Thursday, September 7, 2017

Lee was overrated

R. E. Lee

Robert E. Lee is overrated as a general.  There, I said it. I'm not saying that Lee was a bad general, far from it. There is no doubt that Lee was a very good general, even a great general, but to read many histories of the Civil War, you’d think that he was an infallible military genius who was a mix of Hannibal, Napoleon, and Patton, with a dash of Mars himself thrown in for good measure.

I’ve been reading a lot of Civil War history books lately and Lee as a military genius is often assumed as a given.  He’s the icon of the Lost Cause, the noble Virginian who led a proud and honorable defense of his homeland despite overwhelming odds.  As the story goes, he won again and again with nothing more than a rag tag army of barefooted country boys facing off against the mighty Union military machine.  It certainly makes for a good story, as long as you don’t let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.

First, Lee’s opposing generals early in the war sucked.  They might have been the worst crew of generals that have ever led a major army on the winning side of a war.  Prior to Gettysburg, Lee faced McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.  McClellan was afraid of his own shadow, Pope was so indecisive that it nearly got his entire army killed at Second Manassas, Burnside thought the attack at Fredericksburg was a good idea (across the  Rappahannock against the dug in Confederate troops on Marye’s Heights), and Hooker was more interested in boozing and women than in being a good officer.  It wasn’t until Meade that he faced an army with even a passably competent commander, and Meade was just okay (although you could argue that he was actually pretty good, but that's another post).  When the Union finally found a truly hard-charging commander in the form of Grant, Lee’s winning streak was over for good.

Second, Lee’s subordinate officers were by and large much better than the opposing Union officers.  From the corps commanders to the the division commanders down to the brigadiers and regimental officers, Confederate officers were much more skilled, particularly in the beginning of the war.  The vast majority of southern general officers were military school grads.  The Union army’s officer corps was stuffed full of political appointees.  On the Confederate side, Lee could lean on Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, Early, Hood, Ewell, and so on.  The Union got dunces like Dan Sickles, the political general who, without orders, marched III Corps out to the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield, abandoning the Cemetery Ridge line and Little Round Top on the second day of Gettysburg, and came within a hair of losing the battle for the Union.  This advantage slowly wore down as the war went on, as Confederate officers were killed and Union political generals were sacked or forced into backwater commands.  Certainly by 1864, this advantage had largely evaporated.

Third, at least at the beginning of the war, Confederate cavalry was vastly superior to Union cavalry. Armies at the time were dependent on cavalry for a wide variety of functions, most notably intelligence gathering and enemy intelligence denial. Brandy Station in 1863 was the first time that Union and Confederate cavalry fought even close to evenly. Stuart stepped up his game a little bit after Brandy Station but the advantage continued to erode as the Union officer corps improved, attrition worked against the South, and the Union weaponry (e.g. multishot carbines) advanced beyond Confederate capabilities.

Even the strategy of Lee’s greatest military campaigns could be disputed as bad ideas.  Tactically, yes, he won a number of victories, but at what cost?  He left a quarter of his army on the field at Antietam and another quarter the next year at Gettysburg.  The South didn’t have those kinds of numbers of men to spare.  The North did and Grant used that grim calculus to his advantage when he put Lee’s command through the meat grinder in 1864.  By the spring of 1865 it wasn’t a question of if the South was going to surrender, only when.  Would Lee have done better by following a Fabian-like strategy, more similar to Washington’s strategy versus the British?  Perhaps.  You can certainly make the argument that it would have avoided the costly invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania.  However, the reality was that without recognition from foreign powers, succession was destined to fail, just as the American Revolution might very well have failed without recognition from the French.

Lee, especially from a tactical perspective, was a unique and outstanding commander.  Strategically, you could make an argument that he was less skilled.  He had the initial advantages of incompetent opponents, superior subordinates, and better cavalry.  When those advantages eroded, he showed that he was a mere mortal.  

F**k Yoko Ono

I Hate Yoko Ono.

I was never much of a Beatles fan.  It's not that I didn't like their music, I just didn't listen to much of it.  I caught what they played on the radio and at one point owned a copy of the White Album but that was about it.

Then one day I was looking through albums to listen to and saw Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the suggestion list, so I gave it a shot.  Wow.  End to end it was a tremendous album.  The background story of how it was one of the first concept albums and how much influence it had on the direction of popular and rock music got me thinking that I really should listen to more Beatles.

Over the next couple of weeks, I listened to a large chunk of the Beatles discography, especially the later albums.  Every album was stunningly fantastic.  I knew about the White Album but Rubber Soul, Revolver, Yellow Submarine, Magical Mystery Tour... they were all great.  And their last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were absolute masterpieces.

