or for a thought-provoking bit of holiday reading.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, China, History, India, Politics | 4 Comments »

    CIA Leviathan Wakes Up and Hunts Ishmael

    Posted by James McCormick on 27th October 2010 (All posts by )

    Word came early last week from the Washington Times and Washington Post, while I was away on vacation, that Ishmael Jones, pseudonymous author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture would be sued for breaking his secrecy oath.

    I reviewed Jones’ 2008 book here on chicagoboyz in April, and followed it up more recently with a late September review of a similar book by Canadian “Michael Ross” on his time with Mossad.

    I found both books surprisingly revelatory about the organizational culture of these two intelligence organizations, but found little that would interest the James Bond crowd, or be of much value operationally to foreign governments.

    Jones’ book was by far the most damning, however, because he illustrated (with incidents from his own deep-cover career) the extent to which the CIA now operates for its own bureaucratic benefit with minimal attention to its central mandate – gathering actionable intelligence. All the most virulent criticisms of the Tea Party against big government are understatements when it comes to how national security has been subordinated to the HR nostrums of the day at CIA. Jones effectively outlined how “the emperor has no clothes.” Not so much inept as indifferent. As someone operating under “deep cover” in the clandestine branch, away from the support and comforts of consular life, he was certainly qualified to note the career paths and day-to-day obsessions of the “home office” and his colleagues. While he didn’t name names, he described enough duplicity and lassitude in the CIA’s management and staffing to earn the undying enmity of “tap dancers” and “clock watchers” alike.

    Most notably, Jones outlined in some detail how the vast number of clandestine officers that were supposedly hired and deployed by the CIA post 9/11 (at huge expense) were posted to the continental US. Numbers were further bulked up by counting support staff as “officers.” Meanwhile, CIA clandestine officers already in the field overseas at the time were being methodically hindered and removed to avoid bureaucratic risk. Jones contrasted this institutional predilection with his time in Iraq as part of a team of intelligence agents (largely Army).

    Apparently the Panetta CIA will now conduct lawfare against one of its own, after having done so much to limit his success when he was overseas secretly working on WMD proliferation. No good deed goes unpunished. Execute the messenger when the news is bad.

    It’s still early days in the legal matter. I’ve not seen any indication that Jones’ legal team has formed a strategy for protecting or saving their client. Goodness knows Jones’ pocketbook will necessarily take a massive hit, which may well be the intent of the suit in the first place. Having delayed Jones’ out-of-pocket reimbursements during his active clandestine career (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars), it’s only appropriate that the CIA’s parting shot would be to take away what they did pay him. Pour encourager les autres.

    After risking his life overseas, there’s some irony that his own employers will hold him accountable for leaking their institutional dysfunction, rather than any actual secrets.

    Will a change in control of the House mean that the CIA finds itself under Congressional scrutiny for misleading elected representatives about how they were spending billions of dollars? One would imagine that Jones’ defense lawyers will be dropping hints about the potential perjury committed by his CIA managers testifying on the Hill over the last decade. Be a shame if something should happen to all those shiny careers. Horse-trading ahead, I assume.

    The intelligence agency that works safest, works not at all. And a CIA entirely based in the US or ensconced behind the walls of embassies can look busy without actually being busy. The current CIA bureaucracy, for entirely understandable reasons, has preferred Potemkin villages and iron rice bowls to aggressive intelligence-gathering. Jones’ misfortune is to have been a witness to it all. I hope this all turns out OK for him.

    My mini-book review offers additional details for those with an interest in intelligence organizations.

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, International Affairs, Terrorism | 11 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Ross — The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad

    Posted by James McCormick on 24th September 2010 (All posts by )

    Ross, Michael with Jonathan Kay, The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2007. 278 pp.

    Recommended by Ishmael Jones, author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Culture, reviewed here on chicagoboyz.

    In late 1982, 21 year-old Michael Ross arrived in Israel to escape cold weather. After a three year hitch in the Canadian Army, tackled right out of high school, he was on vacation. Backpackers visiting Europe on a budget often traded their wintertime labour at Israeli kibbutzim for free room and board. Michael was soon headed for one in the Beit Shean valley.

    Hailing from Victoria, British Columbia and a mildly Anglican religious background, even being in Israel was a stretch. Far more likely that he’d be kayaking, or mountain-biking, or growing dope up in the Rockies. Short of the North Island of New Zealand, or perhaps Marin County, California, there’s hardly a more heavenly place in the English-speaking world than the Gulf Islands between the city of Vancouver and Vancouver Island. It’s “Lotus-land” to eastern Canadians. A young man just out of an army should have found all the pleasure and excitement he could want in the Pacific Coast lifestyle.

    Michael’s background certainly didn’t suggest a future in one of the most respected, yet constantly imperiled, clandestine services in the world — the Mossad. Nor could it predict that he would take a side in one of the nastiest confrontations between the modern industrialized world and its neighbours. Yet for almost two decades “Michael Ross” was to serve in a variety of military and intelligence roles for his adopted home under conditions of unimaginable danger. How he came to do so is both fascinating and rather unsettling.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, International Affairs, Iran, Islam, Israel, Judaism, Middle East, Military Affairs, Terrorism, War and Peace | 6 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Ridley — The Rational Optimist

    Posted by James McCormick on 30th June 2010 (All posts by )

    Ridley, Matt, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins, New York, 2010. 438 pp.

