April 1, 2011

BHL's War

Stephen Erlanger reports in the NYT that the man who claims, so far without dispute, to have set the Libyan War in motion by talking Sarkozy into it, who talked the American ladies into it, who talked Obama into it, is ... neo-socialist celebrity philosopher adventurer Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Oh, boy ...

Here's an interview from February with Lévy about how awesome he is. And here's Garrison Keillor's 2006 review of Lévy's book on America.

Before starting a war, a President of the United States should have a little checklist of questions to ask his advisers, such as:

What's the goal?
Is that goal worth killing people?
What's the strategy to achieve the goal?
Why do you think that will work?
What's the Plan B?
What's the exit strategy?
And, by the way, just to make sure, this war isn't Bernard-Henri Lévy's idea, is it?

March 31, 2011

A classmate's view of Obama

Much of what we know about Obama comes from people he sucked up to (David Remnick's biography The Bridge, for example, is unconsciously hilarious as various personages Obama has kissed up to go on and on about they told all their friends the first time they met him that he should be President). The more interesting perspectives have come from those people who observed him without being in a position to forward his glorious career, such as his Harvard Law School classmate who had been the bass player for The Runaways.

From the comments, here's another plausible sounding perspective on Obama at HLS:
I went there [Harvard Law School] one year behind Obama, had one class together. I graduated cum laude, and my measured IQ last time was 156, and I got perfect score on LSAT. But I am also a little bit ADHD-ish, and I don't think I studied as diligently as most of my peers. I mention this because (besides being defensive about not doing better) while the HLS population is quite smart, they are even more different from average in discipline and diligence, and while Obama was not the smartest guy there, he was f****** amazing in terms of discipline. Over all, I think his package of mental gifts are well superior to mine.

First of all, not all classes were blind graded. On many there were signed papers. And in my class, Obama sat in the front row every day and gazed at the professor with an adoration that Nancy Reagan would have been embarrassed to beam at Ron. He worked them incredibly assiduously. And very successfully. That helped his scores. That isn't LSAT intelligence, but it requires an interpersonal skill that is way beyond mine, and I hazard, way beyond anyone reading this. That is very demanding, and he had that ON TOP OF very respectable raw IQ.

I know that because there are a lot of classes that are blind graded, not easily gamed, and you can't be a dope in them and get magna. Even without his brilliant suck-up skills, he would make the top half of the Harvard distribution.

Steve is right to focus on his ability to paraphrase opponents' arguments to disarm them. Someone of glaringly average intelligence -- like say, Amanda Marcotte -- is a complete failure at that.

As far as his hesitation to make decisions, I don't ascribe that to lack of intelligence. It is part conscious strategy. He never gave a substantive opinion in class -- he just paraphrased others. People loved it, and thought he was brilliant. Those of us who thought that made him a pussy were few and far between. And he kept to that strategy with iron discipline. You might think of it as like the post-modern philosophy in chess: never commit until after the other guy does, and then you have the chance to decide what to do when you have learned more. I agree there are a lot of problems with that strategy for being president, but it sure does seem to work like gang-busters for getting to be president.

Though I think it is more than strategy, cause he does it even when it is stupid. I think that was his survival skill for being the only black kid in Hawaii and Indonesia. I mean think about it, that has to be terrifying, and living in that kind of fear for so long has to leave a mark. Clinton learned from his abusive alcoholic parents to lie lie lie, and do whatever feels good. Obama learned from his disinterested, abandoning parents to never let yourself be vulnerable by committing to anything.

Anyway, my main point is: I don't want this guy to be president, and I don't share his beliefs, and I think he is more than half a crook (see e.g. Michelle's bag collecting disguised as a phony baloney job at U of C hospital). But anyone is a fool who takes his talents lightly.

One thing that's fascinating about Obama is that he had such a hard time understanding that he had a Rev. Wright problem. He donated large amounts of money to Wright's church in 2005, 2006, and 2007, which appears on his publicly released tax records. He named his 2006 bestseller The Audacity of Hope after a Wright sermon. Wright was going to give the invocation at Obama's presidential kickoff rally in Springfield in February 2007 up until somebody convinced Obama to disinvite Wright the night before.

Wright understood all this better than Obama. As Wright told the NYT in 2007 about why he was disinvited, when people find out I went to Libya with Farrakhan and met with Gadaffi ...

And yet, as David Plouffe has admitted, the Obama campaign staff was blindsided by Wright videos finally appearing in the MSM on Feb. 13, 2008. They were just lucky Wright was on a cruise at the moment. When he got back and went on his media tour six weeks later, he made Obama's famous race speech look like a pack of lies.

