Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wherein Shylock and the CIA agree

Shylock, back in May 2011:
"Guantanamo, the Saudi Secret Police, or a Predator Drone. Pick one."
Former head of the CIA Michael Hayden, recently:
All three panelists trashed the Obama-era conceit that we’re a better country because we’ve scrapped the interrogation program. What we’ve really done, they argued, is replace interrogations with drone strikes. “We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture,” said Hayden, “that it seems, from the outside looking in, that the default option is to take the terrorists off the battlefield in another sort of way.” Rizzo agreed, and he quoted The Godfather to suggest that the new policy is bloody and stupid: “You can’t kill everybody.”
Good to know that people with way more information about this agree with me. Clearly a Shylock Holmes reader!

This bit was interesting:
[Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly. Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted EITs weren't torture.) That’s why “we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” Instead, EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful. “
Huh. That makes a lot of sense.

Someone should tell preening John McCain:
I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.
Great. Now that that's taken care of, do you have a better argument?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How the Sausage is Actually Made

One of things that Mencius Moldbug likes to emphasise is that most Western countries increasingly aren't democracies in a meaningful sense. Sure, we vote for politicians every couple of years. But the vast majority of the important decisions about what becomes law are made by civil servants - professional government officials who decide what's going to happen. Congress has decided that the job of governing is so vast that it will just palm it off to the secretary of the relevant department to figure out what to do. They in turn will palm it off to a bunch of junior guys, who may palm it off to some corporation or lobby group or NGO.

Don't believe me? Check out the 'Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act', a.k.a. 'Obamacare'. Do you know how many times the phrase 'The Secretary Shall' [promulgate regulations, develop standards, award grants, carry out a program, establish a formula...] appears in the act? Quick, see if you can guess.

It appears 883 times.

It's not even like the politicians are even going to any great lengths to hide how little involvement they have in lawmaking. Nancy Pelosi famously declared about the Obamacare Bill, in public, that '[W]e have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it'. Not only did she not know herself, she wasn't even afraid of admitting it. So why did she pass the Bill? Someone told her to pass the Bill, and she trusts them enough to just go along with the recommendation. Who wrote it? Who knows! Some combination of lobby groups, civil servants, NGOs, and God knows who else.

So far, the Secretary has issued over 12,000 pages of regulations elaborating on the law. And in case it wasn't clear, I'm pretty certain that the Secretary herself hasn't read and understood the intended (let alone actual) effects of all 12,000 pages of regulations. Again, who actually wrote them? Great question. Care to wager on the chance that you'll be able to get a straight answer to that question if you asked the Secretary, or Nancy Pelosi?

This isn't just a Democrat thing. Moldbug has a great example about some ridiculous Executive Order on 'Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations'. Does anyone imagine Bush knew virtually anything about this subject before passing the order? The mere suggestion is laughable.

The idea that most of the important legislative choices are being made by a bunch of nobody government officials is so rarely discussed in the popular discourse that you suspect most people don't really believe it. Come on, how much power can some random bureaucrat in an obscure bit of the government have to affect my life?

As if to remind you, here comes the latest dreary outrage in government overreach in the name of corporate cronyism - as of last Saturday, it's now illegal to unlock your mobile phone in the USA so that you can use it on another carrier.

As a policy, this is yet one more example of restricting consumer freedom in the name of protecting big business. WHEC helpfully informs us that:
Officials say carriers rarely went after customers that unlocked their phones...
and that's a guarantee you can take to the bank!
...but instead targeted businesses that bought throw away phones, unlocked them and shipped them overseas.
 Which is a clear problem because... um... you see...

But that's not what's shocking here. The real kicker is the following:
In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress, who determines exemptions to a strict anti-hacking law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), decided that unlocking cellphones would no longer be allowed. But the librarian provided a 90-day window during which people could still buy a phone and unlock it. That window closes on Jan. 26.
 F***ing who? The Librarian of Congress? Who on earth is that? And why are they determining whether I can unlock my cellphone?

If there are any Shylock Holmes readers that can prove that they knew before last week that decisions on copyright were made by the Librarian of Congress, I will personally send them a cheque for $1000.

Who wrote this awful regulation? Who decided that we needed to make criminals out of people who want to use a local SIM card while travelling in Europe before their contract is up?