    Matt Ridley is a well-known British science writer who, in recent years, has specialized in writing books for the general public on new research in biology … evolutionary biology, genomics, plus a biography of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA.

    For well over a decade I’ve enjoyed his books and been very impressed with the quality of his writing, so “on spec” I put a library hold on Ridley’s latest without paying much attention to what it was about. That decision turned out to be a wonderful piece of serendipity. I’ve been reading about European “trading republics” (ancient and modern) for a few years, and trying to assemble an amateur theory about how economic dynamism and technological innovation follow, or are reinforced by, republican values. Whether Athens, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Boston, or New York and Montreal, trade under republican regimes creates massive relative wealth and huge leaps in human knowledge and standards of living.

    Now Matt Ridley looks at the innate human capacity for “exchange” … and how that unique capacity affected the course of prehistory, the introduction of agriculture and “civilization,” and more latterly, the shape of the industrial revolution and the modern world. Underlying the politics of republicanism, and individual freedom, we can see the human appetite for exchange creates persistent economic advantage. Trade flows from comparative advantage, in the words of David Ricardo, and comparative advantage relentlessly rewards more specialized use of the natural environment … from the labor of humans carrying sea shells inland for trade 80,000 years ago, to the labor of domesticated horse and sheep and dogs largely for human benefit, to the use of vast quantities of ancient vegetable matter (in the form of petrochemicals), to extend the efforts of humans out of all proportion. Our species is most prosperous when most specialized, when most dependent on the differentiated talents of thousands of others. We now can live lives like the Sun King, without a retinue of thousands.

    In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls ‘bubble-up’ evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism. I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions. A flood tide, not an ebb tide. p. 350

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Environment, Health Care, History, Human Behavior, Markets and Trading, Media, Politics, The Press | 3 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Junger — War

    Posted by James McCormick on 14th June 2010 (All posts by )

    Junger, Sebastian, War, Harper Collins, 2010, 287 pp.

    The author of The Perfect Storm has written a book about his time with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the remote, steeply mountainous Korengal Valley — 200 kms east of Kabul, and 200 kms northwest of Islamabad. Patrolling and living five times between June 2007 and June 2008 with Second Platoon, Battle Company, Junger gives the reader some sense of the life of combat infantry out at the very end of the logistics chain — small high-altitude outposts protecting larger, lower bases with covering fire. Every creature comfort is reduced to that which will serve weapons and fortification. Niceties like hot and cold running water, cooked food, clean clothes, air-conditioned or heated sleeping quarters are simply absent. No one over 30. No women. No rear-echelon MFs. No one but Taliban wanting to come across the perimeter wire and kill or kidnap you. The troops live for weeks amongst scorpions, camel spiders, dust, and dirt in ramshackle outposts carved out of hilltops with their own hands. Resupply is based on occasional helicopter “speed balls” (air-dropped duffels or kit-bags) or whatever the men can pack on their backs up the mountains. In other words, Fort Apache – Korengal. No generals or pundits or “pros and cons of war” in sight.

    The region of Afghanistan is so remote that it has largely been ignored by all forces in the area: Afghan, Pakistani, and European. No central government ever existed in the area. The Korengalis live in small tribes within a valley barely six miles long and one mile across. They were animists and adopted Islam barely a hundred years ago. Though speaking Pashto, they keep largely to themselves. Meager, valley-bottom subsistence farming is subsidized by illegal timber-cutting of the large cedars found high on the mountain-sides. Thus the Korengalis are entirely in thrall to their elders, the local Pakistani timber smugglers, and the Taliban forces that pass back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Americans weren’t welcome. No one was.

    American forces established themselves in the Korengal to act as “spoilers” for the Taliban transit zone through the neighboring Pech River valley. The 173rd were replacing a previous deployment by the 10th Mountain Division, who in turn had replaced the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. The members of Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd were assigned to man an isolated outpost called Restrepo.

    Junger’s account of his time with Second Platoon is organized as a set of squad and platoon vignettes on three major themes (Fear, Killing, Love) and bridged with his reflections on his own experiences (patrolling, combat, surviving an IED), interviews and biographic details on the troops in Second Platoon, and a review of the latest literature on combat psychology and physiology. As an established adventurer and war reporter, he was struggling to come to terms with a new and deeper experience of relentless combat in a very small group.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Book Notes, Military Affairs, War and Peace | 1 Comment »

    Book Review — Levenson — Newton and the Counterfeiter

    Posted by James McCormick on 28th May 2010 (All posts by )

    Levenson, Thomas, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2009, 318pp.

    The publisher kindly provided a copy of this book for review.

    This book was recommended during a Holiday 2009 Book Roundup on chicagoboyz here.

    Fans of fiction author Neal Stephenson (The Diamond Age and Anathem were reviewed for chicagoboyz) may recall that one of the most intriguing episodes in his mammoth Baroque Cycle trilogy was Isaac Newton’s use of the Royal Mint to further his interests in the alchemy of gold. In the course of taking on Mint responsibilities, Newton also inherited the responsibility for halting widespread coin tampering and counterfeiting.

