Wednesday, March 31, 2004

My big fat American country

Finally, the truth about health. From Wicked Thoughts.

For those of you who watch what you eat, here's the final word on
nutrition and health.

It's a relief to know the truth after all those conflicting medical
studies.

1. Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the
British or Americans.

2. Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the
British or Americans.

3. Africans drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks
than the British or Americans.

4. Italians drink large amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart
attacks than the British or Americans.


CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.


Worrying about what we eat is the American national pastime. And all that obsessing about nutrition isn't making us any thinner. Or taller, either.

Well, time for me to go eat Mexican food. And I think I'd better order in Spanish.

O, sea: Bueno, ya me voy para comer comida Mexicana. Y tal vez ser�a mejor ordenar en Castellano. (Uds. gringotes tambi�n.)

--JUAN PENA

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Book of the Month

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks.

I'm a huge nerd. And one of the things that makes me a big nerd is that I love all things post-apocalyptic. Planet of the Apes. Logan's Run. Mad Max. Omega Man. Yes, even Waterworld. And these are just movies that I think most people have heard of.

The Zombie Survival Guide does not exactly fit into this genre, but a work of true genius often defies categorization. Is it humor? Is it horror? Is it a survival manual? Quite simply, it is The Zombie Survival Guide-- everything you would expect from the title. It's a book about how to survive in a world where the dead rise and want to eat you. It contains every scrap of information that could benefit you in such a situation. If every book so completely and perfectly delivered what is promised by the title, this world would be a better place.

Allow me to share a favorite passage from the fifth chapter, "On the Attack," from the section entitled, "General Rules."

14. Incendiary control: When using fire, make sure you keep in mind the larger implications. Can you control the blaze? If not, the fire will endanger your whole group. Is the zombie threat serious enough to warrant destroying large amounts of personal property? The answer may seem obvious, but why burn down half a town to kill three zombies that could be destroyed by rifle fire?

And this from the fourth chaper, "On the Run," from the section entitled, "Vehicles."

B. The bicycle. ... The common bicycle is fast, quiet, muscle-powered, and easy to maintain. Add to this the additional advantage that it is the only vehicle you can pick up and carry if the terrain gets too rough. People using bicycles to escape from infested areas have almost always fared better than those on foot. For optimum performance, use a mountain bike, as opposed to the racing or recreational model. Don't let your speed and mobility go to your head, however. Wear standard safety gear and choose caution over speed. The last thing you want is to end up in a ditch, legs broken, bike trashed, with the shuffling of undead feet growing louder with each step.

There is so much more I want to share. I would copy this whole thing down verbatim, right here on the blog. But perhaps it's just better for me to say this is the best book I have read in at least a year. Go buy it.

--CHISAIBU

Monday, March 29, 2004

Gas, oil, and conspiracies

This morning on the news I saw a story on "record high gas prices. Poked around a bit, and it seems to be all over the web. But I was immediately reminded of a couple of articles I had seen links to (on Volokh and LGF) and so I thought I would jot down a couple of quick thoughts.

The first important thing to note is that although the cost of gasoline today is higher for Americans than it has ever been in absolute terms, it is actually pretty cheap in the longer, historical view. (This graph is illustrative.)

One reason for this is
inflation:

In real (inflation adjusted dollars) gas is actually still cheaper than it was back in 1980!

Even though a gallon of unleaded in the US has shot up 21 cents per gallon recently...

And Gasoline is fast approaching the peak prices seen during both Gulf Wars...

Though many in the press are claiming that gas prices are at an all time high...

When adjusted for inflation, it is clear that gasoline prices are far below the 1981 inflation-adjusted peak of $2.94.


A second reason that gas prices should be considered historically cheap is purchasing power:

Another comparison: The average price of gasoline during the 1950s was about $1.80 in today's money--meaning that during the period enshrined in our collective political nostalgia as Energy Heaven, gasoline cost slightly more in real dollars than the amount now being theatrically bemoaned as a "record" price. But wait; in the 1950s, per-capita real income was less than half what it is today. That means that for the typical American in the 1950s, gasoline cost twice as much, in terms of buying power, as today's gasoline. Adjusted for inflation and for buying power, the purported "record"-priced gasoline at your pumps now is substantially cheaper than the gasoline your parents bought.

