Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bob Woodward: "The Price of Politics" and partisanship

Author: Bob Woodward

Title: “The Price of Politics

Publication: 2012, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1-4516-5110-2, 428 pages, hardcover, 40 chapters, indexed.

Maybe it takes long memories now to recall the bitter debt ceiling debate during the summer of 2011. During that time, it appeared, at least to the casual blogger, that “Tea Party” Republican congressmen and (to a lesser extent) Senators were willing to torch the entire American economy to prove an ideological point: that taxes on profitable businesses or individuals not be raised to pay for the needs of others.  This was a job for “families.” For his part, President Obama may have added some additional fuel to the fire by some intransigent veto threats, because he rightfully didn’t want to face a debt ceiling crisis every six months.

Woodward does indeed, around p. 327, describe the potential for financial apocalypse were default to occur and not be remedied quickly.  I had covered this on my “Issues” blog in July 2011.  In the worst scenario, cash itself could have become worthless and ordinary savings could be wiped out, according to some sources in the book.  Maybe that what extremists want, a righteous (or right wing) revolution.

There was a lot of hype that summer on “entitlements”, and sometimes speakers forgot that Social Security benefits are related, substantially but not absolutely, to FICA tax contributions by former workers and their spouses.  They are essentially annuities that have been earned.  Were current beneficiaries really to be stiffed?  Yet, Woodward mentions the possibility of means testing at least for some high income (or high net worth?) persons already on some means testing (I wasn’t sure that happens now, I’ll have to check). 

The style of the book is a bit perfunctory, with lots of short paragraphs and detailed narratives of all the meetings and exchanges of the debate, including the famous Friday afternoon breakdown between Boehner and Obama.

In the last chapter, Woodward presents his views on the leadership failures of both Boehner and Obama. 
Call this book, “The Price of Partisan Politics”. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

National Archives Foundation has glossy book on Cuban Missile Crisis

Authors: Stacey Bredhoff, with message by David S. Ferriero  (Archivist of the United States)

Title:To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Publication: 2012, The Foundation for the National Archives, Washington DC, ISBN 978-0-9841033-9-6, 90 pages, full sized, gloss, paperback, very heavily illustrated, sold at the Gift Shop at the Archives in Washington DC for $19.95.

The book contains illustrations based on the exhibits at the Archives, where no photography is permitted.  All the major intelligence memos, conversation transcripts, and CIA assessments are included.  There are multiple photographs of the sites in Cuba and even of a model fallout shelter.

The Administration had been concerned about possible Soviet activity in Cuba ever since Kennedy took office and the Bay of Pigs failed.  It had called up Army reservists in September 1962 for a year of active duty.  It’s a little surprising that it took until Oct. 16 for the first official evidence of Soviet missiles to reach the president.  Mrs. Kennedy was in Middleburg, VA on Oct. 16 and rejoined JFK on that day, six days before the crisis was made public by Kennedy’s famous speech Monday evening Oct. 22.

The booklet also contains photographs of CIA assessments of the personalities of Castro and of Khrushchev.  The CIA was particularly concerned about Castro’s egotism, narcissism and even the nihilism known in today’s terrorists.  That personality pathology certainly contributed to the bellicose nature of Castro’s behavior.  Castro had assumed that the US would invade Cuba immediately, but was willing to see Cuba sacrificed to see capitalism obliterated in nuclear war.  Castro seemed to want the end to come out of spite.  Khrushchev had badly miscalculated that the US could tolerate the presence of missiles in Cuba, since the Soviets had “tolerated” the outdated missiles in Turkey.

The booklet has a picture of the DEFCON-3 elevation telegram on Oct. 23. 

Here is a CSPAN video on the tapes that Kennedy made of the conversations.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, California energy company have paper on the danger of solar geomagnetic storms

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has an important PDF booklet (198 pages), “Geomagnetic Storms and Their Impact on the U.S. Power Grid”, by John Kappenman, with (free) PDF link here

Although the booklet is on the ORNL website, the author comes from Metatech corporation in Goletaa. CA (near Santa Barbara, ironically mentioned in another book review recently on  Sept. 19).  The link for that company is here

The booklet is even more detailed than a similar paper by the National Academy of Sciences reviewed here Aug. 9, 2012. It comprises four major chapters:  (1) Overview (2) Details of the 1989 geomagnetic storm that caused major power failures centered in Quebec (3) Assessment of threat from extreme geomagnetic storms, and (4) specific assessments of predicted damage to large transformers

