Friday, August 30, 2013

Britain not going to bomb Syria "for now"

Ian Morris’s title is Why the West Rules – For Now and not why the British or U.S. rules.  Nevertheless the Parliamentary debate over whether to bomb Assad’s Syria for using Chemical Weapons, at least the part I watched, seemed to pertain to unilateral action on the part of Britain.  Britain had the power to bomb Syria; it had the fourth largest military force in the world according to Cameron and could punish Syria for using WMDs if it chose to.  In the end, Parliament didn’t support that bombing and Cameron said that he would abide by Parliament’s decision.

Also interesting were the comments of Lord Ashdown who called himself an “old warhorse,” but only in the sense of wanting to back the U.S. as it chastised Syria. 

In this morning’s (Riverside) Press Enterprise Victor Davis Hanson opposed Western intervention in Syria for reasons of Western interest: “In terms of realpolitik, anti-Israeli Authoritarians are fighting to the death against anti-Israeli insurgents and terrorists.  Each is doing more damage to the other than Israel ever could – and in an unprecedented, grotesque fashion.  Who now is gassing Arab innocents?  Shooting Arab civilians in the streets?  Rounding up and executing Arab civilians?  Blowing up Arab houses? Answer: Either Arab dictators or radical Islamists.” 

In my opinion, Hanson is right.  It is in the best interest of Israel, the U.S. and Britain to let things play themselves out in Syria without Western interference.  Maybe Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” in regard to Chemical Weapons, but so what?  If we oppose him too strongly that could favor the Islamists and we know what they stand for.  Of course no one in Parliament or the Obama administration is thinking in those terms: a Liberal Administration by definition wouldn’t.  Such an administration prefers to act on “Humanitarian principle.”   Jimmy Carter acted on “Humanitarian principle” when he opposed the Shah.  And when the US withdrew its support of the Shah, or at least caused the Shah to no longer think he had US support, Khomeini was able to take over and institute the Islamist regime which became the greatest threat to the West in modern times.  Do we really want to do that same thing in Syria?

Of course I am getting off track here by discussing what ought to be done by the West rather than the fact that these decisions are even in the hands of the West, whether Britain or the US.  Britain “rules” some of the time, as the nation who has the fourth largest military force in the world might well do (in Morris & Ferguson terms), but it “rules” as an ally of its former colony who now has the largest military force in the world.  Both these “rules” might seem somewhat shaky at the present time: they were expensively exercised in Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers and tax payers are weary – “for now.” 

This doesn’t in any way represent a decline in Western power in my opinion.  If in regard to some future problem Western interests are more clearly at stake, then these two military powers, the US & Britain, will still be capable of acting decisively.  But such acts will more closely fit Huntington’s paradigm than they will Morris’s & Ferguson’s.  Ruling the waves is much more expensive and difficult than it used to be.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Ruling" in Austria and Syria

With Ian Morris’s term “rules” in mind – or more accurately not quite eliminated from mind I’ve been reading The Death of Sigmund Freud, Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism by Mark Edmundson.

On page 12 of his chapter “Vienna” Edmundson writes of Hitler’s confrontation with the Austrian chancellor, “’I have a historic mission,’ Hitler said, ‘and this mission I will fulfill because Providence has destined me to do so.  I thoroughly believe in the mission; it is my life . . . Look around you in Germany today, Herr Schuschnigg, and you will find that there is but one will.’  Hitler told the Austrian chancellor that his triumph was inevitable:  ‘I have made the greatest achievement in the history of Germany, greater than any other German.’  When Schuschnigg informed Hitler that France and England would not stand by and allow him to absorb Austria, the fuhrer laughed.”

I’m assuming without having read further in Morris’s book that his view of “Ruling” is something like that of Niall Ferguson’s in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.  Regardless of whether Ferguson was correct in his evaluation of the U.S. there seems little disagreement that Britain once “ruled” a fair portion of the world up until the world wars of the 20th century.  Schuschnigg was invoking Britain’s prestige, France’s also, in his debate with Hitler.  Perhaps not Britain alone, but surely Britain and France, the “rulers” of the West, would not tolerate Hitler’s aggression against Austria.   Hitler laughed because he knew that Britain and France could not stand in his way.  Whatever ability to “rule” they may have had in earlier times, they would not be able to stop the Anschluss. 

