Prague Twin

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Emotion Trumps Logic

I can't remember where I read it, but recently there was a study done to determine how the brain is affected by information that supports one's opinion and conversely how it reacts to information that contradicts it.

Not surprisingly, the study found that people's brains show lower activity when presented with information that contradicts their opinions. It also found that the brain releases pleasure inducing neurotransmitters when a person argues his or her opinion, or when information that he or she agrees with is presented. High levels of pleasure inducing neurotransmitters are released when a person is in the process of discrediting a contrary view to his or her own.

We have all had the experience: that rush of emotion, a pleasing wave of well-being that laps over us as we tear down our opposition's argument. It feels REALLY good.

A lot of us out there in the blog-o-sphere try to keep an open mind. But this may be actually impossible on a physiological level. Most of us formed our basic opinions long ago, or at the latest in college. I actually don't know anyone who suddenly had a change of heart at say 35 years old and switched parties, but I hear it happens, occasionally.

It makes sense that one should defend his or her opinion, especially if it is arrived at through years of introspection. What bothers me though is that if you consider yourself a liberal, there are a basket of positions on crucial issues that come pre-packaged. A good liberal should be pro-environment, pro-union, pro-choice, anti-big business, pro-education, pro-equal rights, pro-gun control, anti-death penalty, pro-social welfare, pro-universal health, and most of all, anti-Republican.

I don't think I need to reverse this list for the conservatives. Hold it up to a mirror if you have to.

I have always found this inherently strange. Just because I believe in universal health for working people, I'm supposed to be anti-gun control, because obviously I'm a "liberal". My uncle first explained this to me. He spent his life working for the unions, and the Democratic Party. He even helped get some Democrats elected once upon a time by registering voters in predominately black neighborhoods in L.A. when most were afraid to even go there. We were talking about the death-penalty, which at the time I favored. He explained that if I considered myself left-leaning, I should be against it. I have since changed my mind on that issue, but not because of some dogma from the Democratic party or anyone else. (I also used to favor gun control, but have flipped on that issue as well, lest you think it is about dogma for me). The whole idea of a basket of opinions was, and is, repulsive to me.

No matter how someone arrives at their opinion, they all have an emotional attachment to their ideals. I am certainly no exception, so I will say "we". We decide who we agree with based more on emotion than on logic. Then, the process of backing up that emotional response begins (for some). We get the brain to agree with our heart. We start to collect information that informs our opinion, and we reject or analytically discredit that which would damage the arguments that support our opinions. There is usually a moment (or several moments) in one's life where we say, "that's it! My mind is made up!" Rarely do we ever look back.

One of the mechanisms we use to retain our credibility is to pick some trivial event where we agree with the opposition's point of view. Then, for the rest of our lives we can say we are non-biased because we didn't agree with our candidate on such-and-such an issue.

And some of us don't even do that. We consistently cling to the rhetoric of our chosen leaders, refuse to listen to the other side, and remain steadfast in our view that the other side are a bunch of lying, cheating good-for-nothing so-and-sos.

The frightening reality may be that people on both sides of the equation may be right about the other. What if everything the Democrats said was wrong with the Administration was true, and what if everything the right-wing bloggers said about the liberals was true? Well, I don't think so. I least I certainly hope not.

I think it is reasonable to assume that a good portion of the mud-slinging on both sides is disingenuous. I'm sure there are plenty of bad people in government on both sides. But there must be some good ones too, from both sides of the isle. I think it is time that we start looking at individual candidates, from both sides of the isle, that we think are reasonably honest (100% honesty being, of course, pure fiction). Instead of labeling someone a "liberal" or a "right-winger" how about we start electing individual candidates based on their policy, and their record, and not on whether or not they have a "D" or an "R" next to their name?

OK, I'll admit it, I'm a dreamer. The battle has become so entrenched and bitter that few people could see themselves voting for someone of the other party.

But if we don't start looking at politicians as individuals, we might as well start electing tape-recorders.

Sadly, we have already elected a few.

Quote of the Week

This quote was published in Czech Business Weekly...

"The erosion of the traditional family started over 2000 years ago with Ceasar Augustus."

Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Paroubek, when asked about same-sex unions recently approved by the Czech Congress.


