Saturday, June 28, 2008

Blog Link Added

I've added a new link to a blog:, which belongs to Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist who founded and directs the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. Daoud (or 'David,' as I knew him when we went to college together many, many, years ago) was a 2007 Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

I usually disagree with his columns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but anyone interested in that conflict would benefit from reading his extensive commentaries.

Friday, June 27, 2008

FBI = Familar Backlash In-Progress

The Washington Times has reported that a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen has demanded the FBI explain its apparent retaliation against Bassem Youseff, the agent who testified before Congress last May 22 about the FBI's failure to fill 2 out of every 5 positions in a critical counterterrorism division. See the story here: Whistleblower retaliation suspected.

Key quotes from the story:

A senior Republican senator and two Democratic congressmen want the FBI to investigate suspected retaliation against an agent who told a House subcommittee that a third of the leadership positions in an elite FBI division that tracks al Qaeda terrorists are vacant.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee; Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in a letter that the bureau "wasted no time in taking action against" Agent Bassem Youssef following his May 21 testimony before the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

From the Congressmen's letter:

"Just two days after the subcommittee´s hearing, we understand that Agent Youssef was informed by his supervisor that unknown accusers had claimed he violated various FBI rules and regulations" ...... "In particular, one anonymous claim was that he traveled to London on official business without having obtained the required 'country clearance.'"

The Times story also quoted this non-responsive response from the FBI spokesman:

FBI spokesman Bill Carter on Wednesday said the bureau had received the lawmakers' letter and that it was being reviewed for an "appropriate response to the members of Congress."

I love that word "appropriate." As in, something suitable or fitting to the occasion. Responding to allegations of retaliation is merely a matter of protocol as far as the FBI is concerned. It's not like there is anything in this Congressional letter to get upset about. Basically: yeah, Congressmen, we have some guy thinking up a response that would be "appropriate" to your concerns, and we'll let you know when we've got it ready.

At least the FBI spokesman didn't pretend to find the allegations impossible to believe, and for good reason. Bassem Youseff is far from the first FBI agent to receive this sort of treatment from his superiors. He follows in a long line of FBI employees who were punished after going public with serious problems that the Bureau had failed to redress internally. Do a Google search on Special Agent(s) Fred Whitehurst, Colleen Rowley, Sibel Edmonds, Mike German, John Roberts, Jane Turner, Robert Wright and Gilbert Graham, for some examples of retaliation against past whistleblowers.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Baby Mama Drama

Something good thing might come out of the minor ruckus that's been spun up about that "Obama's Baby Mama" chyron [i.e., the bottom-of-the-TV-screen text scroll] that ran during a recent Fox News report and for which Fox News has apologized. Several of the stories about it, such as Politico's, have cited the Urban Dictionary as the definitive reference work on the meaning of terms like "Baby Mama." I think it would be a good thing if the news media, writers, and just anyone who likes vivid language, would check the Urban Dictionary now and then.

The Urban Dictionary is a collective on-line work, rather like Wikipedia, in which anyone may post his definition(s) for terms of interest. I often turn to it to understand so-called 'urban' language that I encounter, and I have found it an invaluable resource. ('Urban,' of course, is a euphemism, like 'hip-hop,' or 'street,' or 'ghetto,' or any other substitute you can think of for what is really meant: Black.)

I first went to the Urban Dictionary after hearing a teenage girl describe someone who was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt as "that guy in the white wifebeater." I learned that "wifebeater" is, in fact, the word by which that kind of shirt is now known. And what a perfectly expressive term! Sleeveless T-shirts are old-fashioned in a 1950-ish way, and even though they have come back in style with the urban (or hip-hop, etc.) crowd, they still just scream out certain social connotations the way Stanley Kowalski screamed "Hey, Stell-aaaaaaa!!!!! in Streetcar Named Desire. About one out of every three people you'll see in mug shot photos is wearing one. Calling that kind of shirt a "wifebeater" is sheer poetry.

