25 January 2009

The War on Whatchamacallit

Right-wing radio and its blogosphere has been all a-twitter about members of the Obama Administration not using the phrase, "War on Terror." Well good for Obama!

Terrorism isn't an enemy. Terrorism is a technique. You can't win a war if you can't even name your enemy. But what do you call it when everything you can think of is Politically Incorrect.

It is certainly not a war against Islam. There are too many Muslims on our side to call it that. Like the ones I saw inside the Pentagon.

Academics get more specific. They call the enemy the "Global Salafist Jihad" or the "Jihadists" for short. But Muslims have positive associations with the Salafs (may Allah be pleased with them) and with jihad. It would be like someone calling the US Military the Freedom Fighters in the names of the Founding Fathers of the Republic.

If we need a short name for the enemy (and we do need one) I nominate the term introduced by Francis Fukuyama: Islamofascism. It connotes the toxic combination of a malignant narcissistic fantasy retrojected onto the founders of Islam, combined with modern Western fascist techniques of agitation, propaganda, and thuggishness. And of course, Western weapons. The worst of the Middle East in unholy matrimony with the worst of the West. It is a bad name for a bad thing.

Nobody should like it as a name for the enemy. That's the point.

22 January 2009

Hope and Concern

Let us hope that Barack Obama has become and will remain a powerful symbol in the minds of urban youth that if you go to school and work hard, you just might make it. You might even become President. If that is the major change wrought by the Obama Administration, it will be change enough.

On the other hand, Obama has already moved to change things. He's closing GTMO, which has become a public relations disaster for the US. But what will we do with the 250 remaining detainees? Even if we manage to repatriate the 60 we want to send back to their countries of origin, there are 80 that the CIA says are really bad guys but that there is not "enough evidence" to try them in US courts. That could be code for "if we put them on trial a bunch of classified information might get put into the public record." The kind of information the CIA is skittish about because it might reveal what they call "sources and methods."

And that still leaves 110 bad guys who could be tried and presumably convicted, and then what? Do we have the will to keep these SOBs in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives so that they can't recruit other convicts to their cause while they're in prison? It's not as is we haven't had home-grown Islamofascist terrorism before.

Then there is the next big round of bailout money. Which, given the relentless politicization of the Washington crowd, will be misspent either all or in part. But that's not so bad. What bothers me is that it will be spent in the absence of a viable economic model that predicts the effects of the expenditure. It's like the scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard boards a ballon whose mooring rope is loosed prematurely. When Dorothy shouts for him to come back, he shouts back, "I can't! I don't know how it works!"

Once all that taxpayer money has flown away, we won't be able to get it back, because nobody really knows how the economy works. My concern is that we will have set in motion the chain of events that leads China to world hegemony and makes the US an also ran. You can bet that China will not be as benign a hegemon as the US.

Finally there was the "all hands meeting" that our new Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu, held today, which was broadcast throughout the DOE complex. He didn't have much to say about the National Nuclear Security Agency, much less the future of nuclear deterrence and nuclear forensics, or even next-generation nuclear power that doesn't require enrichment. He might be a Nobel prize winning physicist and a brilliant administrator, but it looks like there is a gap in his awareness thus far.

20 January 2009

A Good Beginning

At my lab today they broadcast the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th American to become President of the United States, but the very first African American. Afterward they marked the lab's annual celebration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday with a panel discussion on the question of whether Dr. King's dream that people would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" had been achieved.

If the panelists hadn't said it, I would have. We have been forcefully reminded these past few weeks by the killing of Oscar Grant that it has not been achieved. Not fully, not yet. But today a huge stride has been made toward achieving that dream.

I remember another stride, taken 45 years ago.

In 1963, I heard that the middle-aged woman who was to be my fourth grade teacher told her class in our segregated, all-white school that they should "never let a colored child be your friend." I was in her class when the school was desegregated in 1964. As far as I could tell, she never let her prejudice show to her new students, white or black. At the end of the academic year, as was her longstanding custom, she kissed each and every one of her students on the forehead as they left her classroom for the last time. That year was a big step for her, and for all of us fourth-graders. Those purple lipstick marks on those dark foreheads could have been little prophecies that this day would surely come.

