Cell phone companies don’t know where you are. Really.

I dislike alarmist stories like this. Of course cell phone companies know where your phone is pretty much all the time. The phone wouldn’t work otherwise.

This is not the same, though, as knowing where YOU are. We are not our phones.

Amazingly enough, it is possible to set your phone down and go somewhere else without it. People used to do it all the time, I’ve heard. As such, the records held by cell phone companies are of extremely limited usefulness in tracking anyone with a brain, especially if you consider the ease by which pay-as-you-go- phones and the internet can be used for anonymous communications, to name two easily accessible alternatives.

It is also possible, believe it or not, to turn your phone off from time to time, or, even, to place it in a so-called ‘flight mode’ or ‘airplane mode’ that disables cellular transmission.

To intervene or not to intervene

The West is struggling to deal with the question of what to do, if anything, with Libya. Gaddafi is proving more difficult to oust than previously thought, which suggests without EU, UN, or U.S. military invention, the rebels will be able to do no more that hold eastern Libya, if that.

So far Obama and Clinton in State have stopped just short of military action. France and Britain, however, are calling for airstrikes; Germany is opposed, and Russia and China are almost certainly opposed no matter what happens. So the UN is out; the EU is possible, though not likely, as Italy has too many interests in Libya to sign on.

That leaves the U.S. And as much as I am opposed to optional unilateral military action, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan… if we were going to make an exception, there is a case to be made here. The revolt has handed the West a casus belli to remove a longstanding thorn – one that, unlike Iraq, is a proven open-and-shut terrorism supporter.

A no-fly zone is impossible without destroying the Libyan air force and all its air defenses. If the U.S. does that, we might as well send in the Marines too, like we did two hundred years ago in Tripoli.

Obama has continued to play his cards close to his chest, keeping everyone guessing on his foreign policy. So I can’t predict what he’s going to do. However, given his decisions on Afghanistan, I’d think he will intervene with force if he can wrestle a request for aid from the resistance and thus get that last available  ounce of legitimacy – it’s much easier to argue for intervention when there’s a cry for help.

That said, Libya wasn’t exactly at the top of the U.S. problem pile a few weeks ago. There are more pressing issues at home. We already have two wars. The U.S. can’t solve all the world’s problems, especially on a weak economy. So the middle-of-the-road wait-and-see strategy is looking attractive.

Gingrich’s devil: patriotism

On one level, this is comedy gold – blaming excessive patriotism for extramarital affairs – but it’s also an interesting example of an almost completely ethos-based argument that appeals to fellow sinners.

By the way, I can’t help but enjoy the  parallel between secular-atheist-elitism and radical Islam at the end. I would wonder if he’d be allowed in public if Palin hadn’t opened the door for this kind of bizarre logical structure from presidential aspirants, but I’m well past being surprised.

The incommensurability of iphones and staplers

Interesting piece on Thomas Kuhn chucking an ashtray at a graduate student. It’s witty, but not really funny, as I have an big issue with the author’s seeming bewilderment with the term “incommensurability.” The endnote in the article ignores (or is possibly completely ignorant of) how the term has a long history that predates Kuhn, in favor of extending a poor joke – and, also, that Kuhn’s use of the term is pretty straightforward with minor context clues.

For an example of incommensurability as Kuhn  uses it, there’s an iphone and a stapler on my desk.

These are incompatible technologies. You can’t staple an iphone (at least not with a Swingline – your local Home Depot has some that would, though) successfully, and you can’t place a call to a stapler or connect to it via Bluetooth. You could bang them against each other, but I’d be hard pressed to call that compatibility; the stapler is meant to staple pages, and the iphone’s many functions have nothing to do with staples.

However, an iphone and a stapler are not incommensurable. You can TRY to make them interact – staple the iphone (not recommended), call the stapler. The failure is highly probable, but you are not precluded from trying.

