synthetic zero


March 31, 2003

Talking Points Memo caught my eye because he used to support the war (somewhat weakly), and now he has become quite critical of the way we've handled it. As many readers of this site may know by now, my chief objection to the Bush "strategy" has been not only that it is immoral but that it is incompetent. And, in fact, to me, the two are closely linked. To put it more bluntly, I think it is instructive to question the old saw: "nice guys finish last." The implication is that doing evil or unethical things is a way of getting ahead. This is a common assumption in Western culture, but I believe there is a fundamental flaw in this idea. While it is certainly true that criminals sometimes thrive, and rigid adherence to moral codes is rarely optimal, a more Buddhist or Zen view of this issue is that in general, over the long run, what we normally call unethical behavior turns out to be a losing strategy. The fact is, while some criminals thrive for a while, the vast majority end up badly --- statistics show that the majority of sociopaths end up in prison. It simply doesn't work as a strategy for living.

In Japanese, one of the most common insults is "bakatare!" --- which means, basically, "you are being an idiot!" (though with more force than that phrase connotes in English). The notion here is that bad behavior stems from a lack of skillfulness. In America, however, we're more likely to call someone something like an "asshole", etc. The Japanese think of people who behave badly as unskillful --- ethical behavior is a matter of skill; therefore, someone who is messing up is more likely to be thought of as stupid, ignorant, or mistaken than selfish or evil. Of course, unlike here, the Japanese notion of stupidity carries with it an implied insult: one is not doomed to stupidity, in the Japanese view, you can educate yourself. Therefore they feel that not only does everyone have the capability of waking up, but if they do not do so they are in some sense failing in their responsibilities. For example: ignorance is thought to be a sin in Buddhist thought.

Immoral behavior is, for me, in the long run, a losing strategy. It loses because it fails to take into account the fact that the world is not static: other people exist and they can and will react and respond to the things you're doing, and often not in the way that you planned. Thus, I am critical of our policy not because I think these Administration officials are evil geniuses who are out to establish a functioning world hegemony or something like that --- I am critical because I believe these folks are incompetent and arrogant people who are driving the country into the ground.

Talking Points Memo's most recent post:

More food for thought ...
What [the Iraqis have] got going for them is that our maladroitness politically and diplomatically has put us in a real bind. There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein is an unpopular guy in Iraq, but he's running against George Bush. If you're an Iraqi, you've gotta decide who you're going to vote for here.


I hate it when military plans are made with optimistic assumptions of that kind. I never made a plan that relied on the courage of my own troops. You hope that -- and they generally will -- fight bravely. Your plan ought to be predicated on more realistic assumptions.

And if we sent the 3rd Infantry up there naked, by themselves, because somebody assessed that they'd be throwing bouquets at us, that's the worst thing you could say about political leadership, is that they made optimistic assumptions about warfare.

Michael Moore? Dan Rather? Phil Donohue?

Nope. General Merrill A. McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force 1990-94, from an interview which appeared in the Thursday edition of the Oregonian.

-- Josh Marshall
Jack Snyder, the professor of international relations I mentioned earlier, sent me a draft copy of his article on his notion of the "myths of empire" which is to appear in the spring edition of The National Interest. Some quotes:
Like America, the great empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries enjoyed huge asymmetries of power relative to the societies at their periphery, yet they rightly feared disruptive attack from the unruly peoples along the turbulent frontier of empire.

....Typically, the preventive use of force was counterproductive for imperial security, since it often sparked endless brushfire wars at the edges of the empire, internal rebellions, and opposition from powers that were not yet conquered.

....many of the great powers have decided to solve their security dilemma through even bolder preventive offensives. None of these efforts have worked. Napoleon and Hitler marched to Moscow and were engulfed in Russian winter. Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany tried to break the allies' encirclement through unrestricted submarine warfare, which brought America's industrial might into the war against it. Imperial Japan, facing a quagmire in China and a U.S. oil embargo, tried to break the encirclement by seizing the Indonesian oil fields and preventively attacking Pearl Harbor. All sought security through expansion, and all ended in imperial collapse.