    Now we have a non-fiction title by a distinguished American science writer focused on the same subject. Newton’s actions as Warden, then Master, of the Mint were less glamourous than his revolutionary contributions to science and industry, but no less critical to the rapid transformation of England into an industrial giant. The real story behind Isaac Newton’s efforts to rescue England’s silver currency from impending disaster, and to revitalize the Royal Mint, is rather unexpected. And Newton’s methodical (and rather fearsome) efforts to hunt down and hang the country’s counterfeiters turn out to be just as fascinating, and just as strange, as Neal Stephenson’s fictional tale of Newton’s derring-do. Stephenson’s blurb on the back-cover of this book confirms as much.

    Levenson’s book is built around two dramatic themes.

    Firstly, the “fish out of water” transition of Isaac Newton from nerdy reclusive Cambridge savant, obsessed with his privacy, to senior government functionary … comfortable in parliamentary committees, Law Courts, and in the Royal Mint’s interrogation cells.

    Secondly, Newton’s multi-year game of “cat and mouse” with a notorious counterfeiter (William Chaloner) that constantly risked Newton’s professional career, and Chaloner’s life. Chaloner actively sought to have Newton pilloried as incompetent, a thief, and anti-government conspirator, and Newton did his best to see Chaloner hung, drawn, and quartered … counterfeiting being a treasonous offense.

    The author first builds contrasting biographies of the scholar and the criminal, providing a snapshot of criminal London in the late 17th century. The woeful state of English silver coinage brings Newton to London where he was soon to begin an education entirely unlike anything available in Cambridge University.

    SPOILER ALERT: If you’d prefer to learn the story of Newton and the counterfeiter on your own, by reading this book, please skip down to my general comments in the Section titled General Impressions where I’ve tried not to give too much of the tale away.

    EYESTRAIN ALERT: This review runs about 10,500 words. Some readers may prefer to print it out.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, Book Notes, Britain, Crime and Punishment, Economics & Finance, History | 9 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review: Yon – Danger Close

    Posted by James McCormick on 19th May 2010 (All posts by )

    Yon, Michael, Danger Close: The Michael Yon Story, Apple Pie Publishers, 2000, 400 pp.

    Over the last decade, Michael Yon has emerged as a pre-eminent American military blogger. His photos from Iraq and Afghanistan appear occasionally in print media. Fox News will interview him and reprint his articles on their website. He’s heard on radio periodically with personalities like Dennis Miller and Hugh Hewitt. It’s in the blogosphere, however, that his impact has been the greatest.

    He specializes in combat reporting and by some accounts, no journalist (professional or otherwise) has spent more time embedded with US and Allied combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than Mr. Yon. His travels with the military have also taken him to the Philippines, and training environments throughout eastern and southern Asia. His blog posts are illustrated by digital photography of a very high caliber. His insights into events, tactics, and troop morale are deeply informed by his earlier training as a Special Forces soldier. He knows the physical and mental challenges of combat, first-hand. He knows the sounds made by different weapons and their significance in the midst of the battles he witnesses. He’s often able to ask questions and evaluate troop conditions in ways that would escape a non-vet. And he’s drawn a dedicated following on Twitter and Facebook, especially amongst the families of troops that he spends time with. In many ways, he’s a unique voice and a unique set of eyes in the combat zone. The personal risks he takes to be with the troops are frightening, even second-hand. And his battles with army “public information officers,” over what he’s seen and what he believes, are almost as legendary as his combat reports. He speaks his mind bluntly and has paid the price for it a number of times. He gets booted out. Yet he keeps going back.

    The sum total of his independent efforts has been a series of compelling and often harrowing pieces of online photo-journalism, supported largely through reader contributions. For the last few years, I’ve made periodic contributions to his blog’s Tip Jar, and sponsored the purchase of a box of his latest book (Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New ‘Greatest Generation’ of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope) for subsequent donation to the troops. I felt it was the least I could do to support a kind and quality of journalism I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. From time to time, Michael Yon mentions his personal history on his blog but his background is largely hidden. The audience must often read between the lines.

    I’ve always been curious about how he had the motivation and confidence to take on the challenges of combat reporting, sponsored only by his readers. Fortunately, inexpensive copies of his autobiography are widely available through used book websites.

    Danger Close is his personal story from childhood up to the time of his assignment to the 10th Special Forces Group in Europe in the 1980s. It covers his childhood in Florida, vacations in the southeastern United States, and completion of high school. Yon joined the Army directly from high school with the aptitude necessary to apply for Special Forces. First he would complete Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) … then onward to Special Forces pre-selection, and Phase I, II and III of the Selection Course. The autobiography concludes shortly after his completion of German language training at the Defense Language Institute facilities at the Presidio in San Francisco.

    Soon after completing his Special Forces Selection course and receiving his green beret, he was involved in a bar fight lasting only a few seconds. It left Yon’s antagonist dead and Yon charged with second degree murder. That event forms the skeleton upon which his entire autobiography is hung. The ups and downs of Yon’s young life could hardly have been more extreme.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Military Affairs | 1 Comment »

    Mini-Book Review — Jones – The Human Factor

    Posted by James McCormick on 30th April 2010 (All posts by )

    Jones, Ishmael, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, Encounter Books, 2008, 383 pp.

    This book is the career memoir of a former Marine and stock broker who entered the “non-State Department” clandestine service of the CIA and was a deep cover case officer from the ’90s through the late ’00s. It covers the story of his training, deployment, and activities overseas focusing on radiological and biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the course of tours in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, and finally a “combat tour” in Iraq. Serving overseas with his wife and children under the cover of a “software solutions expert,” he contacted disaffected or bribe-able scientists and business-people from rogue nations. By casting his inquiries as commercial and academic opportunities, he was able to gather a steady stream of intelligence on WMD programs in the Third World.

