Archive for March, 2004

The Thinker

Off to Colorado

I will be in Colorado on business through Thursday evening. I will however have my wife’s laptop with me, and if I have the time and energy I will blog from the road. I should be kept pretty busy while I am there, but should have an opportunity to connect with brother Tom while I am there.

 
The Thinker

Goodbye Internet Explorer, Hello Mozilla Firefox

My SiteMeter reports tell me that 90% of you are viewing this site with Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Why? Perhaps you just aren’t aware that there is a much better and free browser choice out there. Or maybe you’ve heard the buzz about Mozilla Firefox and are scared to use it. Perhaps you are scared because it doesn’t come with the Microsoft seal of approval. Or that it is still in beta development (version 0.8).

If you are using IE I think it must be largely out of ignorance. If you use Mozilla, or especially it’s latest browser incarnation Mozilla Firefox you won’t go back to Internet Explorer. Rather you will realize how annoying IE was, rather like having to live with Windows Me before Windows 2000 hit the market.

Microsoft seems to have stopped enhancing IE. Occasionally a new patch will come out to plug the latest security hole. But it’s been years since they’ve added any new functionality to the browser. Perhaps with the browser market sewn up they figure why bother: they give the browser away for free anyhow. Microsoft has abandoned plans to make IE available for the Mac OS X. It figures the Mac community is content with the bundled Safari browser. Ironically Microsoft is now emulating Netscape, which lost interest in its browser around 1998 when it couldn’t figure out a way to make money from it anymore. You may recall the rest of the story: Netscape was bought by AOL and the Netscape project was allowed to flounder.

Well times have changed. As a parting gift the Netscape developers gave the original Netscape code to the open source community. For a while Netscape/AOL provided resources to keep the browser development going. But a couple years back they even stopped doing that. So for a year or two now the open source community has been improving the old Netscape code. It is called Mozilla. Mozilla is the same name Netscape gave to the project before they stuck a marketing brand on it. And a year or so back Mozilla 1.0 was released.

The Netscape web site is still around. The Netscape browser is still available. It is currently in version 7.0. But it’s really Mozilla 1.0 under the hood. You can download the latest Netscape 7 browser, but why bother? Do you really want to see pop up ads by default? Do you really want numerous links and advertising pitches to try AOL? You are probably just like me and want a browser that lets you do what you need to do quickly and efficiently.

So download the Mozilla Suite if you wish (includes email client and newsreader) and block pop up windows by default. You will also get a Google search field right next to the address bar and tabbed browsing. Once you try tabbed browsing you’ll wonder why it took so long to introduce such an obvious feature.

But most likely you are happy with Outlook Express to handle your email, so you don’t need the Mozilla email client. And you probably don’t care about the newsreader either. You just want a better browser. The Mozilla community recognizes this and has been working on a browser only product. It’s had many names including Phoenix, Firebird and now Firefox. But it doesn’t matter. Mozilla Firefox may be version 0.8 but it is ready for prime time. If you value your own time you will download it and use it. The browser will easily make you at least 10% more efficient when you are surfing the World Wide Web.

I have to think hard of any features I think work better in Internet Explorer. If pressed I could say that IE loads faster. This is because Microsoft integrated the browser into the operating system, so much of what IE needs to run is already resident in memory when you boot your machine. I also think IE has better features for accommodating the handicapped. But that’s it.

Aside from obvious and subtle improvements to the user interface that will make you markedly more productive, Firefox is also extremely standards compliant. This is really important because the arbiter of web standards is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). IE attempts but doesn’t quite succeed in the standards department. I noticed this recently when I was editing some cascading style sheets. I could get them to work in IE but I couldn’t get them to work in Firefox. What was the problem? I went over to the W3C CSS validator site, tried to validate the file and realized that I shouldn’t put semicolons at the end of my statements. Firefox was saying “this is ambiguous; you need to be more precise or I won’t render it”. But this is an excellent approach. IE allows you to be sloppy when you code your cascading style sheets. Sloppiness means you have no way of knowing how your code will actually be rendered. It is far better to require a web developer to be precise up front than allow such ambiguities.

IE, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. I hate most of all that you let pop up windows blossom faster than dandelions in my backyard. And I can’t do much about it other than buy third party software that usually but does not always succeed in blocking them. I hate the way IE is used as a large Microsoft marketing machine, leaving bookmarks to Hotmail and MSN and all their partner sites that I don’t want. I hate the endless security problems with the browser. I hate installing the constant patches I need to supposedly keep me secure, but which often introduces new vulnerabilities. On a technical level I hate the way Microsoft, just because it can get away with it, is making web standards harder to enforce. The browser’s document object model, for example, is non-standard. It allows HTML tags like the marquee tag that were never approved by the W3C. I hate that so many web developers are so spineless that they will tweak their Javascript to use the IE document object model. I hate the way that we so willingly and in most cases naively do what Microsoft tells us to do.

Not only does it not have to be that way, you can get rid of all these annoying hassles simply by downloading, installing and using Mozilla Firefox. Here is a real browser that works the way I think. But also here is a true internet-based web development platform I can extend. I’ve installed a number of the many extensions available for Firefox. For example I downloaded an extension that will highlight my block oriented tags so I can see them when I am designing a web page. The same extension also allows me to validate my HTML against a number of standards (XHTML, accessibility to the handicapped etc) with just one or two clicks.

