Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

War, what is it good for?

Some of my 2 1/2 long-time followers know that I maintained the Today in Iraq and Afghanistan blog for many years. I've set it aside for a while, out of a general feeling of despair. But now I do want to say something about the WaPos's publication of the report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. SIGAR reports frequently featured in Today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

IG Sopko has been speaking truth to power for many years, mostly exposing the utter failure of development projects. But now he has done a comprehensive assessment of the goals and accomplishments of the United States' longest war. The answer is none of the above.

Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
 This began, of course, with the George Bush II invasion, and continued through the subsequent two administrations. So B. Obama is just as much on the hook for it as the Republican presidents. The original rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan was to root out Al Qaeda and retaliate for the Sept. 11 attack. Fair enough, but Osama bin Laden was chased into Pakistan after just 3 months. So what was the rationale for continuing to occupy Afghanistan (and for that matter, not invading Pakistan?) after that?

Yet the interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department.
Fundamental disagreements went unresolved. Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia.
The Lessons Learned interviews also reveal how U.S. military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why.
Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never settled on an answer.
As a result, in the field, U.S. troops often couldn’t tell friend from foe.
This was the same political dynamic that kept the U.S. stuck in Vietnam for 20 years. After the U.S. finally surrendered and left for good, there was a period during which the victorious government sent collaborators to re-education camps and many of them, fearing disposession, fled in a dangerous exodus by sea. So you may judge that was bad, although certainly not as bad as the war itself. But then Vietnam stabilized, became prosperous, and is now an important trading partner of the U.S. No, it's not a democracy but neither was the puppet South Vietnam. In the long run, nothing bad came of the U.S. defeat and it was obvious that there was absolutely no good reason for the U.S. to be there in the first place. (I won't go into the details of the history but major U.S. involvement began after it became clear that Ho Chi Minh would win a scheduled reunification election, and if there is one thing the U.S. couldn't tolerate, it was self determination by colonies.)

Baked into our political culture is a warrior mentality, an assumption that it is both the responsibility and the right of the United States to send its military abroad to control the destiny of non-European countries, and that any president who gives up on one of these projects is a coward and a loser. So they can't give up. I have to actually give D. Trump credit for saying he wants to get out of Afghanistan, but with talk and two bucks I can get a cup of coffee. Let's see what actually happens.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Which Ten Commandments?

What happens in Exodus 34 is very strange indeed. You may remember that Moses broke the tablets with the Ten Commandments because he was pissed off about the golden calf and all that. So God calls him back up the mountain to get a new set. Only -- they're completely different.

34 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.”[a] The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,[b]
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”
This is, obviously, moral idiocy. But we already know that God is one nasty SOB.
And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
10 He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.
I will now enumerate the Ten Commandments. My emendation is in  Bold.
11 Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 
1 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. 13 You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles[c] 14 (for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God). 15 You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. 16 And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.
17 2You shall not make cast idols.
18  3You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.
19  4All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male[d] livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
21 5Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 6Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.
25 7You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, 8and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.
26 9The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.
10You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
27 The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. 28 He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.[e]

It's actually fine with me if Roy Moore wants to display these in the courthouse.

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[f] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.


  1. Exodus 34:5 Heb YHWH; see note at 3.15
  2. Exodus 34:7 Or for thousands
  3. Exodus 34:13 Heb Asherim
  4. Exodus 34:19 Gk Theodotion Vg Tg: Meaning of Heb uncertain
  5. Exodus 34:28 Heb words
  6. Exodus 34:29 Or treaty, or testimony; Heb eduth

Thursday, December 05, 2019


You've probably heard that the Residential Administration is changing the eligibility rules for he Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which will result in loss of benefits for an estimated 700,000 people. In a nutshell, the rule will make it more difficult for states to waive the work requirement, which is that "nondisabled" adults have to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible. The ostensible rationale is that a lot of people who could be working are lazing around and that if they lose their SNAP benefits they'll get off the couch and get a job.

