April 2009


Barack Obama kept the man that George Bush reluctantly appointed SecDef as his SecDef. This is truly a bizarre thing but I suspect that it will go down in history as one of the smartest things he did. I’m willing to believe news reports that Obama didn’t entirely want to do this either. Think about it, you’re basically saying “gosh, I have to keep the guy appointed to a key job by the deeply unpopular guy I’m replacing….” It doesn’t look pretty politically for all sorts of reasons. But whatever the politics of the decision, it seems that the two men have developed a very functional relationship, and not a moment too soon given the fact that, not to put too fine a point on it, we are in two wars and dealing with numerous other unpleasant contingencies that require attention from men with guns.

Take a look at Gates’ recent speech to the Air War College, though. For those of you who don’t know, the Air Force is one of the greatest bureaucratic warrior organizations around. They are fantastic at this, the acknowledged masters, so Gates pretty much has to win roll the USAF to win this. Anyway, the speech is worth reading in its entirety but I’ve extracted a few choice bits. It’s full of a refreshing empiricism that seemed lacking in Rumsfeld, e.g.,

Another theme underlying my recommendations is the need to think about future conflicts in a different way. To recognize that the black and white distinction between irregular war and conventional war is an outdated model. We must understand that we face a more complex future than that, a future where all conflict will range along a broad spectrum of operations and lethality. Where near-peers will use irregular or asymmetric tactics and non-state actors may have weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated missiles as well as AK-47s and RPGs. This kind of warfare will require capabilities with the maximum possible flexibility to deal with the widest possible range of conflict.

Another important thing I looked at was whether modernization programs, in particular ground modernization programs, had incorporated the operational and combat experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem with the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicles was that a program designed nine years ago did not adequately reflect the lessons of close-quarter combat and improvised explosive devices that have taken a fearsome toll on our troops and their vehicles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

We have to be prepared for the wars we are most likely to fight – not just the wars we’re best suited to fight, or threats we conjure up from potential adversaries with unlimited time and resources. And as I’ve said before, even when considering challenges from nation-states with modern militaries, the answer is not necessarily buying more technologically advanced versions of what we built – on land, sea, or air – to stop the Soviets during the Cold War.

Of course, a pretty speech doesn’t make reality. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and in Washington there are many: Contractors, the military itself (sadly), Congress, etc. But if the SecDef doesn’t make a real, realistic hard-nosed but not dictatorial, empirically-based start at reforming the Pentagon bureaucracy, who will?

Now it’s up to Obama to back Gates again. Choosing the right man for the job is probably the easier part.

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Part of an arbitrarily continuing, i.e., when I feel like it, series on education….

One of my favorite books I read as a graduate student taking an economics class was 1970 title by the economist Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. This is a very nicely written book that examines two possible responses of consumers (broadly defined) to a perceived decline in products consumed (again, broadly defined). In a nutshell, the logic of exit says “Let’s blow this popsicle stand” while the logic of voice decries the fact that the popsicle stand in question that it is “all f$%@ed up!” Both mechanisms have their virtues. Over the last few decades, market-driven exit has been much favored over the politics-driven voice in American life, but as Hirschman notes, exit at best tells an organization that there is a problem—assuming they’re looking, and all too often too late—while voice has the potential of providing information for a solution.

I already noted that the Panic of 2008 may (hopefully) lead to a rebalancing of priorities of smart people who were tempted by big dinero working on Wall Street. A cover story in The Atlantic a few months back discusses the effect on cities. (Yes, I read The Atlantic heavily, in case you hadn’t figured that out by now.)

Well this one is about the kiddies, or, more particularly, their parents. Aspiring parents have, over the last few decades, decided to exit the public schools, either by sending Junior to a private school or moving to a different town (which amounts to sending Junior to a private school, where tuition is known as “property tax”). This has left behind the parents least willing or able to say “all f$%@ed up!” and do something about it. In fact the school example is one in Hirschman’s book. Hirschman was a bright guy to have thought of all this forty years ago when exit, aka “white flight,” was at its peak and the consequences were not yet clear (as they would be ten years later in places like New York). Obviously proposals such as charter schools and vouchers are designed to make exit easier for all, not just those wealthy enough to afford to move to the district with, e.g., New Trier, where cities feeding the district have per capita incomes on par with pre-crash Manhattan(!). Like Hirschman, I muse whether more exit is really the right way to go, but I’ll leave that debate to some other rant.

Last year, before the scope of the Panic of 2008 had, the perspicacious and always a bit acerbic writer Sandra Tsing Loh, a fortysomething mom in Los Angeles, contributed this little piece to The Atlantic about how she stopped paying attention to Jonathan “Savage Inequalities” Kozol and got down to work, when she realized she couldn’t afford to live in LA and send her kids to private school. (I’m still bitter I was forced to read Kozol as an undergrad. Whatever the merits of his case, the writing is the non-fiction equivalent of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie.)