13 January 2009

Energy, Wealth and Money

Wealth is energy.

Let's say you buy a potato. The potato was produced by energy - the energy of the person who planted, tended, and harvested the potato, the energy of the sunlight on the potato vine's leaves that enabled it to grow, the energy of sunlight on the earth and oceans that evaporated the water that condensed into clouds that rained on the potato vine and watered it. Add to that the energy used by vehicles that transported the potato to the market, and the energy that you used getting yourself to market as well.

In other words, the potato is made of energy. And what is true of the potato is true of everything else. Wealth is energy, or rather the ability to command or use energy to do, to make, or to bring you whatever it is that you need or want.

There are those who claim that the nations of the world should use less energy, which they hope to achieve by economic contraction. If you get poorer, you use less energy.

But it is also true that if societies use less energy, they get poorer. They can get more efficient in their energy use, but eventually as human populations grow, they will get poorer unless more energy can be made available.

On the other hand, if more energy can be made available to humankind, we may eventually achieve the kind of utopian, moneyless economy envisioned in the old television series Star Trek. In Star Trek any character could walk up to a matter-dispenser, and get anything he or she requested, made from energy congealed into matter and re-constituted according to a pattern of information stored in the associated computer's limitless memory. To do this in the real world would take an enormous amount of energy, probably the equivalent of the output of a star for each person's lifetime.

But the economy of plenty eliminates money. Of what use is money when everyone has access to unlimited energy, i.e., unlimited wealth? If the tyranny of money galls you, then there is only one constructive solution - create so much wealth, create access to so much energy, that money is no longer useful or meaningful.

Notice that I said create access to energy, but I did not say create energy itself. All energy on earth comes from the sun, and all the energy in the sun comes from thermonuclear fusion of the sub-atomic particles created in the Big Bang with which our universe began. All energy "generation" is just finding ways to unlock the energy stored in little caches throughout the universe from that primordial event.

So the path to a utopian economy is not via using less energy, but more. By unlocking the energy in the little batteries left throughout our universe when it was created. By more technology, not less, by nuclear energy and whatever we can discover to succeed it. Sure, we need to avoid wasting energy, and we need to be careful how we "generate" energy and how that impacts our environment. But more is the ultimate path, not less. Not unless you think universal poverty is good.

Your wealth, your ability to use your energy can be dissipated by your culture or amplified by it. In the United States, it is normally amplified by the infrastructure in which we have invested, as well as by the relatively high level of trust we have in each other and in our institutions. In Mexico and Russia just to mention two examples, your energy is typically dissipated by lack of infrastructure and endemic corruption. But that is another story.

12 January 2009

California Dreaming: Irma La Duce goes to Sacramento

First, some background for what I'm about to say. We have had "The Wire," a serial TV drama on HBO about the illegal narcotics trade in Baltimore. Now HBO wants to do one about prostitution in Oakland, CA.

Dellums unhappy HBO drama about pimp set in Oakland

By Kelly Rayburn, Oakland Tribune, 12/21/08

OAKLAND — An HBO drama that would examine the world of prostitution in Oakland has come under fire from Mayor Ron Dellums and other city officials even before filming has started.

The show, called "Gentlemen of Leisure" and based on the 1999 documentary "American Pimp," would be set in Oakland and would focus on a pimp in his 40s and his attempts to get out of the business.

The show’s production, slated to begin in 2009, could be an economic boon for the city, which has made efforts to bring in more filmmakers, but officials such as Dellums worry about what impact the show would have on Oakland’s image.

Oakland under Jerry Brown and now Ron Dellums has become the murder and corruption capital of California. We already have a role model for how this should be handled in former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, but this being Northern California, there is no chance anyone remotely like him that would ever get elected mayor of Oakland.

But that's not my point. My point is that California is running a 40 billion dollar deficit, and its august body of state legislators can't seem to agree on what to do about it. Maybe they need Californians to get mad enough to march on Sacramento and demand that the legislators do their jobs. Maybe they need to be locked into the statehouse with no water going to the restrooms.

