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August 31, 2005

"The Strategy Has One Virtue. It Might Work"

I respect David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times. He's intelligent; conservative, but not rabidly so; and he's willing to call a spade a spade. Even given his outspokenness, still, to see him turn on the Bush administration over Iraq makes me wonder if there's anyone left who thinks the Bush team is doing a good job managing the war. (I'm including his entire column here because it's important and because soon it won't be accessible via the Times site.) (Thanks, Eric!)

Winning in Iraq

Andrew Krepinevich is a careful, scholarly man. A graduate of West Point and a retired lieutenant colonel, his book, "The Army and Vietnam," is a classic on how to fight counterinsurgency warfare.

Over the past year or so he's been asking his friends and former colleagues in the military a few simple questions: Which of the several known strategies for fighting insurgents are you guys employing in Iraq? What metrics are you using to measure your progress?

The answers have been disturbing. There is no clear strategy. There are no clear metrics.

Krepinevich has now published an essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, "How to Win in Iraq," in which he proposes a strategy. The article is already a phenomenon among the people running this war, generating discussion in the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the American Embassy in Baghdad and the office of the vice president.

Krepinevich's proposal is hardly new. He's merely describing a classic counterinsurgency strategy, which was used, among other places, in Malaya by the British in the 1950's. The same approach was pushed by Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt in a Washington Post essay back on Oct. 26, 2003; by Kenneth Pollack in Senate testimony this July 18; and by dozens of midlevel Army and Marine Corps officers in Iraq.

Krepinevich calls the approach the oil-spot strategy. The core insight is that you can't win a war like this by going off on search and destroy missions trying to kill insurgents. There are always more enemy fighters waiting. You end up going back to the same towns again and again, because the insurgents just pop up after you've left and kill anybody who helped you. You alienate civilians, who are the key to success, with your heavy-handed raids.

Instead of trying to kill insurgents, Krepinevich argues, it's more important to protect civilians. You set up safe havens where you can establish good security. Because you don't have enough manpower to do this everywhere at once, you select a few key cities and take control. Then you slowly expand the size of your safe havens, like an oil spot spreading across the pavement.

Once you've secured a town or city, you throw in all the economic and political resources you have to make that place grow. The locals see the benefits of working with you. Your own troops and the folks back home watching on TV can see concrete signs of progress in these newly regenerated neighborhoods. You mix your troops in with indigenous security forces, and through intimate contact with the locals you begin to even out the intelligence advantage that otherwise goes to the insurgents.

If you ask U.S. officials why they haven't adopted this strategy, they say they have. But if that were true the road to the airport in Baghdad wouldn't be a death trap. It would be within the primary oil spot.

The fact is, the U.S. didn't adopt this blindingly obvious strategy because it violates some of the key Rumsfeldian notions about how the U.S. military should operate in the 21st century.

First, it requires a heavy troop presence, not a light, lean force. Second, it doesn't play to our strengths, which are technological superiority, mobility and firepower. It acknowledges that while we go with our strengths, the insurgents exploit our weakness: the lack of usable intelligence.

Third, it means we have to think in the long term. For fear of straining the armed forces, the military brass have conducted this campaign with one eye looking longingly at the exits. A lot of the military planning has extended only as far as the next supposed tipping point: the transfer of sovereignty, the election, and so on. We've been rotating successful commanders back to Washington after short stints, which is like pulling Grant back home before the battle of Vicksburg. The oil-spot strategy would force us to acknowledge that this will be a long, gradual war.

But the strategy has one virtue. It might work.

Today, public opinion is turning against the war not because people have given up on the goal of advancing freedom, but because they are not sure this war is winnable. Why should we sacrifice more American lives to a lost cause?

If President Bush is going to rebuild support for the war, he's going to have to explain specifically how it can be won, and for that he needs a strategy.

It's not hard to find. It's right there in Andy Krepinevich's essay, and in the annals of history.

"Millions for Bridges..."

