Friday, January 14, 2005

Some simple number about military occupation

The occupation numbers are a little big deceiving. Look at it this way: How big a standing army can a nation afford? Most nations can't do much over 1% of the population. For the USA that would be an army of less than 3 million soldiers. We have a great economy, we could do 6 million if we wanted to. We've done a lot more than that but it was for world wars, not something we'd sustain. To run a successful occupation, though, we move in enough solders that they're 2% of the population (1:50) or 2.5% (1:40). If they wanted to raise an army to match that it would be hard for them even if they weren't under occupation. 1:50 is overwhelming force. Occupy at that level for 10 years and more than 1% of the women are likely to marry american soldiers and go to america.

What percent of our population can we have occupying other nations? 1%? Then we can't use that method to occupy more than about 300 million people total. But 1% of our population is much more than 1% of our young men. We'd be having a whole lot of foreign brides, and a whole lot of young american women would be left marrying foreigners. This isn't a bad thing unless you have something against immigration and cultural diffusion. But it isn't trivial. It's a great big cultural thing, shaping the genes and the culture of future generations of americans as well as the places we occupy.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Voting machine reform

Touch-screen voting is potentially a good thing. Think about the difference between using an ATM machine and going to a bank where all bookkeeping is done by hand. Doing this stuff by computer is potentially accurate and efficient. The immediate trouble is there is no way to tell whether it's been done right. This has to be handled, or else give up the machines.

The first natural approach is to try to make sure the hardware and software is correct. With current designs this is pretty much impossible. Even if the voting machine companies revealed their secrets, neither they nor anyone else can verify their designs. Some of them use smart-cards. These are tiny computers that sit in cards about the size of credit cards, that you slide into the voting machine. They carry computer code that can reprogram the voting machine. You must verify not only the software on the voting machine but also the software on each card. Some systems use complex wireless networking. They have complex methods to make sure that outsiders can't pose as a computer on the network and present false data. But if an outside computer can after all do that, how would you know? It's very hard to understand the methods they use to stop intrusion. And what if they designed the system to let them break into it, would you catch them? Even if experts say the voting will be done correctly, how can they be sure?

The second approach is to try to make the system work even if the machines are unreliable. The first obvious approach is to make a complete paper trail. If the paper records back up the computer records, then it's correct. Ideally this would involve perfect printers. Every transaction on a particular voting machine gets recorded on a single long continuous scroll of paper. Even if you get access to the paper you can't insert new records without pasting in a new section of paper, and you can't remove old ones without cutting the paper. It ought to be reliable. But what if the printer breaks down? Say it jams and somebody's vote turns into an overprinted mess. Do you reprint that, or do you accept the data is lost? Either way there's room for glitches that could look like cheating. And where there are glitches that look like cheating there's room for cheating that looks like glitches. So you need a perfect printer, and those are extremely expensive and still not always quite perfect.

Well, but you don't have to make it that good. You can have a printer that makes a bunch of individual paper ballots. You vote with the touchscreen. The printer prints out a copy of your vote and shows it to you behind glass. You agree that this is how you voted -- if it isn't then you squawk. Once you agree, the last step is that the voting machine counts your vote and your paper ballot goes into the ballot box. Paper ballot boxes don't have to be checked unless there's some question, but they *can* be checked if there's any question. You might check a few of them just on general principle, but not too many because it's a slow expensive unreliable process. The advantage of this approach is that you can use cheap printers. The ballots don't have to be attached to each other any more than traditional paper ballots were. If a printer jams you just plug in a new one, cancel the unfinished vote, and try again. The disadvantage is that the backup is no better than the old inefficient unreliable voting system.

Here is another approach. It doesn't require that the machines be reliable. Here goes.

When you vote, you have a pinpad that you use to type in a set of numbers, say 8 digits. The voting machine adds its own 8 digits and prints out a slip of paper with all 16 digits. And it lets you vote. The votes are not just counted by the machines, they go onto a website where every vote is displayed with its 16-digit number. Anybody can count the votes.

You can look up your vote by looking up the 16-digit number, and you can tell whether the vote that got recorded for you is the vote you actually cast. If your vote is not there, then your vote was not counted and you have a right to be upset about it. If your vote has been changed then you similarly have a right to be upset. There isn't any way to prove the vote was yours. The slip of paper with your number could have been printed on some other printer. But your name is on the list -- you voted. If the vote you claim was yours is somebody else's, whose is it? Which vote is yours? If it turns into a big enough outcry that people actually check, it would be very hard to falsify more than a very few votes.

