Thursday, June 30, 2005

Civility and the Leiter Reports

Eugene Volokh at cites this post: Leiter Reports: On Rhetoric, "Persuasion," and Tone...or Knowing the Difference Between Hard and Easy Questions for an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of civility in blogging. To boil down the argument, Leiter says on serious questions civil argument is appropriate, but not in the blogosphere, which he believes is not a realm for persuasion.
"What always strikes me in debates about 'tone' and 'civility' is that the critics, without fail, will abandon civility and adopt a harsh tone in the presence of the views that they deem 'beyond the pale.' Invariably, it turns out that they simply draw the line somewhere else (a good example is here--see the last paragraph, and the second comment), and that what really galls them is not the fact of my harshness and dismissiveness--they are equally capable of that when it comes to, e.g., Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader or me--but rather that it is directed at the views they've been taught to take seriously, to think are serious, the views they've been led to believe are entitled to respect, even if one disagrees."
He has a point--certainly most of the popular blogs I've seen have a lot of heat, whether from the posts or the comments. But I'd draw the line differently, at least for myself. On the one hand you have the gibes and snarky remarks; on the other you have posts that try for reason. The former are just spray off the water; the later should aim for persuasion. We may not achieve what we aim for, but as someone said somewhere if we don't aim for it we're unlikely to achieve it.

Fourth of July Legends

Humans almost always idealize their group and their bigshots. One example of that is our urge to glorify the Founding Fathers. has a good analysis of a recurrent urban legend here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Exclusion and Inclusion

Lots of commentary on the Supreme Court's Ten Commandments decisions. I won't go there directly but will instead pick up from a line in George Will's column this morning--observing that Quaker, Anglican, Methodist and Baptist clergymen officiated (where, he's not clear--it may have been over Congress, or just over religious ceremonies held in the Capitol in the early 1800's).

I think we have always had a four-way divide: first there's the one true religion (which is the one I believe); second there are other religions believed by people who are good at heart, even though misguided in views on theology, organization, or other points of religious belief; third are the unbelievers, those who don't believe; and finally the believers in false religions.

Over the years Americans have come to include more and more religions/denominations/sects in the second category. It shows when we have public ceremonies, like inaugurations or funerals of bigshots or the services after 9/11. It does vary by time--Catholicism was a false religion, the whore of Babylon for the Puritans, got acceptable in the revolution, then lost that status as Catholic immigrants came in during the 19th century, and finally regained it by 1960 with JFK. Jews have made it into the other category, but Islam hasn't (witness Franklin Graham) quite yet. But we're getting close to the point where people say "we all worship the same God" (even though named Jehovah or Allah).

That leaves out the non-monotheistic religions. Will we say: "many paths to enlightenment" as the new euphemism? When will we have a Wiccan officiate at some national ceremony? (I suspect the rule is you have to have 2 percent or more of the electorate to qualify. But that should mean that Mormons are overdue for representation.)

As for the third category--unbelievers--I think some people, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Robert Ingersoll (famous agnostic circa 1890) probably are seen more as category 4, but many people tolerate them. Not that any representative of unbelief will ever appear on a national stage.

Tierney Disses Bureaucrats

John Tierney, the new conservative columnist at the NYTimes, shows that he's no slouch at dissing bureaucrats in today's column. This is the second column on the West, channeling the writings of Terry Anderson (see below for links). Apparently the Indians were in good shape making treaties with civilians until 1840's, when we got a standing army after the Mexican War. (This would be news to Generals Anthony Wayne and William Harrison (who got to be President based on his fame as an Indian fighter.) Then the Bureau of Indian Affairs (their predecessor agency) came along and really put the kibosh on them. The Times requires registration but here's a quote:
"They were consigned to reservations and ostensibly given land, but it was administered by another bureaucracy, the agency that would grow into what's now the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The agency, in addition to giving some of the best land away to whites, allotted parcels to individual Indians with the goal of gradually transferring all the land and ending federal supervision. But what self-respecting bureaucrats work themselves out of a job?

As the land under their control dwindled, they presumed that Indians were not 'competent' to own land outright. It had to be placed under the agency's own enlightened trusteeship. They kept allotting parcels of this 'trust land' to individual Indians, but an Indian couldn't sell or lease his parcel without permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs."
I hold no brief for either the Indian policy of the British, the Founding Fathers, or the U.S. government nor for the BIA as an effective organization. But the BIA doesn't set policy, Congress does that based on input from citizens. The Dawes Act of 1887 was based on the best thinking of the time--make Indians property owners and good things would follow. See this PBS page. The "competence" test was not an invention of BIA--it was in the law. Granted that BIA screwed up, we can't blame the agency for the failure of the policy, nor for the failure of the libertarian/conservative economics embodied in the law.

References appended to Tierney's column.

The Wealth of Indian Nations: Economic Performance and Institutions on Reservations by Terry L. Anderson and Dominic P. Parker, June 2004, 42 pp., working paper. [Note--based on a quick skim, this paper isn't a good support for Tierney's thesis, at least as I understand it. The paper looks at recent economic performance, not history.]

The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill, Stanford University Press, 256 pp., May 2004.

Property Rights: Cooperation, Conflict, and Law edited by Terry L. Anderson and Fred S. McChesney, Princeton University Press, 448 pp., 2002.

