The Coalition Of The Murderous And Suicidal

It’s interesting that no one in the blogs has picked up on this tidbit from the New York Times on the Baghdad booby-trap. Take a look at these quotes and see if you can pick out the interesting fact.

In the Baghdad blast on Tuesday night, the American military said its experts believed that some 1,750 pounds of explosives were used.

The force of the blast lifted one police car into the air and slammed it into a nearby home, said Marwan Yousif, a laborer, who lives in the neighborhood. “I saw many bodies scattered on the ground,” Mr. Yousif said. Neighbors had grown suspicious of the occupants of the house, who had many late-night visitors, he added.

The attackers used two subterfuges to set the trap for the police, Iraqi officials said. A Sudanese who lived in the house began firing a semi-automatic weapon at people in the neighborhood, leading neighbors to call police to the scene, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said. “He was on the roof shooting at people randomly,” the spokesman said.

The Interior Ministry spokesman said that just as police approached the home, “the terrorists exploded the house, which was loaded with a giant amount of explosives.” The initial police investigation has found evidence that car bombs were being manufactured in the house, the Iraqi major said. He said the police regretted not detaining the two bearded men, who officials now believe were part of the trap. The police recovered remains of the Sudanese who lived at the house, he added.

Anything leap to your attention?

We are fighting a regional enemy.

WaPo on Nukes

Check out the first part of the Washington Post’s series on the challenges terrorists face in acquiring nuclear weapons.

About This Series

The three articles beginning today are the culmination of a year-long effort to examine the challenges the United States faces more than three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Previous articles have ranged from the threat posed by conventional truck bombs to the difficulty of tracking terrorist fundraising. The articles starting today take a detailed look at terrorists’ ability to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological and chemical.

While the dangers certainly are real, there is considerable disagreement among security experts about the probabilities for “catastrophic terrorism.” In the case of nuclear and biological weapons, the subjects of articles today and tomorrow, there are technical and scientific hurdles that have proved daunting, even for nations with sizable budgets and state-of-the-art facilities. Chemical weapons, which will be explored in an article Friday, would be somewhat easier to devise or obtain, but also far less likely to yield huge numbers of casualties. A radiological device would have similar limitations for terrorists.

Spread The Word Wide And Fast

We risk trolls, they risk more.

Via Jeff Jarvis, Iranian blogger Parhtistan (who is in the UK) translates the efforts of the Iranian mullahs to silence the blogs there.

He translates from the Farsi blog of Abtahi, who “as the ex VP in Parliamental Affairs, and a member of the Constitutional Supervision Committee, has published some details of interrogation and torture that has happened in prisons, and I’m sure by doing so he is seeking public and international attention to this subject.”

Here’s what he says:

They told very important points about the unjustifiable treatment they had received, including:

1- Physical torture, punches and kicks: “he banged my head to the bench that made my recently-operated nose bleed, and later I found out that they broke my nose”; “they punched us”; “we were alone in single cells for months”; and things of this kind…

2- The classical questions about sexual relationships [to create moral scandals]: “Write down the names of your boy/girl friends”; “tell us about your illegal [= out of marriage] sexual relationships”; “what kind of relationship have that girl/guy had with you?”; “how many times have you been raped, or have you raped?”; and worst of all, they gave the names of 6 reformist activist to one of the girls asking her to confess in writing that she had had illegal sexual relationship with them. And when the girl refused, they brought in a former prisoner (who had turned to their side under torture) who told the girl face to face that he had had sexual relationship with her!

3- The interrogations were managed by a formerly arrested blogger. A few other bloggers who had [given up and] repented before were under less pressure, and were in a way helping the interrogators who had lack of technical knowledge on the subject [of internet and blogs]. This proves that weak people cannot be trusted in politics. However, we understand the situation they’re in and can’t really blame them for what they’ve done.

4- Objection to the bloggers right to hire lawyers, ignoring their legal rights.

5- The interrogators lacked technical knowledge [on the subject].

6- The interrogators tried to force bloggers to confess in writing based on the templates given to them in prison, which were along the same line as the Spider’s Web conspiracy article published in Kayhan newspaper. The bloggers were told that they would be freed once their confessions were printed in daily newspapers. Some of the bloggers had accepted the terms, but those whom we met today had not given up.

7- The bloggers were individually asked to write lies about the sexual and sometimes political corruptness of a number of different politicians. All of them were asked to write about Mostafa Tajzadeh and myself [Abtahi] amongst others.

And other points that are impossible to mention here.