Lately there has been significant chatter on the Milblogs about how unfair the reporting on Iraq is. The authors encourage their readers to get the "real story" about what is going on from, well, them. They contest that positive stories should be run in the media, but if the media won't run them, they (the Milbloggers) will fill in the gaps in reporting.

Now, I am about as ready as anyone to hear a positive story out of Iraq. The constant stream of stories about bombings, kidnappings, and murders is not only depressing, but it has become monotonous. So I thought I would go through Hugh Hewitt's list of Milblogs to see what I could find.

Austin Bay ran an article praising Ralph Peter's reporting on Iraq. He pointed out that "slum-dwellers" are getting running water and sewage treatment for the first time. He also claims the electrical system is improving citing a 5,300 Megawatt production level which is more than what was produced under Saddam. Positive? Certainly. Backed up by any anecdotal evidence or references (things we usually associate with news)? No. Austin, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Belmont Club pointed out the declining troop casualties and movement of the insurgency back to Baghdad. It was noted that the smaller cities are much more secure than last year, but the situation in Baghdad is getting worse. So not so much improvement as a change of venue here.

Counterterroism Blog is running the story of Jill Carroll's release. The media are covering this as well. I guess this story runs counter to the theory that the media only report on the negative aspects.

Michael Yon asserts there is a civil war, and that this is just part of the process of becoming a democracy. He has been calling it a civil war for nearly a year now, and I think he is pretty proud of himself for being so early in the game. Not exactly positive.

In general, most of the blogs were outdated (like this one), and for every mention of anything remotely positive, there were two entries refuting the Berkely study that contends whiney babies grow up to be conservatives.

The Berkely student's findings aside, for all of the whining about unfair reporting and declarations that the "real story" would be told by the Milbloggers, at the end of the day, I was left with very little positive information.

So now it is my turn to whine...

"Could someone, anyone, please write a positive story about Iraq. Something that can pass as news, and can bring a smile to my face. Honestly, I would really appreciate it. Thanks."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

And the loser is.....?

One thing politicians do well is identify problems. Coming up with solutions to those problems is another matter.

In this case, the international community has brilliantly outlined a seemingly intractable position.

Hamas looks to appoint a hard-line administration, therefore, the Palestinian government will be defined as a terrorist state. They don't want to give money to terrorist states.

However, if the international community withdraws their generous aid, the results will be catastrophic.

The dismissal of large numbers of armed, trained police without pay creates security problems. The anemic economy would be hit hard, being heavily reliant on government employees as an artificial "middle class". (I think in this economy, bureaucrats are "upper middle-class"). These people will be let go and the effect will trickle-down. Small merchants will be hit and it creates "economic fallout". Most pointedly, delivery of basic services like water and electricity, will be severely diminished.

It will exasperate what is already a serious humanitarian problem.

So the international community, being self-declared and proven humanitarians, as well as non-supportors of known terrorist states, find themselves in the auspicious position of having to define themselves. Are they primarily concerned with international security (and specifically this particular security doctrine), or are they primarily concerned with economic and humanitarian issues?

In poker terms, this is call. In Oscar terms, the envelope please.

Once again, they have succeeded in identifying the problem. Once again, easy answers are nowhere to be found.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Will Iran Be Next?

The three year anneversary of the Iraq invation was marked by decidedly small protest rallies. It seems that the anit-war movement has lost a lot of steam now that the realization that nothing will change the mind of President Bush, once it has been made up, has set in. Perhaps too, the realization that pulling out now would cause more harm than good has set in as well.

Millions took to the streets before the invation in an effort to stop the war before it started. Ineffective as those protests were, at least those protests were well timed.

There is still time to avoid conflict with Iran. I doubt, however, that protests are the answer. We should try to understand Iran: its people, its history, and its cultural biases. We should also try to keep in mind the lessons learned about deterrence during the cold war.

The Cato institute ran a good article not long ago dispelling some of the basic assumptions about Iran that are currently prevalent in the current administration.

The main thing to keep in mind, I think, is that Iran is a very proud, deeply religious, defensive country. Can anyone name the last time Iran invaded another country? Exactly.