Perhaps we should combine these two stories. Why don't Californians pick any random collection of pimps and prostitutes and send them to Sacramento to solve the budget problem? They'd probably do a better job than the current legislature. At least pimps and prostitutes have demonstrated that they can handle money.

11 January 2009

Where have all the Vikings gone?

wingsuit base jumping from Ali on Vimeo.

My psychologist wife says that if they don't have unstable personal relationships then they're probably normal people just having a good time. I think they're in-f__king-sane!

07 January 2009

Why are Palestinians still Refugees?

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Natan Sharansky opines in How the UN Perpetuates the 'Refugee Problem' that the Palestinian Authority, and then Fatah and Hamas have actually prevented the Palestinians in Gaza from moving into the settlements from which the Israeli government forcibly evicted its own Israeli citizens as part of a peace process. This is being done because the Palestinian leadership views the suffering of the "refugees" as essential to their broader political struggle to eliminate Israel. He quotes both Palestinian and European diplomats in support of this thesis.

It would be nice to see a map or a satellite mosaic that could confirm or disconfirm whether Palestinians have occupied former Israeli settlements, but best map I could find was in this BBC article. The only conclusion I can draw is that it's been 60 years: its time to build out the camps into cities, with real functioning infrastructure, and stop granting refugee status to their second and third generation inhabitants. They aren't refugees from anywhere anymore. They are living on the land of their birth, and their parents' births. Rather than build up the land and its people, the Palestinian leadership insists on engaging in behavior that repeatedly bankrupts their economy, squandering the foreign aid they receive.

But Sharansky also alleged that the Palestinians engage in the "most shameful military tactic: pimping the suffering of their civilians as a weapon of [propaganda] war." That accusation is easily corroborated. Further in this post, Yaacov Lozowick notes that,

Sometime this afternoon we killed dozens of Palestinian civilians in a school. The Palestinians claim more than 40 dead civilians, the BBC says it was 30. The IDF says mortar shells were fired from within the school, and even names the two Hamas men doing the firing; both were killed and must be counted among the dead. (I continue to be amazed by the level of micro-intelligence the IDF is working with). These dead civilians are added to the many dozens, perhaps even a few hundred who have been killed so far. Which is horrifying, and terrible. I'm a father, my children now all responsible adults, but I can remember fondly when they were younger. I think I can imagine the terror of the Palestinian parents in Gaza, and I can feebly feel the pain of those losing children. So can any Israeli. Contrary to what the Guardianistas tell you, we're human beings, not monsters.

See also this article.

The point I'd like to extract is that two Hamas men were firing mortar rounds at Israeli troops from within the school while it was full of civilians! Don't people normally call off school in a war zone? What on earth were the civilians doing in the school during a shooting conflict? Or, consider the opposite question, if civilians were in the school, why on earth would Hamas gunmen draw fire onto the school by launching mortar rounds from it? Understand that one sets a mortar down on a hastily prepared position and then fires it - shooting a mortar is not an impulsive act, it is done with planning, execution and intention. Only one conclusion is possible - for whatever reason, the Hamas gunmen wanted Palestinian civilians to be killed by Israeli counter-battery fire. There is no way the choice of a school full of civilians as a firing site could have been accidental on their part. [Note added 1/9/08: More corroboration - see this.

And Pope John Paul II called Western secularism a "culture of death." I think that epithet applies much more strongly to what passes for culture in Gaza.

While we're at it, see this little video I found at Perpetua of Carthage.

06 January 2009

Gaza and Proportion

Shrinkwrapped has written "Adolescence and Societies" and "Gaza and the Palestinian Hostile-Dependent Adolescent."

I think he's on to something, although I reserve judgement regarding his take on the meaning of Insh'allah. He also neglects the role that honor/shame culture plays into the violent refusal of Hamas and the Palestinians to "grow up," but that's because he's a psychiatrist, not a sociologist.