Today's gasoline is also substantially higher in quality, containing engine detergents and having had most of its pollutant content removed at the refinery--"reformulation" of gasoline to remove pollutants, begun on a national basis in 1991, being a leading reason that air pollution is declining. But even if you don't care that gasoline today is substantially better in chemical quality than gasoline of the 1950s, it's still much cheaper.


These facts cannot have escaped the press, since complaints about high gas prices have come up before. In fact, in 2000, this was a major campaign issue. (You may recall that George W. Bush vowed to bring down the price of gasoline by drilling for oil in the Artic Wildlife Preserve.) In 2000, when Bill Clinton was president, there were many stories in the mainstream press explaining that the 'record high' gas prices were really record lows after controlling for inflation. With the return of this issue during Bush's presidency, I have seen no comparable big media stories. Interesting.

It's also interesting that we are seeing 'record high' oil and gas prices after fighting a war which was said by its critics to have been motivated solely by a desire to gain access to cheap Iraqi oil. Now that I think of it, the same claim was made about Afghanistan-- that the American invasion was a pretext for building a pipeline from the Caspian Sea. I wonder how many of the people who said "No blood for oil!" are now saying "Gas prices are too high!"?

(As an aside, here's a fun game to play with the "it's all about the oil" crowd. Find a left-leaning conspiracy theorist and ask why we invaded Iraq as part of the 'war on terror'. Answer? Duh, Iraq has lots of oil. Ask the same person why the US continues to support Saudi Arabia, despite its much closer ties to Al Qaeda. Answer? Duh, Saudi Arabia has lots of oil. Okay. Oil = invasion; oil = no invasion. That's some good thinking there, hippies.)

But, clearly, gas prices have been rising lately. Why? Who is to blame? Senator Chuck Schumer points to at Saudi-dominated OPEC:

This move by the Saudis is profit taking plain and simple � it has no other purpose other than to maximize OPEC's profits by making us pay through the nose to fill up our cars and heat our homes.

I'm not so sure that there is "no other purpose." Ed Lasky argues compellingly that Saudi Arabia is cutting oil production in order to punish George Bush and prevent his re-election. This because Bush has seriously disrupted the status quo in the middle east, threatening entrenched Saudi elites:

President Bush has provoked this response by proclaiming his intention to encourage democracy and liberalism in the Middle East, liberate the Arab masses from despotic rule, bring peace and prosperity to the region, and halt the spread of militant Islamic terror groups. Unlike past Presidents who, in varying degrees, paid lip service to these ideals, President Bush has acted decisively on them. His politically perilous actions, such as his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, his conditioning support for a Palestinian state on the cessation of terror, corruption, and dictatorship, and his active promotion and support for liberal groups in the Arab world, have aroused Saudi fears and provoked a quiet counterattack.

George W. Bush seriously disrupted the previous cozy relationship that Saudi Arabia historically enjoyed with the Bush family -- and with Washington power brokers, in general. The Saudis feel that their family�s absolute rule over the kingdom may be endangered, and that their efforts to spread their virulent brand of Islam, Wahabbism, may be curtailed by the current Administration. The Saudi royals may well feel abandoned, and in their disillusionment have resolved to prevent a second term for George W. Bush.


Read the entire article. It's fascinating.

One last thought and then I must get back to work. The one good thing that I see coming out of higher gas prices is a renewed interest in reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. The less we depend on middle eastern oil production, the less we will need to be involved in this volatile region and the less leverage repressive regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia will have on US foreign policy. So here's hoping that gas prices which aren't so cheap will help reignite public interest in alternative sources of energy.

