Thursday, April 30, 2009


The more I use iTunes, the more I miss WinAmp.

I'm on my second iPod, which I purchased to increase my portable capacity. My library is significant (I passed 500 CDs years ago), and laptops are not practical to store so many music files, so I've relocated my music to a NAS. Relocating those files means adjusting the defaults for iTunes so it can find the data.

This is very manageable - for each specific version of iTunes. Upgrading, though, produces all sorts of chaos.

For some reason, every time I upgrade iTunes, the new installation loses all the marker information, including album artwork. It isn't readily apparent until I start downloading new data: new purchases, new imported CDs, new podcasts. At that point, the upgraded software begins storing these new files in the application's default location, and loses track of the NAS-housed data.

I can reconfigure the software to find the files on the NAS with little difficulty. But peripheral data, specifically the album art, is a far different story. It's not clear how iTunes stores this data, but every upgrade has lost something, and the latest one (to v8.1) lost about half my album covers. There's no apparent pattern, and whether the data was found through iTunes and the store or uploaded manually seems to make no difference. Worse, some albums downloaded from iTunes itself lose artwork, again with no apparent explanation. This is true from (and here one gets a glimpse of my library) a-ha through Yes, and varies without predictability: some Asia albums retained their artwork and some did not, and artists as current as Amber and as esoteric as the Wien Volksoper lost artwork while others did not. Some - including some very popular artists - had the correct artwork actually replaced by iTunes with completely unrelated material: iTunes really ought to know the difference between Wilson Phillips and Nathan Phillips, but at least with this upgrade did not.

I've always respected Apple as a desktop platform, and the iPod and iPhone seem like highly effective gadgets as well. But this regular data loss, however insignificant to the actual music files, is disturbing. A software publisher such as Apple should be able to manage upgrades without data loss of any kind. Further, regardless of the current availability of a product through iTunes, items purchased through Apple should be able to be maintained without having to go through these gyrations with each software update.

I've spent a good portion of the morning on Amazon and Discogs digging up replacement artwork - much of it either already uploaded to iTunes or obtained from Apple with the particular albums. Resync has only been partially successful: despite specifying artwork for an entire album, in at least two instances only some of the tracks display properly.

I've researched this on Apple's Website and found nothing. Apparently Apple doesn't see a need to provide support for functionality it clearly considers as secondary (despite having made considerable noise when the 4G iPod was released about this particular function). I'm still looking in outside sources for more information.

It's true that other music file management applications have similar features. And it's true that iTunes wasn't tailored for the audiophile, and some of its controls are less than ideal. But it is a useful tool for managing an iPod, and once a version is configured properly it's pretty stable. But upgrading iTunes presents far more difficulty than others - and here I'm thinking of WinAmp in particular - whose functions, while not completely iPod-compatible, were at least carried over in whole from version to version and required very little in the way of reconstruction of the database to resume normal operations.

If anyone from Apple is reading this, I would say that anyone familiar with databases would be most unhappy with iTunes in this respect - and that the lack of thought put into the product regarding management of secondary data and file location specification calls into question Apple's other database applications.

Excuse me while I go dig up some more graphics for the other items still without pretty pictures.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Somehow Strangely Appropriate

From ThinkProgress:
The AP reports that Fox has decided to stick with its regular line-up on Wednesday, meaning it won't air President Obama's prime-time news conference marking his 100th day in office. Instead, viewers will see an episode of "Lie to Me." ABC, CBS, and NBC will be airing the press conference.
Hmmm. Press conference or "Lie to Me." That's some choice. Thanks, Fox, for showing us both your position and your intention all in one place.

A Dream Deferred

Carl over at The Reaction has put up a very thought-provoking piece about the steps the Obama administration and Congressional leaders are taking to advance a progressive agenda. He's concerned - and with reason.
It's a radical departure from congressional precedent, in which budget rules have been designed and used to reduce deficits, not expand the size of government. And it promises bitter divisiveness under an administration that has made repeated promises to reach across the partisan divide.
For my part, I see the move as something rather different, and dangerous in its own way.

One of my longest-held political principles is that a budget process that can be balanced over time is critical tot the stability of any government. Keynes spoke to this eloquently: when the economy is weak, the government must spend to stimulate production, but when the economy is strong, the government must recoup those expenditures as preparation for the next downturn. Economists following Keynes, and economic policymakers, have made ample use of the first half of the principle. They have, however, conveniently forgotten the second.

Congress has presented multiple pieces of legislation to require the federal budget be balanced as a matter of practice. The amendments offered, however, were to require a balanced budget every year. This, if Keynes is correct, is not only impossible but massively unwise as it prevents the federal government from taking action to stimulate a faltering economy even as it likewise prevents the same government from recouping those losses and posting a net gain during times of prosperity. Balanced budgets under these conditions would enshrine a certain amount of debt: any obligation outstanding would necessarily be retained as a sort of credit line that once paid off could never be incurred again, preventing its closure just as the interest paid on it would become - as has become the de facto case - merely the cost of governance.

The GOP showed its hand in the 90s, demanding a balanced budget. It was no doubt to their chagrin that the Clinton administration, buoyed by a thriving tech sector, was able to oblige. However, the taxation required to maintain the progression was successfully presented as an excessive burden. Whether this was an ideological position, or merely maneuvering to sabotage the economic success of the Clinton years, is not clear. What is clear is that the Bush administration lost no time revising the tax code, sabotaging the balanced budget effort even as they made the burden less on the higher economic echelons of society.

I will freely admit that I have never had a particularly high opinion of the Bush presidency. There are many reasons for this, the brutality of the GWoT and radical rewriting of public ethics being chief in my complaints. However, the effective nuking of the federal budget is not far behind. Bush's policies did little to diminish the size of government except in areas of particular interest to the most radical of the administration's supporters. Reduced taxes placed an excessive burden on the existing infrastructure. And the various efforts of the GWoT squandered what little was left, leaving the US massively in debt and all hope of a short path to a balanced budget and reduced federal obligation in the dust.

This is the fiscal mess that Obama has inherited along with the economic collapse. Abandoning the irresponsible tax cuts of the Bush administration would in ordinary times be a responsible measure aimed at balancing the budget. Under the present circumstances, however, a balanced budget is as realistic as flying to the moon on a contraption built of string and sealing wax. The shattered economy combined with the enormous costs of occupation of two foreign lands make any attempt to balance the federal budget in the near future suicidal at best.

In turn, the radically increasing costs of healthcare in the US present the most likely source of bankruptcy, both private and public. Healthcare costs are increasing at multiples of inflation just as the average salary is shrinking and as employment is falling faster than the GOP's polling numbers. Social Security may not be an issue for many years yet, but Medicare is fast approaching a critical point where, between the needs of an aging population and the skyrocketing costs of preserving that population's health, it will be unable to meet the need.

Indeed, the pressures of keeping healthy under the US system are becoming so bad that medical tourism is fast becoming the avenue of choice for anyone facing major medical procedures. Walking with Ghosts has a fascinating projection on how many US citizens are projected to seek medical care overseas, not merely for the sake of the novelty of travel involved but also to save considerable expense. Should this trend progress much further, as the costs of healthcare abroad present an increasingly small fraction of the costs of the same care in the US, the healthcare system will either fail utterly - a tragedy for any nation - or outsource such procedures as a matter of course - which would deprive the US of major healthcare talent and needed tax revenue, producing a like result.

Under these circumstances, substantial review of US healthcare policy is not just a necessity but a mandate.

The recent step taken by the Congress - to include a new healthcare bill in the current budget legislation as part of the reconciliation process - is therefore most necessary, particularly if the long-term health of the US economy and the federal budget are to be maintained along with the long-term health of the US citizenry.

Carl's suggestion, that this is a less-than-usual method of handling such legislation, and that this is a substantial effort on the part of the federal government, is well taken. And were there a rational opposition party in place to advocate for a more appropriate or effective solution it would have substantial weight.

Unfortunately, the current crop of GOP congresspeople seem committed to opposing the Obama administration, and the Democratic majority in Congress, on every initiative and proposition. The level of spite and malice involved in their unthinking nay-saying is palpable. One need look no further than the initial budget debate to see proof: in response to a dense, carefully calculated budget proposed by the Democrats, the Republicans produced a couple dozen pages of theoretical waffle with not one single quantifiable alternative proposal to present. The recent kerfluffle with Somali pirates is equally indicative: no action taken, deferred or prevented has been met with anything but derision, and many condemnations overtly contradict the others. The GOP has indeed become the Party of No, squealing like a small child who has just discovered its new favorite word and ignorant of the meaning or consequences of its use.

Faced with circumstances like these, and able to present a majority government in both branches tasked with enacting legislation, the Democratic party has little choice but to use the methods available to it. If that means bypassing the irrationality presented by the opposition, then that is obviously what must be done to achieve progress.

