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The truth emerges about Afghanistan, an indictment of our war. Now comes the hard part: learning from failure.

22 October 2014

Summary: Today’s must read is a retrospective on our expedition to Afghanistan, now that the cloud of lies slowly dissipates. Since Vietnam we’ve masked our failures by myths, short-circuiting our ability to learn. A hegemonic power can substitute power for smarts. The coming multi-polar world will prove more challenging, so that weaknesses become terminal flaws.

Afghanistan war


Opening from “Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’
by Rory Stewart
New York Review of Books, 6 November 2014


Review of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes
by Anand Gopal


Ashraf Ghani, who has just become the president of Afghanistan, once drafted a document for Hamid Karzai that began:

There is a consensus in Afghan society: violence…must end. National reconciliation and respect for fundamental human rights will form the path to lasting peace and stability across the country. The people’s aspirations must be represented in an accountable, broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, representative government that delivers daily value.

That was 12 years ago. No one speaks like that now — not even the new president. The best case now is presented as political accommodation with the Taliban, the worst as civil war.

Western policymakers still argue, however, that something has been achieved: counterterrorist operations succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there has been progress in health care and education, and even Afghan government has its strengths at the most local level. This is not much, given that the US-led coalition spent $1 trillion and deployed one million soldiers and civilians over 13 years. But it is better than nothing; and it is tempting to think that everything has now been said: after all, such conclusions are now reflected in thousands of studies by aid agencies, multilateral organizations, foreign ministries, intelligence agencies, universities, and departments of defense.

But Anand Gopal’s  shows that everything has not been said. His new and shocking indictment demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed. Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

Read more…

We awake from fears of an Ebola pandemic in America. Now let’s ask who’s responsible…

21 October 2014

Summary: The initial infection in America has burned out. Nina Pham is in “fair” condition; Amber Vinson’s condition private at the family’s request. Many of those exposed, including the deceased man’s (Thomas Duncan) fiancée, have cleared quarantine. Some who contracted the disease in West Africa but received modern treatment have recovered (nurse William Pooley and an unnamed doctor treated at Emory U). The US health care system is rapidly learning and mobilizing. There is progress even in West Africa, with defeat of Ebola in Nigeria. The assurances of the experts appear, so far at least, to have been (again) proven correct.

It’s time to begin analysis of the hysteria that briefly gripped much of America. Who caused it? Why? Most importantly, what will we learn from this? Greater threats lie ahead for America.

I recently visited someone who has an African violet in their house. Should I stay home from work for three weeks?
— David Waldman of the Daily Kos (@KagroX) 20 October 2014

Educate Together


  1. Conservatives screaming “fire” at a tiny flame
  2. It’s a plan!
  3. Some on Fox News fight the narrative, speak the truth
  4. Guessing about the after game festivities
  5. Looking at the big picture
  6. Other posts about Ebola
  7. Examples of conservatives’ fear-mongering about Ebola

(1)  Conservatives screaming “fire” at a tiny flame

By now even journalists are emboldened to say the obvious: “Ebola hysteria: An epic, epidemic overreaction“, CNN, 20 October 2014. But they’re not so brave as to discuss how this happened. The public did not just panic. People incited panic for political gain. Mostly of them were conservatives. Some moderates and liberals have joined the chorus of fear-mongers, but relatively few. I have a long — and sadly only partial — list at the end of this post. A roll of dishonor, because they make an effective public policy response to Ebola more difficult.

(2)  It’s a plan!

Conservatives exploit our fear about Ebola (and terrorism, etc) for the same reason Liberals do so about climate (super-typhoon Vongfong “was the strongest storm on earth since Haiyan last year“): it works. When we grow stronger it will no longer work, and they’ll stop. Meanwhile …

  1. Campaign strategy: “Cry of G.O.P. in Campaign: All Is Dismal“, New York Times, 9 October 2014
  2. Mission accomplished: “Poll shows Alarm, anxiety as election looms“, POLITICO, 20 October 2014 — “An overwhelming majority of voters in the most competitive 2014 elections say it feels as if events in the U.S. are “out of control” and expressed mounting alarm about terrorism, anxiety about Ebola …”

(3)  Some on Fox News fight the narrative, speak the truth

Let’s congratulate Fox News for having a few people who debunk the conservative party line. That’s a rare thing in our increasingly partisan media, on either Right or Left.

Read more…

DoD shows its strength, mobilizing to protect us from Ebola (a sad story about America).

