THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 592 October 12 - 18, 2009
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October 12, 2009
Today's Wall Street Journal has an article by Lewis Sorely that everyone
concerned with the Afghan War ought to read. "The Real Afghan Lessons From
Most people think of Viet Nam as one war that began under Kennedy, expanded under Johnson, and ended under Nixon in 1975 with the fall of Saigon and the hasty US evacuation complete with doomed friends of the US unable to catch the last helicopter out, and helicopters being pushed off the fantail to make room for more coming in. In fact there there three wars, and the US won two of them. The first war was a true war of counterinsurgency. It was complicated by Kennedy's lack of understanding of Asian cultures, and his Harvard advisors who believed themselves Machiavellians without understanding what they were doing, but it pretty well ended in 1968 when the Viet Cong expended itself in a series of all-out assaults that resulted in initial victories but ended with the near total destruction of the North's South Vietnamese assets. By summer of 1968 there were essentially no native southern operatives in Viet Nam, and from that year forward the war became one of invasion from the North.
The US Media never understood this (and doesn't to this day although the evidence has been overwhelming for decades). At the same time Abrams introduced his new strategy of building up forces and deploying them to protect the population from infiltrators, while the South Viet Nam government began a massive and successful program to turn Vietnamese peasants into Kulaks from tenants and sharecroppers. The land reform program was highly successful, and tenantry was nearly abolished in major areas of Viet Nam. Former landowners were compensated, and title deeds were distributed.
The Second Vietnamese War ended with the North Vietnamese invasion of 1972 after the US partial withdrawal. There was no similarity between the 1972 invasion and the Tet offensive; in 1972 North Viet Nam sent an armored army of about 20 divisions -- comparable to the army Germany employed in the successful invasion of France in 1940. This invasion was defeated with minimal US casualties, the US employing naval and air power but few ground forces. Of more than 150,000 troops sent South, fewer than a third managed to get back home to North Viet Nam. This was the second US/South Vietnamese victory.
The third war began and ended in 1975 when North Viet Nam sent another armored army south. This was after Watergate, and the Congress of the United States gave no support to Nixon -- and thus abandoned South Viet Nam. Congress voted to supply South Viet Nam with 20 cartridges and four hand grenades per trooper, and gave no air or naval support to our ally. South Viet Nam accordingly fell, and this was the defeat of the US and South Viet Nam.
The lessons from Viet Nam for Afghanistan are not clear. The two countries are not similar, as the Russians learned when they tried to apply the lessons from their victory in South Viet Nam to Afghanistan. Students of the Afghanistan war need to examine just what the Russians did; one thing they will find is that ruthlessness isn't a winning policy.
We also need to study just what it took to convert the victory in the Tet campaign into a lasting and more stable victory; we will discover that it takes a lot of troops, and it takes an armed populace determined to defend itself. It takes long term determination.
In Algeria the French Army tried to make a long term commitment to its allies on the ground. Those who want to know about this are invited to read Larteguy's novels The Centurions and The Praetorians. They're excellent reads. The dilemma in this kind of war is that you invite locals to ally with you and thus mark themselves for death if you ever withdraw -- and you, as a military commander, can't make that commitment, as the French Army found when De Gaulle decided that Algeria -- then legally a part of Metropolitan France as Hawaii and Alaska are part of the United States -- decided that the war was not worth the costs. The result was a massacre of Algerians of all races and religions who could not flee to France itself. The attempted military revolt based on honoring the promises made to the French supporters in Algeria was not successful. The impact of all this on the French military continues to this day.
Consolidating the win in the Tet Offensive required a massive US commitment to Viet Nam -- over half a million soldiers at one time. Viet Nam like Afghanistan had great diversity. The Delta also known as Cochin China was mostly Chinese by ancestry. The rest of the country was mixed in both race and religion, and was far more complex than Afghanistan, but at the same time had less tradition of regional autonomy. There was also a known and demonstrated common enemy to the North.
It is very much worth while studying the Viet Nam War in hopes of discovering truths applicable to Afghanistan, and as Sorley says, it is important that one studies realities, not popular myths posing as history. One lesson is evident: the counterinsurgency phase of the war requires a large, continuing, and credible commitment. Our credibility after Viet Nam is weak: we had won that war and still abandoned our friends to the mercy of an invader.
Do we dare make such a commitment again? If we do, is it actually credible?
The dangers of cloud computing.
