Terrorism Denial

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

It’s become increasingly apparent that some proportion of the left is engaged in a kind of terrorism denial:

They cite the relatively modest fatalities in the US and other western countries from terrorist attacks since September 11 — and it’s always ‘since’ — as evidence of this apparent lack of threat.

These numbers are misleading for a number of reasons. Simply adding up the body count from various causes of death doesn’t reflect why terrorism should concern us — how and why these deaths occurred is also important. Accidental deaths should be less concerning to us than deaths caused on purpose. Lawnmowers and armed toddlers may indeed do us harm, but they don’t intend to do it. More importantly, they don’t seek to do more harm than they actually do. In contrast, the ambition of a terrorist is rarely modest. In almost all cases, the goal is to create as many casualties as possible in any given attack. As a matter of public interest and public policy, those who have no upper limit in the amount of harm they want to cause are more of an existential threat than those who do. As Sam Harris argues, jihadist inspired terrorism ‘takes the guard rails off of civilisation’ in a way that these more mundane causes of death don’t.

But what is most spurious about these numbers is that they ignore the deaths prevented from security and counter-terrorism measures that managed to thwart attacks before they occur. Every day the US and other Western countries are fighting the war on terrorism. They are saving lives before it becomes apparent to the rest of us that they ever needed saving. This may sound dramatic, but it needs to be understood if people believe that the war on terror is a fantasy, or less of a threat than bathtubs. The relatively low death tolls from terrorism in the West are, in part, due to the success in thwarting attacks, not because there is no threat in the first place.

In this respect, terrorism denial commits the same faulty reasoning that the anti-vaxx movement uses to deny the reality of the threat posed by infectious diseases and pandemics. Anti-vaxxers argue that the small number of deaths caused by infectious diseases in recent times is evidence of them posing no threat. However, those who understand the underlying science recognise the nature and scale of the threat, and the critical role that vaccination and pandemic prevention play in neutralising it. Were we to stop vaccinations — or counter-terrorism — it’s clear that the death toll from both these threats would rise significantly.

Few people have thought more deeply about the nature of war than McMaster

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

There are few people in the world for whom Max Boot has more respect than Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the newly named national security adviser:

A man of integrity and intellect, he is a rare combination of soldier and scholar.

A history Ph.D., he is known as the author of the best-selling book Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, which critiqued the failure of military brass to challenge the disastrous course upon which the Johnson administration embarked in Vietnam. As one might expect, he is known as a fearless truth-teller who is not afraid to offend to make his points, regardless of the personal consequences to his own career.

He is also known, however, for his combat exploits: As a young captain in the Gulf War, he helped defeat a larger Iraqi force in the well-known Battle of 73 Easting (named after a map coordinate). Later, as a colonel in command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he pacified the city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq in 2005, thus pioneering the counterinsurgency tactics that would later be applied across the country by General David Petraeus during the surge.

In more recent years, McMaster has become known for his prescient critique of the technological utopianism that gripped much of the armed forces starting in the 1990s. McMaster has consistently warned that no technological fix will ensure American battlefield dominance and that the lessons of the past have not been rendered obsolete by computer innovations. Few people have thought more deeply about the nature of war based both on extensive reading and personal experience.

It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to become national security adviser.

Smallpox, Salmonella, and Cocoliztli

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they conquered great empires through a combination of Guns, Germs, and Steel — but mainly germs:

In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.

The largest of these disease outbreaks were known as cocoliztli (from the word for ‘pestilence’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language). Two major cocoliztli, beginning in 1545 and 1576, killed an estimated 7 million to 18 million people living in Mexico’s highland regions.

“In the cities and large towns, big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches,” noted a Franciscan historian who witnessed the 1576 outbreak.

There has been little consensus on the cause of cocoliztli — although measles, smallpox and typhus have all been mooted. In 2002, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City proposed that a viral haemorrhagic fever, exacerbated by a catastrophic drought, was behind the carnage2. They compared the magnitude of the 1545 outbreak to that of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.

A couple new studies point to salmonella:

In an attempt to settle the question, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, extracted and sequenced DNA from the teeth of 29 people buried in the Oaxacan highlands of southern Mexico. All but five were linked to a cocoliztli that researchers think ran from 1545 to 1550.

Ancient bacterial DNA recovered from several of the people matched that of Salmonella, based on comparisons with a database of more than 2,700 modern bacterial genomes.

Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.

It’s perfectly reasonable that the bacterium could have caused this epidemic, says Schroeder. “They make a really good case.” But María Ávila-Arcos, an evolutionary geneticist at UNAM, isn’t convinced. She notes that some people suggest that a virus caused the cocoliztli, and that wouldn’t have been picked up by the team’s method.

Krause and his colleagues’ proposal is helped by another study posted on bioRxiv last week, which raises the possibility that Salmonella Paratyphi C arrived in Mexico from Europe.

