Monday, July 31, 2006

Forecasting and Science Fiction 2

A quick note--I should have mentioned Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. This is a trilogy that deals specifically with forecasting. The "psycho-historians" anticipated with utmost precision the slow decline of the galactic empire. To arrest this decline, they set up a "foundation" that over time grew into the power vacuum of the empire, reducing the amount of barbarism and destructive warfare, as well as preserving and developing technology.

The psycho-historians have an ability that forecasters today lack, which was they are able to predict when technological advances would happen (and what they'd be). This makes it possible for them to predict 1000 years of future history. (This seems like an appropriate fantasy for a science fiction writer.)

But once they set up the Foundation, they don’t give its members any of the tools of psycho-history. Indeed, Asimov recognized one of the paradoxes of forecasting, which is that if people know the forecast, they will act on it to their advantage, and thus change the future. Asimov has a secret Second Foundation that is constantly developing the science and tweaking human events to better ease the transition away from Empire.

This problem of knowledge of the future affecting the future is one of the key insights of efficient market theory. There have always been persons with systems for beating the market, and some specific investors--Peter Lynch and Warren Buffett, for example--have long records of successfully outguessing the market, identifying bargains. But an efficient market theorist claims this is mostly accidental. It's as if Peter Lynch picked winning horses for 30 years in a row.

But one can understand why this seems like it must logically be true. If you were a technical trader who had a system that actually worked, once other investors discovered the system (presumably by closely observing your investing habits), they would start using it and your advantage would be lost. This is what an efficient market theorist means when he or she says that the market price reflects all the current information out there--it includes all the analyst research and every system currently in use. The market quickly reacts to new "information" (whether that information is information about companies or the economy, or if it's information about the trading price of a security) and there is always a reversion to a mean price.

In the Foundation Trilogy, the one thing that isn't anticipated is the emergence of a psychic person, able to influence great numbers of persons with his mind. He therefore defies the laws of large numbers that make statistics work. In the real world, this is the problem with technological change and random events. An economist may be able to build a reasonable model of an economy, but a single unpredictable event like a massive tsunami or the discovery of oil will throw a big monkey wrench in the work. Still, one can at least build the possibility of a tsunami or oil strike into one's model because these things have happened before. But no one can anticipate, say, the discovery of some new, hitherto undreamed-of technology.

So thank goodness for science fiction writers.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Forecasting and Science Fiction

When you read science fiction that looks at the near future, one usually notices what the author got wrong more than what he or she got right. The work I do now is involved in forecasting, and I have both respect for the challenges of forecasting, and some negative feelings about actual forecasts—ranging from sadness to contempt. The reason is that forecasts—especially long term forecast—are almost always wrong. And when they’re right, it is often by accident. The issue is a tautology: forecasts can’t take into account unpredictable events. Consequently forecasts tend to project that the future will be more or less like the present. A hilarious example is this forecast of oil prices by an economist at the Bank of Montreal from 1999.

Science fiction writers are surprisingly susceptible to this. I say “surprisingly” because of all forecasters (if I may rope science fiction writers into that category), science fiction writers seem most open to the idea that changes in technology will greatly change future events, and that the future is likely to be affected by random events. Standard forecasters, whether scientists or economists or financial forecasters, rarely are willing to include technological change in their forecasts because it’s impossible to guess where changes in technology will occur and what effect they’ll have. We can make educated guesses. And that’s what science fiction writers do.

I recently read The Ocean of Night (1977) and Across the Sea of Suns (1984) by the great science fiction writer Gregory Benford. These two books cover a period of time from 1999 to 2086. Two things strike me as I read them: Benford fails to anticipate the pervasiveness of computers, and he assumes that the Soviet Union survives for nearly 100 years longer than it actually did (this is a curiously common error in science fiction books from the past half century). A character gets a telegram in one scene set in 2018! I don’t mean to make fun of Benford—actually, I think he is an amazing science fiction writer. And he gets some things surprisingly right (China becoming a rich capitalist country, for instance). And critically, forecasting is not the point of the books—future history is the setting for the events of the books.

