President Obama will be at Ft. Drum on Thursday to announce his plan to reduce our military presence in Afghanistan. Apparently, though, there's not much chance of doing anything more than pulling out the 30,000 troops that were added to Afghanistan in 2010. The real discussion is only over the exact pace of withdrawal for those 30,000:

Administration officials said Mr. Obama would most likely pull out the entire 30,000 troops by the end of 2012. What is still not known is how soon and how fast, though as the administration’s deliberations wind down, the outlines of the main proposals are becoming clearer.

Some senior White House officials advocate a plan under which 15,000 troops would return by the end of this year and the other 15,000 by the end of 2012....Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long pushed for the United States to curtail its military engagement in Afghanistan, favors a plan under which all 30,000 troops would be pulled out within 12 months....Pentagon and military officials [prefer] an initial reduction this year of about 5,000 troops — the size of a brigade — followed by 5,000 over the winter, when fighting recedes. The final 20,000 troops could remain into the next autumn, through the 2012 fighting season.

So there you have it. Behind Door #1, is the 15/15 plan. Behind Door #2 is the 30/0 plan. Behind Door #3 is the 5/5/20 plan. Plus there's a Door #4, with no timeline at all. Those are your choices. Any way you slice it, though, all we're doing is getting back to 2009 levels, which themselves were more than twice as high as they were during the Bush administration.

In the New York Times a couple of days ago, David Sanger wrote that Obama "has scaled back, time and again, Washington’s goals in a country that the British, the Soviets and ultimately the Americans tried, and failed, to change." No kidding. Nation building is just a dim memory, we're negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban instead of trying to eliminate them, and our relationship with neighboring Pakistan is as dim as it's been for the past decade. What's more, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has become even more hostile and mercurial than ever, lashing out at NATO a few days ago with this broadside:

“You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them,” he said. “Now I have stopped saying that, except when Spanta forced me to say thank you,” referring to his national security adviser, Rangin Spanta, who was present. “They’re here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that,” Mr. Karzai said.

Former Afghan ambassador Karl Eikenberry, as Spencer Ackerman pungently put it, basically told Karzai the next day to "shut the fuck up," and it's hardly any wonder. It's dangerous enough being deployed in Afghanistan already without having the local government essentially declare open season on you. But that's what Karzai does every time he unleashes one of these verbal cannonades.

I honestly don't know what our mission is in Afghanistan any more. It's a base for continued drone attacks against al-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, but our own intelligence officials have estimated that there are no more than a couple of hundred al-Qaeda members left there. It hardly seems feasible that we're ever going to get al-Qaeda presence in the AfPak border region down to zero, so the only real question left is whether it's worth hundreds of American lives and tens of billions of American dollars every year to try to reduce that number from 200 to 100, or from 100 to 50.

We really don't seem to be doing anything else useful there, the host government speaks out against us routinely, and Afghanistan continues to be a festering sore with no end in sight. So why is it that the only thing we're arguing about is whether a few thousand troops will come home in February of next year instead of October? Why aren't we arguing about whether we ought to be in Afghanistan at all?

Via Andrew Sullivan, the New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten provides some perspective on the latest dismal findings about American kids' knowledge of American history:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976.

....The NAEP results through more than four decades have been consistently mediocre, which may prove nothing except, as Wineburg wrote in 2004, “our amnesia of past ignorance.”

My mother attended a highly-regarded Los Angeles public school in the 40s. She was an honor student who loaded up on every advanced class on offer. But she told me once that in her entire high school career she wasn't required to write a single term paper. On the math front, her school not only didn't offer calculus (nobody did in the 40s) but didn't even offer what today we'd call pre-calculus. Advanced algebra and trig was as far as things went.

I don't know how her history education fared compared to mine in the 70s — or to a contemporary high school student's in the aughts. But I'm willing to bet it wasn't any better. Kids may not know a ton of history today, but neither do adults. And why should they? They didn't learn much history when they were in high school either. Nothing much has changed, and education most likely hasn't gone to hell in a handbasket. That's cheery news, isn't it?

According to the AMA, commercial healthcare insurers are getting worse at processing claims quickly and accurately:

According to the AMA’s latest findings, commercial health insurers have an average claims-processing error rate of 19.3 percent, an increase of two percent compared last year. The increase in overall inaccuracy represents an extra 3.6 million in erroneous claims payments compared to last year, and added an estimated $1.5 billion in unnecessary administrative costs to the health system....Physicians received no payment at all from commercial health insurers on nearly 23 percent of claims they submitted.

