Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Population Pressure and War

Population pressure appears to play a major role in Chimpanzee "warfare", and it might well play a similar role in human affairs. The turmoil in the Africa and the Middle East is associated with drought and population growth. The relative peace in Europe during the Nineteenth Century may well have been related to the opportunities of young men to emigrate to the Americas, Australia, and the colonies.

Historians ought to pay close attention to this sort of meta-factor.

How we fare in empires vs. independent nations is also worth a look.

Jeffrey Sachs + Michael Shank Think fighting ISIS is a bad Idea

Too many times in recent history the United States has responded militarily to provocations and threats in ways that have resulted in spiraling war and violence at great long-term cost to the American people. We believe that the latest escalation of U.S. attacks on ISIL (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) threatens such an open-ended, costly and ultimately unsuccessful path. We do not doubt the dangers of ISIL in the region, but we believe that U.S.-led bombing is most likely to create further instability, spiraling violence, and new recruits for radical military groups.

The right strategy, we believe, is for regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to lead the response to ISIL under the umbrella of the U.N. Security Council. In this way, the U.S. would avoid the trap of being viewed, once again, as the leader of an anti-Islamic crusade. Anti-American hate, and hence the vulnerability of U.S. individuals and property to terrorist attacks, is already running very high. A U.S. escalation of bombing in Iraq and Syria would send it soaring.

We note that ISIL is vastly outnumbered by the regional powers. ISIL’s advances reflect political disarray, the Syrian civil war, and pockets of local support in Sunni regions. They do not reflect any intrinsic or insurmountable military advantage.

The problems are much deeper than military. They are fundamentally social, political, and economic. Moreover, the spiraling wars in the region, including the recent U.S. bombing, take us farther from real solutions, not closer. We believe that the U.S. backing for the anti-Assad insurgency in Syria has greatly and unnecessarily contributed to the current disarray, weakening the Assad regime and thereby opening up the space for ISIL to insert itself on the ground. We strongly urge the U.S. to stop its efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and rather to seek a political solution in the U.N. Security Council context that does not count on Assad’s removal as a precondition (hence bringing Russia and China on board in a cooperative UNSC mandate).

More here

So far, at least, our Syria strategy has sucked. I have no faith in the Sachs + Shank proposal, but not much in any other ideas either.


Arctic Sea ice area has quite likely reached its minimum for 2014, and it finishes in a virtual tie with 2013 and 2009, about 1.2 million km^2 below the long term average minimum. It is, however, far above the record melt of 2012 as well as significantly above several other post 2007 melt minima. The climate skeptics are trumpeting this as "the great Arctic recovery." That's a bit hasty, especially since it also finished well below any pre-2007 melt seasons. A casual examination of the record shows that significant fluctuations have always existed on top of the long term decline, but if you imagine that climate science is some kind of partisan game, I suppose any deviation from the trend, no matter how unsurprising, looks like a triumph for side stupid.

Of course reality doesn't care much about ideology, and it always gets the last word, but it might be too late to permit sensible measures to deal with some really big coming problems.

Science and Nonsense

A new study reconfirms old studies that showed that we share our propensity for war with our Chimpanzee cousins. That's certainly no surprise to me. the cited article is interested in the question:

Is war a modern human invention, or does it have deep roots in biology?

I didn't have much doubt about that either. More dismaying to me is the reaction of some on the academic left.

Brian Ferguson, director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Rutgers University at Newark, said he disagrees with the new study’s interpretation of the data, as well as the methods used to rate the role of human influence on the chimp behavior.


Since Wrangham’s book “Demonic Males” was published, Ferguson said he has been compiling an exhaustive response, although he acknowledged that most primatologists who study chimpanzees do not agree with him.

“If people think that it is in our nature to go to war, that we’re somehow by evolution primed to go out and kill members of other groups, it leads to a kind of fatalism: you never can change that,” Ferguson said. Instead, he believes the evidence shows war is a recent invention.

