Archive for September, 2003

The Thinker

Crazy in California

I’m fortunate I don’t live in California.

To recap: in about two weeks a special election will be held. Voters will have the option of throwing out Gray Davis, the twice elected governor of the state. Davis has never been a very popular fellow. He’s about as smooth as sandpaper. Nonetheless, there would be no special election had not a disgruntled Republican with lots of spare cash organized a state wide voter effort to force a special election for his recall. They can do that in California. The rest of the states for some reason figure that if the guy was elected he should serve out his term, unless he committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

But anyhow in California with enough signatures you can force a special election about anything and dictate the terms. This one though is particularly egregious because you get to pick a replacement at the same time you are throwing the guy out. And no majority or run off election is required. Whoever gets the most votes gets in. Consequently a Republican who might well lose a general election in this Democratic state can get swept into office with 30% of the vote or less. This is democracy in action, California style.

Such is life in that peculiar state. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose career consisted of lifting enormous weights and starring in testosterone laden action movies, who has never run for public office, and whose sole claim to politics is being married into the Kennedy clan, figures he can do a good job as governor. And maybe he will win because the polls currently show he is leading, although I can’t figure out why. He looked foolish in the one debate he participated in, and he seems to have the same high opinion of women as his character had in the latest Terminator movie. Arnold even alluded to it when during the debate independent Arianna Huffington gave him a hard time. Arnold said he had a part for her in her next movie: presumably the next lady to have the terminator put her head into a toilet.

It’s quite a collection of gadflies and eccentrics in this election, with the exception of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who by rights should assume the office anyhow if Davis were removed. We have another Republican candidate Tom McClintock who is so far to the right he is likely to fall off the planet, porno publisher Larry Flint, columnist Arianna Huffington (whose voice makes you want to put your fingers in your ears), and Mary Carey, a porno star with great hooters who has no chance of winning but whose videos can’t stay on the shelves of adult video outlets. Them and 130 or so other candidates. I guess there is plenty of choice for voters.

Meanwhile, the legislature, controlled by the Democrats, can’t address a $35B budget deficit very well because a law requires any new taxes to pass by a two thirds majority, which they don’t have. That effectively leaves the Republicans in charge during fiscal emergencies and they won’t, god forbid, allow any new taxes to be incurred. Davis was able to triple car taxes only because of the way that law was written long ago. That extra money, plus borrowing billions of dollars, is how Davis balanced the budget this year. The Republicans couldn’t be bothered to even try because all they kept saying was “No new taxes.”

Meanwhile in flusher economic times California voters basically took away most of the discretionary spending from its legislature. Education, health care and prison spending are dictated by California voter referendum, state law and federal laws, leaving little money for the legislature to cut to fix $35B budget gap.

And yet of course all the candidates are denying this reality. Schwarzenegger is just one of many promising to balance the budget somehow, even though Republicans will slit their own wrists before they vote for a tax increase, and there is not enough money to do it while the economy remains sour in California. And of course by law California must also balance its budget.

In short voters have boxed politicians into a no win situation. They are saying we will have our cake (education, prison, health care spending) and eat it too (but they won’t pay for it when revenues go down). No one can win.

So take it all out on Gray Davis. Put someone else in charge. Just don’t expect the underlying problems to be solved.

A candidate with courage would be leveling with California voters. For example either the referendum which requires educational spending to be at certain levels has to be repealed, or the legislature have to vote to raise taxes, or the state must continue borrow billions of dollars at increasingly high interest rates. This will eventually bankrupt the state or cause California’s debt rating to go to junk bond status. At some point no creditor will lend the state any more money.

It is fitting that Fantasyland started in California. I suggest the capital of California move from Sacramento to Anaheim, and the legislature should meet there in Cinderella’s castle. Clearly Californians are comfortable living in a fiscal fantasy anyhow.

 
The Thinker

The joy of coding

I’m a software engineer and a project manager so I don’t do much in the way of coding software anymore. In truth most code writing and testing isn’t that much fun. I was kind of glad to be lead out of the programming hole I was stuck in some ten years back. I realized I was writing the same code over and over again. It was getting boring. How many times can one code variations on the same do/while loop without pulling your hair out? It was better to give the work to some programmer grunts and work at a higher lever of abstraction. Project management pays better anyhow and college tuitions will be coming due in a few years.

Programmers may dispute this assessment, but they are the blue collar people of the information age. We coders are software mechanics, really. At some point I was led out of the software garage and into the manager’s office because others thought I had bigger fish to fry. I try to keep a toe or two back in the garage though. It feels more real than project management. Programming feels tangible and something I can take to the bank. Being a project manager feels ephemeral. I’m not sure I will have enough work to keep me busy a year from now. But I can always hang out my sign “Will code for food” if need be. I doubt “Will manage projects for food” will have the same marketing appeal. So I try, but don’t always succeed, in keeping up my programming skills. This is a market that moves very quickly. I’ve done some programming in the Java language, for example, but need to do a lot more. I won’t be asked to code Java servlets in my job, however. I may need to assign people to do the work for me however.

I took up teaching web page design partially to force myself to keep up with new technology. It worked and I now can create validated XHTML, can write cascading style sheets without usually consulting a reference manual, code cross browser Javascript and have good working knowledge of some hot server side scripting languages like PHP and ASP.

This blog is one place I practice. The underlying software is Moveable Type, which is written in a programming language called Perl. If necessary I can go in and tweak the code, but it’s not necessary. Setting up this place was pretty straightforward. Fortunately I also get to play with the PHP server scripting language on my forum, The Potomac Tavern.

