December 31, 2004

Happy New Year to All

I just wanted to say Happy New Year to everyone. May your next year be more blessed than the last, and all your hopes come to pass.

Posted by Jeff at 05:40 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 29, 2004

Budgeting

Somehow, I don't think Newsweek is very serious. After all, the money you spend on insurance against a house fire could be spent on food. The money you spend on health insurance could instead be spent on educating your children. And, yes, the money we spend occupying and reforming Iraq and Afghanistan could be spent on day care centers or hiring firemen.

The question that is reasonable is not, "How does this compare to other items in the budget?" (and note: they did not compare to other items in the budget larger than $87 billion, such as Medicare), but "How does this compare with national needs and goals?" Unless Newsweek intends to say - and they might - that we'd do better fighting the war on terrorism by using Federal money to fund community health care than we would by spending the money on the occupation and reformation of the nations at the heart of our enemies' territory, then these comparisons are meaningless. Worse than that, they do not even attempt to make a distinction between valid uses of Federal money (such as defense) and invalid uses (such as spending money on individual AIDS patients).

UPDATE: Yay for MT bugs. I don't know why the date was changed on this post when I deleted a spam from it, but there you have it. Since I don't know the original date, and am too lazy right now to look up the date on the referenced Newsweek article, it'll just stay here.

Posted by Jeff at 07:31 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 25, 2004

Bee, Fish, Ewe, a Mare, Egrets, Moose


















































Posted by Jeff at 01:56 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (4)

December 18, 2004

Fighting Comment Spam

This is probably the most useful article I've yet seen on fighting comment spam on MT weblogs, a topic near and dear to my heart.

Posted by Jeff at 11:24 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

Eliminating Spam

Steven Green points to this John Dvorak article, and asks: "can some of you smart network-type people tell me if any of these ideas [for reducing spam technologically] are doable without needing an entirely new email system and software"?

I'm not going to go into detail on all of Dvorak's proposals, but I will say that he misses the point, for an entirely good reason. The Internet was built as a survivable network, meant in fact to survive nuclear strikes on some of its nodes and still keep going. It was also designed to assume security: all of the users would have to be authenticated by a node before obtaining access to the network, and all of the nodes were trusted. This was an excellent architecture in 1988 (when I first got onto the Internet), because all of the users were accountable for their actions - to their employer, or their university, or their government agency, etc. As a result, abuse was a minor problem (mostly incoming freshmen at colleges) and easily dealt with. But the system dealt with abuse - the human part of the system, not the network part. You could actually be shamed off of the Internet back then. Removing the human enforcer of netiquette and good practice was like giving the government the power to raise almost unlimited revenue from a very small proportion of the population: corruption and abuse exploded. Open source routing - where everyone passed traffic by the shortest route, so that my traffic could go right through IBM's internal network if that was the fastest way to the destination - was the first to go, replaced by a few backbone networks, with the multiply-connected large private networks protected by layers of firewalls and large IT staffs. (This increased the brittleness of the network at the same time that it increased security.)

So how do we fix this? We cannot build a safe, secure and reliable system on top of an inherently insecure, self-regulating and untrustworthy network. We would have to build a new network from the ground up. And to do that, we'd have to scrap everything except the physical layer - the NICs, wires, routers, bridges, modems and so forth would be all that's left. The intelligence of the network would have to change, some of it drastically.

The first problem to solve is design: how do you create a secure, trusted network, which at the same time still allows connections from anywhere to anywhere, using any protocol, as the default? How do you do this without either excluding people or forcing a central controlling agency (brittle, arbitrary and powerhungry as any bureaucracy) or limiting the ability of people to use the network in reasonable ways? How do you manage traffic in such a way that the network can be flexible, without overwhelming small companies who are multiply-connected by passing external traffic through their networks? How do you provide authentication and authorization, in other words, to a global network using only local resources?

It turns out that if you are willing to start with a blank page, it's not that difficult. The major issue to be solved is trust: how do I know whom I'm talking to? Since you don't want a brittle network, that will fall apart when something happens to a small number of nodes, the only trust model that works is to authenticate yourself to some local authentication source. For example, an ISP or a company would provide a directory which lists all of their users, and contains the information necessary to trust that user. Each node, then, has to trust its neighboring nodes. (This is already the case today, in that you cannot establish a physical connection to another node without being their customer or their provider, or entering into an agreement to do so.) Each node would need to cryptologically authenticate itself to its neighbors, and vice versa, and each user would have to authenticate themselves to their node. No node would pass traffic that did not include its partner node's connection key in the message portion of the packet, and no node would alter that information.

On the good side, this lets any traffic be traced back to its source. You cannot fake traffic as being from a node that you are not from, because the network will not pass on the message unless it has authenticated the upstream source - that is, you - and your information is in the packet header. Therefore, you could put preceding node information in the header, but it would be bogus and the trace would effectively stop being verifiable at you, the sender. On the bad side, this would dramatically increase the amount of traffic on the Internet (by increasing the size of any given packet) and would slow down all traffic, bandwidth being equal, because of the overhead of nodes authenticating to each other and the larger byte-count of a given data set.

Let's say, though, that we were to use that or some similar measure of trust to guarantee that the network was trusted. Now, we still have a whole host of problems to solve, because the IP spec would have to be rewritten at a pretty fundamental level. This means that the NICs would need updated firmware, or for cheap cards that have their firmware burned into the hardware, the whole NIC would have to be replaced. Then, you would have to rewrite the network stack to take account of the new protocol. You'd have to rewrite all of the protocols like UDP, FTP, SMTP, POP, NNTP, LDAP, SSH and the like. Some of these would be huge efforts, while others would need few or no changes. The OS network stacks would have to be rewritten for each OS, and some applications would need to be rewritten as well, if they deal with the network information at a low level.

All in all, it would be a huge load of work, and not likely to get done as an organized effort. The better way to do it would be to set up such a network privately, amongst friends as it were, and expand that to their friends, and their friends, and so on, and so on... And if you were to gateway to the global internet, you'd lose a lot of the benefits right there.

So in practical terms, I don't think it's going to happen.

Posted by Jeff at 05:12 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 16, 2004

Iraqi Judges and NATO's Near-Worthlessness

Roger Simon points to Andrew Apostolou's NRO article on why we cannot depend on the support of NATO in Iraq and elsewhere. I've been coming to the conclusion that NATO is fundamentally broken after their Cold War mission disappeared, and Andrew presents more evidence in that direction.

Meanwhile, Roger Simon also has a post on the lack of help from NGOs and European war-crimes experts in helping prepare the Iraqi judiciary. Certainly, this is an area where you would expect the NGOs and Europe's most virulent human rights supporters to come together and help: train judges to handle the trials of men who likely murdered 300000+ of their subjects? But no, apparently not. Which is further evidence towards the proposition that the NGOs and European tribunals are also fundamentally broken.

Posted by Jeff at 01:07 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

The Problem of Faction

Michael Totten points to one bad Republican example, and Mark Lindsay points to another. These are a great illustration of why politics produces strange bedfellows.

The Republicans basically kicked the most egregious religious nutters to the sidelines during the 1990s, which is the only reason they were able to gain such broad support among the electorate. Similarly, the Democrats now need to kick the MoveOn/Michael Moore anti-US wing of the party off to the side if they are going to come back to broader-based support. But even so, you can't kick those wings of the parties completely out, because you need their votes. So Michael Moore and Jimmy Carter sit together at the Democrat Convention, and President Bush meets with people who want to ban books they don't like.

