Military operations are, arguably, especially mistake-prone, because militaries aren’t like other organizations. A normal bureaucracy has a job, and it does that job all the time. Militaries, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time not really engaged in their main purpose: fighting wars.
Teles noted James Q. Wilson’s observation about the fundamental difference between a peacetime army and a wartime army. In peacetime, it’s easy to observe inputs but impossible to observe the output — which is to say, how ready your troops are to go out and kick some enemy butt on the battlefield. When you get into a war, this completely reverses. In the chaos of battle, it’s very difficult to know exactly what your people are doing. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to observe whether they killed the people they were supposed to kill and took the territory they were supposed to take.
That means that the people who advance in a peacetime army are, unfortunately, not necessarily the same people you want around when the shooting breaks out. Virtually every major war I can think of has had a few well publicized firings early on of senior people who had done very well in the peacetime army but turned out not to be ready to lead their men into a fight. The most famous of these is probably George McClellan, who led the Union Army early in the Civil War. He was everything you could want in a soldier — second in his class at West Point, author of several training manuals, beloved of his men and his fellow officers. There was just one thing he wasn’t good at: winning battles. He was passive in the face of Confederate advances, and he didn’t want to attack until he had absolutely overwhelming force, by which he seemed to mean a huge chunk of the adult male population of the Union. You can argue that this was out of totally admirable concern for his men, but it still let the Confederates push uncomfortably close to Washington.
Ulysses S. Grant, the man who ultimately led the Union forces to victory, was a middling student at West Point and eventually left the army because it didn’t pay him enough to support a family. When the Civil War started, Grant was working for a harness company and not really excelling at it, either. But in some ways, having failed in the peacetime army made him more successful in the wartime version: He was not afraid to take risks, because he’d already tasted failure.
Megan McArdle, “Why Militaries Mess up So Often”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-24
December 6, 2014
October 2, 2014
I’m on the road this week, giving talks on my new book about learning to fail better: that is, first, to give ourselves the permission to take on challenges where we might very well fail; second, to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out. This is, I argue, vital on a personal level, as well as vital for the economy, because that’s where innovation and growth come from.
The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself.
And this is what she asked me:
“I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”
I was floored. All I could think as I talked to this poor girl is “America, you’re doing it wrong.”
I was 15 in 10th grade. If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time? When you’re ready to splash out on an edgy assisted-living facility?
Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines. This is not the first time I’ve heard this from kids and teachers and parents. But I’ve never heard it phrased quite so starkly.
Megan McArdle, “Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail”, Bloomberg View, 2014-02-20.
October 1, 2014
German magazine Der Spiegel reports on the sad state of readiness in the German military:
Last week, a single person pushed Germany’s air force to the very limits of its capacities: Ursula von der Leyen, the country’s defense minister. Von der Leyen requested that two Transall military transport aircraft with missile defense systems be transferred to Amman, the Jordanian capital. The defense minister and a pool of reporters then flew for eight hours on Thursday morning in one of the aircraft to Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region. Back in Germany, the military had but a single additional Transall at its disposal.
After her arrival in Erbil, von der Leyen proceeded to the palace of the Kurdish regional government’s president. Her visit was to be concurrent with the delivery of German weapons, intended to aid the Kurds in their fight against Islamic State jihadists. Unfortunately, the machine guns and bazookas got stuck in Germany and the trainers in Bulgaria because of a dearth of available aircraft. One had been grounded because of a massive fuel leak. What could have been a shining moment for the minister instead turned into an embarrassing failure underscoring the miserable state of many of the Bundeswehr‘s most important weapons systems.
Against that backdrop and pressure from the international community, the ramshackle state of the Bundeswehr is no laughing matter in Berlin. At the moment, if Germany’s allies were to ask it to step up its participation in deployments in the Baltic states or Iraq, for example, Chancellor Merkel would likely have to politely pass, creating a highly embarrassing situation for the country. For the moment, though, most pressure related to the Bundeswehr‘s ailments has been directed at von der Leyen. Her critics argue that she has pursued a foreign and security policy vision that goes beyond the Bundeswehr‘s actual capabilities. Now she faces additional criticism that she tried to play down the military’s problems to members of parliament even though senior officials in her ministry were well aware of major shortcomings in the armed forces.
