29 December 2015

Russia's Navy Not As Awesome As Naval Intelligence Suggests

An unclassified December 18, 2015 report summarizing the state of the Russian Navy prepared by the United States Office of Naval Intelligence presents a somewhat surprising and unrealistically positive assessment of the capabilities of the Russian Navy. (Thanks to a helpful reader for locating it, which is includes a nice easily accessible summary of the different kinds of submarines and ships in Russian naval service.)

The Russian Navy is probably the most formidable blue sea naval adversary that the U.S. has in the world.  But, the report doesn't even hint at the most important thing that more independent naval analysts have to say about it, which is that the Russian Navy is hollow.  To recap the relevant part of a post at this blog from August of this year discussing that issue:
The loss of access to suppliers in the Ukraine due to Russia's seizure of some of its territory, an inability to obtain replacement suppliers in the West for the same reasons, and a weak economy in Russia, as well as the fact that Russia is trying to support all of the Soviet Navy with a smaller population and economy than the Soviet Union had, has taken a huge toll on the Russian Navy. The bottom line:
On paper the Russian Navy currently has 270 combat ships (including amphibious and combat support vessels). But only about half of these are in any shape to go to sea. The rest are too old, and usually too poorly maintained for too many years, to leave port. Russian shipyards are terrible at building or repairing ships and efforts to remedy this have so far failed. Thus only about 15 percent of Russian naval vessels are major surface warships or submarines. In comparison the U.S. Navy has 290 warships and about 85 percent can go to sea (the others are being upgraded or repaired.)
As a result, the U.S. blue sea naval superiority is actually considerable greater than one would naively expect.Moreover, any realistic assessment of naval force has to consider not just each individual country's naval resources, but those of its likely allies in any particular conflict.
The United States has a lot of BFFs who also have modern, well maintained, powerful naval forces. None of them are even near peers to the U.S. Navy which is far and away the most impressive navy in the world.  But, the navies of countries like the U.K., France, Italy and Japan aren't milquetoast either.

Russia has a few BFFs with navies, and more countries who might be unreliable allies like Syria, Iran, China or North Korea.  But, just as its naval is less impressive than the U.S. Navy, its allies navies are less impressive than the navies of U.S. allies in almost every potential theater of naval warfare.

The fact that Russia has nuclear weapons may mean that it will never make sense for anyone to engage in full fledged conventional naval warfare with Russia.  But, when push comes to shove, the only respect in which Russia is truly a near peer of the U.S. in naval capabilities is in its President's rather reckless willingness to use the military resources at his disposal.

Why would the Office of Naval Intelligence unrealistically puff up Russian naval capabilities?

Well, to ask the question is very nearly to have your answer.  The unmatched U.S. Naval budget needs to be justified, and a report that reveals that our nearest peer force is much less impressive than it seems on the service won't help the naval fight the biggest real war that it has fought in the past two generations that have seen very few actual naval military conflicts - the budget wars that rage in Congress.

From an institutional perspective, Naval Intelligence can never go wrong by overestimating its enemy.  It is is right, it gets the funding it needs to combat the threat.  If it is wrong, it will win any conflict that comes up handily.  A win-win for the navy, even if this means a loss for American taxpayers.

Stephen Hsu on Mismatch and IQ

Stephen Hsu calls attention at his Information Processing blog to a recent op-ed supporting the mismatch hypothesis that is important in analyzing the latest U.S. Supreme Court higher educational affirmative action case and a recent article on STEM majors/professions and IQ.  He is a true believer in the value of IQ and the tests used to measure them as a tool in daily bureaucratic life and in personal and national success.

Basically, he think that we should focus on educating the gifted as this produces the most returns, is sympathetic toward eugenic concepts, and thinks that meritocracy based upon tests that accurately measure IQ should give way to only a few other considerations like "W" (work ethic basically), and social skills.  He favors genetic research into the source of hereditary IQ.

I tend to agree that the claim in the papers that the mismatch hypothesis is not supported by any credible evidence are wrong, but also doubt that affirmative action beneficiaries are on balance actually worse off for choosing more competitive schools overall.  Degree prestige confers a lot of value separate and apart from raw academic sorting and the education one receives once admitted may not even be all that important relative to degree prestige for the individual.  Elite universities are where we train our ruling class and that is as much a social and sociological venture as an academic one.

Also, too few attempts to analyze affirmative action really delve into the asymmetry of the big prestige boost for the beneficiaries vis-a-vis the modest prestige depression for those displaced from top schools by it, although the depression is quite serious for Asian-Americans who bear a lot of the downside of affirmative action (more so than whites generally and on a par with or in excess of the hit taken even by upper working class to middle middle class whites).

20 December 2015

Opal Restaurant In Denver

Have you ever wanted to go to a sports bar with almost no drink selections and shabby furnishings, where foul mouthed customers talking about whether the latest domestic violence incident they witnessed was justified, with a menu consisting almost entirely of sushi?

Me neither.  I completely misjudged the place based upon its location and the sign on its awning which promised "nouveau American cuisine." But, if you are so inclined, Denver has just the place to meet your needs.

It is called "Opal" and it is a the intersection of 9th and Broadway in Capital Hill.

The prices are tolerable during Happy Hour, for sushi, but the ambiance is quite possibly the worst of any sushi establishment in the entire Rocky Mountain West.

Needless to say, my wife and I will not be repeat customers.

Chinese Growth Has Done Wonders For Humanity

[A]ccording to Chen and Ravallion, between 1981 and 2005, 98 percent (yes, ninety-eight percent) of reduction of global poverty, calculated using the poverty line $1 per person per day, was due to China.
Via Global Inequality via Marginal Revolution.

Chinese exports have also arguably made a lot of people elsewhere, such as people in the United States, less poor by reducing the price of consumer goods in a manner having nothing to do with monetary policy.

