Thursday, September 20, 2012

Putting the Jab in Hijab

Women's Lib comes to Iran. Apparently in the small towns, women aren't expected to take a stand on issues like their required attire, and one "man of the cloth" hit the mat in the street when he didn't take a girl's hint he should keep his opinion to himself.

Go get 'em, tigress.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

High-Compliance Exercise program

The world's largest woman revealed that the secret to her loss of a hundred pounds in the last year was an exercise program to which she was able to remain committed all year long. Her ex-husband, apparently extremely attracted to her shape, reunited with her – enabling her to "sexercise" 6-7 times per day. She says each encounter burns 500 Calories, which means her program burns 3000-3500 Calories per day beyond those involved in her ordinary activities.

Of his amorous efforts, she summarized: “He took charge as I couldn’t move much, but he was so attentive.”

Of course, the government will not be supporting fitness programs based on this finding despite the high-compliance nature of the exercise program. After all, this is the country where the Surgeon General was forced to resign for advocating masturbation as a way to survive adolescence free from pregnancy or STDs. Goodness knows we can't have an outcome like that.

More on US Deaths in Libya

The not-a-movie-protest attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens killed a total of four Americans, including "information management officer" Sean Smith and two former-Navy United States military veterans who were specialists in asymmetrical warfare and security. Both these last two were also experienced snipers. A Daily Mail article names one of the men. The sister of Glen Doherty, 42, said he was working on a security detail when the consulate in Benghazi was attacked.

What the reports have not yet explained about the deaths of the men is that both of the veterans, who were expressly present to provide security to the Ambassador, had been given express orders not to carry long arms.

Threat Preparedness
In case the significance of the order against long arms might escape the reader, the author proposes a mental stroll through some well-known information available to anyone who with access to a newspaper. Think about the Middle East, where attacks on U.S. citizens is a widely-known threat, and attacks on U.S. government personnel have been expressly threatened for years by anti-U.S. hate groups who have demonstrated international reach. What specifically are the highest-likelihood threats to U.S. government personnel?

The answer comes straight from the news of the last more-than-a-decade: (1) AK-47 rifles, (2) rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and (3) improvised explosive devices (IED) used to immobilize Americans for ambush on disorganized survivors using AK-47s and/or RPGs. These threats are far from secret. Personnel returning from the Middle East have described to this author that fully-automatic AK-47 military rifles and their ammunition is, in fact, as common in that part of the world as matchbooks are common in ours.

So it is no great surprise that Americans traveling in diplomatic group or located in an overtly-marked American consulate building should be attacked by gunfire from rifles and RPG fire.

The Equipment
While the effective range of an RPG varies greatly with the skill of the operator, the widespread availability of RPGs and the longstanding nature of conflict involving RPGs in the Middle East makes the availability of adequately-skilled RPG users a likely threat. The formation of vehicle-hunting teams armed with numerous RPGs has been taught by veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to enemy fighters in modern conflicts, complete with effective RPG tactics. The risk of RPGs has been known for decades, as target-specific RPG munitions modifications were involved in the 1993 attacks that downed U.S. helicopters in Somalia. Although "[c]lose combat is a direct-fire brawl in which the RPG excels", "Soviets tried to stay at least 300 meters away . . . out of AK-47 . . . and RPG-7 moving target range." But the consulate is not a moving target, and RPGs can reach over nine hundred yards. Suffice it to say that the effective range of anticipated threat from RPG attacks on a fixed position such as a consulate building lies in the hundreds fo yards.

Although Soviet policy regarded 300 meters beyond range of AK-47s against moving targets, a team providing suppressive fire on a building under attack by RPGs so as to prevent escape is not necessarily worried about moving targets, and can content itself laying fire into a beaten zone at known exits. In a manual published on the training soldiers in the use of the M-1 Garand during the Second World War (the author gave away the manual with the rifle, or a quote would appear here), users were instructed to zero the sight firing at the range of three hundred yards. The U.S. Army publication FM-23-5 (1958) instructs soldiers on page 260 on the amount of lead to give a walking man at a range of three hundred yards. In fact, that page of the manual has an illustration with a little dot on it and an arrow that says "400 YDS OR LESS AIM HERE". The manual makes clear evident that an expected objective of training given to regular soldiers included accurate fire at a range of three hundred yards against a walking man – that is, a moving target much smaller than a vehicle, and much more challenging than a building entry. The 30.06 round fired by the M1-Grand and the 7.62mm Soviet round fired by the AK-47 are certainly different species of thirty caliber ammunition, but the more recently-introduced 7.62mm Soviet round is certainly capable of performing within the operational envelope of American rifles of the WWII era. The effective range of our current enemies' rifles exceeds several hundred yards.