And what does the world do? The world subsidizes the genocidal ambitions and persistent violence of the Palestinians. The aid does not help build the Palestinian economy, it merely preserves the Palestinians in their state of adolescent hostile-dependency. And yet, aid to the Palestinians can be analyzed in more detail to make it seem a complicated business.

The most charitable interpretation one can put on the Palestinian situation is this: every time the Palestinians raise the level of violence against Israel, Israel limits access to its economy to the Palestinians. The Palestinian economy tanks, and the world steps in to rescue the Palestinians from starvation. That is, the world steps in to rescue the Palestinians from the consequences of their actions.

I could blame the Palestinian leadership, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, claiming that these two parties oppress their people and perpetrate violence against Israel that their people do not condone. But that would be a lie. These two parties mislead and rip off their people, but their violence against Israel is wildly popular.

What is Israel to do? What would you do to me if I took up the habit of firing a few shotgun blasts into your house every night? If there were a functioning government over us, you would call the police. But suppose this is lawless country, and that you are on your own. I fire my shotgun a few more times into your house, while you are thinking about it. I blow the arm off one of your kids. You try to reason with me. I shoot your kid in the leg. You try some more. I shoot your kid again. And so on.

At some point, you stop trying to reason with me, you stop apologizing for whatever you did that gave me cause for anger, and you try operant conditioning. You shoot back. Then you wait. If I shoot again, you shoot again. If I stop, you stop. You keep this up for as long as it takes, cycle after cycle, for me to figure out that this is a dance, and I am playing the tune. If I play war, you dance war. If I play peace, you dance peace. It's up to me. If I am not willfully stupid, I will eventually stop shooting into your house. Especially if you have a cannon that can blow my house to bits, should I make you angry enough.

Yes, I know. The actions of the Israelis look like disproportionate use of force compared to the military weakness of the Gazans. Apparently they have decided to give the Palestinians the propaganda victory in exchange for achieving a limited military objective, namely degrading the ability of Hamas to shoot rockets into Israel. To all the world it looks like Israel lost the conflict in Lebanon against Hizbollah, but no rockets have been launched into Israel from that area since then. If the current operation achieves a similar result, Israel will live with it. As they have said.

On the other hand, there was no worldwide appeal for a cease-fire while Hamas was shooting rockets into Israel. The images are gruesome, but given the anger they must feel, the Israelis must think their actions are restrained. Or are only Muslims allowed to get angry? The Palestinians hit Israel with all they've got, and the Israelis hold back. When they finally react, they do it with their hands mostly tied behind their backs, compared to what they could do if they really let their anger have free rein. The world does not complain about the Palestinians's violence, but it never fails to complain about the inevitable Israeli reaction.

And what would a "proportionate" use of force look like? Would the world stand by while Israel sends exactly the same number of rockets into Gaza every time Gaza launches rockets into Israel? Would the world stand by while Israel drops a bomb into a Palestinian market every time a Palestinian suicide bomber strikes in Israel?

Would you want to live like that? Or would you prefer to strike your enemy hard enough to get them to rethink this whole rocket business in the first place? And just how hard is hard enough, when your enemy seems impervious to learning from the previous six decades of experience?

Perhaps Israel should negotiate with Hamas. What would a "proportionate" opening position look like? Hamas has dedicated itself to genocide against Israel, which it calls the "Zionist Entity." Should Israel dedicate itself to a proportionate position with respect to the Gaza Strip?

Instead of calling for the Israelis to be proportionate, maybe the world should call for the Palestinians to grow up and build their Palestinian state if that's what they really want. They have already had more foreign aid per capita than it took to reconstruct Europe after World War II. And no small part of that, I might add, has come from the United States.

05 January 2009

Bull----ish on the Economy

Nightly Business Report did a short piece on Barack Obama's tax cut plan that featured Moody's estimates that the cuts would raise the US Gross Domestic Product by some percentage. I like tax cuts rather than big government payouts because tax cuts let us control more directly how our money is spent. But Moody's estimates have to be bulls--t. That's doesn't mean they are going to be wrong. It just means that the estimates are founded on inadequate models.

