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March 31, 2006


I'm going to have to take the server offline from late on 3/31 until late on 4/4. The blog isn't going away, just moving.

Posted by jeff at 8:51 AM | TrackBack

While I'm Away

I'll be driving to Michigan over the next week, not once but twice, so while I am not around to entertain (?), amuse (??) or enlighten (!!!!) you, you should know that Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.

(hat tip: Yehudit)

Posted by jeff at 7:54 AM | TrackBack

March 30, 2006

Ask And Ye Shall Receive

As if Muchkin Impossible wasn't enough. What I asked for casually just a couple of days ago is apparently coming to pass. Toon Munchkin.

Per Steve Jackson Games Daily Illuminator - March 30, 2006:

And more of that good stuff is coming, including . . . REAL soon now . . . Doc Cross' unholy blending of Toon and Munchkin, creatively titled Toon Munchkin. That's not a link because it's not up yet. But REAL soon now.
Posted by Nemo at 7:43 PM | TrackBack

Behavioral Changes

I've been so busy and distracted that I forgot to make a major point the other day with my post on how our assumptions underlie our foreign policy. Listening to Thomas Friedman on NPR this morning reminded me about it.

The two assumptions governing our policy in Iraq and the larger Middle East are that a certain class Muslims are dangerous and that Muslims can be democratized and reformed. The first assumption can, despite the efforts of the President and many on the Left, only really be changed for the better by Muslims themselves, and recent events are instead tending to solidify and expand the assumption, towards the assumption that all Muslims are warlike and dangerous and that they will give no quarter.

The second assumption, though, is under serious threat by the people increasingly calling for us to pull out of Iraq. But since they aren't thinking through the implications of their proposed policies, they've missed a big factor: if we decide that Iraq is a lost cause, it means that we've decided that democratization and thus presumably pacification of Muslim countries is a waste of time. And that means that when we go to war against Iran and other Muslim countries, which we will continue to do so long as we perceive them as threatening, it will not be to build their nations up but to destroy their nations and kill their people. Not the governments, but the people.

And I really don't think we want to go there.

Posted by jeff at 1:12 PM | TrackBack

March 29, 2006


If you've ever wondered what the Medcalf clan looks like, go here.

Posted by jeff at 10:50 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Assumptions and Actions

We all tend to think about foreign policy in terms of immediate events. We look at a threat from Iran, or a report about North Korea, or a statement from France or Britain, or an election in Belarus, and we ponder what that event means. The problem is that the events are almost meaningless in and of themselves, and so we are often deeply misled about our own and others' foreign policies. Events themselves only have two possible effects, over the long term, on changing policy: either they change our assumptions, or they spark action. Most events, though — the vast majority, in fact — have neither of those effects: they are simply historical footnotes, confirming our assumptions or leading to no firm decisions. The events that are not footnotes are called inflection points or turning points, depending on how severe is the change they create.

Those particular events that spark action — the Pearl Harbor attack, the 9/11 raids, the attack on Fort Sumter — do so because they crystallize a change in assumptions and make clear that our former ways of acting are no longer appropriate. The Japanese would not be deterred from conquest by economic sanctions and slowly increasing pressure; the jihadis would continue to attack the US in ever more outrageous ways; the South would not peacefully remain in the Union. In each case, the crystallizing event served to validate assumptions that had been undergoing change for some time, or to show the necessity for reexamining flawed assumptions. And of course there are positive changes as well, such as the fall of the Berlin wall, that change our assumptions as well.

Still, what is seldom remarked upon, except perhaps by historians seeking explanations when all the principals are long dead, is the framework within which we make foreign policy decisions. Even the spark events are less meaningful in the long-term than the underlying assumptions that frame our foreign policy. The 9/11 raids sparked a war, and arguably two wars. The increasing assumption that we cannot deal peacefully with Muslim countries and possibly not with Muslims at all may lead to a dozen or more wars; and in retrospect the 9/11 raids would simply be seen as a crystallization of the increasing feeling that the Muslim world was broken that started with the first Intifadeh and grew with various terror attacks during the 1990s. And I'm not sure that that characterization is entirely wrong, either: certainly, those who were paying attention were disconcerted by the terrorism increasingly directed at the US, and with increasingly vast effect; our assumptions were changing, but had not yet reached a tipping point.

Spark events determine when we act, but our assumptions determine how we act. And our assumptions have been undergoing radical changes since the end of the Cold War, and need to be reexamined in depth. In particular, there are a few assumptions that have changed, and a few that may soon change, that will determine much about the world in the next decades.

One little-examined change in assumptions actually began under President Clinton. The US has always reserved the right to act preemptively to secure our defense. But during the 1990s, President Clinton first enunciated a doctrine of preemption against situations that we were unhappy about morally, but which did not impact our security needs. The interventions in the Balkans and Haiti were of this type. President Bush's policy of preemptive war is actually more limited than President Clinton's, in that President Bush is signalling that the US will act against a threat earlier than before, rather than that we will act against non-threats. But the underlying assumptions are that anything that happens anywhere in the world is our business, and that we must act in the early stages of a crisis to prevent a full-blown crisis, and that (in the absence of any other superpowers) only the US can act globally. Taken together, these changed assumptions virtually compel the US to intervene in the affairs of any unstable or ungoverned areas, which means that we need to staff and train appropriately for that. And to think that these assumptions will change under a Democratic administration is fantasy: the very idea of interference in such places to bring about a better situation for the people living there came from the Democrats in the first place.