In other words, he doesn't believe it because he doesn't want to. If he really would like to eliminate war, playing just pretend is not the way to do it. Instead, one needs to look at the factors that promote and discourage war and inhibit the first and promote the second. Fooling yourself won't help.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Going Indie

On Thursday, Scotch voters will vote on independence from Britain, and if the polls are right, and human stupidity triumphs as usual, there is a good chance they will chose secession. I guess I've already hinted that I think this is a bad idea. I can't think of another occasion on which a nation, united in language and culture for hundreds of years, has decided to tear itself apart on such a flimsy pretext - essentially, so far as I can see, because Scots watched one too many Mel Gibson movies.

The partition of India was much better motivated, but equally idiotic and certainly more catastrophic, at least in the short run. Pakistan was essentially the creation of one man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. His rationale was that it would be intolerable for Muslims to live in a democratic nation where they would be outnumbered and outvoted by Hindus.

The idea of partition was disliked by many thoughtful British, essentially all Americans, and many others. Britain agreed to it, I imagine, because it was too exhausted to mediate an alternative and perhaps because it hoped to exploit its old colonial tactic of pitting Hindu against Muslim.

American journalist Margaret Bourke-White scored an early interview with Jinnah and was not impressed:

Jinnah’s expectation of US aid for Pakistan, American officials’ concerns about anti-Americanism, and Bourke-White’s cynicism about Pakistani objectives around the time of the country’s inception together seem like the prologue to a story with many repetitions. The Life correspondent discerned in Pakistan a persistently voiced “hope of tapping the US treasury,” which led her to wonder “whether the purpose was to bolster the world against Bolshevism or to bolster Pakistan’s own uncertain position as a new political entity.”

Ultimately, in Bourke-White’s opinion, “it was more nearly related to the even more significant bankruptcy of ideas in the new Muslim state— a nation drawing its spurious warmth from the embers of an antique religious fanaticism, fanned into a new blaze.” 4

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (pp. 10-11). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Events have hardly proved her wrong.

Reducing Global Warming

It's pretty well known that the way to deal with global warming is with a carbon tax. People who should know better, like Paul Krugman, advocate for a slightly hidden carbon tax called cap and trade, but it has proven completely unworkable. Its slightly hidden character doesn't fool anybody but the most naive rubes, creating a vast space for those who do know better to manipulate and jimmy the tax.

Of course the problem with the carbon tax is that it's immensely unpopular. People really really don't want to pay more for gasoline, electricity, or heating oil. It's also a highly regressive tax, so that it would be devastating to lower income people without an aggressive rebate program, and such transfer programs are anathema to the right.

The human race may not be collectively smart enough to survive.

Defeating ISIS

Many have weighed in to argue that that's impossible, and if you are talking about exterminating the organization, it may well be true. At the moment though, that's not the problem it presents. That problem is that it's a coherent, effective fighting force that's conquering territory, committing genocide, and threatening our allies. That can be dealt with, and we know very well how to do it. Unfortunately, the strategy and tactic require an effective ground force.

Kosovo and other examples showed once again that air power is rather ineffective against dispersed ground forces. Consequently, it's necessary to force those ground forces to concentrate at which point air power is crushing, at least in open terrain. That kind of concentration requires a determined advance by forces on the ground, at which point the enemy must either surrender ground or concentrate in order to resist.

Monday, September 15, 2014


The NFL may have caved on men "disciplining" wives and girl friends, but it's still a place where an indicted 100 kg thug can beat a four-year old bloody.

At least if that thug can really play.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kevin Drum on ISIS

Kevin is another guy who thinks we are wrong to take on ISIS:

There's no question that the beheading of American citizens by a gang of vicious thugs is the kind of thing that makes your blood boil. Unless you hail from Vulcan, your gut reaction is that you want to find the barbarians who did this and crush them.

