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Category: Miscellany

Instapundit reader Harry Helms pointed

Published / by N.Z. Bear

Instapundit reader Harry Helms pointed out a few days back that the failure of imagination which is central to the government’s inability to prevent September 11th means we should look to creative types such as writers to “help visualize new terrorist scenarios and plots”.

Yup. Harry doesn’t call them out by name, but I think my particular favorite genre has quite a bit to offer in this regard — science fiction writers. Some of the best SF comes from the classic formulation of taking a possible (but not yet actual) premise and exploring it to its logical conclusion — precisely the kind of thinking I would assume is useful in terrorist planning scenarios.

My hands-down favorite example in this area is Solution Unsatisfactory, a short story by SF master Robert A. Heinlein (which can be found in his collection Expanded Universe, out of print but possible to find used). The central idea in Heinlein’s tale is the development of atomic weapons — in this case, radioactive “dust” bombs that, when spread over a city, render it completely uninhabitable.

The story was published in 1940, five years before Hiroshima, and legend has it that it earned him a visit from the U.S. feds to find out where, exactly, Mr. Heinlein had gotten his information.

For about fifty years, Heinlein looked really smart, but not quite totally prescient, given that his dust weapons didn’t exactly match the actual atomic bombs that were created. But now it seems Heinlein wasn’t predicting the future six years in advance — he was predicting it sixty years in advance — as we now are living in a world where “dirty bombs” which spread radioactive waste are, quite possibly, the most likely nuclear weapons that may (fate forbid) see use against civilian populations.

There are numerous other examples of well-reasoned, intelligent and (incidentally) extremely readable explorations of “what-if” scenarios out there. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote perhaps the definitive work on human colonization of a new world with his Mars Trilogy — which actually addresses yet another Instapundit topic du jour, what the environmental issues will be when humans begin colonizing Mars. Robinson’s novel (which I’ll admit up front is one of my absolute favorite works of fiction, period) addresses not only the nuts-and-bolts technical issues of rendering a planet habitable for fragile humans, but also creates a complete political and social world, wrestling with the rather staggering question of “If you could create an entirely new society and government on a new planet — what should it look like?”

Other samples: it’s reasonably well known that author Arthur C. Clarke developed the concept of satellite communications in 1945, but less well-known that Robert A. Heinlein came up with the idea for the waterbed. William Gibson is widely credited with the idea of cyberspace, but frankly, Vernor Vinge described the coming ‘Net better with A Fire Upon the Deep, and earlier with True Names.

And there is even some precedent for the formal inclusion of creative types — in this case, science fiction writers — being called upon in time of war. During WWII, Issac Asimov, L. Sprague De Camp, and yes, Heinlein, were recruited to work at the Materials Laboratory of the Naval Air Material Center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (I’ve tried to find some more detailed history on the web of this effort, but the best I can do is this acceptance speech by De Camp, which mentions the project about halfway down).

So why not again, and why not now? Limiting the pool to science fiction writers would be foolish — I’m just focusing on what I know here — but they certainly aren’t a bad place to start. Tom Ridge doesn’t seem to be doing terribly much else — why not put him to work getting a crowd of creative types together for a serious what-iffing session? Put the right twenty people in a conference room for a day, supply sufficient quantities of caffeine and alcohol, and I guarantee you’ll walk out of there with ideas that haven’t yet occurred to the CIA or FBI.

Nominations, anyone? Here’s a quick list to start with:

Tom Clancy (has a proven track record of coming up with nasty scenarios — see above)
John Barnes (frighteningly good at coming up with nasty worst-case scenarios, see Mother of Storms).
Kim Stanley Robinson (natch)
Christopher Hitchens (guaranteed to have an opinion on anything)
Iain M. Banks (he’s a Brit, but they’re on the right side)

Got your own nominations? Send them to me, and I’ll start a running list….

Update: By the way, I hope nobody will bother suggesting Oliver Stone, because he’s a complete nutcase.
Update May 31, 2007: Howdy Instapundit readers (again, five years later!). If you are looking for more on the “dream team” we came up with back in 2002, check out this update.

