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Presidential hopefuls have been mentioning waterboarding quite a bit lately. Is it torture? Is it not? Certainly, there is a continuum of nasty things that can be done to prisoners. It has been noted that Daesh does things that are more extreme than anything the US would contemplate. Nevertheless, some among us would draw the line between torture and simply discomfort differently than others. Is sleep deprivation torture (since I am very familiar with sleep deprivation I can say that it is not nice but falls short of being torture)? What about withholding preferred food (again, I am an expert on this)? This is something that a person can tolerate reasonably well. That brings me to waterboarding. We waterboard our Seals. Would we torture our own people? What would be the purpose in that?

We have, after all, a cultural history of waterboarding for punishment and to extract confessions of one sort or another. How is that again? A cultural history of waterboarding? Yes, Virginia, we have a history of waterboarding in the form of dunking chairs and stools and keelhauling aboard ships. These things occasionally were fatal, but they were generally intended to not be fatal. This is in contrast to “walking the plank” which was a method of execution.

What is the point of all this? The point is that the line that divides torture from simple discomfort is subjective AND depends on the timeliness of the information one is trying to extract. If a prisoner is simply a dangerous person who you need to detain to keep him or her from doing bad things, then it is gratuitous to subject the person to much discomfort. However, if the prisoner has critical information that, if known, would protect our citizens and/or troops from imminent harm, then the line of demarcation moves distinctly toward making the prisoner more uncomfortable. Does this include waterboarding? Why not leave this up to the troops who are closest to the problem? Well, there will probably be disagreements with this position. So if you have a counter argument, feel free to comment.

Don’t forget that the value of information obtained from duress may be of questionable quality and can even be dangerous (such as leading one into a trap). Suppose that you were being asked to confess to being a witch or a scold. Might you confess when you think that you are not. Suppose further that as an enemy combatant you are asked to reveal plans of upcoming attacks. Can you imagine thinking up all sorts of phony plans that would lead your enemy to incorrectly evaluate your side’s strength or waste resources preparing for events which will never take place?



We have a guest editorial today:

The old box was unpropitious. When the auctioneer threw it in with something I had “won,” I saw the word “Cutter” and thought of the insect repellent. Instead it was a biscuit cutter in its original box. As I ponder it, this tool unexpectedly holds no end of interest, at least for now. The original box says:

Made  of  stainless  Dural,  weighing   only

5  ounces,  the  cutter may be used  for all

forms of canapés, biscuits, hors d’oeuvres,

tea sandwiches, potato patties,  ice  cream

moulds, etc.

A new and modern kitchen aid designed

for a lifetime. Easy to use, Easy to clean.

Manufactured with the Same Skill Which

Produced  Precision Parts for the Armed

Forces.                          Patent Pending.

I used these hints to search the web, finding nothing on the history of the company. That didn’t stop me from deducing a story. The heading on the box reads Lewis Precision Products, and the bottom reads Lewis Specialty Company, Montclair, NJ. It appears that the first company name reflected its reason-to-be, and the second reflected trying to stay alive in the 1940s with a brave wager that biscuits could be recast as modern. The first paragraph on the box does show awareness of the lifestyle after WWII, a time in which bridge-groups and patio and cocktail parties sprang up in new suburbs. The history of Bisquik brand biscuit mix echoes the Lewis company’s timing. As the box advertised, Bisquik was a dry mix to facilitate making biscuits, in particular. It was hugely popular in the 1930s. After WWII it switched from a focus on only biscuits to “a world of baking in a box.”

I find it poignant that the very beautiful, new-fangled biscuit cutter I’d brought home, not meant to be seen outside of the kitchen, is way over-engineered: too heavy, too fancy, too durable, and too hard to clean compared to the old tin ring and handle. Stainless Dural is Duralumin, an early aluminum alloy that included copper. It came on the market in 1909, and its first commercial use was for the Zeppelin. I don’t know to what the stainless refers. I assume that the beauty of this biscuit cutter is fragile in that any aluminum permanently discolors after only one washing in the dishwasher. It seems that the company didn’t anticipate how quickly dishwashers would be commonplace.