Many of our changes in assumptions recently have had to do with Muslims. The first changes were from Islamic terrorism as an Israeli problem to Islamic terrorism as our problem. This began in the mid-1990s under President Clinton, but the change did not crystallize until 9/11. This change in assumptions is fairly monumental in and of itself, and undergirds the Bush Doctrine in its entirety. But this is not the largest change, nor the most likely to lead to future wars (excepting Iran, which results largely from this change). The largest changes are those that deal with the character of Muslims and of Islam itself.

Already, there is a fairly large movement in public assumptions from "Islam is a religion of peace" to "the Muslim world has bloody borders and massive internal injustices because of Islam", and from "most Muslims are moderates, even when they don't speak out" to "most Muslims either support or refuse to condemn Muslim violence, including terrorism, against non-Muslims". These alone will change the way we fight: as the wars drag on, we will become increasingly brutal as we increasingly demonize the enemy. This is not unusual; read up on the Battle of the Bulge to see some of the war crimes committed by both sides.

But I can see us going further than that. I can see assumptions on the horizon that include "Muslims are not capable of being civilized", "all Muslims are potentially terrorists", "Islam is not a religion but a totalitarian movement" and others more extreme still. The Rahman case certainly does not help the Muslims, nor do the cartoon riots, to fight against these assumptions and stereotypes. And as long as such incidents continue, the US (and indeed the West in general) will move increasingly to the view that the only solution is to wipe out Islam, or to decimate Muslims everywhere, or to subjugate the Islamic world entirely. If that happens, there will be a full-blown civilizational war on the scale of the Crusades, the Arab conquest of the Middle East, or the Second World War.

And since that is, apparently, what the jihadis want to happen, the only way that it will be prevented is for Muslims to first reform internally. And that is not very likely; external pressure is almost certainly going to be required. In the end, the most likely course of events for the next decades is an increasingly frequent and increasingly brutal series of wars between the West (the US in particular) and the Islamic world. And it will not matter whether it is Democrats or Republicans in charge, other than to change the rate of reaction, because the assumptions of Americans as a whole will drive both parties to the same ends.

Posted by jeff at 12:23 PM | TrackBack

March 28, 2006

Redistributionism by Any Name

Joe Katzman at Winds of Change links to a proposal I've seen linked elsewhere, to replace the welfare state by direct redistribution of money to all adults, rather than filtering the money through welfare programs. On the one hand, the plan would have a salutary effect in reducing the size (if not the cost) of government, because fewer administrators would be needed. On the other hand, such a proposal would not succeed in the long run, because it does nothing to alter the incentives.

There are a couple of problems that I have with the proposal. First, I think (from a brief look) that his numbers on crossover and long-term costs do not include inflation indexing. Let's face it: such a plan must include inflation indexing to be at all meaningful to most people. Otherwise, in 20 years, the grant will be half the size (in purchasing power) that it would be at the beginning, and that's hardly a way to pay for a retirement.

Second, the US poverty guidelines put poverty level at $9570 for one person, plus a little more (about $3200) for each additional person. So the proposal would eliminate poverty, at least for intact families in the continental US and with fewer than 3 children. Except that poverty would then get redefined, so that anyone who only had their government grant plus some other defined number would be considered in poverty. Social statistics like these are not made to conform to reality, but to allow promotion of a particular agenda. If terms need to be redefined in order to continue to pursue that agenda, then they will be redefined. In this case, the redistributionists, who would be greatly emboldened by such a program, would not be satisfied, but energized. Thus the demands to equalize wealth by force would not abate, but intensify. If $10000, why not $20000? If $20000, why not $40000? We wouldn't want anyone to be poor, would we?

Third, there are close to 300 million Americans. This means that we would need 3 trillion dollars to provide this amount of money to each American. In 2003, there were more than 130 million individual tax returns filed, but only 89 million of them were taxable, and those would be the people paying the money that feeds into that $10000 per adult. But it's actually worse than that, because people who pay less than $10000 in taxes would be, on net, getting more than they're paying. That crossover point appears to come somewhere around $45000, if I'm reading the spreadsheet correctly.

Let's say that we decide to make this administratively trivial, and have the money disbursed as part of tax collection and refunds. So you simply deduct $10000 for your tax bill, regardless of any other factors. A person paying no taxes at all would thus get the full $10000 back, while a person paying $100000 in taxes would instead pay $90000. (Actually, less than that, as he appears to be phasing this out after a while.) But hey, since that's already what people are paying in taxes, aren't we just more or less rolling the (currently separate) taxes for Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid into the general income tax? So we're effectively raising the income tax rate by the amount needed to make up for getting rid of the taxes dedicated to particular programs.

This really, in effect, is just a flat (or nearly flat) negative tax scheme, and those are hardly new proposals, dating at least back into the 1960s.

