Friday, March 21, 2014

This is easily the most compelling explanation I've seen so far for the strange behavior of missing Malaysia Airlines airliner flight 370.  Note that the suggested path flies very close to Iran, which suggests in turn that perhaps the two Iranian "smugglers" on the passenger list deserve some additional attention.  The remaining question, of course, is what (or more likely who) on the plane was so amazingly valuable as to be worth grabbing in such an elaborate and risky operation...

(UPDATE March 25, 2014:  The company that operates the satellite-based tracking system that received automated signals from the aircraft's engines during its flight has apparently performed a sophisticated analysis on those signals, and concluded that it actually flew south towards the Indian Ocean, rather than north towards Central Asia.  We are thus pointedly reminded--once again--that human behavior doesn't always have the most compelling explanation.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An anonymous resignation letter from a Swiss graduate student has made a bit of a splash on the Internet lately, with many noting the uncanny accuracy of his unflattering portrayal of modern academic research.  I recommend a full reading, but the gist of his description is that academic researchers today have no interest in producing what an external observer would describe as "good research"--that is, research that significantly increases human knowledge and benefits humankind.  Instead, they devote their efforts to advancing their own petty academic-political interests: producing a large volume of narrow, conformist, incremental publications that improve their publication statistics and citation numbers; playing political games to advance their standing in the "research community"; and exploiting their graduate students for the benefit of their own careers, at the expense of the students'--and the field's--best interests.

It's easy to compare today's research world unfavorably with its counterpart of fifty years ago or more, since what remains of the latter by this point is little beyond its legendary successes, and certainly not its day-to-day workings.  But the truth is that academic research has always had more than its share of mediocrity drenched in politics, obscurantism and conformity.  Consider, for example, this little memoir, written in 1988 by the late great Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie (and recently pointed out by his fellow Mideast scholar Martin Kramer).  It turns out that Kedourie, as well, abandoned his doctoral studies, and for reasons not at all dissimilar to those of the Swiss graduate student.  But Kedourie was not a modern Swiss scientific researcher, but rather a history student at Oxford in 1953.

Unfortunately, the problems that have plagued researchers from Kedourie in 1953 to many young scientific researchers today are in fact fundamental weaknesses in the basic structure of academic research.  Researchers have always formed their own tiny expert communities, and thereafter demanded to be evaluated solely on the basis of peer review--that is, on the assessment of that tiny community, with no outsider being considered sufficiently expert to pass judgment on their work.  Academic newcomers are then forbidden entry until they first complete a multi-year program whose primary requirements are slavish conformity to the methods and practices of their graduate advisors' community, and voluminous difficult work exercising those methods and practices to the exacting standards of the graduate advisor and a small, hand-picked selection of his or her community peers.  And tenure has always guaranteed that these mini-communities will continue their hair-splitting line of research long after the last shred of value to outsiders has been painfully squeezed out of it.  It's hardly surprising, then, that academic research has historically been dominated by stifling conformity, petty politics and small-minded obscurantism.

If today's community is different from those of, say, a hundred years ago, the difference is primarily that research today is a "day job" in a way that it wasn't back then.  In the era when virtually every professor was a poorly-but-steadily-paid college teacher indulging his scientific, literary or historical obsessions in the gaps between classes and perhaps publishing the odd fusty monograph every few years for an audience numbered in the dozens, it scarcely mattered whether those academic obsessions were with the great unsolved problems in science or, say, the mating habits of a particular unremarkable species of butterfly.  Today, on the other hand, the average professor is fairly well-paid, with a light teaching load, either full tenure or a near-term expectation of it, and the promise of a multi-thousand-dollar research budget to spend on conference travel, graduate student assistants and other perks--if only he or she can generate the requisite volume of peer-blessed publications. 

What was once an eccentric but harmless academic idiosyncrasy--the practice of publishing technical expositions of one's own research that at most only a tiny audience of peers will ever read--has thus become an enormously expensive and wasteful boondoggle.  Abilities such as "selling" one's papers (writing them in a way that impresses one's peers), forming and leading networks of mutually logrolling researchers (much like the "alliances" in the reality TV show, "Survivor"), and crafting CVs and proposals that coax grants out of funding agencies, are now core academic skills much more important to career success than, say, deep scientific insight or vast erudition, much less teaching ability.  The resulting research bears all the signs of this change:  most of it is shallow and irrelevant, much is sloppy and error-ridden, and very little of it has a shelf life longer than the few months it takes to get it published and tacked onto a personal publications list.

It's not clear how to solve this problem, but a few obvious (though sadly unrealistic) mitigations come to mind.  First of all, since 99 percent of all research is worthless, we should start by vastly shrinking the pool of researchers.  The rule that virtually all full-time college professors must generate research as part of their employment is an absurd result of tiny colleges trying to increase their stature by emulating the top universities.  It ends up not only generating a flood of pointless, abysmally low-quality "research", but also undermining the higher-quality research communities, forcing them to compete with the mediocre majority for funds, recognition and adherents

Second, abolishing tenure certainly won't solve the entire problem--after all, most of the worst research is produced by workaholic untenured researchers, frantically churning out publications with which to establish their case for tenure.  But the protections of tenure certainly contribute to the insularity with which academic researchers indulge their worst instincts without fear of adverse consequences.  And given that academic training and peer review are guaranteed to squeeze every drop of non-conformist independent-mindedness from the peer-obsessed researcher, the likelihood of a researcher using the grant of tenure to break free from the constraints of conformity and rebel against the herd are negligible.  Tenure has thus failed in its only justifying purpose, and never comes close to paying back its enormous costs.

