bits & pieces -- news & views -- passions & fashions -- odds & ends
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Come visit at chez Nadezhda
Spending most of my time these days over at chez Nadezhda, trying to get things put in place and then up and running. It's still under construction, but we'd love to have you stop by for a visit!
Saturday, August 21, 2004
Israelis - Is Sharon exploiting Bush re-election fears?
Via Reuters (Yahoo News), it seems that the US has changed or softened policy on West Bank settlements after failing to object to the Israeli government's decision to construct 1000 homes in the West Bank. Several factors are reported: US Changes West Bank Policy to Help Sharon: NYTimes
Quote of the Day
The anti-spam devices may finally be working, if this email subject line is any indication. Perhaps it requires a certain creative flair to pass through the various layers of walls, blocks and filters. Anyway, this showed up yesterday:
Tuba player bodice rippers for $61
I was so taken with the subject line that I actually confirmed it was for a natural rather than, shall we say mechanical, enhancement product.
Friday, August 20, 2004
Fry on Waugh -- Vile Bodies morph into Bright Young Things
Oh, goodie! Stephen Fry does Evelyn Waugh -- two great favorites with a good deal in common. I was certainly leery that it would be too much of a good thing when I heard "Vile Bodies" was being produced. But Stephanie Zacharek from Salon gives "Bright Young Things" a review that shows she brought a devotion to the comic Waugh along with her to the screening. And she gives Fry's "deliciously dazzling" adaptation high marks in spite of her strong Waugh attachment (with, naturally, a couple of reservations).
Fry realizes that the actors are the party in "Bright Young Things," and he's cast them perfectly. Adam may be the hardest type of character to play -- he has to be something of a likable drip -- but Moore pulls it off beautifully: He understands that his character needs to be a stylized cartoon sketch, but one with feelings. And Mortimer, with her society-girl profile and tousle of dark curls, gives Nina just the right measure of blasÃ© fervidity. Mortimer also has one of the most seductive voices of any actress working today -- it's a throaty rasp that's saucily erotic, like a perfumey cloud of smoke filtered through a pastel Bakelite cigarette holder.
The detractions for the Waugh purist are, apparently, Fry having a bit heavy a hand with some of the "moral of the story" aspects that Waugh leaves to the reader to draw. Though that's not to suggest there's any misconstruing of Waugh's messages, given the truly dreadful behavior of many of the "vile bodies" he chronicles. Yet Waugh walks the tight-rope between being cruel to his creations (as they mostly deserve) and making you take a fancy to them somehow or other. Zacharek gives one of the nicest summaries of the little magic that makes Waugh's best comedies work, and keep us coming back to them over the decades.
Everything the characters do is light and tossed off and often morally deplorable: They don't have epiphanies, only parties. As shallow and sometimes unlikable as they are, though, we find ourselves wanting to be around them right through to the end of the book. That's the ultimate test of their social magnetism: We're real, they're fictional, and still, we'd like to hang around them, if only they'd have us. How twisted is that?
That's a slender tight-rope for a film maker to walk as Zacharek points out several places where Fry faces some difficulties, especially telling the story for a modern audience. Zacharek also complains that Fry:
loses control of the movie's ending: It's too buttoned-up, and too conventionally happy, to suit the wily dryness of Waugh's characters. But still, you walk away from "Bright Young Things" believing that, by and large, Fry has gotten Waugh as well as any filmmaker could be expected to.
But these complaints appear minor to Zacharek for any but the most niggly of critics. Two factors appear to be key from the review's perspective.
First, no confusion with "Brideshead"-type production values. She observes:
Significantly, he hasn't brushed "Vile Bodies" with that gloopy, dishearteningly tasteful "Masterpiece Theatre" glaze; in its best moments, "Bright Young Things" is as lithe and as wicked as its source material.
And ultimately, character is the main ingredient Zacharak prizes in this adaptation. Though she sings the praises of the ensemble, what makes the movie sound irresistable is this sketch of "Agatha," who is not one of the players on the marquee.
Bthe movie's most fabulous character is Agatha Runcible, played by a superb actress with the deliciously Waughian name of Fenella Woolgar. Agatha is a game society gal who, post-costume party, flounces into the prime minister's study dressed as an exotic dancing girl -- "How shy-making!" she remarks -- and later appears at a motor race clad in trousers and a necktie. Woolgar has one of those captivating, longish faces that actually benefits from not being particularly pretty -- she's all about animation and expression. As Agatha, with her blond bob and googly eyes, she's like a Katzenjammer Modigliani -- a creature whose biggest mystery is her ability to maintain, with barely a pause for breath, a sense of giggly delight.
If that doesn't pique your interest or tickle your fancy, then I'm afraid there's little hope.
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
You say wha..a..at?!
From KTVU-TV (SF CA) AP story
BRIELLE, N.J. -- An 8-year-old girl who has a rare digestive disorder and cannot consume wheat has had her first Communion declared invalid because the wafer contained none.
Now, Haley Waldman's mother is pushing the Diocese of Trenton and the Vatican to make an exception, saying the sacrament should be changed to accommodate the girl's condition.
Roman Catholic doctrine holds that communion wafers must have at least some unleavened wheat, as did the bread served at the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion.
In May, the girl received her her first Holy Communion from a priest who offered her a wheat-free host. But last month, the diocese told the priest that Waldman's sacrament would not be validated by the church because of the substitute wafer.
Doesn't it seem like Jesus would have found a way around this thorny dilemma? But then that's the question I ask myself most frequently WRT strict construction of religious traditions adopted centuries or millennia ago. "But wouldn't Jesus..., Mohammed,... even God...?"
An extensive discussion (multiple comments & updates) of the theological foundations of Catholic rules at Balloon Juice. John Cole has concluded:
I am bored, and I am beginning to sound like some anti-Catholic bigot, which isn't the case (although I did take some cheap shots at the pederasts).
I just think this is a man-made rule which is not divine in any sense. A lower gluten substitute wafer is no help for someone who can eat no gluten, and it seems that the hierarchy of the Catholic church should at least strive to achieve the same standards of modern physicians:
"Help, or at least to do no harm."
Friday, August 13, 2004
Quote of the Day - 2
From Macallan at Tacitus:
You're only young once, but you can be immature the rest of your life.
Quote of the day
Iraq fighting - Najaf - an Iranian cri de coeur
From The Brooding Persian, Thursday, August 12, 2004
Neither fear nor respect!
Since apparently the born again, reformed binging, latte hating frat boys don’t do nuances, I am going to drop the guarded observation routine and let it out straight. It wasn’t working to begin with.
I am plenty mad about the butchery in Iraq. Killing and tormenting people, in an ancient cemetery no less. This Middle Eastern initiative plan thing is going no where fast. I am telling you this as some one without an ounce of sympathy for the Shi’ia International and its Iranian branch—this murderous Occupation Authority which has been stifling life here for the past 25 years.
The reasons are both simple and complex. Let’s settle on a medium we can all connect on without much effort, Hollywood movies.
Remember your Star Trek: remember how the cloaked Klingon Ship zaps the Enterprise repeatedly with impunity until Spock improvises with one of the photon torpedoes and as the first one lands on the Klingons, the crowed goes wild, hooting and hollering in all theaters across the globe?
Remember your Lethal Weapon series? When the nasty diplomat keeps rubbing it in by saying “you can’t do that, I have diplomatic immunity?” And as he gets shot, the crowd goes wild in all theatres globally?
Well, no one likes bullies. No one likes to see relatives, friends and fellow country men and women killed, tortured and abused with impunity. No one likes to hear silly excuses as people they know are butchered and the places they roam are trashed; least of all by foreigners who have no love for what they value in life, however problematic, and don’t even bother to hide their disdain.
Deep down, though, there is a sense of fair play and justice at work here.. It is about dislike for tormenting the weak. It is, dare I say, ultimately about empathy
You can see the factor at work in any nursery you drop your kid in. One child laughs early in the morning and the whole atmosphere is light. Some days, everyone cries and you simply know it all started with only one child.
It normally takes 12 years of schooling, plus college and apparently some high powered Liberal Arts education to kill the recognition of some basic human traits in some, I am guessing. But the fact remains that no one is going to be happy watching the lopsided murder of Iraqis in this nasty summer heat.
Luckily, most interventionists have dropped all pretenses lately, which is a good thing. You can’t miss the venom, the hate and the bloodlust even if you tried. This campaign is no longer about democracy, human rights, oil or some such nonsense, even nominally.
Here is their argument as I understand it and the root of all the Usama connection musical chairs and the hype.
American power and hegemony is under threat and it is best to quash opposition once and for all. You win and win big and the herd will follow you. Humans love success stories. You crush your enemies and humiliate them and they’ll begin to see the light. Simple as that.
The justifications come in layers. Some more thoughtful ones even have the theological dimensions worked out. Weren’t the Japanese too quite the suicidal fighters? And the Germans? They were defeated first and then the whole puzzle fell in place. At some point if you humiliate the enemy long enough and you mercilessly kill enough of them, then the enemy will suddenly see the light.
Once they understand that God has abandoned them; with country and the global community caring nothing for their plight, well then… the rogues, however many of them happen to be alive by then, will have to come in from the cold and we’ll live happily ever after.
BALONEY, I say.
This from the geniuses who grew up in a culture which has given us one (potential) tragedy only: Death of a Salesman. Assuming, of course, that they do read at all.
Hasn’t anyone read the Esther lately? How does the Old Testament view defeats? Isn’t each defeat in war understood only as the consequence/result of having abandoned the Almighty and the tradition during the period of peace preceding the war? Islam too is rooted in the Old Testament. Each defeat is only going to strengthen the traditionalists. This is no argument against winning wars, only a cautionary note about the unintended consequences.
Yes I know, we all love and adore winners, they tell us. But most cultures agree: there is no straight forward connection between winning and goodness. That which is noble doesn’t always prevail and that which prevails is not always noble. Or else we wouldn’t have tragedies.
The Greeks of the ancient times are most clear on this. Persians too knew this well. That’s why we (the Persians and Greeks) are more alike than different. A pity some of the nicest and loudest American Classicists, when it comes to politics, miss the Greek Spirit entirely.
Death portion of men in battle is determined ultimately by Zeus’s golden scale in the Iliad. Victory passes back and forth among warriors. Even the Athenians, as Thucydides makes clear, get their due in Syracuse, but remember: who really wins the Peloponnesian wars anyways? And who executes Socrates?
This beautiful, nasty region is/has always been a killing field. The invaders, killers, the slaves and the masters come and go. We fight, we live as peaceful neighbors and we continue fighting again. And there is even a curse having to do with long-term memory.
Life is one never ending perpetual battle/humiliation here. Nothing anyone can will alter the humiliation factor qualitatively. And everyone here knows how to deal with humiliations. You put up with it the best way you can, until one day when you finally decide you have had enough and don’t want to anymore.
In the meanwhile, no one is passive really. No one is ever defeated really. Something about indomitable spirits permeating all around. Docility is a rare trait around these parts.
That’s why it is hard to get anyone to work collectively. No one wants to give in. No one wants to bend in the slightest. This is the land of belligerence, pigheadedness and abuse. Even the stereotypically sensitive and gentle Jews with pretty high standards about “purity of arms” become home demolishers and collective punishers after a couple of generations living here.
And so, here we have another round of revolt one day which is to be marked by a series of new killing fields. Then we go back to our daily routine of more humiliation and lay in waiting for the next opportunity to exact revenge. Nothing ever ends. Nothing ever changes.
Unless, of course, some fundamentals are altered. And I don’t see Americans capable of doing that with the sort of policies and this manner of execution we have witnessed in the past 16 months.
I don’t have all the answers, frankly. Look yourselves in the eyes and tell yourselves your crystal ball works any better than mine. But I am becoming more convinced about one thing.
No one can humiliate anyone into accepting defeat in this region.
You can destroy entire communities, if that’s what sets your shorts on fire, but you can’t defeat anyone. And if you destroy communities, you’re no different than the biggest thug around. And you will only hasten your turn to come. You can bet your life on that.
Look carefully at Iran. Here we experience brutality, heavy handed repression and humiliation everyday. But there is neither fear, nor respect. Only intimidation in large doses and slight hesitations. Even that doesn’t last long.
We are just waiting—all of us—in the shadows-- waiting and hoping for our next opportunity to torment our present abusers. In the meanwhile, life goes on.
So, here we have another tribe with its unique bloodlust and bigotry thrown in the mix.
In an ideal universe, those innocent/not so innocent American soldiers should be in college and/or drinking or fucking on some beach along with the rest of those frat boys and sorority girls whose parents have sent these young kids to kill and die for them in some alien land. Or, simply blowing off some steam by talking tough about how “WE are number one,” and “WE are kicking ass.”
“We” are doing no such thing, of course, but only managing to hide our fears and avoiding the much needed confrontation with the weasel within.
And those unfortunate Iraqi’s should be snoozing in some air conditioned room in that punishing 130’ heat.
But as it is, they are just going to kill and be killed in that ancient cemetery. And for what?
The rest of us, as always, are holding our breath, watching from some safe distance, hoping and praying that this madness ends without too many casualties; without too much lamentations, and with minimal tears!
Only death cults thrive in times of war and ruin. No religion is ever going to lose its grip in a milieu of murder and mayhem.
The answer is life—in all its multifaceted glorious delights. Only affirmations of life will offer us opportunities to really isolate and ultimately banish these myriad hateful, murderous gods along with their peons who only specialize in death, torture and torment.
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Faits divers -- Internet addiction saps the manly virtues
Eugene Volokh, offers this take on a Finnish warning of a future of internet weaklings:
Corporal Klinger should have thought of that! According to AFP,
A growing number of conscripts have to be dismissed from Finland's armed forces every year due to an internet addiction that makes them unsuited for service, an official said on Tuesday.
"It's an increasing problem. More and more young people are always on the internet day and night. They get up around noon and have neither friends nor hobbies. When they get into the army, it's a shock to them," Jyrki Kivelae, head of the conscription division at the Finnish defence staff, said. . .
"It's really a shock to them, they are physically too weak to do the service, and mentally unprepared to deal with people directly and not through the internet," Kivelae said.
Finland's defence relies solely on conscripted forces, with nearly 30,000 male Finns undergoing six to 12 months of compulsory military training every year . . . .
[S]ome nine percent [of conscripts] are dismissed due to medical reasons, including internet addiction that is now classified as a temporary mental condition, Kivelae noted.
"So we send them back home, where they can stay for two or three years more, then they can come back to the army later when they are more grown-up and able to carry out their duty."
Yeah, right, Internet addiction, that's the ticket. My conjecture: The Finnish military doesn't really need as much manpower as it's getting; it figures that lazy soldiers are more trouble than they're worth, and when "a temporary mental condition" such as "internet addiction" can be blamed, everyone is happy. Somehow I think that if there was a war on, this dread disease could be cured with remarkable ease.
This is not the first time Prof Volokh has addressed the risk of Internet addiction. In April 2002 TechCentralStation:
"Internet Addiction," experts say, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Recent research shows that Internet Addiction is just a special case of what might more broadly be called Communication Addiction. Most healthy individuals tend to spend their time doing normal, productive things like eating, sleeping, working, caring for their children, and having sex. But recently, some have started to devote an inordinate amount of time to the clearly far less valuable and more dangerous activity of Communication (and a related behavior, Information Gathering).
Not only does this distract them from other activities, but extended bouts of Communication are often accompanied by other unhealthful behavior, such as consumption of intoxicants and sometimes excessive quantities of food. Addicts have often been known to express regret over the time this disease takes away from much more vital activities (such as sleep), and over behavior -- such as possibly unsafe sexual activity -- that Communication has indirectly facilitated.
Communication Addicts generally find it acutely emotionally painful to quit. Sometimes after only a few days away from their addiction, sufferers begin to feel symptoms that are quite similar to clinical depression. The refusal of others to continue communicating with them has been known to lead to lowered self-esteem, psychological injury, and in extreme cases even suicide.
Their recent development of the new and questionable technology known as "language" puts certain individuals, known as "humans" -- already vulnerable because of their abnormal gregariousness -- into especially grave peril from Communication Addiction. Experts believe that their troubled lifestyle may lead this particular group to become threats to themselves, to others, and to the environment.
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Campaign 2004 - 2 -- 4 more years of what?
In "The Vicious Cycle That's Killing Us," Tech Central Station, Aug 6, 2004, Radley Balko reports:
It appears that America has a new public health crisis on its hands, one "every bit as threatening as the terrorist threat." Economist Christopher Ruhm concludes in a paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research:Balko then proceeds to castigate politicians for failing to act against this threat to public health and well-being."During temporary economic downturns, smoking and weight decline, while exercise rises. Specifically, the drop in tobacco use is stronger for heavy smokers, the fall in body weight is larger in the severely obese, and exercise increases most among those who were completely inactive."Ruhm drew similar conclusions in a 2000 study, when he found that a 1% dip in the employment rate generally corresponds to a 0.5% drop in the death rate. As the NBER Digest notes, "Three other studies have shown similar results: a fall in total fatalities during economic downturns for 50 Spanish provinces, 16 German states, and 23 OECD countries."
Unless we act now, affluence may soon become America's number one killer.
In fact, not only have our public officials let killer prosperity go unchecked, a Lexis search reveals that nearly every single elected official in the country has openly and without apology advocated policies they believe will increase overall wealth and prosperity! Our politicians are openly encouraging Americans to increase their chances of death! Where are the media?And the victims of these misguided policies are of course found disproportionately among the poor, especially minorities.
Predictably, the wealth menace hits minorities and the poor the hardest. According to NBER, "The 1-point increase in unemployment is predicted to decrease severe obesity among males, blacks, and Hispanics by 2.0, 3.1, and 4.3 percent, compared to 1 percent for both whites and females."Though fair and balanced in assigning blame across the political spectrum, he courageously points to one group of politicians most responsible for this sad state of affairs.
This makes sense, if you think about it. The already-rich aren't affected much by a suddenly robust economy. They had money all along. Their lifestyles were set.
It's the working poor who have the most to gain -- and, therefore, the most to lose. An economic boom makes people rich who weren't rich before. Therefore it makes people less healthy than they were before they increased their income.
Racist, regressive and ruthless, why should we allow Americans to be tempted by the fickle allure of affluence?
As is often the case, free market types deserve most of the blame. While all elected officials claim to want to impose the threat of affluence on all Americans, from what I can tell, it seems that the policies promoted by the free marketers actually do the most to create wealth. That of course makes ardent capitalists responsible for the death by wealth of thousands of formerly poor Americans.But if Balko's going to hand out blame he should be equally fair and balanced and hand out praise as well. Surely the Bush Administration is owed some credit here for a set of economic policies that have spared the traditional victims from the ravages of affluence!
And surely the Bush/Cheney campaign is missing the boat by failing to showcase the benefits their four more years of their policies would bring to the vast majority of the American people.
Monday, August 09, 2004
Intelligence reform - 2 -- is Congress a client or partner?
Some additional observations on yesterday's thoughts re the organizational design challenges of reforming the intelligence community. The other side of the Commission's reform package is going to be even harder than the restructuring of the executive branch. The NYT has a good editorial on it yesterday, and it makes for gruesome reading:
The 9/11 commission report has inspired an unseasonable burst of activity on Capitol Hill, whose denizens are usually hibernating or campaigning at this time of year. Nine committees or subcommittees have scheduled hearings this month on the commission's suggestions for improving intelligence-gathering and strengthening domestic security. But Congress has so far ducked what the commission called one of its "most difficult and important" recommendations - its earnest plea that Congress get its own house in order by streamlining the rules, regulations and insanely redundant committee structure that make it impossible to exercise rational oversight over the intelligence activities of the executive branch. [...]The relations within the executive branch are often described in producer/consumer terms -- a sort of internal market. The proposed reforms would be to smash the silos of the producer organizations, to make them more effective at responding to consumer demands but also developing new types of products that the consumers are likely to need in the future (and that the consumers don't yet know they need).
The most obvious victim of the current chaos is the Department of Homeland Security. A weary departmental statistician recently calculated that between the time the department came into being in January 2003 and last month, senior officials testified before 300 Congressional hearings and held 2,000 briefings for members of Congress or their staffs. This works out to an average of 4 hearings and 25 briefings every week, give or take a few - a ridiculous waste of time for officials with so much responsibility. The 9/11 commission estimated that 88 committees and subcommittees assert jurisdictional interest over the department - including, absurdly, the Agriculture Committees, whose claims rest on the fact that the department has responsibility for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island. The 9/11 commission recommends that Congress collapse all of these authorities into two committees, and preferably one, in each house. This seems an eminently sensible idea.
The intelligence fiefs are fewer but potentially more intractable. The Armed Services Committees, which now exercise control over the vast intelligence-gathering operations of the Defense Department, are likely to lose power in any restructuring. They are also the most likely to resist. [...]
Here again the commission argues that less is more. It proposes that Congress establish either a single joint committee or a single committee in each house. In either case, the commission says, the panels should consist of a small number of dedicated members with the "time and reason to master the subject and its agencies.'' That is an elegant way of saying that the time has come for Congress to elevate wisdom over political ambition.
It is much harder to use organizational theory to describe either the current or ideal relations between the intelligence community and Congress. It is certainly time to reduce the burden on the exeuctive branch to respond to such a ridiculous Congressional system. And the NYT makes a good point that the members of better-focused intelligence committees would actually have the time and be expected to master their brief.
On the other hand, streamlining the committees has potential governance costs. The danger of consolidating oversight and budget authority in a small number of committees is that they get captured by the agencies they oversee. This is a common criticism of Congress generally, and has been a constant complaint for decades against the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example. With a large number of committees with at least secondary jurisdiction, senior civil servants or government experts have some recourse when things are starting to go badly off the rails under the leadership of an agency. A tactical leak to a friendly member of a committee that's not the one with primary jurisdiction, but which does have some sort of jurisdiction, can be a valuable safeguard for the system as a whole. This is especially the case when the information would be classified and not available to a member of Congress who was not a member of a committee with jurisdiction.
Sunday, August 08, 2004
Intelligence reform - 1 -- Networks & hierarchies
Conversation snips -- Comments by nadezhda
Brayden King has a post criticizing the idea of a new "intelligence czar." He cites with approval a recent Slate article by Duncan Watts: "Decentralized Intelligence: What Toyota can teach the 9/11 commission about intelligence gathering." Key thoughts from Brayden:
Watts takes to task the idea that a centralized director is going to improve the federal government’s ability to coordinate information about potential terrorist threats and other criminal behavior. He asserts that centralization is meant to insert control over a system of intelligence collection where cooperation was previously lacking. Watts believes however that while the idea of control is philosophically pleasing, it is much harder to institute and attempts to increase control may actually backfire by further plugging up the system with bureaucratic sludge.
Likewise, effective intelligence collection requires mutual cooperation between a host of agencies and workgroups. Mutualism isn’t often the product of formal organizational mapping but instead results from the creation of social bonds between involved actors. [Quoting Watts in Slate:][S]ome other kind of connectivity, along with a more creative approach, is required—one that incorporates not only the sharing of information across agency boundaries (a recommendation of the commission’s that has received relatively little attention), but active collaboration, joint training, and the development of long term personal relationships between agencies as well. Creative intelligence analysis has a lot in common with other kinds of problem-solving activities: thinking outside the box, challenging deeply held assumptions, and combining different, often seemingly unrelated, kinds of expertise and knowledge. By understanding how innovative and successful organizations have been able to solve large-scale, complex problems, without anyone “at the top” having to micromanage the process, the intelligence community could learn some valuable lessons that might help it escape the mistakes of the past.
Watts could point to Silicon Valley as another great example of a place where the informal connectivity of organizations led to creative collaborations and increased innovation. Stanford sociologist Walter W. ‘Woody’ Powell has written a lot about the benefits of these network forms of organization that develop out of the cross-cutting personal relations between competing firms.[...]
It is interesting to note that despite most citizens’ great distrust of government bureaucracies, the first response to a need for innovative government is to enhance the existing bureaucracy. I don’t like to spend my time griping about bureaucracies (I study them; they fascinate me), but I just find it interesting that people are so reliant on them. Perhaps our reliance is partly due to the fact that we haven’t constructed reasonable alternatives in our vocabulary. In fact, when most of us think about the opposite of bureaucracy, we think of markets. However, there are other alternatives. As Woody points out, the dichotomy of market versus hierarchy is a false one. In between we have network forms of informal organization.
I'd agree with your remarks if the goals of "centralization" in the intelligence reform field were efficiency gains in resources used to produce output and coherence of output. I also agree that when communication and collaboration within/among complex organizations works well it happens horizontally, not up the ladder, across to another hierarchy, and back down.
Nonetheless, I think it's important to study quite carefully what the 9/11 Commission is recommending and why. I think that most people who are commenting on the inadvisability of adding another "layer" on top of the existing agency structures are not taking seriously the critique of the current structure made by the 9/11 Commission whose members eventually became horrified at the degree of segmentation and stovepiping of the current system. The Commission concluded that no meaningful changes will ever occur without "smashing the stovepipes," and someone has to be put in charge to wield the sledgehammer and begin the transformation process. Their proposals can only be evaluated if we understand what they have concluded are the fundamental structural flaws in the current arrangements.
Not necessarily in the order of importance, the first objective is to change incentives within the "intelligence community," both within and across existing agencies. Even informal horizontal communication doesn't happen well if the incentives are perverse.
Second is to better define product, both strategically and in response to client/consumer needs. The structural momentum left over from the Cold War will continue to dominate as long as the supply-side governs, and it will continue to govern unless something is done to dynamite bureaucratic inertia.
Third is to better match long-term development of capacities to match strategic requirements. A special emphasis by the Commission was on skill sets -- especially language and familiarity with other cultures. They have endorsed a dramatic increase in open source intelligence, which will require different skills, attitudes and organizational priorities to incorporate it into classic "spying" operations and analysis of secret information.
Fourth is to ensure that in high priority areas where immediate response is essential the right resources can be used flexibly -- pulling skills from anywhere in the intelligence community, introducing some division of labor, and making sure that the people working the problem know everything in real time rather than through "need to know" clearances that may reflect bureaucratic agendas. The "classification system gone mad" that has happened under the Bush Admin, even before 9/11, is a subject worthy of special treatment, but it is certainly relevant to the intelligence reforms that must ask what information is needed, for which users, how it is collected, how analyzed, how disseminated, and how made "actionable."
The model the 9/11 Commission is using is the reorganization of the military (Goldwater-Nichols) that changed the entire function of the Joint Chiefs and operational reporting. In that case, one of the primary themes was to shift from a focus on inputs -- primarily inter-agency battles over budgets -- to client needs; from the supply side to the demand side. It's useful to look at the prepared testimony to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (pdf 7pgs) by Commission co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton. Their focus was less on changing the boxes in the bureaucratic structure per se and more on how to turn the bureaucracy into a network.
From the prepared testimony:
We believe that the Intelligence Community needs a wholesale Goldwater-Nichols reform of the way it does business. The collection agencies should have the same mission as the Armed Services do: they should organize, train and equip their personnel. Those intelligence professionals, in turn, should be assigned to unified joint commands, or in the language of the Intelligence Community, “Joint Mission Centers.” We have already talked about a National Counterterrorism Center. A joint mission center on WMD and proliferation, for example, would bring together the imagery, signals, and HUMINT specialists, both collectors and analysts, who would work together jointly on behalf of the mission. All the resources of the community would be brought to bear on the key intelligence issues as identified by the National Intelligence Director.Sounds like someone's been reading their Organizational Theory 101.
So, when we look at the chart from the bottom up, we conclude you cannot get the necessary transformation of the Intelligence Community-- smashing the stovepipes and creating joint mission centers--unless you have a National Intelligence Director.
Campaign issues - 1 -- Social security debate still to come
The Christian Science Monitor echoes one of the most powerful statements from the Democratic National Convention, made by the head of the Black Caucus, Elijah Cummings: security isn't just protecting us from terrorists. As Cummings noted, more Americans feel directly threatened by what would happen if one of their family had a medical emergency than by the risk that they or their friends and loved ones will be victims of a terrorist attack. An editorial in the CSM highlights another big security issue for Americans, financing their retirement, on which the Presidential candidates have been mostly silent about specifics.
President Bush has generally given lip service to the notion of privatizing all or a portion of Social Security, but no action has been forthcoming in his first term, and it is unclear what he would do in a second. "His 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security set out three reform plans, but the White House has yet to spell out its detailed choices."
John Kerry has promised not to privatize Social Security, not to reduce benefits, and not to raise the retirement age. The urgency of "fixing" Social Security has been somewhat reduced with the recent assessment by the CBO that the current pay=as-you-go system should be able to continue paying 100% of promised benefits through 2052, and thereafter at a rate of 80%. But to make up that future gap, is Kerry counting on higher rates of economic growth? Or a tax increase? As the CSM notes:
The International Monetary Fund estimates that paying for future obligations would require a 13-percentage-point increase in payroll taxes.
Higher taxes are not just an issue for Kerry's approach. For Bush, the process of switching from a pay-as-you-go to a fully-funded privatized scheme is estimated to cost upwards of $1 trillion, which will have to be financed somehow.
Once the political debate becomes joined over the future of Social Security, opposition to privatization is unlikely to focus solely on the matter of government financing and taxes. As employees continue to have a greater and greater portion of financial risk for their retirement shifted to them from employers -- due to the rapid decline in defined pension plans -- a growing number of Americans are likely to see Social Security as an important safety net for themselves and others, unaffected by the vagaries of business cycles and volatility of capital markets.
The Bush proposal for individual retirement accounts has great uncertainties. Can most Americans be asked to wisely save and invest for their retirement and accept the risks? Even many of those eligible for 401(k)s haven't signed up or, if they have, make poor choices on investments or don't contribute enough. The average balance in 2001 in 401(k)s of households age 55 to 64 was about $55,000 - hardly a comfortable provision for, say, 20 retirement years.The CSM editorial leaves out another major cost of the individual retirement account approach that is frequently overlooked -- the cost of regulating the financial services available for IRAs. If the British experience with rampant, scandalous "misselling" of annuity products by the entire consumer insurance industry is any indication of the potential costs of giving choice to consumers, a limits on eligible investments and a robust regulatory scheme will be prerequisites.
In Sweden, a partial privatization of its system in 2001 has had trouble. One reason is that it was badly designed and run. But also, participants were too passive in choosing funds, with many of them having lost money.
Faits divers -- new benefits of recycling water
"Stay calm everyone, there's Prozac in the drinking water." So reports The Observer today, via Guardian Unlimited. It seems that Brits are consuming Prozac at such an increased pace that the chemical is showing up in tests of groundwater and rivers that supply drinking water.
The discovery raises fresh fears that GPs are overprescribing Prozac, Britain's antidepressant of choice. In the decade up to 2001, overall prescriptions of antidepressants rose from nine million to 24 million a year.
And that has some environmentalists up in arms. One concern, expressed in a recent report by the Environment Agency, is for the potential toxicity of Prozac and its unknown potential impact on not only humans but other animals and the ecosystem.
[T]he precise quantity of Prozac in the nation's water supplies remains unknown. The government's Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) said Prozac was likely to be found in a considerably 'watered down' form that was unlikely to pose a health risk.
Dr Andy Croxford, the Environment's Agency's policy manager for pesticides, told The Observer: 'We need to determine the effects of this low-level, almost continuous discharge.'
European studies have also expressed disquiet over the impact of pharmaceuticals building up in the environment, warning that an effect on wildlife and human health 'cannot be excluded'.
'It is extremely unlikely that there is a risk, as such drugs are excreted in very low concentrations,' a DWI spokesman said. 'Advanced treatment processes installed for pesticide removal are effective in removing drug residues,' he added.
If the Environment Agency is holding meetings with the pharmaceutical industry on human health or the ecosystem, can politicians be far behind?
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat's environment spokesman, said the revelations exposed a failing by the government on an important public health issue. He added that the public should be told if they were inadvertently taking drugs like Prozac.
'This looks like a case of hidden mass medication upon the unsuspecting public,' Baker said. 'It is alarming that there is no monitoring of levels of Prozac and other pharmacy residues in our drinking water.'
Brings a whole new meaning to "drinking the Kool-Aid."
Greg Maddux reaches 300
M Scott Eiland at Tacitus celebrates Greg Maddux' 300th win, "making him the 22nd major league pitcher since 1876 to attain that lofty milestone." Scott's pens a fitting tribute to Maddux' career:
Maddux was never one of those pitchers who blew hitters away with overwhelming stuff (his fastball was, at its best, about a "B+"--with Roger Clemens getting an "A" and Nolan Ryan an "A+"), or by intimidating batters. Maddux is an utterly unimposing figure when out of uniform, and has been nicknamed "Clark Kent" by teammates who saw him wearing glasses off the mound and made the obvious contrast with the "Superman" who was dominating the National League during the majority of the 1990's. He frustrated batters with guile and pinpoint control and sheer efficiency: in this age of three and a half hour games, it was not uncommon for Maddux to finish a start in less than two hours--the people in charge of concessions must have hated him. He simply went out to the mound every fifth game and--with remarkable consistency--won fifteen to twenty games a season for year after year. He is not the greatest starting pitcher of his era--that honor goes to Roger Clemens--and a couple of other pitchers--Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez--have reached greater heights at the best moments of their careers. However, no pitcher of the last quarter century has ever been a greater *artist* on the pitching mound. A start by Greg Maddux in his best years was a work of art, like a great symphony or a portrait by an old master--something that lingers on in the memory long after the other memories of the time have faded. It will be a while before we see his like again in a major league uniform.
Greg Maddux reminds us of all the ingredients it takes to be a truly great athlete. Not only is he the artist of his generation on the mound, he also has a remarkable string of gold gloves. And it's his unassuming appearance (hell, he's physically unassuming on the mound, not only in civies with glasses) that highlights what it takes to be great. We're not seduced by one dominant physical gift, such as strength or speed or endurance.
Incredible coordination from tips of the fingers throughout the body, especially great balance and footwork. Fabulous reflexes that don't require the conscious mind to be engaged, but also the ability for thought to translate directly into precise physical execution. Not a johnny-one-note -- can adjust physical technique effortlessly through a range of gears and, when needed, tap into that extra reservoir of strength or speed or control. Ability to focus on the physical task at hand, apparently cutting off all extraneous input, while still having a heightened situational awareness. Sustained concentration, for hours if needed. An uncanny ability to "outthink" the opponent, which is not only to be able to anticipate what the other is likely to do but also to know and exploit the opponent's psychic vulnerabilies, not just physical weaknesses. And sheer willpower. Altogether a package of special gifts shared by the greats, whether Mays or Bonds, Dr J or Jordan, Merkx or Armstrong, Laver or Sampras, Staubach or Montana, or Jack or Tiger.
The "300 club" is not only well earned. It means Maddux will be appreciated through the ages as the epitome of that rare beast, a complete pitcher. Without that milestone, his greatness would be lost over time, because his pitching didn't have a dominating physical feature that would have been passed down in tales of derring do to become part of baseball's mythology. I can't begin to count the number of summer evenings I have relished a performance by Maddux. I caught him the other day as he continued to baffle batters with changes of speed between 81 and 89 mph within the outer limits of the strike zone. I know everything must come to an end, but I sure wish I could still watch the Braves old bullpen!