My forum is based on open source bulletin board software written in PHP called phpBB. About the time I installed it I also ordered some manuals so I could learn to write PHP. phpBB also requires a database. A database called MySQL comes free from my web host so I used that and ordered a book on MySQL. The combination of the server operating system (Linux), PHP and MySQL is a zero cost option for creating extremely robust and reliable web based systems. And it turns out you don’t have to be a programming guru to do serious stuff in this environment. Much like those at the start of the PC revolution who put together HeathKit personal computers in their garages, the hobbyist with decent understanding of programming languages can do it themselves and have some fun. No need to work on a car in your garage anymore for amusement. Program some scripts for the web instead!

A lot of programming is boring for me because it doesn’t mean that much. I’ve done a lot of patching and upgrading of systems written by others in my career, and it’s definitely not that interesting. It’s necessary work, just like the mechanic who has to replace your muffler, but it is boring. Most programmers would like to write something original and all their own. It gives them a feeling of ownership and that they have created something meaningful. Unfortunately unless you do it for your own amusement, such experiences tend to be fewer and further between. Sadly, much of this work can be outsourced to India instead of keeping Americans gainfully employed as programmers.

So it’s a joy to find such a coding project recently that was both creative for me and actually useful for a large number of people. Back in May I was looking at the phpBB forum software and thinking “Why can’t it have digests? It works for Yahoo! Groups!” I frankly expected someone to have done it before but no one had. So I began work on a “mod” or “modification” to the official blessed phpBB software. With my modification you don’t get sent every email to your group, as happens with Yahoo! Groups. Rather, this software allows you to fine tune the digest you get to pick particular forums of interest, and to set a fairly wide variety of options. It is customized for you. It was a great mod that I installed on my own forum. I learned a lot about the phpBB architecture and how to write good PHP code in the process. Eventually I packaged up the whole thing in a ZIP file and posted it on the phpBB web site. I figured it would get people excited.

But it didn’t. It just sat there and got ignored. I didn’t understand it because it was a great idea. But I guess its time hadn’t come then. A week or two back I started getting inquiries about my modification. Is it going to be finished? Will it be submitted as an official phpBB modification?

It’s time has come. Now it has garnered a lot of interest and my spare time has been kept increasingly busy making more modifications to it and getting feedback from the developer community. Shortly it will be submitted as an official modification and when it shows up on the list of approved phpBB software modifications, as I hope it will, I suspect it will be pretty popular.

No, there is no money in this work. When building on top of an open source platform you just give it away. But there is a vicarious thrill and pride in ownership of not only writing some very cool and efficient code optimized for this phpBB software, but to garner some fleeting low level fame among this community of people. These people are appreciative of my work. It reflects not only a needed enhancement to phpBB, but from the feedback I am getting it is also very well designed and thought out.

And that makes me feel happy and gives me a tangible feeling of accomplishment. Some people are jumping the gun and won’t wait for the final release. One guy from Brazil has been writing me with questions. I’ve been helping him out. When I took a look at his site though I realized that I was really helping out … a low level pornographer!

Well, why am I not surprised? Who were the pioneers on the internet? Not Bill Gates, that’s for sure. No, it was the smut merchants who figured out how to turn a profit on from the internet first. If a pornographer or two finds a way to use my software modification to push down adult content to some horny end users looking for some cheap thrills, that’s part of the deal. I’m sure it will find more legitimate uses in time.

It’s still a damn fine set of code. And I’m glad to know I still got the right stuff.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on Dean vs. Clark

Wesley Clark’s campaign has rocketed out to the stratosphere, despite problems that should be crippling like a virtual lack of organization. I guess a lot of uncommitted Democrats were just hoping and waiting for him to say “yes”. Look at him go! He announces and the following week he is leading the pack, at least according to Gallup which did a poll for CNN and USA Today. This poll shows Clark leading the Democratic candidates for president by a large margin: 22% vs. 13% for Dean, his closest competitor. The same poll says that if the election were held today between Bush and Clark that Clark would win 48 percent to 46%. (Bush’s approval rating is down to a record low of 50%, according to this poll.)

It must be about image because it can’t be about substance. So far Wes has been pretty silent on substance beyond vague generalities. He’s actually stumbled a few times, suggesting in Tampa that if he had been in Congress he might have voted for the war with Iraq, then back tracking. I doubt those who were polled heard these little gaffes.

Dean, who was used to being in the limelight, is now back in the pack and playing the challenger role again. Meanwhile on his website he is challenging his supporters to contribute $5M over the next 10 days. It’s an audacious goal. Will he make it? If he doesn’t some will say he is losing momentum, perhaps at the expense of Clark. I did my part and gave Howard another $50.

I’m still trying to understand the Wesley Clark phenomenon. I understand the Dean phenomenon pretty well. Dean articulated a clear antiwar message and put together a savvy internet marketing team. He tapped the energy of those who wanted to change this country and empowered them by putting them together in MeetUps. He has to spend little of his time or attention on fundraising. This helps him concentrate on campaigning. The other candidates, except Clark, are still trying to figure out what hit them. They were operating under the old rules.

I think there is something in the American character that likes guys riding high in the saddle. Bush gave this illusion and perhaps that’s why he won a narrow victory in 2000. Democrats want to look up and admire someone too. Clark gives them the image of someone who is supremely capable and competent. It can be intoxicating. And we Democrats want to win so badly in 2004. Clark looks like the obvious choice, at least at the moment.

