Saturday, September 30, 2006

Bob Woodward and the TSA

Bob Woodward has published his ninth or tenth version of All the President's Men - that is not exactly true but how else would you explain the "journalistic" work of a guy who has spent a career of working on what Former Mayor Richard Daley used to call "insinuendo?" Indeed, there have been divisions in the administration about the policy in Iraq and also it is clear that some of the decisions made by the Bush administration do not seem to have been the best in hindsight. That is the power of hindsight. At the same time, personalities that work for the president do not seem to all 'just be friends' - but so what? Bush's policies can and should be analyzed and criticized but Woodward seems to have made a career, after ATPM, on writing about small differences in personality and politics. Is the administration still committed to the outlines of the Iraq policy we started several years ago? Of course. Have there been adjustments in that policy? Yes.

Why in the world should I tie this to the TSA? A good deal of what any political city works on is gossip. Gossip has a much higher chance of being important in inverse relationship to how much energy a person puts into their labor. As I was going through the Seattle Airport this morning I counted, just for fun, the number of PSA with TSA uniforms. By my count, and being very generous, there was a ratio of about 1:3 (PSA - People Standing Around/Transportation Security Administration personnel). That seems like a pretty rich staffing ratio. I am sure it all worked out with a formula. As I got through my line I was able to listen to three employees discussing whether the female in the group should wear her hair up or down and whether that would make her more or less "sexy" to one of the other PSAs. Were this done by the private sector, the work flows would have been carefully analyzed and there would be fewer PSAs. I fault the administration and the GOP in Congress for giving up on a principle of the benefits of the market based alternatives. But that does not mean I will read the entire Woodward book. I read enough of it in the Seattle Post Intelligencer to understand that I had read the book before - only the names and the situations were changed.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Does the Long Tail affect universities?

I gave a speech yesterday to a board of trustees in which I argued that the setting for higher education has changed in some fundamental ways. Three forces have caused that. They are:

JITI (Just in Time Information) - When I was a freshman, there was an obligatory orientation exercise to learn how to use the library. We also learned, with appropriate solemnity, that the New York Times was "the paper of record" for learned people. The skill I learned then about how to use the library is an interesting artifact and were the idea that there was one appropriate source of the day's events. It is true no longer. This generation of students, and actually as Chris Anderson points out in his book the Long Tail, beginning in 2001, have never not known a digital age. Now students understand Wickipedia, and Google and all sorts of other alternative sources of information. The breadth of information in much more infinite and yet the authority is not much less pronounced. Students have the ability to get their information the way manufacturers get their supply inputs when they need them.

The Long Tail - When I first read Chris Anderson's article on the Long Tail in Wired I was intrigued, but as I completed his book, I was amazed. Anderson explains that in a wide range of products, there is now the possibility that one can make wide ranges of consumer choices. The power of that effect is changing the way that we get digital content. Indeed, I would argue that the power also is changing the way we get other products. There are some who argue that the breadth of choice is scary (Anderson reviews the Paradox of Choice and also some consumer research on the awesome nature of choice - the so called jam experiments - where consumers seemed to reject more choices of kinds of jam) but as Anderson points out which the right guiding systems, choice becomes useful. Indeed, the ability to select from an almost unlimited set of choices in an area helps improve consumer satisfaction. There are also some who argue that the breadth somehow destroys community, but as Anderson points out, actually new communities are built. Virginia Postrel has written extensively about the benefits of consumer choice including a book praising the democratization of style.

The Wisdom of Crowds - James Suroweicki's book on how, under the right conditions, people make better choice than individuals do, suggests that a good deal of our important decisions and work will take place collaboratively rather than individuallly.

How do these three trends affect colleges and universities? This generation and future ones of students will recognize the power of JITI and wide choice. Colleges need to think about their educational programs in ways that will recognize that the new generation of students will not come to campus with a willingness to be confined to a library or a single set of facts. They need to improve skills in making the hunt for information but also in ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the same time, colleges that figure out the Long Tail will do better. Colleges need to define themselves in ways that will differentiate themselves from the 3599 other colleges in the American universe of colleges or even more approrpriately the thousands of universities around the world. Finally, they need to think about how to encourage the skills of collaborative decision making - because this generation and future ones will need to be able to work in groups.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tax the Rich - lower the rates

The Joint Economic Committee just released a report on tax shares by income. Currently the top 50% of earners in the country pay more than 97% of all taxes. (That is $64,401 in AGI). But even more interesting is that fact that the top 1% pays the highest percentage of tax in many years - with about 19% of the income share they pay 36.9% of the total tax burden in the income tax.

This is an old story that should not be surprising - but for many it is.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Idiotic Bureaucratic Authority - the TSA

Note - this image is not the Director of the TSA. (Or is it?)

Soon after the creation of Homeland Security, we had an extended debate in Congress about whether it would improve or diminish safety of air travelers to have public or private employees doing the job. Supporters of public employees argued that the private employees who had been used up until then were poorly screened and trained. But supporters of the private sector argued that those defects could be resolved and more importantly, private employees would be more responsive to the public's needs and concerns. In the end the democrats who have never met a public employee they did not like, prevailed because the GOP did not really care about the issue and worried about being called soft on security.

So the Transportation Security Administration was created. Affectionately known as the TSA (most people understand that it should be called Thousands Standing Around) it has worked its magic for the last several years. Soon after the London terror arrests the TSA introduced new and relatively restrictive rules for carryons. Fundamentally, it prohibited travelers from bringing liquids and gels except for prescriptions and some other very limited categories. But even the TSA soon found the error of its ways and authorized minute quantities of non-prescription materials.

On the TSA website the following explanation was offered of what a traveler could take on the plane - "Essential non-prescription liquid and gel medications up to 4 oz per container (including saline solution, eye care products, and KY jelly)." Any normal reading of that standard would be that I could take small quantities of non-prescription medications (presumably including toothpaste) in my carryon. For the past two days I have been stopped by TSA personnel for a 3 OZ tube of toothpaste and tonight for a minute (probably one ounce or less) quantity of Nose Better - which is a product used to help clear up congestion and dryness in nasal passages. It is clear that the employees who forced these diverstitures had not read their own websites. The site also says passengers can carryon - "All creams and lotions including Neosporin or first-aid creams and ointments, topical or rash creams and ointments, suntan lotions, moisturizers, etc." The site also list toothpaste of less than three ounces as acceptable. This is before the change in the regulations which takes effect on September 26.

Tonight was particularly galling. All of my materials in Sacramento got through. But in San Francisco, I was stopped in a random check and when the TSA flunkie inspected my carryon she discovered an almost used up tube of toothpaste (which was originally less than an ounce) and the Nose Better in addition to the Ayr - which is similar to the Nose Better. I argued with the moron saying a) the TSA site say you can take these kinds of things on and b) the TSA had announced that tomorrow even the rules which were cited above would be relaxed if people put their items in a quart ziplock bag. She would not budge. Unfortunately, I did not have the printout of the words on the site.

The TSA has not been demonstratably more effective than the private employees were prior to its creation in finding potential terrorists. What they have been very effective at is annoying the public with bizarre rituals. They have also been incredibly slow at creating a "trusted" traveller program for those of us who fly a lot and who would be willing to submit more information about ourselves in exchange for allegedly faster shots through airports. The loss of a small tube of toothpaste and a medication I find handy was not at all distressing. But it is distressing that they would feel it necessary to be extra bureaucratic on the eve of an announced change in the regulations.

