Ian Leslie seems to be learning from his mistakes

You get the feeling that a certain New Statesman piece, written in June 2016, must have had a rather big impact on the life and career of its author. Here is what the headline above it said:

Calm down. Trump won’t be President – and Britain won’t leave the EU

The piece under that was written by Ian Leslie.

Here are a couple more headlines, that can be read above two more recent pieces by Ian Leslie, also in the New Statesman.

December 2019:

Political scientists talk about low-information voters, but too much information causes problems too

March 2020:

Society rewards bluffers, but now is the time to admit we don’t know what we’re talking about

The reason this posting is here rather than at Samizdata, which is the group political blog that I have contributed to a lot in the past and continue to contribute to rather less frequently, is that although I have noted the existence of these articles, I have not read all of them. I did read the first one, quite a while ago, but I’ve not read the other two. Before sounding off about all this on Samizdata I need to actually read what Leslie said, and in the case of the top one, read it again.

Two thoughts about this, in the meantime.

First, if my blog postings were gone through, heading by heading, I’m pretty sure that you could have plenty of this sort of fun with them. A difference between prominent and more mainstream opinionators like Ian Lesie, and me, is not that he’s often badly wrong, but I never am. It’s that his wrongness is more public than mine. Also, he’s paid to make a judgement. If I want to hem and haw and hedge my bets and sprinkle my blog postings with question marks, no editor tells me I’m paid to get off the fence rather than remain seated upon it.

I was also very surprised when Brexit won (I talk about this ten minutes into this conversation with Patrick Crozier), and when Trump won (see this blog posting).

Second, it is by being wrong that we often learn. This is a tedious American cliche, with “learning experience” often just being the American for a balls-up. But it’s a cliche because it is said so often, and it is said so often because it is often true.

You certainly get the feeling that Ian Leslie has at least tried to learn from his very public double error of June 2016. I don’t recall the details very clearly, but I do distinctly recall that Leslie’s first piece actually said quite a lot about why Trump won and Brexit won. He identified, that is to say, some relevant variables – degree of economic discomfort and indifference to grander political principles are two that I recall noting. He just got wrong how people felt about how these things mattered, in connection with Trump and with Brexit. He wasn’t wrong because he asked the wrong questions. He merely answered some right questions wrongly. He was half way there, in other words.

So, next step: read the pieces themselves. Remember: The biggest lies in the media are told by those who concoct the headlines. These are often not just wrong, but often immediately proved wrong by what is right underneath them.

One Park Drive – in January 2019 and now

For me, January 17th 2019 began wonderfully, with scaffolding.

I was on my way to meet up with occasional commenter here Alastair James, in Docklands, and it was a great day. Meeting him in Docklands was great, and what I saw afterwards was great too. Highlight: the Optic Cloak, one of my favourite pieces of London public sculpture.

In among those highlights, I also got to see the architectural state of affairs in Docklands. It helped that it was January so the trees helped rather than getting in the way.

I was especially impressed by One Park Drive, which has a real Chicago vibe to it. Right down to “Park Drive”, which sounds very Chicago to me. Definitely USA.

On the left, below, is how One Park Drive was looking in January 2019:

And on the right there is how it is looking now, in a Mick Hartley photo posted on his blog yesterday. He calls Docklands:

A ghost town waiting for the world to start up again.

Which sounds about right. Except that ghosts don’t like hot and sunny weather, do they? (Good news: nor does the Coronavirus.)

I hadn’t realised, when I saw it, how much taller One Park Drive was eventually going to be. Like so many buildings these days, it maybe looked more fun when being constructed than it looks now it’s finished. All those ziggy-zaggy bits of concrete, somewhat smoothed out in the finished Thing.

That WW2 bombing offensive podcast – It’s up!

I’ve said it before, at the end of the last posting here, and I’ll say it again, at the beginning of this posting: It’s up. It being Patrick and me talking about the World War 2 bombing offensive. Patrick got it posted and listenable to less than a day after we recorded it. My salutations to him.