What this means is that the expected enemy threat against the Ambassador involved attack by weapons having effective range measured in hundreds of yards. In the face of this threat, the State Department ordered two U.S.-trained snipers – with significant experience countering AK-47s and RPGs in live operations – to bear handguns. Handguns have a barrel length measured in inches instead of feet, and an effective range of tens of feet instead of hundreds of yards. Even if one generously considers the extreme effective range of a handgun against an enemy to be "tens of yards", one might conclude (generously) that the greatest outer limit of battlefield handgun accuracy is an order of magnitude less than the minimum plausible effective range of the rifles borne by the most common expected adversary.

You can hit an unmoving and unobscured paper target at a hundred yards with some handguns, but this author has significant doubt about the relative effectiveness of handguns at more than a few tens of yards against targets using cover and obscured by night or smoke. The sights available on rifles dramatically alter the obscurity penetration and aim of the weapons, even ignoring their dramatic differences in performance characteristics. To send sniper-trained Americans to provide security using handguns when the expected enemy's weapons are all effective threats at several hundred yards' range is a serious handicap.

Americans were sent by design into a rifle battle bearing pistols.

How They Died
Unlike the Ambassador, who reasonably kept cover but was eventually overcome by environmental factors (warning: graphic photo) when his cover (a rented villa) was ignited by RPG fire, the American security personnel did not die of smoke inhalation. Running out of ammunition for their handguns, they fought their way to AK-47s to acquire usable weapons. In doing so they necessarily sacrificed the cover of a building, and exposed their positions to the enemy by assaulting positions known to their attackers (because elements of the attackers' own team were located at the assault target).  As a consequence of their effort to protect the Ambassador, made necessary by their being deprived of longarms at the outset of the battle, they operated at a marked disadvantage.

They were ultimately unable to create an escape corridor for the Ambassador because they had been forbidden weapons suited to the task, and first had to expose themselves in a two-person assault against twenty militants armed with rifles, before they themselves could acquire the weapons required to perform their objective. The State department's own employees may not have died from gunshots, but their superiors' orders didn't work out any better for the Ambassador than for his security detachment.

Other Orders
The Daily Mail article mis-identifies Doherty as a "Marine." While inaccurate, this is understandable in light of the well-known fact that it is Marines who are tasked with providing security to U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. The use of Marines for this task is easy to understand: if you want someone to tolerate oppressively boring tasks like guard duty and stand against overwhelming odds in the event of assault until their mission is accomplished or every man is dead, who else will you ask? Special forces operators are not guard-duty material. Lesser soldiers may not be reliable to hold their ground when boredom erupts into Hell on Earth. As an example of a duty that's oppressively boring and yet utterly critical in the event of disaster, consider my friend the Marine who was tasked with providing physical security to nuclear weapons. In some jobs, you just can't have someone break and run.

So, where were the Marines in all this? Marines could have made quite a bit of difference, and moreover are equipped with rifles. (If they are lucky, they are permitted to carry loaded rifles. This may sound obvious, but the Unites States has a track record of getting this exactly wrong. Ever wonder how the explosives-laden truck that blew up the barracks in Lebanon made it all the long, snaking way through the vehicle-control devices without being shot? Right. Orders that Marines tasked with guard duty should employ unloaded rifles. The time required to get an off-site chain of command to authorize the withdrawing of an ammunition magazine and the loading and charging of a rifle was simply so long the bomb arrived before the orders permitting self-defense. This fact should also suggest something extremely dangerous about the dedication of Marines to their orders.) Unfortunately for the Ambassador and his non-uniformed security detail, the Marines ordinarily detailed to provide security to Ambassador Stevens had been ordered elsewhere at the time.

Protecting the Ambassador just wasn't a priority for the State Department on September 12.

