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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quicky pic...

I was working with my new Tablet PC and Randi decided its Paint program needed to be "tested" -- five minutes later, voila!

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Giving myself enough rope

Another day of commuting and Podcast listening, and this morning it was Chris Lydon's Open Source discussion on The Limits of Crowds. It was inspired by an online essay one of the guests, Jaron Lanier, on Digital Maoism. He raises some interesting issues regarding the emergence of online collective wisdom, especially as reflected in Wikipedia. Lydon attempts to put Lanier up against The Wisdom of Crowds author, James Surowiecki, but it turns out there is more agreement than disagreement there since Lanier's point is actually complementary to Surowiecki's analysis (which really relies on the capacity of groups to generate a correct response to an objective query on the average...). Where things started to heat up was when David "Joho the Blog" Weinberger joined the frey and the challenged Lanier's basic points -- and vice versa. In between was the input of comic and performance artist Zefrank who was attempting to put the point into practice by having folks write a routine for him on a Wiki platform.

There are a number of interesting issues here, not the least being who you hold accountable for collective decisions made by crowds that go horribly wrong -- comparable to the ethical problem of "many hands" discussed by Dennis Thompson in a classic article. This ties in with the issue of anonymity in decision making, which can have both positive or negative coinseuqneces depending on the context. Perhaps more on that later....

Also for later, a discussion of whether the attraction of this new collectivism is another manifestation of a populist ideology that has become the defining characteristic of the contemporary push for democracy. I am doing an intermittent reading of John Lukacs' harangue on democracy which provides a sweeping critique of populism and I am finding his arguments relevant not merely to the "wisdom of crowds" thesis but also the politics surrounding political debates from flag burning amendments to global warming (see previous posts).

So much to tie together, so little string....


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The risks of Discovery....

Friend Ciaran emailed me this morning with an item from the Houston Chronicle about Charles Camarda, the director of engineering on the STS-121 Discovery shuttle team (and a former shuttle crew member) who was removed from the flight decision team because of his support for shuttle workers who raised issues about the upcoming flight.

I suspect this is linked to the story of disagreements within the mission team aired last week on NPR (also see here). Although it is a bit vague at the moment, it looks like the disagreement was initially over the idea of acceptable risk, but now has turned into a controversy of personnel decisions. It is also unclear whether Camarda was fired outright or forced the agency to fire him by refusing a transfer that would have effectively removed him from his position.

My interest in all this dates back to my co-authored article on the Challenger accident in 1987 and a continuing interest in the organizational dynamics of NASA and similar "high reliability" organizations. We get to watch all this unfold at the launch of Discovery, now set for July 1....

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Hansen On Point

Catching up on Podcasts this morning, I came across an hour long discussion with James Hansen, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies director who is mentioned in two previous posts (here and here) on the campaign to drawn attention to the unfolding global warming crisis. If you can stand the several annoying interruptions of host Tom Ashbrook, you will find the interview on WBUR's On Point. Also interviewed is Elizabeth Kolbert, author of one of the books Hansen reviews in his New York Review of Books piece....

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News musing.....

Got a call last Thursday from a New York Times reporter, Eric Lipton, who was working on a story following up on the GAO study of fraud associated with the FEMA efforts immediately after Katrina. He contacted me because of a press item on the GAO UNH issued earlier (see June 14 post below).

The experience was an odd one. I've talked to reporters before, but this exchange was a bit -- well, "edgy". I guess the only way to characterize Lipton's attitude in general is "arrogant" -- perhaps that is what you have to be to get byline status at the NYT. The conversation started off badly -- the office administrator approached me to report that she had this Times reporter on the phone who was insistent that she find me and get me on the phone; you can tell that his approach to people was a bit offensive to her.

When I got on the phone we immediately got into a conversation about the assertions of GAO regarding the inefficiencies of the post-Katrina relief effort -- and after I essentially repeated my position in the press release, he suddenly burst in with his own that he just couldn't buy into it. I was in the odd position of reminding him that he called me for my "expert opinion" and that I was giving it as best I could. The fact that he did not agree with it was not my problem. I could tell at that point that he cooled on my value as a source....