If you try Firefox I assure you that you won’t go back to IE. It’s a no brainer. It also helps that Firefox is free and available for virtually every operating system.

So what are you waiting for? Give Mozilla Firefox a test drive today!

 
The Thinker

Wanted: Grownups Running in Israel and Palestine

The grownups need to get back in charge of the planet, but in Israel and Palestine in particular. This week’s assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin by Israel is just more proof.

Yes, I know what Israeli leaders said about the assassination: that they are crushing terrorism and no one who takes arms against Israel is safe from their swift and terrible retribution. Yada yada yada.

Of course being a grownup you know what is going to happen. Is this going to stop terrorism? Is Hamas going to go lick its wounds somewhere and foreswear terrorism forever? Not a chance. Pretty much the whole Gaza Strip turned out for the funeral of Sheikh Yassin. As if there weren’t enough impoverished, angry and desperate Palestinians willing to give their lives before this act now there will be hundreds or thousands more. Rather than striking a blow against terrorism, all it did was provide the fuel for more terrorism.

Israel of course will do its best to prevent the terrorists from penetrating their defenses. But it is just a matter of time before another incident (and scores more like it) kill more Israelis. Each incident, of course, will inflame the Israeli public and put pressure on their leaders to do more to combat terrorism. So of course there will be more raids, more missiles launched at crowds from Apache helicopters (provided courtesy of the United States taxpayer), more targeted assassination and of course more blockades, checkpoints, home demolitions of innocent relatives and general harassment.

Israel’s approach to peacemaking first requires all Palestinians to completely give up all forms of terrorism and violence against Israel. This goal of course cannot happen in the current political environment. It has as much chance of happening as Israeli settlers have of cheerfully and unilaterally withdrawing inside the Green Line because they feel sorry for the poor oppressed Palestinians whose land they occupy.

All this sort of naive attitude does is ensure the conflict continues indefinitely with the level of the conflict slowly ratcheting up over time.

Neither side in this conflict is thinking with the left (logical) side of their brains. Rather they are reacting out of hurt, anger, stubbornness and pomposity. In short the right sides of their national brains are fully in charge.

Of course there are ways out of this conflict. But it requires engaging the left side of the brain and putting the grownups in charge. First of all it requires a frank admission that the root of the problem is a political one. Everyone knows what it will take to get real peace in the Palestine. But no one wants to actually start the process to make it happen. Israel has to move behind the Green Line. Its settlers must give up forever their notion of a greater Israel. Eastern Jerusalem will become part of the state of Palestine. Perhaps Jerusalem itself will become an international city overseen by the United Nations. For the Palestinians, those who were forced off their ancestral lands will have to give up their right to return.

Will it stop the terrorism? No, at least not right away. But it will put in place a climate in which terrorism can finally ebb. Palestinians will have a hopeful future. There will be international aid, increased prosperity, and the ability to trade goods and services with Israel again.

We can see what is likely to work by examining the dicey situation in Northern Ireland over the last forty years. Both sides have had to become engaged in the political process. Both had to have mutual stakes in the outcome. Even today there are still scattered incidents of Protestant or Catholic terrorism in Northern Ireland. But these incidents are fading and are nearly gone. Engagement and negotiation have been a slow process but it shows every sign of working.

Does anyone think that if the British had hunted down IRA terrorists like dogs in Northern Ireland and lobbed missiles from Apache helicopters at crowds that they would have defeated terrorism? Soldiers did their best to keep warring factions apart while a political process continued to engage both sides of the conflict. It’s a model that should work over time in Israel too.

We need are grownups on both sides of the conflict to emerge and to act pragmatically. We do not need more of this hopelessly naive, idealistic and anger driven approach to diplomacy. Until we get grownups on both sides of this issue in charge the region will doubtlessly continue to spire ever slowly into lower levels of Hell.

 
The Thinker

It’s Not the Scorecard, It’s the Mission

I’ve been at my new employer (the U.S. Geological Survey) about a month now. Last week I was surprised to get in the mail a survey from my old federal agency asking for a candid assessment of why I left.

There were a lot of reasons why I left. The primary reason I left remains the same: the new job is 3 miles from my house, old job was 25 miles from my house. But the timesavings weren’t the only reason I left. I also left in part because the guy who sent me the survey really pissed me off. But it wasn’t until I filled out the exit survey and sent it back to him that I was able to fully articulate my feelings.

It was pissed because this “brilliant” guy in the Senior Executive Service had confused a scorecard with actual success.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you were watching the former White House terrorism czar, Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes Sunday night. He was upset because he tried diligently to get the attention of the latest Bush Administration to the threat of al Qaeda and was largely ignored. There were bigger fish for the Bush Administration to fry in those sweet pre 9/11 days, like missile defense spending for a bogus threat from rogue nations and tax cuts for the rich.

