Letters home from Eastern Canada…

Archive for May, 2011

Iraq War Civilian Fatalities

A report by – Heather Spoonheim

With estimates for civilian casualties in Iraq ranging from one hundred thousand to one million, one must wonder – what the hell is going on? For the most part, it seems, the parties producing these numbers are making no attempts whatsoever to mislead anyone. The reason such a wide discrepancy exists between the highest and lowest numbers being reported is that the statistic is simply not a straight forward matter at all.

In truth, only a window to an alternate reality could provide a truly objective evaluation of the civilian toll. If one could accurately determine civilian deaths in Iraq from that alternate reality and then compare those to the civilian deaths in the Iraq of our reality, the difference would provide a very objective basis for evaluation.

In lieu of such a window, however, one is left grasping for rather elusive evidence. Essentially, the best method left available to the statistician is determining and comparing mortality rates for before and after the invasion/occupation. In a culture that demands a body be in the ground in short order, however, and in an environment where the infrastructure required to establish firm records has been compromised, sourcing such statistics is difficult, at best.

One source, and a very fortunate one to have, is Iraq Body Count (IBC). Initially set up before the invasion of Iraq began, IBC has kept very meticulous records of confirmed civilian war/violence related fatalities throughout the conflict and occupation. Their record set is somewhat limited, however, since fatalities that are not reported by media sources available in English are not recorded by IBC. Even so, IBC fatality statistics must be highly regarded as setting a very reliable minimum number of civilian fatalities resulting from the Iraq war/occupation.

Substantiation of IBC’s numbers can be found in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD is an extensive database of over 87,000 terrorist ‘events’ spanning the years 1970 through 2008. A query of the GTD for events that resulted in fatalities in Iraq from 2003 through 2008 provides a record set that seems to correlate with the IBC statement of civilian deaths attributable to suicide attacks and vehicle bombs over that same period. IBC reports those numbers as deaths per day for each year, and the table below compares those numbers with GTD results for those years divided by 365.

Year IBC/Day GTD/Day
2003 1.4 1.4
2004 5.2 7.4
2005 10.0 12.2
2006 16.0 12.6
2007 21.0 18.1
2008 10.0 7.7

It should be noted that the GTD records only events considered to be acts of terrorism. It is unlikely that acts of inter-sectarian violence are often classified as terrorist events, resulting in the GTD not recording many fatalities that are recorded by IBC. Furthermore, given that IBC only records civilian fatalities, the IBC does not record fatalities of military personnel listed in the GTD. Considering these differences in methodology, it is rather notable that the resulting numbers from each database correlate so tightly. The only year for which the GTD records more fatalities than IBC is 2004, although it might be assumed that in the early months following the invasion there were many more military than civilian targets, or that the military has been more capable than the general public in adapting defenses to suicide attacks and vehicle bombs.

The IBC firmly establishes the minimum number of violent civilian fatalities that have occurred during the Iraq war/occupation, and it is also an invaluable tool for determining an expected distribution of such fatalities. The full total of excess civilian deaths of the Iraq war/occupation, however, cannot be established with such certainty.

The methodology for determining total excess civilian deaths requires the use of well designed interviews of members of randomly selected clusters of households and established practices of interpreting the resulting data. To date there are only two peer reviewed studies that have attempted this task – a rather daunting one considering the security issues faced by doing door to door surveys in an unstable country, with at least one survey taker actually becoming a statistic himself.

One of those peer reviewed studies, published in the Lancet, estimated that there were over 600,000 excess violent civilian deaths from the invasion/occupation by June of 2006. The other peer reviewed study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by the Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS) estimated that there were approximately 150,000 excess violent civilian deaths during the same period. By comparison, IBC reported approximately 100,000 confirmed violent civilian deaths being accumulated by October of 2006.