In any case, the article came out this morning, and although I am not quoted or referred to, I get the impression of having made an impact. During our exchange I had noted that the focus of all the stories I'd seen was on the GAO report's criticism of FEMA's handling of relief (which I argue was unbalanced) rather than on the people who were committing the fraud. That was an angle not covered -- and it was a point that seems to be highlighted in Lipton's story.

Maybe I have a future as a news muse rather than an expert....

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Funny, you don't look like Rachel Carson....

Just saw Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", and I have to ask whether this documentary might possibly be the Silent Spring of today. As a committed environmental skeptic and political cynic, I have to say that I was impressed and even motivated by this presentation to change both my views on global warming (if I ever had any) as well as my cultivated detachment from overt political activity.

The "crowds" were thin -- perhaps a dozen folks at the most -- but it was the early afternoon screening and hardly anyone was in the multiplex theater (which has eight screens). And it is probable that Gore's "slide show" (and accompanying book) is another example of a liberal "singing to the choir" -- especially here in Massachusetts....

As noted a couple of posts back, the gutsy essay by Jim Hansen got me into the theater, and sure enough the movie included a clip where then Senator Gore is browbeating Hansen in 1989 to get him to confess that the then Bush (41) Administration was determining the content of scientific reports. Luckily for us, the Hansens of the world are no longer accepting such repression from the current Bush (43) Administration; and as lucky, Gore has found an effective voice and platform for putting forward his message.

Randi came away from the movie even more upset with Gore for not pushing his 2000 presidential bid further, and it is increasingly clear that the Al Gore we see in Inconvenient Truth is a good deal more dynamic and interesting than the guy who ran for office back then.

It is interesting to speculate whether this docmentary will launch a new environmental reform movement, or if Gore will even come close to having the impact that Rachel Carson did in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Even more interesting is the speculation about whether this will re-launch Gore's political career as we approach the start of the long 2008 presidential race (but see contrasting view here). While Gore has responded that he has no interest in 2008, he does leave open the door to another run in most interviews (listen to Fresh Air interview). If that is one of the consequences of this slicked up slide show presentation, it would be interesting to see if he might run a presidential campsign based on the same polished, powerpoint-based -- but informal -- approach. Perhaps this is the new "fireside chat" format for the 21st century.

In any case, whether you like Al Gore or not, whether you are liberal or not, this is a must see movie.... Also, do visit

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Aaron Spelling World

Obit in today's New York Times notes the passing of Aaron Spelling. I was hardly a fan of anything Spelling produced (in fact, I cannot think of anything on his list of shows that I watched, even in my younger days of TV obsessiveness), but I am a fan of my son's musical tribute in Aaron Spelling World. (You can click here to go directly to the mp3 version; it is also found a cut 7 on How To Be Cool, which can be found here)....

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Run for your lives! The armadillos are coming!

The July 13 issue of the New York Review of Books features an essay by Jim Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on The Threat to the Planet. The best way to describe the essay is scary, impressive and "gutsy".

The gutsiness label applies more to Hansen himself rather than the article. He is definitely crossing a line with the Bush Administration which has been attempting to apply its strategic control of information emerging from federal government offices to science agencies. Agencies such as Goddard have traditionally allowed its experts to operate with the relative freedom of their academic colleagues when it comes to presenting and publishing their research, but under the Bush Administration the clearances and filtering processes have been tightened to make certain that anything emerging from these agencies was consistent with Administration policy positions. In this case, Hansen circumvents those filters and clearances by declaring that the opinions expressed in this review are offered "as personal views under the protection of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

Those expressed views are impressive given their source and the fact that his is the latest of a growing chorus of equally impressive persons to sound the alarms over global warming. Despite the implication in its title that Goddard deals with "space" stuff -- as in interplanetary and astrogeophyiscal matters -- Hansen's Institute is more focused on things "global", as in climate patterns and change over time. Occupying the several floors above "Tom's Restaurant" (of Seinfeld fame) at the corner of West 112th and Broadway in New York, this little agency has considerable credibility within the scientific community and has become increasingly vocal about what recent research about global climate change is telling us (for example, click here).