Beats me. Some flunkie in the US Copyright Office of the Librarian of Congress. And how did the person get the idea to do this? Presumably the phone companies donated to somebody important, and got this disgraceful back room deal.

If you still believe the fiction that laws are made by elected representatives, you may be wondering whom you complain to to get the Librarian of Congress replaced. Oh, the halcyon days of youthful naivete! Do you think the Cathedral cares one whit about your opinion?

Every now and then the public service will step sufficiently far out of line that politicians will occasionally overrule the decision. The public assumes that this means that the rest of the regulation has been given careful oversight and assented to. Care to wager over how many of those 12,000 pages have been scrutinised by any elected official ever, given Congress couldn't be bothered writing them in the first place?

And for the remaining 99.9% of regulations, some group of guys whose titles and positions will be meaningless to you are busily deciding how the power of the state will be administered.

At least in the EU the elites have essentially given up on the farce of pretending that any meaningful decisions will be decided by the popular will.

Here in the US, the charade continues a while longer.

None of this would have been a surprise to the great Robert Heinlein, who described it very memorably way back in 1961 in his book 'Stranger in a Strange Land':
IN THE VOLANT LAND OF LAPUTA, according to the journal of Lemuel Gulliver recounting his Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, no person of importance ever listened or spoke without the help of a servant, known as a "climenole" in Laputian-or "flapper" in rough English translation, as such a Servant's only duty was to flap the mouth and ears of his master with a dried bladder whenever, in the opinion of the servant, it was desirable for his master to speak or listen. Without the consent of his flapper it was impossible to gain the attention of any Laputian of the master class.
Gulliver's journal is usually regarded by Terrans as a pack of lies composed by a sour churchman. As may be, there can be no doubt that, at this time, the "flapper" system was widely used on the planet Earth and had been extended, refined, and multiplied until a Laputian would not have recognized it other than in spirit.
In an earlier, simpler day one prime duty of any Terran sovereign was to make himself publicly available on frequent occasions so that even the lowliest might come before him without any intermediary of any sort and demand judgment. Traces of this aspect of primitive sovereignty persisted on Earth long after kings became scarce and impotent. It continued to be the right of an Englishman to "Cry Harold!" although few knew it and none did it. Successful city political bosses held open court all through the twentieth century, leaving wide their office doors and listening to any gandy dancer or bindlestiff who came in.
The principle itself was never abolished, being embalmed in Articles I & IX of the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America-and therefore nominal law for many humans-even though the basic document had been almost superseded in actual practice by the Articles of World Federation.
But at the time the Federation Ship Champion returned to Terra from Mars, the "flapper system" had been expanding for more than a century and had reached a stage of great intricacy, with many persons employed solely in carrying out its rituals. The importance of a public personage could be estimated by the number of layers of flappers cutting him off from ready congress with the plebian mob. They were not called "flappers," but were known as executive assistants, private secretaries, secretaries to private secretaries, press secretaries, receptionists, appointment clerks, et cetera. In fact the titles could be anything-or (with some of the most puissant) no title at all, but they could all be identified as "flappers" by function: each one held arbitrary and concatenative veto over any attempted communication from the outside world to the Great Man who was the nominal superior of the flapper.
This web of intermediary officials surrounding every V.I.P. naturally caused to grow up a class of unofficials whose function it was to flap the ear of the Great Man without permission from the official flappers, doing so (usually) on social or pseudo-social occasions or (with the most successful) via back-door privileged access or unlisted telephone number. These unofficials usually had no formal titles but were called a variety of names: "golfing companion," "kitchen cabinet," "lobbyist," "elder statesman," "five-percenter," and so forth. They existed in benign Symbiosis with the official barricade of flappers, since it was recognized almost universally that the tighter the system the more need for a safety valve.
The most successful of the unofficials often grew webs of flappers of their own, until they were almost as hard to reach as the Great Man whose unofficial contacts they were . . . in which case secondary unofficials sprang up to circumvent the flappers of the primary unofficial. With a personage of foremost importance, such as the Secretary General of the World Federation of Free States, the maze of by-passes through unofficials would be as formidable as were the official phalanges of flappers surrounding a person merely very important.
So it was, so it is, so it will continue to be.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to find a primary care physician in America

Step 1. Go to websites like Healthgrades or RateMDs and check out the ratings of doctors in your area

Step 2. Read through the reviews, try to decipher which ones are bogus. Decide that the doctors that score well must at least be doing a good internet reputation management system, and hey, isn't that a sign that they care?

