Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No Immunity for This Disease

The Swine Flu is probably not something to panic over, but here's my problem. There is an asteroid out there with our name on it. There is a supervolcano ready to blow. And there is a potential pandemic that could destroy Civilization. So what are we doing about it? Do we even care?

If humanity were able to speak for itself, if we were able to produce a coordinated response to challenges, to take an enforceable decision and to actually protect ourselves, what would we be doing now?

Oh, I know this is crazy, but here's my take. One long term policy: We should not allow the people of the planet to integrate into a single unified global continuity. We can't afford, IMO, to be aligned into a single vulnerable monoculture. You can see what happened to our unified financial community. The "global meltdown" is, however, a risk we are going to be facing continuously from now on. In the past, economic problems in one place could be partially ameliorated by success in other places. Not so any more. In a sensible world, this would at least be a topic of serious conversation. The key phrase would be: "What are we going to do about it?" And the implication would be that a solution was naturally forthcoming.

One theory about the success of European society, my reading of Jared Diamond actually, is that there were multitudes of semi-independent societies. The geography of Europe protected them from each other for a while and allowed them to develop in isolation. These societies were able to evolve, make mistakes, make discoveries, lose or win. Oh, they copied each other, no doubt about it. Everybody had to have a cathedral and a clock tower, but they were also different from one another. They had variation and, as a consequence, there was natural selection going on. Some groups were subsumed by others, and then promptly separated again. People didn't move more than a few miles in their lifetimes, but their societies ebbed and flowed. And their little societies lived or died based on the hereditary benefits of their meme system. OK, they started from a very low place, but they developed systems that were robust, resilient and effective. Unlike China, Europe was memetically unfragile. Unlike America, Europe was epidemiologically unfragile. (But that was another story, one that we shouldn't like to repeat.)

Right now, the US has a version of the Swine Flu that is relatively mild. If it turns out to be something more than a statistical fluke, Mexico may well have a dangerous strain. So what should we do about it. I'm reading a lot of nonsense that it's "too late" to close the borders. I don't think so at all. If I were in charge ... I know this is even crazier ... I would be doing my best to be sure that everyone were exposed to the American strain of the virus as soon as possible ... before the Mexican strain gets here and before the American strain mutates into something more virulent and destructive. There's no vaccine in the works, but there is the next best thing -- a mild version of the disease.

This is the kind of counter-intuitive decision that we are incapable of thinking about now. That's why we need to apply conscious changes to our own society. We need to be capable of marshaling our thoughts. We need to recognize that we are a product of evolution, understand the mechanics of evolution on all its levels, and apply its deepest lessons. Once again, that is where I see my double pyramid system fitting in.

I'm not saying that my rather radical approach to the Swine Flu is the best one, or even a good one. I don't really know. Better minds than mine should be thinking about it. All I'm saying is that we are presently incapable of processing the idea. If, however, we could determine that it was the most beneficial course of action, would we be able to grab it close, to own it, and make it happen? I don't think so. I think, as we are now, we would rather accept our death with "dignity", meaning without too much thought.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Iraqi Civilian Mortality

The New England Journal of Medicine has published an analysis of mortality among Iraqi civilians during the 5 year period from the inception of the war until March, 2008. It's fascinating. It's not quite a refutation of the Lancet/Hopkins study that talked about 600,000 "excess" deaths, but it is certainly an example of a non-hysterical approach to the subject.

The detailed data table give a breakdown of deaths by cause as well as children vs. adults, male vs. female. The most telling number is the high percentage of "executions" (33) and "executions with torture" (10). Various other nastiness from AIF (anti-Iraqi forces) accounts for an additional third, leaving at most a third of the 60,000 total civilian deaths at the doorstep of coalition forces.

I have argued against the inflated estimates of the Hopkins study. These estimates are much more convincing, but just to be clear, they represent a low-end figure.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Intractable Financial Foolishness

Seymour Friedel asks why we are able to solve engineering problems once and for all. Every generation adds fixes to the nasty problems of the last generation. He cites problems with constantly crashing RAM, and automobiles that once needed continual "tune-ups". The fortitude of cars and computers today is astonishing to people who grew up with the older versions, but the same people stand stunned before the finance headlines of today. How can these things be happening again? Didn't everyone get the memo?

