Random thoughts, 20 May 2009

2009/05/20

Probably the most concerning news today is Iran’s test launch of its Sejil-2 MRBM, [1] which has the range to hit targets throughout the Middle East (particularly Israel), as well as some in southern Europe. [2] This, of course, is not the first time that Iran has tested this type of missile, [3] and this particular test seems to be more politically motivated than anything else, given the proximity of the launch with the start of campaigns for the 12 June elections. Even so, what is concerning here is not that this test represents new technology, but a further refinement of a technology that could be used to not only threaten our strongest ally in the region (Israel) through conventional attacks, [4] but also to deliver a nuclear payload, if Iran ever develops such a weapon. Perhaps President Ahmadinejad was annoyed that our President bowed to the Saudis but not to him; note to our President: bow to the petulant dictators as well as the nice ones. The evil dictators need love, too, you know. Sarcasm aside, like the North Korean incident, this is a clear-cut example of the dangers of appeasement: our President offers to engage the Iranian government in civil discourse, and the latter decided that it would be more fun to test launch ballistic missiles, instead, while also continuing the uranium enrichment activities that are so concerning to much of the Western world. Yup…appeasement sure does work wonders, doesn’t it?

In somewhat related news, it appears that the President’s plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility may hit a fairly substantial snag in the next few days. [5] While I am no fan of the President’s decision, given that it will happen as a direct result of his executive order, it is, at least, encouraging that Congress is demanding that the administration provide more details [6] regarding how the detainees are to be secured following the closure of Gitmo. Of course, given the administration’s SOP of announcing grandiose plans with few or no details of how to implement and support said plans, I am not entirely surprised by Congress’ demand to see the details before the administration carries out its will. At the very least, it is good to know that Congress is not yet the rubber stamp that the President and his sycophants might want it to be. Of course, it would also help if someone were to make a binding determination of the precise legal status of these detainees…

In another moderately-related development, the DoD announced that up to 30 civilians may have been killed in the most recent airstrikes in the continuing battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan. [7] While the loss of civilian lives is deplorable, two other thoughts occur to me here. First, these sorts of stories generally annoy the hell out of me, if only because the style of reporting is so one-sided. Consider, for example, that we are informed about the civilian death toll, the dangers of conducting airstrikes in populated places, the outrage these airstrikes evoke in the local populations and authorities, etc., etc., but we hear very little about the positive aspects of such an approach, only a casual reference to the shared outrage at the DoD, and that they pay reparations to families who have lost relatives in such airstrikes. Very little mention is made of the fact that were it not for our extraordinary efforts to develop precision munitions, death tolls from these types of attacks would be substantially higher; conversely, these attacks also save American and coalition lives, in that we do not need to send soldiers blind into unknown situations, where their chances of being injured or killed are substantially increased due to their lack of on-site knowledge. Given the experiences from Iraq, it is also likely that civilians would still lose their lives in the latter sorts of operations, while we would also incur additional troop losses. Secondly, it is well known that Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants conduct operations in highly populated areas specifically because 1) they don’t care about civilian deaths, 2) they know that it makes us look bad when our efforts to stop them kill civilians, and 3) eventually, our civilian population may grow outraged by ongoing civilian casualties at the hands of our military, and decide that stopping the extremists is less important than preserving civilian lives, no matter the cost. Yes, war is hell, but our modern ways of waging war are far more accommodating to civilians than those previously employed; just ask the WWII-era citizens of Dresden. [8]

In domestic news, there appears to be a sharp uptick in the number of confirmed Influenza A (H1N1) cases here in the U.S. [9][10] This, however, still does not mean we should be given over to panic; in point of fact, the mortality rate has actually gone down with the release of the most recent statistics. Ten days ago, I calculated that the mortality rate was 0.16%; based on the new statistics, the current mortality rate is 0.11% (based on the WHO update, we have 6 confirmed deaths for 5,469 confirmed cases; 6 / 5469 = 0.001097; 0.0011 x 100 = 0.11%). Granted, this makes little overall difference, as 0.11% is only noticeably different from 0.16% in the case of large death tolls, but it is still technically an improvement. The virus itself, meanwhile, appears to be relatively mild; it appears likely that most, if no all, of the six confirmed deaths in the U.S. involved patients who had underlying health conditions that compromised their immune systems and made it easier for the virus to kill them. [11] Somewhat couterintuitively, the CDC also notes that there are surprisingly few cases involving the one of highest-risk population segments (in this case, the elderly), and that the average age range of the majority of the infected appears to be 5 to 24; [12]  undoubtedly, this has contributed to the low mortality rate.

