Thursday, May 29, 2003

Hillary & Norgay, Armstrong & Aldrin:

Today is the 50th anniversary of the climbing of Everest, as I'm sure the incessant trumpeting by the media has reminded you.

I realized that we are lucky that the men who achieved this feat, and that of the moon landing sixteen years later (which we will celebrate on July 20), were all extremely humble men. Hillary and Armstrong received most of the acclaim, and they both similarly were unimpressed, and more importantly, unchanged by the attention. Norgay and Aldrin, who shared equally in the hardships and danger, were gracious in accepting their media-given second place ribbons.

I can only wonder how differently things would have turned out if they had been more similar to so many others in the mountaineering and astronaut corps, arrogant and cocky.

Perhaps it is the adventure itself which accentuates this behaviour in people pre-disposed to it. Or perhaps these activities draw precisely those personality types. Does the drive you need to achieve these exploits necessarily mean you have to treat mortals with disdain? Sir Edmund, "Tiger" Tenzing, Neil and Buzz clearly say "no."

 Monday, May 26, 2003

Heller, Joseph:

Several months ago, a crown attorney from Canada asked me to testify in a case for a crime I had witnessed in the mid-70's. The crown offered to reimburse me for my travel and lodging costs during the trial. That trial is starting soon, so the gears of travel arrangements started to move.

I work for the U.S. government, so, like a good little boy, I mentioned this to our legal office, and they reminded me that I cannot receive payments from any foreign government, whether I am on duty or not. So if I paid for the travel, I couldn't accept reimbursement from Canada.

OK, how about if Canada pays directly for the airfare and the lodging? I would have to be on official travel, and get the OK from my super to go. My super looks at the travel request and the legal office's opinion, and says (understandably) "But this has nothing to do with your official duties! I'm not signing this!"

So... I can go and testify at a trial to make sure a dangerous person is finally put away, but only if I pay for it myself.

1) The less I earn, the less likely it is that I will testify.
2) The more serious the case, the more likely it is that the trial will last longer, and the less likely I am to be able to pay for travel to it.
3) There is every incentive there for me to break the law and accept the payment.
4) I was honest and forthright, and now I have to deal with a re-opened can of worms.

I went through the unofficial appeal process, and back to the legal office. Their answer: "Tough. Grow up."

The lessons are plainly here for me - growing up means choosing more and more carefully when to be honest. Greater justice is available with greater wealth. Foreigners are bad (even if I happen to be one of them).

I'm blogging mad. Well, OK, disappointed. In the legal system. The US one, that is.

 Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The Cathedral at Envigado:

The current trial of Fabio Ochoa in Florida is a small part of a very long and sad story for the South American nation of Colombia. Over the next few days I will post a series of articles I began in the middle of the Pablo Escobar man-hunt. I have resuscitated the set and tried to bring them up to date.

Much of the trouble that Colombia faces today can be traced to the kidnapping of a young girl, Martha Nieves Ochoa Vasquez. Kidnapping was not a rare crime in Colombia during the late 1970's, and so it was not the crime itself that was so notable. The two parties involved were fated to become important historical forces in Colombia's future because of the consequences of the incident. The kidnappers were a leftist guerilla movement named M-19 who were using the abduction of children of wealthy families to finance their campaign of terrorism. Their mistake was to select as a target the sister of a successful drug runner from the city of Medellin, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez.

Ochoa responded to the kidnapping by gathering the most important members of the different drug running operations in the country to form a group that would share the costs of protecting their families against the predation of the guerrillas. They formed the Anti-Kidnapping Movement, known as "MAS" in Spanish, which quickly found and killed the M-19 members involved.

From this initial cooperation came the realization that profits could also be greatly enhanced by the sharing and coordination of all drug-running activities, and the Medellin cartel was born. In command of the overall operation and in charge of political contacts was Pablo Escobar Gaviria. Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha was in charge of security and enforcement - the hatchet man. Ochoa and his brother Fabio were in charge of distribution, while Gustavo and Roberto Gaviria, along with Rodrigo Zapata, were in charge of production. This division of labor proved very effective, and by the early 1980's both Colombia and the United States had recognized that this organization represented a serious threat to narcotics law enforcement.