Given the 100,000 confirmed deaths recorded by IBC, one is left to wonder how the 600,000 estimate reported in the Lancet could vary so greatly from the 150,000 estimate reported by the IFHS. There have been wide ranging criticisms of both reports that go well beyond the scope of this short review. The criticisms of the Lancet report, however, seem to be made from incredulity and focus mostly on the sample sizes and true randomness of distribution. The criticisms of the IFHS report, on the other hand, seem to center on the potential for underreporting of violent causes of death due to the involvement of government affiliated survey takers and a ministry controlled by Moktada al Sadr.

As the death toll in Iraq continues to accumulate, those who profit from sensational headlines tend to gravitate towards seven figure casualty estimates. Staunchly conservative analysts, conversely, gravitate towards the barely six figure number of confirmed fatalities reported by IBC. The truth of the matter, however, would seem to lay somewhere in between. Even assuming a rather moderate figure of 250,000 civilian casualties of the Iraq war and occupation to date, it is sobering to realize that the civilian cost of just that one theatre of battle in the ‘War on Terror’ is greater than the total worldwide death toll from terrorism during the entire lifetime of this writer, and yet the occupation and violence are far from over.


I am an Atheist, NOT a Scientist!

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

As a ‘strong’ Atheist, I believe there are no gods. That is a belief that I am very comfortable, if not enthusiastic, to have challenged. The thing that irks me, however, is that those who try to challenge that belief almost never challenge it at all, but instead lay out a challenge to science. Now, I have an extremely eclectic resume but I am definitely not a scientist; as a matter of fact, at the time of this writing I make my living with a chef’s knife. What the hell could I possibly know about science that isn’t already published and open to criticism by anyone who actually cares to do so?

Why is it that my belief is so readily interpreted as a statement that I know how the universe came to be? I have absolutely no idea how the universe came to be and neither does science, as near as I can tell.

I realize that the distance between galaxies has been observed to be increasing at an accelerating rate, and that one can describe that behavior mathematically and then reverse the math to calculate that everything came from some singularity about 14 billion years ago – but that is where the current mathematical models break down, apparently. After that it’s really anybody’s guess.

Maybe the universe pulsates from singularity to some end point and back again, infinitely repeating. Maybe the singularity was actually a vortex from someplace else through which our universe got ‘sucked’ or ‘pushed’. Maybe the universe is just an attribute of a less finite context that itself is just an attribute of a less finite context and on and on infinitely. To be honest, I believe we will never know the complete picture.

The only people who have the audacity to claim knowledge of the complete picture seem to be those who claim that it’s a portrait of their invisible, imaginary friend. What a Kodak moment that must present – just keep shaking that Polaroid until the image clears up enough for me to take a look too, please. In the meantime, stop asking me where the universe came from.

Why is it that my belief is so readily interpreted as a statement that I know the details of abiogenesis and/or evolution? It really irks me when people ask me to explain these things, especially when they don’t even understand that they are different concepts. Abiogenesis really eludes me because it is based on such a large knowledge base of chemistry and still in such early phases of research.

Evolution can be even more difficult because so few people realize that it isn’t a fact at all, just an explanation that is supported by literally millions of facts that aren’t nearly as accessible to the layman as the cosmos. To make matters worse, although U.S. courts readily accept DNA evidence of two men being brothers as being rock solid enough to put a man to death, they won’t accept it as rock solid enough to establish the irrefutable relationship between humankind and the rest of the great apes. Fuckers.

Even if I were a scientist and had devoted my life to a field that fell within the bounds of one of the aforementioned scientific realms, that still wouldn’t give someone the right to demand free private lectures. These days I make my living in restaurants, and if you don’t believe that eggs and oil can be whisked into mayonnaise then you can go buy a fucking jar of Miracle Whip – it’s not my job to educate you and if you want my services then talk to your waiter. Furthermore, I have no idea how the absence of a conclusive scientific proof for anything serves as evidence to support the impossibly self-contradicting postulations made by Bronze Age holy books. For the most part those texts manage to completely disprove themselves without any need for science.

