January 19, 2008


For first time visitors, it is the policy of this blog to cover fairly serious human issues during the week. Weekends, however are reserved for the contributions of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we are pleased to welcome back a perennial favorite, Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor SHEGG-ay, our official film critic.

We must remind the reader that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whist chasing a squeaky toy and as a result has been known on occasion to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nevertheless, we believe that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

This weekend, he has chosed to review the film Batman Begins.

It is our hope that features such as these will elevate the level of cultural discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


OK, like this is an awesome movie and it's kind of deep too. There's this guy, Bruce Wayne, who turns out to be Batman. But he wasn't always Batman, see? He was once a little kid whose parents left him alone when they went on vacation and these guys tried to break into the house.

If it wasn't for the little alien with the flying bicycle, he would have been in trouble.

While they were gone, lots of things happened. He turned into this English woman with lots of sisters and went to a ball. There was a guy there named Mr. Darcy Vader, who seemed like a scary rich dork. But Batman/English woman eventually thought she might have been wrong about him and that he wasn't such a dork after all.

That's where it really got cool. Mr. Darcy Vader turned out to be his real dad and he had to fight him anyway with light sabres. The marriage was off.

When it was all over, he does this big power point on how the world is getting hotter.

This movie asks tough questions like who are you and like can you act one way and say you really are another way. I don't know about that.

Can I have some popcorn now?


January 18, 2008


Lately, El Cabrero has been thinking about what people who want a less violent and more just world can learn from studying strategy and the history of conflict, with a special emphasis on the teachings of Sun Tzu.

As mentioned previously this week, there are some areas in which The Art of War and the modern theory of nonviolent action dovetail.

As you might expect, there are also areas where it's a bit murkier. Take this passage from Chapter 1:

Warfare is the art (tao) of deceit. Therefore, when able, seem to be unable; when ready, seem unready; when nearby, seem far away; and when far away, seem near. If the enemy seeks some advantage, entice him with it. If he is in disorder, attack him and take him. If he is formidable, prepare against him. If he is strong, evade him. If he is incensed, provoke him. If he is humble, encourage his arrogance. If he is rested, wear him down. If he is internally harmonious, so divisiveness in his ranks. Attack where he is not prepared; go by way of places where it would never occur to him you would go. These are the military strategist's calculations for victory--they cannot be settled in advance.

Speaking for the moment purely as a martial artist, that's the way you do it.

In karate, for example, you may deliberately appear to leave yourself open to entice an attack for which you are prepared or feint in one or more directions to draw attention away from your main intention.

In judo, you might fake one throw to set up another. In grappling, you never reveal how close you are to tapping out. If someone more powerful than you attacks, the best tactic is to yield to their force and unbalance them.

Common ingredients to all this is controlling the perception of the opponent, applying energy where it has the most effect, avoiding superior force.

In the ordinary scuffles of life and in nonviolent efforts to make a difference, deception is a bad thing. Putting out wrong information can completely discredit a cause. Misleading people to do what you want them to do is not very nice either. Then, as Mark Twain put it,

Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said.

Having said that, however, there is an inescapable element of theater in all social life. The late great sociologist Erving Goffman called it "the art of impression management" in his classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and it's something we all do just about all the time.

Most everyone tries to appear at ease when nervous, politely interested when bored, more prepared than we really are, etc. Every coalition in the world tries to present itself as more powerful and unified than it probably is.

And even the most honest people exercise some control over the information they convey. Most people probably wouldn't give bank account or credit card numbers to strangers. Honest coaches don't reveal their strategy to each other during a game.

Nearly every group chooses when and where to release information and what information not to release. Many people wait for the most opportune moment to try to accomplish something. Every rational person engaged in debate on an issue will take advantage of the weak points in an opponent's position given the opportunity.

Finally, to borrow from the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, there are some situations where what he calls "communicative rationality" can work. Those are situations where all parties have a voice and access to information and decisions are arrived at by agreement. In an ideal world, that would be the norm.

But there are situations in life where one person or group has power over another and isn't interested in listening. Habermas noted that in cases where open and equal communicative action is blocked, people may have to resort to strategic action of some sort until the possibility of communicative action is restored or achieved.

NEEDED: A NEW NEW DEAL. That's the theme of this Washington Post column by Harold Meyerson.

ON THAT NOTE, Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute noted earlier this week that

both hourly and weekly earnings fell in 2007, a sharp reversal from the gains in 2006. After growing by about 2% in 2006, both hourly and weekly earnings fell, after adjusting for inflation, by about 1% last year.

