Saturday, February 17, 2007

From Barack Obama to haiku synopsis of Hersh Iran story in just a few bloggy steps

An example of the butterfly effect, otherwise known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions?

Two black political leaders in South Carolina took a swipe at Barack Obama earlier in the week while throwing their support to Hillary in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
State Sens. Robert Ford and Darrell Jackson told The Associated Press they believe Clinton is the only Democrat who can win the presidency. Both said they had been courted by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama; Ford said Obama winning the primary would drag down the rest of the party.

"Then everybody else on the ballot is doomed," Ford said. "Every Democratic candidate running on that ticket would lose because he's black and he's at the top of the ticket -- we'd lose the House, the Senate and the governors and everything."
If they hadn't bashed Barack, Matt Yglesias wouldn't have written this post about the Clinton camp apparently using black surrogates to attack Barack, and how it seemingly backfired. I would not have read the comment by Thomas Pynchon-character-set-loose-on-the-real-world Tyrone Slothrop, would not have gone to his blog All Intensive Purposes, would not have checked Technorati to see what blogs link to it, and I would not have found the amusingly obsessed I Hate the New Yorker and its short but excellent blogroll of other blogs concerned with the New Yorker. I would not have clicked on the intriguingly titled Drunken Volcano and found it to be a blog that in its brief but meteoric flight through the blogosphere consisted entirely of haiku that summarized New Yorker articles in precisely 17 syllables, and I would never have clicked on the very first post, which provided these concise synopses, among others.
Annals of National Security: Watching Lebanon
By Seymour M. Hersh

Israel provides
Great test for "bomb Iran" plan.
(Hmm, maybe needs work?)

Letter From New Orleans: The Lost Year
By Dan Baum

Things are better now.
Before, waited for promised help;
Now, know not to wait.

Books: The philosopher Stoned
By Adam Kirsch

Walter Benjamin:
Stayed clear thinker on hashish,
Less so Marxism.
It would have been a shame to miss all that. So here's a big "thank you" to everyone who helped make it possible, beginning with Hillary's people, and perhaps even Hillary herself.

Friday, February 16, 2007

In hands of CentCom, PowerPoint doesn't do war planning any better than it does rocket science


What is it about PowerPoint presentations? Is it the cryptic bullet points that fog the mind and stop rational thought dead in its tracks? The confusing graphic style made up of what Edward Tufte calls "chartjunk"? The look of meaningful discourse without any real substance, which facilitates groupthink and leaves dissenters without a handhold?

Because PowerPoint discourages clear articulation of ideas in favor of fuzzy summaries and factoids, it tends to drive groups toward a mediocre, intellectually impoverished consensus. PowerPoint is dangerous precisely to the extent that it mimics the form of rational discourse without its substance. This slide, from a 2002 CentCom briefing to the White House and Donald Rumsfeld, is a case in point.

And when the presentation was made public this week under the Freedom of Information Act, it also made some grim headlines: "A Prewar Slide Show Cast Iraq in Rosy Hues" (NYT); "'Delusional' Iraq plans envisaged only 5,000 troops by now, group says" (CNN); "Iraq invasion plan 'delusional'" (BBC News). The 2002 Iraq planning PowerPoint slides were obtained by The National Security Archive, posted on their website and summarized by Executive Director Thomas Blanton. "Completely unrealistic assumptions about a post-Saddam Iraq permeate these war plans," said National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton.
"First, they assumed that a provisional government would be in place by 'D-Day', then that the Iraqis would stay in their garrisons and be reliable partners, and finally that the post-hostilities phase would be a matter of mere 'months'. All of these were delusions."
The National Security Archive quotes from Fiasco author Thomas Ricks.
Lt. Gen. McKiernan later told Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks (Fiasco, p. 75):
"It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense... In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides... [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."
Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich told Ricks (Fiasco, pp. 75-76) that PowerPoint war planning was the ultimate insult:
"Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's [Office of Secretary of Defense] contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology -- above all information technology -- has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war. To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness."
Edward Tufte's famous essay, "PowerPoint Does Rocket Science," makes a strong case that the cognitive style of PowerPoint contributed to the failure to properly diagnosis what was wrong with space shuttle Columbia before its disastrous reentry. PowerPoint in the hands of Rumsfeld's military technocrats seems to have had an equally stupefying effect on rational thought.

Richardson emerging as credible alternative?