17 December 2015

U.S. Backs Colorado In Pot Lawsuit Brought By Nebraska and Oklahoma

The solicitor-general of the United States has decided to back the state of Colorado in a lawsuit brought against the state in the United States Supreme Court by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma, basically alleging that legal marijuana in Colorado is a nuisance that creates law enforcement work for them across the border.  The solicitor-general has argued that the Court's original jurisdiction should not recognize this kind of cause of action.

The suit was filed a year ago and is progressing very slowly.

The U.S. stance continues an Obama administration policy of taking no affirmative action on the merits to support marijuana legalization, but also not taking affirmative action to interfere with state experimentation, where possible.

15 December 2015

Heroism Is Meaningless Without Good Intelligence

Early in the conflict in Afghanistan, U.S. forces brutally and with a great deal of heroic action in combat shut down two suspected al-Qaeda bases there, killing dozens, and capturing dozens more who were tortured during their interrogations afterwards.

The problem: the bases actually belonged to two of the strongest leaders of our allies.

In hindsight, this raid seriously hurt the U.S. cause in Afghanistan.  But, due to bad intelligence and an imperative to act swiftly we didn't know any better.

The Special Forces troops involved did engage in some unprofessional overkill in their methods, but no one would have faulted them for that if the situation had been as they believed it to be (and indeed, several of the men involved in the raids won military honors as a result of their actions in those raids).  However, our poor intelligence on those raids undermined the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan for years to come and may be one reason that the Taliban is still a viable insurgent force even today.

We need to avoid those kinds of mistakes in future conflicts.

Economic Development Driven By Increasing Returns

One of the lessons of empirical data on economic development is that growth takes place most vigorously in very localized areas where progress has already taken hold.  Thus, places like Silicon Valley's early lead in computer technology has driven it to become a center of computer technology decades later, and New York's early lead in the securities market has led it to dominate that market centuries later.

This is not a new phenomena.  The industrial revolution in England thrived most in the rural counties that already had significant small scale industry.  This is contrary to conventional wisdom about the English industrial revolution that has been influential with economists.

14 December 2015

GOP Race Still All About Trump

Donald Trump has hit a new milestone in national polling, garnering 41% of the Republican vote in a . . . Monmouth University poll out Monday. . . . up from 28% in October. In second was the rising Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, at 14%; followed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, at 10%. Ben Carson was at 9%, down 9 points from October, and all other candidates were in the low single digits.
From here.

Jeb Bush and many other "establishment candidates" have been left in the dust. One key factor in the race seems to be that likely Republican voters prefer candidates who lie to them.

Different demographics within the GOP have wildly different views of the candidates.

Physics GRE Scores Don't Predict Success In Astronomy

A study of the Physics GRE exam scores of successful post-docs tends to show that your Physics GRE score is irrelevant to your success in an astronomy program.  By implication, it may be a poor tool to regulating admissions to graduate programs in astronomy.

13 December 2015

Two recent blunders for the Littoral Combat Ship program

Despite a $700 million dollar investment, the anti-mine warfare module for the Littoral Combat Ship doesn't work.  And, the most recently commissioned Littoral Combat Ship, the Milwaukee, the sixth of the LCS class, had to be towed back to port when it broke down because metal debris ended up in its oil filter somehow.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has issued a contract for $225 million for two companies to develop 13 prototype Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACV 1.1), the most recent epicycle of a weapons development program that has been cancelled over and over again for decades.  The aspiration is to get this vehicle into the field in five years. The ACVs would replace the 392 amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) now in service using a 40 year old design which entered service in 1971, which are highly outdated because all efforts to replace them have had fatal flaws. The previous replacement program (the amphibious expeditionary fighting vehicle) sent $3 billion down the drain when the finished product turned out to be unreliable in operational testing and was cancelled in 2011. A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service recaps the highlights of this procurement abomination.
ACV 1.1 is envisioned as an eight wheeled vehicle capable of carrying 10 Marines and a crew of three and would cost between $4 million to $7.5 million per copy—a change from the RFI estimate of $5 million to $6 million per vehicle. In terms of mobility, the ACV 1.1 would need to be able to travel at least 3 nautical miles from ship to shore, negotiate waves up to at least 2 feet, travel 5 to 6 knots in calm seas and be able to keep up with the M-1 Abrams tank once ashore. Proposals would be due in April 2016 and the Marines reportedly plan to award two EMD contracts for 16 vehicles each to be delivered in November 2016. In 2018, the Marines would then down select to one vendor in 2018 and start full production.
The 2015 RFI involves a significant reduction in capability from the 2011 version of the design specifications for the vehicles (which were to be able to travel twelve miles with 17 Marines in waves of up to 3 feet at 8 knots; but is still superior to the two mile capabilities of the status quo).

There has been serious discussion about the benefits of an integrated amphibious combat vehicle as opposed to converting entirely to having landing craft with a dedicated land based vehicle.

Erowid Covered In The New Yorker Magazine

Erowid has been in my sidebar for a long time for good reason.
In February, Reddit users deemed it the fourth-most-worthy nonprofit out of more than eight thousand candidates, granting the site a donation of exactly $82,765.95. Erowid came in ahead of NPR.
Its proprietors, "Earth" and "Fire" are very near and dear to me and have been for a long time.  I went to their wedding, which was one of my favorite weddings ever.

Now, both their website/non-profit, and their personal lives, have been written up in a well done article in the November 23, 2015 edition of The New Yorker magazine.  Go read it.

10 December 2015

Republicans Still Hate Muslims

On a wide range of policy issues, the Republican party is closer than the Democratic party to the opinions of the average American Muslim as expressed in opinion polls.  American Muslims are a pretty conservative group on many social and economic issues.  But, those Muslims are still going to vote for Democrats (and more than 80% of the American Muslim adults are U.S. citizens).


Because a lot of Republicans are very stridently anti-Muslim.

For example, two-thirds of likely Republican voters favor prohibiting Muslims from entering the United States, and a third of likely Republican voters in North Carolina believe that Islam should be illegal in the United States and favor closing mosques in the United States.