Step 3. Read through some of the profiles and figure out that the ratings are based on junk like 'he's a really nice guy' and 'he spends time with me', and if you're lucky maybe one review complaining about a specific misdiagnosis. This lets you identify some doctors that suck, leaving you with the 'all 5 star possibly bogus reviews' guys.

Step 4. Figure out that in fact the far more useful information is the quality of the medical school they went to and the quality of the hospital they interned at. There is, of course, no way to filter by this information.

Step 5. Settle on some guy that looks good based on your really half-assed search criteria of 'went to a medical school I've heard of' and 'well-rated on both websites'. Call up to make an appointment, get told he's not taking new patients.

Step 6-12. Go down the eligibility list repeating this procedure for successively less desirable doctors. Begin to realise that most of the best doctors are closed to new patients, and that the accuracy of the 'Accepting New Patients' checkbox on the website is no more than 50%. In a few lucky cases, you'll get a doctor who is accepting new patients, but the earliest appointment for a new patient is in 6 weeks time. This is less helpful if you happen to be in need of medical care, you know, now.

Step 13. Call up one of the reception desks at a place you'd previously been refused and ask when the earliest new patient appointment is if you don't care who the doctor is. Realise from the receptionist's reply that the vast number of places do not apparently have appointment management software that can actually answer that question easily, even for the doctors within their own practice.

Step 14. Using a repetition of the procedure in step 13, reach a receptionist who actually doesn't even bother to check the calendar but instead refers you to a doctor in another practice. A quick search reveals that the internet knows virtually nothing about this person or the quality of her care, except that the dates on her profile make it clear that she's only recently moved to this state, and hence doesn't have many patients.

Step 15. Make an appointment with Sally Random, MD, for two days time.

Step 16. Start thinking whether you want to make a 6 weeks time appointment with one of the better doctors for a general checkup or some junk just to get on the 'current patients' list. Decide to put it off until you find out just how bad Sally Random, MD, actually is.

Step 17. Finally figure out why everyone just goes to emergency rooms or urgent care places for medical treatment, or, in the case of my friend, only calls up specialists directly, since they actually have appointments available.

Update: Step 18. Double check on Sally Random, find out her medical degree is from some place in the Caribbean. Decide this is unacceptable, start going through the list of doctors in the medical group you're examining and just reference their medical school with lists of rankings of medical schools. Hate life.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Segregation Lives On

Not forced segregation, mind you. Like so many reactionary ideas (some of which were good, some of which, like this one, were not) it's gone and not coming back. You can measure how much it's not coming back by the infinitesimal number of Americans who would rate its absence as anything other than a clear indication of social progress.

So people like the idea that the government no longer forces people to segregate by race. So far, so good - the government certainly has no business enforcing such a policy.

People will also tell you that they don't like the idea of segregation in and of itself, even if it's not being imposed by government fiat. That, too, is a perfectly defensible and reasonable position.

But what's all the more puzzling is that notwithstanding the large number of Americans who would express such an opinion, geographically America is incredibly segregated by race. And nobody seems much bothered by it, as long as they don't have to talk about it.

Don't believe me? Check out this fascinating New York Times website that lets you visualise the demographic breakdown of each area.

Here's Chicago.

The green dots are white people, the yellow dots are Hispanics, the blue dots are black people, and the red dots are Asians.

Amazing, no? There are some parts where there's a gradual gradient across racial lines, but others where it's an incredibly sharp division.

Some of this can be explained as an effect of sorting on income. But if you look at the sharp divides between some of the black and Hispanic areas, it's hard to see much in the way of economic difference between them. Compare say zip code 60604 (94.8% black, median household income $26,930) with, say, zip code 60623 (62.9% Hispanic, median household income $28,203) or zip code 60608 (62.7% Hispanic, median household income $28,026) and it's hard to explain this as a rich area/poor area phenomenon.

This isn't just a Chicago thing, either. Go here and type in 'New York', 'Cleveland', 'St Louis', 'Los Angeles' or 'Las Vegas'. Everywhere you go, it's there.