    The central theme of the book, however, is how staff at the home office (from top to bottom) either intentionally or inadvertently got in the way of his doing an effective job. Most authors are the hero of their memoirs but Jones does an admirable job of giving his pride in his accomplishments a reasonable airing without masking the real value of his book. The CIA is a large modern business with a primary mandate to stay out of the newspapers and off TV. How it does so is a tale both depressing and all too familiar.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Iran, Iraq, Management, Middle East, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Terrorism, USA, War and Peace | 4 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Midler — Poorly Made in China

    Posted by James McCormick on 13th April 2010 (All posts by )

    Midler, Paul, Poorly Made in China: An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game, John Wiley 2009, 241 pp.

    Paul Midler began his academic career in Chinese history and literature and then went to Wharton for an MBA and further graduate work in East Asian business. Fluent in Chinese, over the past ten years he spent his time in southern China working as a consultant to American importers and was witness to the economic boom that’s amazed the world.

    This book, however, is about all the other things he witnessed … the methodical transfer of technology and profit to Chinese manufacturers and the methodical transfer of risk, liability, and innovation/marketing/design costs to American companies. “Poorly Made” is a master class in how ill-equipped American companies are to operate in “low circle of trust” cultures … even when those American companies are managed by savvy mercantile clans and even organized crime!

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, China, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Markets and Trading | 16 Comments »

    Bubble-icious — American History and Political Subsidies

    Posted by James McCormick on 22nd March 2010 (All posts by )

    As someone who’s written several times (here and here) about the course of modern health care (its inherent complexity and cost), I’ve been watching the latest moves in US health care funding with a great deal of interest.

    From the introduction of antibiotics to the breakthroughs in transplant surgery, medicine in the 20th century was in a position to provide dramatic improvements in health care (both quality of life and length of life) at relatively modest cost. Many consider it a golden age in medicine. My personal belief is that medical care is about to hit another burst of creativity and success (but at much higher cost-to-benefit) as non-invasive imaging, micro-surgery, diagnostic testing, and DNA-propelled pharmaceutical customizations kick in. I may be wrong, but I think my beliefs are a reasonable extrapolation of the trends in medical care since the end of the 1970s “silver bullet” period of medicine.

    So what do my guesses about modern medicine mean in a new era of greater tax subsidies for US health care? An era which, by necessity, must politicize health care further. It got me to thinking about the hidden subsidies during earlier periods of American history, powered by the domestic political systems of the time, and driven by citizen/voter appetites. And it got me thinking about the law of unintended consequences.

    After a few minutes scribbling on the back of an envelope, I came up with the following:

    US Bubbles Over Four Centuries

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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Health Care, History, Medicine, Politics, USA | 10 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Smith — The Strong Horse

    Posted by James McCormick on 18th March 2010 (All posts by )

    Smith, Lee, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, Doubleday, 2010, 256 pp.

    Strong Horse is a series of conversations, observations and recollections of the author’s experiences in the Middle East over the last decade … focusing on Cairo, Beirut, Israel and Damascus. Living in Brooklyn, Smith took the events of 9/11 as a personal challenge to study in the region. That led him to discussing the political and social culture of the Arab world with individuals as varied as Sufi scholars, Koranic recitators, Lebanese Druze warlords, and Cairo doormen … engaging as well with more famous names such as Naguib Mahfouz (Egyptian Nobel Laureate in Literature), Edward Said, Omar Sharif, and Natan Sharansky.

    As the title of the book suggests, Smith feels the conflicts of the Middle East are largely an internal clash of Arab civilizations and involve the “captive” peoples (Copts, Druze, Christians, Jews, Sufis, Shia, etc.) who must somehow survive with Sunni majorities and governments in the region. The spillover of violence into the West, while constant, is therefore largely a secondary effect. The key question, the author believes, is over “who’s the real Muslim?” Since that bloody debate, by definition, doesn’t extend to the infidels, violence in the non-Muslim world is usually some form of manipulation in benefit of domestic agendas. The evidence of the last decade suggests the Arabs reserve the lion’s share of their bile and violence for each other. Though they provide unrelenting warnings about the dangers of inciting further violence by Muslims (through American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan), such concerns never seem to translate into a lighter hand by authorities within the region. It is this observation which leads Smith to propose that “strong horse” politics was, is, and will be, a enduring principle in the Middle East … and widely supported by Arabs of every persuasion.

    For Smith, Arab antagonism to Americans and Westerners is fundamental, being as they are neither Muslim nor, more importantly, Arab. The various Arab tribes and sects who feud endlessly amongst themselves do not permit any profound reconciliation with the Other, either across the religious and ethnic boundaries or within them. Muslim willingness to leverage Western allies against other Muslim powers is built right into Islamic history, as outlined with methodical effort in Efraim Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism: A History, reviewed earlier on chicagoboyz here.

