Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Col. Jack Jacobs: "If Not Now, When?" A call for more equitable sacrifice, and universal military service

Authors: Col. Jack Jacobs (RET), with Douglas Century.
Title: "If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America's Time of Need."
Publication and description: New York: Berkeley, 2008. ISBN 978-0-425-22359-8. 291 pages, indexed, hardcover, 20 chapters with an Epilogue.

We could add another subtitle: "If not Me, then Who?"

This book starts with a Foreword (“The Man in Seat 2B”) by Brian Williams, Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News. Williams interviewed Jacobs on Christmas Day, and placed the book in a moral context of duty and sacrifice. He says in the foreword that 120 million of us think our stories and ideas are worthy of being read (as we put them into blogs), but that Col. Jacobs’s story is set out by sacrifice and has really earned the privilege of being listened to.

The book is largely a detailed memoir, with a lot colorful metaphors and cute observations – almost as if he anticipates a Tim Burton biographical film. Jacobs, born into a relatively poor Jewish family, was able to attend Rutgers in New Jersey and enter the ROTC program. He would be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and demand Infantry, and learn his place quickly. Because he was a “college grad”, he would be assigned as an advisor in Vietnam before the buildup, and would see combat in the Delta soon, and suffer a curious head wound (his sinus would have to be blown back up with a balloon), for which he would win a Congressional Medal of Honor. His small size made him a difficult target and combat and may have saved his life. Jacobs is now the vice chairman of the Medal of Honor Committee. He would serve another combat tour shortly before Nixon agreed to peace, and many other posts, such as teaching at West Point. He would retire and become a bond trader and financial engineer, working with derivatives in the 1990s. Ironically, in the book he is blissfully oblivious to the financial crisis that derivatives would produce.

(I recall a particular experience in my own Basic Training at Fort Jackson in 1968: we were at MOS orientation, when a grizzled sergeant said about my record, "Hey, you missed a college grad!" I never had to go to Vietnam, but I was a "bad detail man.")

Jacobs married early, and eventually divorced, and on p. 214 writes “Military service is particularly hard on marriages with weak foundations, and it is surprising that any survive the extended multiple deployments, long hours, and frequent relocations.” I could take this somewhere that he doesn’t. “Heterosexuality is incompatible with military service.” Uh huh.

Earlier, at the beginning, he ties marriage with hints of the major moral controversy of concern to him. He notes that during World War II, men got “points” awarded that could get them returned to the States. Being married and having children counted a lot.

Later, on p 126, Jacobs mentions the social divisions created by draft deferments in the 1960s. He notes that marriage and/or fatherhood and then being a college student could get you out of the draft. Actually, the marriage and fatherhood deferments had been eliminated by 1965 with Johnson and McNamara escalated in Vietnam. Student deferments would be eliminated by the lottery in 1969. He doesn’t specifically mention Nixon’s elimination of the draft in 1973 (although that’s a bit more complicated than it sounds). President Kennedy, however, had promoted the idea that married men should be excluded from the draft, an idea that would shock civil libertarians (especially gay ones) today.

Later, in discussing his second combat deployment, Jacobs espouses a philosophy of risk-taking which suggests that society regards some risk-taking as a necessary virtue to be expected of everyone.

But in the Epilogue, he becomes very critical of the asymmetry in risk taking and hardship bearing that is necessary to maintain freedom. He writes, on p 274, “Like military units and corporations, societies survive only if all its members participate in nurturing it, and the survival of the American democratic experiment is not enhanced by the asymmetrical distribution of sacrifice that we have now.” He sees this is “the” Moral Issue. He calls for universal military service, rather than a return to the draft through “selective service.” This may comport with his background and familiarity with Israel, which has compulsory military service for both sexes (and now accepts gays). It’s important to remember that the Selective Service System is still in business today and ready to go if Congress ever does reinstate the draft.

Shortly after 9/11, in fact, some people called for reinstating conscription. Charles Moskos, who helped author “don’t ask don’t tell”, advocated conscription as a way of making the entire population responsive and attentive to foreign threats, and at the same time backed away from supporting the “don’t tell” policy on gays. Other Senators and congressmen, usually Democrats (ranging from Carl Levin to Charles Rangell) have sometimes called for bringing back the draft, but the Pentagon has opposed it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dennis Damp: The Book of U.S. Government Jobs

Author: Dennis V. Damp.
Title: "The Book of U.S. Government Jobs: Where They Are, What's Available, & How to Get One."
Publication and Description: 1986-2008 (10th Edition). Brookhaven Press. ISBN 0-943641-26-8. Paper, 338 pages, 8 x 11 pages, 12 chapters.

