Media and the consequences of fear

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok shares some thoughts on school shootings, media, and the consequences of fear:

“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

School shootings are actually down since the 1990s (with a lot of variability). Fewer students are carrying weapons to school and fewer students report having easy access to guns (data here).

It’s been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past. Does anyone not know about Parkland? Contrary to common wisdom, mass shootings also occur in European countries and the US is not a notable outlier in this regard. I suspect, however, that the Finnish media don’t cover German shootings as frequently as shootings in Florida are covered in Nebraska — as a result the larger the media-market the greater the extent of availability bias. In other words, the larger the media market the greater the over-estimation of rare but vivid events. (Someone should test this theory.)

I worry about turning schools into prisons and what kinds of citizens this will create. My letter to my son’s high school principal was sent before the recent shootings but I stand by it now more than ever:

You can’t have Denmark without Danes

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

You can’t have Denmark without Danes, Megan McArdle notes:

On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.

“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:

The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.

The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.

The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.

The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.

A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”

Ironically, New Yorker Megan McArdle got her phone stolen in Copenhagen:

I learned a lot about Danish culture by the reaction to the theft of my phone. I discovered the loss the day after it happened, just as I was about to leave my hotel for a few last interviews. Suddenly, I had to my name only a few Danish kroner — too few even for a round-trip bus ride. I briefly debated canceling the interviews and spending the afternoon trying to round up some cash and a way to get to the airport the following day. Instead, throwing caution to the winds, I borrowed a bike from the hotel and set off, arriving bedraggled and half-an-hour late. Then I climbed four flights of stairs and nearly passed out.

The man I was interviewing responded by leaving to fetch me an enormous bottle of sparkling water, which I greedily consumed. (Maybe an American would have done the same.) The next man I interviewed, the think-tank scholar Agerup, offered to lend me whatever money I needed to get home. (Maybe an American stranger would have done the same, or maybe not.)

Later, I informed the staff at the Copenhagen Island Hotel that all my credit cards needed to be canceled, meaning that I would be unable to pay the considerable bill the next day. Also, that I had no cash and no way to eat for the next 24 hours. The clerk commiserated. Then he mobilized what seemed like the whole staff to make sure that it would be all right.

The hotel people pre-charged both dinner and breakfast to my room, figured out how to give the airport taxi service a hotel voucher and then closed out my entire bill a day early, right before I canceled my credit card. They did this all for a stranger they had no reason to trust.

It was exactly what I’d been hearing about Danish businesses and government all week — the individual initiative of relatively low-level employees, the pragmatism, the adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of rules.

I don’t mean to imply that my own company would have left me stranded in Denmark if it hadn’t been for the hotel — as soon as the U.S. woke up, I also had my own team of Bloomberg people trying to make sure I got home safely. The point is that I didn’t need much help, because the marvelously efficient and flexible Danes had already taken care of the problem.

Two weeks later, after I’d canceled my credit cards and replaced my phone, I got a package in the mail covered in foreign stamps. The Danish police had thoughtfully mailed my phone case back to me, at their own expense — sans phone, alas, but with driver’s license and credit cards and various wallet detritus intact. It saved me a trip to the DMV to replace my license, and gave me a warm feeling for the Danes who had, apparently as a matter of course, extended themselves to help a stranger.

Read the whole thing.

Two sweeping moral visions of guns

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Ross Douthat notes that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action, because we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions of guns that is too wide to be bridged by incrementalism:

The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.

The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where the police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.

If you asked me to defend only one of these moral pictures I would defend the pro-gun vision. I am not a gun owner but I can imagine many situations and political dispensations in which a morally responsible citizen should own a weapon; I have encountered many communities where “gun culture” seems healthy and responsible rather than a bloodthirsty cult. And the claim, often urged on anti-abortion writers like myself, that guns and abortion should both be opposed on “life” grounds seems like a category error, since every abortion kills but guns sit harmless in millions of households and many deter violence or turn back evil men.

Naturally the New York Times includes a photo of “high-capacity clips” to adorn the article. (They are regular-capacity AR magazines.)

Douthat is not a gun guy, but he takes a stab at gun regulations that would not apply to every gun owner, but instead would be imposed on the young and removed with age:

Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.

Again, he’s not a gun guy, and he doesn’t seem aware that standard practice already works a bit like this, with long guns (rifles and shotguns) available at 18 and handguns at 21. The legal right to carry a handgun (concealed) generally requires a more thorough background check and a modicum of “training” — you have to sit through a class and not scare the instructor too badly when you go to shoot your gun at the range. Simply requiring paperwork seems to weed out most irresponsible people.