Well recently I noticed this about parents in Manhattan in the New York Times. Maybe, just maybe, the Panic of 2008 will lead to a regeneration of the public schools, when caring, reasonably affluent, and ever so obnoxious parents like Loh—the kind unwilling to take no for an answer when their kids have to use decrepit materials and facilities, taught by staff lorded over all too often by ossified bureaucracies—make a return, where they will rapidly realize that the problems now faced by Avery, Brock and Caleb are pretty much the same as those DeShawn, Esmerelda, and Frankie have been facing for quite some time now, and then start exercising some voice. Because, let’s face it, you don’t care so much about things in the abstract as you do when you’re being confronted by it on a day to day basis and have a personal stake in it….

What is it about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics that attracts the socially inept? I’m not just talking about the lack of hygiene issues some dorks have, the tendency of geeks not to bathe, or even the very disturbing lack of respect for personal space some open source weenies display. Specifically I’m talking about the inability of many dweebs, especially in technology, to understand when and where certain types of jokes or behaviours are appropriate. It has lately come to my attention that the cadre of foul smelling basement trolls, behind the (incredibly useful) open source plotting tool gnuplot, have decided it’s perfectly professional to throw up a pornographic picture on their tool’s manual. Sure it’s “just a line drawing”, but it’s the kind of line drawing that if you used as your background at work would get you sued for sexual harassment, and rightly so.

Evidently the nerds behind gnuplot don’t get out of their filth ridden cave very often, or if they do, rarely see beyond their bristly neck beards, because otherwise you’d think they would realize that this sort of objectification of women, *especially* in a field where women are under represented, and often intimidated by the chauvinistic exclusionism which pervades the field, is not cool in a professional context. I’ve talked to many people who are angry about this particular infantile prank, and the worst part is, it seems the folks at gnuplot have been asked several times to take down the image, or move it off of the professional portion of the site. A quick Google search turns up a lot of irate messages from people who have been trying to get the gnuplot folks to have shred of adult conscience with no avail.

I’d like to ask our readers to write to the gnuplot dev team (gnuplot-beta@lists.sourceforge.net), and ask them to move this image off of their tool’s site. It’s degrading to women, disrespectful to professionals in the field, and utterly unprofessional. I’ve sent my own message, and if I don’t see some change, will likely be reporting their behaviour to the IEEE and ACM, both of which have codes of conduct which prohibit this sort of behaviour in professional contexts.

Hopefully this is a very poor representation of the men in the field. I’d like to believe professionals in technology have grown up a bit, but displays like this one make me doubt the maturity of anyone who works with computers. Left unanswered, stunts like this reinforce the unfortunate opinion that behavior like this acceptable in a professional context. Its no secret that the field of CS is currently lacking in raw talent, there simply aren’t enough Computer Scientists at the present as evidenced by the current trend of outsourcing amongst top companies. The field needs more creativity, diversity, and skilled professionals. By behaving in a way that excludes women, the socially ept, and men with an adult sense of humor these bozos are pretty much ensuring CS won’t be recruiting the kinds of people it needs.

Hillary and "John Smith"

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Things in Washington seem to be quiet at last after the last day’s worth of events. Shortly after the statement of John Smith from London, a 1950’s era police box appeared on the White House Lawn with an army of Cheney clones ready to open fire. At that moment a crack force known only as the Wolverenes lead by actor-cum-badass Chuck Norris dropped via parachute onto the lawn to engage the clone army. Obama sycophant David Axelrod was at the scene preparing babies for Cheney’s consumption. He says:

“We were all forced to do horrible, unspeakable things at the hands of President Cheney, lest we be shot in the face by the clone army. Suddenly the clone army assembled as a 1950’s era British police box appeared out of nowhere on the lawn. Immediately thereafter, Chuck Norris’ crack team showed up and engaged the army in a wicked fight. That man’s chief export is pain, but I doubt that he knew what a machine Dick Cheney really was. Anyway, in the midst of the fighting, this John Smith fellow and some woman I couldn’t make out slipped out of the police box and headed for the Oval Office. Since I had recently finished soiling myself, I followed on hands and knees to see what was happening.”

Accounts from this point differ, but it appears that Mr. Smith confronted a well prepared President Cheney in his office fortress. After capturing Mr. Smith in a sonic net, President Cheney took the opportunity to gloat:

“Leave it to a foreigner to send an alien to fight me! To slothful to fight their own battles in Iraq or Afghanistan, even now as I cement my reign on this planet, they cannot be bothered to fight for themselves. I look forward to consuming their bloated, decadent flesh, as I will consume yours, Doctor, for I know who you are.”

According to Mr. Axelrod, Mr. Smith then responded,

“I think not Dick, or can I call you Richard, you know I’ve always preferred the name ever since I met Richard the First, great chap. Anyway, where was I? Oh right, stopping you from taking over the earth.”

