Roosting chickens

Call me cynical, or maybe godless, but I’ve never really bought into the idea that suicide bombers are in it entirely for the 72 virgins, mercy from sins and eternal life in heaven. Though anathema to me, maybe that really does matter to some of them. I suspect that what matters much more, however, is the large quantities of cash that are promised to their families.

The average life expectancy in, say, Pakistan, is 62 years. If you take out, say, 15 years of that average life where working is nearly impossible (either to old or to young), you get an estimated 47 “working years”. Multiply this by the average yearly income ($690) and you get a loose estimate of lifetime earnings for the average person in Pakistan of $32,430. Given that 32.6% of Pakistanis (~54 million) live below the poverty line and 17% (~28 million) live below $1/day, quite a large number of Pakistanis will make significantly less than $32k over their life. To such people, $25k would be a lot of money, much more than they will ever see. Even to those with average incomes, it’s quite a lot of money. (Figure out how much you might make over you life, and decide what you’d be willing to do if someone offered you 75% of that amount at once.)

I don’t know if bombers are really responding to that financial incentive, but it is fairly powerful. I suspect it is at least a factor in their “vocational choice”, and probably an important one. If this is true, it suggests a method of prevention: make it clear that those who take such money don’t live very long.

By “make it clear”, I don’t mean that politicians should issue sternly worded warnings. I’m talking about assassination, with signs pinned to the body saying “profited from suicide bombing” written in English, Punjabi and Arabic in their own blood, and tapes sent to CNN and Aljazeera. Preferably, in large numbers all at once. If there really are secret satellites that can vaporize human targets from space, fire them up. Perfect targets. At the very least, send special ops to steal the money.

This probably wouldn’t stop all the bombing, but I bet it would help. It doesn’t score high on the morality meter, but it’s much more moral than killing civilians at random or with collateral damage. If you have a better plan, I’d love to hear it.

Corruption sting

So, an international standards body recently held a vote as to whether a proposed standard from Microsoft should be “fast tracked” into acceptance, skipping the usual procedure for the standards the body regulates. The vote was “no”, as many still have gripes about Microsoft’s proposal. This is getting more coverage than it deserves, because Microsoft has evidently been manipulating the process. In an interesting study, a Finish group reports a high correlation between countries who voted “yes” in this vote with high levels of corruption in their governments.

I don’t particularly care about any of this, but the Finish study suggests an interesting idea: could you reverse the direction of the study to detect corruption? Could you, in essence, set up a “sting”, where anyone rational would say “no”, but someone who was bribed would say “yes”?

Advice for JetBlue

JetBlue is in the crossfire of two groups of flying monkeys over “sponsoring” a convention hosted by a politically left blog. The specifics of this meaningless and mostly manufactured furor don’t really make much difference. What is interesting is JetBlue’s response, which looks to be a lose-lose situation: it irritates the left for caving, and won’t placate the right much, because it isn’t really JetBlue they are railing against.

Since this blog is about half-baked solutions, I offer the following, alternative advice for JetBlue. Issue a statement with substance more like this:

JetBlue is politically agnostic. We don’t care why you are traveling, only that we provide the best travel experience we can. Whether you go to this convention to participate or to protest, we hope you’ll fly JetBlue.

In essence, incite right wingers to protest the convention, taking their money to bring them there. Everyone wins.

Manufacturing enemies

According the the old maxim, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Assuming that’s true, a quick look at US foreign policy over the last forty years or so suggests at least one lesson we can learn. In that period, the US government often gave backing to questionable men as “lesser evil” allies of convenience, only to be bitten later by these men when the political climate suddenly changed. Noriega worked for the CIA. The Reagan administration gave financial, intelligence and military support to Saddam Hussein against Iran. The CIA funded and trained the people who became the Taliban to fight the Soviets. Since the current administration contains many of the same people who adopted and executed these policies, it’s a good bet that the future thorn in the side of the US is someone we’re currently cuddling up to while (supposedly) holding our nose.

From where might such a thorn grow and who might he be? Looking at numbers for total aid or even just official military aid may help, but past “backfires” were usually done in secret, so it is tough to say for certain who the US is really aiding at the moment. Still much of this is either reported or widely suspected, so some possibilities, in no particular order:

Middle East

The Middle East seems like an obvious place for the thorn (or thorns) to arise, especially since it is the site of the more recent such troublemakers. On the other hand, the US already has so many enemies there, we’re running out of candidates for turncoats. There are a few, though, especially since the US is losing the propaganda war there so badly that it doesn’t even know it is fighting one. (Hint: start with food.) The most obvious candidate for the US being betrayed in the future by those they are backing now is one of their more recent partners:

