Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Partisanship in the modern world

During the primaries for the 2000 election, Al Gore said that he took the initiative in creating the internet. That led to charges that he claimed to have invented the internet, which was nothing at all like he said.

What he said was clumsy, I won't deny it. If he'd had time to plan what to say (remember, it was an interview question), I imagine he'd have said something like "In Congress, I championed the internet, and many other initiatives that led to a great deal of economic development". If anyone had bothered to ask him, that's probably what his answer would have been... he stood behind many things that helped the nation.

But no one was really interested in learning what he was trying to say. They were having too much fun smearing him with a lie.

Now, it's one thing to attack someone over an honest misunderstanding. It's careless and nasty, but hey, if it's an honest misunderstanding, at least you think it's real.

It's another thing to hear someone flub a statement in a speech or an interview and try to smear them for that.

Which is exactly what's happening today to John Kerry.

He had just said, at a campaign rally at Pasadena College that Bush used to live in Texas, and now lives in a state of denial. He continued on, talking about education, and his planned remarks had him saying that folks should work hard and try to be smart, or they might end up "getting us stuck in Iraq."

Like, you know, George Bush, living in a state of denial, and proud that he's no big braniac, has gotten us stuck in Iraq.

Instead, he said "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." This is still true, but ambiguous; George W. Bush is stuck in Iraq, unable to end the war that he started.

But now, folks are spreading a lie. They're saying that Kerry claimed the troops are stupid and uneducated, and that's why they're "stuck in Iraq". It's not what he said, it's not what he meant, and the GOP leadership knows this.

They know full well that John Kerry wouldn't insult the troops like that. They know full well that his explanation is correct.

But they don't care... because they think hatred of Kerry can rally their base. So they're willing to lie. And this isn't just a lie where they're distorting something to make it look bad. This is the GOP leadership choosing to invent a hateful story out of whole cloth, just so they can smear someone who isn't even running for office, in hopes that hate will provide them the momentum that their failed policies can not.

Do people like that deserve to be leading America?

Lessons for Republicans: the Iraq war

Every now and again, I feel like running an entry called "Lessons for Republicans: Cutting Through The Crap".

Because I know that the Republican Party is spreading untruths, but what worries me is that a lot of Republicans seem to think that these lies are actually cogent arguments. Now, it's one thing to lie, and say, for example, that the war in Iraq is defensible at this point. It's another to believe that it was a good idea to put so many resources and so many lives into a monstrous screwup like that.

If you're going to speak bullshit, that's bad... but you should at least have enough respect for yourself to recognize when you're speaking bullshit.

Let's look at one idea that's being spread: Iraq is the central front in the War On Terror.

Now, before we invaded, was Iraq a big terrorist haven? Well, there were some terrorists working there, mostly in Kurdish controlled Iraq. Remember the stories of the terror training camps? Yep, that's where they were, in areas that Saddam didn't quite control.

Saddam did support terror attacks against Israel, make no mistake, but we had other places where we could spend hundreds of billions of dollars, and the services of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers, to get a better return on stopping terrorism.

No, Iraq just wasn't the big terror supporter that we were worried about. There weren't large numbers of terrorists in Iraq, just waiting for the right chance to attack us.

And then we invaded, and painted a big target on our soldiers and their military equipment, and suddenly, the terrorists show up there.

Is this a surprise? Of course not. Look, when a terrorist attacks a civilian target in a time of peace, people get angry, and the terrorist is now on the run, forever. People don't forget.

What happens if a terrorist attacks a soldier in Iraq? There isn't going to be the same kind of outrage, or the same kind of investigation. It's a warzone; soldiers get attacked. Moreover, the soldiers have to move around, delivering supplies, running patrols, etc.. There are dozens of targets of opportunity.

Moreover, what happens if the terrorists decide that they'd like to go blow up a building in America right now. Are they forced to stay in Iraq? Of course not! They don't have anything tying them there! If they're there, it's only because they want to be there, because they have more, and better, targets to attack there.

Do the terrorists think that Iraq is the central front in their battle against the US? Of course they do! It's the place where we have the largest concentration of the most vulnerable people and most expensive equipment, and if they don't get killed during the attack, no one is ever going to care about what they did, ever again.

The question is, what can we do to make it so the battle hurts them more than us?

The answer is, unfortunately, not much. If the Iraqis were to suddenly becom Iraqis, more interested in Iraq than they were interested in being Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, if they were to band together and form a strong, secure government, if the militias all stopped fighting other Iraqis and patrolled the streets to arrest lawbreakers and terrorists, if the murders and torture-killings stopped, and the police stopped covering up for (or performing) these despicable acts, then we could imagine that the terrorists who attack our troops would be found and imprisoned. But right now, we don't expect that will happen.

Is Iraq a major battle involving terrorists? Yes, it is. But the way things are going now, it's not a battle that can be won. Something has to change, and it has to be a lot more than a mere tactical change. With the best tactics in the world, we'll still have our soldiers walking around, vulnerable to attacks from terrorists who, if they escape after the attack, will get away cleanly.

My feelings regarding Iraq are this: we made a terrible mess of the place, and we have a duty to help clean it up. However, that doesn't mean letting our soldiers walk around with big targets painted on them, where their attackers might be able to escape any and all punishment for hurting or killing them. So, someone should have been working on a way to change things a long time ago, and they haven't.

But, that's not the main thrust of this article. The point I wanted to raise here was, a lot of Republicans seem to think that, somehow, having our soldiers walk around where they can be attacked is a good thing, that it's "fighting the War On Terror" in a useful way, and that's pure bullshit. And I can't blame them for spreading that bullshit, because complaining about politicians lying is like complaining about babies filling their diapers. It's going to happen, when the politician, or the baby, is full of... well, you know.

But lies shouldn't be the basis of policy. Politicians need to know when they're lying. And I'm not sure that the Republican leadership realizes that they're lying, because their actions are the same as they would be if they thought they were telling the truth.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The blessings...

So, how are you feeling today?

You feeling hungry? Maybe something in your refrigerator would be tasty. If not, maybe the cupboard. Heck, if that doesn't work, maybe the store. Is it too far to walk? Well, maybe you can take your car, or ride a bike, or catch a bus.

Maybe along the way, you'll see someone, some cute member of the appropriate sex, and chat that person up, and maybe flirt a little. Are you attached? Do you have someone you love and who loves you, do you have no space in your life for a new romantic partner? You can still smile, and play, and bring that energy home, and fantasize a bit about what it might have been like. But if you're available, maybe you could hope to hit it off, and exchange phone numbers (e-mail addresses, IM identities, etc..).

Or maybe you got tongue tied, and couldn't say anything. You can still dream, and fantasize of another world where you were smooth, and funny, and made this new person happy, and you went on to have wonderful times (and hot, happy sex). If your fantasies have made you horny, don't be ashamed, just slip into a private room for a few minutes, and revel in the pleasure of such dreams.

Maybe you're not hungry; maybe you're just a bit antsy, and want to go for a walk. Get up, get whatever clothing on you need, go out there, and walk, and feel how good the fresh air feels all around you, and think about how gloriously free you feel. Your body is made to move; once you get into a good rhythm, you'll feel good moving.

Or maybe... maybe you want to call up some friends and watch the Big Game, or go to a movie, or maybe just have a couple of beers and hang out.

Maybe you heard your favorite musician has a new album out, and you and your friend will head out to the music store; you think the Beatles were the epitome of genius, while your friend is a Bruce Springteen worshipper, and every now and then, one of you riffs on Billy Joel, just because it's fun to argue about the big names out there.

How's your job? If it's good, smile and think about how lucky you are, with so many people stuck in dead-end jobs. If it's bad, well, maybe you can think about how to make it better. Can you study? Hit the library and pick up some books! Or maybe you've just been lazy, and if you buckled down a bit, you could win a raise, or maybe even a promotion. Maybe if you start exercising a bit, the extra energy you'll have, and the discipline of regular exercise, will help you perform better at work. Or... come on, let's admit it. Maybe right now, you like being lazy, and just getting by at your job. Maybe you like feeling that you're pulling your weight, and pulling down a fair paycheck, and right now, that's enough. Maybe you'll make it your New Year's resolution to buckle down an work harder and get some more responsibility and more money.

How's your relationship status? Are you in love? Wonderful! Are things going well? Well, if not, you can try to work on it, can't you? You can talk things out, you can think about what's changed, you can decide to maybe take a break from each other, and see what else is out there.

You're hungry now? Maybe you could fix yourself a steak, a nice, juicy steak, but maybe... maybe what you really want is a peanut butter sandwich. With strawberry jam. You can have one. It's no problem. In fact, you can have two. You can have one now, and have one at 1:30 tomorrow morning.

You sitting comfortably there? Maybe you need another chair? I'm sure you have a couple different chairs you can choose from, and maybe you have a pillow or cushion you could select to get some extra padding if you need it. Isn't that nice?

If your life is good, that's wonderful, but even if it's not, the wonderful thing about the life you have is that you have freedom. You can try to change things, and if you don't know how to change things, you can try to learn to change things. You have freedom.

Which means you're immeasurably better off than the people that President Bush and the Republican Congress have said the US is allowed to imprison, without having to do so much as show cause to hold them.

