Friday, April 30, 2010

Movie Review: Full Metal Jacket

I just watched Full Metal Jacket online.  It was about what you would expect from a Kubrik movie about war; I mainly watched it because it is so culturally relevant.  I want to call attention to one thing that is symptomatic of this particular movie, and Hollywood in general.

Towards the end of the movie, I noticed something that bothered me.  All of the shots in the war zone showed fires everywhere.  Each shot would have several fires burning, and everyone would be walking around ignoring the fires.  The fires were just there, not growing or changing size, and not dying out, and you could never see what was actually burning.  This kind of thing happens so often in movies that we have become accustomed to it.  Fires everywhere is the standard way of showing a ruined or dystopian environment, or the aftermath of some kind of chaos.

But this standard is really quite ridiculous.  Fire simply does not act like that.  Fire never stays the same size unless it is carefully and actively managed by a person or machine.  It either dies out or expands to consume everything.  If you look at actual footage of anything, you will never see little fires scattered around like that.  And people never ignore fires.  If they see one, they either try to put it out, or get away from it, depending in its size and how much other flammable stuff is around.

This is one of many ways that Hollywood portrays completely inaccurate things just to set a mood or deliver a message.  And people accept it.  It even took me a while to realize, "Wow, this is really stupid".  Our vision of reality has been so shaped by fake things that we have a hard time telling real from fake.

And of course, if the movie gets something as basic as the nature of fire so wrong, I have no reason to trust anything it says about war or the military.  The fake fires are a symptom of the movie caring much more about a manufactured image than a realistic portrayal of anything.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

War Relics

This is another fascinating site, from the same Ukranian woman who tours the chernobyl area.  Before she did that, she explored the bunkers and old battlefields around Kiev.  The amount of stuff she finds is amazing, and enough to make anyone interested in history or archaeology very jealous.  For example, it is quite common for her to find old rusted-out machine guns.

Each page is full of interesting pictures and quotes, for example:

Eventually the Red army won and the cheerful days of communism began. They began with the robbery of rich citizens and expelled them from the country. As the scriptural seven skinny cows ate up a fat cow and didn't become any fatter, so is our ragged fellows robbed a rich fellows and didn't become any richer. Poverty was written all over and the Soviet epoch didn't leave us many valuable things that would be worth digging for them. Many graves were left.


This a standard German army buckle, made of aluminium. "God with us" is written on the face, intended to convince their wearer that God was on their side. Maybe instead it should have asked if they were on God's side.
The other item is German too, a medal for the 1941-42 winter campaign in the East. That winter was one of the coldest in 20th century. German soldiers gave the medal an ironic nickname: "Gefrierfleischorden" - the frozen meat medal.

Rearranging Europe

This is the funniest thing I have seen in a while.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I saw Avatar last week at the Cuong Nhu pre-test gi-washing party that our sensei hosted.  I was planning on writing a review, but LabRat at Atomic Nerds has done the job for me.

The only thing I have to add to her review is that I was impressed by the spaceship and visuals of the opening scenes, but after that it all started to look like a Final Fantasy game.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chernobyl Diaries

The fine folks at Atomic Nerds linked to this excellent site.  It is the travel diary, with lots of good pictures, of a Ukrainian woman who goes through motorcycle trips through the contaminated area around the Chernobyl reactors:

Dad is nuclear physicist, and he has educated me about many things. He is much more worried about the speed my bike travels than about the direction I point it.

My trips to Chernobyl are not like a walk in the park, but the risk can be managed. I always go for rides alone, sometimes with pillion passenger, but never in company with any other vehicle, because I do not want anyone to raise dust in front of me.

Go read it.  You will learn a lot.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Temporal Arbitrage

My first reaction to reading this article was, "This guy is an idiot.  I have no sympathy for him.  Anyone who buys a Jacuzzi should be cut off from all taxpayer-funded charity, forever."

He had lost his $75,000-a-year job as a mortgage consultant, his three-bedroom house with a Jacuzzi, his Lexus sedan. He could no longer pay even the rent on his cramped studio apartment — not on his $10-an-hour part-time job as a fry cook at a fast food restaurant.

Faced with eviction, he was staring last month at the imminent prospect of joining the teeming ranks of the homeless. His last hope was a new $1.5 billion federal program aimed at preventing that fate.

Days after Mr. Moore applied, a check for $775 was on its way to his landlord, enabling him to stay — at least for now.

