Monday, December 29, 2008

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy by Rick Atkinson.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Atkinson follows his previous work "Army at Dawn" (about the Allied invasion of North Africa in WWII) with the account of the Allied invasion of Italy that followed. The book focuses on the growth of the American Army in both number and experience. After North Africa there were 4 combat experienced American divisions. With green divisions arriving in Europe in preparation for the invasion of Western Europe that was sure to come, the Americans had the task of learning how to wage war. And that meant learning lessons in North Africa and Italy, then passing them on to the soldiers preparing in England.

Atkinson takes a series of campaigns, and looks at them from the point of view of the commanders and the soldiers. The decisions that were made out of caution or aggressiveness. Soldiers who had their first experiences of brutality, the mistakes that lead to either defeat, death or mutilation, And the plain hardness required to survive. You get the feel of desperation, from general to private, and sort of get what motivates them to do things that sometimes look outright stupid and self-destructive, because they had to act on what they knew, not what they did not.

Atkinson also goes beyond looking at the British and Americans, but also touches on the colonials, the Free French from North Africa and the British colonies (India, Gurkhas, etc.) the fact that he touches on them makes this seem that much more comprehensive.

I liked the fact that Atkinson does not present anyone as heroes or demons. Leaders were not presented as merely geniuses, idiots, or gloryseekers. Individual soldiers were not merely heroic or monsters, but everyone there had conflicting motivations, abilities and pressures. And all trying to function in the chaos of war.

View all my reviews.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Handpicked Team for a Sweeping Shift in Foreign Policy - New York Times

A Handpicked Team for a Sweeping Shift in Foreign Policy by David Sangler, New York Times

President-elect Obama today introduced a set of cabinet appointees for positions involved in national security. Among them are Sen. Hillary Clinton (a rival candidate for the Presidency), Mr. Gates (current Secretary of Defense under a Republican Presidency) and Gen. Jones (USMC, ret.) The range of reactions has reached a bit of predictability. Progressives/liberals complaining that these are people who have been working in this field and therefore do not represent change. The Republican National Committee talking about how these picks are taking their places alongside the Four Horsemen of the Apocylpse (I'm only slightly facetious here). And various greybeards observing that President-elect Obama has a pattern of picking pragmatists for all of his policy positions. And Obama supporters who have observed that the entire Obama campaign was based on pragmatism planks over ideology.

But looking at those senior picks of Jones and Gates, neither of whom is there any reason to believe are Obama loyalists, the question is how can they work together. All of the picks (to include Sen. Clinton, Dr. Rice and the others) have strong personalities and definitive beliefs. President-elect Obama has stated that he intends his senior leadership meetings to be one of vigorous debate, in stark contrast to the current policy of removing all cabinet members that showed dissent. But it is also observed that people who disagree all the time don't work together all that well.

It turns out there is a unifying theme among the top nominees. The theme are the elements of national power, described as DIME (diplomacy, information, military, economic). Gen. Jones and Secretary Gates have been heard on many occasions advocating the need to strengthen the non-military elements of national power. Sec. Gates going so far as to say he would willingly give up part of the budget of the Department of Defense to strengthen the Department of State. (and reminding JCS Chief Admiral Mullen he made similar statements when he was PACOM). This is also the driving factor of candidate Obama's national security platform when running. So, essentially, the top-level nominees and the President-elect (with the exception of Sen. Clinton, whom I do not know about) have each independently advocated the same change in the overall approach to the national security of the United States. For all their differences (and it is expected that intelligent, capable people have differences), the fact that they have subscribed to the same paradigm makes the rest details.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Roger Ebert's Journal: Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!

Roger Ebert column at the Chicago Sun-Times, November 26, 2008
Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!

Roger Ebert is the movie reviewer at the Chicago Sun-Times, made famous by being part of the movie review team of Siskal and Ebert (later Ebert at the Movies). This column talks about the art of being a movie critic. It's trigger.

The crowning blow came this week when the once-magisterial Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on all of its entertainment writers. The 500-word limit applies to reviews, interviews, news stories, trend pieces and "thinkers." Oh, it can be done. But with "Synecdoche, New York?"

. . .

Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for. The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been "seen with" somebody, who has been "spotted with" somebody, and "top ten" lists of the above. (Celebs "seen with" desire to be seen, celebs "spotted with" do not desire to be seen.)

So, what is a film critic for? Is it just to tell about the gawking of the actors and actresses who play the character on the screen? In another forum, one of my book reviews is being severely criticized, because I have stated that my primary criteria to judging a book is the believability of the characters (after I grant to the author the scenario and situation), not the politics of the book. Ebert says this much better.

Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should "reflect the taste of the readers." My friend said, "Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald's?" The editor: "Absolutely." I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, "You are correct, sir!" A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.

I could only hope to move in the general direction of that goal. And mourn every sign of its passing that comes my way.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

PSO: Ohlsson plays Beethoven

Last week, Mr. Ohlsson was featured in New York Times review of a recital in New York City. Reading this piqued my interest, and I was looking forward to this Sunday's concert.

With the beginning of Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 seemed to start different. Instead of the usual build from the orchestra, Mr. Ohlsson introduced the theme on the piano. And the exposed introduction on the piano was followed by the richness of the full orchestra. For the rest of the piece we were treated to impressive piano, intricate, delicate and amazing fingerwork. Well contrasted with the fullness of sound in the orchestra.

I have a belief that people and roles are not interchangeable. Which is a little strange, since my profession is one that is forced to work with people who are anonymous (except perhaps in terms of skill sets.) But even if from an abstract level we can work as if people could be interchangeable, at the point where something actually happens, it always seems different. People working alongside each other seem to adjust to each others strengths and weaknesses, and even if the job titles are fixed, the actual jobs seem to be just a little different from one team to another.

And Ohlsson playing Beethoven shows the uniqueness. It never seems like the piano and orchestra are ever competing, because the orchestral parts display a richness that is hard to imagine coming from a piano, and the piano parts have intricacy and detail that is hard to imagine coming from the multitude of voices of an orchestra. It was a wonder and a joy to behold.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Book meme: Head First Java

The rules:

* Grab the nearest book.
* Open it to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
* Don’t dig for your favorite book, the cool book, or the intellectual one: pick the CLOSEST.

From Head First Java 2nd ed. by Sierra and Bates

"But when you're talking about memory allocation issues, your Big Concern should be about how many objects (as opposed to object references) you're creating, and how big they (the objects) really are.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Book Review: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

The Audacity of Hope The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Audacity of Hope is not a biography, it is a discussion of politics in the United States. It is not a denunciation of the current political system, but a description of it and how and why it developed the way it has.

Obama walks through a number of topics, the two-party system, values, the constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, and race, and writes about how each is related to the political process. He discusses the actual issues that are involved, how various groups within the United States view the various sides of the issues, and he discusses on how these issues are addressed during political campaigns.

The theoretical part is instructive. Among other things, Obama taught constitutional law in one of the top law schools in the country. That is not a qualification in itself, but he notes that it exposes him to intelligent people who will challenge details of his understanding, and force him to clarify the corners of what he believes. The chapter on constitutional law is probably one of the better descriptions of the views and implications of the strict constructionist view of law, and why Obama opposes it (Strict construction implies that the law should be taken as written. The opposition arguement "judicial review" is the law (especially founding fathers) tells us how to think, not what to think, the writers of the constitution actually disagreed on many things, so the concept of "founders intent" in "what to think" is meaningless. Since the founders left behind considerable commentary (paralleled by the congressional record in the case of laws), the commentary can be used in understanding "how to think" and give an understanding of how the law should be applied to the situation at hand.) )

The more practical components stem from his experiences on state and federal level campaigns (Illinois and U.S. Congress) and his experience at the community level as an organizer with a number of churches on the south side of Chicago. It is highly practical, how politics work at street level. It is probably one of the more comprehensive explanations of why special interests are so important to political campaigns, especially as the area covered by the campaign gets larger.

His main point about special interests is they provide two things, money and political workers on the ground. A normal candidate cannot provide these things by him/herself because a mere candidate base of support starts as local, where the candidate has been working in the past. So all political candidates work with people who can provide large sums of funds, and motivate people who would be willing to speak on behalf of the candidate in various parts of the country, and to their neighbors through phone banks and canvassing. For the Democrats, the main groups that provide this manpower are labor unions, environmental groups, and prochoice groups. For Republicans, the key special interest groups are the religious right, local chambers of commerce, the NRA and anti-tax organizations. And the messages are "spun" by media in this context.