Basically, a large swath of Republicans hate America and everything it stands for, which is really quite unfortunate for the future of our country.

09 December 2015

Selected Observations Relevant To Gun Control

* Enlisted active duty sailors on U.S. naval ships are generally prohibited from possessing weapons of any kind (even swords) except when expressly granted permission to do so by a commanding officer in the event of an incident requiring the use of a weapon.  Even the weapons of naval officers are generally tightly accounted for, often in an armory under third party control, most of the time. Similar policies may be in effect in the Air Force on some planes or bases.

* Active duty members of the military must account to the appropriate person in the organization for all weapons and ammunition in their possession.

* Active duty members of the military are subject to the expedited and less defendant-friendly provisions of military justice that do not apply to civilians.

* The superiors of active duty members of the military have wide discretion to adjust the responsibilities of active duty members of the military in ways that can deny them the ability to bear arms with essentially no due process rights for the soldier or sailor in question.

* Law enforcement officers have an almost universal affirmative duty to report any incident requiring the use of the firearm, whether or not fired, to their superiors.  If the weapons is actually fired, a law enforcement officer is generally suspended from office with pay, required to file a report, and often referred to psychological treatment as well.

* Both law enforcement officers and active duty military members whose firearms are lost or stolen have an affirmative duty to promptly report this fact to their superiors.

* Law enforcement officers generally have a duty to respond immediately and truthfully to inquiries from their superiors about their conduct without requesting the presence of an attorney or claiming the protection of the Fifth Amendment.  While a law enforcement officer is not without a right to counsel or the protection of the Fifth Amendment, invoking these rights may result in job related sanctions (e.g. suspension from the job).

* Law enforcement officers who are determined to have lied in court or in reports are often no longer able to continue participation in the criminal justice system because Brady requires disclosure of this fact to defense counsel in any court proceeding in which that law enforcement officer is called upon to testify, since the evidence can be used to impeach the credibility of testimony against the accused and exonerate him (or her).

* Law enforcement officers generally must pass an extensive background check before being hired.

* Law enforcement officers frequently have to do multiple things in order to remain in good standing as a law enforcement officer including meeting periodic marksmanship tests, attending regular continuing education training, passing periodic psychological evaluations, and avoiding serious disciplinary action from their superiors.

* Both active duty military members and law enforcement officers overwhelmingly have some superior officer to whom they report on a daily basis whose responsibilities include monitoring the fitness of their subordinates to continue to serve.

* While there is generally no civil liability for inaction by law enforcement (with only narrow exceptions), a law enforcement officer who fails to respond to a situation within his or her jurisdiction will routinely suffer professional discipline of some kind for failing to do so.  Soldiers and law enforcement officers generally have an affirmative duty to requests from the appropriate superior officers or officials to provide assistance.

* Almost everyone who openly carries firearms in an urban environment who is not a law enforcement officer is a uniformed private security employee.

* Neither active duty military members nor law enforcement officers generally have the right to transfer the weapons they are issued in connection with their employment related duties to third-parties.

* The weapons that are appropriate for hunting and defense against animals (generally rifles and shotguns) are almost completely distinct from the weapons customarily used for self-defense in urban areas (generally handguns that are either kept in a home or office, or are carried in a concealed manner).

* Many kinds of firearms are restricted to only certain members of the military (e.g. sniper rifles or crew served machine guns), or only to certain members of law enforcement (e.g. SWAT teams).

* Many kinds of arms are almost never issued to members of law enforcement (e.g. artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, high explosive grenades, bombs, land mines, sea mines, armed helicopters, anti-tank weapons, heavy machine guns, tanks armed with lethal weapons, and missiles).  These kinds of arms are restricted almost exclusively to military units.

England Used To Be A Lot Like ISIS

For over a century, English husbands sold their wives at auctions. We argue that wife sales were an institutional response to an unusual constellation of property rights in Industrial Revolution-era English law. 
That constellation simultaneously required most wives to obtain their husbands’ consent to exit their marriages and denied most wives the right to own property. In doing so it precluded direct Coasean divorce bargains between spouses that could dissolve inefficient marriages when wives’ valuation of life outside their marriages was higher than husbands’ valuation of life inside them. To overcome this problem, spouses used wife sales to conduct divorce bargains indirectly. Wife sale auctions achieved this by identifying and leveraging “suitors” — men who valued unhappy wives more than their current husbands, who unhappy wives preferred to their current husbands, and who had the property rights required to buy unhappy wives’ right to exit marriage from their husbands. The resulting transactions enabled unhappy wives in inefficient marriages to exit those marriages where English law otherwise prevented them from doing so.
This is the abstract for Boettke, et al. "Wife Sales" (Review of Behavioral Economics, 2014, 1: 349-379) via the Legal Theory blog whose proprietor notes: "Today is not April First and I did not make this up."

Many of the things we now find most appalling about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) involve corporal punishments, the reinstitution of slavery, its treatment of women, and its treatment of religious minorities, all of which are not that much different than the law of England in the early days of the Industrial Revolution through the Victorian era.

This revelation should give us hope that current practice is not destiny for even the most hardline Islamic countries today, even if they remain Islamic (just as England remained Christian).  And, this historical fact should also cause us to be humble in assuming any inherent ethnic moral superiority.

While I would happily defend the legal regime in modern Western countries as superior to those of the Islamic state, I would also argue that this superiority is the product of cultural innovations that are relatively recent in history which are not exclusive to any one group.

Also, while I again, would argue that the modern Western regime is superior to that ISIS legal regime, it could very well be the case that institutions that we find abhorrent are bad mostly for different reasons than conventional wisdom would suggest, and that they might address problems within the ISIS legal regime as a whole in ways that are not widely understood, in much the same way as the economic analysis of Wife Sales in the linked article explains that benefits of that institution to men and women alike in the legal context in which they took place.

Finally, of course, the existence of Wife Sales, reminds us that what is commonly viewed as "traditional marriage" is a much younger legal institution than is commonly acknowledged.  Older forms of "traditional marriage" would be virtually unrecognizable as such today.

