Monday, October 1, 2007

This is the end

Well folks, it appears that the State Department uncovered my true identity through their background investigation. My boss asked me very politely today to put the blog on ice and I have decided to honor his request.

To be honest, I hate the idea of self-censorship, but it looks like I have no way around it while I'm a Presidential Management Fellow. I can't have my (possibly controversial) personal views to undermine the credibility of the policy advice I will dispense over the next two years.

I never really imagined sticking with the civil service until retirement. This is just more of an incentive to explore all of my options when my PMF bid is up.

I don't know whether I will need to delete the blog entirely or just let it gather dust until I'm no longer a government official. For now, it will gather dust.

I'd like to end activity on this blog by giving an enormous 'thank you' to my readers. You are what made this blog worthwhile. I will miss our conversations and your always relevant input and criticism.

Update (10/3/2007): Thanks again for all of the support. You've encouraged me to talk to DS about keeping the blog, but refocusing it on my photoshoping and artwork. I can't let this creative outlet completely go to waste.

DISCLAIMER: The following posts represent only my personal views prior to October 1, 2007. They have no bearing on the advice may provide to current or future employers.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

How can he say this stuff with a straight face?

I apologize for not picking up on this sooner. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University on Monday eclipsed most American coverage of President Bush's speech at the United Nations General Assembly the following day:

This great institution must work for great purposes -- to free people from tyranny and violence, hunger and disease, illiteracy and ignorance, and poverty and despair. Every member of the United Nations must join in this mission of liberation.

First, the mission of the United Nations requires liberating people from tyranny and violence. The first article of the Universal Declaration begins, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The truth is denied by terrorists and extremists who kill the innocent with the aim of imposing their hateful vision on humanity. The followers of this violent ideology are a threat to civilized people everywhere. All civilized nations must work together to stop them -- by sharing intelligence about their networks, and choking their -- off their finances, and bringing to justice their operatives.

In the long run, the best way to defeat extremists is to defeat their dark ideology with a more hopeful vision -- the vision of liberty that founded this body. The United States salutes the nations that have recently taken strides toward liberty -- including Ukraine and Georgia and Kyrgyzstan and Mauritania and Liberia, Sierra Leone and Morocco. The Palestinian Territories have moderate leaders, mainstream leaders that are working to build free institutions that fight terror, and enforce the law, and respond to the needs of their people. The international community must support these leaders, so that we can advance the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.

Its too bad the Palestinian people tried to vote those Palestinian leaders out of office a few years ago. Its also too bad that U.S. is doing nothing to prevent Israel from declaring the Gaza Strip an 'enemy entity' and closing it off to everything but humanitarian aid. But I digress. The speech only gets better:

Brave citizens in Lebanon and Afghanistan and Iraq have made the choice for democracy -- yet the extremists have responded by targeting them for murder. This is not a show of strength -- it is evidence of fear. And the extremists are doing everything in their power to bring down these young democracies. The people of Lebanon and Afghanistan and Iraq have asked for our help. And every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand with them.

Every civilized nation also has a responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship. In Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Iran, brutal regimes deny their people the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear. Basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and worship are severely restricted. Ethnic minorities are persecuted. Forced child labor, human trafficking, and rape are common. The regime is holding more than 1,000 political prisoners -- including Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was elected overwhelmingly by the Burmese people in 1990.

The ruling junta remains unyielding, yet the people's desire for freedom is unmistakable. This morning, I'm announcing a series of steps to help bring peaceful change to Burma. The United States will tighten economic sanctions on the leaders of the regime and their financial backers. We will impose an expanded visa ban on those responsible for the most egregious violations of human rights, as well as their family members. We'll continue to support the efforts of humanitarian groups working to alleviate suffering in Burma. And I urge the United Nations and all nations to use their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom.

In Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. The Cuban people are ready for their freedom. And as that nation enters a period of transition, the United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly, and ultimately, free and competitive elections.