There is more to the story, of course. How did they manage to have a single point failure mechanism to begin with?
Eric Pobirs remarks
Of course I have never trusted a cloud to hold the only copy of anything important, and I don't intend to.
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|This week:||Tuesday, October
Apparently we have a health care bill to debate. The details aren't clear.
Meanwhile radio commentators begin with the premise that everyone has a fundamental right to have someone else pay for their health care costs, just as everyone has a fundamental right to have someone else pay for their children's education. The result is a school system that is, perhaps, less than optimal. What the result of applying that principle to health care will be is not so obvious.
Examples of what's wrong with the system: middle aged unemployed professional woman with no health insurance has a bad moment and believes she may have had a minor stroke. Goes to the local hospital, where she is put under observation for a day, and given an aspirin tablet (or she may have taken the aspirin before going there). There may have been an MRI or X-ray; I'm not clear on that, but there is no other treatment and no other prescription. The bill comes to $2200. The explanation is that she has to pay more so they can provide treatment to those who can't pay at all. This is a clear indication that our system is broken. In another case I am familiar with a sixtyish life long smoker, unemployed, ends up in intensive care and gets a heart bypass operation. The bill was about $200,000 which his family (his wife is an employed elementary school teacher but her health care insurance apparently didn't cover her husband's heart condition, probably because of pre-existing conditions) couldn't pay. She was able to get the hospital to drop the charges down to something under $20,000, and they're paying on that in bits. No one knows what the cost really was, of course; the first bill reflected what the hospital mistakenly thought it could get. I have no idea of what relationship the final bill had to actual costs.
The question is, are those cases and others like them both severe enough and common enough to justify fundamental changes in about a sixth of the national economy? That is, perhaps the system is broken but is it so broken that it needs this drastic form of fixing? And if so, what fix? Because the one fix we now will not happen is some modification of the malpractice laws and the tort system. That simple will not happen. There are several other sacred cows that will not be touched no matter what changes are made in the system. That's simple politics. So: given that some of the obvious fixes are impossible, and will not happen, is the system so broke that it needs a fundamental revision that will not make the obvious fixes like tort reform?
Next question: apparently Tennessee and Massachusetts adopted variants of the Obama plan a few years ago. Are they working out well? One major criticism of the present system is that we spend far more on health care than anyone else; are we getting our money's worth? Obvious query: have costs gone down in Tennessee and Massachusetts?
And I ask, again, the obvious: where did your obligation to pay for someone else's health care come from? Under what principle is this to be done? The pragmatic argument is that it will save money if everyone is put under a health care plan, and preventive medicine will save huge amounts. I doubt that those who say this believe it; certainly few others do. We don't need health care reform to put a tax on sugar pop or even to end the sugar protections and subsidies; is that likely? Is there any evidence that preventive medicine applied to an entire population lowers health care costs? Depends, of course, on the preventions: cleaning up toxic wells and providing clean water certainly works. Does exhorting people to lose weight do it? If so, on which audience do the exhortations work?
These are all obvious questions, but I haven't heard them being addressed by those experts who are about to rebuild the health care system in these United States. And I haven't yet heard what the new bill will cost me, but it certainly will cost me something since it curbs Medicare Advantage. Given what Social Security took from me (and still takes) over the years, I would have thought I had earned something. Had I paid the same amounts into TIAA/CREF over my 50 years of employment I suspect I would not have to worry about health care reform. One of my friends retired from Stanford, and now gets from TIAA/CREF more per year than his salary as a full professor. Will government manage health care better than it has managed Amtrak, the Post Office, Social Security, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, the DC public education system -- well you get the idea.
So we shall soon all have the obligation to pay for someone else's doctor bills. I still don't know where you acquired the obligation to pay for mine. I do appreciate those who have volunteered to do that by subscribing.
The Iron Law prevails.
[Note: that seemed a bit high when I posted it, and the definitions are fuzzy as well. I suspect that the higher number assumes full retirement and averages in that plus all benefits, and even then it seems a bit high. I should have caught this when I posted it, but this week I have been doing well to put in a couple of hours a day at the desk. Fortunately this is correctible] See mail, where I have commented at length.
October 14, 2009
I won't speak to the priority statement, and I suspect that it's harder to identify who is Taliban and who is not, but I agree that this is an important documentary and worth the attention of anyone who is interested in the war. The statements by the American leaders demonstrate their understanding of the war.
