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June 27, 2003:
Believe you me, I don't think this is true of the Bush administration: it has proven itself quite capable of leveraging the power in its hands, what with the Hawks achieving moldy ten-year old goals of launching a war against Iraq, cutting back on environmental regulations, disguising tax breaks as economic stimulus, and packaging the costs of those tax breaks as lower than they will actually be. And I could go on.
But you have to wonder about the Democrats. It seems as if they are cowering in fear of becoming even a smaller minority, rather than showing spine and speaking out against shenanigans like we've seen from House Majority Whip Tom Delay. Or the shenanigans we've actually seen from the Bush administration: the war against Iraq was justified on a shakey premise, and either the Bush administration lied to us, or was badly misled by its intelligence. Does it really matter that much which it was? Either the administration is incompetent or it is corrupt.
And of course, the American Press seems more than willing to give the Bush administration free reign. As pointed out almost daily in The Daily Howler, the free ride which Bush was given during the 2000 Presidential campaign continues during the Presidency. If Bush were treated with the same skepticism, either then or now, as Gore received in 2000, the country would be in much better condition. But that is not happening: the So Called Liberal Media is rolling over and playing dead; this past week an article in the New York Times examined the Bush credibility issue, and basically said, "so what?" I'm not sure what all the fawning and cowardice is about, but I was very pleasantly surprised to read an editorial which condemned the USA Patriot Act in no uncertain terms. Major media outlet? Nah, a weekly in Idaho.
Where is the outrage over this administration? Must it only come from those who are labeled 'leftists', or can't it also come from reasonable people in the mainstream press? I mean, the Press is just so liberal. And where are the Democrats?
"The world, in its best state, is nothing more than a larger
assembly of beings, combining to counterfeit happiness which they
do not feel, employing every art and contrivance to embellish
life, and to hide their real condition from the eyes of one
Bah! Humbug, there will be no romanticism in this household, everything will be cold and rational. Reason will completely rule the day. We will not be deluded by commercially promoted gatherings, and the feeling of a "happening." No sirree Bob.
Harry Potter? Alright, ya got me there. I was in line with the Kid Unit and three chums at midnight, and the line wrapped around the block. And there was something to being in a crowd and the feeling of being with others who were in a complete state of anticipation. The bookstore in our neighborhood is an independent outlet, but nonetheless they had ordered 250 copies and put themselves in the promotional spirit, offering chocolate frogs, butter beer, and some such. All in line looked forward to the experience, and many were dressed in capes, wizard hats, and all that.
Even though we participated in the delusion, the dynamics of mania are fascinating. First, let me say that for those of us who hadn't reserved a copy, the book store still tried to provide entertainment. I tip my hat to Park Slope's Community Bookstore: this is the kind of bookstore which neighborhoods dream of, with a fiercely independent voice. (On September 11, our neighborhood's fire station suffered crushing losses, and Community Bookstore led the neighborhood in collections for support workers and status updates; yet, this local emergency didn't obscure the owner's world view, and her windows were a channel for looking beyond the local impact of the WTC deaths. Truly the kind of independent bookseller any neighborhood would want.)
Oops, I've lost the narrative thread, let me say a bit more and then get back on it. Community Bookstore did the marketing thing, but also made sure that it was entertaining for anyone who lined up, not just those who reserved books. They underestimated the crowds, but did well nonetheless. My hat's off to 'em.
In retrospect, am I sorry that we went? No, not really. One of the kids understood the potential disappointment while we waited, and others were bitter afterwards. All in all it was a valuable experience, being caught up in the mania of a crowd.
Special note: the Quote of the Week will return in mid- July, like, the 13th.
"Whatever has been effected for convenience or elegance, while
it was yet unknown, was believed impossible; and therefore would
never have been attempted, had not some, more daring than the
rest, adventured to bid defiance to prejudice and censure."