This is actually bullshit. The people we are talking about may not be certified as disabled but they are generally economically very marginal, maybe lacking a high school diploma; having undiagnosed disabilities, or mental or physical limitations short of getting an official ruling of disability; living in pockets of high unemployment.  Many of them are in fact working as much as they can but they have part-time, non-steady jobs that don't consistently give them 20 hours a week of work. Experiments with this policy at the state level have shown that it does not in fact lead to increased employment, it just leads to hunger.

It turns out there's a back story. This is the culmination of a nearly decade-long effort by an organization called the Foundation for Government Accountability, which is funded by billionaires who want to take everything they can away from poor people. Now why do you think so many billionaires want to do that?

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: The Divine Mooning

 Exodus is, as we have seen, tedious and turgid. It's full of repetition, and also slightly different versions of similar constructs. Clearly it's an amalgamation of various source materials. But it is clear that the concept of God is still very limited compared with the modern version. He is not ubiquitous: he has a finite, physical body, in the shape of a human, and he exists in a specific location. He is definitely not universal; his only relationship is with the Hebrews. (The apparent flirtation with the Midianites was more or less forced because they adopted Moses and gave him a wife.) And he continues to make promises he doesn't keep.

33 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
Several comments here. First of all, obviously, there is the psychopathic disdain for the native people of the region they are about to enter. However, as we will learn in Joshua, this promise is not fully kept. The Hebrews seize territory, but they do not drive out the Canaanites or the Jebusites. Then there is the notion that God will send an angel but will not personally accompany the people. The reason is also quite startling: that God doesn't trust himself not to kill them all. Evidently if he isn't physically present he can't do anything to them.
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
I don't really get this business about not wearing ornaments. Any thoughts?

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.
So if you've been wondering exactly how God communicates with Moses, now you know. Except you don't. That God speaks with Moses "face to face, as one speaks to a friend," is completely contradicted at the end of this very chapter.

12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
So once again Moses argues with God and succeeds in changing his mind. God will physically go with them after all, and presumably not kill them.
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
No comment.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Science and The People

I actually find it pretty easy to understand why many people reject science that conflicts with their religious beliefs. One obvious reason is that membership in most religious communities requires accepting, or at least pretending to accept, certain factual propositions. Community membership is valuable to people, emotionally and in many situations for practical and material reasons. It's hard, and for many people impossible, to walk away from kith and kin.

But there is also a deeper reason. The universe discovered by physicists and the sub-discipline of cosmology is grant, wonderful and astonishing but also very cold and lonely. It makes of humanity a trivial accident. We don't mean shit to anybody but ourselves. That we can make meaning in our own right, that we matter to each other, is the essence of humanism, but that isn't good enough for lots of people. They need the consolation of a caring universe. Alongside this is the fear of death and inability to accept it.

Then there's the third reason. Almost nobody actually understands the cosmologists' universe, how they figured it out and why they are so certain of their conclusions. I have a somewhat better idea than most because I've had a subscription to Scientific American since I was 13 but I actually have never taken a physics course, let alone studied cosmology. Basically it all started when Edwin Hubble discovered that the nebulae are actually entire galaxies in their own right, that the ones that aren't so close as to be bound to ours gravitationally are all receding, and that the farther away they are, the faster they are running away. No, that doesn't put us at the center. It would look the same no matter where you were, no matter what galaxy you were in, because the universe is expanding. So they imagined running the movie backwards and realized that at some point it must have been extremely compact. Maybe infinitely dense and infinitesimal. That would have been about 13.8 billion years ago. (Estimates have varied a bit over time but that's where we are now.)