Ultimately, Wright supposedly spent the fall campaign in email hell in Africa, which sounds like smart planning on the part of the Obama braintrust ... finally.

Once again, how smart is Obama?

A novelist requests help from iSteve readers:
Exactly how smart is Obama? He is represented, by self and media lickers-and-kissers as "the smartest guy in the room." Yet as far as I can see, there's absolutely no documentation for this claim. 
Virtually everything he's been given has been donated willingly on the basis of what he is--pan racial, seemingly articulate and forthright exotic who wears clothes brilliantly and is highly charismatic--than what he's done. No grades, no scores, no actual accomplishments. So how smart is he? Is he really smart? He's articulate but he uses his charm in any circumstance where he's out-IQed, and if his charm fails, so does his confidence, and he lurches in gibberish, well documented. 

Has he ever thought anything through in a conscientious way?  Does he look under, through or behind the bromides that he so glibly produces on cue? There's no evidence of any of this.  He takes his time on making decisions, but to me that's more a sign of fear, even panic, as he knows he must commit and defend, as opposed to simply being Obama, and that scares him silly. He's not stupid; he's certainly well above average, but at the same time far below distinguished. He's smart enough to see nuances but he's not disciplined enough to discriminate between them, ignore the inappropriate ones, and lead on, as Bush (also no genius) was willing to do, and take the heat, as the heat quite clearly bothers him. (As well it should; he's never felt it before; he's always been beloved.)

Anyway, for me, this calculates out to about a 115. What do you think/ Love to see your ruminations on this one, and your reader's responses.

There is a remarkable paucity of publicly available analytical writing that's clearly by Obama rather than the product of a committee process. His first memoir is only modestly analytical (for example, in his decision to reject Louis Farrakhan's black nationalist capitalism because there is no money in it -- but most of the rest is devoted to establishing quandaries for himself rather than in solving them). His more analytic second memoir was read over by 28 insiders before going to the publisher, so who knows what we can say about what that book says about him.

To my mind, the place to start is with the eight lengthy final exam essay questions (and two answer memos) from Obama's "Racism and the Law" course at the  U. of Chicago Law School (for links to them see the bottom of Jodi Kantor's long 2008 blog post

I'm presuming that Obama mostly wrote them himself, that he didn't have a TA write them for him, and that he didn't crib them from some other professor in another city. I was living in Chicago reading the same newspapers as Obama at the same time, and his questions are clearly ripped from the Chicago headlines of the day.

They are nicely done. They don't represent original thought, but they do testify to Obama's nimble ability to understand and replicate various sides of fairly complex arguments. So, I'd say he's, oh, two standard deviations above the national average in verbal ability and verbal logic. Unfortunately, I don't know of much evidence at all relating to his quantitative ability.

They don't testify much, however, to Obama's ability to solve complex problems, which remains opaque. As I pointed out years ago, much of his appeal comes from his ability to project back to interlocutors: "I have understood you."

The ability to summarize your opponent's side of an argument at least as well as its partisans could do for themselves is, in terms of brainpower, nothing to be sneezed at. On the other hand, there isn't all that much evidence from Obama's writings of Obama coming to his own conclusions, other than, say, that Farrakhanism is an economic losing strategy and that he should thus stick to the left side of the mainstream (pp. 199-202 in Dreams). You don't have to be Richard Feynman to figure that out!

Alternatively, he may have figured out a lot of big things, but he's not telling anybody because he doesn't want them to know what conclusions he has reached.

Obama's War

Two weeks ago, Barack Obama started America's war with Libya. I can recall my amazement as I typed the title for my blog post: Are we at war with Libya?

As with so much about the President, his big picture reasons for starting Obama's War remain opaque.

Did he do it to flex the muscle of American power in front of a quaking world?

Or, did he do it to tie down the Gulliver of American power by setting the precedent that the terrifying Pentagon is now the errand boy of the United Nations in general and the enlightened Europeans in particular?

Or did he just not know he was sending America to war? Perhaps he has actually believed all the nonsense he has talked about how this isn't a war and, if you don't believe that, well, this isn't America's war?

And thus we come again to the question of who Obama really is: bleeding heart or cold-blooded power-seeker? And what attitude toward American power has Obama inherited (I mean, besides that he should be in charge of American power)?

When George W. Bush decided to finish his father's unfinished business with Saddam Hussein, well, it wasn't very good idea, but at least, from an commonplace understanding of the psychological dynamics of the Bush dynasty, you could see where he was coming from. The younger Bush's view was that his imposing father had wimped out and lost re-election by not taking out Saddam Hussein. 