Remember that: we're not talking about a criminal trial, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We're talking basic habeas corpus, showing a reasonable cause to detain a person to a neutral judge. If you can't show that cause, you let the person go, because freedom is just too precious.

The person is a terrorist? Well, if we know that, we have cause, don't we? Even if we don't have proof, we have enough evidence to justify the suspicion, and a judge will let us hold that person.

The person is a member of the Taliban? Again, if we know that, we have cause, and can show it to a judge.

The person has been engaged in hostilitie against the us? If we know that, we have cause, and can show it to a judge.

What if the person was just handed over to us, because we were offering a bounty for every terrorist and Taliban member? Shouldn't we let that person go? What if the person looked suspicious, but when we checked things out, it turned out there wasn't any real basis for the suspicion? Shouldn't we let that person go? What if it was mistaken identity, or a person pulled up in a sweep, some poor schmoe in the wrong place at the wrong time? Shouldn't we let that person go?

I mean think about it. People have been asking why these prisoners "deserve" rights, but the real question is, what grounds do we have to remove all the millions of benefits that come from being free?

They eat what they're told to eat, unless the military is feeling awfully generous; they can't decide what to eat, or when to eat it, and can't just pop off to the store for something else.

They're not going to meet any cute members of the appropriate sex; if they do, they won't be able to smile, and flirt, and dream about what might be; they're prisoners, and nothing's going to happen. They can't slip into a private area with a goofy grin on their face for a quick, dreamy bit of masturbation; they aren't given any privacy, for fear of plotting or suicide attempts. They can't just get up and go for a walk, and feel how good the fresh air and exercise feels. They can't decide to watch the Big Game, or go out to a movie, or buy the latest CD of their favorite artist.

They haven't got jobs, they can't hope for advancement, and they're seeing years, years that they could be using to build up their lives, slipping away, day by day. They can't try to fix their relationships, or decide to break them off, and look for new ones, and if they have families, they can worry about whether their families will still recognize them. They can't even get up and decide they'd like a lousy peanut butter sandwich, with strawberry jam... they can ask the guard, and who knows, maybe the guard's in a good mood, but even a tiny thing like that is out of their hands.

They have no choices, they have no freedom, and they are kept in misery.

And President Bush and the Republican Congress have said that's okay. They're satisfied with that.

Bush and the Republican Congress decided that America, founded on the nation that every single person on the face of the planet has the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, should make it legal to hold these people, and deprive them of all the blessings of liberty, without even having to show that there's a good reason to do so.

And it must be okay, they reason, because the American people still support them. Right?

It's long past time for America to show them that they're wrong.

Don't blame Bush...

You know, it must be nice to be President Bush. Nothing is ever your fault. Nothing.

Let's just look at the war in Iraq.

Sure, he didn't tell folks that there were huge doubts about the intelligence suggesting there were WMDs in Iraq. He didn't tell the American people that he, himself, recognized that the intelligence was weak. But that's not his fault; George Tenet told him it was a "slam dunk", so, really, it's Tenet's fault. The CIA is the agency that overhyped the intelligence.

And that bit about uranium from Niger? That wasn't his fault. Sure, the trip that Joseph Wilson made was pretty convincing; Wilson showed that if Iraq had purchased uranium, it would have raised red flags everywhere, and he found out that Niger had everything to lose if they broke the sanctions around Iraq, and, honestly nothing to gain. Sure, there were some people who were asking questions about "expanding trade relations"... but the word "uranium" never came up. But, that's not Bush's fault. See, this was all done under the authority of the CIA, and they were always trying to cripple the Bush administration, by not giving strong intelligence supporting Iraq's WMD programs!

The war planning, well, sure, a lot of career military men said it would take hundreds of thousands of soldiers to provide security, and Bush sent less than 200,000, but that's not Bush's fault. He had other generals that said they could win the war on the cheap, and he listened to them instead. How can you blame Bush for following bad advice?

And when it was clear there weren't enough soldiers to provide security, that wasn't Bush's fault either. With the Democrats harping on his every move, how can you expect him to stop listening to the generals who gave him bad advice, and start listening to the people who turned out to be right? A real man doesn't admit to errors; a real man keeps people from seeing such weaknesses, right?

And that America had to rule Iraq for a long time, that wasn't Bush's fault. Sure, Ahmed Chalabi was a fraud and a scammer, and had fed the US bad intelligence, and wouldn't have been able to work with other Middle Eastern nations, but how as Bush supposed to know that? He had a war to plan, and that's hard work!

And it's not like he could just appoint another government! No, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani insisted on free elections. Bush suggested caucuses, but, no, Sistani insisted on elections. And with security going to hell, elections would take time to set up, so that wasn't Bush's fault, either.... neither was the security going to hell, that was the fault of the insurgency. Sure, maybe more troops would have helped out, but the generals didn't request more troops, and Bush trusts his generals... even when things get worse, and worse, and worse, he keeps trusting those generals. You wouldn't want a commander in chief who goes to a general and says "You clearly can't handle this situation; I'm putting in someone who can," do you?

And the 600,000 Iraqis who've probably died because of this invasion? That's definitely not Bush's fault. You can't blame him; Saddam Hussein was an evil man, and if taking him out meant killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, well, that's just what a strong leader has to do, right? Good leaders don't fuss and fret about the deaths of innocent people... they do what's necessary.

Look, George W. Bush is doing a hard and thankless job, okay? And he's doing it all alone. All those Represenatives and Senators can't give him advice; he can't listen to it because he's the unitary executive. And plus, if they disagree with him publicly, it might hurt Republican chances of winning the elections in November, so they can't do that. Plus, it must be awfully lonely since he dismissed one of the most repsected military men on the planet, Colin Powell, who advised him not to start this war.

Just think about this: it's hard work to send men off to war, to toil for countless hours in a land far from home, never knowing if the next day might bring killing or death. It's hard work to sit in the Oval Office aware that, even now, events might be spinning out of control, because of a war you pushed for. It's hard work to think that we could lose thousands and thousands of more soldiers before this is done, some of our best and brightest, and certainly some of our most self-sacrificing. It's hard work to think of all of the wounded people, those who've lost limbs, those who've lost friends, and those who've lost hope.

It's hard work to think about all of those things. It's hard work to start a war that leads to all of those things.

Don't blame George Bush. He's working hard... can't you just hear the sincerity in his voice when he says so?

I can't... but it must be there, because I've heard so many Republicans agree that it is.

Christianity and culture wars

There are a good many people who believe that Christianity is in a "culture war", and that Christians are being driven back, and must fight back.

Now, me, personally, I'm cynical. I think that's just a hell of a good line to use to whip up support, and to allow Christians to become braggarts, seeking their reward from man, not God. After all, you can be as pious as you want in public if it's part of fighting a culture war; sure, Jesus wouldn't approve, but Jesus didn't have people trying to fight a war on Christmas!

(Please tell me that some people are laughing at the joke... or, at least, recognizing it.)

But let's pretend, just for a bit, that there is an honest-to-goodness culture war, with Christianity fighting for its survival. Why?

What is it that's getting people so riled up about Christianity?

Is it that you can't talk to a Christian without getting an earful about how important it is to help the poor and the sick, and to seek justice in all ways for all people?

Is it because there was going to be this big, glorious war to liberate Iraq and find the WMDs, but the Christians stood up and said that without stronger proof of a real danger, it would be immoral to put so many people's lives at risk? After all, Jesus said that one must love one's enemies, so even if the Iraqis were our enemies, they deserved mercy, unless we had no other choice!

Is it because no one wants gay marriage, but the Christians said "well, we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's... secular marriage is a matter for the government, and has nothing to do with religion, and we shouldn't be concerned about it"?

Is it because you never know if a person is a Christian, until you hear them spouting off some long winded speech about how important it is to love all people, at all times? And then, they don't actually admit that they're Christians, they just look embarrassed, and say "well, you know, it just seems to make sense to me"?

What is Christianity fighting for?

A lot of Christians are fighting for displays of the Ten Commandments. Now, the Ten Commandments include commands that are purely religious, and never intended to apply to gentiles (graven images, the sabbath, taking the Lord's name in vain, honoring one's parents, covetousness). As such, displays of the Ten Commandments are an attempt to establish one religion's beliefs as better and more important than others.

A lot of Christians are fighting to continue to allow discrimination against gays, and trying to prevent, then ban, then make unconstitutional, gay marriage. What's doubly infuriating about this is that the battle has already been lost. Gay folks aren't going back in the closet. Eventually, society will realize this and discrimination against gay folks will be outlawed, and gay folks will be allowed to marry the people they love.

They're fighting against abortion, which most folks can't fault too terribly much, but they're also fighting against teaching birth control, and fighting against emergency contraception.

In some cases, they're arguing for teacher-led prayer in public schools, despite Jesus' teachings against public prayer.

Why are many people opposed to Christianity? It's not because of Christians who are doing what Jesus commanded, quietly doing their best to love one another, and help those who need help, without seeking attention or praise.

It's something else. And, as I said above, I'm cynical.

I see the money-loving, fame-loving high powered preachers doing their best to make themselves look good, and I cynically feel that they've manufactured claims of a war against Christianity, while pushing Christians in a direction that seemed likely to cause such a war. By pushing Christians to be loud and angry about symbols (or should I say "idols"?), they've increased whatever ill will there might be towards Christianity as a whole.