The great novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930) is a poignant example of this problem with science fiction. It is a history of the future of humanity—through 18 species—until its extinction two billion years in the future. Anyone reading it today will recognize its many scientific errors, but for modern readers, perhaps the hardest part to get past is his anticipation of the near future of humanity. Despite this, he imagines a world where the U.S. and China are the two world powers, which may come true, if by different path than Stapledon imagines.

A reader has to accept that science fiction writers are going to get it wrong. You don’t read Last and First Men for its predictive power. You read it because it is thought-provoking and because it is beautiful.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bloody Shambles

Cormac McCarthy is known for his bloody novels, but the death toll in No Country for Old Men was still a shock. In some ways, this book read more like a James Ellroy novel than a typical McCarthy book (or, at least, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, which are the other McCarthy books I’ve read). It’s propulsive like a typical thriller—and in that way it resembles Ellroy or Michael Connolly. It never lingers over the land, and only toward the end do you get the elegiac deep sigh that is so typical of McCarthy.

Llewellyn Moss is a 30-something Vietnam vet (the story appears to take place sometime in the 80s) who stumbles across the aftermath of a gun battle in an isolated area near the border. Several trucks and dead bodies, a large amount of heroin, and a briefcase full of cash. Moss takes the cash, but makes a nonsensical decision to return to the scene later. He escapes with his life, but his truck is found and he’s marked. (He’s marked in another way that the reader doesn’t discover until later.)

The rest of the novel revolves around several parties trying to retrieve the money, the local Sheriff’s office trying to catch the bad guys, and Moss trying to keep himself and his 19-year-old wife alive. After his first blunder, Moss seems to get much smarter and more resourceful, but he’s up against a brilliant killer, Anton Chigurh. You are never sure whose side Chigurh is on. But if he’s against you, you’re dead.

Ed Tom Bell is the Sheriff of the county, and has been since the late 40s. He’s a veteran of World War II, and the book is punctuated with his reminiscences. He and his men are observers, able to anticipate what might happen and identify, to a certain extent, the players, but unable to do anything about it. He’s the old man referred to in the title, and this is his last (and worst) big case. He is out of his element, and he is painfully aware of the fact.

McCarthy is a modernist minimalist, a descendant of Hemingway. At first, he is so laconic that it’s hard to understand what’s happening and who’s who. His stylistic mannerisms are less mannered than James Ellroy—who seems to be rather influenced by McCarthy or else influenced by the same writers that influenced McCarthy. At first, No Country for Old Men reads like a regular thriller. But the inconclusive, slowed-down ending is unlike any thriller. A thriller is about that satisfying release at the end, and McCarthy doesn’t provide that.

I enjoyed this book, but it was not something that will stick with me the way All the Pretty Horses did.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

On Being Astonished By Musical Technology

This has happened to me three times. When I was in high school, we were on a school trip somewhere, and one of my classmates (I can't remember who), had an early personal stereo. It wasn't a Walkman, but it was of the same vintage as the first Walkmen. She let me listen to it. I put the headphones on, at first shocked by the loudness, then by the unbelievable clarity of the sound. It was a Cars song. Isn't that weird that I can remember the band but not the girl? This was the first time I was astonished by music technology.

I had seen big stereos, amps, speakers, etc. I could hear the difference between a really good stereo and an ordinary one. (Even before I understood the concept, I instinctively felt that the marginal benefit of one of those big fancy expensive stereos wasn't worth it to me.) None of that was exciting as listening to this personal stereo.

The second time I was astonished was when my college roommate, Bill, brought home a CD player. He played hundreds for it, and there were only a few CDs in existence when he bought it. (Lucky for him that the medium caught on.) He was a technophile and had to try out the newest machines. The difference in sound quality between CDs and records--with their hisssss--was huge. I know some people claim vinyl is better--more "warm"--and maybe so. But my ears can't hear it. When I heard those first CDs, I was flabbergasted.