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Laurence Simon at File13 tells

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Laurence Simon at File13 tells us that we should be watching East Timor closely:

“There’s a lot to learn from this series of events, because nation-building by the ham-fisted anti-Semitic UN is going to happen in West Bank and Gaza, too, whether the people deserve it or not.”

He’s almost certainly right, although I’ll quibble — back to my precise language rant again — that many of the Palestinian people do deserve a normal life (although there are at least a few — i.e., those who kill children to make political statements — who deserve no life at all).

(Laurence also throws in a really bad Happy Meal joke, but he got the lede right, so we’ll let that slide for today.)

The other reason we (and here I’m talking about Americans in particular) should be paying attention to East Timor is that we bear more than a little responsibility for getting them into this mess in the first place. As a newly declassified State Department telegram shows, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 — in which at least 50,000 civilians were killed by the Indonesian government’s own count — was executed with prior knowledge of then President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and utilized U.S.-supplied arms. This is one of the prime reasons why journalist Christopher Hitchens (whose article on the subject in my main source) and many others believe there is a case to be made for criminal prosecution of Kissinger — both for international war crimes, and for simple violation of U.S. law.

More on my thoughts on Kissinger later — because that’s a topic in itself…

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A reader pointed out to

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A reader pointed out to me that the Boston Globe has also picked up on the story of Vatican legal scholar Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, who believes church leaders “are neither morally nor judicially responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy.”. They add this tidbit to the Times’ story, where Ghirlanda indicates that he doesn’t think accused priests should be subjected to any kind of psychological examination:

“To our thinking, it’s not admissible that the incriminated cleric be forced to undergo a psychological investigation to determine if his personality is inclined to commit the crimes in question” (as quoted in the Globe).

Given that Ghirlanda does agree that priests who are likely to abuse again should not be placed in parishes (“If the bishop fears the priest could again commit a crime, then he must not entrust to the priest a parish, but must act in a different way.” — the one note of sense in this) we are left to speculate exactly how this determination should be made. Since (according to the Times, at least), Ghirlanda has already said he doesn’t think Church leaders should turn over allegations of abuse to civil authorities, I guess we’re back to putting our faith in the good judgment of the Princes of the Church.

Correction: In my previous note on this subject, I implied that Rev. Ghirlanda wrote the words “Roman Catholic bishops should not turn over allegations or records of sexual abuse by priests to the civil authorities” in his article. Although the Times indicates that this was the substance of his argument, the quote was from the Times’ phrasing, not Ghirlanda’s. Apologies for the confusion.

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The what-did-Bush-know-when pile-on has now

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The what-did-Bush-know-when pile-on has now officially reached hysterical levels, as History News Network’s P.M. Carpenter’s call to the administration’s opponents to “Grab a Louisville Slugger” shows (found via Atrios).

I’m not thrilled at all with the spin emmanating from 1600 Pennsylvania on this issue, as I think my current page header makes clear. But I believe it’s damned important to keep in mind that these are not normal times, and as much fun as it may be to beat up on idiots (especially idiots holding public office with whom you hold substantive disagreements), we’d better remember what our priority should be right about now: to win this war.

Carpenter gleefully paints the what-if scenario of where we’d be had Clinton or Gore been in office last September: “Presidential initiatives would be halted cold in their tracks–and permanently. For the remainder of his term, a Clinton or Gore would experience imposed paralyzation, plagued eight days a week by ever-mounting Republican investigations.” And concludes: “Turnabout is but fair.”

Perhaps. Probably, in fact. But frankly I don’t give two shakes about what’s “fair” at the moment — what I care about is ensuring that our government does the absolute best job possible of ensuring the safety of this country. And while I can’t know for sure whether Carpenter really does hope that Bush gets his “turnabout” and ends up with an administration in “imposed paralyzation”, I would hope it’s obvious to anyone that this would be an extraordinarily bad thing right about now.