But Democrats also need to look rather seriously at this guy. He is a Johnny come lately Democrat. He candidly admits he voted for Reagan and Bush, both times. I certainly like his position on the war and the United Nations, but given that he has mostly worn conservative credentials it makes me wonder how sincere a Democrat and liberal he really is.

Those looking for vast right wing conspiracies might also consider vast Clinton conspiracies. Bill Clinton has let it slip that Wesley Clark is his man. Maybe it’s because he’s from Arkansas. Or maybe since Bill represents the moderate, centrist Democrat he thinks he has outfoxed Howard Dean by picking Wes. Clinton probably perceives Dean as unelectable and too liberal, and found a way to bring his perfect man into the running to ride the growing tide of disenchantment against Bush.

It remains to be seen if the Clark candidacy has wings. He may be smart, but he’s never run for office before and there is a steep learning curve. He is bound to say the wrong things from time to time, and come across as ill prepared. It may not matter if voters, as they seem to be, are more concerned with personality than they are with issues.

But it is way too early to rule out Howard Dean. This is the Democrat with the money and with the organizational skills that the others seem to lack. He can still collect money hand over fist via the Internet simply whenever his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, wants to. He just puts another Louisville Slugger bat on the web site and the money pours in. That money buys a lot of media attention. Moreover Dean, unlike any other candidate, has grass roots. He has people turbo charged, not so much because they think he is the ideal candidate, but because he has them believing they are empowered.

I am impressed far more with Dean’s supporters than I am with Dean himself. Most of the reason I give him money is because he can feed the energy of these people. This is one determined bunch of people, and they are talking to everyone they know. Don’t think they plan to stop with Howard Dean’s election. They want more. Much more. They want to take back the congress and the country. They want to reverse the last four years. They want to drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism. He has lots of supporters but most of them are 20 or 30 somethings. In other words he has energized the disenfranchised younger voters, got them to care, and got them to organize. And they will vote in much larger numbers in 2004.

This may well turn into a tsunami a year from now. If Clark is the better candidate so be it. But don’t dismiss the Dean phenomenon. It is much more real and it has legs. I’ve caught the wave too. I’ll be going to my first official meet up for Dean on October 1st at the Chantilly, Virginia regional library. I hope to see some of you there. I want to be part of this energy. I want to take back my country.

 
The Thinker

A few concerns about Wesley Clark

So Wes Clark is finally in the presidential race. He’s been playing coy with the American public for months now about running for president, which is probably a smart political move since it puts him in the public limelight without the expense of having to run a campaign. He sure has sounded like a candidate for the last few months. And I can understand why his running for president would excite a lot of people and perhaps pull in some wavering Republicans big on national security but disgusted with Bush’s foreign policy. Every vote against Bush is needed.

I’m trying to figure out what it is about him that is giving me second thoughts. It is hard for me to articulate. Maybe it’s a gut political instinct. Maybe I’ve invested too much of my hard earned time and money in Howard Dean. Or maybe it’s because I’m leery of focusing on ex-Generals as a way to solve our national problems.

I’ve read a number of articles that are not the least bit complementary about him. He has pissed off a large number of subordinates and people in the military. This isn’t that unusual; really strong and motivated people tend to do this by default. And in my opinion the DoD could use more officers willing to take some chances.

But depending on whom you read, his work as commander of our air war in Kosovo and Serbia was either brilliant or he was dangerously arrogant. Some say he threatened a new world war by forbidding the Russians from landing any more troops at an airfield in that area. One general under his command actually refused his direct orders on the subject. Russia was supposed to be helping out in the war but, of course, it had long existing ties with Serbia. Clark also got permission to use depleted uranium weapons on the battlefield. Such weapons were also used in Iraq, in both of our latest wars there, and are allegedly causes of a lot of problems including polluted water supplies and increased cancers in the region. It’s not easy to clean up after these weapons either.

His military career also went down on a sour note when he was essentially fired as NATO commander three months early.

On the other hand he is a decorated Vietnam era veteran, was awarded the Purple Heart, and has distinguished himself on virtually every assignment he ever had. People who consider him haughty and arrogant will, at the same time, also admit he is about the most brilliant, creative and resourceful man they have ever met. Clark, like Dean was an early and frequent critic of President Bush’s inadvisable war with Iraq. I have to like him for such a bold stand that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

But he has zero domestic credentials. He has never held elective office. The last time he ran for anything it was for president of his homeroom class, and he lost. One cannot succeed in the military without mastering politics, but he has no credentials as a politician. He has never voted for anything. He himself admits he has a steep learning curve ahead of him as he tries to stake out his positions on domestic policies. Dean has walked this walk as two terms of a governor of a state, and has balanced budgets and made hard decisions. But of course Dean lacks in foreign policy experience what Clark lacks in domestic experience. Perhaps those things even the two out.

Perhaps what worries me the most about him is that if he is elected president he may become yet another arrogant person in the Oval Office convinced of his own infallibility. This could lead the country again down dangerous directions. I don’t get that feeling from Dean, although he certainly can be passionate about those things he believes in. I am also very suspicious of military people as president in general. I don’t agree that success in the military arena translates into success in the political arena.

So I see no reason to rush out and embrace the guy. I do heartily subscribe to the ABB (Anyone But Bush) philosophy. I will even hold my nose and vote for Liebermann if I have to. Bush is a disaster as a president any anyone of our candidates would be an improvement over him.