08 December 2015

Excellence Recognized At University of Colorado Denver

The University of Colorado at Denver has been recognized nationally as the best in the nation at getting above average salaries for average students.

More than half of UCD students drop out and one of the key factors in its high ranking was the economic success experienced by its dropouts, possibly due to a thriving Denver economy.

Closing Failing High Schools Is A Policy That Works

A careful study of the impact of closing failing New York City high schools on the educational success of the middle schoolers who would have attended those schools shows that this is a policy that works.

07 December 2015

Donald Trump Doesn't Believe In The American Way

Donald Trump is calling for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" following deadly terror attacks involving Islamic extremists in California and France.

"Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension," Trump said in a statement emailed to reporters on Monday.

"Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life," he added.
From the Huffington Post.

Maybe there would be a little less hate in the world directed at the U.S. if people like Republican Presidential candidates stopped trying to fuel the hate with patently unconstitutional proposals.

We don't need a hateful bigot in the White House.  Vote for anybody but Trump.

06 December 2015

Kenneth Ray Banks Wanted For Two Recent Murders

Kenneth Ray Banks, age 20, is suspected of shooting a relative of someone in my office, killing that relative's girlfriend in the same incident, and then killing someone else three days later.


Photo of Kenneth Ray Banks per Denver Police Department

Obviously, he is armed and dangerous, so be careful. But, if you know where he might be, tell the cops. "Anyone with information about Banks is asked to call the Aurora police at 303-627-3100 or the Metro Denver Crime Stoppers at 720-913-7867."

04 December 2015

What Does A Democracy Starter Kit Look Like?

In the longer run, if the world community wants less developed countries to have more palatable political systems, it needs to develop models that are capable of functioning serviceably in those countries for prolonged periods of time with the human capital that is available in those countries.
From my previous post.

What outcomes would we expect from a model that fit this criteria?

* The political system is stable and secure enough to successfully fend off perils such as coups, civil wars, drift into oppressive authoritarian regimes, autarky, grossly incompetent management of policy and the public sector, and inconclusive succession.

* The political system is operated predominantly by citizens of the country, although not necessarily without any role for outside expertise or guidance.

* The political system can manage policy and the public sector in a manner whose functionality is at least "par for the course" for countries at comparable stages of economic development over a wide range of policy domains, and ideally, is better than average.  Further, the country is capable of weathering every kind of crisis it is likely to encounter over a two or three generation long formative period and at least a couple instances of peaceful top leadership succession.

* The political system operates in a manner that makes reasonable attempts to honor human and civil rights of individuals and is generally successful in doing so, even if sometimes it fails in the attempt in ways that aren't absolutely catastrophic or genocidal.

* The political system implements policies that are not consistently wildly unpopular, and provides people who disagree with the policies that it implements some means short of violence to express their disagreement and to have constructive means by which they can express their concerns.

* The political system comes to be viewed as legitimate in fairly short order by the overwhelmingly majority of the population.

* The political system compares favorably to political systems that are now successful in their first half century or so.

* The political system is easily understood and adopted in countries that have no history of using this political system or any other kind of Western style democratic or legal system before in its history, where the pool of well educated people by Western standards makes up a quite small proportion of the population, where there are some significant ethnic divisions within the population, and where per capita GDP is low.

* The political system has a viable means of financing its public sector.

If a political system meets these criteria, it is my opinion that pretty much any other criteria for it drawn from practice in modern Western style democracies ought to be abandoned.  In particular, Western standards of democracy, the universal franchise, and modern Western style legal decision making should be dispensed with.

Also, I suspect that developing a core of adequately educated and socialized legal/governmental functionaries, even if it is small, whose talents are leveraged appropriately, is critical to the system's success.  Utilization of pre-existing, pre-colonial institutions whenever possible is likely to be key to this necessary leveraging arrangement.

For example, a typical legal system in a country under this model might reserve many disputes for resolution by local tribal chiefs, village elders, aristocrats, elected justices of the peace or local councils, or the like, while reserving a carefully chosen set of questions where greater expertise is necessary to make tolerably correct decisions for members of the talented and well socialized core leadership group of the country, or even in rare cases for outside experts along the line of the judicial department of the British Privy Council which had final appellate review over the decisions of the highest colonial courts.

Why ISIS Rose And What It Will Take To Defeat It

Vox offers a (very long) one sentence description of what drove the emergence of ISIS.  Broken down, it notes that:
* After the end of British, French, and Ottoman imperial rule in the early to mid-20th century, Arab leaders failed to establish anything like stable democratic societies. Instead, they imposed unpopular and brutal military dictatorships that prevented any real sense of national unity developing and squandered the region's economic potential.

* The Middle East's progressive and democratic parties failed, due to a combination of incompetence and interference, to put together a viable alternative to these regimes.

* This created a large population of people in the Middle East who were disenfranchised and looking for a new form of politics. During and after the Cold War, Islamism rose to fill that void: It appealed to an identity and a set of values that many in the Middle East shared and understood. This was part of a global revival of different forms of identity politics.

* Some governments — like Saudi Arabia's quasi-monarchy, quasi-theocracy — had an interest in helping spreading a fairly hard-line version of Islam, as it shored up domestic legitimacy. Radical Islamism also got a boost from foreign powers, as things like US support for Iran's brutal shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created understandable resentment that radicals were well-positioned to support.

* More recently, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring threw the Middle East's normal geopolitical order into chaos, creating a vacuum in which sectarianism (encouraged by a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia) became a powerful force. ISIS flourished in this kind of religiously polarized chaos, bringing us to the point we're at today.
This is on the right track although I would differ in some particulars and in context and emphasis.