Am I right? I don't know... I can only refer to the words of Jesus, who advised his followers to look to the fruits of those who spoke in his name.

Do these men bring food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, shelter to the homeless, help for the sick and disabled and the poor?

Or do they bring anger and divisiveness, with little of Jesus's love on display?

It's a question people can only answer for themselves. But I'm sure you can guess how I've answered it.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Negativity - fair and balanced?

Glenn Greenwald brings up a point that I think a lot of people have noticed, and few have talked about. The Republicans have gone solidly negative, in a way that's very different from the way the Democrats have acted this election.

As everyone has said, no one is suggesting that the Republicans are evil scumsuckers, or that the Democrats are angels because of this. Nevertheless, it's objectively true: the Republicans have gone more strongly negative. However, there are reporters who don't feel comfortable saying this, so they're trying to find a way to be 'balanced'.

There's been a lot of whining about the liberal media, and a lot of resulting attempts by the media to be "balanced". Unfortunately, there's two ways of being balanced.

The first way is you study the matter, get a good, solid idea about what's going on, and you report the facts, and balance out the opinions. If you're covering a court trial, you report the verdict - that's a fact - and then you question the plaintiff/prosecutor and the defendent. That's the right kind of balance.

The second way is to assume that every story has two sides, and report both sides. The canonical example is, if you're doing a story about the history of the Holocaust, you interview a historian, and a Holocaust denier. Well, the facts are that the Holocaust happened. There's no controversy there. If there's a story, it's that a pack of nuts and liars insist that it didn't... but it's not a controversy, unless you want to suggest that there's controversy about the shape of the earth.

Another excellent example of a failure of balance was seen in some of the reporting on the Burnham study published in Lancet, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq due to the invasion. Some folks quoted George W. Bush who claimed that the methodology had been 'discredited'. However, whether the methodology was credible is a factual question; quoting that the methodology was discredited isn't being balanced. A better way to include that tidbit of information was to state simply that "Bush indicated that he did not believe the results of the study".

Of course, I'm sure some rightwing folks would have screamed that the reporters should have included the exact quote... so, let them scream. You can't let a person's opinion affect you unless it's an honestly held opinion with a sound basis. The fact of the matter is, George W. Bush had no reason to question the methodology; quoting him on the methodology does not add information to the story. As such, those who would have been screaming about bias would have been screaming for no good reason.

I sometimes think that a lot of reporters have made the same mistake that Joe Lieberman did. They see a lot of people making a lot of fuss about certain things, and try to be accomodating, hoping to reduce the fuss. There's two troubles: first, the fuss never ends (short of capitulation). Second, many of the Republicans have been raising the fuss for the sole reason of manipulating people. While it can be wise to listen to a fuss, and open your eyes, and see the truth, it's foolish to change your views just because there's a fuss being raised.

Reporters should have stayed true to their instincts, and told the truth, and let the chips fall where they fell.

Edited to add: How can I forget the greatest failure of balance in recent memory? Apparently, several reporters suggested that it was "controversial" for Michael J. Fox to appear in an ad supporting a supporter of stem cell research. Mr. Fox has Parkinson's, you see, and Rush Limbaugh decided that maybe he was faking, or hadn't taken his meds, for dramatic effect.

Once again, there's no controversy; the ad showed a man with Parkinsons, showing the symptoms. They weren't faked, or enhanced, and I'm sure they made some people uncomfortable, but reality is like that sometimes.

On being a man

There have been a few blogs I've seen here and there talking about manhood, and it piqued my interest. You see, I'm an avowed masculinist, which is to say, I believe that there is a great deal of good in that which is manly, in the same way that a feminist believes there is a great deal of good in that which is womanly.

I will mention, however, that I have nothing to do with "Mens Rights" groups. I don't know anything about them, but I do know that the few folks I've seen or heard advocating for Mens Rights haven't been the kind of people I appreciate. I reserve judgment on the need to fight for the rights of men, but so far I don't know of anyone who is doing so in a manner that I can accept.

What I believe is that manliness is a virtue. And what is manly? What makes being a man a good thing?

Well, I've heard it said that the Y chromosome is actually a mutation on the X... i.e., that it's more likely that God created Eve and Adam, and not the other way around... at least, if God had actually created humans from dust, rather than causing them to evolve (or watching them evolve) up from single celled organisms. Is this true? I actually don't know, and if it was true, it would be foolish (or, dare I say, "weird") to try to infer more from it than is justified.

Nevertheless, myths are not bound by foolishness or weirdness, and if Athena can spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, so too can I imagine that manhood was the result of a striving from humanity to find something else, something missing, and something necessary.

And that something is, of course, the warrior spirit

Does this mean that woman do not posess, or understand, or embody the warrior spirit as much as men do?

Listen: I'm not here to talk about women, I'm here to talk about men. If you think I know the essence of womanhood, let me show you something that should help set you straight that I'm a man. (That "something" is my beard. Who out there is dirty minded enough to think I was referring to something else?)

I can talk about what makes a woman a good person, and that would apply to men just as easily, but I can't talk about what makes a woman a good woman.

You see, this is one of the things people screw up when they start thinking about gender roles, and such. Men and women aren't opposites; they are different, but the differences can be very hard to express. To say that men embody the warrior spirit is to tell a story that might help us understand manliness. We could then tell another story about how women embody the warrior spirit and use that to help us understand womanliness. We could then debate (hopefully, said debate would be lubricated by alcohol if appropriate) whether it's the same warrior spirit. In the end, we might understand more about men and more about women, and still not be able to articulate what, exactly makes them different. But what of it? Sometimes wisdom answers questions; sometimes it just helps you figure out what the questions are.

I believe that men are are at their best when they seize upon the spirit of the true warrior. Of course, since I call Jesus a warrior, I'm not saying that means that men are about going out and beating people up. I'm instead saying that there's a certain striving to achieve great things, that is part of being a man. There's a certain energy, a certain desire, to go out and make a mark in the world.

It's a feeling that is very easily open to abuse. A lot of things that feel like accomplishments aren't.

Let's say someone calls me a wimp, and says I'm scared to stand and fight. These days, it seems like the manly thing to do is to stand my ground and kick his ass. But what does that accomplish? Even if I'm such a great fighter that I can kick his ass without getting hurt, without even exerting myself too much, all I've done is bring some pain into the world, when it wasn't there before.

A real man can shrug off such an attack, and recognize that it doesn't mean anything. After all, the warrior spirit is concerned with changing the world, not protecting one's ego. Preventing a needless fight is an accomplishment; fighting needlessly, over a meaningless bunch of words, is just stupidity. There's no need to fight over something that's not even real.

A real man, a true warrior, cares only about the reality of the situation, and not about the perception. Army Specialist Joseph Darby was being a real man, a good man, when he forced an investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and all real men in the military were grimly proud of him for having made sure things were made right. The overgrown boys worried about how it hurt the military's image, and made the war harder to fight; they blamed Joseph Darby for making things harder, rather than blaming the perpetrators of the abuse. The real men blamed the perpetrators; they knew the perpetrators had made the war harder to fight, but they accepted that as a fair cost for what had happened on their watch. The real men knew it should never have happened, and felt guilty that it had, and the greater danger, and the higher cost, would remind them how important it is to guard against such abuse... because the overgrown boys will cover it up, and keep it secret, until it causes a huge mess.

You don't change the world by hiding things; would Jesus be a great warrior if he'd faked his own death, and pretended that he'd risen from the dead? Would he be worthy of love and admiration if he let such a terrible lie be spread? A true man, a true warrior, demands that the world be changed in honest ways. A true warrior is willing to be open and aboveboard, because only true changes will be lasting.

It's natural for men to compete, I think... it's part of the warrior spirit. You never know exactly how good you are until you know how good others are, and a man will strive to be good at things. But a man will want the competition to be based on reality. Sportsmanship - trying to compete fairly and well - is a manly virtue. Anything too close to cheating is rejected by a real man, and it's a damn shame that this virtue is not more widely accepted.

I heard of a football player who thought his tackling job wasn't done unless he'd hurt the opposing player, just a bit. He might be a big strong guy, able to accomplish physical tasks that I'll never be able to dream of, but he's not much of a man. (Or, more truthfully, "he wasn't much of a man", unless and until, he realized his job was to make a clean tackle if he could.)

A real man would rather be ranked dead last in his neighborhood bowling league than to ask his buddy (who owns the bowling alley) to wax 'his' lane a special way for him, because bowling under a hundred, doing the best you can, is more of an accomplishment than breaking 150 if you're cheating.

Similarly, a real man is satisfied with his lot; if he's always going to be the worst bowler in his league, well, that's okay. He'll show up, drink beer, joke around about how his bowling sucks, and have fun. And sure, he'll practice, but if practicing all he can leaves him the worst bowler in the league, that's cool. Maybe he'll decide he's more interested in checkers than bowling... but if he enjoys bowling, he's not going to let himself stop enjoying it just because other people are better than him. Someone is always better than you, at everything... there's 6 billion people on this earth; you'd have to be better than six billion other folks to be the best, and let's face it, the odds are pretty small, no matter how good you are.