“Contrary to her own list of needed equipment, she created the impression in parliament that anything that could drive, fly or float was capable of full deployment,” said Rainer Arnold, the defense policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). “But we members of parliament will not be taken for idiots.”
The defense minister hasn’t exactly been blind-sided by the criticism either — she’s known about the problems since before entering office almost a year ago. On Friday, she summoned the heads of the German army, navy and air force as well as the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr to her office for five hours of questioning, much of it centering on events in parliament last Wednesday.
H/T to Mark Collins for the link.
September 18, 2014
Hans Bader on how Rush Limbaugh is a constant gift to his enemies … almost a Rob Ford of US political commentary:
Rush Limbaugh can take a winning issue for conservatives and turn it into a loser just by shooting his mouth off. He gives advocates of extreme left-wing policies ammunition for their views by making stupid arguments when smarter arguments exist, and by lacing his arguments with sexism or scurrilous remarks. He did it recently in response to my commentary about Ohio State University’s ridiculously overbroad and intrusive “sexual assault” definition — which seemingly requires students to agree on “why” they are having sex or making out, which is none of the university’s business. And he did it in 2012, when his scurrilous remarks about contraceptive advocate Sandra Fluke being a “slut” and a “prostitute” drove even moderate liberals to support a contraceptive mandate on religious employers that they had earlier opposed (and which the Supreme Court later ruled 5-to-4 violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)
But instead of focusing on that in his criticism of Ohio State’s policy, Limbaugh changed the subject to asking whether “no” really means “no,” saying “How many of you guys in your own experience with women have learned that no means yes, if you know how to spot it?” He then temporarily backed away from this remark by saying, “Let me tell you something, in this modern world, that’s simply…that’s not tolerated.” But then he returned to the inflammatory subject of “no” supposedly not meaning “no” by saying “It used to be that it was a cliché. It used to be part of the advice young boys were given.”
Liberal blogs like Think Progress, and newspaper blogs had a field day making fun of his comments questioning whether no means no, and using them to imply that the only reason anybody would ever oppose requiring “affirmative consent” is because they are a misogynistic troll like Limbaugh. In response, a columnist at a major midwestern newspaper endorsed the policy as supposedly being “smart” in light of the need to educate people like Limbaugh about consent. (Never mind that Limbaugh is not a college student, and it’s hard to imagine many college students sharing his ancient views.)
As a result, all of my efforts were undone, by a factor of ten. Overnight, a policy that seemed extreme even to liberals I discussed it with became embraced by many liberal commenters at these blogs, partly out of a desire to spite the hateful Limbaugh. It is being used to depict critics of the extreme policy as themselves being extreme.
August 30, 2014
I loved this:
Mansplaining trolled like never before. Man : "I bet u didn't play this game." Woman : "I wrote it." pic.twitter.com/HFXHLXdsTN
— Raj (@rajkashana) August 26, 2014
August 21, 2014
I’d heard lots of good things about the Target chain before they came north to Canada (James Lileks, for example, should be getting a regular cheque from the firm for his regular name-check of the local Target store in his writing). When a new Target store opened in Whitby, Elizabeth and I visited shortly after the doors opened. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. We expected to find a new, clean, fully stocked store with different brands and lower prices. What we found was a new, clean store with exactly the same stuff we’d seen before at pretty much the same prices. In other words, there was literally no reason to come back … and we haven’t been back.
Jason Kirby says that our experience was pretty much what everyone else experienced:
Target Canada is an unmitigated disaster. On that point, everyone, from its customers to investors to the company’s executives, can agree. In reporting its second-quarter results this morning, Target revealed its Canadian operations lost another US$200 million, while same-store sales — a gauge of performance that measures only those locations that have been open for at least a year — fell 11.4 per cent from the same period in 2013.
