Palmyra retaken

One of the more interesting pieces of news this week was that Assad’s troops have retaken Palmyra, and sent ISIS packing. This makes the whole future peace process for Syria somewhat more interesting, because while most in the West have been wanting Assad out, getting him to step down now has become a lot more difficult. Why should he go, particularly the instant he does he will be subject to victor’s justice: either death or an extended period of so-called trials and extensive imprisonment? The reason I say victor’s justice is that the winners never face such trial, irrespective of how much damage they have done.

Of more interest are the strategic issues illustrated by this sequence of events. What we see is a clear strategic victory for Russia over the West, at least for the time being, and it is of interest to see why. There are several rules of strategy, but we can look at the simplest to get the picture:

(1) Have a clear objective,

(2) Have an operational mechanism by which it might be achieved,

(3) Recognize that the situation is what it is, and not what you wish it were

The US failed in the first rule. The US had more than one objective, and the two main ones were mutually contradictory: get rid of ISIS, get rid of Assad. The second objective let to the US and Saudi funding and supplying with hardware that happened to be superior to what Assad had a number of “moderate” Sunni insurgents. These “moderates” included serious al Qaeda groups, and most supported a type of government based on Wahhabi religious principles. The US, of course, was also bombing ISIS wherever they happened to be. How effective that was remains to be seen, but they certainly destroyed a lot of infrastructure. The problem was the “moderates” were not fighting ISIS, and had the moderates won and deposed Assad, Syria would be effectively a Wahhabi state run under conditions similar to what ISIS imposes, so effectively ISIS would have won too. Sure, ISIS might have been moderated slightly, with no public executions of foreigners, but for the average Syrian, it would most likely have been either accept Wahhabi doctrine of suffer. The Russians, on the other hand, had two clear objectives: stamp down on Islamic terrorism, which means stamp down on ISIS and the al Qaeda run “moderates”, and retain the Syrian naval base.

The second rule is most important, and should be accompanied by the advice from General Wesley Clark: “There are two sorts of plans; those that won’t work and those that might work. Take one that might work and make it work.” Ultimately, only infantry can take and hold territory, so any plan to get rid of ISIS that might work had to involve infantry deployment.

Now, strategy involves the best deployment of the assets you have, and it is here that Russia showed its first appreciation of reality. Neither the West nor Russia wanted to send in ground troops, so let us consider the third rule. Immediately we see there were three and only three sources of infantry: ISIS, the “moderates” and Assad. Russia wishes to supress two of those, so that left the third as the only source of infantry. The US seemed to think that by some unspecified mechanism Assad could be persuaded to go and some benevolent form of democracy would suddenly flourish. With such shining examples as Iraq and Libya to base their thinking, this was simply a dream.

The Russians thought of a plan that might work: degrade the enemy strength with air power then take the ground with infantry. Therefore Assad’s troops were needed for defeating ISIS, but they were bogged down by the Wahhabi “moderates”. Solution: bomb the “moderates” and give Assad’s troops some more modern coherent tactical support. That seems to have worked and Assad’s troops recovered much of the “moderates'” territory. Meanwhile, the Turks had been busy helping the “moderates” with supply, as for some reason they also wanted Assad out of the frame. The solution to that problem was somewhat cunning: the Russians seem to have managed to free up a zone along the northern border, which the Kurds have rushed in to occupy. That prevents Turkey giving more help to Assad’s opposition, because while Turkey was doing what it could to depose Assad, the Kurds are running opposition in Turkey, so anti-Turk Kurdish insurgents have a safe home just over the border, and Turkey has a problem. All of this frees up Assad’s troops to deal to ISIS. And, of course, Assad should be sufficiently grateful to leave Russia its naval base, which would certainly be lost had ISIS or any Sunni or Turkish opposition prevailed.

If we look at the US strategy in the region, there is no clear strategy at all. There is no clear objective. Bombing ISIS is not an objective. They want Assad gone, but there was no reasonable mechanism by which this might be achieved without strengthening ISIS, which they also want gone. In other words, they had two partial objectives that were mutually contradictory, and no real operational mechanism to achieve either.

The Russian achievement may not be huge, but it is significant. The West will rail against leaving Assad in power, because Assad is “bad”. True, he does not live up to Western ideals, but he has the clear advantage of having a secular government, and frankly I think that is better than any government run on Wahhabi principles.

