Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Warchitect

Below was one of my anti-Iraq rants. It was a comment to a Belmont Club post that referenced a post on bridge design by Stephen Wolfram. Wretchard (the writer behind the Belmont Club) made the case that the US started with a bad plan. I went a little further:

Wolfram clearly does not understand which factors are important in determining the design of bridges. While structural loading is certainly the most important of many criteria, it is not necessarily explicitly expressed in the final design of a bridge. With more and more architects getting involved with bridge design, image and aesthetic qualities are the driving factors in the appearance of a bridge and the only way that randomness and complexity will enter into bridge design is if the architect wants them to. But whatever the desired image, the structural, economic, and construction time criteria (among many others) must all be met for a successful project. Norman Foster’s fiasco over the Thames with the Millennium Bridge is a prime example of what happens when the architect’s desire for image trumps the critical criteria of structural stability, cost, and schedule.

Now if the various criteria (especially cost) are getting out of control there is always a temptation for the architect – who wants to build his dream no matter what -- to lie (or downplay) these defeatist factors so that the client will at least start the process of construction and then once underway the client will be less likely to pull the plug when the real costs and time schedule become known. A wise client takes steps to avoid being placed in this situation by having independent consultants verifying the costs and designs presented by the architect.

This of course brings us to Iraq. Just like loading criteria can take a back seat when designing a bridge, it was not the actual military criteria (how to defeat an insurgency) that determined the conception of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) -- but there was most certainly a Plan for Iraq. The desired image for the project was of a decisive, dick-swinging American President who was going to create the required tableau rasa of all utopian dreams by sweeping away the house of cards that was Saddam’s Iraq and from its ashes to raise a monument to globalisation, free trade, and multi-national corporate profit and good old-fashioned American hegemony. And this edifice was going to be built whether the indigenous folks who found themselves living in Iraq liked it or not. And the UN, EU, and other impotent international organizations were going to eat dust in the process. (Please refer to Naomi Klein’s “Baghdad Year Zero” for details).

We all know for example that while a bridge to Hawaii might make a great design statement, it would however very likely pose some serious practical problems. In the same vein the dream of a corporate paradise in Iraq did present many serious military, budgetary, and time challenges. For instance since WW2 a great power occupying a foreign country has never defeated a nationalist inspired insurgency (only the British defeated a Marxist insurgency in Malaya). And even if the counter insurgency work was possible, history shows it takes an exorbitant amount of time and money.

But the architects of OIF were not stupid. They knew from past experience that although the demolition of the Saddam regime would be rather easy, the construction of their dream state would take much time and money. But they also knew their client would be loath to accept so expensive and long-term a project. And while there is no doubt the US military is good at demolition, how practised are their actual construction skills? So instead of telling the truth, the architects instead played the client for a fool and promised OIF would be cheap and easy – a cakewalk in fact. And the client -- the American people -- bought it hook line and sinker. And what about those consultants the client should have checking up on his architect? Well the media and opposition parties got either sucked in by the architect’s enthusiasm for his project or were scared by threats to their pampered status and in any case they totally failed to do their jobs of controlling the architects.

And guess what? Building the new Iraq is not so easy. It’s going to take more time. It is going to cost more money. And it is not going to be the neocon corporate paradise once imagined. And in fact it might never get built at all. But who’s to blame for all these delays and cost overruns? Well if you ask the architect and his supporter it’s all the American people’s fault of course. And maybe they are correct about this, after all in 2004 the American people were led to believe they had a chance to fire the architect and perhaps bring a much reduced project to a close but they didn’t. They believed the lies that the building of the new Iraq, as originally planned, would be completed soon.

The architects also blame with exaggerated venom the opposition party and media -- some of who have ever so slightly started to do their job in protecting their client’s interests. Most, however, are still failing – perhaps in order to cover up for their lack of any diligence in 2002-3. And perhaps the architects are right about this too; if these two groups of people had called out the lies in 2002-3 then we wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

And so what is a client to do now, almost four and a half years after construction has started with nothing to show for all the blood and tears except for more blood and tears? Give his architect one more chance? Perhaps we really are “turning the corner” and the project will soon be finished. Or is the project so important that it must be built no matter what the cost? The architect and his supporters sure think so but that is usually a decision left up to the client, the American people. And no one should be surprised that the many Americans are totally disgusted with all the lies and just want to cut their losses by firing the architect and walking away from the whole project. In the real world that’s how things work.

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Below is a comment (slightly edited) that I posted to the Belmont Club probably late in 2004. Those archives are lost but I found this comment searching for the word tenebrific! The discussion was about Global Warming. In order to provide a more mythical justification to rising up to meet this challenge, I employed a much more poetic approach than I would normally use. I always liked this comment and about six months

Ten thousand years ago, emerging from under his forest’s tenebrific canopy, newly civilized man, lying on his back to rest from the labour of his freshly ploughed fields, was at last face to face with his new rival; the startling immensity of the open sky. Tempests, droughts, and worst of all, lightning replaced the beasts and shadows of his former life amongst the trees. With the nature of his relationship to this pale blue antagonist hanging in the balance, man made a fateful choice. Whether directly or through appointed deities, with all the audacity he could muster our ancestor declared himself sovereign over the forces of nature.

How terrifying the annual ritual of the winter solstice must have been to our distant forbearers. Ever shortening days, the seemingly imminent victory of darkness -- the more mathematically inclined of them may have even calculated to the day the eventual total disappearance of the sun and mankind’s descent into perpetual night. The tales of their heroic efforts to stave off disaster are lost to us forever.

I am not qualified to comment on the science of the Global Warming. However the movement to face up to it -- I do understand. In taking on this challenge one sees what is most noble in man. Standing before a realm, he declares sovereignty; faced with a threat, he takes the initiative. Laugh as we may at our progeny as they overreacted to ward off the disappearance of the sun so many centuries ago; it is man’s choice to react to the challenges posed by nature, it is the beast’s fate to not.


I'm Back

I've been away from this blog for more than five years but now I am going to attempt to restart it.

During the past five years I have been busy raising our three young children while also being occupied with an exciting but stressful project at work. Now the children are in primary school and my work has settled into a more leisurely pattern (but still with the occasion outbursts of stress) so I have more time to devote to this blog.

During the past five years I have been busy posting comments at various blogs. This allowed my different forums to express my ideas while preserving the flexibility to fade away during times my workload exploded. I will try to collect and post some of my better comments from these blogs over the next several weeks.

During the past five years I have also spent a lot of time studying different subjects, particularly military strategy, history of all sorts, economics, general civilization theory, and most recently evolutionary psychology. These studies have proved invaluable in arming me with enough knowledge to develop concepts and express ideas about the world.


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