Archive for April, 2022

The Apologists

Over the last week or so, I’ve gotten proposed comments citing articles by various military “authorities,” published in magazines or by organizations of, shall we say, dubious provenance. Many of the citations or facts in the articles appear to be largely accurate, but many are not.

What they all have in common, however, is a bottom line that Vladimir Putin had no choice but to attack Ukraine because the Ukrainians didn’t scrupulously “keep” the Minsk accords and because the evil Ukrainians were shelling their own people in the Donbas, i.e., the Russian-speaking sympathizers who have been fighting for years to secede from Ukraine. In fact, for practical purposes, some of those areas have seceded in all but name, but even Russia agrees that those regions aren’t legally part of Russia.

What exactly did Ukraine do to merit an invasion? Ukraine didn’t seize Russian territory. And it did agree not to join NATO. It’s a nation of 40 million people that’s hardly a military threat to Russia. It did get involved in a nasty civil war in one part of its own territory, but that war hardly threatened Russia.

And, oh yes, the apologists also claim that the Russia of today is not at all the same as the USSR, because now Russia is “capitalist,” except that the apologists conveniently ignore that quite a few “capitalists” who displease Putin end up missing, dead, or commit suicide improbably and that the Russian economy still doesn’t function all that well.

What this also ignores is that Vladimir Putin is 69 years old and a product of the USSR. In terms of his acts, and his methodology, he’s little different from Josef Stalin. Opposition is crushed ruthlessly. Even non-violent dissent isn’t tolerated. Political opponents end up imprisoned or dead. Neighboring nations are threatened and/or invaded.

Is Ukraine perfect? Hardly. It’s experienced more corruption that it should have, and likely been brutal in dealing with the equally-brutal secessionists, but it’s made considerable efforts to improve, and it’s more than clear that its people have no desire to be ruled or governed by Russia. That, by itself, should weigh much more than Putin’s hurt feelings over the fact that the Ukrainians weren’t “perfect” in abiding with an agreement forced on them at gunpoint.

And no, I won’t publish references to such apologia that read like they were crafted by Putin trolls.

Who’s In Charge?

In the war between Russia and Ukraine, who’s actually in charge of the Russian offensive? Ostensibly, Vladimir Putin is. But last week Putin declared that attacks against the steel plant in Mariupol would stop and that Russian troops would “blockade” the plant. Since then, there have been a reported 35 air strikes and at least one more ground assault, apparently repulsed.

Over the course of the war, Putin has declared several safe passage areas for civilian evacuations, corridors where Russian armed forces then repeatedly attacked and killed unarmed fleeing civilians.

Last Friday, Brigadier General Rustam Minnekayev, acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, stated that the Russian Armed Forces planned essentially to invade/occupy Moldova’s eastern territory bordering Ukraine less than 30 miles from the port city of Odessa in order create a land corridor to Crimea. What makes this interesting is that, if the translation is correct, Minnekayev is a very low-ranking general.

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged NATO with waging “in essence” a proxy war with Russia by supporting Ukraine and warned the West not to underestimate the elevated risks of nuclear conflict over Ukraine.

While all these statements and actions demonstrate is that the Russian military intends to destroy as much of Ukraine as possible and will rattle the nuclear sabre in an effort to pressure the U.S. and other allies of Ukraine into restricting military aid to the Ukrainians. But it is rather unusual that, in an authoritarian state such as Russia, there are so many different, and sometimes conflicting statements.

Such acts and statements also suggest two possibilities. Either Putin doesn’t have the control he projects and the conflict is being driven by the Russian military complex or that Russia at all levels that matter at present is hell-bent on grinding Ukraine into dust.

Neither is particularly reassuring.

The Donut Shop

When the donut shop on South Main Street opened, I gave it a year at most. In the nearly thirty years we’ve lived here, I’ve seen two donut shops and three bakeries open… and close. After close to ten years, the donut shop is going stronger than ever. It’s open from six in the morning until two in the afternoon.

How did it manage when so many others failed? I’m guessing, but it has several factors going for it. First, its donuts are by far the best in town. Second, it’s open every day of the week. Third, it has a drive-up window that’s relatively easy to access. Fourth, it serves a range of coffee, tea, and smoothie beverages, and fifth, it has a range of baked pastry-type sandwiches [I don’t know how else to describe them] for lunch.

The donuts are slightly more expensive than any others in town, roughly ten percent more.

There is one thing that bothers me, though. Given my schedule, or my wife’s, we’re almost never free to visit the donut shop until it’s close to closing time, and by then, the shop is almost always out of glazed donuts – my wife’s favorite. There are old-fashioned plain and old-fashioned glazed donuts, and chocolate iced donuts, and plenty of glazed donut holes, but no glazed donuts.

Now, the owner has been successful, when so many have failed. So who am I to suggest change?

At the same time, if he’s always out of glazed donuts by one o’clock, and he has left-over donut holes, wouldn’t it make more sense – and dollars – to bake a few more glazed donuts?

Then, maybe he does, and I have the misfortune only to show up when there aren’t any left. And that’s the danger of relying too heavily on personal and anecdotal information.

