Friday, November 28, 2003

Courage in Saudi Arabia and the next Iraqi Invasion

Op-Ed Contributor: Telling the Truth, Facing the Whip
Courage like this is breathtaking. A Saudi journalist says that Saudi Arabia must turn away from Wahhabism -- the state religion.

The weak evidence I get to read points ever more to Wahhabism as the true heart and soul of al Qaeda. If this is what the Bush administration also believes, then it supports one hypothesis about the invasion of Iraq. Namely that the Bush administration believes that sooner or later the US will be at war with Wahhabism. Since the Saudis are unlikely to change their state religion (could the US abandon its religious right?), this means war with Saudi Arabia. The only way the US and world economy could survive such a war is for Iraq to export a lot of oil.

It will be one of the great ironies of history if Iraq of 2006, with US support, joins Kuwait in seizing the Saudi oil fields that Saddam sought in the first Gulf War.

Of course we COULD take measures to increase our energy efficiency and increase our room to maneuver. Not under this president, alas.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Is Saddam smarter than Bush/Rumsfeld?

Tom Friedman: Letter From Tikrit
Friedman makes a good case that Saddam planned the war better than Bush/Rumsfeld. I remember confident predictions by Bush administration figures and journalists that Saddam wasn't the kind of guy to survive in basements as a hunted fugitive. Wrong.

Bush, based on his college results, is probably about average Yale intelligence, meaning he's quite smart. Rumsfeld is reputed to be very clever, but he is apparently delusional. Saddam, based on the evidence, may be much smarter than both of them, and far less delusional. The US has to stop imagining it's dealing with an incompetent penny ante dictator, and start thinking of Saddam as a particularly cunning variant of Josef Stalin.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Clintonian healthcare reform: two insider perspectives

Notes: Robert Rubin's View of Health Care Reform: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal
The Clinton health care debacle was one of the great policy failures of the past 40 years. It was such a disaster that it set health care policy in the US back at least 10 years, and probably 15 years. DeLong was an insider, Rubin had a different angle. Their stories are interesting.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Bush War on Terror: Time to try something different?

The Scorecard
More than two years after the World Trade Center towers came down and the President declared his 'war on terrorism,' it seems reasonable to offer a little scorecard on the 'war(s)' of choice for this administration.

Well worth reading, this editorial/blog doesn't say anything new, but it's a good summary with some very good links. On the plus side al Qaeda and its ilk seem to be focusing on limited attacks, but the minuses are very big. Fundamentally the Bush administration has failed in their approach.

One novel observation I hadn't thought of. Bush can't quit Iraq while Sadaam is free, it's too politically risky.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

London chemical plot foiled ... how smart is al Qaeda these days? / World
The would-be terrorists made mistakes: the quantities they sought were so enormous - and the reasons they gave for buying them so unbelievable - that suspicions were immediately aroused. In addition some experts doubt that their plot could have worked.

Prior to 9/11 al Qaeda seems to have had some very bright and evil people. Some died in that attack, others died in Afghanistan or by assassination or have been captured. Zawahiri may be the smartest of the group left at large, but he seems to spend most of his energy hiding.

This story suggests that the bench may be thin, something I've wondered ever since the spectacularly incompetent "shoe bomber" effort. Al Qaeda has no problem attracting canon fodder, but it may be failing to recruit and retrain the most dangerous operatives: educated, intelligent, creative, cruel and viscious fundamentalists. One in a thousand adults may combine creativity and intelligence, but these may be inversely correlated with fundamentalism and cruelty. A relatively small talent pool limits Al Qaeda's capabilities.

This also suggests a reasonable strategy. The US employed Russian physicists after the collapse of the USSR, in part to keep them out of dangerous pursuits. Interventions which divert talented individuals from al Qaeda towards more wholesome pursuits will not make al Qaeda and its children vanish, but it will make them far less dangerous.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Shades of Vietnam: deserting to Canada

Some soldiers would rather desert than return to Iraq : Vancouver Indymedia
CBS did a piece on this recently, so it's getting some mainstream media coverage. A friend who lives in the American south, where most of our soldiers come from, tells me that the local news outlets are reporting on desretions. Hard to tell how big this is. The stress on guardsmen in particular is terrible.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Arar Case: Ashcroft sends a Canadian for torture in Syria

At the Bottom of the Slippery Slope: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal
Arar somehow got on a potentially-linked-to-terrorism watch list, was stopped on his way through the US and questioned for two weeks, and was then deported into Syrian custody despite being a Canadian citizen and resident. He was born in Syria and holds Syrian citizenship as well, and this was the 'pretext' for deporting him to Syria rather than Canada for questioning. As far as I know nobody in the US administration has denied that the intent of deporting him to Syria was that he be questioned by the Syrians - they sure weren't just deciding he shouldn't be in the US and deporting him (he's a Canadian resident, and was traveling on a connection through the US rather than entering it).