I know too little of the new healthcare initiative to comment intelligently on it at this time. However, I know more than enough of the current system to say with conviction that it is well and truly broken, perhaps irrevocably. If healthcare is to remain a resource available to the citizens of the US it must be rethought substantially, and rethought soon. Should this new programme be at all productive I believe it worth the risks. And swelling the federal bureaucracy to achieve that, after the lessons of the last twenty years, is far more easily remedied than might be thought: the only uncertainties are in how that reduction would be accomplished and whether the resultant costs are worth preserving the small-government ideal.

UPDATE: As to the "radical departure from congressional precedent" Carl mentions, ThinkProgress has an effective rebuttal.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I've Become A Reactionary

The team at The Reaction have invited me to join their group as a co-'blogger.

I'm delighted to join their group of thoughtful, articulate writers.

Thanks, folks.

On Oil and The Recession

Almost as footnote to my earlier post "Green or Not," The Atlantic dished this little item up a few days ago.

In it, Derek Thompson reviews a Brookings Institution paper written by James Hamilton forecasting a drastic market downturn should oil prices spike, and compares the forecast with the last two years when oil prices did spike.
Hamilton went back to 2003, when crude oil was around $30 a gallon and forecast what an oil shock like the one we experienced in 2007-08 (when oil peaked around $140) would do to GDP. He graphed the result through the end of 2008 and, lo and behold, it was damn close to actual GDP.


What about real estate, subprime mortgages and defaults? Hamilton says the housing industry had been tightening up long before the recession -- "subtracting 0.94% from the average annual GDP growth rate over 2006:Q4-2007:Q3." And housing is factored into Hamilton's analysis. It was just one of a handful of multipliers that always turn down during oil shocks.

The Real Time Economics Blog at WSJ moves the theory forward with a pretty interesting bit of revisionist history. The grand retelling goes something like this. Cheap gasoline from the 1990s into this decade encouraged families to set up their homes farther from the cities where they worked. But as the price of gas began to increase, it put a big strain of these families' commutes. With gas rising from $2 to $4, the price of these long drives doubled, straining those families' most expensive payments, namely: mortgages. When families realized they could not afford their exurban commutes, they sold their homes for a big loss. Voila: Their mortgage crisis became a bank crisis and the rest is our living history.
I find Thompson's closing comments particularly telling:
My head's still spinning a bit, but it's interesting to think about the political consequences of a report like this being mainstreamed. If the idea somehow stuck that an oil shock was responsible for the financial crisis, it could be a significant catalyzer for the push toward energy reform. Today we're seeing a great national movement to change Wall Street because the general consensus is that Wall Street caused this crisis. Whether Hamilton's theory is wacko or brilliant, just imagine what a national movement to revolutionize America's energy consumption would look like. What if we had oil parties instead of tea parties, demanding more government investment in alternative fuels and subsidies for green technologies. That would really be something.
Also of note are Hamilton's own words, on his own 'blog:
My paper uses a number of different models that had been fit to earlier historical episodes to see what they imply about the contribution that the oil shock of 2007-08 might have made to real GDP growth over the last year. The approaches surveyed include Edelstein and Kilian (2007), who examined the detailed response of various components of consumer spending, Blanchard and Gali (2007), who studied the extent to which the contribution of oil shocks has significantly decreased over time, my 2003 paper, which emphasized the role of nonlinearities, and a model-free data summary of the observed behavior of different economic magnitudes following this and previous oil shocks. Although the approaches are quite different, they all support a common conclusion: had there been no increase in oil prices between 2007:Q3 and 2008:Q2, the U.S. economy would not have been in a recession over the period 2007:Q4 through 2008:Q3. [emphasis added]
Progressives have long maintained that the US suburban/exurban lifestyle is inefficient to the point of waste, and encourages overexpenditure on energy and materiel. Hamilton now shows us that this may well be true, and adds on a layer of vast economic vulnerability incurred through energy dependency.

If Hamilton's theories are to be believed in whole, the US needs a far more radical rethinking of its preferred lifestyle for the long term than has been discussed to date. Interim solutions, such as alternative energy and hybrid vehicles, are just that: temporary solutions to what will likely become a permanent problem. Unless vast resources of cheap, non-polluting energy can be sourced and managed domestically, the exurb is ultimately finished, since it will become economically unfeasible to commute any substantial distance or to travel far for shopping. Commercial distribution channels will also need to be rethought in this light: the great centralised warehouse may also become a thing of the past.

Regardless of the long-term implications of the paper, the work is a clear demand for a new, more conscientious approach to energy policy and urban development. This should also include industrialised agriculture, as that behemoth is a voracious consumer of petroleum products yet, due to its nature, frequently left out of petroleum-based energy policy debates.

Doing so, it would necessarily distinguish between the rural - farming, ranching, etc - and the urban/exurban markets: rural communities should be supported even as the larger urban/exurban communities are revisited in light of this new information. Too little thought is given to the distinctions between the rural landscape, isolated from the major energy consuming markets and largely self-sufficient, and the ever more costly urban environments that drive most energy and civic planning policies, and most resistance to urban-centred efforts at energy efficiency stem from their unthinking application to the countryside where such concerns are measurably smaller and less immediate.

Regardless of the planning remaining to be done, the paper presents an excellent take on the correlation between the costs of sprawl and the economic health of the industrial West. The built-in inefficiencies of the suburb and exurb, coupled with the uncertainty of energy supply - particularly oil - to maintain that sprawl, can be seen to have substantial impact on market sectors not immediately connected to those inefficiencies and uncertainties. Whether or not Hamilton's paper spawns the movement for energy independence Thompson describes, the mumbers deserve the attention of policymakers, and the implications demand public dialogue on the correlations between imported resources and community development.

H/T Andrew Sullivan.

Buddies For Hire

The scandals surrounding former Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson continue to unravel.
Some members of a black advisory board created by former Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson now say they witnessed firsthand the influence of paid consultants on the message being presented to voters.


The concern came over a discussion about whether Johnson's name or just his title should be used in public information distributed to black voters.

When a member of the African-American Advisory Board offered his opinion, he was overruled.

"There were times in which we would discuss things and how they should appear. There was a fine line," said Anddrikk Fraiser, vice president of the African-American Advisory Board. "I said, 'Maybe we should just go with Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections,' and the consultant would say, 'No, it should say Buddy Johnson.'

"Was it egregious? I would say yes."

Johnson and his office created the advisory board in August to be an independent panel that would identify issues of concern among minority voters.

It was a volunteer organization made up of black leaders from area churches, businesses and community organizations.

But Johnson used federal voter education money to pay two consultants, Thomas Huggins and Sherryl Cusseaux, who regularly attended board meetings. Huggins was in charge of Johnson's black outreach, and Cusseaux had been hired, in part, to establish the board.


Today, Johnson is out of a job and under federal investigation for how his office spent taxpayer money.

Phyllis Busansky, who defeated him in November, no longer employs the consultants who worked to craft his education outreach.

But the advisory board remains, trying to fulfill its mission.


Board members are still discovering how little they knew about Johnson's outreach effort.

It was only recently, Fraiser said, that he learned Johnson also paid $16,204 to a third consultant, Patty, to duplicate work the board was doing for free.

Fraiser said they were never told that Patty had been hired in early October to help defuse rumors about "No Match, No Vote." At the time of Patty's hiring, the board was scheduling two forums to discuss the issue and address concerns.

"I had no idea Michelle Patty had anything to do with Buddy Johnson, besides being an endorser, until those stories came out," he said.

"I do find it a little bit odd because of the efforts we went through to flame out the rumor of the 'No Match, No Vote.' That was one of the top things on our list, behind working with ex-felons to get their rights restored."


From its inception Aug. 21, there was much the board wasn't told.

The 17 members were not told how everyone was selected or why.

They were not told until mid-September that the board would not receive any money. Members had to pay for expenses out of pocket, Favorite said.

"No one on that committee got paid anything," Fraiser said. "We were meeting two, three hours every two weeks."

And they were not told that Cusseaux had been paid to create the board.
The investigations continue.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"I Believe" - In WHAT, Exactly?

Mustang Bobby at Bark Bark Woof Woof discusses the new "I Believe" license plate the Florida legislature has given a tentative go-ahead to issue. His piece covers the basic arguments about separation of church and state, and an effective dissection of the key sponsors' (including Hillsborough County's resident Inquisitress, Rhonda Storms) histories and perspectives, quite well.

I was struck by some other items.

This piece of idiocy shows just how gullible the Xtian community really is.

The Faith In Teaching website is defunct: only cached copies remain. shows the domain name as "taken" but the site is down.

