Friday, January 27, 2017

One Page Books - The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Edward Luttwak)

I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction, but when I do read good non-fiction, I find it has both better staying power and it's easier to summarize. So I'm trying an experiment. Whenever I read an interesting non-fiction book, I'm going to condense it into a single page. It should be both a handy reference for myself, a good primer for anyone who hasn't read it, and an exercise to ensure I really understand it. Since blogs don't have page counts, I'm going to arbitrarily define "one page" as 500 words. Then I'll toss in a bit of commentary.

To start with, I'll pick a book I read a few weeks back - The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third by Edward Luttwak.

Empires need to defend against two separate kinds of threat - raiding parties and invasions. Raiding parties are best dealt with by having numerous small garrisons on the border, while invasions are best dealt with by large, concentrated forces. In the ancient world, strategic mobility was extremely poor, particularly in an empire as large as Rome, so the natural tension of these deployment needs was exacerbated.

The core of Rome's strength was professional legions. Rome was wealthy but chronically short of manpower, so they maximized force per soldier. Elite heavy infantry, supported by allied auxiliary troops, was the best structure for this need - it gave the flexibility to use a combined-arms force, but the legions formed a necessary core for these forces. Legions plus auxiliaries could generally defeat foreign forces in pitched battles, and if the auxiliaries revolted, legions could generally defeat auxiliaries in pitched battles. Roles besides battles were secondary - it was assumed that guerrilla wars could be easily ended by reprisals or hunting down raiders if the other army was defeated.

The first system Rome used was based on client states. Subject rulers were kept in place on borders to keep out raiders, which allowed the legions to be concentrated in large blocks for maximal concentrated power against invasions. This power could then be used as a threat against any nearby enemies. Since this threat was usually sufficient to overawe enemies, the power was not used, and losses were avoided. This allowed the same forces to hold multiple threats in check simultaneously, which multiplied their effective power substantially.

Over time, having several legions in a single place became a threat to emperors - the commanding general could too easily attempt to crown himself. Management of subject kings was also a chronically troublesome task, and keeping them both powerful enough to be useful and weak enough to be subjects was sometimes beyond Rome's capacity. Subjects were thus assimilated, and in their place Roman troops were dispersed into new border infrastructure. This was still a forward defense, focused on fighting battles on enemy territory, but it lacked the efficiency of the old system.

The crisis of the third century left Rome without the power to keep this system intact. Instead, they began defending reactively, instead of being able to defend proactively. This encouraged further fortification of the border, and further inefficient dispersal of troops. Rome's weakness and the spread of their technology to neighbours also left the legions less relatively powerful than they had been, and Rome's primary advantage over their enemies became logistics more than sheer force. Fortifications, even of things like granaries, served both as defensive strongpoints and to deny attackers loot. These became integral to Rome's defences. This meant that civilians in border lands took the brunt of any attacks, and it sapped both their loyalty and their productivity.

This third system lacked any particular virtues except postponing collapse, and unless a strong Emperor reformed the system totally, Rome's decline was inevitable.

Luttwak is fascinating, but also kind of a jerk. He's clearly a passionate believer in his ideas, he's done some excellent research, and his criticisms of those who disagree with him frequently hit home, but he is grossly overconfident. He raises many valid points, and his overall thesis does seem to fit together pretty well, but my first impression when reading a book like this is to take it as an interesting perspective, but to get another perspective before I feel like I really know anything. Sadly, I don't know many authors who write on topics like this to even get another solid perspective from. (Any good ones you know of, please share). This is basically the same impression I had when I read another of his books(Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook), and seems to be the same impression most other reviewers have as well.

As a side note, the impression he gives of the prevailing wisdom of the historical community at the time this book was published(1976) was quite unflattering, both in their impressions of the Romans and in my impressions of them. I tend to take as granted that people were basically the same in all recorded human cultures, and he talks as though Roman emperors were generally thought to be fools who lacked even basic tools of statecraft - apparently, the idea of mapping the empire's borders(even so much as a mental understanding of how they looked) was frequently thought to be beyond the capacity of the empire. I don't buy it. If that was actually how the historians thought, they were parochial fools, but I am not conversant enough with the history of historians to know if Luttwak is treating them fairly.

All that said, I liked it. Even if he's wrong about bits and pieces, he's a hell of an interesting writer, and he approaches things in a way that most others don't.