There is plenty of evidence that this really happened, that for some reason -- of which we have not the slightest idea -- at that time it started expanding and eventually evolved into what we see now. I won't go into more detail but you can read books about it. Hawking's Brief History of Time still stands up pretty well but problems have arisen since then, some of the most difficult of his own making. Cosmologists thought they were getting everything figured out, then they discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, for completely unknown reasons; that most of the mass in the universe consists of something that does not interact with matter in any way except by gravity; and when Hawking figured out that Black Holes evaporate, he created a whole new paradox which you can read about at the link but which you won't really understand very well.

Physicists have a complicated understanding of the universe, based on mathematical structures that predict the outcome of experiments or correspond to observations. I won't even discuss quantum theory but the black hole paradox is enough to get the idea across. It's true in a way that doesn't correspond to our everyday understanding of truth. It's about entities that nobody can see, distances that are incredibly small or incredibly large, time intervals equally infinitesimal and vast. For example, physicists believe that this is the smallest possible distance:

It's called the Planck length. It's about 1/100,000,000,000,000,000,000 the diameter of a proton. If you've been reading the Bible with me you know it's ridiculous, but unfortunately I think the average person, if presented with basic ideas of physics and cosmology, would find them more ridiculous than Noah's Ark. It takes a lot of effort to understand all, or really any of this. Faith is just easier.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Not Stayin' Alive

This is not new news, but it's strong confirmation of earlier observations that have been somewhat controversial, and also bad news that the trend is continuing. That trend is declining life expectancy in the U.S. I'm not linking to the full report in JAMA because it's incredibly wonky and behind a paywall anyway, but rather to the associated editorial, which tells you what you need to know.

Before we get into the substance of this, let me explain the concept of life expectancy. I'll try to put this simply, but some people find it confusing. It's really a fictitious, though useful, construct. It isn't really a prediction of the future, but it tells us something about the present. Below is a portion of what's called a "life table." It shows the proportion of people in the U.S. who died in each 1-year age cohort in 2015.

As you can see, .006383, or a little more than 6/1,000 male babies died before their first birthday. (A simplifying assumption is that all deaths occur on June 30. Don't worry about it.) Of the remaining male babies, .000453, which only 4/5 out of 10,000, died before their second birthday. So it's somewhat dangerous to be an infant but once you get past that you're in pretty good shape until you get old. It isn't until age 81 that the probability of death for men goes up to the same level as the infant mortality rate.

So life expectancy at birth is the average (mean) age you would live if you were born in 2015 and experience the same probability of death each year as people who are alive in 2015, i.e. assuming nothing changes in the next 81 years or so. That obviously isn't very likely, so as I say, this is a fictitious concept; it's about the present, not the future. You might also notice that half the men are still alive at age 80 but male life expectancy in 2015 was actually a bit lower than that because that 50% represents the median, and as I say, life expectancy is presented as the mean, which was actually 76.4.* You will also notice that women live longer than men. Life expectancy for Black people of both sexes is lower than that for white people, but black women still live longer than white men.

Okay, so as the linked editorial explains, the decline, which began in 2014 but  followed an earlier plateau, is largely traceable to increased death rates for people in mid-life -- age 25-64, who during the post-war years had been quite unlikely to die. The increased death rate in those years is attributable largely to opioid overdose, alcoholism, and suicide, but not entirely. Obesity-related diseases also contribute. The industrial Midwest, Appalachia, and Northern New England were worst-affected, as were rural vs. urban areas.

Many people are labeling these "deaths of despair," and arguing that they are linked to the economic and social disruption associated with deindustrialization and the declining rural economy. That may be so, although the opioid epidemic is a more equal opportunity phenomenon. How the pain of these places has translated into changing political loyalties, however, is harder to explain. One thing is for sure -- it is not caused by immigration. It also is not caused by abortion, gay marriage, transgendered people, increasing numbers of minority elected officials, or gun safety legislation. I get that people and communities are hurting, but I don't know get why their anger is so misdirected.

* The relatively large number of people who die in infancy drags the mean down more than the small number of very long-lived people pulls it up. This will make sense to you if you have studied statistics, otherwise don't worry about it.