Monthly Archives: July 2003

The Pictures and The Report


Reactions to the pictures of Bidet and Qtip Hussein’s bodies have bee predictable. They are grisly, hideous and authoritative. The two Sons of Saddam are quite dead. The moral justification of all this is a little dodgy, but I can live with the grey areas and inconsistencies. Had there been a chance to drag the bodies through the streets of Mosul, the Iraqi populace would have obliged, providing graphic evidence that there has been a regime change that even an uneducated goat herder could comprehend.

In certain cultures, even ours, this kind of evidence is important. Do remember that Saddam and the Sons terrorized their population for nearly 30 years. We’re talking a whole generation brought up under a leader with absolute power who let his sons behave like Caligula without the restraint and politeness.

There will always be a percentage that will never believe any evidence. It’s too easy to blame the Evil Empire of America, so why confront simple realities when massive conspiracy theories are much more entertaining. This also explains Area 51, Black Helicopters and the International Monetary Fund. By the way, if you don’t go along with the conspiracy theorists, then you’ve obviously been co-opted by the Force, so prepare yourself for that bit of intellectual salsa dancing while you’re up.

The Report is more troubling. It is the Congressional Report on 9/11. The arc of the questions were simple: What the hell went wrong? Why didn’t we catch this shit before it happened?

The fact that 9/11 happened is just the tip of the spear. Intelligence departments didn’t or couldn’t connect the dots enough to figure out something was up before it happened. Fair enough. We, meaning the intelligence agencies and governments, knew that Al Qaeda and a basket of other terrorists groups didn’t like the US before 9/11, I think even the IRA was listed as a terrorist group that didn’t like the US and I don’t remember their being a ban on all Irish people coming to the US, pre-9/11.

What we couldn’t know up until the moment, was that Bin Laden had enough loopy followers, determined to carry out the attacks on the US. The rest of the report is just the benefit of hindsight. To use the nebulous rules of hindsight, I should have never gone into radio in 1976, because I should have known that AM radio was doomed by FM and local television was soon to follow, led by the Internet. Meanwhile my career choice in technology is flawed because all the high tech jobs are going offshore. According to the Rules of Hindsight I should have known this in 1972.

I suppose my very first choice of being a liquor, mattress and condom tester would have been better. Again using the benefit of perfect hindsight it would have been a great career, except I’d now have cirrhosis, back problems and have worn the end off of Mr. Johnson.

The Report is a few thousand pages of Monday Morning Quarterbacking that merely proves the authors can predict the past. Yes, there were security lapses. Yes, the various intelligence agencies didn’t really share well. Yes, there were emergency response problems. Yes, all those problems have been studied; we learned big lessons, really quickly and fixed them even faster.

Some might say we over-compensated, but considering the remarkable depth and breadth of infrastructure change we initiated and implemented in a very short period of time, I’d say we did fine. Fortunately, the finger pointing from the Congressional Report has been shouldered off the media by the pictures of the Sons of Saddam.  The media always loves a good blood and guts show.

Which answers the real question: Why do television stations cover shootings, police chases, hostage takings and the rest of modern hostility with very expensive remote satellite camera units, helicopters and massed coverage? Simple: The first one on the screen with the blood and guts wins the ratings wars. Show me the widow’s tears, or the victim’s wounds, or show me the shooter being dropped by SWAT. Live.

Not a whole lot different from dragging a body through the streets, except we let TV cover it for us in North America, so we don’t dirty our hands behaving like the savages we really are.

Driving


An 86 year old man, Russell Weller, who ploughed his car through a Santa Monica farmer’s market, is in the news and not in a good way. The facts of the story are simple enough; the car Weller was driving took off down a closed street, killing 10 people who were at the market. Police have hinted that Weller had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. The police have impounded his car to test for mechanical problems and even checked his home for any drugs that could have caused impairment. Charges may be pending.

Simple enough for us to judge: Geezer at the wheel, blood pressure medicine, a lightheaded spell and bodies flying every which way as a result. Well, it is not always that clear. For those with long memories, they will recall the Audi Unintentional Acceleration ruckus in the early 80’s.

The bones of the Audi story were somewhat related. Audi Quattro cars with automatic transmissions would suddenly accelerate at full throttle when the owners started them, even though the owners swore on a stack of Bibles they were standing on the brake pedal. One notable incident saw a Quattro shoot through the back of a garage and land in the swimming pool.

Both stories bring up the issue of man-machine interface. If you drive an automatic transmission car built in the last few years you notice that you cannot shift from Park unless your foot is firmly on the brake pedal. This little safety gem is courtesy of the Audi Quattro.