The scary part is that the scenarios Hansen and his colleagues are presenting are becoming increasingly clear about current and immediate trends we are facing -- that global warming is not a speculation about things that might happen thousands of years from now, but is actually in evidence today. Hansen opens his essay with an observation by an individual who wrote him after seeing him on 60 Minutes and writes that each year there is a noticeable shift northward in the habitat of armadillos as they follow the average rise in global temperatures (which is manifest as well in the slow recession of the polar ice caps, etc -- you get the picture). As a self-proclaimed skeptic, I have typically taken "chicken little" scenarios in stride (although I have hardly been as dismissive as others...). But with armadillos moving north -- now that is an image to get me thinking more seriously about global warming....

Perhaps it is time for me to see Gore's movie....

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

It takes a motorcycle crash.....

Interesting piece in today's NY Times "Week In Review" section that notes how a recent motocycle crash involving a star football player (US football, that is, the "star" being Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) has some American's talking about risk-taking behavior and social responsibility. I especially like the closing lines:

And so the Steel City is an unhappy place — but one where debates about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness fill the public square, if only on sports call-in shows.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

GAO and FEMA -- an imbalanced assessment

The University of New Hampshire media relations office asked me for some comments on today's testimony in the US House by the Government Accountability Office related to the estimated $1.4 billion of emergency assistance lost to fraud and poor oversight by the agency. I did a quick read of the GAO Report as well as a preliminary report issued in February, and here is draft of what the UNH office put out....

[W]hile the GAO testimony -- – the purchase of diamonds, the meals at Hooters, etc. – makes for good headlines in the tabloids and on the cable news shows, they need to be approached with caution. The GAO report, while shocking, needs to be understood in both context and details. The report itself is part of the GAO team’s ongoing investigation of FEMA expenditures in response to Katrina and Rita. It is based on a sample of 250 payments from among the 2.5 million made during the emergency response phase between October 2005 and February 2006. Many of the general figures being headlined in the news today (especially the 1.4 “billion dollars” figure) are estimations based on the limited information GAO had access to, and the real amount lost to fraud and incompetence might be much more – or even much less. Even GAO notes that the figure might be as low as $600 million. Nevertheless, even if the losses due to fraud are half of what is being reported, this GAO investigation provides substantial support for the charges that FEMA’s capacity and ability to control possible waste, fraud and abuse is not sufficient. There is obviously an accounting and management breakdown.

But there is another side of the Katrina/Rita response effort that the GAO report fails to highlight. In combination, Katrina and Rita were two catastrophic events at an unprecedented scale, and FEMA was faced with significant pressure to get assistance out to as many of the victims as possible as quickly as possible. The pressure to act expeditiously was magnified by the media circus that surrounded the flooding of New Orleans, and especially the focus on FEMA’s Michael Brown.

The actions FEMA took to provide some modicum of immediate, few-questions-asked assistance to appplicants from impacted areas is a standard practice initiated in 1994 by FEMA in its response to the Northridge earthquake. In that case, 350,000 families were provided with immediate assistance at a cost of $1 billion. The head of FEMA at the time, James Lee Witt, notes this approach was developed in response to complaints that FEMA was too slow to respond to the immediate needs of victims after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Not surprisingly, Witt and FEMA were criticized at the time for “rushing to ‘give away money’.”

Like other agencies that deal with providing emergency assistance, FEMA faces a situation in which it is “damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t” meet the public’s expectations. On the one hand, FEMA is expected to provide quick and sufficient assistance to victims of disasters, and over the past decade it has made great strides in applying technologies to expedite aid to those who need it. At the same time it is expected (according to the GAO report) to take steps to “validate the identity of the registrant, the physical location of the damaged address, and ownership and occupancy of all registrants at the time of registration” – all in the face of crisis conditions where most of government’s limited resources are being devoted to dealing with the immediate chaos of floods, evacuations, public health threats, and the like.