But where does this arise? Consider this contrived example: you have an electorate of 11 people, and there are 10 issues on which they each have political opinions. These opinions are either 'yes' or 'no', where 'yes' indicates that they favor one opinion on that issue, 'no' indicates they disfavor that same opinion. This system has no compromisers, which complicate things but do not change the essence of the analysis. (For example, if the issue is "abortion should be legal up to the time of birth for any reason whatsoever", yes would agree, no would be the antithesis (abortion should never be legal) and eh would favor some kind of conditions under which abortion should be legal and others where it should not. We don't allow 'eh'.) Here's a chart of opinions on issues for this 11-person electorate:

issue 1issue 2issue 3issue 4issue 5issue 6issue 7issue 8issue 9issue 10
person 1yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 2noyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 3nonoyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 4nononoyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 5nonononoyesyesyesyesyesyes
person 6nononononoyesyesyesyesyes
person 7nonononononoyesyesyesyes
person 8nononononononoyesyesyes
person 9nonononononononoyesyes
person 10nonononononononoyesyes
person 11nononononononononono

Let's start with simple politics. Person 4 and person 8 start political parties based around their views. In order to get their views enacted into law or policy, they have to win elections. So how do they form their parties?

For person 4, person 3 and person 5 are natural allies, differing on only one issue. And if person 4's issues of primary interest are on the right, then the disagreements are on less important issues at that. Person 1 and person 2 are somewhat more extreme, but their votes could probably be counted on. They'd have to be thrown the occasional distasteful bone, but they would otherwise be useful. Since person 4 is further to the left than they are, person 4 would be the lesser of two evils for person 1 and person 2. Person 4 would want to get person 6's or person 7's vote at least, then, in order to win, but those people will be somewhat suspicious of person 4's views, which are further to the right than theirs.

For person 8, there is the mirror image problem, just reversing left and right and altering the people in support or opposition to them on various issues. So we get two parties, the Top Party of person 1 to person 5, and the Bottom Party of person 7 to person 11. In the center is person 6, and persons 5 and 7 will sometimes shift away from their party depending on circumstances.

But how you hold together these parties depends upon the issues, too. If the populace can be largely convinced that issues to the right are more important, and if they only voted on their issues, the Top Party would win handily and consistently. The reverse holds for the Bottom Party with issues on the left. If the big issue is issue 3, Bottom would win with 8 of 11 votes. If the big issue is issue 8, Top would win with 8 of 11 votes. Each party will therefore endeavor to make their issues be perceived as the most important issues on which to vote.

But you can't just take that at face value, because once the parties form, there is a party loyalty issue as well. For example, person 7 doesn't agree with person 8 on issue 7, but they feel that issue 6 is very important to them. As such, they cannot agree with Top party, who are universally opposite person 7's stance on that issue. So they have to accept disagreement with the rest of their party on issue 7 to get their way on issue 6. And this happens across all issues, so it tends to drive the perception of difference to higher levels than the actual differences suggest.

The key disagreement, the political battleground consuming all attention, will be around issues 5 and 6 for the votes of persons 5, 6 and 7. And that is why we have purple states with very small differences of aggregate opinion, but a lot of people seem to feel we're on the verge of civil war. It's also why right-wing nutjobs meet with Republican presidents and left-wing nutjobs meet with Democrat presidents.

Posted by Jeff at 12:55 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

"I Wonder What Lachlan Could be Planning"

Our not-quite-3 year old son, Lachlan, has developed a remarkable ability to use computers. He figured out quite quickly all about what typing does and what pointing and clicking the mouse does (and for that matter how to drag), and yesterday initiated a chat with me that went something like this:

Him: asdfasqp20834ty:ISHFSDH
Me: Lachlan? Is that you on Mommy's computer?
Him: asdlfaot40y40ty

So here's today's exchange, this time between myself and Steph:

Steph: Er ... did you happen to put a book called "The Analysis of Rubber and Rubber Like Polymers" in a book cart at abebooks.com?
Me: No. But what a great title.
Steph: I wonder what Lachlan could be planning ...
Me: heh - well, we could use new tires

No, there's no point to this post. I just thought it was funny. Between Aidan (the charismatic and passionate Dark Overlord) and Lachlan (the intelligent, ruthless and scheming power behind the throne), I think it's fair to say that Nathan's prediction about Aidan in the reviewing stands watching his Death Minions parade below him is coming closer to reality all the time....

Posted by Jeff at 11:31 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 15, 2004

Securing the Right to be Who You Want

Questing Cat has a very good post on how he's thinking about the world and his place in it. (QC is deployed in Iraq, FYI.) If anyone ever claims that our soldiers are brutal Gestapo maniacs, point them here.

Innocence and guilt. A simple process in America, or so it would seem. If someone has done wrong, then they are guilty, if they have not, then they are innocent. But here, that seems to carry weight which can not hope to be born. Every action you take here makes you guilty in the eyes of some one. When cultures around the world can gather at there TV sets and watch your every move, and judge you solely on the actions they see, then of course, you are guilty to someone. There are stories down here of a soldier killing a local child so burned and in pain from an IED that he didn't think he would live. A mercy killing. There is much talk in the news of a soldier putting a round in a body, or a casualty, or whatever, while clearing a house. What is claimed as a murder of a helpless person. I have, on occasion, known of an incident where a soldier engaged for all the right reasons, right down the line. But the target was wrong. But now the whole world can see it. And for them, judgment waits.

Little can describe the rhythmic chaos that ensues during a firefight. Engagement in Iraq is constantly sought, rarely expected, always prepared against, and brutally fought. That is the life that soldiers lead here. And state of mind is a soldier by soldier thing.

Politics. The world is full of ideas. Everyone has them, and it is part of the ego that one wants your ideas heard. Personally, I have always felt it would be best to finish my time here before I began to talk about right and wrong. Maybe with this experience I could find people whose writing I could follow. Who would give me direction? Learn from others. I hate the thought of telling others the course of things I have no concept of, and there are a million things out there to argue over. So many people totally self interested. God knows I am. I have spoken from here on a number of occasions on things I believe would benefit me and my kind. I fully realize I've gotten ugly about it too. But really, my interests are somewhat uniform among a fairly large group. I think all soldiers want armor when we have to go out in sector. I think we all want the Iraqis as placid as possible when we have to roll through their towns. And by a larger extent, I think this benefits all. We are the sons and daughters of America, and I know everyone wants to see us home. Well, at least most of you.

What I don't understand is how belief in a few issues that are not represented allows people to thoroughly dispense with the government around them. I once knew a girl who sowed an American flag patch to the seat of her pants because she was a democrat and George Bush was elected president. Therefore, America was not in her good standing. I guess it is my army brainwashing, I took offense to that. Often, I think the country at home will be like that for a long time. Divided on one side or the other. As much as we all have our views, I still accept us as one country.

[snip]

There is much in this world I can spend a life time trying to understand. The subtleties of pacifism and war. The lines between good and evil. The struggle of the soul for acceptance. There is much I could spend lifetimes debating. But I am simple person, with a complex life. I look and say simply, "Do I agree with that?" And go from there. I try hard to keep my view from warping to fit my statements. I try not to draw judgments that are irreversible. And I always try and afford courtesy to those around me. Even when I am fully armed. Even when we don't speak the same language. Even when I don't understand. I am not always a saint, and I have my moments, but mostly, I want the best for all.

Iraq has that chance. It has gotten there through one of the hardest times in its history. It has long to go before it can begin to be the countries that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait are with no effort. There much that has to change for it represents itself, defend itself, and look after itself. Even then, I doubt its culture will much resemble the States. And I am glad. This country is its own. Let Germans be German, French be French, and Iraqi be Iraqi. I may not always like them, but they earn the right to be what they are. And here, we secure that right.

Go read the whole thing. Really.