....The most general of the myths of empire is that the attacker has an inherent advantage...

Throughout history, strategists who have blundered into imperial overstretch have shared this view. For example, General Alfred von Schlieffen, the author of Germany's misbegotten plan for a quick, decisive offensive in France in 1914, used to say that "if one is too weak to attack the whole" of the other side's army, "one should attack a section." This idea defies elementary military common sense. In war, the weaker side normally remains on the defensive precisely because defending its home ground is typically easier than attacking the other side's strongholds.

....Indeed, deterring any country from attacking is almost always easier than compelling it to disarm, surrender territory, or change its regime. Once stated, this point seems utterly obvious, but the logic of the Bush strategy implies the opposite.

....In both World Wars I and II, for example, Germany's leaders sought war with Russia in the short run because they expected the Russian army to gain in relative strength over time. However, this tactic backfired. Preventive aggression not only turned a possible enemy into a certain one, but in the long run it also helped bring other powers into the fight to prevent Germany from gaining hegemony over all of them.

....Astute strategists learn to anticipate this and try to use it to their advantage. For example, one of the most successful diplomats in European history, Otto von Bismarck, achieved the unification of Germany by always putting the other side in the wrong, and whenever possible, maneuvering the opponent into attacking first. As a result, Prussia expanded its control over the German lands without provoking fears or resistance.

....Pressed by his generals on several occasions to authorize preventive attacks, Bismarck said that "preventive war is like committing suicide from fear of death;" it would "put the full weight of the imponderableson the side of the enemies we have attacked." Instead, he demanded patience: "I have often had to stand for long periods of time in the hunting blind and let myself be covered and stung by insects before the moment came to shoot." Germany fared less well under Bismarck's more reckless successors, who shared his ruthlessness but lacked his understanding of the balance of power.

....Empires also become overstretched when they view their enemies as paper tigers, fiercely threatening if appeased, but easily crumpled by a resolute attack. These images are often not only wrong, but self-contradictory. For example, the Japanese militarists saw the United States as so strong and insatiably aggressive that Japan would have to conquer a huge, self-sufficient empire in order to get the resources to defend itself; yet at the same time, the Japanese regime saw the U.S. as so vulnerable and irresolute that a sharp rap against Pearl Harbor would cause the U.S. to quit the fight.

....Another myth of empire is that states tend to jump on the bandwagon with threatening or forceful powers. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union thought that forceful action in Berlin, Cuba, and the developing world would demonstrate its political and military strength, encourage so-called progressive forces to ally actively with the Soviets, and thereby shift the balance of forces still further in the favor of the Communist bloc. The Soviets called this the "correlation of forces" theory. In fact, the balance of power effect far outweighed and erased the bandwagon effect.

....Now, the current Bush Administration hopes that bandwagon dynamics can be made to work in its own favor. Despite the difficulties that the United States had in lining up support for an invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration nonetheless asserts that its strategy of preventive war will lead others to jump on the U.S. bandwagon. Rumsfeld has said that "if our leaders do the right thing, others will follow and support our just cause-just as they have in the global war against terror."

My final comment of the day is this: despite all this, the Iraqi people have been oppressed by Saddam Hussein, and I have no doubt many if not most of them hate and fear their leader. Precisely why any effort we make to try to free them of such oppression ought to have been handled far more proficiently than we have. We owed them a much better deal than we are giving them, not to mention the fact that we owed ourselves a much better deal as well.

March 30, 2003

"Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around" --- don't get trapped by the mistake of honoring sunk costs.

Not the enemy we war-gamed against?

Finally, [commander of the simulated enemy force, General] Van Riper quit the game in protest, so as not to be associated with what would be misleading results. As he explained in his e-mail, "You don't come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out." He added, somewhat ominously in retrospect, "My main concern was we'd see future forces trying to use these things when they've never been properly grounded in any sort of an experiment."
Sounds like a story straight out of Dilbert. Except this one has very unfunny consequences. I've slowly come to the conclusion that what we're witnessing now is just like any typically badly-managed company; managers pushing through their pet ideas despite the mass of evidence and argument against it.