In a conference call with Canadian media Wednesday, Target chief financial officer John Mulligan declared: “We bit off way too much, too early. In retrospect, (we would) probably open five to 10 stores last year — refine the operations, refine the supply chain, the technology, get our store teams trained. But again, that’s all hindsight, we are where are right now and we’re focused on moving forward to fix this for our guests.”
It took Target from early 2011, when it announced the Zellers deal, to March 2013 before it opened its doors and could ring up its first sale. To date, Target has racked up $1.8 billion in losses from its Canadian operations. Here a good breakdown of the losses.
In Wal-Mart’s fiscal 1995 annual report, the retailer said its operating, selling and general and administrative expenses, as a percentage of sales, had risen just 0.2 per cent and 0.3 per cent in each of the previous two years as a result of the Canadian acquisition and launch. By Wal-Mart’s second year in Canada it had already generated an operating profit, having doubled sales per square foot since taking over from Woolco. By year two it boasted a 40 per cent share of the market.
It’s taken three years for Target to admit just how flawed the Canadian expansion has been. An atrocious inventory management system left shelves empty, while Canadians were completely turned off by Target Canada’s decidedly un-Target-like prices on goods.
August 16, 2014
Anyone who’s spent time in uniform can probably identify with the victims of gravity, equine misbehaviour, and cussed bad luck in this collection of military pratfalls during ceremonial duties.
H/T to Roger Henry for the link.
August 8, 2014
If you listen to big government fans, you’ll often hear how much better it is for the economy for the government to spend money — much better than letting the taxpayers spend that money themselves — because the government is able to get a much higher “multiple” for every dollar that it spends. The “Cash for Clunkers” story may support that theory, but only if you reverse the sign: the program may have been more economically helpful to the auto makers and the taxpayers if they’d just piled up a few billion bank notes and set them on fire. The program ran for two months, and the government doled out $3 billion in subsidies to new car buyers (their old cars were destroyed). The new car owners benefitted, although it seems to merely have brought forward intended new car purchases in most cases, and the auto makers seemed to benefit by moving out a lot of unsold inventory.
However, a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper shows that the program actually ended up costing the auto makers between $2.6 and $4 billion. Coyote Blog quotes the WSJ‘s summary:
The irony is that the goals were to help Detroit through the recession by subsidizing sales and to please the green lobby by putting more fuel-efficient cars on the road. By pulling forward purchases that consumers would make later anyway, the Obama Administration also hoped to add to GDP. Christina Romer, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, called Cash for Clunkers “very nearly the best possible countercyclical fiscal policy in an economy suffering from temporarily low aggregate demand.”
The A&M economists had the elegant idea of comparing the buying behavior of Texas drivers who owned cars that barely qualified for cash (those that got 18 miles per gallon of gas or less) and those that barely did not (19 mph). Using state DMV sales records, this counterfactual allowed them to isolate the effects of the Cash for Clunkers incentives and show what would have happened without the program.
The two groups were equally likely to purchase a new vehicle over the nine month period that started with Cash for Clunkers, so the subsidy did not create any extra auto business. But in order to meet the fuel efficiency mandate, consumers who got the subsidy were induced to purchase smaller vehicle models with less horsepower that cost on average $2,500 to $3,000 less than those bought by their ineligible peers. The clunkers bought more Corollas, and everybody else more Chevys.
Extrapolated nationally, auto revenues may have plunged by more than what the government spent. And any environmental benefits cannot be justified under the federal social cost of carbon estimate of $33 a ton. Prior research from 2009 and 2013 has shown that the program cost between $237 and $288 a carbon ton.
… cash for clunkers was just sinful. You’re taking a bunch of perfectly good vehicles, inexpensive vehicles that could be used by people without much in the way of material means, and crushing them. If someone took a valuable resource — something that could really be useful to people — and destroyed it, they’d be in jail if they were private citizens.
Steve Chapman probably put it best back in 2009, “Cash for Clunkers has been a thrilling moment for advocates of expanded government, who say it proves what we can accomplish when our leaders put their minds to it. They are absolutely right. The program proves the federal government is unsurpassed at two things: dispersing money and destroying things.”