About 21 years ago, I worked on a marketing research study which examined numerous aspects of the market for color television sets: brand awareness and usage, attitudes towards brands, customer priorities, attitudes towards entertainment, etc. It was one of the largest types of projects which a researcher can ever do, and they can be rewarding because of their scope, the analytic techniques, the ability to relate pieces of data to each other, and so on. (They also tend to be expensive, and so they don't happen too often: a large corporation may do them for a specific product category only every 3-5 years.)
An odd question piggy-backed into the survey, though... The client firm asked us to gather consumer opinions about their interest in a TV add-on which would allow people to come in late to a program and see it from the beginning, storing the program's progress even as you watched it on a slight delay. VCRs existed at the time, and I knew this wasn't a capability for VCRs, but otherwise the description we were giving to consumers was too vague for the idea to seem as anything but "out there," and in such situations it's not always a good idea to gather opinions about products which seem inexplicable and leave too many questions unanswered. I can't remember what answers we received, nor what was done with the information.
Basically, the client was asking about the features of a system like TiVo. And as pie in the sky as it seemed 20 years ago, it's of course a reality now. Back then, PCs weren't in homes, so it would have been ridiculous to talk in terms of hard drives and such. But clearly, the vision that researchers were talking about in the early 80s is here.
When I read about the storage capacity of an iPod, and how such systems may make CDs obsolete — CDs, which were themselves revolutionary — after a mere 20 years on the market, one has to wonder just how many barriers exist for imaginations and visions to overcome. How many ideas face truly insurmountable hurdles?
It's easy to see that a large corporation can accomplish much, with the proper grounding and funding. But such accomplishments need not be limited to corporations. Individuals who have determination are also capable of incredible achievements and social change, too. But the hurdles need to be identified, understood, and finally blown to bits.
Happy Father's Day. I have a date in the park with my family, so you'll have to do your own searching for the inspirational stories of individuals, but they're out there, I assure you.
June 8, 2003:
It's not the kind of news which rocks the world in the way that war does, but this week many journalists (and would-be journalists, writing through their web logs) were buzzing over the resignation of two top editors at the New York Times, Howell Raines (executive editor) and Gerald Boyd (managing editor).
The avalanche which led to their resignation started some six weeks ago, with revelations that reporter Jayson Blair had apparently fudged much of what he'd written. This was followed recently by complaints that Pulitzer prize winning journalist Rick Bragg was relying too heavily on anonymous stringers, as well as spending only token amounts of time in areas where he designated his dateline. There have also been complaints about whether or not Judith Miller was being sufficiently skeptical about her sources when reporting on WMDs in Iraq.
But these were not the only complaints. Conservatives have long felt that priorities were wrong at the Times under Raines (for instance, there was considerable ink over the exclusion of women from the golf club where the Masters is held, and Andrew Sullivan pointed out that a report on climate changes in Alaska had abused the available data).
Further, management problems turned out to be a fatal issue: Raines was said to have built a star system wherein pet reporters were given too much leeway, without having earned it, and overall, morale was bad. There had been resignations in various bureaus long before anyone knew the name "Jayson Blair."
I'm in no position to comment on the journalism issues which have been raised regarding Bragg and Miller, because I'm not a journalist; the deception which Blair is said to have practiced seems so obviously wrong that it doesn't merit any commentary from me at this point.
But as for whether or not the Times needed to take more than gradual steps in order to reform its household, I have been in similar situations where morale is so bad that people start leaving: many times. Management has always surprised me when they fail to see that in such situations, it is the best people who often leave first, because they have the greatest value to the job market. Then, I've seen too many occasions where management attempts to improve morale by instigating bandages like monthly, company sponsored happy hours, as opposed to rooting out the true causes of the poor morale.
Job insecurity, or arrogance, may be why management never takes a hard look at themselves as a root cause for poor morale. If top management is the problem, and that's revealed, well then there's a requirement that they do something. (Insert the opening of Beethoven's Fifth here.) And yes, it may take a system totally new.