Recently CNN had a “your money” segment introducing the author of this “how-to” series, and it seems now that government could be one of the more promising sources of employment for many people. There are about 2.7 million civilian federal employees. Outside of military service, many of the opportunities are in areas like law enforcement, border patrol, corrections, regulation, intelligence, air traffic control, homeland security including airport screeners. Some of the jobs, like some of law enforcement, are a bit quasi military in nature and have maximum ages and have physical requirements. Many require security clearances and background investigations. But outside of the actual uniformed services, none enforce a policy like “don’t ask don’t tell.”

Government employment has evolved over time. Back in the 1960s, everybody filled out a green Form 171, Application for Federal Employment. I remember the “personal” questions on the last page about such items as Communist Party membership. My first wage-earning job was as a laboratory assistant in the rheology lad at the National Bureau of Standards, on the old grounds now part of the University of the District of Columbia. Though not covered in the book, it’s noteworthy that civilian civil service dropped the official “ban” on employing homosexuals around 1973.

Federal employment might seem like a patriotic endeavor in these tougher times. One could come out of early retirement and go back to work for the SEC or Treasury and believe one has something constructive to do with economic recovery.

It used to be that the Civil Service Commission (on E Street in Washington) had much more pursestrings on how agencies hire than it does now. There are about 13 cabinet departments and over 100 agencies. In the past, a written multiple choice test was required, and still is for some jobs. But it has become much more common for agencies to have the authority to hire on their own. Many of them use the USAJobs website, and a supplementary site to actually house the applications run by a company called AvueCentral.

The application process is called “examination” but it no longer usually requires a formal written test. Many professional jobs score applicant answers on essay questions called “KSA’s”, or “Knowledge, Skills and Abilities”. (or “KSAO’s” to include “other factors”). A typical job application will ask many general questions that seem to overlap, but they will focus on “knowledge” “skill” and “ability” and should be answered in detail from that perspective, even if some of the answers overlap. One should be as specific about past responsibilities, accomplishments and education as possible, in terms of what can be mapped to the government’s ideas about KSA’s.

On p. 166, Damp writes

“Remember, this is the federal government. You have to complete the paperwork to beat out the competition. Federal government jobs are rated this way to eliminate favoritism and to provide a level playing field for all those who apply.”

Some typical examples of KSA’s are

"Knowledge of automated data processing functions, operating systems, software applications, and utility programs.

"Ability to communicate effectively other than in writing."

Sometimes if one applies in more than one GS grade range, the same KSA questions will be repeated for each included grade, but the answers may be rated differently within different grades.

Damp has separate chapters on special areas, like the United States Postal Service (which gives a written test including shape analogies and number sequences, as well as memory for addresses and zip codes). Homeland security gives as test for airport security screeners including a T-F personality test, but particularly a baggage recognition test which most people will not be able to pass without having had screener employment before or without specific training.

Here is a reference on federal KSA writing. The reference discusses the difference between a federal KSA and KSAO (which to me sounds like a "distinction without a difference").

USAJobs has its own link for tips on writing KSA's, and suggests quantifying accomplishments: "think money, think time" it says, link here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brian Michael Jenkins: Rand corporation expert asks "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?"

Back in 1969, as a draftee fortunate enough to escape Vietnam because of his education, we had a lot of spirited discussions in the barracks. Most of the men were well educated (I remember “Rado Suhl” and “FAM”) and becoming reasonably socially liberal. They probably remember me if they stumbled across this entry (I was “Chickennan who was everywhere). They resented the draft and the War perhaps, but they still felt we were a lot better off than everyone in the Commie world, where the rule was “… to each according to his needs.” Some of us knew about the 1967 film “The War Game” and the idea that we could wind up with a world not living in. Most of us, in 1968, felt that there was a better chance that Nixon would end the war (and the draft) and get us out of the Johnson-McNamara dominoes.