July 16, 2014
The folks at Rolling Stone are concerned for your safety, so they’ve helpfully put together a primer on the five “most dangerous” guns in America. Because they love you, America:
Yes, we’re apparently talking about grenade launchers here. I didn’t even know grenade launchers were available to civilians. Awesome!
Wait, “the explosive that creates the energy to fire the gun occurs in the fixed shell of a shotgun rather than the metallic cartridge of a rifle”. Why would I expect the charge that propels the shot out of a shotgun to be ignited in a rifle cartridge? Is this some sort of magic that allows you to fire a different weapon than the one you’re holding? No wonder Rolling Stone thinks this is such a dangerous weapon!
H/T to Charles C. W. Cooke for the link.
July 11, 2014
This is a story that rightfully should have been published at the beginning of April (except it actually happened):
A year 2000-related bug has caused the US military to send more than 14,000 letters of conscription to men who were all born in the 1800s and died decades ago.
Shocked residents of Pennsylvania began receiving letters ordering their great grandparents to register for the US military draft by pain of “fine and imprisonment.”
“I said, ‘Geez, what the hell is this about?’” Chuck Huey, 73, of Kingston, Pennsylvania told the Associated Press when he received a letter for his late grandfather Bert Huey, born in 1894 and a first world war veteran who died at the age of 100 in 1995.
“It said he was subject to heavy fines and imprisonment if he didn’t sign up for the draft board,” exclaimed Huey. “We were just totally dumbfounded.”
The US Selective Service System, which sent the letters in error, automatically handles the drafting of US citizens and other US residents that are applicable for conscription. The cause of the error was narrowed down to a Y2K-like bug in the Pennsylvania department of transportation (PDT).
A clerk at the PDT failed to select a century during the transfer of 400,000 records to the Selective Service, producing 1990s records for men born a century earlier.
June 23, 2014
This doesn’t speak well of the federal government’s staff security training:
Many of the Justice Department’s finest legal minds are falling prey to a garden-variety Internet scam.
An internal survey shows almost 2,000 staff were conned into clicking on a phoney “phishing” link in their email, raising questions about the security of sensitive information.
The department launched the mock scam in December as a security exercise, sending emails to 5,000 employees to test their ability to recognize cyber fraud.
The emails looked like genuine communications from government or financial institutions, and contained a link to a fake website that was also made to look like the real thing.
What’s even more interesting is that the government bureaucrats fell for this scam at a far higher rate than average Canadian internet users:
The Justice Department’s mock exercise caught 1,850 people clicking on the phoney embedded links, or 37 per cent of everyone who received the emails.
That’s a much higher rate than for the general population, which a federal website says is only about five per cent.
The exercise did not put any confidential information at risk, but the poor results raise red flags about public servants being caught by actual phishing emails.
A spokeswoman says “no privacy breaches have been reported” from any real phishing scams at Justice Canada.
Carole Saindon also said that two more waves of mock emails in February and April show improved results, with clicking rates falling by half.
So in an earlier test, our public servants were clicking on phishing links well over 50% of the time? Yikes.
June 18, 2014
It’s not that the “security” part of the job is so wearing … it’s that people are morons:
Security white hats, despair: users will run dodgy executables if they are paid as little as one cent.
Even more would allow their computers to become infected by botnet software nasties if the price was increased to five or 10 cents. Offer a whole dollar and you’ll secure a herd of willing internet slaves.
The demoralising findings come from a study lead by Nicolas Christin, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab which baited users with a benign Windows executable sold to users under the guise of contributing to a (fictitious) study.
It was downloaded 1,714 times and 965 users actually ran the code. The application ran a timer simulating an hour’s computational tasks after which a token for payment would be generated.
The researchers collected information on user machines discovering that many of the predominantly US and Indian user machines were already infected with malware despite having security systems installed, and were happy to click past Windows’ User Access Control warning prompts.
The presence of malware actually increased on machines running the latest patches and infosec tools in what was described as an indication of users’ false sense of security.
