Monday, May 30, 2011

Off-Colour Metaphor of the Day

From user 'getwet' on this great Reddit post:
"Couple months later I got The World's Shittiest blowjob from this girl. Practice no equal perfect. Even the handjob was like some kind of sword in the stone misadventure. Just terrible."
Ha! Comedy gold!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thought of the Day

"Air travel used to be a luxury. Now it's isomorphic to entering a prison and then boarding a bus."

-The Greek (who will one day start his own blog, which I look forward to reading)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Something Important Has Been Lost...

Let us compare how people expressed their baser instincts, contrasting the 11th-13th centuries and the 20th-21st centuries, via Carl Orff's opera 'Carmina Burana' (in translations from the original Latin)

Hedonism, 11th-13th Century - Estuans interius (Burning Inside)
I travel the broad path
as is the way of youth,
I give myself to vice,
unmindful of virtue,
I am eager for the pleasures of the flesh
more than for salvation,
my soul is dead,
so I shall look after the flesh.

Hedonism, 20th Century - Me So Horny, by 2 Live Crew
Ahh! So horny!
Me so horny!
So horny!
Me love you long time!

Alcoholism, 11th-13th Century - In taberna quando sumus (When we are in the tavern)
When we are in the tavern
we do not think how we will go to dust,
but we hurry to gamble,
which always makes us sweat.
What happens in the tavern,
where money is host,
you may well ask,
and hear what I say.
Some gamble, some drink,
some behave loosely.
But of those who gamble,
some are stripped bare,
some win their clothes here,
some are dressed in sacks.
Here no-one fears death,
but they throw the dice in the name of Bacchus.

Alcoholism, 21st Century - Shots, byLMFAO and Lil Jon
Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!Shots! Shots! Shots! 

Sometimes it's hard not to think that Mike Judge was right.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Need advice on your poor decisions? Screw up spectacularly enough and the world will provide!

So I'm late to the party in having anything to say about the Schwarzenegger love-child affair. And I don't have much to say on it directly.

But it did make me think that it must be strange to be the subject of a sex scandal, and seeing every detail of your personal choices ridiculed, analysed and oogled at by the great and the good, the unwashed and the elites.

Most people immediately think of the horror of it all. And that's obviously true. On balance, I doubt anyone would want to go through it.

But to someone who's a thick-skinned narcissist (as most celebrities probably are) AND intellectually curious enough to wonder about what things they deceive themselves about (as most celebrities probably aren't), it would be most interesting to have all of the world's commentariat telling you what they thought of your personal decisions.

If I had Steve Sailer, Roissy in DC, Popehat and Ace of Spades, poring over all the choices I make in my life, it may not be pleasant, but I'd sure learn a lot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Don't you know who I am?!

There is a very high likelihood that if you ever have cause to ask 'Don't you know who I am?', you are, in fact, nobody.

In this case, you're an accused rapist. Beyond that, you're some French socialist, and the guy that runs the IMF in part because of an absurd arrangement that an American gets to run the World Bank and a European gets to run the IMF.

Don't believe me?

Quick, who's the head of the World Bank?

Yeah, I'd forgotten too. It's Robert Zoellick

But this gives us a useful proxy for roughly how important Dominique Strauss-Kahn was before he allegedly raped a maid.

Google reports about 72 million hits for 'IMF'. By comparison, it reports about 65.7 million hits for 'World Bank'. Separating out the effect of the two leaders "IMF -Dominique -Strauss-Kahn " returns 58.7 million hits, and ""World Bank" -Robert -Zoellick" returns 64.6 million. So they run roughly equally important organisations.

So how about the relative newsworthiness of the two heads of the organisations?

"Dominique Strauss-Kahn" records 18.9 million results.

'Robert Zoellick' records 1.55 million results.

Let's make the somewhat heroic assumption that Robert Zoellick and Dominique Strauss-Kahn were equally important people before this latest scandal broke.

In other words, according to Google hits, allegedly molesting a maid was around 11 times more important than everything Dominique Strauss-Kahn had done up to that point.

The irony, of course, is that at the time Dominique Strauss-Kahn was asking the question 'Don't you know who I am?', he was about to become vastly more important, but not in the way he'd like. He's certainly put the IMF on the map to a lot of rubbernecks who hadn't heard of it before!

By contrast, 'Justin Bieber' has 296 million hits. He also  probably doesn't have to ask people whether they know who he is.