The race for the Democratic nomination sometimes seems to be "all Senators, all the time." The only governor with a long resume in government who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He's also the only Hispanic candidate. Although Richardson has been mired in the "second tier" behind front runners Clinton, Obama and Edwards, Chris Bowers has an interesting post in MyDD on how Richardson seems to be moving up to a solid fourth place in the polls and other signs of support. Among his advantages -- no one really dislikes him.
When I conducted a deeper analysis of a MyDD straw poll last year, among current candidates Richardson actually had the fewest last place votes. He might not be the top choice of too many people right now, but no one seems to dislike him. With a very long primary season ahead of us, and the possibility of burn-out taking place when it comes to the virtually over-exposed "top-tier," having no one dislike you could be an important way to start building support. Who knows--in a few months, Richardson could very well emerge as a fresh faced, new top tier contender. I am not saying it will definitely happen, but the possibility certainly seems to be there.
It's certainly not hard to imagine scenarios in which all three current front runners either stumble on their own or are pushed into a stumble by their rivals. A year before the race really begins, it seems Hillary's to lose -- but front-runners often do fail to make it to the finish line. Obama might not be able to shed the inexperience label. Edwards might not get the traction he needs to close the gap. Looks as if Gov. Richardson will be ready to try to pick up the pieces.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

CIA blog tackles trans fat and foie gras bans and worries about Big Brother

The CIA blogging about the dangers of Big Brother? In what universe? But it's true: The CIA's own blog, Insight from the Inside, took on proposed trans fat and foie gras bans in a post titled "Trans Fat Ban in NYC, Foie Gras Ban in Chicago - Is Big Brother Watching?"

It all makes a little more sense when you realize that the CIA blog in question is written by the students, faculty and alumni of the Culinary Institute of America, the famous institution of higher learning for the future chefs of America.

The post gives some background on the issues and quotes some student reaction. It also presents the results of an informal poll of 100 students.
On the subject of foie gras, most students felt it was not a health issue, but rather a moral one. One said, "Foie gras is flat out animal cruelty." Another felt PETA should find larger issues to address.

[...]

42% For the trans fats ban in NYC.
58% Against the trans fats ban in NYC.
35% For the foie gras ban in Chicago.
65% Against the foie gras ban in Chicago.
29% Think the government should have more controls in what restaurants serve to the public.
71% Think the government should not have more controls in what restaurants serve to the public.
96% Think obesity is a serious problem in this country.
4% Think obesity is not a serious problem in this country.
60% Want more governmental efforts in controlling obesity in this country.
40% Would not want more governmental efforts in controlling obesity in this country.
In the words of Insight from the Inside, "This is what the industry leaders of tomorrow think…"

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

For Valentine's Day, postmodern Druids devise new, seasonal variation on the old office Christmas tree

Does your office have a Valentine tree? We have a number of them, in different departments. Just few years ago, we had none at all.

I noticed the first one several years ago. At a quick glance, it looked like a Christmas tree someone had forgotten to pack away, at the end of a long corridor cutting through long rows of identical gray cubicles. I wondered idly as I walked by on my way out of the building after work why this one department hadn't been able to get it together enough to pack up their Christmas decorations, when everyone else had.

But soon I realized that wasn't a Christmas tree at all. Somewhere between December and mid-February, it had morphed into a Valentine tree, given a seasonal sprucing up by postmodern office Druids. Up close, it had an unexpected, goofy homemade charm. A big red construction paper heart topped the tree, and in addition to the LED lights, smaller red hearts, ribbons galore and miniature cupids graced the artificial boughs. The metamorphoses continued throughout the year. An Easter tree soon followed, and after that there were other themes to mark the passing seasons: Memorial Day (a smiling yellow sun on top, wearing shades), Fourth of July, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and back to Christmas. It's gotten to be a real thing now, and other departments have joined in.

Seems to be part of a larger trend, judging from stories in the news media and tips on the web like the following:
Be creative and nontraditional. There are lots of heart-shaped items that can be hung on a tree. Inexpensive pendants, little pillows, foil-wrapped candies, children's costume jewelry, and homemade decorations can all find a place on your display. Sew or glue a loop of ribbon on the item and hang it.
That's from "How to Decorate a Valentine Tree," and you'll find a lot more tips at the link. And if you want to track the tree at one workplace through the entire year, check out the holiday tree page at the Purdue Physics Theory Office website.

Not sure what's behind this move toward year-round holiday trees in the office. Safe artificial trees with LED lights probably have something to do with it. They're hard for facility managers to attack as fire hazards. And once you've got an artificial tree up, it's not going to shed -- why not hang different things on it as the year goes by? The increasing commercialization of all our holidays probably plays a role as well. Holidays are just another marketing opportunity, and if people are going to buy seasonal decorations, they have to put them somewhere. At the same time, these modern Druids don't seem to take themselves too seriously, and the ironic touch this gives their trees qualifies them for the postmodern tag.

