October 12, 2006

The Iraqi Dead

If the Johns Hopkins study recently published in The Lancet is correct, as many as 655,000 Iraqis have died as the result of the war since March 19, 2003. Since 1,303 days have passed since Shock 'N Awe Eve, Iraqis have been dying violent deaths at the rate of 503 persons per day, as the high average. Administration pronouncements this week declare that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq until at least 2010. For the sake of simplicity, if we assume this "date certain" (which it cannot be, since Bush feels this would embolden the terrorists, although it's difficult to see how they could become much bolder) is March 20, 2010, or 7 full years after the war started, then from an extrapolation of the death toll incurred to date (again, as the high estimate) we can calculate total Iraqi deaths by the formula 365 x 7 x 503 = 1,285,165.

Give or take a corpse or two. Remembering that Iraq began this war with about 25 million people (about 900,000 have left Iraq for surrounding countries since the war began, in addition to the war dead), we could analogize the effect on Iraq by scaling up the figures to a country the size of the United States, with 300 million people. If the United States is about 12 times the size of Iraq, then 600,000 dead is comparable to 7.2 million dead Americans, and 10,800,000 refugees, equivalent to total disruption in the lives of 18 million Americans.

Confronted yesterday with the carnage caused by his war of choice, President Bush sullenly disputed the Johns Hopkins study by saying its methodology had been "discredited." The passive voice is telling in the circumstances. "Discredited" by what organization, by what statistician, by what probability theorist? Surely it is not enough when talking about a disaster of this magnitude to dismiss a peer-reviewed study in Europe's most prestigious medical journal with a one-word perjorative, particularly when Bush's only comeback, when asked for his own estimate, is to assert again (in his awful grammar) that "a lot of innocent people have lost their life." Bush is the Commander in Chief and this war is the centerpiece of his presidency. He ought to know everything about it. If necessary, he ought to put L'Etranger and Hamlet to one side and pick up a statistics text and acquaint himself with sampling methodology. For that matter, he ought to read the Johns Hopkins study and find out why it was necessary for them to count dead by random sampling in the first place. Then, and only then, should he offer an opinion on the "discredited methodology" of the analysis. He might find, in fact, there is something to it. If so, he might begin to understand, however dimly, why Iraqis don't share his enthusiasm for the American occupation. He might conclude that it's high time the U.S. military chose to cut and run.

October 10, 2006

Why does the Dear Leader want to talk to us?

Among the official mysteries that trouble my sleep occasionally is the ongoing insanity about "multilateral" versus "one-on-one" "talks" with North Korea. I simply don't get it. While I have a hard time understanding why the Bush Administration is so adamant that it's impossible to talk directly to North Korea without a bunch of friends also in the room (Japan, China, Russia, etc.), I can't figure out why Prime Minister Pompadour insists it must must be an intimate tete-a-tete with the United States. In this morning's news, North Korea now threatens to launch a nuclear missile, outfitting one of its balky missiles with that contraption that may or may not have detonated on Sunday. (The weirdest idea is that N. Korea may have "faked" a nuke by exploding a vast pile of conventional explosives to simulate a low-kiloton-yield weapon.)

Anyway, the idea is now circulating that the USA blew its chance to head North Korea's nuke aspirations off at Pyongyang Pass by shunning Kim Jong, or not returning his calls, or maybe by not picking up the phone the morning after. The whole thing has the feeling of a jilted lover scenario. The Dear Leader does have a touch of the epicene about him, after all. Payback: it's a bitch. It's like a crazy girl friend you're trying to let down easy. First she waves a gun around. Then she actually fires off a shot. Now she's threatening to come over and burn your house down. She seems to do each thing she warns you about. Kim Jong has been following that pattern, firing missiles into the Sea of Japan, detonating nukes (maybe), now threatening to put the two together and shoot that sucker off.

All because we won't return his/her calls, or because we always show up with the guys and switch on the plasma to watch the game of the week, thwarting her chance to speak intimately, to give her a chance to prove we belong with her. So now we've gone to the UN and ganged up on her, isolating her in her madness.

All she wanted to do was talk...