That's depressing in its own way, but at least should serve as a useful antidote to pompous clowns like Strauss-Kahn.

Monday, May 23, 2011

You can-NOT be SERIOUS!!!

Greg Mankiw links to this very interesting paper by William Davis, Bob Figgins, David Hedengren, and Daniel Klein in Econ Journal Watch. It's a poll taken of economists, asking who their favourite economists are. Presumably 'me' (in the general form, not 'Me, Bob Smith') was not an available option, otherwise I suspect that this would be the dominant winner in nearly every living case.

The first question I have is on Page 7 of the pdf - Favourite Pre-20th Century Economists.

#5 is Karl Marx.

Karl @#$%ing Marx!!! Ahead of Walras! Ahead of Pareto! Ahead of Cournot!

Good God, which 'economists' were they interviewing? East Podunk State School of Sociology?

I suppose the likely explanation (consistent with evidence elsewhere) is this isn't a measure of 'who do you think were the best economists', merely your favourite ones. This would also explain other trends that would be strange in terms of actual contribution to economics - putting Galbraith (who mainly wrote popular works) ahead of giants like Irving Fisher, von Mises, Hicks, Stigler, Veblen, and Tobin.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, this isn't just a diss on left-leaning economists. Thomas Sowell was a surprising inclusion in the living economists age 60 or over. Now, I yield to nobody in my love of Sowell's brilliantly lucid and enjoyable explanations of basic economic principles, but like Galbraith he is mainly known for popular writing. I'd struggle to rate him ahead of Martin Feldstein or Robert Fogel.

I guess this is partly the mind projection fallacy at work.

But even so! Karl @#$%ing Marx? How do you even rate him as a serious economist, let alone your favourite one?

It's a sick world alright.

The main saving grace was that Gary Becker was the favourite living economist age 60 or older. A well-deserved honour!

A Sunset on Mars



This might be one of my favourite NASA photos of all time - a photo of sunset on Mars, taken from one of the rovers.

The sky is red, the sunset makes it blue, and the sun is a fraction of the size it is on earth. And the ground just looks like regular desert, minus any signs of life.

It's an amazing universe alright.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Oooh, the burn!

Via Zero Hedge, comes Ice Cap Management's assessment of the fiscal situation in Greece. It includes these two pearlers:
To put the situation into perspective, the yield on a Greek 2 year bond is about 25%. It may actually be cheaper for Greece to fund their deficit using their VISA and Master Cards instead.
Zing!
Reasons why the EUR will escape crisis:   [This page intentionally left blank]
Double Zing!

Zero Hedge also makes a plausible case for what will happen when (not if) Greece defaults. Some highlights:
  • Every bank in Greece will instantly go insolvent.
  • The Greek government will nationalise every bank in Greece.
  • The Greek government will forbid withdrawals from Greek banks.
  • To prevent Greek depositors from rioting on the streets, Argentina-2002-style (when the Argentinian president had to flee by helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace to evade a mob of such depositors), the Greek government will declare a curfew, perhaps even general martial law.
  • Greece will redenominate all its debts into “New Drachmas” or whatever it calls the new currency (this is a classic ploy of countries defaulting)
  • The New Drachma will devalue by some 30-70 per cent (probably around 50 per cent, though perhaps more), effectively defaulting 0n 50 per cent or more of all Greek euro-denominated debts.
Read on for more.

Sadly I can't see much to argue with in this analysis. The ultimate problem is the same as elsewhere in Europe - the current round of 'austerity measures' isn't even enough to close the budget deficit, merely to reduce the rate of issuing new debt. And even this has caused near riotous levels of dissent. Short of miraculous 10% per year economic growth and/or a magic infinite German Chequebook (which is, as far as I can tell, is the current ECB plan), the money just isn't there, and sooner or later this is going to become apparent.

This slow-motion train-wreck has been coming for some time. The only reason it's been slow-motion is the desire of all concerned to just keep rolling over the debt and buying time until the inevitable has to happen (ideally on some other politician's watch). I think the author of the second post is right - the sensible thing at this stage is to start figuring out what happens next. People differ on specifics, but the first commenter at Zero Hedge gets the big picture right:
So it's bullish for stocks...
Yeeaaahhh.. About that...

By the way, at the risk of congratulating myself, I did enjoy the title of that earlier post "Greece - Circling the Drain, Fiddling with the Second Derivative of 'Screwed' with respect to 'Time'".