The orders affecting security at the scene of the attack – that Ambassador Stevens should be without any Marine security at the consulate in Benghazi, and that his security detachment should be forbidden long arms while providing security in Libya – have a character that suggests they originated outside an organization having a deep understanding of security matters. Someone with operational sense must be given the authority to exercise it. At present, that is not the case at all in the State Department.

Form over substance only fools people until threats appear. Now, it appears the Emperor went on parade naked, and was shot at range by aimed fire. Even children could have seen that coming.

[UPDATE: It turns out the Benghazi location, where the Ambassador was being protected by two (2) security personnel who had been ordered not to use longarms, was also operating under a security waiver that exempted it from having to maintain the security features and personnel complement ordinarily required at United States diplomatic facilities.  Whoops.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Crummy Film Incites Islamists To Murder

(Or did it?)

Americans are fond of quoting the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who, writing under the pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre, summarized a viewpoint of Voltaire in the famous line: "I disapprove what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

And now, Americans are dying again. Is it over free speech, or something else?

Sam Bacile, a self-described Israeli Jew whose $5m film was apparently shown at full length exactly once to a mostly-empty theater in Hollywood, reportedly said "Islam is a cancer, period" when interviewed about the film and the subsequent attacks in Egypt and in Libya. At the time of this writing, Sam Bacile is reportedly in hiding. With respect to the American deaths in the Middle East, he responded "I feel the security system is no good. America should do something about it."

Steve Klein, who consulted on the film, said he'd predicted to Bacile that "you're going to be the next Theo van Gogh." In the wake of the cartoon controversy, great prescience seems unnecessary to have reached Klein's conclusion.

So, what about it?

A film whose purpose is to denounce the world's largest and fastest-growing religion appears to be the very sort of speech in which the First Amendment was designed to keep the government from involving itself as an arbiter of truth or propriety. The fact that we treasure the right to speak freely need not mean we necessarily celebrate crummy film. (Surely YouTube has clips from which the quality of the thing will speak for itself.) In Egypt, where attacks began yesterday, the U.S. embassy said it "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims - as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

But is this about the film, really?

From the campaign trail, Romney (in a prepared statement) seized on an opportunity to say something related to foreign policy after seemingly neglecting it at the recent Republican Convention:
I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks
Maybe the folks at the Embassy were trying to save their skins by saying something politically correct rather than offering to spill their scarce blood in defense of bad film they'd never seen. Clearly caught flat-footed by events – which were incited by non-government actors, and perpetrated by foreigners, leaving the current administration without a lot of basis for predicting things unless it had advanced intelligence of effort to incite attack – the Obama campaign predictably returned a counter-attack:
We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.
Really? Shocked? During campaign season?

But back to the topic: a deliberately inflammatory movie was made by people intending to discredit a religion well-known for its inclusion of adherents willing to kill over suspected slights to the religion. Consider the recent failed attempt to have a mentally disabled Christian girl executed for blasphemy by planting burned Koran pages in her possession, and the ensuing death threats aimed at the girl's entire family after the falsity of the charges led to her release; the entire family fled their home for fear of being burned alive within. And they were victims of a false-charge plot. So, what should we think about people who deliberately provoke trigger-happy murderers from the safety of our borders?

In this country, we're allowed to think anything we like about them.

The real question is, what should we do about them.

Something? Nothing?

If makers of the film had screamed falsely about a terrorist bomb on a crowded train platform to incite a fatal stampede, we'd have them for a homicide. But in this country, publishing that major prophets are frauds is simply not an offense. Whether there's any truth in the claim isn't the government's concern. Even the genuineness of publisher's beliefs aren't subject to investigation. They are permitted to say anything they like on politico-religious topics, and it's the job of viewers to accord each publication its proper weight.

In this case, the film played to a mostly empty theater – once. It's fairly clear nobody is being persuaded by anything the film has to say. Rather, the film's most zealous audience is one that never saw the thing at all – they just heard through the grapevine that the film insulted their (presumably cherished) religious figures. There's no risk the film will confuse the public about an important religious truth. There's only a risk the film will incite people who don't believe in the value of free speech.