For more information, go to:

Monday, June 27, 2005

Sign of the Time--Bigger Miata

Warren Brown in the Post writes on Mazda's redesign of their Miata:

"There were two seemingly contradictory needs in the Miata's redevelopment. The car had to be bigger. That is because people have gotten bigger, especially in America, the global automotive industry's most lucrative market, which also is the home of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King."
(He doesn't say whether they had to add more cup holders.) Bigger houses, bigger clothes, bigger cars--the world is going to pot says this old bureaucrat.

Idea--Variable Pricing for Events

If I recall, introduced the idea of selling airline seats and hotel reservations on-line. The idea was the airline or hotel would gain from selling otherwise vacant seats or renting rooms.

This weekend I ran into three different scenarios where the idea might be applicable. In the Post magazine they ran an article on the Washington Nationals, which included a comment on some empty seats that might be filled by charity. My wife and I went to Wolf Trap Saturday for the NSO concert, again some empty seats. Then Sunday night we went to Kennedy Center for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (the performance was better than the review led me to expect), also empty seats. I know DC has (or had) a half-price day of performance outlet down on F Street. But why not line up some membership organizations--the Scouts, PTA's, etc. to buy tickets on short notice for real low prices. One thing ballet, classical music, and the Nats share is an interest in building their audience. Maybe they'd attract a return buyer for each 10 tickets they sell.?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dining With Jeff - New York Times

Patricia Nelson Limerick, a prominent historian of the West, is a guest op-ed writer for the Times. Today she mentions (registration required) the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson reconciliation and correspondence over the 12+ years before they died. She goes on to cite her husband, now dead:
"When I find myself puzzled and even vexed by the opinions and beliefs of other people, I invite them to have lunch. Multiple experiments have supported what we will call, in Jeff's honor, the Limerick Hypothesis: in the bitter contests of values and political rhetoric that characterize our times, 90 percent of the uproar is noise, and 10 percent is what the scientists call 'signal,' or solid, substantive information that will reward study and interpretation. If we could eliminate much of the noise, we might find that the actual, meaningful disagreements are on a scale we can manage."
Acting on this rule, she's invited Bill Moyers and James Watt (Reagan's Interior Secretary) to lunch. Will be interesting if it comes off. I suspect many, perhaps most, Americans of the non-political class would want to believe in the hypothesis; I certainly do. I remember one of the management classes I had focused on eliminating noise from communication--one exercise was to "confirm" what you heard; try to restate in your own words what you thought the other party was saying. It often works, at least in work contexts. We often jump to conclusions. I often drove my employees up the wall by asking them to take baby steps--describe a little piece of a problem until I was sure I understood it, then go on to the next. Surprisingly often the problem would disappear or the fix would appear in the process.

But it's easy to over-estimate this. If Gerry Adams and Rev. Paisley sat down for lunch in some Belfast pub (Paisley might well be teetotal), even under the guidance of the best possible facilitator they'd still have irreconcilable differences.

Doing Things the First Time

My Harshaw's rule about not doing things right the first time has another corollary--it takes an extra effort to try new things. That comes up from two things:

1. piece in the Post about a woman of a certain age (50+) trying something new, spurred on by the question: "when was the last day you did something new?" I haven't bothered looking up the link, but it's a good question. I never was an adventure seeker and am less so as I've gotten older. Indeed, my wife and I have a mantra, somewhat self-mocking: "change is bad". I suspect that's true of most people; we seek the comfort of the familiar and have less emotion (less love, less hate, less fervor) prompting us.

2. Safeway's store in the local shopping center. When first designed in the 1960's, the center had a different design than the usual strip shopping mall--a central plaza with the stores around it, hidden from the parking lots. The Safeway store was, I guess, standard-size for the time. The center didn't do well. Over the years there were lots of failed stores. Finally (late 80's maybe?), a new outfit bought the center, got approval to redevelop, entered into long negotiations with Safeway over a new store, bulldozed down all the great trees, tore down all the buildings, and then built new, pretty much the standard 1990 strip mall design with a much larger Safeway. While the overall center seems to do okay, I don't think the new store's been a real success for Safeway--lots of people got into the habit of shopping at the Fox Mill Giant while the store was under construction.

Safeway has recently renovated the store, redoing the floor and lighting, changing the produce area and putting in more little stands and displays. (I believe the Post said they were doing that in lots of their stores, trying to compete with other chains, particularly Whole Foods.)

Anyway, the point (at last) is today is their big day, lots of real bargains, lots of extra people, chances to win up to 300 mini-DVD players, etc. etc. It seems all a plot to get people into the store for the first time. I say "plot", but it's really the standard tactics business uses to introduce new products or new stores. Of course, Tom Cruise may be introducing a new wife to sell a new movie. In any case, it shows how to overcome consumer inertia--appeal to greed.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

My Morning Run

This morning in Reston is one of the last good days before the summer heat and humidity. I set off on my morning run about 9:15, temperature about 70, air clear. Ran down Freetown Drive, a very pleasant street now, a mixture of modernist homes from the early 70's and more traditional homes from around 1980, backing up to strips of woods behind the houses. The mix of styles reflects Reston's history. I remember driving out from Ft. Belvoir with fellow recruits in late 65 or very early 66 when there was an open house at Lake Anne. I'd read about the plans in the paper, sounding very modern. Develop for people, not cars; keep high enough density in apartment buildings and townhouses to save trees and keep open space; encourage people working in the same community they lived in. Lake Anne was an example, modeled after a European village sited around the end of Lake Anne, very cosmopolitan.

