Archive for May, 2010

28
May
10

Toy Wars

I’m reading this book called Toy Wars and it’s all about the toy industry up until the late 90’s basically covering Hasbro and Mattel.

The book is actually very interesting in many ways.

Here’s one great quote. Hasbro just paid like 300 million to buy Milton Bradley, but the pride of MB’s president is a little wounded so he prefers to speak of the two companies merging rather than Hasbro buying them.

In response to this the main financial officer of Hasbro apparently says, “You pay three hundred and sixty million, you didn’t merge,  baby. I bought you.”

Bam! He even uses the “baby” in there.

28
May
10

The Soul of New Machine

I recently finished a book by Tracy Kidder titled The Soul of a New Machine, which is a book about a team of engineers working in the early 80s to build a new personal computer.

The book is kind of interesting…kind of. Kidder basically joins this team and follows them through the roughly 2 year development time while slowly introducing the reader to the various members of the design group all the way from the managers down to the barely graduated tech geniuses working day to day in the lab.

The book does a good job breaking down stereotypes. All these guys (and just one girl) are computer people, but they aren’t dorks. They have all sorts of quirks, talents, and aspirations. Still, for some reason I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters that much, even after following them around their lab for so long. Also, a lot of the technical work is just straight up boring. Most of the middle of the book is spent with these people just huddling around these computers testing for errors (debugging).

The more interesting parts of the book are the one’s that describe the relentless work cycle of these men. Many worked for very little pay simply because they wanted the pride of having designed a complete computer. In many ways, the book nicely contrasts the supposedly rampant capitalism of the computer class with what in reality is a dedication to craftsmanship and the challenge of puzzles.

Lastly, there is a story about management. In fact, I think certain sections of this book would make a great business school textbook. The leader of the team, Tom West, is a master of influencing people and drawing out the best in them via various displays of anger matched with subtle displays of solidarity and concern. The book basically credits the eventual success of the computer to his superb management style.

27
May
10

Glass Tiger

I’ve recently come across this Canadian band called Glass Tiger. They were apparently a huge success in Canada, and I kind of like some of there songs, but I can’t quite come all the way to endorse most of them. In my mind, they are a Canadian version of Toto, and so therefore, a worse version.

I basically just hear “Mushanga” when they play “Diamond Sun.” (except Mushanga is better)

And when they play their hit “Don’t forget me (when I’m gone)” I just hear “Pamela” or “Can’t Stop Loving you.”

Also, many of their slower songs are just slightly worse attempts at duplicating “I’ll be over you.”

Toto is awesome.

27
May
10

Just and Unjust Wars

I just finished Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. This is an incredibly famous book about war that goes through various doctrines, conflicts, and strategies and tries to see where the limits of just conduct fall in war.

I have to confess, I didn’t like this book that much. It’s very influential, but I found the style very rhetorical and in the end very hard to see what the overall argument was supposed to be. For example, there are four sections labeled “the nature of necessity” and they are supposed to be different but somehow unified. I don’t see the overarching theme.

In some sense, the book is comforting because it goes through various historical examples and always comes down on the side of common sense. Strategic bombing against Germany = wrong after 1942, demanding the unconditional surrender of Germany = right. Combatants are allowed to kill, but only other combatants, and only if the killing serves a military purpose.

Still though, I think one of the enduring difficulties faced by this book is in terms of the status of combatants. This is not an original criticism of mine, but the argument is simply that initiating a just war and conducting a war justly are supposed to be different, but they seem to collapse to each other at points. For example, Walzer says that soldiers are not responsible for being in a war and so are permitted to fight and kill other soldiers even if their side is the aggressor. Once the war has been initiated, soldiers have so little political power that they are excused from making decisions about the actual  righteousness of the war. Still, I wonder about even the factual accuracy about this. What about a volunteer army or, if conscription is in effect, then what about the people who enthusiastically joined up? Also, the nature of soldiers throws up other puzzles. If soldiers don’t have a choice about being thrown into ‘the hell’ of war (I’m using quotes here not because I deny that war is hell — it is, but rather to indicate that this is Walzer’s term), then why can they kill each other. It’s not like the guy shooting at him actually wants his death, he has no choice. Also, why is it that soldiers are morally responsible to act justly in war (observing geneva conventions etc.) but have no responsibility about which wars to fight in. Walzer says that political decisions are made at higher levels, but orders in the field are given from higher authorities as well, and the punishment can be summary execution as Walzer notes. So, if soldiers have to resist unjust commands, why don’t they have to resist fighting in unjust wars. Walzer has responses to these objections and they turn on the status of soldiers, but it seems that this status will have to be a very brute kind, because according to him, soldiers had no choice but to fight. How could there be special moral duties and burdens that come with a role one was forced to accept?

