Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't fight Muslim terrorists

Matthew Continetti offers his thoughts on defeating Muslim terrorism in the Washington Free Beacon. The gist of his wisdom: whack the jihadists on their turf, not ours (meaning Western countries, which some terrorists have the legal right to call "home").

He presents a reasonable history of the dopey responses that have been tried over the years. First there was the law enforcement method: treat them like Mafiosi or tax evaders. Various other strategies, from bombing to invasion to nation building, followed.

Our president in absentia introduced the latest phase:
With the election of President Obama, however, the conflict between Islamism and America entered a third phase. Our troops were removed from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving Special Forces and drone pilots to do most of the fighting. The defense budget was cut. Harsh interrogation was curtailed, and Guantanamo Bay slowly emptied. Surveillance practices were disrupted. The words “Islamic terrorism” would not be uttered, for that somehow legitimized extremists. As for the terrorists themselves, they were once again treated like criminals.
This naughty-but-nice policy has been another dud.
What has resulted is a dramatic uptick in Islamic radicalism. In January 2014 the RAND Corporation found that “the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters increased after 2010, as well as the number of attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Attacks including the Ft. Hood massacre; the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; the Boston Marathon bombing whose victims included an 8-year-old boy; and the public beheading of British Fusilier Lee Rigby.
Continetti pitches a new strategy, which sounds suspiciously like one of the old ones:
And there is really only one way America can respond to this challenge. We need to kill them first. We need to kill them on a field of battle whose contours are determined not by the terrorists but by us. We need to kill them over there—in the Middle East—before they reach the West. ... 

The number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq must be dramatically increased, and America seriously must work to remove the cause of the Syrian civil war: the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, who continues to use chemical weapons, has entered into a de facto alliance with our terrorist adversary, and is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.
There "is really only one way America can respond" -- but it's not Iraq War 2.0. To eliminate, or at least marginalize, terror attacks we shouldn't fight IS, Al Qaeda, et al. 

We should keep them the hell out of our countries. No more Muslim immigration, period. If some of them feel a need to spray Americans and Europeans with automatic rifle rounds, they face an extra dimension of difficulty if they are busy swatting flies in Syria or Iraq.

Encourage all Muslims to return to the failed states from which they came to enjoy the privileges of big-hearted tolerance in the United States, Europe, and Australia. If they want to play with AK-47s and explosives, they can do so against each other in the territories the Prophet dealt them.

Of course such an idea violates our religion of multi-culturalism. But even religions change. I'd rather switch than fight.

* * * * *

My wife and I are flying to Los Angeles tomorrow for a few days of -- we hope -- sunshine and warm temperatures. Even if the weather lets us down we will have plenty to do. 

Posting, if any, will be light for the next week. As always, thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Je suis Charlie." Really?

No doubt about it: seeing photos of large crowds with their "Je suis Charlie" signs brought emotions I never thought I'd feel again, especially hope for resistance to Islamization of the West. Whatever else you might say about these demos, they were for once active, not defensive and half-apologetic. Many people of all kinds were not prepared to understand or forgive cold-blooded murder on behalf of a vicious ideology hitched to a religion.

For the moment at least, the pleas of the can't-we-all-get-along weenies were drowned out.

Gates of Vienna published an account of an interview with English journalist Douglas Murray. What Murray said wasn't bad, but Gates of Vienna publisher Baron Bodissey went further:
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Mr. Murray was discussing the sham nature of all the candle-lit vigils for “free speech” that were then taking place. Well-meaning, well-heeled people stood with pens held high and tears running down their cheeks, holding signs that read “Je suis Charlie”. But in all likelihood none of them — especially those associated with Big Media — will do what Charlie Hebdo did: lampoon Islam with unbridled ferocity. ...

These heartfelt demonstrations are no more than beautiful lies. This is all theater — public posturing that makes ordinary middle-class people feel good about themselves. Full of sound and tear-drenched sentiment, but signifying nothing.
I'm glad Bodissy wrote this, and it may be a fair point. But while I normally lead the parade of Cynics United, twirling my baton, it remains to be seen if most of the demonstrators are quite the moral exhibitionists he thinks. Of course it takes no courage to hold up a sign or a pencil in the midst of thousands of other protesters; it's about as risky as putting a "Coexist" bumper sticker on your car in Berkeley.

Yet ... while individuals can sometimes convert seemingly in a flash because of views that have been slowly building unconsciously (William James has a striking chapter about the phenomenon in The Varieties of Religious Experience), societies don't work that way. Big turnarounds are accretive, tentative at first, then gathering strength and speed. People who wouldn't dare take an uncompromising stand against quasi-religious totalitarianism look around, see a huge gathering of people speaking out, and realize they have allies. It's not the end of the road toward reclaiming freedom of speech and thought, but it's an important step.