The GAO is an auditing agency attached to Congress which has a history of independence and integrity, and one cannot fault the methods used in this “forensic” investigation of FEMA. Nevertheless, one would expect a more balanced approach that takes into account the dilemmas facing FEMA and the unprecedented nature of the Katrina/Rita disasters. Perhaps the followup report in this ongoing investigation will provide that.

It seems to me that the GAO ought to do a more credible job and avoid intentionally engaging in the meda hype/circus.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Falling for them Chicks....

A year ago I could not tell you who the "Dixie Chicks" were (was?) or what they sang. Maybe it was because I was in Belfast preoccupied with trying to figure out what folks were saying to me rather than listening to unfamiliar music.

On one visit back to the US I picked up an iPod and someone (my son, I think) suggested listening to them, but with the exception of one or two tunes on Home, their then-most-recent-album (Long Time Gone and Landslide), most of it was pretty innocuous for me.

I also recall something of the controversy stirred by a comment about George Bush linked to one of the Dixie Chicks, but again I paid little attention (the comment, as it turned out, was made while they were in the UK, but that is probably one reason it was no big deal on the news I was watching -- it was pretty commonplace to hear negative comments about Dubya in the UK media....)

But now along they come with a new album, and after reading a bit more about the ongoing controversy in the New York Times and their gutsy refusal to back down or "move on", I gave it a listen. And I have to admit I was impressed enough to download the entire album and have been listening to it with more care than usual -- some interesting lyrics.... There are a couple of songs directly linked to The Controversy, but what comes through most clearly is that one, two or all three are asserting their break with the past in various ways.

Give it a listen. If the Eagles didn't do it for oyu, this may even make you into a fan of country music....

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Testimony to the decline of political intelligence....

UPDATE/NOTE, 10 June 2006: Well, on the one hand it looks like I had it wrong in terms of the name of the party -- it is Unity08 -- as well as the web site. I am pleased to know that the effort ("an experiment in internet democracy") is (seemingly) a bit more credible than I initially imagined (at least their web site is decently designed, and not part of MySpace). On the other hand, I am still far from impressed with the logic or substance of this effort. The Founders Council points in the direction of a movement where a few college students (with familial links, it seems, to some political operatives) were able to initiate this project. I wonder how much they know about the Unity Party????

Last evening I was innocently watching the NewsHour on my local PBS station when I witnessed what may be the most amazing thing -- two members of America's political elite engaging in the promotion of perhaps one of the most ridiculous ideas I have heard in years: the creation of the Unity Party of America.

The two spokespersons on the NewsHour were Hamilton Jordan, a key member of the Jimmy Carter Administration and (until now, at least) generally well-respected political commentator, and Doug Bailey, the founding editor of The Hotline (an "inside-the-DC beltway" news source, now part of The National Journal group) and self-described Republican Party strategist. The idea they were hyping -- the Unity Party -- was the brainchild (so to speak) of Bill Hammons, who seems to be a well connected blogger obsessed with running, writing, the balanced budget, and Boulder (Colorado, that is). [Hammons' talents, whatever they are, do not extend to his blogging or web-designing; his two sites for the Unity Party are embarrassing at best; see here and here.]

If I understand this correctly, Hammons, a political activist who supported the candidacy of Wesley Clark for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2004, was running through Central Park one day when it suddenly came to him (shades of Martin Luther) that the solution to America's political problems was the formation of a middle-of-the-road (literally) political party that would offer Americans an alternative to the increasingly extreme options of the Democratic and Republican parties -- a "common sense" option where those politicos who are alienated from their own parties can go to offer the vast majority of frustrated middle American voters a better choice than those of the current two-party system.

