Archive for December 2009

The Fuzzy Future

December 31, 2009

It is traditional at this time of the year to reflect upon the past and consider what the future holds. After 8 years of darkness, the beginning of 2009 featured hope and expectations of better times ahead. While this is still possible, one must admit there are few signs that better times are just around the corner.

Islamic extremists present what appears to be an interminable threat internationally. Failed States, like Somalia, provide sanctuary for pirates who are highjacking ships as if there were no force to stop them. Domestically, we have a political system totally corrupted by the cost of campaign financing. To add to this ethically devoid political process, special interests such as the NRA, Catholic Church, Trial Lawyers, Unions, and the wide swath of for profit evangelical/fundamentalist Christian churches have decided to place their personal interests above the needs of the Country.

It is conventional wisdom that free enterprise and marketplace economics have been the backbone of American growth and wealth. But one must ask whether the near implosion of Banks and Investment firms through the use of CDOs and CDSs (and the subsequent drop in stock prices and 401K values) were the desired result of free enterprise and marketplace economics. When the day of reckoning arrived and these banks were about to fail, Government had to step in and “bail” them out. No sooner had these firms regained their footing, did they insist upon paying hugh, over the top, salaries and bonuses to executives who had faced no accountability for their past (or future) decisions. What is behind this?

Through most of 2009, unemployment rolls increased monthly. For months pundits blamed the housing bubble. Unfortunately housing is only a small piece of the US economy, but here lies a clue. Housing cannot be outsourced to China or anyplace else. In 2009, the US woke up to the fact that its backbone, manufacturing, had evaporated over the past 20 years. Combining the loss of manufacturing with the loss of ethics, as seen in banking, investment, and Congress, the current US position is engulfed with fog and a course to a brighter future is difficult to see.

I would have described the future as bleak were it just the US that counted. The insular world that American media projects where the white hats are worn by only the US and what is good only can be found here is totally misguided. The good news is that the US is still a wealthy land and global competition is just that. There is an opportunity to wisely invest and compete globally bringing some of the jobs back to the US. Manufacturing jobs need not require a PhD and are far better than paying unemployment benefits. Employed workers pay taxes and do not require government payments thereby helping balance the budget. Investing in education (math, science, engineering, as well as basic manufacturing skills) will pay even greater dividends over the years to come.

The “fuzzy” future comes from the question of whether we have the necessary ethics to help ourselves. Can Congress work for the benefit of Americans or will it stayed tied just to special interests? Will sensible regulations harness the greed of Wall Street? Will religious groups stick to preaching to their flocks and resist trying to influence those who do not belong? Will Americans return to images that manufacturing jobs are good jobs and that the television bunk of fast cars and slick clothes are both not typical or all that they are made out to be? Will Americans remember that most all this can be done on their own without the need for big brother?

TSA Is Broken

December 30, 2009

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bought his ticket (for cash) and boarded his flight for the US (with no bags), had I known this was happening, I could have said the TSA was unable to prevented his subsequent attempt to blow up the plane. Why do I know so much?

I am on the famous TSA “no fly” list which prevents me from getting a boarding pass until the agent has made a call and gotten the ok. My name is reasonably common with over two pages (several hundred) of other people with the same name in the Philadelphia phone book. Each time I fly I present the same information, my Pennsylvania drivers license, and after 10-15 minutes the ok is given and the boarding pass is issued. There is no other verification that I am who I said I was, no new information from the last trip, and no effort to correct the “no fly” list. If the TSA system repeatedly sounds a false positive for me, and does not trigger corrective action within the TSA, how can anyone expect it to detect real threats?

All quality methodologies stress the importance of acting on deviations, both false or positive. If you have a system that says, “individuals on this list must be screened thoroughly or even better should not be allowed to fly”, then only those who fit that description should be on the list.

The corollary to this situation is that if the watch list is defective, then why should one expect the screeners to take the list seriously or for the rest of the security process to not also possess gapping holes?

They Will Follow Us Home

December 30, 2009

When former President George W Bush was considering whether to take on the “surge” strategy in the Iraq mess that existed at that time, Senator John McCain was telling anyone who would listen, “if we withdraw now, the terrorists will follow us home!”

This was an absurd statement then, and in the after glow of the Detroit suicide bomber event, McCain’s words appear even more out of touch with reality. Sadaam Hussein was not the type of person you would want your daughter dating but under his rule, Iraq was contained and fully limited in its international influence. Al Qaeda were persona non gratis in this country. While one can debate whether Iraq will become stable and self sufficient any time soon, one can not debate the point that Iraq continues to play no role in the international terrorist world.

