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September 23, 2002

Rewarding Failure

On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers made their way through airport security with weapons, successfully hijacked four aircraft, and ended up killing 3,000 innocent people.

With this in mind, how should we deal with the Secretary of Transportation in office at that particular time? Firing? Forced resignation? Public upbraiding? No, wait -- I've got it! Let's name an airport after him!

I think I had heard about this earlier, but there's nothing quite like checking for a flight at "Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport" to bring the irony home.

September 20, 2002

You Keep Using That Word

Saddam Hussein offered to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq "without conditions," but now appears to be backing away from that commitment:

At the UN, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivered a message from President Saddam Hussein, accusing Washington of lying about Iraq's weapons.

Saddam Hussein insisted that Baghdad does not possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

His letter also appeared to qualify Baghdad's surprise announcement on Monday that the UN could resume unfettered weapons inspections.

He said any inspectors must respect arrangements on Baghdad's "sovereignty and security", raising fears that Iraq might prevent access to so-called presidential sites and other sensitive areas.

First it's "without conditions," but now, well, there are conditions. This reminds me of a line from The Princess Bride:

                VIZZINI         He didn't fall? Inconceivable!

        (whirling on VIZZINI)
        You keep using that word -- I do not think it means what you think it means.

Where is the Man in Black when we need him?

September 19, 2002

As a Courtesy to the Next Passenger, Would You Not Break the Table?

Richard Branson has made no secret of not minding people joining the Mile High Club on his airline. According to this story, it would seem they're going at with some gusto:

Virgin Atlantic Airways is to replace tables in its newest planes because passengers have broken them during illicit trysts, the Sun newspaper said on Monday.

The $200 million Airbus A340-600, which was introduced several weeks ago, has a "mother and baby room" with a plastic table meant for changing diapers. But passengers have destroyed them by using them for love making.

"Those determined to join the Mile High Club will do so despite the lack of comforts," a Virgin spokeswoman was quoted as saying.

"We don't mind couples having a good time, but this is not something that we would encourage because of air regulations."

The obvious question missed by the reporter: is the airline replacing the tables with the same model, or are they planning on something more durable? Given that it's Richard Branson, my money's on the latter.

September 18, 2002

"...But for One Three-Day Weekend of Terror"

David Westerfield was sentenced to death yesterday for the kidnapping and murder of seven-year-old Danielle van Dam. His attorney expressed his dissatisfaction with the sentence:

"He's a good man but for one three-day weekend of terror," [defense attorney Steven] Feldman said.
As it happens, I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, but spare me. Does this attorney have any idea how ridiculous this makes him sound? Does he have any idea how absurd his statement is on a variety of levels? Does he have any idea how remorseless it makes his client seem?

I have a slightly reworked version of Feldman's statement that I find more accurate: "Danielle van Dam was an innocent child who would be alive today but for one three-day weekend of terror."

September 17, 2002

Axis of Evil 2, USA 0

The US woke up this morning to the following pair of headlines:

U.N. Inspectors Can Return Unconditionally, Iraq Says. Responding to worldwide pressure, Iraq said it would allow the unconditional return of arms inspectors. The Bush administration voiced skepticism about the offer.

North Korea Apologizes to Japan for Abductions. In an unprecedented summit with Japan, North Korea confirmed that its spies had kidnapped Japanese citizens decades ago, and said at least four are still alive.

It looks as if it's time for Condi, Colin, and Rummy to put on their thinking caps. Clearly the leaders of these countries know how to play chess.

"Can We Re-Recruit This Guy?"

Via Rebecca Blood, a story in the Guardian on a US military exercise that didn't go as planned:

At the height of the summer, as talk of invading Iraq built in Washington like a dark, billowing storm, the US armed forces staged a rehearsal using over 13,000 troops, countless computers and $250m. Officially, America won and a rogue state was liberated from an evil dictator.

What really happened is quite another story, one that has set alarm bells ringing throughout America's defence establishment and raised questions over the US military's readiness for an Iraqi invasion. In fact, this war game was won by Saddam Hussein, or at least by the retired marine playing the Iraqi dictator's part, Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper.