There are a couple of buzzwords:  “GIC” means geomagnetically induced current, “MVAR” is a mega unit of reactive power, and “EHV” (Extra high voltage) transformers.  Previously we've discussed "coronal mass ejections" from solar storms (popularly called "solar flares", a bit of a simplification).
Here’s the “bottom line” (it sounds like an oncologist’s prognosis):  On P. 110 (Page 1 of Section 4), the paper states that a severe geomagnetic event could knock out 70% of the nation’s power grid (an event many times the size of the August, 2003 outage in the northeast), and that some sections of the country could face several months without power.  The risk is pervasive throughout different latitudes, but the nature of risk becomes more diffuse (related to “ring effects”) at more southerly latitudes.  One significant problem is the logistical difficulty in re-manufacturing and transporting EHV transformers, which are huge and cannot be fit onto normal highways.  This was a bit of a problem in some parts of the mid-Atlantic in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel.  Homeland Security has a paper on the EHV issue here

There were some outages in the US from the 1989 incident, and they would have been severe from a similar event in 1921.  The most severe known geomagnetic event in history was the “Carrington” storm in 1859, before the nation had a power grid.

On P. 120, the paper compares its findings with those of the NAS.

As with NAS, ORNL regards a major geomagnetic storm a much more likely scenario than a high altitude EMP blast launched by a terrorist, and perhaps less catastrophic, but still extremely damaging to the US (or to any region of the world affected) economically.  Automobiles and personal electronics would probably not be affected by a geomagnetic storm.

Geomagnetic storms have occurred during the lowest phase of the sunspot cycle.  The paper somewhat disagree with opinions from other authorities (like NASA) that the danger is necessarily greatest as sunspot activity increases in 2012 and 2013.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Knoxville, TN, near Oak Ridge.  I last visited the area in October 1991, and previously in June 1988.  

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

"No Easy Day" is an exciting read, of the raid that took out Bin Laden

Author: Mark Owen aka Matt Bissonnette, former US Navy Seal, with Kevin Mauer

Title: “No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal

Subtitle: “The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden

Publication: Dutton, 2012; ISBN 978-0—525-95372-2, 316 pages, hardcover, Nineteen chapters with Prologue and Epilogue

Amazon link

Coordinated post: “60 Minutes” interview of author, covered on TV blog, Sept. 10, 2012. That interview had identified the pseudonymous author as part of “Seal Team 6” and second “in the bedroom”.
This is the second consecutive book I’ve reviewed where there was some kind of “conflict of interest” or putative confidentiality violation over its publication. This time, the government claims that the author should have submitted the book through official channels for clearance of possible disclosure of classified information. Owen denies that any such disclosure is possible,  It’s not clear that the government has a legal case against him or will pursue one as of now. 

I’ve had my own experience with book publishing and “conflict of interest”, which I detail on my “BillBoushka” blog Sept. 27, 2010, and on my “GLBT Issues Blog” October 8, 2012.

The author gives quite a bit of detail on training and on how the expedition was carried out.  While it is fairly high-level, it may well be the case that it has disclosed some important aspects of covert operations. 
At the same time, I have to say it is an exciting read.

One of Owen’s important points is that apparently Osama bin Laden did not try to defend himself at the end, and Owen sees that as a contradiction of what he expect to find as part of the enemy’s own idea of “honor”.  In this area, Owen’s detailed account of the raid differs somewhat from other published accounts.

His earlier accounts of training, including that with DEVGRU (United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group)  is interesting, in its intensity and in the fact that single men and those with families were treated exactly the same.  Unit cohesion and teamwork are paramount, but the physical demands are so great that attention is never diverted.  Owen never mentions the controversy over gays or “don’t ask don’t tell”; and the environment is so demanding that it is hard to imagine that it would come up.  It sounds unlikely, though, that the environment is in any way “homophobic”.

The way he found out about the mission is somewhat happenstantial –  he was a day late getting to a training orientation in North Carolina, driving alone through 200 miles of coastal plain pine forest to ponder what was up.

He does discuss the presence of the female CIA analyst, whom he calls Jen (or perhaps “Jenny”, as in “The Swiss Family Robinson”), and her confidence that she had identified bin Laden’s “panic room” was absolute.  The book, however, gives little idea as to how the CIA really works to gather such information, or what a civilian analyst’s job is really like.