It interests me that there is no hint on the box about how to disassemble for cleaning. I think that’s a sign of the times. There’s a real difference, I think, in how can-do folks used to be. Back then would more cooks just expect to just figure it out? “Let’s see, there’s a seam below the turned portion.” “But that doesn’t turn.” “So I’ll hold that disk in the cylinder steady and unscrew the plunger.” Disassembling the thing is the only way to spot the company name. At least in this case, it was on the plunger disk-surface facing inward.

I notice several Lewis biscuit cutters on ebay and other such places at less than thirty dollars. It is surprising that some seem unused, and most have their original boxes. I imagine that the kitchen wares experiment was short-lived for the Lewis Company. Perhaps some undistributed factory stock showed up at some point. One other product from Lewis was a “Featherweight Pastry Roller,” listed on Worthpoint. A Bakelite handle on one end unscrewed so that the tube could be filled with ice water. I picture the Dural tube sweating and sticking to any dough it touched. I can’t imagine more star-crossed efforts.

Old biscuit cutters were simple tin rings with a tin handle made comfortable with rolled edges. They do require some experience and dexterity to use one-handedly as the baker helps the biscuit dough fall onto the baking sheet, usually by maneuvering the fingertips past the handle arcing over the top of the floured ring while the opposite hand steadies the ring.

Just for fun I took a picture of the three biscuit cutters we now have. Lined up, they represent 1900, 1950, and 2000: a blackened tin one marked FRIES from either Great Aunt Kit or Great Grandma Catherine Forbes, the Lewis fancy-turned Dural example, and our modern shiny tin cutter designed exactly like the first one!

I talked about this to the author of, who said, as a matter of fact, it is a pattern that when an old company fails and then tries to innovate, it almost always will fail at the new product. I took this to mean that economists see that it’s the upstarts that have their fingers on the pulse of the times, who know what the needs are, and who can tool up efficiently to produce an innovation.                            2014


A Strategy to Defeat ISIL

Our President has been criticized for not having a strategy and for leading from behind. I would counter that leading from behind is a partial strategy. It is a device that has drawn out various militias to be boots on the ground. So the Kurds were forced to defend themselves. Then the Christians formed a militia. Even the Yezedis up on Mt. Sinjar have a militia now. This is, of course, a messy process and one that is likely to lead to the Balkanization of the Middle East.

An air campaign can also be strategic. It can be the catalyst that increases the effectiveness of the various militias. Our President has stumbled onto something here. Unfortunately, he may be driven by the media into an attack on Mosul. Is he about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? On the other hand, is the word that he has Mosul in his sights a strategic feint, an attempt to draw ISIL resources to Mosul and away from other targets?

What is Daesh, ISIL, ISIS, or the Islamic Caliphate?

What it is makes a difference in terms of what can be done about it. Making distinctions can help define a strategy to counter this movement. First, the President and his minions are wrong. The Islamic Caliphate is not unIslamic. It is not a perversion of Islam. In its own view, it is the purest of Islamic movements. We might think of it as a fundamentalist movement, or a literalist movement. It is a type, but not the only type, of Salafi Islam. It would be appropriate to think of it as a Medieval or Archaic Islamic movement. It has an apocalyptic vision and is seeking to bring about the apocalypse by following a prophetic roadmap.

Without understanding their theology or what people are calling their “ideology,” it is unlikely that coherent strategies to deal with it will emerge. The genocide, slavery, expansionism, strict behavioral rules and extreme punishments all have scriptural support. In fact, the declaration of a Caliphate itself has scriptural support. In addition, it is a critical draw for recruiting. Those who are drawn to the movement want to be part of the Caliphate, they are expecting to die in its service, and are not generally contemplating returning to their place of origin.

Disrupt Prophesy

The first rule is to disrupt prophesy whenever possible. I do not assert that I am an expert on Islamic prophesy; experts should be sought out. Nevertheless, allow me to sketch several possibilities. Do not send a Western army to confront them on the field of battle. This is what they expect and this is what they want. Instead, one might try to persuade Turkey to join the opposition to ISIL, because it appears that Daesh is intent on sacking Istanbul at some point, because it was the Medieval seat of the Byzantine Empire. One of their prophesies relates to an ultimate confrontation with Iran; perhaps in their view when seen through a knowledge of contemporary weapons, this confrontation could be nuclear in nature. So it might be wise if Iran and Hezbollah were to take this into account in their opposition to Daesh.