And who did best on this measure of administrative efficiency? Medicare, with an accuracy rate of over 96%. The full results for a broad measure of claims accuracy are below.

I promise not to overdo this, but since I'm still in play mode with my new camera, here's another nice, soothing shot of a lovely Southern California sunset to end the blogging day with. Enjoy.

E.J. Dionne has a column today about the longstanding conservative effort to pass "voter fraud" laws that (a) don't seem to reduce actual voter fraud, but (b) do tend to reduce turnout among traditional liberal constituencies. James Joyner reacts:

Are these reforms are aimed at suppressing the black and youth votes? I’d have to see substantially more evidence. But they seem to be aimed at theoretical problems that those who study such things can’t find in the wild.

Well, look: we'll probably never find smoking gun proof that voter fraud laws are aimed at suppressing the black and youth votes. After all, you'd have to be a monumental moron to actually admit this in any kind of written or otherwise permanent form.

Still, let's walk through the evidence:

  1. Research showing that actual voter fraud is minuscule — perhaps 0.001% of the vote or so — is overwhelming and very well known.
  2. Republicans have nonetheless been pushing voter fraud laws for nearly two decades.
  3. This costs a lot of money and sucks up a lot of energy.
  4. Parties don't generally spend lots of money and energy on things unless they benefit the party or its supporters in some way.
  5. The evidence that voter fraud laws reduce turnout among groups that trend Democratic is also very well known among party apparatchiks who pay attention to such things.

Maybe you can come up with some alternative interpretation for such a tenacious, coordinated, and energetic campaign. But the obvious explanation is that Republican Party apparatchiks think that voter fraud laws offer a method of reducing Democratic turnout in elections that's both effective and deniable. I really think you have to be almost willfully blind not to see this.

Last week Andrew Sullivan linked to my post about new research into the mystical effects of psilocybin (aka the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and said that his own experience with mushrooms a few years ago had deepened his faith and brought him closer to God. A reader objects:

This is why rationality is ultimately irreconcilable with faith. Scientists can now pinpoint the exact spots in your brain that light up during spiritual moments and you have found a mushroom that reproduces the effect. But instead of acknowledging this as an interesting yet completely natural sensation, you instead conclude that it’s a mushroom-shaped window into the divine.

Your mind is playing tricks on you, much in the same way that your eyes play tricks on you when items move into your blind spot. However, the effect sounds interesting; I might have to try it.

Andrew has an answer ("by definition, any divine manifestation in the mortal world will have some physical manifestation"), but it doesn't seem very convincing to me. Like his reader, I figure that if the feeling of the divine can be reliably activated by ingestion of a particular drug or stimulation of a particular nerve, then it's not really likely to be anything very divine after all. But then, I'm an atheist. I would think that, wouldn't I?

And with that, I'll now abuse the art of the segue to relate this to something that seems totally different. Here's my question to you: What do you think of those reality TV shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, where some handsome guy or gal sweeps through a field of equally handsome contenders week by week until they're left at the end with their one true love? As near as I can tell, most people who watch these shows think that it shows something about the power of romance. But I have a different takeaway: if you can take 25 random people and reliably make your bachelor/bachelorette fall in love with one of them every single time, then it really means there's not much to romance at all, doesn't it? A few weeks of time and a modest selection of potential mates will do it every time. Sorta sucks all the mystery out of it.

And yet, these shows remain popular, even though they demonstrate on a weekly basis just how mechanical and predictable love is. Why are so many people enamored of having their faces shoved into this week after week? Beats me. But I guess the answer is the same as it is for psilocybin and the divine: if you believe in love as a transcendent experience in the first place, these shows just confirm that belief. If you don't, they confirm just the opposite. Aren't we human beings wonderful?

UPDATE: Andy Sabl is less enthusiastic about psilocybin than I am, but he's thinking along the same lines as me after reading various reactions to psilocybin's mystical effects:

In other words, religion in, religion out. Give mushrooms to a bunch of hippies and they’ll gain a new appreciation for yoga; give them to a heterodox Catholic and he’ll ponder the Incarnation. Give them to me and I might start to (wrongly) believe that I can understand complex mathematical proofs or conceive (wrongly) that I remember my once-adequate ancient Greek — which once gave me the very fulfilling experience of being able to read easy bits of Plato without a dictionary.