    The author’s conclusion after his travels and conversations over the last decade is that “overthrow, domination, and eventual collapse” is a political pattern long established amongst the Arab tribes, largely reinforced (not introduced) by Islam, recognized for over half a millennium by Arab historians, and it shows little or no sign of change in the 21st century. The strong horse is the model for successful political change in the region. It was not chosen as a metaphor by Osama Bin Laden on a whim. And it resonates deeply within Arab culture. It is the aspiration of all participants in the political process in the Middle East, in Smith’s belief … and any discussion of peace (as opposed to interim truce) is a form of cultural betrayal. And punished accordingly. Despite the fact that this cultural habit reiterates destructive cycles without end, it cannot be relinquished without giving up a fundamental cultural narrative. The toxic results are self-evident to modern Arabs but if Smith is to be believed, they are caught in a situation where all they can do is “double down” on the model of political change that has served them very poorly in the past. Struggling to cope with the impact of two centuries of Western technology and culture, the Arab hope is that an Arab Strong Horse will arise. The reality is that it is the United States, and inadvertently Israel, that have found themselves in the role of Strong Horse in the Middle East. The burden of the role is that all parties in the region look to gain favor and/or manipulate the destruction of their domestic and regional competitors by playing games with the Strong Horse. As Smith quotes in passing, Arabs are better at feuding than warring. At the point at which they are able to escalate conflict to war, inevitably it is their culture and self-regard that pays the price. What was true of Napoleon in Egypt is now true of America in the Middle East.

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    Posted in Islam, Israel, Middle East, Terrorism, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Groopman — How Doctors Think

    Posted by James McCormick on 15th March 2010 (All posts by )

    Groopman, Jerome, How Doctors Think, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

    This book is several years old but deals with timeless subject matter that might be of interest to cb readers. In the past decade or two, a major initiative called evidence-based medicine (EBM) has tried to improve how medical research is conducted and how it is used in everyday clinical practice. It’s the application of the scientific method (with all its strengths and weaknesses) to confirming how we know what we know about medical practice. Some examples of such efforts “organized improvement” were covered in a book I reviewed earlier on cb called Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. Like Dr. Gawande, Dr. Groopman writes extensively for the New Yorker. The resulting quality and clarity of his writing in How Doctors Think stands out. Either he or his editors are very good.

    In How Doctors Think, the author looks at a very different avenue of medical improvement. Deductive, evidence-based, medicine necessarily involves many patients and the careful collection of information about how a treatment works for large numbers of people. This is the foundation for proving the efficacy of particular treatments for particular populations, and winnowing out cases where doctors are “fooling themselves” about their treatment. Not fooling ourselves, as physicist Richard Feynman once pointed out, is one of the great challenges of science. The folks doing EBM research always give themselves a good laugh by evaluating the mathematical and statistical skills of the average GP. Interpreting the scientific medical literature is a real skill. One that needs to be taught and reinforced. As a baseline, we can aspire for a medical profession that can dependably read, critique, and interpret its own research.

    The inductive process of forming a diagnosis and executing treatment with a specific patient benefits mightily from the disciplined research of EBM, but it by no means replaces the services of skilled physicians. Checklists or AI applications in medicine can reduce egregious errors, but human judgment, matched with experience and rigorous thinking, are necessary components of health care. And that’s the focus of Groopman’s book.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Health Care, Medicine, Science | 7 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Easterbrook — Sonic Boom

    Posted by James McCormick on 30th January 2010 (All posts by )

    Easterbrook, Gregg, Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed, Random House: 2009, 243pp.

    Sonic Boom falls within the genre of the quick-reading airport business book. Using a series of places as exemplars (Shenzhen, Waltham MA, Yakutsk, Erie PA, etc.), the author shows how a globalized economy can create prosperity from swampland, and restore prosperity to Rust-Belt and 19th century industrial hubs. The writing is crisp and smooth. The manner is often witty, and occasionally wise-ass. It’s anything but turgid … which is a great relief from many of the “big think” books which come and go on the bestseller lists.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Avatar Redux: The Ghost Dance Works!

    Posted by James McCormick on 25th December 2009 (All posts by )

    About six weeks ago, I wrote a brief post about the dismal trailer for the movie Avatar, which made it clear that the movie was going to recycle Dances with Wolves. In other words, a turgid, adolescent paean to the Noble Savage, carefully white-washed to eliminate the less savoury elements of hunter-gatherer existence and to emphasize every stereotypical flaw in white men. “Fade to black” before the farmers and ranchers show up. Yawn.

    Well, Avatar has just passed the $400 million mark in box office gross income after less than a week in theaters. I caught a late-night showing yesterday and I contributed my $15 (Cdn) to the pile. My wise-ass prediction from the earlier post, that the protagonist would bite the bullet tragically, didn’t come to pass. Foolish me. What was I thinking?

    Not “SEQUEL-SEQUEL-SEQUEL” apparently.

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    Posted in Anglosphere, Arts & Letters, Film, Tech | 11 Comments »

    Holiday Book Ideas — Four That Are Good to Go

    Posted by James McCormick on 30th November 2009 (All posts by )

    I’m late, late, incredibly late on four books that authors gave me to review. That doesn’t mean that I can’t give credit where credit’s due … in plenty of time for the book-buying frenzy before the holidays. With luck, I’ll finish off the full reviews in December but since *I’m* buying copies of these books for friends and family, maybe one or more of them might fit someone on your list. All recommended for the categories of people headlined.

    Economists, Physicists, History of Science buffs

    Newton and the Counterfeiter describes Isaac Newton’s multi-year battle with one of London’s most successful counterfeiters. No surprise who wins in the end, but it is surprising how well Levenson provides background on the protagonists … without overwhelming the reader. Recommended for students or professionals with an interest in the history of money, finance, or just a fascination with what the great Newton did after he polished off the Principia. The counterfeiter’s “colourful” life precludes giving this book to a pre-teen but all others will find it, like the earlier-reviewed The Ghost Map, a fascinating snapshot of life in London.