But Hitler was ultimately wrong about Britain.  In the near term Britain had neither the will nor the power to stop Hitler’s ambitions,  but Hitler failed to realize that Britain could marshal many of its colonies and former colonies and allies in its support – not over his aggression against Austria but Hitler’s “mission creep” would eventually provoke an assemblage of heroes reminiscent of the forces that set sailed toward Troy that would effect his destruction.  

So in a sense Britain did “rule” in 1938.  Hitler, if he were wise wouldn’t have defied her.  Years later we know that Churchill in a sense handed off this baton of “rule” to Eisenhower in Indochina, but did the U.S. really see this matter of “ruling” and “empire” the way the British did?   And don’t we even at this very moment see evidence that Britain hasn’t utterly relinquished this power?  I am thinking of the Parliamentary debates over whether to bomb Syria over Assad’s use of Chemical Weapons. 

I watched for a couple of hours and failed to hear anyone question Britain’s right to bomb Syria.  The debate didn’t pertain to this right but upon whether Assad himself authorized the use of Chemical Weapons and whether enough time was being given to the inspectors to verify their use.  Unlike what happened under Tony Blair in regard to Iraq, Britain was not going to wait for the U.S. who was more interested in the Far East.  Action would be taken solely by Britain after they heard back from the U.N. inspectors.  If Assad violated the earlier injunction against WMDs he would be held accountable by Britain. 

This Parliamentary debate strikes me as especially interesting because Britain wasn’t concerning itself with any other nation or power beyond letting the inspectors do their job.  No one was arguing that they had a “dog in the Syrian fight.”  They wanted to “spank” Syria for using WMDs and had the power to do so.  Britain was once again “ruling the waves” – sort of.

Moving to the “Clash of Civilizations” perspective, Britain can get away with its action to “spank” Syria with its missiles only because the Islamic “Civilization” has no “core” nation.  Huntington assumed that the U.S. was the “core” nation of the Western Civilization, but here is Britain getting ready to perform that function once again.  Russia, the Core nation of the “Orthodox Civilization” opposes action in Syria but apparently has no intention of opposing Britain.  Neither does the Core nation of the Sinic Civilization, China. 

Also interesting is the implication that if Britain takes action it will do so for “humanitarian” reasons.  Killing people with WMDs is morally wrong.  In the 19th century, Britain was more interested in a “balance of power.”  If two potential enemies were not getting along that was fine with Britain as long as one didn’t utterly destroy the other.  It was all to the good for it they were fighting each other because while they were doing that they couldn’t fight against Britain.  The Realpolitik of “Balance of Power” if we were to introduce it into the British Parliament debate might be voiced as “they are killing each other off; so let’s stay out of their way and let them do it.” 

Hmmm.  I didn’t type fast enough.  The House of Commons had a vote and opposed military action.  Just what that means to David Cameron’s intentions I don’t know.  Can the executive branch of government ignore the House’s disagreement?  Of course there has to be another motion and another vote which will give Cameron time to present a stronger argument for action – if he has one. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Morris's ruling in a Huntington Clash

The title of Morris’s book is Why the West Rules – for Now, and the subtitle is “The Patterns of History, and what they reveal about the future.”  In the realm of Political Science I normally think there are only two paradigms: Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.  But there is another, the British Empire paradigm, and I wonder if it isn’t more influential (although probably less respected) than either of the former ones. 

Morris is flip, superficial, he skips matters that bear upon his ideas, and as of page 95 he has yet to explain what he means by “Rules.”  I’m guessing that he means what the Churchill meant when he famously told Eisenhower something along the lines of ‘Britain is no longer able to police the world so it is going to have to be up to you in the future.”  Britain was able to project its power through its unsurpassed navy, but since Churchill passed that baton to Eisenhower only the U.S. is able to project military power (in a significant way) any place in the world.  That is only partially true and I find the term “rules” if my guess about what Morris means is accurate terribly misleading. 

