Russia pulls troops from Ukraine border

CNN link. Is there a political interpretation to this move?

Donetsk is 479 miles south of Moscow. The January daily mean temperature in Moscow is 20.3F. For Donetsk, it is 24.6F. In winter, Donetsk is a little more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Moscow. Moscow has the climate that defeated Napoleon and Hitler. Donetsk is a little better, but still severe.

It is possible to fight there in winter; the 3rd Battle of Kharkov (same neighborhood) was initiated by a German attack on February 19, 1943.  But it was a matter of life-and-death for both Soviets and Nazis. The Ukraine conflict is a luxury war, the optional entertainment of “nation builders” and “geopolitical strategists.”

When an army is deployed to the field, readiness initially increases, and then, like an organism exhausted by the cost of adaptation, it decreases. You don’t want the army of a luxury war rusting away in the field when it could be maintained for the dismal season in heated barracks, where everything is cheaper, because the logistics and infrastructure have been pre-arranged. If for no other reason than to save money, Putin’s decision to return the army to luxury accommodations in heated barracks, with luxury sauna, is wise.

But in the spirit of wasting nothing, the withdrawal, until the daisies  start pushing up again (the relevant Russia/Ukraine genus is Gerbera), will be very useful to the propagandists of RT and other Russian institutions of disinformation, which seem to be so active these days. One wonders, how Putin will entertain himself before the daisies bloom? He could deploy some Russian “advisers” to Alawite Syria, he could play with the gas taps, or he could expropriate McDonalds.

Or he could head out to the big-box store and pick up a hidef TV, the type with the fancy surround-sound system, so that he can feel like he is sitting in the middle of a war zone with explosions all around. It’s cheaper than the real thing, a real luxury.









Leon Panetta on ground troops.

In CNN video, Leon Panetta says, paraphrasing, we need Tactical Air Control Parties on the ground. This was discussed in the post,  Air Power in Iraq and Syria; Divining the Political Map. Everything Panetta says about the requirements for useful deployment of air power is precisely correct.

Mr. Panetta is the ultimate insider, providing new insight into the debate. However, he uses an implicit definition of ground troop deployment, which Obama nixes, to include Tac Air Control Parties. If this definition is in fact shared by Panetta and Obama, meaning that these parties, or their special forces equivalents, cannot be deployed, we are in for a lot of trouble. It would mean we’ve lost a good chunk of the Middle East.

So it’s not clear to this outsider whether the apparent absence of Control Parties is due to the difficulty of emplacement, which in some cases amounts to infiltration, or because of a decision by Obama to classify them as ground troops that are “off the table.”

When I was a participant in the IARPA project, “Forecasting World Events”, Mr. Panetta was director of the CIA.  FWE had a forum, and I got the impression that Leon was reading some of my stuff, particularly with respect to Syrian use of chemical weapons.

Hi, Leon! You are probably right, but I’m hoping that

a. You are wrong.


b. Your criticisms are promptly acted upon.



Why Doesn’t Turkey Intervene?

The Kurdish town of Kobani, bordering on Turkey, is on the verge of falling to ISIS. So most of us are wondering, why don’t the Turks move in? With parliamentary approval, and what was once the second largest army in NATO, shouldn’t it be a walkover?

Sadly, this is not the case. All of the armies in the world, with the exception of the U.S., and a select few others, have cavernous hollows in their structures, resembling more the brains of Alzheimers victims than competent military forces. In these other countries, armies are regarded as cultural refuges of manhood, and jobs programs for weapons that cannot be used as intended because so many anatomical parts are missing. A partial exception to this is the U.K., which, while exhibiting highest levels of competence and professionalism, had severe logistical problems in the Falklands War. Though a dated reference, they still don’t keep enough munitions on hand to fight a war.

The Business Insider has some figures. The 2014 budget for the The budget for the U.S. military is $612B. The Turkish budget is $18.2B. And out of this, Turkey has to pay for food, shoes, coats, underwear, and colorful flags. And let’s not forget spare tires, gas, oil changes, R&R, and patching the barracks roofs.