Friedel suggests that despite the availability of a written record, we are congenitally unable to learn from the past because nobody reads. Engineers, however, take the decision out of our hands by integrating the fixes into the product. "Strict revision control" is how he puts it, and that is certainly a term familiar to software developers. The implication is that finance needs to be engineered somehow, modularized, packaged with safeguards that incorporate protection even from the damned fools that everyone knows will follow.

I am a uncomfortable with some of Friedel's economic assumptions, but I agree with the thrust of his argument. In fact, engineering fixes have been attempted in the past, as he points out, but keep getting repealed. And the reason for that is ... are you ready ... *Human Nature*. The "mistakes" in finance are not really mistakes. They are predictable outcomes induced by social pressures, unquenchable cleverness and great gobs of greed.

How can this cyclic return to stupidity be stopped once and for all? The main requirement, as I see it, is to give humanity a genuine memory. We need a self-sustaining networking protocol that preserves and refreshes (more reliably than with DRAM we hope) the latent wisdom of all the mopes among us who, despite being ordinary humans, have certain modules of profound understanding created by the idiosyncratic circumstances of their lives. We need an institution of choreographed meme-meshing, designed to concentrate and preserve the collective social wisdom according to a deliberate and self-conscious algorithm of sharing. I believe my method, described previously, will do the job. There are assuredly bugs in the model, and certainly incompletenesses, but we need to start somewhere, and we need to start doing something more sensible than the present arrangement.

I see the growing pressure of population and untracked externalities as problems. Our safe paths are narrowing and some future collapse, the demographic equivalent of our current financial crisis, becomes relentlessly more likely. (See Jared Diamond, et al.) The engineering fix is no longer easily available from our wonderfully clever technical insights. That blossom has been picked, or, at least, will eventually stop producing new petals. We need to focus now on social engineering -- social engineering that pays heed to all our dearest values and deepest fears, while allowing us to address reality in ways that cure the obsessive repetition characteristic of our current insanity.

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China's Sticky Fingers

Wretchard discusses a WSJ article about Chinese cyberwar. Computer spies, it seems, have drained the digital assets of some of our most important weapon systems. The usual denials and uncertainties apply, but it walks like a duck.

The influential members of the Chinese government see their national interests in very stark military terms. Taiwan is still on their plate among other territorial “reclamations”, and any realistic analysis must assume that they have explicitly developed plans to meet their goals. And they see no reason why they can't build a military force capable of getting what they want.

The Chinese have certain asymmetric advantages. The central government has strong support of the people along with almost unlimited central power to chose and enforce policy. No other country in the world could even dream of controlling their birth rate with such rational firmness. The US has neither rational nor strong government. We do have superb technological expertise and capital. We are rich in knowledge and we are still far more wealthy than China. But what that means is that we have a lot to offer them in terms of targets for trade, emulation and theft. They are asymmetrically well positioned to extract the fruit of those targets because of the openness of our society.

There are around two million Chinese speakers in the US. There are thousands who have ongoing contacts with Taiwan and the PRC. There are first and second generation Chinese distributed throughout the country, involved in the most interesting research at our best universities, and just as many holding responsible positions in every agency, department and office of the federal government. What percentage do American citizens represent in the Chinese civil or military services? And if we did have the humint capacity, what do you imagine we could do with it? We could find out their intentions I suppose, but we already have that knowledge as a byproduct of our expertise in game theory. All in all, though, they don't have anything we would want to steal, and they don't have anything that would improve our capabilities.

I don't know. To me the long-term strategic situation is worrisome. I'm no expert. Maybe Wretchard is, but I can guarantee you that there are not a lot of members of Congress who even think about this issue. I suspect, though, that someone is advising them on other military issues. The advisors have names like, oh, Boeing, General Dynamics, Halliburton. I would rather that Congress had advisors that came from a citizens' committee of strategic experts. Ask me how to make that happen.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Estuary Lament

Hedrick Smith, one of the best reporters on the planet, is on Frontline right now talking about the invisible pollution that is killing the Chesapeake. Why is this happening? It's not so much a technical problem as it is an economic/political problem.