Now I'm no economist, but I am a modeler of complex physical systems, so here is what I think is going on.

Consider that the global economy is a giant network of people, corporations, and governments all interacting with each other in a highly complex and dynamic way. Mathematically we can represent each economic actor as a point or node or vertex, and each interaction between any two actors as a line segment or or edge connecting them. This collection of nodes and edges is called a graph. The graph theory literature is large, even though the subject is relatively new. It is new because large graphs can't be analyzed by continuum mathematics (like calculus). They have to be analyzed by large computers.

But the simplest questions one can ask about large graphs can be very hard even for a computer to answer. NP-hard in fact, which means that in practice you can't get the answer in a useful time. Even searching a large graph can be hard, let alone trying to compute how a graph of interacting agents will evolve in time. But that is exactly what you have to do in order to predict how the economy will react to a given stimulus. Such a model is currently beyond the capability of anyone, Moody's included.

Moody's, like all the other predictors, must be using a much simpler, and thus over-simplified model. It has to be over-simplified because, if it weren't, they would have predicted the current economic slowdown and done their investment rating much differently.

The modelers are getting a clue, however. I noticed that an Economics and Math professor is getting geared up for these kinds of problems, a book has been published, and another one is on the way. And while you're at it, check out the blog of Valdis Krebs, one the the world's go-to people on the subject of graphs and networks.

Don't hold your breath waiting for them to do real predictive economic modeling, though. Manipulating these large graphs may require quantum computers, and we don't quite have any of those yet.

04 January 2009

Yes, I've Thought About It

I've been blogging recently about the problems associated with reducing the US nuclear weapons arsenal deliberately or by neglect. Am I for real, or am I just one of those people who deny the horror of what they contemplate by "psychic numbing" as Robert Jay Lifton believed? Am I one of those dehumanizing and dehumanized beasts that Bob Dylan wrote of in Masters of War?

Master Of War - Pearl Jam - Nuclear Remix - WalKnDude

I do not dare resolve that question for myself. That would be immoral. The Apostle Paul wasn't kidding when he said in his letter to the Phillipians (2:12), "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Not for me. And not for you either, though you may not be aware of it.

But I do what I do because I believe all humanity needs it to be done. And yes, I believe the special status of the United States (despite its imperfections) as the last, best hope for the spread of liberal democracy requires me to do what I can to keep it strong. Liberal democracy (government chosen by the people it governs, and limited in its power over the people it governs) may not make a heaven on earth, but all the other systems of government have made hells.

See also: Obscenity and Peace, in which the obscenity referred to is war itself.

Moral Hazards on the Path to Zero

Dianne Feinstein, like most people in the world, probably thinks US nuclear weapons are targeted at somebody's cities. This is not true — yet. I say not yet, because targeting cities is one of the moral hazards on the path to zero nuclear weapons. The current US policy (and probably the Russian policy as well) is counter-force targeting. Counter-force means targeting the adversary's nuclear and conventional military forces and assets. We can afford to do this, because we believe we have enough assets to survive a first strike and still deliver an effective counter-strike.

But at some point, as the US destroys its nuclear weapons, there may not be enough to target an adversary's forces. So, in case hostilities break out, we will have to target (hold at risk) something else the adversary values. This is called counter-value targeting. Counter-value targeting is aimed at economic and symbolic centers, which are usually co-located with population centers. Hence, counter-value targeting is effectively a euphemism for threatening to launch nuclear weapons at cities.

Depending on how the geo-political climate evolves as we proceed along the path to zero nuclear weapons, we may need to switch from counter-force to counter-value targeting. The question for the American public is whether this switch is compatible with their moral values, or whether it might be better under some circumstances to pause on the path to zero until geo-politics makes it safe enough to proceed without switching to counter-value targeting.

Besides our targeting policy, the other moral hazard on the path to zero is strategic stability. As our nuclear forces decline, do we disperse them so that a single strike cannot destroy them all? Or do we consolidate them so that they can be more easily guarded against theft and diversion by terrorists? If we consolidate, then we may have to "launch on warning," because if we wait for confirmation that nuclear weapons are indeed striking us, we will have nothing left with which to strike back. If we disperse, then we will need to have the will to spend resources on security measures - "guns, guards, and gates," etc.