A team led by Mark Achtman, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, collected and sequenced the genome of the bacterial strain from the remains of a young woman buried around 1200 in a cemetery in Trondheim, Norway. It is the earliest evidence for the now-rare Salmonella strain, and proof that it was circulating in Europe, according to the study.

If you read the firsthand account of The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico by Bernal Diaz Del Castillo — and I highly recommend that you do! — he mentions smallpox specifically five separate times:

Xicotencatl made various other offers of his services in the name of his country. This Xicotencatl was a tall man, broad shouldered, and well built, with a large fresh coloured face, full of scars, as if pitted with the smallpox. He may have been about thirty-five years of age, and was earnest and dignified in his deportment. Cortes thanked him most sincerely, saying, ” he would acknowledge them as vassals of our emperor, and would, for the future, look upon them as our friends.


But to return to Narvaez. He happened to have a negro servant with him ill with the smallpox, through whom this terrific disease, which, according to the accounts of the inhabitants, was previously unknown in the country, spread itself through New Spain, where it created the greater devastation, from the poor Indians, in their ignorance, solely applying cold water as a remedy, with which they constantly bathed themselves; so that vast numbers were cut off before they had the blessing of being received into the bosom of the Christian church.


About this time another king had been raised to the throne of Mexico, as the former, who beat us out of the town, had died of the smallpox. The new monarch was a nephew, or, at least, a very near relative of Motecusuma, and was called Quauhtemoctzin. He was about twenty-five years of age, and a very well-bred man for an Indian. He was likewise a person of great courage, and soon made himself so greatly feared among his people that they trembled in his presence. His wife was one of Motecusuma’s daughters, and passed for a great beauty among her countrywomen.


This expedition was attended by many beneficial results ; for the whole country was thereby tranquilized, while it spread a vast idea of Cortes’ justice and bravery throughout the whole of New Spain; so that every one feared him, and particularly Quauhtemoctzin, the new king of Mexico. Indeed Cortes’ authority rose at once to so great a height, that the inhabitants came from the most distant parts to lay their disputes before him, particularly respecting the election of caziques, right of tenure, and division of property and subjects. About this time thousands of people were carried off by the smallpox, and among them numbers of caziques ; and Cortes, as though he had been lord of the whole country, appointed the new caziques, but made a point of nominating those who had the best claim.


On our arrival in Tlascalla, we found that our old friend Maxixcatzin, one of his majesty’s most faithful vassals, was no more, he having died of the smallpox. We were all sorely grieved at this loss, and Cortes himself, as he assured us, felt it as much as if he had lost his own father. We put on black cloaks in mourning for him, and paid the last honours to the remains of our departed friend, in conjunction with his sons and relations.

My reaction to that book, by the way, was, Why didn’t we read this in school?

Real history is nothing like school history. Oddly, real history is more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.

The Billy Beane of Murder

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Thomas Hargrove, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia, was always the numbers guy at his paper:

In 2004, Hargrove’s editors asked him to look into statistics surrounding prostitution. The only way to study that was to get a copy of the nation’s most comprehensive repository of criminal statistics: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, or UCR. When Hargrove called up a copy of the report from the database library at the University of Missouri, attached to it was something he didn’t expect: the Supplementary Homicide Report. “I opened it up, and it was a record I’d never seen before,” he says. “Line by line, every murder that was reported to the FBI.”


Every year he downloaded and crunched the most recent data set. What really shocked him was the number of murder cases that had never been cleared. (In law enforcement, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual outcome.) Hargrove counted 211,487, more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Why, he wondered, wasn’t the public up in arms about such a large number of unsolved murders?

To make matters worse, Hargrove saw that despite a generation’s worth of innovation in the science of crime fighting, including DNA analysis, the rate of cleared cases wasn’t increasing but decreasing — plummeting, even. The average homicide clearance rate in the 1960s was close to 90 percent; by 2010 it was solidly in the mid-’60s. It has fallen further since.


His innovation was to teach a computer to spot trends in unsolved murders, using publicly available information that no one, including anyone in law enforcement, had used before. This makes him, in a manner of speaking, the Billy Beane of murder. His work shines light on a question that’s gone unanswered for too long: Why, exactly, aren’t the police getting any better at solving murder? And how can we even dream of reversing any upticks in the homicide rate while so many killers remain out on the streets?

It took a few years for Hargrove’s editors at Scripps to agree to give him enough time to lose himself in the FBI’s homicide data. With help from a University of Missouri grad student, Hargrove first dumped the homicide report into statistics software in 2008. He spent months trying to develop an algorithm that would identify unsolved cases with enough commonalities to suggest the same murderer. Eventually, he decided to reverse-engineer the algorithm by testing his ideas against one well-known case, that of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, who confessed to killing 48 women over two decades in the Seattle area. Hargrove thought that if he could devise an algorithm that turned up the Green River Killer’s victims, he’d know he was on the right track.