Of course, a system designed to keep guns away from criminals and ordinary hotheads might do very little to keep guns away from quiet loners with a nihilistic obsession.

This is the logic of lex talionis

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye did not make it onto T. Greer’s top 10 reads list for 2017, but he did find it quite thought-provoking:

Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller’s book looks at the politics of social life (in places like medieval Iceland):

When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

Eye for an Eye looks at lex talionis — “the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law”:

This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise.

In Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, Miller tells the story of some Norwegian merchants who had chopped off Skæring’s hand and thought the judgment too steep:

“Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”

This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship.


To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand.

This is the logic of lex talionis, T. Greer explains:

This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.” Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence — not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as “as going postal and blasting away,” but as Miller notes, “revenge cultures did not think of it that way.” This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter’s suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold, calculations. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural.

Despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms

Monday, February 12th, 2018

A few months back, while I was stepping through Techniques of Systems Analysis, Scipio Americanus recommended Keith R. Tidman’s The Operations Evaluation Group as “a fine overview of the development of the OR/OA field from the naval perspective.” I immediately ordered a copy, read it, and failed to achieve OR Enlightenment, so I didn’t get around to preparing a post full of insights from the book.

Gwern, on the other hand, did follow through and did produce just such a review, which summarizes my experience, too:

So overall: reasonably well-written, covers intrinsically interesting topics like ASW in WWII and Vietnam air tactics; compromised by official history purpose to recount thoroughly uninteresting internal details while omitting too much of both context and technical detail for my tastes and suspiciously hamstrung in certain areas like nuclear strategy or Harpoon.

Here is Gwern’s list of insights from the book:

  • after compiling all data about U-boat sinkings, Edison found merchant shipping routes were unchanged despite the risk, 94% of sinkings were during the day, and <4% of ships carried listening devices or radios. Edison set up a simple war game on a map simulating a merchant vs U-boat, proving that travel by night from port to port would largely eliminate sinkings. Unfortunately, his findings were ignored.
  • Blackett’s Circus used animal experiments demonstrating that lethality of air pressure blasts was overestimated 5x, reducing over-optimistic estimates of the effect of bombing campaigns in Germany
  • Depth charges were set to explode at 100 feet depth, on the assumption that U-boats would be that deep after being spotted; analysis indicated that half had not even submerged when depth-charged, much less reached 100 feet, and the optimal setting was 20 feet (which the depth charges didn’t even allow as a setting), which “new setting [of 35 feet] at least quadrupled their destructive capability.”
  • Big convoys turned out to have half the loss rate of small convoys, due to U-boats being unable to amass more, leading to a shift away from small convoys
  • A British naval program in the Mediterranean armed merchant ships with AA guns to reduce losses from aerial bombing; the program was going to be canceled because only 4% of attacking planes were being shot down and the deployment of scarce guns looked like a waste, however, an OR re-analysis of ship rather than aircraft losses showed that the armed ships had a 10% loss rate versus unarmed ships’ 25% loss rate. The latter was clearly a more relevant end-metric.
  • initial attempts by naval researchers to record underwater ship sounds to fool sound-based naval mines failed as the device invented to make ship-like sounds turned out to not sound much like a ship at all; this device serendipitously turned out to be nearly perfect for fooling the German sound-seeking homing torpedoes, largely scuppering their deployment (and freaking out the U-boat crews by its bizarre sounds, who were sure that the “singing saws” were “some powerful, dangerous weapon”)
  • William Shockley (taking a break from electronics research to serve as an OEG analyst during WWII), deployed to England to observe ASW there and was struck by an incident in which a plane attempted to bomb a discovered U-boat but the bomb jammed due to rust, then, fixed, went out again 2 days later only to crash in the fog. Shockley found that “on the average, an aircrew had just one opportunity to kill a submarine before its own members were either killed or wounded or at least moved on to another assignment. An aircrew thus had little or no opportunity to learn on the job.” ASW could only be developed institutionally and given the nature of search over large areas, statistically.
  • OEG was deeply involved in the early development of optimal search theory (Bayesian or otherwise), developing models of what probability a search plane had of spotting U-bots or periscopes under various conditions and altitudes. This then allowed development of optimal search patterns and setting up barrier patrols, which, when deployed in the Strait of Gibraltar, caught 3 U-boats in 4 months and then sealed off the Mediterranean; this was followed by capture or destruction of 4 of 5 German blockade-runners carrying vital rubber/tin supplies from Malaysia/Japan (the equivalent of “a year and a half” of German supplies).
  • study of U-boats off the US East Coast and also the Caribbeans showed that air patrols were staying far too close to land and needed to be outfitted with radios and spotlights; the patrol patterns were changed.
  • on the other side of the Atlantic, radar+spotlights on even a few planes around France proved to be a potent combination in striking U-boats at night when they typically surfaced to rest & travel rapidly, forcing them to shift travel to during the already-dangerous day. “In sum, the night flying of 2 squadrons had increased the effectiveness of antisubmarine operations in the Bay [of Biscay] by more than 7 squadrons of day flying.” (And also prompting the introduction of radar-detectors, which led to radar-detector-detectors etc.) A similar scenario played out in the Pacific: analysis demonstrated that US subs were lost at the same rate regardless of using their radar, so the Japanese planes did not have radar-detectors, and US subs could go back to using radar full-time.
  • The existence of radar-detectors led Caribbean pilots, when outfitted with a new radar that regularly revealed vanishing contacts, to assume they were being detected by U-boats, and to abandon use of the highly effective radar, crippling their submarine hunting. OEG didn’t believe radar-detectors could have been deployed so fast by the Germans and investigated; the vanishing contacts turned out to be glitch in the radar and the pilots resumed use.
  • US submarines were being lost at high rate in the Pacific for unknown reasons, as few survived long enough to report the cause; study of US submarine miss rates in attacking Japanese subs (which able to report back) revealed that contrary to the US Navy’s belief, most of the US subs were being killed by Japanese subs and not airplanes or surface ships. Immediately, tactics and sound equipment were revised to emphasize anti-torpedo tactics, and “By the close of the war, several commanders had credited the modified torpedo detection equipment and new tactics with saving their submarines from destruction.” While they were at it, they modeled mine fields and appropriate counter-tactics, and “of 12 submarines assigned to operate in the Sea of Japan, none was lost to the mines that heavily dotted the straits leading into and out of the area.”
  • anti-kamikaze tactics were likewise worked out (evasive maneuvers: big ships yes, small no; turn towards a high-diving but away from a low-diving)
  • Analysis of Korean fighter-bomber strikes showed the F4U was much more vulnerable than the F9F, due to tactics like going much lower and more often in range of AA (and even small-arms fire). It also showed pilots were wrong about their belief that the last airplane in a strike ran the largest risks due to loss of the element of surprise (it actually ran the least risk). Changes reduced the F4U losses.
  • a 1958 OEG study found a ‘window of vulnerability’ of the US to USSR pre-emptive strikes 1961-1963 and a ‘missile gap’. Tidman defends the report, noting that it made a number of suggestions for eliminating the ‘window’, many of which were taken: “…the hardening and dispersal of fixed weapons sites, a program of continuous flights by SAC bombers, the sped-up procurement of available weapons systems (such as mobile cruise missiles), and the increased preparedness of naval air. OEG also recommended that emphasis remain on the development of mobile and concealable forces, rather than on fixed-site forces. Polaris, for example, was spotlighted as meriting accelerated production. The defense policies of two administrations were greatly influenced by this expectation of a possible low point in U.S. deterrence…As soon as John F. Kennedy took over the presidency, however, he decided to embark on an extensive program of strengthening American strategic forces. Mirroring much of what OEG’s study had recommended three years earlier, he increased the production rate of Polaris submarines by several months, and added 10 submarines to the original planned total. He also doubled the capability for producing Minuteman and improved the alert status of SAC’s B-52s.”
  • during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s order to blockade Cuba was implemented by the US Navy based heavily on OEG-researched doctrines and with active OEG assistance; OEG further studied data during the blockade about intercept rates, helping confirm that the blockade was tight and intercepting almost all Soviet vessels.
  • this blockade research would be further used in Vietnam as part of the “Operation Market Time” blockade/intercept line, where OEG optimized it & showed that the blockade there too was highly effective in eliminating Vietcong supplies
  • around 1966, OEG “conducted a study of surface-to-surface missiles that led directly to the development of the Harpoon antiship cruise missile.” (Unfortunately, Tidman doesn’t go into more detail about Harpoon other than to note later OEG involvement in finetuning Harpoon based on field exercises and against what was known of Russian ship defenses.)

