Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Why People Don't Work Hard

ESPN had an interview with Malcolm Gladwell (author and journalist) where he made an interesting observation. He was asked why people don't work hard when it's in their interests to do so.
The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why [professional golfer] Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

Friday, April 28, 2006

How to stop the genocide in Darfur

The genocide in Darfur has been ongoing for a few years now. It is inexcusable and unacceptable that genocide is happening - again - and no-one's stopping it. After the Holocaust, after Rwanda recently, still the world hasn't sorted out a real plan for stopping genocide, the worst of human evils.

I don't blame America - much. America has its forces tied up in Iraq, not to mention all their other commitments in Afghanistan and Korea and the Balkans and dozens of other countries in the world. I'd prefer that they triple the size of their armed forces so they can do things like STOP GENOCIDE.

Mostly I blame the other prosperous liberal democracies. Or I blame the whole Western social order where people rely on their governments to administer foreign aid, whether financial or military.

So what should be done? First, the Community of Democracies (a new organization that is like the United Nations but only has democracies in it) should create a standing army for the purpose of intervention in genocide. But I'll post about that some other time.

Immediately, we should hire private security companies to do it - companies like Blackwater and DynCorp. The Boston Globe has an article about how these companies are ready to go into Darfur now.
THREE YEARS OF FIGHTING in the Darfur region of Sudan have left an estimated 180,000 dead and nearly 2 million refugees. In recent weeks, both the UN and the US have turned up the volume of their demands to end the violence (which the Bush administration has publicly called genocide), but they've been hard pressed to turn their exhortations into action. The government in Khartoum has scuttled the UN's plans to take control of the troubled peacekeeping operations currently being led by the African Union, and NATO recently stated publicly that a force of its own in Darfur is ''out of the question." Meanwhile, refugee camps and humanitarian aid workers continue to be attacked, and the 7,000 African Union troops remain overstretched and ineffective.

But according to J. Cofer Black, vice chairman of the private security firm Blackwater, there is another option that ought to be on the table: an organization that could commit significant resources and expertise to bolster the African Union peacekeepers and provide emergency support to their flagging mission.

A few weeks ago, at an international special forces conference in Jordan, Black announced that his company could deploy a small rapid-response force to conflicts like the one in Sudan. ''We're low cost and fast," Black said, ''the question is, who's going to let us play on their team?"
They're not actually proposing to stop the genocide actually, just basically to protect the humanitarian workers who help the survivors. But it's a start.
Today, private military companies are offering defensive services-they propose to secure refugee camps and vulnerable villages, guard humanitarian aid agencies and NGOs, or, depending on the requirements of the contract, assist peacekeepers like the African Union troops in Darfur.
Private security companies have done combat missions in the past. I hope that they do again, if it's a choice between that and no-one stopping a genocide.
In the mid and late '90s, the South African firm Executive Outcomes and British firm Sandline International offered direct combat support to the governments of Angola and Sierra Leone. In Angola, 500 ex-special forces officers working for Executive Outcomes conducted sophisticated airstrikes and commando operations to help the Angolan military retake its diamond mines and oil fields from the rebel group UNITA. In Sierra Leone, Executive Outcomes and later Sandline were hired to combat the RUF insurgency. With targeted helicopter attacks and ground assaults, both firms dominated tactically, but fighting broke out soon after their respective contracts ended.
There are problems with mercenaries conducting combat missions, of course, but you know what's worse? Genocide.

Thanks to Steve for the link. Steve's as mad as I am that genocide still happens.

Blackwater has an interesting newsletter, by the way. I've been subscribed for months.