But that shouldn't be your final reaction. This is not an era of conventional military forces with overwhelming power and no real fear of blowback. It's an era of stateless terrorists whose ability to commit extremely public atrocities is pretty much unlimited. And while atrocities can have multiple motivations, one of the key reasons for otherwise pointless actions like one-off kidnappings and beheadings is their ability to either provoke overreactions or successfully extort ransoms. Unfortunately, Americans are stupidly addicted to the former and Europeans seem to be stupidly addicted to the latter, and that's part of what keeps this stuff going.

In any case, a moment's thought should convince you that we're being manipulated. We've read account after account about ISIS and its remarkably sophisticated command and publicity apparatus. The beheading video is part of that. It's a very calculated, very deliberate attempt to get us to respond stupidly. It's not even a very subtle manipulation. It's just an especially brutal one.

So if we're smart, we won't give them what they want. Instead we'll respond coldly and meticulously. We'll fight on our terms, not theirs. We'll intervene if and only if the Iraqi government demonstrates that it can take the lead and hold the ground they take. We'll forego magical thinking about counterinsurgencies. We won't commit Western troops in force because we know from experience that this doesn't work. We'll avoid pitched battles and instead take advantage of our chances when they arise. Time is on our side.

Kevin is a very smart guy, but I think he is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of points. Of course the beheadings were a deliberate provocation, but our failing to respond would be a tremendous success for them. They would have demonstrated that we are as impotent as they imagine. The last paragraph is starts out sensibly and rapidly degenerates into nonsense. There is zero reason to think time is on our side - ISIS was rapidly expanding before we intervened. The notion that we should avoid pitched battles absolute military nonsense - such a battle is precisely where our technology and overwhelming firepower have the huge advantage.

Climate Zombie Trolls

One of the blogs I read is devoted to Arctic sea ice. Most of those who comment there are professionals or very knowledgeable amateur Arctic watchers - I just lurk. Unfortunately the climate trolls attack, armed with their half-truths and outright nonsense from Denial Central or wherever the great stupidity attractor lurks. They invariably parrot the same stale mythology that has been circulating for years and fail to understand the implications of their own claims.

They do, however, wield one super-power - the ability to change the subject whenever somebody takes the trouble to refute one of their stupidities. Combine this with their general cluelessness and disrespect for staying on topic, and they become a serious pest - like flies at a picnic.

Here is a good, or rather, an egregious, example, posted by one keithwqq:

Astounding rebound in Arctic, record high levels in Antarctic. Tough year to be a warmist.

It would be hard to exaggerate just how much misinformation, confusion, and general dumbassery keith has compressed into two short sentences. His idea of an "astounding rebound," for example, is a sea ice area 1.1 million km^2 less than the mean and less than any year before 2007.

Not that they will pay attention, but here is my advice to them. Shut up and listen when the adults are talking. Do your homework and you can even participate. Or at least just confine your comments to unserious blogs like this one, or to your own echo chambers.

The Glue Trap

Obama made his intention to extract us from Bush's foreign wars pretty clear, but the US keeps getting dragged back in. Couldn't we, shouldn't we, just say the heck with you and let the Middle East and the rest of the world struggle with their own problems? Former big time interventionist Andrew Sullivan is sure that Obama is making a big mistake by going after ISIS. He quotes David Frum, good old "axis of evil" Frum, as follows:

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?” That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.

What terms likely to be acceptable is a question for the future, but I think Obama's rationale makes a hella lot more sense than Frum's rationale for his wars ever did. In ISIS, the US confronts an aggressive, rapidly expanding, declared enemy, which is disrupting an area of vital strategic importance to us. Moreover, its a murderous, genocidal organization attacking our allies. Finally, it is an organization which has publicly and gruesomely murdered Americans just for the crime of being American.

Getting involved in foreign civil wars is an unpleasant and frequently counterproductive business, but not getting and staying involved can also turn out badly, as it did when we let Afghanistan drift after the Russians were chased out.