Third--and most importantly--the evaluation of academic research needs to be opened up to a much wider range of assessors.  As long as researchers can rely on log-rolling among peers to protect them from external accountability, they will continue to ignore any measures of the value of their research other than their own.  The only way to force them to take into account criteria such as economic value, societal impact and the public's priorities, is to make them accountable to commercial, political and popular representatives, not just fellow academics.  The howls of outraged disgust that invariably greet such suggestions reflect not only the academic dogma that asserts that anyone outside the holy circle of researchers is an ignorant yahoo incapable of grasping even the basics of evaluating scholarship, but also the rather baser fear that external evaluators might not be quite so indulgent towards researchers as they are toward themselves and each other.  It's high time that dogma were dispensed with, and that fear realized. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

And now for the 2013/2014 edition of ICBW's grandest (okay, only) tradition--the annual predictions post...

We begin with a review of our predictions for 2013, for which the theme is, "spectacularly accurate in the minor details, spectacularly off-base on the big picture":
  • The US economy will continue to grow at a sluggish pace, constrained by declining government stimulus and interest rates inching up with the growing concern over public debt, but buoyed slightly by lower prices for fossil fuels.  Inflation will remain tame, and the stock markets will weaken slightly.  Real estate will continue its very gentle upward trend.  
Spot-on in most respects (GDP growth 1.7 percent, bond prices down (i.e., yields up) slightly, annual inflation at 1.2 percent), but way off in a couple (Brent crude virtually unchanged, and especially the S&P 500 up over 30 percent)...
  • The newly-restabilized Eurozone will destabilize again, when domestic political pressure forces one of the bailed-out governments (most likely Greece) to balk at the required austerity measures, and/or one of the bailing-out governments (i.e., Germany) to balk at its required contributions.
Well, there was plenty of regret and foreboding, but in the end, everyone agreed to spend a fortune keeping Greece ruinously tied to the Euro...
  • Any US government spending reduction of any kind, let alone entitlement reform, that occurs this year will be purely cosmetic.  The debt will continue to expand until the threat of rising interest rates forces politicians' hands.
This was a gimme--no credit deserved for stating the obvious...
  • Damascus will fall to Syrian rebels, and chaos will ensue as Alawi Assad regime loyalists retreat to defend their stronghold in the northwest, the Kurds carve out an enclave in the northeast, and Sunni Islamists set about slaughtering minorities elsewhere.  The unrest will spread to Lebanon, where Sunnis (including Islamists) emboldened by events in Syria will begin challenging Hezbollah's dominance in earnest.  Meanwhile, in Egypt, The Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate its iron grip on power, but will be too busy dealing with economic crisis and the resulting unrest to make trouble elsewhere.  The Palestinian Authority will bring some kind of case against Israel to the International Criminal Court, where it will sit for some number of years, but the West Bank will be largely quiescent, and no "third intifada" will break out, a few occasional minor disturbances notwithstanding.  And despite increasing hostility from the Obama administration, overall global anti-Israel agitation will decline, as a result of Iranian setbacks and the increased respect that typically accrues to a potential future energy supplier to Europe.
Well, a lot of the little details were remarkably accurate--except for that bit about Assad falling, and the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating its hold on power, and the PA going to the ICC...
  • Binyamin Netanyahu's party will win the January election, and form a center-right coalition largely similar to the current one, but without Ehud Barak.  There will therefore be more settlement activity, but no military strike on Iran's nuclear program, which will remain in its current alarmingly-close-to-nuclear-weapons-but-somehow-not actually-building-them-yet state.  In fact, following the fall of Assad and the resulting decline of Hezbollah, Iran will begin to look--to all its adversaries, including both Israel and the Gulf states--like a much more manageable regional threat.  Official and unofficial expressions of anti-Iranian hostility in the Sunni world will thus become much bolder and more open.
Again, perfect--except for those bits about Netanyahu's coalition being similar to the previous one (it's completely different--the religious parties have been kicked out and replaced with secular ones).  Also, Iran looks like a much more managed regional threat--lots of agreements and diplomacy going on--but is hardly more manageable, unless you're foolish enough to think that anyone takes those agreements and diplomatic initiatives at all seriously.
  • At least one of the autocrats from 2012's list (Hugo Chavez, Ali Khamenei, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Robert Mugabe, Raul Castro) will not make it through 2013. 
Thanks for bailing me out, Hugo!
  • The next hit cable TV series will break new ground by revolving around a fascinating, complex male character who's not involved in violent crime. 
Not sure if this counts...