Monday, January 23, 2017

On Lacking Principle

It's a commonly held belief that politicians are just a bunch of unprincipled sleazebags who will sell their own mothers for a vote. This belief is commonly held because, not to put too fine a point on it, it's true.

That's an odd comment coming from me. I've worked for politicians. I like politicians - some are good personal friends. I spend a truly inordinate amount of time thinking about politics, and how to make politicians see that my views are ones they should promote. I've even considered running someday myself. But despite all that, I know that politicians will always disappoint me, will always push ideas that I don't want(and often that they don't either), and will always be at least as concerned with the next election as they are with doing the right thing.

A set of ironclad principles speaks well of someone. Being an uncompromising defender of what you believe is a good way to make sure you can look at yourself in the mirror, that you never slip into darkness, and that you never trade away the things that really matter. But we live in democracies - politicians may lead, but the people truly rule. The people, taken as a mass, do not have ironclad principles. Individuals can, but society as a whole is splintered into a hundred different viewpoints, and a thousand different ways to say "I don't really care, just make it work already".

If you want to lead in a democracy, you need to assemble a voting base that will support you, and it needs to be a bigger voting base than anyone else has. You can't do that with ironclad principles, because the vast majority of the public won't agree with them. They may respect you, they may even occasionally vote for you if the other candidate is bad enough, but most of the time they'll just salute your campaign as it burns to the ground. A truly principled and uncompromising politician can almost never achieve real power.

A sleazebag, on the other hand, can. You can give trinkets to your supporters, extend olive branches to your opponents, get groups on side by giving them what they want on some minor issue here or there, make friends, build support, parrot back what people want to hear, and do a hundred other necessary and unsavoury things if you're not encumbered by principles. You can be flexible, you can compromise, and you can make deals. And it's by doing precisely those things that you can achieve power.

It's possible to take this too far, of course. Hell, it's really easy sometimes. These are dark arts I describe, and following them is a dark path. There's a reason that stories talk about paths like that ending in disaster so often. And as much as being unprincipled on some issues is an aid to your political career, if you entered politics for any reason besides self-aggrandizement(and most do), you need a compass. Even if you're travelling south, you need to know where true north is.

The ideal politician is a principled one in thought, even if they sometimes lack principles in action. They do the wrong thing, but they do it for the right reasons. They pick a few goals, and trade horses as much as they need to in order to get them. They keep in mind their strength relative to their opponents, and don't overreach it. They focus more on winning the quiet battles, the ones that don't excite attention, while spending less time in the circus. They disappoint the true believers in the moment, but they make the world better in the long run.

Very few people are cut out for this role. I don't think I am. The friend who inspired this post is quite certainly not, and never will be. For us, there are other parts to play - the think tanks, the advocacy groups, and the advisory roles are where we belong. We can keep those principles at the front of our minds and play counterpoint to the hacks that just want to win at any cost. We can keep the torch held high when our friends in office feel the need to drop it. We can form our own pressure groups to make sure that even the true sleazeballs do a few things right. But we can't govern, because governing requires compromise, and ironclad principles don't allow for that.

The world of politics requires those who can wade in the muck and remember what it is to be clean, who can betray us for the sake of what we both believe, and who can bend dark arts to noble purposes. Following that path is hard, and telling who is actually following it and who's just pretending isn't much easier. And as much as I'm technically saying this in a public forum, I don't intend that this ever be a message that gets a lot of public traction - the idea of principle is an important one. But the importance of lacking principle is real, much as I wish it were otherwise.

There's a reason so many of our heroes are flawed. It's not because they want to be, and not even because we're all imperfect humans.Those flaws are what got our heroes into the position to be great in the first place. If principle keeps people from greatness, then you can't judge their greatness by how well they keep to principles. You have to judge it by the standards of who else would have been there instead.

Friday, January 20, 2017

So, Trump has nukes now.

I suspect that every possible comment that can be made about the inauguration of Donald Trump has been made by now, but I'll throw in my two cents regardless.