Another term I came across and appreciated was "Baby Mama Drama," which a dictionary contributor cogently defined as: "when the mother, who you are not married to, of one or more of your children starts negatively inferring with your life," which she might do by getting on your back about things like finding a job, not seeing other women any more, etc. That is language ladened with meaning in a way that even Shakespeare would enjoy.

When I needed to know the difference between a "bitch-slap" and a "pimp-slap" in order to understand a witness statement in a criminal trial, the dictionary clarified that matter nicely. FYI, a bitch-slap is delivered suddenly with the back of the hand as a sign of social dominance, whereas a pimp-slap is delivered premeditatively with the palm of the hand and is disciplinary. There has to be some way to mediate language between social groups, and you could find worse ways than the Urban Dictionary.

The Urban Dictionary has become so popular that there is now a hardcopy version. Even though the thing was originally intended as a parody, it's become a genuine repository of cultural knowledge.

Doing Bad Things to Bad People Since 1775

June 14th is the 233rd birthday of the U.S. Army, my favorite government institution.

June 14, 1775, was the day the Continental Congress authorized an "American Continental Army" to be composed of units drawn from the united colonies. There had been regional or provincial militias in America before that date, but the force authorized on June 14th was the first to be raised as Continentals. That makes the U.S. Army the only army to precede the birth of the nation it serves, so far as I know. It was thirteen months later that the Congress adopted the Declaration of Independance.

This Bud's for EU?

Passport, the blog by the editors of Foreign Policy, has a good post on why the potential purchase of Anheuser-Busch by a European corporation might be just the tip of an iceberg of buy-outs of U.S. companies by foreign investors.

As a non-beer drinker, I'm not emotionally involved in the sale of the Budweiser brand to foreigners, and I can see clearly that the key issue here is the fast drop in the exchange value of the dollar. See the chart below, which was provided by the U.S. Federal Reserve in its February 2008 report to Congress. Unless that trend is reversed soon, expect foreigners to own a whole lot more of America than just its beer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

FBI = Famously Backward at Information-handling

This week the FBI's Inspector General released a redacted 120-page audit report on the Bureau's notorious inability to do timely national security name checks in support of immigration and naturalization activities. There are a variety of reasons for the Bureau's chronic large backlog on name checks, including "outdated and inefficient technology, personnel who have limited training, overburdened supervisors and inadequate quality assurance measures." But the most interesting reason is that the FBI is still manually locating and retrieving paper records in many cases.

It seems that any immigration matter or other U.S. government transaction that requires a national security name check may have to wait while an FBI clerk or analyst requests paper files from as many as 265 separate FBI record locations. I hope that none of my fellow civil servants are in a big hurry to issue Green Cards to immigrants, because the FBI is going to take a while to finish those name checks.

The Washington Times had the only national news story about this report yesterday (Security Checks Called Deficient) but the Washington Post caught up today (Audit Faults Delays in Immigrant Name Checks ). You can also learn quite a bit about the FBI's National Name Check Program (NNCP) from its helpful website, which describes the name check process step-by-step and also has this answer to a Frequently Asked Question:

The average time required to retrieve and review an FBI record for possible information related to a name check request is case specific—it depends on the number of files an analyst must obtain (which is dictated by the number of "hits" on a name), the location and availability of those files, and the amount of information contained in a file. If a file is stored locally, an analyst will be able to obtain the file within a matter of days. If a file is located in a field office or other FBI location, the applicable information must be requested from that location. There are over 265 different FBI locations that could house information pertinent to a name check request. If a file is electronically available, an analyst will have immediate access to that file. Additionally, once an analyst receives the file, or the pertinent information contained in a file, the analyst must review it for possible information related to the name check request.

