Friday, March 26, 2004

Civilization and Its Enemies

Yesterday I got my copy of Lee Harris new book: Civilization and Its Enemies. I started reading it last night and am already impressed. He talks about the real reason the hate us (Hint: it's not because of our support for Israel or our troop presence in Saudia Arabia or any of the other claptrap that has been proffered by leftists). Expect a summary and commentary on it when I'm finished.

Lee Harris is an occasional contributor here. I would recommend reading his columns.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Guaranteed Source of Posts

I've lucked out. If I ever can't think of something to post about I can now just go here to Noam Chomsky's new blog, take any post of his and pick apart the inaccuracies and inconsistencies (Hat tip: Drezner). For those who don't know, Chomsky is a linguist and MIT professor, legendary for anti-Americanism and hard-core leftism. Everything he says sounds good and true until you start checking up on it and find he's lying.

So even though I have plenty to post about (I'm working on my power measurements gathering data) I'm going to go ahead and fisk Chomsky's first real post, titled Bush's Economics (link currently not working).

First paragraph:
Whether Bush believes, or even understands, the economic policies of his administration I have no idea, and it really doesn't matter much. What's important are the policies, not whether Bush understands what his handlers instruct him to say.

Ok, so he pulls out the tired old line about Bush being a moron with his advisers pulling the strings. False. While it seems that Bush disdains the minutae of policy he exerts clear control over the basic direction. Strike one.

Second paragraph:
The current policies are an extreme version of what has been going on since the late Carter years. According to Congressional Budget office economists, real income of the bottom 90% of taxpayers fell by 7% from the mid-1970s through the Clinton boomlet (largely a bubble), while the income of the top .01% rose 600%. And mobility sharply declined as well. Bush's policies are much more extreme, but one should have no illusions about what preceded. Robert Pollin's recent Contours of Descent is one of several excellent and quite readable studies carrying the matter through the Clinton years.

I appreciate how Chomsky helpfully tells us exactly what policies he disagrees with (Sarcasm Alert). Even worse, he fails to provide links to the sources of his data. That's a key strength of blogging; your readers can check up on you and make sure you're telling the truth. Of course, Chomsky would rather you accept everything he says as Gospel truth. To refute his points, in a 30-second search of Drezner's site, I found this post from about a year ago, which makes some key points. First, real wages increased for everyone over the period Chomsky highlight. Second, income mobility did NOT sharply decline. Third, "Americans don't begrudge the rich getting richer." Strike two.

Third paragraph:
Whether the economy can survive with such radical inequality, not to speak of the huge and growing double deficit, no one knows. But it's surely a success for the planners and the very narrow interests of wealth and power they represent. And planning is not for the longer term, part of the lunacy of semi-market systems.

As mentioned above, there is no danger of political collapse due to income inequality. There is no enslaved proletariat to rise up in anger over income equality a la Marx. And what the heck is a "double deficit"? As for the lack of long-term planning in a market economy, it is at least partially made up for by the responsiveness of markets. Planned economies, like the Soviet Union, have been shown to be complete disasters. So whose policies have been proven to be a failure? Strike three and Chomsky quits while he's behind.

These things write themselves, it really makes my job easy. I now have a good back-up plan. Thanks Chomsky.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Terrorists as Pests

Read an article today in the Weekly Standard and was struck by the following quote:

'According to John Diamond in USA Today, Zapatero told El Pais, Spain's leading daily newspaper, that "the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a 'great error' that has aggravated the terrorist threat."

Well, sure it has. And knocking down a giant wasp's nest in your back yard aggravates the wasps, too, but eventually it has to be done. Unless you're okay with your wife and children getting stung and screaming in pain. Again, and again, and again, and again. Or trying to reason with the wasps. Or just pretending they don't exist. Or giving up your back yard and moving.'

I think this is the perfect analogy for our war on terror. The terrorists are wasps who are capable of hurting but not killing us. Yes they are a threat, but not on the same level as say a bear. So terrorists are a concern but not as much of a threat as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.