Delegitimize the Caliphate

One of the requirements for a Caliphate is that there must be territory over which the Caliphate rules. For example, a guerrilla army that moves around cannot be considered a Caliphate. This suggests that invigorating the policy of taking over soft targets such as villages and denying them access to roadways, drives them into the large cities and opens them up to internal criticisms that they are not really a Caliphate, because they do not hold contiguous territory.

Another requirement of a Caliphate is that it provides for the economic needs of its people. If Daesh only holds a few cities, these cities will be difficult to service and this will open them up to internal criticisms that they are not able to behave like a real Caliphate. So don’t attempt to take Mosul. Instead, try to take every village you can around Mosul.

How Will this End?

If Daesh is not a Caliphate and if prophesies are not coming true, then their appeals for funds and fighters will fall on deaf ears. The Daesh movement will collapse. The residents of the cities that they hold will tire of the extreme constraints on their lives. They will chafe at the foreigners in their midst imposing these constraints. If given modest military aid, they will rid themselves of the Daesh nuisance.


The Economics of War or Peace in Ukraine

What Does Putin Want?

After having annexed Crimea, Putin discovered that it is and will continue to be costly to integrate Crimea into the Russian economy. What he needs is a corridor through eastern Ukraine to Crimea. He needs pipelines, wires, cables, and roads. Being a communist, he thought of one solution: take the corridor. So he enlisted dissatisfied ethnic Russian Ukranians to revolt, providing them with weapons, supplies, and probably promises of public employment once the revolt is successful.

What Would Be an Alternative to War

Alternatively, Putin could negotiate with Ukraine for a corridor, easements and rights-of-way. Why would Russia go along with this. They probably don’t care too much about lives lost, but this war is not free. Think of the imposition of sanctions, the fact that their energy economy is currently on a very shaky footing, and they are prioritizing the modernization of their military. Why would Ukraine go along with this. Well, the costs of this war to an already impoverished Ukraine in terms of lives and treasure are tremendous. They need a way out. Negotiation is that way out.


From Net Neutrality to Information Control

What is all this stuff about net neutrality? An egalitarian policy would have everyone bearing the same time price on the internet. So what is so wrong with that?

Let me point out that we do not have a policy of road neutrality. For example, ambulances are given preferential treatment on our roads. Why is that a good idea? It is a good idea because ambulances have a greater demand for speed than other vehicles have. The speed of an ambulance may very well determine whether someone lives or dies. So we readily grant special access to ambulances, and to cop cars, and fire trucks. But more mundane vehicles can have special status too. For example, special commuting lanes may provide accelerated access to commuters with more than one person on board or, horror of horrors, for people who pay some money price for the privilege. Is this just a special perk for the rich? Hardly. It is for those who are late and those who are exceptionally busy (read productive). We also give special status on roads to vehicles with wide loads. Clearly, the economy functions better if we allow these vehicles to encroach on other lanes of traffic to the point of even slowing down other lanes of traffic.

What is true for roads is also true for the net. There are those who have demand (i.e., the willingness and the ability to pay) for faster speed on the net. Who are these people? They could include a wide range of people, people who need to monitor remote sites in real time and people who want to download or upload large files quickly. These people could be private individuals, businesses, and governmental entities. Why should we frustrate these demands? This is egalitarianism run amok so as to disrupt the efficiency of markets.

Why do certain federal officials want to impose net neutrality? They want control over a heretofore largely uncontrolled medium. A Net Neutrality policy would give them a foot in the door. They would have the right to require reporting on the speed of various internet transactions. Can you visualize such reporting? Who contacted whom. How long did the contact persist. What quantity of information was sent in each direction. Whew.

Once this kind of information has been provided the invidious comparisons will begin. Why was this speedier than that. Does it have anything to do with the content? Fines will emerge. Perhaps there will be federal permits for sending and receiving information. Such a permit or license will probably require fees. Perhaps more importantly, these permits will be subject to cancellation. Control will be complete.


“Don’t let anybody tell you that . . .”

Corporations and businesses create jobs

Apparently, Hillary Clinton thinks that corporations and businesses don’t create jobs. She said this in the context of poo pooing trickle down economics. The best thing to read on the subject is something written by Thomas Sowell in 2001. You might also be interested in a post in this blog on “Who built that?”