Over time those plans changed. Robert Simon, the original dreamer, had to sell out to Gulf Oil. Townhouses didn't sell as well as detached homes, so the planned size went from 75,000 to 55,000. Modern architecture showed some problems and lacked some sales appeal so designs became more conventional. Despite all the compromises, Reston is still a good place to live. And this summer day it's pretty--Freetown has lots of plantings around the homes, most of which are now blooming.

As I ran, I thought I noticed a new lawn ornament on the lawn across the street. Then an ear twitched and I realized it was a doe. I may have interrupted its breakfast on tasty hostas. We stared at each other for a while, then the doe took off between two houses and into the trees. Growing up on a farm in New York we rarely saw deer. But while Robert Simon didn't dream of having deer in Reston, what remains of his dream Reston is fine habitat for Bambi.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blair Witch Project, Afghanistan, and Irrational Exuberance

[Note: I started this yesterday and should have posted it with the movies/war post--would have better explained my meaning.]

What the discussion over the Downing Street Memos lacks (see Crooked Timber, Dan Drezner, Kevin Drum) is the climate of opinion in summer 2002. This is how I remember it, without doing any research in old papers.

Remember that the history of Afghanistan was up and down, just enough to be suspenseful. Bush gave the Taliban a time limit to get rid of bin Laden, it expired, we saw some military moves, there was some speculation on the left and in the media about how the Northern Alliance and we were bogged down, then all of a sudden the air campaign took effect, the Taliban collapsed and everything seemed rosy. Speaking for myself, I exhaled a big sigh of relief. I don't remember significant opposition to the war, there were just enough problems for us all to feel relieved and joyous when Kabul fell.

What lessons did we draw from Afghanistan? Perhaps the same sort of lessons we learned when Netscape had its IPO--irrational exuberance. Particularly in the Pentagon--we had a new way of war, precision munitions, low casualties, and devastating effectiveness. So Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld justifiably felt their judgment was vindicated, their arms powerful. Liberals like me, who had been ready to leap on Bush for miring us in another Vietnam in Afghanistan, lost confidence. There was a new conventional wisdom abroad.

In sum, the Afghanistan war was an exception to Harshaw's Rule no. 1, you always fail the first time. But maybe I can get a reprieve for my rule, by adding a corollary: "but if you do succeed the first time, you'll get a big head." Witness the Blair Witch Project. Perfectly amazing success. But what was the name of the sequel? Very often in the history of movies the sequel is much inferior to the initial success (the Bridget Jones and Ocean's 11 sequels are examples).

Anyhow, in this theory Bush and Rumsfeld, enthused by their Afghanistan hit (pun intended), decided for a sequel in Iraq. I think it's true, as most of the bloggers on the Downing Street papers say, that they believed that Iraq had some WMD and wanted WMD and was bad and should be taken down. I also think they screwed the planning because of the euphoria from Afghanistan. They thought it'd be easy because Afghanistan had been easy. I'd also blame us liberals--I don't remember any vigorous opposition. There was a sneaking suspicion that Bush might be right, at the very least the country mostly was behind him. The most Congressional Democrats could do was to push for going to the UN. But that was just a slower road to the same destination. (No one ever came up with an alternative to war that seemed reasonable--doing nothing rarely seems reasonable.)

As E.J. Dionne said in yesterday's Post the administration fooled themselves. (Just as the producers of the Blair Witch sequel fooled themselves.)

Kingpin (Kingbolt) or Mascot

The Washington Post notes a birthday party for a 40-year Justice Department bureaucrat:

"Few occasions would seem likely to bring together Alberto R. Gonzales, the Republican attorney general, and one of his Democratic predecessors, Janet Reno. But the party yesterday in the Justice Department's soaring Great Hall was no ordinary event.

Several hundred people from both sides of the aisle gathered to honor and poke fun at David Margolis, the associate deputy attorney general who -- as of yesterday -- has worked at the Justice Department for 40 years under 16 attorneys general."

I suspect most established bureaucracies have an old-timer around. In my days at Agriculture they often fell into two categories: mascots and kingbolts. Another name for a mascot was "a character", as in "that's so-and-so for you". Mascots often earned their keep as ornaments, rather than workers. They added flavor to the workplace and the office would have been diminished without their presence, but they weren't vital cogs.

Kingbolt is a term I got when I looked up "kingpin" at offers a secondary definition as the pin in a knuckle joint, as in a car transmission, while "kingbolt" is the pin that couples two rail cars together. Going back to my "clutches and shear pins" post, I can't resist the metaphor. A kingbolt is a career bureaucrat who has both the knowledge and personality to act as an interpreter between the political appointees and the bureaucracy. It's a two way deal: helping politicians to sort out alternative ways of achieving their objectives, heading off impractical ideas while ensuring the concerns of the bureaucracy get heard. (Bureaucrats are often like the Victorians, do anything you want as long as you don't frighten the horses.) Of course, sometimes they're the way the bureaucracy co-opts the policy maker but sometimes they're the way the policy maker alters history.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Why Movies and Wars Are Similar

Slate has an interesting article mining a scholarly "metapaper": The Moviegoer - What social scientists and economists can tell us about our cinematic preferences. By Michael Agger.