And now for my 2014 predictions, for what they're worth...
  • The US economy will strengthen moderately in 2014.  The stock market will decline slightly from its current heady heights, but interest rates and inflation will rise slightly (although not enough to divert the Fed from its current oh-so-accommodative course).  Oil  and other commodity prices will decline, but real estate will continue its recovery.  The EuroZone will recover as well, but far more sluggishly, with continuing unrest (but no major upheaval) over the severely distressed PIIGS economies.
  • Barack Obama's approval ratings will continue to decline, weighed down primarily by Obamacare, which will continue to accumulate angry "losers" (people whose health insurance has become narrower, more expensive or both).  Numerous other minor "scandals" will pop up over the course of the year, but none will gain significant traction with the press, and the November elections will see only small shifts in Congress, with the Republicans gaining a mere handful of House seats, and the Democrats (just barely) retaining control of the Senate.  Until then, the Republicans will content themselves by blocking various White House legislative initiatives, the administration will respond by doubling down on various expansions of executive power, and the Republicans will counter by initiating various legal actions (mostly unsuccessful) against them.
  • At least one Supreme Court justice will resign or die, and Senate Democrats will abolish the filibuster completely to prevent Republican obstruction of the resulting nominee's confirmation.
  • The Israelis and Palestinians will sign a "framework agreement" modeled after the Iranian-American accord.  Like its predecessor, it will say absolutely nothing concrete and definitive, and will be interpreted by all sides as perfectly aligned with their own official position on every issue.  It will therefore accomplish absolutely nothing, apart from allowing both sides to maintain the status quo while asserting at the same time that they've made progress toward their strategic goals.  Meanwhile, redoubts of anti-Israel animus--academia, the press, Europe--will respond to the process by doubling down on their anti-Israel campaigns, including more American Studies Association-style boycotts.  However, violence will be confined to sporadic incidents, and Israel's economy and trade will continue their stellar trajectory.
  • Elsewhere in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria will drag on with no end in sight.  The related unrest in Lebanon will increase substantially, led by relatively new radical Sunni elements rebelling against Hezbollah's dominance.  Muslim Brotherhood violence in Egypt will continue at a low level, but the military will tighten its overall grip on power.  Sectarian violence in Iraq will escalate, and the Erdogan regime in Turkey will shed all pretense of democratic rule, formally instituting structural changes that will in effect establish an AKP dictatorship, with a bit of democratic window dressing. 
  • Legalization or quasi-legalization of marijuana will spread to additional states beyond Colorado and Washington, and the next big trend in snobbish consumption will be "gourmet weed".
Feel free to add your own via comments...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pop quiz:  What do journalists Robert Fisk and Matthew Yglesias, and activist Daniel Seidemann, have in common?  (The links provide the answer.  A hint:  One might also, in a stretch, include Timothy Treadwell...)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The recent deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries negotiated by the Obama administration over the former's nuclear weapons program has been lambasted, with good reason, by all but the most sycophantically pro-Obama commentators.  But while it's certainly a foolish giveaway, with lots of drawbacks and no significant redeeming features, its overall long-term effects are widely misunderstood.  Here are a few of the most prominent myths:
  • The deal profoundly imperils Israel's security.  As I've argued before, Iran's offensive nuclear capability--and it will almost certainly have one, sooner rather than later, irrespective of this deal--will be effectively deterred by both the Israeli and American capabilities, just as the Soviet Union's was.  Iran's very likely possession of nuclear weapons is thus not a major direct threat to Israel, let alone an existential one.
  • The deal is intended first and foremost to weaken Israel.  As I've also argued before, the Obama administration's guiding foreign policy principle is the desirability of diminishing American power and influence around the world.  This deal contributes substantially to that goal, and while it also harms Israeli interests, it's American interests that by far suffer the greatest harm, more than enough to amply justify it under the president's worldview.  (Of course, the two effects are directly correlated:  given that Israel is a strong ally and supporter of the US, a blow to Israeli strategic interests is highly likely to damage US strategic interests as well--and vice versa.)
  • The primary effect of the deal is to clear the way for the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In fact, the Iranian nuclear weapons program has been moving forward at full speed for many years now, and this deal scarcely affects it.  Rather, the primary (and wholly negative) effect of the deal is to undermine the sanctions regime against Iran.  Once the sanctions are lifted--and given this deal, that lifting is now inevitable--Iran will have more cash to spend on conventional mischief in the region, such as propping up its puppets in Syria and Lebanon, extending its influence in Iraq, fomenting unrest in the Gulf monarchies, and sponsoring terrorist plots around the world. 
  • Israel is now more likely to launch its own pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.  I don't believe that such a strike was ever remotely plausible.  The risks--of failure, of casualties, of a diplomatic backlash, of Iranian retaliation--are huge, and the likelihood of delivering a substantial setback to the Iranian program is negligible.  It's possible that the Netanyahu government sees things differently, but my guess is that if they did, they'd have launched a strike years ago.  More likely, the entire "do something or I'll be forced to act on my own!" charade was simply a ruse to get Western governments to impose sanctions.  If so, then it worked brilliantly--there's absolutely no way any sanctions, let alone the fairly substantial ones that were in effect until now, would have been imposed without this threat.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration has from the beginning hungered for reconciliation with Iran as part of its overall strategy of snubbing friends and courting enemies, the more effectively to undermine American power and influence abroad.  It was therefore something of a miracle that Netanyahu was ever able to huff and puff his way to a global sanctions regime, and probably inevitable that Obama would eventually find a way to dismantle it.
  • The deal dramatically improves Iran's strategic position.  In the short term, no doubt, the extra revenue that will accompany a lifting of sanctions will expand the Iranian regime's freedom of action.  But it still finds itself in dire straits in the medium term:  its most important satellite, Syria, is mired in an unbelievably bloody civil war that has already begun to spread to its second most important satellite, Lebanon.  The Saudis and their allies are certain to be even more determined than ever in their efforts to support the rebel factions in Syria and Lebanon--not to mention domestic dissidents within Iran itself.  The Iranian economy will be helped but not saved by the lifting of sanctions--it's still a corrupt quasi-command economy dominated by the leadership's relatives and cronies in the clergy and the Revolutionary Guard.  And a global oil and gas production boom is very likely to lead to a decline in oil prices in the near future, with consequences for Iranian government revenues that could easily end up dwarfing the recent sanctions in their severity.
So while I join the critics in condemning a deeply misguided and counterproductive deal, I don't think its consequences will be nearly as disastrous as many seem to fear.  Rather than Munich in 1938, I would compare this agreement with Vienna in 1979--also a reckless giveaway by a cluelessly naïve, American power-loathing president to a cunning, ruthless dictator with grand geopolitical ambitions and at the height of his power.  That deal, too, seemed to formalize and enhance the dictatorship's prestige, but in fact it coincided with their high-water mark, followed by an astonishingly rapid descent that concluded with the regime's complete dissolution within roughly a decade.  May this deal achieve the same result. 
     