During a previous national psychotic episode, we interned a large number of Americans who had ancestors born in Japan.

Did we torture any of them?

If the torture angle is a modern innovation, one could make a case that we've outdone ourselves.

Of course Ashcroft should be removed. It's easy to understand why so much of Europe considers the US to be a sort of proto-Nazi state. There are days when I worry as well.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

NYT: Middle Class Losing Health Insurance

For Middle Class, Health Insurance Becomes a Luxury
... Mr. Thornton is one of more than 43 million people in the United States who lack health insurance, and their numbers are rapidly increasing because of ever soaring cost and job losses. Many states, including Texas, are also cutting back on subsidies for health care, further increasing the number of people with no coverage.

The majority of the uninsured are neither poor by official standards nor unemployed. They are accountants like Mr. Thornton, employees of small businesses, civil servants, single working mothers and those working part time or on contract.

It's like watching a slow motion train wreck; as inevitable as gravity. This may turn out to be the stealth issue of the 2004 elections; by then the effects will be noticeable.

Humans have a degree of empathy, but it's fairly limited. Our empathic tendencies evolved so that they are triggered by proximal input -- things we see and feel. We have more empathy for a wounded squirrel than for millions of Americans lacking access to reasonable health care (forget the rest of humanity, such as the Iraqi bystanders who are routinely omitted from fatality counts). It's not logical or admirable, it's just the way we are. So most Americans have ignored the healthcare crisis. They can't do that any more. Even if they don't feel it themselves, their friends, neighbors, and family will experience it. So now the real discussion begins.

We even know how it will turn out. We've known for at least 10 years, probably 20 years or more. A lot of money will drain out of healthcare. Pharmaceutical share prices, physician subspecialist salaries, etc. will fall dramatically. That's a side-effect though, it won't make the problem go away. We'll see some from of mandated risk pooling (single payor systems are just an extreme version of mandated risk sharing or pooling) and we'll see explicit rationing. The form those will take is less predictable (single payor, managed care, whatever); but only the surface forms can vary. The underlying principles -- risk sharing and rationing, are unavoidable.

Rationing doesn't require legislation. Risk sharing requires BIG time legislation. It's the risk sharing part that will be the issue in the 2004 elections.

I personally like some of the more modern variations on "medical savings accounts" aka "defined contributions" aka "patient-focused benefits" etc. etc. They're all aligning some aspects of cost, decision making and resource consumption, undoing the huge flaw in traditional insurance systems. These are details though, the real issues are rationing and risk sharing.

Friday, November 14, 2003 - Scientists create a virus that reproduces - Scientists create a virus that reproduces
... genomics pioneer Craig Venter announced that his research group created an artificial virus based on a real one in just two weeks' time. When researchers created a synthetic genome (genetic map) of the virus and implanted it into a cell, the virus became "biologically active," meaning it went to work reproducing itself. Venter cautioned that the creation of artificial human or animal life is a long way off because the synthetic bacteriophage — the virus that was created — is a much simpler life form.

Two weeks to a created life form. Another day, another epic milestone in biotechnology. Once this would have been front page news.

I doubt this will be properly discussed. Sometimes I see our future as an oncoming train, and all of humanity is a deer on the tracks, frozen by the headlight.

SARS: What happened, anyway?

SARS: Epidemiology, Clinical Presentation, Management, and Infection Control Measures. Priya Sampathkumar, Zelalem Temesgen, Thomas F. Smith, and Rodney L. Thompson. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, July 2003
A reasonable overview, and rather nicely available on the public web. It didn't answer my questions though. The entire SARS story puzzles the heck out of me. Why did so many nurses die, even in locations that should have had strong infection control? Why did the disease seem so contagious in some places, and not at all contagious in others? Did the virus attenuate? Was the epidemiologic behavior due to an unidentified cofactor infection that was common in some places and not in others? (eg. a second virus was needed to develop full fledged SARS).

I can't believe that the infection control measures were so effective. The disease was loose in China for months. Why did it not spread in India at all?

The neurobheavioral effects of beta blockers and other medications | Memory and emotion
Previous work had established that emotion-associated enhancement of memory is caused, at least in part, by the action of stress hormones, in particular norepinephrine, on a part of the brain called the amygdala. He wondered if a similar mechanism was at work in the emotion-associated memory loss the team discovered.