Bureaucracy is always annoying. But in this case it is particularly annoying because they seemed to want to clamp down in two airports before a loosening on the next day.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Using the New Express Card from Verizon

For anyone who travels a lot, connecting to the internet when you are on the road is sometimes a pain. I wrote earlier about the problems I had with T-Mobile and their ditzy email responses to a question. But this week I bought one of the new Express Card cellular modems from Verizon. The program is not for the casual user. The card costs under $200 and then the monthly bill is about $80. But the connection speeds are pretty good. It allows you to connect via their National Access Network which is at least four or five times faster than the T-Mobile GPRS network.

As noted earlier I tried several times to get T-Mobile to suggest a device but even though I tried they did not come up with anything useful. Thus, this week when I had a couple of minutes I stopped by a Verizon store and saw the card demoed and then bought one. I have had one problem with the card in the initial start-up but that was resolved by the Verizon technical staff in pretty good fashion.

This card is compatible with the Express card slot for the Mac Probook - and Verizon seems to have taken into account that a pretty good fraction of users who are mobile use Macs. For now this looks to me like a great solution. I will quit T-Mobile completely. I really liked the ability to use the T-Mobile hotspots in Starbucks. One can get a drink and use the network in lots of places. I can still use the hotspots at Starbucks but now I will be on the Verizon network.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Polls versus Checks

Over the last few weeks the pollsters have given us the opportunity to what the RCP blog calls 'seasickness' - on the one hand the "generic" congressional vote polls and the president's approval numbers have seemed to recover somewhat. The generic poll seems to be at dead even. The president has broken into the mid-40 numbers. On the other a new poll on Congress says that a mere 25% of the voters believe the body is doing a good job. ( I am frankly surprised that the number breaks double digits.)

So what is political junkie to do? As I have suggested to one of my good friends who has this kind of addiction, look to the larger issues not the day to day polls. Here are a couple of impressions about 5+ weeks before the election. #1 - the voters are annoyed at Bush and the Congress. There are a whole raft of reasons - many of which I think are short sighted. #2 - They do not like the Iraq policy, they think the economy is stalled, they think Congress is a den of thieves. #3 - On the other hand they look at the democrats and they see a couple of things - they think their cut and run policy is probably as troubling as the president's stridency on terrorism (I think in the end they prefer the president's stridency to the democrat's cut and run), the dems do not seem to have followed through on their plan they announced with fanfare in July (a plan is not a list). #4 - the dems should be annoyed that the UN General Assembly opening happened so close to the election - having Chavez and the other loons rant on our soil will not sit well. It even may help to reinforce the president's view on terror. The reaction to the Pope's university speech I think will also reinforce the dangers in the world. #5 - But the GOP should not be complacent if it wants to win. Their fund raising seems to have picked up and they will need lots of dough - although strangely, I am not sure that the ads in this campaign will make much difference - a lot of the undercurrents in the election will not be able to be reduced to 30 second spots.

So what happens in November? At this point were I forced to choose (and I do not have to until November), I think the election will be a lot closer than most of the main stream media think.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How seriously should we take the UN?

You may not have seen the wedding announcement in your local papers. But I was tempted to put up something humorous as a result of a speech today by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Chavez had the audacity or the bad taste to refer to the President of the United States as the "devil" and to make numerous "humorous" references to sulphur and other things that remained in the chambers of the General Assembly. He held up a copy of one of Noam Chomsky's books to explain what Americans should be reading. Chomsky is that notoriously left wing scold who has made a career of yapping about how terrible the US is. His most recent affront, at least that I know of, was his support of Hezbollah before the start of hostilities in Lebanon. That Chavez think's Chomsky should be on everyone's reading list is not a surprise. Chavez made those remarks after the Iranian president Ahmadinejad closed his tirade to the General Assembly with a prayer, that at least in my ears suggested that he hoped that the only acceptable future he could see is one of Islamic domination.

The night before Ahmadinejad's speech, NBC news commentator Brian Williams did an abysmal job of interviewing the "world leader" who among other things has denied the holocaust, suggested that Isreal should be wiped off the map and funded terrorists around the world. But Williams, seemingly trying to mirror Mike Wallace's lapdog performance seemed intent on asking softballs to Mr. Ahmadinejad. Wallace's performance could be at least partially excused as a result of his age and because his interview was done in Iran and thus conceivably if the president thought Wallace touched on too sensitive a subject he might be offed. But Williams had no such excuse. Presumably if Williams were a real news guy he might ask some tough questions but he did not. The Council on Foreign Relations seems to have given the Iranian president a tougher time than any journalist.

Chavez and Ahmadinejad's speech were two of the more entertaining rants offered to the assembled delegates. The ritual of giving equal stature to every nutcase from any country to be able to talk to the world is increasingly less useful. Chavez knew he had an audience. And like Idi Amin, who also made outrageous remarks at the UN, his remarks were designed to show how very little Mr. Chavez respects the UN. We know how he feels about the US, but his speech also suggests that he thinks the UN is a place not for diplomacy but for a world wide press conference.

With that kind of two day agenda I wonder whether these kinds of international gatherings have any promise. The evidence is not. But there was one bright spot, I have often criticized Madeline Albright but in this case the former Secretary of State condemned Chavez's remarks. That was the right thing to do.

Monday, September 18, 2006

All Saints Pasadena v. the IRS

I have watched the development of the issues surrounding All Saints Pasadena and the Internal Revenue Service with interest. My wife and I were married there in 1969. I followed the activities of the rector emeritus with great interest and concern. His approach to religious discussion was in my opinion detrimental to the denomination that I grew up in. But I also am inherently suspicious of any governmental organization snooping into a religious organization. The law seems to be pretty clear - although not entirely and therein lies the rub. Churches cannot be used to promote political beliefs and retain their exempt status. In the sermon below, Regas set up a situation where Jesus "debated" the two leading candidates for the presidency in an election that would take place just two days hence. The sermon purports to have Jesus dialogue with both candidates on three important issues. But a careful reading supports a view much more closely aligned with Kerry than Bush. He (Regas) assumes that Jesus would support not responding to the threat of terrorism. He also assumes that Jesus would support expansions of governmental power and programs, even though there is substantial evidence that they have not achieved positive results and have also often reduced individual initiative. In a strange sense I suspect that Regas would reject faith based initiatives proposed by the Administration but would accept considerably more governmental influence on things like poverty programs. I find that incongruous.

In my opinion, Rev. Regas knew what he was doing. He clearly states a preference in the speech for one candidate over another. But I am still not sure whether this, in the eyes of the law, constitutes political activity. Regas has some absurd beliefs. He ignores a good part of the Gospels and their concern about governmental power. He argues that his brand of Christianity is superior to the brand professed by conservative Christians. But a good deal of his Christianity is based on the notion that functions of charity are better done by government than by religious congregations. The Episcopal faith has always been a denomination of wide tolerance of views. Regas' branch of it has moved the national church very close to a division that may be profound. The Church has a process for thinking about decisions that the majority in the American church has fundamentally ignored.