Mostly, however, the trend simply seems to be one more way people are trying to fight the deadly boredom of modern corporate life. A nation of Dilberts, with nothing to lose but their trees.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Banning the absurd practice of patenting genes found in nature, including the human ones

Imagine that, after making a thorough study of snow, you were able to get a patent on its structure. You would really love winter, when the big snowstorms sweep through the West and Midwest and huge snowdrifts pile up in New York from the lake effect storms. Year after year, anyone removing snow would be making use of the physical properties of the white stuff that you patented. They would have to license the technology from you, and you would be one very rich meteorological entrepreneur.

Sound absurd? Of course -- but not much more so than the patenting of human genes, which are not human inventions, after all, but features of the natural world. Author Michael Crichton who comes off like a true member of the lunatic fringe when debunking global warming. But even Crichton can be right sometimes. He's on solid ground when he addresses this absurdity in the NYT.
You, or someone you love, may die because of a gene patent that should never have been granted in the first place. Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately, it’s only too real.

Gene patents are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from you and your doctor. Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases. And they raise costs exorbitantly: a test for breast cancer that could be done for $1,000 now costs $3,000.

Why? Because the holder of the gene patent can charge whatever he wants, and does. Couldn’t somebody make a cheaper test? Sure, but the patent holder blocks any competitor’s test. He owns the gene. Nobody else can test for it. In fact, you can’t even donate your own breast cancer gene to another scientist without permission. The gene may exist in your body, but it’s now private property.
Everybody is trying to fence in and protect their intellectual property these days. But this isn't a fence, it's a brick wall -- sealing off the border between sense and nonsense, and trapping us all on the other side. How did it ever get put up?
This bizarre situation has come to pass because of a mistake by an underfinanced and understaffed government agency. The United States Patent Office misinterpreted previous Supreme Court rulings and some years ago began — to the surprise of everyone, including scientists decoding the genome — to issue patents on genes.

Humans share mostly the same genes. The same genes are found in other animals as well. Our genetic makeup represents the common heritage of all life on earth. You can’t patent snow, eagles or gravity, and you shouldn’t be able to patent genes, either. Yet by now one-fifth of the genes in your body are privately owned.

The results have been disastrous. Ordinarily, we imagine patents promote innovation, but that’s because most patents are granted for human inventions. Genes aren’t human inventions, they are features of the natural world. As a result these patents can be used to block innovation, and hurt patient care.
Crichton notes that Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) and Dave Weldon (R-FL) have introduced the Genomic Research and Accessibility Act to ban the practice of patenting genes found in nature. Becerra says the bill does not hamper invention, but rather promotes it. There's more information on Becerra's website. While the bill is not retroactive and does not roll back any existing patents, it would stop the practice in the future, and would result in a patent-free genome after the current patents expire 20 years from when they were issued.

Is the U.S. just too big for its own good?

That's what Gar Alperovitz asks in a NYT Op-Ed, suggesting that the sheer size of the country's 300-million-plus population favors rule by undemocratic elites.
A recent study by the economists Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts demonstrates that the bigger the nation, the harder it becomes for the government to meet the needs of its dispersed population. Regions that don’t feel well served by the government’s distribution of goods and services then have an incentive to take independent action, the economists note.

Scale also determines who has privileged access to the country’s news media and who can shape its political discourse. In very large nations, television and other forms of political communication are extremely costly. President Bush alone spent $345 million in his 2004 election campaign. This gives added leverage to elites, who have better corporate connections and greater resources than non-elites. The priorities of those elites often differ from state and regional priorities.

James Madison, the architect of the United States Constitution, understood these problems all too well. Madison is usually viewed as favoring constructing the nation on a large scale. What he urged, in fact, was that a nation of reasonable size had advantages over a very small one. But writing to Jefferson at a time when the population of the United States was a mere four million, Madison expressed concern that if the nation grew too big, elites at the center would divide and conquer a widely dispersed population, producing “tyranny.”
One thing that huge, centralized governments tend to favor is the buildup of vast military power, used all too often to intervene in the affairs of other nations.
Decades before President Bush decided to teach Iraq a lesson, George F. Kennan worried that what he called our “monster country” would, through the “hubris of inordinate size,” inevitably become a menace, intervening all too often in other nations’ affairs: “There is a real question as to whether ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.”
Click here to read the entire piece and see why Alperovitz sees California as possibly leading the way to a reversal of this trend via devolution of political power to regional entities.

