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Monday, December 14, 2009

On The Futility Of War, Part Two, Or, Twelve Times The Charm?

We are halfway through a story that is about to turn winter in one of the most beautiful places in the world profoundly ugly.

Just like in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, we have a cast of millions, we have epic scenery, and we have made acquaintance with someone who will go on to perform a heroic act.

Unlike your typical Hollywood production, however, this movie is not going to have a happy ending--in fact, you could make the argument that it's not over yet.

So wrap yourself up in something comfortable, grab something to drink...and when you're ready, we're packing up and heading to the Alps.

So for those of you just coming to the story, here's where we're at:

There has been, for as long as anyone can remember, some degree of "friendliness balanced with hostility" in the relationship between the Austrians, Italians, and Ladins who have been living in the Tyrol, a region of the Alps just to the east of Switzerland.

In the 1800s, a variety of national unification movements emerged, leaving Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany in possession of various parts of the Tyrol.

For those unfamiliar with the geography, the Alps would represent a bit of trim extending all the way across the top of Italy's "boot"; if the boot had a buckle, it would be where the Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and German borders come together in the center of the Alps.

As WWI approached, there was some question as to whether Italy would join the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) or the Triple Entente (Russia, France, Britain, and eventually, the United States).

Italy broke its neutrality by signing the Treaty of London and attacking Austrian and other Central Powers forces along a 450-long offensive line stretching from Lake Garda to not quite Trieste.

In May of 1915 the Italians had 875,000 troops trying to mount an attack uphill, the goal being to emerge near Zagreb, Croatia (and cover their backsides at the same time, thus the attack on the Lake Garda region), so they could wheel north and attack into Austrian territory while simultaneously moving south along the Adriatic coast; the Austrians were defending from the peaks with roughly 300,000 troops.

Among those troops were units specially trained in mountain combat; those units recruiting from the mountain guides and hunters who lived in the mountain regions. The Austrians had in their command a legendary mountain guide-turned-hotelier named Sepp Innerkofler, who had more than 50 "first ascents" on some of the world's toughest peaks under his belt.

For those with a memory of history, Hannibal did the same thing on a much narrower offensive front, 2200 years ago, starting from roughly Nice, France and ending up between Turin and Milan, in what is today Northern Italy--a feat he performed at great cost to his own forces.

And now, you're caught up.

The Battles Of The Isonzo Begin

"Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins ... The cannon roars. The earth smokes ... Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory ... The slaughter begins, the destruction begins ... All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow ... We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed."

-- Gabriele D'Annunzio, April 25th, 1915

The first four of the twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought, along that long front, between May and December of 1915. The main tactic, on both sides, was to use artillery as a way of "softening up" the opposition, after which somebody would have to run up a hill, under fire, in an attempt to dislodge someone else from their well dug-in position (which explains why controlling the high ground is so vitally important).

"The men rest for a few hours, trying to dry out. At noon, they form a line, dropping to one knee while the officers stand with sabres drawn. The regimental colours flutter freely. Silence. Then a trumpet sounds, the men bellow 'Savoy!'[the name of the royal house] as from one throat, the band strikes up the Royal March. Carrying knapsacks that weigh 35 kilograms, the men attack up the steep slope, in the teeth of accurate fire from positions that the Italians cannot see. An officer brandishing his sabre in his right hand has to use his left hand to stop the scabbard from tripping him up. The men are too heavily laden to move quickly. Renato remembered the scene as a vision of the end of an era: 'In a whirl of death and glory, within a few moments, the epic Garibaldian style of warfare is crushed and consigned to the shadows of history!' The regimental music turns discordant, then fades. The officers are bowled down by machine-gun fire while the men crawl for cover on hands and knees. The battle is lost before it begins. The Italians present such a magnificent target, they are bound to fail. A second attack, a few hours later, is aborted when the bombardment falls short, hitting their own line. The afternoon peters out in another rainstorm."

-- Renato di Stolfo, describing his view of the First Battle of the Isonzo

As the Italians attacked the Austrians were basically engaged in a slow retreat into the highest mountain redoubts, destroying the rail and road infrastructure as they went.


Among the unbelievable tales of combat from those first engagements is this account of how bulls were used as a tool of assault:

"...Realizing that Korada must be captured, if at all, by dash and surprise, the Italian brigadier in charge of the attack gathered a herd of fierce bulls, which are numerous in that part of Venetia, and penned them in a hollow out of sight of the enemy, while his artillery began to bombard the hostile trenches. When the animals were wrought to a frenzy of rage and fear by the noise of the guns, they were let loose and driven up the mountain against the Austrian positions. Their charge broke through many strands of the wire entanglements, and before the last of them fell dead under the Austrian rifle fire, Italian troops with fixed bayonets had crowded through the gaps in the wires and captured the position..."

By the time the fourth battle was over the Austrian commanders' extremely effective defense not only had the Italians stopped cold--literally--but even worse, the few miles gained in those seven months had already cost the Italians 250,000 dead or wounded soldiers.

A Soldier's Death

The Austrians were losing soldiers as well--including Sepp Innerkofler.

July 3rd had found Innerkofler under attack on the Croda Rossa early in the day, and, amazingly, deer hunting later in the afternoon a couple miles away at the Alpe di Andert:

"...We start the descent at 12 and 13.50 are the Alpe di Andert. Lieutenant Gruber goes back to his position as we head towards the Kulewaldplatz, where our 6 men, they start hunting with deer starting from the so-called Bastrich. I look forward to the post until the end of the broad valley. 5 are found deer and fox-1, I will see two but failed to hit them. He fired a total of 8 shots, but unfortunately it is the prey of a single chapter. And so, as two hours and a half ago we were engaged in a manhunt, now we are dedicated to our unique pleasure to that of the deer!..."

--From Sepp Innerkofler's diary entry, July 3rd, 1915

July 4th, however, was a bit of a different story.

Innerkofler and five members of his "flying squad", all top climbers, were ordered to dislodge a group of Italian mountainsoldiers (Alpini) from a mountain peak. To make this happen Innerkofler's team was required to perform a vertical ascent upon the Monte Paterno--an ascent that was actually among his resume of Alpine "first climbs"; a feat he had achieved 19 years earlier and many, many, times since.

The climb was completed by sunrise, and with the sun at their backs the Austrians began to attack with grenades and small arms and the thud of their own artillery sending shells just overhead into the Italian position. Austrian and Italian machine gun emplacements were trading fire across the ridges at each other.

There are several versions of what happens next, including an almost Wagnerian account--but the eventual outcome of each is the same: Innerkofler is killed by a rock-wielding Alpini.

The Italians, risking Austrian fire, recovered the Austrian's body and give him a funeral with full respect, burying him on the Paternkofel.

With four of the Battles of the Isonzo down, there were still eight to go.

The next May, after an exceptionally bitter winter and spring and with more equipment, the Italians were preparing to attack, again, from north of Milan to up above Lake Garda--but the Austrians had two Armies in the mountains, who were able to drive the Italians back into their own northern plain, stopping the Fifth Battle before it ever got started.

It's reported that the Austrians had to fall back from that newly acquired land partly because of problems running a logistics operation through the mountains...and also partly because the Russians mounted an offensive to the Austrians' east. The cost to the Italians was substantial, however, as they were forced to commit 500,000 troops to the defense of the Lake Garda region.