Back in early 2009 I was in a debate with Michael Kuznetsov (in my blog), a patriotic Russian who lived in, or perhaps only worked in, Moscow.  He had a web site that boasted that the Russian Army was the greatest military force in the world.  Given his assumptions about that matter, he was right.  What he meant wasn’t the sort of projection of military force that Churchill and (perhaps) Morris meant but the ability to defend Russia against any sort of attack.  The U.S. could project a military force into Iraq and another into Afghanistan but we don’t possess the ability or will to project one into Russia.  We couldn’t project one into China either.  And we wouldn’t be willing to project a force into virtually any nation at the present time.  But at this point Huntington’s paradigm impinges upon (or perhaps supports) Morris’s:

While the U.S. has neither the means nor the will to successfully invade Russia, it does have the means and under a future president might have the will to defend a nation, even a former S.S.R., on Russia’s border – given provocative circumstances.  The same sort of thing is true in regard to China, even more so perhaps, because the U.S. has very strong ties to Taiwan and the official policy of China is that Taiwan is integral to the Chinese nation and not an independent entity.   The U.S. may back away from the problem if Taiwan initiates a confrontation, but if the Chinese mainland initiates it, the U.S. may very well support Taiwan militarily.  This sort of “Clash” fits into Huntington’s paradigm.  Core nations such as the U.S., China, and Russia will not engage in all-out war with each other in the future.  Instead there will be “clashes” along the borders of the various “Civilizations.” Core nations may or may not become involved in these clashes.  A Clash in Georgia, or Taiwan, for example would fit Huntington’s paradigm.

If my guess about what Morris is up to is accurate, what sort of “rule” does he imagine the U.S. is engaged in – or capable of?  My opinion of Morris’s theories hasn’t grown any since I read his introduction.  He may mean something as banal as the ability to project another military force into another Middle Easter nation such as Iran.  Again, Huntington does a better job of dealing with such a matter.  If Iran decided to hold much of the world hostage by closing the Straits of Hormuz, the U.S. in the past would have stepped in and opened them up again.  Much of the world is dependent up oil flowing through these straits.  But if we happened to have an isolationist president who refused to interfere with Iran, arguing that we have enough oil and gas to satisfy our own needs and needn’t come to the aid of other nations, then one of those other nations, perhaps China or Japan would open up the Straits with a military force of their own.  If China did it perhaps Morris would argue that “rule” had passed from the U.S. to China. 

But perhaps I am taking Morris more seriously than he intends.  He seems to be enjoying himself even as he frustrates me: [from page 95] “Rituals are notoriously culture-specific.  Depending on when and where you find yourself, it may be that the mighty ones will listen only if you pour the blood of a live white goat on the right side of this particular rock; or only if you take off your shoes, kneel down, and pray facing in that direction; or if you tell your misdeeds to a man in black who doesn’t have sex . . .”

Monday, August 19, 2013

Was this English Major really a Major???

I described the current challenge to my description of my engineering career to an engineering friend who wrote back, “You might find your career at DAC as "ordinary", but to many (most?) people a career at a top flight (no pun) company working on exciting hi-tech projects is far from ordinary. Imagine some guy working as a purchasing agent for Best Buy, as one of many examples.

“You have an exciting resume and most people with lots of time to post on the internet do not. I see this on the firearms forums, where I have become convinced that most participants in the discussions do not actually own or shoot guns; they are engaging in ritual fantasy and really do not have real working experience with the topic.”

That’s an interesting perspective – I previously had a thought something like that, that I had a certain sort of advantage by working at Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing for all those years, but the thought was in regard to things I wrote or the way I approached debates in the forums.  But when I think of influences, I usually rank the Marine Corps at the top.  In one of the Civil War histories I read, the author said something like “most enlistees enlisted at about age 17 and 17 through the next few years are the most impressionable for any young man” -- something like that.  That period for me included my three years in the Marine Corps and without doubt I was affected by those years.  After that I stormed through four years of college as a Marine and not as I might have if I’d entered college right out of high school.  I was very aggressive (intellectually) in college and that aggressiveness extended into my first job after graduation: working at Douglas.  I started in a group where I assembled and rewrote engineering proposals going to the Air Force.  The Air Force had complained that Douglas Engineers were such poor writers that half the time the Air Force had no idea what was being proposed.  The Chief Engineer decided to hire some likely-sounding young men who could write in order to make these proposals presentable. 

