So we finally killed him. This is a good thing; he was a bad person and definitely deserved to die. However, after hearing news of his death I felt…not unhappy, but unsatisfied. I had reasonable expectations, I think, I wasn’t planning for the world to suddenly sprout puppies and rainbows when he breathed his last, but I just couldn’t get into the same feeling as all those cheering in front of the White House.

I think it’s because in my mind it’s because we never beat him. I know this sounds odd, but please hear me out. Bin Laden was a terrorist, and a decent strategist, but he wasn’t a supervillain or mastermind. His plan was clear, simple, and very well-done given our reaction. Al-Qaeda performs a major strike on our (at the time, and maybe still now) poorly-defended infrastructure. This sets the US into high alert, and we chase after him into Afghanistan, AKA “The Graveyard of Empires” AKA “The Land that Kicked the Last Two Superpower’s Asses so hard they never recovered”. Russia invaded and failed, Britain invaded and failed, and we tromped in there like we had learned nothing. Using the Northern Alliance and drones as combat proxies were some very smooth tricks, though. Credit where credit is due.

We did pretty well, but Afghanistan is still a quagmire. Every time we accidentally kill a civilian (or 32 ) we give previously neutral civilians the resentment they need to become terrorists. We get stuck in a feedback loop where when we kill bad guys, it makes more bad guys, and to put it bluntly bullets cost money. Al-Qaeda had us charging about like a bull in a china shop in Afghanistan and Iraq, and like a very secretive bull in a china shop in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Jordan. Insurgents, being locals who know the land, and look just like the civies we’re supposed to protect, can pop out with pinprick attacks and then go to ground. We’ll certainly kill them eventually, but they do a lot of monetary damage and waste our time. We exhaust ourselves financially and militarily chasing shadows and killing terrorist after terrorist while they seem inexhaustible.

Any boxing fans out there? Then you’re probably already thinking this sounds like rope-a-dope. Good catch. Osama knew that you don’t beat a superpower by bombing its cities, you beat it by bankrupting it (after all, that was Reagan’s successful strategy to beat the USSR, and India’s versus Britain). To quote Hobbes (friend of Calvin, not political philosopher) “The first [snowball] was to make you turn around.” Bin Laden’s tactics were to drag us into costly wars and chase after him. He was a sick old man who needed kidney dialysis; he was going to be dead soon anyways. As long as he lived, however, he could make us exhaust ourselves chasing after him, make us clamp down on civil liberties at home, push away our allies in the international community, and cause collateral damage which led to fresh new crops of terrorists.

This problem is aggravated by the fact that most terrorist organizations are heavily decentralized. Remember how often we killed Al-Qaeda’s Number 3? And how it seemed to never actually have an effect? Well, control of Al-Qaeda has now passed to their Number 3. We got their mascot, and I would like to give kudos to Obama and our DoD teams who were willing to wait so we could get a body and not make him an ambiguously dead folk hero. But we’re still stuck in the trap he set for us and I’m not seeing much movement towards extricating ourselves from it.

I think this is why I’m unsatisfied. As long as he was alive, I could imagine us changing tactics and beating him. I always secretly hoped one day we’d wake up and go “Oh, wow, I can’t believe we fell for it! We’re withdrawing our land armies and sending in specialist teams with lots of local connections and intel to selectively target known leaders and threats. Then we’re going to perform studies to determine what practices actually are useful in stopping terrorist threats rather than engaging in security kabuki and infringing on people’s rights.” Now that he’s dead, we’ll never get the satisfaction of beating him, and have to settle for mounting his corpse as a trophy or something.

He’s dead and I hope he rots in the worst hell I can imagine, but I can’t help feeling like he was laughing at us as he died.


The Sliding Scale of Pascal’s Wager

In Response To Measuring Someones Worth Using Their Post Apocalyptic Value

Continuing the spirited discussion (would it be better to call it “dramatic argument”? Would that drive more pageviews?) of the last few posts, I do think Mutt has several valid points. The PAV metric is a workable system for rating people, but I think using it as the sole metric is a bad idea for a simple reason: the world hasn’t ended yet.

This is not to say it never will, or that preparation for it is a bad thing. Quite the contrary, there’s a reason governments are always pushing for “disaster preparedness” kits, it shows how truly fragile our society is that a large storm can functionally bring the apocalypse to a local area for a time. Having skills useful in such situations is a good thing.

However, we are finite creatures. There is only so much we can learn or become in our lifetime. And for every thing you spend an hour, day, or year learning, that is one less hour, day, or year to learn a different thing. As humans we are constantly faced with choices on what to devote time to learning. We generally try to learn things that are immediately (or at least clearly) useful to us. The dilemma comes when what we should learn for apocalyptic survival and what we should learn for survival in our current world are in conflict.