In this environment, the Italians and Austrians were not limited to the use of traditional means of killing each other--in fact, rockslides and avalanches were becoming weapons of mass destruction, as this description of an action at the Col di Lana in April of 1916 indicates:

" the entire western margin of Col di Lana was carefully and patiently mined, an undertaking which probably took months of hard work, and several tons of high explosives were distributed in such a way as to destroy the whole side of the mountain above which the enemy was in- trenched.

The explosion that followed was terrific. The earth shook as if rocked by an earthquake, and the havoc wrought was so great that out of the 1,000 Austrians who held the position, only 164 survived."

Just a few months later, on just one day (December 13th, a day which became known as "White Friday") 10,000 soldiers are said to have died in avalanches; the problem being so serious that both sides had detachments of soldiers assigned specifically to the avalanche rescue mission.
avalanche over tracks.jpg

This went on for months and months and months, with neither side really accomplishing anything in terms of territory gained. The Italians, however, were growing their Army, both in size and in the amount of materiel they could put in the field, until October of 1917, when either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Battle of Caporetto took place (pick your favorite name; various sources use both).

The Austrians, coming down from the buckle of our boot, mounted an attack that was so successful that the Italian 2nd Army collapsed in disorganized confusion to the south, suffering severe levels of casualties; the better organized 3rd and 4th Armies seem to have lost about 20% of their forces "coming to the rescue".

While the Italian Army under General Cadorna had begun the battle with 1,250,000 troops, in two weeks he lost roughly 320,000 of them to death or capture, along with most of his Army's artillery--and his own job. An additional 350,000 soldiers were reportedly wandering the countryside, for the moment unattached to any military organization.

400,000 people became refugees in those two weeks.

Eventually the Austrians had to retreat back into their own territory; some of the reason for that being related to the same problems the Italians were having maintaining supply lines through mountains, some of the reason for that being that the Austrians were losing on other fronts.

This was not the end of the fighting along the Italian-Austrian frontier, nor the end of the ethnic conflict that has peppered the region's history, but you get the idea: no one ever really won any victories that mattered, but thousands upon thousands of people died in the effort, and hundreds of thousands more were wounded--again, all for nothing, really.

"...das Schlagwort vom lebenslangen Lernen für alle - auch für Politiker - gilt..."

(English translation: "...the slogan of lifelong learning for all - even for politicians - applies...")

--Luis Durnwalder, Governor of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano

Is There A Moral Here?

Now at some point in this story we have to answer the question of...what is the point of all this?

Folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the moral of this story is that there is no point.

More or less 400,000 soldiers died on both sides, countless more were wounded, and hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, became refugees.

Sepp Innerkofler's hotel was bombed as he and so many other of his friends, both Austrian and Italian, were killed up in those mountains.

And all of it for nothing.

Italy was not able to advance its national interests at all (in fact, things got much worse), and despite everything that happened back and forth over those years, Austria certainly saw no gains: in fact, thanks to this war, the Hapsburg Dynasty also went the way of "Cats" and the Ottoman Empire...closing, after a long run.

If it was my job to apply all of this to some war that my bosses were fighting...I think I'd be looking at Afghanistan, and I think I'd be looking at the place as a collection of tribal communities, rather than one big country; and I think I'd be telling my bosses that all those talking heads--and just plain folks--who think we should "defeat the Taliban" through some military campaign so that we can come home, having achieved some kind of ultimate victory, need to understand that you will never defeat anything up in the mountains simply be throwing a bunch of people and equipment at the problems.

Instead, you're going to have to consider whether it's possible to help the Afghans create something like what is happening in the Tyrol today, where protections for the various tribal and ethnic groups could be laid out in a framework that reassures Pashtuns, Persians, and Turcoman alike that they have a place in a community of interdependent communities.

This has been a long and, at times, rather depressing, look at who we are as people, and I wanted to end on a postscript that is a bit happier...and it all comes back to Sepp Innerkofler.

Despite the fact that his hotel was bombed, and he was killed, the family carried on, as did the strength of his reputation...which is why you can, even to this very day, hike the Sepp Innerkofler Höhenweg (Ridgeway, in English), and why, should you find yourself a bit tired from the hike, you can stay at Sepp's original Hotel Dolomitenhof, rebuilt since the war, where the legacy also continues, as Innerkofler Katharina recently noted in an email exchange we had:

"...of course we are proud of our grand-grand pa. We´ve a little museum in our hotel, where we show his climbing successes and explain his destiny."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

On The Futility Of War, Part One, Or, Snow Becomes A Lethal Weapon

We have another one of those "amazing history" stories for you today--and this one's a real doozy.

We're going to spend the better part of four years in the Italian Alps (or, to be more accurate, what was intended to be the Italian Alps), and by the time we're done, nearly 400,000 soldiers will have been killed--and 60,000 of those will have died as a result of avalanches that were set by one side or the other.

In the middle of the story: a mountaineer and soldier who was so highly regarded that even those who fought against him accorded him the highest honors they could muster, creating a legend that lives on to this very day.

And even though a young Captain Erwin Rommel fought in these's not him.

Oh, by the way: did I mention that there are also some handy object lessons for anyone who might be thinking about fighting a war in Afghanistan?

Well, there are, Gentle Reader, so follow along, and let's all learn something today.

"Coming back from a long weekend in the desert, traffic is lousy. Next to the highway, an electric billboard proclaims ONLY 24 SUNSETS UNTIL CHRISTMAS and I am stuck beside it long enough to watch it change to 23--get 'em while they're hot, apocalypse coming soon, reserve your sunsets now while supplies last."

--Gabriel Wrye, "Straight Time"

Location, Location, Location

Let's begin the setup for this story by checking out some prime European real estate:

Italy, as you know, is that "boot" protruding into the Mediterranean--and if the top of the boot had really cool trim and a big buckle, the trim would run from Nice, France (formerly Nice, Italy), on the west, touching Innsbruck and Salzburg, Austria, and then past Bratislava, Slovakia and on into the Hungarian plain. The trim would also veer south, and that portion of our metaphorical "carnival decoration" would encompass Ljubljana, Slovenia (which is about 100 miles south of Salzburg), eventually rolling out into the suburbs of Zagreb, Croatia.

Other notable nearby cities include Marseilles, Grenoble, every city in Switzerland, Strasbourg, Munich, Venice, Bologna, Milan, Turin, and Genoa, all of which are 100 miles or less from the boot's appliqué.

This is the Alps, and, in 1910, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire all have borders that snake through the area. The last three were all relatively new countries, none having gone more than 50 years since their most recent versions of "unification"--and that buckle we spoke of earlier? That would be roughly where the Swiss, Austrian, and Italian borders meet today, near the Stelvio Pass...which is part of an area known as the Tyrol.

matterhorn small.jpg

Switzerland's Matterhorn (part of the Pennine Alps) is one of numerous mountains that are all above 10,000 feet over on the west side of the region; the highest peak of the equally spectacular Tre Cime di Lavaredo (known in German as the "Drei Zinnen") is located about 10,000 feet up in the air, a couple of hundred miles or so to the east in the Dolomite Range.

Just like in my part of the world (Washington's Cascade Mountains) you can get a lot of snow up there, and the combination of extreme snow and weather, high altitudes, and nearly vertical climbs created, by necessity, residents with unique mountaineering skills (the techniques that led to the use of pitons, carabiners, and rope ascents and descents were all developed here)...skills that became quite valuable to the military authorities in those five countries.