But on the larger question of the goodness and usefulness of American power, it's clear the two Bonesmen were in agreement (although the elder held a more nuanced view of its limits). The Bushes are from the old hereditary ruling caste, The Good Shepherd good blood, good bone elite.

But, Obama's mother, father, and stepfather were part of such an exotic caste -- the CIA-affiliated international left -- that it's hard for anybody to get a handle on him. And the subjects that fascinate Obama most -- his race and inheritance -- are exactly those that most stultify thinking among almost everybody else.

That a man figured out how to exploit the softheadedness of America's reigning civic religion by making himself "a blank screen" for our fantasies, that he managed to make himself the most powerful man in the world, the man who can start a war on a whim without anybody else having much of an idea what his whims are, remains among the oddest and most under-reported stories of this century.

The view from Pyongyang

In "Protips for Increased Dictator Longetivity," The Cold Equations draws attention to the view of a North Korean official on the fate of Libya's seven-year-long accord with Washington:
An unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry official condemned the ongoing coalition airstrikes on Qadhafi forces and told state media that Tripoli was tricked by the West into giving up its nuclear-weapon technology in "an invasion tactic to disarm the country."

In exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic aid, Tripoli surrendered technology that included a largely complete warhead design and 4,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges capable of generating fissile material ...

"The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson," the official said, emphasizing that the North's strategy of building up its own military was "proper in a thousand ways" and the only assurance of stability for the Korean Peninsula.

High-ranking officials in Pyongyang tracking the air assaults on Libya "must feel alarmed, but also deeply satisfied with themselves," Korea University professor Rüdiger Frank wrote in a web posting.

The Qadhafi case was "at least the third instance in two decades that would seem to offer proof that they did something right while others failed and ultimately paid the price," Frank said. He cited the former Soviet Union's determination to stop its military buildup and to "abandon the political option to use their weapons of mass destruction," along with ex-Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein's acceptance of international WMD monitors into Iraq.

"To put it bluntly in the eyes of the North Korean leadership all three countries took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West," Frank said.

"It requires little imaginative power to see what conclusions will be drawn in Pyongyang," the professor said, asserting that any high-level North Korean voices who supported nuclear disarmament "will now be silent." 

March 30, 2011

"Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century"

From my review of a new biography of Robert A. Heinlein in Taki's Magazine:
The rise of the nerds to mainstream dominance is one of popular culture’s most important developments over the last generation. Consider the gulf in sensibility between old Hollywood blockbusters such as Gone with the Wind and characteristic 21st-century tent poles such as Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Knight.
A central figure in the evolution of obsessive geeks into a self-aware, self-confident community was science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). For many of the mid-20th century’s lonely youths, discovering Heinlein stories in pulp sci-fi magazines or at the public library was a you-are-not-alone moment.

Yet a massive new Heinlein biography by William H. Patterson, Jr. illustrates a paradox: Heinlein himself wasn’t a nerd. Weighing in at 624 fact-crammed pages, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume I, 1907-1948: Learning Curve> (whew…) is redolent of the Aspergery culture that Heinlein helped call forth. ...

Ironically, the urbane Heinlein preached the virtues of being an all-arounder.

Read the whole thing there.

Charlie Trotter

From the NYT, a story by David Kamp about a great artist who isn't trendy anymore:
Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left Behind

Though [chef Charlie Trotter] can be genial and very funny, he has never been able to shake his label as a tyrant of fine dining. In fact, it’s the main way his name has been coming up of late. Grant Achatz, the chef and an owner of the Chicago restaurant Alinea, devotes an entire chapter to Mr. Trotter’s scariness in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line.”

Otherwise, Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore. In the very years when Chicago has gloried in newfound recognition as a major restaurant destination, with the spotlight trained upon alumni of Mr. Trotter’s kitchen like Mr. Achatz, Homaro Cantu (of Moto), Giuseppe Tentori (of Boka), and Graham Elliot (of Graham Elliot), the man who put the city on the fine-dining map has somehow fallen below the radar. ...

It’s a curious fate for a chef who turned a page in American culinary history. Charlie Trotter’s opened in 1987 in the Lincoln Park town house it still occupies. ... Mr. Trotter was a homegrown talent who saw no reason an American restaurant couldn’t offer the same experience that gastro-tourists enjoyed in Europe: the tasting menu of multiple small courses, each audacious in its inventiveness and exquisite in its ingredients. And he pulled it off — at 27.

Yet Mr. Trotter never quite cracked the code of how to expand his brand.