But the fact that he is a fool does not change the fact that he is human, and he is in trouble.  He also has two kids, and $775 is a very small price to pay for preventing two children from growing up with a homeless dad.  Then there is the fact that he has paid far more than $775 in taxes over the course of his life.  He might as well get some return for that.

There is no evidence that this guy would have saved any more of his money if he was taxed less.  He probably would have wasted it on an even bigger house or an even more expensive car.  A government that took about $50,000 in taxes away from him when he was earning a lot of money and gives him less than a thousand dollars when he is broke has improved his life.  This is the 'temporal arbitrage' of the title.  By moving money from one time period of his life to another, the government has helped this man.

Of course, any bank or insurance company would have given him a much, much better return on his money.  Even if he put it in the stock market and it lost half its value, he would have been better off.  He would have $25,000 instead of $775.  If the government cut taxes, made a credible commitment to end this kind of welfare, and convinced people of the need to save more in the marketplace, then everyone would be better off.

But they cannot make that kind of commitment when people have grown to expect that the government will bail them out.  We, as a society, have basically promised to protect people and give them aid, even when their predicament is the result of their own foolishness.  This man acted exactly like the big investment banks.  He spent all of his money, did nothing to prepare for a catastrophe, and then gets a government handout when things go bad.  And now that the government has demonstrated a pattern of bailing out people, there is a much smaller incentive to take care of yourself.  You might as well spend your money and enjoy the good times.  

This is because, with handouts and without a strong sense of honor, the marginal value of saving approaches zero.   If this guy had saved money, and was forced to take care of himself, he would probably still have to move into a small apartment when he lost his job.  His life would be just as messed up, and the government would give him nothing.

Saving money and properly planning for the future is costly, and it is not just a money cost.  Information is expensive.  Computation is expensive.  Planning for various contingencies requires both.  It would be very difficult and costly for an average person to attain my level of financial skill, or to hire a trustworthy person who is as good at managing money as I am.

So, given low benefits, high costs, and a low probability of it ever becoming relevant, a rational actor will put almost zero thought and money into planning for the future, and trust that the government will do it for him.

The problem is that this dynamic constantly makes people more likely to need government, which means more taxes and a bigger government.  This leads to a weaker economy, causing a vicious spiral.

The fundamental cause of the financial crisis was individuals and institutions failing to do contingency planning.  They extrapolated recent trends into the infinite future.  This guy thought a few years of high mortgage commissions would last forever.  Banks basically thought the exact same thing.  People spent all of their money and more, and when the income dried up they had no reserve.  If people continue to act like this, then more crises are inevitable.  Any system without spare capacity is very fragile.

The only way to end these crises is to develop a culture of caution and thrift.  Economists do not think about culture much, but it can be seen as information.  It may take a lot of trial and error and thinking to figure out how much to save and how to do it, but once one person figures it out it is easy to follow that example.  Cultural norms often contain a lot of wisdom.  And while people are very bad at calculating things, they have an instinct to obey cultural norms.  If everyone is expected to save a lot of money, then this guy would have.

I have enough money in savings to support my lifestyle for at least six years, even if my earnings were zero for that entire time.  I would guess that my parents, who both have very safe and steady jobs, could say the same thing.  More people, and institutions, need to act like this.

But it probably will not happen.  The cultural norms of industry, frugality, and thrift only evolved because those who lacked these traits died off or failed to reproduce.  Such selection pressure will, hopefully, never be repeated.  We are destined for a future of codependency with a state that always grows more powerful and intrusive.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

5k Race

Last Friday, I ran in a 5k race.  Tiger Dojo was one of the sponsors of Take Back The Night, a series of events to raise awareness of domestic violence and raise money for local shelters and crisis centers.  We teach a self-defense workshop and run in the race.

My time was 22:09.  I was a little disappointed by this; I had hoped to beat 22 minutes. I did not put enough effort into the race; I still had plenty of energy when it was over.  I had run the course many times, but I was always running it with someone slower to help him train, so I never had any experience running the course at a race pace.  In fact, it has been years and years since I actually ran a 5k at maximum speed.  I have forgotten how to pace myself to go all out, and so I end up conserving too much energy.

They just posted the results online.  I came in 35 out of 463, although a lot of those were walkers.  I actually came in second in my age group, which surprised me.  It makes sense, though; almost all of the faster runners were guys in the younger age groups.  There were a few older runners that beat me, and one woman.  I have no idea what the prize would have been if I had hung around for the awards.