March 27, 2003

More dancing in the streets (from the LA Times):

What is eminently clear, however, is the anger and sense of injustice that Kamal and other Iraqis are expressing. "We hate Americans and aren't afraid of the coalition army," he said. "Why are they killing us? We have no weapons. Come at night and see for yourself."

Went to a series of talks on the war at Columbia last night, at the invitation of Natalie. Heard many good speakers; one was an Arab history professor who was quite funny, and one thing he pointed out was the many lapses in reason evident in pro-war thinking. For one: the assumption that because Iraqis hate Saddam Hussein, they would automatically love Bush. In fact, however, as he pointed out, it is quite possible to hate two people at once. In this case, he believes that Bush has handled this situation so badly that as much as the average Iraqi might hate Saddam Hussein, they prefer him to Bush.

One of my favorite speakers was Jack Snyder, professor of international relations. He made some excellent points regarding the many myths that have driven the politics of previous empires which have led to their overextension and defeat. Some of these include: the notion that the best defense is a good offense --- despite the fact that defenders are typically assumed to have a 3 to 1 advantage over attackers (he gave as an example the policy of Germany during the first world war); the notion that one's enemy is a paper tiger (the best example was the Japanese who believed the United States would fold after an impressive show of military might --- their version of "shock and awe"); the notion that as you gain territory, there will be a "bandwagon effect" in which allies will come to your side after you display your military prowess (yet, the more territory that Nazi Germany and Japan gained, the more determined the alliances became to resist them). He pointed out the contradiction here: Iraq is somehow a threat that is so terrible that they must be dealt with immediately, yet they are also so lacking in fortitude that they will be unable to fight even if you bring the war to their own doorstep. The problem with this war is not only that it is immoral --- it is that it is based on fundamentally flawed strategic thinking. Military success in the long run only comes when one is reluctant to fight.

March 24, 2003

My mother sent me this link: Arthur Schlesinger makes many good points.

...the strategic doctrine of containment and deterrence that led us to peaceful victory during the Cold War has been replaced by the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. The president has adopted a policy of "anticipatory self-defense" that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infamy. The global wave of sympathy that engulfed the United States after 9/11 has given way to a global wave of hatred of American arrogance and militarism. Public opinion polls in friendly countries regard George W. Bush as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein. Demonstrations around the planet, instead of denouncing the vicious rule of the Iraqi president, assail the United States on a daily basis.

....The Bush Doctrine converts us into the world's judge, jury and executioner -- a self-appointed status that, however benign our motives, is bound to corrupt our leadership. As John Quincy Adams warned on July 4, 1821, the fundamental maxims of our policy "would insensibly change from liberty to force ... [America] might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."

....America as the world's self-appointed judge, jury and executioner? "We must face the fact," President John F. Kennedy once said, "that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient -- that we are only 6% of the world's population -- that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94% of mankind -- that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity -- and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."

Coincidentally, my father (who was born in Japan, I might add) was making exactly this point a couple of days ago: what the United States is doing reminds him eerily of what the Japanese tried to do in the 1930's, up to and including the justification of preemptive self-defense.

Dirty urban fighting has already begun. It isn't exactly the dancing in the streets that the neocons and neohawks were predicting, now is it?

By deciding to pursue their enemy into the city center, the Americans appeared to have enraged many of the Iraqi civilians who live there, including those who said they were predisposed to support the American effort.

One of those, Mustafa Mohammed Ali, a medical assistant at the Saddam Hospital, said he had spent much of the day hauling dead and wounded civilians out of buildings that had been bombed by the Americans. Mr. Ali that said he had no love for the Iraqi president but that the American's failure to discriminate between enemy fighters and Iraqi civilians had turned him decisively against the American invasion.

"I saw how the Americans bombed our civilians with my own eyes," Mr. Mustafa said, and he held up a bloodied sleeve to show how he had dragged them into the ambulances.