But the real problem is that this proposal doesn't actually address the cause of poverty. In fact, I don't believe that it's possible to address the causes of persistent poverty in the United States without being labeled as, at best, cruel. Here I go being cruel, then: people are, by and large, stupid. Once one excludes the relatively few who really cannot work due to reasons entirely beyond their control (the profoundly handicapped, particularly the profoundly mentally handicapped; the persistently ill; and so on), the remainder of persistently poor people (say, who stay in poverty for more than ten years) largely fall into a few categories: people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, women who have children at a very young age and do not marry the father, people who do not want to work at the available jobs, people who are unwilling to move to where there are jobs from where there are no jobs, and people chronically unable to take care with their money.

The plan as proposed even recognizes this, by forcing some of the grant to be set aside for health care, and some for retirement and so forth. So allow me to make a prediction of what would happen if this plan were adopted: people who are desparate for cash would take $5000 (or less) now rather than wait for the $10000; people who are addicted would spend as much of the money as they could get at on their addictions; people who do not want to work or do not want to move where the jobs are would continue to act just as they are acting now, and would not gain significant additional income because they are probably getting the same or more now through various poverty alleviation programs.

Now, being the kind and compassionate (if sometimes deeply misguided) people that we are, how long do you think that it would take before there were redistributionist poverty alleviation programs to take care of the people who squandered the $10000 they were given?

So there are some benefits to the plan over what we are doing now, particularly for people who are actually responsible with their money, and especially because it would be hard for Congress to roll into the general fund money that the Treasury has disbursed. But in the end, it would fail to truly alleviate poverty and to provide for all people's retirements and health care, and so additional programs would be tacked on. And then we're right back where we started. The problem is not with the welfare programs, but with the welfare mentality.

Posted by jeff at 3:36 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

IT Insecurity

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of IT security, particularly in large enterprises, is that security policies are not generally set by computer or network security experts. Instead, people who are reckoned to be security experts because they've done it before (without, generally, any user feedback on what they have done, and excepting disaster often not even getting feedback from other security people) are generally put in charge; or worse yet, non-technical managers are put in charge, of making IT security policies. This leads to policies that seem to be quite secure, but are actually not. In particular, most companies really cannot get password policies right, and in the process generally reduce their security.

Consider the typical enterprise: a few computer systems put in a long time ago were gradually built on, expanded and replaced; along the way, numerous other systems were created to solve various tactical problems, and these too were, over time, built on, expanded and replaced; there is a constant press to build on, expand and replace old systems and to create new systems to solve current problems. (Remember: by and large, computer systems exist in enterprises because they solve problems of some kind or another, at least theoretically.)

This leads to a situation where there are many, many dependencies between systems, largely undocumented; there are many systems that no longer really do anything, but appear to; there are many systems that have unknown user bases; and most of the systems don't talk to each other even to the extent of agreeing what a valid user identity might be. (And yes, there are tools to solve these problems, which involve installing more systems....) As a consequence, a user might have one id/password for the corporate portal or blog, another for the email system, another for the network/his computer, another for access through the firewall/proxies to the external Internet, and a half dozen others for other systems. In the perfect case, all of these systems authenticate the user (that is, determine that he is who he says he is) via the same system, so that one id/password combination gets the user into any systems he needs; and in fact via single sign-on the user should only have to login once to gain access to all of these systems. In practice, virtually no company has fully integrated their access and identity management, and in most companies I've worked for, a given user has an average of some 2 or 3 user ids and between 5 and 10 passwords to remember. And this is where it gets fun, because of security policies that don't work as intended.

Let's say that I have 3 ids that cover 12 systems, and some of them are integrated with a centralized user store so that I only have to remember 4 passwords. That's not bad, as enterprises go, actually. But generally each of these systems that is not integrated with the common user store will have their own password policies, which may be similar to but not quite the same as that of the common user store. (Typically, corporate IT policies will drive security policies to resemble, but not match, each other, because different systems can support different subsets of what the administrators want to implement.)

Now, I can remember 3 ids and 4 passwords, and which systems they apply to. (Some people can't; I have lots of practice.) But there are challenges to my memory, from the aforementioned policies. First, passwords are almost always required to be at least 8 characters. This makes it more difficult to break an encrypted password, should you acquire one, since each additional character doubles the number of possible combinations you have to try. Second, passwords are almost always required to have different types of characters in them (capital and small letters, numbers, non-numeric characters). This means that an attacker cannot cut out possible combinations by limiting the character set he tries to crack against. These are good policies. Now for the bad ones, in practice, that sound good, in theory.

Password reuse is often restricted, so that, for example, the last 12 passwords cannot be reused. This sounds good: it means that if an attacker manages to break a password, it will (once changed) not be useful to him for another year. But in practice, it means that you now have to remember a series of passwords at least one longer than the amount you are unable to reuse, or that you have to remember a new set of passwords each time you are required to change passwords. And rest assured, the passwords will be forced to change on different days, so that you are forced to remember new passwords and forget old ones several times per month.

Password complexity is generally enforced. A typically draconian password rule is at least 2 each of capital letters, small letters, and numbers and at least 1 other character must be present, and no character can appear more than twice. (Note that 7 of the minimum 8 characters of your password are generally constrained.) In addition, to make cracking passwords based on user knowledge more difficult, variations on your name or id, and often other bits of information, are generally forbidden. In some cases, variations on common words, where numbers are used to replaced digits (1 for l, for example) are also forbidden as too easy to crack. These also sound good in theory, but are in practice problematic. First, different systems are able to implement different parts of this kind of rule set, so that in practice a password that works on one system may not work on others, so that the user cannot even set all their passwords to the same value. Second, the complex passwords that result are difficult to remember, and in combination with the passwords changing on different dates and not being reusable, this makes the memory problem much, much harder. Exponentially harder, in fact. (Also, from a brute force cracking perspective, it means that I as an attacker could eliminate a large part of the potential password set, because those passwords would violate the rules.)