1.  The vast majority of post-colonial regimes in the world experienced coups and/or devolved into dictatorship or undemocratic one party regimes.  Many of these countries are still in that political state and those have have emerged from that state generally did so only after many decades of non-democratic governance.  The Middle East's experience in this regard was the norm and not the exception.  Post-colonial regimes with continuous democratic government for at least part of the former colonial territory following independence, such as India, were the exception and even many of those exceptions (such as India from which Pakistan seceded in a bloody event followed by a subsequent split of Pakistan itself) still experienced a great deal of trauma in their early days.

2.  An important part of the fundamentalist and Islamist revival seen in the Middle East in the late 20th century was related to rising literacy levels which allowed members of the general public who had previously had access to the Koran and other religious texts only mediated through formally trained religious officials and scholars who delivered this information subject to many traditional glosses and interpretations of "hard passages" now receiving those texts unbound by traditional readings of these passages.

3. The Iraq War, with the acquiescence and even encouragement of U.S. and allied occupying troops, led to the dramatic ethnic and religious segregation of a society whose previous regime had suppressed ethnic tensions and produced a multi-cultural melting pot especially in urban areas.  After the war, Sunni and Shiite populations were overwhelmingly segregated after being motivated to do so at gunpoint.  Exiled Sunnis from urban areas often ended up dispossessed, bitter, angry and hating other ethnicities and the West in what is now ISIS territory.

4. The Syrian civil war was encouraged by the West during the Arab Spring period, particularly after its intervention in Libya and condemnation of the regime's tactics, but fear of conflict from Russia prevented the West from following through by supporting rebels who were more deserving of our support.

Now What?

The really essential point of all of this analysis is pretty simple.  In order to defeat ISIS, the people who are ruled by it need to have a better alternative.  We haven't offered them that and until they have an alternative they are stuck with supporting ISIS even if they greatly dislike that regime.

Rump Iraq have become Shiite dominated and verges on hostile towards Sunni Arabs, so rejoining Iraq is not a viable alternative.

Rump Syria is governed by a dictator who has bombed his own people, used chemical weapons against them, and ruthlessly "barrel bombed" markets and other civilian targets in areas that he does not control and is also supported mostly by members of the politically favored (in Syria) Alawite sect which is heterodox and hostile in the eyes of Sunni Arabs.

Other Arab Spring secular or at least not radical Islamist movements have completely failed to be effective.

There is really no existing grass roots "resistance" of note in ISIS territory of which we are aware.

In my view, the best alternative that can be quickly organized and have credibility with the people now ruled by ISIS is to either annex that territory to the Kingdom of Jordan, or to make ISIS territory a Jordanian protectorate.  In principle, Lebanon, Turkey or Saudi Arabia could also fill that role, but none of them are as well suited to the job and as acceptable to the West as Jordan.

A self-governing republic, in theory, would be better.  But, in practice, the constitutional monarchy in Jordan has been more successful at creating a tolerable state for its citizens than any of the nations which tried to form self-governing republics in the region.

Iraq and Syria do not deserve to have territory that they were unable to hold returned to them.  Iraqi Kurdistan deserves independence.  There are some border areas that might best be returns to Syria or Iraq or a new independent Iraqi Kurdistan, but basically, the territory of ISIS now makes sense as a new political unit even though the regime that rules that territory is an abomination.

In the longer run, if the world community wants less developed countries to have more palatable political systems, it needs to develop models that are capable of functioning serviceably in those countries for prolonged periods of time with the human capital that is available in those countries. The initial effort to impose Western political institutions, courts and legal codes built up over many centuries and supported by a very different pool of government officials and politicians and lawyers and the like educated and trained to fill those roles within institutional cultures groomed over time failed.  Those institutions and arrangements didn't meet local needs with local people, and almost inevitably collapsed as a result.  The rare exceptions, like India, were countries where an indigenous middle class was already in place and filling a large share of all governmental posts at the time that independence was achieved.

In the area of political development, the best has been the enemy of the good and has produced widespread catastrophe.  In contrast, countries that postponed full independence and spent additional decades developing its self-governance capacity as a territory, protectorate or province of a developed country, have generally prospered greatly compared to comparable countries that gained independence right away.

No one is suggesting that any independent countries that are managing for better or worse should be restored to colonial status.  But, where independent republics have become failed states, as Syria and Iraq have in ISIS territory, there is no sovereign republican regime to respect.

If we do not take action to fill the political vacuum because we are "angels", fools will rush in and impose far inferior arrangements that local residents and the world will be stuck with indefinitely.

One cannot remove a regime without replacing it with another.  And, so, we urgently need to find a replacement regime for ISIS before we can hope to make any progress in our attacks upon it.  So long as the people ruled by ISIS are cornered and have no alternative, they will continue to support the ISIS regime no matter how much they dislike it, because they have no other choice.

Depression Is A Huge Problem For Roundworms. Who Knew?

In a new study, researchers administered an antidepressant called mianserin to Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of roundworm used frequently in research. In 2007, they discovered that the drug increases the lifespan of roundworms by 30-40 per cent.
From here.

The study also notes that most of the lifespan extension occurs during the prime of roundworm life, during their years of peak fertility.

Obviously, this drug probably isn't really treating depression in roundworms, but scientists aren't really certain why it does work either, although they'd love to know. The results sound somewhat less miraculous when you learn that roundworms reach adult level fertility at an age of about one day old and typically live in all until they are fourteen to twenty-one days old.

The title of the journal article in which this result is reported also deserves special credit for being utterly vacuous:
Rangaraju, et al., "Suppression of transcriptional drift extends C. elegans lifespan by postponing the onset of mortality." eLife, 2015; 4.
I ask you, is there a means of extending lifespan that does not involve the postponing the onset of mortality?

02 December 2015

Another Day, Another American Massacre

What Happened?

Fourteen victims were killed and seventeen victims were injured (including one police officer) in a mass shooting at a San Bernadino regional center for the developmentally disabled in an area where an outside organization was renting a conference room for a County Health Department luncheon.

According to the New York Times:
[T]he police engaged in a shootout in a nearby suburban neighborhood in which two suspects were killed, officials said. A third person who was seen running away has been detained, officials said, but they said they do not know the extent of his involvement, if any. Chief Jarrod Burguan of the San Bernardino police said at a news conference that the dead suspects — one man and one woman — were armed with several weapons, including assault-style weapons and handguns.