June 1, 2003:
"That it is every man's interest to be pleased will need
little proof: that it is his interest to please others experience
will inform him."
Johnson, ever the great mixer, was thinking of how people get along together, and build goodwill towards each other. Such social graces, he felt, help distinguish us from barbarity. But if observation extends its view (from China, to Peru, a doo-woppa-doo), it's clear that this basic principle extends to other spheres beyond personal interactions, and into such spheres as the spam which fills our inboxes.
The "law of the commons" basically states that everyone has access to public arenas (such as commons where one can let their sheep graze); yet it's understood that while it is in any single individual's best interest to maximize their utilization of it, if everyone did so the resource would deteriorate — so much so that it is in everyone's interests, including the individual's, to restrain their consumption.
Internet email is quickly becoming an example of this. While many used to look forward to that guy announcing "You've got mayo," or whatever it is he says, Internet users have learned to curb their enthusiasm. In the short term, it is in the interest of every spammer to send out as much email as they possibly can; yet in the longer term it is not: as the Internet gets more clogged with traffic, ISPs may change the way they charge for outgoing emails, and recipients may find themselves using the Internet less.
Spam emailers (and those who commission them) are already finding less and less success in email as a marketing tool, which is why they constantly work to be more aggressive (I can see this because I get the same piece of spam many times a day: if spam were effective, the frequency of receiving a specific piece would not be increasing so much). AOL and MSN (as well as other ISPs) are working hard to filter out their customers' spam, but it's a constant battle, much like the arms race. The aggressiveness of the emailers may soon start to work against them, however: consumers are getting savvier themselves (installing more sophisticated email programs, as well as creating multiple email accounts and prioritizing who they share which address with); ISPs are working harder to shut down customers who spam; and laws are on the way.
On my end, I get so much spam (more than 50 a day, easily), that I frequently turn off my email program, checking my email only periodically. This, of course, makes it more difficult for spam to get noticed, because I sweep out so many in a single effort that I never read anything more than the subject line, if that. This is directly a result of the spammers' sophistication: messages are embedded in some kind of script process that bypasses my filters. The text I open may display the trigger word, but my filter won't pick it up (though it does when an old friend includes it as part of a joke).
May 25, 2003:
"It may be observed in general that the future is purchased by
the present. It is not possible to secure distant or permanent
happiness but by the forbearance of some immediate gratification.
This is so evidently true with regard to the whole of our
existence that all precepts of theology have no other tendency
than to enforce a life of faith; a life regulated not by our
senses but by our belief; a life in which pleasures are to be
refused for fear of invisible punishments, and calamities
sometimes to be sought, and always endured, in hope of rewards
that shall be obtained in another state."
The future is purchased by the present: we have embarked on a war against terror, and I think we all accept the proposition. Certainly, the longer lines at the airports aren't something we have much choice in (although the airlines aren't having a great time, because they do deter some travelers). But by and large, no one wants any more September 11s, and so we make these sacrifices.
We accept the sacrifices. We really do understand that part. We do more than acquiesce, we embrace them.
Which is why it's baffling that the sacrifices aren't greater still. We're trying to finance a war on terror, and we're not even doing all that we should. Our ports are largely unprotected, and the federal government is pursuing a policy of international interdiction in the hope that terrorists can be stopped at the roots. How can we continue to be so blind, though, as to not provide greater funding for domestic protections? This is not just a point where liberals are haranguing the President out of force of habit; the issue is a source of complaint for those on both ends of the political spectrum.
For example, on CNN's Crossfire last week, liberal host Paul Begala said, "This morning, as they put the final touches on Mr. Bush's tax cut, congressional Republicans removed all aid for localities on homeland defense. All aid for localities is now gone so we have a few more pennies for tax cuts for the rich." The response from a conservative guest, Tony Blankley (editor of the Washington Times) was not one of disagreement: "The reality is that we aren't beginning to spend enough money on homeland security at magnitudes that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are proposing. You can give a list of 100 things we should spend money on, and we ought to."