Here is Gwern’s more meta insight:

Kahn makes an interesting point: one often sees an argument (particularly in conservative/libertarian circles) about ‘Chesterton’s fence’ and variants thereof — that societies have evolved rich and highly effective tactics through vast experience & evolution that mere humans cannot hope to improve upon nor understand; yet, as OR has proved many times, it is possible — easy, even (“it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results”) — to apply a little statistics to a problem and despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms or even none at all beyond basic arithmetic, improve, possibly quite a bit, over the carefully-considered judgments of humans in the field with decades of experience. And of course we can add many examples of human judgment being exceeded in areas like chess or Go or math despite millennia of study, or entire areas of human knowledge turning out to be almost 100% wrong (religion, medicine) before the introduction of methods like ‘record all data’ or ‘flip a coin to decide whether to administer a medicine to see if it works’.

Kahn ascribes this in part to technological change (no one is competent to understand how to hunt German submarines in WWII because it is too novel a problem for any folk wisdom to have evolved), and while that’s certainly a problem (witness Shockley’s anecdote of why no air crews could develop real expertise), we also have to note the presence of systematic biases and error in human reasoning demonstrated throughout OR. The problem with Chesterton’s fence is that everything does change, people can’t learn the right thing in the first place, and from an information-theoretic & genetics perspective, there just is not enough reliable transmission of information nor selection within or between societies to maintain more than a few traditional practices with cryptic efficiency. (If societies were a bacteria with a genome, they would succumb to mutational meltdown almost instantaneously.)

It also sows doubt

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

Something changed in the Middle East last December, when Israel declared its first squadron of F-35s operational:

Numerically, the change seemed minor. The Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) 140 (“Golden Eagle”) Squadron has just nine F-35I Adir aircraft, scheduled to grow to fifty over the next three years. That’s a small number compared to the roughly 300 F-15s, F-15Es and F-16s currently operated by the IAF.

But the significance of Israel’s F-35s is more than numbers. First, there is the simple qualitative advantage. [...] The F-35 is superior to Iran’s collection of F-14, MiG-29s, and F-4 Phantoms, Syria’s MiG-29s and Egypt’s F-16s.


Then there is the stealth factor. It has been almost thirty-six years since Israel last conducted a major air campaign against an opponent possessing a respectable air force. Now the IAF spends its time conducting pinprick raids with a few aircraft against a Hezbollah arms convoy here, a Hamas weapons dump there. Even a handful of stealth jets will enable Israel to conduct sneak raids over Syria—or even Iran.


Israel’s F-35s add uncertainty to the mix. That Israeli aircraft could reach Iran, and routinely strike Hezbollah and Syria, is no secret. But Iran now has to wonder whether Israeli F-35s can stealthily penetrate Iranian defenses (and note that the Israeli specially modified F-35I has extra fuel capacity).

Whether or not the aircraft can successfully accomplish this doesn’t matter in this context. It’s only whether Iran believes it can, and whether this will affect Tehran’s actions.

An Israeli F-35 doesn’t just carry bombs. It also sows doubt.

Private gun ownership in Kenya

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Alan Kasujja of the BBC World Service visited a gun range near Nairobi, Kenya to interview Anthony Wahome, chair of the [Kenyan] National Gun Owners Association and a former police officer, about private gun ownership.

Two things stood out. First, there are roughly 10,000 legally owned firearms in Kenya, versus 700,000 not-so-legally owned firearms. He points out that most of those are in the semi-arid regions, where cattle rustling is a problem. Second, he was at a shooting competition when news started coming in that the Westgate mall was under attack. They stopped the competition and decided to go to the mall to help. I was wondering why armed citizens were at the mall in shooting vests covered in IDPA patches. (The Kenyan police and military are not held in high esteem, by the way.)

Fanta was created for Nazi Germany

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

In April 1955, Coca-Cola reintroduced Fanta with a new, orange-flavored recipe. The original version was rather different — and developed in Nazi Germany:

The drink was technically fruit-flavored, but limited wartime resources made that descriptor not wholly accurate. Its ingredients were less than appetizing: leftover apple fibers, mash from cider presses, and whey, a cheese by-product. “[Fanta] was made from the leftovers of the leftovers,” says Mark Pendergrast, who, as the author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, revealed this hidden past. “I don’t imagine it tasted very good.”


In 1895, Coca-Cola’s CEO boasted of its presence in every American state and territory. In 1920, the company’s first European bottling plant opened in France, and by 1929, Coca-Cola was being bottled and drunk in Germany.