--YAHYA AL-RIIFI

Friday, March 26, 2004

No comment

Just added comments; trying to see if they work. Not that anyone has read my blog, much less felt the need to comment.

--HOUSE OF PAYNE
9/11 revisited revisited

More thoughts on the preventability of 9/11. Darren Kaplan points out that "the main 9-11 perpetrators were all already in the United States by January 10, 2001, ten days before Bush was even inaugurated." So, how could the president could have stopped the operation from going forward?

What if he were to have found and killed Osama Bin Laden using predator drones? Would killing their spiritual leader have deterred the Al Qaeda operatives already in striking distance, or would it have given them even greater determination to avenge his death?

Immediately after September 11th, there came a chorus of voices warning about the inevitable backlash which American retaliation would provoke. (Bin Laden himself is supposed to have said, "Even if this Osama is killed, a thousand other Osamas will arise.") Recently, the Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin has led to a storm of familiar condemnations: taking out the leaders of terrorist organizations only provokes a violent response.

So what was Bush to have done? Clearly, the best thing would have been to have prevented Al Qaeda's operatives from entering the country in the first place. But they were all granted visas, even though they should have been denied. But Saudis at that time got special treatment on visa applications. Bin Laden knew of this security weakness and he exploited it. A dozen other little security weaknesses made it easier for the terrorists to carry out their mass murder.

I know we tend to blame presidents for whatever happened on their watch, but I can not think any one person should be blamed. Governments are enormous, complicated, clunky machines. No one person can fathom all the parts, much less control them all. The Cuban Missile Crisis came about in large part because American missiles were in Turkey, although Kennedy had more than once ordered their removal. And Kennedy had it easy-- at least he knew from Day 1 what his first priority had to be: fighting communism.

As I said in a previous post, presidents are faced with thousands of problems which they are told threaten American lives or interests. Hundreds and hundreds of bureaucrats in Washington spend their days trying unsuccessfully to convince their superiors that such-and-such poses a grave danger and must be dealt with immediately. Fortunately, most of them are wrong, most of the time.

Dick Clarke is not a wizard or a prophet. Many of the dooms he has foreseen have not come to pass. He was right about Al Qaeda. But even when he had successfully convinced his superiors, including the president, of the gravity of this threat, he was unable to steer the ship of state toward a course that would wipe out the threat. No surprise, really. Like trying to hit a fly with a Buick. Impossible. Damn thing steers like a boat.

--El DOLOR

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Haglunds uber alles

Defended my cousin Kristine today. Made me feel like a big man.

--YET ANOTHER HAGLUND

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Another chapter in my continuing feud with robots

Just discovered a blog. The author doesn't like me much. But you should see what he says about Wonder Woman and the pope.

--HOUSE OF PAYNE
9/11 revisited

I am watching the 9/11 congressional hearings this morning and I have to say I am not impressed. Then again, as my roommate Brian says, the whole idea seems flawed.

What could have prevented the September 11th attacks? Brian suggested to me either more secure cockpit doors or even a rule to always keep the doors locked could have prevented the hijackers from gaining control of the planes. But in a normal hijacking, it is likely that no one on the plane will be hurt if the hijackers' demands are met. So if a terrorist says to open the door or he will kill someone, you open the door. Making cockpit doors secure would only be a policy option in cases where the hijackers intend to kill everyone on the plane, no matter what happens (as was the case on September 11th).

Is it reasonable to expect that
- someone would have imagined this new kind of hijacking?
- a contingency plan could have been agreed on to deal with it?
- the pilots of those four planes would have correctly discerned that morning that they were victims of this new kind of terror?
- they would have been so confident of their judgement that they would allow terrorists to kill hostages rather than open the door?

Even militaries, whose job it is to anticipate and defend, generally learn of and respond to new threats only when tragedy reveals the danger. There are so many threats that never materialize. Only in hindsight do we know which we should have paid more attention to.

-- EL DOLOR

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Catch and release

Sunday night I was dining with friends, when one of them, Tim W., raised a novel theory. (I do not know Tim's political affiliation. He's a native Bostonian, raised Catholic, who works at Harvard Business School. I might lay odds two to one that he is a Democrat, but I cannot think that he is very far from the mainstream.)