But no matter. Bush must have remembered one lesson at Yale when he was working on that MBA. It must have been the lecture on metrics. Measure progress by keeping metrics. We saw it after we invaded Iraq. Bush has this obsession to get the whole top Iraqi leadership, the “Deck of Cards”. According to Clarke, Bush would check them off one by one. By golly, as soon as he got all of them problem over! Cross Iraq off the list of national security problems! (It was never one to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Events in Iraq proved that this approach was painfully naive. But it’s not surprising, because Bush came into office and put in place the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In principle the goals seem sound: get results and don’t make empty promises. But the PMA’s modus operandi is interesting. They include such dubious approaches as “competitive sourcing” (i.e. replace federal employees with contractors) and “faith-based and community initiatives”. I guess it does take a lot of faith to buy into both of these dubious notions.

Naturally federal agencies are bending themselves over backwards to show they are becoming leaner, efficient and results oriented. Their scorecard is the PMA. My last agency was no different. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration was hired because he had a reputation of being a no-nonsense, results oriented guy.

And I have to report our scorecard looked great. Throughout the government agencies are competing hard to show they are making a “clean sweep”, changing old practices and putting in these great new practices (like competitive sourcing) that Republicans believe will make the government more responsive. Outside the wall of his office my SESer had hung a broom spray painted green with the words “Clean Sweep” embossed on the stick in gold letters. Next to it was an enlarged chart showing the key points in the President’s Management Agenda and how ACF was doing. Our metrics were great! We were getting all greens! We were doing so well our SESer was favorably written up in Government Executive magazine.

Yup, I expect he will get an outstanding performance rating this year, and even a bonus.

Too bad it is all spinning wheels.

It’s all bullshit.

He wouldn’t agree of course. The Bush Administration wouldn’t agree either. But it’s bullshit. The reason it’s BS is because it is all window dressing. It hasn’t made my old agency any more effective or efficient. Far from it. The outsourcing, for example, has left the staff shell-shocked and demoralized. Cutting so many managers from the hierarchy may have looked good on paper, but it disconnected employees from their managers. In effect managers didn’t have the time to proactively manage. Instead they were spending their time heeding instructions from those above them and making motions like they were getting things done, but having little idea what their own people were doing. Here’s a clue: it wasn’t always that way. But in buying into this management philosophy no one bothered to figure out if the philosophy could really work in a government culture.

Management today is like sending a novice to a computer certification boot camp. Put someone with half a brain in a room for 12 hours a day, make them cram for a test every night, teach them exactly what they need to know to pass the test and watch them ace it. Then watch them take their certificate to an employer and try to solve a real problem. Then watch them fail. Knowing how to follow the business ideology of the moment doesn’t qualify you to solve real world problems. Intimately understanding the problem domain and effectively working in that domain solves the problems.

As I said in my critique, it’s not how well you score on the President’s Management Agenda that counts, Mr. SES. It’s how effectively you and your staff do the agency’s mission that matters. If you cut expenses by 20% but productivity is down 50% you are not effectively managing. If you take the domain knowledge of a highly talented and dedicated staff of federal employees and give the task to some contractors who are out the door in a year or two, you are not effectively managing. If your agency gives more money to faith based organizations and they cannot show good or better results with the money than a nonsectarian organization, you are not effectively managing.

At USGS we live in a bit of a time warp. Not that we aren’t also subjected to the PMA and similar nonsense. But we are a scientist-heavy organization where federal employees are plentiful and contractors are still largely on the sidelines. With the exception of one person every member of my team is a federal employee.

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with my new team. These people are engaged. They are on the ball. Work is not a chore to them. Work is fun and more importantly work is meaningful. Go look at our NWISWeb system. Get real time information on stream flow, water quality and ground water information for your site, county, state or the whole darn country.

Contractors from SRA with impressive credentials and $200 an hour billing rates didn’t put this together. Ordinary federal scientists and engineers who were trusted and empowered by their managers put this together. These employees had a vision back in 1995: to put the vast National Water Information System data onto the web for the world to see and use. Management said “Go for it. We trust you.” Guess what? They did it. The system was an instant success. Today our hit rates are phenomenal. School districts open or close based on the quality and accuracy of the real time information we provide.

I got an email today from our office in Puerto Rico saying that Caribbean countries depend on the timeliness and accuracy of our data so they can make accurate predictions of their own. Our information not only tells fisherman when might be a good day to catch some trout, but it saves lives.

This administration doesn’t get it but maybe the next one will. But here’s an idea: try truly empowering your federal workforce. Instead of nickel and dime-ing them to death and constantly frightening them with the grim reaper of outsourcing tell them you trust them and have confidence in their ability. You will have in place a workforce that will not only do the people’s business but also do it brilliantly.

Maybe results oriented government isn’t so hard after all.

 
The Thinker

Boxed in by my computer

My office came together this week. On Tuesday I had it repainted and on Thursday I had the furniture people come in. They removed the 70s furniture and assembled modular furniture. I can now sit at my desk without my thighs touching the bottom of my desk drawer. I don’t have to elevate my arms to use the computer keyboard. All this is good and I appreciate the improved ergonomics. Clearly the computer is the means by which most of my work is accomplished so I have to be comfortable. I’m fortunate to have a boss more than willing to outlay a couple grand to make sure I can be productive. This would have never happened in my old agency.