From a recent "Business Traveler" column by Joe Brancatelli for USA Today:

Millions for bridges, not a penny for defense: President Bush signed the $286.5 billion transportation bill this week and critics were horrified by the number of pork-laden local road projects. The two most notable bacon-soaked items are $223 million for the Gravina Island bridge and another $229 million for the Knik Arm Bridge. Both projects are in the Alaska district of Don Young, the chairman of the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee. The Gravina Island project will link the 8,000 residents of the city of Ketchikan with the 50 people on Gravina Island. Also on Gravina Island: Ketchikan Airport, which offers a dozen scheduled flights a day and is currently linked to the city by a 7-minute ferry ride. As currently planned, the 2-mile-long Gravina span will be nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. The Knik Arm Bridge would link Anchorage with Port MacKenzie, which has just one tenant. In contrast to Young's $452 million bridges, the nation has spent a total of $115 million on mass-transit security since 9/11. Mass-transit systems in the United States carry an estimated 14 million riders a day.

August 26, 2005

Expectations and Disappointments

I once heard someone being interviewed on NPR say, "expectations are just disappointments in progress." That certainly seemed to be the case for me as I traveled from North Carolina to Missouri earlier this week.

I expected my flight from Raleigh-Durham to Atlanta to leave at 4:52 PM, my flight from Atlanta to St. Louis to leave at 7:06 PM, and, with the 2.5-hour drive afterwards, to be in my hotel room by 11:00 PM, ready to get a good night's sleep before a meeting first thing Wednesday. Instead, my flight departed Raleigh-Durham at 5:20 PM, was delayed again en route, and diverted to Knoxville for fuel. The pilot's advice was, essentially, don't worry, because all the flights would be late, including our connections. Correction: all the flights were late except my connection, which, by the time we finally arrived in Atlanta, I missed. Instead of leaving at 7:06 PM, I was rebooked on the last flight out, at 10:57 PM. That didn't leave until 1:40 AM. By the time I arrived at my hotel, it was almost 5:00 AM in Missouri, giving me enough time for a half hour nap, a shower, and then heading out to my meeting. In the end, I slept 30 minutes out of 41 hours straight -- maybe 45 minutes if I count a few brief catnaps.

So much for expectations.

August 25, 2005

"...Pulling Their Teeth Out with Pliers"

From the article "The Moral-Hazard Myth", appearing in the 29 August issue of The New Yorker:

Americans spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, almost two and a half times the industrialized world's median of $2,193; the extra spending comes to hundreds of billions of dollars a year. What does that extra spending buy us? Americans have fewer doctors per capita than most Western countries. We go to the doctor less than people in other Western countries. We get admitted to the hospital less frequently than people in other Western countries. We are less satisfied with our health care than our counterparts in other countries. American life expectancy is lower than the Western average. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States are lower than average. Infant-mortality rates are in the nineteenth percentile of industrialized nations. Doctors here perform more high-end medical procedures, such as coronary angioplasties, than in other countries, but most of the wealthier Western countries have more CT scanners than the United States does, and Switzerland, Japan, Austria, and Finland all have more MRI machines per capita. Nor is our system more efficient. The United States spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year -- or close to four hundred billion dollars -- on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada, for example, spends only about three hundred dollars per capita. And, of course, every other country in the industrialized world insures all its citizens; despite those extra hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year, we leave forty-five million people without any insurance. A country that displays an almost ruthless commitment to efficiency and performance in every aspect of its economy -- a country that switched to Japanese cars the moment they were more reliable, and to Chinese t-shirts the moment they were five cents cheaper -- has loyally stuck with a health-care system that leaves its citizenry pulling out their teeth with pliers.
When are the American people going to realize how fundamentally broken our health care system is and demand change?

What's Wrong with This?

Found in Tuesday's print edition of McPaper -- er, I mean USA Today:

Former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch started college with 4,600 other freshmen at West Virginia University in Morgantown. "She's been so out of the news for so long, she's not readily recognizable -- which I think she appreciates," said her publicist, Aly Goodwin Gregg.

August 22, 2005

"Close to... Apple's iPod"

I've re-read a blog entry of mine from a few days ago and caught something interesting in a quote from it. It was on Microsoft's latest effort to convince the world they're going to gain share against Apple in digital music. Here's the relevant section:

"Come this fall there is going to be a number of devices that get close to competing with Apple's iPod," [Erik] Huggers [head of Microsoft's Digital Media Division] said yesterday in San Francisco. By the second quarter of next year, "There is going to be a whole lineup of products that can compete with Apple in industrial design, usability, functionality and features."
Let me see if I can't translate that:
"Windows Media-compatible digital audio players haven't been competitive with the iPod. We know that. And they won't be competitive with it this fall, though our partners will have closed some of the gap by then. But eight months from now? Then they'll be as good as the iPod."
This raises two obvious comments:
  1. Microsoft's partners have been at this for years and, by Microsoft's own admission, they still can't match the iPod?
  2. Microsoft itself is telling consumers that digital audio players compatible with its service won't be as good as the iPod for another eight months?
To paraphrase Zaphod Beeblebrox, ten out of ten for honesty, but minus several million for bad public relations strategy.