As you can see if you follow Patrick’s link, just by the notes Patrick offers, we meander a bit, as we do, but I hope not too intolerably.

I’ll add here a few things that Patrick doesn’t mention. Here are three blog postings by me, two here and one at Samizdata: The amazing Merlin; Dowding’s amazing lack of tact: The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster. Also, here’s a book that Patrick doesn’t mention in his notes but which I do mention in the podcast: A biography of Bomber Harris.

Our next phone conversation, we now think, will be about the Vietnam War. I made most of the running in this last one, but on the subject of Vietnam Patrick will be laying out the story, and I’ll be clarifying, or at least I hope I will. His basic thesis: The Americans won it, and then threw it away. My question, as of now, is: Did the rapprochement with China, and subsequent (consequent?) US victory in the Cold War, have something to do with the “throwing it away” bit?

You can listen to any, some or all of our recent podcasts by going here.

Another Twitter dump

I had a Twitter dump earlier. It feels so good to be getting this stuff out of my system, so here’s another. Again, in no particular order, and not chosen for bang-up-to-dateness, just funness and interestingness.

It maybe makes things a bit clearer if I indent the tweet references, and then unindent at the end, at which point I’ll be having a bit more to say:

What concrete blocks are made of in China.

Ghostbusters.

The Battle of France in 44 seconds.

This family built a hug guard.

Baihe reservoir (白河水庫) in Tainan county is at once both shockingly ugly and stunningly beautiful.

BBC’s Jeremy Bowen says there haven’t been all that many terrorist attacks in Israel.

Everyone who was worrying he was a fascist now worrying he’s not fascist enough.

150-foot iceberg passes through Iceberg Alley.

My boyfriend cheated on me, but, I love him. What should I do? A Georgist: Implement a land value tax.

James Burke had only one chance to film this scene, and the result is possibly the best timed shot in television history.

Jeremy Corbin won the argument.

The lockdown is ending because the American people say it’s ending.

I miss those carefree pre-coronavirus days when nobody died at all.

In each of the above cases, you get most of the tweet, and sometimes all of it. So, if all you want to know is what the tweet said, no need to click. But if you want to know who else besides me thought the tweets in question to be funny or interesting, click away.

And that has actually done the trick. To my great surprise I have actually cleared out all this tweetery from my hard disc and from now on my computer will surely be functioning better, until such time as I need another similar dump. There remain only a few animal-related tweets which are already scheduled to appear this coming Friday.

Robot insects on the march

3D printed flexoskeletons. In English, that would be “a cheap army of robot insects”:

Engineers at the University of California San Diego have developed a new method that doesn’t require any special equipment and works in just minutes to create soft, flexible, 3D-printed robots.

The innovation comes from rethinking the way soft robots are built: instead of figuring out how to add soft materials to a rigid robot body, the UC San Diego researchers started with a soft body and added rigid features to key components. The structures were inspired by insect exoskeletons, which have both soft and rigid parts—the researchers called their creations “flexoskeletons.” The new method allows for the construction of soft components for robots in a small fraction of the time previously needed and for a small fraction of the cost. …

But what could an army of such robots actually do? The most obvious immediate applications would appear to be military. They could be what I’ve already said: an army. Of miniature kamikaze bugs, or some such horror movie type thing.

I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of a hive of these little thingies.

Another fun thought: See the second category in the category list below.

“I wish you bad luck …”

I don’t know which of the people I follow on Twitter drew my attention to the tweet that contained the quote that follows, a tweet which has been hanging around on my hard drive ever since I encountered it, but whoever it was, thank you.

There’s probably some computer trickery by means of which I could have straightened this out, but regulars here know that computer trickery is not a great strength of mine, and in any case, here at BMNB you get what you pay for. So, here is the quote, curves and all:

The tweeter who tweeted this, Daniel Negreanu, tells us that this is an excerpt from a commencement speech to a graduating middle school class, given at some time or other, somewhere in America, by someone called John Roberts. There is a bit of discussion below about who this particular John Roberts might be (anyone?), but basically, this is the only thing I have heard by or about him. This quote was in its turn quoted in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. That being where the curvy graphics came from. A photo presumably.