Iran has been attacked, invaded, subverted, but never completley subjugated. This is largely due to pride and religion. If nothing else, the Iranian people are proud and deeply religious. They are violently opposed to foreign influence. They will defend themselves until the last man is standing. But using history as a guide, there is little to indicate that they intend to go on the offensive.

If you would like some first-hand knowledge of Iran, and its prejudices, be sure to read Ryszard Kapuscinski's "Shah of Shahs". Kapuscinski is the Polish journalist who just happened to be present from start to finish during 27 third-world revolutions (yes 27). He was, of course, in Iran in 1979.

A great read and extremely informative, this book treats its readers to a snapshot of the Iranian (Shia) psyche. It should be required reading for anyone who gives a damn about Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Here are two particularly interesting quotes...

"The point is that Shiites not only reject the authority of the caliphs; they barely tolerate any lay authority at all. Iran constitutes the unique case of a country whose people believe only in the reign of their religious leaders, the imams, one of whom, the last, left this world (according to rational, if not to Shiite, criteria) in the ninth century. "


"I am trying to understand them, but over and over again I stumble into a dark region and lose my way. They have a different attitude to life and death. They react differently to the sight of blood. At the sight of blood they become tense, fascinated, they fall into some sort of mystical trance; I can see their animated gestures and hear their cries. The owner of a nearby restaurant pulled up in front of my hotel in his new car. It was a brand-new Pontiac, gold, strait from the dealer. There was some commotion and I could hear chickens being slaughtered in the courtyard. First the people sprinkled the chicken blood over themselves, and then they smeared it on the body of the car. In a moment the automobile was red and dripping blood. This was the baptism of the Pontiac. Wherever there is blood, they crowd around to dip their hands in it. They could not explain to me why this is necessary."

Well, perhaps us westerners will not be able to understand them. But if nothing else, we should understand this: applying our assumptions about human nature to the Iranian people will lead to frustration at best.

Worst case scenarios are too tragic to consider openly.

Will Iran be the next country to be invaded by the United States?

Let's hope not.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Czechs Pass Gay Marriage Law

The lower house of Parliament has overruled Vaclav Klaus' veto of a gay marriage law passed in January. The Czech Republic becomes the 13th European country and first former eastern-block country to pass such a law.

Bush Explains Medicare Bill

This was sent to me by email. Politicians can be hard to understand at times, but this takes the cake....

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: "I don't really understand. How is the new plan going to fix the problem?"

Verbatim response ~ PRESIDENT BUSH:

"Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculated, for example, is on the table. Whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to that has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, supposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red."

I'm glad we got that cleared up.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Iraqi Parliment Sworn In

Yesterday, the first post Saddam Hussein Iraqi Parliament was sworn in. Today, Coalition Forces launced the most extensive air strikes since 2003. Since Sunday, at least 160 bodies have been found in the latest wave of sectarian violence. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rice said that it could take "a couple of years" for Iraq to achieve stability. Protesters called her a war criminal to which she replied she was "..glad to see democracy was alive and well.." at the university, proving once again the limits of Democracy.

Although US military deaths are down this month, we've seen these lulls before. Indeed Feburary and March have been unusually casualty free in both 2004 and 2005, and the trend continues. As I wrote in January, while those on the right continue to say thing are getting better, those on the left contend things are getting worse. I am sticking with my opinion that things are equally as bad now as they were last year. In some regards progress is being made, and in some respects things are getting worse.

Unfortunately I didn't have a blog at the begining of this war, so my opinions at the onset are not on record. In any case, my main argument against the war going in was that we would certainly be there 10 years, and more likely 20. I contended that there would be utter chaos for at least five, but likely for at least ten years. The only qualification I put on this prediction was in the case of the rise of a totalitarian regime that would maintain order with an iron fist. At the time I was branded a pessimist. Three years later Rice is coming around on my "five years of chaos" theory. This official line is a far cry from Rumsfeld's "six days, six months, I doubt six years" comment, or Cheney's last throes comment.

I know it is cheap to talk about your predictions in retrospect, but I'll admit I expected 10,000 US deaths at a minimum. As wrong as I was on that, if things continue on this pace, I'll be proven right in about another 12 years.

This is one time in my life, that I really don't want to be right.

The upside? Apparently, I'm a better analyst than the Secretary of Defense AND the Vice-President.