But for someone whose job it is to be a web chief I find that in many ways a computer is a seriously inadequate tool for doing my work. Despite 25 years or so trying to perfect the personal computer using it is still a tedious, difficult and frequently frustrating means for accomplishing my work.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than with my computer monitor. I have a 17-inch monitor, which is standard these days. But it’s not nearly enough space. What I really need is for one whole wall of my office to be a gigantic computer monitor with 600 dots per inch resolution. That’s because like most people in the management business I multitask a lot. I have way more things on my plate that I have to manage than can fit on a 17-inch monitor or can be managed using an Outlook Task list. I can, of course, ALT-TAB to numerous other screens to get the same information. But what I need is a big picture of all my work and literally hundreds of tasks I must coordinate. And I can’t get that from a computer.

So instead I’m ordering the biggest whiteboard I can find and having that installed on one wall instead. It’s low tech, but it works. People can come into my office and we can discuss things and we can doodle on the white board until we come to a common understanding. But even this is not quite sufficient. And that is because my team is geographically disbursed. I have three employees working for me in Reston, but I have two other full time employees working out west (Montana and Alaska), and a number of part time employees scattered across the continental United States. It’s not often that I will be able to get them into my office. So instead they fly into Reston a couple times a year where we work from large whiteboards with periodic forays to our networked PCs.

It’s not that industry is not trying to respond. We’re a Lotus Notes shop (not a good thing) and part of the Notes suite is this Sametime collaborative software. It lets us have a virtual workspace. It includes a whiteboard and a chat window. We can display PowerPoint slides to each other in real time. I can also share a program and they can see what I am typing into an application. It’s a pretty cool technology and a step in the right direction.

But what I really have to do is manage a lot of disparate ad-hoc requests from all sorts of people. Right now I simply write them down on a piece of paper and cross things out as I do them, but I am reaching the point after four weeks on the job where it’s not enough. Hence I need a white board. I need one huge mother of a white board. I need to scribble my tasks on the white board, erase them, rearrange them, prioritize them and basically see things from a high level macro and a detailed perspective at the same time. I can’t do that on a 17-inch monitor, at least not very easily. I need to be able to glance from one set of tasks to another set of tasks and see the relationships between them. I can’t do that with current computer technology either. And most likely I’ll be retired before that happens.

In Neal Stephenson’s novel “The Diamond Age” he talks about electronic billboards that are floor to ceiling. You can see them emerge today in places like Times Square, but these are still very primitive and lack the resolution I need. In the 2002 movie “Minority Report” actor Tom Cruise plays detective John Anderton who interacts with a computer by standing up and stretching his hands out into space. This is more like what I have in mind. But even this is not ideal. It still requires a lot of physical movement that is time consuming.

Instead I have to live with what the current technology permits. It increasingly feels constraining. While I am not a big fan of Windows technology at least it is reasonably consistent. That’s why it drives me nuts when I have to use a product like Lotus Notes that completely ignores Windows graphical user interface design principles. Something as simple as selecting a block of messages using Shift-Click then pressing a Trash Can icon doesn’t exist. I average at least 200 emails per day. But right now I have to manually delete each message. (Naturally the messages aren’t deleted immediately. They are marked for deletion. If you actually want to get rid of them you have to hit the refresh button (F9) and say “Yes” to a message asking you if you really want to delete them. More of my time is needlessly wasted by a bunch of designers who never envisioned how I would have to use their product.)

And that’s just Lotus Notes. Every software package has its own peculiar and annoying quirks. The Lotus Notes Sametime program, for example, does not start automatically when I start Notes, even after I configure it to do just that. I have to remember to turn it on after I start Lotus Notes. Computer viruses and new security mandates have made it impossible for me to shut down my workstation, or even install a new software package without someone from the help desk coming to my machine. At home my new and improved Quicken software keeps asking me every time I start it if I want to learn more about their bill-paying feature. I never do and tell it to remember this fact. But it never learns. I took the time to talk to their technical support people who shrug their shoulders and say it will be fixed in a future release. Meanwhile: deal with it. My antispam software (ChoiceMail) occasionally sends me duplicates of the same email. Pretty much every program I own, no matter how much I like it, has annoying quirks. They have the effect of continually interrupting my concentration. Instead of focusing on a larger task, I am down in the computer weeds trying to make my software behave like a human would want it to.

Increasingly the whole Windows graphical user interface feels annoying. Why does it have to be so hierarchical? I can understand the logic of putting programs in a Programs folder and my data and settings in a Documents folder but I so often find myself drilling up and down folders to where I want to. Why is it so stupid? With hard drives holding ten gigabytes or more routinely these days, does an old fashioned hierarchical folder based system make any sense at all?