Mountaineers Become Soldiers

By the start of the 20th Century, troops like the Italian Alpini (who, to this day, still serve in the Italian Army), the French Chasseurs Alpines (who are also still serving and have a recruiting pitch that's way past "Be All You Can Be"), the Austrian Landesschützen (who also have a modern presence in today's Austrian Armed Forces as the 6th Jägerbrigade and the Österreichs Gebirgsbrigade, mountain infantry and "mountain combat engineers", respectively), and the "Standschutzen", who were essentially the Austrian military's Alpine "farm team", were all stood up to protect the various national interests that were present in the mountains.

All of the armies and militias involved had access to the best hunters and mountain guides that could be found--and since smuggling and poaching was part of mountain life, a lot of people knew a lot of paths, knew how to bag game with the fewest shots possible--and knew how to use those skills while keeping out of sight of the flatlanders and tourists--and "revenooers"--who might be venturing into the neighborhood.

Among all those mountain dwellers, perhaps the most skilled of the hunters and guides was Sepp Innerkofler. As the new century began, he had built his decade-old guide business into a hotel business--presumably learning better "customer service" that that practiced by his equally famous uncle Michael, who would apparently leave customers on ledges to wait for him to finish a climb if they couldn't keep up. (Michael died in 1888, the victim of an ice bridge collapse.)

One measure of Sepp's skill: he had to his credit the "first ascent" up more than 50 of the most difficult peaks in the Alps--which wasn't that easy, considering that Michael had something like 10 times that number under his belt.

"...only a few of the hundreds of walkers who leave the Longéres pass for the Lavaredo pass every day in summer and autumn realise [sic] that they are moving in an environment which was made sacred by events in the Great War..."

--Tito and Camillo Berti, "Guerra in Ampezzo e in Cadore"

I could tell you an entire additional story about Italy and the relationship with Austria (and later Austro-Hungary, both ruled by the Hapsburg Dynasty), but what you need to know today is that over the centuries there had been a long-simmering conflict between the Italians and the Austrians (and the Ladins, a third ethnic group that inhabits the Tyrol).

At the time of the American Civil War Austria's territory extended a bit south of the Alps; and part of the beginning of Italian unification history (the "Risorgimento") was the effort to reduce Austrian influence in the north of today's Italy and in the Italian Tyrol.

help us viceroy.jpg

As Europe was stumbling its way into World War I, much of Italy's population wanted to stay neutral (which, for the moment, was official Government policy), and some did not, seeking, instead, an alliance between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Opposing the Empire was the Rebel, wait, that was "Star Wars".

The actual opponents, Russia, France, and Great Britain, were known as the "Triple Entente", which was the side the United States later joined. Germany eventually declared war against everyone in Europe, except the "neutral" countries and the other "Central Powers" (Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire--which, like the show "Cats", was just about to close after a very successful 600-year run), who they joined.

By the time it was all over, more than 50 declarations of war were issued by the various combatant nations.

Trouble In The Neighborhood

It's now 1915, and despite the fact that Italian policy tilts toward neutrality, Sepp Innerkofler has been seeing a lot of new activity in his neighborhood...and the alp-glow notwithstanding, he was pretty sure that it wasn't the mythical King Laurin.

You cannot sustain an army in the mountains without a lot of infrastructure in place, especially a large one, and what Innerkofler was seeing was indeed the beginning of Italian military preparations--preparations that were being countered, as best as possible, by the Austrian military:

"The Italian Alpinis, as well as their Austrian counterparts...occupied every hill and mountain top and began to carve whole cities out of the rocks and even drilled tunnels and living quarters deep into the ice of glaciers like the Marmolada. Guns were dragged by hundreds of troops on Mountains up to 3 890 m (12,760 feet) high. Streets, cable cars, mountain railways and walkways through the steepest of walls were built."

--From the article "Tyrol", courtesy of the Embassy of Austria

And as it turns out, the Italians were going to need every bit of army they could get...because for a piece of the action, including some Alpen territories, the Italians had agreed, in the until now secret Treaty of London, to fight on the side of the Triple Entente powers--but in order to win the Tyrol...well, they were going to have to win the Tyrol; a task which will require the Italian Army to fight their way through either the Dolomites, on the one side, or the Julian Alps on the other...or both.

Hannibal had accomplished a similar task on the eastern side of the Alps--2200 years before--but to do it he left a huge portion of his Carthaginian forces dead in those mountains; victims of both the ancient angry mountain soldiers (the forebears of the same mountain folk Innerkofler lived among in 1915) and the brutal winter conditions.

The Italian commander, General Luigi Cadorna, had 875,000 troops at his disposal on May 23, 1915 (the day the Italians declared an end to their neutrality); against him the Austrians could only field about 300,000 troops--but many of those troops were natives defending their own real estate...and for the moment, they held the strategic real estate on the tops of the mountains.

Remember the description we gave in the beginning about the boot's appliqué?

The smart thing to do, if you're commanding 875,000 troops trying to go north, is to get around the right edge of the fringe on that boot (the mountains are somewhat lower on that side) and get your people onto the Hungarian plain...which is nice and flat and provides lots of room to maneuver.

The problem is, if you get too committed to that plan, you may end up with Austrian troops in Milan, attacking you from the rear. To prevent such an occurrence, Cadorna attacked on an offensive line that stretched from the "buckle" of our boot, way up in the Alps, to the city of Gorizia, which is all the way over to the top and right, if you were looking at a modern Italian map--and which just happens to be on the way to the nearby Adriatic port city of Trieste.

If you then follow the route of today's A1 and A2 highways you get to Zagreb...and that's the way to the Hungarian Plain.

If you can succeed in advancing uphill past Lake Garda (the Lago di Garda, in Italian, and the first part of the route up to the buckle), then you can cut off the railroad from Trentino north to Innsbruck; this would prevent the Austrians from moving any troops into northern Italy.

It's time for us to stop for today: we have a lot of story to go, this is a natural point to take a break, and, to be completely honest, 4,000 words is too much even if you're trapped in your car on the New York Thruway with nothing but a Snuggie, a laptop, and a mobile Internet service provider.

When we come back tomorrow we'll get to the story of what happened when Italy deployed their newly enlarged Army, which is a story that, in some ways, is still being told; additionally, the idea that there is a lesson here for those who are being tasked with executing a war strategy in Afghanistan will be explored.

Harmony and balance matter in life, so go watch some Johnny Bravo or something, clear your head of all of this, and we'll all meet back here tomorrow for Part Two.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On Getting Found, Or, Search Engines: Is There A Difference?

I have a story today that comes from my predilection to “self-syndicate”, meaning that I post my stories far and wide, in the same way a newspaper columnist is syndicated nationally—or beyond.

After I post, I know others will also post my stories to their sites, a topic that was itself the subject of a recent conversation.

To keep track of it all, I use the Google...but I recently wondered if that’s actually the most effective tool for the job—or not—so as an experiment I recently challenged several search engines to go out and seek the same search term.

We find out today...and the results are, indeed, interesting.

So here's the rules of the game: on the afternoon and evening of November 29th, I posted my story "On Stimulating The Future, Or, "It's The Ytterbium, Stupid!"" on 27 sites. The next morning I conducted the searches you'll see referenced in this discussion using as a search term the exact words of the title, in quotes, just as it appears above. During the course of writing this story, we'll revisit the same sites to see if the results have changed.

Let The Contest Begin!

capitol document room.jpg

So the first search was conducted on Google, which found 849 results.

The reason that happens is because the tags associated with (or the proper nouns that appear in) a story often trigger websites to place that material on pages with other stories with matching tags or names, as you can see from this example at RootsWire. (The story appears twice because it was updated after it was posted.)

