Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lessons from Misurata today

Today the city of Misurata, on the coast in western Libya, was full of profitable lessons.

Human Rights Watch saw Gadaffi's forces launching at least three cluster bombs into the es-Shawahda neighborhood, and they recovered unexploded bomblets, MAT-120 120 mm ammunition made in Spain in 2007. Spain banned cluster bombs the following year. Apart from being indiscriminate in where they land, the bomblets often fail to explode until a little kid sees the bright yellow toy and kicks it or picks it up.

Qadaffi's forces had managed to close the port on Thursday, but a Greek ship arrived on Friday and was able to unload 400 tons of supplies and take away 1200 sick people, so the opposition had evidently managed to push Gaddafi back and reopen the port. It appears that the resort to cluster bombs was a desperate response to bad news, and there's no question that this play will bite Gaddafi's butt by strengthening people's commitment to getting rid of him. When we get in trouble and don't trust God, it's very easy to be provoked into doing something stupid that will dig us in deeper. Is Gaddafi the only one with this problem?

The Americans, the British, and the French, who at this point can't imagine walking away with Gaddafi in possession of the field, for sure will play this to justify further action, and it will doubtless work. Gaddafi's cluster bombs will go up into his own heart, just as Psalm 37 says. But as Human Rights Watch explains, for the Americans to be indignant about cluster bombs being used against civilians will cause many to laugh out loud. Human Rights Watch explains:

The widespread use of cluster munitions, especially by U.S. and U.K. ground forces, caused at least hundreds of civilian casualties. Cluster munitions, which are large weapons containing dozens or hundreds of submunitions, endanger civilians because of their broad dispersal, or "footprint," and the high number of submunitions that do not explode on impact. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that it used 10,782 cluster munitions,[2] which could contain at least 1.8 million submunitions. The British used an additional seventy air-launched and 2,100 ground-launched cluster munitions, containing 113,190 submunitions. Although cluster munition strikes are particularly dangerous in populated areas, U.S. and U.K. ground forces repeatedly used these weapons in attacks on Iraqi positions in residential neighborhoods. Coalition air forces also caused civilian casualties by their use of cluster munitions, but to a much lesser degree.

So for the British and Americans to make something of Gaddafi's cluster bombs has a funny sound.

Although lying about it today, the United States and probably Britain have also been using depleted uranium munitions, which will be killing Libyan civilians and causing birth defects and cancer for a long time.

I will be glad to see Gaddafi go. It's pretty disgusting to see people who have a problem with Americans supporting a dictator because "he's our bastard" supporting Gaddafi now because he's their bastard. But I remember Jehu the son of Nimshi, who did away with Ahab's house as instructed, but came to grief because he wouldn't obey God himself. For the Americans to punish Gaddafi as he deserves when they are perfectly OK with committing all of Gaddafi's crimes themselves will assuredly lead to more trouble for the United States of America. I'm saying it now ahead of time: when that happens, there's no reason to suppose that it will be because there was something wrong with defending the Libyan people from Gaddafi. It will arise from the hypocrisy of punishing Gaddafi while doing all his crimes ourselves. The log-in-eye thing again. When we see someone like Gaddafi, let's learn from him not to be like him, before we do anything else.

Omar al-Mukhtar, the leader of Libyan resistance to the Italian colonialists, explained it best. Someone said they wanted to kill the Italian prisoners, and Omar Mukhtar told them, "Don’t do that” One of his fighters said, "But they kill us." And Omar Mukhtar said to him, "But they are not our teachers. Therefore we should not learn wrong from them." Instead, as Ezekiel explained, we should learn from them to act otherwise.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Black swans, and the prosperity of the wicked

Psalms 73 and 37, especially, remark on how the wicked prosper day by day, and then in due time they slip on some banana peel and fall into the fire. I've seen a couple of unusual and interesting descriptions of just how this works from a couple of sharp secular thinkers.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a professional trader that wrote Fooled by Randomness about trading strategies and everyone's inclination to be deceived by seeing apparently meaningful patterns in completely random events. This very easily leads to developing strategies that seem brilliant because they lead to steady gains almost all the time, but they're actually very stupid if they cause you to lose everything through a black swan, an unforeseen random event. One example he gave was his neighbor across the street who was very proud of how well he prospered through the 1990s by buying on the dips. And then the 1998 financial panic came along, and he lost his account in a week, and his job very soon after.

