26 October 2007

Iraq and Afghanistan to Cost US $2.4 Trillion

Wow, was I ever wrong! Back in early 2003 when I was with Jane’s Defence Weekly, I estimated that the cost of a war with Iraq would cost $200 billion-$220 billion over five years. At the time the Bush administration was saying it would cost $50 billion in total. I got a lot of grief from some Bush apparatchiks for my estimate. Turns out I low-balled the number by quite a bit. So far Afghanistan and Iraq have cost $604 billion and the non-partisan US Congressional Budget Office estimates that the total cost through 2017 to be $2.4 trillion. So the Bush administration’s initial estimate was off by a factor of 48. That's right, the Bushies' war cost estimate was 2.1% of the real estimated cost.

For that same amount of money we could have put a colony on Mars! Not only would that have had the effect of unifying people with a new frontier, but the spin-off technologies would have probably led to whole new industries and an economic boom.

The downside would have been that Halliburton wouldn’t have gone from being the number 17th largest contractor to the US Department of Defense to the 7th and Cheney’s stock options wouldn’t be worth as much.

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25 October 2007

Kate McCann Cries — What Do You Expect? Glee?

Kate McCann is in the paper today because she broke down in a television interview. I’m not sure I see what the news is except that she’s upset about the loss of her daughter, Madeleine. Well, of course she is. Not even the Portuguese police think she’s happy about her daughter being dead or missing.

On Monday it was headline news in one of the free London papers that Kate wants to go into childcare and quit being a GP. I think most people can agree that going into childcare is preferable to 10 years in a Portuguese jail. But I fail to see the news value. Whether her daughter was kidnapped or Kate and Gerry McCann accidentally killed their daughter, it has got to be a fairly traumatic event. My only question is would you trust her with your children? You’d have two-thirds chance of getting them back.

My big question is why is Kate in the news so much? Is it because she is a yummy mummy? Gerry, her husband, is not in the news nearly as much, despite the fact that he is an anaesthesiologist, which makes him a more likely suspect in an accidental overdosing of Madeleine, and he was the one who found Maddy missing.

This news about Kate looking to change jobs and crying seems to be a way of saying that she’s innocent of killing her kid. But it doesn’t. What probably happened was that Kate, a GP, and Gerry, an anaesthesiologist, got in the habit of dosing their kids so that they’ll sleep through the night. Probably they accidentally doubled the dose, by each of them giving Madeleine a dose, or they gave her more than usual to sleep through the night, or she reacted to the drug differently than in the past. Then, when Gerry went to check on the kids during dinner, he found Madeleine dead and panicked and hid the body. Indeed, he might even have disposed of the body and told Kate that Madeleine was missing. The point is that the focus should really be on him. But he’s just a bloke. She’s a hottie in grief. That makes better news somehow, especially in the Sun and Daily Mail.

This all raises an interesting question about what should be done if they are guilty of accidentally killing Madeleine. If they are convicted they will lose their medical licences, go to jail, and their twins will go into foster care. If they are not convicted, they will continue to practice medicine, probably much more carefully than in the past, and really cherish their twins and raise them well. I would hazard that they have learned their lesson about drugging their children and won’t do it again, so they don’t pose a threat to society.

Legally, if they are found guilty, their and their children’s lives will be ruined without preventing future crimes. It will deprive the community of their hard-learned skills and two children of their parents. On the whole, I hope they are found innocent, although I don’t think they are.

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20 October 2007

Too Early to Tell About Afghanistan

There is some pretty bad news coming out of Afghanistan. According to a report by Chatham House, an influential, non-partisan London-based think tank, Afghanistan is in a slow descent.

This comes on top of an already poor situation where Afghani President Hamid Karzai has called for talks with the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar and been rebuffed. See AP article here. The International Herald Tribune has a nice analysis of the situation here.

Additionally, according to a journalist inside the country for the last year, the roads near the capital are becoming too dangerous to travel, see here.

Basically, we’ve been in Afghanistan for nearly six years, and the Taliban is still a potent force, still being run by Mullah Omar, and Osama bin Laden is still running around recruiting bearded nutters to blow themselves up to commit murder.