Men strive to better themselves, to strengthen themselves, to undertake challenges. One of the saddest things about the employment situation in the US is that so many people have to make so many job changes so frequently that they don't get that same kind of challenge, and that same sense of accomplishment... nor do they, nor the companies employing them, get the benefits of this continued striving. Modern management views workers as expendable resources, instead of looking for ways to harness this desire to strive for accomplishment.

I remember hearing a science fiction story of a man whose lover had been frozen twenty years earlier. He mourned that he couldn't compete with another man, who was like him, but twenty years younger. "Who could compete with himself, twenty years younger?" he asked, and the sad answer was "any man who'd continued to grow, instead of stagnating." And he, by watching over his lover's frozen body, realized he had stagnated... a man twenty years older might not be as strong, as fast, or as fit, but will strive to replace those with the wisdom, patience, and the greater experience that only age can bring.

While there are competitions where youth is an asset - athletic feats, certainly - the truest competition is living life, and making yourself, and the world around you, happier that you're there, and a man who doesn't keep growing in that respect needs to drink more deeply of the warrior spirit.

What about one of the big ones? What about how a real man deals with women (or other men, if he's gay)?

When I was growing up, I got the impression that a lot of guys felt that women had "the goods" and guys were supposed to acquire those goods... and that getting those goods was a goal where your success was measured in how often you did it, and the quality of the people you did it with.

I was surrounded by those ideas, but they never really sunk in, because it never really made sense to me. Sex isn't any kind of competition. Women aren't holding sex back out of reach out of some desire to exert control. (Or, if they are, screw that; Ms. Thumb and her four daughters don't play games like that, and that makes them better sex partners than a woman who does.) If they're not jumping into bed, it's because they're not sure they want to, yet. A real man beds a woman by making her think it'll make her happier to have sex than she'll be if she doesn't. And then, a real man makes damn sure that she *is* happier to have had sex with him than she'd be if she hadn't. A real man isn't proud that he can have sex with 'his' woman when he wants to; a real man is proud that she's got smile-lines etched in her face, and that he has a matching set on his own.

A real man recognizes that sex is powerful juju, and won't use it to cause harm. If cracking jokes about sex makes a person uncomfortable, he stops, because he knows how much sex means to him, and he wouldn't like it if someone was monkeying around with how he felt about sex. A real man doesn't whine if his nudie calendar makes a female co-worker uncomfortable; he can take a peek at naked women any time it's not bothering someone else. A real man doesn't complain if 'innocent compliments' and such are causing other people problems; he's here to make the world a better place, and sometimes that means minding one's manners.

And a real man realizes that his sex drive is a wonderful thing, a holy thing, which means that it positively must not be misused. If a woman isn't happy to be having sex, a real man would rather jerk off than go any further. A guy who thinks that it's okay to pressure a woman about sex might be too old physically to still get a boner in the middle of history class, but he hasn't gone past that point emotionally. A man knows that it's easy to get a bit stupid, to read a bit too much invitation into a woman's words and actions when aroused, and a man makes sure he's disciplined enough not to let a misread signal to cause him to do more than cause some mild embarrassment. Sure, he'll flub it once or twice... I reckon most men remember that time they grabbed for a tit when she wanted nothing more than a hug or some hand-holding, or whatever mistake they made. But a real man learns from those mistakes. He can be aggressive, making sure she knows he finds her attractive... but he also makes sure she knows, deep in her heart, that his desires are no reason for her to feel pressured.

There's more, of course... but that's all I can write at the moment.

It's kind of a shame there aren't more people speaking about manhood, because I think a lot of the people who think they know what being a man is all about are wrong.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A possibly final-ish note regarding the Lancet report

There's a little tidbit that I forgot to mention.

One of the complaints about the Lancet report was that it didn't match up with two other estimates: the Iraq Body Count estimate, and the Iraq Living Conditions Survey.

The Iraq Body Count estimate is known to be low, so, while it shouldn't be ignored, the real challenge is the ILCS, which was conducted in a manner similar to the two studies published in Lancet.

The ILCS suggested there were 24,000 war related deaths in 2004. The Lancet article in 2004 suggested the number was 100,000. How could this be, especially when the ILCS had a much higher number of clusters?

Simple. The ILCS covered 12 months post invasion. The Lancet study covered 18.

"Okay," you might say, "but that's not enough! That would make the Lancet study possibly correct if it suggested there were 36,000 deaths due to the war, not 100,000!"

Ah... but there are two relevant points to consider.

First, the most recent survey clearly shows that the death rates increased each year, so violent deaths were occurring more frequently as time went on.

"Okay, so, let's just be really generous," you might say, "And let's pretend that the number of war related deaths was 50% greater in the next six months. That'd be 42,000 deaths, not 100,000!"

Which brings us to the second point. The studies in Lancet all counted excess deaths, due to all causes. When you look at it's number for war related deaths, you come up with...

39,000. (With thanks to Tim Lambert.)

Even if you assumed the death rates stayed exactly the same as in the ILCS, you'd expect 36,000, and the 39,000 estimate had a big enough margin of error that it included 36,000 as a pretty good possibility as well.

In short, the ICLS seems to support the Lancet study. (Or, to put it another way, the Lancet study seemed to support the ICLS.)

The ICLS might be more accurate, but its numbers do not call the Lancet numbers into question.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The warrior spirit

There've been some interesting blog entries recently, but in order to discuss them, I need to discuss something else first.

I don't know if you, the reader, are religious or not, nor what religion you belong to. Nevertheless, I'd like you to consider the story of Jesus, and his death and ressurrection.

He walked willingly into the hands of his enemies, and let them do their worst, not raising so much as a finger against them, though, as the story goes, he could have destroyed them all, by simply asking God to do so.

And they did their worst, and they did the worst that one set of humans can do to another; they left him, dead and utterly defeated... or so they thought.

For it turned out, just a few days later, they had caused him no lasting harm, and he had won a great victory.

Whether that victory was the Redemption of humanity, or the survival of both his body and his message, doesn't really matter. He won the greatest of victories against unbeatable odds, without having to harm anyone. Measure his accomplishments, versus the people who he had to harm to accomplish those things, and you could easily consider him the greatest warrior ever.

I consider him to be exactly that, the greatest of warriors, in part because I think the idea of warriorhood is greatly misunderstood.

To my mind, a warrior is no mere fighter; a warrior is a righteous being who wishes to accomplish things, to win against a hard struggle.

Righteousness is essential; anyone can take on a hard struggle for personal benefit, but the spirit of the warrior is such that the warrior struggles for the benefit of others.

A warrior does not seek to fight; if a warrior must fight, something has gone terribly wrong. Sure, the "terribly wrong" thing might be an attack that must be defended against... but a true warrior remembers that more good can be accomplished if that attack is never made, and seeks a way to prevent the attack. Some mock this as cowardice or appeasement; the wise warrior realizes that a needless battle is a waste of energy and a terrible risk.

The warrior seeks to be strong, and able to bear up under the burden, whatever that burden might be, and the warrior is willing to sacrifice for the cause... to give up his life, either swiftly, and suddenly, or slowly, one minute each minute, one hour each hour, doing what needs to be done, even if it isn't pleasant.

Most of all, the warrior is focused on the goal... he tries to make his every action move him closer towards that goal in an honorable and decent manner. He must act with decency; if he does not, he creates the very thing he abhors the most: injustice.

By each of these measures, Jesus was a powerful warrior. He struggled, and gave his life, to accomplish something good. He acted for the benefit of all, and asked that others do the same. He preached against injustice, and cared for the people around him, giving them comfort, healing, and even food, when there was nothing else to eat.

That is the way of the warrior; to struggle mightily, to avoid bloodshed when possible, and to make the world better for one's passing. It's a pity that so few people understand the true way of the warrior.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

An important question about the Iraqi mortality study

I was thinking of doing some more explanations of statistics today... of explaining how and why random sampling works, and how and why it gets you accurate numbers.

You know what? Screw that.

Because there's something more important.

Dr. Burnham's study, published in Lancet, suggests that over 600,000 Iraqis have died that would have lived had the United States not invaded Iraq.

The following are not matters of opinion; they are solid facts.

  1. The pre-invasion death rate matched the expected statistics from other agences for the same time frame, so there is no reason to discount the death rate as too low

  2. Clustering is a useful and well established method for gathering data in places like Iraq, and the selection of the clusters was done in a way that should give a random sampling of the populations

  3. 47 clusters is sufficient to get the level of precision the study authors wanted

  4. The calculations and inferences made are proper

  5. While the confidence interval around the number of deaths is relatively wide, it's properly calcluated

  6. It woould be extraordinarily improbable for the researchers to have been able to sample the number of people they did, and see the number of deaths that they did, unless hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq

Now, I know how statistics work, but I'm not an expert in experimental design. I can vouch for some of these points, but some are areas outside my expertise. So, how can I state that they are all solidly established facts? The answer is simple: peer review. Before the article was published in Lancet, four reviewers looked over the methodology. They dug in to see if there were any flaws in the experiment, or how it was run. They all suggested that the article be published with some minor changes (none of which affected the outcomes).

Anyone who claims that the pre-invasion death rate was obviously too small, the study was too small, or that the samples were poorly taken, or that you can't extrapolate hundreds of thousands of deaths from the several hundred that the researchers found, is simply wrong. Not "expressing a different opinion"; people who say these things are wrong. They are making criticisms that are contradicted by facts.