Well, not really. Not probably. Thus endeth the cute analogy. There is an element of contradiction in the current criticisms of Pres. Bush. On one hand, the supposition is that talking to Kim Jong would have convinced him not to build nukes. On the other hand, the grave danger perceived by liberals arises from the possession of a nuclear arsenal by an unstable lunatic. Putting these two ideas together (which is never done in mass media analysis, since the arguments on either side would lose their partisan topspin), we get the idea that the U.S. should have had unilateral talks with an unstable lunatic to convince him not to build nukes. That does sound like one of those exit conversations with the crazy girl friend where you try to convince her, for the sake of getting out the door, that she'll actually be better off without you. That seems to work till you slide behind the wheel at the curb, turn the ignition and find the starter motor has been wired with C-4 explosives.

As an amateur fan of psychoanalysis, I like looking for unconscious motivations which seem to explain behavior that is not entirely rational on its surface. Talking, cajoling, manipulating, importuning a nut job is not going to result in a stable peace, yet this is the fond hope of liberals who are as troubled by a lunatic's possession of nuclear weapons as are conservatives on the right. Blaming the existence of such bombs on a "failure of negotiation" displaces one's fear. There is hope as long as the idea persists that reason can prevail over madness.

As a direct analogy, I notice no one on the liberal side currently talks about the development of nuclear bombs by Pakistan. The finalization of its advanced program occurred entirely during the Clinton Administration, in the mid-1990's. A.Q. Khan, who has operated a kind of mail-order House O' Apocalypse, is a nuclear physicist who received advanced training in metallurgy in Germany in the 1970's. He brought his expertise home to Islamabad and Pakistan, without signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and while shunning all international inspections, proceeded to build bombs using advanced uranium enrichment technology and plutonium. With no effective restraint from the United States or the world community, Pakistan then proceeded with a heavy program of nuclear testing. All while the Clinton Administration looked impotently on, while South Asia became the most dangerous place on Earth. Thus, we have the Islamic Bomb, and the idea Pakistan is a "stable" nation that cannot cause any problems for U.S. interests is of course a fantasy.

The most dangerous process in the history of the world is thus "robustly" underway, in the buzzword of the Zeitgeist, and proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations with unstable regimes, who refuse inspections, and who have already demonstrated a willingness to traffic in the sale and transfer of nightmares, proceeds apace. No wonder we wish that talking would make it all go away. It won't. We ain't seen nothin' yet.

October 09, 2006

Dear Leader Nukes Foley's Hot Buns Off Front Page

Those post-pubescent Congressional pages can put their tape measures away for good, I guess. Mark Foley is in rehab for his drinking habit, and Kim Jong Ill has relegated the pages to back pages anyway with his underground test of an atomic bomb yesterday. Sic semper gloria mundi.

As a resident of the West Coast, I was always inclined to take North Korea's development of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles more seriously than the shenanigans of yet another child molestor, even before the Dear Leader, he of the dubious fashion statements and even dubiouser hairstyle, exploded an atomic bomb on Sunday. Democratic party leaders, of course, are bummed; they were counting on the Foley "scandal" to last through all of October, having finally found an "issue" worthy of the American electorate, that vast, uncharted Jerry Springer Green Room, the great unwashed and uninformed denizens whom H.L. Mencken dubbed the "Booboisie." Foley's obsession with teenage ass was supposed to be the Democrats' Monica Lewinsky, and the press was playing along, discovering one pocket of "corruption" after another, demonstrating that the Republican claim to be the party of family values was hypocritical, and their inability to protect the pages from "inappropriate" IMs from a Congressional creep was the final proof of their "incompetence."

Yeah, that's it.

The cynicism which characterizes political discourse in this country has become so extreme that I'm not sure my Alice in Wonderland metaphor can quite state the case anymore. No one on either side of the American debate takes the voters seriously. And maybe you can't. 50% of the American populace believes, for example, that the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. While over 60% of the Iraqi populace likes seeing American soldiers blown up in Iraq, 40% of the American populace still essentially approves of the war. Such examples can be multiplied till the cows come home. You do not sway the American populace with carefully reasoned analyses of the issues. You jerk them around with scandals and name-calling.