The Extremes Within

In the May issue of The Atlantic, entitled “How Social Media Made America Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt offers a critical and provocative insight into how and why the United States has become so “stupid” and politically polarized. Personally, I feel that he doesn’t make the complete case for stupidity, since he seems to ignore the impacts social media has on concentration, depth of knowledge, and other factors, but his analysis of the cause of political polarization is spot on.

In the case of political polarization, there are two main factors. One is, predictably, social media. The other is the nature of group dynamics.

Social media, and features like “share,” “like,” and “retweet,” especially on Facebook and Twitter, allow users to make their views known, and given the algorithms and human nature, particularly negative feelings, which Haidt calls “social darts.” These social darts impact human behavior. When someone is vilified on social media, justly or unjustly, the economic and societal impact can be profound.

Those most active on social media are the most “progressive” liberals, followed by the activist ultra-conservatives. No other groups come close.

Why the social dart mechanism creates political polarization results from group dynamics. Those generally on the left, for example, pay far more attention to the views of those who share many of the same beliefs, usually but not always Democrats, and moderate Democrats who oppose almost any aspect of the “woke” agenda of the progressives can be and are often targeted by the “progressive” liberals.

Republicans largely ignore liberal social darts, except to mock them, but are fearful of expressing views, even views previously expressed by noted Republicans, that would get them vilified as RINOs [Republicans In Name Only].

As a result, the greatest impact of social darts falls within social groups, and because the most active “social darters” are the extremists on both sides, those social darts have the impact of silencing dissenters who in the past have exercised a moderating influence.

Add to that the fact that social media, because of its very structure, oversimplifies complex issues, and the result is that both the “left” and the “right” have become more and more dominated by the simplistic extremes.

In short, no matter how much you blame the other “side,” the real problem lies within your side.

Understanding Vlad?

There’s been a certain amount of commentary about “understanding” Putin.

Most of the world understands him quite well. He wants to re-create an authoritarian empire that never worked all that well and couldn’t really be supported by the fifth-rate economy that was all that the Russian political structure would allow.

He’ll also kill or incarcerate anyone who he thinks is a threat, and he’ll try to smash anything that he can if he believes that it stands in his way, just like the overgrown petulant child he is – if an intelligent, ruthless, scheming, and merciless child. Ukraine is just the latest example.

Although authoritarian societies can mass and direct concentrated forces in ways difficult for freer market-based economies, that concentration is inefficient and stifles economic growth and development. That’s one reason why both Russia and China work hard at stealing information and ideas from other nations, particularly the U.S. It’s also why Russia can’t, for example, build sufficient numbers of both military and civilian aircraft, or why it’s actually reliant upon U.S. oil production technology and equipment, and why Russian exports are predominantly either natural resources or agricultural products.

Vlad the invader either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to accept the fact that comparatively freer market-based economies can out-produce and out-engineer command-and-control societies, even while we “waste” incredible amounts of resources on goods and services others would term frivolous.

The current Chinese leadership certainly does understand the economic limitations of command-and-control governments, which is why that leadership is attempting to create a system of “controlled capitalism.”

But because Putin isn’t about to even try to follow that path, he’ll bleed the Russian people dry in pursuit of his goals. Over the long run, he can’t compete against freer societies, except by destroying them. The problem is that, while he can’t “win” in the long run, right now he can create extreme atrocities and destruction, and with his nuclear arsenal, in the short run, he could make everyone lose.

Destruction Unlimited

As a world, several decades ago, we reached the position where the weapons systems we have developed can easily destroy all human civilization and wipe out all but a small fraction of the human race… and possibly all of it. The planet will endure and possibly even recover, over eons, from such destruction, but at a terrible cost.

For the last few decades, the world powers have managed not to unleash such destruction, but now we’re closer to that possibility than ever before. So what has changed?

The idea that mutual assured destruction would avert nuclear calamity rests on a fundamental assumption – that no political leader wants to destroy the world, because such destruction would result in self-annihilation. There’s a sub-assumption behind that premise, which is that political leaders will act rationally, but what’s rational to most people isn’t necessarily rational to those with extremist beliefs.

“Give me liberty or give me death” is a powerful statement, but what about Vladimir Putin’s attitude of, “If you interfere with my attack on Ukraine, I will loose nuclear fury,” and possibly destroy civilization?

Yet the Ukrainians are fighting for freedom, for their liberty, and most likely tens of thousands have already died, just to remain free of Russian control. But if the United States enters that conflict militarily, Putin might well use nuclear weapons. If the U.S. provides defensive weapons that allow Ukraine to force the Russians from Ukraine, or even force a stalemate, might not Putin issue the same threat?

Putin is capable of using tactical nuclear devices. The question is whether he is willing to use them. If he does, then what? If the U.S. replies in kind, so will Putin. And if Europe and the U.S. back down, what happens if he goes after Poland or Finland next?

Once again, the world is faced with a leader who wants to force oppression on others, leading a people unwilling to remove him…but Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons.

The Excessive Praise of “Talent”

The other evening, I attended a university opera program featuring two Puccini one-act operas. After the production was over, the Dean of the College of Performing Arts spoke to the Director of the Voice and Opera program. Her remarks were largely about the female leads, talking about how talented and impressive they were.