Passwords are generally forced to be changed every month in a large enterprise. This is a good idea, because it means that a cracked password is only good for a limited time, but it results in more problems, because of the complex password requirements and lack of ability to reuse passwords. The practical upshot is that it becomes nearly impossible to know your ids and passwords after about 4 months of working within such a security regime. "Nearly" impossible, but not impossible: there are in fact three strategies that users can take to cope with this problem.

The first strategy is of only limited use: do things manually. People learn to avoid things that cause them pain or inconvenience, even if the that is limited to embarassment (at, say, having to call the help desk to get password reset) or lost time (as they try several possibilities). So once systems are too inconvenient to use, people will not use them except when they are required to as part of their job. Peripheral systems (the kind that keep, say, documentation on processes, "important" company news, tracking records, bug reporting systems, frequently asked questions and the like) fall by the wayside as too much additional trouble.

The second strategy is fantastic, and I highly recommend it if you cannot change the security regime at your enterprise: create a system. I won't detail mine, for obvious reasons, but in general you want to create a base password, and make every other password a permutation of that. For example, as an "easy" system, let's say that your base is the ever popular "password". You can vary this to meet the password requirements I gave above by adding capitals: "PassWord", digits for numbers: "Pa55Word", and the occasional symbol: "P@55Word". But then you add in an additional factor, the current month, so that as you change your password each month, you know the current one (assuming you've been using the systems, so that you're forced to change monthly) will have either this or last month's symbol in it. For example, you could use the following set of passwords: "P@01Word", "P@02Word", "P@03Word" and so on to "P@12Word". Assuming, of course, that your security system does not flag "Word" as being a dictionary word, and refuse to let you use it as a part of your password. (Speaking of bad security rules: this one works fine if you're checking the whole password, but really badly when checking a substring of the password.)

But let's face it, most people are idiots. I know that this sounds mean, but having been involved with supporting people using computers over close to two decades now, pragmatism demands that I realize reality. The world is simply not as nice as we'd like it to be. And given that most people are idiots, and that even those people that are not idiots are often too busy to make up a password scheme like I suggested above (particularly when there will almost always be at least one application or system that forces you to violate your password scheme), virtually all enterprise users eventually default to the third practical solution: write down all of your passwords and ids.

Now this is a security no no: I don't (as an attacker) have to guess your ids or break your passwords if you hand them to me on a piece of paper. Think Prisoner of Azkaban here, where Neville wrote down the passwords to the Griffindor common room. But it's not the users' fault that they have to write down their ids and passwords: the security system forces them to do so. (I've twice been at companies where I've had to do so, in one case because of a system that assigned passwords on its own, random 5-character passwords, and in the other case because I coldn't come up with a system that would match all of the disparate rules of the various systems I had to use.)

So guess what I found this morning?

I blame the security guys, though, not the poor secretary who had to remember not only her own passwords, but those of the directors she supports. Although, perhaps taping it to the computer was a bit much; she could at least have locked the list in a drawer.

Posted by jeff at 9:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 27, 2006

Jackson, Steve Jackson

Haven't had enough Munchkin offshoots yet? Well, now Steve Jackson Games has announced the spy game parody: Munchkin Impossible. This follows the recent announcement of Super Munchkin 2 - The Narrow S Cape.

I keep wondering what he'll come up with next. I'm really waiting for Toon Munchkin.

Posted by Nemo at 11:56 PM | TrackBack

Not To Mention...

Brian Dunn argues that nuclear weapons would be a strategic negative for Iran. Perhaps, but what really interests me is this: where are the nuclear freeze protesters, and the protesters against Israeli and American nuclear weapons in general for that matter, with Iran on the brink of developing a nuclear capability? You'd think they'd be out in the streets trying to stop, or at least express displeasure at, the proliferation. Instead, they seem to be actively working to prevent the world from trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons into the hands of an unstable theocratic regime. What is it Glenn Reynolds says often? "They're not anti-war [or in this case, anti-nuclear]; they're just on the other side."

Posted by jeff at 8:30 PM | TrackBack


Posted without comment.

Posted by jeff at 8:26 PM | TrackBack

An Unacceptable Argument

I should really do this funny, as Captain Subtext, but I'm not feeling humorous right now, so you get it straight up.