In Zimbabwe, ordinary citizens suffer under a tyrannical regime. The government has cracked down on peaceful calls for reform, and forced millions to flee their homeland. The behavior of the Mugabe regime is an assault on its people -- and an affront to the principles of the Universal Declaration. The United Nations must insist on change in Harare -- and must insist for the freedom of the people of Zimbabwe.

In Sudan, innocent civilians are suffering repression -- and in the Darfur region, many are losing their lives to genocide. America has responded with tough sanctions against those responsible for the violence. We've provided more than $2 billion in humanitarian and peacekeeping aid. I look forward to attending a Security Council meeting that will focus on Darfur, chaired by the French President. I appreciate France's leadership in helping to stabilize Sudan's neighbors. And the United Nations must answer this challenge to conscience, and live up to its promise to promptly deploy peacekeeping forces to Darfur.

Maybe these words would mean more if they were spoken before we opened an extra-judicial prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. Or before we established secret prisons. Or before the abuses at Abu Ghraib happened. Or before we started torturing people. Or before we enlisted other states to torture on our behalf.

Setting aside the matter of whether all of the above had to happen in order to 'save lives,' does President Bush realize that making speeches like this only hurt America's image abroad? I'll be the first cop to hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy. It is a dirty business full of questions with no right answers.

But must President Bush use such self-righteous and indignant language in front of the whole world when he knows that is the U.S. is adding more 'War on Terror' skeletons to its closet every day? Why didn't he just talk about poverty or women's rights or some other issue that the U.S. is not actively disrupting. Heck, talk about global warming for all I care.

Just stop embarrassing the country with this hollow talk of freedom. It doesn't fool anyone.

Hear that? Its the sound of norm disintegration...

Back in April, I remember hearing rumors around the water cooler that the Israelis were lobbying the Nuclear Suppliers Group for a 'Bush-Singh' type of nuclear trade agreement. At the time, I wasn't able to uncover any news items to confirm such talk, so I dismissed it as Pentagon gossip.

Well, it appears that the rumors were true. According to a piece in today's Post, Israel did lobby the NSG back in March and they are now taking a proposal to Capitol Hill:

The Israeli presentation, made in a "nonpaper" that allows for official deniability, was offered in the context of the NSG's debate over India's bid for an exemption, according to a March 17 letter by the NSG's chairman. Among the nations that have not signed the treaty, only India and Israel would qualify for admission to the NSG under the Israeli proposal.

David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, said it would be "grossly inaccurate" to suggest that Israel is demanding an exemption or linking its efforts to any other issue, such as the India debate.

"Israel has never asked the NSG for any exemption to its nuclear supply guidelines, nor has Israel made any Israeli-specific request of the NSG," Siegel said. "Israel, recognized to be a full-fledged adherent to the NSG guidelines, has urged the NSG to consider adopting a generic, multi-tiered, criteria-based approach towards nuclear technology transfers." He noted that some NSG countries previously have suggested such an approach.

"Modification of the NSG guidelines, were it to take place along the lines proposed by Israel, would considerably enhance the nuclear nonproliferation regime," Siegel said.

The Israeli plan offers 12 criteria for allowing nuclear trade with non-treaty states, including one that hints at Israel's status as an undeclared nuclear weapons state: A state should be allowed to engage in nuclear trade if it applies "stringent physical protection, control and accountancy measures to all nuclear weapons, nuclear facilities, source material and special nuclear material in its territory."

If you look at the tenor of Bush administration nonproliferation policy, they should be inclined to agree with such a proposal. Prior to 2000, nonproliferation was about keeping the declared and undeclared portions of the nuclear weapons club as small as possible. Now, nonproliferation is about keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of 'tyrants' and 'terrorists.'

While I would be the last one to advocate for giving a 'tyrant' or a 'terrorist' a nuclear weapon, I would like to point out two flaws in the White House's logic: (1) What exactly are the criteria for applying either label to a nation or group? (2) How do plan on convincing all states with relatively mature nuclear industries to sign up to those definitions?