Now, does this mean that the study has perfectly accurate results? No. It could still be wrong, for reasons that are hidden to us. The sampling was done in a random manner, but I heard that one set of researchers said that it could have put people closer to the 'action', since it was based upon streets intersecting with main streets. Is this valid? We really don't know. The only way to know is to get a more accurate count of the deaths. There are also people who had different estimates for the pre-invasion death rates. Could they have had a better estimate? It's possible.

Which brings me to my main point.

There have been many, many people who have insisted that they have, or someone else has, debunked the study. They've all declared that the results can't be trusted, that the real numbers have not been found.

Think about that for a moment, and try to understand what an astonishing thing it is to say.

"You can't say that there have been 650,000 excess deaths! The fact of the matter is, we don't know how many excess deaths there are!"

Is there something missing from that statement?

I suppose it depends on whether you think that the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of this invasion is important. I mean, if you just don't give a damn about a bunch of dead Iraqis, then I suppose there's nothing missing. All you have to do is insist that a report that might make you look bad is wrong.

But if you care, if you think the number of deaths matters, if you truly value human life, if the thought of hundreds of thousands of deaths sickens you, then there's a huge hole in that statement, one that you probably think is obvious.

Even if you think Dr. Burnham's study is wrong, even if you think it's been "debunked", it shows that it is absolutely essential for us to find a better estimate.

Because even if the study is flawed - and I don't believe it is, but I'm willing to pretend, just to make a point - it shows that if you grab the wrong group of people, it looks like Iraq has lost hundreds of thousands of people. It looks like the cost of this war has been much, much too high. Wouldn't anyone who cares about life insist on trying to find the real numbers? So why haven't they?

Why has there been so much talk about proving this study wrong, and so little effort to find other, better numbers, and prove them right?

Have I made this point before? I don't remember, but it's worth repeating. Someday, people might look back on this, and see it as a warning sign. They might say that we had two warnings that the war was spiraling out of control, that things were much worse than we could imagine. And maybe they'll look at us, and ask "what did you do when you received those warnings?

I can answer truthfully: I paid them heed, and I tried to convice others to do so. I emphasized that they might be false warnings, but I said, over and over, that we needed to find the truth.

Can those who have denounced this study say the same?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Addressing the Iraq Body Count objections to the Lancet study

Many people have pointed to Iraq Body Count as a reason to discredit the Lancet study. The recent comments by IBC (here) do not discredit the study. They raise some questions, questions that should be followed up on. However, if it was considered to be a "debunking" of the Lancet study, it would be woefully inadequate due to its many assumptions.

This is one of the biggest problems people have made in looking at the Lancet study. They forget that

1) Iraq was under crippling sanctions for twelve years,
2) they were invaded,
3) their government was removed, replaced, appointed, then elected - that's four major changes in governance.
4) they're on the brink of civil war

Additionally, one should notice another point. Services for the living should take precedence over counting the dead. If the government is facing huge challenges, and is competent, you should expect tracking of deaths to be a very low priority. If the government is facing huge challenges and isn't competent, you shouldn't trust any statistics they produce in the first place.

The objections raised by Iraq Body Count all ignore these crucial points, and depend upon the reader's belief that something that is sufficiently horrible will be well known. There is a perfectly natural, human tendency to disbelieve that something terrible can be true, and to disbelieve that it could be true, but unknown. That's all the more reason to dig in deeply, when we see unpleasant news, so we can determine the truth.

Their first objection is that this would mean a lot of people dying, quickly, with no one taking official notice of it. This is surprising... or it would be, if Iraq did not have a steadily worsening security situation. But with security getting worse, with the number of deaths growing, it also seems as likely that the tracking is getting proportionately worse, as well.

The question this raises is "Could it really be that bad?" and it is a question that deserves an answer. While we might rebel at thinking that it could be this bad, that makes it that much more critical that we find out, rather than dismissing the only clue we have that maybe it is that bad.

So: this objection is based upon an assumption, the assumption that death tracking is good enough that we'd know about these things. It is not a valid assumption. It might be true; we should try to find out if it's true. But you can't make that assumption safely at this time.

Their second objection: government estimates of people treated for wounds is too low.

First, remember: we can't expect great accuracy from the government.

Second: This article, from the Washington Post, suggests that the Iraqis are afraid to go to the hospital, and that if they do go, they might end up getting killed.

Notice that there's a kind of double-whammy, here, too. People killed at the hospital, or who die from their wounds because they fear going to the hospital, are another death, and one less wounded person, skewing the estimates of dead-to-wounded ratio. It could also skew other numbers; if a person was ripped up by a bomb, but is then pulled from the hospital and shot, what does the death certificate list? If it lists death by a bomb, then it masked the true cause of death.

I also question IBC's assumptions about the number of wounded. They feel that, for every two gunshot deaths, there should be one wounded person. That is a ratio that's impossible to justify, unless you know the circumstances of the deaths. If two rival factions are shooting at each other, sure, you expect dead and wounded people. But if a lot of these deaths are deliberate murders, you expect very few wounded people... a person shot and left for dead is likely to be shot until the attacker is certain the victim is dead, and likely to be left in a place where help will not arrive in time to administer lifesaving treatment.

Again, the issue here is that we don't want to believe it could possibly be this bad. Surely, if there were this many wounded, there couldn't be some combination of poor tracking, and lack of treatment, leading to many more deaths, that we didn't see a lot more wounded people being treated.

And that's a call for us to try to find out if it could be that bad... not to look away from our only clue that maybe it is.

Their third objection is that huge numbers of men would have been killed. And?

I mean, yes, maybe huge numbers of men have been killed, and no one noticed it for the same reason that no one took notice of the huge numbers of people killed. I don't even understand why they call this a "reality check".

Their fourth objection is that, if this study is correct, there are some 500,000 missing death certificates.

I'm sorry, but I can't help imagining someone making this objection:

"Come on, Iraq might be on the brink of civil war, with a weak, disorganized government that can't even keep the lights on, and it might be facing horrendous challenges, but there's no way on God's green earth that it could have failed to locate and count 500,000 pieces of paper from all across the country!

"I mean, after all, those death certificates are written locally, and you can't imagine that there could possibly be any problems getting them from all across Iraq to some central location where they can be tallied!"

Yeah, it doesn't sound too bright, does it?

Look, if there were 500,000 missing death certificates in America, today, yes, that would stagger my imagination. We have no major problems preventing the collection, transmission, tabulation, etc., of death certificates, I'm sure we have some government employees tasked with tracking those deaths, and we're not in a situation in which pushing papers seems like a stupid waste of time.

But we're not talking about America, or the UK; we're talking about Iraq.

This is an objection that is based upon the first one, and is rests on the same assumption: that the death tracking system works well. It might, but it's foolish to assume that without proof.

Their final objection is that it would appear that coalition forces killed more Iraqis during the past year than they did during the "shock and awe" part of the invasion.

That would be surprising. That it would be surprising does not mean it would be untrue. In fact, as security deteriorates, and as the soldiers find themselves attacked more and more often, we would expect them to fight more in defense, and kill more people.

This is another objection where it would be terrible if it's true, but that's all the more reason to investigate to find out if it is.

There's this part of their final comments on their objections, which I'm quoting, because it infuriates me.

Could five such shocking implications be true? If they were true, they would need to be the result of a combination of the following factors:

  • incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries, on a local, regional and national level, perfectly coordinated from the moment the occupation began;

  • bizarre and self-destructive behaviour on the part of all but a small minority of 800,000 injured, mostly non-combatant, Iraqis;

  • the utter failure of local or external agencies to notice and respond to a decimation of the adult male population in key urban areas;

  • an abject failure of the media, Iraqi as well as international, to observe that Coalition-caused events of the scale they reported during the three-week invasion in 2003 have been occurring every month for over a year.

In their first point, they talk about "incompetence and/or fraud", and suggest it must be "coordinated". This is senseless; if the death and injury tracking process is broken in enough places, there doesn't need to be any coordination; you'll see systemic failure. And it's not like the government has had nothing better to do than track deaths and injuries!

In their second, they blame the victims for not getting treatment, ignoring the possibility that, due to security issues, they might not be able to get treatment. Even if they try to get treatment, if a hospital is out of supplies, they might end up dying in the hospital, rather than surviving to become wounded. It's a statement that is made from the comfort and safety of a peaceful country, assuming that Iraq is sufficiently similar to make such a comparison.

In their third, they act as if it's surprising that people haven't noticed huge numbers of men dying, when they haven't noticed huge numbers of people dying; the two problems are identical.

And finally, they say that the media hasn't noticed that the coalition is fighting more and more in a nation with deteriorating security, and slipping towards civil war. Have the media been reporting that there is a lot more violence involving the coalition in Iraq? Then they've been reporting all that needs to be said for people to conclude more people are dying as a result. "More fights = more deaths" isn't likely to make the evening news.

Look: I like and respect Iraq Body Count. They started caring about people being killed in this senseless war long before it was popular. They're doing a difficult job with minimal resources and doing a damn good one.

But this set of objections is based upon a set of assumptions that simply can't be taken for granted.

We have no reason to suspect that the government can track, or even notice, deaths and injuries; we have no reason to suspect that there haven't been huge numbers of wounded, with many turned into corpses.