Monday, February 12, 2007

NYT does Annie Leibovitz without Annie Leibovitz

The cover story of yesterday's Sunday NYT Magazine was a portfolio of photographs of 22 of the year's great performers. You'd think Oscar time was approaching. Photographing celebrities is tricky territory, and these days it's owned by Annie Leibovitz. But the Times worked with a selection of 10 different photographers, none of them named Leibovitz.
It was not a standout year for filmmaking, but the acting in 2006 was consistently intriguing and often thrilling. In our annual photographic portfolio, the magazine has never tried to guess which actors will win awards but rather to praise performances that moved, distressed, enlivened and, finally, amazed us. We are saluting 22 of those remarkable characters: from Helen Mirren, whose subtly layered portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II both humanized a seemingly cold matriarch and revealed the complicated nature of duty in shifting times, to Sacha Baron Cohen, whose brilliant, seamless portrayal of Borat was simultaneously hilarious and shocking, to the lesser known Abbie Cornish, who was heartbreaking in “Somersault,” an Australian coming-of-age film that played in American theaters for only a few weeks. This was also the year that Penélope Cruz showed off her range as an actress in “Volver,” Forest Whitaker exploded as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” and Ivana Baquero, who is 12, deftly balanced the fantastical and the violent in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
The story has a link to an online slideshow of the photos. They're OK, but you can see why it's Annie Leibovitz who gets the really big bucks.

Hustle opportunities

Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan on how the Badgers -- who couldn't get the ball to drop in the first half -- overcame a 4-point halftime deficit against Iowa through aggressive rebounding and went on to defeat the Hawkeyes, 74-62, at a sold-out Kohl Center in Madison.
"Hustle opportunities," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "They're there for anybody to get it, if they keep the right position and keep working hard. People always say, 'Well the ball doesn't bounce our way.' But in life, I mean what are you going to do, wait for things to come to you? So we just treat an offensive rebound as grabbing life by the horns and riding it. Our guys got some of those."
"Grabbing life by the horns" -- here's hoping they hold on and keep riding it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The dregs of winter in Madison


The spirit-destroying part of winter. The weeklong subzero wind chill is finally gone, but there's still a deep chill in the air. Remnants of Christmas and other wintery detritus are poking up through snow as dirty as the low, gray sky. Everything moves slowly. Entropy rules. Thought bogs down in molasses and comes to a virtual standstill.

From The Letters, Emily Dickinson, early December 1852, quoted by John Latta in Isola di Rifiuti:
I regret to inform you that at 3. oclock yesterday, my mind came to a stand, and has since then been stationary.

Ere this intelligence reaches you, I shall probably be a snail.
Not quite a snail yet, but getting there.

Pentagon blames Iran for U.S. casualties in Iraq, aided by voice activated recorder, etc.

It's been a busy weekend for mostly unnamed sources pointing the finger at Iran, blaming them for many of the U.S. casualties in Iraq. It would probably be enough to make the entire country want to lash out at the Iranians, but the country has been through these strangely sourced stories before. Especially during the runup to the Iraq war, and we know how reliable those were.

The alarm fest was kicked off by the NYT's Michael Gordon Saturday in a story titled "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says."
In interviews, civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies provided specific details to support what until now has been a more generally worded claim, in a new National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran is providing “lethal support” to Shiite militants in Iraq.

The focus of American concern is known as an “explosively formed penetrator,” a particularly deadly type of roadside bomb being used by Shiite groups in attacks on American troops in Iraq. Attacks using the device have doubled in the past year, and have prompted increasing concern among military officers. In the last three months of 2006, attacks using the weapons accounted for a significant portion of Americans killed and wounded in Iraq, though less than a quarter of the total, military officials say.
Before we really had time to absorb the full impact of this revelation, blogger Jonathan Schwarz quoted Times editors to the effect that that "Michael Gordon" is not an actual human being at all, but a voice activated tape recorder that the Times purchased at a 43rd Street Radio Shack for $27.95, which accounts for his uncanny, unquestioning transcription of anonymous sources with an agenda.
Keller described how he and Abramson "really had a good laugh" while editing the Iran story, which is based on the following sourcing:
U.S. Says...United States intelligence asserts...reflects broad agreement among American intelligence agencies...civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies provided...military officials say...The officials said...The assessment was described in interviews over the past several weeks with American officials...Administration officials said...according to the intelligence...According to American intelligence...Some American intelligence experts believe...they assert...notes a still-classified American intelligence report...a senior administration official said...according to Western officials...Officials said...An American intelligence assessment described to The New York Times said...Other officials believe...American military officers say...American officials say...According to American intelligence agencies...Assessments by American intelligence agencies say...Marine officials say...American intelligence agencies are concerned...Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.
"You can't deny that's funny," said Keller, adding that the lack of skepticism displayed by Gordon was "literally inhuman." Keller and Abramson asserted that the Iran article is "even more hilarious" than Gordon's 2002 stories on Iraq's purported nuclear program, written with Judith Miller.
With the robot reporter's credentials under fire, the NYT's James Glanz was forced to step up the next day and put numbers on the robot reporter's reporting, again quoting anonymous sources who put the number at "more than 170 dead and 620 wounded."
Never before displayed in public, the canister, called an explosively formed penetrator, or E.F.P., arrives in Iraq in what the officials described as a “kit” containing high-grade metals and highly machined parts, like a strangely shaped, concave lid that folds into the ball while hurtling toward its target.