But the question is - even with that pronounced intolerance for a wider range of beliefs - did Regas overstep his role as a pastor and step into the role of being a political advocate? I abhor a good deal of what Regas has professed. I profoundly disagree with his conclusions in his sermon. But I do not believe that his speech violated the IRS guidelines.

Further, I would support the parish in resisting the IRS request for documents. The IRS has fundamentally asked for every possibly political document that was produced in the church over a fairly extended period of time. The best way to sort this out is to bring this into the legal system immediately, which is what the church seems to be trying to do.

Religious institutions need a wide range of latitude in exploring issues of faith. In a country where 40+% of our GDP goes to government, a religious figure cannot avoid talking about political matters. But that does not breach the bounds of appropriate behavior.

The bounds of intellectual expression

I have written a lot about the uses and abuses of intellectual freedom on university campuses. But about a week ago a story came out on the attempt by China to restrict what Wikipedia could put in its encyclopedia. The Wiki idea is an interesting one. It allows anyone to help create an entry - there is a hierarchy however, in that editors can go through and correct obvious errors and can take out screeds. I have contributed in a the areas that I know something about. As they have said to Google and Microsoft and Yahoo, the Chinese government banned such a radical idea as Wikipedia. The other providers have knuckled under to the Chinese demands but Wikipedia said - ok so you want to deprive your people of this kind of information - so be it. But we (wikipedia) have established a set of rules that everyone else is willing to play by and we have decided that people who want to control the discussion of some issues - either through censorship or through rants - won't be allowed to contribute or ultimately to use the resources of this collaborative human project.

The founder of Wikipedia is a guy named Jimmy Wales - his picture is attached. From my view he sounds like a pretty sensible guy. I think the Wiki stand to China was the right one. Interestingly, today a Belgian court prohibited Google from using pointers to talk about news in Belgian newspapers. So Google knuckled under to China only to be knuckled over by a Belgian court. At the same time the publishers of out of date books are trying to sabotage a project, again by Google, to digitize libraries. In that case what is the effect? Belgian newspapers are a little less available on the net and thus a lot less influential in helping the rest of the world read about their news and views. In the end that hurts the very papers that the court was trying to protect. And for the libraries that can't be digitized? Their information, again is a bit less available, and thus a bit less valuable - both to the individual and to the holder of the copyright.

Chris Anderson, an editor of Wired Magazine, wrote an article that expanded into a ChangeThis! Memorandum and eventually into a book called the Long Tail. In it he argues that the value of content is extensible in digital form - where as in physical form it is hard to keep an inventory of many things - in the digital form content can be replicated to a specific, albeit potentially small group of interested parties. The more we understand the principle and the more we understand the relative ease by which people can retreive and use odd units of information, and simultaneously the more we understand that the previous limits of expertise have been redefined as simply too narrow. The better we will be for it.

The decline of the LA Times

In ancient history the LA Times was a pretty sad journalistic enterprise. But around the turn of the fifties to the sixties the Times began to awaken. For a while it was one of the best papers in the country. No more. In the last year it has lost more than 5% of its readership. The news pages look a lot like editorial pages and the editorial pages are so thoroughly predictable that one could easily simply xerox old columns and paste them in.

About 2000 the Chandler family, which had controlled the times for a very long time, sold out to the Tribune company. That sale only accelerated the declines in the paper. The Trib's editorial policy seems to be "ignore LA" and so coverage of local issues has been significantly reduced.

There seems to be, according to the WSJ, an attempt by a couple of local people to recapture the times. The WSJ story names grocery wizard Ron Burkle and developer and schools champion Eli Broad (both prominent in LA and in democrat politics in California) and David Geffen, record producer as being interested in taking back this California resource. I am not sure how any of these - or others mentioned in the article - would run the Times. But it is pretty clear that each of them would probably not significantly change the editorial positions of the paper but would assuredly concentrate a lot more on local and California news. In the long term that would be good for the state and good for the profession of journalism - even if some of us would rather that the Times also balance its perspective on its editorial page.

One funny comment came from the story. George Keiffer, who is a local attorney that has been involved in some of the discussions about ownership by locals. He was asked about the rumors surrounding whether these people were involved in trying to repurchase the paper. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea to speak with them because, as he phrased it "I don't necessarily believe everything I read in the paper." Evidently, a lot of Mr. Keiffer's fellow Angelenos feel the same way.

A remarkable letter from Iraq

A friend who was in Special Forces forwarded the letter from a marine in Iraq which I found remarkable. I thought it deserved wider views. I am thankful for thoughtful and committed people like this.

All: I haven't written very much from Iraq. There's really not much to write about. More exactly, there's not much I can write about because practically everything I do, read or hear is classified military information or is depressing to the point that I'd rather just forget about it, never mind write about it. The gaps in between all of that are filled with the pure tedium of daily life in an armed camp. So it's a bit of a struggle to think of anything to put into a letter that's worth reading.Worse, this place just consumes you. I work 18-20-hour days, every day. The quest to draw a clear picture of what the insurgents are up to never ends. Problems and frictions crop up faster than solutions. Every challenge demands a response. It's like this every day. Before I know it, I can't see straight, because it's 0400 and I've been at work for twenty hours straight, somehow missing dinner again in the process. And once aga in I haven't written to anyone. It starts all over again four hours later. It's not really like Ground Hog Day, it's more like a level from Dante's Inferno.

Rather than attempting to sum up the last seven months, I figured I'd just hit the record setting highlights of 2006 in Iraq. These are among the events and experiences I'll remember best.

Worst Case of Déjà Vu - I thought I was familiar with the feeling of déjà vu until I arrived back here in Fallujah in February. The moment I stepped off of the helicopter, just as dawn broke, and saw the camp just as I had left it ten months before - that was déjà vu. Kind of unnerving. It was as if I had never left. Same work area, same busted desk, same chair, same computer, same room, same creaky rack, same . . . everything. Same everything for the next year. It was like entering a parallel universe. Home wasn't 10,000 miles away, it was a different lifetime.

Most Surreal Moment - Watching Marines arrive at my detentio n facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. I had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.

Most Profound Man in Iraq - an unidentified farmer in a fairly remote area who, after being asked by Reconnaissance Marines (searching for Syrians) if he had seen any foreign fighters in the area replied "Yes, you."

Worst City in al-Anbar Province - Ramadi, hands down. The provincial capital of 400,000 people. Killed over 1,000 insurgents in there since we arrived in February. Every day is a nasty gun battle. They blast us with giant bombs in the road, snipers, mortars and small arms. We blast them with tanks, attack helicopters, artillery, our snipers (much better than theirs), and every weapon that an infantryman can carry. Every day. Incredibly, I rarely see Ramadi in the news. We have as many attacks out here in the west as Baghdad. Yet, Baghdad has 7 million people, we have just 1.2 million. Per capita, al-Anbar province is the most violent place in Iraq by several orders of magnitude. I suppose it was no accident that the Marines were assigned this area in 2003.

Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - Any Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician (EOD Tech). How'd you like a job that required you to defuse bombs in a hole in the middle of the road that very likely are booby-trapped or connected by wire to a bad guy who's just waiting for you to get close to the bomb before he clicks the detonator? Every day. Sanitation workers in New York Cit y get paid more than these guys. Talk about courage and commitment.