After listening to them for 3 hours, depressed, anxious and tearful committee members made some decisions which will be announced shortly, although they are not sure if they will be able to implement those decisions.

High-level international attention is the best thing that can be done here; spread the word wide and fast.

Tragedy and Pop Music

Norm Geras has a great post up on the tsunami and our moral/philosophical reactions to it. I’m mostly pragmatic, and note the quote he has from Simon Day, an Earth Sciences professor at my alma mater:

For me, the deepest horror of the event lies in the one to three hours between the recording of the earthquake on the worldwide seismic network and the arrival of the tsunami waves on distant coasts, while their victims lived out the last hours of their lives all unawares.

With less than an hour of warning and a simple lesson in advance on what to do, most would have been able to simply walk a mile inland to safety and the death toll would have been counted in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands. Providing these things is not advanced science.

The best monument to the dead from this disaster would be to ensure that this effort is now made. Man is not helpless in the face of nature, if he applies his intelligence and energy to the task.

No, we’re not helpless.

He also wants you to email him your Top 10 Rock songs. I’m late with this because it’s hard for me not to do a top 100, I’m musically promiscuous I guess. But after hours of staring at the CD cases, here’s what I came up with. Note that if I did it again, half the answers would be different.

4th of July – X
Baba O Reilly – The Who
Catch Me Now – Kinks
It’s Expected I’m Gone – Minutemen
Guns of Brixton – The Clash
I’m Happy Just to Dance With You – Beatles
Struck A Nerve – Bad Religion
California Girls – Beach Boys
My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) – Neal Young
Hotel California – Eagles

Social Security Reform Would Be Good – Just Not The Reform Proposed

I’m neither a demographer nor an actuary, and neither (odds are) are you. I have done a fair amount of time-based financial analysis, and discovered early in my career what I call The Miracle Of Compound Interest – the simple fact that projecting growth forward more than a decade is a fool’s game, because in reality what you’re testing are certain key starting assumptions and the relative growth rate of the components of the model.

I got to be pretty good at modeling, and once claimed that, given time and a large enough spreadsheet, I could make a model stand up and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” if I so chose.

So, personally, I’m wary of claims that Social Security will (or won’t) have a deficit of exactly $4,325,368,753.221.75 in 2055. You should be too.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t look at trends.

There are a few key ones.
Demographically, we’re going to have a problem – not as bad as Europe and Asia – as the retiree/ worker ratios change due to declining birthrates and increased longevity. In our case, immigration – and more important, participation of immigrants in the labor force – will mask a lot of that.

We have a couple of financial issues as well. The trend of wages is slightly down, in real dollars – but my benefits will be pegged to my higher wages, while the numerically fewer new workers who will pay for me will probably have lower wages as well.

There’s also a basic ‘values’ type issue around Social Security. It was sold as ‘social insurance’ – in essence, a welfare plan. Many of us somehow had the impression that we were getting our own money back – that it was a pension plan – but we aren’t, and as far as my cursory reading can find, no one in Social Security ever did. It has always been a welfare program. It looks like a pension plan, and we act like it’s a pension plan, but it’s not.

We middle-class folks have a horrible savings deficit in this country, as we live increasingly on credit (ask me how I know…) and our net worth is increasingly concentrated in our homes.

It’s likely that some adjustments will need to be made in Social Security to pay for my late retirement and for the retirement of the cohorts after me.

Bush has a plan to do two things: convert it into a pension plan, away from a welfare plan, and to try and raise the rate of return (one of the magic growth rates) by allowing some investment in the stock markets.

I’m agin’ it.

But probably not for the reasons you’d assume…

First, I think there is a real issue with Social Security as a welfare program and not a pension program. The benefits are not means-tested – which would make sense if it was my own money that I will get back, but since it’s not, is a tribute to the lobbying power of AARP. The fact that it’s welfare does expose each cohort to demographic risk, which they could be insulated from if it were a true pension plan.

As a welfare program, it’s also somewhat regressive in that only incomes up to approximately $80,000 are taxed.

So there is some logic on transitioning Social Security toward becoming a national pension plan and away from becoming a pure welfare program – as it is constituted today.

But Bush’s plan has some obvious problems.

I’ll skip the macro market effects of pumping a few billion or so a year into the markets, and the obvious windfall this would represent to Wall Street. (we’ll come back to that, though)

The real problem is that he won’t politically be able to get away from the welfare aspects of the program.