In the first few days of the exercise, using surprise and unorthodox tactics, the wily 64-year-old Vietnam veteran sank most of the US expeditionary fleet in the Persian Gulf, bringing the US assault to a halt.

What happened next will be familiar to anyone who ever played soldiers in the playground. Faced with an abrupt and embarrassing end to the most expensive and sophisticated military exercise in US history, the Pentagon top brass simply pretended the whole thing had not happened. They ordered their dead troops back to life and "refloated" the sunken fleet. Then they instructed the enemy forces to look the other way as their marines performed amphibious landings. Eventually, Van Riper got so fed up with all this cheating that he refused to play any more. Instead, he sat on the sidelines making abrasive remarks until the three-week war game -- grandiosely entitled Millennium Challenge -- staggered to a star-spangled conclusion on August 15, with a US "victory."

Who was running this exercise? The referee from the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game?

So how did Van Riper pull it off? Through deception and surprise:

Even when playing an evil dictator, the marine veteran clearly takes winning very seriously. He reckoned Blue would try to launch a surprise strike, in line with the administration's new pre-emptive doctrine, "so I decided I would attack first."

Van Riper had at his disposal a computer-generated flotilla of small boats and planes, many of them civilian, which he kept buzzing around the virtual Persian Gulf in circles as the game was about to get under way. As the US fleet entered the Gulf, Van Riper gave a signal -- not in a radio transmission that might have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks. Meanwhile, Chinese Silkworm-type cruise missiles fired from some of the small boats sank the US fleet's only aircraft carrier and two marine helicopter carriers. The tactics were reminiscent of the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago, but the Blue fleet did not seem prepared. Sixteen ships were sunk altogether, along with thousands of marines. If it had really happened, it would have been the worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.

It was at this point that the generals and admirals monitoring the war game called time out.

"A phrase I heard over and over was: 'That would never have happened,'" Van Riper recalls. "And I said: nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre... but nobody seemed interested."

As Rebecca says, "can we re-recruit this guy?"

September 16, 2002

Gender Equality, But Not the Good Kind

An extensive story in the New York Times Magazine describes the alleged war crimes of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, national minister of family and women's affairs for Rwanda during the genocide committed there in 1994. Now being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Nyiramasuhuko can claim a number of firsts for her gender:

At the tribunal, Pauline faces 11 charges, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. She is the first woman ever to be charged with these crimes in an international court. And she is the first woman ever to be charged with rape as a crime against humanity.
I like to think that, as a species, we are making progress -- if slowly, and in fits and starts -- towards becoming more civilized. I look back at the Holocaust and think, never again. And yet I am faced with the grim reality of what happened in Rwanda just eight years ago:
There will never be a precise accounting of how many Rwandans were massacred between April and July 1994. Human Rights Watch calculates the number to be at least 500,000, while the United Nations estimates that between 800,000 and one million Rwandans died during that period. Whatever the total, the rate of carnage and the concentration of the killing (Rwanda is roughly the size of New Jersey) give it the distinction of being the most ferocious mass slaughter in recorded history. Three-quarters of the Tutsi population was exterminated.
This is an important article. If the allegations in it are true, the Hutus engaged in a slaughter that was not only the fastest in recorded history, but perhaps the most vicious as well. Whereas the Nazis wanted to exterminate the Jews and set about to do so as efficiently as possible, the Hutus wanted not only to exterminate the Tutsis, but to subject them to shocking humiliations and degradations as they did so. Why? I can't imagine an answer, and yet I want to know why.

September 14, 2002

"They Can't Do This To Me"

A recent article for the New York Times Magazine, "Life is a Contact Sport", (fee for viewing), describes a mandatory symposium for all NFL rookies, to "breed the thug life out of any rookie so inclined." In the midst of the article is a wonderful anecdote:

Kendrell Bell, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, tells of his great awakening to the verities of income tax: "I got a million-dollar signing bonus. But then I got the check, and it was only $624,000. I thought, Oh, well, I'll get the other half later. Then I found out that's all there was. I thought, They can't do this to me. Then I got on the Internet and I found out they can."
Welcome to the US income tax system, Kendrell!