“We found a hundred things that didn’t work,” he recalls. Finally, he settled on four characteristics for what’s called a cluster analysis: geography, sex, age group, and method of killing. For gender, he stuck with women, since they make up the vast majority of multiple-murder victims who aren’t connected to gang-related activity. When he used women between the ages of 20 and 50 — the cohort most commonly targeted by serial killers — the algorithm lit up like a slot machine. “It became clear that this thing was working,” he says. “In fact, it was working too well.”

The Green River Killer came up right away in this algorithm. That was good news. Hargrove’s algorithm also pulled up 77 unsolved murders in Los Angeles, which he learned were attributed to several different killers the police were pursuing (including the so-called Southside Slayer and, most recently, the Grim Sleeper), and 64 unsolved murders of women in Phoenix.

Then there was a second group of possible serial killers, those unrecognized by local police. “The whole point of the algorithm was to find the low-hanging fruit, the obvious clusters,” Hargrove says. “But there were dozens and dozens of them all over the country.”

In 2015, Scripps spun off the last of its newspapers, and Hargrove and the other print reporters lost their jobs. “The only guy who left with a skip was me,” he says. Hargrove, who was 59 at the time and had worked at the company for 37 years, qualified for a large severance and a nice pension, leaving him well-covered. Now he had enough time to go all in on his data project. He founded the Murder Accountability Project, or MAP, a tiny nonprofit seeking to make FBI murder data more widely and easily available.

Using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, MAP has tried to chase down data from the many municipalities and counties that weren’t supplying their murder data to the FBI, out of bureaucratic laziness, a lack of manpower, or perhaps just rank incompetence. MAP has already assembled case details on 638,454 homicides from 1980 through 2014, including 23,219 cases that hadn’t been reported to the FBI. This is the most complete list of case-level details of U.S. murders available anywhere, and the group’s website has open-sourced all of it. Anyone with statistical analysis software, available for free online, can start looking, across jurisdictions, for serial killers. Anyone can compare convicted killers’ timelines against the timing of unsolved murders to determine if a connection is plausible. “You can call up your hometown and look and see if you see anything suspicious,” Hargrove says. “If you’re the father of a murdered daughter, you can call up her record, and you can see if there might be other records that match. We wanted to be able to crowdsource murder.”

The dangers of status competition

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Status competition can have corrosive effects:

Neighbours of lottery winners often make extravagant status good purchases (Kuhn et al. 2011) and are more likely to go bankrupt (Agarwal, Mikhed, and Scholnick 2016). Card et al. (2012) and Ashraf et al. (2014) show that job satisfaction and performance suffer when there are direct rankings and explicit comparisons with others in the same group.

Status competition can kill you — if you’re a fighter pilot:

During the height of the [Battle of Britain], in the summer of 1940, two of Germany’s highest-scoring aces did something unexpected: they went deer hunting. Werner Mölders, commanding a squadron of fighters on the Channel Coast, was asked by Hermann Göring head of the German air force, to confer with him for three days at Karinhall, his country retreat. Mölders at first refused, as he was competing against Adolf Galland for the honour of being the highest-scoring German ace. Mölders relented only on the condition that Galland would also be grounded for three days. Göring, who had also been a fighter ace in World War I, agreed and brought Galland along on the hunting trip (Galland 1993).

So, in the middle of the defining conflict for the German air force, two of its best pilots had been pulled from the front line – and one of them was not brought because there was an operational or administrative need, but to maintain a ‘level killing field’ with his competition. Competition for status was intense amongst German pilots. It was behind the elaborate systems of awards and medals that pervaded the military. Similar awards are also common in many other walks of life, from academia to the top ranks of business and politics.

Most air forces during WWII devoted considerable bureaucratic attention to filing, witnessing, adjudicating, and aggregating the victory claims made by their pilots. In the German system, pilots had to give the grid coordinates, aircraft type, type of destruction (pilot bail-out, impact, explosion, and so on) and time to file a claim. The claim would have to be witnessed by another pilot to stand a chance of being accepted. Claims would be sent to a central office of the Luftwaffe for adjudication, where many would be rejected.

This elaborate system was necessary because awards and medals were closely tied to victory scores. The Luftwaffe awarded medals based on informal quotas. For example, in early 1942 for a pilot to have a chance of receiving the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, that pilot would have needed 100 victories.

We have data on the victory claims of more than 5,000 pilots for the entire conflict, 1939-45. These pilots filed claims that they had shot down 54,800 enemy planes. Victories were extremely unevenly distributed. The highest-scoring ace, Erich Hartmann, claimed more than 350 victories, and the top 100 pilots scored almost as many victories as the bottom 4,900. The maximum monthly victory score was 68, recorded in 1943 on the Eastern front.

These successes were bought at a high price (Figure 1). In an average month, 3.3% of pilots died. After two years of service, half the low-scoring pilots would have been killed. Amongst the better-performing pilots, only one-quarter would have survived. Towards the end of the war, loss rates became extremely high, averaging 25% or more from the spring of 1944 (Murray 1996).