    Japanophiles, Asian culture fans, World History Buffs

    I’m years late on this one but Through the Looking Glass is highly recommended for anyone wondering how Japan ended up with such a different culture … and why their adoption of Western technology at a breakneck pace in the late 19th century was so successful. Thought-provoking and such a good summary of Japanese culture that I’ve struggled for over 50 hours to epitomize in writing what the author has written in hopes of getting a full book review out the door. I’ve failed, but I’ve also bought more than a half-dozen copies of this book for friends on two continents with an interest in Asian culture.

    Entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 cube jockeys, Economics students, Anglosphere buffs

    Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson picks up where his Long Tail finished. The halving of computation, bandwidth, and data storage costs each year has made a new generation of businesses financially feasible. The freemium service (like Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) where basic services are free and a small set of customers pay for additional features, has become so common that it is now unremarkable. Anderson looks at the history of the word, the different definitions of free in the context of culture and business, and the gap in the academic literature in understanding the new generation of businesses that leverage “free” in profound ways. My book review will, like my earlier review of Long Tail, look at why the Anglosphere has been the source of so much “free” over the last couple of centuries and why it leads the way in both charitable and profitable businesses that leverage the idea. A “must have” for anyone thinking of starting a business. People under 30 will think “d’uh” but Anderson still offers a lot of context and some very good background on the history of “free” in business in the 20th century for younger readers. And a fun, even revolutionary, read. I’m buying copies for nieces and friends with an interest in media.

    Ambitious NCOs, Military Officers, World History buffs, Prognosticators of the American future

    Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is a grand summary of the culture of the steppes, from the time of the domestication of the horse and the appearance of lactose-tolerant humans (see 10,000 Year Explosion), to the 21st century suppression of the Chechens, Tibetans, and Uighurs. A fascinating source book on the ebb and flow of culture across the “ocean of grass” and the firm focus these cultures had on trading with the great empires on their periphery. Trade with us … or die. Most of these cultures, and the direct influence they had on world history, has been largely unknown except to a handful of scholars. In Empires, the author brings all this background information together in one place, draws on the most modern scholarship in linguistics, history, and archaeology, and provides a ground-breaking introduction to the general public. The striking parallels with the European nations that built empires based on liquid oceans becomes clear only by the end of the book … as is the tentative nature of Russia and China’s hold on the vast interior steppe (triggered by the introduction of firearms, and only solidified in the final massacres of the Junghars by Qing China in the mid-18th century). Anyone with an interest in Russia, the Middle East, or China will learn a great deal about the role of the Central Asian Culture complex on these areas in the last 4,000 years. Nowadays, military folk posted to the ‘Stans or places like Mongolia will find this book invaluable … firstly as a brisk introduction to the cultural roots of the place, and secondly as a reference book to read and re-read in future years to grasp “the big picture.” If you have friends or family that are ambitious for learning about the continent (let alone the region), start them off at the beginning. Anyone senior to Captain should buy this book simply to have it ready when needed. Because it will be needed. You can’t understand the Chinese and Russians without understanding the “enemy” they faced for centuries and the echoes that continue in their territorial obsessions. Highly, highly recommended. My full review will comment on the author’s more personal assessments but his account of Central Asian history is a entirely straight-forward, well referenced, and real service to the English-speaking public. I’ve bought copies, again, for friends in Europe and North America.

    Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Anglosphere, Book Notes, China, Civil Society, Economics & Finance, Entrepreneurship, History, India, Iran, Islam, Japan, Korea, Management, Media, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Dances With Aliens: Haunted Vet Redux

    Posted by James McCormick on 11th November 2009 (All posts by )

    Director James Cameron, of Titanic and Aliens fame, has been working away for the last decade developing new technology for a film called Avatar, to be released in mid-December. It will combine digital extrapolations of humans and filmed actors in a 3D projection format. Talk is that it’ll cost $500 million dollars by the time that marketing costs are factored in. News that Rupert Murdoch was “excited and moved” by a sneak peek doesn’t necessarily bode well for adults looking for something more than vision quest fodder for teenage boys.

    Trailers have been appearing with increasing regularity as the release date approaches. The latest here on Youtube has an appropriately exotic and violent set of clips to whet interest. For the first time, however, it telegraphs enough of the plot to actually reduce my desire to see the movie.

    Let me reach for my psychic hat and do my own “spoiling” after having read little, and seen less, of the promotion for this movie.
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    Posted in Advertising, Media, Military Affairs | 11 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review — Gallagher – Rapt

    Posted by James McCormick on 21st September 2009 (All posts by )

    Gallagher, Winifred, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Penguin:New York, 2009, 244 pp.

    Rapt is a wide-ranging and elegantly written summary of what scholars, authors, and a few mystics have to say about human attention and the role that it plays in our emotions and our day-to-day actions. Written in a very polished and literate style, it finds a nice balance between the author’s personal reflections on the role of attention in her life, quotations about focus and attention by authors such as William James and Thoreau, and interviews with leading psychologists and medical professionals. There’s perhaps a bit too much meat on the book’s bones to warrant selection for Oprah’s book club but fans of her TV show will find much to like and enjoy with Rapt.