To the average voter positions don’t matter as much as personality. Gore had no personality that anyone could relate to. Bush didn’t have much but he seemed firm about his convictions and that was enough to win him an election. Clark and Dean are people with large personalities and ego, and they are both articulate and convincing in front of a microphone. None of the other candidates have any stage presence.

I’ll pretend I am from the show me state and try to not let my biases get in the way of independently assessing Wesley Clark. But for now I see no reason to stop devoting my time and energy to electing Howard Dean as our next president.

 
The Thinker

The Outsourcing Madness has reached its logical end

As a career federal employee I am keenly aware of the Bush Administration’s outsourcing initiative. In case you don’t know it is, it means the Bush Administration would like to fire federal employees and hire contractors to do their work providing (they say) that they can justify a cost savings.

As you may recall I have discussed this topic before in an entry in January and an entry in May. What is new is that Congress is beginning to pay attention to this subject and it appears they are saying “Enough!” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) managed to attach a rider to a House spending bill that would essentially require the Bush Administration to play by the old rules on outsourcing. What is surprising is that a Republican controlled House, virtually always in line with whatever the Administration proposes, deviated from the Bush’s position on this issue.

There are similar rumblings going on in the Senate too, although nothing like the language in this bill has emerged yet. The Bush Administration promises a veto of the bill if it gets to the President’s desk in its current form.

Naturally I have a vested interest in the outcome of this fight. I don’t believe for a minute that my job is any safer from outsourcing than anyone else’s. I have twenty years in the civil service, have consistently earned top performance ratings and generally take pleasure in my job. It would be nice to be treated with a little more dignity for my long years and hard work, but to the guys in the green eye shades I’m not really a person, just a statistic in a political game that affects real people who are often doing very good work.

Yes, certainly the perception exists that there are lazy and incompetent federal employees out there. And there are. There aren’t nearly as many as critics would like to believe. There are also lazy and incompetent contractors working for Uncle Sam out there. I see them all the time in my organization. In some cases they are goofing off because of the inability of the government to keep them busy. (We federal employees are very multitasked and increasingly we have to delegate rather than micromanage.) In others they simply ARE being lazy and they find checking their Yahoo! Mail far more engaging that the drudgery of doing their assigned tasks. So it cuts both ways. But in general, and I have had SOME experience in private industry, despite my 20 years in the government, I have not seen a correlation that people working in the federal government are any more or less efficient than our private industry brethren. Just like our private industry brethren, we are making do with less … a LOT less. I have seen our own staff shrink year after year. Year after year I take on more and more complicated projects from people who are retiring, transferred or moved on. When a guy in my office transferred to the Social Security Administration I got stuck with two of his projects, at no extra pay of course. His slot vanished so that we could make some arbitrary administrative goal about keeping down the size of government.

The resistance to outsourcing is increasing for a variety of reasons, but rest assured it’s not because federal employees alone are complaining. We’ve been doing that for years and it hasn’t stopped the trend. What it has resulted in are all sorts of gimmicks like early out retirements instead. Outright layoffs are relatively rare, which is better than most private sector employees receive.

But the real reason things are somewhat different now is that Congress is starting to figure it out: the government is about as outsourced as it can get. To use one metaphor, the “low hanging fruit” was picked off long ago. Now the ladders are way up in the apple trees and people are extended out on weak branches trying to grab the apples. In real life this would introduce a lot of risk and take a lot more effort to collect apples. The same thing is happening with outsourcing. It has reached the point where in most cases going through the effort is more costly than any imagined benefits and negates any marginal cost savings that would result.

For example The Washington Post reported that much of the National Parks Budget, which would have otherwise gone to desperately needed improvements to the parks infrastructure, was instead spent this year on numerous and costly outsourcing studies. Can we get rid of a handful of park archeologists and geologists and outsource them instead? We certainly could and there are beltway bandits spending gobs of taxpayer dollars to prove it in official looking reports. But Congress is finally paying some attention to these increasing bizarre outsourcing stories. It just doesn’t make that much sense, unless you are trying to pay off some political contributors, to throw some GS-12 archeologist out of work to save a couple thousand bucks. Certainly park visitors have a more enriching experience when someone who has been around a while can provide education and insight that some fly by night contractor cannot.

Enough already! Yes, if government takes on a new function let’s look carefully to see if it can be done more efficiently by the private sector. But trust me on this: there is not an agency in the federal government that hasn’t been combed from top to bottom numerous times by various administrations trying to find spurious savings on jobs that can be outsourced. The low hanging fruit was picked long, long ago. There may be an agency or two that somehow managed to hide a pocket of people, but they will be the rare exception. There are no more GS-2’s cleaning restrooms, or GS-5’s maintaining motor pools. It’s been years since I’ve seen a federal computer specialist like myself actually program a line of code. Computers have squeezed out almost all the administrative and secretarial staff. Even my office director, a GS-15 who likely makes $100K a year doesn’t qualify for a secretary. He has to type his own darn memos.

This outsourcing madness has reached its logical end. It’s time to stop pretending we are shrinking the cost of government by transferring duties from federal employees to contractors, and to admit the government has grown much, much bigger because politicians have hidden the true size of government in an expanding contractor community. This shell game is over and even Congress is realizing it. Let’s hope the Bush Administration emerges from its ideological hole and stops this nonsense that no longer saves taxpayers any money.

 
The Thinker

Blog Makeover

I figured it was about time to make over the look of the site, since I haven’t changed it since I brought it up in December 2002. Hope you enjoy the new look!

