Monday, January 19, 2015

Liberty And Security Are a Tough Cocktail to MIx


I don’t have a feel for where we agree/disagree on the whole NSA surveillance program .  So let me start with a series of postulates and see whether we can construct a framework within which we can operate.
The primary is function of any state should be to guarantee the safety of its citizens. This means that it must control the means of violence within that society; the police, the army, the National Guard, etc. Whether individuals or groups, promulgators of violent opposition to the society’s agreed upon organizing principles must be effectively suppressed.

You and I, as well I assume, the overwhelming majority of our 300 million countrymen and women, want to live in a society in which political power stems from the active, ongoing choices of our fellow citizens through the mechanism of democratically elected representative government, and within which basic rights of privacy, freedom of expression, and autonomy of economic and cultural choice remain  fundamental organizing principles of public and private life. We accept as true that such a society is only possible when great constraints are placed upon those whose responsibility it is to control the state’s implementation of violence. We further believe that those who job it is to control and dispatch violence under the authority of the state will accept those constraints for the simple reason that, ultimately, they want to live in the same kind of country that we do.  

Over the last 20 years or so, a series  of increasingly well financed, well organized, ruthless, international based groups have stated as their primary goal the foundation of a transnational empire constructed on religious based (or so they claim) principles of their choosing. They assert further that their ideology is based upon the word of God, and therefore incontestable.  Until recently none of these groups has achieved any functioning coherence as a nation state. Now, the Islamic State In The Levant has made substantial progress in controlling territory and population, although it remains to be seen whether its leaders are capable of, or indeed interested in, in building the sort of nation state whose economy might have the means to sustain its citizens, and the military to hold the territory it has recently conquered.  Mostly these groups have  utilized terror of an increasingly brutal nature to achieve their concomitant goal,  which is the destruction of the very organizing principles of the  free societies that we hold so dear.  With conviction, they argue that the framework of shared democratic principle and individual liberty is heretical, illegitimate,and fragile at its core. They need only to mount and sustain enough of an assault against our crucial sense of safety and security to transform our societies into police states; with the veneer of post enlightenment humanity stripped, away, they are sure we’ll be ripe for the taking.

The United Sates has found itself in this pickle more than once; from the Alien And Sedition Acts to the suspension of habeas corpus to thePalmer Raids to the mass interment of our fellow Japanese citizens, to , most recently to the torture of members of  the aforementioned groups. We even have survived 50 years of leadership of the national police agency by a man who might have fit in equally working for the Romanovs instead of Roosevelt. Inevitably, these segues into the dark side have met with unapologetic defense on one side andremorse and pledges never to allow them again on the other. Reliably, when our need to feel secure (whether we care or not we are is a separate question) outweighs our need to fee free they recur. 


What Are the Odds?


Although they outplayed Seattle for 58 minutes, the Green Bay Packers lost the NFC championship yesterday. In the post mortem analysis (and it really must feel like an autopsy to the Packers and their fans),  four decision points stand out to this observer.

Twice within the 1st quarter, the Packers chose to accept a field goal attempt for the Seattle 1 yard line.  The success rate for conversion attempts under this circumstance is 53%.

Trailing 16-0 late in the 3rd quarter, the Seahawks executed a fake field goal from the 19 yard line for a touchdown. Statistics on such opportunities are harder to come by since they are much rarer, but best estimates are a success rate, also, of around 50%

With just a few minutes left in the game, the Packers failed to cover an onside kick that everyone in the football watching world knew was coming. In the NFL overall, onside kicks enjoy a 26% success rate.
Thus, the Packer failed to seize 2 opportunities with a 50% success rate, and failed to defend against 2 other opportunities that the Seahawks chose to seize, with an average success rate of 35%. The potential reward for success from any of these 4 decision points needs no further elaboration.

If Mike McCarthy were a hedge fund manager, my guess is he would be looking a new job this morning.

My beloved Patriots may lose the Super Bowl in 2 weeks, but I doubt it will be due to this kind miscalculation of risk and reward on Bill Belichik’s part.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Times v Times


In my inbox from the New York Times

"Breaking News: President Obama Will Seek to Reduce Taxes for Middle Class"

And immediately following that email was this from the Washington Times (a right leaning newspaper):

"BREAKING NEWS-Obama's State of the Union speech to include $320B tax hike proposal"

Of course, both headlines are true and dishonest.

