not an expert

not an expert

Forecasting Future Wars is Hard

the title page of a book printed in black and red with a little print with the publisher's logo
The book that launched a thousand raids and burned the topless towers of Minas Tirith! H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars” the first modern wargame for civilians. Image care of https://philbancients.blogspot.com/2012/09/little-wars-by-hg-wells.html

Since 1805, combat between well-equipped air and naval forces has become rarer and rarer. This is because states which can produce such forces have little to gain from fighting one another, and because it has become harder and harder to sustain such forces at all. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy was usually overwhelmingly superior to everyone else (although the French and the United States sometimes gave it a run for its money). Since the 1950s, the US air force has had a similar advantage over everyone else’s. Small states look at these navies and air forces, decide they can never defeat them, and either stop bothering with their own navies and air forces, or side with one of the big powers, or hide in harbour or in neutral countries when war approaches (the fleet-in-being strategy). Big states do some spectacularly stupid and thoughtless things, but rarely something as stupid as getting into a war with their allies or a nuclear power, and pretty much all the states with sophisticated air forces and navies are either each other’s allies or nuclear powers.

This means that stories about how a future naval or air war would go are fantasies based on speculation and imagination and peacetime tests, not observation and experience of actual warfare.

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Just Another Grunt

a plain linestone statue of a god with a tall hat on his head, a club or axe in his right hand, and a tombstone-shaped shield in his left hand
A Statue of the Egyptian god Reshef from the Third Intermediate Period in the Metropolitan Museum of Art care of https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/553738

Early on, the Indy Neidell World War Two documentary split off a series War Against Humanity from its narrative of the ground and surface naval wars. Their story presents the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in December 1944 as a trivial thing, because the allies quickly put forces in place so that German forces could never break through to anywhere really dangerous, and because by the standards of winter 1944/1945 the forces involved were not huge. They even spend lots of time talking about how specific Anglo generals tried to take credit or shift the blame. I feel like that is the wrong story to tell, because the real story is all the ordinary people who ended up dead, or crippled, or frostbitten when they had started to think they would survive the war more or less intact. Here is one of those stories by the late Fred Pohl:

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Google Forgets the Old Web

A senior Google Search staffer recently claimed that Google does not downgrade older pages in search results. For the record, it was Tim Bray in 2018 who demonstrated that Google was not returning the only page with a string if that page was more than 5 to 10 years old. He could find that same page with DuckDuckGo. As he put it, Google is losing its memory. He documented the same problem again in February 2022. A Marco Fioretti also found that Google was refusing to return some old pages in 2018.

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2023 Year Ender

group photo in a room with classicizing interior decor and lots of casts of Greek and Roman sculptures
Group photo from the conference on Stadtbelagerung in Innsbruck, October 2023

A lot of things happened in 2023! Because I am tired I am going to list them briefly.

I applied and interviewed for some professional jobs and found one last group of academic possibilities which still seems worth trying.

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Who Said “Technology Makes the World Smaller”?

an embossed terracotta with a gorgon's head with some of the gorgon's hair and headcloth broken away leaving only pairs of sharp fangs, almond-shaped eyes, and curled hair
An antefix (cap for the end of the peak of a tiled roof) with a gorgon’s head from around 580/570 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The technology of mass-producing terracottas in moulds goes back to Old Babylonian Mesopotamia about 1200 years before this was made, and the headcloth shows that this Gorgon is influenced by Egyptian art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/248331 (Accession Number 10.210.44)

Today I will put on my Quote Investigator hat to ask a simple question: where did the cliche that technology makes the world smaller comes from? Back in 2005 Thomas Friedman had to torture metaphors to declare that The World is Flat because ‘the world is small’ was too common a topos in the business press. As I was refreshing my memory of the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals defending Kaiser Wilhelm’s invasion of Belgium, I noticed a familiar phrase in the pacifist counter-manifesto. That sent me to Google Books to look for parallels.

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Lendering’s Law on Experts and Misconceptions

a red graffito on concrete: I don't care what people think cuz people don't think (nearby are other graffiti in black, white, and yellow)
Graffito from an underpass near Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck

The 2010s were a difficult decade which destroyed our ability to believe in some solutions to problems, but did not provide alternative paths to follow. That decade left many of us in a state of what the Greeks called aporia. At the start of the decade, Jona Lendering had some thoughts about one problem, the spread of misinformation from bad pop books, documentaries, and the Internet. Here is how he saw it in the hopeful time around 2010.

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What Are ‘Big Idea’ Books?

Over on the group blog Crooked Timber there is a retrospective post on David Graeber’s Debt ten years after they hosted a discussion of the book on the blog. The post and comments say something very important about ‘big ideas’ books which scientists mostly take for granted, but might not be obvious to curious, clever people who are not active in research:

I think the best way to understand Graeber is as a writer of speculative nonfiction. He is often wrong on the facts, and more often willing to push them farther than they really ought to be pushed, requiring shallow foundations of evidence to bear a heavy load of very strongly asserted theoretical claims. But there is value to the speculation – social scientists don’t do nearly enough of it. Sometimes it is less valuable to be right than to expand the space of perceived social and political possibilities. And that is something that Graeber was very good at doing.

Henry Farrell
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Some Thoughts on Davies’ “Lying for Money” (2018)

the cover of the US edition of "Lying for Money" by Dan Davies. It has a red background, a white and green dollar sign containing some keywords, and an endorsement by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a yellow circle

Dan Davies, Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of the World. US edition (Scribner: New York and London, 2018)

Lying for Money is one part a monograph by someone who has studied and taught a problem for decades, and one part an extended blog post. It is also a bleak book. Davies thinks that fraud grows out of the cost of verifying facts and the techniques by which managers simplify the world to make it comprehensible (legible in James C. Scott’s terms). The cost of auditing or checking references appears every day, but the cost of discovering that one of your nurses never completed high school and one of your suppliers disappeared overseas with your money only comes up occasionally, so people tend to take fewer and fewer precautions until they suffer for it. Whereas some fictional fraudsters target the psychology of individuals, Davies’ fraudersters target the psychology of institutions and cultural expectations about what is trustworthy and authoritative. Very few large frauds are the fraudster’s only attempt: many get out of prison for one fraud and are trusted with other people’s money a few years later. (I would be interested to hear more on why fraudsters are often the victims of other fraudsters, and sometimes throw in money to keep the illusion alive when they could just take it and run).

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Violence Makes Permanent

The ancestral apple orchard is almost ready for harvest Military historians tend to dislike the idea of the Decisive Battle. Its surprisingly hard to find a time where a single battle decided a war over something more complicated than who should be king. Battles make for great stories but they are only a small part... Continue reading: Violence Makes Permanent

More Power of Fiction

In the past I have talked about how civilians in Syria see themselves as peasants in Game of Thrones, and soldiers in Ukraine want to be as excellent as characters in first-person shooter Call of Duty. This year I want to record that college-edited commentators like Max Boot are comparing the assassination of condottiere Yevgeniy Prigozhin to their favourite scenes from crime dramas in formal published prose:

The most fitting epitaph for Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin was delivered by the shotgun-wielding hit man Omar Little on “The Wire”: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” There’s still much we don’t know for certain (and might never know), but that pearl of wisdom was confirmed by Prigozhin’s apparent death Wednesday after a private plane he was on reportedly crashed north of Moscow.

Max Boot, “Opinion: Prigozhin appears to be dead — and Putin’s grip on power is stronger than ever,” The Washington Post, 23 August 2023 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/08/23/prigozhin-death-plane-putin-russia-ukraine/
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