Can the leopard change his spots? Can the New York Times change its template for every article about ethnic and religious divisions? I'm more certain of the answer to the second question. Here's the usual fill-in-the-blanks "backlash" story from the Times:
PARIS — Last week’s terrorist attacks without doubt set all of France on edge, but the sense of wariness, even siege, has grown increasingly profound among France’s Muslim population — the largest in Europe — which seems braced for a potential backlash, both political and personal.

Since the attack Wednesday on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, several mosques across France have been hit by bullets or small explosive devices. Many more have been tagged by racist graffiti. In Corsica, a severed pig’s head was hung on the door of a prayer hall, the police reported. 

Those actions followed weekly marches by tens of thousands in Germany, demonstrating against what they call the Islamization of Europe, the firebombing of a mosque in Sweden and warnings by British officials about a rise in Islamophobia.
"Bullets or small explosive devices ... racist graffiti ... pig's head ... ." These things may be bad form, but you have to expect a few hotheads are going to get carried away after something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. 

What else does this backlash involve? Peaceful marches in some German cities. The firebombing of a mosque (three, actually: inexcusable but not exactly Kristallnacht). Warnings by British officials, who are indoctrinated down to their toenails to cater to the Muslim population, about a rise in "Islamophobia." Some backlash.
Amid the rising suspicions and animus, and louder calls from the French right for stricter measures against Muslim radicals and immigration in the wake of the attacks, a broader question is emerging as to how France can close the breach. For the time being, the answer may be a retreat to the corners by the mainstream Muslim community, even as prominent voices urge moderation from extremist imams and disenfranchised Muslim youth.
Okay, you extremist imams and youth. Cool it for now while we look for a way to outlaw the National Front and keep Marine Le Pen from speaking in public. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Enablers of Islamization: This policeman died for your sins

... as did the artist and staff member victims at Charlie Hebdo.

But this shocking, point-blank assassination could well signal a turn in French society.

From now on, every policeman and policewoman in France will have no, zero, compassion for any Muslim with the slightest tinge of sudden jihad syndrome or even routine criminality. Someone who kills a flic while nearby cameras record it -- or is even suspiciously associated with the deed -- can expect no mercy or "justice." 

French police, I have heard, are as tough as they come. They are very high on the list of those you don't want for an enemy, which everyone who planned and carried out this atrocity will learn.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Archives of Psychical Research: I

William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." It would be satisfying to believe so concerning the vast collection of research, accounts of personal experience, and theories about psychical phenomena. Unfortunately, most books and articles on psychical research have a brief shelf life. Some deserve to, but others have a claim on our attention.

This series offers brief reviews and discussions of a few explorations of paranormal mental phenomena that have been all but forgotten.

Apparitions and Survival of Death by Raymond Bayless. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1973.

If you don't believe studies of psychical research are writ in water, consider the case of Raymond Bayless, author of seven books about the subject from various angles. They were mainly published in the 1970s, are already out of print and rarely discussed. He lived till 2004.

Bayless called himself a researcher, legitimately I think. But he lacked a string of academic degrees after his name, which won't do these days. Nevertheless, his book reads well although it could stand better organization -- he tends to mention the same subject at scattered locations.

Apparitions and Survival of Death examines one of the key phenomena said to provide evidence that the deceased continue in spirit form after the body is dead and gone. Literally thousands of well-researched cases are on record, plus others that are anecdotal and not fully meeting criteria for acceptance -- but their sheer numbers add a further suggestion that post-mortem survival is real.

It's a complicated and puzzling subject, like everything paranormal. For one thing, apparitions (appearances of someone not physically present) often involve seeing the image of someone alive, and even in slapping good health, at the time. One of the earliest scientific surveys -- possibly the most thorough ever done -- is titled Phantasms of the Living. Another category is so-called "crisis apparitions" of people who are dying, but show up while the ill or injured person is still breathing.

As if that's not enough, apparitions have various degrees of physical solidity, from faint and wispy to others that look like ordinary people and can physically affect objects, such as by turning lights on and off, or making footstep-like sounds as they move around. Some apparitions are seen by several people at the same time, in the proper perspective for each viewer.

Ironically, those most determined to dismiss apparitions as spirits are as likely to be parapsychologists as scientific materialists. The academic instinct is to avoid metaphysical explanations or to be associated with séances and such questionable practices. From the very founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, some of its most prominent researchers including Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney shied away from the spirit hypothesis.