This is the stuff of political naivete, which is why it was shocking to see folks like Bailey and Jordan pushing it on NewsHour. It is likely that only the presence of two notables led to the otherwise sensible NewsHour folks to devote more than a passing mention (if that) to the Unity Party, but whatever the reason there they were -- making fools of themselves.

In a "Fields of Dreams" scenario, the idea of the Unity Party is that if you build an alternative to the two party options, millions of disgruntled folks will come forward to support the effort, which would attract even more frustrated mainstream politicos to join in (shades of the emergence of Lincoln's Republicans in the 1850s), and the bandwagon will ultimately lead to a major revamping of the American political system into something that reflects and represents the vast majority of middle or the road Americans....

It is hard to know where to begin in expressing the utter absurdity of this effort (I am really trying my best to avoid calling it "stupid" -- but there it is, I did call it "stupid").

Let me start with the premise that there is this vast mythical "middle" among American voters that is (1) unrepresented and (2) just waiting for an third option they can clutch to. This is the latest version of the "silent majority" myth that was put to great use by Nixonites in the 1960s (thanks to Kevin Phillips) and found expression in the "Moral Majority" movement to which we owe much of the current influence of the Christian Right in US politics. As with its mythical alter ego, the Red state- Blue State "cultural divide", this rhetorical construct has been created out of statistical "thin air" and has little of empirical substance to support it. But in a media-driven political culture, it is simplicity and appearance that matters, and so the danger lies in possibility that this empirically empty idea might catch on. After all, if Jordan and Bailey bought into it -- and they seem like sincere believers -- than it has a chance becoming a factor in the 2008 presidential election. I worry, for things are bad enough as they are without having this nonsense clouding up the political atmosphere.

A second premise of the Unity Party effort is that political parties are formed from the top, not the bottom, and that the current technological revolution (e.g., the Internet) makes what was difficult in the past actually possible today. They point to the Ross Perot phenomenon, asking us to imagine how much more successful that effort would have been in the era of the Internet. They seem to ignore the very qualities of our fadish and media-driven culture in their rush to the Third Party "promise land", and fail to talk about what happened to the Reform Party when it tried to pass from media-hype to political reality -- even with the help of an emerging Internet.

A third premise is that the current system is "broken", which is based on the even more fundamental assumption that there was ever a set "system" to break. As an example, consider their constant reference to the shocking (so-called) fact that just a few folks in Iowa and New Hampshire play the central roles in determining who runs for president. As one now close to at least one of those locales, I will be accused of having a bit of a bias on this point, and rightly so. But my problem is not that the Unity Party folks are wrong about the unrepresentativeness of the first primaries/caucuses; rather, it is that they (along with the media, many political scientists, etc.) completely ignore the constantly (re)constructed reality of the presidential campaign "system" narrative. I am no postmodernist, but it is clear to anyone who carefully considers the history of presidential campaigns that the process is constructed and reconstructed differently each iteration, and that the role of the Iowas, New Hampshires, South Carolinas, Californias, etc is "storyline" that is just one among many factors that shape each cycle of the presidential election process. Iowa and NH are merely rhetorical "straw men" in the Unity Party effort, and I cannot help but feel disappointed that seemingly sincere and well-meaning folks like Bailey and Jordan -- folks who should know better because they have witnessed and engaged in the process -- would assume such simplistic perspectives.

I could go on -- and I probably will tonight as I take this issue into the classroom as an example of the politics of reform in the US.... I have the feeling this will be the subject of more comments as I blog along....

NOTE: The NewsHour has one of the more accessible online operations, and I use it regularly. Every segment is posted and podcast -- or so I thought. And that goes for last night's show -- except for the segment that is the subject of this blog. Could it be that when they were finished with the interview it became evident just how bad an idea this Unity Party concept is? Were Jordan and Bailey (and perhaps Woodruff, the interviewer) so embarrassed that they decided it was best to drop the segment (and hopefully the idea) from public view? One can only speculate or hope -- although that will make my plans for class this evening difficult....

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