Tim says that the US announces the capture of senior Al Qaeda figures with a regularity too great to be coincidental. Here's his timetable, as far as I can remember. (Thanks to timeanddate.com for their handy calculator.)

September 11, 2001 - Al Qaeda attacks targets in New York and Washington, DC, killing thousands.

March 28, 2002 (198 days later) - Pakistan captures Al Qaeda recruiter Abu Zubaydeh, linked to the millennium plot.

September 14, 2002 (170 days later) - US authorities announce that Ramzi bin al Shibh, allegedly one of the planners of the September 11 attacks, has been arrested after a gun battle in Karachi.

March 1, 2003 (168 days later) - Kahlid Shaikh Mohammed, supposed Al Qaeda operational mastermind is captured in Pakistan.

August 13, 2003 (165 days later) - Al Qaeda affiliate Hambali, mastermind of the Bali nightclub bombing is captured in Thailand.

March 2004 - Rumors abound of Ayman al-Zwahiri's imminent capture by Pakistani forces.

Tim thinks that the terrorists are apprehended long before their captures are revealed, and that the Bush administration is releasing them periodically, one at a time, to maximize their P.R. impact. And of course, if the theory is correct, then the administration will reveal the capture of another top Al Qaeda official around September of this year, right before the election. Who might it be? Tim said he didn't know, but Madeline Albright does.

I think this is nonsense, for two reasons. First, once you come up with an idea like this, it's not too hard to shoehorn the facts into the schema. But schemas bias you against information that doesn't fit. Tim's timetable, for instance, ignores many other Al Qaeda operatives just as important as the ones listed above.

For instance, Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's military commander was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001. Abu Ali, involved in the USS Cole bombing, was killed in Yemen by a Predator drone in November 2002. Hasan Guhl, an operational planner, was captured in January 2004 in Iraq. And so on.

Second, periodic terrorist captures don't prove a conspiracy of the type Tim implies. For the sake of argument, let's agree that criticism periodically builds up to the point that the president needs to point to a victory in the war on terror. Tim's theory says that at this point Dubya goes down to the super-secret government prison and picks out a member of Al Qaeda's top leadership whose capture will now be staged. An alternate theory is that the president instead pulls out the list of recent captures and tells his press secretary to try to make the last guy captured sound like he's one of Al Qaeda's top leadership. The alternate theory gives you a timetable that looks like the one produced by Tim's theory, but it operates by a much more mundane logic.

It seems to me that there's some support for this alternate theory. For example, after Tom Daschle and other Democrats criticized the president for lack of progress in the war on terror, John Ashcroft announced the capture of Jose Padilla as if this he were Osama's son-in-law. Turns out Padilla was a pretty small fish, but the administration needed him to be a big fish, or at least look like a big fish for the moment.

This may also have been the case with Al Qaeda's Persian Gulf operations chief, Abd Al-Rahim al-Nashiri. He was captured in October 2002, but this was not announced until November 15, the day after Tom Daschle criticized the president for not having "made any real progress" in dismantling Al Qaeda.

And of course, Ayman al-Zawahiri hasn't been captured yet, so we seem to be off schedule. Fnord.

--JOHANN F. WEISHAUPT

Friday, March 19, 2004

France and the two Chinas.

Just talked to my buddy Marc DeVore about the French joint naval exercise with China earlier this week. This got a strong negative reaction from the American blogosphere; I myself was pretty mad.

Marc, who is in Paris doing dissertation research on European military organizations, had a different reaction. Leaving aside the political or symbolic significance, he thought of the potential military-strategic importance.

You see, France sold Taiwan six Lafayette-class destroyers. The Lafayette is a "first-class advanced 21st-century stealthy fighting ship" with "ultrahigh stealth capability." It's a war ship that looks on radar like a fishing trawler. It doesn't take a genius to see the problems that such a ship could cause to the People's Liberation Army Navy.