I was the fastest runner in our dojo, as usual.  The second fastest was, once again, Sensei Erik, who ran the race in cargo pants, as usual.  At least he was not running in hiking boots this time, and he ended up running a couple minutes faster as a result.  He also seemed fine at the end; he was not breathing hard at all but said his legs were a little sore.

Third and fourth place were two new students, the ones I had trained with earlier.  They had never run long distance before I started running with them.  They both came in shortly behind Erik; they had been trying to keep up with him and it exhausted them.

None of these three people has a runner's physique, but they are all very fit.  Erik has been practicing martial arts for years, one of the students was a swimmer in high school, and the other was a wrestler.  They all did much better than some of the taller people in our dojo, people you might think would be fast runners.  

People think that running is simple, but there is a lot of skill and technique to it, especially for distance running.  Breathing, stride, pacing, and mental focus are very important.  I tried to teach this, but I am not really a running trainer so I probably did not do it right.

Cardiovascular fitness is also key.  It is very hard to tell, just by looking at someone, how much stamina they have.

I am mainly a good runner because my dad made me run so much when I was little.  It was his hobby, and he took me along.  I remember that I sometimes hated it at the time, but now I am glad that he made me do it.  It is a good skill to have.

Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Honorary Positions

I do not know what to say about this, or even if it is accurate, but I think it is worth sharing:

He is such a respected figure in America that he has been made chairman of National Public Radio, the local equivalent of being given a seat in the House of Lords.

Academic Freedom and Grading

Public high school teachers constantly face interference from the school administration.   They get in serious trouble if they have high standards and hold students to those standards, because students and their parents complain about bad grades.  The administration rewards these whiners, with the result that standards fall and good students get less education.

College professors are usually immune form this.  Usually.  But the high school disease seems to be infecting some universities:

The biology professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge gives brief quizzes at the beginning of every class, to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading. On her tests, she doesn't use a curve, as she believes that students must achieve mastery of the subject matter, not just achieve more mastery than the worst students in the course. For multiple choice questions, she gives 10 possible answers, not the expected 4, as she doesn't want students to get very far with guessing.

Students in introductory biology don't need to worry about meeting her standards anymore. LSU removed her from teaching, mid-semester, and raised the grades of students in the class.

She said that it was true that most students failed the first of four exams in the course. But she also said that she told the students that -- despite her tough grading policies -- she believes in giving credit to those who improve over the course of the semester.

At the point that she was removed, she said, some students in the course might not have been able to do much better than a D, but every student could have earned a passing grade. Further, she said that her tough policy was already having an impact, and that the grades on her second test were much higher (she was removed from teaching right after she gave that exam), and that quiz scores were up sharply. Students got the message from her first test, and were working harder, she said.

The actions of the school administration were wrong and stupid.  But things like this will probably happen more and more in the future, as students who have grown up being coddled and rewarded for whining enter college and expect it to be like high school.  However, there are things that professors can do to keep their tough grades and avoid complaints.  The key is how you communicate grades, standards, and the syllabus.

This professor would probably be teaching the course if she had used my grading system.  Each assignment in my class is worth a certain number of points. The student's number grade for the semester is simply the sum of the points accumulated.  I never give grades in percentage terms.  I simply give the number of points earned.  In order to get an A in my course, you need to accumulate 85 points.

I give pop quizzes in my class.  On the first few quizzes, the maximum possible number of points that could be earned was 2 points per quiz.  About 90% of the students earned less than 1.4 points on these quizzes.  If I had reported this as a percentage, it would have been less than 70%, or 'failure'.  The students would probably have been upset.

This is because there is emotional baggage associated with percentage scores.  Students have a visceral reaction to them.  Students expect and desire 100% on their grades, and if you give less than that, they feel like something has been taken away.  But more importantly, they have been trained, from kindergarten, to think of anything less than 70% as 'failure'.  If you give them that grade, they see it as you calling them a failure, and they get defensive and angry.  In their experience, the only students who got less than 70% on anything were complete losers, and they consider it an insult if you imply that they are like those students.  

But my method of reporting scores avoids all that.  When a student gets a quiz back and sees a grade of '1.2' it does not have any emotional impact.  If anything, it is positive reinforcement, because it tells them that their final grade in the class is now 1.2 points higher.  A grade of '60%' would have been an insult, but a grade of '1.2' is not, even though they mean exactly the same thing.  I am allowed to grade strictly without insulting anyone.