An escalating war between the Colombian authorities and the cartel resulted in the brutal assassinations of the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, in April of 1984, and the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan Sarmiento in September of 1989. The uproar that resulted from the assassinations of these two popular politicians provided the impetus for a major offensive against the cartel: Rodr?guez Gacha was killed in a shootout with the Army in December of 1989, and several members of the cartel were extradited to the United States. With Escobar now in charge of security, the war became more intricate: Escobar was more sophisticated than Gacha, and he was successful in recruiting security experts from the Colombian Army. In 1990 the Medellin cartel pursued a bombing campaign against elite and secret police units, and assassinated two more Presidential candidates: Carlos Pizarro Leongomez was killed by a bomb, along with all the occupants of a 727 jet, and Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa was gunned down at the airport in the capital city, Bogota.

By alternately bullying and placating, Escobar was able to negotiate a truce for the extraditable cartel members with the government. In exchange for a cease-fire, the Colombian Congress passed Decree 3030, halting all extradition proceedings and declaring an amnesty for cartel members who turned themselves over to the authorities. By June of 1991, the brothers Ochoa and Escobar had handed themselves over to the government. As the world was later to find out, Escobar had hardly surrendered. In fact, Escobar had arranged to have his security costs borne by the Colombian taxpayer, since his so-called jail was really his own farm in the town of Envigado, fortified against the emerging Cali cartel by the Colombian Army. From his fortress, known as La Catedral or "The Cathedral," Escobar continued to administer the Medellin cartel, aided by faxes, cellular telephones and computers smuggled into the compound. The legal battles between the cartels and the government continued, with the Army suffering a severe setback at the end of June when they were ordered by the Supreme Court to return all confiscated property. By the end of 1991 a commission had been established to draft a new constitution for Colombia that formalized the policy of non-extradition.

By early July of 1992, the Cali cartel had gained enough power to threaten Escobar, and the government nervously made plans to transfer him to another prison. For Escobar, a transfer from his prison at La Catedral meant a certain death, and on the evening of July 22nd, he was able to escape by taking several important visitors as hostages. In the ensuing political furor, forty members of the Ministry of Justice, the Armed Forces, and the Directorate of Prisons were fired.

It is difficult to describe the psychological effect the Escobar escape had on Colombia. Even though it was rumored that there were luxuries in excess at La Catedral , the holding of Escobar was a symbol to the people of Colombia that the government was capable of prosecuting the cartels without having to resort to extradition. By making a mockery of the Justice system and the Armed Forces, Escobar had politically wounded the President and emotionally wounded the country. It was, however, a country used to wounds of this type.

Drug trafficking has corrupted and distorted the structure of Colombian society at every level. By buying a local soccer team and building a stadium and housing for the poor in Medell?n, Escobar was able to build the political capital necessary to make a bid for a seat in the Colombian Senate. While he was disqualified from that seat by other events, he was still regarded by many in Medell?n as a hero. Allegations of misconduct or illegal activities were dismissed as irrelevant by a large following that believes he was being persecuted for being too successful at his "business." Escobar and the drug cartel had succeeded in twisting the morals of an entire city.

The obvious infiltration of the Police, the blatant control over the Courts, and the day-to-day violence of the drug wars has inured the public to the degree of corruption and distortion that exists. In Medell?n alone, there are over eighty violent drug related deaths per week. For the nation as a whole, over two hundred deaths per week have occurred since the mid 1980's. Because of the level of violence, an entire generation of young people in Medell?n have grown up with the ambition of becoming sicarios, or assassins. Since the average income of a worker is just over fifteen hundred dollars a year and approximately four thousand dollars can be earned with each successful hit, there is no incentive to remain in school or to hold a regular job. Because there is such a high demand for assassins, literal armies of young sicarios are available for hire.