The police came across the suspects after an officer went to the home of one suspect and from there followed an S.U.V. similar to the one reported at the earlier shooting. According to reports, less than two miles from the original shooting, the officer tried to engage with the people in the S.U.V., who put up a fight. It was unclear what happened during that initial exchange, but dozens of heavily armed police in tactical gear quickly descended on the scene. One officer was injured in the shootout.
Other reports have stated that the suspects were masked, wore body armor, were armed with assault rifles and arrived and left in a black SUV getaway car that was stopped by police.  At least one pipe bomb was left at the scene and defused by the bomb squad.

No suspect names have been released, nor has there been any detailed accounting of who was a victim in the attack yet.  But, police seem to know who the dead dead suspects were, which one of them was a former employee of the health department, and where at least one of the suspects lived. The odds seem good that they know or strongly suspect the identity of the third suspect.

It isn't clear if earlier reports of a suspect being taken into custody were inaccurate, or if that suspect later died in custody.  It also isn't clear if the suspect who is still on the run was injured in the shootout with police.


It appears that the attack was brought as a revenge or retaliation attack against health department employees who were colleagues of one of the three shooters (via the BBC):
"Investigators believe there were three gunmen and one of them had worked at the facility and recently had a dispute with fellow employees, according to law enforcement officials," the New York Times reports, adding a witness said despite a face covering, one sounded and appeared very similar to employee who had left earlier.
The dispute may have arisen on short notice earlier that day and been perpetrated in the heat of the moment to some extent:
Chief Burguan said there had been a meeting or holiday party at the facility before the shooting, during which there was “some type dispute.”
The possibility that this was a terrorist attack in furtherance of a political or religious cause, that this was part of an international plot, that it was some sort of robbery, or that it was a sudden mental health breakdown all seem to be ruled out.  Instead, this appears to have been a premeditated plan to kill people with whom an employee or former employee of the county health department had a dispute.

The nature of the employee dispute and the background of the former employee suspect are unclear. The relationship of the disgruntled employee who was an attacker to the other two participants also remains unclear.


This mass shooting is highly atypical.  Most involve a single male shooter who doesn't flee the scene of the crime.

Most involved a single individual having a mental breakdown intending to die in the act, or the killing of the members of a family by a family member.  Other mass killings, especially those involving groups of shooters, are frequently terrorist attacks to advance a political or religious cause.

This shooting was most similar to "criminal" mass shootings, which often involve robberies or kidnappings or disputes between drug gangs, but economic or gang crime does not appear to have involved in this case, either.  But, "criminal" mass shootings are much more likely to involve multiple shooters and to involve an attempted escape by the suspects as this episode did.

This shooting was also extremely unusual in involving a woman as an active shooter.  Even when women perpetrate mass killings, globally, it is far more common for a woman to be a suicide bomber or to be killing her family members.

Clearly, the attack was premeditated and involved some kind of group planning, but it is hard to know how much planning went into the attack other than the purchase of supplies for the attack and some idea that they would try to make a quick get away.

UPDATE December 6, 2015:  Apparently, the wife in the husband-wife pair posted a dedication of the massacre to ISIS on Facebook from her smart phone on the way over, which pretty much makes it a terrorist attack, albeit what seems to have been an impulsive one.


This incident distracted attention from an otherwise headline making scene near Sloan's Lake in Denver, Colorado where there was a shootout between a suspect and police trying to apprehend him as he tried to get away that left a police officer shot and wounded and the suspect dead.

Ten Worthwhile TV Series Available On Netflix

The Thanksgiving holiday afforded me some rare quality time with my Netflix account.  Fortunately, there are some really worthwhile shows in my current rotation that I have been watching on and off for the last year or so.  Television has finally come into its own as an even more grand forum in which to make epic performances than the movie.  These shows demonstrate that trend in spades.

1.  Jessica Jones.

This Netflix original TV series based upon the Marvel Comics character is a brilliant but dark portrayal of a flawed hero, who few people who aren't total comics geeks are familiar with, who has the same problems that non-superheroes facing the challenges that she has faced deal with every day.

Jones is an alcoholic retired superhero working as a private investigator.  She has anger control problems, chronically bad judgment, and is haunted by the victimization she suffered at the hands of a super criminal who is still out there toying with her and ruining other people's lives as well.

2. NCIS.

NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigation Service, a scrappy underdog of the federal bureaucracy that solves navy related crimes with a mix of the gut instincts and guile of their team leader, a cute Goth girl and quirky British pathologist running their stunningly well equipped crime lab (given the low budget of the rest of their agency's operation), agents seeking second chances after missteps in their prior employment situations, and the team's remarkable ability to outwit bureaucratic obstacles that are ever present.  This is a police procedural in the tradition of Walker Texas Ranger, enhanced with war porn and a slightly more cosmopolitan cast.

This is more lowbrow than most of the other shows I watch regularly, but the ensemble cast works well together and strikes an excellent balance between being amusing and not being degrading or offensive, and the pacing and witty gambits they employ are amusing.  This is TV comfort food like a warm bowl of grits with a pool of butter melted on top.

3. The Flash.

OK, so I like superhero TV shows.  This one is a nice, balanced feel good melodrama with a strong supporting cast and a time traveling conspiracy theory that we experience with the wonders of dramatic irony while the rest of the characters soldiers on oblivious to the deeper forces at work.

Hey, I admit that it is a bit shallow, but sometimes, you want to watch something that you don't have to think too hard about.

4. iZombie.

This loose TV series adaptation of the DC Comics Vertigo imprint comic books series is a light police procedural comedy featuring a young doctor who is transformed into a zombie and maintains her good health by eating brains she secures from her job in the medical examiners office in Seattle (incidentally, I know a guy who used to work there, although he never mentioned the zombie employees).  Eating brains also allows our heroine to pick up some of the memories and personalities of the source of her dinner which she used to avenge the wrongs that caused their deaths.