Now I'm really too old to be astonished by musical technology. I mean, who cares? Everything is now just some kind of digital system for getting music to my ears. My music-listening needs were well taken care of by a 12-year-old Sony boombox.

But I recently bought an IPod Nano. I liked the convenience of being able to download songs (legally--I'd feel too guilty to download them illegally), and I like the "shuffle" feature. So it seemed like a logical purchase for me. When I hooked it up to a cheap pair of computer speakers (with a subwoofer), I was once again astonished. This little white thing, slightly larger than a credit card, has become my stereo. It sounds great, and holds as much music as a juke box, and is so tiny and unobtrusive. It's astonishing!

Everything You Wanted to Know About Options Backdating

Go read . There has been a lot of great blogging about options backdating (scroll down to July 18), and of course, reportage in The Wall Street Journal, but this blog is obsessed with the subject and has really gathered all the information in one place. Well worth reading if you, like me, have a masochistic interest in the subject.

I am amazed that shareholders aren't more up in arms about it. Options are meant to be rewards for successful leadership (as reflected in increasing share price). When you rig it so that the option is automatically in the money, it's a fraud commited against shareholders--and ultimately theft of their money.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

It's an Ill Wind That Blows No Good

The options backdating scandal is bad enough, but this is revolting.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Two Graphic Novels

Joann Sfar is the author of The Rabbi’s Cat and the Little Vampire children’s books. Vampire Loves is a series of short stories starring Ferdinand, a rather gentle Lithuanian vampire. Ferdinand breaks up with his girlfriend Lani (a mandragora, or plant/girl), and meets several other girls with varying degrees of success. He is luckiest with Aspirine, a girl vampire. (Aspirine and her sister Ritaline follow the tradition of punning names that marked the great French comic Asterix.)

Vampire Loves is a slight, meandering book. Its virtue is its charm and Sfar’s art. Sfar is like Jules Feiffer—he has a loose, sketchy style that subtly disguises his mastery. His drawing is, in fact, a joy to look at, and his rich color schemes are fantastic as well.

A richer graphic novel is Fun Home, by Allison Bechdel. Bechdel is the creator of the astonishingly good comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. In its emotional pull, I place it along with another favorite continuity comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. A weird comparison, I know. Dykes is a domestic situation comedy, Terry was a swashbuckling adventure; Dykes is politically correct, Terry was macho, imperialist, and racist; Dykes is politically left-wing, Terry was patriotic and pro-war. But they both embed their stories with an emotional punch.

Fun Home is a complex story about Bechdel’s father. Autobiography is usually a study of minutia in the hands of cartoonists, and often excellent because of it. Big issues, however, are avoided. That is not Bechdel’s way. She links her coming out with her closeted father’s death—officially an accident, but Bechdel theorizes it may have been intentional.

The structure of the book is not linear through time. The same ground is gone over again and again, concentrating on different details, stitching together the mystery of her father, decoding their relationship. Bechdel is sympathetic, but approaches autobiography like a scientific researcher. Her unusually rich, literary language reflects the bookishness of both father and daughter. Someone who has not read Dykes to Watch Out For might see this as Bechdel’s natural way of expressing herself, or worse, pedantic showing off. But it is clearly an intentional strategy—literature and language are a way that Bechdel can relate to her distant father.

This is an amazing book, one that I suspect will greatly reward rereading.


Two Bookstores

Obviously I'm a booklover. Summer has given me the free time I need to read a lot—during the school year, my "spare" time is filled with study, class reading, and homework. I sometimes buy my books from my favorite online book dealer,, but more frequently I browse physical bookstores. (In addition to selling books online, Powell's is an absolutely astonishing bookstore, but since it is in Portland, Oregon, I rarely visit it.)