I would like to see someone address these issues; they are important questions. If we could find out that the Iraqi government was tracking deaths and treatment of injuries well, and if we could find out that most Iraqis felt safe going to a hospital, then we would have reason to question the Lancet study.

But we can't assume those things. We can't use them to let ourselves look away. We need to find the truth.

A statistical tidbit

There are estimates that smoking kills x many people per year. There are estimates that so-and-so many people in the US are overweight or obese. If you flip a coin a million times, and get approximately 50% heads, the coin is assumed to be fair.

How are each of these done?

Well, in each case, you take a random selection of a population.

Even with the coin flipping? Yes. That million flips of the coin is a small subset of the number of coin flips you could conceivably make.

With the obesity issue, scientists attempt to gather a perfectly random selection of people, and find out if they are overweight or obese. If a perfectly random selection of people shows that X% of them are overweight or obese, it's safe to assume that percentage is close to the same for other people in the same population, so long as the sample size is large enough.

(Using statistics, it's possible to determine how big the sample size must be to ensure that you have a pretty good picture of the rate of being overweight. It takes a surprisingly small number to be sure you've gotten such a good picture.)

With smoking, you have an interesting issue. You try to look at a similar group of people, one set of whom smokes, when the other set doesn't. The difference between the death rates of both groups shows something that's become a dirty word (well, "phrase") for some: the "excess deaths" caused by smoking. And when it comes to guessing the number of excess deaths due to smoking in the US, no one (except, perhaps, the tobacco companies - and maybe Senators and Representatives from tobacco growing states) claims that it's impossible to use a relatively small number of deaths to suggest a much larger number of deaths in the entire population.

One might notice that looking at the same population both before, and after, a war has started is very similar to the this method. You're looking at some people who are not in a war zone, and then, you're looking at people where the only thing that has changed is that they are in a war zone.

I'm going to try to distill the basics of probability and statistics in a post in the near future to try to explain why these methods work.

More on the Lancet study on deaths in Iraq

When you have a set of expectations, and you check them against reality, what do you do when reality is wildly different from what you expect?

Well, you look over what you did... you make sure the measurements were rock solid. Then, if they are, you accept that your estimate is the best you can do. You discard your expectations, not reality.

As I explained in an earlier post, the survey that suggested 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq was done using good methods. Clusters of people were investigated at random, meaning that any given cluster of people was as likely to be investigated as any other cluster. It found that about 4% of them had died in the 40 months past the invasion, instead of the nearly 1.6% that was expected.

There are a lot of expectations that were shattered by this, and there were a lot of questions raised, but this is the best estimate we have, the only one that could possibly give an accurate count of the number of deaths in Iraq.

There have been a lot of people who've raised a lot of objections about the report. People have pointed to Iraq Body Count's numbers, and asked how they could be off by more than a factor of 12. Similarly, people have asked, if over 80% of the deaths recorded in the survey had death certificates, what's happened to all of them? Why doesn't the Iraq government know about them?

Really, this ends up coming down to the same question. Iraq Body Count obtains its numbers from news sources, and checks them via surveys of hospitals and morgues, relying on certified deaths. They can reasonably be expected to know about any deaths that the Iraqi government knows about, and vice versa.

So what happened? Why doesn't the Iraq government know about these deaths? Why can't the Iraqi government say that this survey is a solid estimate, if it is?

Well, if this was America, and we were dealing with deaths from disease, and the government was willing to let these numbers be known, then I'd be surprised if the government didn't have a decent idea about the number of deaths. But it's not America; it's Iraq. And it's not deaths from disease, it's deaths from violence, and the number of deaths point to a huge amount of instability. Nations that have enough bean-counters to track every single death certificate also tend to have enough police to prevent this level of slaughter. If you had to run Iraq, and had to choose between security or tracking death certificates, where would your expend the most energy?

Of course, this isn't proof that the death certificate tracking is terrible in Iraq. Nevertheless, it puts us in a slightly different position.

We've looked at reality, and it's different from our expectation, raised by death certificates counted by the government and statistics gathered by Iraq Body Watch. Unless we knew, with certainty, that the death certificate tracking was rock solid, we'd have to be willing to discard the expectations. If we knew that deaths were tracked with great precision in Iraq, and the tracking agency's estimates were far off, then we'd want to investigate both this study and the certificate tracking, and see which one was better.

However, in this case, we know that the study is sound, and we have damn good reason to believe that death certificate tracking isn't. Until our knowledge of how death certificates are tracked in Iraq changes, the proper position to take is to assume that the study is correct, and the other estimates are not.

However, there would be a way to challenge this. Let's suppose that Iraq Body Count has found names and locations for 60% of the people whose deaths it has tracked. If we grabbed 500 deaths that IBC would want to count, and IBC could account for approximately 300 of them, then we'd know that IBC has a pretty good tally, and we'd have to dig very deeply to figure out what's gone wrong. If, on the other hand, IBC could only account for about 30 of them, it would indicate that the study is right: IBC's estimates are off by an order of magnitude.

Let me point something out: the only way we could find our random sample of 500 deaths would be to use the methods that were used in this study: going to random locations, and asking random households about deaths that had occurred. Any other method would not yield a truly random sampling of deaths.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The spirit, and death

I think of this blog as my political blog. I have a LiveJournal, which I can use for all the personal stuff that I want to, but there's a time when there's some crossover.

I've mentioned in these pages that I'm Wiccan; there's a reason for that. On pagan paths, there's an understanding, and acceptance of the shaman. What is a shaman? Well, a shaman is a person who walks between the worlds. We all live in two worlds, the real world and the spirit world. The shaman walks between them, shifts between them more easily and more frequently than is normal.

Are you a religious skeptic? Then say that I'm hypersensitive to my own emotions, and highly empathic, and just a bit goofy, and able to use this weirdness in an effective manner.

But from my religion's point of view, I see the spirit world, a bit sharper than a non-shaman; I see things differently than most folks... not better, not worse, but definitely differently. This different perspective is often useful.

A while back, I was meditating on the spirit, trying to come to terms with some difficult thoughts.

You see, this was in October of 2004, and I was coming to terms with a few things.

First, I had just come to an understanding of the deep tragedy of deaths in the Iraqi military during the invasion. I knew that no one would care much about them; "soldiers die in a war; it's them or us". But I also had just recognized how terrible this attitude was. You see, if there is one duty that a warrior has, it is to protect one's home and people from invaders. It doesn't matter that they were fighting on the orders of Saddam Hussein; they were fighting to protect their homes, and there is no nobler duty.

But I was also watching the Iraq Body Count, which measured specifically civilian deaths, the innocent people who weren't soldiers, who weren't targets, but who were nevertheless dying. I don't recall what the counter stood at then, just that there were many thousands of innocent people who had died, and no one seemed to notice, or care.

"No one" is, of course, an exaggeration. People did notice, and care, but the matter certainly hadn't entered the national awareness. The talking heads and pundits did not seem to be asking "was this invasion worth these thousands of deaths?"

And it struck me how easy it all was. The war was so far away, the reports dribbled in, and the plain numbers obscured the truth. Thousands of civilians had died... but that was just a number and a word; thousands, and civilians.

We did not hear the wailing of parents whose children had died, or the grief-stricken relatives trying to explain to children why mommy, or daddy, or both, wouldn't be coming home again. We didn't hear the stories of friends or families talking about the hopes and dreams of their friends or relatives who died. We didn't see the grief, or the anguish, or the anger, or the hatred, or the despair, as it touched on the lives of so many. We didn't see the bodies piled up neatly, so our minds could try to take in how terrible it was.

And I asked myself, how could this be possible? How could so much tragedy strike, without it being obvious? Why didn't the spirit of all humanity scream out in some way, so that we could all feel the terrible things that were happening, and ask ourselves if it truly was worth it.

The human spirit does scream... but it takes a certain type of ear to hear it. I realized on that day that those of us who could hear that scream had a duty to help others to hear it, but it seems few are interested in listening, these days. Many have decided that if the human spirit might be screaming, it would be bad for the Republican Party, so it's better not to listen.

Does that last part sound bitter, or angry? If so, it's because I've seen people denouncing sound science - the recent research by Johns Hopkins, in Lancet - with sophistries that show that they are trying to prove it wrong. Note: I see them trying to prove it wrong, not trying to discover the truth, and that is what fills me with anger. Is this report beyond challenge? No; there are reasons to be suspicious of the results and to try to find better, more accurate results... but the search must be for the truth, for the real casualty rates in Iraq.

If they are willing to dodge even the numbers, how could they be willing to look at the deeper truth behind those numbers? How could they be willing to look at the rips in the fabrics of so many lives, at the pain of so many deaths?

I've said this before, that those who hear the screams of the spirit must try to make those screams audible, but there's something I haven't said. Not only did I try to hear the spirit of humanity, I also tried to hear the spirit of the people who had died.

I heard nothing, which troubled me. I decided I was not able to touch on them, but as time passed, I realized with a sick certainty that I had actually touched upon a greater truth.

There was nothing. They were gone. There were thousands of people who were ripped from this life, and now were gone without a trace. They could die, unnoticed, and unmourned by the nation who caused the circumstances that led to their deaths, because while the spirit of all of humanity can howl in pain, the spirit of a single human can only slip away, without a ripple.

Though their deaths might affect many people in Iraq, here in America, their deaths can simply go completely unnoticed. We can't know their thoughts, their dreams, their loves, their hopes, the things that made them happy, or the things that grieved them deeply.