What I do know is that if you could pray to get shit done then people would pray and get shit done. If the god of Judaism existed then the Jews wouldn’t have spent their entire history getting their asses kicked all over the planet only to wind up back in the only part of the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil under it. If another god existed then I’m certain that the Jews, pragmatic people that they are, would have tossed their Torah and Talmud into the trash centuries ago and jumped on a bandwagon that actually had wheels. All I can say to deists is that I find their concept of god equivalent to fat-free, sugar-free, caramel syrup; if the word oxymoron didn’t just pop into your head then please look up the definitions of oxymoron, god, and syrup in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Prayer doesn’t work, science does, and you don’t need to be an egghead to figure that out. Go get a job at the Cadillac factory like Johny Cash and take a toodle around on your lunch break. The engineers aren’t dressed in ceremonial robes reading incantations in a dead language as they wave a big brass incense ball over plans scrawled on parchment – they are at computers, punching in numbers, and using instruments to take measurements. Science works.

Science is for the public and you don’t need anymore than bus fare to find that out. Hop on a bus, head to a local campus, and casually walk into a lecture hall with a bunch of students, inconspicuously taking a seat near the back. Quick note – it might be a good idea to leave the holy books at home for a day and instead carry a binder or laptop or something to give the impression that you are literate. Anyway, you can sit there and listen to them speak and you’ll quickly discover there is no fucking conspiracy going on. Everything that they are saying can be confirmed at the library – the public library. Science is public.

Science is international and you don’t need to travel the world or speak seven languages to confirm that. You can pick a subject, like the second law of thermodynamics (a favorite of so many holy rollers), look it up on Wikipedia, and you’ll find that it is available in at least 30 languages. For those that have had their nose in the holy books too long, feel free to scroll through the list of languages and select ‘simple English’. If you doubt that this information is available around the planet then all you need to do is sign up for a myspace account using a picture of a blonde woman on your profile. Within hours some guy with a name like Achmed from Egypt or Morocco will send you a message requesting a conversation by webcam. Now, tell him you will turn your webcam on after he reads the Wikipedia article to you, confirming the translation in his native language – a lot of them seem to speak French as well so you can have them check that too. Science is international.

So, I would like to ask, once and for all, that all holy rollers please stop asking me to give them free science lessons. Everything that I know about science is publicly available at a nearby college, local library, or on the internet. I’m an Atheist, not a scientist.

The Bitterness of Loss

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

I have a gambling problem – a very serious one. I have never lost so much money that I couldn’t pay the bills or had to sell prized possessions, but it is still a serious problem. The reason I think it is serious is because I have such a clear and perfect understanding of the futility of ever truly earning a profit at the activity but I just can’t ever get the thought of profit out of my mind when I’m taking part. If I had any sense at all I would never ever gamble again – but I will. I do have sense though, I’m sure of it, but I guess my wits become compromised whenever someone pulls out the cards and that is the behavioral dysfunction that is my gambling addiction.

I manage the problem very well and have kept my losses to under $1000 over the past decade. I do so by setting very strict limits and fighting desperately to maintain them. The most important tool in managing gambling addiction is to learn to swallow losses, no matter how bitter that pill might be. Your money is gone and you have nothing to show for it and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t give up the activity altogether, then you better get used to the taste of that bitter pill, because you’ll need to swallow it over and over again. If you are crazy enough to continue with the activity, well then learning to swallow that pill can at least offer you some protection. This is especially true when playing communal pot games like Texas Hold’em.

You see, a lot of gamblers become overwhelmed by Texas Hold’em because they fail to accept that the money they have put into the pot is no longer theirs – they’ve already lost it. You have to swallow your loss the very moment you pull those chips off of your stack. If you don’t swallow your loss right then and there then you will be left with the delusion that some of those chips in the middle of the table are yours – and this leads to the fallacy of believing that you will incur a loss if you fold.

When you swallow your loss the moment you pull those chips off of your stack then you will realize that folding doesn’t cost you a thing. With each round of betting you need to evaluate the revealed odds, consider the total prize available in the pot, and determine how much you are now willing to risk for that total prize. You just cannot factor loss into your evaluation at that point.