After all this is taken care of,  there is the minor question of weapons. Having decided to become self-sufficient in arms (against who, one might ask?), Turkey now makes a whole array of second-rate weaponry in vulnerable factories, with high foreign parts content, because it’s a jobs program. Lest it may seem that Turkey is singled out for criticism, the Typhoon “Eurofighter” was an even worse jobs program, a sinkhole of top gun delights and the pride of airshows, but nothing more.

During the Cold War, Turkey fielded an enormous army against the Soviet Union, but these were “static troops”, with logistics and maneuverability adequate for defense. Now we have a problem of “force projection”, in which the Turkish military have no experience at all. Tanks are not what they used to be. Turkish tanks are vulnerable to RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), a problem faced by all armies.  The most modern armies constantly remanufacture their tanks to mitigate evolving hazards, while the U.S. Army battle doctrine constantly evolves as well.

You don’t get this on $18.2B a year. Nor do you get the kind of “logistical tail” that transports tank fuel by helicopter. If the Turks send their tanks into Syria, they may have trouble keeping them fueled, unless they maintain the kind of continuous line that renders them vulnerable to asymmetric warfare.

Nor do you get the kind of military and management science that trains the rest of the free world. They take home their course notes, and then what? They cannot actualize.

So there may be a lot of hand-wringing going on in Turkey right now. Erdoğan may be asking questions of his military such as the above discussion implies. He may not be getting the answers he wants. One could hope that the General Staff of the Republic of Turkey has implemented crash courses in target designation, so that the full panoply of American air power can be brought to bear.

All of this is a mire of details, created in equal measure by nationalistic pride and the fear of losing,  which, for a small-budget military that is more about jobs than force projection, is a real possibility.



Air Power in Iraq and Syria; Divining the Political Map

The comments by Senator Linday Graham on CNN video, to the effect that air power without U.S. ground troops cannot defeat ISIS, may be true. But since the media, in their typical muddled fashion, have provided little useful info on how modern air power works, this is just to get you started.

The terms “strategic bombing”, and “tactical bombing”, have been part of the historical lexicon for many years now, so it’s pretty well understood that strategic bombing is a nuclear activity, while tactical bombing involves airplanes flying low, and tipping their bombs into small areas.

But this isn’t correct. The above  image of tactical bombing comes straight from the Vietnam War, when gravity bombs, unguided after release, were dropped by aligning the flight path of the airplane with optical sights, not unlike gun sights, with respect to targets that the pilot could actually see.  This old image of tactical bombing also includes detailed aerial reconnaissance, visual examination of maps, and correlation with other intelligence information, now modernized with  GPS coordinates. But this is not “real time.” We see the target; it moves; we bomb; it wasn’t there. The BBC article, “Why UK warplanes have a ‘difficult’ Iraq mission”, continues in some detail with this, and alludes to the newer, “smart bomb” model that has completely revolutionized tactical bombing since the 1991 Gulf War.

 The power of the new smart weaponry was comprehensively demonstrated when a motley alliance of pro-Western elements defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The pro-Western elements were arguably more competent than the Shiites of southern Iraq, but not so compared to the Kurds, whose Afghan analogy was the  Northern Alliance.

Gary C. Schroen’s book, First In, provides an invaluable picture of how that air war was conducted, which will serve you well to interpret future events of the current conflict. You’ll understand that

  • The “bomb truck”, which, when extreme intensity is required, may be a B-52, can fly so high, the bombardier can’t see the target, and the target can’t see the plane.
  • The accuracy of these weapons is stunning, but requires “target designation.”
  • Some of the best weapons to support a firefight require real time target designation by a laser beam.
  • Target designation, in real time or otherwise, is provided by a United States Air Force Tactical Air Control Party, a group of specialists possessed of advanced and prolonged training in a highly technical field, where a single slip can destroy a platoon. It is not feasible to train indigenous troops in the entire scope of competence of this specialty. If you’d like to train, go here: 6th Combat Training Squadron (Nellis AFB).

Unless or until these teams are in place, or indigenous elements acquire the rudiments, the tactical air actions reported in the media will have the elements of “throwbacks” of military technology. This is why the casual observer may have the impression of futility. Given the caliber of Iraqi troops, this may be so, but neither have we seen a full deployment of U.S. air power.