Joseph Stiglitz, writing at Al Jazeera English today ("Gambling with the Planet"), discusses the common failure to think straight that has led both to the calamity at the Fukushima nuclear plant and in the 2008 calamity in the world's financial system. In the first place, we do a very poor job of estimating the risks of rare events, since being rare the sample size is necessarily very small, and our normalcy bias inclines us to think that as it is it will ever be.

Normalcy bias, the notion that if it's always been this way it always will be, is refuted in our lives daily, but we just can't believe the evidence. There's no use telling an 8-year-old boy that some day he won't want to be a fireman and that he will be interested in girls. The most stupid example in my experience is when I had a supercold some years ago. There I was, miserable with a 103 fever, and I realized that I was unable to imagine that I would ever feel any other way. There was no way to think differently. I just had to tell God that I was convinced that I would feel that way for the rest of my life. There was no way I was going to think straight about this. I just had to acknowledge that that was how I was thinking and to state before God that I was just incapable of making any sense.

Everyone is subject to this kind of folly. What ruins the wicked is their lack of humility, their confidence in their own thoughts, and their consequent failure to consult God - why would that be necessary, since we are wise and have figured out how it works. As we read in Psalm 1, Romans 1, and elsewhere in the Bible, that is the essence of wickedness. The bad behavior is just a consequence, not its essence.

Now here what Taleb calls the ludic fallacy comes into the question. The ludic fallacy is the notion that games (Latin "ludus," "game"), our models of reality, actually describe reality. So the wise man says, "I know," but he can't discover, as Ecclesiastes reminds us. Sometimes these can be useful tools, but in fact the complications we have to leave out in order to understand things can easily make all the difference. Black swans fly out of those tiny wrinkles on the pool table, and a whole lot more often than we can expect.

The other thing is that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) executives and school superintendents are not rewarded for thinking about black swans. They're rewarded for how they look this quarter or the 2011-2012 school year, and over such an interval, the guys and girls that ignore the danger of black swans get the best results. For 40 years, TEPCO was rewarded for figuring they'd never see an earthquake over 8.2 or a tsunami over 50 feet high. It was cheaper to site the backup diesel pumps on the ground, and that was no problem, because no tsunami was going to pass over the tsunami wall guarding the plant. So when the International Atomic Energy Agency warned TEPCO in 2008 that their plants were not safe enough, TEPCO blew them off. They already knew they were taking their chances.

It's easy now for our wrath to burn against those idiots, but that makes sense only until we consider our own ways and realize that we too really are those idiots. Since we're all this way, let's budget for it. Let's be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, remembering that wisdom is with the humble. We are designed to malfunction if we close our ears - to other people and especially to God, no matter how bright we may be. It's how God has arranged for pride to go before stumbling, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

This is no academic exercise. The nuclear plant operators and regulators in the United States are no better than their Japanese counterparts. Building the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant on an earthquake fault, rated for only a 7.5 - and the retrofit was accidentally done backwards on the second reactor! - and with no tsunami wall at all, doesn't make a lot more sense than how General Electric designed the Fukushima plant for TEPCO.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The importance of small mercies

I e-filed my federal tax return, and then found a piece of paper that meant that I would have to file a paper 1040-X to fix it. So I spoke to the Lord about it, asking with no real expectation that the IRS would find some reason to bounce it - which would solve my problem. I went back to my email, and the IRS had already just bounced it for a different booboo that gave me another $1300.

We have a friend lately released from the jug who is determined to get himself organized and doesn't feel right about being on everyone else's dole. So when he ran out of money and had nothing to eat this morning, my friend and I prayed about it and discussed it, and we determined that we should fast until he got some food, just to keep the problem on our minds. At one of the state offices he was at today, a woman asked him if he was hungry and laid upon him some eggs and tacos and other things. So we all got to eat.

Neither of these things, if they hadn't been taken care of, would have terribly disrupted our lives. More severe blows are allowed to fall on us all the time. But God's apparent interest in these small difficulties is not small for us, and so doing such small things for others ought to be a big part of how we live.