That was fairly interesting for an English Major.  Old time Engineers didn’t appreciate young people telling them their work wasn’t up to snuff and if they could, chased them off.  “Get out of here.  I have work to do.”  But I was a Marine, a Buck Sergeant no less, and wouldn’t be chased.  Many of these encounters were like the sand-box fights one has as a young boy.  You knock each other down for a while, get up, shake hands and become good friends after that.  It wasn’t long before these old-timers were confiding in my about what they liked and didn’t like.  I had become one of them.

That happened at Santa Monica beginning August 1959.  I worked on Thor mostly, but when we won the Skybolt program I worked on that – no longer on proposals but mostly on something called the “Task Plan” which was to itemize and describe every element in the Skybolt Program.  By the time Skybolt was cancelled (Christmas 1962) there were just a couple of us left, we who were hired by the Chief Design Engineer because we could write.  Most who worked on Skybolt at that time were laid off but I was able to wangle a transfer to Long Beach to become a “Specification Engineer” on the DC-8.  More experienced Spec Engineers were working on the just-launched DC-9.  I was given a few airlines and was responsible for the “Delivery Specification” for each delivered airplane.  No airline accepted a baseline configuration; so changes had to be processed.  That was also one of my responsibilities. 

I didn’t like being a Spec Engineer and so wangled my way onto each new major proposal.  I worked on the C-5 proposal for almost two years.  We lost the proposal to Lockheed.  After that I was accepted back into the “Spec Group.”  By that time we were working on extended versions of the DC-8.  When the KC-10 came along I worked on proposal for that as well.  This time we won the program and I finally got a job I really liked: Program Engineer.  I worked for the Director of Engineering and did many of the wide variety of things necessary to the launching of a new program.  During our peak effort we had perhaps six Program Engineers to cover the various engineering tasks.   The tasks that were most memorable for me were the electronic systems.  I had to not only make the proposal to the Air Force but sit through the pricing and negotiations and then oversee the work and be a liaison with the Testing Division as we proved to the Air Force that our system worked.  A system that comes to mind was Rendezvous Guidance -- as one might imagine the “Rendezvous” system was of vital importance.  The KC-10 tanker and the planes it needed to refuel needed to be able to find each other, but enough of that.

Back to Edmundson:   Consider the final paragraph in his article :

“What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.”

Since I did what Edmundson is recommending, do I see these matters the same way he does?  Not quite.  If I had gone directly into college after High School and then been sent to Douglas Aircraft Company, I wonder if I would have succeeded any better than the myriad of Liberal Arts graduates who left Douglas as quickly as they could for more congenial work.  My Marine Corps experience said as much about who I was if not more than my English Major.  I was a Marine who could also write.  That identity was much more acceptable to board engineers and engineering managers than a mere English Major. 

Also, I didn’t “take up something else” as a matter of choice.  I didn’t say to myself, “now I’m ready to become an engineer.”  After I graduated from college I had bills, needed a job, looked around and couldn’t find one, went to the Bliss Employment Agency, was sent to Douglas Aircraft and began the aforementioned career with a good deal of reluctance which I buried, apparently successfully, for the nonce.  Is there any justification here for the boasting I was suspected of?   None that I can see.  But perhaps I should be more appreciative of my career than I am, for as my friend illustrated I might have ended up a Purchasing Agent for Best Buy . . . Nah!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Picking a few bones with Edmundson's English Major

This morning I found myself thinking about Edmundson’s article:

“The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?”

When I first read his article I wanted to agree with him, but as of this morning, I can’t quite.  He says “there are readers and there are readers.”  Does he mean to break all readers into two categories, those who read to anesthetize themselves and those who read to become other people?  I do a lot of reading but don’t identify with either of these categories.   To ‘read to become someone else’ is his preferred category but doesn’t this smack of schizophrenia?  