Revisiting the Relativistic Cat Paradox

I have put forward my relativistic cat paradox both in a previous post here, but also elsewhere, and I received various comments. Accordingly, I thought I should resurrect it, and address some of the points made that are not recorded in the original post. At the risk of being repetitive, the essence of the paradox, which is a variant of the twin paradox, is as follows:

To test the premise that all inertial reference frames are of equal standing, Fred and my five-year-old cat Horatio participate in a thought experiment. Horatio is put into a cat friendly space ship (SS1), I put myself into SS2, and the two ships accelerate rapidly then coast as close as possible to light speed in the direction of Epsilon Eridani, which is about 10.5 light years away, leaving observer Fred behind. The ships loop around the back of Epsilon eridani, then returns to Earth, landing where we took off. Fred and I ach calculate what should happen to Horatio, bearing in mind a cat seldom lives more than 20 years, then we open the hatch to SS1, and the question then is, which calculations are correct?

First, the issue is not, can we agree what we shall see before we open the hatch? Of course we can! The question is, can we agree on what we shall see when we view a third object from two inertial frames of reference without assigning a special preference for one, because Einstein argued that all inertial frames of reference are equally valid. Actually, that comes straight from Galilean relativity, but in that there is no effect on time or space from velocity.

Reviewing the situation, both parties agree there are three phases of acceleration, and two of coasting. I left acceleration out of the original post because all observers agree on the rate of acceleration. (That is an oddity, if you like, of all relativity, including Galilean.) Acceleration will cause time dilation, but since all parties agree on the rate of acceleration, both Fred and I agree what that will be. Accordingly we focus on the inertial stages. Here, time is dilated through a factor of γ where γ = 1/√(1 – v2/c2). Accordingly, Fred sees Horatio sailing through space where v ≈ c, and hence concludes Horatio should hardly age. Fred predicts Horatio will be alive. I, however, see v = 0 in my frame of reference, and Horatio ages about 11 years on reaching Epsilon Eridani, and another 11 years on the way back. (If I look forward, from the Doppler effect on the spectra I see Epsilon Eridani hurtling towards me at near light speed, but that only means that to me, anyone in that star system is not aging.) Accordingly, I predict Horatio will be dead.

This is similar to the twin paradox, for which there are various explanations. The twin paradox is often explained by the twin on Earth sending signals to the ship, and applying something similar to the Doppler effect. Such signals are irrelevant; whatever happens should be irrespective of any signalling. Some other people considered the time dilation was due to acceleration, and we all agree on what has accelerated. Thus following acceleration, there is time dilation caused by “enhanced mass”, because mass is enhanced by γ. We could also say the traveller knows he has accelerated, as has Horatio, and therefore he knows he is the one sustaining the time dilation. Another comment was that the distance has shortened, so the amount of time evolved must be less. That is all very correct, but there is a flaw in the argument.: these explanation still ultimately depend on γ, which in turn depend on the value of v put into the term. If you are coasting, or you are observing Horatio, in your frame of reference, v = 0. What has happened is that these explanations, while they have the virtue of each party getting the same result, which also is most likely to be correct, they only get it because the traveller is still using the stationary observer’s frame of reference. Following the acceleration, they know they are moving at near light speed, therefore they get the same answer by putting in the same value of v but that means there is only one frame of reverence: Fred’s. This avoids the problem of the paradox, but only by deleting the cause of the paradox and ignoring the point the paradox was addressing.

A true theory should always give the correct answer, irrespective of who is calculating, but in this case that can only happen if both use the same value of v because v is the only variable in the equation that is used to calculate the effect. If you do not accept v as a variable, then you reject the fundamental theory. But v depends on the frame of reference, as a velocity represents the change of distance between the object and a reference point. Accordingly, you cannot get a constant value of v unless both parties use the same frame of reference.

If you accept a preferred frame of reference, you have to explain why it is preferred. In the above, the preferred frame of reference was where the journey started and ended, and that is logical because then the time dilation is proportional to the kinetic energy imparted by the applied force. An alternative is that there is indeed a preferred background frame of reference. If so, we could not discern this as yet because the Earth would be moving too slowly with respect to the background to make any discernible difference. But either way, in my opinion you cannot have all frames of reference being equally valid.

How not to stimulate the economy

One of the more interesting, and at least in some quarters, unexpected, aspects of the current financial system is this. In 2007 – 2008 there was effectively a financial meltdown, and to prevent total economic collapse through the big banks failing, Central Banks began printing large amounts of money. The collapse was averted, and we all have our own opinions on how valid that treatment was, but that is not what is my puzzle. Whether the treatment was right or inappropriate is irrelevant for the present, because it worked, at least to some extent.