The two in Houston I love most are Brazos Bookstore and Half Price Books and Records. Brazos Bookstore has been around for over 30 years. It has a strong emphasis on architecture and art, but what makes it so wonderful is that sophistication and quality of their selection. A small bookstore must, on some principle, limit what it carries. An easy way to do this is to specialize by type of book, which is why you occasionally run across mystery bookstores, children’s bookstores, cookbook stores, and comic book stores. But Brazos has used a judgment of quality as its limiting factor. It simply carries the best of the best, the most intellectually engaging, most sophisticated selection of fiction and nonfiction. It's a store for serious readers.

Half Price Books is a chain of bookstores. They also sell music, and that is how I first encountered them. When I was 16, my buddies and I often came into town to go to the River Oaks Theater, which at the time was a repertory theater. We liked to go watch rock and roll movies like The Kids Are Allright. Driving down Waugh, we often passed Half Price Books and Records (as it was known then). Larry Garrett had a painting job in that neighborhood, so I think he was the first of our crowd to check it out. Word spread, and we were all buying records there. Because the records were so cheap, I'd buy them on the basis of cool cover art, with the hopes of landing something good. (Note: this is a terrible strategy for finding good music.) Still, my tastes were somewhat formed by what I found there. I bought my first Velvet Underground record there—when I brought it up to the counter, the clerk looked at it with wonder and said, "How did that get on the shelves." (Clerks had first choice, natch.)

When I moved to Seattle, I was delighted to find a Half Price Books on Roosevelt, just a few blocks from our office. If anyone has read Peter Bagge's excellent comic Hate, this is the bookstore where Buddy Bradley works (and takes advantage of the "everyday low prices" available to clerks).

Half Price Books is a chain of over 80 stores, most in Texas. A sister company is Texas Bookman, a remainder house. It's an interesting structure--unique as far as I know--where a bookstore owns its own wholesaler. This guarantees Half Price Books a great selection of remainders at all times, but what makes it special are the bargains you get as you buy, say, a paperback that may have been owned by five people before, and the amazing and unexpected finds you make—books you can't believe that someone parted with, but they did, so now it's yours.

My life has been enriched by these two great bookstores.


Saturday, July 08, 2006

True Grit

True Grit is a cult novel by Charles Portis, from which the famous John Wayne movie was adapted. Wayne won his only Oscar from his performance in that movie (I believe), and while it may have been something of a consolation prize for not having been honored over his long career, it has to be admitted that he was absolutely great as Rooster Cogburn. The film is marred by the awful acting of Glenn Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, but it’s quite entertaining overall. One thing that always puzzled me was the pedantic and precise way that Mattie Ross (played by Kim Darby) expresses herself; it seems an eccentric manner of speech for a 14-year-old Arkansas farm girl.

Now I understand. The novel is a recollection of an elderly Presbyterian spinster. She is remembering this incident in 1928 (Al Smith is running for President), and Rutherford B. Hayes was the President when the events described occurred (so that puts the events in the range of 1877 to 1881). So Portis amusingly gives her—and to a certain extent all the characters—the voice of this old woman.

Mattie Ross is an extremely strong-willed young woman, and one gets the feeling that this search in the Indian territories (later the state of Oklahoma) for her father’s killer was her one adventure in life. Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. Marshall she hires to help is her opposite—a morally suspect man who has been on both sides of the law, who drinks and kills, who abandons women, etc. He was one of Cantrell’s Raiders in the Civil War. But one feels that after this adventure, Mattie never marries because no man can match Cogburn.

The movie is fairly light-hearted, and the book is the same until the end. Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake and Cogburn brings her back to Fort Smith in a heroic attempt to save her life. He is successful, but she loses her arm to infection. After she leaves Fort Smith with her family, she never sees Cogburn again until 1903, when she retrieves his body in Tennessee, brings him back to Arkansas, and buries him with a stone that reads, “Reuben Cogburn, 1835-1903, A resolute officer of Parker’s Court.”