Regardless of the state of the site, even the original site was remarkably short on detail. Only two pages seem to be available, each of which essentially repeats the other, and all the links posted on the Website lead off the site to other entities such as state legislators' pages and dot-gov resources. Any 501c3 entity to list only a vague mission statement and a PO box mailing address, with no more information, specific target programmes, board members or electronic contact information, simply screams "scam." And without more detail, there are no indications whatever that the effort is anything more than a means of screaming "State XX is Christian" rather than a meaningful effort to assist religious education institutions.

The cached pages and the related news stories hint that FIT is open to supporting both Christian and Jewish organisations with the funds received. However, I for one cannot imagine any self-respecting Jew that would put a Christian emblem on his/her bumper just to get $25 to his/her preferred school. There is, in turn, no plate offered with any Hebrew symbols (menorah, Star of David, etc) which would be equivalently meaningful to that faith. This, too, shouts out that the movement is deliberately misleading in its intents as well as in its presentation. Further, there is a noticeable absence of accommmodation for other faiths, both in illustrated plate samples or in the language used on the saved copies of the Website, which makes the interfaith claims spouted by FIT sound even more false.

There are already plenty of incentives for private donations like this. Income tax incentives alone yield more benefit for philanthropy. Likewise, there are plenty of other meaningful symbols that can already be applied without requiring state involvement as this particular effort obviously intends. Insisting that such a step is needed to save Florida's religious schools is worthy of the loudest ridicule: if the schools and teaching programmes are failing, it isn't because there hasn't been a license plate to bring them cash - it's because their primary sources of funding (philanthropy and donations) have dried up. Anyone who wanted to give to a faith-based school would already be doing so without the plate, and those too poor to do so before the plate are unlikely to be able to afford the surcharge for the plate now.

And last there is that sticky Separation of Church and State issue to consider.

One doesn't need to be anything other than Christian to see this transparent attempt at proselytizing for proselytizing's sake for anything but what it is. And one doesn't need a license plate to declare one's faith.

I'm far less incensed that Florida would debate such a clearly sectarian programme than that the state - any state - would be so willing to be duped by such an obviously dishonest effort.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Support Net Neutrality

... and oppose AstroTurf like the American Consumer Institute:
Cable and phone companies, many of which are eyeing similar price structures, don’t want to see TWC fail. So enter the American Consumer Institute, the fake consumer group that is trying to convince us that excluding people from using the Internet is a good thing. Oh, and so is stifling online video innovation.

The ACI sent an open letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and other congressional members outlining the merits of pricing structures that limit Internet access.

Who is behind the bellowing? The Web site is actually registered to Stephen Pociask, a telecom consultant and former chief economist for Bell Atlantic. If he sounds familiar, it’s because we blogged about him before when ACI claimed Net Neutrality – the principle that all online content should be equally accessible – is dangerous for consumers.

Check out SaveTheInternet for the rest of this article, and more.

Contractors: Not Just for the DoD Any More

Jeremy Scahill has a compelling article up on Alternet about how local law enforcement is embracing the contracting trend.
This privatization trend is hardly new, but it is accelerating. While events such as the Nisour Square massacre committed in September 2007 by Blackwater operatives in Baghdad show the lethal danger of unleashing mercenary forces on foreign soil, one area with the potential for extreme abuses resulting from this privatization is in domestic law enforcement in the U.S.

Many people may not be aware of this, but since the 1980s, private security guards have outnumbered police officers.

"The more than 1 million contract security officers, and an equal number of guards estimated to work directly for U.S. corporations, dwarf the nearly 700,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States," according to the Washington Post. Some estimate that private security operate inside the U.S. at a 5-to-1 ratio with police.

In New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of the city, private security poured in. Armed operatives from companies like Blackwater, Wackenhut, Intercon and DynCorp spread out in the city. Within two weeks of the hurricane, the number of private security companies registered in Louisiana jumped from 185 to 235.


Now it seems that some cities think it is a great idea to expand the use of these private forces using taxpayer funds.

The Wall Street Journal this week reported, "Facing pressure to crack down on crime amid a record budget deficit, Oakland is joining other U.S. cities that are turning over more law-enforcement duties to private armed guards. The City Council recently voted to hire International Services Inc., a private security agency, to patrol crime-plagued districts. While a few Oakland retail districts previously have pooled cash to pay for unarmed security services, using public funds to pay for private armed guards would mark a first for the city."

In a stunning development revealed late Wednesday night, Oakland dropped its plan to hire International Services Inc. after the firm's founder and two other executives were arrested on charges of defrauding the state of California out of more than $9 million in workers compensation.


Why do some Oakland officials want this? On the one hand, the belief that it will bring security, but also to save money:
Hiring private guards is less expensive than hiring new officers. Oakland -- facing a record $80 million budget shortfall -- spends about 65 percent of its budget for police and fire services, including about $250,000 annually, including benefits and salary, on each police officer.

In contrast, for about $200,000 a year, the city can contract to hire four private guards to patrol the troubled East Oakland district where four on-duty police officers were killed in March. And the company, not the city, is responsible for insurance for the guards.
As in many cities, this is a contentious issue in Oakland, which has struggled to deal with substantial violence on the one hand and police brutality on the other. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:
The areas where the armed guards were supposed to have been deployed have a disproportionate share of homicides, assaults with deadly weapons and robberies. … The crime rate in the area, according to a 2003 blight study, is between 225 and 150 percent higher than the city as a whole.
Scahill's point is well taken, since as we have seen elsewhere private contractors are bound neither by their oaths as public servants nor law nor treaty when it comes to fulfilling their mission objectives. The antics of Blackwater, Custer Battles et al on the streets of Baghdad, Jalalabad, Masar-e-Sharif or Khabul have been bad enough: transplanted to US cities employing private security as law enforcement, those tendencies will have tragic effects for those communities just as has been seen in Louisiana and California to date.

I can recall, from my years out West, the "patrol specials" that local businesses put on the streets. These were either off-duty or out-of-work police officers, whose backgrounds had been inspected, working in their own communities and funded by business and local organisations as a supplement to the SFPD presence. They were also a small minority, functioning as an adjunct rather than a functional replacement for the beat cops. The new trend looks nothing like the patrol special concept. The programmes Scahill outlines are far larger, with personnel brought in from outside the community (including as far away as Israel as he points out): these people will have little if any feeling for the communities they are tasked to serve. The results are tragically predictable.

It is understandable, particularly in the current crisis, for a municipality to seek to save resources, and contractors offer on the surface an immediate economy over their police department peers. However, the point that they will be less restrained, more aggressive, and far less interested in the rights of the residents of the communities where they are deployed is valid. Those tendencies will almost certainly lead to more litigation for abuse, harassment, and wrongful death, which regardless of the pains suffered by the communities affected will result in the economies of their employment vaporised by the resulting judgments. Since any municipality will have less invested in defending a contractor than a comparable law enforcement officer, sworn to public service and on the municipality's payroll, the likelihood that that municipality will pay some sort of damages increases, making the cost/benefit calculus untenable in the long term. Even if the cost in lost liberties and lives were acceptable, any community choosing to contract with private security for law enforcement faces the likelihood that the fiscal costs will become unacceptable even if that is not the case immediately.

Maintaining a police force is not an inexpensive proposition. But it is something any US citizen has a right to expect of his/her government. Handing off that responsibility may seem like an effective solution to the budget constraints of the present, but the costs in dollars, public trust and individual lives are nearly certain to eclipse any short term gain any city choosing to sidestep its responsibility to its citizens would see.


Perini Navi's 177' Parsifal III. For a friend.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Privatising the GWoT

FBI interrogator Ali Soufan has a remarkably illuminating piece in today's New York Times. In it, Soufan shreds the Conservatist arguments that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were successful or that they produced meaningful intelligence that normal techniques could not.

Liss at Shakesville, on reading it, picked up something interesting in the narrative:
The debate after the release of these memos has centered on whether C.I.A. officials should be prosecuted for their role in harsh interrogation techniques. That would be a mistake. Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.

Fortunately for me, after I objected to the enhanced techniques, the message came through from Pat D’Amuro, an F.B.I. assistant director, that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out of the interrogations by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller (this was documented in the report released last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general).

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.) [emphasis added]
I share Liss' disgust at the transfer of military and intelligence operations to private entities, for much the same reason.

The Iraq conflict has employed at least as many "contractors" as it has servicepeople. Iraq needs a new base/barracks/school/whatever? Don't send in the Corps of Engineers: KBR can do that, and it'll only cost twice as much and need as much more in renovation of the electrical and plumbing systems. There's a new VIP coming to visit? Blackwater can cover the convoy (at 3x what it'd cost to bring in Rangers for the job), and they'll only shoot a few of the locals by mistake. The list is endless.

Now, through Soufan, we have an account that indicates the same busineses were among the first to "request" the interrogation tecniques Yoo, Bybee, Bradbury et al attempted to justify. Note that Soufan stipulates that it was the contractors, not the FBI nor the CIA, that made the initial requests.