Car and Driver magazine did extensive testing of the Quattro back then and could not under any circumstances, get the car to overpower its brakes, as long as the driver had their foot on the brake pedal. Even with the engine at wide open throttle and forcing the transmission into gear, as long as the brakes were on, the Quattro just stalled dead or did a brake stand and spluttered.

Did Russell Weller have his foot on the brake of his Buick when he went whistling through the farmer’s market? Obviously not; it had to be on the gas. Did Russell Weller mistake the gas for the brake? Most likely. Now, we have a question we can work with. Why?

We take driving for granted. We get in the machine, turn the key, grab a gear and go. From placing your butt in the seat to rolling down the driveway is usually a five-second process. Perhaps we take an extra second to adjust the mirror if someone else has been driving the car, but five seconds is about it.

Some of this is muscle memory: We “know” where the pedals, shifter and radio controls are because we have done it so many times in our car. There is the real problem. We don’t consciously make the motions to the brake, gas, clutch, lights, turn signals and four ways every time we get in the car, checking visually to see if we’re right. Our Brain assumes the leg muscle knows how to get to the brake if the brain says “kid in road chasing ball, apply brakes hard, now”. If that muscle memory is off, by an inch or two, you either miss the brake, or hit the gas pedal. Which puts us in Russell Weller Land and on the News in a context that is less than favourable.

Is there an answer to this? Part of the answer is called Recurrent Testing. To my mind you should re-test for your Driver’s License every five years: Eye exam, written test, driving test. This should help to weed out, or retrain the truly stupid, ignorant, careless or medically unfit. Aviation has been doing this for years and it is proven to work.

Since the Wright Brothers days, scientists have examined how humans and machines interact with repetitive tasking that contains an element of risk. The body of knowledge is extensive from aviation and even railroads. Very little of it has been applied to cars and trucks.

As an example, if you look at a small airplane cockpit, you’ll notice something. There are very few switch handles alike so the pilot can recognize the function of the switch by feel without breaking his gaze out the window. Some controls are action positive, meaning you must consciously put the control in a position to perform its operation by opening a guard or moving a lever from a detent or gate. You can’t accidentally knock the control into operation.

Air brakes on a truck are another example, based on railroad technology. The default is brakes fully on. Only when air pressure at a predetermined level is present do the brakes release. Any cut in the line or loss of air pressure and the brakes go back to fully on.

Cars are exactly opposite. Default is brakes off. Controls, like a turn signal, can be easily moved with a shirt sleeve. High beam headlights are a toggle, once to turn on, once again to turn off. Pedals are in different positions in different models of cars, with different pedal spacing.

If we did apply some consistency of placement and operation of key controls to cars would we eliminate driver error? Nothing works 100 percent, but this won’t hurt. Will recurrent testing eliminate driver error? No, but this won’t hurt either. Better driver training to start with? Also a good thing.

The prevention of another Russell Weller is a combination of changes based on knowledge we already have from aviation, railroads and pure science. All it takes is some societal will and some intelligence.

So Predictable


The US Democrats are all a twitter because George W Bush mislead the everyone with the claim that Saddam Hussein was getting his mitts on nuclear weapons bits. And, of course, those on either end of the spectrum are finger pointing, shooting off their mouths and calling for resignations, investigations, assassinations and various forms of public humiliations.

In perspective, those in the big chairs rely on a stadium full of advisors to give them information. Reality dictates that Colin, George, Dick and Condoleezza can’t spend the afternoon at the Public Library doing their homework on Iraq, or Liberia, or International Terrorists. They get briefings from those who are given the job of “find out about topic X”. The briefers don’t actually do the work; they have staffs who do the grunt work. Some ink-stained wretch who actually surfs up the data is never allowed near the Big Chairs, of course, as this would be unseemly for an actual researcher to be in the same building as the final consumer of the information.

Naturally, the raw data is compressed, cleaned up, checked for spelling and coffee rings on the paper. Then, the information is either rewritten for the final consumer, or run through four or five other computers to “make sure we make a good impression on the President.”  Suffice to say, pushing a simple declarative sentence through this many sets of eyes and meddling fingers, results in paragraphs of bureaucrat-speak containing as little information as possible.