Most alternative theories up to the present involve some version of telepathy. Bayless says:
In 1888 F.W.H. Myers theorized that phantoms, representing both the living and the dead, were telepathic in origin. Simply put, this theory suggests that a person involved in some type of crisis (the agent) broadcasts a telepathic message to the receiver (the percipient) who in turn casts the impulse into tangible form. That is, his mind turns the original telepathic impulse into a visually perceived but hallucinatory phantasm; or into a sound such as a voice, footsteps, a touch of a hand; or into the form of a significant odor.
Myers's colleague, Edmund Gurney, was troubled by the problem of collectively perceived apparitions. Unwilling to allow any physical reality to an apparition, he tried to rescue the telepathic idea by claiming that "after the original 'broadcast' was received by the primary percipient, this receiver in turn emitted another telepathic transmission, which was then picked up by still another percipient. In the case of multiple percipients the telepathic 'infection,' as Gurney termed it, became quite complex, unwieldy, and very improbable!"

The telepathic-perception hypothesis was shaped into its modern and most famous form by G.N.M. Tyrrell in a lecture and later a book, Apparitions. Bayless:
Professor Hornell Hart briefly defines Tyrrell's supposition by stating that a ghost is the result of a mingling of the subconscious minds of both agent and percipient, and that the actual apparition is a kind of three-dimensional picture in motion. Tyrrell refers to "the stage carpenter" (meaning, I believe, [the percipient's] ability to create illusion) and other subtleties which have provided much bewilderment among parapsychologists. In essence, after trimming away certain verbal foliage, I fail to see that he said anything drastically different from what Edmund Gurney postulated.
Clearly, Bayless isn't having it that all apparitions are generated in one or more living minds. In my view, the different editions of the telepathy explanation are theoretically possible in paranormal appearances of the living. But as a general proposition they fall wide of the mark.

What about apparitions of people who are verifiably deceased? Who is then the "sender" of the impression that the receiver, or receivers collectively, see or hear or both? 

Bayless includes chapters on related phenomena, which he examines with his commonsense approach: poltergeists, out-of-the-body experiences, ectoplasmic figures, &c. Partial materialization of apparitions through ectoplasm is absurd, of course, but casts have been made from ectoplasmic hands pressed into wax. The casts have been photographed. Perhaps they were perceived by the camera's internal stage carpenter.

Considering all the different forms taken by apparitions and the circumstances under which they make themselves known, it's reasonable to suppose that they consist not just of one class of psychical phenomena, but several, or maybe many. Given the cloud under which apparitions remain in an increasingly material-minded world, it will be a long time before the mystery reveals its secrets.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I see no past, I see no future

This is a crass discussion of making money through investments, by a blogger who not infrequently natters on about spiritual growth. If you think the two subjects have nothing to do with one another, you are an Enlightened Being or a trust fund baby.

Money can't buy happiness, but to a certain extent it can buy time. Not necessarily by lengthening your lifespan (although sometimes it is a factor there), but by allowing you more often to put aside worries about getting and spending  and instead meditating, praying, or following whatever spiritual practice you choose.

This is the moment that comes each year when the financial media -- all the way from relatively sophisticated ones like Barron's to simplistic fodder for the masses like Money -- try to tell you (a) what happened to investments this past year and (b) what will happen to them next year. Both are equally pointless.

If you've been paying attention, you know (at least in a general way) what happened to money, especially yours, in 2014. If not, why read about it now?

But that's not too important. Subject (b) is important because it can set you on a wrong course and thin your purse.

Virtually all these articles are based on predictions. After many years of following the markets, I'm inclined to say nothing is as malevolent toward your wealth as predictions.

Everyone is in on the game, from callow financial journalists to supposedly all-star fund and hedge managers. The predictions are most often based on the trend-is-your-friend, or straight-line, fallacy: what will happen next is what is happening now, only more so.

But nothing is as dead sure in the investment world as trends changing, with mind-bending speed sometimes. Financial gurus who should know better tend to reduce investment trends to analogues of the laws of physics. On a macro level, at least, physical laws are calculable because they always work. Gravity doesn't change its mind. When you see a video of astronauts in a space capsule floating around like fish in a tank, it's not because gravity is on holiday, but because they are beyond its influence from the Earth.

Interest rates, the price of oil and other commodities, new technology, and every other factor affecting prices of your investments aren't subject to laws. Or, to be more precise, they're subject to so many laws that the variables are for practical purposes infinite.