A computer should be like a screwdriver. Using it should be instinctive. I am grateful that my Windows 2000 operating system at least doesn’t crash on my several times day like Windows ME did. But you shouldn’t have to be your own software mechanic to continue to use a PC. Security should just work. Viruses should be automatically detected and squashed. Hardware firewalls should be built into a card on the back of the PC. Software upgrades should be tested by a certification service and installed automatically. I shouldn’t have to know what file extension things are stored in. I shouldn’t have to traverse folders or have the computer spend minutes using a Find function to locate a file. I should give the computer itself no more thought than I give my car’s dashboard. When I am driving I never think, “Gosh, I should press the accelerator” or “Maybe I should press the brake to avoid crashing into the car ahead of me”. My computer should let me manipulate it instinctively.

Clearly we have a very long way to go. Meanwhile, I will have my old fashioned whiteboard. I will continually erase it manually and rewrite it. It will require me to periodically buy new dry erase markers from the supply store. But I will be able to at least track my work, prioritize it in a way that makes sense to me, and meet my deadlines. I doubt many of us can truly do that with our computers alone.

 
The Thinker

The Iraq War: A One-Year Postmortem

So how are we doing on the War on Terrorism? Has our preemptive war against Iraq helped or hindered the situation? As my friend Frank Pierce pointed out the final answer will be left to history. But a year should be enough time to make at least a preliminary assessment. I know it is hard to appraise this last year with true Machiavellian detachment. In my case I was opposed to the war and still wish it hadn’t happened. But nonetheless I shall try my best to give an evenhanded assessment.

Let’s start with what went right. Our conventional military war against Saddam and his armies went very well. There were hiccups as there always will be some in any war. For example, we didn’t expect our army to be stuck enroot to Baghdad for a couple days while sandstorms howled. But though I knew Saddam’s army was more bluster than reality even I was surprised by how quickly we won the military war. For the most part the opposition was scattershot. The soldiers in the Iraqi army were no fools: they knew we had them outgunned in every conceivable way and our victory was inevitable. Their question was how long it would take for their command and control structure to collapse so they could safely desert.

Another thing that went pretty well has been our casualty count. About 3200 of our soldiers have been wounded, and 575 have been killed. While every casualty is a personal tragedy for the victim, friends and family by historical standards these numbers are quite low. While our troops don’t have quite all the vehicles and body armor they need, they have a lot of it. Under the circumstances they are fairly well protected. More recently many of our troops simply have withdrawn to their garrisons and refused to engage in routine patrols. That’s one way to keep the casualty numbers down. On the Iraqi side it’s hard to know the casualty count. But credible reports that I’ve read suggest at least 10,000 Iraqi deaths can be attributed to the war and its aftermath.

We are also fortunate to have such a well-trained and professional military working in and near Iraq. In retrospect it would have been better had they received more training in urban warfare, military policing and Arabic. Perhaps they needed less training in winning conventional wars. One lesson from this war should be that we need to shift military priorities. I strongly suspect that conventional war is something the United States will never engage in again. The United States can win pretty much any conventional war, as long as they don’t come too close together. Our armed forces are without peer although China’s forces pose a potential future threat. It is hard to imagine us fighting a land war with China though.

We also did a good job in capturing Saddam’s henchmen. Saddam himself took much longer but we eventually got the man. The “deck of cards” is nearly complete. It is strange that with the top leadership in custody we aren’t in better control of Iraq. Apparently there is more to removing evil than removing the leaders from power.

Perhaps my Machiavellian detachment is leaving me but I can’t think of too many things (at least at the macro level) that worked well. I know we are building roads, schools, libraries and the trying to restore Iraq’s basic infrastructure. Their infrastructure is in many ways worse than it was before the war. There may be marginally more electricity overall in Baghdad. But the blackouts are longer than they were before the war, as Riverbend frequently notes in her blog. Numerous checkpoints throughout Baghdad and indeed much of Iraq slow down commerce and make life much more frustrating for the average Iraqi than it was during Saddam’s reign.

Our postwar planning was a fiasco. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there was plenty of postwar planning, but the top leadership embraced none of it. The leadership’s planning, such as it was, assumed the rosiest possible scenario: our soldiers would be greeted as liberators and any counterinsurgency would be minimal. As bizarre as this seems in hindsight, our leadership gave no thought to the likelihood that our troops would be a police force in the country for many months. We have put in place a new Iraqi police force but it is working poorly at best. Its officers are frequent targets for those who would prefer to target our soldiers, but find the police much more accessible.

We have found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush called an urgent threat to our national security. Even Administration spokesmen have stopped parroting the line that they will be found eventually. The whole pretext for our war with Iraq proved to be bogus. In trying to assess where the failure lies, it is reasonably clear that it was not so much an intelligence failure (our intelligence agencies’ reports were full of disclaimers) as it was a failure of our leadership to look at the situation impartially. An early warning should have been Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans, set up for the specific purpose of finding the “evidence” that Rumsfeld believed our own intelligence agencies were neither finding nor forwarding.

Clearly the Iraqi people have more freedom now than they did under Saddam Hussein. Clearly his torture and death factories have been abolished. If Saddam were still in power likely these same sort of abuses would be continuing to this present day and perhaps would have been passed on to his sons after he died. We can all be glad that those days are gone.