(Not much posting today due to serious allergy problems. Sorry.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Space Shuttle and Risk

Saw an interesting article in the New York Times today about a problem they found with the Space Shuttle. Twenty years ago a contractor installed the gears wrong on the actuator for the rudder/speed-brake. Skip the following paragraph if you know what a rudder/speed-brake is.

The rudder is the control surface on the vertical tail of airplane. It controls the yaw motion; to visualize this, if your head was an airplane the yaw motion would be like shaking it no; it's a side-to-side motion. The rudder is primarily used to keep the airplane flying straight if there is a cross-wind. On the Shuttle, however, this surface performs double-duty and is also a speed-brake. In this instance, the rudder would split into two parts like the opening of a clam-shell, increasing the drag and slowing the vehicle.

Fortunately the improper installation did not cause any accidents because the part was never stressed to its limits. This is an example of a good design. It is important in designing an aerospace vehicle in particular to prepare for the worst-case situation that could be encountered. In structural design there are safety factors that are put on everything to account for the unexpected as well. In this instance it is likely that the additional margin provided by the safety factor kept the part from failing and killing everyone in the Shuttle. It's also a failure of design because it was possible to install the gears in reverse in the first place. If it had been designed such that the gears would only fit one-way the problem would have been avoided entirely.

I also noticed one of the NASA guys said that the misinstallation "could have resulted in a catastrophe if there had been unusual stress, like a launching problem that called for an emergency landing" which made me snort a little bit. If something goes wrong in the launch, the crew is essentially dead. Even if they are not blown up the volatile fuel surrounding them, the NASA plan for an aborted launch is to flip the Shuttle such that it is flying backwards and then fire the engines to head back to Florida for a landing. The chance of this maneuver being conducted successfully is virtually nil. Astronauts know this but fly anyway because they view the risk as acceptable.

People have unrealistic expectations of safety and generally misunderstand risk. All activities in life have a certain level of risk associated with them. One of the riskiest things you do almost everyday is drive a car. But there is a risk in taking a shower in the morning because you may slip and fall and die. There is risk involved in doing, or not doing, anything. You cannot completely eliminate the chance that something bad will happen, but it is important to consider risk. Everyone has a risk management strategy, even if it is just to ignore risk.

Everyone has their own risk threshold and it tends to get lower as we age. Consider the teenager who likes to race his friends, compared to Grandpa in his tank of a Cadillac. The perception of risk is also tainted by what we see in the news. This is why people think (or at least feel) that driving a car is safer than riding in an airplane. It may be that flying in the Shuttle is too risky for the vast majority of people, but if there still remains a cadre of people willing to fly despite the risk it is foolish to burden the Shuttle with expectations of a perfect flying record.

The level of risk must also be balanced against the cost it takes to reduced that risk. It might be possible to build a vehicle with a risk of essentially zero, but it would be so heavy and expensive as to be useless. Part of deciding where to place the line in deciding acceptable risk is in placing a value, however callous that sounds, on a human life. Incidentally this value is usually calculated to be about $1.5 million.

Does this mean that I support the Space Shuttle? No, I think it's an ancient piece of crap that is long over-due for replacement but hasn't yet been replaced because of a lack of political will. I also think it's foolish for us to expect that our space exploration will be without risk, or at least that nothing will actually happen. Perhaps someday the risk of going to space will be no more than flying a plane, but that day is far off into the future.

Monday, March 22, 2004

All bow to the NationMaster

I found this sweet website while doing research for my ongoing series on internation power trends (introduced here. It's got a boatload of statistics and allows you to create your own graphs. I'll be using it plenty in my article.

To whet your appetite, however, consider this (Note that it refers to external [i.e. foreign-owned] debt). Many people bitch about how large our national debt is and how scary it is that we owe so much to foreigners, and in absolute terms it is scary (~800 billion buckaroos). BUT in per capita terms it suddenly doesn't look so bad. The U.S. is #25, with countries like Australia, Sweden and Denmark in front of us. It's a neat new toy. (Yes I know I'm a nerd)

Why the "War on Terror" is not that important (in world-historical terms)

I know that statement is very much against the conventional wisdom, but it's also true. To prove it I'll look at what the worst-case scenario is and explain why even in this case the course of history is not ended.