THE LONGEVITY DIVIDE. Also from EPI, the latest snapshot shows that the growing economic divide is reflected in life expectancies. While people are living longer,

the increase in longevity is not balanced across the income ladder. According to a new working paper by Hilary Waldron of the Social Security Administration, a male in the top half of the earnings distribution who turned 60 in 1972 could expect to live 1.2 years longer than one in the bottom half. By 2001, the gap had grown to 5.8 years...

BIG BUSINESS AND PUBLIC TRUST are two things that have very little in common in recent opinion polls.

TWO ON MASSEY. Lawyers in a WV Supreme Court case involving Massey Energy have asked for the recusal of justice Benjamin, who was elected in 2004 with massive support from a 527 supported by CEO Don Blankenship. In a different court, Massey couldn't rely on...uhhh...fortune:

Federal environmental regulators believe a record $20 million fine, new pollution monitoring requirements and the threat of automatic penalties for additional violations will force Massey Energy Co. to change the way it does business.

STOP THE PRESSES!!!! According to this item from Wired Science,

Hungarian researchers have written a program that explains the meaning of dogs' barks.

El Cabrero has been working on similar research and recently cracked the code one sound emitted by the man in the picture. It came out as "Perhaps you would care to play a round of squeaky toy."


January 17, 2008


It's hard to believe, but we're approaching the fifth anniversary of the Bush administration's unnecessary war in Iraq. That's longer than the US Civil War and our involvement in World War II.

For the latest reckoning of US casualties, click here. As mentioned here earlier this week, the World Health Organization estimates over 150,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion.

Financially, the war has been estimated to cost over $1 trillion in the first four years. Now it's costing around $720 million per day or $500,000 per minute.

Over the last several days this blog has been exploring how people interested in a less violent and more just world can learn from studying conflict and strategy, with a special focus on Sun Tzu, who believed the highest level of accomplishment is to accomplish one's objectives without a struggle.

It's only fitting at this time to quote his warnings on the dangers of a long war, from Chapter 2 of The Art of War:

If battle is protracted, your weapons will be blunted and your troops demoralized. If you lay siege to a walled city, you exhaust your strength. If your armies are kept in the field for a long time, your national reserves will not suffice. Where you have blunted your weapons, demoralized your troops, exhausted your strength and depleted all available resources, the neighboring rulers will take advantage of your adversity to strike. And even with the wisest counsel, you will not be able to turn the ensuing consequences to the good.

Thus in war, I have heard tell of a foolish haste, but I have yet to see a case of cleverly dragging on the hostilities. There has never been a state that has benefited from an extended war. Hence, if one is not fully cognizant of the evils of waging war, he cannot be fully cognizant either of how to turn it to best account.

BLOOM AND BUST. Yale literary professor Harold Bloom doesn't care much for the Iraq war, Harry Potter, or Stephen King. I'm with him on the first, have no opinion on the second, but must admit a certain occasional flirtation with the works of the third. Especially the older stuff.

LIKE A SPRINGSTEEN SONG. This item from yesterday's NY Times about the loss of blue collar jobs points to a sad trend.


Black homeowners have been hit particularly hard, largely because predatory lenders have been steering them toward subprime loans for years at more than twice the rate of white homeowners, even when they could afford prime rates. According to the Urban League, home equity accounts for almost 90 percent of black homeowners' net worth. So as the housing market collapses, much of the new wealth that has accumulated in black communities in recent decades will go with it.

The Urban League and Rainbow/PUSH are planning a Jan. 22 march on the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC to bring attention to this crisis.

FEAR AND TREMBLING. As the 2008 elections approach, some management types are scared about the prospects of a new Congress passing the Employee Free Choice Act which just might help rebuild the middle class. El Cabrero is temporarily overcome with sympathy for their plight. OK, I'm over it.

MORE ON MASSEYGATE. Here's the latest AP coverage about the ties between Massey CEO Don Blankenship and WV Supreme Court chief Justice Spike Maynard. Selection:

Since his election as justice in 1996, Maynard has helped decide at least eight cases at the Supreme Court involving Massey or one of its subsidiaries, an AP review shows. Maynard voted in Massey’s favor in all eight, dissenting from the court’s ruling in four of those cases.

PHYS ED. Here's something on a more rational approach to physical education and lifetime activity.

TWO BURNING ISSUES. This article suggest that blaming erratic behavior on a midlife crisis is a lame excuse. Damn. I was just getting ready to try that one. And, if you've ever spent sleepless nights wondering where, exactly, the fortune cookie came from, you can now rest in peace.

AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT, how 'bout a rodent big as a bull?


January 16, 2008


Lately, the theme of this blog has been about how people who want to make the world more just and less violent can learn from the study of conflict and strategy. A special focus has been on the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. In fact, in some cases, his approach echoes that of the modern theory of nonviolent action.