Saturday, September 28, 2013

In 1990, a 22-year-old student named Christopher McCandless graduated from Emory University with a degree in history and anthropology.  He was in possession of a substantial trust fund, which his family hoped he would use to attend law school.  Instead, he donated the fund to charity, ceremonially burned his remaining cash, cut off all communication with his friends and family, and became a drifter, hitchhiking across the US, taking odd jobs, and renaming himself "Alexander Supertramp".  By late April 1992, he had found his way to Alaska, where he decided to head into the wilderness to live off the land, despite being woefully ill-equipped and completely lacking in wilderness survival skills.  He was dead of starvation by summer's end.

Viewed as a case study, this simple outline strongly suggests a tragic but depressingly familiar pattern:  the early stages of severe mental illness, symptoms of which typically appear during young adulthood, and can include identity confusion and compulsive, antisocial behavior.  But when a writer named Jon Krakauer somehow got ahold of McCandless' story--including a diary disjointedly documenting his wanderings--he found McCandless' professions of anti-materialism and alienation from society more inspiring than disturbed.  In tribute, Krakauer penned a long article on McCandless' fatal journey, which he later turned into a book called Into the Wild, the latter also inspiring a film adaptation directed by Sean Penn.  In both the book and film versions, McCandless is portrayed as a brilliant, idealistic young man disgusted with conventional society and eager to "find himself" through renunciation of material comforts, rejection of social mores and obligations, and solitary communion with nature.  Even his most erratic behaviors--that is, the ones that most strongly suggest mental disturbance--are portrayed rather as examples of his determination and purity of purpose.

Particularly prominent in Krakauer's telling of McCandless' tale is his theory that McCandless died of starvation not due to inability to fend for himself in the Alaskan wilderness, but rather because of the effects of some poisonous seeds he'd been eating, believing them to be safe.  An earlier hypothesis about the particular plant and toxin responsible having been proven incorrect, Krakauer has recently proposed an alternative culprit, and claims to have laboratory evidence supporting his new theory.

But Krakauer's obsession with the precise details of McCandless' death is misplaced.  It seems as if Krakauer believes that if he can only prove that McCandless died accidentally by ingesting the wrong seeds, then his entire thesis about McCandless being an inspirational hero rather than a deeply confused young man will be vindicated.  But let us suppose for a moment that Krakauer is correct, and McCandless had indeed succumbed to the toxins in some seeds he had eaten.  What would have happened if by some good fortune he'd managed to avoid those seeds?  One possibility is that he'd have continued his quest to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, and most likely subsequently perished in the harsh Alaskan winter, which he was completely unprepared to survive.  If there's a meaningful difference between that outcome and the actual course of events, I'm afraid it's lost on me.

Krakauer, on the other hand, apparently believes that "he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August",  and gone on to live a more or less normal life.  That's certainly possible--and would perhaps even have been probable, if McCandless had in fact been merely a naïve adventurer rather than a deeply troubled young man.  On the other hand, what would we make of McCandless' story--and Krakauer's reverent retelling of it--if it turned out, in the end, to be nothing but a rather reckless lark, a brief interlude of "wild man" survivalism in an otherwise unremarkable life story?

Krakauer's take on McCandless thus rests on a fundamental contradiction:  if McCandless' journey into the wild was a great and admirable quest, then we must acknowledge that it ended in abject failure, and draw the obvious conclusions.  On the other hand, if it was merely the tail end of a two-year spree of irresponsible youthful naivete, then why on earth would it merit Krakauer's heroic treatment?

Of course, it's not McCandless' death, accidental or otherwise, that truly inspires Krakauer's admiration.  Rather, it's McCandless' professed philosophy, which amounts to little more than a kind of obsessive worship of the self.  In his two years of wandering, McCandless shows no interest in any outward-directed higher purpose, such as helping humankind, increasing his understanding of the physical universe, or even connecting spiritually to a deity or deities.  His journey is a strictly internal voyage of self-discovery through isolation, contemplation, and rejection of all personal responsibility or obligation.  To most responsible adults, such a mission would not seem inspiring at all, but rather dull and self-indulgent (or, quite possibly, mentally unbalanced).

And that is why McCandless' alleged accidental death is so significant.  Had he succumbed to obvious reckless incompetence, or else lived to continue on his self-absorbed path, or even abandoned his life for a more conventional one, the pathological nature of his self-absorption would have been readily apparent.  By constructing a tragic accidental death for him, Krakauer was able to recast him as a heroic martyr to the religion of the self, where otherwise he would have been merely a living testimony to the falsity of its promise.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Profumo affair, Mark Steyn has reposted his obituary of John Profumo from seven years ago.  Steyn adopts the conventional view that Profumo's sexual escapades and subsequent disgrace represented the decadent, dissipated face of the old British ruling class, while his acceptance of responsibility and personal penance (he spent the last forty years of his life as a volunteer for a charity) represented its more laudable side, reflecting its devotion to integrity and honor.