The Islamo-fascists have thus far not seriously threatened our interests. None of their attacks have caused significant casualties or economic damage. 3000 people dead from 9/11 are significant from a psychological perspective but it would take many, many 9/11's to defeat us, and they haven't even managed to duplicate their feat over the past three years. The economic effects of 9/11 ended up being relatively minor as well, unsurprising for an economy as large and varied as the United States. The terrorists cannot possibly hope to defeat us materially using their current methods (other methods will be considered later). The only hope that they have is that their attacks would do enough damage psychologically for us to defeat ourselves. While many on the Left have tried to bring this about, there is no indication that we are in danger. Fortunately a majority of the American public has no desire to pull a Frenchie (i.e. surrender).

If the Islamo-fascists were able to get a "weapon of mass destruction" (i.e. nuclear, chemical or biological) then they would become much more of a threat. It would take a large amount of resources for them to actually defeat us even with these weapons. The destruction of even a city or two and a million people, as horrifying as that is, would not be enough; it would take a massive sustained campaign of terror. There also remain a number of tools that we have refrained from using in our fight. If we had to we could be much more aggressive, see the end of this article. The United States will NOT be defeated by terrorists, even if it requires the annihilation of all Muslims (though no one wants it to come to that). For all the hype about asymmetric threats, they do not change the fact that our overwhelming military superiority will protect us, even in the worst-case scenario.

If several U.S. cities were destroyed along with the Muslim world, history will still continue. Even a battered U.S. would remain the world's most powerful nation. Obviously there would be much more psychological damage, but we would not be defeated.

The bigger threat to our power is that another nation would become more powerful than us or at least powerful enough to challenge us (a la Soviet Union). That is why my examination of the trends in the relative power of the most important nations (started here) is still important. Even if our current "war on terror" goes spectacularly poorly it will not be our biggest ultimate threat.

Note: Because many say that the nation-state is becoming obsolete due to globalization (and thus the relative power of nations is unimportant) I will next discuss why the nation-state ain't goin' anywhere (at least for the foreseeable future).

Hypocrisy Shmypocrisy

Kevin Drum, in his new Washington Monthly blog, comments on the Kelley scandal. (Brief summary: Pulitzer-nominated Jack Kelley, who writes for USA Today, apparently completely fabricated a bunch of stories Jayson Blair-style [Blair was a reporter for the New York Times who made up a bunch of stories without getting caught because of his favor with chief editor Howell Raines who was fired over the affair]). He says:

"I really don't think it's unfair to ask Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan when they're planning to start their 24/7 coverage of this affair. Surely, at the very least, they should start baying for editor Karen Jurgensen's resignation, shouldn't they?"

Previous to this he comments: "But, er, um, Kelley is white, isn't he?" (Jayson Blair is black)

Implicitly Drum is accusing Kaus and Sullivan of racism and hypocrisy. Perhaps he should have thought things through before posting. Kelley writes for USA Today, at the low end of the totem pole as far as respectable newspapers go. USA Today (like Time and US News and World Report) is something targeted for people who don't want to strain their brains. It is at the tabloid end of serious journalism. I only read USA Today if I don't have internet access and I can't find anything else.

The New York Times on the other hand is much more respected. The Raines tenure at the NYT was tarnishing its reputation, which is why Kaus and Sullivan pushed so hard to get rid of him. The charge of racism and hypocrisy is a major stretch. There is more than sufficient reason for them not to have started 24-7 coverage of the scandal.

Hayworth has nothing to say worth listening to

Bad pun, I know, but I have to put something into the title spot or it looks too lonely.

I read an article in National Review this morning, written by Rep. Hayworth (R-Arizona), that was completely worthless. I find myself in the unenviable position of defending the Droopster. Hayworth begins by quoting John Kerry attacking the Reagan defense build-up. All well and good, clearly Mr. Droopy is opposed to having a large military, or using it. Understandable given his experience in Vietnam but not the best attitude in the world for our commander-in-chief (see Bill Clinton).