There is some good news, however. Pakistan has been fighting against the Taliban sympathisers in Waziristan, see here.

If the Taliban are actually stopped from crossing back and forth across the border, coalition forces might actually make some real progress against them. The Chatham House report notes that one of the chief problems fighting the Taliban has been their ability to hop across the border to safety where the coalition forces are not allowed to follow.

My hunch is that unless the coalition and Pakistan can crush the Taliban, really, not just as a temporary PR exercise (also known as “lying about it”), there is a disturbing chance that radical Islamists will wind up taking control of Pakistan itself. The attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto is stunning in its scope, 133 dead and at least 400 injured. If you do a Google search for “Pakistan” and “bomb” the first 350 entries (that’s all I had patience for) are all of suicide bomb attacks within Pakistan, most of which were not heard about in the West. In other words, Pakistan is struggling over its future. And remember, they have nukes.

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15 October 2007

An Inconvenient Truth mostly gets it right

In my previous post, I only covered three of the nine points that a UK judge ruled were incorrect in “An Incovenient Truth”. Just to be thorough, below are the other six points.

One, the judge said that the film claimed global warming was “shutting down the ocean conveyor”, or Gulf Stream current that brings warm water from the tropics up to Northern Europe. He ruled that that statement is incorrect the since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that recent research indicates that the ocean conveyor is likely to be more resilient than previously thought.

A couple of points on this, the first is that much of the research finding that the Gulf Stream may be more robust than previously thought came out after the film was shot. If the film makers had mentioned the conclusions of research that hadn’t been completed yet, I would be very interested in their stock market and horse race predictions as well.

Another point is that the ocean conveyor current is driven by a 0.4% difference in salinity of ocean surface water in the tropics and the North Atlantic. More evaporation in the tropics makes the water saltier. The concern originally grew because scientists noticed that the Greenland ice sheet, which sits next to that current, is melting faster than previous predictions estimated because those earlier models didn’t account for the greater heat absorption of melted water versus ice. Basically, ice being white reflects sunlight and melted water being darker absorbs more sunlight, creating a feed back loop that increases melting. This drops fresh water into the current reducing its salinity. If the current’s salinity drops to 0.0% difference, the conveyor stops and Northern Europe freezes. While the judge is correct in stating that the film’s statements are more frightening than IPCC’s findings, the magnitude of the disaster that would befall Northern Europe if the current did stop, make concern appropriate. Also, given the feed-back loop in Greenland, there is still a real possibility of run away melting of the ice sheet, which could well shut down the current.

Two, the judge said that the film’s claim that melting glaciers in west Antarctica or Greenland “in the near future” could cause sea levels to rise by “up to 20 feet” is “distinctly alarmist”. The judge conceded that melting of major glaciers would raise sea levels by this much, only that it would take place over millennia.

Well, maybe, we really don’t know. Some models predict that it will take millennia for major glaciers to melt, some don’t. What we do know is that Antarctic and Greenland melt is much faster than previously estimated and that there appears to be feed-back loops that may well speed melt rates. Indeed, many scientists now are worried that such melting will occur in the next century or two. So the whole ruling depends on the definitions of “up to 20 feet” and “in the near future”. The guidance notes that will now accompany the film should probably point out that “in the near future” should be “in the not-too-distant future”.

Three, the film says that coral reefs are bleaching all over the world because of global warming and other factors. The judge said that teasing out global warming from other factors such as over-fishing and pollution is difficult.

Well, duh. But the film doesn’t claim that global warming is solely responsible. A study released in August by researchers from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that Pacific coral reefs are dying faster than previously thought and that rising ocean temperatures due to global warming are one of the key factors. The judge was just plain wrong on this one.

Four, the film attributes Hurricane Katrina to global warming. The judge found that there was “insufficient evidence to show that”.

Well, yeah, sort of in a pedantic way. We know that global warming is raising ocean temperatures. Higher ocean temperatures create more and stronger storms. Katrina was a storm. The obvious conclusion is that global warming was partly responsible.

Five, the film said the disappearance of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro was due to human-induced climate change. The judge said that the scientific consensus was that that could not be established.

One point for the judge. The disappearance of snow, and 90% of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro appear to be caused by a lack of snow, which may have nothing to due with global warming.