"Here's how the authors summarize the process by which expensive bombs like The Adventures of Pluto Nash come into the world: '[W]hen costs are sunk progressively and information on a project's quality is revealed gradually, rational decision makers can carry projects to completion that realize enormous ex post losses.' Rational decision-making led to a $100 million film with Eddie Murphy running a nightclub on the moon in the year 2087. That's funny."

I assume that the same logic applies whenever a small group of decisionmakers get together and decide to do a project. Like, for example, the Iraq war.

Monday, June 20, 2005

USDA Does PrePackaged News

USDA has been criticized for its practice of doing, or contracting for, reports on its activities that only at the end say they've been done by USDA. TV stations then snip the end and pass it off as their product. I've previously posted that I think the stations are wrong, not USDA, but this rider in the Ag. Appropriations bill would stop the practice:
"SEC. 765. Unless otherwise authorized by existing law, none of the funds provided in this Act, may be used by an executive branch agency to produce any prepackaged news story intended for broadcast or distribution in the United States unless the story includes a clear notification within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story that the prepackaged news story was prepared or funded by that executive branch agency."

You Can't Keep a Good Legend Down

Toni Bentley reviewed a new biography of Mary Wollstonecraft in the NY Times Book World on May 29. In discussing women's status at that time, she threw in a parenthetical statement that is false.

"(In all fairness, a new law in 1782 stated that a husband should not beat his wife with a stick wider than his thumb.)"

One thing we can say for sure is that there was no "new law" in England that said such a thing.

Credit to the Bookworld, yesterday they published a long letter that included a rebuttal of this legend.

A Conservative, as Defined by a Liberal

A conservative is a person who believes that federal support of a family on welfare should be time limited, but there should be no time limit for our troops in Iraq.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Taxpayer Bill of Rights

The Wall Street Journal editorializes and blogs come alive: Professor Bainbridge and Greg Anrig at TPM Cafe both have takes on TABOR. It's an interesting approach to spin. "Rights" are always good. Most people are taxpayers (though the bill of rights tends to favor those who pay taxes on property or income, as opposed to sales tax and FICA?)

Bainbridge says: ?"A federal TABOR doesn't seem like such a bad idea either." Unfortunately, if you Google on Taxpayer Bill Rights you find this reference: "Almost 20 years in the making, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is now codified into the Internal Revenue Code." I suspect we're talking different things--the federal TABOR was based on the idea IRS agents abused their power. The WSJ (I don't subscribe) is probably talking a Howard Jarvis type limitation on taxes.

More to come.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Reinventing the Wheel--A Defense

I often find myself ambivalent (reminds me of the Truman joke about wanting a one-armed economist--the economists he had always said: "on the one hand..., on the other hand...).

Having attacked the "creation fallacy" yesterday, today I should defend the idea of reinventing the wheel. The defense is simple: people learn by doing, often better than by any other way. Every baby born has to reinvent the way to walk. So too there are times when it's better to reinvent the wheel just to educate the policy makers. I'm using "educate" here both in the sense of learning facts but also investing or committing to the venture.

Having put this market out, I'll try to keep alert for situations in which people are accused of reinventing the wheel to see if the above is correct.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Creation Fallacy

No, I'm not talking creationism, but a fallacy that's related to NIH--"not invented here". The fallacy clouds the minds of politicians new to office, though like many fallacies there's some truth in it.

The fallacy takes the form of:
  • politicians have objective X. They may legislate a program to achieve X, or they may just want the executive branch to achieve X.
  • there is a bureaucracy that has existed for a while. It has staff, budgeting and accounting procedures, offices, computers, photocopiers, an organization and a culture.
  • the politicians look at the bureaucracy and say (to themselves): "No, we can't entrust our baby, our precious, to this existing bureaucracy. They wouldn't understand it, they don't share our view of its importance, they won't work hard to achieve the objective. What we really need is a new organization. We can pick the people who run it, getting those who believe in the objective, we can dispense with the old bureaucratic rules, we can get something done.
  • and they do so, except the new organization has no cohesion, no procedures, no memory. Everything, and I mean everything, is new to it. What does any organization do when it faces something new--it has a meeting, to elicit ideas, to get everyone on board, to see if anyone has an answer to the question of how to turn on the lights. Net result--the new organization staggers along.
This post is prompted by the resignation of the head of the Millenium Challenge Corporation. It was proposed by Bush in March 2002. Three years and 2 months later it's just starting to make grants. I don't know when the actual money will hit the ground in the receiving countries. (See this pdf review.Also see the Corporations home page for a more optimistic view.)

The post is also based on my experience at USDA, where we spent years and millions trying to integrate operations of the agencies that service farmers. And when we get the books on the post-war Iraq, I suspect we'll find the creation fallacy operating both at DOD and State.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bureaucratic Blinkers and Learning

A letter to the editor in today's Washington Post notes that it's been a year since the World War II memorial was opened on the Mall, but Metro's signage has not been updated. From the comfort of my chair, without researching, it shows the problem with bureaucracy. Presumably either the Metro person responsible for signs and maps in the subway or a PR type in the Parks Service might have acted. But each person each day likely focused on immediate concerns within their sphere of responsibility, not on a broader focus. (Popular office sign: It's hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators.)