As I’ve mentioned some time back, this sort of talk infuriates me, especially from someone who should know better.

Why? Because the two leading singers she mentioned came to the university several years ago with nice but hardly outstanding voices. The head of the voice area worked with them, and many other students, over that period. They didn’t come as stars, as most singers don’t. It took time and effort and the expertise of the voice professor and others to bring out the best in their voices, but all the dean could rave about was their “talent.”

Singing that well isn’t just talent. It requires not only hard effort on the part of the student but a good technical and artistic voice professor to develop that “star” quality. It requires good accompanists and instruction beyond the mechanics of singing. But that effort by faculty is seldom if ever recognized. It’s as though such “stars” arrived at the university as stars.

This lack of understanding is hardly new. I’ve watched it for nearly thirty years at the university, but it’s not just here. It permeates American culture. The students did it all. The actors or actresses did it all. The athletes did it all.

Behind every “star” is a plethora of individuals who contributed to that “stardom.”

Society isn’t built on stars; it’s built on the people who developed them and who continue to support them. Stars – or billionaires – wouldn’t be possible without that support, and the excessive praise of talent and stardom is just another factor behind the current social unrest and discontent.


Last week, part of one comment on a blog post read: “I don’t think the average parent’s behavior regarding their children has changed over time.” The poster then went on to blame teachers for the attention deficit problems of students and for not adapting teaching to the internet.

Parents’ behavior hasn’t changed? Oh, really? Over what time period? Twenty-five years ago, I never saw parents buried in their cellphones all the time, as I do now. I never saw mothers with earbuds on talking on their cellphones and ignoring their children as they drive them wherever. Children weren’t spending an average of seven hours a day looking at screens. I walk daily, and have for over forty years, and it’s only been in the last ten to fifteen years when all the “younger” joggers are trotting along talking apparently to no one. I see parents using cellphones as baby-sitters all the time.

Until about twenty years ago, when college students switched classes, they talked to others they encountered. Today, classes change almost silently, and students walk along looking down at screens or concentrating on what they hear in their earbuds.

This is a seismic social change in American culture [and likely others as well], and it’s had seismic impacts on young people’s ability to concentrate, as well as on their social development. Far too many young people literally don’t know how to make conversation, and they’re awkward in social interactions. Their social maturity is 1-2 years behind that of the previous generation.

Now… the vast majority of these habits and patterns are developed before children ever enter a classroom – by the parents and the example they set. Is it the teacher’s fault that a student cannot concentrate because the student effectively has electronically-established ADHD? Or because the student is conversationally deprived?

Usage studies show fairly conclusively that parents aren’t very effective at monitoring their children’s screen time.

But, if the poster meant that parents ignored their children too much twenty years ago, I can’t really argue with that. But the cost of that ignorance is far higher now, and blaming teachers for not “solving” the habits and patterns learned at home isn’t going to address the problem… or help the children.

Also, insisting that teachers need to “solve” the problem is just passing the buck. Because teachers have always been underpaid and still are, there have always been some bad teachers, but previous generations still learned. Now, too many aren’t, because skills aren’t gained by looking things up, and real learning takes concentration that too many students not only don’t have, but find boring.

But… go ahead and blame the teachers. It’s easier than looking in the mirror.

The Need for Law

Societies and civilizations cannot exist without one basic element, and that element is trust. What is too often overlooked, however, is that, the greater the complexity and technological level of a society, the greater the need for trust.

If you grow or hunt your own food, you don’t need to worry about others tampering or degrading your food to make a few extra coins. You may be poisoned by your own failings or carelessness, or you may be a terrible farmer or hunter, but you don’t have to trust someone else.

Throughout history, there have been those who abused trust, those who sold spoiled food, debased coins, misrepresented goods, and the like. And that’s why laws against such acts have been part of cultures from early on.

Such laws become more important as technology advances. If a potter covers a flaw in a pot with glaze, or uses substandard clay, and the pot later breaks, the damage is limited to the cost to the buyer and whatever food is lost or spoiled. If a ceramics factory uses substandard clay in making a batch of electronic power insulators, the damage is far greater and far more wide-ranging.

The same is also true with regard to speech. Falsehoods used to be limited to a given community and communities were small enough that people generally knew who to trust and whom not to – based largely on the observations of actions. It wasn’t perfect, but spreading “big lies” was difficult. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. The Egyptian records involving interactions between Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittites read quite differently from the Hittite records.

The problem today is technology. Technology is neither good nor evil; it’s simply a system of knowledge and technology that multiplies the effect of everything. The associated problem is human nature. Humans are hard-wired to react more to what we perceive as dangerous. So we react more strongly to what is presented as evil or dangerous – even when we should know better. And the combination of technology and that aspect of human nature makes it difficult to combat big lies that prey on our fears.

Yet, human nature being what it is, there are always those who, for personal gain or misguided ideals, abuse trust. When a society refuses or is unable to deal with and prevent such abuses more and more people take matters into their own hands. The result is usually either anarchy and growing lawlessness or a societal reaction that results in a restrictive and authoritarian government.