Hayworth then repeats the charge that Kerry voted to eliminate this laundry list of weapons systems. This charge has been debunked already. Kerry voted against the entire defense bill because he thought it too large, not to specifically eliminate these weapons. So there is a legitimate charge here, that Kerry is not in favor of a large military, but it's not the one Hayworth makes.

The next attack is that Kerry is being hypocritical criticizing the administration for not providing enough body armor for the troops in Iraq. But Kerry's charge is true, sort of. There haven't been enough of the new life-saving Interceptor body armor sets to go around, but this was due to an Army screw-up in not having ordered enough of them, something that would be no different in a Kerry administration. And since Feb. 1, there have been sufficient numbers of the vests, as the army got five more companies to build them until there were enough (from Strategy Page, couldn't find permalink). So this charge basically stands, although it is very weakly argued, with no supporting evidence.

These are the only two arguments he makes in the partisan puff piece. Only one of them is legitimate and he does a horrible job of making it. This type of hackneyed preaching-to-the-choir type of article adds nothing. I find it disappointing that the "Honorable J. D. Hayworth" seems so incapable of forming a coherent argument.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Future International Power-Political Trends Part I: Introduction


This is the first in a series of posts in which I examine the trends in national power over the near and long term. In this post I will explain why this is important and set-up the structure in which I will present the material.

Conventional news sources, like newspapers, present an enormous amount of information but provide little context. This series intends to present a framework through which international news can be interpretated. A thorough understanding of where the world is currently at and where it is generally headed from a power-political perspective is important in understanding all other international news. Focusing only on short-term news also obscures the long-term trends and can lead people to incorrect positions.

Elements of Power:

National power is difficult to measure, and it only has meaning in a relative sense (i.e. country A compared to country B). But the following elements merit inclusion and will be considered in this series:

1. Economic Power
2. Military Power
3. Population
4. Geography and Threats
5. Political and Cultural

The above elements will each be briefly described.

Economic Power:
The economic power of a country is perhaps the most important element, in that it is useful in its own right and can easily translate into military power. Important economic indicators are national product (GDP), GDP per capita, national debt, trade, and technological level. GDP is important because it is a measure of the overall wealth of a nation, and hence its ability to pay for its military and influence other nations economically. GDP per capita is measure of the productivity and technological level (which must be measured indirectly through other indices) of a nation. The national debt allows a comparison of the fiscal position of a given nations goverment. The trade of a nation indicates how vulnerable that nation is to economic coercement and trade disruptions. And the technological level of a country is important because of its relation to the ability of that country to develop economically and militarily.

Military Power:
The military power of a nation is one of the biggest indicators of how influential a country is. Even though North Korea has a tiny country, its gigantic military translates into influence disproportionate to its position economically. Military power is a result of the size and quality of its forces. A large, but low quality military is much less useful than a smaller, higher-quality one. Quality of a countries military is a function of its equipment and personnel. Newer more advanced equipment is obviously a plus, but its importance is perhaps less than that of its personnel. A highly-trained force will perform much better than a poorly trained one and take much fewer casualties. Numbers and equipment are much more easy to gauge than the personnel quality of a nation's military.

Update: Obviously nuclear weapons are important here too.

The population of a given country is important because it is the base upon which its economic and military power is built. The growth rate of its population has a large effect upon its future position because of its direct effect on the wealth of that nation and its indirect effect on the age structure. A nation composed almost exclusively of old people will clearly be in a less powerful position than one with a balanced age structure.

Geography and Threats:
The geographic position of a country affects its ability to influence other nations and also its vulnerability to attack. If a nation is facing threats just across the border (like India vis-a-vis Pakistan) that will also have an effect on its relative position. Clearly in the age of international terrorism and globalization this effect is reduced but it is not eliminated.

