advice from a fake consultant

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Congressional Empathy, Or, Can You Feel The War Now?

In a comment on the BlueNC site to one of my postings, Icloud aptly points out that Mr. Bush does not personally suffer the consequences of this war-that is, neither his family or personal fortune are at stake here.

The same can also be said of many of the Members of Congress. Jim Webb is an example of a Member who does feel that personal connection, and the passion he brings to this issue is clearly a result of that experience.

So how might we make the Members and the President more personally engaged in the daily lives of the military community…and more empathetic to the needs of the average military family?

The purpose of today’s discussion is to offer a suggestion that would do exactly that.

We can’t force the children of Members to serve personally in the Services, but we can bring a touch of the experience home fairly easily.

All we have to do is require Members and their families to obtain their medical care exclusively at VA and military facilities, and to encourage-by shame, if need be-those families to shop at military Exchange and Commissary stores.

For those not familiar, the Services operate two chains of official stores that provide the same kinds of things you might expect in a Target store (with a similar atmosphere, although not always as large) on bases and ships worldwide.

There are items unique to the military such as uniforms that are also available, which adds an interesting fashion atmosphere to the place, but that’s another story.

One chain is operated by the Navy (the Navy Exchange Service), the other by the Army Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).

If Members had to see families in the grocery line trying to stretch the money they have; if they saw all the single parents who don’t have partners 15 months at a time…well, that might help to transcend the polics of why something as simple as the Webb amendment makes sense.

But for real impact, we should make it our business to insist that all Members, and their families, from now on, share the same medical care that our Servicemembers and their families receive-no better, no worse.

And to take it one step further, if there are billing disputes or customer care issues related to the health care needs of the Members and their families; send those issues to the same dispute resolution apparatus that serves the military community today.

Of course we can expect the usual objections:
“It will be inconvenient…”
“We would have to mingle with ordinary citizens…”
“Our time is too valuable to be spent waiting in lines like veterans have to…”

Guess what?
That’s the idea.

If it’s inconvenient enough to irritate the Members, it should become much more convenient for the military community in very short order.

If it's perceived by the public as another example of how Rs disrespect the troops while Ds support them, so much the better.

Now admittedly, none of this goes to the core of Iclouds original point; but by forcing every single Member to deal with this on a most personal level, it should force Congress to deal with a whole series of issues-or face the personal consequences.

How can this be accomplished?

Through the public choice of accepting the challenge, for the good of the troops-or accepting the shame of refusing.

Force Members to publicly answer the question of whether they feel they are too important to accept the same kind of care America’s troops volunteer for.

Force them to publicly admit they find the care our troops get is inadequate for their families.

Congressional Democrats-want to force the Republicans back on the defensive? Walter Reed, the issues of how Republicans take care of our troops, and the inadequate case management they receive when they return left the Rs rocking on their heels.

This is a tremendous issue for us-why not run with it and force the Rs to either agree or threaten a filibuster to fight you.

Candidates-why not now challenge the R candidates by coming out with the statement that as you run for President you will make every effort you can to devote yourself to this cause-and ask them why they won’t take a stand on what should be a bi-partisan issue?

Now I know this is an unlikely, long shot proposal, but long shots do happen.
Consider that today the Seattle Mariners are playing a game in Seattle, at Safeco Field, their own stadium-and they are the visiting team.

If that can happen, why not this?
Jim Webb, Harry Reid, John Murtha, Nancy Pelosi…whaddaya think?
Want to try a different tack?
I promise the public will support you-and it will raise public approval of Democratic Members.

Helping Servicemembers, helping vets, helping raise Congressional approval…and it’ll scare the hell out of Congressional Republicans.

What’s not to love?

Monday, September 24, 2007

On Mr. Bush, Or, Does "Stay The Course" Work In Baseball?

Mr. Bush has officially informed us that recent success in Al-Anbar Province should convince us to “stay the course” in Iraq, despite the failure of every other aspect of his Iraq/Afghanistan/foreign policy initiatives-and the shifting nature of the definition of success.

Even more ironically, Mr. Bush now plans to become a crusader for fiscal responsibility, despite his failure to take this issue seriously in the past.

All of this has lead to a huge back and forth between those who claim this bit of recent overseas success and the current “strong economy” justify more of the same, as success is finally “just around the corner”, and those who see this President’s Iraq policy as essentially passing the problem on to the next President.

It’s always tough to judge a President during his term, considering the lack of a peer group to use for comparison. But what if Mr. Bush had the same won/loss record in a different job?

That question is the point of today’s conversation.

"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."
--Yogi Berra, former baseball manager

The crunching of the leaves below your feet tells us that the baseball playoffs have arrived-so let’s talk managers.