But what is Iraq’s future? I would like to be hopeful but I personally suspect the odds of civil war hover at about 40%. Iraq has had civil war before. Arguably the war never completely ended, it just moved from a military war to a war waged through counterinsurgency. Terrorists, absent before the war, appear to number in the hundreds now. An effort to put in place a constitutional government is clearly underway; I have to credit Bush with a good effort here. But whether it will be more than words remains to be seen. I can’t imagine it happening at all without sustained United States support lasting a decade or more. And yet for our forces to remain there not only endangers them but inflames anti-American sentiments shared by likely a majority of Iraqis. I for one firmly believe our involvement spawned more terrorists to hate and kill us than prevented future acts of terrorism.

So the central question is whether the United States’ national security is safer as a result of this war. The war was justified on the basis that Iraq was an urgent threat to the national security of the United States. That we must leave to history too. But weapons of mass destruction in Iraq apparently existed only in the minds of our leadership. Meanwhile, we have 100,000 troops stationed indefinitely in Iraq, effectively unable to be used elsewhere in the war on terrorism. While it is good to have Saddam gone and for the Iraqi people to be freed from his tyranny, if he posed no threat how can 100,000 of our troops effectively taken out of the War on Terror improve our national security?

A year from now I hope to revisit this entry again. But here is what I see for the year ahead in Iraq: I see a lot more of the same. I see an earnest attempt at constitutional government and elections, but I see voting accompanied by massive intimidation and violence. I see civil war a distinct likelihood. A year from now there may be a government in place but it will be largely impotent, hobbled by start up costs, terrorism, counterinsurgency and sectarian violence. The United States will be the real power in charge, if we can call what we are doing now truly controlling the country. Really, it is more like anarchy. Sadly, I predict something resembling real peace in Iraq is at least five years away.

 
The Thinker

A Lesson for Bush from Spanish Voters

It was al Qaeda, or some group linked with al Qaeda. When I heard of the train bombings in Madrid I felt that instinctively. Yes, I had heard of ETA, the Basque separatist group. I knew they had killed many people over many years in various terrorist incidents. But this event felt different. Perhaps it was because it happened two years and six months to the day after 9/11. Perhaps it was because it also occurred exactly 911 days after 9/11. Perhaps it was the magnitude: 201 people killed, over a thousand injured. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the attacks. Box cutters and tear gas were the low-tech mechanisms used by al Queda against us. Ubiquitous backpacks stuffed with explosives and detonated by cell phone seemed like more of the same modus operandi.

But the Spanish government insisted (“beyond a shadow of a doubt”) that it was ETA that was behind the attack. But it didn’t gibe with the facts. It felt shrill. It felt like emotion was being substituted for evidence.

If I am to believe the Bush Administration, Spaniards voted in the Socialist Party because they were squeamish about confronting terrorism. Spaniards were hoping that by withdrawing its forces from Iraq the terrorists would leave Spain alone. But I don’t believe it. I believe it was a reaction by the Spanish people to being lied to by their own government. It wasn’t enough that the government engaged in a preemptive war with Iraq despite the opposition of 90% of its people. With this incident it finally struck home to Spaniards that their government wasn’t beyond misleading its own people about such a crucial issue simply to stay in power.

That sounds uncomfortably familiar to those of us who believed before the Iraq War that we were being misled by our own president. It was an intuition that unfortunately has been vindicated by time and evidence. On clue was how far the needed have moved on the hype meter. Hype is another way of saying the evidence is slim.

A more sanguine administration here in the United States might learn a lesson from this. But Bush has learned nothing. But I might as well write it down, even if no Republican is likely to take it to heart. It’s this: if you want to have the trust of the American people it must be earned by being honest with the voters. Come November Bush will finally learn this simple truth.

 
The Thinker

A Disturbance in the Astrological Force

I am puzzling over what to make of my astrological natal chart. I have an online friend who has really gotten into astrology. She is so enamored that she is taking classes in it and doing charts for her families and friends.

I come from a family where the scientific method and rational thinking reigns supreme. Consequently over the years I’ve tended to act a bit patronizing toward those into astrology. I see it as a largely harmless amusement but I never put any faith in it. I confess that I usually read my horoscope but not until the end of the day (my wife takes the comic section to work with her). Not surprisingly it rarely correlates with my life. It doesn’t help that two astrologers can put out two completely different horoscopes for the same star sign and the same date. But frankly my life is pretty boring. There’s not much guidance any horoscope can give when my day consists of a trek to the office, holding a few meetings and reading a whole lot of email.

It makes no sense to me that the alignment of planets hundreds of millions of miles away would make any difference to who I am as a person. I remember the day my daughter was born at least a dozen others were also filling out the natal unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital. I can’t believe that all these children are all essentially alike. It doesn’t make any sense.

I notice the zodiac is neatly divided into twelve constellations and that the sun appears to stay in each constellation one month. But when I look at star charts this is not the case. Virgo, for example, is a huge constellation occupying a large portion of the zodiac. From the looks of things the sun hangs around Virgo for more than 30 days. Astronomical charts dividing the sky into constellations were doubtless defined thousands of years after astrology took hold. I have also heard that due to leap years and the Julian to Gregorian calendar shift the sun isn’t where astrologers say it is. Indeed technically there are thirteen signs of the zodiac, since the sun passes through Ophiuchus (the serpent holder) between November 30th and December 17th. (For the real deal, see a this link.)