The Detroit bomber, Umar Fariuk Abdulmutallab, who is from Nigeria and has ties to Yemen, has no connection with Iraq (or Afghanistan). The US has been spending boat loads of money and loosing brave Americans to the hazards of war, and nome of it has been helpful in deterring or preventing a religious extremist from purchasing a airplane ticket (for cash) and getting on the plane (with no baggage), and then trying to blow up the plane on its landing approach.

Senior officials in private companies or in Government Agencies or Policy making groups are suppose to get the big decisions correct. The Bush Administration majored in getting things wrong. The Obama Administration is now up to bat and we are all watching. These religious extremists are delusional and act like “nut cases”. They need to be dealt with by “special operatives” and not the regular Army.  That approach will cost far less and could act far more surgically than 150,000 armed forces. It is time to recognize we must think differently because “they will not follow us home” unless we let them through airport security.

Things In Common

December 29, 2009

Sometimes things happen that seem totally unrelated until a common theme emerges. When that happens, there is a golden moment when progress can be made. Alas, all too often the rush of life causes us to take the path most traveled and the enlightening that could have taken place is lost. Consider:

  • Detroit bound suicide bomber and increased airport security of everyday Americans returning from Florida beaches. From gross profile to common procedures differences (like already having a ticket that was paid for months ago by credit card), there is nothing remotely similar to the suicide bomber and 99% of Americans who fly.
  • Obama’s taxes are killing the average American, no wonder we can’t get ahead. This is the refrain of the T-baggers and “I hate Government crowd”, and simply does not reflect the facts about taxes. Simply stated, up to this point, they have not been increased.
  • I’m against this health care reform bill because it contains “death panel” provisions and is not strong enough on abortion. Once again, the health care reform bill does not and did not contain any provisions that would limit “Grandma’s end of life options, and the Hyde Amendment already precludes Government financing of abortions.
  • Moving Guantanamo prisoners to Northwest Illinois will introduce very dangerous people and attract terrorists to our shores. With a hand full of exceptions, Federal maximum security prisons already hold convicts who have been responsible for more killings than 95% of the Guantanamo detainees. Not to be overlooked is that maximum security prisons are just that and escapes are generally unheard of. With regards to attracting terrorists, what is keeping them from coming now?

So what do these situations have in common?

They all reflect a “non-thinking” response to an issue. (1) Rather than look to what did not work in today’s airport security procedures (people or process) and tighten up these deficiencies, the TSA opted for a political spin and imposed new broader restriction on the general flying public. They made no one safer. They did not think. (2) Taxes are at an historic low (post world war II) and since the Bush tax cuts, the US has not balanced a budget. Hello, maybe the tax rates are too low already. With respect to President Obama, he simply has not raised anyones taxes to day. People who say he has are flat out wrong. (3) Health care in the US is a joke compared to the rest of the modern world. While those who receive health care find it satisfactory (and it is good quality for them), the cost of health care is the highest in the world without being the best. Most depressing is that those who currently have health care, could be dropped and be denied new coverage by the whims of private for profit insurance companies. Those without insurance may find it prohibitively too expensive to buy coverage or may be denied coverage due to some pre-existing condition. This is the problem with US health care, not death panels or abortion. (4) Guamtanamo was a mistake third only to the invasion of Iraq and the adoption of enhanced interrogation methods (read violation of Geneva Convention including Abu Ghraib). Holding the detainees without charges or trial is against everything that America has stood for. The military commissions concept produced a sham of justice and is not worth fixing. US courts can do the job and Federal Prisons are already a proven method of holding dangerous prisoners.

At the end of this is simply the idea of using data and thinking. You cannot stop some people who have their own motives from spinning any issue in a way that supports their position. You can expect the news media to report facts and not half baked opinions, but don’t get your hopes too high. But in all case, each of us as individuals can think and ask question about facts. We can stop supporting politicians who pass out spin or say simply the politically correct thing. We can insist in town meetings that politicians explain why, with supporting facts, they have voted or acted in a certain way. This will be infectious and could lead to a step change in government.

Understanding the Un-understandable

December 28, 2009

On Christmas Day, a religiously consumed 23 year old tried to blow up an intercontinental flight headed for Detroit. The alleged terrorist came from a privileged background and had received a reasonably decent education through a British International School. So why would someone with his life in front of him choose to end it (and over 250 others)? What point was this poor soul trying to make? Who were the even sicker religious people who filled this young mind with senseless thoughts?

Anyone who has traveled in the last couple of years knows that you can not just walk up to the gate and get on an airplane. All passengers are screened when they get their boarding passes (is their name on a “no-fly” list?). All passengers then pass through a personal identification step (matching boarding pass name to some form of picture ID). And finally, all passengers pass through metal detectors (and some are selected for further closer inspection). How did this 23 year old get through?