Thus, the Democrats have put together a publicity program which is intended to analogize the Republican leadership of the House to a deceiving Archdiocese. Foley is the libidinous priest with poor impulse control, but the Bishops won't discipline him. They cover for him, while the pages, the altar boys in this scenario, are left to fend for themselves. It's a movie the American public has seen and they can follow along, and that's the critical factor. Then the Democrats can seize control and begin their own programs of self-aggrandizement, and Congress can get back to the serious work of holding hearings and investigating itself, just like the good old days.

Meanwhile, the glaciers will continue to melt, the oceans will acidify, the American standard of living will continue to fall, and Premier Poof-Hair will go right along assembling his nuclear bombs for West Coast delivery.

October 08, 2006

Self-Fulfilling Religious Prophecies, and the High Road to Atheism

First, a congratulatory note to George Smoot of UC Berkeley's Physics Department for winning the Nobel Prize. It was a stunning achievement to confirm the way in which the Universe was formed on the basis of such subtle evidence. He has done my alma mater proud.

Meanwhile, back in American Reality, debates continue to rage about whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or somewhat less than the age of the (current?) Universe, about 14 billion. Perhaps just an honest difference of opinion. Or perhaps not. The persistence of irrational thinking in human affairs, even at this "late" date of human civilization, is probably a reliable indicator it's here to stay. Sorry, Sigmund, but your salutary hope that mankind would someday rise above the "illusion" you described in The Future of an Illusion has not yet come to pass, and that "future" you talked about? It's now, and things are as bad as ever. One could argue they're worse than ever, as the apocalyptics cheer on our impending demise brought about, in large part, because apocalyptics think an impending demise is a good thing.

If we're going to follow Hawking's advice and preserve some human DNA on Mars, it might be best to search for a Human Genome 2.0 which could avoid the mischief apparently inherent in Version 1.0. That one was obviously shipped before complete debugging, and we've paid a terrible price for rushing to market.

By the way, think about this idea, which I owe almost completely to a parallel line of thought first penned by Richard Feynman, another eminent physicist who liked thinking about ultimate questions. Feynman thought that religous thinking could be grouped into "believers" and "atheists," and that all interim categories, such as agnostics, could be eliminated. Just like him to go deep and eliminate unnecessary complications. You get there as follows:

Belief in a Supreme Being is a conscious state characterized by faith. If you believe, you believe. You can describe the god so conceived as anything you like, a Consciousness, an anthropomorphic God, or some shadowy, insubstantial presence so ethereal that Freud puckishly said that such backpedaling led to "taking the Lord's name in vain." Very clever, that Sigmund. In New Age parlance, it might be called "Spirit" (on the Oprah Show also). Anyway Someone or Something is up there, out there, around here. You can talk or communicate with it perhaps, through prayer or meditation.

Anyone who doesn't believe, in the positive, conscious sense described above, is an atheist. If, for example, you claim you simply don't know how the Universe was formed or created, or whether there's an ultimate cause, or a spiritual meaning to life, you certainly are not, by such declaration, affirming your "faith." On the other hand, you are admitting that you lack that positive, conscious affirmation in a divinity, etc. Lacking such faith, you are an atheist.

The wiggle room sought by agnostics (a kind of propitiation of the gods, I suspect - ancient habits die hard) is achieved by driving a distinction between "knowing" and "thinking" or perhaps "believing." Agnostics claim they simply don't know if there is a god or Supreme Being, but they don't rule it out. The distinction, for such questions, is specious, because no one can rule it out. Of course you don't know. Similarly, you can't really say you "know" there is no Supreme Being. We have no tools or sensory apparatus available to us in our Universe that allow us to determine singular conditions existing before the Big Bang (outside of our space-time continuum) or what may have occurred in prior Universes, and the possibility always exists, of course, that the real solution to Leibnitz's question, why is there Something instead of Nothing?, lies in data that are simply not accessible to the human sensory apparatus.

So, think it through and see if Feynman, as usual, hasn't simplified the issue profoundly. You're a believer or you're an atheist. You profess faith, as a positive, conscious attitude, or you don't, and if you're in the second category, however you arrive there, you're an atheist, although in the second category, of course and as in all human endeavors, there is a lot of jostling about who is more pious in their godlessness.