Victory claims and exit rate among German fighter pilots, by month

Figure 2 summarises our key results. Good pilots – those whose average monthly victory score put them in the top 20% of the distribution – on average improved their victory score by 50%, from less than two to more than three a month, when the successes of their former peers were advertised. Pilots in the bottom 80% scored fewer victories overall, but also improved by a small margin. Strikingly, results are different for exit rates (‘exit’ usually meant death). Great pilots, on average, died more often, but they were not more likely to exit in times of peer recognition. The opposite was true for average and the poor pilots, whose exit rate increased by almost half. In other words, aces tried harder when a former colleague got a public pat on the back, but didn’t take many more risks. Average or poor pilots tried harder, were a bit more successful, but also tended to get themselves killed more often.

Victory and Exit

German pilots during WWII had the highest numbers of aerial victories ever recorded:

The top 100 pilots of all time are all German.

Shell shock after all

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

Scientists assumed that explosive blasts affect the brain in much the same way as concussions from football or car accidents:

No one had done a systematic post-mortem study of blast-injured troops. That was exactly what the Pentagon asked Perl to do in 2010, offering him access to the brains they had gathered for research. It was a rare opportunity, and Perl left his post as director of neuropathology at the medical school at Mount Sinai to come to Washington.

Perl and his lab colleagues recognized that the injury that they were looking at was nothing like concussion. The hallmark of C.T.E. is an abnormal protein called tau, which builds up, usually over years, throughout the cerebral cortex but especially in the temporal lobes, visible across the stained tissue like brown mold. What they found in these traumatic-brain-injury cases was totally different: a dustlike scarring, often at the border between gray matter (where synapses reside) and the white matter that interconnects it. Over the following months, Perl and his team examined several more brains of service members who died well after their blast exposure, including a highly decorated Special Operations Forces soldier who committed suicide. All of them had the same pattern of scarring in the same places, which appeared to correspond to the brain’s centers for sleep, cognition and other classic brain-injury trouble spots.

Then came an even more surprising discovery. They examined the brains of two veterans who died just days after their blast exposure and found embryonic versions of the same injury, in the same areas, and the development of the injuries seemed to match the time elapsed since the blast event. Perl and his team then compared the damaged brains with those of people who suffered ordinary concussions and others who had drug addictions (which can also cause visible brain changes) and a final group with no injuries at all. No one in these post-mortem control groups had the brown-dust pattern.

Perl’s findings, published in the scientific journal The Lancet Neurology, may represent the key to a medical mystery first glimpsed a century ago in the trenches of World War I. It was first known as shell shock, then combat fatigue and finally PTSD, and in each case, it was almost universally understood as a psychic rather than a physical affliction.


A blast begins simply: A detonator turns a lump of solid matter into a deadly fireball. Within that moment, three distinct things happen. The first is the blast wave, a wall of static pressure traveling outward in all directions faster than the speed of sound. Next, a blast wind fills the void and carries with it any objects it encounters. This is the most manifestly destructive part of the blast, capable of hurling cars, people and shrapnel against buildings and roadsides. The remaining effects include fire and toxic gases, which can sear, poison and asphyxiate anyone within range.

The effects of all of this on the human body are myriad and more complicated than the blast itself. People who have been exposed to blasts at close range usually describe it as an overpowering, full-body experience unlike anything they have ever known. Many soldiers do not recall the moment of impact: it gets lost in the flash of light, the deafening sound or unconsciousness. Those who do remember it often speak of a simultaneous punching and squeezing effect, a feeling at once generalized and intensely violent, as if someone had put a board against your body and then struck it with dozens of hammers.


Very quickly [after WWI began], soldiers began emerging with bizarre symptoms; they shuddered and gibbered or became unable to speak at all. Many observers were struck by the apparent capacity of these blasts to kill and maim without leaving any visible trace. The British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett famously described the sight of seven Turks at Gallipoli in 1915, sitting together with their rifles across their knees: “One man has his arm across the neck of his friend and a smile on his face as if they had been cracking a joke when death overwhelmed them. All now have the appearance of being merely asleep; for of the several I can only see one who shows any outward injury.”

For those who survived a blast and suffered the mysterious symptoms, soldiers quickly coined their own phrase: shell shock.


One British doctor, Frederick Mott, believed the shock was caused by a physical wound and proposed dissecting the brains of men who suffered from it. He even had some prescient hunches about the mechanism of blast’s effects: the compression wave, the concussion and the toxic gases. In a paper published in The Lancet in February 1916, he posited a “physical or chemical change and a break in the links of the chain of neurons which subserve a particular function.” Mott might not have seen anything abnormal in the soldiers’ brains, even if he had examined them under a microscope; neuropathology was still in its infancy. But his prophetic intuitions made him something of a hero to Perl.

Mott’s views were soon eclipsed by those of other doctors who saw shell shock more as a matter of emotional trauma. This was partly a function of the intellectual climate; Freud and other early psychologists had recently begun sketching provocative new ideas about how the mind responds to stress.