September 13, 2002

More Rendezvous Progress

At Apple Expo in Paris Tuesday, Apple announced new licensees of Rendezvous (written about here and here). From the Reuters story:

Jobs announced a number of new partners for its Rendevous protocol, which enables electronics products to discover each other automatically over a network and set up a connection.

He said printer makers Canon from Japan and Xerox from the U.S. had joined Epson, Lexmark and Hewlett-Packard in embracing Rendezvous.

"Every major printer maker has now adopted Rendezvous," he said, adding that the first printers will hit the shelves early next year.

Apple currently gives away Rendezvous to electronics makers, and Jobs said Apple was considering making it officially "open standard," meaning the code will be freely available without royalty payments.

Philips Electronics from the Netherlands, Europe's largest consumer electronics maker, also agreed to include Rendezvous in its future products, Apple and Philips announced.

"Wouldn't it be cool to listen to the songs stored on your iPod (Apple's portable player) over your Philips hi-fi set in your home," said Jobs. Other applications envisaged by Philips and Apple are the ability to view on a TV screen digital pictures stored on an Apple computer.

It looks as if Apple is pulling it off again -- setting yet another industry standard. Rendezvous can't arrive soon enough.

September 12, 2002

A Simple Question

Since 9/11, how many federal employees have been fired for the security and intelligence lapses that allowed the attacks to proceed? I seem to recall that perhaps one or more people at Logan Airport were dismissed or otherwise punished, but at the federal level, I can't think of anyone. I don't remember hearing about any FBI, CIA, or NSA employees being fired, and certainly no Presidential appointees have lost their jobs.

America is the most fault-finding, most blame-assigning nation on Earth. If ever there was a case where fault should be found and blame assigned -- to help prevent its repetition -- this is it.

September 11, 2002

September 11, 2001

Perhaps 10,000 other bloggers are doing the very same thing, writing today about their experiences of 9/11. Perhaps this will seem cliched -- if not now, then in the future. Perhaps the experience of someone who did not suffer directly from the attacks is a trivial thing. But I write this blog for myself, and writing this down is important to me.

A year ago today, I was living in Seattle, but working most of the time in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I was that day. I had left my girlfriend's house for work early that morning -- I wanted to beat the rush hour traffic, and I had plenty of work to do before a scheduled flight to San Diego that afternoon. It was around 0630 Pacific Time when I turned on the radio in the car. Normally, I would have been listening to NPR or the CBC, but for some reason, I had left the radio on an all-sports station. Within a few seconds of turning on the radio, the announcer mentioned the terrorist attacks, and I tuned into one of the Seattle NPR stations. Both towers of the World Trade Center had been struck, and the Pentagon was about to be hit. It felt like we were at war -- like what was happening was the tip of an iceberg, and that a hundred more attacks would ensue.

I called my girlfriend, who was just waking up. "Go downstairs and turn on the TV," I said. "Just go." She did. I asked her what was happening, asked her to tell me what she was seeing. I decided to go ahead and drive into work -- I was closer to the office at that point and wanted to get to a television. I listened to NPR's reporter at the Pentagon as it was hit. Were we truly at war? Were we being attacked on every front? It felt like it. In Canada, I felt safe, and yet I wanted very much to be home just then.

I parked at the office and then immediately walked up the street to a nearby hotel where I knew a large-screen television was set up in the breakfast area. When I walked in, the South Tower had already collapsed. The breakfast area was full of people watching intently, quietly. A couple nearby me was eating their breakfast as they watched. The incongruence of seeing such an unbelievably horrific event while a middle-aged woman next to me spread jam on her bagel was intensely disturbing. I wanted to grab her and shake her. I wanted to scream at her. "Don't you see what's happening? Thousands of people have just died! How can you eat while you watch that?" I said nothing.