In Vietnam, ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, sold ammunition to the North Vietnamese. This activity has been supported in Iraq also. Full deployment of U.S. ground air controllers requires conditions on the ground that ensure that these specialists won’t be sold to the highest bidder.

Now you, the open source intelligence analyst, can use reports of highly successful airstrikes, bearing the fingerprints of precision guided munitions, to infer a political map of U.S. alliances (or the absence thereof) on the ground.

Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire

The tomb of Suleiman Shah, located on a dog-leg of the Euphraste River about 30 miles inside Syria, is designated by a 1921 treaty as an extraterritorial  sovereign enclave of Turkey. As the existence, or even reverence of the burial site, expressed in architecture, is contrary to the tenets of Sunni Islam, the “theology” of ISIS demands its destruction. Opposing this, Turkish pride appears to be wrapped up in the structure. Even though the lives of the sixty or so guards are in danger at the hands of ISIS, it would be a miniscule addition to the toll of the region. Since Americans think in terms of real estate, not shrines, we must look to the beheading of the Western hostages for analogous emotional impact.

As someone whose mind has been dulled by watching too many CNN implosion videos, (they are better than “strange creature washes up on beach”), I had to remind myself of how saner members of our species regard such things.  In Portrait of India,  author Ved Mehta gives account, in the chapter “The Holy Hair of the Muslims”, of how in 1963 the theft of a single relic hair from the head of a Very Holy Person, from the Hazratbal Mosque in Kashmir, set off a civil rebellion of such scope, involving almost all the inhabitants, that the Kashmir conflict almost exploded again. The catastrophe was averted only when the Indian Government “found” the hair, and it was certified as genuine by a Very Holy Man.

If you have succeeded in twisting your personal calibration knobs all the way over to the right, perhaps the seriousness of the tomb is now clearly in focus. It is so serious that, just about now, “President Erdoğan dismissed the claims that ISIS has encircled Suleiman Shah Tomb…”. In the psychology of the region, Erdoğan would be culpable if, on his watch, danger has been allowed to even approach the tomb. It would  be better for him to feign ignorance.

It has been apocryphally observed that “A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.” When detection  of  purported and real reasons is claimed, it is usually highlighted by the opposition in terms of conspiracy and duplicity. “Misleading the public” is a commonly phrase. Particularly when the case for war is being made, both pro and con become rapidly embellished by every politician with an axe to grind.

One of the tricks of my “detached little man” is that he watches and analyzes this theater, with complete disregard for any personal feelings about the outcome. Major international re-orderings are almost always accompanied by deception, except in rare cases, such as Pearl Harbor, when the enemy does it all for you. In all the other cases, where sales has a more active role, it is incumbent on the open source analyst to carefully dissect the real from the fabrication, take careful notes, and drop the organs in jars for careful histological examination.

A particularly good example of a complicated sales job was the deposing of Saddam Hussein by force.  Perhaps it could have been justified by a need to disrupt his ascent on the scaffold of history, which in 2003, did not have clear limits. But this would have required a public that could appreciate the power of an abstract idea fueling a dangerous drive. Victor Hugo aside, the public has little appreciation of the power of ideas. But it is impressed by concretion of little facts.  So the war  was justified by a complex set of lesser arguments based on alleged facts, and some clear fabrications, all undermined by the later report of the Iraq Survey Group.

I am personally very curious if the “two reasons”  ever existed discretely in the minds of the authors of the 2003 Iraq War. Sadly, this knowledge is now buried under the volcanic ash of failed foreign policy. But the current situation allows us a Paracutin view of the birth, or rebirth of — something. It may be the Ottoman Empire.

The post, “Gaming Iraq’s future; methodologies”,  partitions the problem space in various ways, leaving as a question whether the four views,

  • Individual players?
  • Cabals?
  • Tribes?
  • “Peace of Westphalia constructs”, with political maps populated by men wearing western business suits

can be integrated to a useful problem view. The original intent of a follow-up post was to play with each problem view separately, as a constraint puzzle. With each of the four views the constraints result in, at best, frozen conflict.