The authorities (I assume the Transportation Security Agency) issued immediate precautions that increased dramatically the time for international passengers to clear check in and metal detection. Thinking this was not enough, they ask that passengers not be allowed to get up (leave their seats) or have anything (even a computer) in their laps for the last one hour of flight.

Just as in the case of 9/11, the increased security measures have nothing to do with the event that just took place. In 9/11, the terrorists carried box cutters which are metal through security and onto the planes. In the Detroit case, the 23 year old carried no baggage and paid cash for his ticket!!! Well, hello, is there anyone home?

I cannot explain the motives that drive anyone to do anything in the name of any religion. These people are pure suckers since they take the heat and their instigators live to enjoy another day. Just as difficult to explain is why security services suddenly impose new measures (which add unneeded burden to the public, thereby assuring that the terrorists have achieved some margin of victory), and not to be overlooked is that these measures could not have prevented the incident that triggered their implementation?

Christmas Fools

December 26, 2009

The saying goes that a full moon brings out the demons and for some unfortunate people, their behaviors turn bizarre. I wonder whether Christmas has the same effect?

A woman in hear mid twenties jumped a portable retaining fence, and tackled Pope Benedict while he was leading a Christmas Eve procession. This was not her first attempt at getting up close and personal with the Pope. She, unsuccessfully, attempted the same thing a year ago. I guess she believed in the adage, “if you want to succeed, try, try again.”

On Christmas Day, on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, a 23 year old man hailing from Nigeria and claiming to be acting on instruction of al Qaeda, set off a home made explosive device. Fortunately the device did not cause a large explosion and near by passengers and crew subdued this nut case.

You are left to wonder why “Christmas”?

Symbolism is the only answer that keeps popping up. Christianity and Catholicism have spent generations spreading their brand of God and at various times have found warfare useful in achieving their religious and organizational goals. Islam has as freely practiced warfare, and in addition has today a problem with its identity. As a group, Muslims are relatively poor and second grade in terms of education and economic growth. The rich Muslims who control lucrative oil assets feel little need to share them with the general population and have made deals with Muslim clerics about what to give to Caesar and what to keep for Allah. For them modernity represents a huge threat, and the Western World represents modernity.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the Pope. He stands for a religion that denies women equality. Over centuries, the Catholic Church has been on the wrong side of worldly decisions. They were charter members of the “flat earth” society. And their current position of recommending only “abstinence” as a precaution against AIDS symbolizes their comfort with the past and dislike of modernity.

There is plenty of examples with both Christianity and Islam to stimulate a troubled mind into action.  The Pope and the US are as good  targets as any.

The first line of defense against acts such as these begins within Christianity and Islam.  If someone wants to follow the teachings of these religions, it is fair and just. The problem both religions incur (and why we all should be concerned) is that they are not content to have a “closed loop” club (what they teach at home, stays at home).   Most Christian and Muslim Clerics, instead, seek to impose their views on others rather than to be content with enjoying their theology themselves.

This most basic violation of commonsense leads to Christmas Fools.

A Year of Frustration

December 25, 2009

The coalition of right wingers, conservatives, and the growing “I hate Government” groups are ending 2009 very frustrated. They are madder than heck and they aren’t going to take it any more. And the madder they get, the more incoherent their slams against President Obama become. What are these people thinking?

The common themes mindlessly trumpeted revolve around “socialism” (it is coming fast, they say), ruthlessness (Barack Hitler Obama is coming after you), and fiscal irresponsibility (Obama has spent so much our grandchildren will be broke). If having a progressive and enormously sensible President were not so important, most of these claims would be outrightly laughable. The theory seems to be that if one says and repeats something many, many times, it will be believed no matter how preposterous it is.

These frustrated reactionaries have real reason to worry. They need not worry that any of their claims are true or will come to be. Rather, they should worry that President Obama’s thoughtful and relatively fact based approach to policy will begin producing even more positive results with both domestic and foreign affairs in the coming year. As more people go back to work and the economy begins to regain its confidence, the “frustrated” will be exposed like the king who had no clothes on.

But, the majority of us, we must recognize these are still dangerous times. Like a child playing with matches, the house can burn down even though the child never intended to burn it. This frustrated coalition’s rhetoric sounds just like “matches”, and they just might ignite a fire in some simple minded admirer, who, in turn, could take Democracy into his own hands.

At year end, my wish would be for everyone to ask simple questions like, “do we need to use such harsh terms to characterize the President?” If so, then “what exactly are the rock hard facts that support each claim?”