The issue is simple enough. Colin, George, Dick, Condoleezza and the rest of the Big Chair gang get their data. But the data has been groomed for “appearances”, “style” and “readability”. Would less-than scrupulous briefers fiddle the data to jiggle a conclusion? Nobody wants to piss on the Presidential Parade, so would data that does not support the general idea be suppressed, edited out, footnoted, reworded or generally marginalized? Well, yes. That’s like predicting gravity works.

The Big Chair folks rely on the briefers and the quality of the information to make informed decisions. Go or No-Go? WMD or just an Asshole? Rainy or Sunny? Whole Wheat or White? The problem comes when the Big Chair folks have to make the call. If the only data you have says it is raining, will rain, is continuing to rain and should rain right through to next Thursday, you make sure you take an umbrella. Or, just for the hell of it, turn on the Weather Channel, or take a peek out the window and look for yourself.

None of the occupants of those Big Chairs strike me as complete fools who rely solely on the information they get from their people, but the ultimate responsibility does rest at the feet of the Big Chairs. In the past, the only proper response to being manipulated by your data and (hopefully inadvertently) lying to the public would be to resign. That would entail being honourable and responsible and behaving with some character, so we know that dog won’t hunt.

The finger pointing will go on. Colin, George, Dick and Condoleezza will take some serious heat, but not near as much heat at their respective staffs. In a month or two, one lowly scribe will get fired, being blamed for the information grooming, while the stuffed suits between the real data and the Big Chairs will keep on working. Big surprise again.

That is the real issue, Leadership Isolation. All the assistants, special assistants, assistant special assistants and liaison folks who groom information are the ones who should be in deep trouble. Leaders must fight being in a bubble all the time. Leaders have to trust the people around them to give them good information, even if the information is totally contrary to the general line of thought.

Quite a few families are now mourning the deaths of their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives. All because of stuffed suit briefers and leaders who wouldn’t look out the window to see if it was really raining.

Liberian Adventures


This week’s department of oddities features the new book, Curious George Goes to Liberia.  For those who don’t know where Liberia is, find that old atlas you used in Grade 6.  Liberia is on the West coast of Africa, sort of on the corner where Africa turns north, sandwiched between Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone. 

Liberia was founded by former American slaves in 1847, as a place for freed slaves to return to.  At least that was the deal on paper.  Some went, others decided against going to a dirt speck with nothing to offer except grinding poverty, starvation and the prospect of a brutal death.  Why travel across an ocean to get the same deal you’ve already got at home?

Around 1990, the President of Liberia, Samuel Doe, who was apparently typical of African leaders at the time, merely corrupt and needlessly violent, was overthrown by a rebel leader, Charles Taylor, who was totally corrupt and insanely violent.  Liberia then entered a period of decline as the county imploded, infrastructure disintegrated and the surviving population tried to stay the hell out of the way of the rebel leaders, the opposition factions and the remainder of the militias who line up with whoever is promising food or ammunition.

Much killing ensued as various debts were settled and old animosities were avenged.  Such slights as looking too long at another person were resolved by some 13 year old toting a rifle taller than he was, letting off a clip, full auto, while trying to keep the muzzle from bouncing around too much.  Sort of a typical African nation building exercise.  Journalists stayed away in droves as it was just too depressing and really not any different from Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan and so on.

Now George W. Bush feels that some sort of peacekeeping force from the US might bring this period to a close, if only Charles Taylor would step down as President for Life and get out of Dodge.  The problem, and this is endemic in Africa, is that any cogent opposition leader is already dead, having been purged years ago, buried in a lime pit, or dragged into the jungle to be eaten.  Those who are left in control are simply the dictator’s handpicked savages who have proven their loyalty by killing entire villages, or stealing more, higher quality goods than the others in the inner circle.

Why George feels that getting his feet in there will do anything is beyond me.  Liberia has about as much to do with world-wide terrorism as Mexico does with Olympic bobsledding.  The real issues facing the planet now are Terrorism and Mid-East Peace.  If we can get the Middle East to at least settle down to a dull roar of bitching and moaning, perhaps we can break the generational cycle of inbred violence and revenge. 

Finding the Al-Qaeda folks and pulling their limbs off on national TV will show like-thinking rock-heads that you’d best not be trying that crap any more, or we will come after you. 

So, the question still remains, why does George think a Liberian Adventure would be good?  The cynical answer is it can be a distraction.  Saddam has not been captured.  The Weapons of Mass Destruction have not shown up.  Osama Bin-Laden is still around, somewhere.  The US Economy is in the toilet.  Jobs are being lost to third and fourth world countries in record numbers by loyal American companies who wave the flag and ship all the manufacturing jobs to Taiwan or Malaysia.  Meanwhile big companies are being investigated for such outrageous financial shenanigans that even Republicans are appalled by the depth and breadth of the maw-sucking greed shown by business.

