Adventures in Bureaucracy
Thursday, October 30, 2003
Iraqi reconstruction financed by money that had been squirreled away by Saddam Hussein, spent by soldiers on the ground who can see the needs. That's a good thing, right?

Apparently not.

"'Soldiers are not development workers. There is industry skill, a body of knowledge that goes with it. You can't just say "There's a pothole over there and get it filled" and fix a country,' said Dominic Nutt, a spokesman for Christian Aid, a British humanitarian group."

No, the better way is to commission an impact study costing ten times as much as fixing the pothole itself to predict what would happen if the pothole were to be fixed, while leaving the pothole there to damage every vehicle driving through it.
And since I'm on the topic of religion anyway, I thought this was interesting. Michele at A Small Victory is the latest to ask why God doesn't stop bad things from happening.

A great response from Analog Mouse in the comments: "The best explanation I've heard, and the one that prevents me from being kept awake nights, is that all of creation is like a pointiallist painting. We, being in the painting, see every dot as crucial and every change to those dots as a hugely significant event. But to God, the painter, he sees the whole picture. Changing a dot or two over here (answering prayers) may not be a big deal, but the placement of another dot may be completely crucial to the formation of the work of art ("allowing" 9-11 to happen). Then, factor in the fact that the dots can do whatever they want (free will), including destroying the other dots. In the end, the painting *will* be what God wants it to be, but there are a zillion ways it can happen."

And with that I'm off to bed.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
I don't know what to make of Andrew Sullivan any more. It used to be a site I'd read every day, and I still drop by fairly regularly, but he seems to have gotten rather shrill on a few topics that come up repeatedly: gay marriage and the Catholic Church.

If you go through the site archive, it's no secret that I am Catholic and that I have been known to attend Mass. It's been a difficult time to be Catholic, but I think Sullivan has been getting increasingly hostile to the Church because it will not accomodate homosexuality. According to this interview, the Roman Catholic Church is "an institution so contorted over sexuality, these things can happen and it's the blind leading the blind. It won't change until the church reassesses its sex-phobia. Which it won't do because the only power is held by people who are invested in sexual panic." This before going on to recommend a porn site.

And then there's an exchange with Amy Welborn. It started with this post in which he used the Catholic Catechism to support his view on the Schiavo situation. She points out that it's kind of odd for him to use the Church Catechism in defense of this when he has rejected it for sexuality. He seems to question her understanding and possibly her sanity, then goes over the top. Her response strikes me as more reasoned and less polemical.

A few weeks ago I came across another person saying that Sullivan was becoming too strident on gay marriage in particular and gay issues in general. I thought the writer had a point then, and every day seems to bring more supporting evidence. I mean, "Wojtila-adherents" and "Ratzingerites"? I'm certainly no expert in theology or doctrine, but it's pretty clear that the Catholic Church approaches issues from a completely different perspective than Sullivan, but I'm finding it's more logically consistent the more I learn about it. "The current papacy, in its extreme innovations with respect to the absolute primacy of life in all circumstances, strikes me as somewhat unbalanced," writes Sullivan, but that's the bedrock of Catholic theology right there, isn't it? The life of every individual is a gift from God, and insisting on that primacy leads the Church to oppose abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia and to support many other positions. I don't think that the papacy of Pope John Paul II has made "extreme innovations" so much as adjusted teachings to the incredible advances in medical technology in the past twenty-five years.

So the Church bases its philosophy on the sanctity of life, while Sullivan seems to base his worldview on his sexuality. I know which one strikes me as somewhat unbalanced.
Sunday, October 26, 2003
This is the kind of thing that made immigration work so frustrating. Congress makes the immigration laws, but just listen to the complaining when those laws are enforced. It happens all the time. I was always surprised at Congressional inquiries on behalf of "constituents" with no legal status in the United States.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
At first glance I thought it was Dianne Wiest. But then, Dianne doesn't have to tramp it up.
Sunday, October 19, 2003
Who knew that the best slapdown in today's Post would be not in the Opinion section, but in the Dr. Gridlock traffic report?

Reader: "...I am an occasional HOV violator, a rampant speeder and a firm believer in civil disobedience in the face of unreasonable laws. If pre-war Germany was inhabited by like-minded souls, World War II would have never happened."

Dr. Gridlock: "I don't often disagree with a reader this much. ...A person practicing civil disobedience in pre-war Germany probably would have been clubbed, jailed or murdered or thrown into a concentration camp."