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mr Brown


My latest Pandora find is the thoroughly excellent 'Mr Brown', by Styles of Beyond.

This falls into the category both of the current musical corner solution, and also the metaphor of the day - in this case, a metaphor for getting shot between the eyes:
'[To] catch a 40-calibre case of glaucoma'
Classic!

This song also exemplifies the fact that the chord progression of 'Tonic, Sub-Dominant, Dominant, Sub-Dominant, Repeat' (e.g. C, F, G, F) is excellent and among the best four-chord riffs. It works really well in this song, it works well here, it works well here, it works well here, it pretty much works well everywhere.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More from the Good Doctor

Two great Theodore Dalrymple asides.

#1, in reference to Dr John Shebbeare (born in 1709):
Fanny Burney mentioned him in her diary, and says that his conversation was extraordinarily coarse and consisted mainly of the abuse of women and Scotsmen, whom he claimed to be “the two greatest evils upon earth.”
Ha! To identify these as the greatest evils sounds a little, shall we say... intemperate.

#2, on the tendency of intellectuals to ascribe motivations for bad actions to material circumstances, instead of temptations towards evil:
In my own country, for example, the motives for criminality have been so mystified for so long by proselytising academics that efforts at repression have been, if not abandoned entirely, so weakened as to have turned one of the best ordered western societies into one of the worst within the space of a few decades, while at the same time reducing many of its civic freedoms. The motives of criminologists are far harder (on the whole) to discern and understand than those of thieves.
 Ah, so true.

Loud Talkers

One of the most insidious forms of anti-social behaviour is talking loudly in public. It's inconsiderate, because it inflicts your conversation on everyone around you, even though almost certainly don't want to hear it. The problem is compounded by the fact that the people oblivious to this social courtesy are also more likely to be engaging in banal, obtuse conversation at loud volume, rather than say discussing the merits of Wittgenstein vs. Nietzsche, or the latest offering from the Lyric Opera.

In this regard, people seem to generally fall into one of two categories:

a) People that instinctively moderate the volume of their voice so as not to be easily audible to others nearby who aren't part of the conversation.

b) People that just talk at a loud fixed volume, regardless of the the level of background noise, how many other people are around, and how many people are likely to hear them.

This behaviour is inconsiderate in the true sense of the word - failing to consider whether your actions will impact other people. It's a class of antisocial behavior that's different from, say, farting loudly or urinating on the sidewalk. In those cases, the people who do it broadly know that it won't be appreciated, but just don't care. The loud talker is, as often as not, completely oblivious to how many people they're pissing off.

Loud talking persists because most people are unlikely to actually request the person keep their voice down. To do so is to provide a public good - you personally look like a dick as well when you complain, and the beneficiaries are those who get quiet but don't have to hassle the person. This doesn't happen much, because the people who prefer quiet are less likely to be brash enough to request others to shut up.

Every now and again, though, the quiet folk will get tipped over the edge, and ask the person to keep their voice down.What happens next determines whether the person is an oblivious loud-talker, or an obnoxious loud talker.

The oblivious loud talker will probably say, 'Uh, sure' or something like that. They'll think the complainer is weird, but probably just go along.

The obnoxious loud talker will react like Lakeysha Beard:
"Lakeysha Beard of Tigard was charged with disorderly conduct after police said she got into a “verbal altercation” with train passengers on Sunday. Passengers complained she refused to put down her cell phone and conductors had to stop the train in Salem, where police got involved."
Okay, so maybe the people complaining were way out of line.
"Salem police reported she had been on the phone non-stop since the train pulled out of Oakland, Calif. 16 hours earlier....
Holy hell! 16 straight hours of drivel! And it gets better:
"Amtrak does have a policy that riders can’t use cell phones in designated “quiet cars,” like the one in which Beard was riding."
Good God, this horrendous boorish woman sat down in a designated quiet car, talked on her mobile phone for 16 hours straight, and then got in a "verbal altercation" with passengers who asked her to stop, which was bad enough to result in the police being called.

And was she chastened by the experience? Has she seen the error of her ways?
"[She] said she felt “disrespected” by the entire incident."
Lakeysha Beard of Tigard, you are a repulsive, obnoxious human being.

Every now and again, I reflect on my policy of never, ever riding public transport unless absolutely necessary. Stories like this remind me of the wisdom of this rule.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Valet Parking

Every now and again, you stop and think that we live in a very remarkable society.