The new space:


One side of the loft (about half of it)

My father helping with construction of a small bedroom

Light in loft


March 24, 2003

What the Bush Administration failed to account for in this war is the fact that an attack that is perceived even by our allies as unjustified will be perceived even more so by the Iraqi people themselves. Even if an Iraqi does not support Saddam Hussein, going in as we have done, in the way we have done, without international legitimacy, while constantly shifting and changing our pretext for war, can only inspire him to fight against an invading force. It is not just a political mistake to appear arrogant and warmongering; it is a military liability.

March 23, 2003

Moving into a new loft space in Mott Haven in the South Bronx. It's actually a very pleasant neighborhood. People seem surprised when I walk into a restaurant and order chicken mole or something, however, because I'm Asian-American. They don't expect that. But I love it.

I haven't written much about the war because I feel somewhat fatalistic about it. It's too late to extricate ourselves from the consequences of our actions now. Perhaps in the future we can act, but at the moment the seeds have been sown. We shall reap them, unfortunately, in due course.

March 21, 2003

Even if the war is over quickly, as always seemed likely, it is the peace that we have to win. If we wage the peace as ineptly as we waged the diplomacy leading up to this war, it does not bode well for us.

March 20, 2003

The start of the war leaves me without words. The catastrophe has begun --- we've only to watch it happen, like a slow motion picture of a building demolition. The building, of course, being us.

March 19, 2003

The death of Evergreen State senior Rachel Corrie under an Israeli bulldozer truly moves me to tears.

March 15, 2003

When you honestly believe you have seen something that should merit the attention of others, something which might be a danger or a problem, you have the right to speak out. Not only this, but I believe it is, in fact, a duty.

March 14, 2003

More "reluctant hawk" idiocy. What's truly bizarre about that article are quotes like these: "they express impatience with what they see as a lack of nuance among the antiwar protesters" and "'It's because Saddam is really a fascist regime,' Mr. Walzer said. 'I think there are a lot of people in my position who want to do something about that. And they wish the marchers were marching for that, as well.'" Er, wha? Not a soul among the many friends of mine who marched against this war thinks Saddam is anything other than a fascist petty dictator, brutal to his own people and a menace to his neighbors. The "lack of nuance" imputed by these so-called reluctant hawks is not a quality of those actually against the war: it is just in the imaginations of those in favor of this war. Who in the world is actually pro-Saddam? Who would be upset if that fascist were deposed? Not myself nor any of the people I know who are against this war as it has been developing. The problem with this war is the way we have gone about fighting it --- Bush Jr. is probably the worst poker player I have ever seen. It takes true ineptitude to make people be more afraid of what you're going to do than what somebody like Saddam Hussein might do --- yet Bush Jr. and his team of chickenhawks have managed this seemingly impossible feat. And we, the American people and the American nation, will have to pay for it. War is not a video game. That's something that the last several wars have caused us to forget.

March 13 (b), 2003

Some crazy, fucked up shit (pardon my French --- er, I mean pardon my freedom):

Earlier this week, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, ordered that House restaurants change their menus to read "freedom fries" instead of French fries. French toast would also become freedom toast.

Has the whole world gone insane? At the very least it has gone inane.

March 13, 2003

I am angry at the way my country has been hijacked by people who do not understand that the strongest nations on earth will always be those that exercise extreme restraint when it comes to use of force, even while remaining willing to use it truly as a last resort. This is not just a coincidence: strength and restraint go hand in hand, it's always been that way. Military success requires calm deliberation. If you're not willing to die before you go to war, then you have no business on the battlefield.

Every war I have ever supported I would have been willing to die fighting for.

This war, if it is fought in the way it appears likely it will be, is the beginning of the ruination of the America that we once knew. It is a terrible tragedy.

By the way. If you hear about a big terrorist attack and you don't see any posts from me about it for a while, it means I am dead. I am going to try to get out of Manhattan for a while when/if the war begins, to avoid any attacks, but who knows. It seems quite likely there will be some attack attempts when the war begins.

It's not that I'm actually that worried about my own death --- I just hate the idea of leaving without saying goodbye.