As a Westphalian approach, the U.S.  “One Iraq” policy satisfies one of the definitions of a mental disorder called perseveration, which is the continuation of a behavior when it is no longer an appropriate response. CNN reports that, on September 25, another Iraqi Army rout occurred, the details evidencing continued and conspicuous absence of a command-and-control structure, or even, a sense of responsibility to the soldiers of the line. Iraq is not a nation; it is composed of groups who may fight vociferously for the land of their local possession, and no more. This cannot be changed.

Other countries, with markedly different tool sets, can perform manipulations that would not occur to us, and, if they did, be completely unacceptable. Imagining the eventuality of a southern Iraq that is a satellite or actual possession of Iran, we might wonder: How will the Iranians  handle the pesky Sunni tribes in the middle?

In the history of Islamic expansion, it was common to provide economic incentives to conversion. Iran’s solution would be a mix of incentives for religious conversion to Shi’ism, incentives for pacification, a certain degree of tolerance, and murderous punishments of transgression, all of a spectrum with hues and colors unknown to the Western eye.

What happens to the rest of Iraq? The current map of the Middle East is primarily the result of dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, a relatively short period of colonial presence, followed by a hasty exit, with much of the modern map drawn by Winston Churchill. There is some historical testimony to the effect that the map of Iraq was drawn to make it internally unstable, with a possible eye to the kind of influence asserted in Iran by the Russians and the British.

The late Ottoman Empire (deceased, 1918), of which all this was a part, was actually a kind of confederation, with notable elements of democracy, albeit with very limited suffrage. It is frequently cited as an example of prolonged disintegration, a headless state, (See Pascali’s Island, with Ben Kingsley, for a delicious portrayal), but does that sound so bad right now?

Perhaps the Turks would like to try their hand. Since Erdoğan has asserted that Assad must go, Syria, with a complete governmental vacuum, would be  most tightly bound to the New Ottoman Empire. Further regions, including Kurdish, could be part of a loose confederation, with the incentive of Turkish transport of Kurdish oil, and Turkish industrialization. The Sunni tribes are at least religiously compatible,  the Sunni region serving as the economically useless borderlands between the the New Ottoman Empire, and Southern Iraq.

What do we get out of it? We get to get out. The place is no good for us. Even arguments based on oil avarice don’t work. It has a power vacuum that we can only fill at great cost. For us, it’s like a Trump casino, that, losing money, should become another CNN implosion video. And if southern Iraq becomes an Iran satrapy? Modest efforts to prevent this are reasonable, but not more. Since 2003, the risk/reward ratio has spun out of control.

I wonder if a Shriners fez will pass for travel?







Egypt influences Turkey’s Coalition Decision

The posts, “Did Egypt Bomb Libya”, on August 24, preceded by “El Sisi, the Next Ataturk” on August 1, are part of the process of accumulation by which open source intelligence proceeds from the apparently trivial collection to actual prediction.  “Did Egypt Bomb Libya” was a scoop on the media, but by itself, the bombing was merely curious; a few bombs on undistinguished militia positions.

But the picture builds, piece by piece. “El Sisi, the Next Ataturk”, is a speculation strengthened by the Libyan bombing, which, to use a hackneyed phrase, takes on a symbolic importance. Hackneyed it is, but in that part of the world, a few bombs is like the handshake of a serious bargain.

In a CNN article published today,  “Egypt offers military training to Libya, cites Islamic State threat”, the Libyan “renegade general”, on whose behalf Egypt bombed militia positions, is mentioned almost as a footnote. Quoting,

Aside from offering to train pro-government Libyan forces, Cairo is also willing to do business with former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar in order to push back the militants, the intelligence official said.

The article maximizes El Sisi’s approach to the Libyan government in Tobruk, while minimizing Haftar’s prominence, although it is Haftar to whom El Sisi has provided actual military assistance.  But the composite view corrects this journalistic sleight-of-hand. It also displays something else. Egypt’s foreign policy is firing on all cylinders: diplomatic, covert, and even in the progressive interpretation of the nation state.