 
The Thinker

Squishy vs. Non-Squishy: Some Thoughts on the 2nd Anniversary of Sept. 11th

Right before the latest Iraq war started I posted an entry castigating George W. Bush for substituting ideology for critical thinking. It seemed clear to me that he viewed the war on terror as a war of good vs. evil. I don’t know anyone, including virtually all Republicans, who would seriously dispute my analysis. Bush himself said as much many times. “You are either with us or against us” on the war on terrorism, was one of his more memorable post 9/11 quotes.

But I’ll cut Bush a little slack today because I believe that anyone who truly follows an ideology shares the same fatal flaw. I hope I am not ideological although I am aware that I tend to follow certain principles that may be seen as ideological. I find the whole notion of good vs. bad as simplistic and broad brush painting. Except, possibly, I have come to believe that following any ideology is, by itself, a form of evil. It may be the only form of evil.

This begs the question of what I mean by “evil”. The dictionary is not too much help because it can’t provide an objective definition. “Morally bad or wrong; wicked” is the first definition that I find. Almost everyone would say that terrorism is evil, but there are lots of disagreements about whether, say, abortion is evil. My definition won’t be any more objective. In this case I am asserting that a closed mind is evil because it narrows the list of options for dealing with a situation. It is my belief that in most human endeavors flexibility is a good thing because ambiguity is always present.

The Iraq quagmire could have been handled better. An impartial assessment of the facts, rather than a biased assessment, would have informed our leaders that Saddam was a bad man but at best a small threat to our national security. From this information a leader truly concerned about our national security would realize that perhaps our resources on the war on terrorism were better directed elsewhere. In any event ideology tightly constrained the list of available options for dealing with Saddam. It tied our own hands.

Now there are some advantages to an ideology that are pretty compelling. For one, it simplifies choices. We have all had that experience of going to the store for, say, a frozen pizza, and felt overwhelmed by the variety and variants of pizzas. This can make it hard to figure out what you want because you have to look at all the pizzas and all the options and pick the pizza that will seem to make you happiest. Life would be much simpler if there were only one kind of frozen pizza, it was good, and it came in plain, pepperoni or supreme. Instead I have to think about lots of options like: do I care about total calories, saturated fat levels, texture, type of cheese, etc. But in general, Americans seem to embrace choice. I doubt we would be happier if we were all living in drab Soviet era type apartment complexes. It would, however, be simpler.

Another advantage to ideology is it eliminates ambiguity. You don’t have to sit and dwell upon your options for hours, days or weeks. You can take immediate action because you know the path that you must traverse. This worked, apparently, for George W. Bush. The choice in Iraq was apparently clear more than six months before we invaded, because that’s when our forces started assembling in Kuwait. There was no need to dither and wring our hands about what to do. Pick Plan A. There was no Plan B.

I may be doing some broad brush painting myself but in trying to understand human behavior I find it easier to categorize people into two types: those who can deal with ambiguity and those who can’t. Squishy people vs. non-squishy people. On a macro level it seems that in our society the quest to dominate in the realm of human values comes down to whether the squishy or the non-squishy people are in charge. Currently with Congress and the White House in Republican hands, the non-squishies are in charge.

Non-squishies tend to be absolutists and linear thinkers. They don’t have to be conservative or Republican; we just see a lot of these types lately. Marx and Lenin were certainly non-squishies, just on the extreme left side of the house. One sign of a non-squishy type is when it becomes hard sometimes to distinguish someone on the extreme left from the extreme right. I realized recently that no less than Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan were on the same side: they both want NAFTA repealed. Some liberals on the far end of the spectrum are so politically correct they will repress the speech of those who cannot be politically correct. In that sense they are not that removed from John Ashcroft, who recently made some statements suggesting that if you didn’t believe in the Patriot Act you were un-American and aiding and abetting terrorists.

Non-squishies also can have the tendency to believe two or more completely contradictory ideas. It is most obvious, I think, in religion. A truly devout Catholic, for example, believes that the consecrated host is both bread AND the real physical body of Jesus at the same time. In politics many Republicans believe tax cuts will solve the federal government’s balanced budget problem.

Clearly I find myself in the squishy side. We squishies are comfortable with ambiguity. That’s not to say we embrace ambiguity, we can just deal with it. I, for example, realize that Saddam Hussein is a very evil guy. But at the same time I refuse to say he is completely evil. In Saddam’s Iraq women had opportunities that had been denied to them for generations by less secular governments, and most likely will disappear with whatever eventually emerges in a new government. Benito Mussolini was a fascist but he also got the trains to run on time, something appreciated by the average Italian. We squishies usually see shades of grey where non-squishies see either black or white. We are cognizant that the reality of something or someone depends on how you view it. In general we want to look at it from a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion, and our conclusions are often tentative, and subject to change as events unfold.

It’s not always easy being a squishy though. We are often seen as weak kneed and pansies, people with no backbone and indecisive. We don’t think that is the case. We just see lots of complex systems around us. We realize actions have lots of unanticipated consequences and that before actions are taken we need to carefully anticipate these consequences and be prepared for the consequences. Consequently I was warning about the dangers of Iraq, and feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness, back in February and March. Sometimes we squishies do get it wrong. Sometimes we overanalyze a situation to the point of paralysis. Sometimes following your instinct is the smartest approach.

But following an instinct and following an ideology are two different things. An instinct is an authentic feeling you have that often cannot be expressed on the basis of evidence. If your spouse is cheating on you, you can often pick up the vibes although you cannot point to anything particular. When you follow an ideology you are essentially following a pack. “Jane down the street thinks we should invade Iraq. I like and respect Jane. I think we should invade Iraq too!”