March 12, 2003

My meditation teacher, Steven Tainer, is fond of saying that it's consistency when it comes to practice more than quantity. So he would say that we should try to meditate for at least 2 seconds a day. Even if you just did 2 seconds a day, it would be helpful. I actually do this, literally --- some days when I haven't had a chance to practice seriously, I still stop for at least 2 seconds. Sometimes it literally is just a few seconds.

It makes all the difference in the world.

So there's gradual process on the one hand, and on the other hand there is a timeless reality that takes literally no time to be grounded in. We're already there, before we even start. So: 2 seconds, 2 hours --- if you really pay attention, you're there before even the 2 seconds. But 2 seconds is still useful as a reminder, because it is break in the apparent continuity of our ordinary process. Stop for a second and you can see there is a stopping that doesn't take any process at all.

March 9, 2003

Okay, I will admit that I do have a "type" --- and that type is... nerd babe. It's hard to describe what this means, exactly, but it's something along the lines of: beautiful, smart woman with hidden depths, intellectual in an artistic or poetic way (with a dash or more of technical intelligence), strong but feminine and elegant in an understated, down-to-earth, unpretentious fashion. Or something like that, I can't really explain it perfectly. Good examples in terms of film actresses might be Anna Paquin or Mira Sorvino. Though real-life women are always much more interesting than abstract film personalities.

March 6, 2003

People often try to change their situation through sudden, drastic moves --- if they're overweight, they get on a strict diet. If they're behind in their work, they try to catch up all at once (or they imagine that this is what they need to do). If their room is messy, they think they have to clean it all up in one day. If they're in debt, they imagine that they ought to get rid of it all at once.

I think this is completely wrongheaded. A friend once said that she used to be really overweight. One day she just decided, that was it, she wasn't going to be overweight anymore. She didn't go on a diet, she just changed her internal conception of herself. Gradually, over time, she just shed those pounds until she reached her new conception of herself, and then she just stayed there. At no point did she make any huge shifts in her habits --- no heroic exercise regimen, no starving herself. That actually worked for her and still does work for her.

If you want to make a big change in your life, don't think of it as a change in your life. If you try to do it all at once, you're liable to exhaust yourself. What ought to change suddenly is the direction you're going --- not the place where you are.

March 5, 2003

Really frightening... The Bush Administration is sending out hints that they may be willing to let North Korea develop a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. In addition, their idea of a "defense" against this is ... yes, missile defense. What a crock... And, of course, they plan to put sanctions into place --- giving North Korea that much more incentive to sell their one cash crop, nuclear weapons and nuclear material, to terrorists. I am speechless.

This morning I had a dream that I was driving my car in LA and talking with this mechanic, who was giving me advice about the engine computer in Subaru Foresters. At some point I realized I was dreaming and it occurred to me that this mechanic doesn't know anything more about cars than I do. I mentioned this to him, and he sort of sat back and looked a bit at a loss. So I said, "hmm, maybe you have access to unconscious knowledge that I have, or even perhaps the collective unconscious? There may be resources out there that you have access to." I thought of a specific technical question where I had a vague idea of the answer but I wanted him to go out and find a specific answer. "Okay, go and find the answer to this question for me, okay? I'll wait here." We were driving on the freeway but since we were dreaming I figured he could do anything, and he opened the door and jumped out. He ran across the lanes of traffic and got to the grass on the side of the highway.

At first I thought I might as well just keep driving, since "space" doesn't mean anything in a dream, and he could "come back" and find me wherever I was. But then I decided just keep to the logic of the dream, so I pulled over to the shoulder and stopped the car. I looked across the freeway and I saw the guy standing there on the grass, not moving. I thought, "Why isn't he going out to find the answer to that question?" I gestured to him to come back, and he came over and got back in the car. I started to ask him a question ... but he turned to look at me and he had turned into this balding guy with darker skin. He started to speak in something that sounded like a South Asian language. "Hmm," I thought. "Identity permanance is hard to maintain in dreams." Then I woke up.

March 4, 2003

Feeling ill today.

If anyone has sent email to me in the last few days, a screwup on my new server may have eaten your email. Please re-send.