This poses a challenge of pride to Turkey, which since Ataturk, has tried to embody the model of a progressive regional power. The current version of Turkish nationalism attempts to prove that Islam,  modernity, and even a “secular state” (which a Turkish government website claims it is) is viable and prosperous. But economically backwards Egypt, in the early stages of a similar evolution, is now a moral rival.

Moral rivalry by itself counts for nothing  in the international domain, but with ISIS, it is merely icing. In very particular circumstances that always have to do with survival, nations are vulnerable to embarrassment by the argument of “do your share.” Historically, these have been the grand coalitions of warfare, for example, against Napoleon and Germany. Now is such a time.

El Sisi’s offer to Libya comes as Turkey’s parliament debates participation in the coalition, which, as has been extensively discussed elsewhere, would be a break with the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy that has greased the wheels for Turkey’s economy.

El Sisi’s timing may not be a coincidence. Normally, this kind of demonstrative act would have no effect on Turkish politics. But every once in a while, when in a parliament or legislature, things hang by a thread, when some mental gear is hung up by nostalgia, it can make a difference.

That Turkish tanks have already moved to the border suggests that some organs in Turkey have anticipated parliamentary approval.  It must be obvious to many Turkish parliamentarians that “zero problems” needs a revision, yet it is a precious bauble, dear to their hearts, emblematic of economic prosperity. The side-effect of El Sisi’s Libya offer, as weak as it is, may tip the balance of their sentiment.

In this case, the passive collection of an open-source mosaic has resulted in an actual prediction, that Turkey will shortly become an active member of the coalition.




Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 2

Perhaps you were wondering, “Does the robot manage to keep the broomstick balanced forever?”

This is actually a complicated problem, but there are some simple facts. I forgot to stipulate that the robot’s hand can move only horizontally. But, since there is a floor under the robot, this detail does not change the eventual conclusion.

  • If the broomstick falls 90 degrees from vertical,  all the way over to a horizontal position, no horizontal movement of the robot’s hand can rebalance the stick to vertical. Donald Trump would say to our hapless robot, “You’re fired.”
  • If the stick is very close to horizontal, the force-through-a-distance required of the robot’s hand to rebalance the stick is very large. Force-through-a-distance is another word for “energy.”
  • The energy required to knock the stick  further over does not increase with angle. In fact, once started, the stick proceeds to fall by itself. A shove just speeds it up. But for the robot, the energy required to raise the stick from very-near-to-horizontal, in the words of math, “tends towards infinity.” So a vandal seeking to wreak havoc on the robot has a terrific advantage.
  • If the stick is very close to horizontal, and the robot happens to have a direct connection to a Japanese nuke plant that actually works, so that it could exert huge force to right the stick, the stick would disintegrate, busting up the whole scenario.
  • If the stick is almost vertical, what math calls “infinitesimally close” the problem becomes part of what is called “linear control theory”, making it “easy.” But this is a deception, because if the stick is not perfectly vertical, faulty intuition might maintain this assumption,  now false.
  • This is a “nonlinear problem.” All such problems are complicated.

But this problem is just simple enough that there may be a paper that addresses whether the stick can be stabilized at any angle above the horizontal. The answer depends upon how the movements of the crowd, who are constantly jostling the robot, are modeled.  For this we owe much to the German mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss. If the crowd is modeled with Gauss’s distribution, the stick will always fall, eventually.

So the little Japanese robot, wandering the crowded streets of Ginza, is a disaster waiting to happen.

This is a nice addition to the three examples of the Ted G. Lewis paper, “Cause-and-Effect or Fooled by Randomness?” , to be discussed next.


Ebola, African Doctor, and HIV, Part 3

CNN: An African doctor is treating Ebola with an off-the-shelf HIV drug. See the Wiki: lamivudine.

Dr. Gorbee Logan’s claimed success rate would make any biotech startup  blush with pride. Quoting,

Kundu and the other 12 patients who took the lamivudine and survived, received the drug in the first five days or so of their illness. The two patients who died received it between days five and eight.
"I'm sure that when [patients] present early, this medicine can help," Logan said. "I've proven it right in my center."