This is the kind of thing I used to put on my now long defunct Education Blog. Maybe I should start doing more of this kind of thing.

I especially like what he said about luck.

Fifteen dancing ladies in 1923

I have now well and truly caught the Shorpy habit (from Mick Hartley mostly). Usually the photos at Shorpy are of Americans, but these ladies dancing (or just posing?) on a beach are British, although the beach is American:

Shorpy calls these ladies a “millipede”, but there are only fifteen of them. Most of them are holding the lady behind’s leg up, but the one at the front has to keep her leg up unaided, and the one at the back is doing no lifting. Just thought I’d mention it.

More seriously, changing fashions in figures is a fascinating subject. These ladies look to me a wee bit more plump than their equivalents now.

I remember noticing when Indian movie stars stopped being fat, and thinking: those Indians are finally eating properly. Good news. High status Indians no longer needed to prove they could afford to eat. They needed to prove that they could resist the desire to eat too much. I’m guessing that 1923 in Britain was still a time when food was somewhat scarce, albeit not as scarce as when these paintings were done.

I spend a lot more effort and time photoing and presenting my own photos than I do searching for good photos by other people. Basically, I let people like Mick Hartley do it for me. And Shorpy. Also this guy (I love that one). Any other photography suggestions would be most welcome.

The Merlin and the man who made it fly

Sadly, Patrick and I were unable to record our intended WW2 bombing conversation this afternoon. Patrick has done his bit, but it turns out that my mere phone won’t suffice and I need to get Skype working at my end too, which is the sort of thing I am not good at and which will take me time.

But, the delay does mean I can do a bit more homework. Homework like pondering this question: What was the most impressive air war machine of WW2? The Spitfire, maybe? The Avro Lancaster? How about the de Havilland Mosquito? The North American P-51 Mustang, mentioned in yesterday’s posting?

Well, maybe none of the above. But, how about the aero-engine, also mentioned in passing yesterday, which powered all of the above? (Also the Halifax and the Hurricane.) Wikipedia has this resplendent photo, “Taken by JAW 19th November 2005 Pearce Air Force Base Western Australia”, of the engine in question:

Yes, it’s the Rolls-Royce Merlin. I doubt many of them looked like that, when they were fighting WW2. The one in this photo looks more like something we’d now see in Tate Modern. Well, we wouldn’t. But we should.

The Merlin was named, not after the noted wizard, but, like all the Rolls-Royce engines of the WW2 era, after a bird of prey.

I have long possessed and am now reading a book about the man (his name was Hives) who, more than anyone else, ensured the Merlin’s development and mass production in sufficiently war-winning numbers. The number in question being, according to Wikipedia: 149,659.

The Wikipedia entry on Hives is also worth a read, especially the bit about how Hives met, and won over, the “highly irascible but utterly pivotal” Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the USA’s nuclear submarine boss during the Cold War, and got him to cooperate with the British nuclear submarine programme.

Another recorded conversation with Patrick (about the WW2 bombing offensive)

Tomorrow afternoon Patrick Crozier and I will be recording another of our recorded conversations. Assuming all the technology behaves as it should, it will in due course go here. We’re going to be talking about the World War 2 bombing offensive. Patrick and I like talking about war.

So, what will we be saying? You’ll maybe get a clue of the sorts of things I may be saying if you read this posting, which I did for the old blog in July 2012, and which I have just copied onto this new blog, so you can now read it without having to get past a scary red screen, full of urgings that you go away at once.

I also have in mind to mention the North American Mustang, the birth and evolution of which was a fascinating story, and one perfectly calculated to cheer up any Brit who fears that America ended up making all the running in WW2. It was us Brits that got the Mustang off the drawing board, by paying North American to have a go at developing and building it in numbers. This was in 1940, way before Uncle Sam was interested in such things. And, it was a Brit engine (the Merlin) that ended up powering the Mustang, albeit a version of it made in America. The Mustang made all the difference because it was a great little fighter and it could go all the way to Germany and back.