It's like commuting--you drive a route a hundred times and you put on blinkers and turn off your mind. You take the route for granted, it fades to be part of the environment you ignore. For the Metro person, even in DC new tourist attractions don't open that often, it's not like you go into the office each day and ask what's new. Similarly for the National Parks PR person--she/he would seldom have occasion to ask Metro to update its maps.

Bureaucrats are capable of learning. Consider the heads of NASA. Daniel Goldin (1992-2001) learned that his motto (something like: "better, faster, cheaper") had problems, notably when NASA lost a couple Mars missions, one when the unit of measure of botched between a European contractor and the US one (another instance of environments taken for granted) Sean O'Keefe (2001-5) learned from Challenger. In both cases I'd expect the learning to be bone deep--you don't fail so drastically and publically without it sinking deep. Now we have a new administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin, with new plans, firing O'Keefe's people and putting in his own. One thing we can be sure of, Griffin surely knows of Goldin and O'Keefe's mistakes, but it's book knowledge, not bone deep. Griffin will try to avoid his predecessor's mistakes, but will make his own. I hope they won't be traumatic.

The problem with Metro signage, though, is the relative rarity of the opening of a new tourist site. Bureaucrats change position and don't learn from rare untraumatic events. (Of course, I could be wrong. It could be that Metro delayed changing its signs because of the expense. When Congress changed the name of National Airport, a particularly vociferous Representative forced Metro to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to update its signs with the new name. What Metro hasn't learned is to replace its signs with LCD screens.)

Feinberg, Bureaucrat Extraordinaire

Kenneth Feinberg has a book out. He's the master of the special fund to compensate 9/11 victims, meaning he had both the bureaucrat's creative role, that of building a system interpreting Congressional intent in a law, and an operational role, that of applying his system to all applicants. The book should be interesting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Data Mining in Medicare Data?

The LA Times editorial page thinks it would be a good idea to mine the health care data accumulated by Medicare for research purposes:
Medicare's Bright Idea: "Somehow it always comes as a surprise when a huge government bureaucracy proposes something sensible, efficient and geared to the public good. This time the happy shock comes from Medicare.

Smart people at the agency have put forth the idea of using its massive databank of patient information to spot potential problems with drugs more quickly. So why is the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees drug approval and safety, dragging its feet?"
I'm almost always for more knowledge but... Even though it's probably possible to separate data on medical problems and treatments from personal information, my perception is that it's a tough sell in this country. We aren't like Finland, which is more homogenous and more "regimented" (in the sense of having national ID cards and national databases). I wait with interest to see if the FDA agrees to this and gets it by Congress. It only takes one person in Congress to stick a provision in the appropriations bill to kill it.

Appropriations--Back and Forth We Go

Another item from the Justice Appropriations bill (from
" SEC. 103. None of the funds appropriated under this title shall be used to require any person to perform, or facilitate in any way the performance of, any abortion.

SEC. 104. Nothing in the preceding section shall remove the obligation of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to provide escort services necessary for a female inmate to receive such service outside the Federal facility: Provided, That nothing in this section in any way diminishes the effect of section 103 intended to address the philosophical beliefs of individual employees of the Bureau of Prisons."
I'm curious whether Sec. 103 was added to the appropriations bill one year, then later a case came up that caused Sec. 104 to be added in the next go-round. Sec. 103 says "require", so conceivably a prison doctor could opt to perform an abortion without violating it. However, if the prison doctor does not perform abortions, then you'd have to transport a pregnant inmate whose life was being threatened by the pregnancy.

Privacy--Lessons from the Usability Lab

One of the innovations of the 20th century was the "usability lab" for testing software being developed and before release to the field. In my old agency, the lab was a setup where we'd put a person at a computer terminal, install new software on the computer, give the person a set of scenarios to execute using the new software, and videotape the operation, one camera on the terminal to see what she was doing and one on the user to see how she was doing (i.e., puzzled, stumped, flying through the exercise). Such testing was highly recommended by the software consultants and development experts, it was interesting to do, but we rarely did it. The reasons for that may bear on some concerns about the loss of privacy in the today's world.

The user had no privacy--we had 2 hours of tape for every hour she spent in the lab. That was the problem, we had too much data. Once the test was over, we could debrief the user quickly. But going through all the tapes would require spending the same amount of time watching as she had spent doing. It just wasn't a rewarding exercise.

It seems to me the same is true in many cases where people/companies collect personal data now. If there's no one with a strong motive to look at the data, and then misuse it, the risk to my privacy is negligible. Safeway's computer knows I buy cat food, and often provides a coupon at checkout to try to get me to buy a different brand, even when all I'm getting is milk and fruit. But that's all happening in bits and bytes. Even if someone at Safeway could look at my records, there's no motive to do so. The concern for movie stars and other famous people is different; they could attract stalkers and nuts who are motivated to find and use the data. (Like the IRS employee(s) who looked at Elizabeth Taylor's 1040.)