I wonder if Edmundson has read Collingwood.  Collingwood says that the historian (and presumably the reader) should take stock of himself and strive to set his preconceptions aside as he studies his subject, but Collingwood doesn’t mention the self-gratification; which I gather Edmundson assumes when he describes the blessings of living multiple lives through reading.  Surely most good historians are going to enjoy their work, but do any of them “become other people”?

My wife has always loved to read biographies but I never saw any indication that she had become any of the people she read about.  In my recent study project, the American Civil War, I read a lot of biographies but never had the slightest inclination to become any of the military figures I read about – not even the generals I admired.  I admired Sheridan, Longstreet, and John Hood for example, but each one had flaws, and in a history forum when my admiration for these generals became clear, I was pounced upon (figuratively) because of those flaws.  I would argue that their virtues overshadowed their vices, but this was not something someone who read about these generals but didn’t like them as much as I did could agree with.

But maybe Edmundson has only literary  figures in mind.  However, in looking at the three figures Edmundson mentions, I wonder how one would set about becoming Jane Austen.  One of her biographers, Jan Fergus, wrote that information about Jane Austen is “famously scarce.”   Typically, her biographers provide the sketchy information available and then draw conclusions from the characters in her novels.  So shall Edmundson’s reader live Austen’s life through the sketchy biographical information or through her novels? 

Edmundson elaborates: “English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.” 

I don’t agree with this either.  Harold Bloom wrote a couple of books that touch upon this, The Map of Misreading comes to mind.  The reader, but perhaps only the creative reader, reads critically and thinks he can do better if he chooses to.  Bloom someplace sites artistic works that were demonstrations of a creative reader choosing to “do better.”  Perhaps not every English Major would do this, but those in Edmundson’s “ideal” category would at least feel this to the extent that they are not intimidated by what they read, and this is a long shot from wanting to live it. 

I have more appreciation for some of the other things Edmundson says, for example his response to Heidegger’s “language speaks man”:   “. . . Not all men, not all women: not by a long shot. Did language speak Shakespeare? Did language speak Spenser? Milton, Chaucer, Woolf, Emerson? No, not even close.”  I’m not sure where this Heidegger quote came from, but Heidegger didn’t believe language spoke for all men either – especially not himself.  He made up words to convey what he believed was his unique “speech,” i.e., philosophy.  But in general I take Edmundson’s meaning.  Most people, most likely, have no reason to be dissatisfied with the limits of language.  Creative people like those he mentions (including Heidegger) never feel constrained by the limits of language.  They get out of it more than the common reader thought was there – a bit more, perhaps, than Wordsworth’s ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

Further down Edmundson wrote, “The English major wants to use what he knows about language and what he's learning from books as a way to confront the hardest of questions. He uses these things to try to figure out how to live. His life is an open-ended work in progress, and it's never quite done, at least until he is. For to the English major, the questions of life are never closed. There's always another book to read; there's always another perspective to add.”   My most recent example of this is the American Civil War.  I believed it was the single-most formative event in U.S. history but I had never seriously studied it – until recently.  This was a “hard question” for me, that is, the war itself was extremely complicated.  One must study the major battles, read biographies of the important military and political figures, struggle through the important issues still being debated and then draw, or at least I drew only tentative conclusions.  But none of this pertained to how I lived my life.

Edmundson concludes with, “What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.” 

My stepfather, a truck driver, advised me to major in Engineering.  I rejected his “prudent advice” and majored in English.  Ironically I abandoned the course being urged upon me by college advisors, i.e., to get my PhD and teach, and instead became an engineer.  But would Edmundson say that my step-father was not a human being?  No one else in my family was an English Major or any other kind of a major – except one cousin who majored in nursing.  Were none of these human beings?   I don’t think Edmundson intends to be an elitist, but it is possibile to see a hint of that: the best thing one can achieve in college is to become an English Major.  Those who do not become English Majors let language speak through them and have only “one life to live.”  I’ve never watched the soap by that name but actors seem to be better examples of living other people’s lives.  Some actors devote major portions of their lives to being someone else.  I think of David Suchet being Hercule Poirot for example.  Did Suchet consider it a waste of time to spend so many years being Poirot?  I don’t have that impression.  He seems to have been happy doing being him. 