It was hard to believe what was happening. I didn't think back to it at the time, but I had been to the World Trade Center once, for a business meeting many years before. It didn't make a huge impression on me, so I had no distinct memories of it to draw upon.

I wondered how many people were in the WTC. 10,000? 20,000? Whatever the number, the loss of life was staggering.

While we watched, the North Tower collapsed. I began sobbing. All those people... all that life... gone in an instant. No one else reacted audibly; I looked around and saw that I was the only one crying. For the first and only moment during all my time in Canada -- a country I both admire and enjoy -- I wanted out. More than anything, I wanted out and back to my own country. As I was walking out, one of the front desk staff stopped to talk to me. Was I okay? Did I need help? No, I wasn't okay. Didn't she see what had happened?

I couldn't be home, so I wanted to be with Americans. I got back to the office and called a co-worker of mine, a woman who had lived in New York for many years. It wasn't possible to meet her at that moment. I wanted to be with someone, and anyway, Internet news sources were barely functional, so I called another co-worker, a Canadian who lived nearby. I drove over to his place and we watched the news together. After a couple of hours, the coverage became repetitious and speculative, and so we turned off the TV and drove into the office. Of course, I didn't fly to San Diego that day. In fact, I don't think any of us worked at all that day -- mostly we just talked. Who could have done this? Why? Would more attacks follow? Were any of my American co-worker's friends missing?

My girlfriend changed her plans to be home with me that night. I was still extremely upset, and more than a little embarrassed at being so distraught given that I hadn't lost anyone or anything in the attacks.

It was either late that day or the next that I heard the report of a couple who had been seen holding hands as they jumped to escape the fires in one of the towers, and I started crying all over again. This time, the tears were mixed with intense anger. I wanted the US to find who had done this to us and hurt them.

NPR ran a story yesterday on the good, if any, that might have come from 9/11. With a year's perspective, I would have to say that for me, I give far more thought to civil liberties and their fragility. We preserve our freedom from external tyranny through defense, but we preserve our freedom from internal tyranny simply by agreeing to do so. I worry that, in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, this agreement may be breaking down. I worry that we are trading freedom for safety. Of course, I want both, but if I have to choose, I choose freedom.

I have often thought back to that couple who jumped together, to how awful it must have been for that to seem their only option, and to what might have been going through their minds as they did so. I have never seen a photo of them, and if one exists, I hope I never do... yet for me they remain the indelible image of the attacks. Whoever you were, I will never forget you.

September 10, 2002

The Total Perspective Vortex

Heard yesterday:

David Easter: The Internet is the Total Perspective Vortex. No matter how smart you think you are on any given topic, there are 200 people smarter than you.
The Total Perspective Vortex is the invention of the late, great Douglas Adams:
The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain -- since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation -- every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

Trin Tragula -- for that was his name -- was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

"Have some sense of proportion!" she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex -- just to show her.

And into one end, he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other, he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula's horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain, but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Of course, what happens when Zaphod Beeblebrox enters the Vortex is another story. I suspect Beeblebrox would be distinctly unimpressed with the Internet.

September 05, 2002

"To Hand Them a Needless Victory"

In an earlier entry, I wrote about the erosion of civil liberties in the United States as a result of the war on terrorism:

[T]he present Administration has asserted its sole right to determine who is an "enemy combatant," whether an American citizen or not, and whether arrested in the United States or not. Once so determined, the Administration asserts that no court should have the ability to review its decision, and that such enemy combatants may be held indefinitely, neither having been brought to trial or even offered access to counsel.
Now the Economist has weighed in on the matter with an editorial, "A needless victory for terror" (subscription only):
It is far from clear... that many of the Bush administration's actions over the past year will be effective or that they would be justified even if they were. The administration has been much too ready to try to evade both the law and the courts, to act in secret, and to resort to indiscriminate means of oversight and investigation. Its claim that it can designate even American citizens as enemy combatants and thereby hold them indefinitely while denying them the right to a trial is particularly worrying. The American constitution is a flexible document which recognises the possibility of grave threats to the republic. It allows for the suspension of habeas corpus. But it does not look kindly on unreasonable searches, secret trials or detention without any trial at all...