But there is a more cynical view of the affair:  that Profumo's fall, and subsequent refusal to even attempt to regain his former position, demonstrated first and foremost the British ruling class' utter enfeeblement, and foretold its complete surrender shortly thereafter to other contenders--organized labor, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, the professional class, the entrepreneurial/financial class--for domination of British society.  Sexual indulgence, after all, is hardly limited to aristocrats, and there has been no shortage of political sex scandals in the years since John Profumo's.  But members of a robust, confident elite don't simply lie down and accept disgrace, then wander off to clean toilets for a poorhouse for the rest of their lives, as Profumo did.  And indeed, numerous British public figures have survived greater or lesser embarrassments and lived on to contend in the corridors of power.  Profumo, however, was astute enough to recognize that his and his peers' (in both senses of the word) time had past, and that any attempted comeback would be futile.

In America, where elites have long been more dynamic than in the Old World, we see a similar pattern:  the strongest (the Kennedys, to take the most obvious example) are never tainted by personal scandal, however egregious their behavior; the strong (the Clintons) brazen it out, and emerge largely intact; the weak (Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner) fall from power and must endure at least a period of disgrace before being allowed to attempt a comeback; and the weakest (John Edwards, Larry Craig) succumb, never to recover.

I have long held the opinion that in the political world, a "scandal" is best described as a kind of political contest:  an accusation is made against a politician by his or her political enemies, the consequences of which are determined primarily by the relative political power of the target and his or her enemies, largely irrespective of the actual severity or validity of the accusation.  This is particularly true of sex scandals, where "severity" is a highly subjective judgment that can easily be swayed by political sympathies.  John Profumo's indiscretion was fairly minor, even by the standards of his day.  But as an old-school upper-class traditionalist in a rapidly changing Britain, he had the misfortune to be politically vulnerable, and in the Darwinian world of democratic politics, even the tiniest of cuts will draw the predators to a sufficiently weakened prey.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One of my favorite Middle East journalists is Jonathan Spyer, an intrepid, clearheaded Israeli who has not only ventured behind rebel lines in Syria, but has returned to write surprisingly non-breathless dispatches about it.  I was therefore a bit surprised--but only a bit--by his puzzlement over the empirical fact that liberal democratic movements in the Arab world are consistently incapable of competing for political power with the two dominant forces in Arab politics:  militaries and Islamists:
“In the Middle East, it is the regimes or the Islamists; there is no third way.”...[B]ut I do not quite understand why. After all, the throngs of young people that we have witnessed in recent days in the streets of Egypt are not a mirage. No more were the young civil society activists who began the uprising in Syria, or the sophisticated liberals and reformers in Egypt. What are the factors which time and time again prevent the emergence of a muscular, representative, civilian and secular politics in the Arab world?
Spyer displays here a very common misunderstanding:  that "representative, civilian and secular politics" is naturally "muscular", unless suppressed by "factors" that "prevent" its "emergence".  In fact, it is not the absence of democracy that requires an explanation:  the very idea of democratic government--indeed, even the idea that governments ought to be accountable to their citizens, the principle on which elective, representative democracy is based--was simply unheard-of until a couple of centuries ago.  Until then--and even to this day, in many places--it was universally taken for granted that governments are, should be and always would be selected and maintained by force of might or apparent divine sanction, and their power to impose laws unlimited, except perhaps by greater might or holier divine sanction. 

Democracy is thus perhaps best thought of less as a political movement than as a kind of technology:  a collection of non-obvious principles, practices and processes that enable a society to impose accountability on its own government.  And like many technologies--say, the automobile--it needs both a broad supporting infrastructure and a widespread understanding of its use and maintenance in order to permeate a society.  One would never pause to wonder why automobiles weren't ubiquitous in those societies that haven't yet developed both the physical infrastructure to support them and the intellectual infrastructure to use and maintain them.  Likewise, one shouldn't be surprised at the lack of "muscular" democratic politics in countries--like those of the Arab world--that haven't yet created either the supporting institutions or the consensus understandings that make a working democracy possible. 

It is therefore heartening and necessary--though obviously far from sufficient--to see protestors overthrowing governments in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.  Although such proto-democratic actions are far from authentic democracy--no doubt many of the protestors in those countries actually have little understanding of it, and even less sympathy for it--they nevertheless represent a slightly broadening public embrace of a weak version of the important democratic principle of popular sovereignty.  And while full-fledged democracy may be unlikely to blossom any time soon in those countries--the path from the French Revolution to representative democracy took nearly a century, after all--every such step brings them closer to the day when democratic ideas are as natural and obvious to their populations as they are to the citizens of Western democracies.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Everything I know about life I learned from video games
  1. If you have a choice of playing life at the easy, moderate or difficult level, always play at the easiest level.
  2. Save often. That way, if you are killed or badly injured, you can always restart your life.
  3. If you see a switch anywhere, flick it; if you find a button, press it.
  4. If people are trying to kill you but you don't know where they are shooting from, just run out into the open and look around as they shoot at you. Then when you restart (see #2 above), you will know where they are.
  5. Pick up everything you can and keep it with  you.
  6. Read every book you can open.
  7. Just for fun, try shooting your friend in the head.  Probably nothing will happen, but in the worst case you can always restart (see #2 above).
  8. Always look around for ammunition, weapons, or health supplies that someone has dropped. Don't forget to look in the toilets.
  9. Don't forget to search every dead body you come across (see #8 above).
  10. If you happen to come across a strange machine that aliens left here eons ago, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what it does and how it works (see #3 above).
  11. If you kill someone, hide his body. That way, he will never be missed.
  12.  
update:
Based on recent problems at the nuclear weapons plant Y-12, it appears that some of our security professionals haven't played enough video games.
 One [security problem] was relying on "pan-tilt-zoom" cameras that sweep back and forth, because a sophisticated adversary could learn their pattern and time an entry to avoid detection.
Actually, it seems that these Security Professionals haven't played any video games. So although they're not really very interesting or funny, let me add a couple of points that may actually be useful to these people.
  1. If you have to get by a sweeping camera or laser beam, wait till it sweeps out of the way and then run.
  2. If  #12 above doesn't work, try shooting out the camera. 
Of course, in some games shooting out the camera sets off an alarm and the bad guys start attacking you.  In the Y-12 game, however,
Some sites repair broken sensors and cameras within 24 hours; Y-12 set a window of 5 to 10 days, but that was only a goal, not a rule, the report said.
 There was no word on whether or not Y-12 stores its ammunition and first-aid equipment in the toilets.

