29 December 2009

Doug & Bob Host the Winter Olympics

Last week, we went to Whistler where the downhill events for the 2010 Winter Olympics will unfold. Shockingly, the road north from Vancouver is only two to four lanes. Think about it. Spectators from around the world all converging on these Olympic events and the road to it has one lane feeding into it. I can only imagine that parking lots in Beijing had more lanes feeding into them.

A family friend lives close to Whistler and she showed us the stage (they are still constructing? have constructed? hard to tell) that will be used for the awards ceremony. Canada does a lovely job of building parks around town and the next day I saw a little pavilion in an obscure park we frequently walk through when visiting my in-laws - a park that never seems to have more than about 4 people in it. This little pavilion seemed about as nice and as big as the Olympic medal stand in Whistler Village.

The folks around Vancouver can see through the hype to the big bill that comes with the event. They are, at best, seemingly ambivalent about it.

Someone needs to do a skit with Doug and Bob hosting the winter Olympics - the symbol of Canadians apparent disinterest in playing host.

Imagine Doug walking you through Whistler's Village, past the medals stand. "Yep, over there is a log you can stand on to get your medal. And, uh, when you're done we can go get a beer to celebrate, eh? And maybe by the time we've had a few beers, eh, all those people who were driving up to watch your event will be here. It's too bad your folks got stuck in traffic. They would have been real proud, yeah."

27 December 2009

The Too Much Information Age

Too much information is as bad as too little.

As it turns out the would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, was on a list of about 550,000 potential suspects who might qualify for the TSA no-fly list.

What the media seems unable to distinguish between is problems from a lack of information vs. problems from no information. Sure Umar was on a list - but he had not been evaluated as yet to determine if he was a real list. Your most powerful tip for 2010 is in the stack of magazines in Barnes & Noble that you have yet to read. Not only have you not yet read them, you have not figured out which of the tips is THE one that will transform your life in 2010. The government has essentially the same problem finding and making sense of the tetra bytes of information that might be relevant to security.

If we had the capacity to turn all noise into signal, we'd have about half the country sifting through information for real vs. imagined threats. Too much information is at least as bad as too little. It would take you years to read every magazine in Barnes and Noble - and when you were done you'd only know about the current week. Too much information is as useless as too little.

If we were to staff properly to evaluate every potential or reported threat in real time, Osama bin Laden would achieve his goal of bankrupting the country and subordinating all travel and commerce to bureaucracy that had to evaluate every package and person entering the country.

It is still not obvious that anything went wrong in the process that allowed Abdulmutallab into the country. If anything, it was simply a reminder that no one is ever completely safe.

People with bad allergies won't die from, say, milk but could die from their reaction to it. Terrorists won't destroy our way of life but our reaction to them could.

18 December 2009

The "Oh Nothing" Decade Is Ending

Last decade was the 90s. The decade before, the 80s. This decade just ending? We ought to give something phonetic to the 00s. I suggest the Oh nothings.

First we had the Y2k bug. Computers would crash! The market would crash! Airplanes would crash! We spent billions converting computers and software. Wait a minute. You mean all the computers are fine? What is it? Oh, nothing.

In 2000 we heard, it's a new millennium! Everything will be different! Everyone will be rich with tech stocks. Robots will bring your slippers. It'll be wonderful! Wait? What is it? Where are my millions? Where are my slippers? What did the new millennium bring? Oh, nothing.

When George W. Bush was sworn in, there was a measure of excitement. We have a new compassionate conservative! We're bringing morality back to the White House. A non-partisan approach. Leadership and wisdom. Wait? What? What is he saying? What is his IQ? Oh, nothing.

9-11! Terror! The world is ending! Lives are in danger! The economy will collapse! Wait. No more attacks? What are is Osama doing now? Oh, nothing.

Invasion of Iraq! Our troops may face fierce resistance. We'll find WMDs! Wait? What? You've found ... oh, nothing.

Blogging was going to give everyone a voice. Make us all famous. Allow the little guy to hold politicians accountable. It was going to change .... oh, nothing.

Rebuilding Iraq. A light of democracy in the middle east. Peace at last. Prosperity for those poor Iraqis. We'll give them ... oh, nothing.

Obama won the election. He was going to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Close GITMO. Get the economy going again. End greed on Wall Street. Change the world as we know it. He was going ... what is that you said? Troop surge? Unemployment in double-digits? What has he changed? Oh, nothing.

This last year, we heard that the economy is going to crash. We'll have a Great Depression! Banks will fail! Everyone will be homeless! Wait. The economy dipped a few points and then started to rise again? What is going to happen? Oh, nothing.

