August 30, 2006

A bad day

Oh, where to start. There's Iran starting to enrich uranium. Well, seems reasonable under the circumstances. If you had US marines in the country next door, wouldn't you wish you had nukes?

Then there's Rummy going for another funnybone. According to him, there's not enough mention in the papers of soldiers getting medals, and too much mentione of soldiers indicted for war crimes. Funny he should mention it, the only officer present at the Haditha massacre was up for a medal. Unrelated medal? No, actually he was up for a medal for his conduct in that engagemenent...

Then there's the census report. For the first time in six (6) years, the median household income is going up. Great. Except that wages are still going down. Quandary? No, it just means that more people work. Doesn't that mean that employment is down? No, just that people that already had a crappy job are now working two or three of them.

Jeezy Creezy.

August 28, 2006

Polling statistics

As long as polls are done this badly, no one should be surprised if they turn out wrong. The NPR poll linked to by the title seems to predict a possible victory for Democrats in the House. The poll looked at the top 50 "competitive" districts. The label "competitive" is based on the opinions of pundits, which is not a great start. 10 of these districts are Democratic, and in those, the incumbents seem to have a 2-to-1 advantage. Hardly competitive. But that's not the core point.

The core point is that the poll randomly checked 1000 likely voters in these 50 districts. That's only 20 per district, on average. That's simply too few to say anything per district. And per district is what matters. If in some district the incumbent is an incompetent crook, the fact that his or her constituents are dead-set on dumping his butt means nothing for the other districts. That's a crucial problem.

NPR presumably knows that, and in stead focussed on the total numbers over all the districts. The poll claims that 49% of the voters are likely to vote Democratic, and 43% are likely to vote Republican. Based on the statistical error of 3.2%, this is barely significant. In other words, if there are no systematic errors, the result is still a statistical dead heat, but only barely.

But there are serious systematic problems in the poll. A poll is only reliable if it queries the "average" voter. The respondents in the poll said that they had voted for Bush by a 49-to-46 margin in 2004. However, the districts went for Bush 58-42. That means that the poll SIGNIFICANTLY undercounts those who voted for Bush in 2004.

So, in addition to the poor statistics, add in a large systematic error. Don't get your hopes up yet...

Labels: , ,

August 27, 2006

Sensitivity training

Rumsfeld is predictably quotable, as he tries very hard to be funny. He's not Santa Claus, no kidding, but he tries very hard to be Jerry Lewis. But in this case, a lot of the outrage was focused on the following:

“These people are all volunteers. They all signed up. They all are there doing what they’re doing because they want to do it. They’re proud of what they do. They do it very, very well.”

Some feel this makes US military personnel out to be mercenary, and that that is slanderous. But fighting for pay, benefits or an education technically does make them mercenaries, i.e. willing to fight for personal gain. No doubt some are in the military for purely idealistic reasons, but the majority took to the military because it was a job that was available to them, which offered many benefits and - for a long while - little actual danger (especially in the National Guard). It's a bonus that the job is seen as honorable in the US, despite the fact that it is all about killing other people, the large majority of whom are civilians (a necessary consequence of asymmetrical warfare).

But Rumsfeld didn't actually call them mercenaries, and even he is unlikely to make such a blunder. He merely pointed out that they had a choice when they signed their contracts, and that they were just being held to their words. That's not illegal, or even uncalled for. If one believes in the rule of law, one needs to accept this. The consequence of signing a contract is that you are bound by it...

Of course, this also means that some people in the military will not re-enlist, and that families of kids that want to go in the military will fight harder to stop them. But kids are kids, and the military can count on the impetuousness and sense of immortality of youth to get many of their new recruits. To keep up their enlistment numbers, they merely have to increase their signing bonuses, perhaps their pay and the benefits. This will slightly increase the cost of maintaining the military, reduce the experience levels in it, and further increase the (very large) fraction of the recruits that come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. But none of that is a big problem for any politician, Republican, Democrat or other.

Labels: , ,

August 07, 2006

Targeting civilians or combatants?

Israel targets only suspected terrorists. It makes regrettable mistakes, but it doesn't purposefully target civilians. Hizbollah, on the other hand, targets civilians. That makes them terrorists.

Heard it before? Probably more than a hundred times in the past week, if you're a news junkie. So, how is it possible that Hizbollah has killed 45 Israeli soldiers, and only 36 Israeli civilians, whereas Israel has killed perhaps 250 Hizbullah fighters, but at least 480 Lebanese civilians? This was before the attack on the kibbutz that killed 12 Israeli soldiers, and brought the Hizbollah "error rate" at 39/(57+39), or 40% (there were also 3 civilian deaths that day). The IDF's error rate is 480/(250+480), or 66%. In other words, Israel kills about two civilians for each enemy combatant, Hizbollah kills almost two IDF soldiers for each civilian it kills. Who's targeting civilians?

I know that the problem lies in the armoury. The IDF has so much more firepower, it could kill many more civilians if it didn't try to avoid it. But the end result remains the same: Hizbollah does less collateral damage than the IDF. This is a crucial problem in asymmetric warfare.

Some argue that the Lebanese people are to blame for not having curtailed Hizbollah. Some of those people are in the Israeli government (not to mention its military). By the same token, all Israelis would be fair targets because they support the IDF. Actually, since most Israelis have served in the IDF, and most of the support it, it would be more true.

Labels: , , ,