So it is instructive on how this understanding of the political process played out in the campaign. Not just how the sides were taken (the Republican advocacy of Strict construction, the Republican use of Gov. Palin to keep the key special interest groups involved in the campaign, the McCain/Palin emphasis on not raising taxes.) but how Obama structured his campaign. The emphasis on small donations rather then large donations. The refusal to take money from lobbyists or allow lobbyists to take positions in the campaign. The heavy recruiting of volunteers not associated with unions, environmental or prochoice groups. So if a lobbyist comes to advocate a position, that lobbyist cannot say that the group he represents provided the decisive contribution to the Obama campaign, in either money or workers. The lobbyist must advocate the issue on its face.

Audacity of Hope is a primer on the U.S. political system, both as theory, and how it actually works and why. It also provides a framework to look at the American political system at work. And, it provides thoughts on how the more self-destructive tendencies can be mitigated. The next question is how this works in practice.

View all my reviews.

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers by John McCain

Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir by John McCain

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Faith of My Fathers is the book about the making of a military officer, whose author was preparing for the 2000 Republican Presidential primary campaign. McCain talks about his father and grandfather, both successful Navy officers (an Admiral who became CINCPAC, and a submarine Captain).

McCain discusses his relationship with the Navy in the context of this family. The fact that as a young man, he was not so serious about the Navy, that it started out looking like just a job. In this, he acknowledged that he probably disappointed his family as well as others who cared deeply about the Navy as an institution.

He writes that his sense of duty and seriousness grew as he served and gained responsibility. First, with his midshipman cruise, where he went to sea on a deployed ship. Then as he had multiple tours of duty on a carrier.

With all of his mentors, and experiences, he makes it to the second part, his service in the Vietnam war then being a prisoner of war of the Vietnamese. With his now maturing sense of duty to country and fellow servicemen, he undergoes interrogation by the Vietnamese, and the offers to break faith with his fellow prisoners or for freedom in return for false statements. And he intimidates that it was his developing sense of duty and honor, that was not present at the beginning of his Naval Academy times, that gave him the strength to bear it, and return with honor.

In it essence it is a story of how a pattern of dealing with adversity and responsibility turned into strength of character, in time to face a test of character. It is a very deeply personal story. It suffers from this degree of personal intimacy, because it lacks generalization. This may have cost him during the 2000 campaign, when political supporters of George W. Bush spread rumors that his time as a POW, detailed in the book, actually made McCain a "Manchurian Candidate." While the Bush supporters campaign was very efficiently run, I would have wished this book could have been a better foil to the 2000 smear campaign.

The deeply personal nature of this makes it different then the books related by Afghanistan and Iraq veterans (military and otherwise) that I have read. Granted, it is because I tend to read the books that are closer to my experience, but most of what I have read deals with the need to work with the locals, the difficulty of working with people who were not open and honest with you. Of knowing that even people who were in fact supporting you, could not be open with you because of the hazards they faced when you walked away for the day. Because of this, the current generation writes more about having to depend on each other, on those they trained with, shared their struggles, and the lessons they all learned together. Yes, all learned much about themselves, but even that was done in the context of others in service. Faith of My Fathers almost suffers because it focuses so much inward.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Obama Ground Game, from the ground

[these are notes, so someday I can tell my grandkids what it was like as part of the Obama campaign]

I started following the Obama campaign during the primary season, in the days leading up to the Pennsylvania Primary. A Democratic Primary campaign that was expected to be a lock for Sen. Hilary Clinton had turned interesting, with the first two contests split between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama. Sen. Clinton's big push was against Sen. Obama's inexperience, proclaiming that when the primaries were over, Sen. McCain and the Republicans would launch into a no-gloves smearfest, and Sen. Clinton could handle it while Sen. Obama could not. She predicted that the Republicans would leave no stone unturned, or distorted, to make these attacks. And since the Republicans have been smearing her for 10 years, the Democrats already knew she could survive.