Let’s imagine, however, an iphone forever separated from a stapler by a heavy, thick stone wall. The stapler can’t physically get to the phone to try and staple it, and the iphone can’t get a signal to the stapler. They can be aware of each other’s existence, but that knowledge is trivial, as interaction is literally impossible and this makes mere incompatibility also trivial. In this situation, the iphone and the stapler are not only incompatible, but incommensurable.

That Kuhn uses this word to define the relationships between scientific paradigms says, therefore, quite a bit. He is also leaning upon the older definition that suggests a weighing or measuring between theories that is somehow  rendered impossible.

The subtle context of aircraft carriers

I was surfing around today, trying to get a feel for the political climate, and found this Wall Street Journal editorial on the decline of the U.S. Navy’s power. The central claim, which is made by a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute, is that the number of ships in the Navy has declined drastically and China is catching up. The answer, apparently, is to build more ships.

As I don’t know where Tom Clancy is, I’ll pinch hit this one, though his politics might prevent him from answering as bluntly as  I care to.

Let’s say China wanted to, say, invade and conquer Hawaii in a conventional war in the next year or two. Sounds doable, right? It’s not the continental United States, even. And China’s far more advanced than Imperial Japan, certainly…

Well, no. It’s a matter of logistics. And those logistics are why it’s perfectly acceptable for the Navy to operate with fewer ships.

If you want to possess land, you need troops. The troops have to be transported somehow. If overseas, you have your choice of plane or ship. Given the distance between mainland China and Hawaii, ship is the obvious choice, though plane is no better, as it will quickly become apparent.

All troopships are big and slow, and need escorts. The natural predator of shipping and transports is the nuclear attack submarine, of which the U.S. has many,  so you need ASW (antisubmarine warfare) ships. Also, if enemy ships get fairly close, you need anti-missile frigates to shoot down their missiles. This doesn’t even take into account an airstrike from a carrier by planes with long-range anti-ship missiles, which more or less requires that you have a carrier escort for any troopship.

So, long story short, in order to take large numbers of troops overseas these days without the U.S. Navy’s express permission,  you have to have a carrier group with a full complement of escorts.

Guess how many carrier groups China has.

Zero.

Guess how many carrier groups the United States has.

Eleven.

Guess how many carrier groups all other countries in the world have, combined.

Eight. Seven of those belong to U.S. allies (Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Thailand, India, Brazil), and the eighth, the massive Admiral Kuznetsov that belongs to Russia and rarely gets out, is the only one of comparable size to American supercarriers (and by ‘massive’, I mean it is half the tonnage of an American carrier).

I would do the math, but I don’t want to insult my audience. The point, though, is that the kind of ships matter far more than the numbers.

The Chinese government certainly wants carriers and their generous side benefits. They have a bunch of retired ones, including a gutted Kuznetsov-class bought off of Russia, but nothing close to sea-worthy. As such, they can build all the smaller ships they want (they have a lot already). Without a carrier group, their ability to press any conventional war beyond, say, harassing Taiwan, is zilch. Carriers still rule the seas.

That’s why it’s so meaningful that a U.S. carrier group tends to cruise by Taiwan from time to time. This is a casual reminder from the U.S. Navy that China has no chance of taking it by force, despite the fact that the Taiwanese Strait is only a hundred miles wide. It might as well be a million – the chance of a troop transport getting across is no worse.

That’s how dominant U.S. naval power is. There can be piracy off the coast of Somalia, sure, mostly because the U.S. has demurred, wisely I think, on being Somalia’s Coast Guard.

I’m sure the Claremont Institute fellow that wrote that editorial knows all of this quite well. But, after all, this is a great time to press for more military funding, with the entire federal budget up for grabs in a deficit panic, and all these disturbing Arab revolts that have absolutely no effect on our naval power in the slightest. Still, without increased justification for defense spending, it ends up on an even keel (hey, a naval reference!) with domestic funding – like, say, I don’t know, education or other equally useless social programs.