This creates lots of iterations of the same title on the same site under different categories, a situation other search providers seek to reduce; this being the one of the points behind all those recent ads for Microsoft's Bing search engine.

A quick note about "search consistency": seeking for the same search term at Google on multiple occasions will yield different results each time, even if the two searches are conducted immediately after one another. For example, my search this morning found 852 results--and then, just a few minutes later, 653. (By the way, if you click on these links now, some other number of results will appear, which is its own comment on consistency.)

We next visit Bing, where 16 results were initially found. Interestingly, some of the links were the ones I placed, but 6 of the 16 were multiple iterations of the same story on three sites.

As with Google, visiting Bing today might yield 57 links--or 2530, or 152, or 26--and despite Bing's advertising claims that they make searching simpler by eliminating Internet "clutter", a huge number of the links I'm seeing here are links to the weather in virtually every city in Maine; all of these linked back to "Weather Underground" weather reporting pages...and all of those pages were from the same basic address: insert name

Next was Yahoo!, reporting 887 results (and then, after clicking through a few pages, 1580). There was an interesting variation to the pattern of what they found, however: more results from the first 50 were links to the original 27 postings than appeared to be the case with either Google or Bing.

The search today found 860 results...four times in a row...which is by far the most consistent results reporting so far--even if the results from the other day were completely different.

Lycos found 67 iterations of the posting...or 50......and then 49...with roughly a dozen of the first 30 listings being "duplicative" entries, which is fairly consistent reporting. Returning to the site today, the search engine found 69 listings--and it was also able to do that four times in a row....which makes it at least the "consistency equal" of Yahoo!

Dogpile (a product of the fine folks at Infospace) aggregates results from Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and into one set of results...and for some reason the first result on the second page was for a futures trading opportunity ("I'm shocked to discover there's gambling here...!").

That said, Dogpile "sniffed out" 40 results, with many of those being "duplicate" instances of the same story from the same site. Conducting the same search today yields 6 additional results--all of which appear to be duplicates of the previous 40.

On four further attempts to search, the original 40 results were found.

WebCrawler, another Infospace property, located 38 results; again, the results are highly duplicative. It is not possible to enter the entire search term at this site, instead, the term...

"On Stimulating The Future, Or, "It's The Ytterbium,

...was used.

Four additional searches were conducted today, with 38 results found each time.

(Because the page-naming conventions of both Dogpile and WebCrawler insert an ! into the page names upon which results are presented, they can't be linked here, and you'll just have to visit the pages on your own.)

Remember Altavista?

Altavista found 904 iterations of the story, then 17,800 on today's search. There is an option to either search "Worldwide" or "USA", the Worldwide search, conducted immediately after today's USA search, found, oddly enough, 2460 results--and for at least the first several pages, which was as far as I looked, the results were the same as for the USA search.

Four additional searches, conducted today, located the same 17,800 results.

One strange idiosyncrasy of the site is that it won't actually display those 17,800 results: instead, it only displays the first several pages of results (in this case, 7 pages), and then just stops, with no additional pages made available beyond that point. There is an "advanced settings" page available, but it does not offer any solution for this problem. displays 240 results on the first search--and they were the only site to report the listing on the Times of India site right there on the front page (which, if you return to the site, is no longer the case)--but on the down side, 1/3 of the results on that first page were "sponsored results".

After the first page, ½ of all results are "sponsored", and the results are highly duplicative. By page 10 of the results, as few as 2 of the 13 results on the page are not sponsored.

Today's searches located 452 links, then 449, then 452, and then (take a guess...) 449.

Ever heard of Duck Duck Go? Neither had I before this story. They feature an unusual format that displays some results, and then, when you click "more results", displays those below the first results on the same page; a pattern that continues until all results are displayed.

The Duck located 35 results on the first attempt, with no duplicates. The "wunderground" domain was represented--but only once.

Apparently recognizing that their searches are not going to give every result, the site encourages you to also search at YouTube, flickr, twitter, amazon, and Google.


Turning off the "safe search" feature yields 43 results, including (a news aggregator from Birmingham, Alabama), Pshcye's Links, ("Esoteric Subjects on the Web"), and the "Li-Ion" page from the Journalism that matters site (Li-Ion, by the way, is the abbreviation used to describe lithium ion batteries.)

Conducting additional searches on the site today yields the same 43 results.

Finally, Cuil. I had never heard of this site before...and apparently, they've never heard of me, either, with zero results reported for my query. Searching the "127 billion web pages" they purport to scan today provided no results again during four additional checks--which makes this site the most consistent of the search engines I examined.

I conducted a test search for pizza (with no quotes). 809,000,000 results were found...but only two were displayed on the "All Results" tab: one for Pizza Hut, one for the Wikipedia entry for pizza (which featured the story of how pizza was introduced into Pakistan, of all things). Even more odd: on the same page you can look up "Pizza franchises" and other pizza related results "categories", and there's a "Timeline for Pizza" with entries like: "2004 Melbourne, Australia" and "1993 Pizza was".

All of this appears to be at odds with the intent of the site's operators:

"Popularity is useful, but has dominated search results so heavily that it gets harder and harder to find the page you want, especially if your search is a complex one. Cuil respects popular pages and recognizes that for many simple searches, popularity is an easy answer to your question. But for a deeper search, establishing relevancy is more than a numbers game. Cuil prefers to find all the pages with your keyword or phrase and then analyze the rest of the content on those pages..."

And The Winner Is...

Those are the results: so, what about conclusions?

The first conclusion we can reach about all of this is that the number of results that any search engine locates on any particular visit are highly variable--and so much so that the number of results presented appears to be virtually random (with the notable exception of Cuil, which seems to be consistently unable to find anything).

With that said, if I was quickly looking for this particular story, it appears that some of the odd search engines might be the best choices, including Lycos, Duck Duck Go, and

On the other hand, if the idea was to determine how far a story has been distributed, Google seems to be the winner.

There is another reason to use search engines, that being to find information about a topic that you currently don't know enough about; this test is not well suited to answer the question of which search engine is best for that purpose...and it's a test that we'll save for another day.

So that's today's story: we visit quite a few search engines, we learn that the results you get are almost always entirely unpredictable, and, in what might be the most important lesson of the day, we're learning that deifying Tiger Woods can backfire on you, big time.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Stimulating The Future, Or, "It's The Ytterbium, Stupid!"

We’re diving deep into “geek world” today with a story that combines economic hardball, the periodic table of the elements, and a barely noticed provision of the Defense Authorization Act that seeks to break a monopoly which today gives China near-absolute control over the materials that make cell phones, electric cars, wind turbines, and pretty much every other tool of modern life possible.

If we successfully break the monopoly, we’ll be able to create millions of new manufacturing jobs in this country—and if we don’t, somebody else owns the 21st Century.

Ironically, the global warming we’re trying to fight with new green technologies might be an ally in our efforts to make those very same green technologies happen.

There’s a revolution in industrial processing going on, rare earths are at the center of it all...and in today’s story, the revolution will be televised.

“Everything in the Universe comes out of nothing.
Nothing—the nameless is the beginning...”

--Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter One
(Translated by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay)

So What Are Rare Earths?

Rare earths are materials that are, as it turns out, not always especially rare; nonetheless, they all have properties that are quite rare, indeed. You’ll find them hanging out in their own special section of the Periodic Table of the Elements, kept well isolated from all the others.