The show is the brain child of the maker of the best TV show ever, Veronica Mars and has a similar dynamic and aesthetic to critically acclaimed but short lived series like Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me.   Fortunately, unlike those series, this one was renewed for another extra length season this past October, so there will be more to come soon.

This is perhaps my favorite new series of the lot.  Who knew that a TV show about Zombies could be zany, wise, reflective, and romantic?

5.  Gotham.

In this DC Comics derived TV series, young Bruce Wayne, still reeling from the death of his parents, Cat woman as a streetwise homeless girl named "Cat", Commissioner Gordon and his wife back when he was a homicide cop working a beat and his wife was just his bisexual socialite fiancee try to get by and find peace in a city overrun with organized crime, corrupt cops, and super villains from the Batman universe like the Penguin hatching their criminal careers back in the days when they were just villains who hadn't yet earned a "super" moniker.

Like the Flash, this is a balanced melodrama, but like Jessica Jones, this series has some genuine emotional depth and is rarely campy like the low budget 1966-1968 television version of the story with Adam West and Burt Ward.  The integration of this prequel with the canonical Batman story is also artfully done. But, the youth of the some of the key characters, give this a lighter feel than the purely dramatic recent movie adaptations of the Batman franchise, even though it takes some visual cues from that series.

Despite the name of the city, which is generally considered an alter ego of New York City, this Gotham, as in most retellings of the Batman story, is a dead ringer for Detroit instead.

6. Hemlock Grove.

The latest season of this edgy Netflix original (a previous season resolved a love triangle with a very graphic threesome), continues to offer its dark, mysterious mix of gypsy tradition, soap opera relationship issues, vampires, werewolves, witchcraft, conspiracies, sex and violence in the tradition of made for cable TV shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones.

7. Jane The Virgin.

This earnest coming of age, late, comedy skirts the line between magical realism and the telenovela. If you liked Like Water for Chocolate, Amelie, Moulin Rouge, or Juno there is a good chance that you'll like Jane the Virgin as well.

8. Sense8.

Imagine that the scripts of The Tomorrow People and the TV series Heroes were produced by the most explicit cable TV director around while he was inspired from watching Requiem for a Dream, you'll be on the right track.  If repeated soft porn displays of gay and lesbian sex turn you off, this show is probably not for you.  But, this big concept ensemble piece featuring eight unrelated people from all over the world who start to share telepathic bonds with each other against the backdrop of evolving conspiracies is definitely one of the most intense experiences available on television.

If you crave the explicitness of soft porn and the campy violence of karate movies, but hate the utter lack of acting, plot or any other redeeming artistic value in anything else available in those genres, this is for you.  Like Hemlock Grove, this is a TV experience that simply did not exist in any form ten years ago.

9. Sherlock.

There are several modern updates of the Sherlock Holmes story out there, including one based on New York City, because it is out of copyright.  But, this London based mini-series of finely crafted episodes by the BBC is probably the best of them.

10. Ascension.

Back in the late 1960s, U.S. scientists designed a nuclear powered interstellar "generation" ship that could reach the nearest star under the direction of the grandchildren of the original crew a century later.  This short series imagines what would have happened if the crew, forever trapped in the 1960s cultural bubble they were a part of when they left because they lack the critical mass to transform their own culture very decisively on their own, actually made that trip.  Or, at least, that's what the people on the ship think in this series that has echoes of The Truman Show and Ender's Game.

Honorable Mention: Being Human

The TV series "Being Human" is about a twenty-something vampire, werewolf and ghost who end up sharing an apartment together as they try to live lives in the ordinary human world that are as ordinary as possible as they try to cope with the recent transformations that have made them into the respective mythical creatures that they are now.

Overall, its a reasonably well done slice of life melodrama that leans towards comedy.  But, what is really remarkable about this series is that it has been done twice, with almost identical scripts to start with, five seasons worth of it set in greater London, and a four seasons of a parallel universe version of the exactly the same show remade in a United States setting with a U.S. cast.

I've watched several parallel episodes and I have to admit that I enjoy the U.S. version better, even though it is a scene for scene identical remake of a very decent original, simply because as an American, I find it easier to digest.  It is truly remarkable how the change of setting and cast can give the show an entirely different feel with almost exactly the same plot, characters and modern setting.

Twilight/Life and Death Compared

The only other fictional experience that comes even close to "Being Human" is the 10th anniversary bonus material book version of Stephanie Meyers book, Twilight, which contains in the same hardback book volume, the full length book, Life and Death.  Both books start from one of the covers and work their way to the midpoint of the hardback book volume, and are rotated 180 degrees from each other.

Life and Death is a scene by scene retelling of the "Twilight" story, but with all but a handful of the characters gender flipped from the original (it is necessary to flip almost all of the characters because otherwise many of the complex and interlocking love triangles, pentagrams, trapezoids wouldn't work properly).  A few scenes from the original Twilight story, like an attempted rape scene form which our heroine was rescued following a long bout of homecoming dress shopping, had to be reworked significantly as a result of the gender flip, and some of the dialog had to be tweaked a bit to be realistic coming from someone of the opposite sex.  But, mostly, the project was a quite successful demonstration of the claim that the stereotypical damsel in distress dynamic of the original book wasn't necessary to make it work.

Life and Death works well enough and is a fascinating literary experiment.  But, honestly, some of the choices made in the original novel for our heroine, Bella, while they can be done with a male protagonist instead without seeming completely implausible, are choices really aren't actually the most natural ones that one would probably have made if one was working from scratch to write the book about, Beau, Bella's male counterpart in this alternative reality in love with a female vampire, instead. In contrast, Bella's choices in the original Twilight flow effortlessly from her distinctive personality, which while odd, never seems unfeminine.