Unlike our earlier recorded conversations, this one will be done over the phone, which I expect will be tricky. Face-to-face is so much easier. I daresay there’ll be moments when we both talk at once, and other moments where we are both waiting for the other to talk. Awkward.

The ease of face-to-face being a lot of the reason why cities exist. There’s lots of talk now about how work will now go on being done down wires instead of face-to-face, even after the Coronavirus fuss has all died down. More work will then be done down wires, I’m sure. But cities are too good an idea to abandon. Yes, in cities, you can more easily catch a disease. You can also be more easily mass-murdered by bombers, airborne or of a more primitive sort. But cities, I predict, are here to stay, because face-to-face, for all its drawbacks and dangers, will always be the best way to do so many things.

More telecommuting won’t finish off cities. Rather is telecommuting just another thing for people in cities to organise.

Parshall and Tully (and Slim) on why Japan lost

I recently watched the 2019 movie about the Battle of Midway. Wanting to make a bit more sense of what I had just watched, I then purchased Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. This seems to be a much respected volume, and now that I have started dipping into it, I find that, just as was promised, it is especially illuminating about the approach adopted by the Japanese side in this battle. Here is how the chapter entitled “Why Did Japan Lose?” ends (pp. 413-415):

British Field Marshal William Slim, who had been defeated in Burma by the Japanese in early 1942, but who would later return the favor by crushing them in the same theater in 1944, beautifully captured the spirit of his enemies in an excerpt written about the Japanese Army. He remarked:

The Japanese were ruthless and bold as ants while their designs went well, but if their plans were disturbed or thrown out – ant-like again – they fell into confusion, were slow to re-adjust themselves, and invariably clung too long to their original schemes. This, to commanders with their unquenchable military optimism, which rarely allowed in their narrow administrative margins for any setback or delay, was particularly dangerous. The fundamental fault of their generalship was a lack of moral, as distinct from physical, courage. They were not prepared to admit that they had made a mistake, that their plans had misfired and needed recasting. … Rather than confess that, they passed on to their subordinates, unchanged, the order that they themselves had received, well knowing that with the resources available the tasks demanded were impossible. Time and again, this blind passing of responsibility ran down a chain of disaster. … They scored highly by determination; they paid heavily for lack of flexibility.

This passage might just as easily have been written about Midway, as it perfectly encapsulates the problems the Japanese had when it came to altering their battle plans. In the matter of lack of moral courage, Yamamoto, Nagumo, and Yamaguchi were all quite clearly guilty as charged. Equally perceptive is Slim’s insight that sticking with a plan, even a bad plan, was a mechanism whereby the Japanese individual could personally absolve himself of responsibility for a defeat. Too often, though, the price for doing so was needless casualties, or even the outright destruction of one’s force, typically followed by the atoning suicide of the commander in question. All in all, this was not an effective model for winning a war against a numerically superior opponent.

By the same token, it is clear from many of the failures of learning and adaptation just discussed that the Japanese entered the Battle of Midway wearing doctrinal handcuffs, the effect of which was to retard still further their ability to innovate. Whereas American doctrine is generally presented to a commander as a codification of guidelines concerning the effective conduct of combat, the very nature of the Japanese military culture made its own doctrine far more rigid with regards to interpretation. This manifested itself in Nagumo and Genda’s disinclination to augment their tactical scouting assets with carrier strike assets, even in the face of accumulating evidence that the Americans were more alert than they ought to have been.

In the same way, the apparent unwillingness of First Air Fleet staff to even consider splitting the attacking power of Kido Butai after discovering the Americans later in the morning originated in doctrinal imperatives. Launching a quick attack against the Americans with CarDiv 2’s kanbaku before Tomonaga’s recovery, difficult though this would have been to implement, might have given the Japanese their best possibility to inflict more harm on their opponent than they actually managed. Yet, Japanese doctrine prescribed massed airpower as the correct answer to any tactical problem that arose, and Nagumo and his staff dogmatically stuck to that formula.