I'm convinced the United States today would be stronger, safer, more peaceful and more prosperous if its leaders would have taken a leaf from Sun Tzu's The Art of War in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As discussed this week and last week here, Sun Tzu believed that

the best policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers; and the worst to assault walled cities.

There are two simple ways to attack strategies:

*figure out what the opponents wants to do and deprive them of the opportunity of doing it; and--more to the point--

*figure out what the opponents want you to do--and don't do it!

It seems pretty clear that the organizers of the 9/11 attack wanted, in addition to inflicting high casualties and causing material damage to several significant and symbolic targets, to provoke the United States into launching an indiscriminate response which would alienate world opinion and drive more people into hostility to the US and win more supporters to their cause.

Unfortunately, by invading Iraq--which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks--the Bush administration did not attack their strategy. It fell for it. State Department reports on terrorism in the years since the invasion of Iraq have noted increases in terrorist attacks and have even attributed much of the increase to the war.

Here's an article that appeared in May 2007 in the Washington Post to that effect. Iraq has become a training ground where an unknown number of people have learned how to carry out an unknown number of future terrorist attacks in other unknown places.

The Bush administration also lost many opportunities to attack the alliances of those who planned the attacks. In the wake of 9/11, there was a huge international wave of sympathy for the US. If, instead of squandering it, US leaders had used the opportunity to improve relations with the world community, initiate diplomacy with countries like Iran and Syria, push for resolution of long-standing regional conflicts, and focused on international cooperation in dealing with those who planned and supported the attacks, we'd be in a very different and probably better place today.

In fact, rather than attacking the alliances of the terrorists, the Bush administration in effect attacked its own allies with its arrogant drive to war with Iraq, straining relations with even longtime European allies. This entanglement has cost the lives of nearly 4,000 US military personnel, tens of thousands of Iraqis and injured or traumatized tens of thousands more. In terms of material resources, the war is costing or will cost the US around $720 million dollars per day.

This isn't anything new. Lots of people all over the world tried to raise some of these points during the buildup to the war, but the powers that be weren't interested in listening. Much damage has been done and it will take a long time to undo the damage that can be undone.

STIMULUS AND (NO) RESPONSE. Here's a good column by Marie Cocco about the need for a timely and target economic stimulus. And here's a good proposal for stimulating the economy from the Economic Policy Institute.

THIS WOULD BE INTERESTING. A growing number of people are calling for a presidential debate on the subject of science.

SPEAKING OF SCIENCE, read more about the scandal of teen pregnancy. Among dinosaurs, that is. Maybe that's why they all got drowned in Noah's Flood. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of the gay ones tried to get married too.

MORE ON SCIENCE. Along the same theme, it looks like the US is in danger of falling behind in science and technology. Here's an excerpt from a NY Times article about a National Science Board report:

Many Americans remain ignorant about much of science, the board said; for example, many are unable to answer correctly when asked if the Earth moves around the Sun (it does). But they are not noticeably more ignorant than people in other developed countries except on two subjects: evolution and the Big Bang. Although these ideas are organizing principles underlying modern biology and physics, many Americans do not accept them.

“These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas,” the report said, “even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas.”


THIS IS JUST GREAT. Not. President Bush has threatened to veto a new bill that would strengthen mine safety.

JUDGE NOT. Here's the latest on the friendship between Massey CEO Don Blankenship and WV Supreme Court justice Spike Maynard.

BOOK REVIEW. Here's a review of WV novelist Ann Pancake's Strange as This Weather Has Been from Orion Magazine and here's her website. The novel deals with mountaintop removal mining. If memory serves, she may be a distant cousin of another great WV writer, Breece D'J Pancake who came from and wrote about a disguised version of El Cabrero's home town.


January 15, 2008


Lately, El Cabrero has been musing on how the study of strategy and conflict can help make the world a less violent and more just place (with help from Sun Tzu). If this is your first visit please click on yesterday's post. There's more in last week's posts as well.

Here's another quick review from Sun Tzu (repetition is good sometimes):

*The highest level of skill is to accomplish goals without a struggle.

*In a conflict, attacking one's opponent is one of the least effective approaches. It's far better to neutralize an opponent's strategies, which keeps them from being able to harm you to start with.

*Next best, is to weaken the opponent's alliances, as discussed yesterday.

A basic tenet of the theory of nonviolent action is that power is not monolithic but depends on many sources of support from many people and institutions. If one deprives the opponent of these sources of support, the power fades.