In other domestic health news, a Minnesota judge has issued an arrest warrant for a woman who refuses to allow her son to receive chemotherapy for worsening Hodgkins lymphoma; [13] the mother’s insistence on “natural” healing treatments reminds me of those cases involving Christian Scientists that pop up in the news from time to time. Neither position strikes me as particularly rational, though I suppose one could argue that religious beliefs are, by definition, non-rational; OTOH, certain religions generally do not have substantial arguments against seeking medical treatment, even if it is based on “godless” science. [14] More fundamentally, however, it is always disturbing to me when parents impose their ridiculous ideological positions on their children, the latter of whom cannot make rational decisions on their own behalf. As a thinking and reasoning adult, if one chooses to abandon centuries of investigation into and proof of the efficacy of scientific medical treatments, one is free to do so, and I have no issue with such individuals; at the very least, the odds of their not surviving to pass on their idiotic ideals to future generations rises substantially, and this cannot be a bad thing, in my opinion. Where children are involved, however, the situation is not nearly as simple; children should be afforded every opportunity to thrive, and, as they are not capable of providing such opportunities on their own, and when their parents clearly indicate that they are not capable of doing so, either, then it seems to me that it is not altogether unreasonable for the government to override an individual’s personal beliefs, in this sort of limited case.

Finally, a parting note: it appears that various states are increasingly turning towards raising taxes to make up for their budgetary shortfalls. [15] I suspect that what we are seeing here is a microcosmic example of what will likely happen down the road as a result of the new, bloated Federal budgets that the President and his sycophants are pushing on the nation. At some point, budget cuts become less and less effective (or even possible), and eventually, the legislature will either have to sacrifice some of its goals, or find some alternate ways of funding said goals. The latter, of course, almost invariably leads to higher taxes; after all, we can no longer apply tariffs on imports, what with our ideological adoption of free trade. Of course, the President is fond of mentioning that these additional taxes will only be applied to the uber-rich, while the rest of us will live off of their forced generosity. Good luck with that. How long will it be before successful individuals realize that our nation’s laws are punitive towards financial success, and seek shelter in more friendly climes?

Notes:

[1]: In case you’re not familiar with the acronym, an MRBM is a Medium Range Ballistic Missile. These typically have a range of up to roughly 3,000 km.

[2]: Reuters News article, 20 May 2009.

[3]: News article, Jane’s Information Group, 14 November 2008.

[4]: In the context of Iran’s potential development of a nuclear weapon, the threat of conventional attacks has mostly been left by the wayside. Consider, however, that the Soviet SS-1 “Scud” (which was widely copied throughout the world) has a payload capacity of 985 kg (2,171.55 lbs) and a range of 700 km (434.96 mi) in its most modern “Scud-D” variant (see statistics here; Wikipedia article); the threat of attack by Iraqi Scuds was sufficient to justify the deployment of the thus-far combat-untested MIM-104 Patriot missile during Gulf War I, in the event that Iraq launched its Scud missiles at Israel, or elsewhere. Note also that a 2,000 lb warhead with a CEP [*] of 50m is statistically little different than the GBU-31 2,000 lb JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition), which has a CEP of 10m to 15m (see statistics here, from GlobalSecurity.org). Granted, the JDAM is more reliably accurate, but the figures for the Scud-D are not too shabby, particularly when one considers its range of over 400 miles. Note also that in the case of Iran using conventional arms as terror weapons, they do not need to be terribly accurate, either; a CEP of up to a few kilometers is not too much of a problem if you’re aiming at a large population center, such as Tel Aviv, which encompasses 20 square miles; odds are, even if the weapon does not fall exactly on target, it’ll still fall on some populated area.

[*]: CEP, or Circular Error Probable, is a standard measure of the accuracy for a guided weapon. Simply put, a guided weapon has a 50% chance of hitting within a circle centered on the intended target, and whose diameter is equal to the figure quoted with the CEP. Thus, a weapon with a CEP of 10m has a 50% chance of falling within a 10m-diameter circle centered on the intended target. Obviously, in the case of early laser-guided bombs, this target point would be the spot “painted” on the target by the laser designator; the JDAM, for example, uses GPS information to provide highly accurate location data.

[5]: AP article, 20 May 2009.

[6]: Such a novel concept, ain’t it? Seems like there used to be a saying about looking before you leap. Or this: “[it was] a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7: 26 & 27 (KJV); see here, from BibleGateway.com.

[7]: L.A. Times article, 20 May 2009.

[8]: Granted, Dresden is an example where civilian targets were deliberately selected and attacked, but regardless of that, the civilian death toll was astonishing: up to 40,000 dead after two days of bombing, along with a massive portion of the central city incinerated. See here for a description of the bombing mission (Wikipedia article).

[9]: Reuters News article, 20 May 2009.

[10]: Full text of Influenza A (H1N1) Update 34 available here, from the WHO website; updated 20 May 2009.

[11]: CNN article, 18 May 2009.

[12]: Press Briefing transcript available here, from the CDC website; updated 18 May 2009.

[13]: CNN article, 20 May 2009.

[14]: The Catholic Church, for example, is notably progressive in its embrace of scientific principles, so long as those activities do not undermine the inherent dignity of the human person (hence, the proscription against euthanasia, abortion, embryonic destruction for stem cell research, etc.):

Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all…science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence, they find in the person and in his moral values, both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits. (2293)

It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good…(2294)

Both of the above excerpts are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Part 3, Article V, Section 2 (paragraphs as indicated).

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