Sunday, July 31, 2005

Shuttle

Steve Chapman notes that if a comercial airline lost passengers at the same rate as the shuttle we would be losing 40 planes a day. He points out that such risk might be acceptable for a mission to Mars but not for the sort of routine missions the Shuttle is doing now.

The funny thing is that when it was going where no man had gone before the Shuttle compiled a safety record that commercial airlines of the time could envy. Now that they are going where anyone with a spare $20 million and a reason (though, given that we are now soliciting ideas for experiments from 3rd graders even those seem to be in short supply), they have a record that would ground a six seat Alaskan adventure tour operator. The Shuttle was originally going to make going into space as routine as commuting to work. If every 60th trip to the office everyone in your car got incinerated I think you would be asked to take your name off the office car pool list.

There is an obvious solution—the Russians. They have a vehicle that gets things into space far more cheaply than ours and doesn’t blow up. And we owe them one. Apparently, during the late 70 d├ętente period we grew a little careless about our security. The Russians got a-hold of the plans for the Shuttle and built an exact replica. The Russian scientist complained to their political masters that they didn’t think the thing was sound and that they were better off using their old fashioned rockets. Their political betters brushed them off, “The Americans are spending billions on this thing, do you think they are stupid?” To their credit, the Russians never flew theirs. Still, I think we owe the Russians some compensation for allowing such a dangerous piece of technology escape into the world where it could do serious harm.

Styen on my mind

From Mark Steyn, again:

"...Since the beginning of the year, for example, some 10 percent of southern Thailand's Buddhist population has abandoned their homes -- a far bigger disruption than the tsunami, yet all but unreported in the Western press."

The Thais that have been beheaded by Muslims--700 this year--go utterly unmentioned in our press while the fantasies of Muslim prisoners about the Koran going down the toilet are cause for weeks of moral handwringing. It really disturbs me how the Thais' persecution has gotten no attention. It is like they are in a free fire zone as far as the press is concerned. The Thais have a well deserved reputation as among the most tolerant and welcoming people in the world. That they are being preyed upon by these mosters and we don't even give them the dignity of a mention is shameful. But the reason the Thais are ignored is because their case doesn't support one of the theories of the war flattering to Western intellectuals. If the Muslims in Thailand would announce that they are doing this because of the Thai support of the US then the Western Press would be recounting their sufferings in loving detail. Unfortunately for the Thais the Muslim attack on them has been open about its goals: establishing Sharia over Muslims and Infidels alike. Since this has nothing to do with Bush and the US it is of no interest to the press.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Expected Utility

Evaluating decisions by expected utility changes the way we evaluate decisions. It brings home the point that we can’t evaluate decisions with hindsight. Getting hit by a meteor on the way to the store doesn’t make buying bread a bad idea anymore than winning the lottery doesn’t make spending your food money on power ball a good idea.

Critics of President Bush’s decision to go into Iraq are in effect saying “look at that meteor! How can you say buying bread is a good idea?”

Did they have evidence that Hussein was pretending to have WMD? Did any of them suggest that he might be purposely defying the inspectors in order to keep the possibility alive in the minds of other nations that he might still have the weapons that he had used before?

More importantly, if Hussein found it so valuable to have others believe that he had these weapons, might that not mean there was a cost to us of allowing him to succeed in creating that perception, independent of the weapons’ existence? If he thought that the behavior of other actors would be changed in ways that were beneficial enough to him to justify the years of sanctions and threat of war, is it not possible that the behavior of other actors in that case would have been a problem to us?

If, say, we adopted Kyoto, and, in the end, we find that future scientist, on the basis of be a superior understanding of the causal processes involved find that global warming would not have occurred anyway, would that make adopting Kyoto a bad decision? Surely the only way to evaluate decisions is based on the best information we have at the time.

Lance

So yesterday all I heard was Lance Armstrong saying, "For those of you who don't believe in this sport, you'd better start believing." I would be walking down the street and I would hear from a barroom TV set, "you'd better start believing." It started to feel ominous.

Do I believe in cycling? What does it mean to not believe in cycling? And what if I am not one of those that believes in cycling? What happens to me?

I suppose I would be better off if I did a little cycling, though in that case, it seems strange to specify cycling. Wouldn't I be just as well off doing a bit of jogging, or swimming or even some more walking? And why be so alarmist? Why not give me positive reasons to cycle?