When we decided to leave Chicago a decade ago, my wife and I invited the founder of the big marketing research firm where I'd worked for most of my life in Chicago and his wife to a going-away dinner. It took a six month wait to get the kitchen table in Charlie Trotter's at 9pm on a Saturday night, but it turned out to be worth it. You don't order from a menu in Mr. Trotter's kitchen, you eat whatever he feels like serving you. There were 27 different servings (most small, of course), each remarkable.
But there remains a perception that there’s more to these off-site fizzles — that Mr. Trotter is a perfectionist control freak, temperamentally ill-equipped to delegate and collaborate. ... Mr. Trotter grants that control is exceedingly important to him, and that there is an inherent contradiction between the nature of his business — hospitality — and the radical extent to which he takes his quest for excellence.

“You know the old adage that the customer’s always right?” he said. “Well, I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize the control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they’re going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves.”

That was certainly my experience. My attitude during the meal was, "Chef, bring us some more of whatever you got cookin'!"

There were 30 chefs working in the kitchen, almost all between age 25 and 35, each one intent on learning from the master so he could launch his own restaurant. Mr. Trotter was not an easy taskmaster. When the chefs finished their cooking late on a Saturday night when a young man would like to get out, they then spent two hours cleaning their stoves. I'm sure it would be cheaper to hire help for that drudgery, but the lesson imparted about the importance of scouring away all aromas of past dishes was clear. From the intensity in the room, it was obvious that famous chefs of the new century were going to emerge from this group, as has happened.

Mr. Trotter yelled at one or two of his chefs for mistakes, but my friend across the table had yelled at me a few times in the years I had worked for him. (We didn't, however, invite clients in for ringside seats.) Can anyone perform at that high a level while winning the Mr. Congeniality trophy? Besides, I was so buzzed on the greatest meal of my life that a summary execution or two probably wouldn't have harshed my mellow.
“Alice Waters may have discovered vegetables, but Trotter was the first man I know who cooked them beautifully,” said Alan Richman, the longtime restaurant critic for GQ. ...

From an HBD perspective, what was interesting was that, in the year 2000, 29 of the 30 chefs in his kitchen were men. Cuisine at this level is so far outside my field of expertise that I can't begin to speculate upon any specific reasons. 

You have the interesting situation in cuisine that the great American innovator the 1970s, Alice Waters, was a woman, but since then the top ranks of achievement continue to be male-dominated. Somebody should make up a list of the male dominated fields where a woman was the most important contributor historically. Film criticism (Pauline Kael) is one obvious one.

March 29, 2011

Not from The Onion

In the Comments, Bantam juxtaposed a couple of recent articles, so I'll run with his lead.

First, President Barack Obama penned an Op-Ed for the Arizona Daily Star calling for a calm, rational discussion of the need for more gun control:

by Barack Obama

It's been more than two months since the tragedy in Tucson stunned the nation. It was a moment when we came together as one people to mourn and to pray for those we lost. And in the attack's turbulent wake, Americans by and large rightly refrained from finger-pointing, assigning blame or playing politics with other people's pain.

But one clear and terrible fact remains. A man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun. ...

But since that day, we have lost perhaps another 2,000 members of our American family to gun violence. ... I know that every time we try to talk about guns, it can reinforce stark divides. People shout at one another, which makes it impossible to listen. ... I'm willing to bet that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few - dangerous criminals and fugitives, for example - from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.

In contrast, from today's New York Times:

Washington in Fierce Debate on Arming Libyan Rebels

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce
debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya ...


Matthew Yglesias explains that a reason why there aren't many women in engineering is because:
Women Engineers Are Jerk-Averse
Anna North notes new research on why women leave the science and engineering fields, which often comes down to women not enjoying being mistreated by jerks ...

That explains why so many women have instead gone into law, politics, Hollywood, Wall Street, fashion, and real estate sales. They're Jerk-Free Zones. Just look at David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (real estate) or Speed the Plow (Hollywood): not an insensitive jerk in sight!

Now I finally understand why a talented engineer like James Cameron, who has a reputation for being a jerk on the set, can't get women to audition for his movies and has never been able to find a wife. That also explains why American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, who appears to be slightly jerkish, can't get women to model his merchandise and why Dov sits at home each night without a date.

Similarly, now we know why the mathematics department at top universities are so male-dominated: mathematicians are total jerks, obviously. Look at that Andrew Wiles, who proved Fermat's Last Theorem. What a jerk!

It's all really quite simple when you stop and think about it.