There has been a series of rallies in the last few days across the US, dedicated to the proposition that people who come to or stay in the US in violation of the law are not criminals, but honest people seeking good work. OK, fair enough as far as it goes; I'll give up that point without making the obvious snarky rejoinder because there's something more important: has anyone actually looked at the argument that the people protesting in favor of illegal immigration are really making? It ends up being this: the United States government should have no control of American borders. Here is the chain of logic, though most of it would be denied vociferously by those in favor of illegal immigration:

1. People who come here, or stay here, in violation of US law on who can come here or stay here are just looking for a good job, and are honest people who contribute much to American society.
2. Because just looking for a good job, and contributing to American society, are good things, the government should allow this regardless of any other considerations. In particular, the government should not enforce any laws that take notice of whether a person has followed or broken the rules on coming and staying here.
3. This advantages people who break immigration law over those who follow it, because there is no paperwork or waiting period to coming here illegally, but there are such hindrances and obstacles to coming here legally. That is to say, supporting ignoring the law supports illegal immigration over legal immigration.
4. We don't want to do that, so the real options are to abolish or (same thing in effect) ignore immigration laws. The result being, completely open borders: if you cannot control who comes in, how can you control what comes in? Answer: you can't.

In an age of terrorism, that is simply unacceptable. Very libertarian, but not acceptable in practice.

I think a better case could be made for allowing in anyone who hasn't been kicked out for some reason or who is otherwise a threat or undesirable, but giving the government strong powers to kick out and keep out people under a broad range of causes of action, with very little impediment. That would certainly allow more people to come here for jobs, but would also give us the ability to kick them out and keep them out for, say, not paying taxes or committing some crime. As it is, we have created a shadow population and economy, which is not a good thing. And the proposals of the "pro-immigrant" (really, pro-illegal-immigrant) types would make that not better, but worse.

Posted by jeff at 8:21 PM | TrackBack

March 24, 2006

Juuusst a Bit Insane!

In case you missed it, I just wanted to direct your attention to one of the world's preeminent scholars, a renowned expert in the fields of demolitions, civil engineering, commercial aircraft recognition and operation, and Secret Service tactics - Charlie Sheen.

Posted by Brian at 10:44 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Bunnies, and Eggs, and Easter, Oh My!

So, in St. Paul someone's apparently worried that an Easter display at City Hall may offend non-Christians.

Maybe we should ask Jeff if he finds bunnies and eggs offensive to his Pagan beliefs.

Posted by Brian at 10:31 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Language Purity

So Jacques Chirac got in a tizzy because a French businessman spoke English at a European language, to which Agnes Poirier responds:

France must be one of the very few countries in the world, if not the only one, where the Prime Minister is officially in charge of national language policy. The Prime Minister's cabinet has direct authority over Le Conseil supérieur de la langue française. In France, one can use only words that are correct, authorised by law and sanctioned by the dictionary.

Well, I'm all for the purity of language. From now on, let's only speak to the French in Latin. Wouldn't want to corrupt the language, you know, which all these debased words and idioms and pronunciations.

Posted by jeff at 8:19 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 20, 2006

The Good News is...

Ethiopia's drought will be ending soon, and permanently.

Posted by jeff at 10:50 PM | TrackBack

Warfighting and Defense Secretarying

Rusty Shackelford thinks it's time to fire Donald Rumsfeld. I think Shackelford is wrong, based primarily on not understanding the job of SecDef, as far as I can tell. It is not the job of the Secretary of Defense to fight wars, nor even to determine the strategy. It is the job of the SecDef to assist the President in setting goals and conditions (grand strategy, if you will), and to assist the warfighters in determining strategy. It is mostly, though, the SecDef's job to make sure that the warfighters have what they need to successfully prosecute wars to attain the goals set by the President. That's why he spends so much time with the Congress and the political generals.

Now it's truly the case that we've made errors in Iraq. Some are obvious now, and some are not. Many of the most controversial decisions (such as disbanding the Iraqi army we had just defeated) will not really be clear in their effect until some time has passed, and arguments can be made either that they were brilliant or terrible or somewhere in between with somewhat equal credibility. History will validate or condemn these decisions; they are too arguable to be used as justifications for immediate correctives now. But merely making errors is a bad reason to fire someone: were the errors demonstrably fatal to our cause, and are they things that few others would have done given the same information? Were they honest mistakes or incompetence? It's very difficult for us to judge from where we sit.

But the real problem is that the US does not know how to fight the wars we're in now, and will be in for the next several decades, any more than the military of 1949 knew how to fight the Cold War and the various proxy fights that would come up as ancillaries to the Cold War. Are we to modify or destroy the idea of Westphalian states, or to act as gatekeepers to which states can claim the associated rights? Are we going to use proxies to fight for us or to fight on our own or to form coalitions; to create empires as the British did (but without the colonialism) or to admit captured territories as US territories and possibly eventually as states or to destroy and withdraw; to rebuild the cultures of our defeated enemies or to only remove the leaders; to intervene wherever threatened or more broadly or more narrowly than that; to integrate war and nation-building or to unleash the full fury of our destructive power upon our enemies; to engage or to withdraw from the world, even to the point of giving up our will to project power short of direct attack against the US itself?

These are not small questions, and we don't yet have the answers. Until we do, until we have decided what we want to do to make the world more pleasant to live in from our point of view, it will be impossible to tell if Rumsfeld's approach was wrong or right. And thus it would be a mistake to fire Rumsfeld for the reasons Shackelford gives.