One of the things that brought this feeling was giving my car to a valet the other night. Just consider for a second how his institution works. Guy A pulls up and gives his $80,000 Mercedes, keys and all, to Guy B. Guy B is likely making about $10 per hour and may very well have a net worth significantly less than the car he is entrusted with, and yet Guy A lets him drive it away to park it. Guy A probably walks away without even checking what happens when he leaves and without asking where it will be parked. At the end of the meal, Guy B brings the car back intact, possessions all inside.

To make things stranger, this happens for run-of-the-mill restaurants, amongst people who've never met before and may never meet again. It's not just at some high-end country club with repeated interactions.

How many countries in the world do you think this kind of norm could reasonably work in? How many periods in history did people exhibit this much trust towards complete strangers? My guess is that the rate of theft wouldn't need to get very high at all before this institution would collapse completely.

And yet there it is.

Luigi Zingales, who's done a lot of work on this area, would argue that trust is linked to economic development. There's all sorts of value-increasing transactions that can only take place among strangers when there's strong norms of co-operation and low rates of screwing people over.

In other words, we shouldn't be surprised that institutions like valet parking only exist in highly developed nations.

Strange times.

(from a conversation with The Greek).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Worm Paternalism - A Metaphor


I was walking the other day along a footpath. It had been a damp day but sunny day, and there were some worms on the concrete. Most were dead, having either been squashed or dried out.

I saw one of them that was wiggling along, and decided I should try to rescue it.

Now, gentle reader, I tend to take a generally libertarian approach to people's actions. But there could hardly be a better instance of the worth of paternalism. Even the hardest of hardcore rational choice believers would not claim that every action of earthworms is likely to be utility maximising, particularly wriggling along a footpath after the rain. I mean, technically the moth might really really love circling around the light globe until it dies and the fly might enjoy getting electrocuted by the insect zapper. Of course, if you believe that, the Ghost of Karl Popper will hurl a copy of 'All Life is Problem Solving' at you and ask what, exactly, might falsify your theory. Plus, the evidence is all around you - look at all the other dead worms, killed for want of someone to move them back on to the grass!

So I decided to move one of worms.

Since I was worried about squashing it if I picked it up with my fingers (and, let's face it, it's a bit gross), I picked up a leaf and a piece of grass, and tried to maneuver the worm onto it.

This worm was quite lively, however. Despite my best intentions, it seemed deeply reluctant (for reasons that would not be at all puzzling to an evolutionary biologist) to go along with the plan. It kept wriggling away. I tried to move the grass underneath it to lift it up, but it would just poke the bottom of the worm (and looked not especially pleasant to be on the receiving end of).

Eventually, I managed to finally get it on the grass blade, and lifted it up to move it to the nearby grass. But even then, it wriggled off the grass, and fell about 20cm back down to the concrete. It kept wriggling away, and I let it go, feeling sad nonetheless.

As I walked away, I started to question the assumptions about the footpath being an obvious deathtrap. In particular, I didn't have any idea how many dead worms per square metre there might be on the grass, because the grass obscures them. If worms were dying at about the same rate on the grass and on the footpath, I'd still conclude that the footpath was a deathtrap, just because the evidence is more visible. This didn't make me completely change my underlying view (since worms can tunnel through dirt but not concrete, and feet are more likely to squash them on concrete), but it did make me revise it downwards.

I would still move snails off footpaths, as they can be picked up easily. I may even still try to move worms.

And yet...

Despite the best of intentions, I had merely managed to beat the worm up. Despite my apparently far superior understanding of the problem relative to the worm, it was no guarantee of any sort of good outcome.

The subject of this metaphor is 'Why the Government Should Meddle in People's Lives Much Less Than It Does'.

A.E. Housman on War

From 'More Poems'

XXXVI
"Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young."

Friday, May 13, 2011

An Instant Bookmark

My guess is that you will fall into one of two categories. You will find this to bring you an unexpected joy, like meeting an old friend in a foreign country where you didn't expect to find them.

Or, if you never read Calvin and Hobbes, you'll have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

To a lot of people, myself included, Calvin and Hobbes occupied a strangely deep attachment. Lots of the great comic strip writers I know and enjoy (Scott Adams immediately comes to mind) list it as one of their big influences. I think Adams described it as the best comic ever, and I'd agree.