How Lisa Came To Israel

A friend of Michael Totten's wrote a one, two, three, four, five, six-part series of entries about her experience in Israel 2000-2002. She arrived in September 2000 and describes an Israel full of hope and vigor. The intifada started in October. Her description of the war's effect on society is interesting:
People reacted differently to the daily violence of 2002. Some, like my friend Diana, hibernated. She coined the term GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) for her emotional state. When I sent her an SMS inquiring, "Meet me for coffee?" she sent a cryptic reply: "Nope. GAD." Others insisted on living their lives as usual, and there was actually an amazing flurry of creativity that winter: new bars opened all the time; there were tons of new art exhibitions and many theatre and music performances. I could hardly keep up with it all. A lot of people were in a constant state of anxiety, and feared crowded places like shopping malls. Some became violent: there was a marked upswing in physical altercations between strangers over things like parking spaces and jumping what passes for a queue in Israel. Most of all, people were depressed.

Nearly all my diary entries for December 2001-May 2002, when I left for Tokyo, contain some reference to depression. I was depressed, and so was practically everyone I knew. I remember someone joking during that time that what Israel needed was a crop duster to fly over the country and spray liquid Prozac on the population.

The thing is, it wasn't a black existential depression. I didn't know anybody who was wondering about the point of being alive; in fact, there was a pervasive atmosphere of living life to its fullest. I cannot remember a single evening spent alone against my will during that entire half year. Either friends dropped over to hang out, talk desultorily and listen to music, or we went out - to lounge bars, music clubs, gallery openings and house parties. Every place and event I attended was packed with people, even at 3:00 AM on a weekday, even though hardly anyone had any money, and even though the inevitable presence of tough-looking, armed security guards was a constant reminder of the danger all around us.

And that buzz of sexual energy that is one of Tel Aviv's characteristics became a full-fledged roar. The Tel Aviv singleton's standard joke at the beginning of each winter is that it's time to find someone to help keep the bed warm during the cold, damp rainy season. But that winter finding a partner was about more than just keeping the bed warm; it was about pulling the duvet high over our heads and creating a warm little tent of safety and comfort. Nobody defined the quest for intimacy in those terms; that kind of self-awareness comes only in retrospect. But reading over my diaries and talking recently with friends has made it pretty clear that the natural human desire for intimacy was fulfilled with unusual intensity that year.

Michael Totten in Israel

Michael Totten's gone to Israel now.
Arab countries have a certain feel. They’re masculine, relaxed, worn around the edges, and slightly shady in a Sicilian mobster sort of way. Arabs are wonderfully and disarmingly charming. Israel felt brisk, modern, shiny, and confident. It looked rich, powerful, and explicitly Jewish. I knew I had been away from home a long time when being around Arabs and Muslims felt comfortably normal and Jews seemed exotic.

First impression are just that, though. They tend to be crazily out of whack and subject to almost instant revision. Israel, I would soon find out, is a lot more like the Arab and Muslim countries than it appears at first glance. It’s not at all a little fragment of the West that is somehow weirdly displaced and on the wrong continent. It’s Middle Eastern to the core, and it has more in common with Lebanon than anywhere else I have been. The politics and the history are different, of course. But once I got settled in Tel Aviv I didn’t feel like I had ventured far from Beirut at all.

How to get up on time

Steve Pavlina has written an article called How to Get Up Right Away When Your Alarm Goes Off. This is something I've had a lot of trouble with in the past, and I still haven't solved it. These days I usually sleep under my desk, and people usually wake me up at a reasonable time, so there's a temporary solution. (I know that's really weird. We're in a crunch period right now, shut up.)

Anyway, Pavlina's article has a great suggestion in it, and I'll implement it when I go back to sleeping at home. Go read it if you have trouble getting up in the morning. And if you have that problem, consider that you may have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (Wikipedia link). More info on that here (I'm not sure how reliable that page is, so don't take my link as an endorsement).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Michael Totten's Weekend in Kurdistan

I've written about Michael Totten's adventures in Iraqi Kurdistan before. While visiting Turkey with a friend recently, he decided to spend another weekend there. He tells the story in one, two, three, four, five, six parts.
“Remember, Sean,” I said. “This country borders Greece and Bulgaria. But it also borders Iraq.”

I could all but hear the gears turn in his head.

“That’s right,” he said and put his hand over his mouth. “Holy shit, we could drive to Iraq.”