So if this isn't an income thing, and it isn't a legislatively coerced thing (and I imagine it's not a 'provision of government services' thing), then what exactly is it? Do people actually just prefer to live around people of the same race, all other things equal? If you find the idea uncomfortable, don't blame me, I didn't make the city of Chicago look like that. Neither did the government. Millions of individuals, freely choosing where to live, created the map above.

It's certainly not a pleasant hypothesis. But honestly, if you look at the map, do you have a better explanation?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"You Won!" - The sneakiest trick used by poker machines

Okay, as soon as I wrote that I realized that there’s probably dozens of sneakier ones I don’t know about, but this one I have at least observed. Poker machines are designed to frame the gamble so that you think you're winning more often than you actually are.

Consider how an economist would represent a poker machine-type gamble:

Probability          Total Payoff

0.7                          -1

0.15                        0

0.05                        1

0.02                        3

0.01                        5


What this representation makes clear is that 70% of the time, you lose money, 15% of the time you break even, and 15% of the time you win in varying amounts.

But losing 70% of the time is too depressing. So they choose to present it differently, namely:

Probability          Revenue Payoff

0.7                          0

0.15                        1

0.05                        2

0.02                        4

0.01                        6


This distinction is subtle but highly devious. Most importantly, the chance of you ‘winning’ under this new metric is now boosted from 15% to 30%. And who doesn’t love that! 

So how do the machines encourage you to follow the second way of thinking about the gamble?

The first is crude but effective - they glaringly displaying the text ‘You Won!’ when you get the 15% outcome. To anyone with two brain cells to run together, this is nonsense – you broke even, you didn’t win. But they encourage you to feel that rush of winning even when they’re not paying you any money.

The second way they do it is that the 1 unit gets subtracted as soon as you press the button, before the spin is decided. Only then is the payoff determined, and this is done in a separate step. The logic is like you’re “paying” every time to buy the gamble, like paying for the game itself. Then the payoffs are what you get afterwards

This alternative way of phrasing it obscures the fact that you’re losing 70% of the time, as opposed to just not winning. In prospect theory, this matters a ton – people really care about the first penny of losses. But here, they encourage you to put the money you pay initially into a separate mental account, as just a base cost of playing. The “payoffs” to the game, are thus only zero or positive. Just ignore that steady drip-drip-dripping of money, it’s just the cost of doing business.

The honest poker machine would be forced to display equally brightly the text ‘You Lost!’ every time you rolled and lost money, and report payoffs at the time of the gamble realization so that people identified more cleanly which are the loss states. If you got that rubbed in all the time, maybe you’d react differently.

But then you wouldn’t play the poker machines as much. And frankly there’s dozens of ways to get people to gamble less, but nobody’s much interested in investigating what they are. Still, at least Richard Thaler would approve of this one. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

A partial defence of the Fahrenheit System

Like anybody raised outside the US, the metric system of measurements seems self-evidently better than the ludicrous imperial system. The advantages were best summed up by a French friend of mine, who said ‘Tell you what, I’ll convert to the imperial system when you can tell me without a calculator or pen and paper how many ounces there are in 4.256894 imperial tons.’ The point being, of course, that it’s trivially easy to work out how many grams there are in 4.256894 metric tonnes, because everything divides through by 10.

So you don’t have to sell me on the general principle here. But true to a slight contrarian streak (The Couch: “Slight”? Are you kidding me?) I feel compelled to advance some of the better but more overlooked arguments. A company may be good in fundamentals but still overpriced, and the same logic applies to arguments.

For the Fahrenheit/Celsius distinction, the difference is less material. We find it pleasing for round numbers like 0 and 100 to be associated with important physical phenomena like water boiling and freezing. But this really is just an aesthetic point, because you could just as easily subdivide 1F into sub-units as 1C. It’s not clear that anyone has ever proposed converting all the other units of weights and measures to metric while retaining the Fahrenheit scale of temperatures, but as far as I can tell it wouldn’t make scientific calculations obviously any harder (besides needing to re-learn the physical constants in different units, which is a one-off cost for any proposed change).

One benefit of the Fahrenheit system is that the unit of measurement is smaller – 4/9 smaller, to be precise. This isn’t inherently useful, but it does mean that more information is conveyed over the range of temperatures that you typically observe.