There are other ways to cheat besides changing a vote. One way is to add extra voters with their own numbers. They'll never look up those numbers. So it takes traditional methods to make sure that only legitimate voters vote. Still, for each precinct you can publish the list of voters who voted along with the list of code-numbers and votes. If a name is on the list that doesn't belong there, people may eventually notice.

The good thing about this approach is that it's somewhat transparent. You aren't depending on election committees to detect fraud, you can do some of it yourself. The voting machine can't just mess up the totals -- if you have 649 voters listed as voting then you'd better have 649 votes. And if you do, you can count them and so can anybody else. The main bad thing about this approach is that the votes aren 't completely secret-ballot. You get a slip of paper with your code on it, that shows how you voted. If somebody can intimidate you into voting the way they want, they can also intimidate you into showing them the code to prove it. Similarly if you sell your vote, you can prove that you did what you're getting paid for. It isn't *really* proof since with a little bit of prep time you could look up somebody else's number and print it on similar paper, but it's enough to cause problems.

It's bad for voters to get intimidated by employers or police or priests etc. But I'd rather have a voting system where people can stand up for the truth if they have the will to, than one with no way to tell whether your vote was falsified.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Another random conversation at a party

"After the election I was too depressed to talk for a couple of weeks. We're going to move to mexico, not now but in a couple of years. Canada is too cold for me." She smiled.

The other woman was hispanic, married to a turk. "I'm getting a turkish passport. It's a lot better to have that in europe than an american one, and it drives my father crazy every time I tell him."

There followed a long conversation about how disappointed they were in Colin Powell and John McCain for abandoning their principles and supporting Bush, with the turkish husband explaining that those guys were republicans first and they had to support whoever the party supported regardless of their principles.

At a pause in the conversation I said, "I've been listening to talk radio on my commute, Michael Savage. It's interesting."

"I couldn't do that. My blood pressure couldn't stand it."

"It's fun. He used to be all outraged at liberals. But there aren't any important liberals left. Bush is completely in charge and all he can do is be outraged at Bush."

"That does sound like fun. What is he mad at Bush for?"

"Partly for being nice to Clinton. He was real upset when the Bushes showed up for Clinton's library opening. Bush senior said nice things about Clinton and Bush junior hugged him. And he got mad that Bush appointed Clinton so something about the tsunami."

"Why is he mad at Clinton?"

"He has a list. He said ten of them. I remember some ... he didn't like Clinton's abortion stand, and he thought the airstrikes in Kosover were war crimes. But it's all up to Bush now and Bush is the new problem. Savage says the republicans and democrats are both bad but democrats are worse. Now Bush is just as bad as the democrats."

"Bush is a lot worse!"

"Yes, but remember these are republicans talking. Bush has a giant deficit. He set up a great big useless Homeland Security bureaucracy. He has us in this no-win war. He keeps spending more money and interfering with people's lives."

"Those are all things I hate about Bush."

"Yes. But republicans say they're things that democrats do. Now they vote republican and Bush does the same things. I wouldn't be surprised if the party splits."

"You mean, Michael Savage is setting up wedge issues for republicans. That's something democrats aren't any good at."

"Yes. Bush is a borrow-and-spend big-government politician. He's just exactly what a lot of republicans vote against democrats for, but they got it anyway. They hate it."

"Borrow and spend. I like that."

"I like listening to him. Talk radio lives on outrage. Now the republicans are running everything and there's nobody else to be outraged about."

Random conversation at a party

Somebody I didn't recognise, sitting with his wife and baby in the corner. I stopped and played peekaboo with the baby a little. Then the parents started chatting with me. At a pause I asked, "What do you think about the war?"

He stopped and thought. "The iraq war?"


"Well -- I think you have to make your stand and stick with it. If you keep thinking about it there's no end to it, and it will drive you crazy. And you ought to know my company is a defense contractor. We make things for aircraft carriers. And I support the troops. And, well, the war has been good to me."

"I'd think it would be good for some contractors and not so good for others."

The couple looked at each other and grimaced. "It's been good for me. But I worry some about the sailors on long deployments. Less of everything, it's hard on them and they have to cut corners and get by without proper maintenance. But they knew what might happen when they signed up."