As part of these attacks, Sen. Clinton's campaign brought up the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. A veteran, with a tour in the Marine Corps, then a tour in the Navy during the Vietnam war era, Rev. Wright was Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, which is where Sen. Obama accepted the Christian faith and became part of a christian community. Rev. Wright was also known for his fire and anger at the United States with all of its injustices. And Sen. Clinton attacked Sen. Obama for this.

Sen. Obama had two options. He could ignore the attack, hoping it would not stick. Or he could forsake his pastor, denouncing Rev. Wright's views. He decided something different. He acknowledge the hate of his pastor, then denounced it, stating that it acknowledged truth, but denied what America could be. And, in Philadelphia, he presented a vision for an America that could be ("More Perfect Union"), completely in keeping with the themes of his political life.

I ended up voting for Obama in the primary, then connected with the campaign. Months later, as Sen. Obama began winning more primary contests, and the Sen. Clinton campaign died down, the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania started up again, looking towards the national election.

I live in the North Hills, affluent north suburbs of Pittsburgh. The area is heavily conservative. In addition, the entire southwest Pennsylvania region is striking in its insularity and lack of diversity, visible to anyone who has to work with the region as a whole (my experience is with public safety and emergency services). And with a multi-racial candidate, this was shown to be an issue with whisper campaigns and unattributed e-mails that circulated throughout the primary season.

I first started with voter's registration in Cranberry, then in the North Hills. The local field organizer for Butler County (a student from California taking a semester off), as part of our introduction, explained that it was never expected that Butler County would vote for Obama. But the goal was to cut into its dominance, and let the Butler Republican Party know that the Democrates would work in Butler County. The field organizer for the North Hills (recent graduate, taking time off before starting a teaching job in PA where he grew up) said the same. For Pennsylvania, it could be expected the Democrats would dominate Philadelphia and the city of Pittsburgh, the Republicans would dominate central PA. The question would be the ability of the Democrats to develop support in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs. And as campaign volunteers in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh, we would see it all.

Voter's registration went on during the remainder of the summer. It was good natured, especially in dominantly Republican Butler County. We probably registered as many Republicans as Democrats in Cranberry. But the point was to make a presence, and let people know that Democrats were not stand-ins for the devil (which was a serious issue there.)

By late-July, the North Hills team was started with a field organizer who grew up in the North Hills, and a few couples who would serve as volunteer organizers, dividing the six townships in northern Allegheny County. We continued voter's registration, but as Obama reached the point that he won the Democratic nomination, we started calling voter's and canvassing (knocking on doors), asking them about their views on Obama and McCain, recruiting volunteers from supporters and talking to Clinton supporters, encouraging them in their support of Clinton and the Democratic Party in the runup to the Democratic National Convention. And we laid the groundwork for a bigger organization to come. From a group that started in late July at about 20 volunteers for the six townships in the North Hills, it was expected to multiply ten-fold after the convention.

Right after the convention, and after going to a rally in Beaver County with Obama and VP-Candidate Sen. Biden, I left for three weeks to volunteer in Texas and Louisiana in response to Hurricane Gustav and Ike. The volunteer coordinator for Franklin Park/Marshall teases me for being so lazy to leave the campaign in September.

When I returned, the campaign was a buzz of activity. The campaign had a North Hills office, right off McKnight Road (the big commercial road for the North Hills) There were always volunteers there on the phone, with extra ones for the evening. There were now two additional staff. Of course, this was after the Republican Convention. With the standard convention bounce, polls considered the race even. Which was expected as Sen. McCain was the only Republican who was different enough from the Republican party to have a good shot at the middle. And while the conservative wing of the party, especially those who spoke for evangelical christians, openly disliked him, having Sarah Palin as candidate for VP gave them cause to embrace and support the Republican candidates. With so many volunteers, I elected to canvass when I had time, because I was comfortable with going around, knocking on doors of strangers, even if I was alone. Because I figured the North Hills of Pittsburgh did not compare to Afghanistan or a disaster area.