20 October 2014

Summary: Conservatives’ decades-long efforts to delegitimize and shrink the US government have had many successes, such as decreasing public confidence in the Republic’s institutions (except the military) and decaying infrastructure (except for the military). Sadly we are blind to this slow relentless attack on the Republic, even when we see the effects on this news. Like today.


The Prussian Eagle, a model for our future?


President Obama wants an aggressive capability to respond to future Ebola cases in America. It’s probably unnecessary, now that the health care system has been alerted and mobilized, but the intensifying fear-mongering by Republicans (e.g., “If you want to live, ignore the CDC“),  combined with calls for him to take bold actions, forces his hand. Can he call upon the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, especially its Centers for Disease Control?

Apparently not. In the New America the only organization with the resources for large-scale action is the military. The CDC’s 2014 budget of $6.9B is slightly greater then DoD’s PR and community relations spending, estimated at $5B.

See the news in Barbara Starr’s broadcast on CNN. Here’s CNN’s follow-up story:

The U.S. military is forming a 30-person “quick-strike team” equipped to provide direct treatment to Ebola patients inside the United States, a Defense Department official told CNN’s Barbara Starr on Sunday. A Pentagon spokesman later confirmed portions of the official’s information.

Read more…

Lessons from Ebola. Let’s hope we learn.

17 October 2014

Summary: Our behavior in a crisis provides a mirror in which we see our true selves. The Ebola crisis, however brief so far, has provided rich lessons on our character — showing what we need do in order to again become a great people.


Ebola: it’s coming for you!


  1. Why hasn’t our President-Daddy fixed Ebola?
  2. Why don’t we have greater levels of protection?
  3. Not a single American should fall
  4. Nonsense from the fringes
  5. Other posts about Ebola
  6. An episode of “SuperPresident”


Fifteen days since the first Ebola infection in America. Two cases so far (both nurses); one death. Time for panic!

We run our usual script. After years of tax cuts, fighting calls for massive cuts in  government spending (small government is good government), we demand massive fast high-quality response to even rare events. No matter what we pay, we want the best. Not a single citizen must fall (while thousands die in Africa). Anything less is “incompetence” (the standard we demand our customers, coworkers, and family apply to our own actions). And our national Daddy must take personal action — applying magic leadership skills to improve the performance of technical experts in large organizations.

This is not the behavior of a great nation, but of a nation of rich children seeking a degree of security not found in this world. We can do better. Let’s hold each other to higher standards, rather than criticizing experts doing the best they can with the resources we’ve given them.

(1)  Why hasn’t our President-Daddy fixed Ebola?

We judge our national Daddy by hindsight. Why didn’t he do the things few (or no) experts recommended? Why doesn’t he do the things everybody says he should (which are in fact being started, except for those that experts say will be ineffective)? Why doesn’t he employ the national Green Lantern to fix our ills and make us confident, which will help in some way that the critics seldom state (especially the critics working the hardest to undermine confidence).

In U.S., an Ebola crisis of confidence“, editorial in the LA Times, 16 October 2014 — “The United States does not remotely have an Ebola crisis, but it is beginning to have a crisis of confidence in the Obama administration’s handling of the matter.” It’s a typical thumb-sucking editorial. As usual, the conservative media go full bonkers, yearning for a strongman to make us safe — as in these stories from the Washington Times (all propaganda, all the time):

  1. Op-ed: “President Obama, Ebola and the total collapse of credibility. Americans are no longer inclined to trust their government.“, Monica Crowley, 15 October 2015 — “Less than two weeks ago, the government told us that the Ebola virus couldn’t spread here.” No, they didn’t say that.
  2. News: “Leisure-prone Obama gets belatedly serious on Ebola“, 16 October 2014
  3. Op-ed: “The deadly virus in the electorate“, Wesley Pruden, 16 October 2014

Here’s the opening of #3, by Pruden. It’s quite daft. Are we all suffering from Ebola? Should Obama grab a gun and personally fight ISIS?

“Sometimes incompetence gets its due reward. No one has to accuse Barack Obama of spreading the Ebola virus. The incompetence of this administration is there for everyone to see, and suffer. Leading from behind works no better against a deadly virus than it has against evil in the Middle East and greedy ambition in Ukraine.”

These people watched too many episodes of “SuperPresident” (cartoon show, 1967-1968, go to the last section to see one).

(2)  Why don’t we have far greater levels of protection?