One point which we should not delude ourselves about - stamping out ISIS will not end turmoil in the Middle East. Nor can we completely eliminate ISIS. What we probably can do is destroy its military power, kill or capture its leadership, and destroy its financial infrastructure. I wouldn't bet that these things can be accomplished without US troops on the ground though.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Obama's Anti-ISIL Speech

If Obama uses the phrase "reverse the momentum" I will likely throw-up. In fact any mention of p or other component of the stress-energy tensor will bother me. Other stupid words are: limited, defensive, and surgical. War is war. If you aren't in to win, you are just killing people for no good reason.

Suitable words and phrases include: defeat, crush, eliminate, annihilate, destroy, conquer and vanquish.

Please no idiotic euphemisms, equivocations, or weasel wordings.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Barbarians at the (Water)gate

The customer needed a haircut before an important public appearance.

The barber made polite conversation on the one subject every last customer was interested in: “What do you think of these Watergate hearings?”

“They’re pretty interesting, but I haven’t been able to see much of them.”

“I’ll say they’re interesting. I’m bringing my TV set to the shop next week. I want to see this guy Dean get his butt kicked.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be something. We’ll find out what the squealer has to say for himself.”

“Right. You know, I can’t imagine a guy lying that way about President Nixon. The guy is crazy, maybe.”

“Could be,” John Dean said, with all sincerity.

Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 2870-2875). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Scientific Conspiracies

A favorite ploy of denialists of various stripes (vaccination, global warming, evolution...) is that scientists are engaged in a sort of conspiracy to silence dissent. Given the pretty widespread belief that rigorous internal critique is at the core of the scientific method, can scientific conspiracies really exist?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes - though none of the above are likely examples. The most prominent contemporary example seems to be the great "saturated fats are evil" myth. Nina Teicholz has traced the story in her book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, which she is currently flogging in various venues.

Of course this was not a conspiracy of deliberate deceit, but of true believers. Their is very little evidence that Ancel Keys or any of the others propagating this myth were deliberately selling something they knew was wrong. Instead, they believed the idea so passionately that they discounted contrary evidence and relied on very dubious supporting data. Even the sugar and vegetable oil companies who jumped aboard with both feet and boatloads of cash probably thought they were during mankind a favor with their low fat foods, margarine, and other products.

One enabling factor has been the difficulty and expense of doing controlled nutritional studies, so almost all data must come from epidemiological studies. One strong piece of evidence, however, is the fact that overall, Americans have drastically reduced their consumption of saturated fats, while getting fatter and more diabetic. Also, the evidence that saturated fats are not the bogeyman has gradually accumulated and a critical analysis of the studies portraying it as such has found their severe weaknesses.

So how about those other conspiracy candidates? The big difference is the quality and quantity of the evidence. Evolution, vaccination, and human caused global warming all have all have ample evidence and detailed models of action, something that the saturated fat hypothesis never achieved.

A better candidate example might be string theory. It has achieved tremendous influence without a bit of direct evidence, and it's more zealous practitioners are famous for their persecution of doubters. Neither of those things is evidence that the string hypothesis is wrong - but it's equally certain that it is an unproven hypothesis. Of course it can't be compared in practical importance to any of the other hypotheses. If string theory is true and useful, we will likely find some evidence for it eventually, but it's practical importance will be confined to some faculty appointments, at least in the medium term. Meanwhile all the others concerned directly affect the lives and health or millions or billions.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Juggling for Seniors

Once upon a time I had a modest (OK, VERY modest) skill at juggling. So, not having done any juggling for a few years or decades or something, I decided to see if my old muscles, reflexes, and fading vision could still handle it. Three balls, check. Four beanbags - not so hot, managed 11 consecutive catches, while minimum proficiency is supposed to be twenty, but not bad considering that I never was any good at it. Three clubs is probably the minimum skill that is amusing to watch, and I used to be able to do it pretty easily, even managing a few simple tricks.

This seems to be a major challenge for my own personal beanbag - the fixed one, between my shoulders, I mean. So far, I just haven't been able to manage the air traffic control. The problem is that I just can't seem to stay in the basin of stability, and my pattern quickly become chaotic. This is a familiar pattern in control theory - either the sensors aren't up to the task or the actuators aren't.

But I haven't given up. Yet.