I think the strength of the nostalgia associated with this comic (and the emotions that the current redoing provoked) is twofold. Firstly, it's a comic about childhood, but with the protagonist being a strange combination of childhood petulance and aims with adult jokes and insights. As a result, it captures an idealized image of childhood from the perspective of an adult - knowing what you know and enjoying what you do, but still partaking in the innocence of it.

But there's a second sense of it. For a lot of twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings, Calvin and Hobbes is also of their childhood. The time when the comics were still written was long ago, and Bill Watterson has shown a Seinfeld-esque level of timing, leaving on a high note and resisting all calls for an encore. Calvin and Hobbes is thus like a 1950's chevy - they just aren't making them any more.

I think this explained the strange outpouring of emotion this comic got on Reddit. There were some people who complained that it was ruining their image of the comic, but many more that seemed overjoyed at the prospect, however fleeting, of a new Calvin and Hobbes comic. It let them, just briefly, be reminded of that glorious time when you could open up the morning paper and find a new Calvin and Hobbes strip waiting for you.

Those were great times.

I had not heard of 'Pants are Overrated' before this, but they've earned my readership loyalty for quite some time to come.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Kaplan Test Prep - Lucky They're Not Teaching You Causal Inference

Kaplan is a service that runs a test preparation service - you sometimes see their flyers on public transport (on the very small number of dire occasions I've been forced to ride the bus or train), and other places. They help people prepare for standardised tests like the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and all those other scary acronyms ending in a capital T.

 I have no idea whether they do a good job or not. But I do know that their "High Score Guarantee" on their website is stupid, and designed to fool only stupid people. Which, as it happens, are probably the people who need help on these tests.
"Higher score guaranteed or your money back
We have the most comprehensive guarantee in the industry. Get a
higher LSAT score guaranteed or your money back."
So what's the problem with this? Well, it's an old one familiar to economists - identification. To work out whether Kaplan is actually doing anything, we'd like Kaplan courses to be randomly assigned to students. And they're not. So what else could be going on?

The most obvious problem is that I'd expect everyone to do better on average on their second attempt, regardless of whether they took a test prep course. Why? Because the fact that you took it a second time probably means that the first time you took the test you had been drunk the night before, assumed it would be easy, and screwed it up. And that's why you're doing it again. Had you gotten an unusually high score the first time you took it, it's very unlikely you'd take it again. Reversion to the mean alone will get you there, let alone the fact that on the second time people are probably doing the study that they didn't do the first time.

So a better comparison would be:
"Honest Kaplan Score Guarantee - We guarantee that the improvement in your test score will be higher than the average improvement for all second-time test takers"
This is better, but it still isn't perfect. Specifically,  people who want to pay money for a test prep service are likely more intrinsically motivated to study than the average second-time test taker. So what would be the ideal guarantee?:
"Holmes Testing Service Guarantee - We guarantee that if we take a  sample of 200 second time test takers and randomly assign half of them a Holmes Test Prep Course, the group with the test prep will have a larger average score increase, or you get your money back. We guarantee this because we did the experiment, and it works." 
You're looking at that thinking, "Wait, what the hell? How is this guaranteeing me anything? How could I get my money back?"

Well, it depends what you're after.

If you're after useful information that the course you're about to take will actually help you, the Holmes Guarantee is far more useful than any of the others.

If you're the type who buys the extended warranty on your dishwasher, likes the idea of something for nothing, and doesn't understand causal inference, go with the Kaplan guarantee. Your score will definitely go up!

Kaplan has decided that the market for the latter is far larger than the market for the former. (Assuming they themselves understand inference, which is far from clear). Depressingly, they're almost certainly correct in their assessment. Which is why I'm not in the test preparation business.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Predictable Preference Reversals in Procrastination Choices























In the category of 'stupid mistakes I make that I will admit to', let me add this one.

Procrastination is a classic sign of hyperbolic discounting. It's what happens when you know that something is in your interests to do, but you don't want to pay the small upfront costs just yet. You'll do it soon, really. As a result, it creates in predictable preference reversals. After you're done procrastinating, you'll wish you hadn't. Moreover, even as you're doing it, you know that you'll later regret it. But you do it anyway.

My mistake is not that I procrastinate and wish I didn't (although that happens too). It's more that hyperbolic discounting also causes me to procrastinate with things that aren't optimally enjoyable. So how does this mistake work in this context?