update:
Everything's okay now.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The odd thing about the controversy about Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi's anti-Semitic comments is that while everyone professes shock at--while debating the significance of--his standard-issue Muslim Brotherhood-style anti-Semitism, everyone has been completely ignoring his standard-issue Muslim Brotherhood-style anti-Americanism.  (He refers in the very same video to "the Zionist and American enemies" as the culprits behind the Palestinian Authority.)  And while one might conceivably conclude that his crude slurs about Jews being "descendants of apes and pigs" reflect mere personal prejudices of little geopolitical significance, his labeling of Americans as "enemies" is a bit harder to dismiss so cavalierly.

And that's presumably why it's being ignored.  To a large segment of the American (and global) foreign policy and journalistic establishment, Morsi's anti-Americanism isn't irrelevant--rather, it's a perfectly reasonable sentiment that needs to be downplayed to avoid inflaming the uneducated yahoos who don't appreciate its wisdom.     

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

One of the earliest viral Internet videos was this Slovenian music video from 2005--before YouTube became a household name.  It featured a stocky, bespectacled singer--shown early on reclining in a lounge chair--rapping in an unintelligible (to most international viewers) foreign language, and dorkily imitating African-American hiphop-artist mannerisms while attractive female dancers gyrated around him.  The video remained on the Google Video "top 100" for months--long enough, one might have thought, to satiate the entire world's appetite for this sort of thing.  But apparently one would be wrong...

Sunday, January 06, 2013

And now for the annual festival of foolishness known as "the ICBW annual predictions post"....

First, a recap of last year's (unusually poor) crop of predictions:
The Euro's never-ending soap opera will badly constrain European growth, and developing-world growth will also slow. As a result the US economy, though stronger than elsewhere, will grow only modestly in 2012. The stock market will decline as profits get squeezed, and interest rates and inflation will remain low. Real Estate will bottom out but remain flat, and oil prices will (finally!) drop modestly, as new supplies start to come online. The US dollar will continue the recovery it began in mid-2011, as other economies continue to show greater weakness.
Not bad--until we get to the specifics:  the market's actually up, real estate is up modestly, and oil prices and the dollar are basically flat.  Nothing's off by much, but lots of things are off by a little bit.
At least one European country will begin concrete initial moves towards exiting the EMU (AKA the Euro). Rather than causing the predicted crisis, this move will eventually come to be recognized as the only realistic solution to Europe's financial crisis, and the question of which countries will require a bailout or default will shift to that of which countries will require a Euro exit.
It was touch-and-go for a while, but the new ESM has apparently convinced just enough people that the EU isn't on the verge of collapse to, well, stave off collapse (for now, at least--see below)...
The "Arab spring" turmoil in the Middle East will turn out to be more of a large-scale collapse than an awakening. Following the departure of American troops, Iraq will dissolve into the civil-war-like conditions of 2006, with the Iranian-backed Shi'ite government battling Saudi-supported Sunni rebels, and the Kurds increasingly clamoring for independence. Syria's Bashar Assad will remain in power, but will be forced into a protracted low-level conflict with a Turkish-supported insurgency, as Western sanctions bring the country's economy to its knees. Egypt will face food riots as its economy also collapses and foreign aid fails to prop up the government's finances enough to keep up the necessary rate of subsidized food imports. The new Islamist governments of Libya and Tunisia will attempt to impose strict Shari'a laws, but will find themselves unable even to maintain basic order in the face of domestic political infighting, corruption and tribalism. The PA will find itself under increasing pressure from a resurgent Hamas, and the two will spend most of the year alternating between making nice and fighting bitterly. Iran's nuclear program and apparatus of internal repression will continue to operate unimpeded--new sanctions will be imposed, which will be about as effective as the ones against Saddam Hussein were--but it will be too preoccupied with propping up its proxies in Syria and Iraq to cause much trouble elsewhere.  
Amidst all this chaos, Israel will be a haven of stability, with ample time and resources to devote to its endless internal political squabbles.
As with my financial predictions above, I was off on many of these by just enough to look bad--overestimating the rate of collapse in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, and underestimating it in Syria--while getting the overall picture pretty accurate.
At least one of the following autocrats will fall from power this year, due to death or ill health: Hugo Chavez, Ali Khamenei, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Robert Mugabe, Raul Castro. 
All of them have somehow managed to hang on through 2012, although one may not last much longer...
Mitt Romney will very narrowly defeat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. The Republicans will also win the Senate--but just barely. They will maintain control of the House of Representatives, but with a net loss of seats. Turnout will be low compared to recent presidential elections.
 Well, given today's intensely polarized, nearly perfectly evenly-divided political landscape, trying to figure out which way turnout will tilt in any given election ten months in advance is becoming a hopeless project (also, the sun was in my eyes and my cat ate my homework)...
The issue of concussions will become the NFL's equivalent of MLB's steroid scandal.
Okay, maybe not this year...