Now, there is plenty that enrages me about the tax cut package which was just put through Congress at Bush's behest. Yes, it gives too much to the rich, and not enough to really stimulate the economy. (At least the administration has stopped that weak argument about jobs for the returning soldiers: their jobs were never at risk.) And yes, it makes me angry that the tax cut package does nothing to chip away at the deficit, and will actually make it worse. (Everyone of Bush's economists had said, prior to joining the administration, that lower tax rates do not stimulate the economy so much as to increase tax revenues.)
No, what really gets me is that even if there were no war on terror right now, we'd be running a deficit under this tax plan; and with a war on terror, with greater spending needs, the deficit is greater still. So with all this need for sacrifice, why aren't we doing it? Why are we talking tax relief? (As Begala pointed out, the costs of the tax cuts are being borne by underfunding local protection.) Why is President Bush so unstatesman-like that he won't say, at the same time as he asks for the tax cuts, "and here is where I think we should cut spending." Am I missing something? Doesn't he have an MBA? Didn't he ever have to do a presentation to get funding for a project where he had to lay out why it makes sense?
May 18, 2003:
"The powers of the mind, when they are unbound and expanded by
the sunshine of felicity, more frequently luxuriate into follies
than blossom into goodness."
So: forces have a way of getting out of hand, and need proper direction. How else to explain the latest antics of the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tom DeLay? Members of the House of Representatives are known for being less statesman-like than Senators, who are in the upper chamber. But it seems as if DeLay has taken his considerable facility for being a politician to new lengths. It will, I'm afraid, be a tough skin to shed should he ever want to rise to the Senate.
Let's look at his considerable list of accomplishments... Well, actually, just a few will do for us to see that he is frequently luxuriating into folly.
Look closely: this is power running amok. It needs to be checked. The governor of Texas, a fellow Republican, complained that the absent Democrats were making a mockery of his state. Personally, I think he's missing the real joke.
May 11, 2003:
"In a time of war the nation is always of one mind, eager to
hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy. At this
time the task of the news-writer is easy; they have nothing to do
but to tell that a battle is expected, and afterwards that a
battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether
conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing."
What happened in Iraq? Do you know?
It goes without saying that U.S. citizens were not uniformly in favor of going to war against Iraq without international approval, but support was stronger for the troops themselves, and the hope that they would safely return. But to compare the accounts which we heard in the US against those heard elsewhere, you might think there were two different wars going on — or that US news organizations had largely decided that their accounts would be different from the rest of the world's: as if we in the US were all of one mind and all wanted our news one way.
The differences in coverage are well known. It also was apparently deliberate.
Today, of course, one runs the risk of being called unpatriotic for questioning the coverage we received, and suggesting that the outcome of the war was anything but glorious. One is not even allowed to ask where the weapons of mass destruction are: that will get you tagged as a spoil-sport.
Perhaps the good news, if there is any, is that some things never change. The quotation above was taken from Idler #30, but in Idler #20 Johnson discussed the differing accounts of the English victory at Louisbourg, as told by the British and as told by the French. Well, as Johnson wrote it, he noted the pleasure of the British people in reading the accounts of the victory, and how he hated to suggest it was anything, but, er... And Johnson was attacked for it almost immediately. And it didn't die down: the essay was written in 1758, but I've seen criticism of Johnson over it as late as 1775.
May 4, 2003:
Empires are broken down when the profits of administration are
so great, that ambition is satisfied with obtaining them, and he
that aspires to greatness needs do nothing more than talk himself
into importance. He has then all the power which danger and
conquest used formerly to give; he can raise a family, and reward
The question continues to nag: why did George W. Bush want to be President? Back in the '90s, when he decided to pursue the office, did he have a vision for America? What was it?
So far, it's difficult to say. His most visible efforts have followed two directions: one, reducing the tax burdens of those who pay the most taxes, and two, the war against terrorism. The first effort, taxes, certainly isn't the stuff of 'vision,' it's more a tactic than a strategy. As for the latter, some might argue that the war against terrorism was foisted on him, and that this initiative has distracted him from pursuing more of a domestic agenda.