I wonder if Tom Selleck is happy being Jesse Stone.  Stone suffers from depression but manages to solve crimes in spite of it, but perhaps Selleck finds it appropriate to end his acting career on this depressed note.  Perhaps he realizes that acting, becoming another person, isn’t a very admirable thing to be.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Mark Edmundson's The ideal English Major

After I got back from Korea I was stationed for a while at 29 Palms.  Back in those days they didn’t have air conditioning, only things called “Swamp Coolers.”  In the shade outside my hut one day I looked at a thermometer that read 137 degrees.   I decided not to stay in the Marine Corps and began checking books out of the base library, “classics.”  I decided I wanted a “classical education” or something as close to it as I could get either by reading or by actually attending college.

Because I fired expert I was invited to become a rifle instructor at Camp Pendleton; which was a much better situation than anything at 29 Palms, but in the end decided to get out of the Marine Corps and go to college.  And there I encountered something discussed in Edmondson’s article.  I was interested in History and Philosophy as well as English literature and poetry, but in the end majored in English as the closest I could come to obtaining a “Classical Education.”  I didn’t intend to be passive about it but to select electives that would foster my goal.  I wasn’t so much enamored of the teaching as I was the reading list I was building, books I would read after I graduated to further my education.  A few professors impressed me, but many did not.

A Classical Education two or three hundred years ago was supposed to equip a person to engage in any endeavor he desired. I believed that and demonstrated it by learning Engineering – not my first choice, but the best job available at the time I graduated. 

As time went on I heard from recent college graduates who came to work at Douglas and McDonnell Douglas, and read in articles & books especially The Closing of the American Mind that an English Major no longer enabled a student to think for himself.  Instead the student was indoctrinated with Leftist ideals.  But here in this article is Mark Edmundson presenting the English Major as what it was back when I was in school – as a major finer than anything in modern education.

Who is this Mark Edmundson?  He teaches in Virginia, the state from which most of the best Civil War generals came, and the state that fired Edgar Rice Burroughs to send a Virginia Cavalry Officer by the name of John Carter to Mars in his “Barsoom” series of novels.  I checked the internet and several scholars have disagreed with Edmundson for denigrating modern poetry. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kirk Tuck on the bubble bursting on DSLR and Mirrorless sales

The above is an excellent article by Kirk Tuck discussing the possible reasons camera sales (at least of DSLRs & Mirrorless cameras) have fallen off in the recent past. In truth I came to some of his conclusions in the past. What we have had for a long time has been “good enough.” The DSLR (and the Mirrorless design isn’t that different) is a mature system and all the manufacturers are producing DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras that are “good enough.” I recently engaged in a debate on a Pentax forum where a few were arguing that the Pentax K-5 was put to shame by the K-5ii and K-5iiS. Those making this argument had recently purchased a K-5ii or K5iiS, and I suspect they were presenting us with their rationalizations for their recent purchases.

I am something of a gear-head when it comes to photography I will admit. I’ve had a long-standing interest in it which began with my grandfather, Troy Matthews, who made a living developing film for photographers back in the 1920s & 1930s. I inherited his darkroom equipment after he died and learned how to use it. Years later I bought an Olympus Rangefinder that I took on hikes, managing to take better photos than a friend who had a Minolta SLR – as evidenced by the slide shows we held of hikes we went on. He would apologize for having set something wrong on his complicated camera followed by my shots of the same scenes nicely composed.

When I finally entered the DSLR world I started with Olympus, finding several cameras I was delighted in. The E-1 and E-500 produced shots with excellent and almost unique color. The E-420 produced very good quality photos; also it was very light weight and a nice DSLR to take along on a hike when weight was a consideration. I decided that I was always going to be happy with these three cameras regardless of “improvements” and “innovations” of the future & so bought backups in case I damaged one of them.

But I did read the reviews of new cameras and decided I would purchase a couple of them if the prices ever dropped low enough. The last camera I purchased in the Olympus line was the E-3, the replacement of the “pro” E-1. The E-3 had almost twice as many pixels, but that technical achievement seemed to be at the expense of artistic soul. I like the “build” of the E-3, but nothing I experienced in using it made me want to get rid of my E-1s. I still appreciated them. I would say the same thing about my E-500s and E-420s.