I'm going to hang on to my day job for now.

Monday, March 13, 2006


I am in the capital of Mozambique: Maputo. So far, I haven't had much of an opportunity to see much of the country outside the capital, but it is quite interesting here nonetheless.

Mozambique threw off five centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 by means of a largely Marxist revolution. In 1989, they officially gave up their Marxist stance and democracy has been advancing ever since. The current president, Armando Emilio Guebuza, was elected just last year and continues to advance the free-market and democractic reforms which began nearly 20 years ago.

As a result, Mozambique is enjoying significant growth and foreign direct investment (FDI). Although still one of the poorest contries in the world (ranked 200th in per capita GDP right behind Rwanda) it has one of the fastest growing economies. Per capita GDP is growing at 7% a year and has increased 10 fold in the last 20 years.

Mozambicans are quite friendly. I have not experienced any overt racism, nor have I felt any kind of danger. Street vendors are quite aggressive however, but it is little more than annoying. We had dinner the other night on a raised balcony, and paintings for sale would constantly dance by as if floating on an unseen moat surrounding the restaurant. One guy just wouldn't leave us alone at a Thai restaurant, and actually followed us a couple blocks after we left. He was annoying, but harmless.

Yesterday, we took a boat tour to a nearby island resort. Two Yamaha 85 outboards propelled the small boat out to sea in a five foot swell complete with breakers. We had no seatbelts or lifejackets, and at one point we were easily 4 miles from any land. Safety is not a high priority here (my kind of country). Pedestrians have no fear of cars, and thus driving consists of timing the gaps between the endless parade of pedestrians crossing the roads whenenver and wherever they please. We came within inches of running down a mother with her infant wrapped against her chest in the typical manner. She turned to us and had a laugh.

We got a taxi ride in a 1957 Ford Custom with right-hand steering. I'm not sure how rare this car actually is, but I had never seen one. In this case, we did get some stares. We were coming back from the beach area where hundreds of little stands are set up selling BBQ'd chicken and grilled fish. They sell wine, beer, cigarets, alchohol....essentially everything you need to have a good time at the beach. You can make a phone call from the beach courtesy of a mobile unit connected to a regular phone. The whole set-up sits on a podium about 2 feet wide, and seems strikingly out of place in the technology free environment of the beach area.

While my wife works during the week, I plan to head down there and mix with the locals a bit. Hopefully that will lead to an interesting post.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Terrorists in the Desert

Something that you don't hear much about is the Deparment of Defense's new Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative. This is actually a part of Operation Enduring Freedom, so the extended acronym is (OEF-TS). Bonus points for anyone who is still following. The official program is summed up quite well here.

Critics argue that this is just another way that governments can use the threat of terrorism to suppress local insurgencies. FPIF sums up this position pretty well here.

What amazes me is that we can spend $500 million fighting terrorism in the Sahara region while next door in Kenya, UNICEF needs $14.7 million to help save up to 3.5 million lives. They probably won't get it, and certainly not all of it. Not unless a tidal wave hits them.

Just seems a little off.

But maybe that's just me.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Czech Television

The Czech government sponsors two television stations. Czech Television one and Czech Television two. CT1 probably floats somewhat on advertising revenue, but CT2 is what the $10 a month every household pays in tax buys you. Rarely are there commercials, and never during a movie. (A local friend of mine once told me how angry he was the first time he experienced a movie interruption for a commercial: "so THIS is what capitalism is?") CT2 plays a lot of documentaries. Small three man teams come up with their own ideas, pitch them to the station, and the station awards very tight budgets. The quality and uniqueness of these projects are impressive, miniscule budgets notwithstanding.

They tend to run a lot of documentaries and informative programming, and the other night, I started watching a western-produced documentary that had been done in much the same manner as a typical CT2 project.

This film was a documentary about the press corps (they must have been in Qatar) attending to the official military spokespersons. The focus was clearly to show how difficult it was to extract information from the US military during the war. In one case, no one from the Press Corps could get into the official briefing because they weren't issuing passes at the location, and on one had been told. There was a state-of-the-art briefing tent set up complete with large screen televisions and a high-tech sound system. It was completely empty, with a lone Marine standing guard.