Cernak became convinced [after the Balkans conflict of the 1990s] that blast ripples through the body like rings on a pond’s surface. Its speed changes when it encounters materials of different density, like air pockets or the border between the brain’s gray and white matter, and can inflict greater damage in those places. As it happens, physicists would later theorize some very similar models for how blast damages the brain. Several possibilities have now been explored, including surges of blood upward from the chest; shearing loads on brain tissue; and the brain bouncing back and forth inside the skull, as happens with concussion. Charles Needham, a renowned authority on blast physics, told me post-mortems on blast injuries have lent some support to all of those theories, and the truth may be that several are at play simultaneously.

A decade after her initial battlefield surveys in the Balkans, Cernak took a position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she did animal research that bolstered her conviction about blast’s full-body effects. She found that even if an animal’s head is protected during a blast, the brain can sustain damage, because the blast wave transfers through the body via blood and tissue. Cernak also came to believe that blast injuries to the brain were cumulative and that even small explosions with no discernible effects could, if repeated, produce terrible and irreversible damage. Much of this would later be confirmed by other scientists.

This all sounds quite credible — but it doesn’t explain the many cases of PTSD from troops who never faced combat or suffered blast injuries.

The Stages of Grief at the Frontier

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Jakub J. Grygiel lays out the stages of geopolitical grief along the unquiet frontier:

Recounted in a biography written by Eugippius, Saint Severinus’s peregrinations along the Danubian frontier illustrate different stages of coping with a growing insecurity on a frontier that was gradually abandoned by Roman forces and harassed by small tribes roaming the area.

First, there is the gradual recognition that imperial forces were not what they used to be. The tangible presence of the empire was disappearing, and the towns were losing their main security providers. “So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together.” But the gradual withdrawal of Roman troops did not seem to have had a shocking impact on the locals, who perhaps did not notice immediately that their security required the presence of armed men. Indeed, few consider how security and deterrence are maintained while peace reigns.

The Roman troop at Batavis (modern day Passau), however, held out. The place was itself a military base rather than a town; located on the confluence of two important rivers, the Danube and the Inn, it occupied important strategic real estate that most likely was deemed more valuable than other towns east of it. It was a remnant of a string of military outposts, and the soldiers there seemed to be severed from the bulk of the legions. At some point, “some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades.” They did not make it far because the barbarians marauding in the area killed them. For a while no one was aware of this massacre, but “one day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river.”

That was a shock.

The role of these few Roman soldiers was first and foremost one of reassurance. They could not have defended the small towns in case of a prolonged barbarian assault. They also did not maintain the safety of the surrounding areas, leaving it open to small but frequent barbarians incursions — and as the violent end of the few soldiers heading to obtain the overdue pay indicates, they could not even protect their own forces. Finally, these scarce imperial forces certainly did not serve as a “tripwire” because it was unlikely that, in case of a barbarian attack on them, Roman legions would have marched north in retaliation. In brief, they did not deter the barbarians. But they were there to reassure the locals. They were good enough to reassure, even if not good enough to deter and defend. And that is why when imperial forces melted away the locals were discouraged.

Second, after the reassuring presence of imperial might has vanished, the next stage does not include calls for defense or balancing or stronger walls. No. It is the stage of disbelief and self-delusion. As Roman power waned, the locals comforted themselves with the delusion that the threats did not exist or, if they did, that the menace was not great. Perhaps the enemies would seek other targets. Perhaps the walls would suffice. Perhaps the barbarians liked peace and commerce as much as they did. Perhaps they would just go away. Perhaps they would peacefully blend in. The list of possible justifications for this delusion is as long as it is wrong.

In the first town he visited, Asturis, Severinus warned the population that the enemy was indeed near and dangerous. They should repent, he told them. They should pray and fast, and they should unite by abandoning the search for the selfish fulfillment of material desires. Of course, as was to be expected from a complacent and materially satisfied polity, Severinus was laughed out of town.

People who are deluded — and do not see higher reasons for their own existence — will gladly justify their material self-satisfaction. Severinus left “in haste from a stubborn town that shall swiftly perish.” And perish Asturis did.

Third, in the next town, Comagenis, Severinus had more luck — the locals were on their next stage of grief. Because one man escaped from Asturis bringing the terrible news, the people of Comagenis could no longer ignore the hard fact that the barbarians were near and in search of destruction.

They recognized that security was a creation of force, not a self-sustaining reality.
But even before the technical question of how to defend themselves, the locals needed a reason to do it. They needed what Roman troops, however scant, had provided before: some reassurance. And this was Severinus’s greatest contribution: he reassured the local populations. He supplied the surviving towns with a firm motivation to resist and defend themselves, a reassurance that defense was worthwhile. With his presence the frontier “castles felt no danger. The trusty cuirass of fasting, and praiseworthy humility of heart, with the aid of the prophet, had armed them boldly against the fierceness of the enemy.”