Obama tosses value added assessments under the bus

From a transcript of Obama being interviewed by blue-eyed Jorge Ramos on Spanish-language Univision (Obama was getting an English translation in his ear piece -- he speaks only English, which has obviously slowed his career immensely):
What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize. 
Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. 
And so what we've said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well. 
Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

Look, if you don't have a standardized test every year, you can't measure how much value that year's teacher added. It's still not easy to do right, but you can't do it at all if you don't test annually. That's not that complicated, but Obama doesn't get it.

Obama passes the Affairs of State test

Over Libya, the President has certainly shown that he can dissemble about military and diplomatic affairs with the best of them.

Can we make Libya more like Kosovo rather than Afghanistan? We badly screwed up the lives of many Kosovo civilians, Serbs and Gypsies, but we just didn't care, so they got ethnically cleansed by gangsters. But that was okay with us, so we didn't have to do anymore fighting. In Afghanistan, in contrast, we drop bombs on their government and made it go away, but then we tried to help the new government. Hence, we're still there 10 years later. 

One question I have is how much chance is there for conflict between European great powers over Libya. In the run-up to WWI, squabbles over North Africa were a frequent source of tension. How much of this operation is an attempt by France to squeeze Italian corporations out of Libya?

March 27, 2011

Efraim Diveroli in Rolling Stone

A few years ago, the story of the two Miami youths, Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, who won a $300 million dollar contract from the Pentagon for ammo for Afghanistan, which they fulfilled with illegal Chinese surplus, was a nine days wonder. Everybody was sure the conspiracy had to go right to the top! Cheney or even Bush's head would roll over this. I looked into the events and came away with a different impression.

Now, Guy Lawson has a funny story on this: The Stoner Arms Dealers:
"We've got a problem," he told Packouz, shouting to be heard over the restaurant's thumping music. "The plane has been seized on the runway in Kyrgyzstan."  
The arms shipment, it appeared, was being used as a bargaining chip in a high-stakes standoff between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. The Russian president didn't like NATO expanding into Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyzs wanted the U.S. government to pay more rent to use their airport as a crucial supply line for the war in Afghanistan. Putin's allies in the Kyrgyz KGB, it seemed, were holding the plane hostage — and Packouz was going to be charged a $300,000 fine for every day it sat on the runway. Word of the seizure quickly reached Washington, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself was soon on his way to Kyrgyzstan to defuse the mounting tensions.  
Packouz was baffled, stoned and way out of his league. "It was surreal," he recalls. "Here I was dealing with matters of international security, and I was half-baked. I didn't know anything about the situation in that part of the world. But I was a central player in the Afghan war — and if our delivery didn't make it to Kabul, the entire strategy of building up the Afghanistan army was going to fail. It was totally killing my buzz.

As I explained back then, Diveroli's business model looked like it was basically the same as all those Brooklyn mail order camera stores: semi-bait-and-switch. Lure customers in with impossibly low prices, then fob them off with the minimum you can get away with.  His family owned a gun shop in LA that did business that way, where Efraim had worked as a lad. 
Packouz was about to get a rare education. He watched as Diveroli won a State Department contract to supply high-grade FN Herstal machine guns to the Colombian army. It was a lucrative deal, but Diveroli wasn't satisfied — he always wanted more. So he persuaded the State Department to allow him to substitute Korean-made knockoffs instead of the high-end Herstals — a swap that instantly doubled his earnings. Diveroli did the same with a large helmet order for the Iraqi army, pushing the Pentagon to accept poorer-quality Chinese-made helmets once he had won the contract. After all, it wasn't like the military was buying weapons and helmets for American soldiers. The hapless end-users were foreigners, and who was going to go the extra mile for them?

The only funny stuff that is left out is that Diveroli's uncle Shmuley Boteach, lately in the news feuding with his next door neighbor, the government of Libya, was Michael Jackson's rabbi, and that one of the edges AEY had going for them in the government contracting business was that they had checked the disadvantaged minority box for being Hasidic, although they weren't.

Census 2010

My new VDARE column is a long tour d'horizon of the new Census 2010 race/ethnicity data. Read the whole thing there.

CNN: “Whitest County” Seeks Nonwhites

Here's an amusing CNN video segment about how on the superb peninsula north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, "Officials in California's Marin County are trying to turn around its image" of being a Whitopia. At one point, the correspondent appears to be cracking up.
“Whitest County” Seeks Nonwhites 
The federal government recently took Marin to task for not reaching out more to people of color when it comes to providing affordable housing. The feds say Marin is not fully in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act… … A county spokesman tells me it’s difficult to build any new housing in Marin. … Marin County is now promising to do more in a report just issued this week. The feds are reviewing it.

The Obama Administration: solving the problems of Libya and Marin County, simultaneously! What can't it do?