No real government could allow the collapse of such an important and productive part of American life. Therefore, we do not yet have a real government. We are ungoverned. We are at the mercy of the great Process. Perhaps we have done as well as we have simply on the basis of good luck. The Constitution is referred to as the "Miracle in Philadelphia". Maybe we should generalize that assessment to cover everything that has happened to make this a great country.

I heard HS being interviewed on NPR earlier this week. His efforts remind me of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. They will be successfully submerged under the tide of commercial "necessity".

One of the big culprits in this thing is chicken farming in Delaware. Purdue and the other members of the chicken cabal have managed to rig the system so that nobody is accountable for the mountains of manure. IMO, if there were a carbon tax, this industry would have to restructure itself and maybe the manure would become a product rather than a waste.

Update: Here's a Washington Post review of "Poisoned Water".

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Military Democracy

StrategyPage describes the tensions related to body armor. Soldiers want protection of course, but for reasons of comfort, expediency and local presentation, would sometimes prefer to do without the inconvenient body armor. More convenient models have been designed and promised, but are not currently being supplied. Officers have a tendency to feel that soldiers cannot be trusted with the decision, so the officers make blanket orders. But here's the annoying thing to me. Higher officers don't even want the local officers to make the call. The reason? It would be too embarrassing to them if someone got killed while not wearing body armor. Reporters would wonder whether armor was being provided in sufficient quantities and whether the officers even cared about the welfare of the troops. Well, such publicly aired speculation would not be particularly welcome when the officer was up for promotion.

Many of the troops are willing to take the risk, because they believe, for example, that taking down a sniper when you have the chance, is worth it. If you don't catch the guy, he will be back in action the next day, kill[ing] American troops. All this is another example of the fact that "victory" is defined differently, depending on what your rank is.

My father and his fellow draftees of WWII hated the lifers who filled the peacetime ranks. Those people were rigid, unambitious, ineffective, turf-protecting, self-interested, unsympathetic, actually unpatriotic – simply obstructing what the draftees wanted to do: win the war and go home. I imagine he was exaggerating, but I recognize that there had to be some truth to it. The differential selection processes of the two groups guaranteed different priorities. Unfortunately, that is also true of the filters that always separate good officers from those who move up the ladder. The priorities being fed down are not compatible with those that are rising up from the ranks.

For that reason, I have always been an advocate of more democracy in bureaucracies. It's hard to see how that can happen, but another of my father's stories appealed to me in this regard. Officer trainees were required as part of their training to nominate officers from within their own group. The trainees were then evaluated for their choices. If a large number of trainees chose the same person, that person would be, in most cases, promoted. If a trainee nominated someone that no one else nominated, there could be two outcomes. Were the instructors to agree with the assessment, both the nominee and the nominator could be promoted. If they disagreed, then the nominee would be suspected of having poor judgment and treated appropriately. Good judgment was considered a very important attribute. I'm not sure that is always the case today.

So, in light of my double pyramid model, I propose that soldiers (and worker bees in other organizations) should select some representatives from among their numbers, who would meet and select higher levels of representatives, who could then make personnel decisions regarding the lower level officers. They might not involve themselves in operational decisions, but they would act to clarify goals both up and down and to reduce the likelihood of bad officers moving up. Higher level officers would then do the same thing to influence the selection of their own superiors.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Elijah Missed Another Good Meal


I was told last night, under a full moon identical to that which shone twenty-eight years ago and fifty-six centuries ago (and on the first day), that the term Israelite means “God-wrestler” and that the face of the angel that Jacob clutched was shockingly his own. The first I think is profound, the second an easy piece of theater, a scoop of tasty symbolism, posing as something important, like the clever answers of the “wise child” who played a brief role in the evening readings.

The door is opened for symbolic invitation. The cup, or cups for some, is placed meaningfully. The careful sequence of mnemonic rituals is thoughtfully played out. The questions and the readings are executed with diligent patience. ... This melange of wisdom and carnival – the product of memetic millennia – provides a degree of satisfied completeness for many of those who do wrestle with the harsh philosophical exigencies of sentient chemistry.

Most, I think, no longer wrestle. They have their pat answers, or they avoid the questions. The suffering, however, continues unabated, sometimes because of those responses, but mostly because that is what Life has to offer.