Does this mean Bush and the administration should get a free pass? Absolutely not. What it means is that any intelligent criticism of the administration must be focused not on simply discrediting Bush or making his appointees look incompetent. It has to be focused on actual constructive criticism of the current course of the government, and on bringing every available intelligent mind to focus on the issue of how we can make it function better. Because we’re not talking about whether the estate tax gets revised or not this year. We’re talking about how we’re going to defend our families and fellow citizens against a still-at-large group of homicidal maniacs who would like very much to kill us.

Should Tenet or Rice or Mueller get fired for their respective failures to prevent 9/11? Maybe. I don’t have enough information yet to form a judgment. But the criteria I’ll apply in making that judgment will not be whether they “deserve” it, or whether a Clinton appointee in their place would be fired — it will be whether removing them from office will improve, or harm, this country’s ability to defend itself.

I think many, if not most, of the voices being raised in alarm and dismay about the administration’s handling of the pre-9/11 warnings — and their current lack of candor — genuinely do have the old and honorable aim of improving our society and government through open discussion and criticism. But some, including Carpenter, seem to be failing to grasp the danger involved in politically castrating the President of the United States when, ever so incidentally, we happen to be at war.

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The N.Y. Times (registration required)

Published / by N.Z. Bear

The N.Y. Times (registration required) has a preview today of a Vatican legal scholar’s upcoming article in which he argues that “Roman Catholic bishops should not turn over allegations or records of sexual abuse by priests to the civil authorities”.

The obvious tagline here was “they still don’t get it”, but that’s gotten to be a truism. The learned fellow also apparently offers this helpful insight: “From a canonical point of view, the bishop or religious superior is neither morally nor legally responsible for a criminal act committed by one of his clerics.”

It’s hard to know even where to start, and I don’t have the energy this early in the morning pre-coffee. Take it away, Mr. Sullivan…

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Meryl was kind enough to

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Meryl was kind enough to send some linkage my way today, so a big ‘hey there’ to any of her regulars stopping by. And just to be clear: no, you won’t find any actual blackmail photos of her on the site. Sorry!

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The BBC quotes one of

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The BBC quotes one of Iran’s ruling conservative clerics saying that Iran “is on the threshold of an explosion. If popular discontent increases, society and the regime will be threatened.”

While this kind of statement comes regularly from the “reformers” in Iran, this fellow is on the conservative side of the fence, and hence his statement bears greater significance.

I’ll regard this as tentatively hopeful for now; let’s just hope that the ruling Islamists don’t take the Chinese approach to quelling dissent.

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Is anyone else reading the

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Is anyone else reading the print publication The Week?

It’s basically Slate’s Today’s Papers in print form — about 40 pages each week with excerpts from the top stories of global media. Quite handy for those of us with web-induced short attention spans.

They have a web site here, but it is basically just for subscribing to the print publication. Costs about $50 annually; kinda pricey (I believe I got a freebie deal of some sort, which I guess is why it started showing up in our mailbox) but check it out if you’re into that sort o’ thing…

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Harvard Business School professor Clayton

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Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen has an interesting take on The Rules of Innovation with regards to new businesses and how they compete with incumbents.

Some of his advice is a bit banal (“Innovations fail when managers attempt to implement them within organizations that are incapable of succeeding. Managers can determine the innovation limits of their organizations quite precisely by asking three questions: (1) Do I have the resources to succeed?…”) but the main thrusts of the piece cross the border into the subtle realm of ideas that are obvious when you think about them — except you didn’t really think about them before.

Notably, Christensen starts by commenting on the evolution of process control and quality assurance: “The ‘Quality Movement’ of the 1980s and

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George Lucas thinks using technology

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George Lucas thinks using technology to create digital versions of film stars is a bad idea.