Are you employed as an artist, programmer, writer, teacher, game designer, accountant, lawyer, secretary, lab technician, data-entrant, policy analyst or academic? Congratulations. Your job is useless in the apocalypse. However, you’ll notice that you are not currently dead, because those job skills are in demand, so you are paid money which allows you to purchase food and shelter. At some point you sacrificed mastering apocalyptic skills for what we can call “mysterious” skills (“Apokalyptein” is Greek for “revelation/to uncover”, “musterion”, aka mystery, means “secret knowledge or rites” and is sort of the opposite). Frankly, this is a good bet in most cases. The only reason having a high PAV matters at all is because it resembles Pascal’s Wager: if the unlikely event of the world ending actually happens, you’re pretty badly doomed unless well-prepared. While the world ending is highly unlikely at any single point in time, at some point entropy will wreck our collective day and only the prepared and lucky will survive.

This leads to a spectrum of tactics various people take in response. On one end are people that don’t wait for society to collapse, but leave early and behave as if society already has. Hermits in cabins, those that “go Galt”, and various survivalists will likely be unaffected by the destruction of society. They have focused wholly on apocalyptic skills. At the other end are those who intentionally or unintentionally live assuming society is going to be around for them. Celebrities, specialized technicians, and others dependent on society are similarly focused on the mysterious skills. Most people are somewhere in between these two poles, if I had to guess I’d say I’m pretty close to median, and Mutt is somewhere between me and the apocalyptic pole.

This issue gets further clouded by the range of apocalyptic skills. I am, to say the least, terrible with guns. My aim is crap and I wouldn’t know how to maintain one unless it came with an owner’s manual. That said, I can knap flint, not as effectively as an anthropology grad student can (Seriously, if all tech falls apart hang on to the anthropology grad students, they will live quite happily), but enough that I could more efficiently put holes in delicious animals. Depending on the scale and grade of societal destruction, that may be a useful or useless skill. Similarly, if a the disaster causes enough deaths then food-collection skills might be unimportant simply because the survivors will have enough canned goods to learn farming from trial and error. Alternately, a war may mean that those with a skillset as nerdy and mystery-based as theoretical physics will be welcomed in eagerly by another nation and never really experience a loss of civilization (hey, it worked for Einstein, right?). Maximizing your PAV could be done by just mastering enough skills (or bringing sufficient tractor-trailers of resources to approximate skills) out into the middle of nowhere and never interacting with human society again. While this makes you a person with a good PAV, I’m unsure it makes you a good person.


The Return of Baron Samoyed

When I started this project, I knew from the beginning that this blog would have an occasional guest post. Especially after my friends told me that they wanted to write things but didn’t have a place to. The fallowing is not one of those people, but rather someone who Ive known forever and who first introduced me to my writing hero David Wong. So when I told him that I was starting a writing project, he said “Oh, I’ll write articles with you. I am a professional writer after all.” So without further adieu:

Hello all, I’m Mutt’s co-blogger, the pseudonymous Baron Samoyed. I have a black belt in haiku and a black vest at the cleaners, and my diet is deficient in moral fiber.

More seriously though, I’m a friend of our head blogger here, and a writer by vocation. I didn’t actually want to write growing up, but pretty much moments after I graduated college I was politely informed that no one else was hiring. Considering this was less than a year ago you can understand why I’m still a little sore over the whole thing. I’m staying pseudonymous because I’d like to protect what little dignity my work persona has, and the only way I’ll ever be able to tell you about the time I was in Tucson, Arizona at the height of summer and drank nothing but vodka for three straight days and began hallucinating I was being attacked by giant beetles except about 15% of the beetles were actually real and so forth, is by pretending that my real name will not someday get attached to this. It’s a fragile illusion, I know, but do it for the beetles.

As for what I can tell you about me, I’m mostly your average nerd, except I was raised by military parents outside the US for many years, and so didn’t get a computer until I was a sophomore in high school. As a result most videogames, American TV shows, nerd pop culture, and spelling “travelling” with only a single L are things I’ve never quite gotten used to. I like to think my knowledge of medicinal and edible plants, large collection f 60′s-80′s science fiction, and my proud habit of overthinking everything make up for it. I enjoy videogames but even the ones I like I tend to pick apart in a frenzy of disgust (see “overthinking” above), and the ones I dislike I can howl about for hours.

I’ve never blogged before so I don’t want to make any crazy claims of consistency or sanity in my posts, especially since my day job gets first dibs on both. Still, I’ll try and hang around and help Mutt move in, and I hope to see you around.