Thursday, September 13, 2007

What will Baby Assad do now?

Assad has his gonads in a vise. Syria admitted the IAF blew up something, and escaped unscathed. If he retaliates, he hand Israel the opportunity to do much more serious damage.
If he doesn't, he looks like a wimp to democracy reformers, fundamentalists, his military, his neighbors, anyone anti- Assad. How long can he hang on to power?
Here's the first rational explanation I've seen for why Israel seems so reluctant to act when provoked (like the last Qassam.) The status quo is not good, but it is better than the alternatives if the status quo is disturbed.
That Israel acted points out just how dangerous they considered the Syrian whatever-it-was facility.
Interesting times indeed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The next Chernobyl?

Disasters- real, potential or imaginary- hold a strange and morbid fascination, particularly when observed at a comfortable distance. Whether it is Katrina, the Christmas 2004 tsunami, or the Next Great California Quake, there is something in our response beyond horror or compassion. As the great Southern writer Walker Percy says in Lost in the Cosmos (fair use quote):
A fellow commuter tells you of the news bulletin..San Francisco has
suffered the long awaited major earthquake, casualties are estimated at 200,000.
Why is your fellow commuter so excited that even as he shakes his head
dolefully, his earphones come loose?....

Imagine you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet attack.
You are in a bunker in downtown Athens. A missile attack is under way. Half
a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next
will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches
the portico. Are you bored ? Can you see the Parthenon?

If real disasters are not big enough, potential ones -huge, world changing cataclysms- are the stuff of block buster movies. California's Big One pales in comparison to the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, flooding Miami, New Orleans, Venice and Bangla Desh.
But there are more likely catastrophes, with consequences just as grave.

China is in an unprecedented economic boom, with all the ingredients for a massive train wreck: manic growth, rampant corruption, a large and unskilled labor force, rapid technological change, and a political system with little transparency or responsiveness to its people. The recent toy and food scares are good examples of the problems that China faces; but the potential for massive infrastructure failure is the disater waiting to happen.

Besides poor maintenance, there are four chief causes of infrastructure failure: design errors due to inadequate skills; construction errors due to inadequate skills; shoddy design to meet a budget or schedule; and shoddy construction for the same reasons. Consider the enormous amount of current construction in China- dams, nuclear power plants, bridges, highways, stadiums, entire new cities being built from scratch. Given the corruption in Chinese government and business, the frenetic pace of construction, and the level of skills in a low wage workforce recently moved from the rural villages, how many of those four magic errors exist in the typical Chinese construction project?

The 1999 Izmit, Turkey earthquake killed 17,000 people; many casualties were caused by the collapse of new, poorly built high rise apartment towers. Past disasters in China have had death tolls unimaginable by Western standards: the Shaanxi quaake in 1556 killed 830,000. The 1976 Tangshan quake killed 255,000. The Banqiao dam failure in 1975 killed over 200,000.

It's been said that the Soviet Union collapsed because of Matthias Rust's plane flight to Red Square, the Afghan war, and Chernobyl. An economic recession in China would put severe strains on Chinese government and society. A disaster like Banqiao, Tangshan or Chernobyl, with the resulting economic and social effects, could bring upheaval. If Tian an Mien 1989 is an indicator, the breakup of the Chinese empire would be far more brutal than the Soviet collapse, and the impacts even more far reaching.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The comfortable dog

Rove, you magnificent bastard!

Karl Rove, wearing dark glasses and an obviously fake mustache, sits down next to Norman Hsu on the Zephyr and introduces himself. Hsu , who had looked very uncomfortable, becomes even more uneasy.
"Relax," says Rove. "I just want to talk. You'd be surprised how many people want to talk to you."
Hsu giggles nervously. "Actually I wouldn't be surprised at all."
"Yep, James Carville is camped out at Denver Airport with a couple of former linebackers from the Angola prison football team. He's being trailed by three goons from the Peoples' Liberation Army." Hsu looks paler.
Rove pulls out a cell phone. "As it happens, I have their numbers on speed dial. " He smiles and waits for a minute. Hsu isn't giggling.
"Or, you can talk to me and my friends here." He motions to a sinister man with short hair and a dark suit down the aisle, and his comapanion, an even more severe looking young woman.

"FBI, " Rove whispers. "And then, it's witness protection time, baby!"

Hsu gets up, walks down the aisle and sits between Rove's agents. "Be sure you tell them everything," Rove says, tapping his cell phone. He walks the opposite direction, whistling. "My work here is done."

The train speeds into a tunnel.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Wind in the Heights

America's best essayist has reposted a story from September 2001.

The Beautiful Sharpshooter

Or, more crudely, hot women with guns.
From Seraphic Secret, late last year.
"What happens when you guys have an argument?"
"She wins," the Sharpshooter's husband says with no humor whatsoever.

Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?

Syria claims to have shot at Israeli jets.
Cited all over the blogosphere today, and given varying degrees of credibility.
Charles Levinson thinks that whatever actually took place, both Israel and Syria are trying to downplay it and cool tensions.
The incident reminds me of Michael Oren's account of the Egyptian media in the 1967 war (from Six Days of War.) On the first day of the war, Cairo radio and newspapers reported the stunning success of Nasser's military. The Egyptian air force was bombing Tel Aviv as Egyptian tanks approached the city.
None of it was true. It wasn't just a matter of misinterpreting facts. It was simply made up. The IAF had destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground and the Israeli army was smashing through the Egyptian lines in the Sinai.
As the Russians used to say,
There is no truth in Pravda