Second Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - It's a 20,000 way tie among all the Marines and Soldiers who venture out on the highways and through the towns of al-Anbar every day, not knowing if it will be their last - and for a couple of them, it will be.

Best Piece of U.S. Gear - new, bullet-proof flak jackets. O.K., they weigh 40 lbs and aren't exactly comfortable in 120 degree heat, but they've saved countless lives out here.

Best Piece of Bad Guy Gear - Armor Piercing ammunition that goes right through the new flak jackets and the Marines inside them.

Worst E-Mail Message - "The Walking Blood Bank is Activated. We need blood type A+ stat." I always head down to the surgical unit as soon as I get these messages, but I never give blood - there's always about 80 Marines in line, night or day.

Biggest Surprise - Iraqi Police. All local guys. I never figured that we'd get a police for reestablished in the cities in al-Anbar. I estimated that insurgents would kill the first few, scaring off the rest. Well, insurgents did kill the first few, but the cops kept on coming. The insurgents continue to target the police, killing them in their homes and on the streets, but the cops won't give up. Absolutely incredible tenacity. The insurgents know that the police are far better at finding them than we are. - and they are finding them. Now, if we could just get them out of the habit of beating prisoners to a pulp . . .

Greatest Vindication - Stocking up on outrageous quantities of Diet Coke from the chow hall in spite of the derision from my men on such hoarding, then having a 122mm rocket blast apart the giant shipping container that held all of the soda for the chow hall. Yep, you can't buy experience.

Biggest Mystery - How some people can gain weight out here. I'm down to 165 lbs. Who has time to eat?

Second Biggest Mystery - if there's no atheist s in foxholes, then why aren't there more people at Mass every Sunday?

Favorite Iraqi TV Show - Oprah. I have no idea. They all have satellite TV.

Coolest Insurgent Act - Stealing almost $7 million from the main bank in Ramadi in broad daylight, then, upon exiting, waving to the Marines in the combat outpost right next to the bank, who had no clue of what was going on. The Marines waved back. Too cool.

Most Memorable Scene - In the middle of the night, on a dusty airfield, watching the better part of a battalion of Marines packed up and ready to go home after six months in al-Anbar, the relief etched in their young faces even in the moonlight. Then watching these same Marines exchange glances with a similar number of grunts loaded down with gear file past - their replacements. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.

Highest Unit Re-enlistment Rate - Any outfit that has been in Iraq recently. All the danger, all the hardship, all the time away from home, all the horror, all the frustrations with the fight here - all are outweighed by the desire for young men to be part of a 'Band of Brothers' who will die for one another. They found what they were looking for when they enlisted out of high school. Man for man, they now have more combat experience than any Marines in the history of our Corps.

Most Surprising Thing I Don't Miss - Beer. Perhaps being half-stunned by lack of sleep makes up for it.

Worst Smell - Porta-johns in 120 degree heat - and that's 120 degrees outside of the porta-john.

Highest Temperature - I don't know exactly, but it was in the porta-johns. Needed to re-hydrate after each trip to the loo.

Biggest Hassle - High-ranking visitors. More disruptive to work than a rocket attack. VIPs demand briefs and "battlefield" tours (we take them to quiet sections of Fallujah, which is plenty scary for them). Our briefs and commentary seem to have no affect on their preconceived notions of what' s going on in Iraq. Their trips allow them to say that they've been to Fallujah, which gives them an unfortunate degree of credibility in perpetuating their fantasies about the insurgency here.

Biggest Outrage - Practically anything said by talking heads on TV about the war in Iraq, not that I get to watch much TV. Their thoughts are consistently both grossly simplistic and politically slanted. Biggest offender - Bill O'Reilly - what a buffoon.

Best Intel Work - Finding Jill Carroll's kidnappers - all of them. I was mighty proud of my guys that day. I figured we'd all get the Christian Science Monitor for free after this, but none have showed up yet. Talk about ingratitude.

Saddest Moment - Having the battalion commander from 1st Battalion, 1st Marines hand me the dog tags of one of my Marines who had just been killed while on a mission with his unit. Hit by a 60mm mortar. Cpl Bachar was a great Marine. I felt crushed for a long time afterward. His picture now hangs at the entrance to the Intelligence Section. We'll carry it home with us when we leave in February.

Biggest Ass-Chewing - 10 July immediately following a visit by the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Zobai. The Deputy Prime Minister brought along an American security contractor (read mercenary), who told my Commanding General that he was there to act as a mediator between us and the Bad Guys. I immediately told him what I thought of him and his asinine ideas in terms that made clear my disgust and which, unfortunately, are unrepeatable here. I thought my boss was going to have a heart attack. Fortunately, the translator couldn't figure out the best Arabic words to convey my meaning for the Deputy Prime Minister. Later, the boss had no difficulty in convening his meaning to me in English regarding my Irish temper, even though he agreed with me. At least the guy from the State Department thought it was hilarious. We never saw the mercenary again.

Best Chuck Norris Moment - 13 May. Bad Guys arrived at the government center in the small town of Kubaysah to kidnap the town mayor, since they have a problem with any form of government that does not include regular beheadings and women wearing burqahs. There were seven of them. As they brought the mayor out to put him in a pick-up truck to take him off to be beheaded (on video, as usual), one of the bad Guys put down his machinegun so that he could tie the mayor's hands. The mayor took the opportunity to pick up the machinegun and drill five of the Bad Guys. The other two ran away. One of the dead Bad Guys was on our top twenty wanted list. Like they say, you can't fight City Hall.

Worst Sound - That crack-boom off in the distance that means an IED or mine just went off. You just wonder who got it, hoping that it was a near miss rather than a direct hit. Hear it every day.

Second Worst Sound - Our artillery firing without warning. The howitzers are pretty close to where I work. Believe me, outgoing sounds a lot like incoming when our guns are firing right over our heads. They'd about knock the fillings out of your teeth.

Only Thing Better in Iraq Than in the U.S. - Sunsets. Spectacular. It's from all the dust in the air.

Proudest Moment - It's a tie every day, watching my Marines produce phenomenal intelligence products that go pretty far in teasing apart Bad Guy operations in al-Anbar. Every night Marines and Soldiers are kicking in doors and grabbing Bad Guys based on intelligence developed by my guys. We rarely lose a Marine during these raids, they are so well-informed of the objective. A bunch of kids right out of high school shouldn't be able to work so well, but they do.

Happiest Moment - Well, it wasn't in Iraq. There are no truly happy moments here. It was back in California when I was able to hold my family again while home on leave during July.

Most Common Thought - Home. Always thinking of home, of Kathleen and the kids . Wondering how everyone else is getting along. Regretting that I don't write more. Yep, always thinking of home.

I hope you all are doing well. If you want to do something for me, kiss a cop, flush a toilet, and drink a beer. I'll try to write again before too long - I promise.

Semper Fi,

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The appropriate bounds of discourse in the Moslem world

I was surprised by the uproar over the Pope's speech in Germany about violence in religion. Moslem critics seem to have taken remarkable umbrage at his remarks. Pope Benedict seems, from my reading of his writing, to be a very thoughtful and prayerful person. As I think I have noted previously, I had the opportunity in 2000 to meet John Paul II in two large gatherings, and was impressed at his intellectual demeanor. So when Benedict succeeded John Paul II, I was an interested, albeit non-Catholic observer.