Knocking on doors had lots of responses. There were the houses with Obama supporters who asked "are there other Obama supporters here?" The houses where people said "good work" and "good luck". Old ladies who were so delighted to have someone that came to talk to them. People who were delighted to have a Presidential campaign contact them and wanted to help in any way. Veterans who did not support Obama, but when learning I was in Afghanistan, we would greet each other as brothers. There were people who wanted to talk about health care, or taxes or the economy. We would usually have a few fact sheets and specific issues. And the Obama-Biden campaign would posts videos on YouTube about issue areas as well as current campaign speeches by the candidates and supporters around the country. One day Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (daughter of John F. Kennedy) came by to give us a pep talk and join us canvassing. And so many people who asked "do you think he (Obama) has a chance?" (my reply "he has a chance, but we have work to do.") The most memorable conversations were a few mothers of soldiers or soon to be soldiers. We spent alot of time talking about Afghanistan, and why I thought that Obama would be a good commander-in-chief for their children. Several asked if Obama would get us out of the war. Of course, unlike some candidates, Obama does not promise a unilateral, immediate pullout. But I could tell them that he will use the military appropriately, and he will also bring other aspects of national power (DIME) to bear, not just the military.

And the campaign also posted McCain-Palin ads and recordings of campaign phone calls. The McCain-Palin campaign had made the choice to go almost all negative, to the point where their campaign site had only the briefest of outlines of their position and platform. There were the houses where they heard from church that Obama was a Muslim (Obama is a church going Christian, there is no Muslim in the world who would call Obama a Muslim. If Obama was not Christian, he could not be attacked on the basis of his pastor.) There were those who asked if he worked with terrorists (based on being part of a Republican organized board to improved schools in Chicago. The Republican organizers included a former member of the 60's radical Weather Underground.) Others were told he went to school in a madrassas (He went to public schools in Indonesia. And the ones that wondered if he was indeed a citizen and truly eligible to be President (Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Sen. Obama had earlier in the year prepared a memorandum that supported that the Panama Canal-born John McCain was considered 'natural born citizen' as opposed to one who citizenship was conferred to ensure McCain's citizenship would not be an issue during the Presidential campaign.) And there were the people who would slam the door in any Democrates face. During this time these views were being promoted on radio shows, automatic telephone calls and email campaigns. All of which the Obama-Biden campaign would make available on the internet so we could address the smear campaign.

By the week before the election, the weekend canvassing was too big to work out of the Obama campaign office, so we staged out of the local congressional campaign office. Then we used staging areas at the volunteer coordinators (three for the North Hills). The weekend before the election, 200 volunteers had canvassed in the North Hills at some point. While McCain was 'guarantee victory', the Obama campaign was preaching "Don't let up" And we did not. With that many volunteers, we were meeting each other all over the place. Over the weekend I took four shifts. I saw three other groups of Obama canvassers, two groups with SEIU (a union that was supporting Obama) and a group supporting Republican Congressional Candidate Hart. And I know that there was at least one group with Democratic Congressional Candidate Altmire around me as well. There were thanks and encouragement from Obama supporters and those who did not want to say who they supported, and heckles from McCain supporters. On Saturday night there was a big volunteer conference call, that included Sen. Obama himself giving a pep talk to the volunteers over the phone. ( *ring ring* this is the Obama campaign. Please hold the line for a few minutes for a conference call with Sen. Obama.)

The last day was election day. After voting, I spent the rest of the day knocking on doors, checking if people had voted. It was just like the old school Chicago precinct captain election day ritual of walking around the neighborhood to make sure people had voted. There were packets of walk sheets that the volunteer coordinator house. People were dropping off food, snacks and drinks for the volunteers, and others were standing by to provides for anyone who needed it.

And then the wait. Everyone had discounted polls talking about 15% advantage for Obama in PA, preferring to focus on all of McCain and Palin campaigning in the area, and our memories were of when PA was considered even. I took the time off to go home and rest. And around 8:30 my wife and I went back to the volunteer organizer's house to watch the results. The next couple hours went from casual acceptance to astonishment. Many of the states were pretty well known. Pennsylvania was the first shock, because we almost did not believe that Obama would be that much ahead to call so early (Obama ended up winning by 10%). We discounted almost every piece of news before 9PM. There was Indiana not being called for either for the longest time. The announcement that Democrats swept the New England congressional races. Obama winning New Mexico. Colorado still being in contention. Then Ohio being called for Obama. And after the unified media had Obama at 200 electorial votes, with California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii yet to close, everyone knew that Obama would reach 270. The various network announcers were tripping over themselves dealing with the obvious (CA, OR, WA and HI were all going to be for Obama without question) without actually saying it before the polls in those states closed. Of course, everyone else could do the same math, and all the various campaign offices were calling us, sharing in the excitement without actually saying anything because it may jinx it. And then, at 11 EST, the west coast polls closed. And the six media networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, AP) all declared that Obama would win those states, and their tally had Obama over 270 electorial votes (even without Florida, Virginia, North Carolina or Missouri) And much gladness, and feeling of a job well done.