In the end, the events of the decade seemed like those teaser leads the TV news uses to bring you back from break, hoping that by the time the commercials are over and they tell you the actual story you won't realize that it was ... oh, nothing.

Maddie on Men

"There are two kinds of men," Maddie finally offered. Maddie's older brother Bernard and I had been talking about women and relationships and she had been quietly listening. Finally, inevitably, Bernard and I stopped to catch our breath and she was able to talk without interrupting.


"Yes," she nodded. "Men who don't have a clue about women and men who don't have a clue that they don't have a clue about women."

I wanted to respond. I was not sure what to say.

Bernard's confusion did less to silence him. "Oh c'mon, Maddie. That's a cheap shot. There are men who have a clue."

"Really," she raised an eyebrow.

"Sure. There are women happy with the guy they are with. They even say as much."

"They are with men who don't have a clue that they don't have a clue." The way she said this did not seem to allow the least questioning on our part. "Those men are sometimes easier to be with." She paused. "Sometimes."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," she paused, her finger tracing patterns in some spilt salt on the table, "men who don't have a clue tend to give up. They are like deer in the headlights. Or potatoes on the couch. They don't try anymore because they haven't a clue about what does or doesn't work or what to say or what not to say. Men who realize how little they realize might be less delusional, but they are not really better.
"Now men who haven't a clue that they don't have a clue can actually be coaxed into doing certain things. They are easier to engage. They say the wrong things but they can be coached into saying some approximation of the right thing. They do the wrong things but ... well at least they still engage with you. Handled properly, they can be enjoyable company."

Bernard and I sat quietly for the first time all evening. I had suddenly lost all confidence about what I could say.

"Is knowing that there are just these two types of men the first clue," I finally asked.

Maddie laughed. "Oh Ron," she said. "You know, there might be hope for you yet."

"You think there is hope for me to actually get a clue," I asked, my voice betraying my hope more than I had wanted.

Maddie laughed even harder. "No, silly. I'm just saying that there is a chance that you might be one of those men whose sense of delusion could be put to good use." And then she laughed again. I did not.

Facts Just Aren't News Any More

I used to rely on Newsweek for a recap of the week. A way to make sense of the headlines I'd seen in passing. Newsweek has apparently fired their reporters and hired columnists.

Don't get me wrong. The columnists are great - Fareed Zakaria is insightful and Sharon Begley is the kind of science writer who makes us laymen feel a little smarter by the end of her piece.

The good news is that these columnists seem to have opinions that they generally subordinate to facts. The bad news is that it is no longer clear where those facts come from. Apparently investigative journalism is now too boring or expensive or risky. Their opinions may be more balanced and nuanced than that of Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, but it is still opinion.

In retrospect, this may have been inevitable. Our generation has grown up with the same main stories. Unrest in the Middle East. Celebrity scandal. Questionable American military involvement in [fill in the blank]. Fiscal recklessness. Lots of health care debate but little health care policy. Global competition eroding American industries. The facts, apparently, change little from news cycle to news cycle. Opinions, it would seem, are less constrained by events and easier to tailor for consumption. But even so, once you've taken the news out of Newsweek, it seems a little weak.

Report on the Senate, for the Senate, from within the Senate

After 23 years in the Senate, John McCain made this observation:

"I must say that I don't know what's happening here in this body, but I think it's wrong,"

I think that McCain's comment should be put onto t-shirts and given to freshman senators to wear as they sit through sessions.

16 December 2009

Is the Bottle Half Empty or is That a Frontal Lobotomy?

"I belong to no organized political party. I'm a democrat."
- Will Rogers.

It looks as though the Democrats have failed to pass health care legislation.

As frustrating as I find this, I would rather a party that failed to do the right thing than one that succeeded at doing the wrong thing.

But really, is it too much to ask to have 8 years when we've either got a party that continually fails to do the wrong thing or actually succeeds at doing the right thing?

14 December 2009

Religous Power

Reading again about the atrocities of the medieval church and religious wars and acts of terrorism since, it occurs to me that we ought to have a very simple rule about religious power.

Any religious group is allowed to exercise as much power as they wish - power to damn or kill abortionists, gays, atheists, Anabaptists, Muslims, politicians, people who walk funny or people who reject Joseph Smith. Seriously. Of course, given that it is religious belief we're talking about, it seems only appropriate that there be one catch to this: exercise all the power they want as long as it is supernatural power. If you can direct the wrath of God, you ought to be taken seriously. And further, you don't even need a political process.