In our world, two steps would have to occur before it was generally used:

1. Confirm the results reported by Dr. Logan, which is a euphemism for deciding he is not a liar.

2. Convene an ethics panel to decide that the confirmed results conform with the official ethical view of things.

With only a single diagnosis of Ebola in the U.S., we can afford the brand of detachment that offers the possibility of a million (+ or -) deaths elsewhere. But in Africa, where victims are dropping like flies, one has to wonder. And in wondering, we inform ourselves about ourselves. Because we are not so different.

This is a magnificent test case for anyone who has found the approach of this blog interesting. It’s worth keeping a diary about the journey this drug, lamivudine, takes to eventual acceptance or rejection.

If it works, how many lives were lost due to no more than a defective process of critical thought?

We live in a world rife with false hopes of medical miracles, outright frauds, misrepresentation, and fatal errors, twisted by economic imperatives and personal reputations. But could the defense against the malign currents itself exact a toll of hundreds of thousands, or millions of lives?

What does it say about the way we think?


Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 1

An article in the Journal of the Naval Post Graduate School,  by Ted G. Lewis, “Cause-and-Effect or Fooled by Randomness?”, is a terrific short-form introduction to the problem, with no sacrifice in precision for the sake of brevity. If you can absorb the essence of it, you’ll have taken a leap way past faulty viewpoints based on “common sense” or claimed expertise, some of which appear as newly published books. I’ll supply some interpretation of the article in the next post.

In the Harpers article interview, “Six Questions for Ian Bremmer, Author of Fat Tail”, Ian Bremmer compares his book with the Black Swan Theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Bremmer says, “Preston Keat and I believe that a good number of these risks can be measured and managed.”

Bremmer’s education is in geopolitics and political science. These days, such an education can involve a significant amount of applied statistics, but not at the level of mathematical theory. Taleb is a mathematician, with a focus on theory that impact’s Bremmer’s field. Bremmer relies on his “expertise” to posit a truth in contradiction to Taleb’s math.

So this is a situation of two fields of knowledge, each intruding on the domain of the other, resulting in conflicts of viewpoints and conclusions. Taleb’s Black Swan is a direct challenge to Bremmer’s expertise, because Bremmer has made his reputation in risk management for corporations and states, while Taleb asserts that, for very large events, it can’t be done. Taleb’s theory undermines Bremmer’s position.

Both Bremmer and Taleb have weapons at their disposal to convince you that their positions are the correct ones. For instance, to understand energy, Bremmer would lead you through an argument that you might feel gives you a new understanding of where the price of oil is going. To wit, Bremmer says,

“Fewer market players are keeping an eye on Iran, but the Iran risk hasn’t gone away. If anything, the risk of confrontation will be greater over the next 12 to 18 months as Iran moves closer to a technological point-of-no-return and increasingly anxious Israeli leaders weigh their options.”

The above might be a delectable read, but that doesn’t mean it’s nutritious. Taleb would claim that the understanding is  illusory, and inspires false confidence that the risk can be managed. The quote also has a Delphic openness, meaning that whatever the oracle says, always comes true, if only you can understand the wording. On the general subject of whether political expertise actually exists, Philip Tetlock’s book, “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” is a general challenge to the predictive specialty of which Bremmer is a member.

With Bremmer’s specialty now sufficiently undermined, you have good reason to consider what Taleb has to say. The title of Taleb’s article, “UNDERSTANDING IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE FOR CONVEXITY” is by comparison a dose of cod liver oil. The challenge for you, the reader, is not to go to what might be your comfort zone, which could be reading about geopolitics, which always has the elements of an entertaining story, with good guys and bad guys. The challenge is to try to fit Taleb’s insights into the scheme of things, even if you are not a math thinker.