An American Election

After voting (an hour wait at 7AM) I spent the day all over the North Hills of Pittsburgh, knocking on doors, reminding people to vote. Somewhat incongruous, because "everyone knows" the North Hills is overwhelmingly Republican. Or, it is supposed to be. Many people said thanks. A few were surprised to find that their polling location had changed from what they knew of it. And a few who proudly informed me that they had voted for McCain. Depending on my mood, I informed them I served my country in a combat zone so they could vote. And many people for Obama wondering "can he (Obama) win?"

Some campaign signs outside the voting booth

We spent the evening in a small house party at the local volunteer organizer's house. One of the shockers was seeing the networks declaring Pennsylvania so quickly. Because we remember back in summer that Pennsylvania was almost even, so the reports of ~10-15% advantage to Obama/Biden was "crazy talk".

Campaign map at ~9:30 EST

Throughout the night as the results rolled in, and once it was apparent that the only thing that everyone was waiting for was the Pacific Time Zone states to report in, the phone calls were coming in. At our little party we got calls from friends in California, Virginia, Florida. The campaign staff at the local congressman campaign headquarters and those at the Pittsburgh headquarters, all sharing their joy, and asking if any of us wanted to go. But we stayed. Happy to be with our little band, basking in months of hard work, making calls and pounding pavement. And a President-elect who promises hard work ahead for this country.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Voting in Pennsylvania

One of those dark open secrets of American democracy is the embarrassingly low voter turnout rates. The U.S. is a country that considers 50% participation to be high. Dictatorships around the world point to this number and tell their populations that American democracy is a myth and not for their people. And they point to their 100% turnout in their elections, with 99% of the votes for the winning (and only) candidate. After all, 100% turnout is much more representative then the <50% the U.S. gets, even for a presidential election. It is a hard argument to refute.

This is one of the things that makes voter suppression efforts in the U.S. to be so insulting. The right to vote is the foundation for all the other rights. When an interest is shut out of the political process, the only means left to being heard is through violence. The right to vote brings groups that would otherwise resort to extremes and violence into the political process. And in the U.S. and around the world, moderates them. The modern classical example is the Basque region of Spain, where Basque separationist have operated for generations. Then the Basques were given semi-autonomy, and the responsibility of governance. Even with many issues still open, the violence went down.

To attempt the wholesale rejection of people's right to vote is to refute representative government as created by principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. It is cynicism in the extreme. One of the perverse effects has been the wholesale challenges to a large number of voter registrations in Ohio, where one of the challenged names was Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, also known as "Joe the Plumber." But Joe will be glad to know that the Democratic Party is fighting for his right to vote.

Voting information for Pennsylvania

Protecting your right to vote

How to use voting machines in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (ES&S iVotronic video)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

NYTimes: Hopefuls Differ as They Reject Gay Marriage

If Elected . . . - Hopefuls Differ as They Reject Gay Marriage

It is an altruism that you can be judged by the quality of your enemies. When the subject is political discourse, it is hoped that the saying can be rephrased to "opponents" oe "those who disagree." This U.S. Presidential Race is remarkable that there happens to be an issue that is considered a major flashpoint in American politics, and both major party candidates agree. Both Obama and McCain oppose same-sex marriage and both Obama and McCain oppose amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. But the difference lies in the way this opposition is presented.

Gay rights activists have reported many interactions with Obama on the issue of same-sex marriage. The New York Times article and other reports are the same, Sen. Barack Obama will not back same-sex marriage due to his Christian beliefs. And there is no expectation that Obama will be changing his understanding of Christian tradition that "marriage is something sanctified between a man and woman" , nor change his acceptance of this aspect of Christian beliefs and teaching. But they support him despite his opposition to this dearly held goal. Because his Christian beliefs also include a belief in his own sinfulness and fallibility. And a Christian faith that recognizes the fallibility of the holder is something they can live with.