Many other facets of society have suffered. With so many infiltrations, desertions, and outright betrayals damaging their image, an outlaw group of Army officers formed the Military Morals Movement, 3M, which captured, tried, and punished several suspected cartel collaborators before 3M themselves were tried before a Military Tribunal. By assassinating reporters or editors who write about the cartels in an unfavorable light, the cartels are able to exert control over the press.

Through money laundering operations, several sports are controlled by the cartels, and consequently the national soccer league has lost all pretense of fairness. Referees have been killed for being too harsh on cartel teams. Even the guerrillas have not escaped. Due to the success of the MAS in eliminating kidnapping, the guerrillas have been forced to turn to other methods of financing their operations. Logically, some guerrillas have begun running drugs, causing a lot of tension and the formation of splinter groups that reject this form of "corrupt" fund-raising. Some 'political' groups have abandoned their political convictions and turned to outright banditry.

Apart from the corruption in organizations involved in combating the cartel, the influence of the cartel reached into another, more fundamental aspect of Colombian culture. By being involved in negotiations as an intermediary between the government and the "extraditables," and by participating in social reform movements in which the cartel was investing monetary and political capital, the Roman Catholic Church unwittingly became involved in the finances of the cartel. Statements by Father Garc?a Herreros on behalf of Escobar while he was a fugitive sounded more like accolades than positions in a negotiation. The Church has lost its patina of incorruptibility and legitimacy as an intermediary, and has contributed to a general feeling of helplessness that pervades the country.

Unfortunately, the "Zero Tolerance" policy adopted by the U.S. in the early 1990s aggravated certain aspects of the Colombian problem. The tightening of the legal noose in the North led directly to the increase in violence as the cartel began to fear extradition to the United States. The second aspect was simply economic: as the drugs became more scarce on U.S. streets, their price rose, making the business more profitable and attractive. Simple decapitation of the cartel was no longer an effective tactic, since, like the proverbial Hydra, several new heads appeared where there was previously only one. While Zero Tolerance was politically effective within the U.S., it was still only zero tolerance, and not zero traffic. The profit margin for cocaine was still so high that one successful penetration of the U.S. Coast Guard's defenses was sufficient to recoup the losses from several failures. New smuggling routes were developed through Mexico, Europe and Africa that were harder to trace, and more intricate in their planning and execution. The amount of smuggling that avoided interception was still sufficient to maintain the cartels.

Because Colombia had effectively removed its citizens from the jurisdiction of international courts, the only way to affect cartel members who stayed in Colombia was through the international banking system. While the Colombian Army was foiled in its campaign of property seizure, it did not prove so easy for the cartels to foil the legal systems in the countries where the cartels laundered their money. Property and asset seizure in Colombia proved effective in controlling the cartels' activities before it was outlawed by the Colombian Supreme Court, and proved to be the only method of directly damaging the cartel's assets that the U.S. could employ outside Colombia.

How could Colombia extricate itself from these problems? Unfortunately, there seemed to be no internal solution. While the increasing levels of violence used by the cartels to force the constitutional issue raised significant public protests, the approval of the new non-extradition amendments in July of 1991 effectively ended the campaign of terrorism and consequently the public demonstrations. Evidently, the public was willing to tolerate a daily level of violence that exceeded the political will to pursue justice. Because this political will was kept at an ebb by the threat of violence, the cartels were walking a thin line between keeping the politicians cowed and the public passive.

This situation lasted until 1997, when extradition was reinstated, and negotiations began to bring several of the surviving original Medellín cartel founder members to trial in the United States. Pablo Escobar had long since been killed in a shootout with Colombian security forces on December 2, 1993 after his cell-phone location was traced to a safe-house in Medellín. While Jorge Luis and Juan David Ochoa had been arrested and had served time in Colombian prisons under the 1991 constitutional amendments, Fabio Ochoa was re-arrested in 1999 on additional drug charges. The Ochoa family did not enjoy the prospect of their brother following Carlos Lehder (extradited earlier in 1987) into a maximum security prison in Florida, and launched a legal and media campaign to thwart the extradition, but this eventually failed, and Ochoa was extradited in September of 2001 to the U.S. His trial hearings eventually began in Ft. Lauderdale this last week.