They are gone, and so are the tasks they might have performed. Perhaps one would have sown the seeds of friendship between Christians and Muslims and Jews, and ended much of the conflict in this world. Perhaps one would have been a great author, or scientist, or humanitarian. Perhaps one would have done nothing much of importance, but might work hard, and build a nice life, get married and raise a family, and be remembered for nothing so much as pleasant companionship... just another one of the billions of people who make the world such a wonderful place to be.

We can't know, we will never know, and they are beyond caring whether we know or not; they are gone. The time to care was before the war was launched, and at that time, the potential for such disaster was downplayed... those who protested the war were, in some cases, called traitors, because they understood this simple truth, that the time to love is before death renders that love meaningless.

These people are beyond our help, but we can learn from the tragedy; though we can not change the past, we can fight to make sure this does not happen in the future.

But we can't do that without understanding the truth, without a willingness to face it. We can't change the future until we come to terms with the past, and our responsibility for it.

The largest part of that responsibility lies with those who see war as a "foreign policy tool", and not "a last resort, to defend one's self or another from an imminent threat"... but they are not alone. Many have stood by quietly, and let those people implement those plans, never speaking up for the thousands of people whose spirits would be silenced, forever, by this invasion.

It is time to end the silence, for there are more deaths coming, and it is rare to be given so loud, and strong, a wakeup call as this study has provided.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Statistics, part II

Okay: a bit more on the statistics.

I've seen several people trying to wrap their minds around the numbers provided in the recent study published in Lancet, suggesting that there have been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the war started. I'm going to address some of those issues here.

First, doesn't Iraq Body Count seem to provide evidence against the recent Lancet study?

No. Iraq Body Count tries to create a baseline minimum of "at least this many civilians have died, no questions asked". Their goal is to count

1) civilians only,
2) killed by violence,
3) reported by at least 2 English speaking sources.

Why do they have a range? I haven't investigated, but I imagine it's because there are times when an unknown number of victims are reported for an incident in the various source... plus, different primary sources might give different numbers. "Police believe 30 people were killed; observers report 50 people were killed; the hospitals are sure they've found indications of 33 victims", so you'd have a range of 30 to 50.

The Lancet study includes all deaths, for any reason, and would catch deaths that are not reported in the media at all (if the local strongman has just blown your friend's brains out, and says "and don't tell anyone about this, or you're next!", it's not going in the papers!), or are only reported by one source, or only by non-English speaking sources. Iraq Body Count provides a valuable service, but it's not even pretending to count the same numbers as this study.

Okay, then, doesn't this huge number of people killed prove that it couldn't happen? How could they handle that many bodies, and wouldn't people have noticed?

Well, it's a huge number, but it's only 2.5% of the population over 40 months. That's a bit over one half of one tenth of one percent of extra people killed each month. In the first few months, it would be unmitigated horror... but after that, it would numb to a kind of "isn't this how it's always been?" And remember that in those first few months, there was an active military invasion, with air, artillery, and cruise missiles strikes occurring frequently.

The additional deaths can certainly be handled by the number of people remaining (some bloggers have talked about "tripping over bodies", an obvious misunderstanding of the percentages), and, after the first year, it might not even have seemed all that unusual anymore. It certainly wouldn't seem newsworthy... "Lots of poeple die in war zone" isn't exactly unexpected, new, or startling.

What about the Iraqi government? Wouldn't they have a better handle on how many people have died, especially because the people surveyed had death certificates for about 80% of the deaths?

Well, death certificates are written locally; that means that they have to be sent to the central government. For over the first year, we were the government... and we'd just removed the old government. You can't get records flowing smoothly from the local government to the central government under those circumstances. After that, well, a lot of "collaborators" (i.e., Iraqis working with the occupying coalition forces) were targets of attacks. It would be very easy for records to get lost.

Finally, what kind of government wants to say "there were 650,000 deaths among our citizens where we only know about 50-100 thousand of them"? Who wants to admit that their citizens are dying at such an enormous rate? It's not just humiliating to admit to such powerlessness, it exposes a weakness to those who want to take power. Of course the Iraqi government is downplaying the study! They'd have to, whether they thought it was accurate or not!

So, neither Iraq Body Counts, Iraq government records, nor the lack of reporting makes these numbers unlikely.

They are reasons for people to be suspicious, to make them want to dig for the truth... but they are not reasons to try to ignore these numbers. Yes, they are horrible. That's all the more reason to dig in and make sure we know the truth, because as horrible as the numbers are, it would be that much more horrible to look away from them if they were true.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Okay, folks, it's time for a statistics lecture.

There are a lot of people who are hoping to debunk this study.

No, wait. That's not true. There are a lot of people who are hoping to say that this study is bullshit, and who are hoping you believe it's bullshit, because they don't like it's conclusions

So, let's go over a bit of basic statistics, okay?

There's a statistics question that I saw in a stats book that really impressed the heck out of me. There's an election going on, and there's a huge number of people voting. Say, for example, it's like our last Presidential election, with 100,000,000 voters. You pick ten voters at random. They all say they are voting for CandidateA. What are the odds that Candidate A will win?

It's virtually certain. If the race were a dead heat, with approximately 50% of the people voting for CandidateA, the odds that ten perfectly randomly selected voters would all favor CandidateA is one in 1024; a bit worse than one in a thousand.

The key is, we're assuming we picked people at random. We're assuming that every single voter is just as likely to be picked as any other voter. That's nearly impossible to guarantee.

Nevertheless, this is an important point with statistics: with a perfectly chosen sample, you don't necessarily need a lot of data to make strong predictions.

Of course, we never have a perfectly chosen sample, and we rarely obtain such strong results. Nevertheless, with a good, generally random sample, and with a large enough sample size, we can make very strong predictions. These predictions won't always be right, but they constitute very strong evidence... usually, the best evidence we can come up with.

In this study, the researchers chose a solid algorithm for grabbing random sections of Iraq to talk to people. They ended up finding the stories of some 13,000 people, and learned about numbers, and the births and deaths for 14 months prior to the invasion, through 40 months past it.

In these randomly chosen areas, over 98% of the households participated in the survey; a little under 2% were either absent, or refused to participate.

So, basically, the researchers grabbed people living in particular areas; the areas were chosen at random; they had 98% participation. This means that we can be pretty darn confident that we have a truly random sample.

They asked about births, and deaths, and tallied the numbers up. In 87% of the cases when learning about deaths, the researchers asked for a death certificate, and in 501 of the 629 reported deaths, these were present. There might be more death certificates; in about 13% of the cases, the researchers failed to ask. Nevertheless, nearly 5/6ths of the deaths were confirmed. Call it 80%... it's possible that the death rates were over-stated in some cases, but if so, we know that 80% of them, at least, were legitimate.

Keep this in mind: even if people were lying about the deaths, trying to make things look worse than they are, the most they could have done is skewed the results by 25%. Basically, instead of over 650,000 additional deaths, we'd be looking at "only" about 520,000 additional deaths

What about the validity of extending the circumstances of the 12,801 people to the 25 million people in Iraq? Couldn't that be misleading us?

It could, but it's not likely. Because people were picked at random, based upon their locations, and a lot of locations were used, we have no reason to think there was some large group of people whose circumstances were missed. Surely, some people are safer than those in the sample group, but it's just as sure that some people are in more danger. It's certainly possible that these random selections happened to pick all the worst, most dangerous places to live, but the odds of picking 47 of the worst paces to live are miniscule. It's much more likely that they picked some of the best, some of the worst, and a lot the places between the best and worst.

Now, the results: the results of the survey indicate that an average person had about a 4% chance of dying during the 40 months from the invasion, through June of 2006. This is compared to about a 1.6% chance of dying if the death rate had been unchanged. That means that the population of Iraq has been reduced by close to 2.5%, or 1/40th, of its total over that time. (A 2.5% chance of dying means you expect 2.5% of the population to die, especially when dealing with millions of people.)

I won't bore you by talking about confidence intervals and what they mean. Suffice to say, based upon the strongest evidence we have, we would be pretty darn surprised if any less 400,000 people had died.

Note that even if you multiply this by the 80% (80% of deaths investigated had death certificates), it would still be 320,000 deaths. In 2004, there was a great cry of outrage over reports that as many as 100,000 people had died... surely, people said, it couldn't be as bad as that! Well, by now, it seems that it's probably three times as bad... and the statistics they gathered showed that the 100,000 in 2004 was actually pretty close to accurate. (In fact, it now looks a bit low - 112,000 is the expectation.)

I can't even begin to explain how strong this evidence is that there has been a massive number of deaths in Iraq. I mean, I could explain to a fellow math geek or statistician... but such a person would already understand. What it comes down to is this: Either some terribly serious problem will come to light about this study, or hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of the war in Iraq.

The study is too strong; the methodology is too good, and the numbers are too big. Someone would pretty much have to have falsified data to make things come out this way otherwise.

A lot of rightwingers are insisting this is wrong, because, geez, it's terrible news. But it's extremely strong evidence. Unless there is a real problem with it, it is the absolute best estimate we have of war deaths in Iraq.