I clipped this from the NY Times a month or so ago. Notice how the Republicans blocked a bill to restrict NSA data collection, but the Senate voted to defeat a bill on the Keystone XL pipeline. Funny thing is, they were they same type of vote on a motion to allow the bill to proceed. And in the first, the Republicans (mostly) blocked the bill and on the second the Democrats (mostly) blocked the bill.

I look at these examples and see mostly dishonesty and it's another example why I'm highly skeptical of not only the headlines, but the body of any story I read in the popular press including the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal etc. 


The Extremists are Winning


Initially, I thought your piece on outliers would end up discussing Uber. I was a little disappointed when you veered away from that subject and instead focused on extremists and the attacks  in France. 

I agree with you, the 80/20 rule applies to many aspects of our life and at least statistically, extremism is more like 2 standard deviations from the mean or a 90/10 rule. 

I have little interest in engaging in the discussion whether we should call this radical Islamic extremism, or whether we should call this a war on terror and unfortunately that discussion seems to suck up a lot of oxygen. 

The response to these attacks is disheartening to me. What little momentum there was to restrict the NSA’s (and other law enforcement agencies, like the DEA) ability to gather our phone call’s meta data and other personal information without a warrant is probably stopped. Whatever desire there was to stop the President’s ability to almost unilaterally decide to use drones to kill presumed combatants abroad, even if those presumed combatants are US citizens, is probably quashed as well. 

I’m not sure what the terrorists want. Maybe they are angry with their life and we are the convenient scapegoat, and as you imply they will be with us, in one form or another, always.  Maybe they want to destroy our way of life. Protecting our civil liberties is one of the key tenets of our way of life and to the extent we are willingly abandoning those liberties, they are achieving their goal. 

Two more thinks. Remind me to give you plenty of room on the road, and Go Pats. Now that the Broncos are out of the running, and Elway has decided to fire the coaching staff and entire roster to make a comeback as coach and sole player on the team, I have shifted my support to the Pats. 


Friday, January 16, 2015



 One of the least mentioned pleasures of teaching is that you have a captive audience. When I’m on rounds with my trainees I get tell to tell stories, and they get to listen. I try to make them instructive of course, but only they could tell you whether I'm successful or not..

One of my favorites is to recount my cab driving career during graduate school in Chicago. I drove on my off days and on weekend nights. In those days you paid a flat rate to “lease” a cab for a 24 hour period (an effective union busting tactic); once you earned your nut the rest was yours to keep. It was exactly the kind of free market incentive you have written about so elegantly in these pages, and I responded to it, usually working long into my shift .  When the cab was empty I trolled for fares aggressively;  I was, to put it mildly, a speed demon in a 3000 lb mass of metal painted yellow, zooming around the city in a manner more befitting a bumper car ride than neighborhood streets. Inevitably, I had accidents, lots of them, and collected traffic tickets  the way some collect baseball cards. I learned that traffic court was almost always a free pass since the ticket would be dismissed if the ticketing police officer didn’t appear. Given that most Chicago cops have better things to do than testify against 22 year old cab drivers for traffic tickets, that outcome could be counted on, and my misdeeds were seldom punished.  The cab company didn’t care much either, since I never had an accident with a fare in the cab, it just meant a short trip to the company body shop,

I did learn, however, from a brief, stern, lecture from my supervisor that a small number of cabbies, (15%), were responsible for the vast majority of accidents, (75%). I was one of those folks. In that regard, I was no different than any other group of outliers that drives events,  like patients repeatedly readmitted to the hospital (the reason why I tell my cab driving story in the 1st place) or violent New York City cops repeatedly accused of police misconduct, or the religious extremists committing atrocities in Hebron, or Baga, or Peshawar, or Paris. This is the advantage of the extremist; he needs the support of few others; his actions by their nature are guaranteed to produce a disproportionate effect.  

In that regard, there isn't much value in trying to understand the mindset of the terrorist; the power of the few to impact the many will not be diluted.  The best, imperfect answer, in your humble correspondent's opinion  is old fashioned police work; surveillance ( I am sorry to say), infiltration, preemption, and finally defiance. The Islamist extremists of our era are hardly alone.  Human nature isn’t going to change any time soon.