It seemed that the Medellín cartel, and its less violent successor, the Cali cartel, had at last been dismantled -- however, what had replaced them was a far more dispersed system of smaller organizations that was still experienced in international trafficking.

Even with extradition, the degree to which the United States can contribute to Colombia's options continues to be limited. Issues of national sovereignty abound in a region sensitive to intervention. The degree of bureaucracy in a Latin government is also a hindrance to U.S. aid, and a help to cartel interference. In the early 1990s, when the U.S. wished to supply the Colombian intelligence community with aerial photographs of the Envigado area, they had to apply to the Colombian States' Council, the Governor of Antioquia, and the Mayor of Envigado, among others, for permission for the flight. The latter two were later found to be on Escobar's payroll. There is still debate between the Colombian Executive and Legislative Branches over the right to grant authorization for U.S. electronic surveillance flights under the new Plan Colombia.

Programs in Peru and Bolivia to wean farmers from the cultivation of coca have had marginal success at best. There is very little that can be done about the intimidation that occurs throughout the countryside, as it is very difficult to fight the drug organizations' policy of plomo o plata, lead or silver, bullets or money, death or bribery. Reducing the demand for narcotics in the U.S., as repeatedly demanded by Colombia, is an American societal problem that cannot be solved within the timescales demanded by politicians.

Drugs remain a formidable force in the erosion of Colombian society. The now-numerous smaller cartels have started to expand into the heroin market, and have also begun operations in Venezuela and Ecuador, where they are slowly buying their way into the judicial and legislative branches of both countries. The guerilla forces continue to use drug trafficking to raise money for their increasingly violent tactics. With the 2002 election of the hard-line president Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian government has resumed prosecution of the cartels and the guerrillas by using both the Army and the Courts, but it will require the combined and coordinated political and social wills of several countries to stop these destructive social forces.


 Monday, May 19, 2003

Curses, foiled again:

Several of my latest attempts at seeing astronomical events have all been foiled by weather. Missed the Leonids last year and this to fog. Missed the transit of Mercury to fog. And I missed the May 16 lunar eclipse to fog. Perhaps it's because I live in a swamp?

Oh well, I only have to wait until November 8, 2003 for the next lunar eclipse, November 8, 2006 for the next transit of Mercury, and only until 2099 for the next equivalent Leonid storm.

Luckily, there is a pretty interesting movie of the 1999 Mercury transit, here.

It's like living inside a clock, except this one only goes to eleven!

 Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Across the wine-dark sea:

As I sat at lunch and contemplated the social niceties of sharing the bill between myself and a set of visitors from Canada, Jamaica, and Uruguay, it occurred to me that the emergence of exchangeable currencies and especially the modern financial system have greatly contributed to the decline of ancient customs of hospitality.

When travellers could not carry much money, for reasons of banditry or simply that there was no way to gauge an exchange rate, they were put up as guests in houses. It was tradition that you simply fed these people, provided for their bedding, and bade them farewell whenever they decided to move on. In exchange, you learned from their tales, and could expect the same courtesy when you had to travel yourself. You were not paid for this courtesy. It was a custom.

The rise of widely accepted currency meant that inns could expect payment, and the rise of exchange rates meant that foreigners could travel more easily. The very recent rise of credit systems and electronic transactions meant that credit cards could be used to purchase services. And that was the end of the free lunch.

So the next time you are in that capital of capitalism, New York, and you wonder about their manners, simply reach in your pocket and feel the cold coins of reason.

 Monday, May 12, 2003

Two. Dos. Deux. Zwei. Dois. Dva. Ni.

Now, this might offend some of you more sensitive types, but it ocurred to me that most pleasurable things in life: a) are fairly fundamental to our existence, b) have to do with things going in or out of our bodies, and c) come in twos.