Sunni dissidents are now being armed by the US to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. While on the surface, this seems like a boneheaded repetition of the mistakes made with the Taliban, there are a few differences (which may make it a better move, or even worse). One is that Sunni also may be receiving arms from Iran. Since Iran’s regime is Shi’a, this seems a bit odd, but perhaps they assume that anyone willing to resist the US in Iraq is worth befriending (i.e. they are making the same mistake in arming potential turncoats as the US). If this is true, the US effort to arm the Sunni may be more of a “better they get guns from us than them” move, attempting to point them at other targets. (Is that better? Worse?) Another difference is that authority to negotiate arms deals has been given to officers on the ground, not secret CIA operatives. (Better? Worse?) In any case, I can’t find any references to situations where dumping a lot of guns into an area experiencing heated religious strife and wrath against a foreign occupier ever helped much, so this seems like a good candidate for some future backlash. Photo by Xinhua/AFP Photo

The House of Saud presents a much different set of possible “backfire” threats. It is clear that Saudi Arabia has received official aid from the US and the House of Saud has ties with the Bush family, suggesting that unofficial aid is not out of the question as well. Three types of backlash seem possible. First, given the number of Saudi Arabian citizens involved in the 9-11 attack, it’s not clear how loyal the House of Saud is already. At the very least, a perception against them now exists, which may snowball into an official souring against them from the US, which would really give the House no choice but to turn against America. A second threat is that the House of Saud is very large, which makes it unlikely that all members share the same opinions of the US and provides lots of opportunities for infighting and coup. A “wrong” king seizing power could change everything quickly. Thirdly, should the House fall, the US would be confronted with a situation somewhat like that of Iran in the 1970’s, when the Shah fell. While the House of Saud is nowhere near as propped up by the US as the Shah was, the US has more to loose in Saudi Arabia than they did in 1970’s Iran. Photo by BBC Television

Pervez Musharraf, dictator of Pakistan, most closely fits the historical “type” of leader that ultimately turns on his US backers. Clearly a key ally in current US involvement in the Middle East, it is not so clear how loyal an ally Pakistan actually is. Pakistan is repeatedly accused of harboring terrorists, and signed a truce with the Taliban. Islamists in Pakistan are becoming more vocal and it appears that Musharraf may be starting to loose political standing. That’s a dangerous situation for a leader that might turn against the US to be in, as he may think he could boost his following by reversing course. Taking the danger to a whole new level, he controls nuclear weapons. Photo by Reuters

Fatah, being an arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), would seem an odd horse for the US to back; however, they fight Hamas, who wants to wipe Israel off the map. It is unlikely, however, that Fatah will emerge as the next big “turncoat” enemy. They are being trounced by Hamas, so probably will not survive long enough to betray American backers. It is likely, however, that the US will continue to back any anti-Hamas groups it can find, and some of those may eventually succeed in eliminating Hamas, only to rise against the hand that fed them. Even Fatah itself, should it survive, can be counted on for betrayal. Already, as Michael Oren says in the Wall Street Journal (see previous link), “a distinct correlation exists between the amount of support that Fatah receives from the West and its need to prove its ‘Palestinianess’ through terror.” Photo by AFP

Former Soviet states

A number of ex-Soviet (usually ex-KGB) types managed to gain power in the former Soviet states after the collapse of the USSR. Fortunately, the citizens of most of these countries seem to have more sense than the US, as they’ve been overthrowing these Cold-War relics with surprising ease, and almost no blood. Some possibilities, however, remain:

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, at first glance, isn’t much of a candidate for this scenario, because the US doesn’t seem to have done much for or with Turkmenistan, the country who recently “elected” him. One would like to think the US has stayed away from the country because it’s former leader was so odious, but the truth is more likely that they are more fixated on other nations in the region at the moment. Still, even if Berdymukhammedov’s regime turns out to be as hard as his name is to spell, Turkmenistan’s natural-gas wealth nearly guarantees outsiders will try to make deals with him. Photo by ?

Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, the current leader of the false democracy of Kazakhstan, provides a good example of the “dictator masquerading as democrat” that seems trendy these days. The current US administration seems intent on cozying up to him, in spite of typical post-Soviet thuggery. On the other hand, he evidently gave up huge numbers of nukes voluntarily (back to Russia) and seems more interested in playing nice with all sides. If Kazakhstan is a future thorn, it will probably be under a different leader. His son-in-law was making a bid for power in 2012, but Nazarbayev fired him and issued a warrant for his arrest. He also recently changed laws to allow himself to remain in power indefinitely. Photo by Associated Press

Islam Karimov, leads Uzbekistan similarly, but even more overtly dictatorially. The US government liked him, since he was trying to squash an Islamist rebellion in his country, but that’s changed since his troops gunned down a peaceful protest. (Given the fact that this action made the Bush administration say “woah! too brutal for us! see ya!”, you can assume it was pretty bad.) At this point, it seems the US already burned the bridge with Uzbekistan’s regime, which is now purging itself of pro-American members and cozying up to China and Russia. It’s possible Karimov might become a thorn, but it’s probably more likely that the brewing insurrection will succeed, making yet another Islamist state that hates America. Another possibility is that the growing rift over which country will dominate the region will grow worse, creating yet another opportunity for the US to pick the wrong side. Photo by Associated Press


Like much of the first world, the historically US has done its share of meddling in Africa, although to a much lesser extent than, say, France or England. Recently though, it’s joined the world in ignoring much of it. While the US has been throwing money at fighting AIDS promoting abstinence in Africa, it doesn’t appear to be exercising much political will there lately. Uganda appears to be on the rise, but it’s not clear it owes much of that to America. The US concern in Africa now seems not to be famine, genocide or mineral wealth, but terrorism. Which leads us to…