Not unlike a President, baseball managers are required to endure the blame and accept the credit for the fortunes of the teams they lead, making them an excellent subject for comparison.

Imagine a manager after a run of seasons in which his team was accused of being unprepared and undermanaged. Imagine if season after season they posted a mediocre to poor record.

Now imagine the press conference in which that manager told the team’s owners and fans to “stay the course”.

How might the upper management of such a team react?

Coincidentally, Mr. Bush was himself an owner and managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball club; which means we can actually perform a direct examination of how Mr. Bush himself would react when faced with the same issues of judging success and failure.

So in a question which will sound familiar to my Texas friends-what would the Rangers do if a 6-13 Mr. Bush was their manager?

They would have fired him, that’s what.

Look at the history of the Rangers’ managers:

The Ranger’s first manager, Ted Williams, retired following his first season after posting a 54-100 record.

There was Frank Lucchesi; who was fired after a 4th place finish in 1976, and a .500 record in ’77; and having his second baseman arrested after he was physically attacked by the player.

Billy Martin was fired even though he led the team to its best record until that point in Ranger history. (Of course, the Yankees were also unwilling to “stay the course” with Martin despite his exceptional success there.)

Buck Showalter; fired last year after 4 years with a .492 average winning percentage. (Ironically, the photo in the link shows Showalter losing to the Cleveland Indians. Here’s a link suggesting Showalter could have actually ended up working for the Indians.)

Then there’s Bobby Valentine and Kevin Kennedy-the two managers who led the team at the time Mr. Bush was the managing general partner.

So how tolerant was Mr. Bush of the failure of leaders under his baseball watch?

Valentine spent seven years with the team-and his exactly mediocre .501 average winning percentage got him canned.

So Kennedy was brought in (after a 76 game Toby Harrah era)-and he led the team to a second place finish in the Division (with an 86-76 record), which he followed with a 1st place Divisional finish the next year.

Mr. Bush oversaw his firing, too.

But my favorite managerial example: Johnny Oates. After amassing a 495-459 record with the Rangers over six years, he resigned in 2001 after beginning the season with an 11-17 record-and the most expensive player contract in baseball history, in the form of Alex Rodriguez.

And maybe that’s our real story for today: a leader who understood that failure upon expensive failure can lead you to no other decision but the right one-resigning for the good of the team.

Mr. Bush, if you really care as much about America as you do a Johnny Oates. Admit to your losing record, accept some accountability for the first time in your life, and then we can make the moves that can get this team back on track to win the World Series.

Don’t drag it out until the end of a losing season-resign now.
Take Cheney, your general manager, with you.

And maybe for the first time since Green Bay’s residents bought the Packers, the fans will again control the game-at least for a moment.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

On Tidying Up, Or, The Assembly Of Disconnected Thoughts

Just as you have unfinished work piling up on your desk; stories pile up on mine that deserve discussion. Each of today’s stories would not in and of itself make a complete day’s work, so instead I’ll lay out on the table a late summer buffet, if you will, of conversational morsels that together will hopefully present a more complete “meal”.

First, to my friends in the Democratic leadership: I have again and again watched Democrats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Presidential elections by being too cautious. In the discussion this week of the “Petraeus” Report I see the start of the same process.

So let’s head it off right now.

“Now there's another thing I want you to remember. I don't want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we're not interested in holding onto anything -- except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose, and we're gonna kick him in the ass. We're gonna kick the hell out of him all the time, and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose!”
--George C. Scott as General George S. Patton.

More than 55% of Americans, by the Wall Street Journal’s count, even after this giant “product placement” we saw this week, believe this war cannot be won. Last week, that number was 62%. If history repeats itself that number will go back up as our perceived probability of “winning” goes back down.

You will not chase off any likely D voter by beating this point to death every chance you get. Most of the “purple” voters are leaning this way as well, if the numbers are correct.

There is nothing to be gained by being cautious.
There is nothing to be gained by worrying that voters might be turned off by our aggression.
There is everything to be gained by proving to the voters we are the real patriots.

Of course, our R friends have made a huge effort to muddy the rhetorical waters of Anbar Province; and that confuses the average voter enough to provide a bit of cover.

So that means you have to present a simple message that tells simple truths to parents and other voters who are scared of what the Rs might yet do and having trouble seeing through the mud.
Here’s one:

“This Commander-in Chief lied and sent your kids to a war that can’t be won. When he did that, he broke the Army, the Marines, and Iraq. Now we have to end the war.”

Nice and simple.
Already understood by more or less 60% of the voters.
True-and becoming more so every day.