I don't think this argument is correct. As laid out on an installment of the PBS show Frontline, plans for the mid-East were long in the making, and candidate George W. Bush was brought into them. As Evan Thomas, an editor at Newsweek put it, "various great and worthy men trooped down to Austin to teach George Bush about the world. By and large, they told him that Iraq was unfinished business..." On balance, I think it's unfair to suggest that Bush had no vision: he did, it just wasn't a vision for America itself, and he didn't share this vision with us when he was campaigning.
If we're left with no other vision than that, however, we have to start to think of him merely as a War President. This alone is not enough to make him great. The Great War Presidents we've had in the past have all done something else significant for the country at the same time: Lincoln? freed the slaves; Roosevelt? saw us through the depression and instituted huge social reforms; Johnson? civil rights. Will President Bush be able to follow two directions at once? His term is half over.
I don't think it's fair to level the Johnson quotation against Bush, then, because he did have some vision. But there are other powerful people in the White House whom the charge could cover. Karl Rove is a strong candidate.
At times it seems as if power is his only concern: an article in Esquire laid out how strongly political considerations overwhelm policy. And as for doling out rewards to the faithful, few loyal Republicans can forget how the then-Republican Senator from Vermont, Jim Jeffords, was given the cold shoulder when his adherence to the party line was questioned, and how that chill led to Jeffords' leaving the party and turning the Senate Majority over to the Democrats.
Similarly, this New Yorker is not encouraged by the timing of the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, set to coincide as best as possible with the second anniversary of September 11, in the mere effort to associate the Presidency more strongly with national security issues. Somebody is willing to walk on our dead, just for the sake of retaining power.
April 27, 2003:
"A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of any thing than
he does of his dinner; and if he cannot get that well dressed, he
should be suspected of inaccuracy in other things."
Hooray, it's rhubarb season! For me, this is big news. Not just for pies (heck, those can be bought. Why get incredibly enthusiastic about the arrival of something that can only be used in a readily-available finished product?) No, I have more serious objectives in mind: I intend to renew the annual quest for the perfect rhubarb sauce for duck.
I understand that there are some people out there who could claim that they think about their dinners and rhubarb doesn't even cross their mind; I understand it, but find it tough to believe. I mean, rhubarb is a lot more than salty celery with red food coloring, or we wouldn't plunk down $3.99 a pound for it. There is nothing else like it on the planet, and its availability is so brief. It demands that you acquire a taste for it.
The price, though, does give pause to think. It's more costly than blueberries in the summer, and yet is the pie superior?
YES IT IS. Alright, rarity has something to do with its valuation, and we shouldn't let rarity increase our desires. Value should come from use.
But still, I for one am very happy about this. And would pay twice the price to get some in July.
April 20, 2003:
"A wise Tory and a wise Whig, will, I believe, agree. Their
principles are the same, though their modes of thinking are
different. A high Tory makes government unintelligible; it is
lost in the clouds. A violent Whig makes it impracticable: he is
for allowing so much liberty to every man, that there is not
power enough to govern any man. The prejudice of the Tory is for
establishment; the prejudice of the Whig is for innovation."
The parallels between 18th century British politics and 21st century American politics are limited, and one shouldn't attempt to draw too many. For instance, we usually think of the Tories as being the conservatives, yet US conservatives are more likely to voice a preference for individual freedom. (Whether or not that is consistently true is a different debate: many social issues receive regulation from the conservatives.)
But taken away from the specifics of how Tories and Whigs arrive at disagreements, Johnson's larger point is worth noting, that wise politicians — statesmen — are in basic agreement, while those who follow demands of faction are not.
A true statesman, of course, is motivated by love of country, and all that that entails. Country is the people, the principles, the boundaries, and the civic health. It's not ephemeral trappings like a flag, or a song, or whether the phrase "one nation under God" is a necessary graft onto a Pledge which stood longer without it than with it.