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has joined the US war on terror by launching an offensive against anti-American targets in Somalia and becoming much more involved in the rest of Africa. Zenawi’s regime has a history mixed messages. It leads Africa in the percentage of GDP spent on programs for the poor, but has little to show for it and a horrible human rights record. It opens its airwaves but stifles freedom of the press. Ethiopia is also surrounded by Muslim countries, with a growing Muslim population of its own (from 30%-50% of the country, depending on which source you check). The threat here seems to be that, as Ethiopia is slowly dragging its way to become more genuinely democratic, it’s demographics may be shifting. This could portend an ousting (legitimately or otherwise) of Zenawi, leaving an American equipped army in the hands of the ousters. Alternatively, Zenawi may develop visions of granduer from his military outings and turn feral. Another possibility is that tensions between Egypt and Ethopia over the water rights of the Nile could turn ugly, which would put the US in a tight spot. Photo by Ethiopian embassy

Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt, served as a high ranking officer in several wars against Israel before attaining his current office. During the first Gulf War, he allied his country strongly with the coalition, Egyptian soldiers being some of the first to fight in Kuwait. Presently, he is not as enthusiastic about the Iraq war, but still receives nearly five times more military aid from America than does all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It seems unlikely that Mubarak would rabidly turn on the US, but if it happens, it will almost certainly be over Israel. As in Ethiopia, another possibility is that increased democracy could actually oust him in favor of a more Islamist ruler. Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty

Other locations

No doubt a number of other people and areas are missing from this list. Thailand? Indonesia? Mexico? What do you think?

The real threat

With the realization that the shooter at Virginia Tech was South Korean, I’m just going to go ahead and blame the whole thing on gold farming. There are already idiots blaming videogames as a whole for no reason, might as well try to sic them on gamers that actually do suck.

If a bunch of bloggers started suggesting a connection between gold farming and the shooting, I wonder how long it would take for the media to pick it up as a “story”. It’s not like the media will spend much time blaming the actual shooter or prevalent anti-US propaganda in South Korea, after all. Better to lead them to a “juicier” target. I bet it wouldn’t take much, even in spite of the fact that it South Korea isn’t really much of a source of gold farming. But the media doesn’t care about facts, really, so this should not be a problem. It makes the story compelling though, because it deals with money and cheating. Maybe there’s even a way to add sex into it.

You might even be able to convince some hysterical pundit or other to report it as truth to the media.

Update: Sadly, gold farming doesn’t seem to have made the list of blame.

Fighting global warming with greed

An Inconvenient Truth aired on HBO a few days ago and held up better than I thought it would, though it comes across more as a good lecture than the best documentary. One of the things Al Gore says in it caught my attention: during a slide of the car emissions standards, he points out the fact that U.S. auto manufacturers cannot sell a number of their models in China, because they do not meet China’s emissions minimums. This gives me an idea on how American car companies can save the environment and make scads of money at the same time. It goes like this:

First, make line of cars that get something like 60 miles to the gallon, or some number higher than any other manufacturer. If they are more expensive, so be it. Make the technology that runs it as hard to duplicate as possible. If possible, make it require a substance that you control the vast majority of supply.


A year or so before these cars become available, leverage your evidently huge influence over emissions regulators to quickly change the U.S. standards such that new cars sold in America have to have emissions just shy of your new model and, crucially, above everyone else’s. You’ve just captured the entire American car market, preventing everyone else from importing to the United States. Attempt to do the same in as many other countries as you can.

Of course, you will not actually be able to reap the benefits of this directly. What will happen is that before the legislation is voted in, other countries will protect their own auto industry and attempt to derail the new regulation with lobbyists of their own. If this fails, they can simply boycott U.S. cars, which would hurt. So, while these negotiations are going on, you unveil the real strategy: you meet with foreign car manufacturers and give them rights to your technology in exchange for joining your new auto hegemony. They then can make their own cars that meet the new standard, giving them incentive to support it, and to make it happen in their own countries. You gain the royalties on all of those cars you sell, as well as support for you new standard.

Depending on how many foreign companies go for the deal, you tune the limit your in-pocket legislators are writing into emissions standards. Chances are those who would reject the deal would be those who meet already high emission standards. If you can’t get them to join, you tune the limit to be below their levels, thus replacing their need to oppose the regulation with a reason to support it. They become de facto conspirators. You do this until those still opposed to the move can’t buy as much influence as you. This should not be difficult. Once the law passes, it should be possible for the hegemony to crush those that didn’t play along, eventually buying them.

If all goes well, you should end with a situation much like you started with, except that a) most new cars in the world will be far less polluting, b) some job adjustment will have occurred, with jobs gained from building and supporting the new technology and lost (at least temporarily) from companies that wouldn’t play ball being locked out of various countries, c) cars will likely be more expensive, which consumers won’t be able to do anything about (hey, at least they’re no longer dying from global warming) and d) car makers would have made a ton of money.