To me it’s a no brainer that as our population increases issues become more complex because there are more participants. Behavioral possibilities can grow exponentially with the number of participants. So I think it’s important that we evolve to become better at being squishy people, because it helps us behave better to the reality of our world and society.

I often feel like I am at war with the non-squishies. I don’t hate them, I just want them to see the light. I suspect they feel the same way about me. I hope that recent events will convince more non-squishies to embrace their squishy side, particularly today, on the second anniversary of 9/11. I would hope we are learning from our war on terrorism that there are things we can do to change our own behavior which make it less likely we will suffer these sort of tragedies again. I know that terrorists often have their own bizarre and non-squishy rationale for killing innocent people. But I also think somewhere in that terrorist propaganda are a few valid points. For example, maybe our society is a bit too commercial and capitalistic, and we all need to be more spiritual in our own way and less consumptive. And perhaps that will make us less of a target, and take us some place where we need to go.

One trying aspect of being a squishy is to try real hard to be open to listening to other points of view. I can’t claim to have completely mastered this virtue. I have a particularly hard time listening to non-squishy points of view, perhaps because I hear them constantly and the rationale never changes. But I do try. I would hope that some day the non-squishes could also learn to listen better to us squishies too.

 
The Thinker

Economics 101 and Iraq

One of the more useful courses I took in college was Economics 101. Surprisingly, I retained a few nuggets of gold from that course I took some 28 years ago. One nugget was the notion of a sunk cost. For those of you who never took economics, or conveniently forgot about sunk costs after taking the exam, the economic dictum basically says that any money you spent on the past is irrelevant if it no longer meets your current needs. The present matters, not the past. Perhaps it is better stated as: don’t continue to pour more money down a black hole.

The tendency to do so anyhow is very human. You can invest years trying to repair a marriage that cannot be repaired because your spouse has no interest in repairing it. Of course you want to believe it can be repaired. You can build your house on a fault line and keep pouring concrete into the foundation to raise it up again. We want to think, “If I spend just a little more to fix something, it will be fixed right this time.” When the expected result doesn’t happen we spend a little more and a little more, or perhaps tinker along the edges, but the solution we seek continues to fail us in the long term. Hope springs eternal.

The key to making these judgments is to understand when an implemented solution is fundamentally flawed. If you can analyze your approach objectively, you can determine when you have a sunk cost and when you don’t. Once you lose your objectivity though the consequences get dangerous and increasingly costly, and endeavors can turn into pure folly.

Those of us old enough to remember Vietnam remember that the Johnson Administration was going to stop communism from spreading in Indochina no matter what the cost. By 1968 we had over half a million soldiers and airmen in Vietnam. There were over 800,000 men in the South Vietnamese Army too. B-52s were blitzing Hanoi and bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The Bush Administration is engaged on the same sort of myopic thinking. Last night President Bush pulled a rabbit out of his hat. Apparently the $75B he asked for earlier isn’t quite enough to do the job needed in Iraq. But now with another $87B we are going to solve the problem. For $87B we can win the war on terrorism in Iraq, rebuild its infrastructure, and bring peace, security and democracy.

I have of course a few questions that are unlikely to be answered for the Bush Administration:

– Why wasn’t $75B enough?
– Since $75B wasn’t enough how can we trust you when you state that $87B will be enough, given your track record?
– If we spend $87B and the situation has not markedly improved, are we going to spend more money?
– If we spend the money and the situation does not markedly improve, do we have an exit strategy? Or is the strategy to spend whatever it takes in money, lives and time to win this war?
– How do we know the money will be spent wisely?
– If this strategy did not work in Vietnam why are you certain that it will win in Iraq? What is the probability of long term success or failure and what assumptions did you use, if any?
– If you are certain this strategy is going to work, why hasn’t it worked in Afghanistan where similar tactics are being used but have not achieved the desired result?
– Can our military and police force in Iraq truly stop a war on terror if a police and interdiction force can’t stop a drug war which has lasted now for over 30 years?
– Has anyone polled the Iraqi people to see if they want a western style democracy?
– If the Iraqi people democratically voted for us to leave immediately, would we withdraw?
– Given the long history of ethnic and religious conflicts in Iraq, what makes you think in the short term we can do a better job of managing it than Saddam did?

I do know this: the $75B allocated already, unless we get out immediately, is a sunk cost. It’s largely been spent and won’t be coming back. I and future generations will be paying the interest on this money that so far has brought no discernable results except for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. It hasn’t resulted in the find of weapons of mass destruction. It hasn’t kept the lights on or the water flowing reliably for the citizens of Iraq. It hasn’t ensured public safety; indeed the streets of Iraq are now much more dangerous than before we started this war.

We can’t afford to lose this one, Bush is telling us. We could not afford to lose the Cold War either, but we lost in Vietnam and still won the Cold War. Why is withdrawing or losing this skirmish in the war on terrorism mean we’ve lost the war? Couldn’t it also mean that we could use our resources more effectively somewhere else to win the war on terrorism?

In reality the American people don’t care very much about the people of Iraq. It’s not that we wish bad things to happen to them, it’s just that we don’t really believe that what happens there affects our national security. In reality it is not we (the American people) who cannot afford it to lose in Iraq. Rather it is Bush who cannot lose face and admit he made a mistake and waged a war on false pretenses. This $87B means we are essentially hedging a bet to cover Bush’s ass for his miscalculations and mistakes.