    In some ways, the book could be considered a skillful Boomer reflection on a subject that was grabbed with adolescent abandon by the same generation in the Sixties. The Power of Positive Thinking can’t quite match a world with many more religious, philosophical, pharmaceutical, and therapeutic choices in dealing with our unhappiness, or our endless distractions, or our frustrating procrastinations. Gallagher’s book makes a serious effort at surveying what we now know about particular habits of thought and focus. Anyone surrounded by colleagues wedded to their Blackberries, or by hordes of teenagers flogging their multi-coloured cellphones, has paused to wonder whether all of this is really “good” for people.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Philosophy, Religion | Comments Off

    Mini-Book Review — Cochran/Harpending — The 10,000 Year Explosion

    Posted by James McCormick on 9th September 2009 (All posts by )

    Cochran G. and Harpending, H., The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, Perseus Books, NY, 2009.

    In an earlier cb review of a book on the role of culture and education on American intelligence (Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It:, I mentioned a hypothesis by physicist and iconoclast scholar Gregory Cochran suggesting a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence scores (slightly less than one standard deviation above the American population’s average). Nisbett noted that this slight difference in average IQ translated into massive differences in the distribution of individuals at the very highest IQ levels (140+).

    Cochran, and anthropologist Henry Harpending, have now written a fuller discussion of their Ashkenazi hypothesis within the context of a much wider contrarian, and occasionally irreverent, book on the new discoveries in human genetics affecting our understanding of the evolution of modern humans. The authors explicitly reject the convential wisdom that human evolution largely stalled with the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens as the sole hominid species on the planet.

    With new techniques for examining the human genome, it’s possible to give approximate dates on the major recent changes to human physiology triggered by migrations into new environments or the adoption of new economic lifestyles (such as pastoralism or agriculture). Key physiological adaptations such as lactose tolerance, resistance to diabetes or obesity, Vitamin D absorption through skin, malarial protections (subject to recessive genetic disease such as sickle-cell anemia), high-altitude occupation, and the aforementioned Ashkenazis’ IQ, now have associated dates and timetables … and new research promises to nail down the timing and nature of similar genetic changes amongst the world’s populations. The impact of such genetic changes, and associated vulnerabilities, on the human occupation of Europe, North America, and Africa/Asia for the last 50,000 years are the focus of this book.

    In contrast to most authors in the biological and social sciences, Cochran and Harpending believe that significant and influential human evolution has occurred in the recent past and that the pace of such evolution continues and even accelerates as selective pressures on modern populations intensify. The larger population pools in turn make it more likely that valuable mutations can spread widely and relatively quickly … often in ways that are completely independent of the X and Y sex chromosomes first used to map human genetic history. For example, Cochran and Harpending suggest that there may well have been an exchange of advantageous genetic mutations (through “introgression”) from Neanderthals to Cro-Magnon/H. sapiens sapiens without any associated impact on the paternal or maternal lines of genetic material associated with our species.

    By looking back into post-Neanderthal human prehistory with new genetic data, scholars can track the movement of humans out of Africa and into Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. They can also begin to hypothesize about the role that genetic change played in the relative reproductive success of Upper Paleolithic hunters, the first agricultural communities in Eurasia, and the Indo-Europeans who left their cultural and linguistic imprint on roughly 3 billion of the people in the world today.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Health Care, History, Judaism, Science | Comments Off

    Mini-Book Review — McDougall – Born to Run

    Posted by James McCormick on 8th August 2009 (All posts by )

    McDougall, Christopher, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009, 287pp.)

    I’m a miserable runner, and apart from a brief time in graduate school, I haven’t run since high school. Walking has been my exercise alternative. Nonetheless, a childhood spent in the Boy Scouts and a youth spent doing prehistoric archaeology have given me an abiding interest in the discipline of hunting, especially the role of dogs in human culture and the tradition of persistence hunting practiced by the !Kung bushmen. In Born to Run, magazine writer McDougall has managed to bring together a tale of endurance running, sports capitalism, evolutionary biology, and Mexican ethnography to create a compelling reading experience. Maybe, just maybe, it’s an insight into who we were.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Sports | 2 Comments »

    Mini-Book Review: Stanton — Horse Soldiers

    Posted by James McCormick on 1st August 2009 (All posts by )

    Stanton, Doug, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, 2009, 393 pp.

    “Horse Soldiers” is a straight-forward account of the CIA/Special Forces (SF) efforts in Afghanistan from October through November 2001, culminating in the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to the forces of the Northern Alliance, and the prisoner revolt at nearby Qala-i-Janghi fortress. The latter led to the death of Mike Spann (CIA paramilitary officer) and the discovery and capture of John Walker Lindh (“American Taliban”).

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    Posted in Book Notes, Middle East, Military Affairs | 1 Comment »

    Book Review — Part 2 of 2 — Nisbett, Intelligence and How to Get It

    Posted by James McCormick on 25th July 2009 (All posts by )

    Return to part 1/2

    Chapter 8

    (Advantage Asia?) is a 180 degree turn from the previous chapters. The author switches from looking at kids facing the toughest of odds in getting effective education and a supportive environment for the enhancement of IQ, to the racial group most identified with brilliance in modern US education. Talking about Asian cognition is also a return to Nisbett’s scientific specialty as a cognitive/social psychologist.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Education | 8 Comments »

    Book Review — Part 1 of 2 — Nisbett, Intelligence and How to Get It

    Posted by James McCormick on 25th July 2009 (All posts by )

    Nisbett, R.E., Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, Norton, 2009. 304 pp.