I still get a little bit of grumbling at the beginning when the first quizzes are handed back.  But all I have to do to end it is to reassure them that they can still get their 85 points on other assignments.  They understand that their work is not perfect and they need to work harder, and they understand that improvement in the future can earn them an A.  They end up working harder and reading more, and performance improves.

This is a good general lesson.  If you want people to look at things logically, you have to avoid using words, phrases, imagery, or content that has emotional salience.  By using a grading system they have never seen before, I am allowed to communicate the information 'you do not know the subject very well' without them interpreting it as 'you are a failure'.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: A Canticle for Liebowitz

A couple weeks ago, I happened to see 'A Canticle for Liebowitz' on a list of a friend's favorite books.  I had never heard of this book, which is odd, because I am usually familiar with every book that shows up on a 'favorites' list of people who share my general interests.

So I looked it up on Wikipedia:

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it.

This description, combined with the fact that it won a Hugo award, the generally positive spin of the article, and the fact that my friend liked it, made me want to read it.  My thoughts were "Why have I never heard about this?  I thought I knew all of the science fiction classics."

I finished reading the book a few days ago.  My reaction is mixed.  Although there are clear moments of genius, the overall work seemed uneven.  The author spends a lot of time on things that do not make much sense, and there are a lot of loose ends and things left unexplained.

For example, there are Latin passages sprinkled throughout the book that are never translated.  I cannot read Latin, and I am not familiar with church liturgy, so I had no idea what these things meant or how they might be important.

I was also never clear on how much mysticism the author intended there to be.  Especially in the first book, there are strong hints that one of the characters is extremely long-lived and that prophesies are being fulfilled.  But it is never explained if this is real, or just mistakes and coincidence.

Maybe this was the intention of the author.  Maybe he intended to show the complexity and confusion of the world.  But if so, the execution of this attempt was indistinguishable from sloppy writing.

However, the parts that were good were very good.  Several of the characters, scenes, and situations were very memorable and thought-provoking.  It was almost as if the author had come up with ideas for insightful creative allegorical scenes and characters, and then threw the rest of the book together in an attempt to provide background for these star scenes.

The book reminds me of one of those movies where there are a couple of really good actors and a couple of really good scenes, but the rest of the movie is just a muddle that only serves to set up the good scenes and give the good actors the chance to show off.

So, by the standard of 'memorable thing to think about' the book was very good.  By the standard of 'well-written story' it was not.  If you like philosophy or history or social sciences, and don't mind the occasional chaotic ramble, then I recommend this book.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Recycling Idiocy

Yesterday, a gang of sanctimonious wannabe social engineers took the trash can out of my office.

We first heard about this last Thursday, when we hard the faculty talking about an email that they had received from some professor in the Marketing department. The grad students never got this email until one of our professors forwarded it to us:

Next week (April 12-16), they will conduct a _pilot_ project, consisting of three important elements:

1. Signs and posters will be placed in all classrooms encouraging recycling

2. Additional recycling and trash stations will be placed on all floors in Brackett and Sirrine (Plastic Bottles/Aluminum Cans/Paper/Trash Containers side-by-side)

3. Trash cans will be removed from all classrooms, and most offices (they will stay in kitchens and bathrooms). We recognize this will cause you some inconvenience but as noted above, a major part of this initiative is to get us all to rethink the way we dispose of waste. The trash cans will be returned to classrooms and offices at the end of the week.

Note the Orwellian language-twisting of listing 'signs and posters' as the first 'important element' when they know that signs and posters are meaningless and that the real goal here is to try to change people's behavior by making their lives less convenient. They want to force us to go out into the hall every time we throw something away. If we do this, it will reduce the marginal cost of throwing things in the 'proper' container.

This doublespeak continues on the signs that are posted, which say that there are recycling stations 'for your convenience' when the whole point of the exercise is to inconvenience people.
This announcement was met with much anger and derision, and half-serious plots on how to express our unhappiness and get back at the people who messed with our lives in this manner.

The people who come up with this kind of junk have zero respect for the time of others. They think that inconveniencing us is a 'free' way to get recycling done. This is nonsense. A typical professor in our college earns about $120,000 a year, which means that his or her time is worth about $60 an hour. This scheme will cost each professor, at minimum, ten minutes of wasted time, for a total cost of $10. Even if people cooperate and recycle, instead of just dumping everything in the normal trash out of spite, that is an incredibly high price to pay for a little bit of extra recycling.