Concern about market volatility has prompted some analysts and policy makers to explore the possibility of “guarantees” of pension accumulations. In many cases, the desire for a “guarantee” is premised on the mistaken notion that the current Social Security system provides a guaranteed benefit. This is untrue. While the defined benefit formula does not subject individuals to financial market uncertainty, the formula itself can be changed and has been changed in the US numerous times in the past. This political risk to benefits is all the more real because the Social Security system faces perpetual financing deficits starting in the middle of the next decade, such that currently scheduled benefits cannot be paid.

A different form of guarantee might promise participants they will receive their contributions plus some minimum rate of return. For example, the design might promise participants that they will receive their contributions plus a return on government bonds (e.g., the returns on a 10-year Treasury bond index fund).

Final Report, pp 143-144

So I’ll bet – since politically it’s damn unlikely that we’ll vote to starve the seniors who lose their pension nest eggs – we’re going to wind up with something that looks a lot like what we have now, shifts the nominal accounting over to a pension plan and away from a welfare program, and then layers on some form of a welfare program. The worst of both worlds – continued budget impacts of the welfare model, financial market losses, and overhead from fund management.

But there is some logic in shifting toward a pension plan.

There’s even more logic in rationalizing the welfare aspects of the current plan first.

Should Social Security benefits be means-tested? Absolutely. That’s not your money you’re getting back, it your kid’s money. Actually, as this paper (a PDF by actual actuaries) suggests, taxing Social Security benefits of higher-income retirees more aggressively makes a lot of sense.

Should Social Security wages stop at $80,000? Why? Income taxes don’t stop there. Why cap them at all? Why not lift the cap, and lower the rate for everyone.

I’m guessing that with those two changes (obviously, the numbers depend on the exact percentages) the program could retain solvency and maintain it’s existence as a welfare program.

But that doesn’t do two things, which are valuable in the Bush proposal.

First, we need to up the rate of savings in the society.

My conservative friends will choke, but why not layer on a Federal pension plan to the existing social security plan (particularly since I’d bet that when Congress is done, that’s what we’ll wind with anyway?)

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s your money. But it’ll still be your money to invest and pull out when you retire – it’s not like they’re giving it to crack babies or buying arms with it or whatever your personal nightmare of government misspending may be. And sadly, looking at the statistics, none of us are doing our part in saving and capital formation.

Am I like Solomon or what?

Welfare and pensions; we can have them both – but why not make them explicit so that we can all understand them? Why come up with a blended program that makes it too complex for the average person to understand what’s being done?

Homer And Helprin

Thanks are due to Mark Kleiman, who asked ‘are there any works of art that are pro-war?’ Mark asked this question, and then answered in the negative, which is largely, but not completely true. He says:

The celebration of battle feats is, it seems to me, the “pro-war” feature that’s present in the Iliad and absent in, say, War and Peace. Tolstoy certainly glorifies Kutuzov and intends the reader to be pleased by Napoleon’s defeat. But Tolstoy doesn’t put you in the shoes of a Russian artilleryman and ask you to admire his coolness under fire or his brilliant improvisation after his horse gets shot.

So I think my reader’s point stands: the Homeric attitude toward warfare is impossible for the modern novelist to reproduce.

To counter, I’ll offer this from Mark Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case:

By the time I reached altitude, I could hardly see the Messeschmitts. They were nothing more than specks that appeared and disappeared. Had they gone back to their field, I would have missed them, but they continued their patrol, turning west. That would give me a broadside, out of the sun.

I took it. I hit one so hard he broke up in the air, and the other simply fled. At this point I was very low on fuel and ammunition and I back-rolled for home hoping that the remining Schmitt would not come back. He didn’t.

Just enough fuel was left to skim the beach before landing. We were not supposed to do that, but it was often too enticing not to. It was like shouting out that you were still alive, and your voice was not your voice but the voice of your swift and powerful plane, with an engine that shook the ground, with six cannons, and light wings that rocketed through the clouds. The planes returned as if from nowhere, propellers churning in golden light, avenging angels descending from unimaginable wars in the ether. After my first kill I understood that we were singing a terribly sad song. But I’m not ashamed of having sung that song, for, no matter what you may suspect, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.

His book Refiner’s Fire has similar, as I recall, but I don’t have it handy.

Thanks to Mark, I pulled it off the shelf and read it yesterday…what a great book. And no, I don’t drink coffee.

Mutual Assured Climbdown

I need to note Juan Cole’s climbdown on the Iraq-The-Model-Guys-are-CIA thing.

So, anyway, I offer this posting as a clarification and also, as a retraction of the comment about the Abilene ISP and any unfounded implication of USG support for the IraqTheModel site. And I apologize to the Ali brothers for the error, and want to stress that I bear them no ill will. I am sorry I was abroad and unable to respond in detail before now.