For example, your television and computer monitor rely upon the element europium, which makes the color red appear on your screen. There is nothing else known to exist that can be used for the same purpose. Therefore, the ability to make TVs and computer monitors is entirely dependant on access to this material.

Cerium is the most effective agent available for polishing glass, and if it wasn’t for cerium, your eyeglasses—and everything else in the world with a lens—would be a lot tougher to produce...and they would be lenses of lower quality, to boot.

Erbium lasers work better than carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers for facial surgery, and its unique ability to emit and amplify light under optical excitation makes it essential (and, at the moment, irreplaceable) when producing either fiber optic cable for transmitting data or the optoelectronic “building blocks” of the next-generation data storage systems that will eventually replace every hard drive and memory chip on the planet today.

And what is the rare earth application with which you are probably the most familiar?


As it turns out, if you mix the rare earth element neodymium with iron and boron, you get what is by far the most powerful magnetic material available—and it’s easily fabricated into lots of useful shapes.

computer in a box1.jpg

These magnets have found their way into the headphones and speakers you listen to, the hard drive in your computer, your DVD player, every power everything in your car (they’re used in electric motors), and, eventually, into the electric motors that are likely to be actually propelling your car.

(Driving a Prius or some other hybrid vehicle? You’re driving around with about a kilo of neodymium under the hood, a number that’s soon expected to double.)

Of course, I could be wrong.

The rare earth application you’re most familiar with might be...batteries.

The nickel metal hydride battery (NiMH) has been the rechargeable battery of choice for about a decade now, turning up in everything from your cell phone to your camera to hand tools. This type of battery can be fabricated using several chemical formulations; the key here is that either cerium or another rare earth element, lanthanum, are essential to whatever formulation is chosen. Other rare earths are used as additives to make these batteries work better in high-temperature applications.

(Just for the record, that hybrid or “all-battery” vehicle you’re driving has at least 25 pounds of lanthanum on board.)

“New and improved” in rechargeable battery circles means lithium ion batteries; they also require lanthanum (although europium, yttrium, and protactinium are being considered as experimental additives).

These materials are also critically important if you’re in the business of building missiles or rockets or military communications systems—or civilian communications systems, for that matter.

So Why Is All Of This Such A Big Deal?

It’s a big deal because there is, shall we say...a bit of a supply problem.

"There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China...."

--Deng Xiaoping, 1992

You may recall that europium is the only thing that can make the color red on a TV set, and from the 1960s until the 1980s the only place in the world that was producing any rare earth element (REE) in any quantity was Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine, in California’s Mojave Desert.

All of that changed in the 1990s as China decided to “...[i]mprove the development and applications of rare earth, and change the resource advantage into economic superiority", to quote Chairman Jiang Zemin. Since that time China has worked to expand ore production at its two major deposits as well as to expand the associated refining and fabrication industries that actually turn raw metals into finished products.

China was able to do this primarily because of two big cost advantages: cheap labor and access to REE as a byproduct of other mining activities (which basically means that if your copper mine’s ore also contains trace elements of REE, you do it cheaper than digging for just the REE). REE, we should mention, do not readily “gather” in large and easily mined “veins”, unlike other minerals, making mining more difficult.

Because of environmental problems at the Mountain Pass operation and price competition from the Chinese, there has been no US mining for REE since 2002, and today, more than 95% of the world’s REE production is based in China.

And all of a sudden, the Chinese might not have any spare REE for the rest of us.

What’s happened is that all those companies moving to China to do fabrication of REE material are raising the local demand, and it’s now being suggested that exports of REE from China could soon end. (A quick example: lanthanum and neodymium demand and supply were equal in 2008; this means supply will have to increase before lots of new hybrid or battery-only cars can hit the road.)

Some are suggesting there may be additional motives on the part of the Chinese Government, but I was unable to substantiate those rumors.

(The complete supply picture is a bit more complex; this because scrapping today’s consumer products for tomorrow’s REE is also an option, but at some currently unknown cost and efficiency.)

So Now What?

So that was the bad news; here’s the (potential) good news, located about 850 pages deep in a conference report that finalized the Legislative Branch’s work on the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act:

“...Report on rare earth materials in the defense supply chain (sec. 843)

The House bill contained a provision (sec. 828) that would require a report on the usage of rare earth materials in the supply chain of the Department of Defense.
The Senate amendment contained a similar provision (sec. 837).
The House recedes with an amendment combining the requirements of the two provisions..."

Of course, we better do more than just write a report, as all too often “write a report” is actually just another way of saying “ignore problem for now”—especially if, as the not enacted Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology And Resources Transformation (RESTART) Act Of 2009, said:

“China’s ability—and willingness—to export REE’s is eroding due to its growing domestic demand, its enforcement of environmental law on current producers, and its mandate to consolidate the industry by decreasing its number of mining permits. The Chinese government’s draft rare earths plan for 2009 to 2015 proposes an immediate ban on the export of dysprosium, terbium, thulium, lutetium and yttrium, the “heavy” REE and a restriction on the exports of all the other, light, rare earth metals to a level well below that of Japan’s 2008 demand alone.”

Another source of good news: we have friends who also have access to REE, including Canada, Iceland, and in what has to be a “silver lining, dark cloud” moment, Greenland, who is just about a month away from gaining control over its natural resources from Denmark and assessing what, for the moment, appears to be the world’s largest known find of REE on the country’s southwest coast.

(This good news is, of course, balanced against the fact that access to the site will be much, much, easier...thanks to global warming.)

Of course, access to ore isn’t enough, and whatever supply is located, we’ll still need the ancillary capabilities that we lack today to refine and fabricate these metals into the American-made products we want to produce over the course of the next several decades.

So how’s that for a tale of geekiness?

The entire world that we know today—and the one we want for the future—depends on a small batch of odd metals, 95% of which currently come from China, who appears to be leveraging that advantage in a way that is not just an economic threat, but a National Security threat as well.

We have the potential to fix the problem, if we are so inclined, but we better get to it, and quickly, as our clock seems to be running a bit short.

And we need to do more than just dig holes in the ground. We need to establish an entire production chain—otherwise we’ll be mining ore that we’ll be shipping to...China...which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place.

You know, a green economy is one thing...but a green economy that trades Big Oil for Big Battery is quite another—and if you’re just trading one “resource master” for a different one, what's the point?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Giving Thanks The European Way, Or, Freedom: It's The New Black!

I have a Thanksgiving story for your consumption that has nothing to do with turkeys or pumpkin pie or crazy uncles.

Instead, in an effort to remind you what this holiday can really stand for, we’ll meet some people who are thankful today for simply being free.

It’s a short story today, but an especially touching one, so follow along and we’ll take a little hop across the Atlantic for a trip you should not miss.

Europe's Having An Anniversary

It is 20 years now since a series of events began in Europe that culminated in the fall of the Soviet Union and the dictatorial governments in numerous other neighboring countries, and the European Commission has produced a series of eleven three-minute films to mark the occasion.

brandenburg gate.jpg

Each is particular to one country, and each tells personal stories from people who were on the ground at the time...and each will help you fill out a history that today might not extend further then the memory of what happened over the course of a few evenings at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

I'll describe a few of the films below, but I want you to go to the website of an ad agency to see them (something you'll rarely hear me say...); that ad agency being Belgium's Tipik.

The Baltic Countries Were First

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were the first to declare their freedom, but before that occurred each had organized unique protests, including one that involved all three countries.

Estonia's film describes how environmentalists were at the forefront of revolution; in a time when writing about environmental pollution could get you arrested, Rein Sikk and Raivo Riim did it anyway.