UPDATE: I should point out, by the way, that what these wars look like is actually what war always looked like before industrialization: little or no differentiation between combatant and non-combatant, fighting amongst the civilians being fought over, and no definable front lines/rear areas. The real question, then, is whether a modern, liberal state can fight a liberal war against a barbarian (literally) enemy: can we fight clean in this kind of war and have any expectation of victory. I think that we are learning in Iraq that we can, and that it is hard and takes a long time. It would be faster to kill 'em all and let god sort 'em out, and my fear is that if we don't maintain our patience and resolve, we'll start doing exactly that. Good for our warriors and our security; bad for our souls.

Posted by jeff at 8:50 PM | TrackBack

More Like Jenin

First, if this happened as reported, then the involved Marines must be prosecuted for murder and war crimes.

Second, it's unlikely that the events happened as described. Note, for example, the witnesses: the most quoted is "Khaled Ahmed Rsayef" ... "who didn't witness the events but whose 15-year-old niece says she did" (but note that she is not quoted); "Imad Jawad Hamza, who spoke with hospital officials and residents".

So we are confronted with the statements of two people, neither of whom claims to have witnessed the acts. Further, their statements are vastly at odds with observed behavior of the US military under these and worse conditions over the years, though that is hardly conclusive. Google wasn't helpful about Rsayef or Hamza. I found this on an enemy website: different both in quoted witnesses and in the details of what happened. Nothing else much of note, though since the story is new and would make the US look bad if true, there will undoubtedly be more stuff available quite quickly, most of it smarmy, screaming or stuffed with schadenfreude.

Given that the claims are extraordinarily unlikely, and the evidence quite thin, my evaluation is that this is not worth paying attention to until and unless more facts — well-sourced facts — come out. Sadly, I'm becoming quite proficient at picking apart news reports for indications of false reporting. Sad, because it is necessary to utterly distrust news sources due to their long history of outright lies, fabulous distortions and the like.

Posted by jeff at 7:53 PM | TrackBack

March 19, 2006


Something struck me today, involving (incongruously enough) Sacagawea dollars and the war: people by and large really have no clue how to apply their own experiences to the world.

A lot of people gripe about the Sacagawea dollars. For example, Gerard van der Leun says:

People just don't like them.
Case in point: While waiting in line at the Laguna Beach Post Office to speak to a clerk, a woman came in and rustled to the front to ask a question. She was clutching this bronze object that at first glance seemed to be a quarter, but was of course the dreaded dollar coin. She'd been purchasing stamps from the PO's vending machine with paper money and had been given several dollar coins in change from the machine.

She then decided that she needed a few more stamps and had tried to use the dollar coins. But of course the machine that gave them to her wasn't configured to accept them. This, needless to say, peeved her. But since today the US Post Office exists only to drive customers away and put itself out of business by 2010, the clerks only shrugged and went back to their SOP of imitating every slo-mo work film you've ever seen. The hapless woman interrupted them again and asked if she could please have some dollar bills for the coins so she could use the stamp machine. The clerk said, "We're not supposed to give bills for the coins, but we can give coins for the bills." There were about 12 people waiting in the snake line for the clerk and I think I saw each and every one slump down and despair at this perfect government employee epiphany. The woman just shook her head and made for the exit.

Yeah, OK, looking to the Post Office for a model of efficiency and common sense is not a very useful exercise. There's a reason for the aphorism "going postal", after all. And yes, it's stupid to have machines that dispense change they cannot accept. But the reality of the situation is this: what incentive do makers of vending machines, parking meters and so forth have to adapt their machines to take the dollar coins? After all, the last dollar coin went down in flames for good reason: it was too similar to a quarter for people to tell the coins apart at a glance, or a feel if they were blind.

But the Sacagawea dollar only intrinsically suffers from being difficult to spell. It's visually and tactilely distinct from other coins in US use, and thus is easy to identify at a glance. So why is it really not in use? Because of the catch 22: machine owners and makers won't adapt their machines until the coin is accepted, which won't happen until the coin is widely adopted.

The Federal Reserve could fix this, though, trivially: simply announce that dollar bills would not be printed after some period, say five years. This would give both time and impetus for manufacturers and operators to adapt, and would get people resigned to accepting the change in the nature of their money (a kind of change that every human everywhere feels opposed to almost by instinct). It would ensure that people have both time and motive to adapt. Instead, the Federal Reserve waits and waits for people to adopt the coin as the standard, while their dithering makes adoption less and less attractive to everyone.

Then there's this criticism of the government's — specifically, the military's — handling of the war in Iraq. (hat tip: Wretchard)

Three years on, the U.S. military is finally becoming adept at fighting a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Sadly, these are precisely the skills that should have been mastered before America launched its invasion in March 2003. It may prove one of the costliest lessons in the history of modern warfare.

I had a chance to see the new counterinsurgency doctrine in practice here this week. U.S. troops are handing off to the Iraqi army a growing share of the security burden. As the Iraqis step up, the Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role. This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.

What these two paragraphs mostly tell me is that David Ignatius has little clue of two things: what the military has been doing in Iraq for the last three years, and how his real world experience is applicable to others. Surely, Ignatius has found himself in the same position that I have, or that every person I've ever known appears to have, where their assumptions, training, life experience and so forth prepared them to react a certain way, but changed circumstances made that reaction inappropriate. Was he able, unlike every other person I've ever known, able to anticipate all changes to his life circumstances in advance, able to determine the ideal change to his behavior in advance, and able and willing to make those changes even when the events causing the changes hadn't yet occurred? If so, I nominate him for Saint, and recommend that he be killed as he is likely not actually human.