And now for this year's no doubt equally off-base offering:
  • The US economy will continue to grow at a sluggish pace, constrained by declining government stimulus and interest rates inching up with the growing concern over public debt, but buoyed slightly by lower prices for fossil fuels.  Inflation will remain tame, and the stock markets will weaken slightly.  Real estate will continue its very gentle upward trend.  
  • The newly-restabilized Eurozone will destabilize again, when domestic political pressure forces one of the bailed-out governments (most likely Greece) to balk at the required austerity measures, and/or one of the bailing-out governments (i.e., Germany) to balk at its required contributions.
  • Any US government spending reduction of any kind, let alone entitlement reform, that occurs this year will be purely cosmetic.  The debt will continue to expand until the threat of rising interest rates forces politicians' hands.
  • Damascus will fall to Syrian rebels, and chaos will ensue as Alawi Assad regime loyalists retreat to defend their stronghold in the northwest, the Kurds carve out an enclave in the northeast, and Sunni Islamists set about slaughtering minorities elsewhere.  The unrest will spread to Lebanon, where Sunnis (including Islamists) emboldened by events in Syria will begin challenging Hezbollah's dominance in earnest.  Meanwhile, in Egypt, The Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate its iron grip on power, but will be too busy dealing with economic crisis and the resulting unrest to make trouble elsewhere.  The Palestinian Authority will bring some kind of case against Israel to the International Criminal Court, where it will sit for some number of years, but the West Bank will be largely quiescent, and no "third intifada" will break out, a few occasional minor disturbances notwithstanding.  And despite increasing hostility from the Obama administration, overall global anti-Israel agitation will decline, as a result of Iranian setbacks and the increased respect that typically accrues to a potential future energy supplier to Europe.
  • Binyamin Netanyahu's party will win the January election, and form a center-right coalition largely similar to the current one, but without Ehud Barak.  There will therefore be more settlement activity, but no military strike on Iran's nuclear program, which will remain in its current alarmingly-close-to-nuclear-weapons-but-somehow-not actually-building-them-yet state.  In fact, following the fall of Assad and the resulting decline of Hezbollah, Iran will begin to look--to all its adversaries, including both Israel and the Gulf states--like a much more manageable regional threat.  Official and unofficial expressions of anti-Iranian hostility in the Sunni world will thus become much bolder and more open. 
  • At least one of the autocrats from 2012's list (Hugo Chavez, Ali Khamenei, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Robert Mugabe, Raul Castro) will not make it through 2013.  
  • The next hit cable TV series will break new ground by revolving around a fascinating, complex male character who's not involved in violent crime. 
As always, ICBWoffers no warranty, explicit or implicit, on the use of these predictions, except as implied by the blog's title.  For full details, consult the official ICBW EULA, if you can find it...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On a new discovery about the speed of neutrinos

NOTE: Update added below.

A recent article reports a new discovery about the speed of neutrinos:
 Today, at the Neutrino 2012 conference in Kyoto, Japan, the OPERA collaboration announced that according to their latest measurements, neutrinos travel at almost exactly the speed of light. "Although this result isn't as exciting as some would have liked, it is what we all expected deep down," said CERN research director Sergio Bertolucci in a statement.
It turns out that you don't have to know any physics whatsoever in order to understand this discovery, or to understand why it was inevitable. In fact, the explanation is pretty obvious from the article, although neither the author nor any of the physicists involved seem to have noticed it.

The article explains that last September, OPERA announced the discovery that neutrinos actually travel slightly faster than the speed of light (denoted by c)! The OPERA people were well aware that this result would overturn a century of fundamental physics, so they made sure to check very carefully that their result was correct. After being unable to find anything wrong with it, they announce it to the world. And the world was not willing to believe it.

So what happened next? A number of other labs tried to reproduce OPERA's result, and none of them were able to. So OPERA was shut down and their physicists returned to their previous farming occupations.

Just kidding. After OPERA realized no one was buying their schtick, they realized they had to retreat. Exactly what happened next is not completely clear. It appears they first did what the technical support people always tell us to do, namely they checked that their cables were connected well. And they found one that wasn't. So they fixed the cable, and the speed of neutrinos decreased, but not below c. So they looked further and found a faulty clock. Replacing the clock caused the speed of neutrinos to fall just slightly below c, which is where they wanted it to be.

So what did they do next? They next replaced every other piece of their equipment, one piece at a time, to see how sensitive the results were to the vagaries of their equipment. Just kidding again. Next, they did absolutely nothing except to announce their new result. Which just happened to be the result they expected. And was exactly the result I would expect to be achieved by people who keep jiggling their equipment until their output is on the right side of c, and then stop jiggling. Now I suppose one can say that the fact that their original result was close to c is strong evidence that the correct value is also close to c. But surely the subsequent jiggling gives us no further confidence that this is the case, and there is no good reason to take their new error bars seriously.

There is disagreement within OPERA about how much jiggling there should have been before they announced the earlier, unbelievable result. But everyone seems to agree that if a result is believable and even desirable, then it should be believed, and that no (further) jiggling is necessary.