I'd make a distinction here. I agree with Andy that I'm not much interested in an "enlightenment" that doesn't also happen to be true. However, the evidence on psilocybin suggests that it not only provides a mystical experience that might be intrinsically interesting (regardless of how you view it), but that it also has longlasting effects on purely measurable qualities like happiness and satisfaction with social interactions. That seems pretty worthwhile to me if there are no harmful side effects. I may not want to believe things that aren't true, but I'm perfectly willing to artificially improve my emotional state. Happier is happier, after all.

In honor of Wimbledon starting today, Patrick Hruby writes a piece that's become an annual tradition around this time of year: a plaint about the death of the serve-and-volley game among top tennis stars:

In part, serve-and-volley became a victim of its own success. By the mid-1990s, big-serving attackers—again, see Sampras—were winning points and games in bang-bang fashion, producing complaints of boring, monotonous tennis. The griping had merit: bereft of long rallies, matches between net-rushers lacked both flow and consistent action, reducing a game of ebb, flow and varied geometry to a soccer penalty shootout.

In response, courts were tweaked to make balls bounce slower and higher. Wimbledon, for instance, altered the composition of its grass in 2001, producing a firmer and more durable playing surface. This shifted the balance of power in the direction of baseliners, giving them valuable extra time—think a tenth of a second, which is all they needed—to line up returns and passing shots. In 2002, net-rusher Tim Henman complained that the All England grass was the slowest non-clay surface he had played on all season; six years later, a BBC broadcast compared a pair of Federer serves to show that the courts had become even slower. The first Federer serve was hit in 2003; the second in 2008. Both were clocked at 126 miles per hour. The latter serve bounced higher, and came off the grass travelling nine mph slower.

New racket technology also favors the power baseline game, and the result is that today just about everyone plays the exact same, boring style of tennis: an endless parade of huge, looping, topspin shots from five or ten feet beyond the baseline. Athletically, it's stupendous, but dramatically it's tedious. It's here to stay, though. One of these days John McEnroe will retire from broadcasting and we'll no longer have anyone to tell us once an hour or so that whoever we're watching at the moment would benefit from coming to the net more aggressively, at which point the serve-and-volley game will be such a distant memory that no one will even write the annual Wimbledon requiem any longer. It'll just be something to reminisce about at the old folks home.

Looking for employment opportunities that can help our flagging economy? Look no further:

The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago....Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

....The pressures on humans will only increase as the military moves from the limited “soda straw” views of today’s sensors to new “Gorgon Stare” technology that can capture live video of an entire city — but that requires 2,000 analysts to process the data feeds from a single drone, compared with 19 analysts per drone today.

There you go. Not only can we employ lots of people to build our new drone army, but we'll have to employ even more people to keep a close eye on every dangerous patch of ground on the planet. And luckily for us, those dangerous patches seem to be multiplying rapidly. Let's do a quick back-of the-envelope calculation:

  • We have 7,000 drones today. Seems to be a growth market, so figure 20,000 drones in a few years.
  • Let's say half of them have this fabulous Gorgon Stare technology. That's 10,000 drones.
  • At 2,000 analysts per drone, this amounts to 20 million jobs.

Now that's what I call putting America back to work! Only a non-patriot could object.

From Felix Salmon, after reading about executives at Skype getting fired so they won't get a full payout of their stock options when Skype's acquisition by Microsoft is finalized:

This does seem pretty evil.

And yet, says Felix, "I’m sure it makes financial sense." I'm sure it does too. Lots of crappy behavior does, after all.

Bill Clinton takes to the pages of Newsweek to propose 14 good ideas to boost employment. Here's one of them:

4. COPY THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING

Just look at the Empire State Building—I can see it from my office window. Our climate-change people worked on their retrofit project. They cleared off a whole floor for a small factory to change the heating and air conditioning, put in new lighting and insulation, and cut energy-efficient glass for the windows. Johnson Controls, the energy-service company overseeing the project, guaranteed the building owners their electricity usage would go down 38 percent—a massive saving, which will enable the costs of the retrofits to be recovered through lower utility bills in less than five years. Meanwhile, the project created hundreds of jobs and cut greenhouse-gas emissions substantially. We could put a million people to work retrofitting buildings all over America.

Ideas 1, 2, 5, and 7 sound pretty good too. What's your favorite?