He's going to get a lot of mail on that one.
Saturday, October 18, 2003
It's interesting to hear all the hysteria about how terrible things are in Iraq and then read things like this and this. My biggest criticism of the news media is that with the 24-hour news cycle and the constant need for airtime filler on the news channels, there's absolutely no sense of perspective in reporting on the constant stream of events. Construction is slow and boring, but destruction makes for great video at six and eleven, so it's no surprise that there's little reporting about what's being built in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor or any other place after the major fighting ends. Looking at Germany or Japan now should be a good reminder that the slow, incremental changes are sometimes more important than more dramatic captured-on-video events.
And the previous post is yet another reason why having this look "like the Clinton Administration" is perhaps not such a great idea.
Friday, October 17, 2003
Madeleine Albright doesn't like the current administration's policy in Iraq, and she's not afraid to tell the world. There's something that rings a little odd in her criticism of going to war in Iraq without U.N. approval from the woman who pushed so hard for U.S. intervention in Kosovo without U.N. approval, but hey, who am I stand in the way of her generating publicity for her book?

I wonder about the foundations for her viewpoint. Her biography (the short version, not the book she's pushing) shows she was much more of a partisan Democrat than I had realized, so maybe that's got something to do with her position now. Democratic intervention good, Republican intervention bad.

Or maybe it's a function of her world view. Her academic focus was always eastern Europe, with a particular emphasis on Czechoslovakia. It's not for nothing that Vaclav Havel spoke at Georgetown during his visit to Washington in early 1990 - he and Albright apparently went back years. Maybe the Cold War model for international relations continued to be the prism through which she looked at the world. Bringing freedom to eastern Europe was a priority, and Kosovo was part of that mission. The Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world weren't all that important except as proxies for the main U.S.-U.S.S.R. struggle. Iraq was part of that not-so-important area, and thus was not worth disrupting West Bloc harmony.

It's strange that Secretary Albright's approach to Iraq seems based entirely on pragmatism when idealism has always guided her before. She spoke out against the Taliban's treatment of women and said we had a responsibility to stop them. Still, she's consistent. Secretary Albright has always been a believer in pursuing our goals in concert with other countries. It just seems odd to me that the internationalism seems more important to her than the ideals about which she's spoken so often. In Kosovo we went in with all N.A.T.O., so even though there was no U.N. approval for the action, the alliance was intact, and the U.N. got to run the protectorate when the bombing was over. International harmony preserved. Sure, the place hasn't really advanced much since, but at least there's no "chaos" like in Iraq.
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
This story would still work with this crow, if rumors are to be believed. (via You Big Mouth, You)
Today was back to the grindstone after a long weekend, and what a pleasant weekend it was. It's amazing how much beautiful countryside there is within three hours of Washington - something that's easy to forget when your day-to-day life consists largely of moving from one part of the urban sprawl that is northern Virginia to another and back again.

The Post had a story that brought me crashing back to the workweek. It covered something that's been bothering me recently: the logo for the Department of Homeland Security. Well, it's not so much the logo itself, which I'm sure will look nice on business cards and wall plaques, but rather the amount of effort that's been put into it. The article didn't contain anything surprising, since I did get the internal e-mail from the departmental branding commission telling us all about it, along with my lapel pin for being one of the initial employees of the new department.

It's not that I mind losing the emblems of my original agency either, since one eagle in a circle is more or less like any other.

Rather, what annoys me is the whole branding consultancy thing, and the fact that we used one, although at $30,000 we seem to have gotten away pretty easily by Washington standards. Yes, I understand and agree with the need to create a departmental identity, but going for the whole "branding" thing just rewards another one of those "branding experts", and they really bother me. I mean, really, the best way to identify a section in the department is with a proprietary FONT?

It's not a quibble with my employer so much as the whole way of fostering a organizational identity, whether it's governmental or corporate. And that reminds me of another article in the Post that demonstrated the handiwork of the professional branders. Stop screwing with the language, people! "CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield"? What's with the caps in the middle of the word? And how is this supposed to engender a sense of confidence in an organization when all it says to me is, "BadGrammar". Still, that's nowhere near as stupid as a certain airline alliance with a compound name that has no capitalization at all (grammatically bad, but perhaps it's supposed to symbolize the current state of airline finances). No, there are no capital letters, but the first word is in bold. Cute tricks with Microsoft's formatting tool bar do not a good corporate identity make, despite the millions shelled out to the people who somehow sell these ideas for a living.