Procrastination typically tends to take the form of lots of small chunks of time. You tell yourself that you'll only waste five minutes, and then you'll work. Five minutes passes, then you want to spend another five, and so on. You may end up wasting a lot of time, but the decision has to be made incrementally because it's only the really immediate effect that has the high discount rate. In other words, in 5 minutes time, you really are willing to work. The problem is that '5 minutes time' keeps turning into 'now', when you aren't willing to work.

Someone who is hyperbolically discounting will only do so in tasks that individually require a small amount of time. Like checking one more blog. Or playing one more game of solitaire. They generally won't set aside in advance a large chunk of time to waste, such as by watching a TV show, or worse, a whole movie.

But here's where the preference reversals come in. In total, I will often waste 2 hours of time over the course of a day. If I could commit in advance to wasting this time and then getting on with work, I would rather spend it watching at least one TV show, or maybe a whole movie.

But I won't want to commit to that, because standing in the present, the first 5 minutes seem like acceptable procrastination, but the remaining 85 seem like an unconscionable waste of time when I should be working. They'll only seem like acceptable procrastination when they turn into 'now'.

An alternative title for this post is "Why, 6 months later, I still haven't watched 'The Hangover' that SMH lent me, even though I honestly believe it's a good movie"

Friday, May 6, 2011

This private company isn't offering me the contract I want!

What can I do?

Take my business elsewhere? Negotiate a better deal? Start a competitor that offers the service and undercut them?

Nah, that sounds hard. Wait, I know what we should do: lobby the government to strongarm them for us!
"56% of Americans have Internet data caps; FCC asked to investigate 
Two prominent Washington DC tech policy groups have asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Internet data caps in the US—with a special focus on AT&T."
Yes, because we all know that internet provision is a clear monopoly.

Some people make absolutely no distinction between statements of the form 'I would like X' and 'the government should mandate that I receive X'.

Would I love unlimited internet? Sure!

Do I expect unlimited internet, if mandated, to be free? No. Nothing is free.

Do I expect prices for everyone to rise if unlimited internet is mandated? Yes.

Do I expect this to benefit the 99% of internet users who aren't currently exceeding the caps? No. They'll pay more, and are unlikely to use the internet more as a result.

Do I expect this to benefit the 1% of large-scale movie-downloaders and spam site operators? Yes.

Do I expect this ex-post government rule-changing to reduce the incentive of technology companies to invest more in the future? Absolutely.

 Let's examine a more correct version of the article:
"56% of Americans have Internet data caps by revealed preference don't wish to pay more for unlimited internet use; FCC asked to investigate  something-for-nothing shills ask government to force private parties into a different contract with higher prices and different services from the one they have freely chosen  
Two prominent Washington DC tech policy groups have asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Internet data caps in the US—with a special focus on AT&T."
There, fixed it for you.

Guantanamo, the Saudi Secret Police, or a Predator Drone

Pick one.

There was a large crowd who vigorously opposed indefinite detention in places like Guantanamo Bay. It included a bunch of people I respect, like Coyote, and others I was more ambivalent on. One of the famous supporters was Barack Obama circa 2007.

Thankfully, once in office, Obama decided to loudly proclaim that he was going to shut Guantanamo Bay, then quietly proceeded with business as usual. The left claimed it felt betrayed, but never managed to muster the same outrage as they did for Bush.

The question is, why didn't Obama shut it down?

The answer, which I'm far from the first one to point out, is that he can't.

Inside, you have a bunch of guys who were captured on the battlefield shooting at US troops (or a bunch of innocent goatherds, depending on your perspective - even if it's the latter, as long as people believe they might be terrorists, you're still stuck).

These people can't be tried in a civilian court easily, because marines shooting at terrorists aren't busy being forensic detectives collecting evidence. In addition, these guys didn't get their court appointed attorney turning up as soon as they put down their Kalashnikov. If you hold these types of trials, they tend to fail. The Bush administration tried for a compromise with military tribunals, but the Supreme Court kept declaring parts of this unconstitutional - they were going to get a full trial, or (as it happened), nothing at all.

So what are your other options?

One is the status quo - lock them up forever. Nobody needs to point out the problems with this, either as a matter of justice or as a matter or politics. It's a crappy solution.

You could just shoot them when you're done. This would have been standard operating procedure from the dawn of man until some time during the 20th century, but it ain't going to be done now.

Another is move them to somewhere else. But where? The US isn't going to let the terrorists free there. There's roughly three types of places.