As an aside, the benefits of recycling are vastly overhyped. See here for the full story, which I will not repeat here except to say that the environmental and energy costs of most post-consumer recycling are greater than the costs of using landfills.

The best way to help the environment is to simply consume less. I do not purchase cans or bottles, and rarely print things. I refill my water bottle with water from the fountain. In general, I generate an extraordinarily low amount of waste and have a very small ecological footprint; I would wager that my environmental credentials are far better than those of the people doing this meddling.

Anyway, one of the first things I did was to take all of the spare trash bags out of my trash can. The custodians always leave a pile of empty bags at the bottom of each can, so it is easier to replace the bags after removing the trash. I figured that, if they took the can, I would at least have trash bags on hand.

My office mate then hid the trash can under his desk, hoping that they would not see it to take it away. But on Monday, we came in and saw that they had removed it anyway. But I still had the trash bags.

My office mate, not to be dissuaded, went out into the corridor, grabbed the aluminum can recycling receptacle, and put it in our office where the trash can used to be. At the end of the week, we will empty it and toss it somewhere, possibly right in front of the office door of the marketing professor who initiated this nonsense.

Only two other people, all on our floor, displayed this kind of chutzpah. The rest of the recycling things are still in place, blocking the corridors. I do not know how many people have simply supplied their own trash cans, or taken other workaround measures. One professor was joking about reverting to medieval times and simply throwing everything out the window.

One of many annoying things is that this has nothing to do with Marketing. It is social engineering, the use of power to try to achieve a desired result by changing people's environment. Businesses do not have the ability to mess with people's lives like this. The students involved with this are learning nothing except bad habits and abuse of power.

This will accomplish nothing, except cementing Marketing's reputation as the most obnoxious and intellectually bankrupt department in the entire University.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Vibram Fivefingers: Six Months Later

Most items on the cutting edge of technology will have a few problems that you have to adjust to and work around.  It turns out that my favorite shoes, a pair of black Vibram Fivefinger KSO's, are no exception.  If you get a pair, which I still recommend, there are a few things you should be aware of.

Before I list the problems, let me say that I am very rough on shoes in general, simply because I move around a lot more and a lot faster than most people.  I have worn these shoes a lot, I have washed them a lot, and I have probably abused them more than most people would. 

Still, they do fall apart faster than most shoes.  I will probably have to buy another pair in the next few months.

Despite the antimicrobial features they advertise, the shoes still smell when I take them off, no matter how much I wash them.  I wash mine every time I do laundry, at least once a week, which is typically every three times I wear them.  Whenever I take them off, I usually leave them in my window to air out.

The biggest problem is the fact that you need to wash them so much, but cannot dry them easily.  I tried drying them on the lowest heat setting with plenty of other clothes, but it still caused the glue to melt a little.  So I have to air-dry them.  If you have a clothesline and good weather, this is not a problem.  But I have no clothesline, and my window does not get enough sunlight, especially in the winter.  So I dry them by leaving them on the dashboard of my car after I take them out of the washer.  This works, but it probably exposes them to more heat than they were meant to handle.

They really need to figure out how to use a kind of glue that will not melt when you run them through a clothes dryer.

There is another design problem.  On the outside of the shoe, there is a plastic loop for the velcro strap.  This is attached to a cloth strap with a couple small seams.  However, the seams rub against the shoe, and will fray and split over time.  A friend fixed this for me, and then I wrapped some black electrical tape around the seams to prevent further wear.  I would recommend that you watch these seams closely for signs of wear, or just go ahead and tape them when you get them.

Speaking of the velcro strap, it can collect all kind of loose fibers in the wash.  Close the strap completely, covering the whole thing, before you wash it.

Recently, the skin on the inside of my feet started to get chafed when I wore them.  This was new, and odd, so I looked inside the shoes with a flashlight.  I saw that six months of accumulated dirt and grit had turned the formerly soft cloth into something like sandpaper.  So I took an old toothbrush I use for cleaning, and spent some time cleaning and scrubbing the fabric.  They are better now.  To prevent this problem, make sure your feet are clean before you put them on, and check occasionally to make sure the inside fabric is not getting dirt in it.  If they are, clean them manually to prevent friction burns on your feet.

Yesterday, I spent about an hour with a tube of superglue fixing up all of the places where the sole had started to separate from the rest of the shoe.  This seemed to bond them well, but I will have to see how well it holds up.