In a way, the money is going into the coffers of his reelection campaign. But let’s not fool ourselves. If Iraq was no threat to our national security before we invaded, it probably isn’t one now. It may turn into one by giving terrorists and people who hate our country an easy way to lash out at us. But if we withdraw, that easy target goes away.

A better example of what awaits us can be seen on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For more than 30 years Israel has occupied these Palestinian areas. The more they try to root out terror, the more terror they get back in return. It appears that there is a force greater than the best military in the world. It is the human spirit. Short of being able to read the minds of everyone on the planet, there is no way to tell friend from foe. If sufficient numbers of people are against us then success in Iraq is impossible. In that case we should realize our money was wasted and is a sunk cost. I believe that point has been reached. Any economist worth his salt would say bring our soldiers home.

 
The Thinker

What’s Going on at NASA?

My friend Tom and I were big space program enthusiasts growing up in the 60s. It was hard not to be excited about the space program during that time, but we were something like fanatics about it back then. The space program embodied the best of American ingenuity at a time beset with otherwise pretty nasty problems like Vietnam, toxic waste and large city riots. In a country that at times seemed to be teetering on the edge of anarchy, it provided focus and pride.

What we accomplished in so short a time was amazing. Alan Shepard took his first suborbital flight on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. We landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, a mere 8 years, 2 months and 15 days later. We did it in an environment in which pretty much everything was unknown, including whether humans could even survive in weightlessness. In such a short time we created three types of manned space capsules (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) and a number of manned launch vehicles (Redstone, Titan, Saturn 1, Saturn 1-B and Saturn V). Except for the Apollo 1 accident, which killed three astronauts testing on a launch pad, it was a casualty free.

Many of us who were alive then will remember those days as glory days. It was so damned exciting! Moving to Florida as I did in 1972 was something of a mixed blessing, because I was close enough to Cape Kennedy where I could actually see a few launches. I felt the pressure of a Saturn V rocket against my chest launching Skylab into orbit, fully nine miles away watching it from across the lagoon from Merritt Island. The future seemed pretty limitless.

Reaching the Moon turned out to be something of a problem because suddenly there was no goal to shoot for anymore. After Apollo 11 each subsequent lunar mission seemed less compelling to the public and Congress seemed less inclined to open its checkbook to NASA. That pattern has continued to the present.

I have never worked for NASA but my brother Jim worked for it for a while as an intern and as a post-graduate. My brother in law Jim joined NASA in the mid 1980s and has risen pretty far in the organization, and has been program director for a number of projects. More recently my sister Doris, who has been on the edges of the manned space flight effort for years, accepted a job with NASA.

But as you know these are not great days for NASA. The Columbia disaster on February 1st shook me but at the same time I was wondering why it took so long. It was remarkable, under the circumstances that no manned space flight fatalities had happened in our program since the Challenger disaster.

Perusing the compulsory blue ribbon report the other day, there were technical reasons for the disaster, but equally important were the policy reasons for the disaster. It is clear to me that the real cause of the disaster was that the manned space program has been short shrifted by Congress and ignored by the White House for many years. Apparently we haven’t learned much from the Challenger disaster. After that disaster there was a similar blue ribbon commission. There were pledges to make safety a number one priority then too.

But the space program wasn’t sexy any more, and there were tax cuts, and budget deficits, and a lot of silly ideology that NASA was saddled with that really never made much sense but which NASA had to follow anyhow. Over the years funding for the space shuttle was cut 40%. As a result there have been fewer flights, and each flight became more expensive, and despite assurances NASA lied even to itself and made numerous shortcuts around safety.

Perhaps the stupidest decision NASA made was to turn over much of the operations to a consortium. It resulted in decisions being made by contractors that should have been made by NASA. NASA employees were increasingly disconnected from the technical reality of what it took to run a space program. Cost concerns became the primary concern. As much as safety was considered the top priority, it is clear that Congress was not going to provide the money to fund shuttle safety properly. And NASA managers, being managers, weren’t going to tell Congress and the Administration they couldn’t ensure safety anyhow. They knew who provided the butter for their bread.

We wanted to run a manned space program on the cheap and it didn’t work. The idea of a reusable shuttle as a cost effective means of providing transportation to space has, unfortunately, been discredited. This is not to say it is not possible, but it wasn’t possible with the technologies we had available in the 1970s. And we continue to limp along with that because Congress doesn’t want to pony up the money to replace it. And so old hardware continues to deteriorate, accidents happen and people die. Congress will browbeat NASA, but if it wants to see the true cause of the problem, it only needs to look in the mirror. This is the consequence of underfunding, inattention, lax oversight and one size fits all agencies ideology from both parties.

I wonder now if there is the will to even continue our manned space flight program. I suspect it will survive somehow, but it will be a long time before our geriatric shuttle fleet is retired and replaced by something else. That something else, perhaps the National Aero-Space Plane, seems a long way away. It will require much more money than it is getting now to make it a reality. Its technology may be too advanced at this particular time in our history. Time will hopefully tell. But so far Congress hasn’t invested much money in a replacement to the space shuttle, beyond basic research.

I do hope our manned space flight program survives. It continues to inspire not just middle-aged people like me but plenty of youth. If it is killed it will be like sticking a knife into the soul of our country. You can probably trace the beginning of the decline of the United States from such a decision. A space program doesn’t look all that good to administrations driven by capitalist ideology and enamored with balance sheets. We need a new goal: a colony on the moon perhaps, or a manned trip to Mars. None of this is beyond us. But it costs money.

It would however continue to be an excellent investment in our human spirit and potential.