McCain's opposition to same-sex marriage is due to acceptance of culturally accepted norms, according to his advisors. But when this is communicated to those of the gay community, it comes out, wrong. Whereas Sen. Obama always openly communicates to the gay community that he will not support same-sex marriage due to his Christian beliefs, Sen. McCain is less straight-forward. In his interview with Ellen DeGeneres, they had the following exchange.

The California Supreme Court had just cleared the way for same-sex marriage, and Ms. DeGeneres had announced on her program that she planned to marry her longtime girlfriend. “We are all the same people, all of us — you’re no different than I am,” Ms. DeGeneres told Mr. McCain as they sat next to each other in plush chairs. “Our love is the same.”

Mr. McCain called her comments “very eloquent” and added: “We just have a disagreement. And I, along with many, many others, wish you every happiness.”

Ms. DeGeneres said: “So, you’ll walk me down the aisle? Is that what you’re saying?”

Mr. McCain replied, “Touché.”

It is not that their views are different, but Sen. Obama is capable of communicating differences with people, even on issues that they hold dear, even when the differences are irreconcilable due to an immutable value on Sen. Obama's part. While Ms. DeGeneres catches Sen. McCain offering patronizing platitudes without being willing to follow through in action. So Sen. Obama can disagree and leave his opposition's dignity intact, and with the belief that they are also viewed as human, with the greatness and fallibility this implies.

It is not only with the gay community that Sen. Obama does this. The Palestinians Sen. Obama deals with knows this, that they will never change Sen. Obama's staunch support for Israel's right to exist with secure borders ([Rashid] Khalidi added that he strongly disagrees with Obama's current views on Israel, and often disagreed with him during their talks over the years - LATimes). Yet the Palestinians who desire peace also view Sen. Obama as someone who can consider the interests of the Palestinian people in the context of a secure Israel. (Those that do not desire peace dislike Sen. Obama without reservation) He has spoken openly to African-American audiences about the requirement for personal accountability and individual work ethic. Messages that have been reacted to badly when delivered by others such as Bill Crosby.

In his book Audacity of Hope Sen. Obama talks about the interaction of political candidates with special interest groups. He talks about how political advisors recommend not answering questionnaires from groups that oppose them, because it only gives them more reasons to hate you. But somehow, Sen. Obama has figured out how to confront audiences with his beliefs that are in opposition to their's, and leave them thinking that he is still the person they want in office. And I believe it is because he has this understanding of his own fallibility, that he knows there are no silver bullets, that the tasks and issues are not black and white and easy, but that the path ahead is hard. And he asks that along this hard road, his audiences follow him and work with him. And that this hard road ahead is something they can find believable, more then the many false platitudes they have heard before.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why I am voting for Obama

[Obviously, this is my own views, not vetted or approaved by any other person or organization or company]

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

- Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947

I've had the opportunity over the past few weeks to have a number of conversations with individuals about the U.S. Presidential election. And the fact that I was in Afghanistan does come up. With the proportionately small portion of the population associated with the military it is a different background. One of the most rewarding conversations was with one woman in the North Hills whose son has enlisted, and is going to start after high school graduation.

I first started paying attention to Obama after his "More Perfect Union" speech, given when he was being attacked because of the views held by his former Pastor. It was striking because instead of attacking back, or complaining about the unfairness of being attacked for the beliefs and views of another (beliefs that he disagrees with), he instead talked about what America was and could be. That America could be more like the 'City on a Hill' for the world to see and aspire too. And it is the 'last best hope for the world.' It was so different then the reflexive flag waiving or the criticize America that one usually hears that it is striking in its difference. And certainly to be dispised by the extremes on both right and left.

The areas I write about are National Security and ability to handle crisis.

1. National Security. The framework is the four elements of National Power: diplomatic, information, military, economic, referred to as DIME (

Diplomatic: A nations ability to rally allies, engage opponents, and persuade neutral governments. Obama has repeated stated that a forefront of his national security policy is to work with U.S. partners to further our shared interests and that he will engage potential opponents. McCain states as a virtue that he will ignore certain allies (will not commit to meeting with Spain??!!) and views engaging potential opponents as venal. McCain will instead form new groupings such as a 'League of Democracies' to deal with international issues as opposed to existing institutions such as NATO. The obvious question, what makes McCain think that NATO allies and the usual other allies (Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea) are not an appropriate start (because NATO includes countries like Spain and France???)