Obama administration failed to implement all of the CDC’s advice to prevent an Ebola outbreak“, Washington Times, October 2015 — As if the GOP majority in the House was eager to build overseas health care facilities; they don’t even want to build them in America’s inner cities (or even pay to maintain our current infrastructure).

Read more…

While Americans panic at shadows, Ebola strikes hard at Africa

16 October 2014

Summary: While hysteria about Ebola grows among the fearful sheep of America, the real epidemic burns in Africa. Here’s a status report about events over there, and the numbers about Ebola’s infectiousness and morality.




  1. News from Africa
  2. How infectious is Ebola? How fatal?
  3. Other posts about Ebola
  4. Sources of reliable information about Ebola
  5. A history of pandemics


(1)  News from Africa

From the WHO’s Situation Report, 14 October: “The situation in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is deteriorating, with widespread and persistent transmission of Ebola Virus Disease {EVD}.” Paul Farmer (Prof of Global Health, Harard) tells us what that means, from the October 23 London Review of Books:

Both nurses and doctors are scarce in the regions most heavily affected by Ebola. Even before the current crisis killed many of Liberia’s health professionals, there were fewer than fifty doctors working in the public health system in a country of more than four million people, most of whom live far from the capital. That’s one physician per 100,000 population, compared to 240 per 100,000 in the United States or 670 in Cuba. {the number of Liberian doctors in America is 2/3 the total number working in their homeland, per the WSJ}

Properly equipped hospitals are even scarcer than staff, and this is true across the regions most affected by Ebola. Also scarce is personal protective equipment (PPE): gowns, gloves, masks, face shields etc. In Liberia there isn’t the staff, the stuff or the space to stop infections transmitted through bodily fluids, including blood, urine, breast milk, sweat, semen, vomit and diarrhoea. Ebola virus is shed during clinical illness and after death: it remains viable and infectious long after its hosts have breathed their last. Preparing the dead for burial has turned hundreds of mourners into Ebola victims.

.. But the fact is that weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread. Weak health systems are also to blame for the high case-fatality rates in the current pandemic, which is caused by the Zaire strain of the virus. The obverse of this fact – and it is a fact – is the welcome news that the spread of the disease can be stopped by linking better infection control (to protect the uninfected) to improved clinical care (to save the afflicted). An Ebola diagnosis need not be a death sentence. Here’s my assertion as an infectious disease specialist: if patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care – including fluid resuscitation, electrolyte replacement and blood products – the great majority, as many as 90%, should survive.

… Ebola is more a symptom of a weak healthcare system than anything else. … As Larry Brilliant, who helped to eradicate smallpox almost forty years ago, just as Ebola was being discovered, and now heads the Skoll Foundation’s Global Threats Fund, has observed, ‘Outbreaks are inevitable. Pandemics are optional.’

The numbers are still small, but growing fast as seen in the weekly cases reported: confirmed, probable, suspected, from the WHO Situation Report:

Ebola in Liberia

WHO Ebola Situation Report, 14 October 2014

Read more…

What you need to know about Ebola. Debunking the myths.

15 October 2014

Summary: The hysteria about Ebola grows apace, fed mostly by those who profit from it (through status, publicity, clicks, or sales). Information is the antidote. Here we have experts telling us the key facts about Ebola, and debunking some of the most incendiary myths.


Ebola: it’s coming for you!


  1. Status report: good news and bad
  2. Debunking the Ebola myths
  3. A far greater threat than Ebola
  4. Other posts about Ebola
  5. Sources of reliable information about Ebola
  6. A history of pandemics

(1)  Status report: good news and bad

(a)  Good & bad news from the Ebola situation assessment, WHO, 14 October 2014:

If the active surveillance for new cases that is currently in place continues, and no new cases are detected, WHO will declare the end of the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Senegal on Friday 17 October. Likewise, Nigeria is expected to have passed through the requisite 42 days, with active surveillance for new cases in place and none detected, on Monday 20 October.

… In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, new cases continue to explode in areas that looked like they were coming under control. An unusual characteristic of this epidemic is a persistent cyclical pattern of gradual dips in the number of new cases, followed by sudden flare-ups. WHO epidemiologists see no signs that the outbreaks in any of these 3 countries are coming under control.

… For WHO to declare an Ebola outbreak over, a country must pass through 42 days, with active surveillance demonstrably in place, supported by good diagnostic capacity, and with no new cases detected. Active surveillance is essential to detect chains of transmission that might otherwise remain hidden.