1. First world countries, who won't touch them with a ten foot pole.

2. Thuggish anti-terrorist regimes, who will deliver them to their secret police for torture and execution.

3. Failed or terrorist-supporting states, who will release them immediately.

The US has tended to go with option 3 for some of them (knowing that they'll come back to start fighting against the west again immediately) and indefinite detention for the ones they view as too risky to be let back out to join Al Qaeda.

Short answer, once you've captured them, there's no good options. Additionally, people have figured this out in a way that they hadn't earlier on in the current wars.

So the question is, if you're a commander in Afghanistan, you see a bunch of possible terrorists that you suspect you might be able to capture, or you could just blast them and not ask any questions. Which one will you do?

If you capture them, it will just lead to non-stop headaches for the next decade, as people try to figure out what the hell to do with them.

If you just blast them, nobody will question your decision. Too risky to send in men, known terrorist threat etc.

In entirely unrelated news to Obama's position on Guantanamo, here's the current rate of Predator Drone strikes, according to Victor Davis Hanson:
[W]e have executed from the air well over 1,500 suspected terrorists by Predators. President Obama has ordered four times as many drone attacks in the last two years as former president Bush did in eight.
That, my friends, is the actual tradeoff you make. If you can't convict them in court, your options are to lock them up forever, or kill them on the spot.

The current prisoners in Guantanamo are the seen. Everyone loves to help those guys - they've got armies of pro bono lawyers from the best firms in the US lining up to volunteer their services. The potential future prisoners of Guantanamo, being daily riddled with bullets, are the unseen. Nobody gives a flying f*** about them.

Put that way, the morality becomes a bit more complicated, doesn't it? Do you think the people involved would rather be vaporised with a hellfire missile instead of being in maximum security prison? If so, you'll love our new policy for domestic crime - execute all the inmates for their own good! Predator drones might sooth your troubled conscience, but only because you don't have to think about the tradeoff involved. Don't kid yourself that you're actually helping the guys who might otherwise be captured.

It's easy to rail against Guantanamo, as lots of people do. It's a lot harder to come up with an obviously better alternative. My guess is that Barack Obama started figuring this out real fast once he issued his order to shut down Guantanamo, and the terrorists have been learning it ever since, one predator drone strike at a time.

Update: Well, would you look at that!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Fog of War

By most accounts, war is not like you imagine.

One of the more interesting books on the subject that I've read is Randall Collins' "Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory". His basic thesis is that, contrary to popular perception, violence is difficult to do. Generally, people don't like it, are reluctant to do it, and when they do are generally very ineffective.

One of the claims in the book is that in war situations, guns are very inefffective per bullet fired. For muskets, the estimates were about one hit per 500-3000 shots fired. In the Franco-Prussian War, hit rates were about 1 in 119 and 1 in 200 for the two sides. In World War 1 it was a little better, getting up to one hit per 27 rounds fired, but that probably has as much to do with how far away the targets were. In Vietnam, most estimates are of the order of one hit per 50,000 rounds fired (!!!).

Don't believe me? Watch this fascinating helmet-camera view of a firefight in Afghanistan. In particular, pay attention to the following questions:

-Can you see where you're being fired at from?

-Can you tell who's firing at any point (admittedly we don't get directional audio like you do in real life, but when machine guns are firing next to your ear, do you think you could tell where a shot 200m away was coming from)?

-Can you tell whether the dust is coming from the bullets you fired, or the shots being fired at you?

-How many shots appear precisely aimed at a particular target?

-How much incentive do you have to to keep your head up above the wall to get a clear look at what's going on?

-If you hit someone, would you even know?



This isn't to knock the US military - they're almost certainly amongst the most effective armies in the world. The point is that it must be damn-near impossible to kill someone at this distance in this kind of situation with this kind of weapon. Except, basically, by chance and the law of large numbers.

It also goes a part of the way to explaining why you want
a) RPGs instead of rifles, and more importantly
b) Airstrikes.

If you can't see what the hell is going on, wide area-of-attack weapons are a much better bet.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Source Code and Terrorism

I recently saw the move 'Source Code'. It's not bad - overacted in places (including the head scientist guy, who was badly miscast), but overall it was interesting.

One thing I found hilarious though is how wedded Hollywood is to particular ideas about terrorism. Some minor plot spoilers below the jump...