Now if he meant believe in watching cycling, if anything, I think that is even a harder sell. Cycling is a sport that counts cummulative performance. It aggregates over the entire series of events. In other words, there are no events. It is as if the world series were decided by total points over the 7 games and how any particular nine innings turned out was of no particular consequence. Only the Europeans could come up with something so dismally rational. One would think after the French revolution, Communism and Fascism they would have got the whole mania for rationality guiding action out of thier systems, but no. If we can't come up with a theory that justifies murdering people then we can at least come up with one that bores them.

Of course, as a theory goes this one isn't bad. There is no doubt that LA was the best cyclist in the field, that much was tediously clear. After his early lead it was just watching a continent pray for a single bicyclist to ram into a tree. Which is, I gather, pretty much what the sport has been over the 6 or 7 years that Mr. Armstrong has dominated it. A fine test of overall cycling ability but not much fun to watch. Instead of an event each day was just another installment of the same catastrophe watch. One day was no different from any other.

Which brings us to proposals for majority popular voting in the US. Whatever other merits such proposals have, surely it is clear they would make elections a lot less interesting. For the purposes of voting, a trip through one place would be just like another. Each of the fifty states would mean no more or less than the different days of the Cycling event. Being in Ohio would mean no more than being in Mississippi. The only difference between places would be the size of thier television markets.

Political scientists have developed models that show this would put small states at a disadvantage. But more importantly would be the homogenizing effect on all of us. One state would be like the next. Hey, remember day 2? or was it day 3 or 4 or.....

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Give War a Chance

The big problem in conflicts today is the unwillingness to let anyone lose. If the Sunnis lost in Iraq, really lost, so that they could no longer tell themselves that they are doing everyone a favor by showing up to put their two cents in, they might behave a lot better. If the Germans had really lost in WWI, i.e., had seen their army destroyed, then the inter-war years would not have been dominated by conspiracy theories about who was responsible for the sell-out. If the Palestinians were given a taste the no-holds bared war they are waging against Israel would they go on? Would their political culture be an endless argument about finding the ‘collaborators’? Anger is pain plus the idea that you are being treated unjustly. We avoid winning completely to avoid pain but the cost is reinforcing the argument that they are being treated unjustly. WWII ended in our becoming friends with our enemies precisely because we beat them in a way that discredited the previous regime completely. If WWII had ended with a negotiated settlement with us making a lot of concessions on the legitimate pre-war grievances of Japan and German wouldn’t it have increased the leverage of those arguing that the war and the consequent pain was the fault of the other side? Like P. J. O’Rouke says, give war a chance.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Gitmo and Orwell

Just reading Orwell again. He talks about the way that visiting Germany after WWII made him lose all his disire for vengence against the Germans. He describes a Jew that was serving as an interpreter for the Americans as going through the motions of taking vengence on the SS men in his charge. He makes the interesting point that, in Orwell's opinion, the guy didn't really seem to be enjoying it that much. It struck Orwell that the man was going through the motions like someone on vacation, trying to convince himself that he is enjoying it. He describes vengence as the sort of things you image wanting to do when you are powerless but that once you can, once you actually are in power, the desire evaporates.

I wonder if that is true?

In any case, it started me wondering about Gitmo. Do I feel any less angry towards them now that they are in orange jump suits and look vaguely pathetic? I can't say I have the feelings of pity Orwell describes himself as having. One reason may be that Orwell is a better man than I am. Certainly it would seem that the Germans had done much worse and in ways that affected Orwell much more directly than what Al Qaeda has done. He would have had several personal acquantances that were killed by the Germans at the very least.

But another reason is that in an important sense the war is not over even though a number of the enemy are in our hands. Yes, the countries have been conquered (though we don't like to use that term) but the men that are in our hands are part of an organization and movement that is still trying to and capable of doing us harm.

thus, it is different from taking revenge. We mail feel less restrained about what we do to get information from them but it is to get information to prevent future attacks in an ongoing conflict. This is what makes the "better to let 100 guilty go free rather than punish one innocent man" misplaced. Blackstone's aphorism was directed at cases where the crime had been committed and our only purpose was to punish the guilty and at most deter similar acts by others. Here we are not punishing but preventing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Stone that Cuts Both Ways

Great I.F. Stone quote passed on my Hitchens: few people are so foolish as to counterfeit a bankrupt currency. The point here was that it was no accident that the faked Italian memo actually was accurate. Of course, the same thing could be said in defense of the “fake but accurate” memo touted by Dan Rather.