And don't even get me started on the nonsense strings of syllables that are supposed to conjure up associations of other positive things. The worst one has got to be the rebranded Philip Morris. Now it's "Altria", no doubt intended to call "altruism" to mind. Well, not to my mind. When I hear "Altria", I think of something else entirely. If anyone from Philip Morris is reading this, you might want to have a word with your branding consultants to see whether this was intentional - were some rabid anti-smokers in that brainstorming meeting?

Every organization needs its symbols, but the whole idea of "branding" seems pretty silly. Identity is determined by what an organization does, not by what emblems it chooses to use. Let's not forget about that now that we have our new eagle and Joanna MT font.

Friday, October 10, 2003
Big-haired Jersey girl wreaks havoc in Las Vegas.
Thursday, October 09, 2003
So much to whinge about, so little time... but I'll make time for this one. I have to agree with the assessment offered on The Corner: "Idiotic".

I don't think I qualify as a globetrotter, but by this standard I've been to 41 jurisdictions, and that ain't bad (and the friend who found the site is at least in the mid-60s by now). So I think I can say with a pretty good degree of confidence that French isn't the, well, lingua franca to make friends with the locals in most places I've been. Sure, it works well for making yourself understood in France or Belgium, but when in doubt, go for Spanish. All those Latin Americans can't be wrong! Lisp a bit and you've got perfect Castillian. Change the accent and use the hands and you'll be understood in Italy (this also works in Argentina). I found Spanish also worked out surprisingly well in central Europe, as a lot of students take the language as a welcome respite from the declensional nightmares of the Slavic languages.

Besides, the author left out the most important term in any foreign language - vay-tsay (WC). Sure, it might not endear you to the locals, but there's nothing like a near-bursting bladder to help you get your priorities in order.
And since I'm wound up anyway, I may as well comment on this piece, which expresses my thoughts on the media at large. I thought that the whole idea of journalism was to be a fly on the wall, observing and reporting on a story without being a part of it. Ha! Every time I see someone surrounded by a pack of cameramen and reporters, or some crime victim hiring a publicist, or some politician speaking in soundbites, I try to figure out how it is that the media have no effect in shaping the events of a story.
Oh brother. I saw this article in an international edition of Newsweek (the American version apparently decided to go for the much more news-worthy story on “Friends” instead – that magazine has been going steadily downhill for years). Something about it bothered me at the time, but the whole thing slipped my mind until I saw this post in Atlantic Blog.

The author is the director of NYU’s Remarque Institute, so focusing on relations between France and the United States is what he does. Still, I guess there are some professional hazards to the job. One is a sense of francophilia that comes out somewhat in comparisons between the two countries. Note that America is “marinated in the conviction of its own righteousness” while France is the standard bearer for “civilization” and its national patrimony “for the benefit of mankind as a whole”. Another is a tendency to exaggerate what he sees in his professional life. Take, for example, the remark about “the parochial quality of the new American political class” because – gasp! – “many have no particular knowledge of recent French history”. Quelle horreure! Perhaps it’s because many in the political class were paying more attention to the intricacies of Soviet history. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were the two states that formed the foundations of the bipolar world I learned about in all my international relations courses, so I think that Condoleeza Rice among others can be forgiven for focusing her attentions in that direction. And the “calculated Francophobia in Washington and in the American media”? Perhaps that’s something he sees in his press clippings, but France doesn’t seem to be a major topic of discussion in Washington media circles these days. I certainly don’t see anything in the Washington Post – or even the Washington Times- that compares to the steady flow of anti-American and anti-Bush pieces in the French media.

Despite these flaws the overall analysis seemed quite good… right up until the closing paragraphs. If I’m reading this correctly, the argument is that French anti-Americanism doesn’t matter, because it’s only for domestic consumption, and anyway they’ve got to worry about all the Muslims at home, but that it’s unseemly for the United States to respond to it instead of ignoring it, because it makes us look bad.

Pretty weak.

French anti-Americanism, as the author points out, is something that the United States has long been able to ignore, but the run-up to the war in Iraq was ugly. Chirac decided on a foreign policy of publicly opposing the United States at every turn, stabbing Colin Powell in the back at the U.N. and declaring that no compromise was possible. This more than anything influenced the perceptions of the American public, changing the perceptions of France from “vaguely effete and overcultured” to actively malevolent. There’s no U.S. government policy to explain the sharp drop in the sales of French wines in this country, or the decline in American tourism to France. The actions of French officialdom were enough to convince Americans that perhaps France was acting less on principle than for spite, and individual Americans formed opinions of their own.