It is becoming defensible that the GWoT, like the attempts to "reform" Social Security, was less a struggle against terrorism and more a means to outsource the Department of Defense. The advantages are clear: fewer "troops" would need to be deployed to a given theatre, reducing the visibility of the campaign at home; casualties would be the responsibility of the contractor, removing a burden from the Veterans' Administration; costly weapons programmes could be handed to the private sector which could write them off as business expenditures; shoddy workmanship in facilities and reconstruction efforts could be handed off to the private sector builders, who could at once claim benefit from the work perfomed and protection from litigation under the umbrella of the US government; and the private contractors could be far more free in their methods and tactics than US servicepeople constrained by law, duty and military codes of justice and conduct.

Disownership is perhaps the key item here: the US can at once contract with a private entity for a service performed, and distance itself from the success or failure of that service and the methods used to do the job. After all, it wasn't US soldiers/sailors that made such a mess, it was a contractor. But then again, the contractor can't be punished because it works for the US government. This gives the government a free hand to indulge its worst tendencies while still maintaining at least the pretense that those tendencies weren't its own.

Liss' perspective is quite clear:
At some point, I hope there's a reckoning for the influence private military contractors were allowed to have on our national policy during the Bush administration. I hope, but I suspect there won't be.

In fact, I suspect that outsourcing the really ugly stuff was the point all along.
Rereading Soufan's piece, and thinking back over the last eight years, I can't help but think she's right. But I think there's a larger problem: ShrubCo worked from the premise that that private anything was more cost-effective, and more efficient, than its public equivalent. I suspect that the interrogations and other "contract" work was an experiment in the effectiveness of a private defense entity, and that the eventual goal was to turn over all but the most basic command functions of the military and intelligence arms to private enterprise. If these "contractors" could be shown to be more effective, and less expensive, than their comparable DoD or intelligence branches, a case could be made to let them handle those tasks on an ongoing basis.

This vision is highly disturbing. Imagine, for a moment, a Blackwater or Custer Battles type of business possessing aircraft carriers and advanced attack aircraft leased long-term to the US Navy. Imagine a similar organisation tasked with the incarceration and interrogation of combatants - without DoD or CIA supervision or input. The materiel would present far less risk to the US' worth (the value would be covered by private insurance and neither protected nor guaranteed by the federal government, yet could still be defended as "US sovereign territory" should it be attacked or lost. The contractors would be responsible for their own out-of-theatre expenses such as healthcare, counseling and housing, saving countless millions in such expenses for the DoD, yet still be "our boys" when in harm's way. Conversely, the contracted businesses would be under extreme pressure - not to remain within any budget, but to produce satisfactory results: losing people or equipment, or performing atrocities, would become a cost of doing business, and only the success of a mission or campaign would be measure of the value of the contract. The simultaneous liberation to indulge the worst behaviours of wartime and freedom from the burdensome expenditures required to maintain a peacetime military would enable the administration to engage in some of the ugliest fighting imaginable without substantial risk to public resources. And if an individual contractor became sufficiently unpopular to risk public support its contract could always be cancelled and awarded elsewhere.

That scenario raises two major potential horrors. First, and most easily understood - particularly in light of Soufan's article - is how far and how fast a contractor with no oath, and only a W2 to demand loyalty, can sink into the quagmire. Second is the horrific scenario when a contractor as well equipped as the US government is cut loose: where will it go? who will pay its salaries? what will it be prepared to do to remain in business and pay its shareholders? Neither scenario is at all pretty.

There are sound reasons for maintaining standing armed forces and well trained intelligence professionals as public resources. There are equally sound reasons for keeping those resources public and not delegating their activities to private industry. In each case, one of the reasons is the controls placed on public service that private enterprise avoids. It's defensible that the Bush maladministration advocated the privatisation of these functions as they did precisely to bypass those controls.

As Bad As They Are, Part Two

Andrew Sullivan has a pair of tales from World War Two, highlighting just how different the earlier - and highly successful - interrogation methods were, and why even the Nazis avoided the barbarity on display from the Bush years.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

'Blogging Update

"As Bad As They Are" and "Iraqi Liberation and (Un)Intended Consequences" are both now up at The Reaction.

Answering The Wrong Question

Talking Points Memo has an illuminating clip on the perspective that let the US get to this point.

Pay special attention to the section from about 0:48.

Note that the Bush apologist makes much of the US government "doing everything possible to keep us safe."

The problem here is what is possible.

Waterboarding is possible. So are sleep deprivation, stress positions, sensory deprivation and a host of other documented practices employed by US intelligence and advocated and approved by the Bush Administration. They are demonstrably possible: their use is documented.

So too, however, are the use of thumbscrews, the Brazen Bull, the Iron Maiden, the rack, drawing and quartering, and a host of other methods and devices known to history. I doubt strongly that anyone would advocate reintroduction of those methods of coercion. Yet, as the tools exist, and have both a long and bloody record and precise documentation of their construction and application, the possibility of their use is demonstrable and the possibility that they could be used today is very real. Possible only means that the capacity for use is measurable; it has nothing to do with the propriety of that possibility.

The problem isn't what's possible. The problem is what's ethical and legal. Were the question only one of the possible, all manner of atrocities could be justified. Civilisation is not about the possible, nor even about the practical. It is a matter of the ethical, moral, and conscionable: without ethics and some semblance of morality civilisation is impossible.

None of the techniques described fit those constraints.

H/T Andrew Sullivan.

A Thought on the Torture Investigations

The problem with this entire discussion is that, rather than requiring that the subsequent President pursue the illegalities of his/her predecessor, the obligation actually rests on the concurrent Congress to review, investigate and prosecute any illegal behaviour on the part of the sitting President at that time. The 108th through 110th Congresses had ample opportunity, and substantial grounds, to undertake such an investigation. That they did not is far more indicative than any action the 44th President could take to investigate the administration of the 43rd.

Not Shrill Enough

Apparently John McCain isn't "conservative" enough for some of his constituents.
“John McCain has failed miserably in his duty to secure this nation’s borders and protect the people of Arizona from the escalating violence and lawlessness,” [newly-announced primary opponent, and Minuteman Civil Defense Corps founder, Chris] Simcox said in a statement according to MSNBC. “He has fought real efforts over the years at every turn, opting to hold our nation’s border security hostage to his amnesty schemes. Coupled with his votes for reckless bailout spending and big government solutions to our nation’s problems, John McCain is out of touch with everyday Arizonans. Enough is enough.”
I suppose it was inevitable.

Manufacturing Evidence

Andrew Sullivan brings up a key point in the Armed Services Committee findings, highlighted by the McClatchy coverage of the story:
"There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder," [an unnamed former senior US intelligence official] continued.

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.
It wasn't enough to learn about upcoming al-Qaida plots from those caught early in the GWoT: the maladministration needed evidence that al-Qaida was colluding with Iraq in a global anti-US conspiracy. And if the normal interrogations failed to produce that evidence (assuming normal interrogation methods were employed from the outset), then the maladministration explicitly encouraged more outrageous methods to elicit that information - even if it meant abusing detainees to the point where they'd say anything just to make the horror stop.

UPDATE: ThinkProgress has a point-by-point takedown on the programme here.

(Misplaced) Expectations of Decency and Honour

A Senate Armed Services Committee report is expected today on inquiries into the origins of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used in the GWoT, made public some time ago and whose flimsy justifications have been recently made available through the memos the Obama administration released last week. Though the report has apparently not been released as of writing, both the Washington Post and New York Times have articles on the programme's origin, and my 'blogging peers are already starting to weigh in.

The evidence unearthed both damns the programme from its formation and spotlights the incredible ignorance, callousness and hubris of the GWoT as prosecuted. From the Post and Times items, the programme began perhaps eight full months before the first Justice Department memo affording its scope was delivered. Early questions from junior officers seeking clarification on the legality of the methods employed were brushed aside. And by the time the earliest memos were written, a de facto routine to employ those techniques, and a network of facilities in which to use them, was already well (if perhaps not fully) formed.

One of the most shocking things revealed is that the programme's origin in Department of Defense SERE training techniques, intended to assist US servicepeople captured and interrogated, was openly recognised and even approved. The logic that if we were trained to endure such treatment it couldn't really be all that bad drove both the programme itself and its general acceptance by the leadership; no recognition is indicated that the programme was designed to help soldiers survive treatment known to be illegal, immoral and inhumane meted out by governments and organisations whose own legitimacy would already be challenged and against whom the US was already engaged - presumably for reasons that included those very interrogation techniques.

Throughout the prosecution of the GWoT, we were told repeatedly that "the US doesn't torture." It is now clear that, though these techniques were clearly torture, the maladministration didn't believe it so - and held that belief simply because we employed a programme that meted out this same treatment as a training regimen. Some of the interrogators that employed these techniques first did so under the assumption that since SERE methods were part of their training they must be legal. The pattern that emerges follows that logic, conveniently ignoring the origins of SERE and the evil it was intended to combat.