For more fun with OPERAtic neutrinos, consider the following passage:
Before OPERA, all the evidence for neutrino oscillations came from disappearances: detectors would end up with less of a certain type of neutrino than they started with, suggesting some had morphed into other flavours. Then in 2010, OPERA found the first tau neutrino in a beam of billions of muon neutrinos streaming to the Gran Sasso detectors from CERN. The discovery was a big deal at the time, but the team said they needed more tau neutrinos to make it statistically significant. Now, a second tau neutrino has shown up in the detectors, they report.
In unrelated news, I recently conducted an exclusive interview with Joe, a janitor who works for OPERA. Joe told me that he remembers very well the day when the second tau neutrino was discovered.  "I remember that day" he explained, "because that was the day I badly sprained my ankle tripping over a cable."  "I should have been more careful" he added. "That was the second time that happened to me."


update: September 4, 2012
Innumerable people have written to ask me what I think about the discovery of the Higgs boson (or at least a particle very similar to the Higgs boson) by CERN.  According to Joe Incandela (probably not the Joe quoted above who used to work at OPERA), in order to discover this particle CERN had to observe a number of collisions comparable to the number of grains of sand that can fit in an Olympic size swimming pool.  In all those collisions, the elusive particle only showed up a few dozen times.

But it appeared nearly exactly the number of times and in exactly the way that the theory predicted.

Not clear.  But if so, this is a triumph. And if not,  it's even better because it's a "gateway" to Something New. Why should we believe all this? Because Scientists did the Math, and determined that the observations could not be due to  anything except this "God particle" (or something similar). Sort of like when Creationists do the Math and conclude that a new species could not have arisen except by some sort of ... God particle. Of course, scientists correctly point out that the math done by the Creationists fails to take into account certain alternative natural mechanisms. So exactly what mechanisms did the CERN Scientists take into account in order to rule out explanations alternative to their desired one? At last count I calculated that the Large Hadron Collider consists of a gazillion separate parts, each of which can malfunction in interesting ways.  Did anybody do the math here?  As of last September, we know the answer is "NO". (See footnote.)

But not to worry. This is a result everybody wanted, so what's not to like?

(Footnote: Perhaps malfunctioning equipment can cause an error in a measurement, but not in the detection of a particle. I doubt this, since I think everything is measurement. I haven't read the technical literature. But the best we can say about these scientists is that they are treating us like idiots. The worst we can say is ...)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A new paper purporting to present a scientific analysis of ad hominem attacks in the "Climategate" emails has caught the attention of global warming skeptics. The paper's "analysis" has little value--the idea of scientifically analyzing ad hominem attacks is a bit dubious from the start, and this paper does nothing to vindicate the concept. Its primary attraction to the skeptics lies in its attitude towards the climate change question: it bends over backwards to be neutral, while tut-tutting the poor behavior of the climategate emailers--sort of Judith Curry-style. In this respect, it highlights the primary weakness of the climate change skeptics' case.

The problem with this detached, neutral, scientific conduct-focused approach is that the scientific questions can't be so cleanly separated from the conduct questions. It's nice to think that even when one side in a scientific debate--whether the establishment or the dissenters--is the scientific equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists, the other side can and should stick to careful technical arguments, and will eventually win the day. But people (and institutions) are human, "eventually" is a long time, and a lot of damage can be done when flawed ideas are advanced by unscrupulous means, and resisted only by the most fastidiously scrupulous ones. In this respect, the "alarmists" actually have the better of the argument.

"Fakegate" has provided an excellent illustration of this point. Most of the discussion on both sides has carefully avoided the question of the authenticity of the disputed "strategy memo"--one side emphasizing instead Glieck's dishonest methods in obtaining insider information from the Heartland Institute, and the other side, the contents of the acknowledged-authentic Heartland documents--for the understandable reason that the authenticity of the "strategy memo" cannot be proven one way or another, and probably never will be. Yet the final judgment on Glieck's actions depends crucially on that question: if the memo is indeed authentic, then Glieck's deception to expose an organization intent on undermining science education (among other sins outlined in the memo) is at least understandable. And conversely, if the memo is fake, then Glieck isn't simply an investigator with somewhat controversial methods--he's at the very least a reckless purveyor of slanders, and at worst an outright forger.

Likewise, if opponents of the "consensus view" on AGW really are the equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists, trying to replace legitimate scientific consensus in the service of a patently unscientific agenda, then scheming to keep them out of peer-reviewed journals and science classrooms is a perfectly reasonable, even noble endeavor, arguably necessary to defend the standards of scientific research and education from attack. It's only if the climate skeptics have a legitimate scientific case that the shenanigans of Jones, Mann et al. start to look disturbing.

And this is where the real failure of the broader scientific community becomes clear. Academic research has become so specialized and compartmentalized--for political reasons as much as for scientific ones--that entire scientific fields of highly dubious merit have sprung up, keeping large numbers of "scientists" busy doing research that is at best useless and at worst downright bogus, with nary a complaint from the collective scientific establishment. In this environment, it's simply expected that the scientific community will rush to the defense of any fairly small collection of scientists that comes under attack from without, regardless of the credibility of their conclusions and despite a complete lack of external scrutiny.

It should be obvious to any scientifically literate person that the claims of the AGW establishment are nowhere near iron-clad enough for all of their critics to be dismissed out of hand as cranks, lunatics and political hacks. Yet not only do I hear embarrassingly few scientists from outside the immediate field address this point, but nobody thinks it odd that these outside scientists should simply defer en masse to their specialist colleagues, no questions asked. If I didn't know better, I'd think the scientific research community as a whole cared more about solidarity in the protection of its status as collectively coddled, well-funded "experts" than about the quality of its scientific research.