To me, the Beatles were hitting their artistic peak with their last two albums.  The song Let It Be alone is one of the most moving pieces of music that I've ever listened to.  If you aren't moved when listening to Let It Be then you need to check to see if you still have a pulse.  I think it stands up to any piece of music, ever.  Listen to Let It Be and then listen to Fuer Elise.  Which is more moving?  It's impossible to answer.

Which brings us to that screeching harpy, Yoko Ono.  Who knows how many more musical masterpieces the Beatles would have written if she hadn't poisoned Lennon's mind.  What great pieces of art did she steal from all of us?  How much beauty did she destroy just to satisfy her need to be just as famous as artists that were hundreds or thousands of times more talented than she is?

You can make the argument that the Beatles would have broken up eventually anyway.  They probably would have.  Each of the four had different visions and different artistic pulls.  I firmly believe however, that they would have kept it together, at least for a time, if it weren't for Ono whispering her craziness into Lennon's ears.  Who knows?  We might have had two, three, or four more Abbey Road's or Let It Be's in the discography of what may have been the greatest band of the twentieth century.

F**k Yoko Ono.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


I just finished reading an article from Fortune about the problems plaguing Big Food.  The article, “Special Report: The war on big food” ( was interesting but I think it missed something.  The author clearly did his research and spoke with quite a few food company executives.  They can’t seem to understand why their mass-produced, mass-marketed, smartly packaged, and heavily advertised brands aren’t selling the way they used to.  They blame the fringe elements who rail against GMOs, who scream for dolphin-safe tuna, and who want their chickens to run free.  They point to how cost effective their strategies are and how slick and efficient their business processes are, producing ever more food to feed a hungry world.  They don’t understand why consumers buy organic, buy from small producers, or… *gasp*… buy fresh.

What they really need to do is look in the mirror.  The reality is… their food tastes like crap.

Think about the most bland, tasteless thing you can eat.  How about a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread?  I’ll even throw on some cheap yellow mustard.  Crap, right?  No one wants the bologna that they sell at the deli counter.  And why is cheese wrapped by the individual slice?  Hell, it’s not even real cheese.  It’s a “cheese product” that tastes more like plastic than cheese.  And mass-produced white bread might as well be made of sawdust.  Yellow mustard is mustard in name only and probably has more bright yellow coloring than actual mustard in it.

Now, imagine thick slices of bread fresh from a local bakery, mortadella from your local Italian market sliced thin and piled high, maybe some fontina or gouda, and a hearty, whole grain mustard.  Cripes, just writing that is making my mouth water.  This is the food you *could* have.  The crappy sandwich is the one that Big Food wants you to eat.  Is that really a choice?

UPDATE:  I got into an argument over GMOs and the person I was energetically disagreeing with pulled out the one line that pro-GMO folks use all the time and that irks the shit out of me...  "GMOs are no different than selective breeding.  Humans have been doing this for thousands of years!"

I call bullshit.

Claiming any relationship between what scientists are doing now and what Gregor Mendel was doing with peas is as disingenuous as it is condescending.  Saving the seeds from the tallest or fastest growing plant or the one with the prettiest flowers is not adding DNA from brazil nuts to corn to add resistance to something or other.  Crossing various strains of tomatoes to create hybrids is not the same as snipping DNA from completely unrelated species in the hopes of cooking up something new.  Lord Tweedmouth didn't create Golden Retrievers by adding deer DNA (or whatever) to an existing dog breed.  He carefully bred together existing dog breeds and slowly created the characteristics that he wanted in his hunting dogs.

There are many good arguments to be made for GMOs.  It may very well be that GMOs are going to be necessary to feed the exploding human population.  They may be perfectly safe to eat.  But don't try to rationalize the frankenfood aspects of how these new variants are created by trying to claim that this is the same as selective cross-breeding.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Corporate IT and Top Chef

I stopped watching ‘Top Chef’ a couple of seasons ago.  It isn't that I didn't like the concept of the show or that I don’t like cooking shows, in fact, it’s just the opposite.  I love cooking shows and I love watching talented chefs create amazing dishes from everyday ingredients.  My problem is the ‘Top Chef’ judging system.

In case you've never seen ‘Top Chef’, the contestants participate in various culinary challenges and at the end of each episode; the person who did the worst is eliminated.  All well and good.  The problem is that the judging system rewards mediocrity.  There’s no running score, no collected achievement, no history of performance.  All that counts is how you do on the specific challenge in front of you today.  You can be the absolute best for three weeks in a row, blow one dish, and find yourself packing your knives.