There are other factors like implied odds and evaluation of opponent behavior, but understanding that risk and reward are based on the current bet for the current pot is the most important thing to keep straight in your mind. If, even for a moment, the thought crosses your mind that you will lose chips if you fold then you had best pack up and go home. It NEVER costs you a penny to fold because the chips that you put in the pot were lost the moment you pushed them towards the center of the table.

I’ve watched so many gamblers lose all of their faculties by refusing to swallow their losses that I can’t even count them. Every time it happens at a Texas Hold’em game it is because they view the pot as an investment and just can’t bring themselves to accept that their investment is being wiped out. They start pushing good money into the void until they have no more to push and then, often enough, they start pushing the table itself. That money in the pot is NOT an investment to be pursued, pushing money onto the table does NOT secure an investment, and no one has any claim to the pot until it has been won.

This concept of recognizing risks and accepting losses at the moment I assume those risks has actually helped me a lot in business. When I buy a piece of equipment at auction, it usually comes ‘as is’ and without any options for recourse if I am unhappy with the purchase. I need to accept my loss at the time of purchase, and I am often happy to do so because I’m getting a $7,000 dishwasher for $850. I no longer have my $850, I have a dishwasher that didn’t cost me $7,000 and that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t work, I can’t very well go freaking out about my $850 because it isn’t my $850 to freak out about. I can get the machine repaired, or perhaps that is not viable and I need to dispose of it, but I can’t go lamenting about somebody else’s $850. In my experience the odds have been in my favour in these transactions, and accepting the losses at time of trade helps to keep me focused on my winnings.

Consider then a person who regularly gives their money to an investment firm. So many of these people walk around feeling secure that their money is still there and that there will be even more money awaiting them when they return. This is a complete fallacy though, because their money disappeared the moment they handed it over. What they purchased was incredibly strong odds that they can get the same amount of money back with the bonus of weaker odds that there might even be more money handed to them some day. There remains the risk, however small, that there will be zero money waiting for them when they return. Because of this risk, they really need to accept that the money they gave to the firm is gone – but just like compulsive gamblers, investors will find every rationalization they can to keep from swallowing that bitter pill. Even after being contacted by authorities and hearing all over the news that their investment firm left town over night, there is no way to prevent them from gathering outside the empty building to protest in vain. They will believe for years that ‘their’ money is safe and sound somewhere and that there exists some means of investigation that will reveal its location to them.

How, then, can I be the least bit surprised at the emotional reactions I get when I tell investors that their ultimate retirement plan is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme; when I tell them that the firm that they, their cousins, parents, and grandparents have been investing in will never payout one red cent; when I tell them that the retirement home where Grandma and Grandpa went is a big void and Grandma and Grandpa aren’t even there.

How can I be surprised when investors in such a firm react to the news by becoming more adamant than ever to push more chips to the center of the table? How can they do anything other than push all of their chips to the center and then start pushing on the table itself? How can I be surprised when they blow up and become madmen like so many compulsive gamblers I have faced across a poker table?

The fact of the matter is that most churches press hard to get people to put money into the pot. Those who can possibly afford to do so often give in to the pressure to push 10% of their earnings onto the table, although most will calculate on net rather than gross income. Those who can’t possibly afford it are pressed to put in more than they can possibly afford. Many of them have seen the remainder of their grandparent’s wealth pushed into the pot as well. Many of them have volunteered hours upon hours of their time to the special projects of their churches.

Imagine the 58 year old woman who has been tithing for over 30 years. If she has worked a professional career and never had children she might have easily invested $150,000. If, looking at her investment account, she realizes that she has invested the same amount of money in mutual funds and now that investment is waiting to pay her $500,000 then she has to swallow one hell of a loss and its going to be damn bitter. She could have literally been a millionaire. Worse yet, she stayed the course on that bad investment for 30 years, and that represents a lifetime of pushing chips into the void.

I think we all need to remember these things as we deal with theists. It’s easy to call them stubborn or pigheaded, but just think about what we represent to them – no one likes an armchair critic pointing out the odds after they’ve already put their life savings in the pot. When debating with theists, one should try to remember their own most difficult loss and remember how bitter that pill was to swallow. We would all do well to remember the bitterness of loss.

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