And that's why the United States must take a clear and firm line on the issue. The United States did not participate in or approve of the publication of this or any other film advocating for or against any religious view. The United States' law that prevents prosecution for films that incite a strong religious response is the very sale law that protects genuine religious adherents from persecution for espousing their most sacred beliefs. The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms murders motivated by hatred of the exercise of nonviolent free speech.

The makers of the movie – funded by supporters sharing a common faith of their own – surely knew they were stirring a hornet's nest. Murderers willing to serve time may pursue the film's authors for years – Salman Rusdie has survived over two decades of death threats – but no-one will be able to guarantee his safety. But there can be absolutely nothing to be gained by trying to accommodate murderers and would-be murders by turning over to their care a taxpaying resident of the United States – and even less to be gained by pretending to agree with their grievances.

And what are those grievances? The disabled Christian girl in whose garbage bag burned Koran pages were planted was guilty of being part of a Christian community that annoyed its majority-Muslim neighbors with the sound of Sunday hymns. The ambassador murdered in Libya was guilty of supporting the revolutionaries that toppled Ghadafi and installed the current government. The actual targets of the supposedly religious violence aren't even the source of the claimed offense: they are political symbols.

And when enemies of free speech carry on a political dispute with violence, they carry on a war. The deep questions for the United States revolve around the targets of this war, its proponents, and the extent to which the United States is willing to be drawn into waging it. The last time the United States was drawn into declaring a murder to be an act of war and responding in kind, it boosted the prestige and the recruiting power of the very enemy it sought to suppress. (Of course, is a real invasion any better than propaganda? Consider the justification given by bin Laden for his fatwa against Americans.) Or did it?

What response is merited now?

Well, it doesn't look like the Libya attack was a reprisal for free speech but a calculated attack by an al Quaida affiliate in response to an al Zawahiri plea for retaliatory murder following earlier militant killings in Libya. The unarmed flag-snatching invasion of the U.S. embassy in Egypt is a stark contrast to the RPG-supported militant attack in Libya. The Egyptian protests may really be inspired by fury the U.S. "permitted" someone to make an anti-Islamic video. So the two events, being dramatically different, may merit wholly different responses.

In Libya, the local government agrees the murders were crimes and has pledged to take the steps needed to obtain justice. What is there left to do but provide support to the local sovereign as it keeps the peace? (Okay, maybe a lot of support, including from the air. But hunting militants isn't a change of policy, is it?)

In Egypt, the ruling party has "called for" further protests at the U.S. embassy, after prayers Friday. Interestingly, the call isn't for blood in the streets, but for Islamists to show up with signs and chants. Egypt can have free speech, too – a departure from the Mubaruk era in which protesters would never have been permitted near the embassy. It's interesting that Egypt's government hasn't made any big plea for respect for the U.S. tradition of nonviolent free speech, or an effort to urge the population to distinguish between the U.S. and those people who exercise their freedoms within its borders. Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood party will get points for "sticking it to the man" by organizing a march past the embassy, even as it protects the embassy with troops. Have we considered moving the flagpole so the next group of climbers won't easily replace it with their own banner?

The conclusion seems straightforward: from a policy standpoint, we do nothing different than we did before. From an operational standpoint, we continue to refine procedures to accomplish the same things with less risk to personnel.

But from a political standpoint, we have the interesting conundrum of how to paint events publicly so we don't shower our most successful enemies in attention that will improve their future capabilities, or seem weak when confronted by enemies of the idea we should defend even worthless works' right to publication by willing publishers, or seem so hawkish we drive people into the arms of our enemies. Traditionally, we've been awful at propaganda. The rest of the conflict with the Islamofascists will be interesting to watch.

UPDATE: Not that the attacks needed a crummy film to motivate them, but it seems the producer deceived the actors about the nature of the film and the word "Muhammed" was dubbed in during post-production. The film's name in production was apparently Desert Warriors. At least one actor has declared she'll sue. On the set, Mr. Bacile claimed to be Egyptian. Was someone trying to incite violence by making a film they knew would get people hurt? If so, that First Amendment won't be much help . . . .

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Service: iCloud > MobileMe? Maybe not ...