In the speech the Pope quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425) on the subject of 'holy war': "Show me what new thing Mohammed has brought - and you will find evil and inhumane things, such as him having prescribed to spread the faith which he preached, by the sword." But the substance of the speech was not that small quote but the broader message about his (the Pope's) view of appropriate methods for conversion. Indeed, the Pope bracketed these remarks with something to the effect that they were a harsh view.

Benedict chose as his text an obscure document which many in the Moslem community think is not fair. But the hook that he used to talk about broader issues was just that. In a key passage in the Pope's remarks he quotes and emporer in saying that "God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith, needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence or threats. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, any means of threatening a person with death." The Pope goes on to say that the attempts by any religion to forcibly convert people to its view is wrong. I am not sure what the Moslem community would find offending in that remark, unless of course they disagree with the premise.

The Pope's remarks are worth reading in their entirety. Ideally, news sources would cover the substance of the remarks and the disagreement with the substance of those remarks. but in this case they covered the "outrage" without covering the substance of his message. Moslems of true faith must begin to grapple with those in their faith who preach the unreasonable view of forced conversions. The full text of the Pope's remarks can be read here or below.

Your Eminences, Your Magnificences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas - something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned - the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason - this reality became a lived experience. The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the "whole" of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (*4V8,>4H - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (F×< 8`(T) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the 8`(@H". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, F×< 8`(T, with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares "I am", already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates' attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy. Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: "I am". This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria - the Septuagint - is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul - "8@(46¬ 8"JD,\"", worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history - it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity - a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue, and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to

his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant's "Critiques", but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.
I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is - as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector - the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought - to philosophy and theology.

For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss". The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.



The Holy Father intends to supply a subsequent version of this text, complete with footnotes. The present text must therefore be considered provisional.

Go to the island

Earlier in this blog I have written about a fantasy island that I have often thought about where celebrities - both political and entertainment would be consigned to an island in which the following conditions would be established. #1 - once consigned they could not leave, #2 - there would be no electronic contact to the outside world and #3 (and perhaps most important) the only channel on their media centers would be E! or something equally inane. (with this in place E! TV probably would fail - but then it is likely that much of the other tragedy TV channels would also go the way of Air America - that is failing for another reason. I am certain that some kind of media chatter channel would survive in the rich marketplace of the media.)

Yesterday, Patrick Buchanan, former presidential candidate without a chance, current iteration of Fr. Coughlin and general scold that the media networks trot out as a "conservative" critic - called for the Congress to impeach the president for his failure to stem the tide of immigration. Buchanan is a bigot. No doubt about it. He is an embarrassment to reasoned debate. This story did not get much coverage in part because many in the media recognize how silly he is.

Coughlin was called all sorts of things when he had his radio ministry. He was certainly a firebrand but also an anti-semite, perhaps a nazi. But he had the same kind of hard edged language that Buchanan uses. Their contributions to reasoned public debates in their times (Coughlin through the 1930s and Buchanan now) was not a positive one. In the end Coughlin was sanctioned by his bishop and lived out his clerical life in a parish. One commentator suggests that Coughlin mixed "a strange blend of venom and compassion" Buchanan with his brand of fiery xenophobia has none of the compassion. In his mind, the country is beset by the twin perils of globalism that wreak havoc on the economy by moving jobs abroad and immigrants here. His perceptions ignore the very real benefits to Americans of our global economy and gloss over any recognition of issues we should deal with in the influx of immigrats. We had similar xenophobes during the earlier heavy waves of immigration in the country but they did not have easy access to the media in the way that Buchanan does.

The immigration problem is one which every politician should deal with thoughtfully. In my opinion, the Bush proposals for a new temporary worker program, some additional border controls and other mechanisms are pretty close to how a nation that has been built on immigrants should respond to the issues. But Buchanan would slobber with a more radical and horrible agenda that denies our very heritage. The same could be said of our issues relating to our increasing integration into the world economy. But again Buchanan's comments are far from thought.

When the island gets created, Buchanan should be on the first flight.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Greedy and Stupid - Measures Q & R

Just how dumb do the owners of the Sacramento Kings think the citizens of Sacramento are? They have pretty good evidence that some of us a pretty rube like. Afterall our "representatives" negotiated a deal which virtually gave the owners carte blanche on a prime piece of real estate in the core of the city - virtually assuring that all of the costs of the new arena they have demanded would be borne by taxpayers while virtually all of the revenues would go to the owners of the team.

But then, yesterday, the Maloofs showed thought the better of it. They walked away from that deal by demanding 8000 parking spaces under their control. That is a pretty large lot in any city. How greedy can these guys get?

If that were not enough I got a message from former county supervisor Sandy Smoley that said in part "We respect the Maloofs and applaud their many contributions to this community, but this isn't their decision, nor is it their arena. The community has decided that the best place for its new arena is at the old Sacramento rail yards — and we have no doubt that this is where it will be. We'll move mountains to make it happen." I guess the greed of the Maloofs is only matched by the stupidity of some of our local leaders.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Thanks Lincoln

The WP did a story today which highlights the oppostion of Lincoln Chaffee to the nomination of John Bolton for the UN. (Where he has been serving since last January). Chaffee's opposition to Bolton, who I believe is the right person at this time in the UN, will doom the discussion in the Senate.

Bolton, is indeed, is not always polite with the petty bureaucrats that run the UN at this point. He should not be. We should respect the institution that brings nations together but our patience with the likes of the current secretary general and his band of theives should be limited if non-existent. The UN needs to change significantly. Bolton can be a positive force to help accelerate that change.

One of the arguments made by the Bush people in the Rhode Island primary was we need Chaffee in the Senate. It is pretty clear that had they not intervened Chaffee would be a lame duck. For now the senator is only lame.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Slogging through War and Peace

A friend recommended that I read War and Peace. Perhaps, I should start with the stipulation that this post, which is a preliminary one will not be as long as the novel. Like my earlier posts about Atlas Shrugged, Tolstoy could have gained from a good editor. I am about half way through the second part, which means I am about 30% through the whole book. I do not read many novels (although based on the last year's blog posts that seems not to be true). But the friend said this was an exceptional book and I took her at her word.

As I was preparing to lift the book for the first time, I looked into some of its history. That alone is worth the read. Tolstoy came from a prominent family in Russia - with both literary and military figures that stretch over a long period of time. War and Peace (or as it could also be translated War and the World- according to Wikipedia) was a massive effort to tell a couple of stories. Thusfar, the story has been about the intrigues of Russian high society and some initial views of the military. In reality, his novel is about characters and character.

I have three initial comments about the first 30%. First, some of the language is dated. There are a lot of reticules and swooning. That is true of Dickens also, where it, for some reason, does not bother me. But with this novel, it does. I am not sure why. He spends a lot of time explaining that this character or that spoke in a particular language - I guess he is trying to make the point that high society in Russia at the time was still living with the attempts to become citizens of Europe and thus the use of French in "polite" society. But the constant reference to this phrase or that by a character and the identification of which language it was said in was disturbing to the flow of the story.