But now we come to the puzzle. The Central Banks kept issuing more and more money in an attempt to stimulate the economies of the world, and the economies of the world refused to be stimulated. Obviously, this money was not being invested in new business or there would be massive growth of jobs. But that by itself is also not the answer to our current problems because in principle, if all that money was sloshing around, there should be rampant inflation, as too much money would be chasing too few goods and services. But that has not happened either. The question is, why not? At this point we should also remember that inflation arises from too much money circulating at too high a “velocity” – a sort of economic momentum. Perhaps the answer is, the velocity is too low?

I rather suspect that is the case, and there is a very good reason for this, and, as readers of my writing, either blogs or futuristic novels might guess, the problem lies at least in part with giant corporations.

Ha, some will groan: the favourite whipping boy. But I am afraid it is true, and we can put numbers on it. The problem is as follows. Giant corporations have been running their transactions through tax havens. According to a report I have seen that quoted the US lobby group Citizens for Tax Justice, America’s 500 largest companies hold more than 2.1 trillion dollars in cash in countries such as Bermuda, Luxembourg, and so on. The origin is various tax rorts, by which all taxation occurs in a very friendly environment for tax.

Now, the problem then is they cannot bring that money back to the US without having to pay the IRS tax on it, and since there may well be no tax treaties with these tax havens, had they levied any tax, the corporation might suffer double taxation. Either way, the corporations seem determined to leave the money where their own countries’ tax departments cannot get at it. There are two reasons why this might lead to the velocity of that money becoming near zero. First, most banks in tax havens will not have the skill to do anything with it. Second, the corporation could want it back in a massive slug, so the bank has to hold it. No need to feel sorry for the bank, of course. It should levy negative interest rates on it.

Accordingly, 2.1 trillion dollars is effectively taken out of circulation. That is a huge amount, and is quite capable of accounting for why the issuing of so much money has had so little effect. Of course if that 2.1 trillion dollars suddenly started moving again, there should be serious consequences on the inflation front. All of which means that as only too often in economics, or at least as seen by governments, the left hand seems to ignore what the right hand is doing. It is impossible to stimulate the economy by putting money into it if roughly the same amount of money is being secreted away for some other reason.

What can be done about that? In my futuristic novels, my answer was to have a common tax rate throughout the Federation of countries, and agreed no double taxation. That meant that corporations would try to pay the right amount of tax in the given country because it was good for their image, and there were no downsides. A Federal government made that a lot easier to implement, but common taxation is something that could be agreed, except it won’t because the tax havens would be out of business.

May I now wish everyone all the best for a happy Easter, irrespective of one’s religious feelings. As for me, on my Monday, I shall make another scientific post, resurrecting my relativistic cat paradox, to explain what is involved a little bit more clearly, and to respond to the various comments I have received, both at the end of the previous post, and also from other sources where something like that was posted.

Spectacular Candidate Promises

Perhaps it is just because I am a foreigner and don’t understand, but the current US Presidential primaries really surprise me. Of course it is not my place to comment on how Americans should vote, but there have been some issues associated with these that go to the heart of the voting process most of the Western “democracies” use. The problem is that the system should deliver some combination of what the people want and what is in the best interests of the country. Only too often it seems to be focused on capturing as many votes as possible from those who are not interested in the details, and this is achieved by making spectacular statements that the politician knows will not be analyzed by most recipients. Accordingly, the problem as I see it is how to make governments act in the best interests of the country while following the basic objectives desired by the majority of the public. This leaves the problem, how to achieve it?

In some of my futuristic novels, I have included various forms of governance, including one I made up myself. In my scheme, while the people vote in their countries for who will govern them, there is a higher authority that throws them out if they announce a specific policy while campaigning and, in the absence of clearly unforeseen circumstances, they refuse to implement it in a timely fashion. This higher authority also points out any impracticalities in a stated policy, and clearly analyses the likely consequences. Further, if they do not announce any policy at all, they are disqualified before the election.

The first announcement that caught my attention was to build a wall between the US and Mexico. The bit that really caught my eye was that the Mexicans would pay for it. Why would they do that? And if they refuse, which strikes me as the most likely outcome, what will the US do about that? Short of invasion, what can they do? They could specifically tax Mexican imports, but that would violate international trade agreements. The proposal of a wall would undoubtedly stimulate votes from a segment of the population, especially if the promise was they would not have to pay for it, but is that what this form of government is supposed to achieve?