I may be going on a limb to say this, but I do have a friend in that agency, and he sent an email about wanting to go out and “club” before an especially heavy weekend, as that weekend started.  When I heard Sunday night that president Obama would come on national TV, I “connected the dots” and thought that Qadaffi  had  suddenly fallen in Libya, because NATO had suddenly attacked the day before (a convenient coincidence and diversion of world attention).   But even a happening like this shows how innocuous remarks in emails or social media could possibly compromise a major mission, because ordinary people (including bloggers) can try to make inferences, and sometimes they’ll be right. It’s amazing how much information people without clearances find out or can infer. 

In his afterword, the author encourages people to work for causes greater than themselves, and particularly to support veterans.  It’s hard to work for “causes” without replacing your own goals with those of other people, however. 

NBC News has a story reporting on the secret CIA training site for the raid, here

Monday, October 01, 2012

Bryan Craig's booklet "It's Her Fault": It got him fired from a school system, and he is suing; he does say something valuable

Author: Bryan Craig

Title: “It’s Her Fault

Publication: Author House, ISBN 978-1-4772-5459-2, 8 chapters with Foreword and Afterword: 45 pages, paper.

Amazon link:  

This little booklet has attracted controversy because its author (he says “written by” on the cover) was fired  (after first being suspended) from his job as a guidance counselor and girls’ basketball coach at Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields, IL. (near Chicago), after this self-published book appeared.  The “writer” is suing the school district for $1 for wrongful termination, apparently based on his free speech rights as a public employee.  There is a long history of litigation over where public speech rights of teachers or school employees end – when it could interfere with instruction in the classroom or discipline in the school.  The Huffington Post has a story about the matter (witn embedded interview of the author on CNN) here.

Most teacher firings in recent years have occurred over social media, rather than published books.  But self-published books may seem to test the waters – as they don’t go through as much oversight.  Is there a conflict of interest issue?  I had to deal with that myself when I self-pubbed my own “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997 because I was working for a company that specialized in selling life insurance to military officers. (I'll be covering a principled controversy about a book by an ex Navy Seal here soon.)  I can well imagine that some of his explicit comments about physical matters (below) could create the impression among students that he could be prejudiced against some of them -- leading to a legal variation of the "hostile workplace" problem, this time in a pubic school system.

The booklet, however brief, was valuable to me.  Craig, who says he is married, starts out by describing courtship and subsequent marriage as a mental con game in which the man knows that the woman is “superior” in terms of potential brain power and stability (that was George Gilder’s argument in “Men and Marriage” back in the 1980s – see April 12, 2006), but needs to fool his own brain into believing that he has the upper hand in power games. In a 1993 book, Warren Farrell had made similar points, from a socially liberal perspective, in his "The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex" (Simon and Schuster).  "Disposable" essentially means "fungible". 

All of this might not be so controversial (conservatives go along with most of it), but then Craig gets quite explicit about some intimate matters, especially those primary sexual characteristics of women that (he says) makes women more “satisfying” to the egos of men.  He gets quite explicit as to race.  Now some stuff like this (more about the “secondary characteristics”) I used to hear young men talk about in college dorms and Army barracks during my own coming of age, so it is nothing new.  But the level to which he takes this heterosexual fetishism is new to me.

As a gay man, I don’t experience what he describes, but I experience something comparable, with respect to “the secondaries”, about other men (as was an issue with my "therapy" at NIH in 1962).  Maybe that helps support the idea that sexual orientation is immutable.  Psychologists (and conservative writers like George Gilder) call this process “upward affiliation”, and cast it in a negative light.  The implication is that a man will not be able to love anyone (or at least remain in love for a lifetime of marriage) who does not feed his ego by being “good enough”.  Ever heard the phrase, “He can do better than that?”  Craig at one point uses the phrase, “You do the math.”  There’s still deeper point, too: should our ability to experience compassion and participate in reinforcing the social capital of others depend on our “having what we want” in our own relationships first?  I have the impression that the healthiest marriages were not predicated on prerequisites of ego satisfaction (I don't think this was true of my parents, married for 45 years).  

Craig (whose picture shows him to be African-American), by the way, is quite explicit that men ought to play the field before marriage.  (Our acronym in Army barracks was “SIBM”.) The old religious idea of reserving sexuality for marriage with one person can’t possibly work, in his view.

Here’s YouTube video by “Interactive Healing” in which the speaker discusses the authors’ “objectification of women and girls”.  But should psychological traits revealed in published writings disqualify one from working in a public school system?

For my own experience with this issue, see my “BillBoushka” blog, entry on  July 27, 2007.

The booklet is inexpensive to download to Kindle, but a but pricey for its length in hardcopy (it's done by print-on-demand).  

Last picture: from a Hooters (restroom sign) in Waco, TX.