Travel Bans

I’ve been watching the CDC head as well as politicians hem and haw about what is wrong with travel bans. So I thought that I would lay out the case against them. This is not to suggest that I am against or for travel bans. I am only describing one side of the argument.

Let us suppose that a travel ban is imposed on the few west African countries that are experiencing ebola outbreaks. What would people at risk in those countries do? They would scatter to other countries. This would probably spread the ebola problem. So instead of dealing with the ebola problem in a relatively limited geographical area, the problem is compounded by the increased geographical spread.

People at risk would scatter, because they would hope to land in a developed country if they have ebola. Their hope is that they would receive more sophisticated treatment in the developed world.

Can you depend on their passports to determine where they have been? This is doubtful. Bribery is rampant. I assume that you can buy a “clean” passport in almost any country . . . maybe even in the US, but I digress.

The point is that travel bans can make things worse in one dimension and may be difficult to enforce as well.


How to stabilize Iraq, Syria, etc.

There are a few countries that can utilize the solution, let’s call it the Alaska Rule. Well, you’ve probably guessed what it is, but permit me the opportunity to spin it anyway. There are some countries that are very rich in terms of natural resources but have a citizenry which is mostly poor. “How can this be?” you may ask. The answer is simple. These countries have despotic rulers who engage in mischief. They buy palaces for themselves and their children. They reward their tribe and punish others. They promulgate inter-religious distrust and hatred. They buy military hardware beyond any reasonable need and employ relatively huge armies.

What I propose is that the receipts from the sale of natural resources (or perhaps 80% of the receipts) be distributed to the population of these countries on a per capita basis. That is every adult, male or female, gets the same share. Oh how this would change behavior. No longer would people tolerate those among them who would blow up pipelines or oil wells. Respect for women would miraculously rise. Tribal and religious animosity would diminish as attachment to the state would increase. Most importantly, the ruling class . . . if one remained, would have fewer opportunities to engage in mischief.

How do you get from here to there? There may have been a moment in the midst of the Iraq war when such a solution could have been imposed on Iraq. Maybe it could emerge in Iraq as part of a negotiation among the various parties attempting to hold that country together: Kurds, Sunni, Shiite, tribes, whomever. Maybe the Free Syria Army could make this a plank in their platform as a device to pull the undecided to their camp. Once the Alaska Rule has been imposed, it would be very difficult to undo it.


Part time versus full time employment

Have you all seen Mortimer Zuckerman’s piece on the employment landscape published in the WSJ on the 14th of July? READ IT FOR SURE.


Ayres on Revolution

Recently in an interview on Fox, the infamous Bill Ayres seemed to indicate that he would not exclude the possibility of violent revolution in the United States. He argued that the country was born in violent revolution, and so it follows that it might be reasonable to experience violent revolution again. Since this notion appeared to go unchallenged, I have felt the need to make the contrary case.

It is my view that violent revolution is unthinkable . . . except, of course, by those who have a propensity for violence. The reason for peaceful transitions of power is that we live in a republic, one in which we have a chance to vote for representatives as well as the opportunity to persuade others to vote as we do. We may not be successful in persuading others of the correctness of our ideas, so our favored candidates may not be elected. But good citizens accept defeat and move on. We hope that future elections bring about the change in policy we prefer. We may expend our resources to make this more likely, but it may not happen.

I write about the possibilities of political disappointments as someone who has experienced many political disappointments. For example, I was not in favor of the Iraq War and then was not in favor of how it was prosecuted after the first few days. I tried to have some marginal influence via letter writing, but I lost. The neo-cons won; Republicans and many Democrats went along. So what should I do? I think that I should move forward peacefully and try to do better in the future.

Suppose that I disagree so profoundly with my fellow citizens that I simply cannot stand to live in the political environment that they create and I hate. Then, it seems to me that I should leave. It should not be lost on anyone that there are essentially no meaningful constraints on leaving this country. For example, there is a market for our real estate and we can ship our personal property. In addition, there are no governmental constraints on physically leaving, while there may be some issues of taxation or confiscation of assets, this is not terribly serious for a person motivated primarily by politics. At the same time, there are many other countries with different political environments. So leaving is possible and reasonable.

The bottom line is that the USA today is not the Colonies of yesteryear. The rationale for violent revolution that was here is no longer here. Peace.