Consumption and elimination. Sex and childbirth. Smells and a good nose blow.

But perhaps it is just that I have been obsessing about these items lately. I wonder if my neurochemistry is changing...

Little voice heard offstage: Am I having a mid-life crisis?

 Saturday, May 10, 2003


A friend from grad school sent me a link that has a pretty sobering quiz about your "ecological footprint" that is determined by your consumption lifestyle and commuting/travelling habits. There are some very interesting facts about how much arable land there is to sustain human development.

My footprint is 34 acres. If everyone lived like me, we would need 7.6 planets. This hearkens back to my January post about the Chinese standard of living, and what that rise will do to our use of arable farmland...

A full spreadsheet to calculate the impact of your household is available here, in English and metric systems.

What is lacking is a lot of detail on what to do about it. There is no information on what habits are most destructive. I would imagine that jet travel is pretty bad, and contributes to much of my trail through this world... what would be most useful is an idea of what standard of living is implied by a footprint that "used up only one planet." The question could then be phrased: "Are you willing to give up your current standards, and live under the following restrictions?" And I suspect that the answer to that would also be pretty sobering. Politicians already know this, even if subconsciously -- and they know that the political system is completely unable to deal with this kind of problem.

It will be interesting to see how this kind of 'pop' science, as done by NGOs and the United Nations, interfaces with the emerging sustainability science initiatives of the mainstream global change science communities, both in academia, and among various scientific professional and governmental organizations, like the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, the World Climate Research Program, the International Human Dimensions Program, and the regional global change research institutes like START, the Asia-Pacific Network, and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research.

 Thursday, May 08, 2003


I am really enjoying this hair length. It is soft enough not to act as a lint brush (important when you live with two shedding cats), but still short enough that a quick towel dry is all you need. Still have to be aware of sunburn though...

On observing the differences in hair growth rates, I have noticed several things: the hair on the sides of my head grows about 25% faster than that on the top, and the hair near my widow's peak grows slowest of all. Additionally, I noticed that the longer the hair, the more likely it was white. Yes, it appears that white hair often, but not always, grows faster than hair that still has its color. On my head, at least.

 Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Richard Feynman, Erik the Red, Earl Henry Sinclair, and Cristopher Columbus:

The mind sees what it wants to. It is an excellent detector for patterns in seemingly random data, but it also excels at making patterns where none exist. It's built to do that. It's how we learn. And that often gets us into trouble.

Dick Feynman had a very interesting teaching trick to illustrate this problem - he used it several times in different situations, ranging from his freshman physics lectures at Caltech to his lectures during trips after his Nobel Prize award. Feynman would suddenly interrupt himself in the middle of a statistics lecture, and excitedly say something like: "On my way to campus today, I saw a car with the licence plate XRT-375 in the parking lot - isn't that amazing? What are the odds of seeing that exact licence?" After letting the class wrestle with exactly what he was asking, he would make the point that there is a HUGE difference between calculating odds before the fact and after the fact. The chance of seeing that particular plate is simple to calculate: 1/26*1/26*1/26*1/10*1/10*1/10, or about one in eighteen million. And it really would be amazing if you picked a number out of the air, and then found it in the lot. However, Feyman's point was that having seen the plate first, it is unremarkable that you then ask the question about that particular number. The chance is unity. You can't use a set of data to make a hypothesis, and then turn around and use that same data to test the hypothesis!

This problem, using data to test hypotheses that has been previously used to make the hypotheses, is staggeringly common. Sometimes it is obvious, but more often, it is very subtle. In science, epidemiology suffers from this statistical mistake quite frequently. But this made me think about the field of history and its re-use of data, when one of those odd "coincidences" occurred to me.