Latvia's "Singing Revolution" is chronicled in the words of attorney Romualds Ražuks, who swears the birth of his daughter united the re-emerging nation...which, in my opinion, is a lot of pressure to put on a little girl.

Lithuanians, in an homage to Hands Across America, gathered 2.1 million people, in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to hold hands as a form of protest one afternoon. "The Baltic Way" is described to us by social scientist Dr. Aldona Pocienè and sculptor Vladas Vildžinus.

Two border guards, one Hungarian and one Austrian, recount a day when they allowed 120 men, women, and children heading for a picnic in Austria to cross their checkpoint just ahead of the Hungarian Army, who had orders to shoot border crossers.

What's Czech Minus Slovakia?

Blanka Brejska.jpg

Hana Bošková and Jiří Hollan were on Prague's Národní Avenue November 17th, 1989, the day armored vehicles tried, literally, to crush a crowd of protesters--and a revolution. Eventually both became citizens of the Czech Republic following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as a nation.

Two days later, in what is today Bratislava, Slovakia, people took to the streets; although the revolution was successful in removing the Government in place at the time, there are those who are still learning the lessons of how hard it is to be free.

"...Now we try to deserve the democracy and the love we create..."

--Zuzana Cigánová

I promised a short story today, so I'll point you to just one more little holiday clip--and its mine. Over the weekend, I ran into a car with, shall we say...remarkable...decorations, as you can see from the video...

...and who doesn't feel thankful for fun?

So that's it for today: enjoy the holiday ahead, don't scorch the marshmallows, and when the talk gets around to "what are you thankful for...?" you can answer with: "I'll do you one's what a whole continent's thankful for".

After the holiday we have a lot of new ground to cover, and not much time; our weekend homework will be a conversation about unusual metals and the American economy...and how, just like oil, one will come to a dead stop without the other.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Murdoch And Google, Or, Hey, Rupert, Where’s My Check?

Our favorite irascible media tyrant is in the news once again, and once again it’s time for me to bring you a story of doing one thing while wishing for another.

In a November 6th interview, Sky News Australia’s David Speers spent about 35 minutes with the CEO of NewsCorp, Rupert Murdoch; the conversation covering topics as diverse as software piracy, world economics, the role of Fox News (and Fox NewsPinion©) in American politics, a strange defense of Glenn Beck, and, not very long afterwards, an even stranger defense of immigration.

We have heard a lot about the…how can I put this politely…challenges Murdoch seems to face associating factual reality with his reality, and we could have lots of fun going through his factual misstatements—but instead, I want to take on one specific issue today:

Rupert Murdoch says he hates it when people steal his content from the Internet to draw readers to their sites…which is funny, if you think about it, because he has no problem at all stealing my content (and lots of yours, as well) for his sites.

(To begin, a quick note: all the Rupert Murdoch quotes you’ll see today came from the YouTube, specifically the Sky News Australia interview, which is there posted in its entirety. Although each quote presents Mr. Murdoch’s words exactly, they aren’t necessarily in their original order; that’s so we don’t go jumping around from topic to topic too much in this story. When that happens the quotes will be split into separate paragraphs, each with their own set of quotation marks. Words in italics were words Mr. Murdoch himself emphasized.)

David Speers began the interview by asking Murdoch about the concept of public access to free news content online:

“Well they shouldn’t have had it free all the time, I think we’ve been asleep, ar, and, it costs a lot of money to put together good newspapers, good content, and you know they’re very happy to pay for it when they’re buying a newspaper…and I think when they read it elsewhere they’re going to have to pay…”

And it’s not just the public, either. Murdoch is particularly incensed at the idea that one news organization would intentionally steal content from another:

“Well…the people who just simply pick up everything and run with it…and steal our stories, ahh, we say they steal our stories they just take them, ummm, without payment…”

“…if you look at them, most of their stuff is stolen from the newspapers now, and we’ll be suing them for copyright. Ummm, they’ll have to spend a lot more money on reporters, to cover the world…when they can’t steal from newspapers…”

Mr. Murdoch is, after all, running a business…but beyond that, he acknowledges that the News Corporation “experience” is also critical, and that creating that experience requires him to deploy top-notch talent.

For that reason he is dismissive of the suggestion that he might establish a free site augmented by a “premium” site that charges for…well, premium content:

“…there’s also, in in a newspaper, uh we got a newspaper, or a news service, there’s a thing called editorial judgment, there’s a thing called quality of writing, um, quality of reporting, and, ah just to say you know we’ll take what’s average stuff that comes from an agency and uh, not charge for that, it’s okay but I think you’re really degrading the whole experience if you do that…”

And this is the part of the story where I come in.

It was with great surprise that I heard Mr. Murdoch saying all this, because, for the longest time, Murdoch’s own newspaper, “The Wall Street Journal”, has been carrying my stories (along with hundreds of others daily) on their website. In fact, my most recent story, “On Determining Impact, Or, How Stimulative Is Stimulus?” ran on their site just a couple of days ago, on November 18th.

Now don’t get me wrong: in contrast to Mr. Murdoch, I like being carried in as many places as possible, even if I don’t always know about it, and I’m glad the WSJ likes the work, so I am surely not complaining…it’s just that I was surprised to discover that News Corporation’s editors, exercising on a regular basis what can only be considered fine judgment, had apparently recognized the “quality of writing, um, quality of reporting” that I bring to the table, and, in an effort to enhance the experience they provide their clientele, have been regularly posting that writing…and Mr. Murdoch hates news organizations that steal content…and yet, despite all that, News Corporation never seems to send me a check.

So, Rupert…where’s my money?

But it’s not just bloggers and the WSJ: the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes is owned by IGN Entertainment, which is owned by FIM, which is part of…wait for it…News Corporation.

And what is the Rotten Tomatoes business model, exactly?

That would be to be the website that gathers movie reviews from a community of reviewers, posting them all in one space, and to use those reviews as the basis for the “Tomatometer” ratings they apply to movies…the Tomatometer being the central brand identity around which the entire franchise is built.

What's not included in the business model?

Paying money for those reviews, a fact I was able to confirm after an exchange of email today with the folks at Rotten Tomatoes.

So, Rupert…where’s their money?

We could end this story right here, but there is one other quote from the Sky News interview that deserves to be put in the record, not only because it’s a comment on Murdoch’s view of the newspaper business, but also because it may be instructive as to how he views television as well:

“…people who have been buying papers for 20 years, um, even bad newspapers, it’s hard to see them, um…can’t stop buying all papers or even changing newspapers…”

(For the record, I attempted to obtain a comment for this story from Dan Berger, who is News Corporation’s primary press contact, but that effort was not successful as of the time this went to print.)

And with that, we come to the “wrap it up” part of the story:

Murdoch is quite upset at the idea that other news organizations will steal the stories that he invests time and effort and money into creating, and yet at the same time he’s absolutely dependent on acquiring content for his own sites that he doesn’t pay for—and my guess is that virtually every one of the people who have been providing him this content, myself included, are at least reasonably happy with the process that got us here…but we’d be even happier if he would get those checks out to us in time for a bit of extra Christmas shopping.

Oh, yeah, and one other thing: when it comes to news, Murdoch believes that brand loyalty is apparently capable of trumping quality of content in the eyes of at least some beholders…and in truth, I think he’s right.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was first posted the evening of November 19th, and sure can now be seen on the "Wall Street Journal" website.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Determining Impact, Or, How Stimulative Is Stimulus?