The period of 42 days, with active case-finding in place, is twice the maximum incubation period for Ebola virus disease and is considered by WHO as sufficient to generate confidence in a declaration that an Ebola outbreak has ended.

(b)  Counting the toll, from the Ebola Response Roadmap Update, WHO, 10 October 2014:

A total of 8,399 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) have been reported in seven affected countries up to the end of 8 October. 8,376 (99.%) were in Guinea, Liberia, & Sierra Leone. Four other nations have cases imported from them. Twenty in Nigeria, One each in Senegal, Spain, & USA.

There have been 4,033 deaths. 4,024 (99.7%) were in Guinea, Liberia, & Sierra Leone. Eight in Nigeria; one in USA.

(2)  Debunking the Ebola myths

(a) Ebola is highly contagious – plus seven other myths about the virus“, James Ball, The Guardian, 9 October 2014 — Excerpt:

Read more…

A safety checklist for America during the ebola panic. #1: Look for cowardice.

14 October 2014

Summary: The ebola panic should remind us about one of the great questions of our time. When did Americans become cowards? Previous generations of Americans faced threats far greater than anything we face today, yet did so without the hysteria that sweeps America each year about a new doom (worse, they’re coming more quickly). What does this reveal about our future? Can we recapture the courage of our past?

This is a follow-up to An epidemic afflicts America: fear about Ebola. Avoid the carriers. Facts are the antidote.

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies.”
— attributed to Aristotle

“Nothing is terrible except fear itself.”
— Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum, Book II, Fortitudo (1623)

Take the politics of fear: the constant reference to risks, from hoodies on the street corner to international terrorism. Whatever the truth of these risks and the best ways of dealing with them, the politics of fear plays on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with them. Politics then becomes a question of who can better deliver an illusion of control.
— Ex-vicar Mark Vernon; quoted in “God. Who knows?”. BBC News, 4 December 2006

White feather of cowardice

Our new national symbol?


Selections from the news

Here are some of the threats that have have reduced Americans to bed-wetting children (list your favorites in the comments).  So many of the major public policy debates have been sold to us by fear. Note how they have increased in frequently. Why do our elites speak so often seek to influence us by making us fearful of threats — often fictional oness?

How many of these threats terrified you during, in their day?

  1. The Bomber Gap and The Missile Gap! (both fiction)
  2. Satanic cults preying on our children!
  3. Iran will have the bomb in two years! (as we have been told since 1984)
  4. Electromagnetic pulse weapons will devastate us! (Nope; details here)
  5. Y2K
  6. Saddam threatens us with WMDs while Libyan hit teams roam America (gated TIME article; open version)
  7. Attacks by Al Qaeda (nope) … ISIS will devastate America!
  8. The coming bankruptcy of the Federal government, real soon! (Nope; nor was it a serious danger)
  9. Earth might become as hot as Venus (Al Gore, 28 January 2013)! Debunked here.
  10. The coming methane apocalypse! (The IPCC disagrees; details here)
  11. ObamaCare will create “death panels”! (Here’s the origin of the myth)
  12. The coming super monster El Nino! (Not this year)
  13. The {insert disease name here} will kill us all! (Posts about swine flu hysteria here)
  14. The great extinction at work, as “Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years.” (Probably not, as described in this Boston Globe article)

First, the bad news

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.
— Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756)

Read more…

Pacific Rim‘s Monster-sized Fun

12 October 2014

Summary:  Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, reviewing Pacific Rim. It’s something different, a break in our series of reviews of films that providea mirror in which we can see ourselves.  I haven’t commented on these movies — leaving the reviews to the pro. I hated The Lone Ranger, which he liked. Here he reviews Pacific Rim, which I consider the best science fiction movie I’ve seen in years — and the most enjoyable since The Avengers. Post your comments about the film — and this review!

Pacific Rim


Pacific Rim‘s Monster-sized Fun

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
18 July 2013

Reposted here with his generous permission


I can’t recall a movie that – for better or worse – comes so completely as advertised as Pacific Rim does.

If you’ve been looking at the summer marketing and thinking, “Good lord, that looks head-slappingly stupid,” you are correct. Likewise, if you’ve been watching the commercials and thinking, “Ho-lee crap, this looks mess-my-pants awesome,” you are also correct.

And if your assessment, sight unseen, of Pacific Rim is that it’s just a summer popcorn flick about giant frakkin’ robots and giant frakkin’ monsters beating the stuffing out of each other, then you are dead on. Gloriously, mindlessly, entertainingly so.