But I haven’t finished softening you up. I want to run by you an example of an experiment that is part of “undergraduate control lab” in electrical engineering curricula. If they don’t have the actual setup, they certainly discuss it at length. It’s a juggling stunt. A broomstick is balanced vertically at one end by some kind of mechanical hand. You could imagine one of those Japanese robots that looks so human. Instead of wheels, let’s give this robot a cushion of air. Here’s the scenario:

  • While balancing the broomstick, the robot navigates through a crowd, which subjects it to random jostles of varying strength.
  • Some are mere nudges; some push our little robot many feet.
  • The robot is never actually damaged or interrupted in its task.
  • At all times it is able to follow the computer program that moves the hand that balances the broomstick, trying to keep it vertical.
  • The robot has been programmed by the best programmers in the world. It has the best motors, huge batteries, and its hand is very powerful and fast. Everything “works right.”

The question for you is: Does the robot manage to keep the broomstick balanced forever? Or is this a catastrophe in the making? Is there some mathematical doom built into the situation?

The answer is coming. Check back for the next post.

Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 2

And so, the caution inspired by Swine Flu Fiasco of 1976, with 25 deaths and 500 illnesses, and some delayed mortality, is a significant impediment in the response to Ebola. Although other reasons can be cited, such as safety profile concerns that affect all vaccine development, the Swine Flu Fiasco is special. It had a uniquely visceral effect on the public at large, who don’t read or know about vaccine trials.

The CDC numbers, with the current 71% mortality rate, directly refer to two outcomes, and are permissive of a third:

  • Infection of 550,000, resulting in 390,500 deaths.
  • Infection of 1.4 million, resulting in 994,000 deaths.
  • Depopulation of the African continent, in a manner and experience similar to that of the Black Death.

When two American healthcare workers contracted Ebola, and their survival was probably influenced by the experimental drug, ZMapp, a U.N. medical ethics panel was convened and concluded, “WHO-convened ethics panel endorses use of experimental drugs”. Now we have an opportunity to convene a little gedanken experiment:

  • You have been tasked to decide whether an experimental drug should be used against Ebola. You are not permitted to decline.
  • The recipients would be aid workers, who, being at higher risk than the public, can tolerate a higher risk with the drug.
  • The safety profile of the drug, and effectiveness, has been ascertained for an animal model. It has been informally trialed by a few members of the research staff, using themselves as guinea pigs. The side effects are only modestly discommoding.
  • The drug appeared to benefit two patients who were seriously ill. One made a remarkable recovery, while the other died. A third patient with lesser illness also survived; side effects were minor.
  • This presents a picture of mild or negligible toxicity, good anecdotal evidence of an effective treatment, and potentially  great prophylactic value.
  • The proposed subjects, working in primitive conditions, where it’s very hot, spend their days sweating buckets in rubber suits. The environments are highly contaminated. Slip-ups are almost inevitable, with lethal consequences. They are eager to try the drug.
  • Your role as the decision-maker is secret, and cannot be attributed to you. Regardless of whether your decision is the right one, your conscience  grants you a special exemption. In other words, there is absolutely no cost to you, social, mental, or physical. But, being a good person, you would like to make the right decision. Which is?

I think most of you would decide in favor of administering the drug. You might remark that it was not a very difficult decision to make, and the reasons would come from the facts of the epidemic. So why do we need an “ethics panel?”

The purpose of the thought experiment is to demonstrate, by exclusion, that the reason for convening the ethics panel is divorced from the logic of the decision itself. Among the reasons not excluded, I have a favorite: The panel diffuses individual responsibility. The more elaborate the process of approval, which in this case, involves a panel, the more the moral responsibility devolves to the process, as opposed to the people using the process. In the end, it becomes very similar to the firing squad executioner who takes solace that his gun held the blank.

The potential depopulation of Africa is not a small news event. It may result in something called, by the popular press, “soul searching”, with calls for a new this or a new that. But it will not get to the bottom it, because this is a meta-problem, and politics doesn’t even know such a thing exists.

The meta aspect of it is this. The phlegmatic policy of the CDC, and the rest of the First World, is itself the result of a policy, a general management method. The method is itself the product of a general problem-solving approach, which is the product of a certain kind of education…and so on, progressing to the psychology of the individual, and ultimately, brain chemistry.

Policies have recursive origins. A fix must dig into that recursion, or the new policy will be a simple reaction to the failure of the old. Things being what they are, good luck can fall off the table in any direction.

This being a catastrophe, next: Catastrophe Theory for Dummies.

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