I knew the instant he said it that we would, indeed, drive to Iraq. Who cares about Troy when we could drive to Iraq?
It's hard to convey what it's actually like meeting Iraqi Kurds. Fleshing out the dialogue doesn't capture the feel of it. Americans and Kurds don't just get along because we're temporary allies of convenience in the Middle East. The connection is deeper and personal. Kurdish culture and American culture might as well be from different planets. But somehow, oddly enough, Kurds think much like Americans do. Let me rephrase that: Americans think like the Kurds. We have similar values despite our extraordinarily different cultural backgrounds. I find it easier to develop a rapport with Iraqi Kurds than with people from any other country I have ever been to. It's instant, powerful, and totally unexpected.
It’s hard to write about Dohok because the place is so normal. Getting there is an adventure, but there is little adventure to be found after arrival. The most remarkable thing about the city is how unremarkable it is.

The first time I went there on a day trip from Erbil it seemed like such an innocent place. After seeing the rough hell of Turkish Kurdistan, though, and realizing that the Kurds in Iraq had it even worse under Saddam, it did not seem so innocent to me anymore. Iraqi Kurds struck me as deeply, profoundly, mature. It took so much work, blood, and sacrifice to build what they have. And they built it from nothing.

Iraq is the only country in the world where Kurds wield any power. They're ground down under the majoritarian boot everywhere else. For the most part they wield their power responsibly. Government corruption is still just atrocious, and they haven’t yet fully emerged from a traditional society into a completely liberal and modern one. A Kurdish journalist was recently thrown in prison after a fifteen minute show trial for blasting the KDP in a newspaper column. He was later released, but he’s not yet out of trouble. The Kurdish quasi-state wants to be liberal, but still doesn’t quite understand how or what that means.

Even so, they’ve made more progress in the region than anyone else except, perhaps, for the Lebanese and the Israelis. And they started a mere fifteen years ago from the bottom of Saddam’s mass graves. From the Mouth of Hell to…the Utah of the Middle East. By force of sheer will against extraordinarily long odds.
I still want to go there.

The First and Last Line of Defense

"A passenger who claimed to have a bomb aboard a United Airlines flight was subdued by passengers as the California-bound plane was diverted to Denver International Airport, airport officials said."
Cool (via Instapundit).

US Death Rate Falls

If preliminary government figures are accurate, the US death rate fell significantly in 2004.
In what appears to be an amazing success for American medicine, preliminary government figures released Wednesday showed that the annual number of deaths in the U.S. dropped by nearly 50,000 in 2004 - the biggest decline in nearly 70 years.

The 2 percent decrease, reported by the National Center for Health Statistics, came as a shock to many, because the U.S. is aging, growing in population and getting fatter. In fact, some experts said they suspect the numbers may not hold up when a final report is released later this year.
There's not much discussion in the AP article of why this might have occurred, except this:
Improvements in medical care, particularly in medications aimed at preventing heart disease, at least partly explain the improvements in the heart disease death rate, said Ken Thorpe, an Emory professor of health policy.
My impression is that Western consumers have recently become more health-conscious. This can be seen in the new healthy options offered at fast-food restaurants such as McDonalds and Burger King, and the rise of Subway. I wonder whether the lowered death rate is related to the health trend?

Update: some more speculation at FuturePundit's blog. You can see the actual report here. Apparently, a report that includes a more complete analysis of the preliminary data is forthcoming.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Happiness is working for yourself

The University of Durham has published a study showing that running your own business will make you happier than working for others, according to the Daily Mail. That sounds right to me, but did they manage to separate correlation from causation? Maybe being happy leads you to run your own business, rather than running your own business leads you to be happy.
Working for yourself will make you much happier than those employed by others, according to research.

People who run their own businesses have such flexibility and independence that they enjoy far greater job satisfaction, experts claim.
But the self-employed earn less.
The self-employed work longer hours for lower wages than their wage-slave counterparts.

Scientists found entrepreneurs put up with longer hours because they were worried about how much money they would have in the future.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Next Ten Years

The Speculist has some predictions for technological advances in the next ten years.
-Another branch of medicine, Native Transplant, allows scientists to grow organs from a patient's own stem cells for later transplant within the body. As a result, the field of artificial organs is basically shelved for a few years.