Olympus’ interest in the 4/3 DSLR waned after they came out with their much more successful mini-4/3 line. Olympus “fanboys” are hoping for something else, perhaps an E-7 or an E-50, but it is possible that Olympus will give it up and stop with the E-5 which still sells for very near its introductory price.

Since I am interested in taking photos on hikes, I couldn’t help but notice that Pentax had created a line that seemed more suitable for hikes than any recent DSLR Olympus made. I bought a refurbished Pentax K-20d and a few Pentax lenses to get my feet wet. I liked it quite a lot but couldn’t bring myself to buy another as backup. Instead I bought a K-7 new when the price dropped after the introduction of the K-5. Then later, after the introduction of the K-5ii and K-5iis I bought a new K-5 at a very good price.

Am I done purchasing cameras as Kirk Tuck suggests many DSLR owners are, not necessarily? If Pentax comes out with a K-3 and the price of the K-5ii gets low enough I may purchase one as backup for my K-5.

Kirk Tuck would see if he read this note that I am not the typical gear-head. I have no interest in buying the newest and latest. I agree with him that many DSLRs are “good enough,” but having said that, I want to make sure that I don’t run out of these “good enough” cameras. But perhaps I too am slowing down in my purchases of older but still “good enough” cameras. I am more interested at the present time in accumulating a few more lenses.

A great number of people commented on Tuck’s article, many of them pessimistic about the future of digital photography. I wonder if these pessimists aren’t for the most part gear-heads without finely developed artistic senses. There were a few comments by those who from the sound of their writings had “good eyes.” They weren’t pessimistic and I suspect were getting good results from their old but “good enough” cameras. I’d like to think I’m in this category. Even though I was employed as an engineer my education was largely in the arts – primarily poetry and literature, but I developed an interest in the great painters. I can’t paint myself, but I learned to appreciate those who could – up to a chronological point. I never managed to appreciate art or music after it became “modern,” i.e., bizarre and atonal. I appreciated art by painters who if they lived in these modern times might have appreciated what could be achieved with a well-constructed DSLR. In fact I wonder if such painters would have taken up their art if they could purchase a new K-5 for under $750. Tuck worries about the DSLR and Mirrorless bubbles having, perhaps, burst, but what about the “painting bubble.” I don’t have any statistics, but I’d be surprised if it hadn’t burst as well, and perhaps long ago in the days of the SLR.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ian Morris, Niall Ferguson, and Victor Davis Hanson

For me Morris is a perfect example of how a reader "brings something to the text." My past reading doesn't support the conclusions Morris implies that he will draw. I took early offense at him for entering into the Political Science realm without acknowledging the two Political Scientists who have been the most innovative and provocative. On the other hand, I've read Niall Ferguson and not taken offense at him for what sounds a bit like part of Morris' argument. Ferguson may be closer to Morris than to the political scientists, and perhaps Morris's beginning with a counterfactual is homage to Ferguson.

Ferguson is an Imperialist who thinks there needs to be a world ruler on the order of what the British were during the 19th century. Morris may be attempting to mine his archeological background with the intention of relating it to the British-sort of imperialism. I recall being unhappy with Ferguson for assuming that the U.S. ought to seek to be imperialistic in the 19th-century-British sense. That he thought the U.S. might be persuaded by his arguments indicated to me that he never entered into the American way(s) of life as much as he claimed to. One of those ways is Isolationism and I referenced Krauthammer referring to its resurgence. I'm not a Ron Paul Isolationist, but I don't agree with Krauthammer that the world will descend into chaos if we have four or eight years of an Isolationist-president's administration. After all, both Wilson and F.D. Roosevelt won their elections by accommodating Isolationist positions.