Even with these fixes, they will not last too much longer.  A couple of seams have started to come split, and it is not possible to repair a seam on these things once it starts to go.

But I still plan on getting another pair.  My knees feel better when I wear them, they improve my balance and posture, and I can tell that my leg muscles are stronger.  However, I will do a bit more research before I actually buy.  There may be another kind of minimalist shoe that feels like going barefoot but can be worn with socks.  If there is, I will try that thing.  If not, I'll stick with the Vibrams.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Risks to Mankind

There is a possibility that things like nanotechnology or genetic engineering could destroy human civilization.  But that possibility is, in my opinion, much smaller than the possibility that civilization could be destroyed by nuclear weapons.

People have a tendency to worry about new things.  We have lived with nukes so long that we cease to worry about them, and think about the dangers of new things.  But frankly, we just got lucky during the cold war.  There were a lot of very close calls that would have resulted in a nuclear exchange.

Of course, the risk of our country being wiped out by a nuclear exchange is lower than it has been at any time in the last 50 years.  And Obama continues to reduce that risk:

For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

I would have preferred a stronger 'No First Strike' promise, so that Russia and China would be more confident that anything that looked like a launch was probably a something else.  But anything that shows that we are committed to limiting our use of the weapons should make everybody less worried, and less likely to make a civilization-ending mistake.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Human Decisions and War

Back in July 1997, when the situation in Iraq was really bad, a US Army helicopter killed two journalists and about a dozen civilians. Yesterday, gun camera footage of the incident, along with the radio communication between the pilots and other soldiers, was leaked.

If you have not heard about this yet, you probably will. News shows and websites will probably show an edited version with added political commentary. Here is the full, clean, version. The shooting is in the first few minutes:

This incident brings up a lot of important points of human decision making.

Start with the decisions of the soldiers. People have been throwing around words like 'murder' and 'war crime'. This is wrong. There was certainly no intention to kill civilians. You can tell that the pilots honestly believed that the people were armed. The first part of the video clearly shows someone pointing something that looks like a rocket-propelled grenade at the helicopter.

But the thing being pointed at the helicopter was a camera. The people were not armed. The pilots made a mistake. The human mind, no matter how well-trained, is prone to all sorts of errors. People see things that are not there. They derive incorrect inferences from situational cues. In this case, an American patrol had come under attack in the area, which primed the pilots to expect, and see, armed resistance.

All of these cognitive errors are made much more likely in stressful situations. These pilots probably knew other pilots who had been killed by RPG's. They may have seen the mangled bodies of their friends. They had doubtless been shot at many times themselves. So when someone pointed a big black thing at them, they immediately assumed they were under attack, with tragic consequences.

This kind of thing is inevitable. It will happen, no matter how well you train the soldiers. You can reduce the odds of these mistakes, as our Army has done, but they will never go away.

Now, consider the decision-making process of political leaders who make strategic choices.

Making the decision to fight a counterinsurgency means that you are creating hundreds of thousands of situations where multiple innocent people could be killed by a single error in judgment. Even if our troops were 99.99% correct in their decision making process (an unrealistically high goal that will never be attained), there would be several incidents like this one where things went badly.

Anyone who does not take this fact into account will make bad strategic decisions. People have a very bad habit of making choices based on ideals and goals and hopes, rather than a hard-headed consideration of the facts on the ground. They know that we have a very well-trained military full of people who want to protect out country and would never intend to commit any war crime. But they fail to understand that good intentions do not necessarily generate good results. Chaos will happen.

Fighting a war in the modern world means that you will, almost certainly, create situations where innocent civilians are killed by your troops and this fact gets broadcast to a world with a lot of people who are looking for any excuse to make you look bad. If your warfighting strategy cannot survive multiple such incidents, then it is doomed to fail.

Soldiers, who know what combat is like, understand the chaos of war and its consequences. Most civilian leaders, who live comfortable, stress-free lives where things usually go as planned, do not. Good strategic decisions can only come from better communication, and an understanding of probability.

Whenever making any deployment decision, the politicians need to be told something like this: "This plan will cause at least three incidents where our troops kill a large number of innocent civilians, and this fact is released to the world. There is no way of reducing that number. Are you prepared to deal with the consequences of that?"