As Johnson wrote in his pamphlet The Patriot, "A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest."
Unfortunately, there are too many instances where patriotism has been used as a point of leverage for political gain. We all know about the surprising fashion in which irrelevant protections for Eli Lilly were surreptitiously slipped into the Homeland Security Bill. We all know how Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's patriotism has been questioned in an effort to quell dissent about President Bush.
With these thoughts on the differences between statesmanship and politics, it was really heartening to read what actor Tim Robbins said to the National Press Club. If you haven't read the transcript, you really should: Robbins talks about the common fears we had after 9/11, as well as the unity and desires to help, and how great opportunities for civic contributions and volunteerism were squandered when we moved immediately to a divisive war, one which has now progressed to isolate us in the international community. (Do you think the 30-plus nation coalition was really that important, and that we're not isolated? Well, after the fact, the Bush administration apparently doesn't, because the post-war government is being seen as US and UK driven. If all those countries were important for demonstrating that the war was not just the US and the UK, we should be welcoming the international community in the rebuilding process, too.)
April 6, 2003:
"Too much vigour in the beginning of an undertaking often intercepts and prevents the steadiness and perseverance always necessary in the conduct of a complicated scheme."
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #43
Part of the danger, of course, is that you won't have stamina to persevere to the end. It's like trying to run a marathon at the pace you'd use in the 100-meter dash.
Completing something you've started is also endangered when you relax too early, and congratulate yourself on the finish too soon.
Following the events of September 11 (which, we're reminded again and again, changed everything), the US was firm in its resolution to pursue the perpetrators and those who harbored them. If need be, this would include foreign governments.
Afghanistan's Taliban was given an ultimatum to turn over Osama Bin Laden and his associates; the Taliban refused, and you know what happened next: for a relatively brief period (in the scheme of world history), the US was relentless in its Afghan operations, until the Taliban had relinquished its hold on the country and a new government could be created.
Osama Bin Laden, of course, remains free, along with Taliban leader Mullah Omar Mohammed. Significant captures have been made — make no mistake about it — but the two major leaders are uncaptured, and Bin Laden is able to issue recruitment tapes at will.
As for Afghanistan, while a new government has been created in Kabul, the Taliban is still said to be in control of significant portions of the country. And the task of rebuilding the country following our intense bombing was forgotten when the Bush administration first submitted it's budget — failing to fulfill their good intentions, not a dime had been earmarked. (I really think it was an honest mistake due to a lack of discipline in project management; I don't think it was intentional, and I know of no one who thinks it was planned that way. It's just too stupid.)
But clearly, much was still left to be done re Afghanistan and Bin Laden when Al Gore made his speech last September reminding the US to not get too distracted by Iraq that it not complete what was necessary in Afghanistan. Some in the administration, of course, had been chomping at the bit to pursue Iraq even without any evidence of complicity in September 11. Even before, actually: administration desires to be dominant in the region date to long before the proponents were members of the current administration. Afghanistan, it seems, is a mere distraction along the way.
Now, of course, we're in Iraq, and the pace has gone fairly well. Wars take time, they are not like Polaroid photos, developing in 60 seconds, and I was patient with the progress. Still am, although I am concerned that we've exposed ourselves to greater risks by not using all the might we could muster. But now there are reports that the Bush administration will call it a victory if the country is controlled, whether or not Saddam Hussein is dead or in hand.
Excuse me? They want to move the goal posts now? This goes back to my regular complaint that this MBA President of ours lacks basic business skills. Part of project management is that everyone agrees on what constitutes project completion. You don't ease up on your standards for success mid-project. You do your best, of course, but if you don't complete what you originally set out to do, you have to be straightforward and admit that you're revising the success criteria. And, if you want to look good on your year-end evaluation and keep your job, you have to give very good reasons for having done so. Failure does not equal success.