Knowing that this is Mattie’s one adventure in life, her sole romantic moment, gives the book a sadness not present in the movie. I liked True Grit a lot and can certainly understand why Portis has his cult following. I’d be interested in tracking down his other books.


Prophetic Science Fiction

Stephen Baxter is considered a “hard” science fiction writer, which I take to mean that he is scrupulous about the science in his books, but it also has implications of writers who are more interested in technical, scientific things as opposed to writers more interested in the human subjects of their stories. It seems like a fairly bogus distinction, but for what it’s worth, I grew up reading and loving “soft” science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Ursula LeGuin, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg and Phillip Dick. And while I still like these authors (although I haven’t read anything by Ellison or Spinrad in decades), the science fiction writers I feel drawn to these days are people like Baxter, Gregory Benford, and Greg Bear. What I like about them, aside from the fact that they’re each good writers, is that they take the latest understanding of the universe and science today—ideas of mind-bending consequence—and craft fiction about it. And their books are a kind of painless way to learn what scientists are thinking about the universe—easier than reading a Stephen Hawking book, anyway.

So I read Transcendent, which is the latest Baxter novel and part of a “trilogy” of loosely connected novels, and also part of Baxter’s Xeelee novels. I said Baxter is a good writer, but alas, he named the most important aliens in his novel the Xeelee. Nobody’s perfect…

The Xeelee novels all take place in a universe where dark matter life called “photino birds” are draining the stars of energy and causing them to go nova long before they would normally do so. So by the time humans evolve, the sun only has about five million years left, instead of the four billion or so that it would have if it were to fuse its hydrogen at a normal rate. The Xeelee are a sophisticated, mysterious group of aliens that evolved very early in the evolution of our universe and are engaged in a universe-wide war against the photino birds. The photino birds are winning and cannot be defeated, but the Xeelee hope to hinder them long enough to build an escape route out of this universe.

Meanwhile, humanity evolves, manages to make it off Earth without self-destructing, expands in the galaxy, has some bad experiences with some hostile aliens, but eventually establishes mastery over the Milky Way, even driving the Xeelee away.

Some humans deduce what is going on with the photino birds, but for the most part, humanity has no idea that there is a war between dark matter and “baryonic” matter (the kind of matter we’re made of), and that maybe we should be on the Xeelee team. The Xeelee, for their part, don’t help—they make no attempt to communicate with humans, and are unremittingly hostile.

Ultimately, the Xeelee escape this universe and a few humans manage it as well. And entropy—sped along by the photino birds—sets in and the universe quietly goes out.

That, in a nutshell, is the backdrop to several novels, including Transcendent.

Part of Transcendent is set 300,000 years in the future, and part is set about 50 years from now. The more-or-less contemporary part is the more interesting. Baxter, assuming Transcendent represents his understanding of the world, is quite worried about global warming. He characterizes it as a “bottleneck” in human history—a point in time where if we don’t pass through the bottleneck, that may be the end of the species. (Other bottlenecks occurred early in the evolution of homo sapiens, when our ancestors’ populations got low enough that a single weather or disease disaster could easily have destroyed the species.) One character, Michael Poole, turns out to be as much as any single individual responsible for getting us through the bottleneck caused by global warming—preventing it from turning into an extinction event.

Baxter is very good at describing how such warming-related extinction events happened in the past, killing most life on Earth. I think the Cassandras of global warming should speak about these earlier biological catastrophes. (Although to understand them, you have to accept that evolution happened, which is a stumbling block for many, alas.)

Interestingly, the world has realized what is happening and has been taking drastic action for decades to arrest and reverse the warming. But changing the climate is like steering an aircraft carrier—it takes a long time for it to turn.

