Thursday, May 31, 2007

Stop 'Em At The Thirty-Eighth Parallel; Smash Those Yellow Reds To Hell

Bush Compares Iraq to Korea (AP)
President Bush envisions a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq similar to the one in South Korea where American forces have helped keep an uneasy peace for more than 50 years, the White House said Wednesday.

The comparison was offered as the Pentagon announced the completion of the troop buildup ordered by Bush in January. The last of about 21,500 combat troops to arrive were an Army brigade in Baghdad and a Marine unit heading into the Anbar province in western Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there are now 20 combat brigades in Iraq, up from 15 when the buildup began. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops. Overall, the Pentagon said there are 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That number may still climb as more support troops move in.

The administration warns that the buildup will result in more U.S. casualties as more American soldiers come into contact with enemy forces. May already is the third bloodiest month since the war began in March 2003. As of late Tuesday, there were 116 U.S. deaths in Iraq so far in May - trailing only the 137 in November 2004 and the 135 in April 2004. Overall, more than 3,460 U.S. service members have died.
First: does this mean we've officially stopped comparing Iraq to the Second World War? Have we abandoned the notion that Fallujah is the site of our generation's civilizational clash? Yes? All right, good.

Second: anyone who thinks a comparison between Iraq and the Korean War will stand is a fool. The Korean War ended with a cease-fire and the partitioning of the country, enforced by mechanized battalions on the border. But if the violence in Iraq ever ends, it will not end with a cease-fire. Neither the Shia nor the Sunni nor the Kurds are fighting with conventional weaponry - it's not as if the U.S. can keep an eye on their tank brigades and make sure they stay parked. Nor is the violence likely to end with a partitioning of the country into three religious monocultures. For one, the Kurds are sitting on most of the good oil. For another, the Sunni are in a vastly dwarfed minority in Iraq; setting them a place aside just makes them an easier target.

In fact, there's only one point of congruence in Bush's silly analogy: the inevitable ill will that half a century of U.S. troops overseas will build in the country being occupied. We envision a country with Shia, Sunni and Kurds at each other's throats in an unending melee, pausing only occasionally to slake their anger on the blond-haired, blue-eyed National Guardsmen cruising Sadr City in Hummvees.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cognitive Biases and Intelligent Design

As spurious as we usually find Wikipedia, its "anything goes" style of categorization produces some interesting lists. For example: here's a list of known cognitive biases.

Some of our favorites include:

  • Endowment effect: "The fact that people often demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it."

  • Anthropic bias: the tendency for one's evidence to be biased by observation selection effects (in biochemistry, sometimes called "carbon chauvinism")

  • Observer-expectancy effect: when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it

  • Von Restorff effect: the tendency for an item that "stands out like a sore thumb" to be more likely to be remembered than other items.
But our new and instant favorite is inarguably the Texas sharpshooter fallacy:
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a logical fallacy where information that has no relationship is interpreted or manipulated until it appears to have meaning. The name comes from a story about a Texan who fires several shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.


One cannot use the same information to construct and test the same hypothesis — to do so would be to commit the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.


Attempts to find cryptograms in the works of William Shakespeare, which tended to report results only for those passages of Shakespeare for which the proposed decoding algorithm produced an intelligible result. This is a fallacy, because somebody else selecting different passages would find a different pattern (or more likely, no pattern). A similar fallacy happened with cryptograms in the Bible.
Richard Feynman once made a facetious observation during a lecture. "This morning, I saw the most remarkable thing," he said. "Right in front of me on the drive in was a car with the license plate 'FG7-82S'. Can you imagine? What are the odds of that happening?" The implicated enthymeme - that we wouldn't consider such a license plate special unless it spelled something like 'H3Y - Y0U', and that such "specialness" is entirely a function of the observer's expectations - struck us as delightfully bracing. Apply this anecdote at will to creationists everywhere.

Ludicrously Real

Adnrew Sullivan: "Verschärfte Vernehmung"
The phrase "Verschärfte Vernehmung" is German for "enhanced interrogation". Other translations include "intensified interrogation" or "sharpened interrogation". It's a phrase that appears to have been concocted in 1937, to describe a form of torture that would leave no marks, and hence save the embarrassment pre-war Nazi officials were experiencing as their wounded torture victims ended up in court. The methods, as you can see above, are indistinguishable from those described as "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the president. As you can see from the Gestapo memo, moreover, the Nazis were adamant that their "enhanced interrogation techniques" would be carefully restricted and controlled, monitored by an elite professional staff, of the kind recommended by Charles Krauthammer, and strictly reserved for certain categories of prisoner. At least, that was the original plan.

Also: the use of hypothermia, authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld, was initially forbidden. 'Waterboarding" was forbidden too, unlike that authorized by Bush. As time went on, historians have found that all the bureaucratic restrictions were eventually broken or abridged. Once you start torturing, it has a life of its own.


Freezing prisoners to near-death, repeated beatings, long forced-standing, waterboarding, cold showers in air-conditioned rooms, stress positions [Arrest mit Verschaerfung], withholding of medicine and leaving wounded or sick prisoners alone in cells for days on end - all these have occurred at US detention camps under the command of president George W. Bush. Over a hundred documented deaths have occurred in these interrogation sessions. The Pentagon itself has conceded homocide by torture in multiple cases.


Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I'm not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.
How can a rational human being defend the United States as "the good guys" in this war? Or in any future war, so long as these techniques remain tacitly approved?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Giuliani Emerges From His 9/11 Cryostasis Chamber

People ask us sometimes why we don't vote.

Asked by a moderator if he was suggesting the United States invited the [September 11th] attacks, [Ron] Paul said: "I'm suggesting we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it. And they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said: I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier."

An irate Giuliani interrupted and asked for a chance to respond.

"That's an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq," said Giuliani, who leads national polls in the Republican race.

"I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th," Giuliani said to wild applause, asking Paul to withdraw the comment [emphasis mine]

(A) What could your having lived through the World Trade Center razing have to do with your ability to judge its geopolitical causes? How would the sheer historical accident of you having been in New York City on a certain day grant you special, magical insight into the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East? Why does your surviving the attack give you a supernatural glimpse into the past at its cause?

The answers, of course, are "nothing," "it doesn't," and "it still doesn't," respectively. But the 9/11 reflex has been rubbed so raw in Mayor-for-life Giuliani that it's his response to everything. Even when it's irrelevant, as it is here.

In case it wasn't obvious: Giuliani is no more qualified to speak to the causes of September 11th than any other pundit, wonk or noodnik. Having been in Manhattan on the day of the attacks does not bestow upon him special awareness of the mind of the mystic Arab.

(B) So Giuliani has never before heard the notion that U.S. involvement in the Middle East - the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia, our enforcement of a no-fly-zone over Baghdad, the Battle of Mogadishu and all that jazz - enraged Osama bin Laden into stirring up an attack? He's never heard that theory? He's never read any of the fatwahs that bin Laden has issued? Never cruised a rightwing webjournal and read the author railing against "failure-obsessed leftists" who want to blame America for all global terrorism? Never? Not once ever?

Because we're pretty sure we started hearing that on September 12th, 2001. And have heard it with moderately increasing volume ever since.

Now it makes perfect sense to us that Giuliani wouldn't believe this theory in a million years. It flies in the face of the Right's five-year narrative ("they hate us for our freedom"), a story that's grown more and more tattered in the time being. So we see no problem - save a certain bizarre fantasism - with Giuliani insisting it Just Ain't So.

But to claim never to have heard the idea? "So you say people download music off the Internet now? And play it on portable machines, no larger than a Walkman? Well, God bless 'em, but I'd have to see that to believe it myself."

(C) This is (part of) why we don't vote. Not just to avoid legitimizing an illegitimate system, not just because there's no candidate even within a hair's breadth of our key issues, but because it's a waste of our time. For every one person who studies the issues, checks the candidates' actual voting records and comes to an informed conclusion, there's two hundred meatheads who break into "wild applause" whenever someone mentions 9/11, Saddam Hussein, the flag or our troops.

We can't outreason two hundred fools' gut reactions, so why bother?

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Where are the Anti-War Candidates?

Thoreau gives us pause:
I don’t have the energy to blog [the Republican candidates' debate] play by play, and I guess it doesn’t matter because no pro-war candidate will win next November if US troops are still dying in Iraq.
To which we respond:
We disagree. Taking as read that one of the current candidates (Dem or GOP) must win, and that Ron Paul or Gravel will not be the nominees, then, almost tautologically, a pro-war candidate will win the election.

Who are the anti-war candidates in either party? Ron Paul was the lone Republican against the war last night. So there's no anti-war candidate on the GOP side.

On the Democrat side, Barack Obama wants troops in Congo, Darfur and wants to do to Charles Taylor the bang-up job the U.S. did to Saddam Hussein. Senator Clinton is wants "no option off the table" when it comes to dealing with Iran, a country with no aircraft carriers and no nuclear arms capability. Joe Biden wants more troops in Afghanistan and a no-fly zone over Darfur. Bill Richardson has the same tired speech every Democrat candidate has: our wasteful imperialist adventurism in Iraq has distracted us from the real imperialist adventurism in Iran and North Korea, etc. And John Edwards isn't going to win, so we didn't bother looking him up.

Seriously - where are the anti-war candidates? Where are the candidates who oppose nation-building, "all options on the table" and pre-emptive strikes? Where are the isolationists? Where are the candidates who would declare, as President Clinton declared over a decade ago re: Haiti, that the United States is "not the world's policeman"?

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Who Is IOZ?: The Con

Who Is IOZ?: The Con
As you've all noticed, the popular Donkle complaint centers on the "incompetence" of the Bush administration, although I do admit that there seems lately to be a modest, though surely temporary, uptick in the portion of Americans who consider foreign adventurism itself a bad idea.

The danger of a character like Obama--or Hillary Clinton, for that matter--is that they will more "competently" execute these adventures. Now the consequences will be no less awful; in fact, they may be worse for Americans.
People keep telling us that Obama is the candidate who's going to shake us out of our anti-voting apathy. Right. Sure. Because the one thing we want in a C-in-C is a more effective Bush.