Israelis, Palestinians, and Great Truths

A friend recently asked me what I thought of what was happening in Israel. This prompted me to write something I had been meaning to write for a while now... and presto, I got an e-mail and a blog entry out of it.

I think that the Palestinians and the Israelis each have a great truth that they have to face up to, but can't.

I believe that, for their part, the Palestinians have to realize that Israeli will never give them the right of return. They will never do this. If they did, they would be signing a death warrant for Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians would overwhelm the Jews, probably over time through higher birth rates, and then Israel as a safe haven run by and for Jews would cease to exist. So it won't happen. Not ever.

And I believe that, for their part, the Israelis have to realize that the West Bank is as gone as Gaza -- gone, gone, gone. Not tomorrow, not next year, but a hundred years from now at the outside, probably more like fifty, maybe even twenty, those settlements will be gone. Palestinian control of the West Bank is inevitable and once that happens, no matter what anyone says, the settlements are doomed.

So what I wish is that Israel and Palestine would realize all this, and agree to a) no right of return, and b) Israel completely out of the West Bank. And I think an agreement like that would be something that most Middle East states could get behind, normalize relations with Israel as a result, and stop funding terrorism.

Here's the other thing I think: it's crazy to be worried about the short term, which is a few settlements here or there. The big picture is this: eventually, an Arab state will acquire the ability to wipe Israel off the face of the map. The only thing that will stop some Arab leader who wants to go down in history as the man who nuked Tel Aviv is not military power (not that Israel should disarm), but that Israel and its neighbors are so closely interlinked that for any of them to attack Israel would be as unimaginable as, say, Canada attacking the US, or Germany attacking Italy.

So if I were in charge of Israel, I would be trying to figure out how to cut a deal that would have the backing of the entire Middle East, that would take the Palestinian "problem" off the table for good, that would take away from dictators the leading excuse for the sins they commit against their own people in the name of anti-Zionism, and that would begin to bind together the countries there socially, economically, and maybe even politically.

August 21, 2005

The Unexplained Bacon Effect

In one of the Halloween episodes of The Simpsons, a HAL-like home computer (voiced by Pierce Brosnan) tries to murder Homer in order to have Marge all to itself. It lures him downstairs into the kitchen in the middle of the night by cooking bacon, which prompts Homer to sleepwalk downstairs, muttering, "Mmmm... unexplained bacon."

I cooked breakfast earlier for my son Cameron -- French toast (the secret, per America's Test Kitchen, is flour in the batter) and bacon (the secret, per my sister-in-law Karin, is low and slow). The bacon takes long enough -- up to an hour -- that when I fix it for any of the kids, I put it on before they wake up. I don't know if it's a coincidence, but every time I do this, Cameron wakes up within 15 minutes. Could it be the Unexplained Bacon effect?

August 16, 2005

Kurzweil on "Strong" AI

Via KurzweilAI.net, an article on the future of AI for Forbes:

So what are the prospects for "strong" AI, which I describe as machine intelligence with the full range of human intelligence? We can meet the hardware requirements. I figure we need about 10 quadrillion calculations a second to provide a functional equivalent to all the regions of the brain. IBM's Blue Gene/L computer is already at 100 trillion. If we plug in the semiconductor industry's projections, we can see that 10 quadrillion calculations a second will be available for $1,000 by around 2020.
His new book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, is due out next month. I'm looking forward to it. I just have to first get through Everything Bad is Good for You; The World is Flat; I, Lucifer; Mistress Bradstreet; Living with the Devil... oh, who am I kidding? I'll drop whatever book I'm on to read about the Singularity.

August 15, 2005

Permissiveness and Virtuousness

From a column by David Brooks in the New York Times:

To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago. They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses. They are leading more responsible, more organized lives. A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.