Mr. Cheney replied:

“And you will do this how?”

Mr. Smith responded:

“First, your sonic net is no match for my sonic screwdriver, and second, I was just trying to distract you while she hit you over the head.”

At that point, Senator Hillary Clinton hit Mr. Cheney over the head with what appeared to be a copy of Ann Coulter’s latest book, Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America. By the time Mr. Cheney recovered consciousness, his clone army had suffered a viscous beating at the hands of Chuck Norris, a man who does not get frostbite; rather he bites frost. Mr. Cheney immediately triggered his teleportation device and oddly forgoing the usual “I’ll be back” speech, returned to his waiting spacecraft and left earth. By this time the mysterious Mr. Smith and his more mysterious police box has vanished.

A spokeswoman for Senator Clinton said she’d be spending some time away from Washington, looking at the stars. Besides, the Senator noted, there may be some world that really would want her to be president.

LONDON (AFP) – A man close to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, going only by the name “John Smith” has announced to the world that this is President Cheney’s last chance before his utter annihilation. Mr. Smith remarked as follows:

“I address the Aphrilotexans, and their leader Che’ney, according to convention 15 of the Shadow Proclamation. If I might observe, you infiltrated this civilization by means of warped, shunt technology. So, may I suggest, with the greatest respect, that you shunt off? I give you one last chance. I can find you a planet. I can find you a place in the universe to coexist. Take that offer and end this now. Fail to do that and you will only be bringing your end upon yourselves.”

President Cheney’s spokescheney at the White House had only one comment: “Go f@#$ yourself, Doctor,” and placed US forces on DEFCON 1.

The President at his press conference.

The President at His Press Conference.

CHENEYVILLE (AFP) – In a shocking admission, a smirking President Cheney openly confirmed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent allegation that the President, and his clone army, are of extraterrestrial origin:

“Alien? Yes, of course. Wait, you really didn’t know? Nobody. I mean, you didn’t suspect? Even after the Bush years? Heh, your species is even dumber than I thought. Yes, I am an alien, from a far more advanced and far more intelligent species. But I take issue with the whole “not friendly” claim.

What does Mr. Brown use to back up his “not friendly” claim: my love of shooting people in the face? My different, and substantially more advanced, biology? That is typical European elitism. My fellow Americans, are we not a nation of immigrants? Don’t we welcome anyone to our great country who believes in the ideals of America? And what, I ask you, could be more American than blasting annoying idiots in the face with a shotgun!”

The President’s remarks were greated by shouts of support and applause, and not simply from the terrified former White House Press Corps which the President has now directed to act as his own personal studio audience. Smirking widely at the crowd, the President continued:

“Yes, I am an alien, and an American, and I can promise America will share in our powerful alien technology! Saucers, death beams, indestructible war machines that look like pepper shakers…we’ve got them all, and soon, so will you! And that will bring a new era of prosperity to you, America. No longer will you have to ‘trade’ for foreign goods. No longer will you be slaves to foreign debt. No, my fellow Americans, we will just take what we want, and death to any foreigner who tries to stop us!!!

The President was forced to pause at this point due to a spontaneous chorus of “USA, USA” from the assembled crowd. When he was able to continue he made one final promise:

“And, finally, we will not only end poverty through plunder, but, my friends, hunger itself. With the world’s infants available for our consumption, no American will ever want for food. Just think, all the sweet succulent baby flesh that any Texan…or human…could want…eh, am I hungry, well, gotta go, there’s a whole British embassy’s worth of tasty little ones waiting in the White House dining room!”

This correspondent asked numerous attendees to comment upon the President’s final remarks, but there was no consensus on what these words might mean or just how the world’s supply of young children might be made available for American use. White House spokescheneys said that a detailed plan would be provided “after lunch.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown Addresses the World

Gordon Brown Addresses the World

LONDON (AFP) – Responding to recent statements by the self-proclaimed “The One True President” of the United States, Dick Cheney, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a press conference at Westminster. Here are his remarks in full:

“Members of Parliament and Citizens of the World. A few hours ago, Dick Cheney’s clone army seized control of the White House and the American Presidency. President Obama was injured during the attack, but escaped due to the assistance of a friend and ally of the British Crown. He is currently in London recuperating, wishing that I had a Region 1 DVD player to play those DVDs he gave me the other month. Sadly, nobody in Mr. Obama’s office seemed to realize that the UK is in Region 2 and now I’m stuck with useless DVDs. Well, Mr. Obama can meditate on that for a while he’s watching Are You Being Served reruns.

As for Mr. Cheney and his army, they are from an alien species known only as Aphrilotexans and they are not friendly to the human race. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I am quite certain this is true. They are armed and very dangerous and have a penchant for excessive shotgun usage and public executions. And they drink the blood of the living, just to be clear.

To the American people, I have but one message: We stand together. Lucky for us that’s several thousand miles away.

God save the Queen. God save us all.”

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