-- A man has to do something for a livin' these days
-- Bloggin' ain't much of a living, boy
Saturday, May 08, 2004
Divisions in Iraq: U.S. news sources have focused heavily on al-Sadr's call for retaliation for the prisoner abuses. Relatively few have mentioned the signs that al-Sadr's support is weakening. The latest report, from the Beirut Daily Star (second half of the article):
Meanwhile in Iraq, Moqtada Sadr's month-long uprising took a double battering Friday as Najaf's Shiite religious establishment told the rebel cleric's militiamen to go home.
National missile defense advances: Well, this report certainly seems like good news:
Northrop Grumman-Built High-Energy Laser Destroys Large-Caliber Rocket in History-Making TestThe very idea of shooting down rockets and missiles in-flight has been ridiculed by the press and by Democrats since President Reagan first proposed it to the nation some two decades ago. Yet despite significant obstacles thrown in the development path by a Democratic Congress and then President Clinton, it seems that missile-defense programs are finally making advances.
It's true that in our current war with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups of global scope, we face other threats that have more immediacy than missile defense is designed to combat. But it's nice to be making progress against old dangers as well. And with the recent news that North Korea has successfully developed a missile that can strike U.S. territory in Guam, and possibly Hawaii, it seems wiser and wiser to have embarked on a course that can protect us from the threat of desperate madmen.
Friday, May 07, 2004
Elsewhere in Israel...: The Navy has recommenced port visits to the city of Haifa, with a call by USS Thorn, a Spruance-class destroyer.
At one time, Haifa was one of the U.S. Navy's favorite Mediterranean ports of call, with dozens of ships visiting every year. After the bombing of the USS Cole by al Qaeda terrorists in Aden in 2000, however, the Navy has been staying away.
Does this mean:
1. Improved confidence by the Navy in its ability to provide security in harbor situations?
2. A show of support by the U.S. for Israel?
3. A rebalancing between terrorist threats and convenience?
Water wars: Well, the pre-9/11 conventional wisdom was always that water shortages would trigger conflicts in the 21st century. Now, the United States has indeed turned to water as a weapon of sorts, but triggered by Palestinian terrorism. As the Jerusalem Post reports, the U.S. is suspending American assistance for water development projects in the Gaza Strip. This move comes in response to last year's attack by Palestinian terrorists on a U.S. convoy.
The Jerusalem Post story spins it as a response to Palestinian failure to round up those responsible, ignoring the reports last month that the U.S. had established that Yasir Arafat had approved the attack to "send a message" to the United States.
Looks like the message was received, loud and clear.
Thursday, May 06, 2004
It looks like Greg was right in his recent post, Reason #415 Why Massachusetts Sucks.
According to a recently-released study by The Road Information Project, the Boston area is in the bottom five in road conditions in America. According to their recent study, Bumpy Roads Ahead:
The ten urban regions with at least 500,000 people, which includes the cityIn addition to the vehicle excise tax that Greg complained about, the average Boston driver is paying $547 in extra vehicle maintenance costs.
The report emphasizes that new methods of paving roads and filling potholes have been developed since the 1980s to improve the repair of roads, but that many cities and municipalities have not yet updated them. It wouldn't surprise me if one reason they haven't done so in Boston is graft: it's long been rumored that contracts for road maintenance are steered towards those with political or familial connections to local government.
Most appallingly, drivers aren't the only ones paying for roads that haven't been repaired. According to this editorial, Boston has $22 million collected from utilities companies (which dig pothole-causing trenches in roads and pay into a pot to fix them) sitting idle, waiting to be used. There are signs it may be tapped soon: a biker's recent misfortune has attracted significant attention, and even triggered a special hearing by one of Boston's city councilors:
It wasn't a huge pothole by Boston standards. But it was enough to cause Tove Madsen to flip off of her mountain bike on Monday morning and land face-first on the gritty pavement of Cambridge Street near City Hall.With the Democratic National Convention coming to town, Boston has extra incentives to shape things up. Cambridge and Somerville are likely to trail far behind.
Dog bites man: Stereotypical news rarely gets the coverage that it deserves. In this case, it's politician hugs child, but it's a moving photo and a good story, courtesy of Power Line and the Cincinnati Enquirer:
n a moment largely unnoticed by the throngs of people in Lebanon waiting for autographs from the president of the United States, George W. Bush stopped to hold a teenager's head close to his heart.
Why Osama bin Laden Futures are a bad investment:
At Tradesports.com, the last trade of contract Osama.Capture.Sep04 was at 30.0, which means that a bet that bin Laden will be captured by September 30 currently pays 10-3. The December 04 contracts are going for 43.0, or a little better than 2.5-1 odds.
For all the hoopla about "futures markets" when the Pentagon proposed using them to forecast world events, to be successful predictors of anything, they require not only good information, but liquidity and rationality. And in my opinion, there's some rationality lacking in this market -- undoubtedly because so many Democrats seem to believe Madeline Albright's possibly tongue-in-cheek statement that President Bush knows where bin Laden is and is just waiting to unleash an "October surprise."
The United States, and many expert commentators believe that bin Laden is hiding out in Pakistan, in the ungoverned areas along the Afghanistan border. The latest U.S. offensive has focused on this area, supposedly with Pakistani cooperation. This week, U.S. News has a lengthy update on just how challenging a task confronts us:
More difficult still is Musharraf's delicate political situation. The day after it was revealed that the eight Pakistani troops had been executed at point-blank range, there were demonstrations across Pakistan, and most of Parliament walked out. A three-day jirga of tribal elders in Peshawar concluded that it would oppose any further military operations in their territories... [T]he tribal lands, which stretch for 1,000 miles along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan and hold some 6 million people, are roughly equivalent to American Indian reservations, where federal intervention is legally permissible but only under certain circumstances.In trying to draw a comparison to something familiar to readers, the article seems to be stretching here. Imagine if a significant portion of the FBI and American military were unwilling to confront American Indians because of familial ties, and then imagine that the Indians were nearly as well armed as the Army:
Family ties between members of the Pakistani 11th Corps, which has conducted some operations in the tribal areas, and Pashtuns who live in the areas resulted in advance warning of several early raids on sanctuaries in the borderlands, U.S. officials say. "Before, it was a week's warning before they were going to go in, then it was four days," says a senior U.S. official, "and the last [time] I think it was one day." After that fight, soldiers of the 88th Brigade discovered a mile-long tunnel leading to the Afghan border, the entrance to which was concealed in a high, mud-walled compound with dug-in fighting positions.And recall that elite troops from the Pakistani Army, as the article recounts, suffered tremendous losses when they closed in on an al-Qaeda position that they believed contained Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The real problem, however, is the fragility of Gen. Musharraf's position, and our resultant total reliance on these unreliable Pakistani forces.
Musharraf has felt that he cannot allow any American presence in these areas, at least officially, and Pentagon officials emphasize that they are observing his wishes. "I'm not sure anybody else can hold [Pakistan] together," a senior U.S. commander says. ". . . There's probably no more critical ally to us in the global war on terrorism than Pakistan." Adds another: "We've hooked our wagon to Musharraf because he's our only hope."My advice: sell Osama futures short. This hunt isn't going to be over anytime soon.
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
More on foundations, universities, and terrorism: Eugene Volokh has done the heavy-lifting and commented on one of the WSJ articles that I mentioned yesterday (I guess he's taking time out from grading exams. And thanks to Harvard's generous, faculty-friendly grading policies, he's still able to defer grading my paper from last semester, too!).
Alas, he ignores one of the elements of the article that really bothered me: the ol' bait-and-switch that the universities are doing. According to the Journal, the nine schools "are challenging antiterrorism language that the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations recently added to their standard grant agreements." Ford's language is much broader, targeting "violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state." Rockefeller's is narrower, focusing on "directly or indirectly engage in, promote or support other organizations or individuals who engage in or promote terrorist activity."
The universities are using the Ford language to make the threat to academic freedom sound broad and pernicious. It's easy to defend academic endeavors that advocate "destruction of any state," as Volokh does, by highlighting the example of North Korean independence. It's harder to defend those that promote terrorist activities.
The controversy is also somewhat overblown -- the foundations may include this in their "standard grant agreement," but universities are major (and sophisticated) recipients of foundation grants (in many ways, given the foundations' desire to support high-profile activities, they're almost partners). It seems likely that these nine schools probably have the bargaining power to change the default terms in the grant agreements, and to reach a more-detailed agreement about what activities the foundations are concerned about.
And there's a legitimate problem underlying the foundations' actions that extends well beyond the Durban affair. Sympathy and support for terrorism at American universities, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian context, has a respectability that it doesn't deserve. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations would like to use their treasuries to solve that problem. It's certainly a more worthwhile undertaking than many other causes with which they could involve themselves.
It's hard to feel sorry for terrorists, Part II: (From Reuters -
Israeli soldiers shot dead a senior Hamas militant leader, Imad Mohammed Janajra, 31, in an olive grove in the northern West Bank, witnesses said.Is this a sign that Israel's assassination campaign is working? "Senior" leaders know that if they lead from behind the front, the Israelis are likely to kill them, so they have an incentive to lead by example, in which case the Israelis... kill them. Anyone care to bet that Hamas claims Janajra should be classified as an "assassination"-type killing, whatever the circumstances of the incident actually were? Meanwhile, the Israelis were active on another front:
Israel has released a co-founder of Hamas to the Gaza Strip... Mohammed Taha, 68, had been the highest ranking Hamas figure from Gaza in Israeli custody.Well, if this is a test, Taha fails. If he plans to lead the vengeance, this undermines Hamas' strategy of trying to keep the identities of its leaders a secret. Perhaps his release indicates that the Israelis are having some difficulties identifying the leaders after all?
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Rich bloggers: With the Dallas Mavericks' poor playoffs showing, Mark Cuban's blog will predictably shift its focus to his reality show, as he eagerly anticipates the payoff -- "I am going to really enjoy giving the check for 1mm dollars."
This led me to wonder: is Cuban the wealthiest blogger out there? Is there anyone but Cuban who has that much money and would be willing to squander his (presumably valuable) time on a blog? Just an idle thought...
In the news: There's a lot more in today's Journal that I wish I could comment on, but my studies preclude it, so I'll just mention them here.
- As a response to the discovery last year that the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations funded the anti-Semitic activities at the UN conference in Durban, the foundations have included new language in their grants that prohibit the expenditure of funds to promote terrorism and violence. Now, liberal universities (like Harvard) are complaining that this is an attack on "academic freedom." More proof that liberals in academia are actually sympathetic to terrorism, and not just dumb. On the bright side, the ACLU says it has no problem with the conditions.
- My 1/2 summer employer, Procter & Gamble, has reported success in Phase III Clinical trials of a testosterone "patch" to treat sexual dysfunction in women. The target market for this drug: nearly 11 million women. Comment: New cross-marketing opportunities for the Dole family.
- A U.S. general criticized Pakistani commitment to fighting al Qaeda in this year's offensive. Comment: Who could possibly be surprised?
- Good news for the economy and state budgets: 39 states' revenues are on target or better in 2004
- U.S. per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks is down from 54 gallons in 1998 to 52 1/4 today. Must be all those dot.coms no longer giving away free drinks.
- Quattrone convicted. If I hear one more complaint from bloggers and conservatives about how "unfair" it is that he and Stewart were busted for obstructing justice and other ancillary crimes, I'm going to sic Al Capone on them.
Missing the point: Today's Journal carries a story on Greg Storey's redesigned Presidential Daily Brief, a genius idea that has undoubtedly earned this "information architect" beaucoup bucks in new projects.
Mr. Storey transformed the impenetrable "wall of text" in the PDB into a document that highlights key items with titles, subtitles, bold-face text, bullet points, and shorter paragraphs. He also assigned a "threat matrix" number, in large size at the top of the document, to emphasize the level of threat.
Undoubtedly, the Bush administration (or the Kerry campaign) should hire him to ensure that more-useful information makes its way to the President, although the Journal also includes a critique from Edward Tufte, apparently an academic expert in information design (!), who argues that "Mr. Storey's redesign of the PDB [is] an example of using 'cute type' or 'content-free decoration' 'to attract attention to itself and weaken the pursuit of truth.'"
A fine line, as anyone who has worked in a Powerpoint-driven industry like consulting can surely attest.
But both of these experts are missing the point. The real reason that it's hard to draw conclusions from the text-heavy memos that are circulated through bureaucracies everywhere is the culture of avoiding responsibility. No CIA analyst wanted to put "Bin Laden Will Strike Soon" in a report, cause intensive expenditures to be made, and then have nothing happen. Drawing conclusions on the basis of incomplete data, while important, is always a high-risk undertaking. It's why one of the most important skills of leaders and managers is being able to work these assessments out of their subordinates - usually in-person, and orally (oral communications feel less risky than written ones, even if they're recorded, because formal written documents convey a more authoritative sense, and hedging is easier when speaking).
Without a corporate/governmental culture that rewards risk-taking, the people writing the PDB, or the daily economic advisor, or the documents on any other issue will always find a way to conceal the risky substance, whatever the form of the document. This culture, not "document design" is what governments and companies should be focused on (after all, if someone has a really important message to communicate, they're likely to find a way to get it across regardless of the form of the memo).
The final, related point. The culture of avoiding responsibility is in part caused by the "culture of finger-pointing." Too much accountability can lead to evasion of responsibility, and sophisticated ways of concealing information as a hedge. Governments often suffer from this problem as well, because of public and political pressure that "someone must be held accountable" if a mistake is made. Television shows like "The Apprentice" only feed the popular desire to "fire those who screwed up." Yet we all know that the way that people learn is through trial-and-error. If you want good intelligence information in the future, the answer to the failure to predict 9/11, or the overstatement of Iraqi weapons "stockpiles", is not to fire everyone that touched the data. Perhaps the Bush administration understands this: after all, George Tenet and other intelligence officials (and, presumably, lower-level analysts) have been allowed to keep their jobs. (Or maybe they've been protected by an overbearing sense of "loyalty," - who can tell?)
Monday, May 03, 2004
Tentative steps forward in the Arab world: Last week, Nicholas Kristof made the bizarre claim that "indigenous Arab experiments in democratic elections in places like Bahrain" signal that the Arab world is well on its way to democracy, without the benefit of outside help. His thesis seemed to be wishful thinking, relying on a few well-chosen facts and disputed by every Bahraini he could find to be quoted:
I asked people what they thought of the democratic reforms here. Nearly all of them scoffed.Kristof also quoted an editor-in-chief of one of the newly free newspapers as saying that true democracy -- "that's centuries away."
It's certainly true that the changes in Bahrain, like those throughout the Middle East (like the student protests in Iran and the emergence of al-Jazeera) highlight the undercurrents of change that exist.
Unfortunately, the United States can't wait for hundreds of years. And the scope of the task is immense. Consider this story in the Beirut Daily Star:
A new foundation headed by prominent Arab intellectuals is planning to pave the way for regional modernization through the revival of Arab thought, one of its founders said Sunday...Freedom of thought, it appears, is alive and well among Arabs, it appears, as long as they're not in the Arab world.
While the effort of modern thinkers to organize and expand is excellent, I wonder whether the "modern thought" that they see as a precondition for Arab-world reform is as vital as they seem to believe. Kristof's interviews with Bahrainis suggest that they understand the concepts of freedom of speech, of the press, of ideas, and of democracy perfectly well -- they're just obstructed by a government unwilling to engage in that level of reform. And Iraqis have been clamoring to be allowed to vote. Those that have, as Jonathan Steeler reports, have "in almost every case [chosen] secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties." (Note: this is an intriguing story about the success of elections in one province of Southern Iraq, where U.S. administrators have combated the election fraud problem by using "ration cards" as identification. Hat tip: Mickey Kaus).
It may be true that culture and history make parts of the Middle East more hostile to democracy than Europe or the United States. But it's also true that "modern understanding" is only one thing holding back democracy. With the removal of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. has the opportunity to let the Iraqis attempt democratic self-governance, and a chance to separate itself from the repressive governments of surrounding countries. We'll see what happens.
Blogging Fun: A game that is being passed around the blog-o-sphere.
1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
Ok, here goes: "When complex litigation procedures involve greater case aggregation, federalism concerns often arise."
I am studying for exams, you will have to forgive me.
Sunday, May 02, 2004
Laura Bush, truant:This morning's Boston Globe has a great little piece cribbed from the First Lady's commencement speech yesterday at Miami Dade College:
To prepare for her speech, she had tried to remember the advice given at her graduation from the University of Texas in 1973. The problem was that ''I hate to admit it -- I skipped the ceremony."I'm more curious about why she skipped the ceremony -- shocking behavior for a librarian, really.