Posted by Jeff at 03:02 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

You Can Find Blogs on Any Topic

Some time ago, Steph had asked me for a program which would allow her to organize recipes, find recipes that fit the ingredients she had, figure out diet information, plan meals for the week and make shopping lists. Finding nothing out there on the Mac, I started working up a design, but didn't get past the design, data storage formats and other lower-level items - no working code. Today I had a few minutes, and decided to check again if someone has saved me the work of writing it. Yes, yes they have: MacGourmet. (There's also an associated blog.)

Not knowing anything about the product ( I know the company from SQLGrinder), and not seeing a complete list of features at their website, I decided to look around for information, and found Kitchen Contraptions, a blog about kitchen gadgets. Some recent posts?

An in-sink dishwasher.
A review of a Zach & Dani's coffee roaster (We actually have one of these, but for some reason no coffee to roast at present. Not really a problem for me, but I'm not quite sure how Steph has gone this long without fresh-roasted coffee.)
A radio with satellite radio built-in, and actually using a wooden cabinet instead of fake woodgrain stickers.
An automatic pot stirrer - this actually looks like a really cool idea if you have a lot of sauces and gravy going at once, like at Thanksgiving.

You can find a blog about anything.

Posted by Jeff at 01:02 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

December 14, 2004

Michael Moore is a Piker

Moore may think he can do propaganda, but this is well-done propaganda. Stirring, martial music; an appeal to liberal values antithetical to every desire of those making the propaganda, but the mouthing of platitudes to which the Left in the West is much dedicated; ignoring defeats and setbacks of the insurgents and terrorists - actually, ignoring the fact that most of their attacks are on Iraqis - while playing up destroyed trucks as major successes: this is very, very well-done propaganda. Too bad our professional propagandists, the movie companies and authors and musicians, are generally opposed to working on behalf of the West, of America, and of realization of actual liberal values.

(hat tip: Little Green Footballs)

Posted by Jeff at 09:41 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

Two Chinas - Maybe Not for Long

The odd position Taiwan finds itself in is this: a free-market capitalist society with a social-democratic representative government, Taiwan is not officially recognized by its major patron and defender, the US, and is under constant threat from the Communist mainland China, which we do recognize. China, of course, has always wanted to capture Taiwan, which they could not militarily do when they seized the rest of China shortly after WWII. It is officially the policy of both China and Taiwan that there is only one China, and that the current situation is a historical aberration which will shortly be rectified. Taiwan's idea of rectifying the situation is for China to become a social-democratic, representatively-governed free-market capitalist state, at which time reunification is simple and desirable. China's idea can be seen by this StrategyPage article which notes:

China is apparently building a large quantity of amphibious shipping. Two LSDs (Landing Ship Dock) are being built in large covered sheds. They appear to be about 25,000 tons each and carry four LCAC (high speed landing craft) and four helicopters each. China is building 4-5 LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) a year. These are 4,800 tons displacement each and can carry about 2,000 tons if they are not going to run up on a beach. The Chinese prefer to avoid that, as it eventually destroys the LST, and you can carry more load if you don't. A larger number of LSMs (smaller than LSTs, but in this case almost as large as World War II LSTs) are also under construction. China won’t say what the eventual size of this amphibious fleet will be, but Taiwan suspects enough to land two or more divisions on Taiwanese beaches. That could take another 3-4 years. It is believed that the Chinese would use a lot of civilian transport for an attack on Taiwan, meaning they could put up to nine divisions on shops. The navy's amphibious shipping would be used for the first wave, where speed is needed. But the next waves could be put ashore with civilian ferries and transports. In addition, there is an airborne division. It would be a rather ramshackle effort by American standards, but the Chinese believe it would be adequate against the Taiwanese. The key to such an invasion is keeping the U.S. Navy out of the war. 

Meanwhile, Chinese shipyards are also turning out submarines and surface warships. China will be able to make a serious move on Taiwan before 2010.


I was going to comment on this, but Brian Dunn has already done so, so you should read that for his thoughts. I would like to take another track. Before I do, full disclaimer: I lived four years in Taiwan as a child, and would be happy to see the US help the legitimate government of all of China retake its rebellious mainland provinces.

That said, a war between China and Taiwan would be devastating. The US would defend Taiwan with naval and air assets, would cut off trade with China (and might blockade China to boot) and would threaten the use of nuclear weapons to defend China. China, though, should she decide to take Taiwan, would attempt to complete the invasion quickly and overwhelmingly, before the US could effectively respond (and thus likely as a surprise, without an advanced mobilization), would attempt to sink or delay the US carriers and other naval assets seeking to intervene, and themselves threaten to cut off trade if we do intervene, and would threaten to use its own nuclear weapons should we intervene. Then it comes down to a question of who's more willing to risk nuclear destruction.

One of the key problems is perception of will. If China believes that the US will not risk its own destruction over Taiwan, which our interactions around N. Korea's nuclear weapons program certainly give them reason to think, she may decide to risk it. After all, China has a lot less to lose than the US does, and much to gain (economically and in prestige - always important to a totalitarian state) by taking Taiwan.

There is a way to upend this equation, though. In addition to opening up overt provision of the most modern and capable military systems and technologies, the US should strongly consider giving Taiwan a covert strategic deterrent. We could build, and provide to Taiwan, four attack boats (so 1-2 would always be at sea) armed with cruise missiles carrying nuclear warheads. This would mean that, should China attack Taiwan, they would face nuclear destruction from someone who had nothing left to lose. This could be done without China's prior knowledge, if Taiwan were willing. I'm not sure if this breaks NPT, but Taiwan is technically not a signatory (since it's technically not a state (at least, it's not so recognized by the UN)) and the US could simply leave the matter ambiguous - did we provide nuclear warheads or not? (The idea is to create a deterrent, for which purposes actually having nuclear warheads would be somewhat superfluous.)

At that, Israel could provide the warheads under contract, as Israel is not a signatory of NPT, either. Taiwan, for that matter, could develop its own nuclear weapons, except that they would have to do so in utter secret, because the force would have to be deployed before China knew that Taiwan was seeking a force, or China would immediately invade. Taiwan could claim, plausibly, that this force was needed because of N. Korea's nuclear program, and that puts China in a bind, since China is the only outside power that could compel N. Korea to give up its nuclear program.

The more I think about this, the more I like it. The problem, of course, is a practical political one: for some reason, many people who live in social-democratic, representatively-governed free-market capitalist states seem to believe that no one else needs or wants to do so, or should be given aid to their defense if they are under threat. As a result, it's far from clear that the Congress would go along with such a program, even though it's a fact that even minor nuclear powers have so far not been willing to go to war with each other, and absent insanity (open question in N. Korea) and death-cultism (open question in Iran and much of the rest of the Arab/Muslim world) nuclear weapons provide the best reason yet devised for countries to not go to war.

If China does invade Taiwan, though, we may look back on this time and rue not providing nuclear weapons to Taiwan.

Posted by Jeff at 03:58 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

Almost...There...

A lot of effort has lately been going into putting online the contents of major libraries - not just the catalogs, but scans of the actual books. This is, beyond any doubt, a fantastic achievement, and will be one more way to speed progress and learning.

It lacks, in fact, only one thing: relatively recent material. Because copyrights have been repeatedly extended, the public domain in the United States largely stops at the point that Micky Mouse begins (no coincidence, that). After that, copyrights are extended for something like 140 years, now. (What happened to the "for a limited time" clause in the Constitution? The Supreme Court decided that "a limited time" means anything other than "forever", so the Congress could allow copyright for, say, 1000000000000000000000 years, and that apparently counts as "limited".)