I won't miss Obama. Yes, he has on a personal level run a clean house, and yes, his family seems very nice. I try to hold world leaders to a higher standard than that. He hasn't proven effective at working with Congress, and his efforts to bypass them to pass his agenda have put yet more power in the hands of the President. I suspect he's regretting that today. And on a policy level, Obamacare was a nice vision, but the implementation has failed in largely predictable ways, because it reached too far. The American medical system is incredibly resistant to meaningful change, and he didn't take that into account. On foreign policy, he's done very little well - a lot of tough talk, and a lot of tough action, but very rarely were the two actually used on the same issue at the same time. There was no observable vision or coherent plan, and that's a good recipe for fumbling about until you leave office. The only way he looks good economically is by comparing him to the depths of the 2008 crash, and the one issue where he was uniquely positioned to make a real improvement in the US - race relations - have, if anything, gotten worse. He's not the worst ever, but I don't think history will be particularly kind to him.

The problem is, Trump has a lot of the same flaws. He doesn't seem to have the inclination to even try to work with Congress, which will be fine for the next two years but a disaster after that. His foreign policy is based on knee-jerk thinking and not any serious analysis that I can see. I think he'll prove prone to flattery(and that this is at least half of his relationship with Putin), and that's never a good trait in a leader. Now, I may well be wrong here - he is a genuinely successful businessman, and he has consistently knocked the teeth out of every single person who made a negative prediction about his chances. Even if self-promotion really is his only skill, he may well be the single most effective person at self-promotion in the whole world, and that may be good for something.

I opposed Trump in the election because I thought the dangers were too high - the danger of a large dumb war(small dumb wars being virtually unavoidable for the US), the danger of tearing apart the post-WW2 world order that has led to the longest period of peace between the major powers in world history, the danger of some completely unpredictable left-field risk doing something terrible to someone. I still think that.

But the thing about a high-variance candidate like Trump is that if he's good, he may well be very good. He's going to have a very different approach to the Presidency than anyone ever has, and while experiments usually fail, sometimes they succeed beyond anyone's expectations. I won't bet on that. I'm too much of a realist to take a gamble of that nature. Given that the dice have been thrown, though, I hope it all works out. I hope Americans are happier, healthier, richer, and more secure when he leaves office than they are today. I hope the world is a better place for electing Trump. I hope that I, and his other critics, have underestimated him yet again, and that he makes us all look like fools. I hope to someday look back on this post and wonder why I was so worried, why I was so foolish that I couldn't see how he'd be one of the greats. I don't know how he'll do it, but given how many times he's been written off in the last two years, he may well have another rabbit left in the hat. We'll see.

I wish Trump, and the United States as a whole, the best of luck over the next four years. They're going to need it.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The First Rule Of Politics - Generosity

Just like every other person who's spent time debating politics, I've noticed that it's not always a very nice community. Oh, the exact terms differ depending where you look - in one place, pro-choicers are "baby-killers", in another someone who wants to help the victims of crime is "brutal and heartless" - but if you take trolls at face value, the entire universe of political debate consists solely of sheep, tards, paid trolls, traitors, and generally all forms of scum known to humanity.

Of course, this isn't true for your side. Your side is clearly correct, morally upstanding, and genuinely wants to help people. You're not quite so sure about those other guys, though. I mean, they say they want to help, but if they really cared, they'd support the right ways of doing things. That's how you make the world a better place, after all - the wrong policies just screw things up even more. Why do they want to screw things up even more? Could they actually be that evil?

It's fun to attack those you don't much like. Everyone gets a kick out of a good mockery of dumb ideas. There's a reason why snarky, highly opinionated pieces with zero nuance do so well, and it's not just a Facebook thing. Most newspaper opinion columnists and TV pundits are in exactly the same business, for example.

When it comes to attacking ideas, this is perfectly kosher. Ideas that can't survive an attack usually deserve to fail. But in real debate, it's not just ideas that get attacked. If you're attacking the dumb ideas, why not throw in a few attacks on the dumb people who believe them? Heck, even some of those attacks are fair too - saying that someone lacks the necessary perspective to understand why their superficially appealing ideas are wrong isn't really nice, but it can be accurate.

If you invest some time and effort into understanding the other side, though, there's one kind of personal attack that just can't survive. An attack on a group's intentions is always wrong. They can be wrong, foolish, blinded, or a hundred other faults, but there's no way that millions of people just happened to decide to burn down society for the heck of it. People tend to want the same basic things - they want safety, they want wealth, they want health, they want happiness, they want freedom, and they want fun. The exact form of those desires will vary, and people will differ in exactly whose happiness and health they want to focus on improving, but the vast majority of people want to create a society that's optimized for improving those things overall.