But nobody wants to hear that. They want to pretend that bad things will not happen. And when bad things do happen, they blame someone at the bottom of the hierarchy. This is wrong. Statistically speaking, these civilians were killed the instant a politician signed an order to go to war. Any moral sanction should be assigned to the people who pushed for war.

Now consider the decisions and thought processes of people who react to this and similar incidents.

People respond emotionally to images, not statistics. This video could be what ends up defining the Iraq conflict in people's minds; the modern version of the picture of the Vietnamese girl running from a burning village. They will not trust the official report from the Army. They will look at the video and make up their own minds.

They will fail to consider the state of mind of the soldiers. When I look at this video in my office, it is clear to me that the group of civilians is unarmed. I am not stressed, my life is not at risk, and I have the benefit of hindsight. It is all too easy to conclude that I would never open fire in that situation, and then to conclude that the pilots were wrong. But when I think of the mistakes I have made in stressful situations, I have a lot more sympathy for the pilots.

People will also not understand that this is perhaps the worst of hundreds of thousands of incidents where our soldiers had to make life-or-death decisions. It is the exception, not the rule. This video says nothing about the day-to-day existence of the soldiers in a combat zone, of the hundreds of times they put their own lives at risk to save civilians. But people will only remember the video.

The only way for the Army to counteract this effect is by releasing lots of other real-life unedited videos, showing terrorists committing crimes like using civilians as human shields. I know they must have lots of footage like that, but I have not noticed any effort to release and publicize it.

The critics of the Army are also making the mistake of assuming that intention equals results. They see a bad thing happening and assume that it was intended to happen. They are holding our troops to an unreasonably high standard (perfection) and calling them criminals when this standard is not met.

Yes, this video is dramatic evidence of a major blunder. Yes, it shows us that we need to work harder to prevent such things in the future. But it does not mean that anyone in the Army committed a crime.

One final note. It may seem that these things could be reduced by more use of robot drones in combat. If the pilots were not personally at risk, then they might be less likely to launch attacks because they feel threatened. But the evidence suggests the opposite. From what I have seen, the CIA drone controllers are far more likely to kill innocent civilians than the Army pilots who are in the middle of a fire zone.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Moral Myopia

Some time ago, I signed up at in order to vote for all of the libertarian initiatives.  This means that I get a weekly email from them talking about various issues.  It is a quick and interesting look at how liberals think and what current issues they consider important, so I have never bothered to unsubscribe.

The most recent email had the following:

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has one of the worst reputations in the world when it comes to prisoner abuse, having forced many of his immigrant inmates to wear pink underwear and sleep outside in tent cities during Phoenix summers, where the temperature climbs to over 110 degrees.

Now, I know that Arpaio is an obnoxious self-promoter who lives for his image and fails to do the basic tasks of policing, with the result that serious crimes go unpunished.  But this sentence is ridiculous.  It shows a staggering ignorance of the prison conditions on this planet.  The implication that Arpaio's publicity stunts are the worst prisoner abuse in the world is absurd.  I wish that was the case.  I wish that the worst thing that human prisoners had to deal with was the wrong color of underwear and a lack of HVAC.

The cruel fact is that Arpaio's prisoners live in better conditions than many prisoners in the United States, as measured by the odds of rape and violence and prisoner abuse.  And when you move outside our country, the situation gets much, much worse.  In places like Russia, prisoners are routinely tortured, killed, and abused in ways that make Arpaio look like Andy Taylor.  Anyone who does not understand this, like the blogger who wrote the email message, has a serious lack of perspective.

Of course, the sentence, as written, may be true.  It may be the case that Arpaio does have the worst reputation in the world.  The hundreds and thousands of sheriffs, prison officials, law enforcement officers, and bureaucrats who preside over much worse hellholes do not have much of a reputation.  They go unnamed and unpunished.  In a just world, they would be known as the villains and nobody would even know Arapio's name.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Medical Technology

This article talks about some of the advanced medical techniques being used on modern battlefields.  Expect it to arrive in civilian trauma centers in a few years.

The following was quite a shock when I first read it:

In the operating tent, the surgeons cleaned the debris from his wounds. Dr. York put a nickel-and-titanium filter into one of his veins just below the heart to keep errant blood clots from flowing into his heart and lungs, which could kill him. "There—just like a screen in a screen door," he said, watching his work on a computer monitor. "He's safe for now."

I wonder how long it will take before doctors recommend putting those filters, or something similar, into everyone with a high risk of blood clots.  I'd guess maybe 20 years.