We strive to be, if anything, a participatory space around here, and I’ve had a question come to my inbox that is very much deserving of our attention.

To make a long story short, our questioner wants to know why, on the one hand, despite the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA, also known as the “stimulus”), unemployment in the construction industry continues to increase, and, on the other hand, why there is such a giant disparity, on a state-by-state basis, in the cost of saving a job?

They’re great questions, and, having done a bit of research, I think I have some cogent answers.

A few facts will help set the stage:

I post on numerous sites, one of those being Blue Oklahoma, and about ten days ago I received an email from a reader who wanted me to know that he had data up regarding how effective stimulus dollars are at creating construction jobs.

He also wondered if I would be willing to blog about his work, which is itself posted in the form of a blog, with handy charts and graphs; I’ll quickly summarize what he had to say for your dining and dancing pleasure:

Although the goal of the stimulus was to create construction jobs, today’s data suggests that roughly 10 times as many jobs were lost in the construction industry in the recent past 12 months (September 2008 – September 2009) than were created by the stimulus efforts this year to date.

“The major question surrounding the ARRA and the construction industry on this reporting deadline is: How many construction jobs has the stimulus bill actually created or retained?

--Chris Thorman, State by State: Is the Stimulus Bill Creating Construction Jobs? [emphasis is original]

In the blog he reports that if you were to go to the website, download the state summary data located there, and then do a bit of quick math, you’d find that:

“…the ARRA has created or saved 73,352 construction jobs across the nation at a total cost of $15.8 billion since the bill was signed into law.

That’s $222,107 per construction job.”

He has also created a chart, that is intended to show, on a state-by-state basis, the cost per job—and there is enormous variation in the results, from a low of $47,536 in Minnesota to a high of $535,171 in California.

As a result, he’s come to this conclusion:

“Jobs are being created and saved but nowhere near a rate that will allow the stimulus bill to claim victory over construction unemployment.”

So the question for us becomes: how solid is his analysis?

In order to get a better answer, I decided to examine some of the underlying data supporting his conclusions—and to put it as gently as possible, the numbers that we’re seeing today are a bit…squishy.

There are a couple of reasons why, which, naturally, require a couple of quick explanations. (This is a “quick and dirty” education; there are exceptions to some of what you’ll see described below.)

Right off the bat, it appears that identifying exactly how many jobs are being saved is more difficult than it seems—but before we can really understand that, we need to take a moment and understand exactly how jobs are counted.

If you work 40 hours a week, which is the equivalent of a full-time job, you would equal one (warning: technical term ahead) “Full Time Equivalent”, also known as an FTE. Two people, each working 20 hours a week, are also one FTE, as are any other combinations that you can come up with that get you to 40 hours a week. From here on, when we use the word “jobs”, we also mean FTEs, and vice versa.

The rules of the stimulus program are unique unto themselves, and one of the unique rules, at least for the moment, is that overtime hours don’t count when counting FTEs; since we’re talking about the number of construction jobs the stimulus might be creating, and about 25% of construction jobs involve overtime work, this rule is probably distorting the outcome.

States are also having problems translating FTE tracking systems they already have in place into the new Federal FTE definitions being used to figure out how many jobs are being created with stimulus funds.

An example of this problem is laid out in a document from the University of Connecticut (UConn) describing how their FTE reporting is going. The State FTE tracking system uses “cumulative” reporting, the Federal system, “incremental” reporting; the only thing you need to know about the two systems is that, quoting from the report:

“…At no time would the state and federal FTE figures match.”

There’s another issue in play here: this is a brand-new bureaucracy, and everyone is still “finding their way”, on both the State and Federal sides. Here’s another quote from the same UConn progress report:

“Note #2: We have experienced challenges in reporting, primarily with formatting issues. Solutions include working directly with OPM [the State’s Office of Policy and Management] and the respective OSPs [the University’s Office for Sponsored Programs] to enhance timeliness and formatting accuracy. The reports submitted June through September 2009 were definitely part of the learning process. Currently, we are working directly with the respective OSPs to ensure the correct reporting templates are used for state reporting purposes.

Put all that together, and you have a collection of “structural” issues that will probably cause the “real” construction FTE numbers to be somewhat different from today’s “reported” numbers by some currently unknown amount that can probably be “estimated out” later on.

The biggest distortion in statistics, however, is a “timeline” issue, and it’s because trying to estimate the “cost per FTE” at the beginning of construction projects is inherently problematic.

To illustrate this point, let’s drill down to one individual project and see how things work:

Award number OK56S09550109 was granted to the City of Shawnee's Housing Authority to modernize the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system at a public housing development. The current reporting is that $856,585 was awarded for the work, for which 2.5 FTEs have been reported.

However, as of the reporting date only $61,674 has been expended (or $70,084--both numbers appear on the same webpage); that money going to Childers-Childers, Architects.

The 2½ FTEs are .5 each of two administrators and 1.5 architects.

Obviously there will be more jobs created as this project moves from design to construction, and the estimate of roughly $340,000 per FTE that could theoretically be cited as accurate today will no longer be valid once a bunch of people show up and actually start installing stuff.

In fact, it could be reasonably argued that the "correct" number is $24,669 per FTE (or $28,034), based on the amount expended and jobs created to date.

This “timeline issue” is a statistical problem that Thorman himself acknowledges in his blog:

“With 73,352 jobs created/saved during this reporting period, the number will undoubtedly go up in future months as more projects begin and as more projects enter more labor-intensive phases. The construction jobs created/saved by the stimulus will likely get better before they get worse.”

(Just for the record, a third method you could use to count FTEs would be to divide total grant awards against total estimated construction employment throughout the lifetime of these projects.)

You may recall that the reason we’re having this discussion is because we are trying to come to some conclusion about what impact the stimulus is having on creating jobs—or, alternatively, creating even more geeky FTEs.

Well, having looked at the thing all the way down to the individual project level, it may be that the best answer that’s available…is that there’s no answer yet available.

With that in mind, my conclusion is that we will need some time to create a large enough “statistical universe” of completed or nearly-completed projects before we can begin to make useful extrapolations about the stimulus’ future success, and my guess is that it will be six to 12 months before that threshold is reached…which means I have no idea whether the stimulus is creating or will create a sufficient number of construction jobs relative to its budget, and It may well be summer of 2010 before we do know.

And that, my fellow political observers, has the potential to make the ’10 Congressional midterms very, very, interesting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

At 50th Birthday Party, Geov Parrish Announces New Lobbying Career

SEATTLE (FNS)--Longtime activist Geov Parrish unexpectedly revealed to the crowd gathered to celebrate his 50th birthday Friday evening his impending plans to end his decades-long career as a public issues advocate in exchange for new opportunities in the field of corporate communications management and image development.

The announcement appeared to be even more shocking to the glitterati gathered for Parrish’s 50th birthday extravaganza at Seattle’s tony Rainier Club than the fact that the event was sponsored by longtime Parrish nemesis Frank Blethen, publisher of the “Seattle Times” and a frequent target of Parrish’s acerbic criticism regarding the state of corporatocracy and its negative impact upon the state of the Nation.

A new commercial venture and three new business relationships were unveiled: a corporate communications consultancy, tentatively to be named “I Am The State!”, is to be opened in the next few weeks, after suitable office space is located, with the United States Chamber of Commerce and The Seattle Times Company as the first two business associates; additionally, Parrish will be joining the Board of Directors of the Strangelove Foundation, an organization devoted to maintaining the purity and essence of our precious bodily fluids.

