Friday, January 01, 2010

Greetings from Contested Kentucky!

I'm sitting in Louisville airport, waiting for a ride to take me to Madison, Indiana -- site of a much-anticipated wedding. Free wi-fi in the airport is a very nice thing (alas, it is a special, temporary offer). But I don't know if we'll have internet in our hotel in Madison (to be honest, I don't know if they have the internet in Madison, period) -- so I might be dark for a few more days yet.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We're Here!

Jill made it, albeit quite delayed, from Minnesota. So I've been busy. Also, this is a good post. That's all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The TSA Game

Eric Posner explains TSA strategy, once we rule out impossible extremes:
Once you eliminate the implausible corner solutions—the TSA undertakes body cavity searches of every passenger, or security screenings are abolished—a number of consequences follow.

1. The TSA must randomize (play a “mixed strategy,” in game-theoretic parlance). Otherwise, terrorists can predict some of its precautions and evade them. The same principle explains why police vary patrol routes and road blocks. A NYT article today makes clear that the TSA is self-consciously randomizing to keep terrorists off guard.

2. At the social optimum, the number of successful terrorist attacks will be greater than zero. It might be argued that we have had too few successful terrorist attacks over the last few years rather than too many. The question is whether the implicit statistical valuation of life in TSA programs is too high. I suspect that the answer is yes, as is generally the case with airline safety.

3. Profiling is an effective strategy when, as here, terrorists come from a small group of (relatively) easily identifiable people. One suspects that this explains Israel’s success. But profiling places a large portion of the cost of deterrence on a small group, which makes some people morally uneasy.

4. Once the implausible corner-solutions are ruled out, any security policy or threshold will seem arbitrary because you have to draw the line somewhere, which means that it will be easy to point to some permitted activity that is only slightly different from what is forbidden (for example, carrying on 100 ml of liquid rather than 101 ml).

5. As for the “security theater” claim–

a. If ordinary people are fooled into thinking that the TSA is doing more than it is really doing, then at least some potential terrorists will be fooled as well, and so will be deterred from engaging in airplane-terrorism.

b. Ordinary people will also fly more often, which means that one of the goals of terrorists—to terrorize people so that they will pressure their government to make concessions to terrorists—will have failed.

How Chicago was that post? But he's right, though I'll note a tension between numbers 1 and 3. A profiling regime is by definition not random, so terrorists can construct an "anti-profile" to beat the system -- the so-called "carnival booth" (because it encourages terrorists to "step right up and see if they're a winner").

I also think that 5(a) is maybe overstated, as the point is that the facial security measures might fool us average rubes, but not anybody actually intent on breaching airport security. I suppose there might be some aspiring terrorist who is awestruck by the festival of it all, but I have to think that anybody who is intent on breaching TSA security won't give up that easily.

On the other hand, while I don't accept 2 whole-heartedly, I do think it is important to note that pretty much any feasible screening system we come up with will not be fail-proof. Terrorists might get through even if we do everything right. It's really annoying when people act as if pretty well random and unpredictable acts are examples of outrageous bureaucratic incompetence. The TSA isn't the Green Lantern -- it doesn't protect us just by willing it hard enough.

Monday, December 28, 2009

I Should Have Organized Better

I've written four squib posts today. A smarter blogger would have grouped them together and did a roundup. Instead, I'm now stuck with a few stray links still on my browser -- ones I don't want to lose, but not enough to create a true roundup. And I'm too embarrassed to push my short-game up to five and six. So -- to the internet I go, to try and find enough good material to make for a real roundup. My mistake is your gain.

* * *

The NYT reports on China's lock on the rare metals which are key to the technologies of the future. Via Chris Borgen, who writes: "Criminal gangs, geopolitics, and environmental collapse, make for a dangerous cocktail."

CNN: "Defying U.S. urging, Israel to build homes in Arab East Jerusalem." Well, to be fair, they're building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (contrary to seemingly popular belief, there were always Jewish neighborhoods in that quarter -- even prior to 1967). I agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that this is needless provocation on the part of the Israeli government, but the media could do a favor and not pour gasoline on it.

Also, I could have written Jeffrey Goldberg's response to Andrew Sullivan on the recent Hannah Rosenthal flap.