For instance, take the example of a car thermostat (which first got me thinking about this problem). The air conditioner in my house back in Australia lists the temperature in degrees Celsius. While the range of temperatures out in the real world is pretty large, the range of temperatures that cover 95% of my air conditioner use is essentially 19C to 25C. What this means is that I’m given 7 useful temperature settings. Which, most of the time, is fine.

But if I’ve got a Fahrenheit thermostat (which I do in my US car), this gives me 12 useful settings from 66F to 77F.

Now, I know the likely objection- “Come on, can you really tell a difference of 1 degree Fahrenheit?”
To which I respond, “Truthfully, if you gave me a blind temperature test, I don’t know - maybe some of the time, maybe not. But here’s the flip side – 1 degree Celsius is calculated as 1/100th the difference between the freezing temperature of water at sea level and the boiling temperature of water at sea level. What on earth makes you think that this amount is also magically equal to the smallest temperature difference that humans can discern? Is there any evidence for this proposition at all?”

I found myself thinking about this when I realized that after several years of driving, I tended to automatically adjust the thermostat in units of 2 Fahrenheit. Subconsciously, I was thinking of temperature changes of roughly 1C, and just ignoring the odd numbers. And then it occurred to me that this made absolutely no sense at all. While I’m not some sensitive ninny, there were times when you really did feel marginally more comfortable at 73F than 72F or 74F.

This may just have more to do with the nature of air conditioners, where they are more likely to have a logic of ‘always turn on when temperature is above X and go at full bore until temperature drops below Y’, where X and Y are some tolerances around whatever you set the dial at. If you really could keep the temperature truly constant, it perhaps wouldn’t matter as much.

Of course, this difference was nowhere near large enough to complain if someone else set thermostat off by 1F, but if it’s just you, why are you avoiding the odd numbers in the first place?

All things considered, I’ll score this as a mild win. One cheer for Fahrenheit, I say.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fake Accents

One of my hobbies is to try to imitate foreign accents. It's often convenient for humor purposes to be able to portray a generic person of some nationality - Yank, Irish, Brit, whatever. You need to get it good enough that that it doesn't devolve into 'half-assed Indian accent', which is the death rattle of any impersonation.

Fake accents are also great as examples of the power of suggestion. The easiest trick is to just find a few words that suggest the place in question according to stereotypes, learn to do them well, and just sprinkle them in liberally. So if you needed to suggest Irishness, you could just learn Irish-sounding versions :
'County Cork'
'Fookin' English'.
and just use them in some combination.
'I love Guinness with me 'taters, 'specially in County Cork. But not with the fookin' English'.

If you need to actually give a randomly chosen dialogue in a foreign accent, it's considerably harder, since you can't just pick your own words. The chance of being able to convince people depends greatly on their own familiarity with the accent. The hardest is to convince native speakers, since they'll know immediately what sounds wrong. The gold standard for all this is of course Hugh Laurie - Americans who watched House are constantly surprised to find out that his normally speaking voice is strongly English. This is the real Hugh Laurie voice. You can here his House accent here and here.

My fake American accent is marginal at best. By which I mean, it's pretty good by the standard of most people's fake accents, but put me next to a native-speaking American and you can clearly tell where my flubs and weird vowel sounds are. C.f. Hugh Laurie, my American friends generally find it painful to listen to. So if the test is 'If you suspect it might be fake, can you quickly find evidence to confirm this hypothesis?', then I flunk it by a mile.

But most of the time, this isn't actually the test. The real test is 'If you didn't know in advance that it was fake, is it bad enough to raise in your mind the possibility that it might be an impersonation?'. It turns out that this is a much easier standard to beat, because most of the time people aren't on the lookout for someone using a fake accent.

Being a man of science, I decided to try this in the wild. For the first 40 minutes of meeting new Americans, I'd use my fake American accent, then switch to Australian. I'd then ask the person if they suspected that it was fake. Based on a pretty big sample, the percentage who suspected it was fake was between about 5 and 10%. And this is for an accent so bad that people who know me find it gratingly unpleasant to listen to. But people who don't know me just interpret the mistakes as being some sort of regional variation - the slightly Australian 'r' sounds were forgiven as being some sort of East coast/Boston twang.