When a change comes, people adapt. But adaptation requires that people notice a change, and also requires time for them to make the adaptations. The Fed made the mistake of not making a noticeable change, and Ignatius makes the mistake of assuming that adaptation to change can be instantaneous and perfect. Neither seems to have any clue that the things that happen to them also happen to people who use money, in one case, or the military, in the other.

Like the Fed, Ignatius misses the fundamental point that human adaptation does not come prior to the need, and when the need comes, adaptation is not instantaneous. The Fed refuses to create the need in the public mind to match the Fed's desire to save money on making $1 tokens, and fails to see that without the public feeling a need to adapt, the public won't adapt. Ignatius fails to see both that the military could not have adapted to circumstances on the ground prior to those circumstances becoming apparently different from the military's expectations, and that having adapted, the adaptations would take time to make a difference in the wider war. (It's not as if — even if the military could have, in 2003, foreseen every event of the last three years correctly — the military could have created Iraqi leaders and units that could work together the way they have in Operation Swarmer in very much less time than has in fact elapsed.)

But then, failure to assume that one's own frustrations and setbacks are unique seems to be a common human characteristic.

Posted by jeff at 11:38 PM | TrackBack

March 13, 2006

What do you Get When You Call Buzz Aldrin "A Coward and a Liar"?

Your due. (Note: Aldrin is 76.)

Posted by jeff at 8:10 PM | TrackBack

March 10, 2006

Where are Their Men?

There has been some commentary recently (for example, here and here) on the prevalence of gang rapes by Muslim men against Western women. But those commentaries, in focusing on the brutality and on the feminist movement's lack of response, seem to be missing a point: where are their men? I mean, if my wife, or one of my friends' wives or daughters or sisters, and so on for quite a broad expanding circle, were to be gang raped like this, you can be assured that I would be serving jail time as a multiple murderer (well, in Texas I might not end up in jail for taking my revenge). There would be a lot of dead rapists in short order. Where are the men who should be protecting or avenging these women?

Posted by jeff at 9:47 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

March 9, 2006

Critics and Their Foibles

When the Bush administration came into office, its policy on foreign affairs was quite Jeffersonian: we would largely withdraw from conflict areas like the Israeli/Palestinian situation and let them sort out their own affairs. Per the critics, disengagement was the wrong policy, and instead we should engage with conflicts in order to resolve them.

So when we engaged, largely alone (initially) in Afghanistan and then with Britain and others in supporting roles in Iraq, the same critics were quick to tell us that "unilateralism" was the wrong policy, and instead we should engage "multilaterally".

So when we engaged multilaterally in North Korea, the very same critics were again quick to tell us that we were being too multilateral and should be more unilaterally engaged or, better yet, should disengage completely and just leave North Korea alone.

And the latest is Iran, where we have left Iran largely alone until lately, letting the EU and Russia run with negotiations and such. And now the very same critics once again say that we are wrong to follow this policy.

The only consistency in the anti-Bush critics on foreign policy is that they are against whatever President Bush does, regardless of the outcome. I'm sure it makes the critics feel good, but all it's done for me is to convince me that the Democrats must never again, unless they reform, have control of foreign policy until the long war against the jihadis is over. When your only policy principle is "Republicans bad", you are not fit to lead the country — indeed you're not even worth listening to.

Posted by jeff at 6:47 PM | TrackBack

March 8, 2006

Constitutional Editing

Our daughter's math homework tonight was about basic statistical sampling. We were discussing the terms population, sample and random sample. To help explain, I tried to use election sampling. We got a little off-track when she discovered President Bush was prevented from running again:

Me: Suppose you wanted to know who in the country would vote for President Bush in the next election (which he can't do).
Daughter: Why not?
Me: He can only have two terms.
Daughter: That's wrong!
Me: It's written that way in the Constitution.
Daughter: Someone needs to rewrite it in permanent marker, then.
Me: It's already written in something stronger than permanent marker.
Daughter: Then someone needs to get some white-out!

Posted by Nemo at 9:28 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Primary Day

Tuesday was primary day in Texas. One thing it has exposed is the law that prevents any primary voter from signing petitions to get independent candidates on the ballot. The rationale seems to be that a petition counts as a primary vote for an independent. For example, it would prevent the Republicans from being able to elect one person during the primary, and having a second person as a popular backup.

We have two independent candidates running for governor: Kinky Freidman and Carole Strayhorn. Strayhorn is a Republican who decided to challenge as an Independent, rather than during the primary itself. I suspect this was for funding reasons - there just wasn't enough support in the party to unseat Rick Perry. Freidman is trying to run to break the big party stranglehold - plus have a bit of absurd fun.

I want them both on the ballot in November - if for no other reason as to have as many options as possible. As a result, I stayed home on Tuesday - waiting to sign petitions. I'll admit to knowing only a little about both of them, certainly not much to thrill me about them either. Strayhorn is running as the anti-Perry - without saying much about what she would do, while Freidman is running as the anti-establishment candidate - which is entertaining, but not necessarily productive.