In 1933, right when Hitler and the Nazi Party were assuming power, German-born Max Keith (pronounced “Kite”) took over the company’s German subsidiary, Coca-Cola GmbH. Keith was an imposing figure: tall, intimidating, possessing a “little whisk-broom mustache” (not unlike Hitler’s), charming but quick-tempered, and utterly devoted to Coca-Cola. “[Keith] valued his allegiance to the drink and to the company more than his allegiance to his own country,” says Pendergrast. For that reason, he saw no quarrel with boosting sales by tying Coca-Cola to every aspect of German life and, increasingly, Nazi rule.


The U.S.’s entrance into World War II meant that American companies had to immediately stop all business activities with the enemy. In addition, the German government was threatening to seize “enemy-owned” businesses. General Motors pulled out of Germany (though, Opal, a fully owned subsidiary of GM, still operated there). IBM’s operations were seized by the Third Reich, though controversy exists on how much they contributed to the German war effort. Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta also cut off communications with Keith in Germany and halted the export of Coca-Cola’s 7X flavoring (the long-mythicized, top secret formula for Coca-Cola syrup).


Working with his chemists, Keith patched together a recipe within the limitations imposed by wartime rationing. It was basically made from the leftovers of other food industries: fruit shavings, apple fibers and pulp, beet sugar, and whey, the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained during cheese production. To name this concoction, Keith told his team to use their imagination. Joe Knipp, a salesman, pitched “Fanta,” shorthand for the German word for “fantasy.” It stuck.

Fanta saved Coca-Cola GmbH. Sales rose gradually during the war, particularly as other choices became harder and harder to find. It wasn’t simply drunk either. Fanta was popular as a sweetener for soups due to severe sugar rationing, since the drink’s renown earned it an exemption from the rationing after 1941 (though Keith had to use beet sugar). It was likely used for a variety of other cooking and baking needs as well.

“It was Fanta or nothing,” says Tristan Donovan, author of the book Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World. “It had pretty much market dominance during war time.” By 1943, sales had reached nearly three million cases.

The asuang ruse is part of the legend of Edward Lansdale

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

I could have sworn that I’d blogged about the asuang ruse before, but I guess I first heard the story before I started blogging:

When the Philippine army was fighting an insurgency by communist Hukbalahap rebels shortly after the second world war, it seized on some clever tactics to get inside its enemies’ heads.

In areas where the “Huks” were active, an army psychological warfare squad would spread stories that an asuang (vampire) was loose in the hills. The psywar squad would then set up an ambush, quietly grabbing and killing the last man in the patrol, puncturing his neck with two holes, and draining the corpse of blood before returning it to the trail. Superstitious Huks would then desert the area.

The asuang ruse is part of the legend of Edward Lansdale, the US Air Force officer and intelligence operative who played a central role in counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines, and later during two tours in Vietnam. Lansdale, who coupled his cloak-and-dagger gambits with nation-building operations — what today is called “soft power” — is now the subject of a capacious biography by the war historian Max Boot.

Statistically vivid in St. Louis

Friday, January 19th, 2018

The FBI won’t release its 2017 murder statistics for many months, but Steve Sailer “sifted through year-end local newspaper reports and police department databases from the 51 biggest municipalities in America” to create a murder report card:

The impact of the Ferguson Effect is statistically vivid in Ferguson’s neighbor St. Louis, where the number of homicides ranged from 113 to 120 from 2011 to 2013. Then in 2014, when the Obama administration and the prestige press took the side of anti-police rioters in promoting the Michael Brown fake news, homicides jumped to 159. Killings numbered 188 the next two years, and in 2017 had reached 205 by Dec. 29.

While St. Louis used to be the fourth-biggest city in America back when it hosted the 1904 Olympics, it is now merely the 61st-largest city, with only 311,000 people. So St. Louis’ murder rate (65.8 per 100,000 in 2017) is now 27 times that of increasingly utopian San Diego (2.4), the least murderous of the country’s fifty biggest cities.

By the way, St. Louis has a slightly smaller population than the entire country of Iceland, which is currently shaken by an outbreak of murder most foul. From Iceland Magazine:

Unusually high number of homicides in 2017 a cause for concern

JAN. 8 2018

More murders were committed in Iceland in 2017 than any time since 2004. Last year four people, two men and two women, were murdered. In recent years the murder rate has been 1–2 people each year.

Similar to St. Louis (although not to Iceland), Baltimore had 211 homicides in 2014. But then in March 2015 came the Freddie Gray/BLM riots and the vengeful indictment of six cops, all of whom have since walked. Killings jumped to 344 that year, followed by 316 in 2016, and 343 last year.

A desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Jason Scott Jones was taking out the trash on Saturday morning when he received the now-infamous warning:

“Ballistic missile threat inbound. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

“So it’s today,” I thought. I’m a student of the bloody twentieth century, a hundred years of genocide, democide, and total war. I’ve lived on Oahu for almost 30 years, in sight of Pearl Harbor. It’s still a key target for surprise attack today. I’ve long thought that Oahu could be the spot where the next great tragic war begins — though not where it ends. Decades of thinking on this inspired me to write a book on the subject with John Zmirak, The Race to Save Our Century. I also recently co-authored a white paper outlining a path to abolish city-busting, strategic nuclear weapons.

Whenever someone suggests that I’m some do-gooding humanitarian, I correct them: “No, I’m just trying to save my children.” Oahu is a small island. But it’s one of the most important strategic locations for the projection of U.S. power to the East, confronting both North Korea and China. Knowing that, you come to accept a grim reality: Oahu is one of the most likely flashpoints for the start of World War III.

So when I saw the alert on my iPhone, I faced it with the same realism that wise Midwesterners greet tornado warnings. And like them I had a plan.

I rushed into the house. “Kids, get in the car. Babe, grab the case of water bottles.” They knew the drill, and soon the minivan was fully loaded. I filled water jugs, two mugs of coffee and grabbed my 9mm.

I was rushing to shelter my family behind the Waianae mountain range. That might shield us from whatever was about to hit Pearl Harbor. We had 10 minutes, I calculated, to get there, and hide in the Makua Cave.


As we made the turn into the shadow of the mountain, I felt we’d won a small victory. The first missile must have been intercepted. Or else the inept North Koreans had dropped a rocket in the middle of the Pacific. Before the next wave of missiles hit, we would make it to Makua Cave.

My hopes that this was a false alarm were fading. “If this were a hack or a hoax, the government would have texted us already.”


Just as we pulled up to Makua Cave, my cell phone rang and the State of Hawaii finally let us know that this had all been a big mistake.

In 38 minutes I’d gone from rolling out my trash can to loading five of my seven children into our minivan in a desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile. I’d heard my oldest daughter’s voice for what I thought was the last time. I’d given her and my mother-in-law a destination I knew offered nothing but hope. And I’d watched a total stranger turn away from safety to go try to save his wife.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Free advertising for mass killers

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Tyler Cowen cites a study estimating the value of the media attention given to mass killers:

This study compared perpetrators of seven mass killings during 2013–2017 with more than 600 celebrities over the same time period. Findings indicate that the mass killers received approximately $75 million in media coverage value, and that for extended periods following their attacks they received more coverage than professional athletes and only slightly less than television and film stars. In addition, during their attack months, some mass killers received more highly valued coverage than some of the most famous American celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston. Finally, most mass killers received more coverage from newspapers and broadcast/cable news than the public interest they generated through online searches and Twitter seems to warrant. Unfortunately, this media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats.

The Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken looks back at Edward Lansdale, the model for both The Quiet American and The Ugly American and the major proponent behind the “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency that the US never quite followed:

Born in 1908, Lansdale had, by the age of thirty-three, lived through a family breakdown, adventured on both coasts, and worked as an adman in San Francisco. Having given up a reserve Army commission before World War II, he found a route back in after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Lansdale parlayed wartime assignments researching and gathering intelligence on Asian societies from San Francisco and New York into a 1945 assignment to the Philippines.

His next decade is the stuff of counterinsurgency legend. Lansdale bucks the bureaucracy, ignores protocol, and cultivates a deep understanding of the country, its people, and the grievances igniting the proto-communist Huk rebellion. (He also begins an affair with Filipina Patrocinio “Pat” Yapcinco Kelly, which he and Boot credit as an essential ingredient in his success. Boot has many of their letters, which bring freshness and poignancy to his story.)

The Philippines is where Lansdale first pilots what he calls his “whole of government approach” to countering insurgencies and stabilizing friendly regimes. He identifies and grooms an obscure congressman, Ramon Magsaysay, as the country’s savior and promotes his candidacy in what is ultimately a free and fair — though OSS-funded — campaign.

Magsaysay’s slogan — “All-Out Force or All-Out Friendship” — exactly encapsulates Lansdale’s approach. Lansdale had no problem with military force — though he preferred advisers, infiltration, and subversion to large-scale ground troops — or with bribery and intense outside engagement in a nation’s affairs. He twinned this with insistence on developing broad-based political support for partner governments and urged attention to effective government, apparently clean elections, and stringent avoidance of civilian casualties. Washington could achieve those goals, he repeatedly proposed, by going outside its military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies to send a “small team of winners,” backed at the highest levels, to identify, promote, and support new leaders in the country under threat.