Right now, the answer to the first question looks a lot like 'those nations or groups who oppose U.S. foreign policy.' If the administration has an answer for the second question, I sincerely hope it does not have the word 'followership' in it. It wouldn't surprise me if it had the word 'U.S. sanctions' in it though.

Fortunately, I think the Bush administration will keep its distance from the Israeli proposal for fear of doing harm to their India deal. This is probably also why we are hearing about Israeli activity on Capitol Hill. If the White House was really receptive to the proposal, the first time we would have heard about it is when a final agreement was ready for signature.

Canada's sleeper hit: Trailer Park Boys

It appears that in the grand tradition of Kids in the Hall, American is once again ignoring a rich source of comedy gold coming out of Canada. Trailer Park Boys is a COPS-style mockumentary about the white trash who occupy the fictional Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Cold Harbor, Nova Scotia.

The show centers around two ex-cons named Ricky and Julian, as well as their friend and neighbor Bubbles. The trio spend most of the series coming up with ways to make money, both legally and illegally. They are joined by a cast of characters that would be very recognizable on Jerry Springer, including a stripper who is also an unwed mother, a white wannabe-rapper cum porn director, and a drunk ex-cop who serves as the park's supervisor and frequent villain.

Most of the time, the show's plot centers around a money-making scheme hatched by either Ricky or Julian. That being said, there is a great deal of story continuity between episodes and the relationship between all of the characters evolves quite a bit over time.

I imagine bet the main reason Trailer Park Boys never caught on in the U.S. is the show's heavy use of profanity. With prominently displayed episode titles, such as "F*ck Community College, Let's Get Drunk and Eat Chicken Fingers," "If I Can't Smoke and Swear I'm F*cked," and "Where the F*ck is Oscar Goldman?" you can probably imagine the version briefly aired by BBC America was more heavily censored than the average episode of Jerry Spinger.

Profanity aside, the writing on Trailer Park Boys is cleverest I've seen in years. It makes America's take COPS mockumentaries, Reno 911!, look like it was produced by monkeys.

For those who are interested, episodes of the show can be readily found on Google Video, but I would highly recommend getting the DVDs because they are packed with hilarious special features. I can't put it on my site because of the profanity, but here is the 30-second clip that first drew me to the show.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Transitions and gifts

Well, today was my last day with the Army. While I'm eager to start work on the nonproliferation projects my boss at State is cooking up, I'm also sad to the organization.

America's soldiers aren't perfect and sometimes they need a little civilian direction, but they're about the only people I know who regularly (and humbly) pull off the impossible. It felt good to know to lend our boys and girls in green a hand during a particularly rough time.

Thankfully, I won't be complete 'out of the green' at the State Department. Many of my coworkers are retired chemists from Ft. Detrick and the Edgewood Chem-Bio Center. Working with so Marylanders will be a bit of a transition, but I can cope.

In other news, I have gifts to offer my readers. I pre-ordered the Orange Box, which is a game package that includes Team Fortress 2, Portal, Half-Life 2 and its two episodes. Since I already own Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2 Episode 1, I can transfer them to another person as a gift.

Valve products are served up the purchasers electronically over their Steam network, so I won't need to mail the recipients anything. If you are interested in receiving either game, please send an e-mail to robot.economist AT gmail DOT com. I will pick the recipients on the evening of October 10th using a method based on a random number generator.

I will try my damnedest to ensure that all of my readers (including those outside of the U.S.) have a fair shot, but be aware that Steam may not extend service to your country.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Land Warrior in Iraq

Major props go to Noah Schachtman, who took time out of a busy schedule of alternatively living in Ba'athist palaces and sleeping in fetid kitchens to look in on how the tech demonstrators from the now-cancelled Land Warrior are doing:

Captain Jack Moore, the commander of the 4/9's "Blowtorch" company, peers into his Land Warrior monocle. Inside is a digital map of Tarmiyah, a filthy little town about 25 kilometers north of Baghdad that's become a haven for Islamists. Blue icons show two of his platoons sweeping through the western half of the town. Two other icons represent Blowtorch soldiers who have teamed up with special forces and Iraqi Army units to raid local mosques with insurgent ties.