While in the barracks, I worked on a handwritten draft of a novel titled “The Proles” where a nuclear exchange, after some clues, happens at intermission, and then “the whole world goes back to the bay” (in the Army, that was a code word for having to do KP again). Everyone was reduced to the basics.

So, in the 1980s I wrote some novels where, toward the end, low level Communist operatives invade the country and set off plutonium dust in a few cities. The country breaks into chaos and becomes decentralized. The novels were predicated on a character like me following a super-ocelot figure to a re-education “academy”, where the clues of the incoming attack would appear. The superman did not have clay feet.

The book at issue here is Brian Michael Jenkins. “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? “ published by Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59102-656-3. Hardcover, 457 pages, indexed. 4 Parts, 19 Chapters. Jenkins is a former assistant to the president of Rand Corporation.

In the early part of the book, Jenkins recounts his own research into asymmetric threats as far back as the late 60s. Some of them were associated with Communism or the extreme left. Others were associated with religious cults. It was until the 1990s that the Chechen rebels were the first group to have access to radiological materials. Other groups, like the Japanese doomsday cult leader Aum Shinrikyo, tried chemical WMD’s. In general, there was often an ideology proposing a fixed, often patriarchal social structure, sometimes supposedly dictated by scriptures, where everyone owed his life to others in the group (or to God. Authoritarian social structures, as often argued in screeds or manifestos, can produce stability, maybe sustainability, but discourage individual creativity or self-promotion at the hidden expense to the group. Terrorists seem to extend the super-moralism of the radical Left of the late 60s, sometimes running around the horn into religious fascism. They seem to fear the emotional flexibility required for tolerance.

Jenkins talks about some of the specific technical controversies, like “red mercury” (associated with the neutron bomb) or the suitcase nukes. He has a good deal of skepticism about the rumors about these devices. (Nevertheless, an online copy of a chapter in my second book was hacked in April 2002 right where I started to talk about the suitcase issue.) George Tenet’s memoir books “At the Center of the Storm” from Harper suggest a great deal of ambiguity about the efforts of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in actually succeeding in getting nuclear materials.

One of his strongest points is that the “terror” is inherent in the asymmetry itself, even if such weapons are never used. The terrorists leave no return address and presumably have nothing to lose. Deterring them is not completely hopeless, however, he says. They do have some incentive toward restraint. They are rather arbitrary, however, in what private citizens are “accomplices” and who really are “innocent”. They do tend to blame the victim.

But that may bring on the strongest point. Radical Islam especially has been able to take advantage of the instant news of today’s world to get attention. Starting with CNN and the news networks in the 80s leading to individual speakers and bloggers on the Internet today, media speakers have an incentive to get news distributed as quickly as possible. That enables the propagation of terror without actual events. A world where there is less social or political structure to the dissemination of information may, while offering transparency, a social good, work to the advantage of terrorists. Journalists could face ethical dilemmas in that, of they report everything, they could be serving the ends of the “enemy.”

Another input into the fireplace is fiction, which works both ways. Intelligence agencies may now call on authors to imagine potential weaknesses, but Jenkins raises the question if overly realistic fiction is informing future terrorists of subtle physical and even psychological vulnerabilities in western society, that is, "giving them ideas."

In the last section of the book, Jenkins has a chapter “A Bright Yellow Light” and he composes a simulation of a partial-ton crude nuclear detonation in New York City, with all the questions that would follow for the president. I have to admit that reading the chapter raised my blood pressure.

Jenkins argues that it is unlikely that an asymmetric terrorist group can bring down modern civilization as we know it, although there could be imposition of martial law (happening during the Civil War on and in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor) in some areas. He doesn’t mention the possibility of electromagnetic pulse from a weapon fired from sea to high altitude (possibly under the aegis of Iran), a threat proposed by Clifford May and others recently. Although it’s not clear this is really technically likely to work, it could knock out all electronics in a large part of the US. This, and a bioterror pandemic, could be the most dangerous possibilities we face.

The reader may want to check out the review of this book, the review itself called “Terror in Extremis”, by Robert L. Gallucci, link here, in The National Interest, Oct. 30, 2008.