Because not all files needed for name checks are electronically available, those analysts spend lots of their time chasing down widely dispersed paper files. That situation is unchanged from what the FBI reported to Congress back in 2003 (The FBI's VISA Name Check Process) when Robert J. Garrity, Jr., Acting Assistant Director of the FBI Records Management Division, testified before the House Committee on Government Reform:

I have touched upon our IT systems shortcomings, but now I want to discuss the primary factor in any delay in the FBI responding to a visa name check. When the NNCP systems produces a "Hit" or an "Ident" that requires further review, the analyst must consult the actual file. If he or she is lucky, the file has been uploaded into our electronic recordkeeping system, ACS, and can be instantly accessed from her workstation computer. This system only came on-line in October 1995, so often the full text of the information has not been uploaded [TSB note: the texts had "often" not been uploaded eight years after the new system came on line? That's too slow even for government work.] and the analyst must resort to the paper record ..... FBI files are currently stored at one of approximately 265 locations, including the FBI's Headquarters facility, several warehouses around the Washington Metropolitan area, in records centers either operated by the NARA or commercial concerns, four large Information Technology Center facilities on the east and west coast, at each of the 56 field offices, many of the larger of our 400 resident agencies, and at legal attaché offices worldwide. This equates to approximately 1.8 million cubic feet of decentralized records storage, which provides some unique challenges to our efforts to be optimally effective and efficient.

One possible solution to these problems the FBI is exploring would be a central records repository where all of our closed paper files could be located, and our active files stored electronically. Our frequently requested closed files could be scanned and uploaded into our electronic record-keeping system, so that Agents and analysts world wide would have instant, electronic access to the information they need to do their jobs.

Fast-forward five years and the FBI still hasn't scanned and uploaded those paper records or even collected them all in one place. What's the problem? They've had plenty of time and money. As Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said to FBI Director Mueller last April during yet another hearing about the FBI's failure to digitize paper records (FBI Grilled Again Over Computer Upgrade Woes), if a company like Google can digitize university library volumes in a matter of months, the FBI has no excuse for its inaction.

It is increasingly apparent that the FBI simply doesn't want to convert its legacy paper records to electronic format. Why in the world not? Maybe because the institutional culture of the Bureau is so obsessively entrenched in its pre-World War II 'G-man' mode that it refuses to modernize. But I suspect the main reason is an equally entrenched reluctance to create any form of record that can't be absolutely controlled, something that arises out of legitimate concerns about legal discovery and the creation of so-called "Brady material" that must be disclosed to defense lawyers. Paper files in local field offices are safely under the FBI's control in a way that centralized electronic records cannot be.

A story in a technology journal about the FBI's enormous problems with computerization gives some insight into this reluctance to create electronic records:

To understand why the [Virtual Case Management system] was so important, you've got to understand the FBI. And to understand the FBI, you've got to understand its organization and its agents. When asked during an interview at FBI headquarters if agents felt uncomfortable about exchanging a paper-based system for an electronic one, the FBI's current CIO, Zalmai Azmi, didn't think agents would find it hard to get into the habit of processing forms electronically. But introducing an electronic record-keeping system does raise legal policy questions in their minds. "What is a record and what is available under discovery? In a paper world, you do your job, you do your notes, and if you don't like it, it goes somewhere," Azmi said. "In an electronic world, nothing really is destroyed; it's always somewhere."

Indeed, electronic records are "always somewhere." And that's a big problem for the FBI because, sooner or later, some electronic record will escape the FBI's control. Which would be a bad thing because, well, just because the FBI would lose control.

So all you people who want to process visas and Green Cards will just have to sit on your hands while the FBI continues to conduct name checks by manually sorting through 1.8 million cubic feet of decentralized paper records.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Omaha Beach, Sixty-Four Years Ago

How much does the American public still know about the D-Day invasion? A few with first-hand experience are still alive, more have second-hand experience (I, for example, have my father's V-Mail letters from before and after the invasion, which I've passed on to my children), but most people today probably get their historical knowledge of the event vicariously from entertainment media. For older Americans and classic movie fans that means the 1962 film "The Longest Day," for a younger generation it means the 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan," and for an even younger generation it might mean role-playing video games such as "Call of Duty 3."

