Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Ideal Vice

For my money, your best vices have three attributes:
  • Little or no wholesome benefit
  • An element of selfish indulgence (bonus points for substance delivery)
  • A pleasant, charming ritual (bonus points for required accessories)

You've got your drink. Sure maybe red wine has marginal health benefits, but really what we have is the slow enjoyment of wonderful, alcohol-infused liquids from glasses of unusual shape.

You've got your gambling. Not my personal bag, but I've got to admit that it hits the high points, although any game without a skilled human running it doesn't count. Scores extra for being in close proximity to most other vices.

Churchill, Bogart, Jameson, and Dietrich

And you've got your smoking. Perhaps the best of rituals, it gives you something to do with your hands, you can (in theory) do it anywhere, and -- let's be honest -- it's the ultimate coolness multiplier. It makes Humphrey Bogart more mysterious, Winston Churchill more cunning, Marlene Dietrich more sultry, and J. Jonah Jameson more brash.

If only it weren't for the problems. There's the offensive smell and yellowing smoke. Irritating, but from what I can tell from movies, more or less 98% of human beings did it anyway in the first half of the 20th century ... before we started figuring out that it also kills you in painful and humiliating ways.

So with that in mind, I can't understand why the makers of the "electronic" cigarette, a cigarette-shaped device that delivers nicotine in vaprous form without any of the downsides, have decided to market it as a tool to help smokers quit.

I think I may finally take up smoking, if they can figure out how to give the device a quick charge from the flick of a "lighter".

Once you have such a device, why stop at simple nicotine delivery? This should be the Nespresso of inhalants, with individual cartridges of all sorts of choices and combinations of taste, smell, and over-the-counter substance. The first smoke of the day has the flavor of bitter espresso with a powerful kick of caffeine. The "eastern blend" smells faintly of aromatic herbs and delivers a mellow ginseng boost.

You notice a woman at the end of the bar, gazing coyly at you through a thin haze of alluringly scented mist that she lazily blows from the corner of her mouth. Your heart begins to pound and your breath quickens; you feel an athsma attack coming on -- quick, have a FLOVENT(TM) Smoke (now in breath-improving formula)!

Update: Crown 7 seems to now offer cigar, cigarette, and pipe form factor devices to the US market, but still only nicotine!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On War

It's not the most entertaining place to start a blog, but I have to start somewhere:

Many people, by now, are pretty familiar with the (recently-unheeded) Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. But looking back to earlier military theory on which this doctrine is based, I discovered that General Carl Von Clausewitz' "Vom Kriege" (On War), published in 1873 is available in its entirety online.

It's incredibly meticulous and well-informed, arising from the General's experience during the Napoleonic Wars, and probably not worth reading in its entirety unless you're a student of military theory. I did, however, find the wide-ranging first chapter on the "nature of war" to be incredibly interesting. In it, the author lays out the fundamental algebra of war -- clashes of diverse combinations of means, motivations and goals that have played out in conflicts in the 20th, and now the 21st century.

But the bit that struck me most was part of his dismissal of three idealized conditions that would lead to a perfect, logical war. Addressing one of these, he says:
"[War] does not consist of a single instantaneous blow."

In theory, the entirety of this kind of war would be concentrated into the preparation for the single decisive battle to be fought, with neither side launching the attack until victory could be ensured (defined by Clausewitz as the forced submittal of the enemy to the will of the attacker). This kind of war was impossible in the 19th century, but was made reality by the nuclear-driven Cold War of the 20th.

But how then is this kind of war won? Clausewitz algebra dictates that war can only be won (in the world before ICBMs) with the real application of force (not just its threat), but also that war can only be prosecuted when the political objectives to be achieved are sufficiently great enough to justify the expenditure of resources, and that both are sufficiently supported by political will (the realpolitik term that we'd now call "popular support"). In the case of the Cold War, where the entirety of war was concentrated into the preparation, means and will were combined into a single term: money. Economics "won" the Cold War, when the Soviet Union gave way beneath the burden of military spending and low productivity. Because the means and will of our enemy were the very things we sought to defeat, physical war was averted by the USSR's inability to fight it.

This to me represents an extreme case of another way to look at war, increasingly relevant in the modern world: economic war. Clausewitz calculates strength by "the sum of available means and the strength of the will". Increasingly in the technologicaly-driven US military, the means are economic, not human, and so we can (if we're sufficiently cynical) begin making direct monetary cost-benefit analyses of potential wars, assuming we have perfect understanding of the true cost of a given war. If anything has been responsible for the steady decline in the scope of war since WW2 (and I believe it has been a steady decline), it has been that the cost-benefit analysis has been increasingly unfavorable as globalization has taken hold. If the US were to attack China today, even if such a war were known to be "easy", the advantage to be gained would be far outweighed by the damage to Chinese industry that increasingly supports our own economy.

Now the battles to be fought between developed nations are bloodless and conducted between dispassionate corporations, where win-win outcomes are as viable as victory and defeat. If the world is ever to achieve an enduring peace, it may be through the marketplace's inherent favor of efficient and predictable vectors toward progress.