"We don't have to do it that way. We could spread out the sacrifice."

"What do you mean?"

"If we rolled back the tax cuts we could pay for what they need."

"The tax cuts have been good to me."

"Same here. But we could do our part for the war and support the troops."

"Huh. Our budgets are shot. They told us to cut 10% of everything to go for the war. It's all screwed up. If we had the funding...."

"That's what I was thinking about the war being better for some contractors than others. Whoever's getting your ten percent...."

"It sure is hot in here. I need to go get another drink."

We nodded to each other in passing after that. He seemed to be drinking pretty heavily.

Democracy building in iraq

The reconstruction budget for iraq lists $162 million already spent for "Democracy", more money than has been spent for oil reconstruction. reference

I wondered where that money went. Here's where:


In 2003, while U.S. troops waged war in Iraq, RTI International won a huge contract to build the peace. Originally budgeted at up to $467 million over three years to help bring democracy to Iraq, it was part of the largest nation-building effort since World War II's Marshall Plan.

But now the U.S. government isn't renewing that contract, even as the country prepares for crucial national elections in January. About 2,000 of RTI's Iraqi employees and 200 international staff have already lost their jobs this year because of contract cutbacks made by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

By coincidence a report last year said RTI had 200 international staff in iraq and 2000 iraqi employees.

RTI won the USAID contract April 11, 2003. It submitted the only bid. A senior USAID project officer told The Washington Post that RTI was "the linchpin, the catalysts, the enablers" for reconstruction efforts.

RTI was supposed to open offices and hire staff in all 18 Iraqi provinces; design programs to help women, children and minorities; train local government officials and create neighborhood, city and regional government councils; process and administer small emergency-grant requests; and coordinate it all with the military and other humanitarian organizations.

For various reasons it just didn't work out.

- The Coalition official in charge of the Kut compound refused to authorize the placement of defensive measures along the river, saying that they would obstruct the view. The compound at Kut was besieged and overrun by insurgent forces.

There was a rumor among the iraqis that they were zionists....

Permanently pulling international staff from many rural provinces "was an overt decision," Johnson said. "The more outlying the province, the more we were very much on our own. We didn't know how long (violence) would last - we were stretched too thin to protect 17 different locations," he said.

What's this about 15 of the 18 provinces being all quiet? Maybe it's quiet wherever the US troops aren't, provided we don't send any civilians.

Michael Rubin, who had an inside view of the Iraq policy debates in the Bush administration and of RTI's work, said, "It was almost like we hired RTI to build an appliance, and then the time came to plug it in, and no one plugged it in."

Rubin served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in Baghdad from 2002 to 2004, and is now with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"The fact that we're allowing this to fall on its face does a disservice to our whole mission," he said.

Well, yes.

RTI and others will be able to bid on a new multiyear USAID contract next year.

And others. Want to go in there and take RTI's place?

Friday, January 07, 2005

When is it OK for US government employees to torture?

Here's how to do it: Torture is illegal and we don't do loopholes to make it legal.

If you are on the spot and you have a suspected terrorist (or other suspected criminal), and you must get information quickly to protect innocent or righteous lives, and in your judgement you have no better method to get that information, you should go ahead and do illegal torture. Videotape it, if you have the resources to do that. Put it in the official record what you're doing. Get whatever results you get. And be ready to stand trial.

If it's important enough to torture a suspect for, it's important enough to stand trial and maybe take your punishment. If you aren't sure enough to put your career and freedom on the line, then don't do it.

If the President (or maybe the Governor) decides that you did the right thing he can pardon you. We don't need to change the laws for it. We only need to change the laws if we expect it to happen so often that the President doesn't have time to review the cases.

Torture should be illegal. It should be rare. We don't need to mess with the laws about it.

The same rules apply to civilians. If you capture a suspected terrorist, and you are sure he's doing a terrorist act and there isn't time to get the authorities in to interrogate him, you can torture him on the spot. If possible get a cell phone going to the police or whoever you can reach, and get the info to them as fast as possible, preferably straight from the victim. The recording will be part of the case against you. If you're right maybe you won't even go to trial, or you won't be convicted or sentence deferred or you'll be pardoned. If you're wrong.... But if you're sure, it's your duty to accept whatever consequences come to you personally when you torture somebody to protect the innocent.