Of course, Twilight is pretty much single handedly is responsible for the huge decade long contemporary vampire and werewolf fiction trend that gave rise to iZombie, Hemlock Grove, and Being Human in the list above, plus many, many more productions in novels, movies, television, graphic novels, and actual dead tree comics.  You could probably fill a long post just listing all of the fictional works that it has influenced.  Given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that is a pretty impressive feat for a young Mormon writer releasing her first book pieced together over the years in bits and pieces as sketches when she was a teenager.

01 December 2015

Do We Fear Terrorism Mostly Because We Fear Conspiracies?

Ross Douthat, in his op-ed column at the New York Times, makes arguably the most credible argument I have heard to date for a reason to be more afraid of French style terrorist attacks than of domestic terrorists like the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, which isn't to say that I fully agree with him.

Basically, he argues, what makes certain kinds of terrorism so much scarier than ordinary crime, is not just xenophobia, but the fear that crimes committed by what appear to be organized conspiracies that defy and ignore the sovereign monopoly on violence are scary because they have the potential to escalate in a way that ordinary crime does not.
Now I too think that Westerners and Americans have a somewhat exaggerated fear of terrorism, and there’s no doubt that a certain kind of xenophobia enters into that equation somewhere. But there’s also something important missing in the comparison between a lot of the highly individual cases (Dear’s included, it would seem) that people want to label “right-wing domestic terrorism” these days and the kind of cases that involve an organized conspiracy (whether foreign or domestic) to commit mass murder for political ends.

Part of that difference rests on the obvious point that a conspiracy can, if allowed to spread and plot unchecked, do far more damage than any individual killer with a rifle, whatever his motivations. (You don’t have to go all the way with Dick Cheney’s 1 percent doctrine to see that it would only take one suitcase nuke to overshadow every spree killer that ever lived.)

But there’s a less obvious explanation as well, having to do with the role and purpose and claims of government, for why terrorist conspiracies might really deserve greater scrutiny, greater anxiety, greater fear. Namely, whatever the body count involved, by its very nature a terrorist group doesn’t only threaten individual lives. It also challenges the government’s monopoly on organized force, which is the state’s most basic (at least in social-contract theory) claim and guarantee. . . . it isn’t unreasonable for people to feel less safe, at some level, in a society in which organized factions and networks seem to be plotting murder with impunity than in a society that just has a variable crime rate. Yes, high crime rates eventually degrade public authority and public trust as well. But everyone understands that the government’s monopoly on force doesn’t enable it to protect you from every would-be killer … whereas many people think of organized violence as the first thing that the state is supposed to prevent, pre-empt, forestall. . . .

It’s for this reason, this particular fear of conspiracies against the public good, that the Mafia in all its varied forms is understandably seen as an important law enforcement target even though a neighborhood managed by mobsters might technically have a lower murder rate than certain inner-city districts or Appalachian counties. It’s for this reason that people understandably worry about ISIS-abetted radicalization among recent Muslim immigrants even though natives will probably commit murder at higher rates no matter what. And it’s for this reason (to pick a case where my fellow conservatives can be inclined to miss the point) that people in heavily-policed communities understandably regard lawless violence dealt out by police officers as a distinctive problem even though far more of their neighbors are killed by ordinary criminals — because cops are vested with the authority of the state, which makes their corruption and conspiratorial self-protection far more insidious than everyday street crime even if it leave fewer people dead.

None of this means, again, that the public’s specific anxieties about conspiracies and terrorism are necessarily rational. (They call them “conspiracy theories” for a reason.) But there is often a certain kind of rationality, at least, behind the various “scares” that political violence (or the fear of political violence) can provoke. They tend to peak when there seems to be a clear danger that the violence is actually organized, as opposed to just random people popping off, and then diminish once the conspiracy in question is either broken up or proven to be less terrifying and pervasive than once thought.
He goes on to acknowledge that there have been times during which, for example, the anti-abortion movement did include an organized violent conspiracy, but doesn't believe that this is the case now.

I am somewhat inclined to part ways with Douthat on that score, because while right wing terrorist violence doesn't necessarily involve a single organization, it is still systemic and it still does involve influential movement leaders who openly argue that violence is justified who regularly incite grass roots violence.

For example, consider what one sitting state legislator in Colorado said in response to the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs:
Adams County state Rep. JoAnn Windholz blames Planned Parenthood for the Nov. 27 shooting, at its Colorado Springs clinic, that left three dead and nine injured. She is one of the few Colorado Republicans to issue a statement in the wake of the attack. “Violence is never the answer, but we must start pointing out who is the real culprit. The true instigator of this violence and all violence at any Planned Parenthood facility is Planned Parenthood themselves. Violence begets violence. So Planned Parenthood: YOU STOP THE VIOLENCE INSIDE YOUR WALLS.”
When respectable elected officials from one of the two major political parties (and it is almost always the same one) blame the victim of a mass shooting that kills a law enforcement officer, leaves five more law enforcement officers shot, killed an enlisted Army soldier, and killed another innocent woman for a criminal shooting spree, the feeling that these attacks are more than just random is pretty pervasive.

And, she isn't alone in her violence inciting rhetoric.

The fact that a violent political movement has a grass roots decentralized organizational structure, rather than constituting a tightly organized conspiracy, doesn't mean that people who commit crimes on its behalf are just random criminals.

Still, Douthat does have a point.

Mass shootings that really are random mass shootings that aren't part of any violent political movement are scary only because lots of random people die in them.

In contrast, really scary acts of terrorism are frightening because they are part of a conspiracy or political movement that has a violent agenda that will continue long after the perpetrator of the particular incident is dead or incarcerated for life (the clearance rates for mass shootings in public places or involving family members is literally 100% according to a study looking at decades of such incidents).

On the other hand, Douthat also rightly acknowledges that just because there is a certain logic to fearing conspiratorial violence more than random violence, this doesn't mean that this fear makes an real sense in terms of the actual harm to public safety posed by such attacks which really does have something to do with modern humans being ill equipped to evaluate risk accurately in an environment unimaginably different from the one that they evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to cope with effectively and rationally.