Moving on:

We are constantly guilty of being quick to criticize and slow to compliment. To break that trend, let’s begin today be presenting my First Irregularly Timed Unnoticed Hero award to Steven Aftergood, and by extension the fine folks at the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy website.

For bloggers the gold vein is found in the “Congressional Research Service Documents” link. You pay for the data, Aftergood and his team engages in a daily struggle to wrest it from a reluctant Government.

Enemy Combatant Detainees: Habeas Corpus Challenges in Federal Court”, “Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons”, and “Congress's Contempt Power: Law, History, Practice, and Procedure” are but a few examples of the tremendous breadth of material that can be found there.

These are reports that are written for “Congressional customers”, which means you are seeing the same reports your Member of Congress sees.

Last topic for today:

H.L. Mencken was associated with the Baltimore Sun from 1906 until 1948. If he were alive today he would undoubtedly be blogging; and in fact we are constantly quoting his famous Sun article of July 1920 “Bayard vs Lionheart”:

“As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

There is however, a better quote. In the final selection from today’s buffet, allow me to offer these paragraphs from that most excellent column of so long ago-that rings as true as if it had been written for this election cycle.

To set the stage, Mencken was discussing his frustration with candidates for President that to him appeared to be on the on the one hand stupid, and on the other hand, smart, cunning, and untrustworthy:

“But it is one thing to yield to virtuous indignation against such individuals and quite another thing to devise any practicable scheme for booting them out of the synagogue. The weakness of those of us who take a gaudy satisfaction in our ideas, and battle for them violently, and face punishment for them willingly and even proudly, is that we forget the primary business of the man in politics, which is the snatching and safeguarding of his job. That business, it must be plain, concerns itself only occasionally with the defense and propagation of ideas, and even then it must confine itself to those that, to a reflective man, must usually appear to be insane. The first and last aim of the politician is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes-to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.

It is not often, in these later days of the democratic enlightenment, that positive merit lands a man in elective office in the United States; much more often it is a negative merit that gets him there. That negative merit is simply disvulnerability. Of the two candidates, that one wins who least arouses the suspicions and distrusts of the great masses of simple men. Well, what are more likely to arouse those suspicions and distrusts than ideas, convictions, principles? The plain people are not hostile to shysterism, save it be gross and unsuccessful. They admire a Roosevelt for his bold stratagems and duplicities, his sacrifice of faith and principle to the main chance, his magnificent disdain of fairness and honor. But they shy instantly and inevitably from the man who comes before them with notions that they cannot immediately translate into terms of their everyday delusions; they fear the novel idea, and particularly the revolutionary idea, as they fear the devil. When Roosevelt, losing hold upon his cunning at last, embraced the vast hodgepodge of innovations, some idiotic but some sound enough, that went by the name of Progressivism, they jumped from under him in trembling, and he came down with a thump that left him on his back until death delivered him from all hope and caring.”

The desk being clear enough for today; and there being no way I can top Mencken, let’s call it a job done. We have a couple stories under research, and over the next few days one of those should be up in this space as well.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

On The Fate Of The Bees, Or, One Problem Down, One To Go

The survival of the honeybee, perhaps the world’s largest matriarchy, has been a matter of real concern since the announcement of Colony Collapse Disorder earlier this year.

As we discussed in an April story (On Bees, Or, An Apple A Day May Be A Thing Of The Past), the pathogenic loading seen in the few recovered bees was so dramatic and of such a great variety that it was assumed there was more than one cause for the troubles.

Recent news reports from Spain have suggested the answer may be at hand…but apparently nothing in life is that easy. We’ll talk more about the bad news-and the good-as we go on.

First the bad news: There do appear to be two different problems the bees are facing, and unfortunately we can only resolve one at the moment.

One of the most common of bee diseases is nosema, caused by a parasitic infestation (Nosema Apis, for those keeping score at home) of the bee’s gut. It is easily treated with the antibiotic Fumigilin.

The news from Spain concerns reports of another similar bee parasite, Nosema Ceranae (a third parasite of this class, Nosema Bombi, is also known to infest bees), which appears to have made the jump from infesting Asiatic honeybees (Apis Cerana) to the far more numerous and, for agriculture, more important Western honeybee (Apis Mellifera). Thanks to the work of Dr. Mariano Higes we know that the infestation is widespread in Europe, and may be present in the US.