The memos that followed adoption of these interrogation techniques at least recognize that justification for the interrogations required a radical reinterpretation of US law and international treaty. The parameters they list - denying the psychological effects even as those were depended upon, using US facilities on foreign soil to skirt the constraints imposed on the country by treaty - indicate a clear understanding of the ethics of the situation and a desperate effort to twist the letter of law and treaty to condone or overlook the interrogations. Now that it is obvious the "legal guidance" these memos provided ex post facto basis for methods already approved and in use their obscenity is compounded.

One striking item in the reports is the enthusiasm with which the interrogations were greeted by the entire administration in 2002. The intellectual laziness displayed in the near-total lack of curiosity about a programme whose origins were all readily available to those making these decisions is staggering. Had the programme had some totally alien origin it might be understood a little better; however, the SERE program was a long-standing training regimen designed to harden troops to interrogation techniques known to produce false intelligence and break its subjects and which had been encountered some forty to sixty years ago. One might be able to excuse a young recruit just subjected to SERE for not knowing why SERE training was necessary: the wars the US fought where it had faced the tactics the programme was designed to combat were over before most of them were born. One cannot excuse the leadership of the nation, being old enough to remember some of those conflicts personally.

Perhaps this is a predictable consequence of a "global war on terror" waged by a team that largely deferred its deployments to Vietnam past the duration of that conflict or found other means of avoiding service in that theatre. Disinclination to fighting is easily translated into intellectual incuriousity about how wars are fought. Certainly the offhand treatment of complex issues, and the naivete of the Bush administration were formative in other areas: that their treatment of the GWoT in general, and interrogation in particular, should be little surprise.

The initial reactions I have read to the announcement of this narrative has been one of shock and disgust. But there is another aspect that is highlighted in recent news. Some senators, including Patrick Leahy of Vermont, are calling on justice Jay Bybee, crafters of one of the now-infamous memos, to resign out of "decency and honor." From the Armed Services Committee's findings, those two virtues appear to have been nearly uniformly lacking in the Bush administration: no decent or honourable person would have agreed that SERE was an appropriate model for our intelligence services to use as an interrogation methodology, and no self-respecting legal professional would have gone through the legal gymnastics required to legitimize that decision and redefine SERE practices as anything other than torture in the manner Bybee and others are now irrefutably known to have done.

In 2000 then-Governor Bush campaigned for the Presidency on a platform of "Compassionate Conservatism," perhaps hoping to echo and expand on his father's "kinder, gentler" approach to politics. The US saw the results as systematic failures of management and execution in response to multiple natural disasters and acts of terrorism (those who shout about 9/11 conveniently forget the anthrax scares of following months) and as commonplace shredding of the social safety net and civic accountability as healthcare and Social Security were attacked and the GWoT was farmed out to private industry more interested in its bottom line than in providing meaningful services. The prosecution of the GWoT - and its treatment of those it captured - was the face of "Compassionate Conservatism" that the world saw: a petty, vengeful, amoral regime disinterested in human rights or the legitimacy of foreign powers and focused only on its own preeminence and revenge for its injuries.

The US understood Bush as something other than "Conservative" in the last years of his misgovernance. Now, at last, the US is learning something the world grasped some time ago: that the Bush maladministration was as alienated from compassion as it was from conservatism. Expectations that a self-described Christian would adhere to the standards of "honor and decency" that Leahy described and that the US as a presumably moral nation assumed were clearly misplaced. It is well past time the Bush administrative team was held to account for that failure.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fascist As An Epithet

Fox's FX network has (perhaps unsurprisingly) Sum of All Fears on tonight. Watching it, one gets a clearer idea why the Conservatists think "Fascist" is a useful insult to fling at the Left.

In the 1930s it was very difficult to make the US understand what a threat European Fascism truly was. Part of this was because there were and remain large German-American and Italian-American populations who have strong connections to the Fatherland. But part of it was cultural, and part a misreading of the national socialist economic engine as a revitalised capitalist instrument.

In 1933 the US was only sixty-odd years removed from the strife of the Civil War. Reconstruction was still fresh in the minds of Southerners, who had had to endure another two decades of a brutal recovery programme intended to keep the South defeated as much as the nation united. Successive waves of immigration had created communities of the recent arrivals easily targeted by earlier arrivals: Italian-American, Irish-American and other groups were only just achieving respectability after some very rough experiences in post-Civil-War US communities, and were still viewed negatively from the criminality spawned by Prohibition. The African American population, though legally free and guaranteed its rights, was still suppressed by Jim Crow legislation, and viewed by society as largely inferior. The makings of Fascist thought were very close to the US reality of the time: challenged nationalism, economic collapse, and populations of "undesirables" that made for easy scapegoats for the current set of ills offset by multiple northern European populations with strong ethnic identities.

Many US citizens had been supportive of Germany in the Great War. The US had only entered the conflict in response to to German U-boat warfare, which had claimed several US ships and many US lives in the years before US intervention. Sympathy ran high. When Hitler began Germany's industrial resurrection, many in the US cheered: Germany was "back on track." The Germans, for their part, while not making their activities truly secret, were very quiet about their less-savory activities, and the darkest exploits of the Nazi regime were years away from discovery. There were many in the West, including many major industrial figures, who were overtly supportive of the resurgent German industrial machine.

Ethnic identity, coupled with a revived apparently capitalist economy and a tacitly accepted faith in Caucasian superiority, blinded many to the threat Fascism presented the free world. It took six years of fighting, many lives, and the discovery of the concentration camps and the testimony of the incarcerated and their captors to bring to light the full horror. Part of the shock of the Nazi camps lay in the vivid, graphic proof that presumably civilized and humane Europeans could descend to such depths: the camps in Japan and China were more comprehinsible to the biased Western mind, but the Nazi facilities in Germany and Poland horrified on a cultural and ethnic level that layered onto the barbarism displayed there.

Fascism as a global threat perished with Nazi Germany. But that was in 1945, and the war crimes trials that followed were at once perceived as closure on the chapter and overshadowed by Soviet expansionism. Communism quickly replaced Fascism as the greatest global threat, and the details of the prior period were subsumed by the fears of the present.

Which brings us to today. We are now as many years removed from World War II as 1933 US was from the Civil War. The memories of that period are fading, and that fuzziness is compounded by the fact that, unlike the conflict in the 1860s, World War II was for the US a war fought on foreign soil. The daily reminders that face France, Germany, Italy and other nations directly affected by that war are absent here. The US has only the occasional WW2 memorial, which lists no name of any serviceperson lost in that conflict on US soil anywhere but plaques in DC and Hawaii.

Enter the storyteller and the studio. Clancy's thriller tells of a resurgent Fascist group that steals a nuclear weapon and sets it off in Baltimore, hoping to spark a conflict between the US and Russia from which a resurgent Fascism (centred in Germany and Austria from the plot's implications) could return to prominence. The problem with the film, however, is that none of the attendant horrors of a Fascist society are made clear. The only indicators of the origins of the plot are the accents of the major players. The villains never speak of the overall goals of Fascism: corporatist control of the state, systematic purging of "undesirable" or "racially impure" segments of society, the silencing of all dissent, and an oppressive state mechanism of surveillance and nearly-random arrest and "disappearance" of citizens.

Clancy, in his defense, probably assumes such things are common knowledge and sees no need to delve into any of that. Fascists are monsters out to destroy both East and West and remake both in their twisted image: this should be clear enough from the narrative. Fox, however, is far more nebulous in its treatment: the bad guys aren't all that distinct from the good ones: Dressler's, Fiore's and even Thorsen's characters aren't all that inhuman, and present remarkably "normal" faces to the world and to the audience, just as Schreiber's assasin Clark seems necessary and Cromwell's president Fowler doesn't seem especially liked or likable. It is easy, in the narrative, to confuse friend with foe, villain with deluded victim, hero with situational ally. Part of this is no doubt deliberate: it speaks to the difficulty in the modern world in identifying threats and makes for effective plot twists. But the net effect is the same as the rhetoric spinning now: simply screaming "Fascist" does not make the target Fascist - there needs to be substance to the charge to make it stick. Sum of All Fears fails to make the charge stick to any of the villains, depending solely on the symbology of the German accent and the swastika to make its points instead of delving into the political philosophy that made that particular combination so frightening.

The problem with Fascism is that even now there are schools of thought that, either through adherence to conviction in "Aryan" supremacy, through denial of the bases for the political philosophy, or through simple ethnic identification, play apologist for Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and the others that spawned that philosophy. The US, little affected by the worst aspects of the Third Reich, has a particularly poor frame of reference in this regard: the horrors were distant and perpetrated almost entirely on foreigners, removing them rather effectively from the consciousness of the US citizenry. Without that awareness or the reminders of those lost, the US lacks the immediacy of the knowledge that Europe sees on a near-daily basis: the bombed buildings preserved as symbols, the camps turned into park-like memorials, the fields of graves, and the plaques mounted on walls listing the names of those who lived there and were murdered by the Reich.