10 December 2009

Golfing's Best

Although it is touted as the ultimate in golfing, it seems as though the hole in one was not enough for Tiger Woods.

09 December 2009

Good News for Planning: July 2011 is Firm

In reporting on the new Afghanistan strategy,

"The July 2011 date is firm, Defense Secretary Gates said, but conditions will dictate how many troops would be withdrawn then, and at what pace. Much will depend on the training of Afghan security forces, he said."

So, when Gates says that the July 2011 date is firm but what they do will depend, is he just saying that the administration is resolved that the actual month of July 2011 will not shift around in time?

I'm sure that it is a comfort to Afghans and Americans alike to know that the Obama administration is committed to the Julian calendar. Now if only we knew whether it is committed to withdrawal.

06 December 2009

The "Done Nothing" Accusations Thrown at Obama

Obama has done nothing. Of course it has not yet been a year, but he has no accomplishments to point to except some arguments about how job loss would have been worse without his stimulus package (a package that included financial industry bailouts that began with the Bush administration).

The truth is, we don't know what Obama has accomplished. Or, rather, won't for some time. And simply judging from my own experience of life, I am actually assured by his apparent lack of progress. For now.

I've been blogging less and reading others' blogs less. The reason for this is simply that I've been diverting my writing energy into a bigger project. For now, it would seem obvious that I'm doing less. I'm not. But what I'm doing is higher risk. No one else may ever see it and it may amount to nothing.

I don't fool myself about my blog postings having any impact, but it is gratifying to hit the "publish post" button and have "done" something. I quite like that. The posts may have little or no consequence but my accomplishments seems obvious.

By contrast, the writing project I've been working on is far less likely to be published and even if it does, it is unlikely to have much more impact than my posts. I am doing something - more, even, then when I was at my peak of blogging. But there is little to report. I'm just working on the project. And will be for months - maybe a year. It doesn't sound very exciting but completing this project will be more exciting than anything I've done in the last decade or two. And it has the potential to have much more impact than the hundred-some posts I could publish in the same time. It will, in any event, be more consequential than a string of unrelated posts. For reasons like this, I believe that invisible progress is often the best progress.

So let's return to our president. He could do things to keep the 24-hour news channels happy, the equivalent of presidential blogging. Lots of little publicity opportunities, legislative initiatives and the like that generate news but probably won't change history.

Or he could take a big risk and put himself into a project like health care reform. He may not get legislation passed. Or it may be bad legislation. This is very high risk. But IF he succeeds, when history is written this will be an accomplishment as big as or bigger than that of any president in decades.

I have found that there is a negative correlation between how much I'm doing in any given week and what I can report at the end of the year. The projects that are worth talking about are few and take a long time. By contrast, if I "stay busy" I seem to inevitably wonder what it was I did later. Things that can be done quickly are generally disposable.

In a similar way, Obama's project is something that will look better at the end of his term than it does on any given news cycle. He's trying to do something big. To judge what he's done now is like a father grousing about how his son - in his second year at university - sure hasn't made as much money as the neighbor's kid who went right into landscaping. You've already given the man four years. Let him use it.

01 December 2009

Chapter Two of Chapter One (Haven't We Read This Sentence Before?)

Bush thought that once he'd toppled the Taliban and Hussein regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, democratic nation-states would just emerge. Nation-building has proved to be a little more complicated.

I'm not clear that Obama appreciates the difficulty of nation-building either. Given the state of the state in Afghanistan, it seems to me that we have two choices: stay for a generation and massively subsidize education and development to build something akin to a modern nation-state or essentially withdraw from the country and contain its military threat. I think those are wretched choices, but building roads or securing check points into major cities for a year is not the same thing as building a nation or securing its people. Nation-building isn't measured in months but in decades. It has as much to do with reconstructing the minds of people as their towns.

And yet Obama is going to send in a surge of 30,000 more troops but only for one year. Because that is all that Bush got wrong; he was just short by tens of thousands of troops and 10 to 12 months.

It's not even obvious to me that Obama is all that sold on his own plan. His speech lacked the snap of his campaign speeches, sounding like lots of blah blah blah. (Is there a rule that when you send troops to war you talk in platitudes sure to reverse the adrenalin rush of war?) It wasn't obvious to me that he owned this speech.

This is like projecting deficit reduction after this year of deficit increase. I simply don't see how 30,000 troops will change things so much over the course of a year that withdrawal will be any easier. How is war like snorting heroin? It's terribly destructive but hard to quit. Next year at this time, expect a mid-course correction from Obama. Something about the need to keep troops in country just 6 (or 12) more months.