If every act of terrorism is met by a tightening of security and a concomitant loss of freedom, governments will be giving terrorists an automatic victory with every new outrage. That is not the way John Ashcroft, the attorney-general, sees it. He argues that “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty” only aid terrorists. He has things on their head...

Mr Bush may have made a mistake when he chose to call his response to September 11th a “war”. Talk of war conjures up the need for the suspension of normal political life and even of civil liberties. That is bad enough in a war of the conventional kind. But this war, if war it is, is one that may go on for ever. It can certainly never be declared won; terrorism, like poverty, is probably always with us. Awful as it sounds, that may mean learning to live with terror, even as you fight it: to be dominated by a fear of terrorists, to credit them with greater power than they really have, and to tear up your freedoms in the face of their threats is to hand them a needless victory.

While the US government seems content to allow the UK government to make a clear case for action against Iraq, the US media seems content to allow the UK media to make a clear case against the current erosions in our liberties.

September 04, 2002

Is There a World Leader Exchange Program?

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a press conference the other day to talk about his government's position on taking action against Iraq. I watched the part of it excerpted below on BBC World News, and can confidently report that this was delivered looking neither at a TelePrompter nor at notes:

You would think from some of the discussion that we're dealing with some benign liberal democracy out in Iraq.

We're dealing with a regime that routinely tortures and executes it's political opponents, that probably was responsible for up to 100,000 Kurdish people dying in a brutal campaign in order to enforce Iraqi rule.

We're talking about a regime that was responsible for a million people dying in the Iran/Iraq war, the annexation of Kuwait and that was trying to develop these appalling weapons and indeed actually used these weapons against their own people.

Now the issue is making sure it's not a threat.

And either the regime starts to function in an entirely different way -- and there hasn't been much sign of that -- or the regime has to change. Now that is the choice, very simply.

Our last President was Bill Clinton, who was as articulate as Blair but generally a spineless poll-watcher, so it went to waste. Bush seems to have a spine, but is unable to express himself clearly except in the most controlled contexts. To have a President with convictions and the ability to articulate them? It's hard to imagine.

September 03, 2002

Missing Days

After not missing a day of posting since starting my blog, I missed two in a row. The short answer is that I've overcommitted myself and my blog (among other activities) suffered as a result. Hopefully things are calming down now and I'll go back to regular posting.

Two friends disagreed with my recent posts on NPR's interview with Reg Weaver, the incoming president of the National Education Association. One made the point that, as an elected official, Weaver was simply bridging from the question being asked to the question he wanted to answer. In other words, a hypothetical translated version of the interview might read:

NPR: Why shouldn't there be an alternative [to public schools]?

Reg Weaver: I don't want to talk about that. What I want to talk about is my organization's dislike of vouchers. The NEA is against vouchers.

NPR: Okay, what about testing? Is it the case that the National Education Association doesn't equate high test scores with, say, high standards of teaching?

Reg Weaver: I don't want to talk about that. What I want to talk about is increased funding, school security, teacher certification, and high technology. The NEA is for all those things.

I'm not sure I buy my friend's argument. Yes, bridging is a PR technique (I was taught it during a PR class at Adobe Systems many years ago), but Weaver wasn't just bridging -- he was making a direct link between vouchers and poor school performance:

Reg Weaver: What I am saying is that I want all schools to be as good as our best school.

NPR: Unfortunately, that hasn't happened...

Reg Weaver: But see, it hasn't happened because I think the voucher issiue is a divisive issue... (emphasis mine)

That's not bridging; that's asserting a causal link.

Another friend put forward the argument that the problem with vouchers is that they will tend to favor students whose parents take an active role in their education, while disfavoring students with disinterested and uninvolved parents. I'm not sure I buy this argument, either. Competition among schools should -- if properly implemented -- be expected to raise the quality of all schools, not just those favored by parents. The worst schools will be shut down or restarted from scratch, so both median and mean school quality should rise. Yes, students with involved parents will benefit more than others, but isn't this the case already?