The decline in domestic violence is of a piece with the decline in violent crime over all. Violent crime over all is down by 55 percent since 1993 and violence by teenagers has dropped an astonishing 71 percent, according to the Department of Justice.

The number of drunken driving fatalities has declined by 38 percent since 1982, according to the Department of Transportation, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 81 percent. The total consumption of hard liquor by Americans over that time has declined by over 30 percent.

Teenage pregnancy has declined by 28 percent since its peak in 1990. Teenage births are down significantly and, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the country has also been declining since the early 1990's.

Fewer children are living in poverty, even allowing for an uptick during the last recession. There's even evidence that divorce rates are declining, albeit at a much more gradual pace. People with college degrees are seeing a sharp decline in divorce, especially if they were born after 1955.

I could go on. Teenage suicide is down. Elementary school test scores are rising (a sign than more kids are living in homes conducive to learning). Teenagers are losing their virginity later in life and having fewer sex partners. In short, many of the indicators of social breakdown, which shot upward in the late 1960's and 1970's, and which plateaued at high levels in the 1980's, have been declining since the early 1990's.

What I find so interesting about this is that all these improvements have taken place during a time when right-wing religious leaders have been warning us that our wicked ways as a nation will soon lead to our downfall. Depictions of sex, violence, and drug use are pervasive in video games, television, and feature films. And the Internet? I challenge anyone to imagine anything that isn't available for immediate free viewing on the Internet. The Supreme Court has ruled that the states can't prohibit homosexual acts in the privacy of one's own home. Over 6,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts. Surely the Apocalypse must be nigh.

Let me be clear here: I'm not drawing a causal link between increasing levels of permissiveness and decreasing levels of violence, divorce, teen pregnancies, and other behaviors deemed undesirable by society. But the people on the religious right have foretold a causal link between permissiveness and increasing levels of such behaviors. So it's up to them to explain how, exactly, we find ourselves in our current situation, and why anyone should listen to anything they have to say about the negative effects of permissiveness.

August 13, 2005

Incredibly Clumsy Trackbacking

As noted earlier, I've disabled trackbacks, because I was being overwhelmed with trackback spam, and was unsuccessful in installing MT-Blacklist. So when I see someone link to me, if it's particularly interesting, I suppose I'll just blog it. So much for the wonderful future of trackbacks!

Anyway, my former Be colleague Michael Morrissey picked up on my recent entry on Flickr, and of course expanded quite a bit on what I had to say.

I really have to figure out how to spam-proof my blog while a) avoiding becoming a UNIX geek and b) keeping it open to useful contributions.

The Patent System Sinks Even Lower

Just when you think the US patent system can't sink any lower, it does. Via Slashdot, Microsoft is attempting to patent the highlighting of numbers in a document:

Patenting the Highlighting of Numbers
Click on the image to see the first page in full size.

By the way, I don't blame Microsoft for attempting to patent this. I blame the US Patent and Trademark Office for allowing us to get to a place where any patent attorney would think this was even worth the effort, much less to have a reasonable chance of having the patent actually granted.

August 11, 2005

"One of the Business Deals of the Decade"

While I'm thinking of Robert Scoble, from an entry in his blog:

If I had my hands on Microsoft's cash, I'd be buying blog search, blogging and podcasting networks, a ping server or two, and Memeorandum. I would have bought Flickr too. I think that Yahoo's purchase of Flickr will turn out to be one of the business deals of the decade. I heard that was purchased for less than $20 million. Amazing since the market for digitial photography is much larger than the market for podcasting.
No comment on the purchase price, but I agree with Robert. When all is said and done, I believe that Yahoo is going to derive at least an order of magnitude in benefits from Flickr, and perhaps two orders.

I think I differ from Robert, though, in that he seems to imply that the benefit will be from giving Yahoo a digital photography play. I believe that the true benefit of the purchase will be in the Flickr people infecting Yahoo with their development philosophy memes. Imagine a company of the depth and breadth of Yahoo innovating company-wide like Flickr. It's staggering to consider.

Here We Go Again...

Is it me, or do we get this story every six months or so? From an article in the Seattle Times:

Microsoft said Apple Computer's best-selling iPod music player will face increased competition from new products in the end-of-year shopping season.

Microsoft is working with electronics makers including Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics and Creative Technology to design and test music players that rival iPod, said Erik Huggers, head of Microsoft's Digital Media Division.