March 3, 2003

I tend to be attracted to dark, cynical people, even though I myself am a fairly upbeat person. But the other day I realized why I'm upbeat: it's not because I have a rosy picture of the world and of human nature --- it's precisely the opposite. It's because I know the world is a dangerous place filled with horrible things and events, dangers and disasters, but I accept that fact and in fact I can see in what sense it has to be that way. At the same time, I see a kind of terrible beauty in the complex interwoven world. I like dark, cynical people because their view of the world is actually closer to my own, except I am not as idealistic as they are.

To really be cynical you have to be idealistic: that is to say, you have to think that things ought to be different or better somehow. Of course I believe things can be different or better, but unlike my more cynical friends I understand that things are the way they are now, and it doesn't bother me. It's simply reality --- it is in some sense, neutral.

This is why I will never become a conservative when I "grow up." The idealism of youth is connected with naivete and innocence --- but to me, becoming conservative later is a symptom of the same thing. It's kind of amusing that some of the most intense conservatives today began as Communists or doctrinaire leftists in their youth --- these are just two variations of the same mistake, in my view. I, of course, have learned a lot as I've gotten older, I've made the mistakes of youth, misjudged threats and dangers --- but I've always believed very strongly that threats are there. I've simply gotten smarter about identifying specific threats: I haven't changed my general assessment that the world is a dangerous place.

So I am neither left-wing nor right-wing, because I feel both positions are based on an irrational reification of what ought to be thought of as contingent principles. That is to say, both "wings" encode principles which need to be applied to every situation, and the extent to which one focuses on one or the other only depends on which aspect of the problem you're considering. To the extent that my thinking agrees with the left, however, they are firm because the principles that many people think of as idealistic are, for me, merely pragmatic. I do not believe it is a good idea to be compassionate simply because compassion is an a priori ideal: it is because compassion is a natural evolutionarily-selected-for trait that arises because we are interconnected. Conservatism or libertarianism tends to discount the law of unintended consequences, and tends to assume that changes one makes to a system will not lead to counter-forces --- as though one can change one thing and expect everything else to remain the same, or to simply go as one intends it to go. The world is much more capricious than that --- things rarely work the way you expect them to. You've got to play the probability game carefully, because there are hidden connections that are much more dangerous than most people realize.

March 1 (b), 2003

This is how you know that San Francisco is not a big time city: The LAPD covered up theft of drug money, planting guns and drugs on suspects or people they "accidentally" shot, and even murder, and they managed to make the coverups stick for years (and who knows what else we haven't found out about). Now that's some world-class big city covering up. What happens in San Francisco? Three off-duty cops beat up two men after the cops try to steal a bag of leftovers, and the police chief cannot even manage to cover this up, leading to his indictment and the indictment of three of his top aides. What kind of police department are they running there in San Francisco, anyway?

March 1, 2003

For some reason, little piles of snow can survive for weeks and even months after temperatures have risen above freezing in Northeastern cities. This wouldn't be so bad except they can accumulate dirt and become these little mangy blackened ugly blobs along the sidewalks. It occurred to me that a lot of these blobs are small enough that a little human intervention could disperse them --- so I spent a few minutes kicking some of the globs on my block, dispersing some of them into the street and along the sidewalks. It was strangely satisfying, even if I appeared a little insane to some of the passersby.

Somehow the music video and film director Mark Romanek found my site (this right here) and wrote to me saying he liked the name. I kind of like this No Doubt video he made. I'm not sure how people find my site, but somehow they do. (I have a Google PageRank of 6, and that seems about right to me.)

Powerful letter of resignation by career diplomat John Brady Kiesling, addressed to Colin Powell (New York Times). (Also found here as well, no registration required):

The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.

....I urge you to listen to America's friends around the world. Even here in Greece, purported hotbed of European anti-Americanism, we have more and closer friends than the American newspaper reader can possibly imagine. Even when they complain about American arrogance, Greeks know that the world is a difficult and dangerous place, and they want a strong international system, with the U.S. and E.U. in close partnership. When our friends are afraid of us rather than for us, it is time to worry. And now they are afraid. Who will tell them convincingly that the United States is as it was, a beacon of liberty, security, and justice for the planet?