We do not need to "commit to a nuclear free world," as Dianne Feinstein demands. By treaty, we have already done so. We need to have a sober consideration of how we might get to that world. It will not be as easy or as safe as many people assume.

See also: Folding the Nuclear Umbrella and Pitfalls on the Path to Zero

Morphing Presidents

I was hoping for a crescendo, but it never came.

03 January 2009

Folding the Nuclear Umbrella

Senator Dianne Feinstein has written an opinion piece entitled"Let's Commit to a Nuclear-Free World," in this weekend's Wall Street Journal. In it she boasts of having blocked the Modern Pit Facility, Nuclear Test Readiness, and the Reliable Replacement Warhead. All three initiatives were part of folding the US Nuclear Umbrella in an orderly manner, rather than letting it collapse. I'll address these issues in the order Ms. Feinstein did.

The Modern Pit Facility was envisioned to re-manufacture "pits," which I assume is what Senator Feinstein meant by her use of the word "triggers." While it is true that we can re-use pits from dismantled nuclear warheads, we would need to re-manufacture those pits in order to build in certain "inherent" safety and security (anti-theft) features that the old pits don't have (because they were designed so long ago). Moreover, if we cannot re-manufacture pits, then we need to keep a lot of old pits around in case one or more of our adversaries decides to "sprint" to nuclear parity or superiority while we are trying to reduce our stockpile. The ability to re-manufacture would have enabled us to destroy many more of the old pits without fear that we would be leaving ourselves vulnerable to our adversaries. To state it as bluntly as I can, the Modern Pit Facility would have let us reduce our stockpile far below what we could risk without it. Failure to develop some kind of facility like it may set a limit on how low our stockpile can safely go.

Nuclear Test Readiness is part science and engineering, and part politics. The science and engineering is obvious: nuclear testing is the difference between confidence and certainty that our nuclear stockpile remains operational. The politics is that maintaining readiness makes it less attractive for an adversary to test so that they can watch us flounder for a few years trying to get ready to respond. That would erode confidence in the US stockpile and resolve, and might make some countries wonder whether they can really count on our nuclear umbrella, or whether they should build there own. Failure to maintain a reasonable readiness may thus contribute to nuclear proliferation - among our allies.

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is proof that nuclear weapons scientists don't know anything about marketing. What was really happening is that parts of the warheads in the current (so-called "Enduring") stockpile need replacement or fixing every so many years. We can maintain parts of the old Cold War weapons complex to service those parts, or we can redesign the parts to be manufactured and maintained by a smaller, complex that is cheaper, more secure, and more environmentally responsible to operate. Again, the idea behind the RRW and the MPF was to substitute a smaller, more responsive manufacturing complex for a bloated stockpile that included a lot of nuclear spare parts. Failure to move forward with these projects may again set a minimum number of nuclear warheads and spare nuclear components below which we cannot safely go - a roadblock on the path to zero.

That is to say, we need to be able to go from zero nuclear weapons to a lot very quickly. Otherwise, if we get to zero, our adversaries will use the opportunity to take advantage of us in ways that are both unpredictable and horrible to contemplate.

We may indeed get to zero nuclear weapons some day. But let us not do it on a path that leaves us and our allies naked before our enemies. Let us fold the US nuclear umbrella in such a way that it can be re-deployed quickly should international conditions warrant.

See also: Pitfalls on the Path to Zero

02 January 2009

Gaudium et Spes, 2009

Let's all wish him well. Let's all hope he lives up to even a fraction of his promise. Martin Luther once said that everything that is done in the world is done by hope. As for change, someone once said that politicians need to be changed frequently, like diapers - and for the same reason.

Whatever your political persuasion, I can guarantee that Mr. Obama will surprise you. He didn't define himself during his campaign - he let us project our longings and hopes onto him. If he disappoints us, can we deal with it?

"Yes, we can."