The coalition is supposed to be building a corruption-free government. Centralization of the government from Kabul appears to be the goal. It has never been achieved since the time of Alexander the Great. Perhaps we can achieve that. Perhaps not.
In any event we need to be clear about objectives, and what we will have when we achieve them. The value to the United States of a functioning Afghanistan is not clear: the only thing they export that we want are drugs, and officially we don't want those. Celeste Ward's statement about 31 minutes into the film sums up much of the difficulty. But there doesn't seem to be a clear exit strategy.
Meanwhile there is Pakistan which has the relationship with India that Palestine has with Israel, only Pakistan has nuclear weapons. So does India.
Once again we have war with adjacent sanctuary areas, coupled with suicide bombers.
I do not believe we have a grand strategy for the region. Given the political reality of the permanent alliance with Israel, along with the deteriorating Israeli/Turkish relationship, we have very limited choices of allies in the region. Our potential allies used to be the Shah of Iran, Ba'athist Iraq, and the secular Turkish military heirs of Ataturk. We allowed the Shah to fall, we destroyed the Ba'athist (secular) regime in Iraq, and the Turkish people are slowly turning against secularism in favor of more pro-Islamic government.
That is reality.
Identification of the US national interests, and what is the least disastrous outcome we can achieve, should be our first goal. Unlike objectives on the ground, assessing our objectives does not require cooperation of the enemy. I do not think we have achieved that yet. Until we do, we can neither win nor withdraw.
I have been under the weather with sore throat and feel lousy symptoms all week. Apologies if I have been rambling.
I have comments in Mail about government salaries explaining yesterday's note.
Email Scam alert -
This is a note from my ISP. I've received several of these fake e- mails (as have my family members/users on the servers). They are VERY well crafted, and have none of the usual flags for a phishing message (poor grammar, obvious links, lack of personalization, etc). I don't know if they are hitting other ISP's as well, but if they haven't yet, they probably will.
Indeed. The point being that you must be vigilant. Don't ever respond to links internal to a message unless you are absolutely certain that the message is authentic. I have got fake messages purportedly from Earthlink that invited me to click to go to my mailbox -- but in fact would have sent me to some other web site entirely. Look at where it wants to send you!
October 15, 2009
I've been down with what Roberta had for the week. Fortunately I got it about the time she began recovery, so we've been able to cope pretty well. I think I'm on the way out of it now. For the week, though, it took its toll, and I haven't been as diligent as I should have been, witness the business with federal employee salaries (I'm very aware that averages aren't useful in describing non-normal distributions and I should have seen that the numbers didn't make sense), as well as the following:
Actually it's a lot more complicated than I had thought. I'm not certain where I got the misconception that Nobel's intentions were changed by the separation of Norway from Sweden after his death. Fortunately, the point of my observation didn't change: the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a political entity, and the others are not so much so.
The details are complex. As I said, the Peace Prize is given by a political entity, unlike the Prizes in Medicine, Literature, and the Sciences (including Economics), which are given by Swedish Institutions: Karolinska Institut (at one time the medical academy of the Swedish Army), the Swedish Academy (modeled on the French Academy: 18 distinguished Swedes elected for life), and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. Nobel did indeed name the Norwegian Storting as the Peace Prize awarding institution; at the time, Norway and Sweden were united under a common king but with separate parliaments. There was a vigorous Norwegian independence movement that resulted in the dissolution of the Union after Nobel's death. Nobel named the Karolinska, Swedish Academy, and Swedish Academy of Science as the other three awarding institutions. Whether this was a commentary on the Norwegian independence movement isn't known to me. Things really got complex when there was a question as to Nobel's citizenship, and apparently he hadn't negotiated anything with the awarding institutions, and the whole thing became a legal mess, complicated by the separation of Norway and Sweden (with threats but not actuality of war).
But the Peace Prize is awarded by a committee appointed by the political government of Norway. The Prizes in Medicine, Literature, and Science are somewhat more insulated from Scandinavian politics, but of course not entirely so.
Fortunately no great harm is done by my negligence, and indeed the incidents illustrate a point I have made before: it's fairly easy to correct mistakes in fact, and when I make them it's nearly certain that someone will call that to my attention. The resulting discussion is often as enlightening as the original statements. Thanks, all.