The major problem with the copyright system as it now stands is that it allows material to disappear. While a publisher might not care enough to keep alive some minor work on, say, an obscure religion published in the 1920s, which has been out of print since 1930 and has not made anyone any money since then, such a work might be just what a particular person is trying to find. But since no one is keeping the book alive by republishing, and since no one can keep it alive by digitally preserving it (unless they're willing to gamble on extensive fines; and if you don't think holders of dead copyrights wouldn't recognize a revenue opportunity, you're not paying attention), the work gradually disappears as physical copies are lost.

OK, I grant it seems obscure, but consider this: we may very well lose more than 95% of recent books, films and music forever because of this. Star Wars, for example, was almost lost, because no one bothered to keep the negatives in shape until George Lucas decided to release the special editions. Such a loss would put future scholars of today's culture and knowledge in the same position we are currently in regarding the early Dark Ages: you can't study evidence that no longer exists. This would be a tragic consequence of copyrights, and it's currently more likely than not to happen.

Unless we reform our copyrights, at the very least to require them to be actively maintained or lose force, this digitization of the libraries may well be a one-time effort.

Posted by Jeff at 08:47 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

December 13, 2004

Classification of Democrats

Dave Schuler of the Glittering Eye reminds me of something I've been meaning to blog about. I spent the first 3/4 of 2004 in Chicago, and the rest (so far) in the San Francisco Bay area. Though both are utterly controlled by Democrat Party establishments, they are completely different places politically.

The San Francisco Democrats are less Democrats than unabashed Lefties, basically moonbats as far as I can tell. They will support any loony cause - the more anti-freedom and anti-wealth the better - and have a tendency to march in the streets and burn things. There is a clear line of blame drawn here: any Jew in Israel; any other Jew; any American Republican; any other American. Any problem can be blamed on one of the above groups by matching them, in order. Hence, Wolfowitz is, in the Bay Area, somewhat worse than Satan (who I suspect many of the more fringe Lefties here would classify as "misunderstood"). Being here around the election was, er, interesting.

The Chicago-area Democrats are patriotic, corrupt, actually concerned with the plight of their fellow man (though not too good at judging consequences), and mostly harmless. Their the kind of people I picture as the party of Truman, Roosevelt and "Scoop" Jackson, and can be more or less trusted to run the country, at least to the degree that anyone could be so trusted. Demonstrations downtown are fairly constant around the Federal buildings, but small-scale and polite (and mostly conducted by quite old people). While I was there, the demonstrations tended to be straight anti-war affairs, without a lot of far Left weirdness.

I don't know what the NorthEastern Democrats are like - though the Kennedy family, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis give me suspicions.

I don't really have much to say on this; it's just an observation.

Posted by Jeff at 07:50 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

Gotta Ban Something

What would you guess would be the emotional impact on a 10 year old girl of being hauled off in handcuffs in a police wagon to the local police station? That happened to a girl in Philadelphia who had scissors in her book bag at school.

School district and police officials said yesterday that they were following state law and procedures in dealing with students who have weapons on school property. They say that those rules demand police be called and that procedures call for handcuffing suspects regardless of age or crime.

Porsche Brown's mother, Rose Jackson, was outraged.

"My daughter cried and cried," Jackson said yesterday. "She had no idea what she did was wrong. I think that was way too harsh."

[snip]
School district officials acknowledged that the girl was not using the item as a weapon or threatening anyone with it. The scissors were found Thursday morning during a search of students' belongings after something was discovered missing from the teacher's desk area, Gallard said.

The scissors, however, qualified as a possible weapon under a long-standing state law, and the school followed proper procedure by calling city police, he said.

Porsche will be suspended for five days, and the district will then decide whether to expel her to a disciplinary school or allow her to return to Holme, he said.

City police, meanwhile, decided not to charge her with a crime because they determined that she had no intent to use the scissors as a weapon, said Inspector William Colarulo, a police spokesman. In fact, police believe she had the scissors to unwrap a new CD, Colarulo said.

He defended the police officers' decision to handcuff the child and take her to Eighth Police District headquarters. All suspects, regardless of age or crime, are handcuffed, he said. "The officers acted in good faith," he said.


At the very least, this girl will likely trust police considerably less than she used to. She will also likely trust teachers and administrators less than she used to. By extension, she may trust all adults less than she used to. So, for the "crime" of bringing school supplies to school to work on a school project, this girl has now been mistreated, and made suspicious of adults. Way to go, Principal Cabry!

You know, if legislators want to ban dangerous things at school, they should ban thinking. Ah! Now it makes sense!

Posted by Jeff at 07:14 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

Useful and Unusual Ways to Support the Troops

There are many needs that the troops have that are not met by the "usual methods" like sending mail to "any soldier" (I'm not disparaging those methods, by the way; they too are useful). I'd like to spotlight four of them, because there are some unusual projects that are very helpful.

Phone Cards for Wounded Soldiers

The combination of excellent protective gear (including universally-available body armor), unparalleled combat care, rapid medical evacuations, dedicated and experienced trauma surgery units very near the battlefield, and the advances made in modern medical care mean that many soldiers who would have died in past wars are instead wounded, sometimes terribly so and in ways that require long convalescence. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, one of the less good consequences is the long convalescence, and the fact that the Army doesn't pay for long-distance calls made by the convalescing soldiers. One of the most in-demand items among the wounded soldiers is phone cards to call home with. You can send them to Walter Reed Medical Center at:

Medical Family Assistance Center
Walter Reed Medical Center
6900 Georgia Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20307-5001

Hugh Hewitt has details.

Baghdad Hobby Club

It's often not well-known to civilians, but fighting a war is usually boring. Most of the time, you are waiting to do something, and in between periods of waiting, you are terrified. Having "episodes of normality" - including mail from home talking about the mundane details and progressions of daily life - is a link to sanity, to a promise of getting home to what you miss most. The Baghdad Hobby Club is a group of soldiers "very interested in gaming, scale models, railroad, and radio control to pass their time in Iraq". Sending hobby gear can help the soldiers keep their sanity and their focus. You can send items to:

Sgt Dean Flyte
Baghdad Hobby Club
ISG/MCT#4/SCP-B
Camp Slayer
APO AE 09342

Winds of Change has background and details.

Fallen Heroes Last Wish Foundation

The Last Wish Foundation provides for the education of children of service members killed in Iraq. There are other such foundations, and a list of worthwhile charities in a similar vein can be found at Roll Call's family support page.

Spirit of America

A big part of the mission in Iraq is to build Iraq up to the point that it can stand on its own as a free nation. Because of decades of deprivation under the Ba'ath tyranny, everything is lacking. Spirit of America provides goods and services to ordinary Iraqis and Afghanis to help them rebuild their country. For example, providing tools to tradesmen or library books to schoolchildren.

Please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments.

Posted by Jeff at 06:51 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

December 11, 2004

BBQ Pork and Baked Beans

I've never posted on Carnival of the Recipes - heck, I've never posted recipes, but what the heck: here's dinner:

BBQ Pork

pork shoulder roast - about 4-5 lbs (I used a 7 lb. pork shoulder this time - you just have to adjust the amount of sauce and vinegar mix)
3 cups cider vinegar
cayenne
onion flakes (optional)
6-9 peeled garlic cloves
peppercorns
BBQ sauce
hamburger buns
butter
cheddar slices if you wish

Put the pork shoulder in a large pot, along with a cup of the cider vinegar, water to cover and about a dozen peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then simmer covered about 3 hours.

Before the 3 hours is up, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and combine the rest of the cider vinegar, the cayenne (to taste) and the onion flakes (if you want them).

Transfer the pork shoulder to a greased or oiled roasting pan (be sure to use one that lets the fat drippings get away from the meat). Stuff the garlic cloves into the meat. Pour a little of the vinegar mix over the top. Roast for 3 hours, basting every 15 minutes with the vinegar mix, and turning over completely half-way through.