We first became aware that N. Ceranae was a problem for Western bees because of the fact that both Western and Asiatic bees are found in Vietnam-and in 2005, it was discovered that both had the same infestation. (A quick note-we have three members of the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University, Belfast, to thank for the development of a rapid-sequencing DNA screening method that made this discovery possible: Julia Klee, Andrea Besana, and Robert J Paxton, whose story we referenced above.) Further confirmation was obtained when an imported colony of Western bees was found to be infested with N. Ceranae in Taiwan.

Klee and Besana’s work can be seen here. It contains an excellent discussion of the spread of N. Ceranae, “host jump”, the technical details of bee analysis, and a thorough description of how you too can sequence DNA at home in your spare time.

They also point out that the presence of N. Ceranae in collapsed European colonies does not automatically prove it’s causing CCD-it could well be coincindental.

So we now find ourselves facing a few questions:

--Are we looking at the source of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?

--Is this infestation suddenly spreading because of opportunities created by the agent that causes CCD?

--If N. Ceranae is not the cause of CCD, what effect does this infestation have on the bees?

It does not appear that N. Ceranae is the cause of CCD, according to an analysis of Dr. Higes’ work published at North Carolina State University’s website. As we had discussed in April, the sheer number and variety of pathogens found makes it unlikely that one single agent was solely responsible. At the time the thinking was that a new infection or infestation was causing immunosupression through stress, allowing the variety of other opportunistic pathogens to take hold. To quote from the analysis:

"Initial studies on bee colonies experiencing the die offs has revealed a large number of disease organisms present in the dying colonies, with most being "stress related" diseases and without any one disease being supported as the "culprit" underlying the deaths. The magnitude of detected infectious agents in the adult bees suggests some type of immunosuppression. Case studies and questionnaires related to management practices and environmental factors have identified a few common factors shared by those beekeepers experiencing the CCD; but no common environmental agents or chemicals were easily identified by these surveys. The search for underlying causes has been narrowed by the preliminary studies, but several questions remain to be answered."

As to the other two questions: is N. Ceranae spreading opportunistically because of the agent that causes CCD? We don’t yet know.

What will be the effect of the spread of N. Ceranae in Western honeybees? That is a big unknown. It appears it can be easily treated, but what is unknown is what might happen if treatments are only applied irregularly. The possibility exists of “acclimation” to our current treatments, and that is but one of many possible implications that will have to be explored-the sooner the better.

There is guarded success in the effort to deal with CCD as well.

Details are literally coming in as we speak, but on September 6th Science Daily broke the story that a US based scientific consortium had discovered a connection between the presence of the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) and Colony Collapse Disorder in numerous samples collected from a variety of media-including actual dead bees and royal jelly-collected from infected colonies and non-infected colonies.

The team was able to use DNA sequencing as a tool to determine associations between many pathogenic “possibilities” such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which is why the work could be completed so quickly. As a result of the sequencing work, it was determined that IAPV was found in all the collapsed colonies-and none of the non-infected ones.

Does this mean we have a culprit?
Not so fast, friends.

As with N. Ceranae, association does not automatically mean causation has been established, and we are reminded to be cautious by the Mid Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) in a September 7th statement. (The statement also suggests imported Australian bees may be responsible for the infection.)

In fact, we are specifically told IAPV is likely a marker, or working with other opportunistic pathogens, and not likely to be the sole cause of CCD.

But we are again told that there is a very strong association (all the CCD colonies have IAPV present, and none of the non-infected ones do) between the two.

The statement tells beekeepers not to re-use hives, and continue to treat for Varroa and nosema as usual, and to keep hives healthy and well-fed (to maximize profits, as with any “livestock”, bees are fed exactly what they need to survive and not much more…this may also play a part in CCD).

Here’s some other possible good news: we are told that Australian bees are not affected by IAPV, and this could be because the Australian bees are immune to the virus. If so, cross-breeding is possible to eliminate the susceptibility. (It is also possible that Varroa, which is not present in Australian bees, may potentiate the virus, suggesting cross-breeding would not work.)

So that’s our story for today: the cause of CCD remains unknown, but tantalizing new information exists; a second new threat has been identified, and with any luck, our hard working friends in yellow and black (no, I don’t mean the Steelers) will be back where they belong-out hunting for your pollen.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

On The 12 Steps, Or, The Fringe Is Smarter Than The Lampshade

Hello, I’m Fake C., and I’m a member of the Lefty Fringe.

Even though I’ve been attending these meetings for awhile, I need to better understand how I came to be in this situation, so here goes…

It all started when I was reading about this George Bush guy that was running for President. This woman who used to write about Texas politics and its quirky nature put up a series of stories that gave you the impression that there was nothing good about this guy.

So I voted for Al Gore, because (I thought) he would make a better candidate. It turns out it was just a sign that I’m a member of the Lefty Fringe.