In the Philippines, this plan works splendidly. Magsaysay is popular, the Huks are defeated, Manila institutions seem to grow stronger. Soon Lansdale is off to Vietnam, where he arrives just as the country has been partitioned, an independent government replaces French rule in the South, Ho Chi Minh’s communists do the same in the North, and massive refugee flows are commencing. For the next two years, Lansdale builds his intimacy with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh and uses every trick of nation building and skullduggery to advance him at the expense of Viet Cong fighters, warlords, criminal gangs, the French, and, finally, even his own American colleagues. In 1955, when Eisenhower is on the brink of approving a counter-Diem coup, Lansdale successfully reverses these orders.

But the 1955 success is Lansdale’s high-water mark. Vietnam’s Diem doesn’t give Lansdale’s theories of popular legitimacy the same enthusiasm he gives to recruiting warlords. At home, Lansdale gains promotions and extraordinary access to a string of presidents and cabinet officials but suffers a reputation for insubordination and even nuttiness. His career detours into CIA scheming to assassinate Castro, and his later efforts to resuscitate support for Diem fail, with one of his old team members engineering the 1964 coup and Diem’s brutal killing.

When Lansdale finally returns to Vietnam in 1965, he cannot win support for his “hearts and minds” programming either from his American colleagues or the swift succession of military rulers in Saigon. As Marine Philip Caputo explains, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.”

Ultimately, Lansdale leaves Vietnam in near disgrace and lives half-forgotten in suburban Washington. He resurfaces occasionally — as the target of opprobrium during the Church Committee hearings into CIA misdeeds (including the planned Castro assassination) and as an adviser to Oliver North in the early Reagan years. When Lansdale died, the Nation magazine was one of many to offer intense but mixed eulogies, calling him “the Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh.”

Boot argues that heeding Lansdale’s ideas on counterinsurgency, both in specific instances and more broadly in U.S. policy, would have led to better outcomes. Lansdale himself reportedly could not sum up his approach, but Boot’s summary produces three rather simple instructions: Learn (about the society). Like (“identif[y] and cultivat[e] influential individuals sympathetic to American interests”). Listen (instead of lecturing your developing-country counterparts).

Boot marshals sharp, devastating anecdotes to show how Lansdale’s ideas were dismissed or misunderstood by his contemporaries.


Lansdale himself perfectly exemplifies the core contradictions of the American nation-building project. He sees everything he does as pointed toward democratic institutions and the superiority of representative government — yet his achievements come by hand-selecting personalities and installing them by subverting the rules of democratic governance. While his bureaucratic opponents tend to be skeptical of even the outer forms of representative government in the midst of insurgency, neither he nor they appear to have the plans or the patience to let real local institutions flourish. He castigates his opponents for their failure to perceive the role played by nationalism — but the essence of his successful operations is to reshape governments toward serving American aspirations.

The process for catching these people is equally elegant

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Scott Alexander shares some highlights from his notes from a forensic psychiatry conference:

Contrary to popular belief, the insanity defense is not overused. It’s used in only about 1% of felony trials and successful only about a quarter of the time it is used. 90% of people who successfully plead insanity had been diagnosed with a disorder before they committed their crime.

Felons found insane usually get locked up in forensic hospitals even longer than sane felons are locked up in prisons. Some statistics say that by pleading insanity you increase your time behind bars by 50–100%

For some reason, there is a law saying juries are not allowed to be told what will happen to defendants if they return a certain verdict. Juries assume that if a defendant is found “not guilty by reason of insanity”, they will be released scot-free. Although this is completely false, no one is allowed to tell the jury this. So it’s really hard to win an insanity defense simply because juries think it will mean a felon will be put right back on the streets.

Forensic psychiatrists have become very effective at determining which criminals who plead insanity are “faking it”. They usually rely on patterns of mental disease which psychiatrists know but criminals don’t. For example, they’ll start by asking “Do you hear voices?”, and most fakers, anxious to please, say they do. Then the psychiatrist will ask questions like “Which side of your head do the voices come from?” and “Do you ever have smells associated with the voices?” Still eager to please, the fakers will choose a side of the head for their voices to be on, and make up smells that happen at the same time as their voices. But real schizophrenics don’t generally hear their voices to one side or hallucinate smells, so this decreases the likelihood that they’re telling the truth. Some of these questions are very tricky – for example, one psychiatrist asks both “Do you ever hear secret messages for you from the TV or radio?” and “Do cats and dogs ever give you secret messages?”. The first is very common in mental illness; the second practically never happens. Unless you’re a psychiatrist yourself, you’re not going to know these things and you’ll end up claiming symptoms that make no sense.