Read more…

An epidemic afflicting America: fear about Ebola. Avoid the carriers. Facts are the antidote.

11 October 2014

Summary:  In April 2009 I wrote Are Americans easily panicked cowards? I think not, but many experts disagree. It’s still relevant, well-worth reading today. Unfortunately the past 5 years provide evidence I was wrong. We have become easily panicked cowards. Activists and political leaders — on both the Left and Right — see this, and influence us by fear-mongering. Successful websites, like Zero Hedge, gain a mass audience with a steady diet of alarmist spin on the news. Examples of this abound. In the summer it was the Islamic State. With the coming of Fall we have a new excuse to wet our pants: Ebola.

“I do think you have to be concerned. It’s an incredibly transmissible disease that everyone is downplaying, saying it’s hard to catch.”
— Dr. Rand Paul (Senator, R-KY), interviewed by Glen Beck, 1 October 2014 — No, it’s not “incredibly transmissible”.

Ebola in the New York Daily News


Over 30,000 die by gunshots per year in the US (11 thousand are homicides). Police execute people in the streets. We’re waging war in a dozen nations. An Ebola pandemic sweeps across Africa. But we’re obsessed with the unlikely possibility of an epidemic in the US from a not easily transmitted disease (while doing far too little to help the Africans suffering from it).

As usual, much of the news media swings into action against us, creating whipping up hysteria for their profit: “How the New York tabloids covered Manhattan’s brief Ebola panic” (Washington Post).  Our leaders quickly deploy the inevitable war analogy (since militarization is the only way America can relate to problems): “We need to declare war on Ebola” said Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) at a Senate Committee meeting. And politicans exploit our fears for political gain, as described by Alternet:

Blowing the threat of ebola out of proportion and trying to link it to Obama has been a constant theme on the right in recent days. Elisabeth Hasselbeck of Fox News literally demanded that we put the country on lockdown, banning all travel in and out. In a bit of race-baiting, Andrea Tantaros of Fox suggested that people who travel to the country and show symptoms of ebola will “seek treatment from a witch doctor” instead of go to the hospital. Fox host Steve Doocy suggested the CDC is lying about ebola because they’re “part of the administration”. Fox also promoted a conspiracy theorist who is trying to claim the CDC is lying when they caution people not to panic.

Other right wing media joined in. Tammy Bruce blamed ebola on the “Obama legacy”. Laura Ingraham said Obama was prevented from doing more to stop the disease because of his “core ties to the African continent”. Rush Limbaugh even went as far as to accuse Obama of letting the disease spread because he supposes liberals believe “we kind of deserve a little bit of this”.

It’s worse on the political extremes, as described by the Daily Banter:

Read more…

Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?

10 October 2014

We appear to be heading towards a crisis of science. Although an essential guide for humanity to navigate the many challenges that lies ahead of us, public confidence in scientists is crumbling.Thoughts and Science

  1. Vaccination rates are plummeting across the nation, from conservative rural areas to urban areas such as Los Angeles — including children at top Hollywood schools.
  2. A large fraction of America believe that not only has warming of the surface atmosphere temperature paused (correctly, ignoring the activists’ propaganda), but that the Earth has not been warming during the past two centuries (quite daft). See the polls here.
  3. A large fraction of America not only have incorrect beliefs about current economic theory (ask a conservative about Keynes, you’ll hear the equivalent of confusing Einstein with a rodeo circus clown), and instead believe a long list of obviously false things. Wrong facts about history, and “zombie economics” (false but too politically useful to die).

We could make a long list of causes for this. Here are a few of the major factors.

Looking at this from a broad perspective, our confidence in our institutions was undeserved. Perhaps we’re over-reacting in the other direction. So much of what we believed about America was false: about JFK the family man. About the CIA and FBI and NSA. About the lies of government officials bringing us into the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.

More specifically, our confidence in scientists was undeserved. Perhaps we’re over-reacting in the other direction. Scientists first found the links between smoking and cancer in the 1930s, yet corporate money (and paid scientists) kept this from widespread public attention until the 1950s — and from public policy action until 1966 (the first warning labels). There are countless similar cases of scientists supporting their employers’ interest against the public’s welfare.

Perhaps worse, we’re learning that much — or even most — scientific research cannot be replicated (see links below). It works for the interests of the careers of the scientists involved — and those interests funding them. Which is all that matters.

Why are we surprised?

Read more…


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