I recently finished a book by Frederick Pohl, Earl Henry Sinclair. It makes the case for a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1398 by an Earl of the Orkney islands, Henry Sinclair. I love this kind of stuff that rattles established traditions (Columbus as having been the first European to see the Americas), but I couldn't help feeling uneasy about the style of Pohl's writing. Perhaps it was because I was reading a book published for the general public rather than a scholarly paper, but it didn't seem to have any balance to it. It was obvious that Pohl was an out and out fan of Sinclair's and he was having none of anyone's arguments about problems with the evidence. Not surprisingly, it turns out that there is a whole fan club.

Sinclair likely crossed from the Orkneys to Iceland, and may have crossed from there to Greenland at least once during his life. This much is accepted, as traffic between Northern Europe and these areas was common by this time and is well documented. The debate is about whether Sinclair actually travelled from Greenland on to Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and eventually down into Massachusetts. Other people doubtless did, since there are many tales of early explorers of the Eastern coasts of the Americas commonly finding Basque, Portuguese, and Irish fishing crews that claimed they had fished these easterly banks for several generations. The ships Sinclair would have used were much like Viking longships, except by the 14th century they had versions with multiple masts and covered decks. Anyway, on to the "coincidence."

Reading the Sunday section of my newspaper just after finishing Pohl's book, I came across an article about a summer folk festival on the Mall in Washington. Two people participating were going to sail a viking longship from the Orkneys to Washington. One of the people had the surname Sinclair. Isn't that amazing?

And of course, the answer is NO. Succumbing to the thought that this is extraordinary is to fall into Feynman's licence plate trap. What has happened is that you have primed your mind to a particular set of facts, and you will pay attention when they occur again in some combination over the next few months. I would have had the same odd feeling if one of the participants had the surname Pohl. I would have noticed anything to do with Micmac indians, because they too figured prominently in the story. I would have noticed anything to do with Scotland and Norway. And the point is also that I would have noticed a combination of circumstances like that for any one of the other books I was reading at the time. Those kinds of combinations jump out at you - not because something strange is afoot, but because our minds are built to do exactly that: pick out patterns that might mean something, or might be useful to our survival. Where you go from there with that feeling, that information is the critical part - whether you believe in mere coincidence or whether you turn to non-scientific explanations is completely a matter of conditioning. It is not scientific education, because there are plenty of scientists and even statisticians who will make irrational choices when faced with similar circumstances.

And what about bonnie Prince Henry? Well, of course there are impassioned debates about whether he really did make it across the Atlantic. There is an critical article by Alastair Hamilton here, that seems to tear apart any chance that the crossing actually ocurred. Hamilton's article too, has the flavor of complete conviction, this time in a more scholarly format. But it is still vitriolic, and nowhere near the balance I would hope could surround this type of debate. Orkneymen seem to favor Hamilton's view, as do many historians - and despite the presence of an outline of a 14th century knight holding a shield associated with Sinclair carved (OK, punched) into a Massachusetts stone ledge, I tend to agree with them. It strikes me as odd that the Orkneys, with such powerful oral traditions as the Orkeyinga Saga would have no trace of a story about an Earl who travelled to such a far off and strange land and who had later returned.

It struck me that both these sides, and indeed historians generally, are caught by their traditions and academic training in a perpetual Feynman licence plate trap. They try and explain given facts with a hypothesis, and then turn around immediately to use those same facts to prove the hypothesis.

But I don't see any easy way out for them either. They simply have to recognize that many of their methods are statistically invalid. And that's not an easy admission for an academic, especially a historian with a proud tradition invested in the particular way they do research.

 Saturday, May 03, 2003

Blogger Template Issues:

Aha! Every once in a while, when I fiddle with my template (adding a link, etc.) somehow the "Save Changes" doesn't quite do the job. This time I found that one of the HTML tag brackets had been replaced by its escape characters, which made the rest of the page choke the browser, even though it was all there when viewing the source...

Thankfully I avoided having to build my template again from scratch, like last time.


 Friday, May 02, 2003

Mongkut, Kojak, Serkis:

And day 14 arrives:

At last enough hair for some protection from the sun! Now I need some padding for protection from open drawers and cabinets -- boy is the scalp sensitive to bangs and dents without that protective cushion of hair...