Second, Tolstoy is a sly painter of situations. His descriptions about the relative roles of Russian society at the time of the battles with Napolean are both clever and exacting. They suggest a series of rentseekers around the Czar who give and trade lots but little of value. The description in three places was stunning. When the Count has a massive stroke, two of his relatives conspire to deprive the Count's intended beneficiary of his inheritance. The count has an illegitimate son who stands to inherit a pretty large fortune. But that cannot happen without a certification of legitimacy. The two cousins conspire to get the document destroyed before the old man dies. Ultimately they are unsuccessful. He described the thievery of one of the officers and how a young officer who discovers the theft is reproached because of his attempt to point out the flaw - not of the theft but of the attempt to point out that an officer might be disgraced. The point here is the very real attempt to live with a corporatist mentality. The second came in his description about the struggles that one young officer has with a first battle. The Russians had been expected to attack in the morning but did not mount a battle until late afternoon. Their explanation, based on a lot of interesting descriptions, was they just could not get it together in order to make a timely assualt on their intended position. The same kind of irony in the theft is presented in battle strategy. Tolstoy makes the point skillfully and repeatedly.

Third, is Tolstoy's efficient use of a turn of phrase. Although the book is long, there are some priceless phrases. My current came when I was reading last night. In describing a diplomat (or diplomaticist in Tolstoy's lexicon) he comments "He was not one of those many diplomats who are esteemed because they have certain negative qualities, avoid doing certain things, and speak French." That sly comment could be used in many venues even today. In another description he comments (again about Bilibin the diplomat "Bilibin liked conversation as he liked work, only when it could be made elegantly witty. In society he always awaited an opportunity to say something striking and took part in a conversation only when that was possible. His conversation was always sprinkled with wittily original, finished phrases of general interest. These sayings were prepared in the inner laboratory of his mind in a portable form as if intentionally, so that insignificant society people might carry them from drawing room to drawing room."

When I get a bit farther along, I will add some more comments. My friend recommended the descriptions of Napoleon and some of the battle scenes - which are yet to come.

Amazon's Unbox versus iTunes

As noted in an earlier post, I just got back from Aguascalientes and on the plane there and back watched about 10 episodes of the first season of 24. I know I am a bit behind the times. I bought the season from iTunes. The movies on the plane sucked so I went to my iPod and watched all those episodes. The small screen is fine for personal viewing, with a good set of headphones (I use Shure Ec-3s) you have a great viewing experience. I also downloaded Free To Choose, Milton Friedman's classsic economics primer. So there is plenty of content. I had one concern on this trip about the video feature- that was battery life. Apple says in the new iPods battery life for video will improve significantly - but from this experience, I got about 4 episodes from a battery charge. Each episode is about 44 minutes - so on a long flight the video feature is ok but not great.

Yesterday when Apple announced that they were going to begin to release movies, I check it out. They have a small catalogue, for now. I expect, if the studios have a brain in their head, that will grow, just as the music and audiobook catalogues did. But I went to Amazon to look at their service which is called Unbox. Here is what I have found out so far. Amazon is the clear loser in the initial foray. First, Amazon requires you to be a Windows user. That leaves me out, although with my Probook I can actually run Windows. I don't want to run Windows. I know the problems. So Amazon has made a choice to use a protocol that I choose not to. Dumb decision.

But even if that were not true, Unbox is a turkey at this point. Amazon also requires you to use their player. Friends who have used it say it is buggy and quirky as compared to the iTunes player which is simple and versatile. The iTunes uses a pretty standard interface that is cross platform compatible. Then there is the question of how you can use the movie once you have downloaded it. iTunes has a couple of alternatives, unBox says watch it on your computer.

Amazon may have gotten hard copies right - their bookstore is pretty good. But their understanding of how consumers want digital content is second rate.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some reflections on Aguascalientes

Yesterday we went to see a friend at the Quinta Real. We were early so went to the museum across the street which focuses on technology and science and is very well done. We stayed there for a while looking at the exhibits. They have a very interesting one which allows you to go inside a volcano.

But as we were leaving it started to rain. The people of Aguascalientes (hot water) are called hidrocalidos. This is near the end of the rainy season but you can see why they get the water part of their name. But then as quickly and intensely as it came it went away. The photo with the arches is at the Quinta Real - the building is new but like many other Quinta Reals - they have tried to use traditional architecture. These two images were taken within 30 minutes of another.

We had a great lunch with a good friend - who is a priest and starting a school in the area for poor children.

The State of the Electorate - Mexican Election Post #27

I spent Monday in Aguascalientes and had the chance to talk with a lot of people about the current political situation. One should note that AGU is not a MALO stronghold. The PAN controls almost all of the municipals and the Governorship. But I think in many ways it represents the new Mexico. There are problems here. I spoke with one of the Governor's assistants yesterday and he talked about their efforts to promote better public health, to improve the situation on both water and education. I spoke with a friend who is a priest who has started a school for very poor children - the model of which is a very good idea. But I also had the chance to speak with a lot of other people on the street.

The general concensus was pretty clear. #1 - Even those that did support the PRD are growing tired of AMLOs antics. #2 - There is a lot of concern about this weekend (although while I was there AMLO and his supporters suggested that they would move out of the Zocalo so that the Independence Day celebrations can happen). But there was also a lot of chatter that the President might move the Grito (the traditional Independence Day speech) to the city of Dolores Hildago - where the 1810 revolution began). That would be an interesting symbolic move. Many of the people I spoke with thought Fox had changed as President but that he still retains some tremendous rhetorical skill. #3 - There was both concern and interest about the President elect's staff comments about "social concerns" - clearly a majority of Mexicans think there needs to be changes which will make the economy more accessible to a larger fraction of the population but does not move to the extremes that AMLO proposed.

There is a measured optimism here. Not of the bubbly kind that was present in 2000 with Fox but a growing support that this new president will be able to move the country forward.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Nullum prandium, non es gratuitum....Post #1 about the California Election

Every once in a while voters are asked to vote for something that promises something for nothing. In this election voters in the state have at least two like that. The first (Proposition 86) would raise taxes on cigarettes. In California, smokers pay 87¢ per pack to light up. That comes from 12¢ of cigarette taxes and 75¢ of surtax which came from an earlier proposition. Proposition 86 on this year's ballot would increase the tax so that a pack of smokes would increase to about $7 to fund hospitals and other medically related things. California's current rate is about in the middle of the pack (no pun intended)- with Rhode Island at more than $2.40 and Missouri at a mere 17¢. In some states, with state and local add ons the taxes can come to as high as $3.50 per pack. Our neighboring states are close to where we are, so unlike the New York tax where people can go across state lines and get cheaper smokes. The possibility of interstate purchase to save the tax is relatively limited (that is called tax shifting). Some of the opponents have argued that this will induce smuggling and even one has invoked the specter of terrorists into the equation (that is nonsense).