The officials, who insisted on anonymity as a condition of the briefing, also disclosed that since June 2004, when the first member of the American-led forces here was killed by an E.F.P., the toll had reached more than 170 dead and 620 wounded. The pace of the attacks with those weapons nearly doubled in 2006 compared with the previous year and a half, the officials said.
So is James Glanz also a robot? Or is this only another part of what Newsweek calls "The Hidden War with Iran," with Glanz serving as just another willing and uncritical cheerleader?

2/13 UPDATE:Strange how the writing on the "Iranian" bomb devices is in English, when the Iranians usually use Farsi. Cernig dissects this and other anomalies, including the fact that Gen. Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters he was not aware of the briefing and didn't back its claims. (Via Avedon)

Just browsing -- in book mindspace

Maureen Dowd writes of being assaulted by pink at Borders. Chick lit everywhere! World going to hell in a handbasket!
I was cruising through Borders, looking for a copy of “Nostromo.”

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine’s Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys’ club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Actually, judging by my recent visits to Borders, it probably was a Valentine's Day special. Dowd apparently upgraded a seasonal marketing display to the status of a broader trend. Things generally aren't quite that bad.

But Dowd's focus on how books are displayed did remind me of the importance of browsing in helping us find books we don't even know we are looking for and in helping to keep alive the very idea of a book culture. An online bookstore like Amazon or some ideal print-on-demand (POD) database might have millions of titles in it. But you'll never see them unless you request a specific title or author. Most of those millions of titles, while theoretically expanding your range of choices, are invisible to you -- out of sight, out of mind. You can't read a book if you don't know it exists.

I was reminded of what Teresa at Making Light called "book mindspace" in a post about "the life expectancies of books."
Every book cover is an advertisement—for itself, for other books like itself, for the whole idea of literature; but mostly for itself. If it ceases to be displayed in places where people look at book covers, that’s a different kind of out of print. There’s only so much display space: a sort of collective physical mindspace.

(Incidentally: the loss of wire racks? A significant change in our culture. The chattering classes haven’t noticed it because they all go to bookstores. Books are still selling very well, but we’ve lost a lot of that collective display space that was an ongoing advertisement for the joys of literacy.)

POD technology can provide a copy of a book that you want, but it’s simply not the same thing as that larger and far more complex technology whereby a book finds new readers. The latter involves a sort of collective consciousness that the book exists. Historically we’ve instantiated that consciousness in a lot of ways: reviews, reading lists, library shelves, shop windows, book clubs, wire rack and bookstore displays, etc. New instantiations are evolving on the net.

No one knows all there is to know about the physics and geography of book-mindspace. There’ve always been people who’ve been intensely knowledgeable and familiar with the current physical forms and patterns of book-mindspace. What we’ll make of it electronically will be interesting to see.

I’m confident of one thing: the number of books we can hold suspended in book-mindspace will be smaller than the number of books whose text is stored in POD databases, ready to be printed out.
The future of book mindspace will partly be shaped by how Google Book Search and similar experiments develop. We're seeing the evolution of something completely new in the world of books -- something that Jeffrey Toobin's recent article about Google Book Search in the New Yorker referred to as the quest for a universal library. The ambition to scan all the books that exist today, along with virtually all the books that ever existed, and to make them searchable on the internet, while slowed by legal obstacles today, will eventually be realized. What effect will this have on book mindspace?

Depending on the infrastructure that's built around this capability, it might evolve into a vast expansion of book mindspace commensurate with the size of this virtual "universal library," making it possible for people to come in contact with a much larger range of physical books than they do today.

Or it might evolve in an altogether different direction -- one in which books gradually become absorbed into the nervous system of the internet and over time cease to have a discrete physical existence as books in the form we know them, instead becoming one almost infinite bitstream to search, snip and sample at will -- a different kind of book mindspace altogether.