In turn, the US' ethnic diversity and continued immigration of new populations into the country give those who support Fascist thought fertile ground. The same vitriol Hitler aimed at Jews is used against Latinos, South and Southeast Asians - virtually any population perceived as taking jobs, damaging the economy and polluting the assumed ethnic homogeneity of the US population. The inhibitions on such thinking that Europe experiences today are largely absent because of the physical distance and the relative ignorance of the US populace.

Sum of All Fears plays on the fear the US is only now starting to shed. in 2002, when the film was produced, that fear was full-blown, and the film spoke to that. Whether the relative normality of the villains in the piece were intended to describe the facelessness of an unknown assailant, or a deliberate plot point to blur the distinctions between political philosophies, it definitely allows the Fascist to hide in plain sight, appearing as normal - and behaving as normally - as anyone around.

This is what the Conservatists are banking on when they accuse the Obama administration and its supporters of Fascism. The distance between the events of the '30s and '40s, the ethnic identification, and the lack of substance backing up the identification of Fascists with the full scope of that philosophy all enable those making the accusation to do so without having to back it up. The US does not recall the full horror of Nazism: the arrest and disappearance of whole population segments, the concentration camps used to dispose of them, the suppression of free speech – even free thought as Hitler Youth informed on its parents – and the other horrors are in full view of modern Europe every day, but notably absent from the Americas. Without those reminders, the US is left with the education system to teach each generation about the dangers of that philosophy, and after decades of public education policy more interested in basic arithmetic and reading skills than fuzzier subjects like History and Political Science, the knowledge the current US citizen has of that dark chapter in human history is at least questionable. The US understands that Fascism is somehow bad, but without direct exposure or careful study it has no clear understanding of why.

If the Conservatists are truly opposed to Fascism – which after the Bush maladministration is arguable – they may well be ignorant of the worst of its crimes, or that those crimes were a direct consequence of the teachings that spawned it. They are certainly counting on their audience's ignorance of those theories, yielding them the outrage against the bogeyman of the “Fascist” without comprehending the precise nature of the evil implied. Their ability to do so is facilitated both by this ignorance and such clever products as Sum of All Fears that paint their villains with the Fascist brush without bothering to layer on all the colours of that particular mindset or the fine strokes that made Fascism so different – and so horrific – from any other conservative nationalist school of thought.

Seeing Red

Andrew Sullivan points to a Slate interactive map illustrating the employment patterns in the US over the last two years, describing job gains and (mostly) losses on a county-by-county basis. This is the best illustration I have seen of the employment haemmorhaging the US has experienced.

Iraqi Liberation and (Un)Intended Consequences

One of the key principles we were given for the invasion of Iraq - at least after we were told repeatedly about Saddam Hussein's ties to terrorists and plans to attack the US - was that the freedom-loving, humane Iraqi people were just waiting to be liberated from their cruel oppressors. We were repeatedly spun yarns about the open and free society a post-Saddam Iraq (with US help) would look like.

It certainly didn't include this:
"A prominent Iraqi human rights activist says that Iraqi militia have deployed a painful form of torture against homosexuals by closing their anuses using 'Iranian gum.' ...Yina Mohammad told that, 'Iraqi militias have deployed an unprecedented form of torture against homosexuals by using a very strong glue that will close their anus.' According to her, the new substance 'is known as the American hum, which is an Iranian-manufactured glue that if applied to the skin, sticks to it and can only be removed by surgery. After they glue the anuses of homosexuals, they give them a drink that causes diarrhea. Since the anus is closed, the diarrhea causes death. Videos of this form of torture are being distributed on mobile cellphones in Iraq.'"
Towleroad has more.

Of course, the victims in the story are all Teh Gay, so it's possible pro-war Conservatists considered the potential for this sort of development acceptable.

Before anyone starts with "well, it's over there" arguments, consider that this is a fairly new phenomenon in Iraq - post-invasion, to be precise. Also, James Dobson, Michael Savage, Jerry Falwell and a host of other Conservatists have made statements that would encourage anti-LGBT violence here in the US. When challenged, they passed those statements off as "humour" and accused their challengers as "hypersensitive." This story certainly isn't humour, and factual. Try being hypersensitive to that.

Betty Brown Moves to Beijing

It seems Texan bigots aren't the only ones having trouble with Chinese names. The People's Republic itself, to simplify its systems, is asking its citizens to change their names to something simpler.
Ma Cheng’s book-loving grandfather came up with an elegant solution to this common problem. Twenty-six years ago, when his granddaughter was born, he combed through his library of Chinese dictionaries and lighted upon a character pronounced “cheng.” Cheng, which means galloping steeds, looks just like the character for horse, except that it is condensed and written three times in a row.

The character is so rare that once people see it, Miss Ma said, they tend to remember both her and her name. That is one reason she likes it so much.

That is also why the government wants her to change it.

For Ma Cheng and millions of others, Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority.

The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that Miss Ma and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.

Moreover, the situation is about to get worse or, in the government’s view, better. Since at least 2003, China has been working on a standardized list of characters for people to use in everyday life, including when naming children.

One newspaper reported last week that the list would be issued later this year and would curb the use of obscure names. A government linguistics official told Xinhua, the state-run news agency, that the list would include more than 8,000 characters. Although that is far fewer than the database now supposedly includes, the official said it was more than enough “to convey any concept in any field.” About 3,500 characters are in everyday use.
Ms. Ma is managing so far to get around the restrictions. But many more are not. In their rush into the modern world, China runs the risk of oversimplification just to keep pace.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Beauty Is As Beauty Does

... and Miss California's got some serious thinking to do if she believes she's as pretty on the inside as she is on the outside.

Backroom Deals

There's a lot of noise today about this particular item.

I see two particular points of interest.

One, the investigation highlights just how much intelligence-gathering the NSA was doing within the US, and how much of it was truly targeted at US citizens. Had this merely been about foreign agents plotting harm to the US as the programme was originally presented, Rep. Harman would have gone essentially unnoticed. However, she was not, and only the intervention of (then) Attorney General Gonzalez prevented a full-blown and very embarrassing investigation. Of course, now that the deal that was struck has been exposed, the embarrassment is compounded, so any benefit Harman received was strictly temporary.

Two, it showcases how widespread foreign involvement in US policymaking could potentially be, and how diverse the prospective "foreign agents" would be by inference. If Harman, then a House Intelligence Committee member, was amenable to quid pro quo with foreign agents despite (or perhaps because of) her responsibilities, the AIPAC moment might be only one of many. Also, if AIPAC was the foreign agency snared by the wiretap, it certainly makes wiretapping to "catch foreign terrorists" harder to justify unless one is willing to label Israel a state sponsor of terrorism, which the Conservatists are loath to do and which even the US Left is hesitant to consider. And Gonzalez' intervention says much about what the Bush maladministration was prepared to overlook to achieve its aims.

Harmon's subsequent distancing from authority by House leadership is certainly appropriate. Unless charges are preferred, though, her continuing in office is best left between her and her constituents for the moment.

UPDATE: Re. Harman has issued an not-quite-rebuttal statement to the charges. It seems she's missing the larger point, though the point she does make is certainly troubling.

See No Evil

The Conservatist punditocracy seems to prefer ignorance of its nation's methods so long as they produce the desired results. Peggy Noonan's quote is especially priceless in this regard:
"Some things in life need to be mysterious," said Noonan, adding, "Sometimes you need to just keep walking."

She also added:

"It's hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, oh, much good will come of that."
This equivalence of anti-terror efforts with some sort of sausagemaking is remarkable. By that logic, any questionable action taken by the government should be acceptable so long as it's kept secret. Noonan's been especially good at honouring that concept.

Apparently, Noonan's morals are only as strong as the peace in which they're practised.

As Bad As They Are

Christopher Buckley wants us to remember that terrorists still don't have our morals.
It is, yes, good that the U.S.A. is not doing this anymore, but let’s not get too sanctimonious about how awful it was that we indulged in these techniques after watching nearly 3000 innocent Americans endure god-awful deaths at the hands of religious fanatics who would happily have detonated a nuclear bomb if they had gotten their mitts on one. And let us move on. There is pressing business...

The operative question becomes: What do we do now with captive bad guys who possess information that could prevent another 9/11? We may have moved on. They, assuredly, have not.
I'll leave issues as to his arithmetic aside for the moment.