It's really an example of the curse of knowledge - people who know some information are typically very bad at putting themselves in the position of someone who didn't know the information. If you know my accent is fake, you suspect that everyone will be able to tell that it's fake. But it doesn't work that way.

The other funny observation on this came from my friend SH, who watched one of my recent attempts. He said that my body language became somewhat forced. It was like, he said, watching me trying to perform a difficult calculation. I'd totally believe it - some significant part of your brain is devoted to making the words come out in a different way, and this is actually pretty hard work.

Convincing them that you're not weird after you switch accents, however, is considerably harder. Nobody said science was easy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cause once I blow they know that I'll be the woman

My corner solution song of the moment is 'Hyperactive', by the Dollyrots. Imagine everything you secretly like about Avril Lavigne, but in a group not yet sufficiently popular that listing to it is socially unacceptable. If that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is.

It also raises a question that I've thought about before in the context of the Ting Tings - it seems vaguely emasculating as a guy to be a backup musician in a band with a female lead singer. This is particularly true in the case of the Ting Tings, since it's very obvious that the guy has all the musical talent out of the two - when the girl isn't actually playing any instruments in a two person group, it's a bit of a giveaway. Maybe he's just found a clever marketing scheme, similar to the way nightclubs hire attractive door girls and bartenders.

Frankly it's emasculating to be a backup musician in general (this isn't just my view, incidentally). But it seems likely that you're going to get even less attention than normal when it's a female front(man). The teenage girls seem more likely to be there because they idolise the girl. Maybe some of that will rub off onto you, but I'm sure it's less than usual. If adoring fans turn up backstage, it seems less likely that they're their for their special musical souvenir than in the case of an all-male group. This goes even more so if the girl is highly obnoxious - if you land the job as the drummer for Courtney Love or Alanis Morissette, you should really consider where you went wrong in life.

Still, as a man of science, I'm always willing to update my views. The comments to the Dollyrots video include a fair number of references to the single guy in the band being attractive. And this is true even though I had to look their names up on Wikipedia to make sure he was actually a guy, as the haircut is not exactly a giveaway. Maybe the lack of internal competition for the groupie love is more valuable than I think. At a minimum, he's certainly getting more tail than if he'd gone to medical school.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Brecher on the War of 1812

The American/British version, not the Russian/French one.

Check it out. It starts here, and is up to part 9 so far. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Seriously, if you collected these into a short book, it would be by far the most entertaining account I've read of the whole thing. Brecher starts with the observation that very few people have a clear idea what the war was actually about:
We’ve got a soundbite for all our wars except 1812 and Korea. Try it and you’ll pop up the right cliché easy as spitting. American Revolution: three-cornered hats, redcoats falling in a line like chorus girls, cold feet at Valley Forge. Civil War: big beautiful tragedy that either was or wasn’t about slavery depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you live on. WW II: The Greatest Generation, and Nazis’r’bad, mmmmkay? Viet Nam: tur’ble, tur’ble shame, all them fine young men.
But those two, 1812 and Korea—we don’t talk about them much. For one thing, they both ended in a draw. And like coaches always say, a military tie is like bayoneting your sister. It’s a shame, because they were both wild, funny wars — much more interesting, if you ask me, than that overrated WW II.
Maybe the problem is that both those wars featured big bug-outs by American infantry—something we don’t much like to remember. But then both those wars also had moments of real glory: Inchon and Chosin in Korea, Baltimore and New Orleans in the War of 1812.
For a taste of the awesome, check out this description of the embarrassing American performance at the Battle of Bladensburg:
Like a lot of battles, this one was a matter of deployment; the few minutes of actual noise and smoke were one of those foregone conclusions, like a Raiders game. The Americans had a couple of decent artillery units, which delayed the inevitable, but a few of those Congreve rockets whooshing overhead was enough to send the civilians in uniform thinking of going home. Yeah, if Francis Scott Key had been at the Battle of Bladensburg instead of the Siege of Baltimore, the anthem would’ve had some different lyrics: “Oh say can you see, the rockets’ red glare?/Oh God, I sure can, and I’m right outta there.” The few units of regular artillery who’d stood their ground were deserted and exposed, and the whole American line gave way.
Ha! Comedy gold.

In other news, I'm now back in the US of A, and regularly scheduled blogging will commence shortly. Huzzah!