Some criminals also claim to be mentally retarded, especially in states where it’s illegal to execute retarded people. The process for catching these people is equally elegant. They are asked to take a multiple-choice vocabulary test with easy, medium, and difficult words. Real mentally retarded people will do okay on the easy words but perform at chance on the medium and difficult words. Fakers will also do okay on the easy words – they are smart enough to understand that even mentally retarded people know some things – but then they intentionally throw the medium words and do worse than chance. On the difficult words, the fakers honestly don’t know them and so they go back to performing at chance again. Computers can detect these patterns and easily and confidently point out a fake.

It took a world war to educate them all

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

The Second World Wars takes an unusual approach to its subject:

Hanson starts with the idea that the Axis powers were more or less destined to lose, then works backward to understand the reasons for their defeat. The book revolves around a question highly relevant to our own brewing confrontation with North Korea: Why, and how, do weaker nations convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are capable of defeating stronger ones?

Hanson begins by putting the Second World War in a “classical context.” Although it was a high-tech conflict with newly lethal weapons, he writes, it still followed patterns established over millennia: “British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans.” In many instances, military planners on both sides ignored the lessons of the past. Some lessons were local: it’s always been hard to “campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian peninsula,” for example, which is exactly what the Allies struggled to do. Others were universal. Small countries have difficulty defeating big ones, because — obviously — bigger countries have more people and resources at their disposal; Germany, Italy, and Japan, therefore, should have been more concerned about their relatively small size compared to their foes. History shows that the only way to win a total war is to occupy your enemy’s capital with infantrymen, with whom you can force regime change. Hitler should have paused to ask how, with such a weak navy, he planned to cross the oceans and sack London and, later,Washington. At a fundamental level, it was a mistake for him to attack countries whose capitals he had no way to reach.

In terms of management and logistics, the Axis powers were similarly, and sometimes quite conspicuously, disadvantaged. Before the war, the United States produced a little more than half of the world’s oil; Axis leaders should have known this would be a decisive factor in a mechanized conflict involving tanks, planes, and other vehicles. (The Nazis may have underestimated the importance of fuel because — even though they planned to quickly conquer vast amounts of territory through blitzkrieg — many of their supply lines remained dependent upon horses for the duration of the war.) In general, Allied management was more flexible — British planners quickly figured out the best way to place radar installations, for example — while the Axis powers, with their more hierarchical cultures, tended toward rigidity. Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.” For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.

In any event, Hanson shows that the Second World War hinged to an unprecedented extent upon artillery (“At least half of the combat dead of World War II probably fell to artillery or mortar fire”): the Allies had bigger, faster factories and could produce more guns and shells. “The most significant statistic of the war is the ten-to-one advantage in aggregate artillery production (in total over a million large guns) enjoyed by the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States over the three Axis powers.” Russia, meanwhile, excelled at manufacturing cheap, easily serviceable, and quickly manufactured tanks, which, by the end of the war, were better than the tanks the Nazis fielded. Many Allied factories remained beyond the reach of Axis forces. There were a few possible turning points in the war: had Hitler chosen not to invade Russia, or not to declare war on the United States, he might have kept his Continental gains. Similarly, Japan might have contented itself with a few local conquests. But temperance and Fascism do not mix, and the outsized ambitions of the Axis powers put them on a collision course with the massive geographical, managerial, and logistical advantages possessed by the Allies, which, Hanson suggests, they should have known would be insurmountable.

The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable. When the Allies perceived just how far Fascist fantasy diverged from reality, they concluded that Axis leaders had brainwashed their citizens and themselves. They began to realize that “the destruction of populist ideologies, especially those fueled by claims of racial superiority,” would prove “a task far more arduous than the defeat of a sovereign people’s military.”


The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world — they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable. The Allies, meanwhile, underestimated their own economic might in the wake of the Great Depression. They allowed themselves to be intimidated by Fascist rhetoric; justifiably horrified by the First World War, they wanted to give pacifism a chance, and so refrained from the flag-waving displays of aggression that might have revealed their true strength, while hoping, despite his proclamations to the contrary, that Hitler might be satisfied with smaller, regional conquests. “Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives,” Hanson writes. “Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions. It took a world war to educate them all.”