Anyway, the thing worth praising about this book is it’s case studies. For most of his points, he has examples from war that are just incredible in their detail and poignancy. He talks about an officer who recorded in his war diary about how he went building to building fighting in basements. Before throwing in grenades, he would yell into the basement in an effort to save civilians, even though doing so might alert german defenders to direct machine gun fire up at him and his troops. There are other discussions about tactical issues in WWII that I just didn’t know about, like the allies violation of Norwegian neutrality out of desperation to halt the flow of German iron ore from Sweden, and Bradley’s decision to carpet bomb the area around Lo. There are also a lot of illustrations of Nazis who resisted the war in various way or refused to carry out criminal orders, Rommel being one of these people (also the Afrika Korps was never charged with war crimes), which increased my respect for the desert fox by a huge amount.

25
May
10

Immoral threats?

Michael Walzer,  in Just and Unjust Wars, argues that nuclear deterrence is immoral because of the stance that it takes toward other people. He seems to concur with Paul Ramsey who says “whatever is wrong to do is wrong to threaten” (Walzer later appears to maybe hedge on this commitment though, the writing is not aimed at being argumentatively precise in that way). More specifically, nuclear deterrence is immoral because it requires that we take a stance of obliteration toward a large group of civilians.

I wrote a long post, but then deleted it, because I think it got confusing. The reason I disagree with this argument is pretty simple.

Threats are often wrong, and that is because they try to influence behavior in impermissible ways. If I threaten to kill you if you go outside tomorrow, I have acted wrongly even if I don’t intend to carry it out because I’ve scared you and possibly prevented you from leaving your house.

But Walzer thinks that threats are wrong because they involve a commitment to doing wrong, and I think he’s right that being committed to doing evil is evil. Imagine the murderer who schemes to get at his victim; his commitment to murder is wrong, even if he never carries out the deed.

Still though, the difference between deterrence and the murderer example is clear. The murderer commits to killing someone because he wants the other person to be dead. But in deterrence we commit to launching a nuclear response, not because we want civilians to die, but because we don’t want the other country to ever attack in the first place. The murderer commits to murder for its own sake, but deterrence commits a country to killing only as a means to avert war. Nothing would satisfy the murderer except his victim’s death, but our threats of nuclear reprisal would disappear if we could guarantee in some other way, that other countries would not attack (this is the idea behind the heavily debated “no first use” pledge that some nations have made.). Threats from these nations are clearly justified because, as I’ve argued, they are merely means of trying to achieve peace or at least detente. They have committed not to shoot first.)

24
May
10

Update, Texas Curriculum

Here I wrote about the changes that were being made to the curriculum guidelines for Texas public schools. The article I linked too was written by a friend of mine, and he informs me that the controversy that I referenced in that post as well as the documents I used to support my points are out of date.

Anyway, I’m interested to see more about this, but suffice to say, my luke-warm defense of these rules now no longer stands since I haven’t seen what the latest changes actually are.

24
May
10

Texas social science curriculum

A lot of my allegiances and interests converge in this Washington Post article by a former classmate of mine, Michael Birnbaum. The article is about how Texas’ new curriculum rules emphasize certain (perhaps conservative) values over others.

Birnbaum has first rate journalistic talent and I’m inclined to trust his attempt to objectively report this story (is it possible to be objective when writing a story about bias?). Nonetheless, his article has been criticized for exaggerating the partisanship or unreasonability of these new  curriculum changes.

So, I dug into this controversy a little bit by reading the curriculum proposals that are referred to in the article directly above (the criticism of Birnbaum’s article). The truth is that this issue is complex.

On the one hand, one can see how the animating spirit behind these changes was conservative, and perhaps conservative in a biased way. Still, the fact that a bunch of conservatives wanted these changes in itself doesn’t seal the case against these revisions. Just reading through some of the curriculum, things seemed pretty boilerplate. I think there is a bias to the curriculum, but its subtle and not nearly as disturbing as I might have thought. For example, I think some of the sections on economics are actually the most biased, in that they basically celebrate the greatest successes of capitalism (especially the section about the importance and successes of small business owners). Still, I wonder how damaging this type of bias is given that I think any history of complex political issues will necessarily miss opportunities for debate and rely on examples of one type at the expense of others. Also, at some point, I think its counterproductive to think that kids are going to absorb these nuances in either direction. The goal of these types of education is very rudimentary, and the question, I think, is, does this curriculum, taken as a whole, constitute a fair attempt to relate important historical information to students? It seems hard to deny that it is a fair attempt given specific sections relating to minorities, class divisions, and other problems. It deals with communism in a fairly self-congratulatory way, but there are also sections about Vietnamization and the domino theory.

All told, the curriculum is vague and not historically ambitious, and I’m suspicious of any kind of curriculum specification, but perhaps they are necessary in an era when poor school policies make complete curriculum autonomy a scary option. As far as government regulation of thought goes, this seems to be pretty tame, and in fact, pretty fair-minded in many places.

I would really be interested to hear more about this though.