The action of norepinephrine on the amygdala can be blocked by a drug called propranolol. When the researchers repeated their experiments on volunteers who had been dosed with this drug, they found, as expected, that those volunteers did not remember emotional words any better than neutral ones. In addition, however, they found that memory for neutral words which preceded emotional ones improved.

This comment, a small aside in an article on memory and emotion, woke me up. Beta blockers (propranolol, atenolol, etc) are very widely used medications. I'd never heard that they blocked norepinephrine action on the amygdala. I'd expect that to have an intriguing range of longterm neuropsychiatric actions. I'd love to see the full list.

On the other hand propranolol is an older beta blocker. The more common modern versions do not cross the blood-brain barrier as readily and might not have the same effects.

This is a good reminder, however, that the body uses the same substances and receptors to do very different things. The interpretations of the same substance/receptor combination depend on location (gut, brain, heart, etc). Actions on the brain may be the most subtle least appreciated of these. ACE inhibitors, for example, seem to have antidepressant or pro-euphoric activity, as well as inducing coughing in many people. I've long wondered what the longterm neurobehavioral effects of oral contraceptives have been...

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

War: It's not inevitable (NYT)

Is War Our Biological Destiny?
Admittedly, war making will be a hard habit to shake. "There have been very few times in the history of civilization when there hasn't been a war going on somewhere," said Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and classicist at California State University in Fresno. He cites a brief period between A.D. 100 and A.D. 200 as perhaps the only time of world peace, the result of the Roman Empire's having everyone, fleetingly, in its thrall.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of militarism in perhaps 95 percent of the cultures they have examined or unearthed. Time and again groups initially lauded as gentle and peace-loving — the Mayas, the !Kung of the Kalahari, Margaret Mead's Samoans, — eventually were outed as being no less bestial than the rest of us. A few isolated cultures have managed to avoid war for long stretches. The ancient Minoans, for example, who populated Crete and the surrounding Aegean Islands, went 1,500 years battle-free; it didn't hurt that they had a strong navy to deter would-be conquerors.

This article by Natalie Angier is one of the most uplifting I've read in some time. Viewed across the span of our brief history, it seems one can make a convincing case that we're getting more civilized with time. (Considering that some believe our ancestors were a band of rapacious psychotics who ate their cousins, we're arguably MUCH nicer than we were 150,000 years ago.) The race between our civilizing tendencies and the power of our weaponry might be a good focus for large bets -- by anyone not residing on earth!

Monday, November 10, 2003

U.S. Aides Acknowledge String of Missteps With Turkey (NYT)

U.S. Aides Acknowledge String of Missteps With TurkeyIronically this was a good blunder. Rumsfeld has made so many mistakes in post-war Iraq that some of them have to have a bright side. Turkey got the benefits of volunteering to help, but didn't have to deliver -- thereby not offending the Turkish people. So it was really a win for Turkey.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Laptops for Less: batteries, accessories, etc. Interesting vendor!

Laptop batteries, AC adapters, CD Roms, modems, keyboards, chargers for Compaq, Toshiba, IBM, Dell, Sony, NEC, HP and other laptops, PDA's, digital camerasIncludes iPod batteries and chargers.

Don't Buy Belkin Products: Adware in your Hardware

The Register
The marketing geniuses at Belkin, the consumer networking vendor, have dreamed up a new form of spam - ads served to your desktop, by way of its wireless router...

In response criticism, a Belkin product manager came forward this week to confirm the behaviour was designed into the products as a way to make it easier for consumers to sign up to a free trial of its parental control software.

Wow. This is so 21st. The invasion of the droids continues. Advertising has been used for a long time to offset the costs of web sites, now it will offset the costs of hardware. I remember advertising sponsored PCs in the 90s, but an adware sponsored router is novel.

Fair enough if the consumer is warned. In this case there was no such warning.

We are still at the beginning ... My slide rule looks better all the time ...

The secret of great 10th grade school test scores

Math Problems in an Education 'Miracle' (
According to Robert Kimball, a former Sharpstown High assistant principal who provided KHOU with much of its information, that is common practice in Houston. 'The secret of doing well in the 10th-grade tests is not to let the problem kids get to the 10th grade,' he said.

This guy is an American hero.

The secret of good test scores in elementary school is to get the special needs children out of the school.

The secret of good employment numbers (other than enabling a healthy economy) is getting people to stop looking.

No Child Left Behind: The Potemkin Plan for Education

School Violence Data Under a Cloud in Houston
In the last four school years, the Houston district's own police, who patrol its 80 middle and high schools, have entered 3,091 assaults into a database that is shared with the Houston city police but not with the Texas Education Agency in Austin.