One thing he writes, in a bit of expository dialogue (a requirement for all hard science fiction), reminded me of my own entry about the end of oil:

Look at it from the point of view of an industrialist in, say, 2020. The shift to hydrogen, the need for new power generation systems, the dislocation of getting rid of the automobile—even if you could get your head around such vast changes, you didn’t have the infrastructure in place, the raw materials, the patents to exploit them; you didn’t have things sewn up the way your daddy used to. So it was better to resist change, to keep your head down, hoping that it would all go away, or at least hope the storm wouldn’t break until you finished your own career.

This strikes me as undeniably true. This is why I wrote that government intervention is necessary. It buys time for those patents to be filed, that infrastructure to be built.

Baxter is usually quite pessimistic about humanity. (After all, humans never quite figure out the Xeelee and photino birds over the millions of years spanned in his books.) But he does suggest that in the mid-2020s, after a few scary environmental disasters, the U.S.A. makes a big change, lead by government through some draconian regulation and taxation, but executed mostly by industry. While I hope we never have to do anything quite as draconian as is described in Transcendent (one aspect of it—no more cars), I think government intervention is necessary because the market is simply not going to take care of externalities, and certainly not externalities whose negative effects occur in the future, like warming-related extinction events.

Transcendent is an unusually timely science fiction novel.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The One Percent Doctrine

If there is a one percent chance that terrorists will acquire a weapon of mass destruction, we must treat it as a certainty and respond accordingly. This is the “one percent doctrine” that Dick Cheney proposes in Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine. This book has been getting a lot of press for its criticism of the Bush administration, but that mainly shows what politically polarized times we live in. Everything is seen through party-colored glasses. This is not to say that Suskind isn’t critical, but the main subject of the book is the sometimes panicked, sometimes inept, but also sometimes brilliant and heroic secret war against terrorists that has taken place since 9/11. And the surprise is the starring role that the much-maligned CIA plays.

The redemption of the CIA and George Tenet is the subtext of this book. For years, the CIA has been the scapegoat for every failure, and, given the official secret nature of their work, the only way for it to respond has been through leaks to the media. That’s what fuels this book. It’s a tricky bargain that these ex-CIA officers (and perhaps some current ones as well) make with Suskind, because Suskind doesn’t work for them and writes about their moral failures in chilling ways. Tenet has always seemed like the kind of man who kowtows to the powerful, and for all the virtues he displays here, The One Percent Doctrine does nothing to erase that point of view. If Bush wants a mentally-ill, low-level Al Qaeda operative tortured, Tenet says “Yes, sir!” And after delivering a report that gives the CIA’s assessment of Saddam’s arsenal of WMD (dubious, needless to say), Tenet tells the President that the case for WMD is a “slam dunk.” He knows Bush isn’t going to read the report, after all.

So Tenet has a lot to answer for. But reading how the CIA methodically yet quickly went about shutting down Al Qaeda’s capabilities, and the decisions they had to make, is fascinating. One story related over the course of the book has to do with the tracking of electronic fund transfers. The CIA gets the total cooperation of the owners of Western Union, the largest wire transfer company in the Third World. Their work is franchised, and it turns out that much terrorist money was going through the Western Union offices owned by a single Bahraini. This guy wasn’t a terrorist, just an opportunist. The CIA basically forced him to turn over his network to them, and at one point the CIA was actually running Western Union offices in Pakistan used by Al Qaeda.

One can see the bind the CIA found itself in after this triumph. They could use the information they had acquired to immediately start shutting down and arresting some terrorists and terrorist-financing organizations. But to do so would reveal that they had this inside financial track, and would cut off future intelligence from this source. This is the kind of morally ambiguous situation than is often at the heart of great spy fiction.

Eventually, Al Qaeda caught on and in 2003 went electronically silent. It took a lot longer for Al Qaeda to realize their money was being watched than the CIA originally anticipated. No more wire transfers, no more cell phones, etc. Money is no longer transferred electronically, but instead comes in briefcases full of cash or bullion.