Invariably, as the group of contestants winds down, there is at least one chef left who sucks.  They've never done badly enough to be the absolute worst, but they've been consistently in the bottom half.  Try something daring and fail?  You’re gone.  Try something average and do ok?  Live to survive until the next week.

Unfortunately, this reminds me of a lot of the IT shops I've worked in over the years.  You don’t get rewarded for taking risks or trying to be innovative but sure as hell you’ll get punished for failing.  Big Corporate IT staffs are notoriously risk averse for just this reason.  The problem with this is two-fold.

First, young technical studs who are looking for interesting projects aren't looking for the career safety of doing COBOL code maintenance.  They’re looking for doing something with cutting edge technologies.  Eventually they get tired of working for a management chain that preaches innovation but punishes free thinking and they move on to smaller, more nimble IT shops where they actually can get their hands on some new technologies.

Second, when layoffs come, and they always do in Big Corporate IT, the people that get axed will invariably include anyone who made his manager look bad in the last year.  Hey, didn't Bob try out that new virtualization platform and make me look bad to the boss?  Let’s put him on the list.  Well, yeah, Charlie isn’t the best at his job but we went to college together!  I can’t lay him off!

The net is that our Big Corporate IT staffs tend towards being a cluster of B- / C+ students.  Our executive management can chirp, “We want to be like Google!  We want to be like Microsoft!” until the cows come home.  Until they can get middle management to act that way, Big Corporate IT will continue to be the mediocre ‘Top Chef’ contestant that somehow manages to just squeak through.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tax the rich? We already do...

In all probability, the tax load on higher income Americans is going up.  It's simply the reality of the current fiscal situation.  However, before we go too far with the "they should pay their fair share" argument, let's look at what higher income Americans already pay today.  My numbers are based on IRS data for 2009 tax returns, which is the most recent that they have posted on their web site.

Let's do some math...

Americans who filed income tax returns in 2009 with adjusted gross income of $75,000 or more made up a little over 20% of all returns (29 of 140 million returns).  That group paid $727B or 84% of all income taxes paid.  In other words, 1 out of every 5 income tax filers paid 5 out of every 6 income tax dollars.  The other 4 out of 5 filers paid only 1 dollar out of 6.  Push the dividing line to an AGI of $100k and it ends up being 12.5% of filers pay $646B / 75% or 1 of every 8 tax filers paid 3 of every 4 dollars in income taxes.  That's where any income tax revenue increase, by definition, has to come from.

The ugly reality of the fiscal corner we've been painted into by decades of irresponsible federal spending is that taxing higher income Americans is inevitable.  Lower income taxpayers simply don't make enough to make a difference even if we all paid higher tax rates.  Let's look at the numbers from the other direction.

Filers who had AGI of under $50k made up 66% of all returns but paid only $61B in taxes or 7% of income taxes paid.  Filers with an AGI of under $75k made up 79% of all returns but paid only $139B or 16% of taxes paid.  Using a cut off of $75k as an example, you could increase tax rates by 10% on everyone under $75k per year in AGI and only generate another $14B in taxes, not enough to even make a dent in the deficit reduction target of $500B that we need.  You might as well leave rates alone on lower income tax brackets because it won't make a difference anyway (at least not as it relates to deficit reduction).

Higher income Americans will just have to carry more of the burden, as they do already.  Before we vilify people for having the audacity to dare be successful, maybe we should thank them first for paying the bills.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Typical Request to IT Security

This is what you sound like, people:

"I put up a new web app and I need your approval.  I already spent $250,000 dollars on it and five business units are running on it every day so we need to get this done quick.  It runs on IIS 2.0 and NT 4.0 but don't worry too much because it runs on the original unpatched versions, not those crazy, patched up, service pack versions that have all those holes.  It's really easy to install because it mostly uses default settings and everything runs on the same server; the app, the database, the authentication mechanism, the works.  And it's easy to manage because all of the programmers from the company we bought it from still have full admin rights to the box.  We don't have to worry about integrating with AD because all of the user ids and the passwords are managed right within the app.  And you can add new ones with a text editor so we don't need complex user management."

"There's only a little patient and doctor data so there shouldn't be any compliance issues.  It has addresses, some basic demographic data (age, sex, height, weight, that kind of stuff), and social security numbers but there are no test order codes or test results so we should be OK on the PHI front.  There's a module for people to enter their credit card numbers but we haven't told anyone about that so if they put their card numbers in, it's their own fault."

"Can you please approve this in the next couple of hours?  I already told people that you did so it's really just a formality."