A red dot suddenly pops up on Moore's monocle screen: 3rd platoon has found a pair of improvised bombs -- black boxes, filled with homemade explosives. Other troops will circumvent the scene.

As the other platoons move south to north, green lights blink on Moore's map. Each of these "digital chem lights" represents a house checked and cleared. It keeps different groups of soldiers from kicking down the same set of doors twice.

A year ago, these chem lights weren't even part of the Land Warrior code. But after a suggestion from a Manchu soldier, the digital markers were added -- and quickly became the system's most popular feature. During air assaults on Baquba, to the northeast, troops were regularly dropped a quarter or half-kilometer from their original objective; the chem lights allowed them to converge on the spot where they were supposed to go. In the middle of one mission, a trail of green lights was used to mark a new objective -- and show the easiest way to get to the place.


[Capt. Aaron] Miller is still not happy with how much the system weighs. "Look, I need this like I need a 10th arm," he sighs. And all this stuff (Land Warrior does), my cell phone basically does the same at home." But Miller is committed to soldiers being networked. So he's willing to be the digital guinea pig. "It's got to start with someone."

The system has become more palatable to the Manchus because it's been pared down, in all sorts of ways. By consolidating parts, a 16-pound ensemble is now down to a little more than 10. A new, digital gun scope has been largely abandoned by the troops -- the system was too cumbersome and too slow to be effective. And now, not every soldier in the 4/9 has to lug around Land Warrior. Only team leaders and above are so equipped.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised how accurately my concerns about the Land Warrior played out on the battlefield. The blue force tracking and land navigation functions are very popular, while the computing and scope pieces were largely relegated to the rubbish bin.

Complaints that the system would better if it were only a quarter of its current weight also indicate that either the underlying technology is not mature enough or that the designers crammed it with superfluous features. I'm going to bet that the latter is a far more likely culprit than the latter -- especially considering how many weapons systems in the pipe feel disconnected from current needs.

The most ironic bit of Capt. Miller's comment about how his cellphone back at home does many of the same functions as the Land Warrior. That sounds a lot like the result of this JASONS report issued two years ago, which theorized that adapting commercial communications platforms to military use might be a better method of improving situational awareness at the lowest levels.

This brings us to something I have been thing about since I read this Defense News piece on how the DoD is effectively hiring a lead system integrator to support their counternaroctics efforts. If there is little evidence that DoD bureaucrats can successfully plan and develop successful weapons platforms for the U.S. military, why shouldn't we be outsourcing large chunks of the acquisition process?

You can at least terminate contractors when it is clear they cannot deliver on the terms of their contract. The same cannot be said about the thousands of 'acquisition professionals' who are barely doing their job right now.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Air Force going out of business?

My one-sentence interpretation of Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne's speech last week:

My service made bad force planning decisions in the mid-to-late 1990s that have made it increasingly irrelevant. I blame everyone but the Air Force.

I love how Wynne focuses his lamentations on the Air Force's offensive air-to-air capabilities, but doesn't mention its other roles -- specifically strategic airlift and close air support.

In a way, the Air Force is paying for its role as the dominant military service in the 1950s and 1960s. It took a much larger portion of the budget back then, which allowed it to fund some of their most impressive and enduring aircraft: B-52, C-5, C-130, AC-130, A-10, and F-15. Fortunately, it looks like the Air Force invested in airframes that have withstood the test of time, both in terms of performance and utility.

It makes one wonder whether the F-22 or F-35 will still be relevant as long as the B-52 has.