The First Rule of Politics: Every political movement genuinely wants to make society better. 

It won't be every member of a movement, of course - malicious jerks exist everywhere. It's possible for a single malicious jerk to fool lots of people into believing something bad, but those people still honestly believe that it's designed to improve the world. It's possible to have a group that defines "society" too narrowly(this is the biggest mistake of racists, for example) and only wants to help a part of what you think of as "society", but within their definitions they really want to make it better. Again, it's quite possible for groups to be wrong in their suggested policies - if two groups disagree, at least one of them is wrong, after all - but they're honestly wrong, not simply lying to you about what they want so they can line their own pockets or something.

Corollary: If you don't understand how they can believe what they believe and still want to make the world a better place, then that's a problem with your understanding, not with their beliefs. 

It seems odd to some people that you might want to understand your opponents at all. After all, if you get too close to a bad idea, it might spread. Plus, there's some people who simply fail at empathy - they're just not wired in a way that allows them to understand other people very well. But there's three reasons why I think it's still a good investment of some time, even if you're skeptical or find it difficult.

1) We're all in this together. Yeah, communists and anti-science activists may drive me up the wall, but I have to live in the same place as a bunch of them. Their views and desires matter to the government of Canada, and they should matter just as much as yours and mine. Even if it's occasionally irritating. You don't have to agree with everyone else(not least because it's physically impossible), but knowing where they're coming from and what they want should be important when setting national policy, just like everyone else's views.

2) They could be right. I wouldn't bet on it - I believe what I do because I think it's right, after all - but everybody is wrong about something at some point. I have been, and so have you. If we close ourselves off from anyone who disagrees with us, we will never have our views get challenged, and that prevents them from being corrected if we have made a mistake somewhere. If the goal is to be right, and not merely to win in a fight, this is important.

3) It helps you beat them. An opponent who is a mystery cannot be predicted or countered, they can only be fought by mindlessly throwing punches. If you know who they are, what they want, and how they think, it lets you know what their weak points are, how to target those weak points, how to convince them that your methods are the right ways of achieving their goals, and so on. Like Sun Tzu said:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Don't be a dick. People who disagree with you about politics are not generally mustache-twirling villains, they're simply misguided folks who are picking the wrong ways to try to make the world better. Understand that, treat them decently, and then kick their ass.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Predictions For 2017

One of my favourite bloggers makes an annual habit of creating a large number of predictions for the coming year, with probability estimates, and then judging himself at the end of the year on how accurate his predictions were. I like the idea, so I'm going to give it a shot myself. Allowed confidence levels are 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 90%, 95%, and 99%.

1) Maxime Bernier will win the CPC leadership - 50%
2) Kellie Leitch will not win the CPC leadership - 80%
3) There will be 5 or fewer candidates on the final CPC leadership ballot - 60%
4) Jason Kenney will win the PCAA leadership - 90%
5) The PCAA and Wildrose parties will not have begun any official merger process - 70%
6) There will be no Danielle Smith-style defection of multiple Wildrose MLAs to the PCAA(or vice-versa) - 90%
7) There will be less than 3 candidates who formally register for the federal NDP leadership - 80%
8) The expected 2017-18 deficit announced in the 2017 federal budget will be higher than predicted in the 2016 budget($29.0 billion) - 70%
9) The expected 2017-18 deficit announced in the 2017 Ontario budget will be higher than predicted in the 2016 budget(balanced) - 70%
10) Approval of the performance of Justin Trudeau will be below 50% in at least one major scientific poll - 80%