Transfer to a pan or large bowl, pull the pork (use two forks to shred it all), and mix with BBQ sauce. You can make your own; I use a most of an 18oz bottle of Stubb's Bar-B-Q Sauce. (Wonderful stuff!)

Near the end of the cooking time, butter and toast the buns. Serve the pork over the buns open-face with cheddar, or just make a sandwich.

Baked Beans

Lg. can or two normal cans of pork and beans
bacon
catsup
brown sugar

Drain the pork and beans. Put them in a large pyrex bowl or some similar container (you want something that you can serve in, too). Smooth the beans. Add a layer of bacon. Add a layer of catsup and smooth it down. Add a layer of brown sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Because of the temperature, you can cook this at the same time the pork is cooking.

Serve with a salad.


OK, so it takes six hours: it's worth it.

Posted by Jeff at 04:58 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

December 10, 2004

Taking Offense

We are Pagans. You'd think that, if anyone were going to be offended at very Christian celebration of Christmas - given that the date was chosen quite deliberately to take over from Yule - it would be us. But somehow we're not. Apparently, some people are, and communities and schools are caving with barely a peep muttered in protest in the first place. You'd think that we'd at least wait to see if a significant number of people are offended before we react, but apparently that's not the case. You'd think that we'd apply "live and let live" and not get offended by hearing a Christian song or seeing a nativity scene, but apparently we - or at least our public officials - have become so craven and gutless that they've forgotten how to tell people to get over themselves.

Look, it's very simple: society cannot work without tolerance. Stripping the ability of the most commonly-followed religion in the society to express itself in public in any way is not tolerance, but tyranny. (And the same goes for stripping any other religion, no matter how many or how few followers it has. And for that matter, for any other belief, ideology or lifestyle that does not harm others than the practitioners.) Human nature rebels against being forced into homogeneity, and eventually this manifests itself in all kinds of acting out. (In many ways, the 1960s was a rebellion against the manifest conformity of the 1950s, at least as perceived by the young people of the 1960s.)

But somehow we've forgotten how to get along with other people, whether because of schools that actively reject our core culture, or courts that have arrogated to themselves all authority, or people who are just too polite to tell idiots to stop being stupid and leave the rest of us alone. Regardless of why we've lost our way, though, we have an opportunity to fix it by being a little rude now, and liking ourselves and our culture, and maybe even being a little bit jingoistic and cheerleading for America and the West and our shared culture. Maybe, maybe we can save our culture and polity if we do. Otherwise, it's a fair bet that we'll simply continue on the divisive and bitter trend we've been on the past 40 years, to who knows what end.

Posted by Jeff at 11:27 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

"the one thing that society should not tolerate"

Steph points to a fine followup to the series of Akron Beacon Journal articles on homeschooling I talked about last month. After summing up the series, the Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey gets directly to the heart of the matter: "Home schoolers believe that some things are right and others are wrong. They dare to have a say in how they are governed. Apparently, allowing them to exercise these basic rights is the one thing that society should not tolerate."

Yep, that's what Oplinger and Willard were saying.

Posted by Jeff at 11:10 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 09, 2004

Let's Make a Movie about a Girl with an Animal Friend!

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the most compelling fantasies of modern times, taking a look at a girl and boy in the midst of a titanic struggle across multiple parallel universes to overthrow god (not directly the Christian god, but an entity called the Authority) and the Church (which somewhat resembles, in its total domination, the Catholic Church of Mediaeval times). Without any hesitation, I recommend reading this series. The scene in Hell alone is worth the time of reading the entire series, and that's but one scene!

New Line Cinema, who brought us Peter Jackson's brilliant version of Lord of the Rings, is making a movie of Pullman's series, directed by Chris Weitz, best known for American Pie, which I haven't seen. What could possibly go wrong, he asks innocently...

THE Hollywood adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, in which two children do battle with an evil, all-powerful church, is being rewritten to remove anti-religious overtones. Chris Weitz, the director, has horrified fans by announcing that references to the church are likely to be banished in his film. Meanwhile the “Authority”, the weak God figure, will become “any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual”.

(Hat tip to Michael Totten, who points to a BBC article on this)

On top of that abomination, Tom Stoppard - one of the finest screenwriters ever - was dropped from the project early on. (Given his treatment of religion in Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead, I think he would have done an admirable job presenting the essential nature of the story without being "anti-Christian".) I will most certainly not go see the movies or buy the DVDs now, presuming that the studio doesn't have second thoughts given the fan reaction, and my opinion of New Line has gone down, since they were the ones asking for the changes.

The thing is, when you start cutting the core content of a story like this, you end up not mollifying the unmollifiable (though I suspect that the "Christian Right"'s "outrage" over the movies would be smaller than New Line apparently believes) while pissing off the people predisposed to like the film. And the idea that you can't profitably make a movie like this in "Bush's America" (yes, they actually used that term, as if everyone who voted for Bush is just waiting to drag them off to a gulag somewhere) is pathetic and ridiculous. The thing is, I can't decide whether I'm angrier at the desecration of the story or the thought that the Hollywood crowd actually believes the crap they've been spewing about America becoming a fascist country, to the point that they "prove" it to themselves by self-censoring in the absence of any actual attempts at censorship!

But never fear, film fans, I'm sure there's a boring 3-hour epic by a "name" director just waiting in the wings to tell us all about how horrible we all are for not voting the way Hollywood wanted us to.

Posted by Jeff at 07:49 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

Countdown Until an Air Marshal Explodes...3...2...1...

This is just pathetic. I've heard a lot of stupid crap about the air marshal service, and making them wear the same kind of attire (thus, making them easier to target - and me a target for that matter, since I travel on business wearing a suit), is just dumb.

Worse still, though, is that only 1 in 50 flights are apparently covered. I don't expect all flights to be covered - it would be nice but I don't expect it - but this is way too low. Ten per cent would be defensible, but I don't see 2% as being sufficient to deter attacks.

So, given that the numbers are already too small, how about we make it worse by pissing off some of the air marshals we do have. Look, it takes a very special kind of person to be an air marshal. Think about how much you hate flying. Now imagine doing that 3 or 4 times every day, and being alert and ready to act the whole time. It's very, very hard to do, and there aren't that many people who can do it. And some of them are deployed with the military, which also needs that kind of person for some kinds of jobs. So let's go on and make their lives miserable: that's almost guaranteed to work. Or something.

Pathetic.

Posted by Jeff at 01:22 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

The Army You Have

Donald Rumsfeld is taking some heat for a comment made to a soldier in theater. When asked about the lack of armor for trucks and HMMWV's, Rumsfeld replied that manufacturers were pushing as hard as they can (according to Fox News, production of armored HMMWV's has gone from 15/month to 450/month - 30 times what it was!) and that "You go to war with the Army you have." Little Green Footballs links to a couple of different sources on the event.

I have a few thoughts on this. First, SecDef Rumsfeld is absolutely right: you do go to war with what you have. We sent 10's of thousands of HMMWV's to Iraq, and we only had a few hundred armored HMMWV's in the entire military. When, some 6 months after the Ba'ath were overthrown, IEDs became a serious threat, armoring not just HMMWV's, but trucks and utility vehicles of all kinds became a priority for the first time. Now, a little more than a year after that, we are well on our way to building the Army we need to fight the war we are fighting. Not only are we up to 78% armored HMMWV's in Iraq (Fox News again), but we are also developing and deploying armored, self-sealing fuel trucks, armored ammo trucks, and various specialized vehicles for detecting and defeating IEDs (as well as tactics against VBEDs). But defense is a small part of the solution: doctrine, training and new tactics have also adapted to fight the threat. While it will never be possible to fully eliminate casualties from such attacks, we are already doing far better than the Russians in Chechnya, a decade after they got into the same situation.