How much is the economy driving the Iranian protests?

California's initiative process is completely broken? You don't say!

There are worries that Islamic parties in Iraq are pushing to strip the Jewish heritage from Ezekiel's Shrine in Iraq, under the guise of restoring it.

It says something not-so-good that it took me quite some time to figure out they were talking about Georgia the country, not Georgia the state.

You want to know what's outrageous? Women voting for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Jessica Valenti and Jillian Hewitt vivisect.

* * *

Hey, that wasn't so bad! I bet you can't even figure out which links were the ones I originally had up on the browser!

And better news yet: Jill is flying into DC tomorrow night! So I might be a bit busy for awhile.

We're So Dead

Spencer Ackerman reminds us:
Umar Farouk “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Must Set Your Crotch On Fire” Abdulmutallab is currently detained in a federal prison in Michigan. For now! In a few days he’ll use his Muslim heat vision to escape and run amok in Ann Arbor, shortly after America is brought to its knees by the force of his oratory in open federal court.

To Guantanamo he must go!

Do They Notice it isn't Working?

The Institute of Terrorism Research and Response reports that jihadist chatter is pointing towards further kidnappings of Israeli and American soldiers in order to "free Gaza". This comes from the pretty far-right INN, so take it with some salt, but assuming it's true -- have these folks noticed that this tactic isn't working? One would think that decades upon decades of history would give some indication of what strategies are likely to lead to Palestinian independence and which ones are not. Yet, violent warfare remains the dogma.

Kidnappings of this sort have traditionally led to one of two outcomes for Palestinians:

1) Prisoner exchanges (which I imagine groups like Hamas like, but have little to do with "freeing Gaza"), and/or

2) Bruising Israeli military campaigns.

The one thing they've had virtually no positive impact towards is convincing Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories.

Now, I'm being deliberately credulous here -- I'm acting as if the primary goal of Palestinian terrorist groups is "freeing Gaza" rather than inflicting pain on Israel. And we all know that isn't true -- these groups have always been willing to trade the former for the latter, and this would be yet another example.

Latin America Celebrates its First Gay Marriage

Congratulations to the happy couple, who were wed in southern Argentina yesterday.

Obama Condemns Iranian Crackdown

He's still got to walk that delicate line between buoying and discrediting the protesters, but this statement seems well-calibrated.

Blur to Black

I didn't comment on the mini-controversy where Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) seemed to think only Black people are on medicaid. But it fit very nicely with a broader truism among scholars of American race relations, which is that programs which benefit the poor nearly invariably are seen in the public eye as programs benefiting Blacks (think welfare).

And that, in turn, connects with Victor Davis Hanson's interpretation of Obamism:
It works like this: The ghetto resident, the denizen of the barrio, the abandoned and divorced waitress with three young children, can all chart their poverty and unhappiness not to accident, fate, bad luck, bad decisions, poor judgment, illegality or drug use, or simple tragedy, but rather exclusively to a system that is rigged to ensure oppression on the basis of race, class, and gender—often insidious and unfathomable except to the sensitive and gifted academic or community organizer.

So Obama combines the age-old belief that the state is there to level the playing field (rather than protect the rights of the individual and secure the safety of the people from foreign threats), with the postmodern notion that government must recompensate those by fiat on the basis on their race or class or gender. Remember all that, and everything from the Professor Gates incident, to the dutiful attendance at the foot of Rev. Wright to Van Jones become logical rather than aberrant. Michelle Obama could make $300,000 and she will always be more a victim than the Appalachian coal miner who earns $30,000, by virtue of her race and gender.

The problem, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, is that this doesn't jive with any of Obama's actual policy initiatives -- virtually all of which would advantage Mr. Coal Miner over Mrs. Obama. The Obama administration's domestic policy agenda has been singular in its lack of focus on issues of race and racial division (or even, really, racial harmony). It has studiously ducked the issue.

But it doesn't matter, because it never was about what the country (or what Black people) did or didn't do. To a significant swath of the country, all Black political action is presumed to be partisan racial gerrymandering, and all political action geared towards the poor is also presumed to be race-based wealth redistribution. Combine the two prejudices together, and you have a powerful political hurricane.