We all feel morally superior when we stick it to smokers. But right now even with a middling tax we are second in the country in the lowest percentage of smokers with only about 14% of adults and 13% of youth smoking. That did not come about because of the original increase in the tax but rather because of other lifestyle changes in California that have happened over the last couple of decades. California's rate compares to a number of higher states where the smoking rate is close to 25%. (The national rate is about 20%.) But there are two ironies here. First, supporters want to impose a tax expecting it to fund something that is very necessary in the state but also understanding that as you raise taxes the number of taxpayers (those who continue to buy the taxed product) continues to decline. The research there is pretty clear. Second, the tax also has some other features that may well be undesirable. For example, the proposition exempts hospitals from anti-trust law. What does that have to do with cigarette taxes? Well, nothing. But remember the original cigarette tax of 75¢ had a bevy of special goodies for those who wrote the proposition. It also sets tax rates that are very hard to change - so the already complicated budget situation is exacerbated.

A second measure like the cigarette tax is Proposition 87 – the Alternative Energy. Research, Production Incentives. Tax on California Oil. What better thing than to again feel morally superior and stick it to big oil? That measure would impose a 6 percent tax on producers of oil extracted in California, to pay for research and production incentives for alternative energy vehicles and clean-burning fuels. But again, after the chance to feel morally superior and stick it to big oil, the extraction tax would set up a new bureaucracy to do all this "research" and would appoint a bunch of new folks to administer the dough. This could be as good as the Reiner Commission that the voters adopted to fund programs for kids - except according to estimates this one would produce more dough for the appointees to dither with and even less control in the budget process.

There are a lot of interesting issues on the ballot this fall. I will give you my analysis on most of them before Novmber - but in both 86 and 87 the line about a free lunch should not be underestimated. We may feel better about stopping people from smoking and reigning in big oil but when you look at the lousy policy that each would create, there is no good reason to pass either.

Mexican Election Post #26

Last year, as a part of the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Universidad Anáhuac del Sur School of Business, the school held a fascinating discussion of the Mexican version of Sarbanes Oxley - which seemed at the time to be much better drawn than its American counterpart. The intent of this kind of law is to improve disclosure standards for publicly traded corporations. In yesterday's WSJ,Anastasia O'Grady, did a story about an effort by Ricardo Salinas Pliego who filed suit against those new laws especially as they relate to treatment of minority shareholders, insider trading, increased financial disclosure, the creation of an all-independent audit committee and efforts to give security and banking regulators the ability to investigate.

O'Grady quotes a Calderon aide who commented that the President elect's policies will try to take some of AMLOs issues, "Without a doubt the next government of Mexico must have a clear social leaning. Without a doubt this must be one of the priorities, if not the priority." O'Grady then suggests that Calderon may be supportive of continuing some of the monopolies that have slowed economic growth in the country, including ones like Carlos Slim who owns almost all of Mexico's telecom industry and has resisted competition.

Salinas Pliego's company, which is in television, moved out of the US when regulators began to look at the businesses' disclosures. And his current attempt to forestall reasonable levels of security regulation is a good example of one of the perils that face the country. If Mexico allows itself to be hidden outside of world class transparency, the chances for the kind of dynamic growth that it needs will be very slim (not to make a pun).

So Calderon needs to steer a very careful course. Slim has made the case that his billions of monopolies somehow protect the poor. An odd argument, but one which has had sway in Mexico for a long time. Mr. Zedillo made some steps to dergulate the economy and to improve reliability of the financial markets. That was continued, albeit a bit more slowly, under Mr. Fox. The securities laws are a lynchpin for the long term health of the economy.

In the 1920s a professor at Columbia, who eventually became a mentor of a whole series of legendary US investors, named Benjamin Graham, began a quest to improve the disclosure standards for US publicly traded companies. His classic text, Security Analysis, was used as a basis for evaluating corporations for investment for decades. The key to Graham's work is the availability of reliable financial information about companies that are traded publicly. Ultimately that also requires some level of regulatory efforts - if for no other reason than to assure that the data which public companies put out is traded.

We always come back to the vochongo (There is a long post on the definition of this term in an earlier post but the short definition is a word which everyone uses but no one really has a clear definition of) of transparency. Clearly, if you want to participate in the global economy, your economic system needs to have some basic information about both itself and the major parts of it (including things like publicly traded companies) available. If the efforts by Salinas Pliego and Slim are successful and if Calderon equates Slim's needs with "clear social leaning" then the last several months of struggle will have been for naught. I believe Mr. Calderon's people understand this very delicate balance.

HP's Flap

The news about the problems in the HP board room has been interesting. When Carly Fiorinna was in the process of leaving/being fired the board was divided. One board member, which the news media has identified as George A. Keyworth II, evidently yapped to the media. On most corporate boards, for very good reasons, there is a confidentiality policy - not unlike the Las Vegas advertisements - what goes on here, stays here. That allows candid and strategic conversations.

Keyworth seems to have worked, at least to some degree, with long time Silicon Valley VC person, Thomas Perkins, who was invited on the board (after retiring) and then resigned. The board leaks came at about the time that Fiorinna was dismissed but persisted after that.

The interesting part of the story is the way the board chair, Patricia Dunn, handled the issues of dissent. Dunn seems to have used an outside firm to investigate phone records of individual board members. The investigators posed as board members to obtain the phone records. At least according to one news source, in contravention of California law. For example the NYT quotes the California AG who said “A crime was committed.” But he added: “It is unclear how strong the case is. Who is charged and for what is still an open question.”

HP went through some tough times. Part of it was self inflicted. In the last 18 months the company has recovered its focus. One wonders how much further it could have been had it not done the Compaq merget and had it acquired the consulting business that was offered to it for a song.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Tribunal Speaks in the Style of MTV - Mexican Election Post #25

The Federal Tribunal issued its final decision today in Mexico City. Rather than write yet another rant I thought it might be interesting to cover the decision from a number of perspectives using the MTV Pop-up video format. Sources are indicated in each comment. The pop-ups are in this color. This is a long post and does not include all possible sources but a sampling of various sources, around the US.

The Tribunal's Decision -
Radio 680 The unanimous decision by the Federal Electoral Tribunal rejected allegations of systematic fraud and awarded Calderon the presidency by 233,831 votes out of 41.6 million cast in the July 2 elections - a margin of 0.56 per cent. The ruling cannot be appealed. (What part of unanimous does AMLO not understand?)

Chicago Tribune - But the errors and irregularities, while numerous, did not present evidence of fraud, the judges said. They did not significantly favor one party over another. Some of the votes thrown out cost Calderon. Some cost Lopez Obrador. And some cost the other candidates. In total, Calderon's lead over Lopez Obrador, which had stood at nearly 240,000 votes out of nearly 42 million cast, shrunk by a bit more than 4,000. (OK, so the review of the 9% of the votes produced very little real movement in the total vote.)

"There are rules that the judges cannot override," said Leonel Castillo Gonzalez, president of the tribunal. And the rules allowed the tribunal to examine only those precincts in which the Democratic Revolution Party or the National Action Party or others made specific challenges. (Judge Gonzalez supports the rule of law.)

For example, Calderon lost about 81,000 votes because of annulments, but Lopez Obrador also lost about 76,000 votes. (Below, see that AMLO claims the Tribunal did not release numbers, evidently these are not numbers.)

Lexington Herald Leader - "We should close the door on those who try to derail the future of Mexico, those who try to return to the past, those who try to survive politically with threats and blackmail," Fox said. (Fox is right. That is seemingly what the majority of Mexicans are also doing.)

The Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington said a study of available figures from the recount raised enough questions to justify demands for a wider review of the vote. (When you read the "research" (5 pages total) it is a mumbo jumbo of statistical nonsense. The Center is pretty left of center, so no surprise here.)