Perhaps, if I am getting closer to Morris's position in my speculation I need to add Victor Davis Hanson to the mix. He might embrace many of the arguments of Morris and Ferguson but argue that there is no non-Western military force that is ever going to defeat the military forces of the West. He qualifies that position with a lot of caveats. He doesn't mean the defeat at Little Big Horn or Pearl Harbor except in the sense that they were milestones causing the U.S. to take these enemies more seriously. Once that happened Western victory was assured -- if not immediate. I haven't read Hanson recently but I doubt that he sees any Eastern force being able to "rule" over the West in the sense he has argued the West has ruled over the world.

I was once in a debate of long duration with an expert on the Red Army who described it as unconquerable and the best army in the world. I think this guy was correct in a sense, the same sense that the Chinese army is unconquerable. No foreign nation is going to be able to invade and conquer either of these nations in the foreseeable future. However, this isn't what Morris, Ferguson or Hanson had in mind by "rule." Britain and now the U.S. have been able to project their military might long distances in order to conquer or intimidate nations in order to accomplish political goals. Neither Russia nor China presently have that capability. They can exert influence against or in support of bordering nations but they can't move a huge military force half way around the world. And we apparently have political forces rising up in the U.S. saying we don't want to do that anymore; which might result in a benign interpretation of Morris's title "Why the West Rules -- for now."

Krauthammer may agree with Ian Morris

I got off to a rocky start reading Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules – For Now.  I have in the past argued that the only two plausible paradigms for the future were described in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.  Morris who seems to know nothing of either book takes a different, and perhaps trivial, position.  I haven’t read very far in his book but far enough to know that he means something by “rules” and it isn’t what Fukuyama and Huntington mean.

On the other hand, perhaps I am trying to make more of what Morris is saying than he intends.  Perhaps he has no interest in a paradigm for the future but is merely looking at the realpolitik of what exists now and how it might change in the not-too-distant future, and perhaps he means what Krauthammer means.  In this morning’s The Press Enterprise is an article by Charles Krauthammer entitled “’Republican crackup’ doesn’t quit hew to media script.”  In it he describes the “natural tension” that has resurfaced between isolationists and internationalists.  He writes “The Paulites, pining for the splendid isolation of the 19th century, want to leave the world alone on the assumption that it will then leave us alone.

“Which rests on the further assumption that international stability – open sea lanes, free commerce, relative tranquility – comes naturally, like the air we breathe.  If only that were true.  Unfortunately, stability is not a matter of grace.   It comes about only by Great Power exertion.  In the 19th century, that meant the British navy, behind whose protection America thrived.  Today, world order is maintained by American power and American will.  Take that away and you don’t get tranquility.  You get chaos.”

Krauthammer, and I suspect Morris, probably disagree with both Fukuyama and Huntington.  Fukuyama on these matters would perhaps argue along the lines of, “no you don’t get chaos if American power is withdrawn because the economic interests of each nation will prevail.  It is in each nation’s interest to reach agreements with its trading partners.  Wars inhibit these agreements.  Ultimately all nations will realize this.  We are undergoing a lot of trial and error, but “the end of history” in which all nations are Liberal and Democratic is inevitable.”

Huntington would, perhaps, say that since each Civilization has a “Core Nation,” a nation that steps in when member nations get into trouble, it isn’t necessary that the world itself has a “core nation,” but if it does that any particular “core nation” is required. The various “core nations” will make sure that the world doesn’t degenerate into chaos. 

At present the U.S. is the “core nation” for Western Civilization.  China is the “core nation” for the Sinic Civilization.  If Iran, for example, closed the Straits of Hormuz and the U.S. had an Isolationist President, China would have to step in to open those straits up.  In this case we would see that if the U.S. wasn’t willing to counter Iran’s “chaos producing” act, China or some other core nation would probably do it.  But we also see that the core nations are largely in agreement as to what has to occur.  Krauthammer’s assessment that the world will descend into chaos if the U.S. abandons its role as “world policeman” doesn’t work well with Huntington’s more-carefully-thought-out paradigm.

Ian Morris is a Professor in Classics and History at Stanford University.  Samuel P. Huntington (died in 2008) was, and Francis Fukuyama is a Political Scientist.  I am probably treating Morris unfairly at this point and should have read further before saying anything about his book.  After all the subtitle of his book is “The Patterns of History, and what they reveal about the future.”  If only his main title hadn’t been Why the West Rules – for Now.