Buckley's article speaks loudly of two double standards: that of calling terrorists out as monsters whilst employing their own methods against them, and that of the assumption that torture of detainees is productive for US intelligence services but indoctrinating and corrupting for US citizens subjected to the same treatment. His attempt at levity, first at dismissing the severity of the treatment meted out to detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other sites, then by spotlighting Monty Python ("bring out - the Comfy Chair!") and Mel Brooks for their deliberately light-hearted discussion of the Inquisition (exceedingly dark subject matter) as somehow comparative, then by proposing new alternate "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as subjecting detainees to four-hour commute conditions, touch-tone telephone exercises with a rotary phoneset, and exercises with frustrating television programming, are eerily tone-deaf to the current situation.

The problem is not that the US tortured people. The problem is that the US tortured people while insisting it did not, fabricated legal justifications for actions clearly illegal on the US' own books as well as in violation of multiple international treaties and conventions, and continued to claim the high moral ground in world affairs just as its own morality was being systematically destroyed by those same claimants. Were the US willing to admit that some people just need to be waterboarded on principle, disavowed the conventions, habeus corpus, reasonable search and seizure, trial by jury, and the countless other conventions of US, Parliamentary and Napoleonic law on which its modern jurisprudence is based, the outcry against that particular programme would be much smaller; however, doing so would invalidate whole sections of the Constitution, reams of legal precedent and a plurality of the concepts on which the nation was built and to which it claims to continue to cling. Minimising the treatment of detainees does not serve a nation founded on the principles outlined in the formative documents the US has long used, and frequently cited, as reason for the way it deals with foreign powers based on their accpetance of those ideals.

Buckley's counter-assumption, that non-coercive interrogation does not yield actionable intelligence, has equally been found false, and prominent figures within the military and intelligence communities have already made statements to precisely that effect.

Somehow, though, Buckley continues to cling to the assumption that pursuit of international criminals without the ability to employ their methods is unproductive; that recognising that those methods, if used by US questioners, as immoral and illegal is a pointless exercise; and that interrogation, as a practice, needs to be somehow offensive to the senses taken out of the context of intelligence gathering. His question "What do we do now with captive bad guys who possess information that could prevent another 9/11?" is deliberately misleading in that it assumes a need to do something unpleasant to obtain their cooperation. Information coerced from a detainee may well be of value, but assuming there is no other way to obtain such, and that we must needs behave in borderline inhuman ways towards those we capture, is both contrary to the history of Western law and ethics and the founding principles as elucidated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and countless other documents that have shaped the US.

UPDATE: Wolfrum has his own take here.


The New York Times reports that Oracle is buying Sun Micrososytems.

This should make the next generation of IT innovation interesting to say the least.


For some reason, Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post thinks that after a mere three months the White House should reexamine its foreign policy.
Obama is not the first president to discover that facile changes in U.S. policy don't crack long-standing problems. Some of his new strategies may produce results with time. Yet the real test of an administration is what it does once it realizes that the quick fixes aren't working.
There must be something in the water in DC that keeps the pundit class falling into the same short-term thinking that exacerbated the current economic situation. Diehl writes of the longevity of the foreign policy problems facing the US as if the discovery that they're old is somehow new.

North Korea has been a problem for 60 - count'em, sixty - years now. The current situation is merely one turn in a relationship never good, frequently very bad and once dissolved into open war. The behaviour pattern of that government has been unpleasant, but predictable. Showing surprise - genuine or not - that regime would immediately display bad behaviour on the world stage regardless of what tactic the US chose to deal with it is rather like reading a recipe for a Manwich and discovering that there aren't any humans listed as ingredients: this is North Korea's typical behaviour toward the outside and has been for decades. Assuming that a mere three months of less strident rhetoric would have instant effect is uninformed to say the least.

Likewise with Diehl's other examples in Russia, Iran and the Middle East. The mock surprise Diehl presents imply a belief in the near-magical capacity of the "newest President" to change world opinion and international dynamics, whether he ascribes to such or not. Each of those problems is at least generational in duration, and require patience and persistence to address.

Diehl, to his credit, doesn't overtly subscribe to the idea that all international issues can be addressed within 100 days. But the subtitle to his article - "What happens when the president can no longer blame Bush for international strife?" - clearly indicates an acceptance of that concept, and the fact that he feels he actually has to describe the foreign policy challenges facing the US in 2009 as predating 2000 is facile if not downright foolish.

The Korean question is at least generational. Relations with Russia span the entire history of the US and modern Europe, and can be traced back well over a millennium. As for the Middle East, regardless of any comparatively recent development, that region has been a hotbed of sectarianism, unrest and war as long as there has been recorded history, and archaeological evidence points to a similar pattern thousands of years previous to the first writing. None of these problems will be solved overnight.

Further, the US has two great additional problems on the global stage in 2009. We have eight years' recent history of ineffective if not downright counterproductive foreign and domestic policy, and we have an economic crisis which has diminshed the US' primary weapon - trade - in the diplomatic sphere. Neither of these problems is any more likely to have been solved by now than the foreign relations they complicate.

The the US the world saw from 2000 through 2008 was a nation little interested in its principles and more concerned with its reach. Human rights advocates overseas learned quick and bitter lessons about pointing to the United States as an example for their own nations as the US proceeded down a narrow, theologically-inspired and injury-driven "good v. evil" path to foreign and social policy. As the costs and consequences of that direction mounted the US lost global credibility: as a military giant through becoming bogged down in a war launched on questionable grounds with a third-rate military power; as a defender of human rights through its regressive domestic policies toward women and the poor, and most shockingly toward the fighters it captured; and as an economic giant as ever more production capacity was shunted elsewhere and as bubble after economic bubble popped and decimated the nation's wealth. The prestige and perceived might of the US shrank noticeably during those years, and foreign powers are learning that they can assert themselves on the global stage and not face the just wrath of a US-led West. That they can do this is partly a measure of their own strength relative to the US' position and partly because the US squandered whatever justification it had in wielding that strength.

The Japanese, when they considered war with the US at the beginning of World War Two, were hesitant - not because the US had a formidable military machine at the outset, but because the US had the capacity to build one, and build it quickly. As the war progressed they learned that this hesitation was well-founded. It was not the "strong military" the Conservatists tout so often that defeated Japan and Germany in 1945: it was the unmatched productivity the US could muster, coupled with the will to employ it.

As late perhaps as 1980 that productivity remained unaltered. But the last three decades have seen industry do everything in its power to eliminate the most basic foundation of the US economy in the name of Efficiency and short term profit. The steel industry has been savaged along with most commodity-based businesses, the semiconductor industry that powered so much of early high-tech growth has been farmed out to Asia, the intellectual capital associated with industry has been sent overseas or re-imported as foreign professionals working for US business, and the earning power - and therefore inherent wealth - of the average US citizen has declined. When the GWoT was announced, rather than suggest that the nation needed to put its shoulder to the wheel and get the job done, the then White House urged the nation to shop. Left with little means to prop up its standard of living, the nation bet its very homes on both the premise that we could buy our way (with cheap imported products) to victory and the concept that such capital would always be available to us. Now we are losing our homes from having overbought and undersaved, and the value we counted on is much more than gone.

Even if the US is capable of rebuilding its net worth, it will takes years or perhaps decades to resume its place at the pinnacle of industrial might and unspent potential. It is this potential that has given the US leverage over its adversaries through its history. Now, without it, it is hardly surprising that the US' position on the global stage is diminished, and that others are stepping into the void our implosion created.

In turn, the tendency of recent memory has been to view international affairs through the lens of the corporate executive. As US business increasingly focuses on the next fiscal quarter and year, the economic approach has become increasingly myopic. The industrial focus on the short-term should by now have been thoroughly discredited, as giants from Enron to Lehmann to GM have been brutally chastened for looking after their share prices and quarterly forecasts more than their product. Short-term efficiencies have robbed the US of a key engine of recovery: the ability to produce our way out of recession. Likewise, in the political sphere the assumption that our voice (having been based on this massive economic engine we have proceeded to dismantle) is loudest is running into the harsh reality that Europe is now as wealthy as the US and at least as egalitarian and supportive of human rights, that China produces more and has the capacity to produce much more than that, and that even the smallest regional power is becoming unafraid of us simply because we no longer have the moral high ground or industrial capacity to outmatch them. In addition we have a popular impression if not an outright foreign policy advocacy based on the idea that what the US does today will influence the world tomorrow: there is no short-term advance in international affairs, only the long slow application of influence and the ultimate gradual capitulation to demand. That there have been setbacks registered as quickly as they have does not mean that progress can be achieved anything like as quickly. Yet somehow the punditocracy fails to see that advantage cannot be achieved on the global stage according to the accountant's calendar.

Again, none of these issues are new. But the unhappy synergy of the timing and ferocity of current setbacks has robbed the US of key foreign policy tools just when they are needed.