In the same period, the Houston district itself has listed just 761 schoolhouse assaults on its annual disciplinary summaries sent to Austin. That means that the school authorities either have not reported or have reclassified 2,330 incidents described as assaults by the district's police.

This is only one in quite a series of similar NYT articles. Principals and other school administrators are no different from physicians, pilots, police and marines. If you punish them for bad outcomes, but don't provide incentive or means or tools to really improve outcomes, then the inevitable outcome is bad data showing good outcomes.

The Houston program is particularly pernicious. It removes principals from schools with bad outcomes. This is a wonderful way to select for dishonesty. You eliminate the honest and conscientious, so only the dishonest remain. Perfect.

The national "No Child Left Behind" program is based on this Houston program.

As goes Houston, so goes America. Thank you again Mr. Bush.

Staying the course in Iraq - NOT

Exit strategy now on table |, Daniel Schorr
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, warned the Bush administration against creating the impression that 'our ultimate goal in Iraq is leaving as soon as possible, not meeting our strategic objective of building a free and democratic country in the heart of the Arab world.

It's now widely believed, based on troop deployment schedules and other real world measures, that the Bush administration plans to exit Iraq by early next year.

The more Bush says that "American will stay the course" the more many observers are convinced he intends to exit. He's got a reputation now for saying one thing loudly while doing another under the table.

Ironically, given the incompetence of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon's post-war plans (see prior postings!) an early exit may actually be the least bad of our very bad options.

Monday, November 03, 2003

The Spam Protection Act of 2004

Congressional Spam Filter: NYT Editorial Nov 3, 2003
Members of Congress would like to score points back home by passing an antispam law. But it would be a cruel trick if the bill pre-empted the roughly 30 state laws with weak federal rules.

One indication Congress may end up being too lenient is that some industry lobbyists, who usually fight any antispam law, are now saying they want Congress to act. And some consumer lobbyists are now hoping Congress does nothing. The Internet, which knows no borders, is best regulated at the national level. But it must be done in a way that puts the public's interest ahead of the spammers'.

Our legislature never fails to demonstrate loyalty to its paymasters and post-legislative support system. I suppose this is a form of integrity, which we should extend by making every congressperson a publicly owned corporation.

Geeks will not be bothered, they know that the only solutions to spam are technical (such as filtering based on the managed reputation of the sending service). This may be naive, however. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) should have proved the danger of bad law to even the most naive geek. If Congress keeps to recent form, some perverse combination of the DMCA and this new law will somehow make it illegal to interfere with the transmission, delivery and receipt of spam.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

NYT Magazine: Disastrous misplanning for Iraq

Blueprint for a MessAn extensive dissection of the failures of the Pentagon and Bush Administration. A number of powerful people appear to have been delusional, probably including Bush himself.

If Powell was the man many thought he was, he ought to have resigned over this. Heck, Bush should be impeached for incompetence. (Alas, probably not an impeachable offense? I'm sure we could find others.)

Given where we are now, what should our goals be? We cannot leave our forces pinned down in Iraq indefinitely -- we don't have that big an army. At this point, we probably can't "win" anyway.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Dingell's Hilarious reply to the RNCs attempt to censor the Reagan story

Dingell's Letter (pdf)Dingell is a veteran house democrat. He urges CBS to present a "fair and balanced" view of the Reagan years, and lists some examples. Like White House astrologers. A wonderful riposte, with a nice dig at FOX news.

Controlling the Media: The Republican National Committee flexes muscle - RNC asks to review 'The Reagans' - Oct. 31, 2003
The Republican National Committee Friday asked CBS to allow a team of historians and friends of former President Ronald Reagan and his wife to review a miniseries about the couple before it airs.

Republicans have expressed concern that the miniseries, titled 'The Reagans,' may inaccurately portray the couple.

...Gillespie said that if CBS denies the request, he will ask the network to run a note across the bottom of the screen every 10 minutes during the program's presentation informing viewers that the miniseries is not accurate.

Fascinating. CBS must wonder how it got into such a pickle. FOX would never be in this position -- on the wrong side of the RNC.

CBS can cave, and get some flack from the NYT. Or they can resist and earn the emnity of the Wall Street Journal, the RNC, the Bush administration and the Church of Reagan. No contest. They have to cave.

On the other hand, these biographic miniseries on commercial TV do not have a reputation for accuracy. They're often at the honesty level of a Bush press briefing. So, without having seen it, I suspect the RNC may have a point. Unfortunately their credibility is even lower than that of commercial TV, and their reputation for vengeance is most unseemly.