May 31, 2014
“The smoke from this plant causes a brief state of euphoria, immediately followed by permanent insanity”
Paula Bolyard says that this collection of TV public service announcements from the 1970s may go a long way to explain why as parents they obsessively over-protect their kids (the Millenial generation). I loved this one:
In an effort to communicate a hip-sounding anti-drug message that teens could relate to, this PSA probably achieved the opposite of its intended effect. It made drugs seem fun and cool and glamorized drug use more than demonizing it.
Here are some gems from this hilarious PSA:
I know what you’re thinking. What is marijuana? What makes it so dangerous? Where can I get some marijuana? Well, brother, I’m not going to nickle and dime you. I’m not like ‘the man’ all you kids are rebelling against. I’m hip. I know what young people are dealing with these days.
Yes, he actually said “nickle and dime you.”
Rolled in Zig Zags or puffed from 7th period wood shop projects, the smoke from this plant causes a brief state of euphoria, immediately followed by permanent insanity. Users are prone to unpredictable behavior including junk food binges, joy rides, and a sudden urge to wear sunglasses at night.
At long last I now know why my brother was so interested in wood shop in junior high.
Long term use of marijuana can lead to a psychological dependency. Soon you’ll be taking all sorts of measures to get your fix. People will start calling you names like ‘pothead’ or ‘Smokie McBongwater.’ Losing all motivation, it’s likely that you will drop out of school take a sudden liking to sitar music and maybe even get felt up by a cop or two.
This explains basically everything about the 70s.
Is marijuana really where it’s at? Is it really as righteous as you think? There is more to life than grass. There are fulfilling careers and grrrr000vy beach parties. The closer you look the more seeds you find in your stash. Follow your hopes and dreams. Be someone. Do yourself and your country a favor. Don’t let this happen to you.
Raise your hand if you’re convinced.
May 28, 2014
Published on 27 May 2014
James Richardson updates the story of England, through the occasional ups and regular downs of the English national side, from the first international ever played in 1872 (a 0-0 thriller with Scotland) to the present day, via glory in 1966 and failure, well, pretty much all the rest of the time
Yep, the World Cup is coming up soon. Here are the opening fixtures for each of the groups:
Note the joyful placement of England (#11 in the world rankings) with Uruguay (#6) and Italy (#9). Much angst to be enjoyed as the round-robin plays out… Of course, if England is looking to an uphill struggle to get out of the group stage, imagine how Costa Rica is feeling (currently #34 in the world rankings). And Canadians can’t poke too much fun … we rank #110 at the moment.
May 21, 2014
SNCF (the French national passenger railway company) was very proud of the new fleet of passenger trains they’d ordered from manufacturers Alstom and Canada’s Bombardier … until it became clear that SNCF had been given the wrong dimensions to fit in many of the older French passenger stations:
It is a minor miscalculation, but one that will cost the French taxpayer a fortune.
France’s national rail operator SNCF — which runs its prestigious TGV fast trains — has sparked hilarity, anger and ridicule after building a new generation of regional trains that are too wide for 1,300 stations, meaning platforms will have to be “shaved” to stop them getting stuck.
The appalling blunder, which the French transport minister on Wednesday dubbed “comically tragic”, has already reportedly cost the state-controlled SNCF some €50 million (£40.5 million), sparking uproar at a time of austerity.
It was revealed by Wednesday’s Canard Enchaîné, the satirical weekly, whose cartoon showed a line of commuters on a busy platform being told: “The Paris-Brest train is entering the station. Please pull in your stomachs.”
The mistake was made as part of a €15 billion makeover of France’s Regional Express Trains, or TER, shared between Alstom, the French trainmaker and Bombardier, its Canadian rival.
Aware that France’s provincial stations — some of them ancient — came in various shapes and sizes, SNCF had asked the regional rail operator, Réseau ferré de France, or RFF, which is in charge of all French tracks, to work out the right measurements for the new trains.
Upon their advice that station widths varied by around 10cm in all, SNCF concluded the new trains could be 20 cm wider than their predecessors.
However, in an oversight that would cost it dear, the operator forgot to factor in some 1,300 stations built more than 50 years ago that are far narrower than today’s norms. “SNCF’s wise engineers forgot to verify the reality in the field,” wrote Le Canard.