 
The Thinker

An Open Letter to George W. Bush

Dear Mr. President,

I hope it’s okay if I can be informal and call you George. I promise not to call you, for today at least, some of those less flattering names that many have openly called you.

I have for you today, sir, one heaping serving of humble pie for your immediate consumption. It is time for you to come to the table. I know you don’t want to but I know you are heading that direction, however unwillingly, because I read this today online, from Reuters:

With American soldiers dying nearly every day in Iraq the Bush administration decided to negotiate with the United Nations Security Council on a multinational force under U.S. command that would encourage more countries to contribute troops and money.

All I can say is good luck George. You’re going to need a lot of it. You’re not just a day late and a dollar short. You are six months late and at least $50B short. And I fear even after eating this large dish of humble pie, it won’t be enough. You’ve so thoroughly upset our traditional allies that they want to have nothing to do with you or your ideas now. No one will blame Germany and France now if they say “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

How could this have happened George? You knew that our invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. And that was largely true. The invasion went fine. We rolled over Saddam and his army without too much work. This is, after all, a nation that had suffered over a decade of sanctions. It is a country where outside of Baghdad much of the population lives in mud huts. With the largest and best equipped army in history winning the war was a given under these circumstances. I’m sure you felt a great deal of pride at your sterling leadership when you walked out of that fighter jet and onto the desk of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln back in May. You said major combat operations were over. But golly, it seems we’ve lost more soldiers in Iraq since that day than prior to it. This must be very puzzling to you George.

In retrospect are your mistakes clear yet? Probably not, but let me lay them out for you:

  • Even the largest military in the free world has its limits. We apparently can occupy but not actually control one country the size of California with the bulk of our Army, which is about 150,000 men and women. Better put those dreams of an American empire on hold.
  • The United Nations may be a disagreeable organization to you and what you perceive to be our national interests, but it is not irrelevant. In fact it is the only organization on the planet that can speak for the world. Because it can, it has legitimacy the United States does not. When the UN speaks, people and other countries listen.
  • You don’t launch wars based on what you believe the truth to be. Decisions of this magnitude are based on actual facts and credible intelligence. You discounted your own intelligence community because it wasn’t telling you what you wanted to hear, and you gave credence to known Iraqi expatriate flakes with known criminal backgrounds like Ahmad Chalabi.
  • They are not either with us or against us. They are with us when it meets their selfish needs, and against us when it doesn’t. Actually most of the time “they” don’t give a damn. The fact that terrorists attacked us on 9/11 is our problem, not the government of Botswana’s.
  • If you tell terrorists and insurgents to “bring ‘em on” they are likely to rise to the challenge.
  • For some reasons countries behave a lot like people. Perhaps that is because countries consist of people, and their leaders have feelings just like you do. So telling France and Germany effectively to piss off does not build good will; it makes these countries react in more extreme ways than they would otherwise.
  • As I told you before diplomacy does not mean “we get things our way or we leave”. It means coming together in good faith and without bad feelings and making necessary compromises so that all parties can find a “win-win” solution. It means going in to negotiations with a genuine willingness to listen and to take the positions of other parties seriously. The United Nations is not irrelevant, George. Rather than proving it irrelevant, you have proved it is needed now more than ever.
  • Wars can’t be won on the cheap, and are much harder to win when large and ill advised tax cuts are bleeding the treasury of the money it needs to run the government. Tell us taxpayers again how, in a bad economy, it is more important to rebuild Iraq instead of restoring the cuts to fully fund your “No Child Left Behind” law.
  • Maybe contracting out essential services on the battlefield is a terrible idea. Your contracting out nonsense means that our soldiers cannot get spare parts they need to keep their Bradley vehicles running. Haliburton employees apparently aren’t going to risk their lives to get spare to our forces when our army isn’t sufficient to ensure their safety. They are contractors, not soldiers. They cannot be compelled to put their personal safety at risk.
  • Maybe it’s not a good idea to open up a second front while the first front is still engaged in heavy action. Maybe we should have demonstrated we could find and kill bin Laden, destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda and bring democracy to Afghanistan BEFORE we rushed into Iraq to topple a despot who was no threat to us.
  • In fact, maybe to run a war on terrorism, we should concentrate on those terrorists who are an actual threat to OUR citizens. There is no doubt Saddam terrorized and killed his own people, but he was NO threat to our citizens. Al Qaeda is a demonstrated threat to our national security. Hezbollah is not. Let Israel deal with Hezbollah and if we ever destroy Al Qaeda then let’s then think about those lesser known terrorist organizations with other axes to grind.
  • Maybe it’s a good idea to listen seriously to divergent opinions before starting a major war. We were out there holding peace rallies and marching on the Mall. You were in Camp David isolated with your parroting advisors. We were wasting our breath protesting. You had made up your mind months earlier to invade Iraq and wouldn’t let some “misguided” fellow citizens deter you from your own pompous convictions.

George, one would think we have learned these lessons before, such as in Vietnam, and would have learned from them. It’s a shame you couldn’t be bothered to read about the causes of our involvement in that war before you launched this one. Some would contend you were strung out on cocaine at the time, or drunk. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s clear you avoided Vietnam like the plague and your service in the Texas Air National Guard was scattershot at best.

It was my opinion even before this war started that not only would it turn out badly, but it would be your undoing, be bad for your party and put a Democrat in the White House in 2005, if not overturn the Congress. George, when history is written about the decline and fall of the modern Republican Party, you will be its poster child.

I hope you enjoy clearing brush in Crawford, Texas in 2005. You’ll have plenty of time for it.

Sincerely,

Mark

 

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