October 16, 2009
Just came back from a much truncated morning walk, and I find I am not as recovered from whatever I had as I thought. I am utterly exhausted from 4 blocks of walking, a minimal fraction of what we usually do. It is hot in Los Angeles, perhaps a bit warmer than 'normal'. Of course the measures for wrecking the economy are not longer tied to global warming. It's 'Climate Change' now. I'm all for understanding human effects on climate, but that isn't what the money is going for: they are acting as if they already know the cost effectiveness of the tax measures and energy source restrictions.
How constricting energy production will help compensate for global cooling (also a Climate Change) is not known to me. It is likely that the Administration will need an emergency subsidy for heating costs before this winter is over. That's a known effect of the kind of climate change we seem to be experiencing this year. The one certainty of all these Climate Change measures is that the Gore Syndicate will get richer. At some point one wonders when the villagers will begin thinking about torches and pitchforks.
Another thing I am certain of is that increasing the supply and decreasing the cost of energy will do more for stimulating the economy than any thing else we are proposing. One long term effect of the New Deal was the TVA, which actually produced energy. A strong federally sponsored nuclear energy program would produce energy domestically, ease the cash flows going abroad, and lower domestic energy costs. Parallel programs in using electricity for transportation would add to this effectiveness.
Job losses continue. Unemployment increases. The stock market rally is a good sign, but the long term prospects are still fairly grim.
Distributor Price War
Amazon and Wal-Mart are in a price war. See
Others see this differently. It's worth reading the article, particularly Dean Koontz's comments about Crown Books.
My view is that the more people who buy books, the better for all of us in the long run, but it's going to take a while for things to settle in. The one thing we don't need is hasty government intervention. Don't panic. We've been through some of this before. It's a little astonishing that the price war starts just now.
It is said variously that America pays far more for health care than anyone else, and we get less for it. I think the second statement is not true; we get pretty darned good health care, without long waiting lines. I won't insist that we have the world's best but I think one can argue a good bit about the criteria used to determine which countries have the best.
But one reason health care costs so much is this business of the last two years of life. If we could eliminate those two years we would no longer be spending more than others. Or eliminate even one of them.
And that poses real moral dilemmas. We know how to save the money. Have the good grace to die. MIT economist Lester Thurow never put it that bluntly, but he's been talking about this for a least a dozen years, as for instance in the lecture I attended in Boston as part of a AAAS meeting about that long ago when he gave a very good presentation of the dilemma of health care planners, and as part of it talked about the Esquimaux culture's solution: "It's a good day to die." Of course I was considerably younger in those days.
The moral dilemma comes when you try to plan out who shall make these end of life care decisions? And who shall pay for them? If the dying person has the resources to pay for all that expensive treatment, should the state prevent that "waste", so the money can be inherited and subject to inheritance tax? And who shall have the right to speak for the dying person? Who can determine whether that person is mentally competent? But one assumes that the moral principle is clear, the property owner has the right to use that property to preserve every last second of life. Note that even with that clear principle the details get sticky.
Now suppose Grandma doesn't have the resources? Or, if they are used to keep Grandma alive with tubes, all the family resources will be gone, and Grandpa will be on the dole? It's still their property, so that's just another complexity.
Now suppose they don't have the resources at all. Someone else must pay for both their end-of-life expenses. Who is obligated to make that payment? Is it an entitlement for all and an obligation on the public purse (and which public purse, local, state, or federal)? If it's an entitlement for all, then these costs are actually the property of the patient, and the individual decides whether to spend great sums on staying alive.
Of course there are details to worry about. Clearly we can find some cases in which we'd all agree that prolonging life at great expense just isn't worth the money it's costing us. I can also cite cases of 96 year old grandmothers coming out of quadruple by-pass heart surgery with a couple of good years (possibly more) of life ahead. Now what?
These are the questions that need answering when we evaluate the cost/effectiveness of health care. I don't think they are actually being debated in Congress, because the political implications are so great.
More another time: but that's why health care costs so much. So very much of it is spent in the last two years of life. The cost reduction is obvious. What is the effect of that saving, and who decides?
October 17, 2009
I am off to Kaiser Urgent Care to see if they have something useful. I suspect that it's just passage of time that will make me feel better, but if they've got something for flu symptoms I may as well try it. It seemed to work for Roberta, who had about the same sequence of events and timing as me. I'm not getting much done and I doubt I'll get any worse sitting in a waiting room reading a book than I will being here.