This stage of geopolitical grief can be productive because it is characterized by the nascent desire to engage in the competition at hand. Security, these frontier towns realized, was not guaranteed by impersonal forces, but needed to be underwritten by somebody. And they had to do it themselves.

The problem at this stage is that the passage from delusion and panic to the desire to produce indigenous defense is not automatic. Before the “how” and the “where” of defending oneself, it is necessary to have a clear and firm answer to the “why.” A polity can have all the technical marvels, logistical supplies, and tactical skills, but without a strong motivation to defend itself they will all be useless. A castellum can be architecturally pleasing and surrounded by thick walls, but if the people inside it do not know who they are and why they should fight, it is as undefended as a wide open field.

In one of the Danubian towns, the local commander Mamertinus was concerned that the forces at his disposal were insufficient. (He was also future bishop — a pattern that replicated itself elsewhere in the decaying western Roman Empire. Bishops quickly became the main city authorities, caring not only for the spiritual life but also for the material survival of their flocks.) Mamertinus told Severinus: “I have soldiers, a very few. But I dare not contend with such a host of enemies. However, if thou commandest it, venerable father, though we lack the aid of weapons yet we believe that through thy prayers we shall be victorious.” Material capabilities are important, indeed essential; yet motivation and morale is even more so. Severinus stiffened their spines. Go out and engage the enemy, he told them. “Even if thy soldiers are unarmed, they shall now be armed from the enemy. For neither numbers nor fleshly courage is required, when everything proves that God is our champion.” Mamertinus’s troops went out, found some of the barbarians, attacked, and succeeded in routing most of them while obtaining a stash of their abandoned weapons.

Very, very bad at gun journalism

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

The mainstream media lobbies hard for gun control, but it is very, very bad at gun journalism:

It might be impossible ever to bridge the divide between the gun-control and gun-rights movements. But it’s impossible to start a dialogue when you don’t know what the hell you are talking about.

Media stories in the wake of mass shootings typically feature a laundry list of mistakes that reflect their writers’ inexperience with guns and gun culture. Some of them are small but telling: conflating automatic and semi-automatic weapons, assault rifle and assault weapon, caliber and gauge—all demonstrating a general lack of familiarity with firearms. Some of them are bigger. Like calling for “common-sense gun control” and “universal background checks” after instances in which a shooter purchased a gun legally and passed background checks. Or focusing on mass shootings involving assault weapons—and thereby ignoring statistics that show that far more people die from handguns.

Westernization leads to de-Westernization

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Westernization of less developed societies eventually leads to a form of de-Westernization, Samuel P. Huntington argues, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order:

Initially, Westernization and modernization are closely linked, with the non-Western society absorbing substantial elements of Western culture and making slow progress towards modernization. As the pace of modernization increases, however, the rate of Westernization declines and the indigenous culture goes through a revival. Further modernization then alters the civilizational balance of power between the West and the non-Western society, bolsters the power and self-confidence of that society, and strengthens commitment to the indigenous culture.

In the early phases of change, Westernization thus promotes modernization. In the later phases, modernization promotes de-Westernization and the resurgence of indigenous culture in two ways. At the societal level, modernization enhances the economic, military and political power of the society as a whole and encourages the people of that society to have confidence in their culture and to become culturally assertive. At the individual level, modernization generates feelings of alienation and anomie as traditional bonds and social relations are broken and leads to crises of identity to which religion provides an answer.

Schizophrenic Attackers

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Dr. Jeroen Ensink, 41, a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was stabbed to death by Nigerian-born student Femi Nandap, who was a cannabis-abusing psychotic (in the strict, clinical sense):

Despite attacking a police officer in May last year and then being caught in possession of two kitchen knives, Nandap was twice given bail, before prosecutors decided to drop the charges against him.

Six days later he attacked and killed Dr Ensink, telling police who tried to intervene that he was the “black messiah”.

The current academic wisdom is that it would be impossible to prevent such murders without restricting large numbers of patients — say 35,000 of them:

Taking the very paper which provides the “35,000” figure for stranger murder, the figures for assault are shown below, and put things into a more manageable context. The annual rates for assault and violent crime are extraordinarily high, almost unbelievably so. Given the very high base rate, screening and monitoring are worth while.

Positive Predictive Value for the Detection of Adverse Events in Schizophrenia

As the event becomes more rare, the positive predictive value of the risk-categorization becomes lower, and the error rate higher, with progressively more people needing to be monitored to prevent one rare event. However, to prevent an assault would require that 3 schizophrenic patients be monitored, calling them in to check they are taking their medication, and presumably (hardest part) searching for them if they failed to show up. Easier would be to link up with the Police, so that if a patient is brought in for violent behaviour of any sort there can be coordinated management of the offender. Devoutly to be wished, often denied, but in the manageable range given the will and the resources. It would provide a good service for the patients, reducing suicide attempts, improving the quality of their lives, and reducing threats to others. It would certainly be worth testing it out in a London Borough, and checking that the above figures, derived from the best sources, hold up on further examination.