Political and Cultural:
The political stability and political environment has an affect on a nations freedom of action and its ability to sustain a military effort. The cultural appeal of a nation will also affect its ability to influence other nations.

Plan of Action
The plan of action at this point is to go through nation-by-nation a list of potential and current powers. Because of the relative nature of the measurement of power it might prove difficult to keep them separate and there may be some overlap. I will then give a concluding section in which I summarize what I believe will be the most important trends. A discussion relating this to the current war against Islamo-fascists is also in the works as many of you may be asking how that affects this calculus of power. The nations I plan on discussing are as follows:

1. United States
2. European Union (not a true nation but close enough)
3. China
4. Japan
5. India
6. Others if I feel motivated enough after the first five

Clearly I did not come up with the idea to do this completely on my own. Influences on my thinking are here, here, and here. Other references used will be linked in upcoming posts.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Breakin' the law, breakin' the law

Found out today that I am in violation of Georgia state law. Why? Because I own a Swiss army knife with a blade longer than two inches, and I live on a University campus. If you look up Georgia here, you'll see that it is against Georgia law to have any kind of weapon (including any "knife having a blade of two or more inches") within 1000 feet of a school, including Universities. What a crock. It should be noted that the law does have a bunch of exceptions written into it for things like teachers and if you're over 21 and picking someone up from school, but it allows no exception for those who live in a dorm on-campus. The law makes sense for elementary and high schools but is a stinkin load of crap when applied to the University level. I'm a 23 year old graduate student, not a child. I believe I should be able to have any legal weapon I want, even if I live on-campus. I don't feel in any danger of being prosecuted under this law, but it's irritating that it even exists.

It's a conspiracy

A few days ago I came across an article mentioning the fact that the French were going to have joint naval exercises with the Chinese on Tuesday, near Taiwan. I thought this was outrageous; a democracy (France, at least nominally) engaging in naval exercises with a communist country (China) trying to intimidate a democracy (Taiwan). This only makes sense if the French are purposefully doing the opposite of what the U.S. would do just to be spiteful. In retrospect perhaps not that big a surprise that the surrender-monkeys would act like rebellious teenagers. Now I read that the president of Taiwan was shot and the waters become murkier. Now it seems like perhaps the Chinese are playing a dangerous game of electoral manipulation (in an Al Qaeda-esque fashion with intimidation and terrorism). It's probably just a coincidence, with the attempted assassination being conducted by some commie fruitcake, but it makes me wonder.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Me vs I

I started a post a while ago and it had a really great intro. But then I got bogged down. Didn't know how to say what I wanted. I guess I'm too used to arguing with myself; it's much more difficult to structure an argument for other people. When I debate myself (and I do, nothing wrong with that) I don't have to flesh out each point so it goes much faster. Trying to write, I get too far ahead of myself and have a difficult time filling in the blanks for other people. It's irritating but also part of why I'm doing this blog. If you have to write about something it forces you to think it through much more deeply than just for yourself. I've got some great ideas spinning around for future posts, but I need to get them more organized beforfe putting them in front of the world (or something). Stay tuned.

What is up with that title?

The title basically derives from me being a smart-ass. In high school English class, someone was trying to come up with the longest word (non-scientific, of course, because they cheat by mashing everything together German style) and my teacher said that Antidisestablishmentarianism was the longest word. As the top of my sidebar says, the word refers to those who were against those who were against the establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII. So they weren't FOR the Church of England, they were just against those who opposed it. My original (or at least independently arrived at) contribution is to add the -esque to the end of it (making it 33 letters long). I think this version makes more sense to use because no one actually believes in Antidisestablishmentarianism, but someone could remind you of that group.