I have a lot of responses to Friday's View on Healthcare. There's a perfect storm of attention to the Amazon/Wal-Mart book price war, but no one seems to have a definitive -- read that as persuasive to me -- prediction as to what its effects will be. Anyway, more when I get back. I suppose I can take the Khaos the MacBook Air just in case I come up with an idea while I am out there.
Well, I don't have anything important. I've been prescribed chicken soup. I left the house at 4, and by 6 I was done; I suppose I waited half an hour. I'm a bit ashamed to have wasted their time. Anyway, I don't have walking pneumonia, and nothing that alarms an alert physician. Having a sore throat, headache, and feeling awful doesn't turn out to be treatable. The symptoms are treatable, and I'm doing that. I expect to be all right in a few days. I sure haven't been getting any work done, though.
An interesting if somewhat academic discussion. Clearly the Congress can and will give Obama permission to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. It's fairly clear that he needs Congressional permission to do so. As to the money I had thought that the Nobel was exempt from US income taxes, but I suppose that's not true. Perhaps it was at one time.
October 18, 2009
I found this article in Today's LA Times very interesting:
Finding a way to link to it is another matter: it used to be I would Google the article title with the authors, and get a link to the LA Times itself, but today I am getting a link to http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx which in fact shows me the article (with red tinted key words, which you can get rid of by clicking on help, then back), but which isn't really a link without the key words. It's probably because I am still under the weather -- my visit to Kaiser yesterday served to reassure me that I'll get over this, but not just yet -- but I am not sure I understand what is happening with the links.
Googling "Method disputes long-held notions" gets a different link to press display and a sidebar by Jason Felch and Jason Song, but this time I wasn't able to figure out how to get the red highliter out of it. That article gives a number of long-held notions that now seem to be falsified, including the notion that class-size makes much difference to results, and that credentials have any predictive value in predicting teacher performance. The evidence is that the evaluation systems we use to determine how good or bad teachers are simply have no relevance.
The method in question is called "value added" education, and it's described in the article. The important point here is that a major main stream newspaper is running articles that at least challenge the usual presumptions -- and at least some teacher unions are paying attention.
The problem in US education is that it's pretty clear that one of the most important factors in education is teacher quality. Good teachers can have effects far beyond those of socio-economic background, and even culture. This has been demonstrated over and over. The effect goes beyond the startling achievements of some really good teachers. It reaches down in to the average and below average teachers, to the point where it is now estimated that if we could eliminate the worst 10% of teachers and replace them with "just average" the US education system would have a startling effect:
Note that given union opposition to merit pay for good teachers, and of course even fiercer opposition to firing incompetent teachers, that kind of improvement is unlikely; but it's noteworthy that the evidence shows this would be one of the best things we could do for the country.
My modest proposal: every year the Principal ranks the teachers in the school into two categories, top 80% and bottom 20%. Out of the bottom 20% in a district, 10% have to leave each year: early retirement, quit, we don't care, but out. Choose the ones who go at random in a big drawing. Replace those. That would mean that 2% of the worst 20% would have to leave each year. They'd be replaced with teachers who have an 80% chance (statistically) of being better than the ones who left. It would take a while to improve the schools this way, but at least there would be steady improvement. We could couple that with another lottery: Principals rank the top 20% of teachers, and those are entered into a district wide lottery for a bonus.
I realize this will never be done, but it would almost certainly improve the schools.
At least idea like this are beginning to penetrate into the culture. Google Bill Gates Teacher Quality and you'll get some interesting links, including:
Improving teacher quality is pretty simple just now: get rid of the worst 10% and replace them with average. Even better, find better ways of finding the best potential teachers and have them actually learn something instead of the incredibly dull Mickey Mouse junk taught in most education classes. Have the good teachers learn what it is they are to teach. They already know how to teach it. The best teachers generally hate the required education classes; they'd rather be spending their time learning substantive material. A good math teacher needs to learn more math, not more "math education", and there are plenty of studies showing this. It's pretty true for just about every other subject. There's little improvement in performance from getting advanced degrees in education.
If improving teacher quality is the best way to improve the education system, at least we know the goal -- and we can identify the enemy, which is the teacher unions and the professors of education whose livelihood depends on keeping the awful status quo. It will not be an easy fight. Meanwhile, for those with children to educate, it's something to think about.
I pointed all this out last spring after Gates's report. If you have not
heard Gates on "the next big thing" there's more in the New York Times
Of course actual falsification of the current assumptions isn't going to persuade the teacher unions, but it may begin to affect public understanding.
Good news in this land of the free...
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