11) The UK will invoke Article 50 and begin the formal Brexit process - 95%
12) Theresa May will remain PM of the UK - 99%
13) There will be no second referendum on Brexit, actual or planned - 99%
14) The UK will initiate public talks with at least five non-EU nations for free trade deals - 80%
15) No public process for a CANZUK free trade/free movement agreement will have begun - 80%
16) No deal will be reached between the UK and the EU on the terms of Brexit - 95%
17) No other nation will decide to leave the EU or Eurozone - 80%
18) Marine Le Pen will make it to the French Presidential runoff election - 60%
19) Marine Le Pen will not win the Presidency of France - 95%
20) Angela Merkel will be re-elected Chancellor of Germany - 70%
21) There will be at least one explicitly Islamic terrorist attack killing 50+ people in the OECD - 70%
22) There will be no terrorist attack killing 500+ people in the OECD - 90%
23) ISIS will remain a de facto nation with control of at least some territory - 80%
24) The US will continue to attack ISIS(at least until all their territory is lost) - 90%
25) The US will not begin any substantial new conflicts(Libya 2011 or larger) - 80%
26) Approval of the performance of Donald Trump will be above 50% in at least one major scientific poll in the last three months of the year - 80%
27) The US Senate will eliminate the filibuster for at least some votes - 70%
28) The US will withdraw some form of support from the anti-Russian nations of Eastern Europe - 80%
29) No nuclear weapons will be used against civilian targets - 95%
30) At least one world leader will be elected on a populist campaign routinely mentioned alongside Trump and Brexit - 80%

31) Using the same methodology as my discussion of 2015-16 celebrity deaths, at least 10 celebrities will die - 90%
32) Canada will not have a natural disaster as devastating as the 2016 Aberta wildfires - 80%
33) No major green energy breakthrough(>50% improvement in output per dollar) - 90%
34) Global average temperature is higher than 2016 - 80%
35) No natural disaster will kill 10,000 or more people - 80%
36) No natural disaster will kill 100 or more people in the OECD - 90%
37) There will be at least one computer security breach affecting 50 million or more accounts - 80%
38) No film released in 2017 will have a global box-office gross over $1.5B - 50%
39) The MSCI All-Cap World Index index will increase faster than inflation in USD - 60%
40) 2017 will be the most prosperous year in human history - 95%

41) I will be married - 95%
42) Our wedding will be under budget - 70%
43) I will have a full-time job - 95%
44) I will have a permanent full-time job - 80%
45) I will no longer be doing financial plans as a side job - 70%
46) I will still be posting Friday Night Videos - 95%
47) I will be making regular blog posts - 70%
48) I will have a new desktop computer - 80%
49) I will have my CFP and CFA - 80%
50) I will complete the design of at least one game - 60%

2016, As Written By George RR Martin?

It's been a common meme this year that 2016 has been brutal for people dying, and one I've joked about myself, so I decided to test this theory.
On the whole, I don't buy it. The 2016 deaths were a bit more notable, a bit more numerous, and a bit younger, but they're in the same ballpark. Which shouldn't be a surprise, really - groups as large as "all famous people" obey the rules of statistics pretty well, in general. Here's the results:

2016: 15 people, average age 64

Muhammad Ali Boxer 74
Prince Musician 57
David Bowie Musician 69
Carrie Fisher Actress 60
George Michael Musician 53
Alan Rickman Actor 69
Alan Thicke Actor 69
Janet Reno Attorney General 78
Antonin Scalia Judge 79
Garry Shandling Comedian 66
Rob Ford Mayor 46
Merle Haggard Musician 79
Glenn Frey Musician 67
Anton Yelchin Actor 27
Maurice White Musician 74

2015: 12 people, average age 68
Lemmy Kilmister Musician 70
Jackie Collins Author 77
Roddy Piper Wrestler 61
Moses Malone Basketballer 60
Dusty Rhodes Wrestler 69
Scott Weiland Musician 48
Terry Pratchett Author 66
Ben E. King Musician 76
Wes Craven Director 76
Lesley Gore Musician 68
Bob Simon Journalist 73
Percy Sledge Musician 74

I used Sporcle's quizzes for dead famous people in 2015 and 2016, and then cut out everyone who less than 5% of people recognized(not really famous), who I didn't recognize in their own right(ditto), and who were over 80(old people dying isn't really year-dependant).


Many, many years ago, around 2004, I had a blog. It was never all that popular(I think my best post got like 8 comments), and it seems to be so thoroughly defunct now that not even the Internet Archive has a copy. In some ways that's probably a good thing - I was a rather enthusiastic teenager at the time, and I probably said some stupid things.

Still, I do like writing, and I've found that my usual outlet of Facebook comments isn't always right for some of the things I want to write. I've got a few things already written to post here and seed the site, but after today I won't make any great promises of thrice-daily activity. Still, I have a few cool ideas in mind for things I want to write, and I think I'll give it a go.