-Artificial blood is perfected. Patients who have lost the ability to produce blood are now given permanent blood replacement. These patients find that the artificial blood is superior. The medical community begins discussing the idea of blood replacement within healthy individuals as an elective procedure.

-A once-a-day oral medication that limits absorption from the digestive tract aids the battle against obesity. It quickly becomes the most prescribed medication in the history of the country. Some predict that exercise will be abandoned in favor of pill-popping. The opposite happens as Americans get out and enjoy their healthier bodies.

-The first tentative steps are taken toward life extension. By 2014, life extension enthusiasts have reason to believe that "escape velocity" has been reached in this field – each year brings more than a year's improvement in life expectancy. Nevertheless, age reversal remains elusive.
There's more.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Remembering Sergeant Thomas Baker

Sergeant Thomas Baker, Medal of Honor recipient, was killed in action in Saipan, Mariana Islands in 1944. The citation for his medal is incredible.
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty at Saipan, Mariana Islands, 19 June to 7 July 1944. When his entire company was held up by fire from automatic weapons and small-arms fire from strongly fortified enemy positions that commanded the view of the company, Sgt. (then Pvt.) Baker voluntarily took a bazooka and dashed alone to within 100 yards of the enemy. Through heavy rifle and machinegun fire that was directed at him by the enemy, he knocked out the strong point, enabling his company to assault the ridge.

Some days later while his company advanced across the open field flanked with obstructions and places of concealment for the enemy, Sgt. Baker again voluntarily took up a position in the rear to protect the company against surprise attack and came upon 2 heavily fortified enemy pockets manned by 2 officers and 10 enlisted men which had been bypassed. Without regard for such superior numbers, he unhesitatingly attacked and killed all of them. Five hundred yards farther, he discovered 6 men of the enemy who had concealed themselves behind our lines and destroyed all of them.

On 7 July 1944, the perimeter of which Sgt. Baker was a part was attacked from 3 sides by from 3,000 to 5,000 Japanese. During the early stages of this attack, Sgt. Baker was seriously wounded but he insisted on remaining in the line and fired at the enemy at ranges sometimes as close as 5 yards until his ammunition ran out. Without ammunition and with his own weapon battered to uselessness from hand-to-hand combat, he was carried about 50 yards to the rear by a comrade, who was then himself wounded. At this point Sgt. Baker refused to be moved any farther stating that he preferred to be left to die rather than risk the lives of any more of his friends. A short time later, at his request, he was placed in a sitting position against a small tree.

Another comrade, withdrawing, offered assistance. Sgt. Baker refused, insisting that he be left alone and be given a soldier's pistol with its remaining 8 rounds of ammunition. When last seen alive, Sgt. Baker was propped against a tree, pistol in hand, calmly facing the foe. Later Sgt. Baker's body was found in the same position, gun empty, with 8 Japanese lying dead before him. His deeds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.

The Coming Normalcy

Robert Kaplan, writing in the Atlantic, has an interesting overview of the Iraq situation called The Coming Normalcy (PDF link). He offers some optimism, some reflections on the impact of international media on the insurgent's strategies, plenty of criticism of the US for not providing enough money for job-creating projects, and much more.
When the 1-25 "Lancers” arrived in Mosul, in September of 2004, the city and its environs were a violent no-go zone, having seen several thousand insurgent attacks, not to mention more than a thousand explosions from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The local police had largely deserted, dropping from an on-paper force of 10,000 to an irrelevance of 300. But by the time 1-25 left Mosul, a year later, mortar attacks alone had fallen from 300 a month to fewer than ten. Other forms of insurgent activity dropped to the point where international journalists no longer considered Mosul an important part of the ongoing Iraq story—a fact evidenced by their thin presence in the city. Meanwhile, the local police force was now back up to 9,000, and the number of police stations had expanded from five to twenty-four. More important, the number of intelligence tips called in by the local population had risen from essentially zero to some 400 per month.