But anyhow my friend Linda worked on my natal chart. The results caused a disturbance in the force. To wit, I was disturbed by how uncannily accurate the thing was. In comparing the Venn diagram between who I am and my natal chart there was about a ninety percent intersection. Yikes!

I realize that the whole thing is subjective. Astrological natal charts can be read, filtered and interpreted in many ways. But even discounting all of this I was more than a little creeped out by my chart. Does it really matter that the Sun was in Aries at 10:10 AM on the day I was born? Or Jupiter was in opposition to my ascendant (whatever that means)? Or the Sun was sextile to Saturn? I guess anything is possible.

I don’t know a whole lot about astrology. I do know it is a very ancient practice (my friend insists it is a science) about as old as human history. I am sure in the early consciousness of mankind the fact that planets were not locked in the sky had mystical importance to people who didn’t have TV or books to occupy their minds. In their minds why wouldn’t these strange external and far away forces have some sort of godlike influence on our behavior?

So how do I explain my natal chart? I could say it is coincidence. I could say I am the sort to readily believe things that others say or write about me. I could take it I am easily flattered. I could say that astrology may appear to be nonsense but there is some underlying truth to it regardless.

But I do have my own theory. I have no belief that the alignment of the stars or planets controls my destiny. But I often wonder if mankind has some sort of larger evolving consciousness. Just as our brain has its primitive areas such as the brain stem, perhaps there is a primordial area of the larger consciousness of mankind. And that primordial part believed in astrology, so it projects this perspective on the evolving brain of mankind. In other words because there are enough people believing in astrology for so very long, and because it was impressed on us in tangible and intangible ways for many millennium it may leave an impression on us as individuals.

Or perhaps it is just one of these bizarre mysteries that will never be explained. I’ll keep reading my horoscope but taking it with a grain of salt.

 
The Thinker

The Illusion of Time

This article in Thursday’s Washington Post intrigued both my wife and I. It is a synopsis of a conversation between a reporter (Joel Achenbach) and Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist. This physicist, like many in the business, is working hard trying to validate string theory.

Hold on! Before you roll you eyes and click elsewhere this is actually incredibly exciting stuff. Physicists are closer than ever to being able to understand the most fundamental mysteries of life. The implications are mind-boggling.

One of the more controversial theories — which increasingly is being accepted by these theoretical physicists — is that which we call time is just an illusion. A lot of people feel the same way but physicists like Greene say it can be inferred from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Past, present and future are all equally real and timeless. But what is real? It is apparently not what we think, at least according to physicists like Greene. Space is real. Mass and energy are real. Gravity is real. But time is probably just an illusion.

I won’t bother to explain their logic since I am not a theoretical physicist. But the article (while it exists in its free form online) is worthy of reading. Physicists are not snake oil salesmen. They are scientists. They are trained to be skeptical. They are trained to use the scientific method and to work out the mathematical proofs. All the pieces are not in place yet to tie together Einstein’s discoveries on the relationship between matter, energy and time and the subatomic world. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that sometime during our lifetimes this question may be answered.

So we are going to purchase his book “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality” this weekend. We will see what we as laymen can glean from such a sharp and insightful mind. But it is interesting how sometimes the scientific world can intersect with the spiritual and metaphysical world. This may be one of those times. In the future these two universes, often perceived to be polar opposites, may turn out to be unified after all too.

In my metaphysical reading I consistently learn that after death we live in what amounts to a timeless state of energy. In that state we can review our life as many times as we want and run it back and forth like a tape recorder. I read about astral planes and astral beings and how after death we move out of the physical plain into the next astral plain and possibly into many more. I have one friend who assures me that she has through meditation already moved into an astral plain or two.

I don’t know how much of this stuff to believe. But I tend to believe it a lot more when I hear respected theoretical physicists make aspects of it look very plausible. Those of you who have browsed through my metaphysics archive will recall an early entry on deja vu. You will recall how creeped out I was by these experiences and how on some level I know they are true. Now perhaps theoretical physicists are agreeing with me that deja vu is what I think it is: some part of my mind is aware of my future in what I perceive to be the present.

If time is an illusion what exactly is a life anyhow? The only thing that works for me is that it is an experience. Perhaps we are all trills. A trill in Star Trek is an intelligent species that lives inside another intelligent “host” species such as a human. Perhaps our individual energy is what we call a soul, and our body is the mechanism for experience. And one aspect of our body is that because of the way it is constructed it has the attribute of perceiving time.

Perhaps one life is like a breath or a heartbeat in a larger life. Perhaps we glean what knowledge and understanding we can from our symbiot (the body) then depart and jump into another world, another body and another experience.

If time does not really exist then perhaps we experience a multitude of lives all at once. Perhaps we are everything and everyone. Perhaps part of me … of us really … is President Bush. Perhaps I am also Bill Clinton. Perhaps I was also Mother Teresa. Perhaps I am the cat on my lap at the moment and he is also me. (Maybe that’s why it feels so nice.) Perhaps we are all one entity. Perhaps I am you reading this, and you are me writing this. Perhaps we truly are just an aspect in the mind of God … which means we are God.