(As an aside, I just have to say that the PLAN is the best - name - ever for a navy.)

So if France had really wanted to drive a dagger into Taiwan's back, they could have sent a Lafayette to China for the exercise. This would have given the Chinese navy and air force an incredible opportunity: a war game with the most troublesome ship in the fleet of their most important adversary. The technical data from the exercise would have been priceless.

But that's not what France sent. They sent two ships, "an anti-submarine-warfare destroyer Latouche-Treville and a light frigate Commandant Birot. " Neither of these ships are what you would call top-of-the-line. The former is a twenty-year-old heavy frigate. The latter is a twenty-five year old colonial gunship, in the truest sense of the word.

The PLAN has plenty of ships better than either one in the 'fleet' France sent out. Mexico could have come up with a ship as good as these. The US Navy would have been hard pressed to find a ship of such modest capabilities to send. We simply don't build boats this cheap.

This doesn't mean that France's participation in the exercise is of no value to the PRC-- there's a symbolic significance that must not be overlooked. But it is certainly of no military value. More importantly, the French navy could have participated in a way which would have really hurt Taiwan, strategically. They could have, but they chose not to. To me, that makes the exercise more forgivable.

--HOUSE OF PAYNE

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Irony and sanctuary in Bangui

I have no love for Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He maintained his grip on his unfortunate country through intimidation, assassination, and gangs of violent criminals. Haiti's descent into criminal anarchy and chaos can be traced back to Aristide's own underhanded tactics. Live by the sword, die by the sword. However, he was still the elected president of Haiti, and the US had already intervened once to restore him to power.

Worse, in helping to evict Aristide, the US was doing the bidding of France, foremost among states calling for Aristide to step down. In the last few years, France has moved to undermine or depose the democratically-elected leaders of several of its former colonies (Haiti, Cote d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, etc.). While the French decry American unilateralism and imperialism, France acts shamelessly to secure access to vital resources such as oil and diamonds, especially in Francophone Africa.

In this light, it is interesting to see that the exiled Aristide has, for now at least, come to roost in the Central African Republic. The CAR's dictator, General Francois Bozize, seized power there in a March 2003 coup with quiet help from France and French proxy Chad. I wonder what Aristide and Bozize will talk about over dinner?

--SOLOMON MBANASO

Monday, March 01, 2004

Oil for good press

Should have mentioned Saturday that the NYT article also shows how media coverage of Iraqi sanctions was tainted by the corruption of the UN oil-for-food program.

Media access was limited to say the least (as has already been brought to light by journalist John Burns, among others). Foreign reporters were carefully corralled. They worked in the Iraqi Ministry of Information and stayed in just a few places, like the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where "oil traders would gather whenever a journalist, actor or political figure would arrive in Iraq and openly praise Mr. Hussein."

Naturally, those who spoke up in support of the tyrant were rewarded with lucrative contracts. They repaid the favor by kicking back ten percent or more to Saddam and his flunkies. A neat little scheme. Combined with the isolation of journalists from the Iraqi population, intimidation of journalists who strayed from the party line (usually by threats of being evicted from the country and cut off from the flow of information, not by threats of physical harm), it makes for quite an effective multi-pronged attack against the free press-- and not just in Iraq, but in the international arena.

In any case, it is clear now that Iraq's efforts to manipulate international public opinion between the two wars (1991-2003) must be counted among the most successful propaganda campaigns of all time. I have always believed that the truth will out, and will prevail. Certainly the truth about Iraq is beginning to come out now, but Saddam managed to keep it locked up for quite a while.

When free societies confront those which are not free in the arena of information, we must not play by their rules. We must not bow to their conditions. We must confront their strengths (control of information) with our own strengths (freedom of information). Here and abroad, the press must be free, and must fight to protect its freedom by shining light into the dark corners of the world, especially including those corners which they are encouraged not to examine. In no other way can we hope that the truth will prevail.

--ABDUL ALEM