Friday, August 8, 2014

Squirrel Food

Yes, Gentle Reader: It's yet another "assorted" column. Please excuse me; I'm just dead resting. (Beautiful plumage, isn't it?)

1. Leading From Behind Again?

You're probably aware that the Won has authorized "limited" air strikes against the ISIS forces encircling the Christians and Yazidis on that mountain in northern Iraq. What you might not know is that he's late to the party:

“The several hundred American advisers that I ordered to Iraq will continue to assess what more we can do to help train, advise and support Iraqi forces going forward,” Obama said. “And just as I consulted Congress on the decisions I made today, we will continue to do so going forward. My fellow Americans, the world is confronted by many challenges, and while America has never been able to right every wrong, America has made the world a more secure and prosperous place.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that Obama “has acted expeditiously and appropriately in authorizing targeted military action and providing significant humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq at this very difficult moment when it is vitally needed.”

“With a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, there’s not a minute to waste. The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die,” Kerry said. The Turks actually took lead on the first humanitarian drops escorted by their F-16s. [Emphasis added by FWP]

It hardly matters how one feels about the use of American military power on "discretionary" causes such as this one. The point is that Obama is deploying an old political tactic: "Show me which way the crowd is going, so I can lead them." Sentiment favoring humanitarian intervention in Iraq had grown strong enough to persuade him that such an intervention would be best for him personally. But note that he waited for other forces to act, so any unsavory repercussions from events in that theater could be credibly shifted to other shoulders.

2. The Devil You Know and The One-Vote Effect.

Lamar Alexander has defeated TEA Party favored Joe Carr for the GOP's Senatorial nomination in Tennessee:

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander will hold the Republican spot on the November election ballot, despite losing in his home district of Blount County. The two term senator and former governor defeated tea party challenger State Representative Joe Carr in the primary Thursday.

"I look forward to the general election. I invite all those who voted for my opponents to work with me. I invite democrats and independents to join me," Senator Alexander told reporters after the race was called. "We've got to learn to work together if we're going to solve big problems in this country."

That's it for TEA Party challenges to Establishment Republicans in this election cycle. Given the degree of hostility to the political Establishment, it can be hard to understand.

Part of it is political inertia, reinforced by "the devil you know" effect. Quite a lot of voters will always prefer the familiar to the untried, which is one of the reasons I consider the success of this presidential bid fantasy rather than a plausible near-future development. But alongside that we have the "one vote effect:" the tendency of those who might have tipped the scales in the opposite direction to stay home out of inchoate despair: "My one vote can't make a difference."

While it's true that any individual vote is highly unlikely to decide an election, there's a renormalized rationality effect to be considered as well: the pernicious influence of such an attitude on like-minded others susceptible to its dreary lure. As the saying goes, "Hard work might pay off tomorrow; laziness pays off today." That applies to stirring one's stumps and getting to the polling place, though traveling the handful of miles required to get there doesn't strike many as "hard work."

Remember that your attitude can prove transmissible to others -- and that the "others" around you are more likely than not to hold similar opinions on political questions.

3. And While We're On The Subject Of Transmissibility...

The arrival of the Ebola virus on North American shores has the nation at the edge of panic. There are grounds for grave concern, to be sure. The disease is more often fatal than not, and horrifically so at that. But there are also reasons to remain relatively calm, though prudent in one's comings and goings.

First, even the most transmissible disease requires a vector: a mode of transportation from one infectee to the next. The vector for Ebola is virally-loaded fluid particles absorbed through the mucosa. More, the virus is adapted to tropical / jungle conditions and cannot survive for very long in a temperate climate, outside a compatible host. So public health provisions for preventing the spread of the disease are relatively simple:

  • Minimize your exposure to strangers and large groups;
  • Cover your mouth and nose when about to sneeze or cough;
  • Resist the importunings of your Ebola ravaged lover to "do it just one more time before I croak."

Second, Ebola's speed of onset is a factor in limiting its spread: it incapacitates and kills rather quickly. Thus, the period during which a carrier can be out and about is limited to a short time, after which he's unlikely to be in Grand Central Station to cough on someone else.

Third, remember how clean Americans tend to be. Cleanliness is important in limiting the transmission of any microbe. When we face a threat like this, we tend to intensify such practices, which, even if unnecessary during happier times, is all to the good during a period of alarm.

Be not...well, be a little afraid. But force your fears to serve you. Don't let them paralyze you.

4. Ocean Habitation and Freedom Of The Seas.

Roger Zelazny, among others, wrote of ocean-floor "bubble cities" that would permit mass human colonization of the seas. He used the motif en passant in his novella "The Eve of RUMOKO," which can be found in his episodic novel My Name Is Legion, but without examining many of its deeper implications. Similarly, David Brin lightly explored the concept of ocean-surface colonization in his novel Earth, but left many side trails from such a development unexplored. One such pertains to conceptions of naval power and the concept of "freedom of the seas."

"Freedom of the seas" is an ancient concept predicated on the absence of persistent structures in the seas and oceans: that is, the sort of edifices humans create when we're making homes and such. If one assumes that such persistent occupation of a well defined place in or on the waters is impossible, it follows from Lockean principles that no one can acquire property rights in or on the seas. That assumption is already being challenged by deep-water oil-drilling platforms, but so far none of those have yet grown large or ramified enough to constitute an enduring habitat for Man.

Without the ability to seize a delineated portion of the sea and "enclose it from the common" in an enduring way, it becomes thinkable to propound the notion that "freedom of the seas" -- i.e., passage over or under the waters as one might prefer -- should be the right of all persons and nations. But imagine along with this half-deranged science fiction writer for a moment: What if either Zelzany's undersea bubble-city concept or Brin's floating-habitat concept should become a reality?

The problem is more complex than it appears at first blush, for it's a longstanding tenet of property law that property tenure upon the surface of the Earth implies certain rights over whatever is above or below, unless explicitly ceded at the time of acquisition. For example, cessions, adverse covenants, and zoning ordinances to the side, I could erect an orbital access tower on my property without concerning myself over any aircraft discommoded by it. They, not I, would have to adjust. (Granted that it would be pretty silly for me to do such a thing. My property taxes are already quite high enough.) Subsurface rights are treated similarly: cessions, adverse covenants, and zoning ordinances to the side once more, I have the right to excavate on my land to whatever depth I desire, and to claim whatever I might find there.

Bubble-cities on the seabed might be conceded similar rights, though they might prove unable to exploit them, owing to their need for watertight enclosure. Floating habitats wouldn't be likely to extrude structures far above them, but what about below them? And what influence would such developments have upon the free passage not only of passenger and cargo traffic through the seas but upon vessels of war, especially submarines? How much sovereignty in a portion of the seas would be consistent with any degree of naval power projection?

There's seed material for a story or two in there, I think. Alfred Thayer Mahan, call your office!

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