Worse, really, for us is that it takes literally two years to change purchasing plans for the military. This is not a product of bureaucracy per se, but a deliberate policy of the Congress. Congress has set up the budget process for the military to make it very difficult for the military to do things without Congressional approval. This long turnaround time makes it very difficult to react to events.

But I don't want to let the administration entirely off the hook here. Yes, it is true that the transformation plans for the Army will end up putting more units of action in the field - eventually - and that it takes 3-5 years to train up new units. Yes, it is true that building a division, even around a cadre like 24th Mech (never mind having to build the headquarters and senior NCOs, too!) takes a long time. But it's also true that we have been at war for three years now, and there's little excuse for the military still being at roughly the same size as it was. I don't think we need more ships or more aircraft (though we need a core of more-modern aircraft to use in addition to our 1970's-vintage air fleet currently available), but I don't think we have enough trigger pullers. Here's why:

With our current level of troops in Iraq, the Army is essentially either there, refitting after being there, or training up to go there. This means that we do not have sufficient troops available to take on Syria - largely complicit in the Iraq war currently - or Iran - currently developing nuclear weapons as fast as they can. We can use our air and naval power on both of these enemies, but we cannot occupy them, and thus cannot truly conquer them. For that reason, both Iran and Syria are working as hard as they can to defeat us in Iraq and to develop the eventual means to deter us completely. Effectively, we are repeating one of the big mistakes of Viet Nam: we are allowing the enemy sanctuaries.

I don't know our long-term strategy. I do know that we will have to take on our enemies aggressively, or fail in this war. I am not yet ready to declare the administration wrong, but I'm more concerned than I was six months ago, because I just don't see where we're going next. If the administration begins to move openly against Syria or Iran (hopefully, Iran) shortly, I'll relax a little. But I'm getting nervous.

Back to the original point, though, I have to laugh at people who take issues with statements like "You go to war with the Army you have." I mean, have these people ever tried to do anything? It's simply the case that what looks right on paper is not what exists in the real world. There are always complications and frustrations and mistakes and problems and things that inexplicably (until well after the fact) just don't work. Even common things, like going out to buy a particular item, can fall to this. How many times have you gone to the store to find that it was out of what you wanted, only to find that the next store you go to never carried it (and who knows why you thought it did) and that when you do find it it's twice what you expected to pay? Welcome to the world.

But in the neverland of politics, such everyday complications are the cause of excoriation and bitter tears, not to mention outright condemnation and scorn. How could anyone have gotten this wrong, ask the pundits with their 20/20 hindsight and complete lack of understanding of how anything except political commentary works. Not that I'm bitter. Frankly, I think we'd be a lot better served if the professional pundits ever got their hands dirty. It'd help their judgment and understanding somewhat, I suspect.

UPDATE: Expat Yank points out something I meant to, but got too busy ranting to say: it's a good thing that our soldiers can stand up to the SecDef and criticize his performance in public. It means that, though we've had a professional, standing Army for decades, the soldiers are still Americans, and haven't become a breed apart. (The moment they show signs of it, we destroy the standing military; there's no other way. Just a Truman remove MacArthur for disobedience to civilian command, we must be vigilant to ensure that this fine military we have created remains a tool of our civil society, rather than its master.)

Posted by Jeff at 12:24 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

December 08, 2004

Politicism

Joe Katzman at Winds of Change, one of the best blogs around, has posted on politicism. Katzman quotes Glen Wishard:

"The rise and fall of the Marxist ideal is rather neatly contained in the Twentieth Century, and comprises its central political phenomenon. Fascism and democratic defeatism are its sun-dogs. The common theme is politics as a theology of salvation, with a heroic transformation of the human condition (nothing less) promised to those who will agitate for it. Political activity becomes the highest human vocation. The various socialisms are only the most prominent manifestation of this delusion, which our future historian calls "politicism". In all its forms, it defines human beings as exclusively political animals, based on characteristics which are largely or entirely beyond human control: ethnicity, nationality, gender, and social class. It claims universal relevance, and so divides the entire human race into heroes and enemies. To be on the correct side of this equation is considered full moral justification in and of itself, while no courtesy or concession can be afforded to those on the other."

As Katzman notes, the idea of politics as the central, meaningful experience in every life is a good umbrella for modern forms of totalitarianism. I'd go further: it's a root cause of totalitarianism. After all, if everything is political, you cannot afford to lose an election; so why have elections once the "right people" are in power? As Robert Heinlein put it:
Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.

UPDATE (12/9): Kevin at The Smallest Minority has an amazing post on ideology and the escalation of failure. How did I miss this blog for so long?

Posted by Jeff at 01:06 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

Bad Congress! No Biscuit for You!

Fred Barnes on Fox News tonight said of the intelligence reform bill just passed by the the House and due to be passed by the Senate tomorrow: "This is a dumb bill." I concur. But rather than address why the bill is dumb (Dave Shuler of The Glittering Eye does that nicely), I'm interested in why it is that the Congress would pass a manifestly dumb law, and do it very, very quickly.

From a cynical point of view, this is actually the perfect bill. Why so?

  • It looks like Congress is "doing something."
  • There is almost no meaningful opposition in Congress.
  • It takes away an issue from potential opponents in the next election.
  • If it fails, the blame doesn't fall on Congress.
  • It transfers power to the Federal government.
  • It spends money.

It is inherent to the character of politicians that they live to wield power. In order to wield power in a representatively-governed country, a politician must be elected, and then re-elected frequently. In order to get re-elected, a politician must therefore avoid criticism. One sure way to defuse potential criticism is to have a policy on every problem.

This is why the President and the executive agencies have so many policies, many not ever acted on, and it's why the Congress passes so many laws. After all, once Congress passes a law on any given problem, that problem is no longer unlegislated. Since the Congress' job is to legislate, their job is then done and, from their point of view, the problem is solved, and thus no liability to them. Whether the law solves the problem at hand, or even whether it is Constitutional, is really beside the point: Congressmen don't tend to fail of re-election for voting on a bad law, but they do lose by voting against things.

It's very difficult to take a controversial stand, if you are a politician, because such stands hand ammunition to your opponent in the next election. It's much easier to go with the flow, whether that means straight party-line voting or voting with an assured majority. Here is an opportunity to do both, because the leadership of both parties backs the bill.

Let's say that the US is attacked again. In that case, any given Congressman can simply say that the vast majority of the Congress supported the bill, it was a good bill, it's just that the implementation was flawed. But if that fails, there's a fallback: the bill implemented the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and how can Congress possibly be blamed for doing what the "experts" said needed to be done - not to mention the 9/11 widows! Either way, the politicians can disclaim responsibility and shift it, either to their political opponents or at least to someone who can't be easily disparaged.

The lust for power should not be underestimated. For Congressmen, power has two requisites: a rationale for why Congress should be able to legislate on a particular matter, and the expenditure of money.

It doesn't really matter to most Congressmen whether or not a law is Constitutional. What matters is whether they can make the law stick. (From their point of view, it's the job of the courts to enforce the Constitution. I will refrain from ranting, but it's a close call.) This requires some rationale, of which the most abused is probably the interstate commerce clause.

But regardless of the rationale, the key is to gain power, and power is directly correlated to the size of the government over which the Congressmen are exercising power, and the number of people dependent on Federal largesse and how dependent they are. As a result, the most commonly-used solutions to a problem are throwing money at existing programs, throwing money directly at people, creating new Federal agencies, expanding existing Federal agencies and adding new powers to existing Federal agencies. This bill has a little of each of these.