Of course there is a “Great Wall” that is quite a tourist attraction, but that raises the question, would a “Pathetic Wall of America” do the same? Or is something truly grand being proposed? I confess to having made an effort to see the Berlin Wall, and the East German border wall, but the reason for doing this was to see what extent the East Germans would go to keep their citizens in. A minefield and the machine gun towers were certainly a means of restricting people from crossing, but are these the options being chosen? Would Americans tolerate this? Also, if you are going to have manned machine gun towers along the border, why not save time and money and have regular border controls? Is there not a cheaper alternative using more modern technology? Has anybody worked out how many people would have to man this proposed wall? Who would build this wall? Since so much industry has been contracted out to China over the past few decades, maybe subcontract this to China, on the grounds they have some sort of experience at building walls?

Another proposal was to close down the IRS. How, under this scheme, would the government get the money it needs to function? Even if you closed down all government functions, including defence, police, prisons, and many other essential services in a modern economy, there is still the requirement to pay interest on debt totaling, as I understand, something like 70 % of GDP. One also assumes such proposals do not include starving prisoners to death while the prisons are closed with a general lockdown in place.

An alternative would be to privatize tax collection. That has been tried, and the results have not been promising. This was the technique used by the Romans, and the tax collector had to ensure the appropriate amount of tax went to the Roman Treasury. There was no salary for the tax collector; he had to get his income from what extra he collected. This was supposed to be a fixed per centage, but as you might imagine some of the collectors got a little enthusiastic on their collection. Does the average American really want his tax collected mafia style? Then there is the question of tax evasion. Who assesses? This privatization of tax collection, if that is the scheme, would certainly generate more organized crime than prohibition. It may well be that is not the scheme, but what is?

You may say, such strange proposals would never get through Congress. But if that is the case, why is it permitted to gather votes? In one sense this does not matter to me as I am not voting and I do not have to live with the consequences. Unfortunately, that last point is not quite true. The US is such an important country that whatever happens inside it inevitably ends up influencing most other countries.

Capitalism in action

I have had a certain amount of fun in these posts lamenting the somewhat depressing level of logic when applied to the analysis of events, and so I see no reason to stop now. Another focus of mine has been related to governance, largely because I use various forms of governance as a background in my futuristic ebooks. Like thought experiments, if I set up a somewhat novel form of governance, the story requires me to find a way that makes it fail to do what it was set up to do. Unfortunately, I found that only too depressingly easy to do. The basic principle is that as soon as you set up something that in principle should benefit everyone, a few jump in to ensure they capture the benefits, at the expense of the ordinary people.

A classic example comes from New Zealand petroleum products. New Zealand is a small country that produces a significant amount of crude oil, but not enough, and it was decided at one stage to build a refinery to handle imported and local crude. The oil majors took shares in the refinery, and by all using it, it guaranteed the refinery would be fully utilised, which in turn meant it would run efficiently. In fact a modest fraction of refined products are also imported.

You may see where this is going. What we have by essentially all the oil majors who are significant in New Zealand owning the refinery, and almost all of the distribution outlets, is a cartel, but it is legal. The price of crude oil has, as you may all know, dropped to about $30/ bbl, where a bit over a year ago, it was well over $100 / bbl. So, the New Zealand motorist should be enjoying lower petrol prices, right? Well, we are, but only to a point, and not a very deep point.

The refinery has recently announced a 1400% increase in profit, essentially based on lower input prices, not matched by reduction in product price. The Chief Executive Officer of the refinery stated publicly the refinery was in a “manufacturing nirvana”. Yes, it would be. So, what about competition? Well, there is a small company that imports directly from Singapore, and it offers decidedly cheaper petrol. So, why do people not just buy theirs? Well, the simple answer is they only operate in a few cities, and the majors lower their prices to match but only in those cities. Everywhere else, the price has stayed nicely up.

Where my grizzle with logic comes to play is when the CEO was forced to give a public statement on this. Of course the company was not taking advantage of the consumer, he said. It’s the motorists driving the fuel prices up. Apparently we want higher prices. He claimed it is the consumer deciding they want to drive more. And did you know, sales of SUVs in the US were soaring” (Exactly what that has to do with the price of refining fuel in New Zealand eludes me.) His argument, as quoted in my local newspaper was, “We would only be rorting them (the consumers) if demand was slumping and we saw at the pump that people couldn’t afford it and we were still trying to hold the price up.”