One of the things you can give thanks for is that you aren't famous.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Appropriations--The NRA Filament

The 2006 Appropriations Act for State-Justice-Commerce includes this bit, illustrating the power of the gun lovers:

"SEC. 634. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States receiving appropriated funds under this Act or any other Act shall obligate or expend in any way such funds to pay administrative expenses or the compensation of any officer or employee of the United States to deny any application submitted pursuant to 22 U.S.C. 2778(b)(1)(B) and qualified pursuant to 27 CFR Sec. 478.112 or .113, for a permit to import United States origin `curios or relics' firearms, parts, or ammunition."
Without researching further, I'd assume that an importer of say the "Brown Bess" British musket used in the 18th century still has to submit an application, but it can't be denied. It would be more logical, and accomplish the same goal, to revise the definition of a gun to exclude curios or relics. The problem with being logical is that the gun-lover who originated this (I'm blaming the NRA but it could have been an individual) has influence with the Appropriations Committee, not with the legislative committee and/or amending the basic legislation opens up a big battle over gun laws.

Appropriations--Cutting Phone Lines in the Executive

This is from the 2006 Agriculture Approppriations Act. I vaguely remember the incident that prompted it--I think the House committee had requested data from USDA. When the bureaucracy came up with the data, someone else got it at roughly the same time. Who was the "someone else"? Someone at OMB or the White House, if I remember correctly. Anyway at least one House member got on his high horse:
"SEC. 716. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration shall be used to transmit or otherwise make available to any non-Department of Agriculture or non-Department of Health and Human Services employee questions or responses to questions that are a result of information requested for the appropriations hearing process."
So the result of the flap is to make such data top secret. The fungal filament creeps into the executive branch and cuts the phone lines.

Appropriations--Don't Coddle Inmates

From the Justice Appropriations Act (note, the URL's obtained when you search on the site are temporary, so you have to redo the search.)
: " SEC. 112. (a) None of the funds appropriated by this Act may be used by Federal prisons to purchase cable television services, to rent or purchase videocassettes, videocassette recorders, or other audiovisual or electronic equipment used primarily for recreational purposes.

(b) The preceding sentence does not preclude the renting, maintenance, or purchase of audiovisual or electronic equipment for inmate training, religious, or educational programs."

So no cable for federal prison inmates, just the over-the-air programs. My impression is that most prisons are in rural areas so choice may be very limited. When TV came to upstate NY, the TV shop in Greene, NY set up a local cable system just because reception was so bad. Then I remember in the 70's seeing the first big cable dishes in those areas.

There's probably a home for this in the legislation governing the federal prison system, but again it's easier for the person who feels strongly about the issue to get it in the Appropriations Act.

Regulation and New Niches

Normally Professor Bainbridge is a reasonable man, but the idea of people writing software to play on-line poker set him off on Cheaters:
"In my book, the geeks writing these bots are showing the same piratical attitude that caused the computer industry to lead the league in financial fraud during the tech bubble. It's bad enough that the bot creators feel no shame, but the willingness of others to condone this sort of misbehavior is a sad commentary on the state of ethics and common decency."
I read his blog fairly regularly--he seems to be on the libertarian side of corporate law, applauding the recent appointment of Christopher Cox to head the SEC. [Full disclosure: while Cox is apparently capable, IMHO the investigation he headed into Chinese influence on US politics was a bait and switch con job so I've an irrational prejudice against him.]

Anyhow, someone with a good Presbyterian/Lutheran background doesn't expect anything better from people exploiting a new ecological niche, like on-line poker playing. As someone said in some number of the Federalist, if humans were angels we wouldn't need government. But humans are not angels. If we rely on shame, ethics and common decency to manage our economy, we rely on sand. You need law, or at the very least, a good counter-programmer in the arms race.

Actually, it seems like a relatively easy cheat to defeat, at least for now--every couple hands the host site displays one of those distorted passwords for the player to echo back to the site.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Centerfield: Tobacco vs. Marijuana

The Centrist Coalition has an interesting debate going on over the recent decision on medical marijuana and the proper reach of the commerce clause. Seems to me the clause was involved in the civil rights era debates over the public accommodations provisions as well as being the prop for some of the New Deal's farm programs--hence I'm content with the status quo.

One way to look at the issue is to focus on the end results, not the process. In a country with a diverse society and a democratic form of government, will justice be better served by making decisions at the national or the state levels? As American history was interpreted when I was in school, decisions at the national level were best, as shown by the filibusters of civil rights legislation, etc. Even today the Republicans have moved from attacking the nationalization of the education system to supporting it--national standards are better than local.

Liberals and libertarians have mixed feelings. Look at the range of social issues:

Prohibition: constitutionally guaranteed local option
Abortion: constitutional by SOCUS national rules
Marijuana: national rules, but lib/libs would prefer local
Gay marriage: local rules and lib/libs would prefer local

Positioning on constitutional issues depends in part on projections of how society is going to change. You could argue in the 1970's that ERA was an expression of lack of confidence in the society. Would women be in a significantly different position today if it had been adopted? I doubt it, but am open to argument. Is opposition to gay marriage going to fade like opposition to women's rights has, or is it going to remain strong like opposition to abortion?

If one takes a "principled" position on constitutional interpretation you may end up 30 years from now in an awkward position.

Networking--Good or Bad?

The NYTimes finishes its series on class with a piece on a single mother's rise to the middle class, through perserverance, marriage, and some luck. Now she is a registered nurse, mother, wife, and the star of her network. (The piece is reminiscent of Jason DeParle's recent book on welfare reform, though the most successful of his three featured women has yet to marry, she does have a stable relationship with a man.)