    [The publisher kindly provided a copy of this title for review]

    Jump to part 2/2

    Warning: 10,000+ words.

    One of my side-interests is cognitive psychology, particularly cognitive biases in medical decision-making. Back in 2006, I stumbled over some research on how Asians and Westerners place very different emphases on objects when evaluating the world. The material was intriguing enough that I bought and cb reviewed) a copy of U Michigan social psychologist Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why (2003). Since then I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of science in East and West, and I found “Geography” very useful as a basis for thinking about past and future trends in global scientific culture. The subject showed up again indirectly in a cb review of Shutting Out the Sun.

    My purchase of “Geography” earned me a pre-publication nudge from Amazon on the Professor’s latest book, which is different in subject matter from his earlier publication. Intelligence is a cognitive/social psychologist’s look at the educational and social environment leading to success in current American culture. It appears to be a plain-language summary of his NIH/NSF-sponsored research work on IQ/race and education. A less sexed-up title for the book might therefore be “The Role of Environment in American IQ and Accomplishment.”

    Needless to say, the topic is massive so Intelligence spends a great deal of time recounting earlier research on the topic of IQ and race, academic achievement, career accomplishment, and the success of American secondary educational programs. In its academic variant, my guess is that the material was larded with footnotes and statistical detail. In Intelligence, the author take pity on the reader and adjusts the book’s content to describe research in plain English, and the impact or influence of potential activities on IQ scores in terms in of SD (standard deviation) or percentiles of student achievement. Appendices handle statistical definitions, a professional-level discussion of race and IQ, and a consideration of multivariate analysis. As noted, however, the book covers at lot of territory so my goal in this review is to mention the book’s topics (to tweak reader interest) rather than try to reiterate the author’s careful summaries and lucid assessments of the scientific literature. In other words, don’t take my word for it when it comes to the subtleties of research on particular subjects. Read the original, and the underlying articles.

    The challenge, as with all social science research, is identifying the “confounding factors” that can muddy the results of research on IQ and subsequent individual success. The effective use of “controls” in a research program will improve confidence in the results. Otherwise, scientists are comparing apples and oranges without reaching any useful conclusions. Nisbett goes out of his way to give a sense of whether the research he reviews is misguided, inadequate, or merely suggestive without sufficient followup.

    The Acknowledgements section of the book mentions John Brockman and Katinka Matson. This is a very good sign.Those two individuals are literary representatives for a stellar cast of scientists currently writing for the general public. Intelligence, despite being an overview of a vast amount of social science research, is very well written and edited. You’ll not find a better use of introductory, summary and concluding materials in each chapter to keep the reader oriented and motivated.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Education | 3 Comments »

    Book Review – Chua, Day of Empire

    Posted by James McCormick on 4th June 2009 (All posts by )

    Book Review – Chua, Day of Empire

    Chua, Amy, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Power and Why They Fall (2007 Hrdbk, 2008 ppbk. 396 pp.)

    A paperback of this title was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

    Warning: 9,000+ words ahead!

    While drafting a 2006 chicagoboyz review of Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), I was very impressed with the value of the concepts she introduced and her superior writing style. I had heard of her more recent book but the pace of the past few years had largely halted my book reviewing.

    So I’m late to the game with Day of Empire (DOE). The publication of the paperback version of the book triggered one of Amazon.com’s oft-fatal “As someone who has purchased or rated X, you might like to know that Y has just been published …” notices in my In-Box. Based on World on Fire and Amazon’s summary blurb of the more recent book, it seemed well worth reading. I’ve purposely avoided reading any reviews of the book by other writers.

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    Posted in Book Notes, History | 15 Comments »

    Book Review — Marchant, Decoding the Heavens

    Posted by James McCormick on 28th April 2009 (All posts by )

    Marchant, Jo, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, Da Capo Press, 2009, 328 pp.

    Defining the Word “Anachronism”

    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the sponge divers of Greece lived through a technical revolution … the appearance of the diving helmet. After many centuries of free diving to harvest local sponges, the new equipment suddenly allowed access to much more of the Mediterranean sea floor and previously unexploited sponge beds. The industry boomed. Inadvertently, the diving helmet also led to the discovery of a shipwreck off the coast of the small island of Antikythera. Amidst the spectacular bronze and marble statues at the wreck site was a strange lunch box-sized lump, covered in a limestone coating from centuries of immersion and distorted by the effects of decomposition and corrosion. Here and there were visible bits of wood and corroded bronze, faint inscriptions of ancient Greek and what appeared to be thin loops or gears.

    Compared to the glamorous artworks it was found with, the “lump” was rather unprepossessing and, indeed, it spent most of the 20th century in obscurity. Not knowing what it was, the curators made little effort to preserve the object, and increasingly, it broke into a more and more fragments in the storage rooms of the Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. The early 20th century descriptions made their way into the hands of a physicist and historian of science named Derek De Solla Price. In the 1950s, he made serious efforts to fully explain what it was, culminating in a 1974 book Gears From the Greeks. And it was partly through his efforts that people as diverse as Arthur C. Clarke, Jacques Cousteau, and Richard Feynman took an interest in the enigmatic archaeological find.

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    Posted in Book Notes, History | 12 Comments »