None of the media coverage goes into the question which arises out of normal curiosity: is psychotic behaviour more common among Africans in the UK? The picture above shows murderer and victim, and is an all too common pairing. The answer to the African question is: 6 to 9 times higher.

How Israel Catches Lone Wolves

Monday, January 30th, 2017

The recent Palestinian haba, or eruption, has involved “lone wolf” attackers:

In closed-door debates, proponents of a new and less muscular approach emphasized that most of the attackers came from the fringes of West Bank society: young people struggling with social marginalization, who had experienced repeated setbacks in their private lives or faced insurmountable personal or financial hardship. The collective profile of the assailants identified most as frustrated individuals who felt that their lives had reached a dead end, to the point that many sought salvation through martyrdom. Many of those captured during assaults told interrogators that they believed that death for the sake of jihad would reward them with the recognition they failed to obtain in life. It eventually dawned on Israeli analysts that many of the attackers who had maintained their own Facebook pages tended to replace their old pictures with new self-portraits just weeks, and sometimes only days, before setting out on an attack, so that mourning ceremonies could display photos of the “martyrs” that were appropriately current and flattering. In numerous cases, would-be assailants also wrote about their wish to sacrifice their lives in the form of short poems, Quranic verses, or tributes to other shahidis (martyrs).

Another important conclusion was that roughly half of the attackers came from only six localities in the West Bank: the suburb of Jebel Mukabar on the southern outskirts of East Jerusalem; Kalandiya refugee camp; the villages of Qabatya, Sair, and Yata; and a few neighborhoods in Hebron. Most other towns and villages did not join in. Each of these localities had, of course, its own unique economic conditions, social tensions, and complaints concerning nearby Israeli settlements and army presence. In general, Mount Hebron was the main springboard for attacks partly because pro-Hamas clans dominate the region at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.

On top of that, about half of all attempts occurred in and around the same six road junctions, from Jalameh border crossing in the north through Beit El, Tapuach, and Etzion in the center down to two intersections in Hebron. Young Palestinians repeatedly targeted Israeli soldiers at these junctions, many of them to avenge friends or family members who had been killed there in previous attempted attacks. This trend continued despite the IDF’s fortification of its positions around these junctions. Attackers knew that their chances of murdering an Israeli soldier in these well-defended places were slim, and the chances they would be killed or captured very high. Hence, choosing to carry out an attack in any of these junctions amounted to a suicide mission.

Although there were few attacks involving firearms during the Haba, these were often most serious. Israeli investigators discovered that some of these attacks were sophisticated operations by small “sacrifice squads” formed ad hoc. Members spent time on reconnaissance and planning. In most cases they were equipped with improvised Swedish Karl Gustav or old Port Said submachine guns manufactured in local metal workshops. A few of these squads might have been influenced by ISIS attacks in Europe, although none of the fifty or so people who participated in these attacks had any affiliation or contact with the terror group.

The Haba also brought about a sharp increase in what the Palestinians describe as “Popular Resistance”—riots and violent demonstrations in which Israeli soldiers and civilian passengers in cars or buses were attacked with stones, Molotov cocktails, and, less frequently, improvised explosive charges and pipe bombs. There were 4,656 such incidents in one year—from about September 2015 to August of 2016. This mode of unrest became routine after the Fatah movement’s Sixth Conference, held in Bethlehem in 2009, approved a program of unarmed confrontation. The number of such disturbances reached its peak in October 2015, yet unlike during the previous intifadas, public participation was limited. At most there would be few hundred demonstrators, but more often several dozen teenagers. The general public consistently stayed away. Gradually, the number of incidents declined, although a rate of around 100-150 incidents a month has been maintained through the winter of 2016.

There are six main components of Israel’s counter-Haba strategy that have emerged over time:

The first and arguably most important has been to reduce tension over the Temple Mount.

The second component of Israeli policy in dealing with the Haba concerned social media.

The third component has been selective retaliation.

The fourth component of the strategy focused on better cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.

The fifth component of the strategy involved specifically going after the weapons.

Disrupting Hamas operations constitutes the sixth element of the strategy.

A Remote Event, but One with a Very Severe Downside

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

The “prepper” movement includes the super-rich, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone:

I asked [Justin Kan, co-founder of Twitch, a gaming network that was sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars] what his prepping friends had in common. “Lots of money and resources,” he said. “What are the other things I can worry about and prepare for? It’s like insurance.”

Yishan Wong, an early Facebook employee, was the C.E.O. of Reddit from 2012 to 2014. He, too, had eye surgery for survival purposes, eliminating his dependence, as he put it, “on a nonsustainable external aid for perfect vision.” In an e-mail, Wong told me, “Most people just assume improbable events don’t happen, but technical people tend to view risk very mathematically.” He continued, “The tech preppers do not necessarily think a collapse is likely. They consider it a remote event, but one with a very severe downside, so, given how much money they have, spending a fraction of their net worth to hedge against this… is a logical thing to do.”