I think he’s simply trying to distract us from the fact that he’s already got the technology and has utilized it in his last two films … it’s the only rational explanation for the night-of-the-living-dead performances he’s gotten…

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Kids These Days: it seems

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Kids These Days: it seems “freaking” is the latest media shorthand for the latest teenage dance style to upset the old folks. Freaking, explains the Washington Post (via MSNBC), “makes the lambada look like the hokeypokey”. ( Self pity note: First I missed the free-love 60’s, now this. Damn….)

The story details the various efforts taken by flummoxed high school administrators to discourage said Forbidden Dance, including those at Stone Ridge High School, where “the deejay froze the freaking several times during a recent dance by playing the ‘Barney’ theme song.”

I’m pretty sure this is a violation of the Geneva Convention. Where’s UNCHR when you need it?

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Nicholas Kristof has a well-balanced

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Nicholas Kristof has a well-balanced piece summarizing the Clinton-era Arafat / Barak negotiations in the N.Y. Times today (registration required). His facts seem right to me — but the conclusion he draws from them is a bit squirrelly.

Kristof is backpeddling from his own previous columns in which he “sneered at Mr. Arafat and reiterated the common view that he had rejected very generous peace deals proffered by Ehud Barak.” He proceeds to walk through the peace offer put on the table by Barak and Clinton at Camp David and —more significantly — the more generous offers which followed.

But after detailing Arafat’s dithering and clear failure to grab the best deal ever offered (or, as has been widely been pointed out, offer a counterproposal), Kristol goes waffly and concludes:

“All in all, it is fair to fault Mr. Arafat for lacking the courage to strike a deal at Taba; for being a maddening, vacillating and passive negotiator; for condoning violence that unseated the best Israeli peace partner the Palestinians could have had. But the common view in the West that Mr. Arafat flatly rejected a reasonable peace deal, and that it is thus pointless to attempt a strategy of negotiation, is a myth.”

Hmmm. Lacks courage — check. Refused to accept last reasonable offer — check. “Maddening, vacilating, and passive negotiator” — check. Supports violence when negotiation doesn’t go to his liking — check.

What, exactly, would make Arafat a poor negotiating partner? I’d tend to agree that calling negotiation “pointless” is an overstatement — certainly at the very least from a cynical realpolitik perspective. But going into it with any illusions that Arafat is a rational partner in the process is simple stupidity.

Stick to those guns, Nick.

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Oversimplifiedpundit?Glenn over at Instapundit is

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Oversimplifiedpundit?
Glenn over at Instapundit is The Man, of course, and can be relied on for sound and sensible punditry on all subjects and at all hours. Even he, however, occasionally falls victim to the lure of oversimplification — specifically, the temptation to lump together groups of individuals, particularly when they’re doing something odious.

In Instapundit’s case, the target du jour is “the French”. Actually, they’ve been a favorite target of Instapundit and other blogs for quite a while. With synagogues burning across the country, it isn’t any wonder.

But precision in language is important, and it is that phrase —- “The French” — that’s the problem. I know Glenn knows that not all French are torching Jewish houses of worship, but that’s not the point. In this case, it is more or less harmless fun. But generalizations like this are dangerous — not for any of the usual PC notions that they are racist or any such (although sometimes they are), but simply because they get in the way of genuinely useful critical thinking about problems.

The worst example of this is when we talk about “The Palestinians” and “The Israelis”. All too much coverage makes it sounds like there are two sides to the current conflict. I count at least four: Israelis who want peace; Israelis who don’t; Palestinians who want peace, and Palestinians who don’t. And even that segmentation is a deceptive oversimplification, I suspect. When you think of “the two sides” as monolithic, the events of the last few years in Middle East make absolutely no sense — the two sides seem clearly to be acting irrationally and against their own interests. But when you slice down further — and avoid the easy turns of the phrase like “the Palestinians” — you get a clearer picture of reality, because in fact, each side is riddled with factions whose interests are not common.

Hence, the importance of precise language… or as “the French” would say, langue pr

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Well, it’s done. The blog

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Well, it’s done. The blog is open to the public… I considered waiting a few days to build up a backlog of posts, but why bother. If you like what you see today, there’ll be more of it tomorrow…

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