(This makes the controversy over the New York Time’s recent disclosure of the government’s surveillance of SWIFT all the more absurd. Since everyone who has ever done a wire transfer through a bank knows about SWIFT, and since Al Qaeda already had already stopped using wire transfers in 2003, it seems a bit anticlimactic for the NYT to report about it. And yet there have been hysterical cries of “Treason!” against the NYT. The NYT reporting on SWIFT now is like publishing accounts of secret plans to invade Europe in July, 1944. It has no effect on anything.)

Especially chilling is the account of the Mubtakkar Device, a low-tech but apparently operational device for delivering cyanide gas. It would only be effective in enclosed places—like subways. Even more than nukes, this is what gave the CIA nightmares. The ability to build nuclear weapons or transport them was not something that one could easily imagine of Al Qaeda. But Mubtakkar Devices were shockingly easy to construct.

Despite the remoteness of the nuclear threat, there is a lot about the attempts to shut down the A.J. Khan network and the “help” we got from our alleged ally, Pakistan. The scary weakness of Musharraf within Pakistan is a theme touched on at time in The One Percent Doctrine.

Indeed, one of the problems we faced in our execution of this doctrine was the quality of our allies. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the worst, and Bahrain is none too cooperative. (Libya, weirdly enough, was one of the most cooperative governments—they were under threat by the Islamists, too, and it fit in with their decade-long attempt to be welcomed back into the club of nations.) Only when they feel threatened in an existential way do they come through. At a certain point, Al Qaeda instructs its followers in Saudi Arabia to attempt to overthrow the government. This, in fact, was the goal of 9/11—the idea was that the U.S., staggered by the blow against them, would withdraw from Saudi Arabia leaving it vulnerable to an Islamist coup. It was a remarkable miscalculation. 9/11 energized the U.S. and made its citizens more willing to project American force overseas than they had been in decades. No one except for a laughable fringe of “revolutionary socialists” protested the invasion of Afghanistan. As David Cross said, even Nader would have sent troops to Afghanistan.

But if Al Qaeda misjudged American public opinion, so did Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. They had been itching to take out Saddam once and for all since the last war. 9/11 gave them an excuse, and the one percent doctrine seemed to justify it. The problem is that we now know that rumors of Saddam’s WMDs were greatly exaggerated, to say the least. And as this long, seemingly fruitless war keeps grinding through money and soldiers, American public opinion is shifting. The problem we now face is that as more American soldiers die, and as more atrocities are committed by insurgents, by our Iraqi allies, by our own troops, and by American torturers, different segments of the American population will grow disgusted, despondent, weary, etc.

(I am not suggesting that our soldiers are eager or likely to commit atrocities. But as time and constant threat bear down on them, those soldiers who are mentally and/or morally weak may succumb to terrible temptation. Out of an army of hundreds of thousands, there are sure to be some microscopic minority soldiers who are psychopaths or criminals, and another tiny minority of soldiers with weak wills who can be lead by a charismatic psychopath to do terrible things. This seems to be what happened at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. As time passes, it’s bound to happen again and again.)

Even more dangerous is the effect of Iraq on young, would-be radical Islamists. The One Percent Doctrine chillingly quotes a memo where Rumsfeld asks whether or not we are neutralizing terrorists at a rate slower than they are being recruited. The implication is that Rumsfeld thinks we are not, and that if anything, the terrorist recruitment rate is climbing. Iraq is therefore a strategic victory for Al Qaeda. While we have effectively disabled many of the tools used by the terrorists, they may be making up for it in the number of warm bodies they control.

One must always keep in mind that former members of the CIA are using this book to send a message. It’s a message that Suskind basically agrees with. This message is that the war against Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups is being fought diligently, but that Cheney and Rumsfeld have screwed up so badly that we may be losing it. Is this sour grapes on the part of Tenet and the other old-school CIA types? I think there is an element of that, but at this stage, the strategic error of invading Iraq must be admitted.