Don’t get me wrong-it’s not as if I haven’t sought help…but it just isn’t helping.

The news isn’t all bad.

I’ve been able to, with the help of my Conservative friends, admit that I’m addicted to hating America and all it stands for, which was a tough first step, but a necessary one.

I’ve also been able to recognize that the higher spiritual power of basic human morality can give me the strength to continue to seek a better future for America-and to realize that I have to work hard to own my government.

But then things start to get a bit fuzzy.

I’m supposed to be able to examine and make amends for my past errors, and I just can’t figure out what I’ve been doing wrong. They say a mentor can help you identify your past mistakes-would you like to help by telling me where I went off the track?

I remember thinking way back in 2001 that North Korea was not really as big a threat as this Administration seemed to want us to believe, and I don’t think I was wrong about that. But if you believed that point of view, you were a member of the Lefty Fringe.

I remember thinking that rolling back environmental protections was a bad thing; but lots of smart folks thought my complaining made no sense, suggesting once again that I’m stuck out there on that Lefty Fringe.

And then there was September 11th. I heard Condoleezza Rice telling me that this sort of attack was “unprecedented”, even though crashing a plane into a building as a terrorist action had already been attempted in 1994-seven years earlier. Of course only Lefty Fringers would doubt such a highly placed individual…but that's me, I guess.

And I’ll never forget the day my friend Steve and I talked about how he was going to an anti-war protest…and I told him he was wasting his time. Being on the Lefty Fringe and all, I was pretty sure this decision had already been made (maybe even before Mr. Bush came into office), and our opinion wouldn’t mean squat. But he’s even farther over on the Fringe than I, so he gave it his best shot…

And why Iraq, anyway?

We on the Lefty Fringe knew that almost all the hijackers were Saudi.
We knew the “aluminum tube” story was bogus, and if we didn’t know it already, in this case even the Administration’s own experts were trying to tell us so.

You know what else we knew? We knew that Shi’a would get revenge on the Sunni that had been oppressing them once Saddam was out of the way, and that a civil war that we could not control would be the result. We might even find ourselves in a quagmire, some thought; killing American troops to remove a guy who “wasn’t worth much”. Of course, there were lots of people who thought having these sorts of doubts was enough to not just put us on the Lefty Fringe, but to make us enemies of the State.

Here’s something else us Lefty Fringers figured out: if you used to run a horse racing association, and have no emergency management experience, you might not be the best candidate to run FEMA.

Lefty Fringers were confused to be in the mainstream when that awful Mr. Clinton was running Federal surpluses; and we are now back in our normal place with the far more economically traditional Mr. Bush’s Federal budget deficits, which seem to be in place to go on for many years to come.

Here’s the craziest part of all: I’m forced these days to defend the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers while my Conservative friends tell me I’m just giving aid and comfort to my enemies for my Lefty Fringe ideas. Here’s where I get really confused: these days, my Conservative friends suddenly trust the Government to do the right thing, while I’ve remained the principled skeptic.

I even use Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as examples of Presidents who understood that talking to our enemies is the smart thing to do, while my Conservative friends (who you might think would be Reagan supporters) tell me I’m some sort of appeaser for my thoughts. Thoughts like this Richard Nixon quote (substitute Iran for China, if you will) ". . . we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors…" are somehow considered ill-informed and inapplicable in today’s world.

Even today, apparently because of my addiction to hating America and all it stands for, I don’t think we’re making the slightest bit of progress in this “phony war on terrorism”. (As it turns out, I’m not the only one who hates America.)

Now if I really seek recovery, I’m supposed to make amends for my errors, and adopt a new code of conduct; but how do I do that?

Am I supposed to be sorry that I knew in advance that the Administration was wrong on every one of these issues?

Should I apologize to Pat Robertson for doubting that invading Iraq would be a good idea? Should I encourage my own godson to reenlist, knowing that this war is just about over-that “enormous success” is assured because the insurgency is in its last throes?

Should I adopt the traditional Conservative worldview that just assumes the Government should be trusted when it comes to war because Government knows what it’s doing at all times? That the Government will always be the guardian of the best interests of the citizens?

Maybe it’s because I’m addicted to hating my country so much, but I just can’t seem to do it. Instead I mistrust Government, and I want to control it, rather than the other way around. I hate this country so much that I want a Government that isn’t running around “nation-building” every chance it gets. Most of all, I hate America so much that I want other countries to admire us, respect us, and maybe even join into coalitions with us-to work on other global problems that even our own EPA recognizes will have huge impacts worldwide.

So that’s my testimony for today, and if someone will just sign my slip I’ll see you all next meeting.