Washington Post Mindful of the overheated environment, the tribunal urged the candidates and their political parties on Tuesday to take the "high road" in debating the day's events. But that appeared highly unlikely. (At least one candidate will not follow their advice.)

Lopez Obrador and his strategy-
International Herald Tribune - Lopez Obrador has called supporters to a mass meeting to plot a strategy on Sept. 16 in Mexico City's central plaza — the same day and place Mexico's army stages an annual Independence Day parade. (Presumably AMLO does not believe in the rule of law but the rule of AMLO)

"The seizure of the congressional dais in the moments before Fox's speech revealed the twin strategies of López Obrador to use street demonstrations and Mexico's legislature to hammer away at Fox, Calderón and their National Action Party, or PAN, analysts said," writes Sam Enriquez in the Los Angeles Times. (Early in the election the LA Times became a lapdog for AMLO, here is an example of their continuing puppyhood.)

Lexington Herald - On Tuesday, the Convergencia party - one of three that nominated Lopez Obrador for the presidency - left the electoral alliance, saying "it is time to rethink strategies." (AMLO, I guess they won't go to your spoiled sport convention.)

Ceci Connolly in the WPost - "'If he were just a street guy, that'd be one thing,' said Daniel Lund, a Mexico City-based political analyst and pollster. 'But he's one of the best political operatives in the country. His goal for the PRD is to deepen their roots and build electorally.'" (So let's see how he has done so far - polls suggest if the election were held today 70% of the voters would support Calderon. But then on July 2, 60+% did not support AMLO).

Lopez Obrador is not among them. He insists he won. And he has added the Federal Electoral Tribunal to his growing list of Mexican institutions that he says cannot be trusted. (My God, here a conspiracy, there a conspiracy, everywhere a conspiracy.One wonders whether the snack vendor below is also a part of the conspiracy.) 

Lopez Obrador supporters accuse the tribunal of making a political decision rather than a judicial one. They also complain that the court's seven judges, whose decisions cannot be appealed, have failed to fully report their findings in a timely and open manner. (The IFE according to all international sources was among the cleanest elections in the world. The tribunal presented its numbers in a non-partisan way. AMLOs people simply did not like the law.)
Chicago Tribune - "This is a lack of transparency, because the public does not know the results of the recount," said Horacio Duarte, an electoral lawyer for Lopez Obrador's coalition, after the tribunal last week released only partial results of its partial recount. (Evidently no one in the AMLO camp can count.)

BBC - "This has been fraudulent from start to finish," Claudio Martinez told the Associated Press news agency. (Is he describing AMLOs tactics?)

"The only possibility for a dialogue with the right's candidate would be for (Mr Calderon) to refuse the gift of the presidency which he did not earn at the ballot box," said Gerardo Fernandez Norona, spokesman for Mr Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). (Evidently, if Calderon does what AMLO wants we will not need a convention on the 16th.)

Chicago Tribune - "I expected this" (of course he did he knew the results) – AMLO Lopez Obrador called the ruling "offensive and unacceptable." (As Dick Tuck once said when he lost an election by a wider margin, the people have spoken, the bastards.)

Calderon said. "I will not allow the decision taken by the Mexican people to be supplanted in a violent way by a few people." (Calderon's people understand what AMLO is trying to get them to do and they will not be pulled in.)

Lexington Herald - One person following the protesters closely has been Miguel Angel Mata Garcia, 49, who pushed a cart with soft drinks and candy. Mata said that he and other vendors have negotiated agreements with the Mexico City government run by Lopez Obrador's PRD party.
"We're all designated to accompany certain protesters to peddle soft drinks, candy, chips, snacks," said Mata. "These people scream a lot so they need constant refreshments to clear their dry throats." (OK, so now we know the true issue for AMLO, more snacks.)

Boston Herald - Lopez Obrador adviser Manuel Camacho told the Associated Press that the court’s recommendation “does not take into account what is actually happening in the country.” (Isn't that more that the court ignored AMLOs inane rants?)

NYT - “It may be the final legal word, but it certainly is not the end of the political battle,” said Denise Dresser, a political scientist and columnist here. (Especially when AMLO has declined to accept the results of the July 2 vote.)

The effect of coming to a decision -
Bloomberg - Mexico's bonds, stocks and currency have rallied since the election on expectations Calderon will maintain Fox's policies. The peso has gained 4.5 percent against the dollar, the benchmark stock index surged 12 percent and the 10-year peso bond yield is down 0.95 percentage point to 8.16 percent. (The financial markets suggest that they accept what AMLO does not.)

Financial times - During Tuesday's session, the market appeared to definitely heading toward levels of 10.80 pesos per dollar (ppd), however, the lowest point posted was at 10.8335 ppd, according to information posted by the Central Bank (Banxico).
At the end of the day, the interbank 48-hour spot dollar finished at 10.8480 ppd, down 1.65 cents compared to Monday's final quote at 10.8645 ppd. (More indications that the financial markets trust the decision. If the financial markets thought this was a fraud, they would not have reacted in this way.)

NYT - A tiny table at a cafe in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood reflected the country’s political divide. Jose Jesus Urbina Carillo, 81, a retired laborer who spent a decade as an illegal immigrant in the United States, fumed at Mr. Calderon’s victory and declared that the country’s elite would continue controlling Mexico. ``It’s more of the same,’’ he said, spewing profanities.
Across the table, blowing smoke in the air, was Yanco Kwick, 53, a businessman who voted for Mr. Calderon and tried his best to explain to his friend why the country was on the right course. ``I’m not shouting with joy but I think Calderon is better than the leftist,’’ Mr. Kwick said. ``We’ll be stable and that’s all I want.’’ (This may be a very clear picture of the divisions - profanity versus stability.)

Calderon's next steps -
Bloomberg - Calderon, a 44-year-old lawyer from President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, plans to add 60 billion pesos ($5.5 billion) of spending in his first year to broaden access to health care, housing subsidies and other handouts for Mexico's poor, Ernesto Cordero, who is in charge of public policy in Calderon's transition team, said in an interview. Calderon's move toward Lopez Obrador's causes means that some of his own campaign initiatives, such as opening the state oil monopoly to private investment, may have to wait. ``We have to be patient,'' Cordero said. (While AMLO fritters away his 35%, Calderon seems to be trying to figure out how to build his coalition.)

Reuters - "Without a doubt the next government of Mexico must have a clear social leaning," he said. Juan Camilo Mourino, who is leading Calderon's transition team, said the new government would make the fight against poverty a central theme in an attempt to win over the millions who voted for Lopez Obrador. (Ditto)

NYT - “He has to form a broad coalition against these guys who went out on a limb, or bring them back in from the cold,” said Federico Estevez, a political scientist. (Ditto)

China View - His key promises include cracking down on crime, creating millions of jobs and continuing Fox's tight fiscal policy. In the immediate run-up to the election he dubbed himself "the employment candidate" promising to fight unemployment by offering employers the ability to offer more flexible working conditions; and to fight poverty by offering greater access to credit to people seeking to buy homes, and educate themselves. (OK, so everyone seems to get this but AMLO. But then if you think you are the messiah you don't have to deal with the rule of law.)