Anyone who tries to claim this study must be wrong, without presenting some extremely strong evidence showing a real, honest-to-goodness flaw (and it has been peer reviewed, so all the 'easy' flaws would have been spotted), is deliberately choosing to ignore painful evidence, because it might point to a painful truth.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A question about honesty

My wife used to watch MAD TV, and they had a series of skits on it about a dating service called "Lowered Expectations", where they'd have all kinds of ads for people you probably didn't want to meet.

That phrase has been going through my mind recently when I'm thinking about honesty in political campaigning.

Look, there are lies that you expect people to use in political campaigns. Bush is going to say America is safer after invading Iraq. Of course, before we invaded, we had 5,000 people stationed in Saudi Arabia to keep Saddam under wraps. Maybe we had more... let's triple it, to 15,000 troops, keeping the peace, none dying due to hostile action. We're now safer, when we need nearly ten times as many troops, and they're dying practically every day. Sure, we're safer!

But it's the kind of lie you expect. Politicians always play up their own accomplishments, and pretend that their failures were someone else's fault.

But now... well, now things are different.

Here's an example. People are opposed to how Bush is declaring he can disobey FISA, and spy on Americans without using warrants. He, and the Republicans in Congress, keep trying to pretend that it's about spying, period. Bush has said that if you're talking to a terrorist, the US government wants to know why. His Republican supporters insist that the Democrats don't want him spying on such conversations. One recent campaign commercial suggested that Democrats want the NSA to "wait until paperwork is filed" before spying.

None of that is even remotelyi true. This isn't an exaggeration; it's a flat out lie.

First off, if Bush was only spying on calls by (or to) terrorists, he could get a warrant, and he doesn't have to wait for the warrant in order to start spying. He has 72 hours to spy before he needs his warrant. Now, if there's one thing the government is good at, it's moving pieces of paper. If he can't get a warrant application to the FISA court within 72 hours, he doesn't deserve his MBA from Harvard.

But you know what? Let's say he says he needs more than three days; say he needs five, or even seven days. He could probably get that, by going to Congress and requesting it, and he'd be obeying the law.

The issue isn't spying, and it's not about delaying spying until the paperwork is filed. It's about making sure that, if he's spying on Americans, that he's doing so because we know that there's reasonable cause to suspect they are involved in something dangerous to America.

If he is, he can get the warrants; that's precisely when the warrants are supposed to be issued.

Since he refuses to get those warrants, what can we do, but assume it's because he's spying on people without probable cause?

That is the issue. That's the only issue. He knows it. The Republicans know it. So why are they pretending that it's something else?

First, because Bush knows he's operating outside the law. I mean, that's clear, the law specifically forbids anyone (including the President) from doing, or ordering what he's doing.

Second, because they don't care if they tell lies about the Democrats that make people think the Democrats are stupid, and hate America. Whether it's because they want to spread that kind of hatred, or because they don't care if they spread that kind of hatred, doesn't really matter to me.

Because this isn't lying about one's accomplishments; this isn't lying to try to make yourself look better than you truly are. This is lying to try to make your opponent look terrible. Not just "bad, compared to you", but to make your opponent look intrinsically terrible. Worse, it's not just a single candidate aiming it at a single person... it's a large portion of an entire political party, trying to aim it at its opposition.

And while it's terrible that we have to lower our expectations to the point that we can't expect anyone to make an honest admission of error, it's even worse when we have to expect this kind of hateful slander, and think that it's "politics as usual".

Is Christianity weak?

I've talked recently about how I dislike that people have made Christianity cheap. There's something that disturbs me even more: there are people who make it out to be weak.

I mean, Jesus came to earth two thousand years ago, right? And he says that he has a message that's bigger than anything in this world. His message is stronger than death itself! And then, he proves it, dying, and coming back. And he tells his followers to have faith, that if they have faith, great wonders, and great power, will open up to them.

Jesus had a powerful message, one that changed the course of history... and yet there are people who think the message is weak, and can no longer win its battles.

Many politically active Christians complain that the schools are not allowed to lead prayers at the beginning of the day, or hold readings from the Bible. But what kind of message is it that needs repetition in the schools, in order to hold on to children's hearts, minds, and spirits? Certainly not a strong one!

(Let's ignore how Jesus said that prayer should be in private, where only you and God know what is said.)

There are battles over monuments to the Ten Commandments, which is doubly ridiculous. First, it suggests that the message holds no power over people unless they are constantly reminded of it. Second, the Ten Commandments are part of Jewish law, and are not binding on non-Jews.

No, I'm not making this up. Look up the Noachide laws on the internet; these are the laws for the "Children of Noah" (i.e.: everyone, except for the Children of Abraham (the Jews)).

Those laws are:
1. Do not murder.
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not worship false gods.
4. Do not be sexually immoral.
5. Do not eat a limb removed from a live animal.
6. Do not curse God.
7. Set up courts and bring offenders to justice.

Notice that "honor thy father and mother", "keep holy the Lord's day", covetousness, and graven images are completely missing from this list. (So is "do not bear false witness" which strikes me as an odd omission. However, a quick googling suggests that the seventh demands that one establish actual justice, and at least official bearing of false witness (i.e.: giving false testimony) would be prohibited.)

While many Christians consider themselves bound by the Ten Commandments, there is no way to claim that they are a sound basis for secular law, because they aren't, and were never intended to be, laws for everyone.

Christian groups are pushing abstinence only education; they don't feel that their children can handle the temptation of learning to use birth control and avoid disease, because Christian teachings aren't strong enough. (At least, I hope that's the case. They've got no business trying to make such decisions for other people's children.)

Christian groups are trying to fight against the teaching of evolution, because they don't think Christianity is strong enough to survive if science can suggest a good model that makes a lot of sense for how life came about.

It's a damn shame that this is happening, because Christianity is not supposed to be such a weak thing. Jesus said that faith could move mountains! Except... well, that's the problem, isn't it?

To view Christianity as such a weak thing means that one doesn't have any faith in the message. The only reason people would have to fight these battles (other than trying to demonstrate how pious they are, which is something Jesus preaches against!) would be if they don't have faith that the message is enough.

As I've said in other entries, Jesus talks about how to tell the true speakers, the people who truly speak in his name. Look to their fruits, and if they bear good fruit, if they really walk the walk, then you can trust them when they talk the talk.

What kind of fruit is borne by a Christian who has so little faith?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Dishonesty on top of dishonesty

As Glenn Greenwald suggests, it's not just the crime, it's the coverup...
Here, Glenn points out that Ken Mehlman is making a blatantly false claim about Hastert's reaction to reports of Foley's behavior. Hastert is claiming that he caused Foley to resign... but as history (and news stories) recount, Hastert did not know about the extent of Foley's actions until after Foley had resigned... Foley resigned before the news was released from ABC.

Now, I don't agree with everything Glenn has to say. He thinks that the lack of action against Foley isn't the biggest part of this story. I don't agree... as far as I'm concerned, that's the whole story, so far.

Remember that, so far as we know, Foley did some obscene chat with teens. That's bad, terribly bad, but let's keep it in perspective. It's wrong, he deserves some level of punishment for it, but if he gets into counseling, I don't think he requires the same kind of mistrust that someone who engaged in improper touch, or worse, requires.

But the Republicans hid this, and were caught flat-footed by the revelations of how bad it was. They didn't investigate, didn't make sure people felt free to come forward, and make sure that every page felt safe. And that, more than anything else, shows that their talk about protecting children is just that: talk, nothing else.

The lies, well... honestly, I'm sick of the lies, but what can you expect? Can you imagine Hastert (or Boehner or Mehlman) saying "I was wrong; I should have made sure"? I can't.

But that they will tell such a cheap, ugly lie is news, and it is important. It means that you can't trust them to tell the truth about anything, if they think it might cost them votes.

Undeserved forgiveness?

But hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved. I admire the Amish villagers' resolve to live up to their Christian ideals even amid heartbreak, but how many of us would really want to live in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered? In which even the most horrific acts of cruelty were always and instantly forgiven?

Here's a better question. What does hatred gain us?

Seriously, think about that a moment. You don't need to hate to protect yourself or others. You don't need to hate to be willing to see evil people imprisoned, where they can no longer hurt anyone else. You don't need to be angry at people to be strong... it is sufficient to be angry at - to refuse to accept - injustice.

To forgive a wrongdoer is to refuse to give the wrongdoer power over you. If the Amish were angry towards him, or hated him, they would have let this murderer change them, to poison them with a toxin that would destroy their ideals. To give in to that anger, to give in to that hatred, would be to let the murderer cause them real harm.

As for the deaths... the Amish have faith. Real faith, not that wimpy kind that lets someone claim to be Christian, yet support torture. They feel that their children are in Heaven... and with perfect faith in their children's assurance of eternal bliss, why should they feel anger or hatred?

Although Mr. Jacoby claims to "admire" the Amish, I don't think that's true. He ends with the following quote: "The murder of the Amish girls was a deeply hateful evil. There is nothing godly about pretending it wasn't."

Has he asked the Amish if they are "pretending" it wasn't evil? If it wasn't evil, what could there be to forgive?

They knew it was evil; they looked evil in the eye, and knew it for what it was. And they then showed that their love was stronger than hate, and that their faith was stronger than anger, and that their spirits were stronger than any evil that they have come against.

It's wonderful to know that many people understand, and appreciate that... and awfully sad that some folks can't respect it.

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