Perhaps we are all the same thing and yet all completely different. Perhaps we truly are Yin and Yang. Perhaps we are modeling infinite diversity in infinite universes and infinite times all in a timeless place we call the now.

I hope it is so. There would be no reason to fear death. Every life would be truly part of a great and much larger adventure. And my ramblings are not complete fantasy. Because with time likely to be an illusion and with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity demonstrating that we are all intrinsically connected and related we are neither dead nor alive. We simply are: different and the same, spawning colors in a gigantic universal kaleidoscope. And it is the relationship of all these colors that is the greater truth and beauty. And it is the relationship and the larger abstract picture that is this thing we call love.

 
The Thinker

John Allen Muhammad and the Death Penalty

It’s not easy being against the death penalty when it comes the case of John Allen Muhammad. When he and Lee Malvo were on the loose the fear of death around here felt very palpable. After all I live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. These crimes weren’t happening hundreds of miles away. They were happening in what felt like my backyard. Thankfully no one in my family nor anyone I knew were one of his victims. But I remember clearly how I felt for the month or so when the two went on a sniper-shooting spree around Washington D.C.

How did we feel? We felt like one of the pheasants in Dick Cheney’s canned pheasant hunt. Like we were living in a war zone. It was unnerving and creepy to walk outside and realize there was a remote (but not insignificant) chance that in a minute you could go from healthy pedestrian to bleeding on the pavement and fighting for life. For weeks my daughter was not allowed outside of her school during school hours. Pumping gas became an act of courage. If you were foolish or macho you stood there, in the open, instead of discreetly crouching next to your car. We all felt the same way: Hey, it could have just as easily been me murdered down there at Loehmann’s Plaza in Falls Church.

Our feeling of relief when Muhammad and Malvo were caught at a rest stop outside of Frederick, Maryland was palpable. The community heaved a collective sigh of relief. We started laughing again. We opened our blinds and filled the house with natural light. Children could play outside instead of playing video games. Pumping gas became boring and annoying again. Many of us wished we could become vigilantes and go after Lee and Malvo. Oh how sweet it would have been to give them a taste of their own little horror show! There would have been no lack of volunteers to take pot shots at them. In fact there would have been riots to be the one lucky enough to do the deed.

We hates them, my precious.

It was no surprise to me that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to try Muhammad and Malvo here in Virginia. In fact the majority of the murders occurred across the Potomac River in Maryland, so Marylanders should have had the first claim. But here in Virginia we have a certain reputation to uphold. Ashcroft knew we Virginians could deal death to Muhammad in near breakneck legal time. Texas may beat us in the sheer number of people put to death, but even Texas doesn’t come close to meeting our numbers for people put to death on a per capita basis. We love the death penalty here in Virginia! We don’t hang them in front of the county courthouse anymore, but we sure do our best to limit death penalty appeals. Those sentenced to death get an automatic and expedited review by the Virginia Supreme Court. More recently the state legislature allowed for DNA testing of evidence too. This was something they begrudged doing and only after it became embarrassingly clear that Virginia was very lax in that department. But even factoring in these minor delays it’s pretty unusual for killers sentenced in Virginia to not be pushing up the daisies two years later.

So it was no surprise at all that Muhammad received the death penalty. I was somewhat surprised that Malvo received a life in prison sentence. We’ve executed criminals for committing murder before age 18 in this state before. But the death penalty for Muhammad was a mere formality. He will likely miss his first scheduled execution date in October due to the usual appeals, but die he will. The only thing that would keep him alive beyond 2005 would be other states insisting on trying him too. These states though might as well save their money. The Commonwealth will put him to death as quickly as legally allowed.

And I won’t be shedding any tears for Muhammad the day he goes to his demise. Muhammad is one evil and messed up dude. I doubtless will feel safer knowing he’s not around.

So how could I be against the death penalty in general when I can’t work up the energy to feel much for Muhammad’s passing? Well there are lots of reasons. But to me it all comes down to one central issue: if killing someone against their will is murder, then executing someone is also murder. And if the state murders someone then the blood is in some sense also on my hands, because I live in a democracy.

Oh there are other arguments I could use. I could argue that a life spent in prison contemplating his crimes would be far more punishment for Muhammad than simply killing the guy. But that is just a cheesy rationalization. I could hope for rehabilitation for Muhammad. But I’d never feel safe if he got out of prison no matter how gloriously he found Jesus. I could convincingly argue that the death penalty does not deter others from committing murder, since our homicide rates show no correlation with executions. People who commit murder aren’t playing with a full deck in the first place. I could also argue, very correctly, that we’ve put to death innocent people before. The evidence in this case though leaves no room for reasonable doubt. Muhammad is a cold-blooded murderer and Malvo was his eager pupil. Muhammad is one sick and very messed up man.

It is so tempting in this case to make an exception. But I cannot do it and be true to myself. If murdering anyone is evil then murdering someone because they have murdered doesn’t make that murder any less a murder, or any less evil. It’s a shame America hasn’t joined the vast majority of the rest of the world and learned this simple but enlightened truth.

 

Switch to our mobile site