Visitors will want to look at my older review of the 2004 book (Times Books) by Graham Allison, “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe”, here. Jenkins approach, to make “terror” distinct from “terrorism” is probably more subtle.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

National Geographic offers stunning "real" photographs from Mars

Author John Updike has a big article in the December 2008 National Geographic Magazine starting on p 86 with a stunning “Cinerama” large photograph of the edge of Victoria Crater, apparently taken by rover Opportunity. The magazine says that the dusky red-brown-orange color of the desert scene is very close to what a human visitor standing on the crater rim would really see. The sky seems “cloudy” with dust. There are lots of strewn rocks and smooth columns, fractured naturally. What is missing is greenery. Otherwise, the scene could almost have come from Utah (or even countryside north of Abilene, Texas). But if you stood there the whole planet would be like this (with some occasional ice or dry ice), with only a few rovers or remains from human landers that have reached the planet scattered around the surface. (Sorry, there’s no Extreme Train to tour the landscapes, like in John Carpenter’s 1998 film “Ghosts of Mars”.) For copyright reasons, I can’t just reproduce it on the blog, but you can look at the photo online here. Yes, I encourage the visitor to buy a hard copy.

The backside of the photo has an aerial shot of 2000 foot deep canyon in the polar regions, with some water ice, with some computer-driven colorizing.

The Updike article is called “Vision of Mars: Robot Explorers transform a distant object of wonder into intimate terrain.”

I’d love to see a similar issue with panoramic photos from Saturn’s moon Titan.

Picture: From Texas, north of Benjamin, taken by me in 2005.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Book business affected by Internet competition more than economy

James Gleick has a perspective on book publishing in The New York Times, Sat. Nov. 29, 2008, “How to Publish Without Perishing,” link here. It appears on p 10 of the Sunday (Nov. 30) paper “Week in Review” section.

It is getting more difficult for traditional trade book publishers, just like newspapers, to make their earnings target in what has been regarded as a numbers driven business. Publishers may complain about competition from the Internet, but the whining is perhaps hard to justify. Publishers (or retailers like Amazon) now offer Kindle downloads, and a few years ago experimented with portable book readers and Softlock technology. Yet, nothing is so convenient as the acid-free paperback novel when on the beach (note the pun) or in a long line at a movie opening. Because some books become very popular during economic downturns, some publishers might actually find counter-cyclical opportunity.

Gleick talks about the decline of the printed encyclopedia (remember that in the 50s people did well selling encyclopedias door-to-door for a living - we bought the 1950 World Book, with its great color-coded topographic state maps unmatched since – that way) and dictionary, although if you look at the activity in any high school library that may sound unfounded. But the printed book, whether novel or non-fiction, remains a great utility.

The commentator also discusses the Google book search settlement, with all its legal complexities driven by the fact that different parties view copyright and “fair use” so differently. But Gleick points out that the Internet is doing a great deal to rescue books that have gone out of print and otherwise could not be seen at all.

One problem with trade non-fiction is that it tends to become obsolete so quickly. A celebrity, especially a politician, writes a book, but in two years all the issues have changed. How long will books on the current economic crisis sell?

Even fiction authors, if they deal with modern circumstances, can find their work becomes obsolete. In the 1980s I spent a lot of time on a long manuscript based on an eventual Communist invasion of the United States. But that became obsolete with the fall of Berlin and other satellite countries and then with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Some day soon I will look at my old manuscripts and try to recap what was in all of them.

As I’ve covered before, companies like iUniverse (which recently merged with AuthorHouse and relocated to Indiana) offer cooperative or “supported self-publishing” but have also worked with Author’s Guild to bring back out-of-print works. For example, I purchased novelist Allan W. Eckert’s “The HAB Theory” (about a terrestrial pole shift and resulting cataclysm, orig. 1976) and the same (diverse) novelist's “Crossbreed” (a Disney-like story about a resourceful wild bobcat/domestic feline animal and his reconciliation with man), originally from 1968. I don't know how well these businesses are doing in the current economic downturn. Maybe a visitor does know!

One can imagine an "ethical" debate: to gain credibility for what is published, should authorship, publication and distribution be accomplished by separate parties?

Update: Dec. 4

It looks like some B Dalton's book stores close Jan. 17, 2009, at least near me. The sign directs one to a Barnes and Noble at some other location. The "smaller" chain book store may not survive this economic climate. And we need to be concerned about the specialty neighborhood book stores, like Lambda Rising, as they must compete with larger chains, now in a difficult economy.