So, the faster the better and pass anything! Bummer, though, if you're either a taxpayer or resident in the next major terror target.

Posted by Jeff at 12:28 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (3)

December 07, 2004

Up and Down

If you're curious about the rather iffy availability of the blog lately, there are reasons. First, upgrading the server's OS had a couple of issues. In addition to the problem with PostgreSQL I mentioned before, I found another problem a couple of days ago.

It seems that the DNS configuration files changed rather dramatically between the last version and the current version. The changes weren't actually installed, because I had already customized my DNS quite a bit. This resulted in the DNS server crashing - but not until after it had come up saying it was OK. If you reached my backup DNS, you found me. If you reached my primary DNS, you didn't. Bleh. This is fixed.

But there is another problem: Lachlan. My server is plugged into a UPS so that it will survive a power outage. (There are lots of thunderstorms in Texas.) The UPS is under Steph's desk, next to the server. The power button on the UPS has a light on it. Lachlan likes to make the light go on and off. Sometimes he leaves it off. I'll fix this over the weekend (I'm going to use cardboard and duct tape :-), but in the meantime the server will just go down from time to time.

Sorry.

Posted by Jeff at 11:14 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (1)

Calvin/Nazgul

Mark points to the funniest send-up of LOTR that I've seen in a long time. It's Calvin and Hobbes doing the scene with Eowyn and the Witch King at the Pelennor Fields.

Posted by Jeff at 07:58 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

Intelligence Reform

It's Pearl Harbor day today. Like 9/11, Pearl Harbor showed that there were fundamental flaws in our collection and dissemination of intelligence. After Pearl Harbor, we fought the war, then decided how to prevent such an event from ever happening again. The result was essentially the intelligence structure we have today.

The structure we have today is amazingly good at two things: finding and tracking significant military assets anywhere in the world (assessing conventional military capabilities) and determining the economic state of other nations (for example, the CIA was very attentive to wheat harvests in the USSR during the Cold War). Unfortunately, as 9/11 showed, our intelligence system is not that great at discovering intentions, particularly of non-State actors like terrorists. We've also seen numerous leaks of intelligence, in some cases blowing sources and methods (famously, UBL stopped using his cell phone after we let slip we were listening in on all of his calls). Worst of all, perhaps, is the realization that we have almost no human intelligence capability - even now - in the Arab/Muslim world; we cannot penetrate enemy organizations.

I don't think that the current attempt at intelligence reform is a good one. The idea seems to me to be to do something so as to be seen as doing something, rather than a serious attempt to solve the problem of discovering intentions, or to seal the perpetual leaks, or to develop methods of infiltrating enemy organizations. In other words, it's paper shuffling and empire building, rather than any kind of meaningful solution.

What would a meaningful solution look like? It's difficult to say. From an analytical standpoint, our intelligence structure breaks down into collection of information (from human agents to satellite reconnaissance to communications monitoring to reading publicly-available information), analysis of information to create intelligence (bringing together information from different sources to answer questions or uncover unexpected events), and dissemination of information to consumers (like the State Department and the Pentagon). Also, the CIA operates a paramilitary organization that takes direct action (sabotage, assassination, fostering rebellion in enemy countries and the like - Mike Spann, a CIA agent killed in the Afghanistan invasion, was from this organization). But these functions are spread across 15 agencies, with both a lot of duplication (not necessarily bad) and a lot of competition and fragmentation (bad).

It seems to me that the organization is not that great - especially with the current bill, which would add yet another layer of bureaucracy to the mix, but I don't know enough about it to suggest a sensible alternative. More critical, though, is that nothing is being done to address risk aversion. The Congress spent a couple of decades beating up on the CIA for everything it did with human agents, in one case at least forbidding the CIA to use people suspected of undertaking criminal activity (realistically, that means that the CIA could never turn a terrorist or drug runner!). This led to a culture of risk aversion within the CIA in particular, where it was better (for one's career, not for the mission or the nation) to fail to collect intelligence than to go out and get the intelligence. The Congress also put numerous roadblocks in place to slow or prevent the spread of information within the government (such as the infamous "wall" between law enforcement and counter-terrorism, so critical to the 9/11 failure), and created incentives towards parochialism in the various intelligence agencies.

This - the Congressional interference - is the primary problem to be addressed, and also the one problem Congress seems most blind to. And until we can remove intelligence from the arena of political showboating, the problem will continue, and we will therefore continue to be less safe than we could be. Perhaps part the solution here is to make all intelligence hearings closed, so that there is no opportunity for public showboating. Whatever the solution, though, the problem most urgent to address is not within the intelligence agencies themselves, but in the Congressional oversight and lawmaking around intelligence.

Posted by Jeff at 09:07 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (2)

December 06, 2004

Stupid Companies

Aubrey has a post on stupid customer service practices. Here are a recent few annoyances, and a kudo:

I used to have Sprint, and couldn't remember why I hated them so much after using AT&T for a few years (they were expensive, but I never had a problem with them other than cost). Besides, AT&T didn't have the i500 Palm/cellphone. Ooh, and Sprint's plan was cheaper, too, as long as I was on the 2 year contract. OK, then, I'll sign up.

Now I remember why I hate Sprint. They have cancelled my service every single month that I've been with them. Usually, this happens about a week before my bill is actually due. Once, it happened twice in a 2-week period. (Note: I've not once been late on a bill to them, with the exception of the first month, where I didn't receive a bill at all.) Usually, dealing with them is slow and inefficient, because they can never tell me anything of use. This is especially so since their website is never current on the invoices/minutes, so I cannot even try to determine the problem myself. They have also messed up every single service change (including adding a second phone) that I've done, and in the bargain have ended up costing me more than twice what I expected.

Cool phone, though.

The other stupid customer service tactic goes out to all of the credit card companies out there. Or at least, all of mine. Note to companies: calling your customers and demanding payment for "past due" amounts when the bill was mailed the day before does not endear your customers to you. Adding in the next month's charges to what is "past due", demanding immediate payment over the phone without a chance to check records, and not keeping track of the fact that payment was made to you by phone over a week ago (sometimes it's just easier since they've already gone to the trouble of calling) is not good. Oh, not that I'm totally innocent here: starting up a new business means that I have been late one some of my credit cards - but I'm still not sure why they then think they should call me on months when I am not late. Not that I'm bitter.

And now the kudo: I recently started using ATA for flying back and forth between Dallas and Chicago. I get better prices than using Travelocity or Orbitz, and their customer service is excellent. Their planes are well-maintained and clean, and also quite comfortable. They have a lot of flights scheduled between Dallas and Chicago. Pity they don't fly more places out of Dallas. This wouldn't work for booking flights and hotels together, but it suited my present need wonderfully.

Posted by Jeff at 09:50 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

Forgery?

CBS (a dishonest, sleazy, biased and partisan purveyor of "news" if ever there was one) is probably not this crazy. I hope they're not this crazy. If their 60 Minutes hit piece on President Bush is based on forged documents, it will be the end of CBS as a viable news organization: with the Internet commentariat - particularly the blogs - at such a high level of competence and presence now, CBS will have frittered away the one asset required of a reporting organization: trust that the presented facts are not invented, even though they may be spun or misrepresented. I wouldn't give a snowball's chance in hell of Dan Rather keeping his job if he pushed this story and it's really based on forged documents.

Of course, I'm constantly disappointed by people's lack of ability to feel shame, so even if it's true it might blow over almost unnoticed outside of the blogs.

Posted by Jeff at 09:50 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 04, 2004

"Moderation"

If you have the least bit of interest in political labels and their consequences, you should read this post by Francis Porretto. Seriously.

Posted by Jeff at 12:17 PM | Link Cosmos | Comments (0)

December 01, 2004

The Draft

Joe Katzman at Winds of Change wants to open a discussion on the utility of a draft, inspired by two articles at Washington Monthly, Now Do You Believe We Need a Draft? and First Draft. I'll bite.

First, I'd like to express my objections to any draft of any kind, on a matter of principle. Draftees are not like slaves because they are paid, and they are not like indentured servants because they do not enter the condition voluntarily. I do not believe that a draft is compatible with a free society. If you cannot get sufficient people to defend your society against invasion, your society deserves to die. If you cannot get sufficient people to fight your campaigns overseas, it's a sign that your policy doesn't have sufficient support. Compelling people to serve against their will is not a good way to overcome a rotten society or a raft of bad policies.

I should note that I favor a larger military. In fact, I think we need to increase our units of action to the level we had at the end of the Cold War - something like 1/3 more than we have now. This would allow us to undertake a war on the same scale as Iraq, while simultaneously undertaking an occupation on the scale of Iraq. That's no small ability, considering the number of threats we face. Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia (in that order) may all have to be subdued in order to win the Terror Wars. But I don't think a draft would be a good way to do it. And since I'd probably be largely outnumbered on the philosophical point about slavery, let's look at the practical problems instead, focusing on Washington Monthly's proposal.

The core of the Washington Monthly proposal is the focus of the draftees' work, not as conventional combat, but in a defensive anti-terror role:

That terrorists might poison municipal water supplies, spray anthrax from crop dusters, or suicidally infect themselves with small pox and stroll through busy city streets, is no longer considered farfetched. That we might need to draft some of our people to counter these threats---now that's considered farfetched, to the extent that it's considered at all.

[snip]

A 21st century draft would be less focused on preparing men for conventional combat-which probably won't be that extensive in this war---than on the arguably more daunting task of guarding against and responding to terrorism at home and abroad.


I'm going to resist the temptation to fisk that bit, because it is a set-up bit rather than the core of their argument. In brief, "guarding against and responding to terrorism at home and abroad" breaks down to: short-term military police-style peacekeeping troops to free up combat units in places like Kosovo and "border guards, customs agents, anthrax inoculators, [and] disaster-relief specialists".
One can imagine a similar three-tiered system of youth service in America, with 18-month terms of duty for all citizens age 18 to 25. In this new-style draft, conscripts would have what all Americans now demand: choice. They could choose to serve in the military, in homeland security, or in a civilian national service program like AmeriCorps (there's no reason women couldn't be drafted for the latter two categories). In return, draftees would get GI-bill-style college scholarships, with higher awards for those who accept more dangerous duty.

The authors focus on basic training times, without paying any attention to leadership. It's not sufficient to train someone for four months to do military police-style duties and then turn them loose: without good and experienced leadership, Abu Ghraib would be the least of our problems. But even if we had enough leaders in such positions now, could we retain them when so many draftees - seeing such duty as less dangerous - crowd out the volunteers currently doing the grunt work, so that there is not a professional next generation of leaders?

To suggest that draftees "have a choice" is to trivialize choice: the draftees would inherently not have the choice of not serving at all. Worse, though, is that offering a choice between civilian and military service would undermine one of the authors' key arguments, that a draft without deferments would bring America together. In actuality, it is very likely that the schism in American society would intensify, with "blue state" kids choosing AmeriCorps and "red state" kids choosing the military. The mixing would be less complete than hoped for, I strongly suspect.

The authors don't address the cost of such a "GI bill" program - I suspect it would be considerably larger than the cost of raising salaries to the point that you get the number of recruits you need for any given job - the market actually works. After all, the authors are suggesting what amounts to a "no exemptions" policy:

The best way would be to require all young people to serve. One reason more young people don't serve now is the fear that while they're wearing the uniform, their peers will be out having fun and getting a leg up in their careers. If everyone were required to serve, no one would feel like a sucker.

[snip]

It's possible, however, that the country won't have the need for every eligible young person to serve. What then? One answer is a lottery with no student deferments.


How many young people are there in each age cohort, and what would it cost to pay them and to provide the college benefits afterwards? The authors don't address this. And their solution for dealing with not needing all of those people is to establish a lottery, effectively arguing opposite their argument for why there should be no exemptions in the first place. I guess their argument is that we should draft everyone eligible so no one will be behind their peers, unless we don't want to, in which case we should draft only some people (randomly, at that, rather than based on aptitude and desire) and let them "feel like [] sucker[s]". Strange argument, that.

Why not pass a law that says that no four-year college or university can accept a student unless and until that student completes a 12-month to two-year term of service? No lotteries, no deferments.
And now the authors assert a government power to abrogate freedom of association based on how compliant a person is with government wishes??? I think this is so absurd that I'm at a loss for words, and in danger of excessive use of exclamation points and capital letters.

Let me suggest an alternative that does not compel us to violate our values, and that would provide a better pool of recruits.

If we need additional people to guard institutions in the US, particularly public facilities; act as community watchmen; respond to emergencies and the like, why not hire them? And if we cannot afford to hire enough people or if their duties are less full-time jobs than part-time duties, why not reinstitute local militias? With some forethought given to training and organization, and particularly with some indoctrination introduced into the public schools (don't gasp: the schools indoctrinate kids now, just not in generally-useful points of citizenship), it would be a reasonably-simple and well-precedented way to create a first-responder and community watchman capability sufficient to any purposes I can foresee.

The Washington Monthly seems to think the idea has widespread support:

But if the chance of universal service was measured by what the American people actually think, a different picture might emerge. In late January, a Newsweek poll found that 14 percent of Americans favored and 38 percent would consider reinstating the draft; only 45 percent would refuse to consider the idea at all. As it happens, that poll did not describe the kind of draft that Rep. Rangel has proposed, one in which young people would be able to choose either military or civilian service. The only poll I know to pose that question was conducted in November 2001 by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and found that 60 percent of Americans favored a draft that offered a choice between military or civilian service.

It's hard to know exactly what to make of these poll numbers. Among other things, they don't reveal whether those who oppose the draft are more intense in their opinions (as one might expect they would be) than those who favor it. Nevertheless, the polls do suggest that a majority of Americans are at least open to the idea of some sort of draft--more than supported the president's tax-cut-heavy economic plan in early February (46 percent), and more than supported a U.S. ground invasion "soon" (37 percent) rather than giving U.N. inspectors "more time."


One thing is certain: even if people support a draft in the abstract, politicians are wise enough to realize that they would be voted out of office rather quickly by the young draftees, who would vote in amazing numbers in their own self-interest. The whole reason for lowering the voting age to 18 in the first place was that we were drafting 18 year olds in the Viet Nam War, and they couldn't even vote on the policies that were getting them drafted. I suspect that these youngsters would be sufficiently motivated to vote against anyone seriously putting forward a draft proposal, and for that reason alone the idea is a political non-starter. So while the Washington Monthly dismisses the political implications in somewhat scathing terms, the fact remains that in practical terms, it simply will not happen.

Many young people would surely object to such a draft--if "draft" is the right word for it. But none would have cause to feel that their peers were getting an unfair head start on the career ladder, because all prospective four-year-college students would be in the same boat.
Well, if the authors don't like "draft", we could always talk about "forced service" or even "involuntary servitude". And of course, what if we don't need as many people as a no-exemptions policy would generate? Then we're back to a lottery system and their argument on this point utterly evaporates.

I do not believe a draft is useful, nor do I believe it is moral. The Washington Monthly's two pieces on this have made me more - not less - certain of that position.

Posted by Jeff at 12:46 AM | Link Cosmos | Comments (7)