Angela Whitiker's Climb - New York Times: "But she has found herself alone. She is making more money than anybody she knows. And come payday, everybody needs something, and not just the kids. Relatives need gas money, friends could use help with the rent. Even her patients, on hard times themselves, have their hands out."

It's a familiar story--all the young star athletes with their homeys, the actors with their entourages (there's even a TV show now showing that). It seems that one aid to success is moving--if you can get away from the old and familiar it's easier both to form new habits needed for success and avoid drains from the demands of the old life. I'm reminded of "Trainspotting", the movie on British drug addicts in which the "hero" betrays his friends as a prerequisite to going straight. Is that one reason why black immigrants are doing better in the U.S. than the native African-Americans? There's a difference between the networks that immigrants have where they help each other up (some Koreans have savings clubs where each member contributes regularly and the total sum goes to a member for investment in a venture) and the network with the people back home. In the latter case, it's almost a tax on success. It's another type of survivor's guilt--the contrast between two lives that really aren't that different in merit means the star feels guilty and the not-star feels entitled.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Congress and the Fungus Among Us

One of the fascinating things about working in the nation's capitol was/is seeing how reality differs from the textbooks. In theory, Congress passes laws "authorizing" expenditure of money and separate yearly appropriations acts specifying the amount of money that can be spent for authorized purposes. In theory, the Constitution provides for a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government. In reality Congress is an example of the evolution of fungus. It turns out that trees depend on fungi, that each tree has an associated type of fungus--the fungus helps to extract nutrients from the soil.

I call Congress a fungus because its influence is underground and unnoticed. Take the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Act just passed by the House. (Go to and search for it.)

The bulk of the act consists of appropriations in the classic sense, but Title VII includes the fungal growths. Here are contained the specific "dos and don'ts" that pass beneath the notice of the media. These may originate as requests from a member's district or State, or they may represent a bee in someone's bonnet. I'm not 100 percent sure of how they actually get into the bill--I suspect there's little or no discussion in the committee. Each member has her or his own priorities and goes along with those of others. I think it's possible for some to raise a point of order when the bill is considered--you aren't supposed to legislate in appropriations acts--but if everyone goes along they get on through.

Some of these provisions do get scrutiny, mostly the ones that represent Congressional "pork". But those that prohibit spending are almost never mentioned.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Role of Judicial Review--Legal Affairs Debate Club

Interesting debate here on the role of judicial review (thanks to Professor Bainbridge) between Professors Tushnet and Chemerinsky, with the latter arguing that it's not needed. According to Tushnet:
"The core of your position seems to be that if there is disagreement over the meaning of the Constitution, there is no reason to prefer having the court make the choice rather than the political process. My view, in contrast, is that society is better off having an institution largely insulated from majoritarian politics determine the meaning of the Constitution and enforce it.
In the argument I'm struck by the absence of a sense of history, which puts me more on Tushnet's side (pro judicial review). Over time, sober reflection will result in different positions than the push and pull of policy-making by elected politicians. And the country will often be better off. In democracies, politicians respond to the passions of the moment and act. Or flotsam rides the tidal wave up onto the beach. The passion cools, the tide ebbs, but democracy will not clean the beach of the flotsam.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Clutches and Shear Pins in the Bureaucracy--Metaphor

In days of old, good Americans drove American iron, built by Detroit, the bigger the better, and the engine was connected to the transmission through something called a "clutch" (now a "manual clutch" since almost all are automatic). A problem in learning to drive was engaging the clutch--feeding just enough gas to the engine with the shift in first gear, not second or third, so that the engine wouldn't stall. (This was a big problem for me.) The issue is meshing two mechanical systems--the internal combustion engine and the transmission and wheels--matching force and the resistance of inertia.

On the farm, our tractor had a "power take-off" (PTO) --a rotating shaft driven by the tractor engine. The mowing machine was driven by it--a sleeve slipped over the shaft, transferring the rotary motion to the mower, which had a "pittman bar" to transform the rotary motion to back and forth lateral motion, which operated the cutting bar. At some point in the transmission there was a "shear pin". If the mower jammed up, the pin would shear in two, disconnecting the mower from the tractor PTO. This safeguarded the mower--otherwise the force of the tractor could snap expensive parts of the mower. Another aspect of matching force and resistance.

I'm thinking of these as metaphors when reading commentary on Mark Felt and this Washington Post article on the new Secretary of Agriculture. The problem is matching the power and force of the political appointees with the capabilities and inertia of the bureaucracy. (Remember that "inertia" in physics, if I remember some 50 years ago, is the tendency of a body to continue as it was: if it was moving, it has inertia; if stopped, it has inertia.) If you have a mismatch, there will be problems. In the case of Johanns, he's carrying over some of Veneman's people and appointing people experienced with the issues. In the case of Porter Goss at the CIA, he appears to have brought in his own people, and his own agenda, so there was an explosion. In the case of L. Patrick Gray there was also an explosion.

So leaks may be symptoms of a mismatch of force and inertia, or may result in parts flying off, as bureaucrats are fired as in the Goss and Gray cases.