How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”

I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”

The C.E.O. of another large tech company told me, “It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.” He noted the vulnerabilities exposed by the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, and also by a large-scale hack on October 21st, which disrupted the Internet in North America and Western Europe. “Our food supply is dependent on G.P.S., logistics, and weather forecasting,” he said, “and those systems are generally dependent on the Internet, and the Internet is dependent on D.N.S.”—the system that manages domain names. “Go risk factor by risk factor by risk factor, acknowledging that there are many you don’t even know about, and you ask, ‘What’s the chance of this breaking in the next decade?’ Or invert it: ‘What’s the chance that nothing breaks in fifty years?’ ”

It’s especially unsurprising that Peter Thiel has New Zealand citizenship:

Perhaps Mr. Thiel’s interest in New Zealand is a way of hedging his bets on the future. But there is another possibility. Mr. Thiel is a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings,” and has named investments after elements of the J. R. R. Tolkien epic — Mithril, Palantir and, in New Zealand itself, Valar.

New Zealand, of course, was where the director Peter Jackson made his acclaimed films of the series. Becoming a citizen might be the next best thing to living in Middle-earth itself.

I suppose he’ll sail west one day.

Old regime’s supporters unleash violence against Constitutionally elected new government

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

Steve Sailer summarizes yesterday’s activities with the headline “Old regime’s supporters unleash violence against Constitutionally elected new government“:

Paul Kersey calls them “the shock troops of the Establishment.”

Remember the coordinated Fake News campaign in the media last winter about how violent Trump supporters were?

What % of all political violence in the United States over the last 12 months turned out to be more or less anti-Trump?

95% or 98%?

Philip Wegmann of the Washington Examine describes what he saw at the anti-Trump riot in DC:

After protestors got tired of chanting “love trumps hate,” they started chucking rocks at cops.

On Friday thousands of protestors gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest the peaceful transition of power from one democratically-elected president to another. And it got ugly quickly.

Organized by the DisruptJ20 protest group, activists took aim at the alleged sexism and racism of the incoming administration. Practically speaking, that meant blocking security checkpoints, smashing windows, and torching at least one limousine outside the Washington Post building.


Families from flyover country were greeted to the nation’s capital with chants of “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” When short of breath, protestors opted for the more succinct, “Fuck Trump!” One activist even decided to lecture a young Republican, screaming “don’t grow up and grab women by the pussies!” before his father covered his ears.

When words failed them though, protestors turned to rioting. Wearing black face masks, they smashed the windows of Starbucks, Bank of America, and a Bobby Van’s steakhouse a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Private business didn’t suffer all the damage, though. Suddenly enemies of public transport, liberal rioters trashed at least one bus stop—an indicator of the aimlessness of the whole thing.


So far, they seem like the JV team to the rioters that trashed Ferguson and Baltimore. Most didn’t know whether to take selfie or retreat in front of a police line. A pile of flaming trashcans served as more of a prop for Instagram than a barricade for police.

Anti-Helicopter Mines?

Friday, January 20th, 2017

The U.S. Army is now concerned about anti-helicopter mines:

Bulgaria, which seems to have developed these devices as far as as the late 1990s, offers several mines such as the AHM-200, a 200-pound device which looks like a mortar tube mounted on a tripod. The mine, which is emplaced on the surface rather than buried in the dirt, has an acoustic sensor which arms the weapon when it picks up the sound of the helicopter as far away as 1,500 feet. At a range of 500 feet, a Doppler radar tracks the target. When the helicopter gets within 300 feet, the mine detonates both an explosively formed projectile and an explosive charge packed with steel balls.

A 2012 Russian news video shows what looks a similar device. A Russian expert in the video claims that anti-helicopter mines were developed because shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are ineffective against helicopters flying lower than 300 feet.

Other nations have also developed anti-helicopter mines. Poland has one, while Austria has developed an infrared-guided version.

Oxytocin levels surge in troops of chimpanzees preparing for conflict with rival groups

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Oxytocin levels surge in troops of chimpanzees preparing for conflict with rival groups:

The finding is at odds with the prevailing image of oxytocin as something that helps strengthen bonds between parent and infant, or foster friendships. But given its capacity to strengthen loyalty, oxytocin could also be a warmonger hormone that helps chimps galvanise and cooperate against a common enemy.

Catherine Crockford of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues monitored two rival groups of chimpanzees in the Taï National Park in Ivory Coast, each containing five males and five females, for prolonged periods between October 2013 and May 2015.

Thanks to trust built up between the team and the chimps, the team could safely track and video the groups – even during conflict, observing at close quarters what was happening. Crucially, the team was also able to pipette up fresh samples from soil when chimps urinated.

The samples revealed that oxytocin levels surge in the mammals whenever the chimps on either side prepared for confrontation, or when either group took the risk of venturing near or into rival-held territories. These surges dwarfed the oxytocin levels seen during activities such as grooming, collaborative hunting for monkey prey or food sharing.