Apple's "system status" page reflects protracted iCloud mail outages. This is reminiscent of MobileMe, which was the paid-for successor to dot-Mac. MobileMe's poor reliability became a joke. Apple gave out upgrade coupons in apology to aggrieved users, but kept screwing up with MobileMe. Steve Jobs directed an engineer to give real updates to users and to apologize for the muckup, which included permanently-lost emails. Apple ended up giving successive service extensions to paid users. As a parting shot, MobileMe managed to screw up a perfectly-good morning one day when I tried subscribing to MobileMe to take advantage of cross-device synching.

Note to Apple: Eddie Cue is great, but you need an enterprise service team to (a) make this crap reliable, and (b) put Apple in a position to compete for enterprise business. Consider: how useful is Apple's maps when Apple's back-end has reliability issues? You want to sell mobile devices to even the discriminating customers, right?

Smarten up, guys.

Non-Participation Shrinks Ranks of Job-Seekers

The "unemployment" rate – calculated by dividing unemployment benefits claims by the size of the population thought to be seeking work – has long been regarded as an understated metric for true unemployment. Today, a non-participation measurement suggests that fewer than 70% of working-age males in the United States are even trying to work. About seven million non-participants of either gender – who are not part of the "unemployed" measured in the unemployment rate – desire work. A recent chart showing the graduation of the "unemployed" into the ranks of the "not even bothering to look" shows a sharp rise since the end of 2008.

While some working-age people are non-participants because they are full-time students, some unemployed people conclude that if they can't get work with their current credentials they need to go back to school.

The overall workforce participation rate is currently 63.5%, the lowest since 1981. The male participation rate (now 69.8%) is the lowest on record.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Normalcy Returning to American Capital

Seeking Alpha just published a new Jaded Consumer article, Normalcy Returning to American Capital. Like the last Apple article, it is an Editor's Pick. Of 53 Jaded Consumer articles at Seeking Alpha, twelve have been designated Editor's Picks.

But to the article itself: the idea that American Capital is going under, to the destruction of investors' capital, looks fairly flimsy at this point. Yet, the NAV discount remains at about a third of the company's "fair value". In other words, when you buy $1.00 of stock, management invests a net of about $1.50 on your behalf.

Even reasonable returns start to look exciting when you multiply them like that. And the possibility that the NAV discount could narrow in the next several years as the loss carryforward is burned off and the incentive to avoid RIC status declines . . . well, after the runup from my post-crash purchase at $1.80, I'm still long.

Editor's Picks Galore

I just noticed that my last article on Apple (Pricing Policy, Pricing Power, and Profit) was selected by Seeking Alpha as an Editor's Pick. Of my 52 articles published by Seeking Alpna, eleven have enjoyed that distinction.

Hope you like 'em :-)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Executive Excesses Extended

One of the themes of the last election was that the overreach of executive power under the President had to stop, and one place it was going to be halted in a definite and high-profile way would be the permanent closure of the detainment center used by the President for the indefinite detainment of untried captives.

So imagine my surprise as we approach the next election, and see an article about how the President not only still operates "gitmo" as a facility for indefinite trial-free detainment, but has attempted to impose new rules to restrict access to lawyers in a position to ascertain whether the law might afford some relief for any violation of the law that may have occurred.

If American freedoms mean anything, they mean the freedoms enshrined in our written law. This is at least the very minimum freedom Americans have fought and died to protect for two centuries. Equal justice under the law is a principle we must be committed to uphold if we are to cling to any notion that America values the rights about which its citizens are so fond of speaking.

As with trial-free executions (on the say-so not of the jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, but the say-so of government-employed bureaucrats), the current administration seems not to understand this at all. If some lawyer wants to provide counsel to some punk captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan, what business is it of the government to keep claims from being adjudicated by the courts? Without courts, no mechanism exists to ensure our rights – whatever they may be – are given whatever protection the law turns out to require.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Apple's Pricing Strategy

On Seeking Alpha, The Jaded Consumer has a new article – an Editor's Pick – called Apple: Pricing Policy, Pricing Power, and Profit. The article lays out the case that average sales price (ASP) declines don't prove Apple's goose is cooked, they prove Apple meant what it said about thinking about corporate profits above per-unit sales.

Feel free to comment, and let the world know what's right (and wrong!) with the thesis.

The article was inspired by some "Sell Now!" arguments I'd seen. I wanted to make clear that the reason to sell – if any – was not Apple's ASP decline.