An additional advantage is that I now have the blog with the longest one word name. I am King of the One-Word Name Blogs or KOWNB, for short. I hereby declare that all blogs shall link to me! All those not obeying this command will sentenced to death (sentence to be carried out between now and forever). That is all. For now. [evil cackle in the background]


The libertarian magazine Reason has a new article on-line (see here) about the 3/11 bombings in Spain. In it the author decries the punditocracy's condemnation of the results of the election as "appeasement." He talks about how the result of the election was not due to a surrender to terrorist demands and desires, but a result primarily of the increased turn-out due to the attacks and Aznar's transparently political attempts to pin the blame on Basque separatists in the ETA. My thoughts on this were: so what? It doesn't matter why the Spanish voted for the Socialists, it matters if Al Qaeda views it as a victory and will try it again.

The author later makes exactly this same point and then adds "By insisting that the election results constituted capitulation to terror, the hand-wringers are perversely, irresponsibly bringing about the very result they pretend to decry. Why?" This is absurd. Apparently pundits in the U.S. have enormous influence on what Al Qaeda thinks. There can be no doubt that the Islamists view the results of the Spanish election as a victory, and the current War is a zero-sum game so it follows that we lose. The election will hopefully do no lasting harm, but it would be foolish to not realize it for the defeat that it is.

Bomb the cheese-eating surrender monkeys!!

The title of this post refers to France, of course. I'm going to explain why it might be a good thing if the Islamists target France, which they are apparently threatening to do.

The French, and the rest of Old Europe (after 3/11 including Spain), are still locked in a pre-9/11 mindset of appeasement and viewing terrorism as a law enforcement problem (see Droopy for an American example). This mindset was in retrospect a disaster for the U.S., as we had opportunities to nip Al Qaeda in the bud but wimped out. The key point, however, is that it took a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil for us to take the problem seriously. If France were similarly attacked, it would force their hand. They would have to once and for all choose between appeasement and joining us in going after terrorists.

It's possible they would choose to continue in their EUroweeny ways. Even if this is the case, however, it would expose their policy as weak and ineffective and encourage others to join us. I think that the French people would view this as unacceptable, and bring in new leadership if they did not respond to an attack. The French government elites can spew and sputter about the cowboys in America, but if they were in our position they might be forced to take action because of popular opinion. The French currently see humbling the U.S. as more important than protecting their people; an attack might change this.

Test-Taking Strategery

I had a test today in my optimization class; it was one of those tests where they give you 3 hours of work to do in 1.5 hours. My strategy for this time-constrained type of test is simple: don't go to the bathroom beforehand. It sounds strange but it works, at least for me. Why does it work? The need to pee gives me an artificially high sense of urgency, forcing me to focus on the task at hand and how to achieve it in the minimum time possible. I'm a pretty smart fellow, and I have a tough time making myself worried about any test because I pretty much always do well, but I also work better and more quickly under pressure. So I use my natural body functions to manipulate myself into the desired state of mind. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, but for me it works quite well.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Genetic Algorithm Optimizers

For one of my classes we have to write a genetic algorithm to optimize several problems and it's very interesting. The inherent randomness means that the answer and how long it takes to get the answer varies greatly for different runs of the same problem. This means that you can never really trust that the answer you get will be the best. The standard genetic algorithm also seems horribly inefficient to me. Because you know the characteristics of each population so it seems to me that you should ensure that you use this information as much as possible, and I don't think the standard algorithm does that. The biggest problem with a genetic algorithm is the inefficiency, and I think it could be made more efficient. I'm going to try out some of my ideas and see if they make it more efficient. I'll report.

New Format and Sidebar Links

Well I've got everything in a format that is acceptable for now. Before today I knew nothing about html, so I think I'm doing well. The links to the right are not yet in final order or complete, but that can be saved for another time. Hopefully tonight I'll have my first real non-self-referential post.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Yippee skippee. My first post. I've been reading blogs for the past two years and have thought about starting my own for a while, but I've been too lazy. Argh. The z on my keyboard doesn't work because I spilled my drink a couple weeks ago and now I have to copy a z from something else to type it, at least it's a key that I don't use often. This blog is for me, right now; if anyone else reads it, great, but if not it won't bother me. I'm a decent writer, but my perfectionism makes me agonize (another z!!) over everything much more than I should; so I'm hoping this will help me become a better and faster writer, and maybe even more organized. We'll see.