Reading back, it's quite possible that some British or French journalist was writing something remarkably similar in 1919. The Great War had ended, but the victors' domestic economies were in shambles and their empires mortgaged to the hilt to pay for the struggle. The cause of nationalism had been suddenly and loudly challenged by the Bolsheviks, and the brutality of trench warfare and the outdated strategies employed in the war had discredited both the military leadership and the class-based promotion system it followed. Europe was poor, exhausted, and facing a long hard road to rebuilding for peacetime. For the leadership, there was a new problem: a newly-powerful United States, lately come to the global stage and now wielding substantial industrial might and a very modern set of ideals: standing in the way of that juggernaut would be something not unlike suicide. But the US, having "won the war" was already packing up and heading home, leaving Europe to itself, so whether US ethics were palatable or not having to face them in order to gain US support was fast becoming a tolerable cost of an ideal but impossible prop.

Diehl suggests that the problems we are facing are not new, and that new approaches will not immediately yield results. This was good advice for our last president, who needed such lessons but little heeded them. The current White House should be very aware of them: indeed, the domestic political action of the first quarter indicates the Obama administration has a firm understanding of the long game and is prepared to play it and play it well, which ought to translate into the foreign policy sphere as it has in that of domestic policy.

Diehl's article also implies that the same bad choices are on the table now as in 2001. Demonisation of North Korea and Iran, however, was no more appropriate than welcome of Russia into US good graces based on some nebulous warm fuzziness between the US leader and Russia's: both the harsh words and the soft ones proved unfounded. The prior administration was apparently willing to base policy on personal relations between the president and foreign leaders: already the current administration has consciously avoided doing such, so at least that mistake will likely not be repeated.

Diehl's presumption that the Obama administration is able to blame all these ills on its predecessor is also facile, for the reasons I have stated. Bush certainly didn't create the animosity between the US and North Korea, between Sunni and Shia, between Palestinian and Israeli, or any of the other conflicts where the US has been at least interested. But hyperbolic, oversimplified grandstanding on the global stage, coupled at once with military adventurism questionable in both its incitement and consequence, with multiple economic collapses left essentially untended and with the implementation of narrow partisan ideology as national policy has certainly diminished US effectiveness. Those failures can and should be laid at Bush's feet.

The great tragedy of the matter is that in no sphere will doing so produce immediate results beyond the shocked recognition, from any conservative with a conscience, of the Orwellian state they allowed to flourish. The US' influence on the environmental and humanitarian stages will take years if not a generation to rebuild. The industrial clout may be gone for good. The military cudgel the US once wielded has taken a body blow, and the nation is not in any position to spend more on a Defense Department bloated by questionable weapons systems and both fattened by special provisions funding its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and sucked dry by the contractors required to support those activities. The various components that provided foundation and justification for US leadership on the global stage are in severe disrepair, and much blame for that can be attached to the policies - or lack thereof - of the last eight years. Merely announcing that those days are over, and that we now have a change of leadership, is not enough to alter either the frailty of the current US position on the global stage or the long-term policies and plans of other nations whose ideal results are still unknowable years or generations from now.

Yet once again, in Diehl we have a pundit writing what should be obvious: that history didn't start over with the the last election, that the short-term rarely produces gains on the international stage, and that not all the US' troubles are entirely the fault of the last president. In the last century or so there has been but one president who did not grasp that basic premise, and his term ended three months ago.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Quote of the Day

What must it be like to show up for a protest, denounce your Country, bad mouth the President, threaten armed revolt, and have your very own media outlet brand you a patriot.
- a reader responding to Ross Douthat's less-than-admirable take on the Teabaggers, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan.

On a related note, Douthat says he's leaving The Atlantic. Sullivan wishes him "Good Luck." Based on what little of Douthat's work I have read I, too, have a two word remark for him beginning with "Good" - and Luck has nothing to do with it.

Quiet Music for a Sleepy Saturday

Liane Foly, one of my favourite singers.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Of Law And Conscience

Much of the Conservatist reaction to releasing what are being called the “torture memos” is making a lot of noise about how future interrogators will feel unsure of their methods even though the DOJ has approved them. This is a highly troublesome position.

First, it assumes that the interrogators themselves are at some sort of risk by default. This is not all that irrational: interrogation is a highly subjective process, and the methods used are continually revisited as standards of conduct change. One would expect that any guidance received on the matter is temporary and likely to be revised or replaced in some future set of guidelines. However, the instances where individual interrogators have actually faced substantial prosecution and/or recrimination are few, and nearly all of those cases are against interrogators who stepped far beyond the lines of decency. There were, for example, very few if any such prosecutions following World War One, and while there have been many following World War Two those were for unnecessary cruelty in the Stalags, concentration camps and other similar sites and compelled by the ideologies that drove the governments responsible for them. In contrast, there have been relatively few such trials of interrogators in Chile, El Salvador or Guatemala, where such practices were not uncommon: the key culprits such as Pinochet have been the primary targets of legal proceedings.

Second, it assumes that personal ethics and sense of humanity are subordinate to the rule of law. If an individual interrogator is sufficiently disturbed by a particular technique to inquire as to its legality, that should in itself be a clear warning that, whether legal or not, the technique is probably not moral. It is not reasonable that an interrogator posing such a question should, on the assurances of his/her superiors, proceed blithely and unthinkingly with the technique following any such assurance. “It's OK – the AG signed off on this” may be an assurance of support from the administration, but it does not necessarily carry the force necessary to proceed without at least some questioning of moral rectitude.

Third, by implying that it is the interrogator, rather than the policymaker, that is to blame for any consequences of a particular technique. This would be true if the interrogator proceeded with a particular technique without discussing it with superiors, but far less so if the interrogator requests and is given explicit approval, and far less so if that technique is explicitly permitted in guidance proactively forwarded to the interrogator by the leadership. The implication is disingenuous, and dishonest, since it suggests that interrogators operate in a legal and moral vacuum unless provided guidance. By that suggestion, the first two listed assumptions are mooted simply because they remove the instruction deemed so fearful in them and hold the interrogator apart from the agency responsible for the interrogation. Questioning of detainees is rarely done without a reasonable understanding of the procedures, and acceptable conduct, of the process by those doing the questioning: this implication denies both that sensibility and the specific education required to perform such questioning.

Fourth, it addresses as piecemeal what has been implemented as policy. If a particular interrogation technique is employed without specific guidance or without specific prohibition, there is of course a risk to the interrogator that his/her methods may be questioned. However, if he technique is specifically listed as “approved” by agency or government policy, substantial risk to the interrogator is removed, and instead obtains to the agency or government that advocated the procedure in the first place. The authors of most of the statements denouncing the memos' release either do not or will not see this distinction: the moment a procedure becomes policy it mitigates the risk to the individuals employing it, thereby shielding them at least somewhat from pursuit should that policy change. Conversely, an agency or government that advocates more severe interrogation techniques runs a greater risk for that advocacy than one that does not, and risks (at least) its reputation and legality; while one that does not, regardless of the success or failure of its intelligence gathering efforts, will be far less susceptible to censure or prosecution for that.

Fifth, there are additional constraints in the US on what is acceptable behaviour than the opinions of the Department of Justice. The UCMJ, federal laws, codes of conduct and international treaty all bear on the the prosecution of war, the collection of intelligence, and the treatment of detainees. The behaviour of gaolkeepers should fall inside the constraints of the sum of these various instruments, not step outside certain ones as convenient. However, awareness of all such items requires a substantial level of education. This is where the guidance factors, though it depends on the honesty and integrity of the entities interpreting the sum of these codes. Action taken in ignorance of the obligations outlined in the sum of this guidance can be somewhat excused on the grounds of that ignorance: guidance given to those ignorant of the various laws and treaties that knowingly contradicts the sum of jurisprudence cannot. This is true whether the guidance given was given in somewhat less ignorance, or whether the guidance is in deliberate attempt to circumvent the letter and/or spirit of that jurisprudence, though the latter case is more egregious than the former and should be viewed as a more serious breach.

Last, and most importantly, interrogation should never be a process with which one is comfortable. The critics imply broadly that there will be a level of uncertainty in the intelligence community as to what is or will remain acceptable: for some reason the critics see this as unwise. Interrogation is a dangerous, morally challenging thing. It should always contain a certain level of discomfort: anyone involved in it who loses that runs the very great risk of becoming the kind of monster illustrated in countless tales of incarceration in places like Vietnam, North Korea, Nazi Germany and the like. For the critics to imply as they do that an interrogator can cheerfully go back to whatever inmate s/he was interrogating with a completely clear conscience after being given approval for the techniques being used is the pinnacle of impropriety.

Critics of the memo release have not created a straw man to argue for continued secrecy in interrogation techniques. However, they have sought to misdirect the concern away from the government that designed, approved and advocated some of the most horrendous practices in recent memory and toward the footsoldiers of the interrogation community tasked with applying them. This is dishonest, misleading and counterproductive.