"Come this fall there is going to be a number of devices that get close to competing with Apple's iPod," Huggers said yesterday in San Francisco. By the second quarter of next year, "There is going to be a whole lineup of products that can compete with Apple in industrial design, usability, functionality and features."

Right, we've heard this before, but here's the funny part (emphasis mine):

While Apple's iPod and iTunes music store work together easily, Microsoft has faced difficulty showing customers which of the many Windows-based players and music stores are compatible. A campaign called "PlaysForSure," to put a logo on devices that would show consumers what works together, hasn't helped because not all devices with the logo actually work with the promised services.

"We tend to call it 'PlaysForAlmostSure,'" [Jupiter analyst Michael] Gartenberg said. "Meanwhile, Apple's iPod and iTunes are dancing together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."

So let me get this right: "PlaysForSure" does not, in fact, mean that it plays for sure? If true, it's time for Robert Scoble to wander through Microsoft's digital media division with an iPod in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. Seriously.

I'm more than content with my iPod, and happy to see Apple getting the best of Microsoft for once, but as with operating systems, we need true, vigorous competition in digital media players to keep the pressure on Apple to continue innovating.

Oh, how the tables have turned.

August 08, 2005

The Evolution of Flickr

Adaptive Path has published an interview with Eric Costello, client development lead for Flickr. It's an excellent history of Flickr's evolution and contains many lessons for anyone building Web services:

Jesse James Garrett: So you almost accidentally ended up in this position where you find yourself competing with personal publishing tools like Blogger and LiveJournal. How much of Flickr's evolution do you think was driven by this kind of accidental discovery?

Eric Costello: Accidental is probably not the right term -- I'd call it "fortuitous." There are a lot of bright people on the Flickr team who have great ideas that have influenced our direction. But we also have a very agile development process. We deploy code to the site maybe 10 times a day on a busy day. And we're constantly adding new features, small and large, even though lately it’s been relatively small features, sadly.

But because we're quick to develop and deploy new things, and because we have a talkative bunch of users and a lot of places for them to talk to us, we can quickly assimilate suggestions from the community. We can build a feature and deploy it sometimes within a week of hearing a feature request.

So it's not accidental, but most of Flickr has not undergone a lot of extensive planning. We’re kind of rolling with the punches, which makes it fun. And I think that makes it fun for the users, too.

August 07, 2005

Sleeping with History

I'm in Charleston visiting my friends Eve and Jon. They live in a beautiful house downtown, in the heart of the city. Eve, who is an architect by training, has researched the house and found tax records that go back to the 1790s, but suspects it dates from as far back as the 1760s.

When I stay with them, each night I lie in bed, look around at the guest bedroom, and wonder to myself, "How many people have been born in this room? How many people have died in this room? How many people have fallen in love in this room? How many people have fallen out of love in this room?" I wonder about all the incredible history that must have taken place in the last two centuries within the walls that surround me.

And then I sleep better than I sleep anywhere else in the world.

Joi Ito's Op-Ed

The New York Times asked Joi Ito to write an op-ed for them commemorating the anniversary of Hiroshima, which he did. It's called "An Anniversary to Forget" and is in today's issue.

I've spent enough time in Japan and studying its culture that, to be honest, I thought that whatever Joi had to say wouldn't be a surprise. In fact, much of what he wrote was new to me, especially the underlying theme of the piece:

For my generation, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the war in general now represent the equivalent of a cultural "game over" or "reset" button. Through a combination of conscious policy and unconscious culture, the painful memories and images of the war have lost their context, surfacing only as twisted echoes in our subculture. The result, for better and worse, is that, 60 years after Hiroshima, we dwell more on the future than the past.
I've always assumed that the bombings have never come up in my numerous visits to Japan because they're uncomfortable subjects for the Japanese. What I didn't consider was that they've never come up because the Japanese I know simply don't give them all that much thought.

Well done, Joi.

August 01, 2005


From Living with the Devil by Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs:

"I yearn to be free of pain," wrote the eighth-century Indian Buddhist Shantideva, "but rush straight into it; I long for happiness, but foolishly crush it like an enemy." A thousand years later, Pascal noted how "we desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only misery and death." Such contradictoriness is more than an occasional moral lapse that could be corrected by the fear of punishment or a timely boost of righteousness. It appears to be knit into the fabric of existence itself.