However, there's other primaries besides the governor's race, and there's no way to tell if someone votes in the primary for a particular office. Since many of the more local offices are single party in November, the primary is often the only choice you get. It's rather frustrating - lose choices in one race, to gain choices in another

I also only get to choose one petition to sign. I suppose I'll ask my wife to sign a petition for the other. It should be really interesting to see if either of them get enough support to get on the ballot.

Petitions confuse some voters

Posted by Nemo at 2:42 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 7, 2006

The World's Problems

The most important, and among the least understood, fact about the world today is this: there are no remaining sanctuaries for anyone.

Religious sites give no sanctuary.

Oceans give no sanctuary.

Appeasement gives no sanctuary.

Strength alone gives no sanctuary.

Weakness gives no sanctuary.

Isolation gives no sanctuary.

Local law and custom give no sanctuary.

Absence of war between nations gives no sanctuary.

There are no sanctuaries in the world today. Any place which is not democratic (in the modern Western sense), peaceful, modern and secular spills violence and death outwards and inwards. The most obvious and apparent source of this violence and death is jihadism, particularly when coupled with other forms of nihilism, but it is not the only source. A look at Zimbabwe, Venezuela or Myanmar will quickly dispel any such notion.

This raises questions whose possible answers are so frightening that many people refuse to ask them, or to countenance others asking them. Is it possible to have peace anywhere in the world, let alone everywhere, on an ongoing basis? Is it possible to have peace without genocide? Both peace and meaningful freedom? Both peace and prosperity? Is it possible for Western cultures, and Westernized cultures like Japan or Korea, to survive in the face of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, resentment both of Western success and Western attempts to spread that success? Is it possible for other cultures to survive the competition from Western cultures? The evidence is all over the place, but the overall picture is not encouraging. It is becoming apparent that Western cultures cannot tolerate disorder and violence anywhere, and that Islamist culture cannot tolerate anything but its own hegemony. It seems likely that either Western culture or Islamist culture will take over the world: each is maximal and each is proselytizing and each is convinced that it is the best way. Each also has those among its opposite who feel that their own culture is immoral, and willing to work against their own culture's ascendency.

It is very possible — perhaps even likely — that the world will soon come to a tipping point, when the liberal West collectively catches its breath and decides that this really is a culture war we are in, and we must fight tyranny or die, and our ideals with us. I believe that the jihadis, from their own statements, decided more than a decade ago that this is a culture war, and that they are doing their level best to convince other Muslims, and particularly Sunni Arabs, that this is the case, and that Muslims must fight the West or die, and their god with them. They might succeed.

I have been thinking a lot over the past few years about what happens if we pass that tipping point, and I hate all the answers I've had. But I've had a new idea recently, and idea that I don't hate and that might work, and I want to talk about that. But not just yet. I don't have a lot of time at the moment to flesh out the idea, and there is a lot of recent background reading that led me down this path. So instead of presenting my ideas at the moment, I would like to present their foundations:

The Pentagon's New Map by Thomas Barnett
From Way Up Here by Dave Schuler
Exit Zero on the Real War by Mary Madigan
The Breach by New Sysiphus
"Long War" is Breaking Down into Tedium by Mark Steyn
A Not Entirely Crazy Idea by Michael Reynolds [actually, it is a pretty crazy idea, but it did get me thinking]
Neo-Cons or Crusaders? by Callimachus
The World: Not Going Away by Michael Reynolds

Posted by jeff at 9:32 PM | TrackBack


There is a very small window open to the MSM (I hate the all-inclusiveness of that term, but it's so convenient because everyone realizes who it refers to, even though that's not even really implied in the term itself) to fix its problem before it is destroyed. The bias and lying and flacking and agenda-pushing has been so evident for so long that companies manipulate the press openly; even rabid news watchers tune out and instead look to blogs and foreign news sources; and now the administration is starting be openly adversarial to the press. There is a small, small window of opportunity left during which this part of the theoretically news reporting world can reform, can win back the trust it has squandered since 1968, and can become useful to society. If not — if they refuse to see themselves as Americans first, reporters of fact second, and writers of stories not at all; if they do not in other words see themselves as they say they do, as holders of a public trust for all of us — my children will not grow up to be adults in a world where traditional media has any power at all.

The ball is entirely in the media's court now, though. We won't need them much longer: anyone can make things up and put stock footage behind them, and it won't be long before anyone can access raw data (images, sounds, interviews, local opinions and so forth) about any place in the world, as they can already access a wealth of intelligent amateur opinion about those data. At the point, in the very near future, when the two advantages of news organizations — having a person paying attention in a place where something interesting is happening; and having access to government and corporate officials — are no longer operative, news organizations will no longer be operating, at least not as they do now.

Posted by jeff at 8:15 PM | TrackBack

March 3, 2006

Too Much Real Life...

Not enough time for blogging. Free ice cream prospects this month are low.

Posted by jeff at 10:20 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 1, 2006

Simpsons More Popular Than Constitution

More know Simpsons than Constitution :

[The study] found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

Now, considering the audience on this blog, I doubt the same would hold true here. Personally, I could rattle off four of the five without any problem: speech, religion, press and assembly aren't a problem. It's the redress of grievances that always gets me.

On the Simpsons, I think I've watched the show maybe a couple of dozen times is all, but I'll give it a go: Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie.

Pop culture wins out over civics most days.

Posted by Nemo at 9:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack