Saturday, December 31, 2005

Symmetrical Opponents and Freedom of Speech

I've run across the observation that opponents often become symmetrical. For example, in the NBA if your main opponent adds a good big man, you'll feel compelled to follow suit. In football, if the Giants get a tight end like Shockey(sp?), the Redskins need a big athletic safety to cover him. The same applies in the economy. In the 50's the big 3 automakers each felt compelled to have complete lines of cars--whatever GM did Ford and Chrysler were bound to follow. The same dynamic operates in international politics, as witness this quote taken from today's Post:
Justice Dept. Investigating Leak of NSA Wiretapping: "But Duffy reiterated earlier statements by Bush, who had sharply condemned the disclosure of the NSA program and argued that it seriously damaged national security.

'The fact is that al Qaeda's playbook is not printed on Page One, and when America's is, it has serious ramifications,' Duffy said, reading from prepared remarks. 'You don't need to be Sun Tzu to understand that,' he added, referring to the ancient Chinese general who wrote 'The Art of War.'
The argument is valid--see the examples from sports. But it's also invalid, because it logically leads to our becoming like al Qaeda. It's also too tempting to decide based on tightly limited considerations. Take the long view--which is more attractive: a society committed to violence and nurtured in secrecy or a society committed to open government and ambivalent about using violence? It's like saying the Detroit Pistons can't win the NBA because their center is undersized.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Why No Ethnic Restaurants in Israel?

David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy today observes in a parenthesis:
"[Right now there are NO Ethiopian restaurants in the entire country, except a derelict takeout place for foreign workers, despite the presence of over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews Oddly, in Israel 'ethnic food' is considered something one eats at home, while to go out Israelis tend to favor routine Israeli food: humus/falefal/schwarma, dairy, shipudim ('skewers'), and schnitzel, plus hamburgers and pasta. What a crime that in a country with immigrants from over 100 countries that so few nations' cuisines are represented on the restaurant scene, especially since the Jewish cuisines of those countries were often unique! Someone send (ethnic food maven and occasional VC contributor) Tyler Cowen over there to straighten things out."
Given that in the U.S. one of the first areas for advancement of immigrants is the opening of a restaurant, this indeed seems mysterious. (Even in Britain, based on the Brit TV I watch it seems that immigrants focus on restaurant.) Does this difference result from different attitudes towards food in the mainstream culture in each country (Bernstein's implication), from the economy (does Israel have fewer restaurants per capita because per person income is lower), from religion (presumably religious Jews can't eat out on the Sabbath--reducing potential clientele-days, or am I showing ignorance), from security (restaurants get bombed) or what?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Pursuit of Happiness, via NYTimes

Two of today's NYTimes opeds (not NYTimes Select) deal with happiness, and lean on old philosophers for their answers:

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right: "What can we do to improve ourselves and feel happier? Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle's observation that 'We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.' If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves."
In Pursuit of Unhappiness: "'Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so,' Mill concluded after recovering from a serious bout of depression. Rather than resign himself to gloom, however, Mill vowed instead to look for happiness in another way.

'Those only are happy,' he came to believe, 'who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.' For our own culture, steeped as it is in the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure and endless cheer, that message is worth heeding."

Definition of a Bureaucrat

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: "Some of the common signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder include:

* Perfectionism
* Inflexibility
* Preoccupation with details, rules, and lists
* Reluctance to allow others to do things
* Excessive devotion to work
* Restricted expression of affection
* Lack of generosity
* Inability to throw things away, even if there is no value in the object"

Girls Get Guts from Globalization III

My third instance of a similar theme is from a post by Major Bateman on Alter's blog on, Baghdad Holidays III - Altercation - The major is in Iraq:
"As you know, we have been supplying a boy’s and a girl’s Elementary School, as well as a Boy’s High School. After the delivery last week we found the High School for the girls. I faced a decision at that point: Expand the program and initiate supply delivery to the girls’ High School… or face rebellion and possible execution at the hands of the female officers and NCOs from this command.

These women are armed, and appeared quite serious. Discretion, as they say, is oft the better part of valor."
The interesting bit is the interplay between the major's female soldiers and the females at the girls' school. It's two cultures meeting. (It's also, to someone who was in the Army 65-7, amazing.)

Girls Get Guts from Globalization II

The second example, Muslim Women in Europe Claim Rights and Keep Faith , isn't as neat, but the NY Times finds:
"a quiet revolution spreading among young European Muslim women, a generation that claims the same rights as its Western counterparts, without renouncing Islamic values.

For many, the key difference is education, an option often denied their poor, immigrant mothers and grandmothers. These young women are studying law, medicine and anthropology, and now form a majority in many Islamic studies courses, traditionally the world of men. They are getting jobs in social work, business and media, and are more prone to use their new independence to divorce."

There's a description of efforts by such women to reinterpret Muslim teachings to be more friendly to women and the modern world

Girls Get Guts from Globalization I

Ran across three items with similar themes: women being freed by contact with the bigger world. The first is in a Wash Post article--Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life:
"Professional running in Ethiopia was long dominated by men, and the country has produced some of the world's best male distance runners. The legendary Haile Gebrselassie, 33, has broken 17 world records and won two Olympic gold medals. But in the last decade, determined female runners like Meseret Defar, 22, have also begun winning Olympic medals, world championship races and marathons. Today, according to an Ethiopian sports magazine, seven of the 10 top-earning athletes in Ethiopia are women.

Inspired by these new national heroines, Tesdale and thousands of other girls have left their villages and come to the capital, living with relatives in hardscrabble neighborhoods, training on their own and dreaming of being able to compete."
Ethiopia is a male chauvinist society, with the women doing the heavy lifting of water and wood. Even the women who don't find money from running get a measure of hope.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Anarchy and Rules

The NY Times has an article, When Scholarship and Politics Collided at Yale ,on an anarchist professor at Yale, who's involved in a controversy over tenure. One sentence struck a nerve:
"He was by many accounts a prolific writer and popular teacher. Although he sometimes came late, his classes were crowded."
Lateness for meetings drives me nuts. It's disrespectful to others; particularly for the leader of a meeting it's saying that your time is more important than those to whom you're talking. If your audience feels that way, it gets you off on the wrong foot. All in all, it's no way to make railroads run on time. Perhaps in this case the professor justified his lateness to himself by saying he was asserting the power of the individual over that of the institution (that's the way it might have been said in the 60's). And so it would be a symbol of his anarchism, the belief that people can come together without having coordinating authority.

The other thing that drove me nuts was setting a meeting for 8 and having people trickle in late or holding conversations in the back (in the case of large meetings). So I set a "Harshaw rule"--the meeting would start on time and I would start talking at 8. The rule worked. First it put me on record so I made sure to start on time. Second, it made the attendees settle in more promptly.

The lesson for anarchists is that some rules are necessary. Historically, standard timekeeping rode into town on the cowcatcher of the locomotives of the railroads--you can't run a railroad without having a standard time. You can't run a large university without scheduled classes--the professor can't start late and run over without making students late for other classes. Even if you believe in "mobbing", you can't coordinate a demonstration without giving a location and and a time.

The recurring mystery is how you reconcile the need for rules and the need for freedom.

Shed a Tear for Limbo

The NY Times reports the Vatican may be doing away with the concept of "limbo":
"Unlike purgatory, a sort of waiting room to heaven for those with some venial faults, the theory of limbo consigned children outside of heaven on account of original sin alone. As a concept, limbo has long been out of favor anyway, as theologically questionable and unnecessarily harsh. It is hard to imagine depriving innocents of heaven. "
Apparently the theologians are reverting to the idea of God's mystery--a just God can't condemn children, aborted fetuses, and those who died before Christ to hell, so how you reconcile justice with the idea of Christ as the necessary savior of corrupt mankind becomes just another mystery. You may gather I'm a nonbeliever, but I did appreciate the concept, just as I appreciate the facility with which a painter creates the illusion of perspective on canvas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Fraud and Speed

The Post today has articles on fraud at the Red Cross:
Fraud Alleged at Red Cross Call Centers: "Nearly 50 people have been indicted in connection with a scheme that bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Red Cross program to put cash into the hands of Hurricane Katrina victims, according to federal authorities."
and the GAO's investigation of credit card fraud. The latter one buries this finding "The lists of purchases provided by five government agencies show nothing outrageous -- bottles of water, hundreds of maps of New Orleans and Texas, pizza dinners, and lots of insect repellent." But apparently GAO is looking at whether money could have been saved by better purchasing practices. The answer, of course, is "yes". As a Microsoft software engineer has written in connection with software, you can do software that's good, do it cheaply, and do it fast, but you can't do all three at the same time. At NASA they found that the"faster, better, cheaper" mantra had its limits. Or, as Robert Heinlein wrote, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

I suspect the best thing the government could do is set up two sets of rules: one set would apply when saving money is primary; the other set when speed is primary. A Presidential declaration of disaster could trigger the second set for the disaster area and for a designated period. Trying to design one set of rules for both scenarios is like designing a swimming camel.

Winslow Homer and "Red Tape"

Just back from the crowded National Gallery of Art and its exhibition of Winslow Homer art. We've seen almost all of it before, since these are works NGA owns, although not always displays. I was pleased by one print that was a conglomeration of Homer's sketches--covering the years 1860-70, with an associated poem. Various images, mostly of war, but Lincoln was at the center holding a paper labeled "Emancipation Proclamation." A streamer or ribbon trailed down to the left. It was labeled "red tape". I'm not sure of the implication--that Lincoln's executive action had cut through the procedural red tape involved in freeing the slaves (i.e., through constitutional amendment)?

The Marginal

The LATimes had an article on Georgia's requirement that voters have government ID. The theme of the article was that the van that was driving the state to offer ID's wasn't getting much business. Dems had claimed the law would deprive lots of people of the right to vote, Reps not. I found this portion interesting:
"'How does a person get along these days without a picture ID of some sort to cash checks, turn on utilities, drive a car or enroll their children in school?' Larry Watson of LeGrange, Ga., wrote in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In constructing their case, ACLU lawyers gathered a group of plaintiffs that included elderly people who did not have birth certificates, had never learned to drive, were too frail to stand in line at a licensing center, had allowed their licenses to lapse because they no longer used them, or had encountered bureaucratic obstacles.

But finding those people was not easy, said Neil Bradley, the Voting Rights Project's associate director. One dropped out of the case when he was asked to give a deposition.

'How do you find them? They don't have telephones,' Bradley said. 'These are people who live at that edge of society, where they pay their rent in cash or they pay 20% to get their check cashed.' "
Some points. The marginal, whether as in Chicago's Heat Wave of years ago or in Georgia now, fall out from society. They suffer. They pay more (check cashing), are more vulnerable to crime (keeping their money in cash, rather than the bank), eat poorer (no car to get to markets with good fruits and vegetables), and have less opportunity (aren't comfortable dealing with bureaucracy).

Monday, December 26, 2005

Golden Rule in Reverse

In my youth, I was taught the Golden Rule is the end-all and be-all of ethical rules. Indeed, the Social Gospel movement tried to apply it to society. But after lifelong observation of Christians, I don't believe my teaching. At bottom the rule is very individualistic--it governs one's actions as they affect others, so you are the actor. It says, don't torture your prisoners if you don't want your military children tortured. What's lacking is a rule for the reverse.

A Christian might object here that they do have such a rule: turn the other cheek. But that rule applies only to the receipt of bad. How about the receipt of good?

My proposal: allow others to do unto you what you would do unto others. Such a rule would stop a
"Lady Bountiful", who lives her life doing for others, but would resist any efforts by others to do for her. For example, in the wake of Katrina many foreign countries tried to offer aid to the U.S. The impression I get from news accounts is that many of the offers failed, because the government was not used to the idea of receiving help from foreigners. If we're to make this a better world, help must be mutual, not one-sided.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Keep Immigrants Coming

Buried in a NYTimes interview, House Prices: The State of the Bubble is this piece of information. Sounds like immigration is a key to rising housing prices, which tend to cast a rosy glow over our evaluation of the economy:
"Q. Can you describe some of the trends that support your views on the long-term growth prospects of the housing market?

A. In the old days, the typical 50-year-old homeowner would downsize, sell the family home and buy something smaller. What is occurring now is that they are keeping the family home and buying the second and third home.

The typical immigrant buys a home much faster than his or her historical counterpart. Thirty-five percent of the household formations forecasted for the next 10 years will be driven by Hispanics."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Why "Turf Wars" in Bureaucracy?

The Post continues its series on the DHS reorganization with todays article--Brown's Turf Wars Sapped FEMA's Strength.

It's full of discussion of the infighting among FEMA's Brown, Secretary Ridge and staff, and the White House. But the authors take for granted that turf wars are natural. Are they?

Reorganizations of big bureaucracies create major uncertainty and stress throughout the organization. It's possible that a reorg will change your boss, give you different duties, redo communication channels, change the prestige of your agency, or do away with your job. So your attention becomes focused on such issues and not on what you're supposed to be doing. By definition a reorg results in a scarcity of information--whatever decisions are being made at the top trickle down to the bottom. With no authoritative information, any information becomes valuable and passes on more quickly than ever before. But the increased speed of circulation increases the difficulty of separating good from bad information, so that increases your stress.

I assume the truth of the idea that people often react to stress defensively. So the first reaction to plans is: "change is bad". That changes the position of the head of the agency, like Michael Brown. Where in normal times an agency head has to make tough decisions, favoring one part of the agency against another, saying: "no" to the pet ideas of his/her subordinates, during times of reorganization things change. There's less happening within the agency. And the boss can get brownie points with her subordinates by fighting vigorously on behalf of the agency against the ill-informed plans of outsiders. In international affairs it's a familiar situation--unify the nation by picking a fight with someone else. (Lincoln's Secretary of State proposed the tactic to avoid the Civil War--pick a fight with Britain that would unify South and North.)

So turf wars are natural, if not rational.

Efficient Bush Government--Firstgov Newsletter

Republicans boast about being good managers. Maybe so, but they have problems reading calendars and planning. I'm enclosing the first part of this e-mail from their site [note the "Happy Holidays" as well]:
FirstGov News
The Official U.S. Government Web Portal
Vol. 4, No. 6
December 22, 2005

To read our illustrated online version, go to:

Dear FirstGov Subscriber,

In this issue, we'll look at our Happy Holidays page, and recent additions
to's News and Features.


Happy Holidays From FirstGov.Gov

The holidays: family and friends, gifts, New Year's resolutions,Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam? Yes,your favorite uncle in Washington is joining the holiday festivities at, the official web portal of the U.S. government. Whether you're looking for just the right gift or trying to make a New Year's resolution you can actually keep, the "Happy Holidays" page at is the perfect place to start. is organized by subject--not by confusing government terms--so it's easy to find the help you need to make your holidays merry and bright.

For your holiday gift-giving, let be your doorway to shopping made easy. Find unusual gifts like photographic prints and recordings from the Library of Congress, coins from the U.S. Mint, and items from the Smithsonian Institution's museum stores. Those hard-to-shop-for people on your list are sure to be delighted with their gifts.

Once you've found that perfect gift, can make your trip to the post office a breeze. Create your own personalized, legal postage stamps featuring photos you've taken. And get on the fast track at the post office by printing mailing labels online or arranging for special pick-up services. Fight the battle of the bulge and get fit with Uncle Sam as your personal trainer. Go to to find ways to enjoy holiday foods without overindulging. You can also get low-intensity exercise plans to help you keep fit and keep that extra weight off.

Invite your Uncle Sam for the holidays--log onto today. It's government made easy.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bureaucratic Reorganization II

I blogged earlier today on the Post article on Homeland Security reorganization. To continue on the difficulties: I took part in reorganization efforts in USDA. Leadership there used another model--task forces essentially working from bottom up. By getting people assigned from the different agencies, leadership could draw on our expertise and co-opt us into supporting, at least verbally, the proposed organization. The problems this sort of effort faced included:
  • the people assigned were often "turkeys"--people their management was anxious to get rid of for a while, either because they weren't capable or didn't "fit in". If the first, they didn't provide the expertise; if the second, they couldn't speak for their management.
  • in reality, few of us could speak for management. In my case, I was comfortable being a loose cannon, which meant I didn't keep my bosses involved and supportive. But most of the time if people don't get their hands dirty they don't truly support the outcome. So managers who may have spent a hour a week on the reorganization proposal were weakly committed.
  • if the reorganization would have made a difference, it would undermine parts of the existing agencies, thereby arousing the opposition of the interest groups and Congressional delegation. If it was innocuous, it wasn't worth doing.

The Problem of Bureaucratic Reorganization

The Washington Post starts a series on the DHS reorganization today: Department's Mission Was Undermined From Start:

This quote represents part of the problem of doing reorganizations:
"The lesson his [Secretary Ridge's] staff took away was the need for secrecy: When bureaucracies were informed of potential threats to their empires, they tended to resist. 'Everybody realized the agencies were not going to look at mission first, they were going to look at turf first,' recalled Bruce M. Lawlor, a National Guard major general working for Ridge."
It also describes another part of the problem: lack of knowledge by the reorganizers. The reorganization was mapped out by a "Group of Five" bureaucrats, 2 aides to Ridge and 3 OMB men, none of whom had detailed knowledge of all the government entities being reorganized.
"Some of the decisions were almost random. Falkenrath thought it would be nice to give the new department a research lab that could bring cutting-edge research to homeland security problems. He called up a friend and asked which of the three Department of Energy labs would work. "He goes, 'Livermore.' And I'm like, 'All right. See you later.' Click," Falkenrath told historians from the Naval Postgraduate School. He did not realize that he had just decided to give the new department a thermonuclear weapon simulator, among other highly sensitive assets of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory."
So the dilemma is: if you involve senior people from the agencies early, they undermine the effort (they've the links to the media, the hill, and the interest groups to do it). But if you don't involve knowledgeable people, the effort fails from lack of realism.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Humans in Action

I like Dan Drezner, very perceptive and open minded even though a bit conservative. He was at the WTO meeting and posts this note:
"A side note: one of the amusing features of being in the press room is seeing the pack mentalityof journalism in action. If a sufficient number of journalists are congregating around person A, then that group starts acting like a powerful magnet attracting the individual iron fillings of other journalists. Sometimes this makes a great deal of sense -- as when the EU tspokesman contradicts the India statement. Sometimes it makes no sense -- as when a great throng materialized to get their hands on... a schedule of the Ministerial's closing ceremonies. No one gives a flying fig about that."
Of course, the pack mentality is not journalists--it's humans. It's why the most popular blogs get more popular, etc....

Spiders and Angry Gods No More

The Times does an article on an ABC Barbara Walters special tonight:
"Unfortunately, indeed. The program says nearly 90 percent of Americans believe heaven exists; most of them, presumably, think they have a shot at it. It's a nice idea. As Mr. Albom, the best-selling author of 'The Five People You Meet in Heaven,' says, the idea alone can make life on earth better, sprinkling a little stardust on the drudgery and meaninglessness of daily life.

Mr. Albom goes on to describe the dysphoria of being ordinary: 'If you're not a celebrity, you can start to feel like you don't matter.'
So that's it. The implication is clear. In the American creed - the one articulated on network news programs like this one - heaven is a place where we all get to be celebrities. At last."

We've come a long way from Jonathan Edwards' sermon on sinners in the hands of an angry God, with the image of God dangling the sinner's soul over an open fire, with only his grace keeping the sinner from eternal torment. Then the default position was hell, now it's heaven.

Why We'll Stay in Iraq

Looking at the initial results from the Iraq election I predict that we'll end up staying in Iraq and some liberals will support it. Why? Because the religious Shiite bloc seems to have done well. That increases the likelihood that what we end up with in Iraq is a 3 party conflict because the middle is too weak to hold. The politicians won't be able to make deals to bridge the gaps between the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni.

In that case, it's likely the Sunnis will end up being odd-man out, which may well lead to their leaders doing a 180 degree reversal and calling for the US to stay in order to serve as a buffer. We might see a small precursor of that recently, as US troops and officials have been involved in uncovering and condemning the Interior Ministry's mistreatment of prisoners.

Game theory says that 3 party games are unstable. Orwell knew that--if you remember 1984 the three powers switched sides easily. (In the 3 party game among Iran, Iraq and the U.S. we've seen changes in sides over the last 25 years. Kissinger and Nixon's approach to China was another instance of this.) T.E.Lawrence may have delineated a future role for an outsider when he described shooting the thief to avoid the vicious cycle of violence that would be caused if tribal rules were applied (a thief must be shot, but a killing of a member of one's tribe by another tribe called for retaliation).

In Iraq we've screwed all sides during the past 30 years, so protecting the minority Sunnis from oppression may be the next turn of the screw.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Bah, Humbug III, Ag Budget Cuts that Aren't

Jim Wiesemyer of Agweb summarizes the effects of the budget reconciliation legislation on farm programs:

AgWeb - Your Spot for Futures Trading, Commodities Info, Successful Farming Tips, Ag News & More: "Comments: As was signaled in an earlier column, the most surprising development is no across-the-board cuts in direct payments -- commodity program participants clearly escaped a budget-cutting bullet. Conservation program cuts are clearly the major reduction category, especially when you consider the fact that the percentage reduction in advance direct payments still does not decrease the final direct payment [emphasis added] made to eligible producers. Groups who frequently attack farm program spending will easily focus their attention on the lack of major cuts for commodity program participants. "

So much for the Administration's proposal to change payment limitation rules that surfaced at the beginning of the year. And so much for the food stamp cut. And note the italicized words--I'm not clear how CBO costed this, but if Jim and I understand the provision, all it means is moving money from one FY to a later one. In other words, a billion or so of "savings" really isn't. Your illustrious elected representatives at work.

Bah, Humbug II: Bling

I guess the holidays are the season of excess, at least of writing about it. The NYTimes had this article yesterday: Hey, Bartender, Can You Break $1,000?:
"'People are drinking less, but they're drinking better,' said Mark Grossich, owner and operator of the World Bar in Trump World Tower in Manhattan. 'You don't find a lot of generic drinkers anymore.'

When the World Bar opened three years ago, it introduced the World Cocktail. The $50 mixture of Remy XO; Veuve Clicquot Champagne; Pineau des Charentes, a sweet aperitif; white grape juice; freshly squeezed lemon juice; Angostura bitters; and 23-carat edible liquid gold was billed as the world's most expensive cocktail.

'We started the trend of very expensive cocktails,' Mr. Grossich said. 'We thought: 'What the heck? Where better than in a Trump building to create something excessive?' '

But now, Mr. Grossich said, cocktail prices have 'gotten out of hand.'"

The Post had a similar article, focusing on the use of precious metals as ingredients in drinks. That followed a Post article earlier this year on expensive bar and bat mitzvahs. The Jewish Week has this article, tying a $10 mill party to Iraq!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bah, Humbug I: Reps try to outlaw Golden Rule

When I woke this morning I was sour as a lemon. Like Scrooge. Then I read a small piece in the Post, which changed my mood to vinegar. It sounds as if the Republicans think that the Golden Rule applies only in the profane version: "he who has the most gold rules" and not the Biblical:
"When Tim Holt spotted Maria Rabanales of El Salvador lying still in the Arizona desert this summer, he believed he had a God-given duty to save her.

He forced water through the woman's swollen jaws and poured ice down her shirt. Border Patrol agents later took Rabanales to a hospital, where she was revived.

Holt was praised by Humane Borders, sponsored by First Christian Church of Tucson, where he is a volunteer. But his actions that June day might soon be considered a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison or property forfeiture, if a Republican-sponsored bill that passed the House along partisan lines on Friday becomes law."
(The law makes it a crime to aid illegal immigrants.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Stripes and Golden Fleece

This week came reports of the death of Sen. William Proxmire, whose fame is tied to his Golden Fleece awards, rather than his pushing of the Genocide convention. (See what's-her-face's book on genocide.) The Golden Fleece was given monthly for a [supposed] instance of bureaucratic waste of money. Sometimes bureaucrats need embarassment, sometimes not. His award seemed to me to be an example of someone searching for uniqueness.

Proxmire often ridiculed various research projects funded by NSF or whoever. Had he remained in the Senate he might well have awarded the Fleece to a project researching why the striped stickleback fish had their stripes (almost sounds like a Rudyard Kipling Just-so story: how the stickleback got their stripes). But also announced this week was a surprising outcome of that research: an explanation for whiteness. Turns out the scientists identified a gene in sticklebacks that controls melanin, giving them their stripes. They then found the same gene in humans, but the gene in caucasians has mutated, leading to white skin in Europeans. (Apparently Asians have a different mutation.)

Of course one butterfly does not make a summer and one instance of research that provides unexpected results does not justify all scientific projects. But it is a reminder that we don't know a lot and mockery assumes we do.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

New Computer/DSL

Bringing up a new PC and a DSL connection yesterday and today. Temporary interruption in blogging.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Torture and Knowledge

Michael Kinsley is almost always good. His piece, Torture for Dummies - Exploding the "ticking bomb" argument, is no exception.

He discusses the torture justification used by Charles Krauthammer--if there's a ticking bomb and you have captured someone who knows its location but won't talk, you must torture.

He mentions the idea, which Kevin Drum has also used--you can justify a law against torture because in such extreme circumstances the law will be violated. I like it. We have laws against speeding without written exceptions for speeding accident victims or pregnant women to hospitals. Recently an officer was acquitted of murder in a case where he killed an Iraqi, rationale was that the Iraqi was mortally wounded and it was a mercy killing. Kinsley doesn't like it, and IMO dismisses it too quickly.

But the gist of his argument is this:
"But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating."
In other words, in the real world there's much we don't know, including as Rummy says, what we don't know we don't know. See Cromwell to the Scottish Parliament. Laws and rules must be made for uncertainty, not certainty.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


This article in today's NYTimes has an interesting article on "over-imitation", which is a psychologist's term for what happens when someone imitates an inefficient process. It's like playing "follow the leader" around the sides of a city square rather than cutting across the diagonal. Apparently chimps mostly don't over-imitate, but children do. It's the result of a series of lab experiments where food was enclosed in a clear plastic box and the experimenter demonstrated to the subject (chimp or child) how to open the box, except he threw in a couple extra steps. Chimps would bypass the steps, children wouldn't.

Here's an excerpt:
Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. - New York Times: "If they rush through opening a puzzle, they don't skip the extra steps. They just do them all faster. What makes the results even more intriguing is that the children understand the laws of physics well enough to solve the puzzles on their own. Charlotte's box ripping is proof of that.

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate."
It seems a commonsense adaptation, like developing a general-purpose computer rather than a specialized one. The psychologist was, after all, considerably simplifying real life when he set up the problem of the food in the box. In real life, you have to identify the problem for yourself and see whether anyone has a solution. That takes time and effort. So it's easier to apply the general rule of "follow the leader" if the leader seems to be halfway competent. The burden on evolution then turns to deciphering people to know what leaders to follow. (Is that why Bush is President--maybe evolution needs to do some more work?)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Stereotypes, Evenly Distributed?

Reading the Post sports pages today, enjoying the Skins victory which I didn't see all of because we went off to see the ABT Nutcracker and all the little girls dressed up in holiday finery. An interview with some rapper, maybe "chamillionaire"?

THECHAT: "You're against the dress code, then?

I don't see a real reason for it. The only people it affects are the people in the urban world. I don't think it's a bad influence on the NBA for people to wear what they grew up wearing. No chains, and no do-rags? That's my culture. I feel like it's discrimination against people like us. I dress the same way. I wear a chain, I got jewelry on, I got a do-rag, but that don't mean I can't come to the job and conduct myself right. I think people always have those stereotypes [emphasis added]. I think what they did in the NBA is just another form of that. I mean [the code] is not even when they're on the job. When they're on the court, if you want to make them tuck in their jersey, fine. If they want to say your pants can't be sagging below your booty, fine. That I can see."

Obviously Mr Rapper is referring to "people" not like "us", i.e. whites who didn't grow up in the ghetto. At first I agreed. I have "those stereotypes" of rappers and kids who wear their pants around their knees, listen to vulgar rap songs, etc. But a question for all social scientists--are stereotypes evenly distributed? I assume we'd all agree that people have stereotypes, but is "people" just WASP's and upper class types? Or is it everyone except you and me? (A related question is whether there's any difference in harm: are ghetto blacks more harmed by the stereotypes WASP's hold of them, or by those they hold of WASP's?)

I could argue, not having any facts, either way: either everyone, disregarding differences of personality and so forth, has stereotypes to get them through their life; or, the more life people have experienced (i.e., the older, the more widely traveled, the more exposure through reading, etc) the fewer stereotypes; or, the older the more set in their ways and the more stereotypes.

I don't know the answer.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

When Is Anti-War Speech Harmful to the War Effort:

Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy site has had several discussions on anti-war speech and its impact and morality. See The Volokh Conspiracy - When Is Anti-War Speech Harmful to the War Effort:: among others.

I've a number of thoughts. I started to post a comment there, but decided not to cast my pearls before swine but to hide them here. (Actually, I'm too slow a writer to compose comments on this complex a subject, I need the time.)

His recent conceptualization of the issue, as stated here, seems to me to be an example of "tunnel vision".
"I'd like to focus a bit on the broader question of when speech during wartime is harmful to the war effort -- not necessarily when it's immoral, but only when it harms the war effort. To do this, let's first shift the discussion from the war on Iraq to World War II.

What speech (if any) by Americans during World War II do you think would have been harmful to the war effort, even if it weren't deliberately aimed at helping the Nazis win?"
How do I justify my "tunnel" description? The post narrows the issues to helping or hurting the war effort, ignoring (for the sake of discussion) the other benefits and costs of speech in relation to other goals. Implicitly the discussion is devoted to effects on us and our military and our enemy and its combatants, and to the course of the war, not to the longer history of our nation and the world

But societies, as individuals, should be judged not only by what they achieve, but by how they achieve it. The test of morality is not only what you achieve, but how you achieve it. I seem to remember that Athenian democracy was overthrown in the Peloponnesian wars but the founding fathers remembered Athens more than Sparta.

It's an old chestnut, but true: adversity builds character. So too for societies. Taking the easy course would be, as Nixon so often said, wrong. In the 50's there was much argument over the virtues of totalitarian societies versus democracies. Many, such as Whittaker Chambers, believed that a totalitarian society was more efficient and effective than a democracy. Another example--the way we fought WWII was important. Putting Japanese-Americans in camps and dropping the A-bomb might have been important to the war effort, but they were lasting stains on our honor. We may have jailed Copperheads during the Civil War and Eugene Debs in WWI, but we've learned better. The short term gain in cohesion was outweighed by the betrayal of our ideals.

By giving priority to the war effort, one can justify X, where X may be limitation of free speech or war crimes. For example, in the battle of Fallujah, once the military had cordoned off the city and urged all civilians to leave, we could have saved many casualties by using gas. We, the world, have made the judgment that use of gas, even tear gas, in such situations is abhorrent. But when you take a longer and wider perspective you decide that the end does not justify the means.

Writing of "the war effort" implies that there is one effort by one actor--the nation. In another post Volokh talks of "the enemy". But that reification is misleading. We are individuals, as are our enemies. Based on my experience in Vietnam (noncombat), I'd guess this rule is pretty valid: the impact of anti-war speech on DOD employees is inversely proportional to their danger. In other words, as I've said elsewhere, Rep. Murtha didn't have much effect on a Marine rifleman, but he came close to ruining Rumsfeld's day. If you're in danger, your mind is focused on getting through the days. If you're up in the chain of command, you start worrying.

I suspect the same rule applies to the "enemy". The big bosses pay attention to what is going on within the opposite camp, but the peons don't. Didn't Hector know that Achilles was sulking in his tent? But the peons do know what concerns them--is the enemy treating captives well or poorly. Remember in the Civil War that the Confederacy threatened to execute captive black soldiers, leading Lincoln to promise reprisals.

All this may have changed some--given electronic media the ranks of our military and the enemy are more porous and open to new information than before. The spread of these media further empowers the onlookers--those in the Moslem world not actively engaged in insurgency, those in the non-Moslem world who have their own dealings with America and want to know what sort of polity it is, and those who have been friendly in the past who want to know whether we've changed. But that makes it even more important to adhere to our ideals, and to recognize that we define our ideals by the way we act under duress. (Also see Dan Drezner on this issue, as I cited here.)

Of course as always an underlying assumption, not raised in the discussions, is key: just how serious is the insurgency/Iraq unrest/war on terrorism? The pro-Bush conservatives agree with him that it's of life and death importance to the US. I disagree, believing that if you define a continuum between communism in the 1950's vis a vis the US and the IRA in the 1960's vis a vis the Protestants, Moslem terrorism is much closer to the second than the first. The real test of my principles would be whether, if I were the Brits in 1940, would I throw Oswald Moseley into jail?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Big brain means small testes

This article is depressing.
New Scientist Breaking News - Big brain means small testes, finds bat study: "The brainier male bats are, the smaller their testicles, according to a new study. Researchers suggest the correlation exists because both organs require a lot of energy to grow and maintain, leading individual species to find the optimum balance."
It's another reminder that you can't have it all. Or, as the great science fiction writer Heinlein said, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

In Berlin, Every Cheer Casts an Eerie Echo - New York Times

The Times has an interesting article on the renovation/reconstruction of Berlin's Olympic stadium, the one in which Jesse Owens won his medals and Hitler posed. But am I the only one struck by this statement from the architect in charge?

"'What we had to do was to change a people's stadium into a class stadium,' Marg said. 'During Nazi times, there was only one V.I.P. Today, there are several classes of V.I.P.'s.'"

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pearl Harbor Day--American Victory?

I'm too young to remember it, but I do remember writing a college paper on it. I took the view that it was an American victory (an early example of my contrarian nature, if not my idiocy).

To sketch the argument as I recall:

  • on the tactical level, while the Japanese achieved surprise, they attacked old battleships that never contributed to the war anyhow, while missing the carriers and the oil tank farms that were critical to American success
  • on the strategic level, they (with Hitler's help, as he declared war on us when we declared war on Japan) solved FDR's dilemma of how to bring a reasonably united U.S. into the war on Britain's side. (Churchill said he rejoiced at the attack and slept soundly that night comfortable that he was now on the winning side.)
Pearl Harbor was thus a key step in the eventual conquest of the Axis and therefore a victory.

I still think my logic holds up. And I'd say it's a caution against the easy talk of "winning" and "losing" wars. You can never be sure how history is going to work out.

Bad Day at Cloudcroft

Today was a bad day. We have two cats, Carrie and Ginny, who both find going to the vets very traumatic. Over the years we've learned that it's less traumatic for the humans if we take both cats on the same day. Of course, our cats have learned as well (if they couldn't learn, they couldn't train us so well). So when Carrie sees the two carriers out, and both her people bustling around, and feels the tension in the air she heads for cover, i.e., under the biggest bed she can find. And when Ginny sees Carrie being grabbed, she heads for cover too.

In the car, Carrie carries on with an unending series of meows, ranging from yeowels to just the emphatic MMeeoowWW in her robust mezzo soprano voice. Ginny adds high notes, meoow, judiciously interspersed in her smaller soprano.

Carrie usually totally disgraces herself at the vets, with discharges from all orifices, drooling and the rest. Today was better though--drooling from both sides of her mouth was all she did.

Both cats have gained weight over the last year, after being reasonably steady for several years. I guess that says something about their humans, as does the guilt we feel at inflicting the suffering and humiliation on them. It also says something about humans, and cats, to reflect that while they learn and feel and suffer, they show no signs of bearing grudges, unlike humans.

Applebaum on "Winning"

For those who disagree with Howard Dean and think we can win the "war", Anne Applebaum has a good column, It's Not Whether You 'Win' or 'Lose' . . . in today's Post:
"But what if all of this vocabulary -- winning, losing, victory, defeat -- is simply misplaced? There are, after all, wars that are not actually won or lost. There are wars that achieve some of their goals, that result only in partial solutions and that leave much business unfinished. There are wars that do not end with helicopters evacuating Americans from the embassy roof but that do not produce a victorious march into Berlin, either. There are wars that end ambivalently -- wars, for example, such as the one we fought in Korea."
She points out that war results in both bad and good, using Korea as a parallel. I'd quibble some.
I put "war" in quotes, because it's not clear that we're in a war, or at least what war we're fighting. Apparently the Pentagon isn't sure who we're fighting in Iraq--is it Rummy's "bitter-enders", or "foreign terrorists", the Sunnis, or anyone who uses terror to advance their cause? Is Iraq the "whole war", or just a front in a bigger war? Was the British Army in a "war" with IRA terrorists in Northern Ireland from 1968 on? Did they "win" it? I don't think so. They didn't lose and the parties (at least most of them) finally got exhausted enough at the violence that they were willing to negotiate. It's sort of like a parent-child conflict--neither one wins but time changes the terms. So too in Iraq. Whether the parties will exhaust themselves and work out their future better and faster if we stay than if we go is anyone's guess, and that's about all it is--a guess.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Dreams and Reality--The Fate of Restaurants

Every day I run I go past the Ariake restaurant.

I've seen the progress of the renovations of what used to be a McDonalds, before that a Popeyes, before that something else. The site seems like it should be ideal for a restaurant of some sort. It's across from the entrance to the Hunter's Woods Plaza (strip shopping), located on and near main Reston roads. But the site's never been overwhelmingly successful, as witness the changes over the years. It sat vacant for maybe 2-3 years before new owners got it, and started their changes.

My guess is that they are novices. Why--because work started on the building, then was halted for a long while. When it resumed, building permits for renovations were posted on the windows, so I'm guessing they started work without getting all the bureaucratic permits. From the outside (never been inside), they've done a good job. Merrifield Gardens redid the grounds to provide a water feature and plantings that feel Japanese; they put down slate tiles outside for the outside seating area. The inside was redone as well.

As the review says, they opened in the spring. Googling them, they've had a couple reviews and a couple of organizations meeting there. But I'd fault their outreach. The Chinese restaurant in Fox Mill regularly mails their menu out to the homes in the area, including a buy one, get one free offer. The Ariake hasn't done that; they don't even post a menu in the window. Neither my wife nor I are that familiar with Japanese cuisine, so we need a little impetus to cross the threshold. It's too bad, because if the food matches the care taken with the building it's good.

But many restaurants start and fail for each one that succeeds in becoming a neighborhood fixture.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Jesse Helms the Best Friend of the UN?

Ruth Wedgwood, a conservative foreign policy expert, opines in today's Times about the failure of the UN to reform. This is the most recent news on the issue, following up on the Volker report, the impending removal of the UN's expert on running elections, and the reinstatement of one of the people who screwed up the oil for food program because of bureaucratic process. (If I were a good blogger, I'd have links for each of these, but I don't--you'll just have to trust me.)

Question: remember Jesse Helms, the antediluvian chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee? Madeline Albright and Richard Holbrooke spent much effort seducing him into paying our UN dues, at least in part. But maybe he was the best friend the UN had.

Liberals like me automatically support anything that someone like Helms opposes. So his opposition to the UN over the recent past insulated the UN from criticism from the left. Now that he's gone, I'm thinking there's something to the conservatives' case against the UN. I know there's problems in our own bureaucracy, which is subject to controls by political forces. When Bush I's FEMA screws up in Florida, Clinton comes in and fixes the problem. Bush II screws it up again, but at least we had an effective agency for a while. As far as I can see there's nothing similar in the UN--it's all "who you know", mutual backscratching and logrolling, and quota system. There are times and institutions where expertise and selection from within can work well. But those cases are relatively few.

Liberals believe in multinational institutions and are skeptical of nationalism. But we need to be sure the multinationals are effective.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Murtha and Duke

In the past week or so, two Vietnam vets have made the headlines: Rep. Murtha of PA has come out against Bush's strategy in Iraq and Rep. Cunningham of CA has pled guilty to felonies.

Cunningham was a conservative Republican, Murtha is a Democrat of the old-line socially conservative, economically liberal kind. Meanwhile anti-war liberals have been busily tweaking Republicans like Cheney for being "chicken hawks" just as conservatives have been trying to tar liberals for being soft on terrorism.

Speaking as a draftee who despised officers, it would be nice to forget such approaches. Experience in war gives no warranty for views; truth is independent of the background of the speaker. Hitler was a decorated WWI veteran, Lincoln had a couple weeks in the militia, and Christ, as far as we know, never served in the Roman legions. It may be emotionally satisfying to contrast Cheney's hawkish views with his Clinton-like background, but nothing more.

Arguments on all sides have to be confronted on their merits (if any), not through emotion based on military experience, or lack thereof.