A book deal was also announced.

Parrish, who among his other work was a founder of Seattle's alternative newspaper "Eat The State!", was in an ebullient mood as he explained the thought process behind his decision:

“After spending so many years fighting for affordable, high-quality health care for all Americans—all to no avail—I’ve decided to focus my efforts on getting myself high-quality health care, no matter what the cost...and considering, on the one hand, that my projected income next year from just the US Chamber of Commerce and Seattle Times operations are going to be somewhere in the range of $2.5 million dollars, and, on the other hand, that when my company pays for my new gold-plated executive health insurance plan it’s fully tax-deductible, I’m thinking the cost of health care is probably not going to be a problem for me going forward.

And then I thought: what better day to make the announcement...than Friday the 13th?”

Apparently channeling Dave Chappell, Parrish then offered the crowd a certain single-fingered gesture before shouting:

“I’m rich, bitchaaas!”

In an exclusive interview, Frank Blethen explained to me the rationale behind the surprising new relationship:

“There was a time when we could afford to ignore publications like “Eat the State!”, but as conditions for traditional publishers continued to deteriorate we found ourselves having to face the uncomfortable reality that last year Parrish’s paper was actually more profitable than “The Seattle Times”, and it was at that point that the Board and I decided to approach Parrish with an offer of employment.”

Parrish declined the offer, citing his unwillingness to be anyone’s employee. Blethen, however, would not be dissuaded:

“...we were determined to have him, in whatever capacity we could, and finally we hit upon the idea of hiring him as a consultant. We still couldn’t come up with enough of an annual retainer for Parrish to be fully persuaded, so I made a quick call to Tom Donohue at the Chamber, which is how we came up with the proposal to have him advise not just The Seattle Times Company on media outreach and branding strategies, but, through the auspices of the Chamber, to provide those same services to other companies that could use ‘the Parrish Touch’.”

As the Obama Administration’s plans for a new energy policy begin to become more certain Parrish’s I Am The State! is also expected to provide services to companies outside the media community.

I was able to confirm this with a quick call to Exxon/Mobil spokesman Harry Paratestes, who told me that:

“...we are one of several companies that are seeking to reinvigorate our corporate image ahead of any new energy legislation that might be forthcoming from this and future Administrations.

Parrish’s ability to successfully position his own media property while simultaneously destroying three competing papers—first, the “Seattle Weekly”, then, Hearst’s “Seattle Post-Intelligencer”, and finally, the “Seattle Times”—gives us the confidence we need to invest in his ideas and every expectation of a profitable and mutually satisfying outcome.”

Based on a recommendation from Tom Donohue, Center Street Publishers is rumored to have offered a $3.5 million advance for the rights to Parrish’s new book documenting his change of circumstances, “The State Can Eat Me!”; it is anticipated that distribution will be not only through traditional retail channels, but also through Conservative websites such as Human Events, which is currently offering books by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin at deep discounts to entice new website subscribers.

A number of times during the evening I attempted to obtain a comment directly from Mr. Parrish regarding these developments, but due to my inability to penetrate either the cordon of sunglass-wearing security personnel or the ever-present entourage that now surrounds him that effort proved to be impossible.

In a written statement, Parrish’s people informed us that his next move will be to visit the Columbia Tower, Carillon Point, and the South Lake Union area to identify a suite of offices that can be redesigned to meet his specific requirements (which, I’m told, include an indoor shooting range, a cafeteria operated by the local “Popeye’s” chicken franchisee, and the largest organ in the State of Washington); during the period of construction, we were informed, he will be in residence in either the other Washington, at the Hay-Adams Hotel, or Atlanta, Georgia, at the Omni Hotel at CNN Center, where, despite the fact that he was initially recruited by the “Times’” Blethen, he will be doing his first consulting work for other members of the Chamber.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Paying For Immoral Things, Or, Is Stupak On To Something?

There has been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth over the past day or so as those who follow the healthcare debate react to the Stupak/Some Creepy Republican Guy Amendment.

The Amendment, which is apparently intended to respond to conservative Democrats’ concerns that too many women were voting for the Party in recent elections, was attached to the House’s version of healthcare reform legislation that was voted out of the House this weekend.

The goal is to limit women’s access to reproductive medicine services, particularly abortions; this based on the concept that citizens of good conscience shouldn’t have their tax dollars used to fund activities they find morally repugnant.

At first blush, I was on the mild end of the wailing and gnashing spectrum myself...but having taken a day to mull the thing over, I’m starting to think that maybe we should take a look at the thinking behind this...and I’m also starting to think that, properly applied, Stupak’s logic deserves a more important place in our own vision of how a progressive government might work.

It’s Political Judo Day today, Gentle Reader, and by the time we’re done here it’s entirely possible that you’ll see Stupak’s logic in a whole new light.

So let’s go back a moment and reconsider what Stupak wants: his religious beliefs are offended by the concept of abortion, and he is taking steps to ensure that the government is not using his taxpayer dollars to pay for the procedure.

This precedent is fascinating—and what I’m inviting you to do today is to consider, for a moment, what our government might look like if we take his logic and...extend it a bit.

“...In the game of life, the house edge is called Time. In whatever we do, Nature charges us for doing it in the currency of time...”

--Bob Stupak, Yes, You Can Win!

I always try to find common ground with those I oppose, and the most logical place to start would be to consider the fact that Stupak and I are both morally offended by the idea that we use taxpayer dollars to go around killing people.

So where do we differ?

For starters, I find it morally offensive that my taxpayer dollars are used, on a daily basis, to fund the actual killing of actual, living, people by my, Congressman Stupak, in the name of finding common ground, how about if the same day your Amendment goes into effect we also stop funding any military activities that might reasonably be expected to, as I hear people say, “stop a beating heart”, so as to prevent offending my religious sensibilities?

John Allen Muhammad, the so-called “Washington Sniper”, is scheduled to be executed today. Are you prepared to support legislation, Congressman Stupak, which will prevent his “post-term abortion” and the potential abortions of all those other human lives on Death Rows around this country if those state-sponsored abortions are as much of an affront to my religious beliefs as they should be to yours?

During the more or less four months worth of slow-walking and stalling that we have seen so far in this process 15,000 Americans have died...or, if you prefer, five 9/11s...simply because they have no health insurance—and unless your religion is a lot more bloodthirsty than mine, the abortions of 15,000 people because of the...what’s the word I’m looking for here...let’s see...could it be...sloth...of your colleagues should be an act as reprehensible as the greatest of blasphemies ever recorded in The Bible.

With that in mind, are you prepared to join me in cutting off the use of my taxpayer dollars to fund the salaries, the “public option” health care, and the office operations of those legislators who are behind these killings?

What else do we do that’s aborting lives on a daily basis that I’m sure Congressman Stupak would be glad to allow me, as a result of the offense to my conscience (and, presumably, his), to “negatively fund with extreme prejudice”?

There’s that Drug War, of course, and whatever we're doing in those secret prisons—and public ones—and subsidies for those who clear mountains and poison lands...not to mention the tax dollars I’ve been providing for a company who did electrical work that’s aborting soldiers.

So whaddaya think, Congressman Stupak?

Since you’re so proud of your pro-life credentials, are you ready to stand up with me and defend the principle that all human lives deserve to be protected, and that we have the right to withhold funding for all those activities that are morally repugnant...or are you just another one of those “enablers” who helped kill 15,000 people this past few months?

Enquiring minds want to know.