Six, the film gave the drying up of Lake Chad as an example of global warming. The judge said, “It is apparently considered to be more likely to result from … population increase, over-grazing and regional climate variability”.

Give another point to the judge. The shrinking of Lake Chad is due to poor rainfall over the past 40 years or so and large irrigation projects that have diverted water from the lake. Gore was just wrong on this one.

If those nine points, of which only two were valid, is the best that opponents of the film could do, the rational conclusion is that the film pretty much hits the nail on the head. I’m sure those who try to deny global warming will use the court case to claim that the film is riddled with errors and that Gore has been proven in a court of law of bald-faced lying. Such a position is a conscious misinterpretation of the facts, in other words, a lie.

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13 October 2007

The Great Global Warming Conspiracy

Conservative blogs have been decrying Al Gore’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize, claiming that he was completely wrong about global warming in his film An Inconvenient Truth.
Frankly, I just don’t understand the right-wing’s spittle-spewing rage over global warming. The argument that global warming isn’t happening, and if it is, it isn’t man’s fault and even if it is, doing anything about it would be too expensive, smacks of a desperate defence of an indefensible position, namely the God-given right to drive a vehicle the size and power of a World War Two tank (Sherman tank 5.84m long with 350hp-400hp versus Chevy Suburban 5.65m long with 310hp-366hp).
Denying global warming is right up there with obstinately claiming, contrary to evidence and common sense, that the Moon is made of green cheese. Repeating a lie doesn’t make it true. Temperature records show that the average temperature is increasing. We know that arctic regions and most glaciers are melting at record rates. We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, i.e. it stores heat. We know that CO2 is at the highest level in 650,000 years. And we know that we are pumping huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere (no brainer here, just add up petroleum and coal production).
The only things that are at all contested are the various computer models that try to predict exactly what will happen in the future. As with any model of a complex system, exact prediction is fiendishly difficult because it is very difficult to precisely account for all of the feed-back loops in a complex system. It’s like being in a car that is speeding at a 100mph towards a cliff and arguing that the impact won’t be so bad because we haven’t yet figured out precisely how much the increased friction of the gravel on the soft shoulder will slow the car.
Even if things aren’t quite as bad as the vast majority of the models predict the logic of Pascal’s wager comes into play. This is easiest to portray in a little chart:
Cost of Action:
Global Warming True: Cut Emissions = Huge Savings/Do Nothing = Huge Losses
Global Warning False: Cut Emissions = Minor Losses/Do Nothing = No Losses
Basically, the lowest risk course of action is to cut emissions, because if it is true, the costs of doing nothing are very high.
The right-wing blogs are also making much out of the British judge ruling that while Gore’s film is broadly correct, there are some errors. Looking at the errors, they are disputable and minor.
For instance, The film claimed that low-lying inhabited Pacific atolls "are being inundated because of anthropogenic global warming". The judge found that there was no evidence of any evacuation occurring. Apparently he decided to ignore Vanuatu and Tuvalu. Also, the Maldives are coming under increasing pressure and rising sea levels are inundating their crops and fresh water supplies.
Similarly, Gore also referred to a study showing that polar bears were being found that had drowned "swimming long distances to find the ice". The judge said: "The only scientific study that either side before me can find is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm". Well, yeah, but there is evidence that polar bears have significantly less fat reserves than they have in the past, indicating that they aren’t able to reach the ice and hunt. So maybe they aren’t drowning, just starving. If current melting trends continue, bears will not have enough fat reserves to reproduce by 2012. When that happens, say good bye to polar bears except in zoos. Also, there is strong evidence that melting ice was responsible for killing a great number of seal pups. Canada had to reduce the quota of their annual hunt because of the low numbers of survivors. Seal, incidentally, are polar bears main food source. The upshot is that Gore’s film was essentially accurate in portraying polar bears as under pressure due to the warming of the arctic.
Another point that the judge made was that the film showed two graphs, one plotting a rise in C02 and the other the rise in temperature over a period of 650,000 years. The two graphs showed a remarkable fit. Gore said "an exact fit". The judge said although scientists agreed there was a connection between temperature and CO2 levels, "the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts". Basically the judge was pointing out that correlation and causation are not the same and that Gore had failed to prove causation.
The judge, while technically correct, was being dumber than a bag full of hammers. We know that CO2 stores energy. We know that atmospheric CO2 concentrations correlate strongly with temperature rises. We know that CO2 levels are rising. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that increasing CO2 levels is a bad idea. I would like to do a little experiment with the judge to see if his reasoning is always so skeptical. My little experiment would be to show the judge data that being hit in the head with a hammer correlated strongly with head injuries. Then I’d like to take one of the hammers from the above mentioned bag and have someone throw the hammer at the judge’s head. If he ducks, clearly he doesn’t buy his own reasoning any more than I do.
The final point I’d like to make is that the Nobel Peace Prize is an appropriate award. Military professionals, although clearly not right-wing bloggers, are concerned about global warming.
The following generals and admirals have written a report entitled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”:
General Gordon R. Sullivan, former Chief of Staff, US Army
Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman, former Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, former Deputy Administrator-Naval Reactors, National Nuclear Security Administration
Lieutenant General Lawrence P. Farrell Jr., former Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, Headquarters, US Air Force
Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II, former President of the National Defense University, former Chief of Naval Research and Commander of Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command
General Paul J. Kern, former Commanding General US Army Material Command
Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, former Commander-in-Chief, US Naval Forces Europe and of Allied Forces, Southern Europe
Admiral Donald L. “Don” Pilling, former Vice Chief of Naval Operations
Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, former Command-in-Chief of the US Pacific Command and former US Ambassador to China
The following is the forward of their report:

To the reader,
During our decades of experience in the U.S. military, we have addressed many national security challenges, from containment and deterrence of the Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War to terrorism and extremism in recent years.
Global climate change presents a new and very different type of national security challenge.
Over many months and meetings, we met with some of the world’s leading climate scientists, business leaders, and others studying climate change. We viewed their work through the lens of our military experience as warfighters, planners, and leaders. Our discussions have been lively, informative, and very sobering.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are greater now than at any time in the past 650,000 years, and average global temperature has continued a steady rise. This rise presents the prospect of significant climate change, and while uncertainty exists and debate continues regarding the science and future extent of projected climate changes, the trends are clear.
The nature and pace of climate changes being observed today and the consequences projected by the consensus scientific opinion are grave and pose equally grave implications for our national security. Moving beyond the arguments of cause and effect, it is important that the U.S. military begin planning to address these potentially devastating effects. The consequences of climate change can affect the organization, training, equipping, and planning of the military services. The U.S. military has a clear obligation to determine the potential impacts of climate change
on its ability to execute its missions in support of national security objectives.
Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States. Accordingly, it is appropriate to start now to help mitigate the severity of some of these emergent challenges. The decision to act should be made soon in order to plan prudently for the nation’s security. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay.

The rest of the report can be found at
Call me crazy, but I think they just might have an idea what they’re talking about.