Norris offered a reflection on the Iraqis he deals with. "Some love us. Some hate us because we've accidentally killed their relatives. Others would rather we just leave. But whenever we kill a terror hideout and return an area to some semblance of normalcy, people come out and say thank you. A big problem is the daily, low-level kidnappings of professionals that don't make news but help provide a cash flow for the insurgents.
"On the other hand,” he went on, "we benefit because the international media doesn't want to leave the greater Baghdad area. With no international media in Mosul on a regular basis, there's been less of an incentive [for the insurgents] to do car bombings.”


A Sunni Arab shopkeeper said to me: "When American troops patrol the streets with the Iraqi army, it is so awful and humiliating for us, because we know those Iraqi soldiers are really Kurds. Your occupation has strengthened our enemies.” This young man, the son of a former general in Saddam Hussein's army, engaged me in conversation for more than half an hour. I liked him. He turned out to be uncannily objective in his own way. He had just come back from Syria, upon which he heaped praise. "Syria now is so much better than Iraq,” he said. "It is under tight control, so people there feel safe and can go about their lives with dignity. You Americans think you have brought freedom; you have just allowed the thugs from the villages to kill and rob from the educated people whom Saddam had protected.”
"Your father liked Saddam?” I probed.
"My father hated Saddam,” he replied. "He spit on him—in the home, that is. As long as you obeyed the rules by not criticizing the regime outside of your home, you were fine. With Saddam, there were clear rules; now there are none. Now we are caught between the Americans and the insurgents. Everybody hates terrorism, but we're more vulnerable than you.”
"Should the Americans leave?” I asked.
"No,” he said. "That would only make things worse.” He told me that he was impressed with the American military, as long as it was alone and not with the Iraqi army. But he admitted that the Iraqi police had improved, and that Mosul was no longer the battle zone it had been the year before. "Your soldiers are disciplined. They don't scare people by shooting their guns in the air, like ours.”
"But that discipline,” I argued, "is an indirect effect of a free society, which allows the military to constantly criticize itself.”
"No, no,” he said. "What good is voting if the Shiites and Kurds will vote, too? Elections are useless without water, sewage, electricity, and safety.”
"So you won't vote on December 15?”
"Maybe I will vote. What else is there to do?”
He was a mass of understandable contradictions.
More confusing was that another shopkeeper recommended the opposite: that U.S. soldiers should always patrol with the Iraqi army. If you applied every recommendation you got talking to Iraqis on just one street, you'd wind up doing exactly what you were doing before.


But it is simply impossible for the soldiers to be wholly liked. There is no nice way to barge into people's houses, bristling with weapons, stomping your dusty boots on their Oriental rugs, and expect it to be a pleasant experience for them, even if you hand out candy to their kids and replace a lock you had to break with a new one.


Great numbers of such seemingly ineffectual searches did work, to the extent that they kept terrorists on the run (or at least inconvenienced), forcing the insurgents to hide their guns and bomb-making paraphernalia outside their homes. But it was an inefficient way to make progress, and it bred hostility. If this keeps up, I thought, the Americans will end up being as hated in Iraq as the Israelis are in the West Bank. But it will be worse for the Americans, because they will be hated even as they are not feared.


The U.S. military was attempting to plug a dike holding back an ocean of potential unrest, and was deeply handicapped by the fact that it had no visible large-scale public-works projects to soak up crime and mass unemployment. Only such projects could show Sunni Arabs—politically weaker than ever in Iraq—the tangible benefits of democracy.


"We can race around the battlefield and fix little problems,” one Army major complained to me, "but where is the State Department and USAID to solve the big problems?” Whereas commentators in Washington tend to blame the machinations of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon for keeping the State Department out of Iraq, all of the mid-level military officers I spoke with—each of whom desperately wanted to see civilian aid and reconstruction workers here—said that if the State Department got the requisite funding, it could be as bureaucratically dynamic as their own battalions, and infrastructure-rebuilding would not be where it appeared to be: at the zero point.
Go read it all, if Iraq's your thing.