Could he be so cynical as to try it?  I don’t know if he has the smarts, or nerve, to try it, as it borders on the Big Lie, rather than a bunch of Little Lies.

For those who don’t know the Big Lie Theory, it goes like this:  Our economy is in the ditch.  It’s not our fault.  It’s the fault of Them.  They did it to us.  We should get rid of Them so we can take back our Rightful Place.  They are responsible for the price of bread because we have to spend so much to defend ourselves that we don’t have money left over and They have taken over all the bakeries.  They are responsible for al the troubles.  And we’re going to make Them pay.

Now, just substitute the word Jews for They and roll back the clock to 1934.  Or, put Christians in and set the wayback machine to 35AD.  See how it works?  Today, substitute Terrorists for They and it still does the job.  Tomorrow?  Liberia. 

Next week?  Portugal.  Or left-handed people.

Vancouver 2010


The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler BC.  I’ve been to both places a few times and it will be a great show after the fix a few things.  First, is the Road to Whistler, the Sea to Sky Highway. 

The highway has more twists and turns than a Bill Clinton testimony under oath.  Some of the turns are blind, 100 kph off-camber drop-away 90 degree corners where you have a choice of nail a 400 foot granite wall, or plummet 400 feet off the edge of the earth into the Pacific Ocean.  By the way, that’s just after the level railroad crossing, next to the huge propane tanks, across the highway from the Down’s Syndrome Orphanage. 

Tour busses, cars, trucks and vans fill the road day and night.  Many of these vehicles are driven by skilled, professional drivers who make the 4 hour run up the Sea and Sky Highway every day.  The rest are driven by the insane, the amphetamine crazed, the lame, the halt and those who just got off an airplane after a 16 hour flight, rented a big SUV, signed for the all-perils damage insurance and are now driving on a combination of adrenaline, jet lag, a venti-double caf, and all the skills they have developed piloting an oxcart in their home country.  They are in your lane, by the way, trying to read the map and quiet the children.

Whistler itself is post-card pretty.  The skiing is remarkable, world class in all respects.  The village has other issues though.  Whistler has a problem with accommodations.  It is very common for those who work in support jobs, as cooks, servers, dishwashers or ski instructors, to live six to a room.  A rudimentary three room apartment rents for $2,000 a month in low season and perhaps $3,000 a month in ski season.  There are no places for people to live unless you make millions a year.

This will cut into the number of hookers who can work the Olympics, servicing the IOC and their assorted hangers-on, aides, spokespersons and liaison officers.  The Vancouver Olympic Committee will have to address the accommodation issue.  And please, do something about the cost of simple cup of coffee?  $11.00 is a bit much.

Vancouver, being a big destination city probably has enough hotel rooms to handle the onslaught.  Much of Vancouver’s seedier areas were rehabilitated for Expo86 and are now home to leaky, unrepairable, overpriced condos, constructed on landfill and toxic waste dumps from the bad old days. 

There are, let’s call them what they are, tenderloin areas left.  As best I can understand, the 14-year old crack whores are looking forward to the Olympics coming to Vancouver, as they can then be 21-year old heroin whores servicing the visitors.  Assuming they live through the next month or two without being killed by their pimp, or invited to a pig farm party by a serial killer, the next crop of service sector people are ready. 

Gift shops?  There are too many to count.  Traffic in Vancouver has always been screwed up, so the application of the Olympics shouldn’t really matter.  Expect endless globs of confused people rambling around on Robson Street day and night.  Sort of like today, only more of them.

The airport, finally, has been fixed.  Vancouver International used to be a 1963 vintage shithole with airplanes.  It is now actually very well designed and very attractive.  Considering the number of Vancouver Airport Improvement Fees I’ve paid, you owe me a “Thanks Dave”.  Enjoy my airport.

The rest of the city will be fine, as long as there isn’t an earthquake or another eruption of any of the dormant volcanoes in the area.  The Olympics in Vancouver?  Sounds like a fun time for me!

Kate Hepburn


We lost a good one on the weekend.  Katherine Hepburn, the consummate actor, passed away at the age of 95.  Her craft lit up the screen and the stage with characterizations that we enjoyed and applauded.  The reflections and remembrances of others over the weekend summed up her career better than I can, but there was one statement that stuck with me.  When asked to give advice to aspiring actors she said:

“Show up on time, know your lines, don’t bump into the furniture”