For myself, I accept neither the pat answers nor the life-affirming stoicism expressed in the words of the evening. The idea that suffering is God's medicine is repugnant to me, for though I recognize its allure, I seek a real cure.

We are not doing well on this planet, not because we are incapable of doing better, but because we will not agree on how to proceed. We are still at the mercy of the current – the thoughtless and heartless process of mechanical social consequences – because we have not yet clasped each others hands to pull ourselves toward firmer land. We have not yet addressed those social processes with a mechanic's paternal detachment. Fix the problem! Don't try to convince yourself it's an illusion.


The Jeremiahs want us to believe that the ravages of history have been punishments for sinfulness and unbelief. Would a good God do such things, we wonder? If not, he allowed them to happen, and that is most of the reason that people cannot restrain themselves from wrestling with God. But this is not right. Blaming God, if God there be, is counterproductive. I think we need to recognize that most of our suffering is purely self-induced, if not self-inflicted. The things we suffer are neither intentional nor merited, but they come, for the most part, as consequences of our incompleteness and our ignorance. Disasters afflict us because we do not directly address the underlying problems and we do not take the necessary steps to fix the machine.

Why do the armies of Babylon descend upon us, burning the storehouses and breaking the grindstones. They do this because we have not become Babylon and Babylon has not become us. There are no hands linked across that river. In fact, the Israelites could not reliably recognize even themselves as one people, could not participate in their own consensual decision-making without the harsh whip of a ruler to drive them to an imposed unity. Only in exile could they maintain that unity -- by the process of natural selection as much as anything else.


To be clear, I am not advocating a One World solution on the order of the UN. Wishful thinking is no part of my prescription. I am saying that expecting sovereign nations to solve problems of significant magnitude is just as silly. The model doesn't work. Our failure is a little less depressing than some others, but it is clearly not up to the imminent crises.

We are today little different from the Israelites. We have a Constitution, but we have no trust in each other. The country that represents the best of our hopes is only fifty percent legitimate. People have quarreled with my definition of legitimacy here, considering it to be rather something conferred by outside observers, like a good reputation, but I must persist in stretching it a little to cover a broader frame. The legitimacy of government, I say, is not a legalistic toggle, a decisive status anointed from without. It is rather a continuum of social virtue, measured by the degree of satisfaction, even joy, that members feel in contributing to the whole. Yes, they trusted in David as they would in their kin. And in Solomon. But the power and wealth which always corrupt eventually drove the upper folks away from the lowers. When democracy departs, Fear eventually becomes the ruler. And when the ruled must prove themselves worthy ... yes I am loyal, and I honor the king above all ... then the legitimacy of a government, as I am now defining it, is weak. It is a ruler who should prove loyalty to the people, not the other way around.

Even within a democracy, however, that ideal is only nominally adhered to. Candidates only have to be trustworthy compared to their opponents. It's like the old joke where a man puts on his sneakers to run from lions. “Why,” his friend says, “you can never outrun a lion.” “No,” he replies, “but I only need to run faster than you.”

In a nation such as the US, the political distance between the leaders and the citizens is so great that there is no way to pass truth back and forth. The US was a lot smaller and a lot simpler in the beginning, but I'm not sure the fundamental problem of accurate leadership was ever any easier. The President often tries to “break out of the bubble” to interact with “real” people. It can't be done though. It's like the Truman Show. The lives of leaders in America are completely controlled by the commercial opportunity they represent. If we want to cut through that clutter, we obviously have to install some intermediate steps. Somebody has to collect the honest messages of the people and present them for the rest of us. How can someone be in a place where they understand both the message and the President? The answer is that we have to create those positions, a sort of collective ombudsery. (Maybe I'm advocating an ombudsocracy). Well then, how will that person or persons avoid the same kind of pressure and scrutiny that apply to everyone at such rarefied political levels?

Here's the trick. Let them retain their anonymity. Think of such people as representatives from the Ministry of Magic to the Prime Minister himself. Some sort of shibboleth allowing contact to be made will be necessary. I don't know how Blackberries work, but I'll bet something could be worked out involving public/private code exchanges.

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