That summarizes that form of capitalism quite well: if the consumer is prepared to pay, stick it to them, while if competition forces us, we drop the price, but only where the competition is. Yes, it is more efficient than some other economic systems, but for whom?

So I think capitalism is bad? Actually, no. I think unnecessary greed is bad. Marxism simply does not work, but that does not mean there is no need to restrain those who have access to semi-monopoly positions. Stamping down unnecessary greed is one role for national governance.

What brought down MH 17 – how to analyse data.

Logic is what enables one to draw correct conclusions from established facts. Unfortunately, its use is sometimes in short supply, and coupled with that, facts seem to be adjusted to suit the desired conclusion. A recent example of such analysis came from a report by Bellingcat, an independent team of analysts, on the downing of flight MH 17. The conclusion: it was “highly likely” that Russia, and in particular, Putin, ordered the downing of the aircraft. A British paper also jumped in by finding someone who supported that, and added in MH 370 to the list of Putin’s dastardly deeds. Before going further, I should add that this post is not concerned with “who did it?” but rather was the evidence within these claims justified? So, what was Bellingcat’s evidence?

The first piece of evidence is the 53rd antiaircraft brigade was sent towards the Ukrainian border just prior to the event. Everyone knew the Russian military were carrying out exercises there, so that is hardly a surprise. They then argue that there was a marking on the side of the equipment that is generally on Russian equipment, and “seldom on Ukrainian”, a statement for which no further evidence was supplied. The purpose of this marking appears to indicate the centre of gravity, which is critical for loading onto trailers, and the Buk system that allegedly brought down MH 17 was driven on a trailer. Now, unless Ukrainians want to have a serious control problem in managing their vehicles, they will have some way of knowing where the centre of gravity is, and a marking is clearly the quickest way to manage that. So the presence of any marking may more reflect common sense and experience rather than point of origin.

They then show a video clip of a Russian Buk system headed towards the border (i.e. in Russia) and one at Luhansk about the same time. Both are claimed to have the same loading mark. Actually, the second image is very poorly defined, so maybe a little imagination is required here, but if you know the answer you want, getting it is far from implausible. They also provide an image in which half of a 3-digit number could be seen, so the rest was interpolated (guessed) but the significance of it eludes me. It is hard to say this shows it belongs to the 53rd brigade because there is no evidence the Russian army provides obvious evidence to observers to help foreign intelligence, and 53 is a 2-digit number.

However, for me, the critical part of these images is what is omitted from the comments. The shape of the two units are far different. The latest Russian unit is far more massive, and while the images are difficult to reconcile because the second one is so poor, the second unit is demonstrably shorter. The conclusion I draw is exactly the opposite of these analysts: the short unit is an older unit.

To summarize, the conclusion that MH 17 was brought down by a Buk is indeed highly likely. That it was brought down by a recently supplied Buk 3×2 is postulated without any evidence at all. The image of some other system is simply not relevant. What is even more interesting is the report alleges the Russian soldiers from the 53rd brigade would have pulled the trigger. If that were so, the Russian army would never send in an advanced piece of equipment unsupported by infantry from a motor rifle unit. That is failing military strategy 101, and whatever you may say about the Russian army, it is not incompetent. The image in Luhansk was unsupported.

What evidence should be there? Well, the remains of MH 17 have been all collected and taken away. Assuming everything was found, there should also be remains of the missile that brought it down. Those remains will specify what it was. Images of Russian soldiers would also help, but are far from necessary. Once you know what brought it down, the case is closed apart from who pulled the trigger.

The idea that Putin would order it and to allege that without any evidence other than that he is President of Russia borders on the ridiculous. First, why would he do so? What possible gain could there be? Why pick on MH 17? What has Malaysia done to him? How would the troops know how to pick out MH 17 from the other aircraft flying overhead? (Had it been the 53rd brigade, their equipment would allow them to identify the aircraft as a civilian plane, in which case it would have been deliberate.) However, the older Buk system the eastern Ukrainians would have had access to when the eastern armouries were “acquired” would not have this ability, particularly in the hands of rebels. Recall the east was being bombed regularly by the western Ukrainians so the rebels, when they saw an aircraft on their radar, why would they not let fly? They were hardly skilled.

For me, it is hardly helpful to provide such reports when the obvious evidence is missing, or unavailable to them. Rather than wait for it to become available, they let fly anyway. Why? My guess is simple publicity for themselves. That is hardly encouraging. Nor is the failure to establish facts and use logic instead of rhetoric.