Likewise, Nagumo’s doctrinaire decision to close directly on the Americans had the effect of leaving his fleet positioned between two hostile forces (Midway and the American carriers). A decision to maneuver more freely, either to the north or northwest, could have mitigated some of the advantages that the Americans had accrued by virtue of the superior (and wholly intentional) initial positioning. Despite the Japanese love of indirect approaches at a strategic level, their love of closing directly to knife-fighting range at the tactical level was never better demonstrated than at Midway.

Some of these problems stemmed from the simple fact that in early 1942 the aircraft carrier was still a brand-new weapon system. As such, the body of doctrinal thinking in all the carrier navies was relatively small and still maturing. Other navies might have viewed an immature doctrine as being a tacit admission that some degree of interpretation by unit commanders would be required during the course of battle. The Japanese apparently did not see things this way – they stuck to the playbook, small as it might be. When improvisation was called for, they answered with the most expedient, and transparent tactic available-charging the enemy. Thus, in the critical matter of adaptation, the Japanese likewise failed abysmally.

Taken as a whole, the inescapable conclusion that emerges from a careful examination of the battle is the fact that the Japanese defeat was not the result of some solitary, crucial breakdown in Japanese designs. It was not the result of Victory Disease, nor of a few crucial personal mistakes. Rather, what appears is a complex, and comprehensive web of failures stretching across every level of the battle -strategic, operational, and tactical. Every aspect of the enterprise was tainted in some way. The surface manifestations of these deeper failures may ultimately have been a host of mistakes committed by individuals. And some of those mistakes were clearly more important that others. But the vast majority of them were in some way symptomatic of larger failures within the Japanese military and within the Navy’s cultural fabric, its doctrine, and its preferred modes of combat. They were the end products of an organization that failed to learn correctly from its past, failed to plan correctly for its future, and then failed to adapt correctly to circumstances once those plans were shown to be flawed.

Intriguingly, the seeds of many of these errors had been planted some forty years before, through the initial teachings of the Japanese Naval Staff College, and from the flower of Japan’s greatest victory – the Battle of Tsushima. They had lain unnoticed all that time, growing unchecked, waiting for the right time, place, and individuals to give them expression. Instead of culling these warped seedlings, the Japanese Navy had fostered their growth in the 1930s. The twin pressures of a violent nationalism, combined with the sure knowledge that they would be the underdog in any war with America, had conspired to skew Japan’s naval policies and doctrine still further during that time period. As a result, by the time the Pacific war began, and despite its undoubted tactical prowess, the Navy’s ability to mentally fight the war at a strategic and operational level was already fatally damaged. It was at Midway that the breadth of these shortcomings finally revealed themselves, with catastrophic results for both the Imperial Navy and the Japanese nation. Of course, in the larger context of the war, the Battle of Midway was just one of the first of a much greater harvest of bitter fruit that would fall from the poisoned tree of Japanese militarism.

The military defeats that began with the Battle of Midway stem from the harsh reality that, far from being the truly modern, progressive institution that it fondly imagined itself to be, the Imperial Navy was in fact possessed of the most parochial of outlooks. Instead of the quick, limited war Japan’s military leadership envisioned, the Pacific war soon revealed itself to be all encompassing and all consuming. In a shockingly short time, America had begun waging war against Japan across every strategic dimension available to a great industrial power – military, political, economic, and scientific. Japan was assaulted on the ground, through the air, and on and under the sea. Ultimately, it was beaten decisively in every one of these arenas. In this sense, Midway was merely symptomatic of the Imperial military’s larger failings. Most obvious was their fatally misguided decision to launch a war of aggression against the most powerful nation on earth. Having done so, moreover, they found themselves engaged in a conflict whose scope and complexity forced its participants to evolve at a frenetic pace. As it developed, for the Japanese this was a particularly daunting challenge. Despite the amazing speed with which they had modernized their fighting forces after 1848, they were still bound by thought patterns linked to an earlier military and cultural era, as well as the warped legacy of Tsushima. In the final analysis, it is no exaggeration to say that the conflict the Japanese military instigated in 1941 was not only beyond its resources, but also beyond its understanding.