Smoking as a Marker of Political Difference

Liberals now think:
tobacco smoking is a dangerous and addictive habit foisted on unsuspecting consumers by the wiles of big corporate tobacco companies and their henchmen on Madison Avenue. Accordingly, the power of the state should be used to suppress smoking in all public areas.
pot smoking is helpful to the sick and an innocent recreation for those intelligent people who make rational decisions about how to run their own lives. Pot is grown in rural areas by people who believe in cooperating with nature and is dispensed by informal networks that are anti-capitalist. Accordingly, the power of the state should not suppress pot smoking.
Conservatives now think:
tobacco smoking is a recreation that people should be able to decide to indulge in, particularly in the case of Wall Streeters who enjoy cigars. Accordingly, the power of the state should not suppress tobacco smoking.

pot smoking is a dangerous and addictive habit that enslaves the young and damages their minds, a stepping-stone on the path to ever more dangerous addictions and more licentious behavior. Pot is grown and sold by evil people with beards, and often imported through violence-ridden conduits. Accordingly, the power of the state should suppress pot smoking.
Libertarians combine the liberals view on pot and the conservatives view on tobacco. Communitarians combine the liberals view on tobacco and the conservatives on pot.

Monday, June 06, 2005

FBI Culture and Software

The Washington Post has another article on the FBI's problems with software development:
"The 32-page report -- prepared by the House committee's Surveys and Investigations staff and obtained by The Washington Post -- indicates that the FBI passed up numerous chances to cut its losses with the doomed Virtual Case File (VCF), instead forging ahead with a system that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $100 million in wasted expenditures."
I don't see that the article adds much to previous developments, but I would segue over to retired agent I.C.Smith, whose book "Inside" I just read. He writes clearly about his career in the FBI, including counter-intelligence and ending with a stint in charge of the Little Rock office. Nothing sensational, mildly interesting, with peripheral takes on Whitewater, Chinese campaign finance, Hanssen, etc. but no new dirt. Reading between the lines, the FBI culture was hard-drinking, as one might expect of a law-enforcement, very masculine fraternity. He divides agents into "risk takers" and "wimps". It's hard for me to believe that anyone involved in requirements specification or software development would qualify as a "risk taker" in his eyes--they'd be wimps.

In that climate, it's hard to admit mistakes and failure--the temptation is to try to plow through the obstacles. That's often a counterproductive attitude to take to software, particularly if the software isn't essential to operations so the users can just not use it. (When my old agency computerized in the mid-80's, we had the field offices by the short hairs because they had to write checks through the new system, and writing checks was the raison d'etre of the whole operation.) With the FBI, you'd have to have the U.S. attorneys requiring computerized information in order to have a similar hammer to enforce use of software.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The "Mesa Effect"

Because of various problems with e-mail, I'm copying my comment on Deep Throat from
Achenblog: Daily Humor and Observations from Joel Achenbach: "As you said, history sometimes operates with the butterfly effect. It's also fascinating to see the 'mesa effect' in operation: the passage of time erodes away detail and certain people start to emerge and dominate the scene, at least as represented in popular memory and history. You can see that operating here. First there's the idea that 'All the King's Men' played up 'Deep Throat' to make a stronger narrative. Now popular commentary seems to be saying the Post brought down Nixon and Deep Throat was the source for the Post. (I see Bradlee resisted that idea in the interview on The whole drama gets simplified as time goes on--Judge Sirica, the prosecutors, the Senate committee, Saturday Night Massacre, all get omitted in the retelling. (The main exception to the simplification is the multiplication of conspiracy theories by the nuts.) It's plausible that Felt had several different reasons to confirm Woodward's info and guide his research, but the soap opera requires that he be either piqued villain or idealistic hero, not an ordinary human operating with mixed motives."

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Bureaucratic Axes

Professor Stephen Bainbridge quotes pieces on the Watergate/Mark Felt background and goes on to say:
"DC turf wars make the story a lot less romantic, don't they? But it also speaks to my point about anonymous sources: Might we not have evaluated Woodward and Bernstein's work with a more informed eye if we knew they were being fed stories by somebody with a bureaucratic axe to grind?"
I think his vision is a bit blurred. Almost every story relating to a bureaucracy is sharpening someone's axe. If the story is an official press release, it's on behalf of the head of the bureaucracy. If it's a leak from within the bureaucracy, the person has his or her own motives. But as a bureaucrat, it's very likely that the motive is partly or wholly bureaucratic in some sense. In Felt's case, there were several possible motives: pique at being passed over for the Director's position; concern that L. Patrick Gray was in the pocket of the White House, unlike J. Edgar; desire to torpedo any rival "black bag" shops authorized to operate domestically; "big shot-itis"--the desire to show oneself as having knowledge no one else had; general discomfort with Gray as a "new broom" (recall the problems at CIA when their new director took over) and a desire to get rid of Gray (see Edward Jay Epstein's 1974 piece, thanks to Powerline) and finally idealism. Somehow a 35 year veteran of Hoover's FBI isn't a likely idealist.

On the other hand, most people have mixed motives for many things they do. It's possible that all of the above motives had a place in Felt's mind, but without the possibility of applying an idealistic veneer he wouldn't have chosen to leak. And, one has to remember that this is a dyadic relationship--why was Woodward willing to receive the leak? Ambition, obviously. But as a young reporter he may have needed the whiff of idealism.