The film spent significant time on the US hostages and US military dead being covered by Al-Jazeera. They were able to get Al-Jazeera's reaction and the military spokesman reaction, and both seemed more candid then what we get on CNN. They drew the parallel that both people hated war. The difference was, the soldier was of the belief that we are not at a point in history where war is not necessary. You could see he was an honest guy who believed in what he was doing. He pointed out that they showed US soldiers, as well as Arabs, being wounded and killed. For him, more than anything else, it was a reminder of how much he hates war.

They had filmed a conversation, quite a candid one, with the spokesman, and one of the senior members of the Press Corp who had been clearly chosen as an ambassador to try and get some information. Baghdad had just fallen (or rather, there were tanks in the center) and the press wanted a confirmation that the military was either occupying Baghdad, or intended to soon. He was getting nowhere and the frustration was showing.

Q: "Please, put yourself in my position. There are tanks in the center, but you are not occupying, or trying to occupy Baghdad? What am I supposed to say? What does it mean when tanks are rolling along the river?"

A: "It means we have tanks in the center. It is a tactical maneuver and I can't tell you any more."

Eventually the reporter gave up, they shook hands, asked about each-others wives, and arranged a dinner.

At one point in the film, they had covered the missile attack on the Al-Jezzera hotel accommodations. This was vehemently denied as being intentional by the US. At the time of this accident, the US had been repeatedly calling on Al-Jazeera to cease airing American soldiers' bodies. The film documented one such request coming in by fax shortly after the accident. The Al-Jazeera reporter who read the request shrugged his shoulders a gave tight "what are ya gonna do" smile/frown. I don't think he thought it was an accident.

They finished the film with the funeral for the journalist killed in the incident. It started off formal, the church service, a few muffled cries, the look of shock and disbelief all around. Then it took to the streets and it was the typical scene you see on the television, seemingly thousands of people trying to get as close to the body as possible, screaming and going mad. What I hadn't seen (but had only heard about) was the burial itself, where once the body had been placed in the ground, they opened up the coffin and pulled the body half way out. Guys were getting in with it, getting the blood of the dead man on their hands and were spreading it to the others around who were in turn smearing the blood on the hands of those further away.

I had to wonder how many people got the blood of that man on their hands that day, and in the days that followed.


They followed up the show with a very good documentary/dramatization on Chernobyl. This incident hits home here since the radioactive dust cloud sat over this country in the days after the explosion, but before the Russians had announced it. The most dangerous of these days had been a beautiful summer day and everyone, including my wife and her family, was outside enjoying it. (It is almost a crime here to be inside on such a day, since nice days are so rare).

There was a survivor, a guy who literally walked into the blast zone immediately afterwards and started helping coworkers who were to die within the next hours or days. Even most of the guys further away, died within two weeks. But this guy survived. He reminded me of a Russian guy I worked with, a former miner, who could work with toxins that would probably kill a mere mortal man. A guy who could drink 2 liters of vodka and come to work the next day in a good mood. A guy who has never had so much as a sniffle since I met him nearly 10 years ago. Anyway, this guy from Chernobyl is still alive but has problems. He summed it up by saying "I can drive a car, but I can't fix it." There are some tough guys up there. This guy had a head that looked like a clenched fist.

But the guys who turned the switches that led to the inevitable meltdown died thinking they did the right thing. And the guy who ordered the experiment and was awoken by the blast at his house, miles away, served a portion of his ten year sentence before being released because of psychological problems.


Finally, they showed one of their own documentaries that had been done circa 1950. It was about the postal service, and the great care they took finding people. They had letters that had maps drawn on them, or the most minimal information you could imagine. My favorite was "The scruffy foreigner from Zizkov." This started an discussion amongst the managers as to who was scruffier: Italians or French. After a while someone threw in that it could be that "one American guy... he's pretty scruffy".

Well things sure have changed. I remember a Kazak friend of mine coming back from the center of Prague and saying that there were "more Americans than people" downtown. Current estimates hover around 10,000 American residents in Prague.


The moral to the evening seemed to be, the Americans will mess things up. The Russians will mess things up. But the Czechs will do their best to deliver your mail .... .. even if you are a scruffy foreigner.

I could feel the pride swelling in the hearts of millions.