It’s probably matched in gracelessness by my own climbdown on calling him “pond scum”:

First, let me back down – slightly – I do firmly believe that attitudes which dehumanize the ‘other’ are a critical part of totalitarian thinking.

I believe that Dr. Cole dehumanized Jones-Hoffman, but in truth, didn’t offer conclusive – or even significant – evidence for it. I still believe it, but I ‘get’ the point that it’s neither proven nor, probably, provable and so not a fit subject for discussion.

Then again, I can’t blame the whole thing on my mesmerizing power over the Internet…

And, if I could take it back, I wouldn’t have linked at all. This is a matter in some ways of not knowing my own strength. Blogging is deceptively informal, sort of like a conversation rather than like formal writing. So it is natural to cross-link among friends and say, ‘Hey, check this out.’ But my weblog has come to be so widely read that this degree of informality is now a luxury I obviously cannot afford, and I will try to be more careful.

Actually, being thoughtful in what we write is a good thing no matter how many or few readers we may have.

Woke Up To Horrible News, Too.

Check out Command Post for the latest on the quake / tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

I’ll assume you’ve seen the news, but if you haven’t a major quake off Indonesia triggered a tidal wave which devastated parts of Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other beach-oriented countries in the region. Death estimates are about 6,00 as of this morning and will doubtless go higher.

It’s numbing news, and a reminder to me that we live here at the sufferance of Nature – also with John Holschen in my mind – I need to refresh the contests of the first-aid kits and get-home kits. We live near the coast in earthquake country, too.

You may want to think about whatever form preparedness is appropriate to your location as well.

We Just Came Home To Some Awful News.

I’ve taken shooting instruction from Insights Training, in Seattle, and one of the instructors there, John Holschen, came down and taught a ‘Field Trauma for Motorcyclists’ to a group of my friends here in Los Angeles. The uber-first-aid kit was based on his recommendations.

John was a former Special Forces operator, taught martial arts at Ft. Benning, and impressed me as one of the calmest, most gentle and thoughtful men I have ever met.

Via one of my mailing lists, I just discovered that while he was in Iraq contracting to the State Department his family was in a horrible highway accident which killed one of his daughters and left another in a coma.His family is going to need a lot of help; I don’t know first-hand their financial situation, but John won’t be working for a while, and to help him and his family out, several assistance funds have been set up at Washington Mutual

Account: Martha Holschen Aid Fund # 1800767923
Washington Mutual Bank
Bank by Mail
P. O. Box 1106
North Ridge, CA 91328

But there’s more. I’ve talked in the past about the lessons I’ve learned from the various martial artists I’ve been lucky enough to study under. One of the major lessons, to me, is the simple fact that the very best at martial skills seem to always also be incredibly good human beings.

John Holschen has all the military and martial skills I imagine it’s possible to have. And when he stayed at our home for three days, he was unassuming, gentle, a truly calm and happy man. There is a kind of peacefulness that I see in these masters, and while the truth is that I’m a mediocre student who doesn’t practise hard enough to ever approach their martial skills, I work hard every day on practicing their human ones.

Here is John’s reaction to the tragedy:

A dozen passers-by stopped to help, including a young soldier from Spokane, an off-duty Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputy, and those who comforted the crying Holschen children on the roadside.

“I understand that Mr. Swett is very uncomfortable with the idea that he might be considered a hero,” Holschen said, breaking down as he noted that Swett came close enough to the blaze to sustain burns. “If he had not done that, we would be mourning the loss of more family members.”

Juliann Odom, 22, of Bellevue, was driving the Ford Explorer that hit the Holschens’ car, also injuring Keegan Holschen, 9, and Jake Holschen, 12, as well as a Toyota pickup with two men inside, who sustained non-life-threatening injuries and were taken to local hospitals.

John Holschen said he was choosing not to make any conclusions about Odom’s actions.

“Maybe she swerved to avoid another accident,” he said. “My focus is on my family and on making them better.”

He thanked friends and community members who’d tried to ease the burden on his family as he’s been “on a bit of a racetrack, from the intensive-care unit, to the ward where my wife is, to my sons, who although their injuries were not at severe have been through a really rough time.”

I can’t believe that in his situation, I could be as open and positive. I’m using this public platform both to ask for your help for John and his family, to publicly express my admiration for him, and to share my sympathy for his unimaginable loss.

*post edited to remove something unnecessary that I wrote.