Monday, May 2, 2011

Disclaimers - Legally Important, Practically Useless

I recently saw a bunch of ads for Fidelity Investments. At the bottom, in small print, they included this terribly useful advice:
"Investing involves risks, including risk of loss."
You don't say! I personally thought that investing involved no risk at all - if we've learnt only one thing in finance from the past five years, it's that the housing market can only go up.

The second half is even more puzzling - 'including the risk of loss'. What other risks are their in investing? The risk of profit? The risk that you'll make lots of money and your kids will turn into brats? The risk that you'll waste lots of time clicking 'refresh' on Yahoo Finance to see how your portfolio is doing? Beats me.

Honestly, if you didn't know this to begin with, how on earth did you earn enough money to require Fidelity's services?

It's all a charade, of course. Doubt not that absolutely nobody's investing behaviour will be changed one jot by these nonsensical disclaimers. They are just part of the kabuki theatre that modern torts law demands, where the world is littered with useless warnings undertaken merely to deter unscrupulous lawyers and their gold-digging clients. Every now and again, you stop and reflect how bizarre it is that your coffee cup is warning you that coffee is hot, but then you go back to accepting it as part of the landscape.

Somewhere, Lord Buckmaster is looking down on us and laughing his head off.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thoughts on the Rumoured Death of Osama Bin Laden

A civilised society should not lightly mock the dead. Even when the dead in question are loathsome and evil.

Bearing that in mind, you can take what follows as my considered response:




Good riddance. Let the enemies of civilisation know that we have a long memory, and that attacking the west is a sure fire way to end up with two in the forehead.

Rumours via Ace of Spades, The Australian

Resist the Festivalisation of Weddings

There seems to be an increasing trend in modern society towards ever more elaborate weddings. It’s not enough to have wedding plus reception. Obviously you need both bachelor parties and spinster parties.

But there’s been a proliferation of new add-ons.

Americans are big on the ‘rehearsal dinner’, which seems to have spiraled out of control from being ‘just the wedding party’ to ‘wedding party plus out of town guests’ to ‘practically everybody’. So now you’ve got to plan not one, but two huge parties.

And since the out of town guests will be there the day before, it would be a shame to not have some activity with them during the day too. Bam, there’s more planning and hassle.

And if two days wasn’t enough (and let’s not forget the local guests, slumming it with only a single full day of proceedings), there has been the pernicious proliferation of ‘next morning brunch’. I can think of nothing more ghastly as the Groom than to have to stagger down the next morning to put on my cheery face again. Plus most of the young people would rather be asleep too, especially if they’ve been out late the night before. So it’s basically only the oldies who’ll be enjoying it.

Screw that. If I had to plan a wedding (which mercifully I do not), you know what I’m going to be doing the morning after my wedding? Getting laid. Failing that, I’ll be asleep. Failing that, I’ll be on a plane to Tahiti. But come hell or high water, I sure won’t be glad-handing all the guests AGAIN.

And if three days of stuff isn’t enough (not including the bachelor parties), there’s now the engagement party. This is for all the other guests that you didn’t want to invite to the wedding, so now you get to plan a third party. Thankfully lower key, but that doesn’t help much. In truth, it probably would have been cheaper to just invite the additional guests to the wedding and cancel the party, but that doesn’t seem to occur to people.

This is of course either in addition to (or hopefully in substitution of) ‘bridal showers’, another excuse for the bride and her friends to get together, and the bride to get more presents. Traditionally, this wouldn't concern me, so I wouldn't care. But in this golden age of equality, it has been sometimes transformed into a ‘couples shower’.

Good God in Heaven, what kind of sackless man agrees to host a ‘couples shower’? You take a female tradition, and insert yourself into it like an emasculated appendage to bride-zilla. And on top of that, the concept of a ‘shower’ (unlike just a ‘party’) is that the guests are required to bring gifts. How tacky! How classless! How do you send out an invitation saying ‘Come to this party, bring me more presents!’ and not feel like a tool?

Thankfully, all these things have served one very useful purpose - they provide an excellent screening mechanism for potential brides.

To wit, the more elaborate wedding the bride wants, the less I am likely to want to marry them. They don't have to be as curmudgeonly as me (because let's face it, that's asking a lot), but a little skepticism towards the idea of 'three straight days of celebrating meee!!!!!' wouldn't hurt.

It is a strong signal of quality if your bride-to-be is more excited by the idea of marriage than the idea of a wedding. It is a strong negative signal if the converse is true.