The bad feelings were probably reinforced by the revelations of mass graves, torture, children’s prisons and all the other horror stories from Iraq. At the time most Americans were convinced that we were in the right, but even then French foreign policy barely budged.

And this brings up a big flaw in the author’s analysis of why the United States and France are at odds now. If the edge is because both countries are “proselytizing nations” with competing models of the proper society, what is it that France is trying to export? Sure, France has its cultural patrimony, but where is the “civilizing mission”? What exactly is the project the French are trying to bring to the world? From my point of view it looks like France exists simply to say, “Non”.

But really, according to the author, it means nothing, nothing at all. The issue is the unbecoming American vendetta against France. I don’t know if this national grudge actually exists on a policy level, but I can say that Chirac and company have managed to annoy me. I’ve got nothing against France. It’s a beautiful country, and there’s a lot to be said for French culture. But I’m not setting foot in France, or boarding an Air France jet, or drinking a glass of French wine until Chirac is out of office. That's not U.S. government policy. It's a personal choice. It's not even from anger really. It's more from pity for a country that used to stand for the same ideals as my own.
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
"What’s Wrong with Twinkling Buttocks?" That title, it's literature innit.
Defenestration. It's not just for Praguers any more.
Monday, October 06, 2003
Little Green Footballs refers to someone who says that Muslims explored the West Coast before Columbus bumped into the Americas. Preposterous, right? That's what I thought at first, but thanks to the miracle of the internet, I was able to do a little quick research and discover that there is in fact substantial evidence to support the claim dating back centuries. Yes, Sinbad the Sailor's legendary fifth voyage brought him to what is now California.

Sure, it's a bit muddled, as the tales of ancient travellers always are, but consider the evidence:
"I walked about the island, and found it as it were one of the garths and gardens of Paradise. Its trees, in abundance dight, bore ripe-yellow fruit for freight, its streams ran clear and bright, its flowers were fair to scent and to sight, and its birds warbled with delight the praises of Him to whom belong Permanence and All-might."
Obviously southern California. Sounds just the description of the place in most tourist promotional literature. And look at how much time Sinbad spends on the beach without clothes. What could be more Californian than that?

But wait, there's more: "They took me up into the ship and we sailed days and nights till Fate brought us to a place called the City of Apes, builded with lofty houses, all of which gave upon the sea, and it had a single gate studded and strengthened with iron nails. Now every night as soon as it is dusk the dwellers in this city used to come forth of the gates and, putting out to sea in boats and ships, pass the night upon the waters in their fear lest the apes should come down on them from the mountains."
Sounds a lot like Malibu, where Barbra Streisand and the like do their damndest to keep the hoi polloi at arms length.

And here's the clincher:
"The people of this island are fouler of condition and religion than those of the other, for that they love fornication and wine bibbing, and know not prayer nor call to prayer."
Now THAT's California!

Kim Crawford had the ultimate word on Siegfried and Roy, and this one had me laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair. Funny, although not particularly appropriate, as Gloria Swanson apparently had some sort of artistic talent.

Then again, silent films could be the one innovation that would make Madonna's acting talent almost tolerable.
Sunday, October 05, 2003
I don't know what the big deal with this is. It could describe every convention in Las Vegas or New Orleans. Don't they have Shriners in China?
A big to-do at Church today caught me by surprise. Maybe I should read the bulletin a little more closely! Anyway, I went to 10 am Mass as usual, expecting the ordinary Latin service. That one generally has a good number of people, but I knew something was up when I saw a large crowd of people in suits, helicopters buzzing overhead, Secret Service guards out front, and protesters at the intersection. Today St. Matthew's Cathedral the Red Mass, an annual event to "invoke God's blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice." The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was in attendance, as were various other high officials and dignitaries, none of whom I could make out from where I was sitting. The renovations at St. Matthew's have finally been completed, so the place was beautiful, and the choir was typically great.

The homily was quite good as well. Avery Cardinal Dulles of Fordham University spoke about the relationship between law and the spirit. That was good, as the conjunction of church and state had thinking about that very subject. After all, it's not every Mass that starts off with the presentation of the U.S. flag and "The Star Spangled Banner". The theme of the homily was that matters of law and spirit are inextricably linked, and there can be no justice without a sense of morality.

Outside the church were protesters holding placards with the Ten Commandments - this time the demostrators were protesting for the benefit of the Court and not the Catholic Church. I saw on the news that some were arrested, but when everyone left after Mass they were pretty well behaved, with no harassment of the church-goers. Pretty tame by Washington standards. This time last year the anti-war protesters had made a big mess of the Mall and the rest of the city.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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