Right now the investment world is bouncing off the walls trying to predict the fallout from oil prices, which have sunk 40 percent from their last high point. Petro prices have always been cyclical, although this time it's a little steep. But Howard Marks, who runs the hedge fund Oaktree Capital, tries to do the near-impossible and inject some good sense into the discussion (in a letter to his shareholders reproduced at Market Folly):
The usual starting point for forecasting something is its current level. Most forecasts extrapolate, perhaps making modest adjustments up or down. In other words, most forecasting is done incrementally, and few predictors contemplate order-of-magnitude changes. Thus I imagine that with Brent crude around $110 six months ago, the bulls were probably predicting $115 or $120 and the bears $105 or $100.
Forecasters usually stick too closely to the current level, and on those rare occasions when they call for change, they often underestimate the potential magnitude. Very few people predicted oil would decline significantly, and fewer still mentioned the possibility that we would see $60 within six months.
Turning to the second aspect of “the failure of imagination” and going beyond the inability of most people to imagine extreme outcomes, the current situation with oil also illustrates how difficult it is to understand the full range of potential ramifications.
Most people easily grasp the immediate impact of developments, but few understand the “second-order” consequences . . . as well as the third and fourth. When these latter factors come to be reflected in asset prices, this is often referred to as “contagion.”
Everyone knew in 2007 that the sub-prime crisis would affect mortgage-backed securities and home builders, but it took until 2008 for them to worry equally about banks and the rest of the economy. ...
Further, it’s hard for most people to understand the self-correcting aspects of economic events. 
o A decline in the price of gasoline induces people to drive more, increasing the demand for oil.
o A decline in the price of oil negatively impacts the economics of drilling, reducing additions to supply.
o A decline in the price of oil causes producers to cut production and leave oil in the ground to be sold later at higher prices. 
In all these ways, lower prices either increase the demand for oil or reduce the supply, causing the price of oil to rise (all else being equal). In other words, lower oil prices – in and of themselves – eventually make for higher oil prices. This illustrates the dynamic nature of economics.
If you can't foresee limitless factors weighing on the price of your holdings, or potential holdings, what can you do to tip the odds in your favor? I don't believe anyone has a perfect answer to that. The best I know of is to have a wide range of asset classes in your book. I'd also tend to avoid putting much money on individual companies, whose future is determined by even more unpredictable factors than market sectors. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

I'd been looking forward to A Most Wanted Man, based on the John le Carré novel of post–Cold War espionage. I like the spy genre and le Carré, for all his sour attitude about the trade (understandable, since he himself used to practice it), usually writes a good story.

But a bunch of things have gone wrong with the film version, including that it's impossible to watch without knowing uncomfortably that it was Philip Seymour Hoffman's last role before he died of a lethal mixture of heroin and prescription drugs. We might as well get that aspect of the review out of the way first, since it appears in the lead of almost every article about the picture.

I haven't seen all his films, but it's obvious that he was one of the handful of actors working at any given time who is more than technically proficient. (Acting craftsmanship is quite an achievement and I'm not damning it with faint praise, but theatrical schools these days must be doing something right, since they turn out lots of players who are up to the job.) But Hoffman had, besides technique, a special haunting presence that drew you in, made you identify with him even if you hated the character.

I'm mad at him -- the person, now in the afterlife. He doesn't seem to have intended to kill himself, but he was surely smart enough to know heroin is dangerous, let alone in combination with other drugs. He not only cheated himself out of what would have included other exceptional roles, but deprived the profession and the public of them as well.

All right, the movie. It's almost needless to say Hoffman is the sun around which everything revolves. As usual, he's compelling, although I think he has one overplayed moment at the climax. Otherwise the casting is a mixed bag, and no mistake. Nina Hoss, Willem Dafoe, and Robin Wright are good. But Rachel McAdams, the female lead, supplies nothing but attitude spinning.

The yarn concerns Issa, an illegal Muslim Chechen refugee who shows up in Hamburg to give away a huge financial legacy from his father, a brutal and corrupt military man. Maybe my mind was wandering, but I never got why he had to sneak into Germany, a country that for years has welcomed immigrants unrestrictedly with such generosity that lately street demos in Dresden have begun to bust out.

Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa) is so inexpressive that he disappears before the scenes he's in are over. He does have one moment of character development: he shaves off his beard. Homayoun Ershadi, as a respectable, supposedly charity-supporting money launderer for terrorists who wants to bag Issa's treasury, seems to be trying to make an art form out of boredom.

Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), a German intelligence officer operating outside the official agencies so he can do things they aren't allowed to, is forced to try to convince various bureaucrats of the other intelligence services of his plan to trap the big-time money launderer. Naturally they are all portrayed as gray, inhuman functionaries -- a standard le Carré theme. It may be realistic but this is supposed to be a drama, not a wax museum.

A Most Wanted Man must have had a fairly big budget to include well-known actors, but you wouldn't know it from Anton Corbijn's direction. With most of Hamburg available, the whole movie looks like it takes place in five or six locations, including that contemporary cliché the spies in a trailer full of listening and recording instruments. 

Other settings, too, lack originality. All we see is that this city seems sleek and soulless, a monument to empty materialism. That may be realistic as well, since Hamburg was largely burned to ashes by Allied bombers in 1943 and the postwar rebuilding presumably took the form of metallic and glass modernism. But none of the background has any story to tell, any impression to add to the obvious.

Le Carré appears in one of the DVD's special features, typically explaining in his Oxford-educated drawl how rotten the West is and how prejudiced against Muslims.