Good tactics are those which win people to your side and away from that of the opponent. As mentioned yesterday, this has been called removing the "pillars of support."

A classical example of this is involved the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement. Their example, combined with the fierce repression unleashed on the demonstrators, won public sympathy to their side. Even some people who were not inclined to support the movement had no stomach for the violence of the defenders of the status quo.

Most of the time, however, winning public support (and depriving one's opponent of it) are less dramatic. Some methods of doing this in America today would include such simple things as public education, coalition building, outreach, and working with the media.

Sometimes, all that is necessary to correct an injustice is simply to draw attention to it. I can think of two recent examples in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia:

*A while back, the recently privatized workers' compensation system here started a policy of cutting off promised benefits for widows and widowers of workers killed on the job at the time when the deceased worker would have retired. This also happened to be in clear violation of state law. (The WV Chamber of Commerce, by the way, supported cutting off the widows.)

In the wake of the Sago disaster and the Aracoma mining fatalities, not too many people were in the mood to see widows and orphans jerked around. The more people learned about it, the more outraged they became. The pillars of support for this policy were removed and the noise level increased. In the end, Gov. Manchin ordered the benefits restored.

Score one for Sun Tzu.

*Something similar happened when the state Medicaid program began cutting off in-home services for seniors with disabilities. This program helped people stay in their homes and was much less expensive to the state than nursing home care. People who cared about the seniors drew public attention and the attention of the legislature to what was happening. Many people were outraged. The pillars of support for this policy collapsed and the cuts were reversed.

Score two for Sun Tzu.

CASUALTIES. The World Health Organization estimates Iraqi casualties since the invasion to be over 150,000. Some estimates from other sources are higher.

THOSE CRAZY COSMOLOGISTS are the subject of this article.

GREENER LIVING. Here are some steps you can take.

TWO WV ITEMS. First, the economy and state revenue growth may be slowing. Second, some are drawing attention to the connections between a state Supreme Court justice and Massey CEO Don Blankenship. Massey recently won a decision there. The story even made the NY Times.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. Here's one with a crocodile-like head.


January 14, 2008


Samson shows the way.

El Cabrero is convinced that there's a lot we can learn from the study of conflict and strategy that can help make the world less violent and more just. That was pretty much the theme last week.

This week I'm continuing in the same vein. Think of it as a peaceful person's guide to Sun Tzu's Art of War. People from all walks of life have been studying his writings for centuries for their application in many areas of life far removed from physical conflict.

First a little review. As I mentioned before, Sun Tzu believed that the highest level of skill in conflict is to accomplish your objective without a fight.

Sun Tzu also believed that attacking one's opponents is one of the least effective approaches. The best approach is to attack the opponent's strategy, as explained here. If one neutralizes an opponent's strategy, the opponent is neutralized without being attacked.

He taught that the next best policy is to attack the opponent's alliances. This is one of several areas where his thinking meshes perfectly with the theory of nonviolent action.

According to the latter, power is not monolithic and dominant groups are not as unified as they may appear to be. There are always tensions and contradictions. Even the most absolute dictator depends for his power on the active or passive cooperation of many people. Robert Helvey in his book on nonviolence refers to these as "pillars of support."

When the pillars of support--what Sun Tzu called alliances--are removed, the power collapses.

At a less extreme level, attempting to influence public affairs in a democracy involves trying to win over people to one's point of view and isolate one's opponent. Again, this is a matter of removing their pillars of support or attacking alliances. One mark of a good strategy is that it creates more support for your position, neutralizes some who were inclined to oppose it, and isolates one's determined opponents. Vice versa for a bad one.

More on this tomorrow.

SPEAKING OF PILLARS OF SUPPORT, this study of public opinion on the state of the economy shows that there's not much holding up the Bush agenda.

WHAT RECESSION? Here's an item from the AFLCIO blog about the current state of the economy with plenty of links that suggest what to do about it. And here's Krugman on the candidate's response to recession.

A NEW DIRECTION. In a new report, the Center for American Progress lays out an agenda for progressive growth. Here's an extract:

To grow our economy and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to benefit from this growth, we need to rebuild our infrastructure to support the transformation to a low-carbon economy, invest in human capital, and help support greater economic security. We believe our nation cannot afford to wait to make these necessary investments—in universal health care, education and lifelong learning, science and technology innovation, new green energy job training programs, and new wealth-creating opportunities for all Americans—if we want our economy to remain thoroughly competitive in the global marketplace.

THE MORAL SENSE. Here's a long but fascinating article on the scientific study of morality by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

SAD HOMECOMINGS. This feature from the NY Times shows that the traumas US veterans faced in Iraq and Afghanistan have followed some of them home.