Should you want a bit of direct historical experience on this D-Day anniversary, and the chance to mingle with a few World War II veterans, I recommend you drop in on the National D-Day Memorial in the quiet little town of Bedford, Virginia, which is a reasonable driving distance from Washington DC down U.S. Route 29 [official name of that roadway: "29th Infantry Division Memorial Highway"].

Apart from us locals, many people may wonder why a foundation would choose Bedford as the location for the National D-Day Memorial. They did so because 30 troops from Bedford, serving in the 116th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry Division, were in the first wave of the assault on Omaha Beach and 19 of them were killed there, as were three more Bedford troops before the Normandy invasion was over. Bedford's population in 1944 was about 3,200, and proportionally that community suffered the nation's highest D-Day losses.

People who've seen the movies probably didn't notice it, but the 29th Infantry Division was heavily featured in both "The Longest Day" (Robert Mitchum was portraying the assistant division commander Brigadier General Norman Cota) and "Saving Private Ryan" (most of the troops depicted in the Omaha Beach sequences wore 29th Division shoulder insignia). It's even the unit featured in Call of Duty 3. I suppose there's nothing much wrong with getting your information from movies and games, so long as they're accurate.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Google Fight Won by Barack Obama

Hillary might win the last Democratic primaries later today, but Barack has won another sort of contest: for the most Google searches on his name, according to Google Fight. The number of searches for the term "Barack Obama" [47,500,000] exceeded the number for "Hillary Clinton" [43,600,000] in the google fight I set up between them today.

I suppose that's some sort of an indicator of their relative popularity.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Moral Life of Cubicles

The office cubicle seems a humble piece of workplace furniture, but if you read the New Atlantis article on The Moral Life of the Cubicle, aptly subtitled "the Utopian Origins of Dilbert’s Workspace," you'll find that it has a surprisingly deep history, and that it was originally intended as a tool for social engineering.

Like so many others fads in modern America, the cubicle was conceived on the West Coast during The Summer of Love. According to the article: "Beginning in the late 1960s, the cubicle spread quickly across the white-collar landscape .... by 1974 cubicles accounted for 20 percent of new office-furniture expenditures .... [by 1980] half of new office furniture was placed in cubicled offices."

That timeline tracks with my personal experience. My workplaces for the 1980s and early 90s had individual offices, and finally went to cubicles around 1995. I last had an individual office while at the World Bank (1998-99), but that was just a lucky break, since I worked in such a remote and overlooked part of the building that my four coworkers and I kept our large and nicely-appointed separate offices after the rest of the building went to "office furniture systems."

There are some utilitarian explanations for the rise of the cubicle. They are a very efficient and flexible way of organizing office space, and developers can write their costs off more quickly than fixed walls since cubicle dividers are considered office furniture rather than a building expense. But all that's secondary to the main motivation, which was a Utopian urge to make life better.

Those with moral aspirations for the cubicle—from countercultural Californians like Tom Peters to Midwestern Protestants like Max De Pree—sought to defend some idea of "humanity" against the inhumanity of bureaucracy. Yet, to say that bureaucracy is inhuman has not always been an objection to it. As defined by Max Weber a century ago, bureaucracy makes its great contribution to the world precisely by ignoring the human spirit. Operating according to fixed rules, policies, and positions, bureaucracy in its purest form functions, as Weber wrote, "without regard for persons." As bureaucracy "develops more perfectly, the more the bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation." The central impulse of bureaucracy is to fashion a world in conformity to the impersonal abstraction and precise relationships of an organizational chart.

So the office cubicle was invented as a way to bring some human spirit back into that impersonal soul-sucking abstraction of a workplace that modern bureaucracy had created? OK, I can see that. But I still won't be happy to work in one until somebody invents a solution to the burnt microwave popcorn problem.