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11 October 2007

Blame the Koran and the Clan

Why is the Muslim world so backwards?
The 1.2 billion-1.3 billion people in the Muslim world, about 20% of the world’s population, have a smaller GDP than Germany, about 1.2% of the world’s population. The Muslim world boasts three of the world’s top 500 companies, on par with Finland, a country of 5 million or 0.08% of the world’s population, but is responsible for fewer international patents. In short, the people who believe that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet are clearly fighting for the “Who Has the Most Shit Civilisation?” award. Currently, sub-Saharan Africa is winning, but Islam is making inroads through seduction and slaughter into some of the world’s most backwards areas, think Darfur.
The question remains, why is the Muslim world doing so badly?
My current theory is that the culture of family honour and the insistence on the divine perfection of the Koran are at the root of the problem.
Let’s start with the Koran. Throughout much of the Muslim world, many people believe that the Koran contains all the wisdom needed. Anyone who questions the Koran or the Prophet is strongly chastised. Much Islamic education consists of little more than memorisation of religious texts and practical interpretation, which is a Herculean task given the huge number of internal and external contradictions. See endnotes for examples.
The problem is that endless repetition of dogma doesn’t make it true, it just makes people brainwashed. On an individual level, if someone believes that God/Allah created the world and everything in it, that person is not going to make a good evolutionary biologist.
Similarly, if someone believes that the rules for a perfect social structure is contained in a book written by a semiliterate 7th century incestuous paedophile merchant from a cultural backwater of a collapsing empire who suffered from auditory hallucinations, they are not going to make particularly wise legislator.
If that weren’t bad enough, the authoritarian clan structure and obsession with honour create a situation where lying is rampant and independent thought is stifled.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in The Caged Virgin: “This [Muslim] cultural background is characterized by three important factors. First, an authoritarian mentality based on strict hierarchy; second, a patriarchal family structure, in which the woman has a reproductive function and is expected to obey men in the family; if she doesn’t she will disgrace the family. Third, all thoughts revolve around the group; the group always comes before the individual; social control is very strong; and the fierce protection of the group’s honor makes people obsessed with avoiding shame at all cost, with the result that doing so through lying or simply denying what has really happened becomes the norm.”
Honour, as a concept, is relatively weak in the West, but in the Muslim, especially Arab world, it is central. That honour can be marred by weakness or wrongdoing, especially by women not following cultural rules designed to subjugate women. The preservation of honour can include murder of one’s own family members, something that I, as a Westerner, put at the very tippy, tippy top of the list of barbaric, uncivilised and dishonourable acts.
It is worth noting that the concept of honour is strong in eastern Asia in countries such as China and Japan. However, the rules against consanguineous marriage and small family size largely offset the effects, as does the importance ascribed to education.
The cultural influence of preserving honour in Muslim culture is exacerbated by the size and structure of clans in the Muslim world, especially the Arabic Muslim world. In the West, the Catholic Church, in the Middle Ages, banned marriage within the family to seventh degree of consanguinity (i.e. a couple couldn’t share the same great-great-great-great-great grandparent). That subsequently dropped to four degrees of consanguinity (great-great grandparent). The Church did this partly out of Roman and German culture and law and partly for its own benefit. By splitting up clans, families were more likely to give their allegiance to the Church.
By contrast, the Arab Muslim world is largely still based on clans with a very high frequency of marriage within the clan. According to various studies, marriages between first or second cousins are thought to account for 60% of Saudi couples, 58% of Iraqis, 55% of Kuwaitis, 50% of Jordanians and 48% of UAE natives. One consequence of this is that congenital diseases are much higher than in the West. The other consequence is social. The clans grow large and powerful and the individual’s independence of thought and action is subsumed into the good of the clan.
That combination of preserving honour and intellectual stagnation make progress in the Muslim world nearly impossible, which is why most Muslim countries are at least partly stuck in a mediaeval mindset where faith, pride, ignorance and tyranny rule and any voices of reason are threatened with death.
Is it any surprise then that the West, with societies largely based on reason, evidence and scepticism are far ahead of the Muslim world?

Example of an internal contradiction from the Authorized English Translation:
[10:90] We delivered the Children of Israel across the sea. Pharaoh and his troops pursued them, aggressively and sinfully. When drowning became a reality for him, he said, "I believe that there is no god except the One in whom the Children of Israel have believed; I am a submitter."
[10:91] "Too late! For you have rebelled already, and chose to be a transgressor.
[10:92] "Today, we will preserve your body [Pharaoh’s], to set you up as a lesson for future generations." Unfortunately, many people are totally oblivious to our signs.
Contrast that with:
[17:102] He [Moses] said, "You know full well that no one can manifest these except, obviously, the Lord of the heavens and the earth. I think that you, Pharaoh, are doomed."
[17:103] When he [the Pharaoh] pursued them, as he chased them out of the land, we drowned him, together with those who sided with him, all of them.

Example of an external contradiction:
[51:49] We created a pair (male and female) of everything, that you may take heed.
Clearly Mohammed didn’t know jack about God’s creatures such as bacteria, fungi, snails, earthworms, bdelloid rotifers, and many others. This begs the question, if the Koran is God/Allah’s inspired word, why did God/Allah get it wrong?

N.B. The Bible is no better. Like the Koran, it is full of internal and external contradictions. The difference is that there are very few if any Christians who threaten to kill people who question it.

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