Information: The ability to gather information, and communicate with foreign audiences. Obama would engage foreign populations directly to pursuade them and to undercut anti-U.S. propaganda. To amplify this point, look at a Obama-Biden rally vs. a McCain-Palin rally, and look at it from a point of someone in Asia or Africa or South America or the Middle East. Especially when Palin talks about representing 'Real Americans'. (Many in New York City think when hearing this 'We were American enough for Al-Queda, why are we not American enough for Republicans?') Obama's ability to do this is exemplified by Rashid Khalidi, a Palistinian advocate.
Khalidi added that he strongly disagrees with Obama's current views on Israel, and often disagreed with him during their talks over the years. But he added that Obama, because of his unusual background, with family ties to Kenya and Indonesia, would be more understanding of the Palestinian experience than typical American politicians.

It is that ability to communicate a disagreement with someone outside of the U.S., and still being respected as someone of principle and someone who can be worked with, is vital for a President of a country that is cast as "the last, best hope of the Earth, we just have to show the world why that is so."

Military: Ability to apply military power. This goes beyond any shooting, as the U.S. military response to the tsunamis in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and disasters in Pakistan show. Both candidates will strengthen the military. Obama speaks also to bringing in the rest of the government (i.e. diplomacy and foreign aid) engaged on the ground in major areas instead of just the military. McCain does not speak to non-military elements.

Economic: Understanding how economic issues bear on foreign policy. Neither candidate speaks to this directly, as discussion of economic issues in the campaign focuses on domestic issues, but Obama speaks to applying the entire tools of the U.S. government to national security/foreign relations. McCain does not.

2. Crisis Management. The second area is the ability to handle crisis. When the U.S. has a new President and strong opponents, the new President will be tested. To say otherwise is naivete. The only question is how this crisis will be handled. This campaign had the added highlight of a major economic crisis, the potential fall of the U.S. financial system during the campaign.

From reports, we know of the following actions by Sen. Obama
i. Discussed the strategy with House Democratic leaders for finance and economics.
ii. As Democratic leaders determined their goals (that the rescue plan provide the opportunity for taxpayers to recoup their investments), Sen. Obama began speaking in public on the need for a rescue and the Democratic desire that the rescue be made as investments so the investment can be recovered.
iii. Liberal democrats in congress who initially stated their willingness to let the U.S. financial system collapse report receiving calls from Sen Obama persuading them that the modified rescue plan was worth voting for.
iv. The use of government purchase of equity was used by European governments as the cornerstone of their rescue, based on past experience by some European countries. As provision had been made in the U.S. rescue plan for potential purchase of equity in financial institutions, the U.S. Treasury took part in the plan.

From reports, we know the following actions by Sen. McCain
i. Suspended campaign and went to Washington DC to work on the House negotiations, which collapsed that day. There are no reports of significant inputs to the debate, nor Sen. McCain's understanding or support.

Obama had made the comment that a "President will have to deal with more than one crisis at a time. His steadiness, taking the time to understand the issues, and ability to communicate the issues to other lawmakers and to the public are the mark of a leader. There is no evidence for results for McCain.

Colin Powell stated in his endorsement of Obama
And he displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor. I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well.

And these are the traits that I would look for in handling crisis.

There are other reasons for choosing Sen. Obama over Sen. McCain. Colin Powell discusses a number of them in his endorsement ((Transcript)). Christopher Buckley, onetime columnist with the conservative National Review does the same.One could go to the two candidate websites for information on what they believe.

Colin Powell Endorsement (Transcript) (12:28)

Obama Closing Arguments, Norfolk, VA October 28, 2008 (35:47)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

McCain Guarantees Victory

A tale of two campaigns

McCain Guarantees Victory
Sunday October 26, 2008

“I guarantee you that two weeks from now, you will see this has been a very close race, and I believe that I'm going to win it,” McCain told interim "Meet" moderator Tom Brokaw. “We're going to do well in this campaign, my friend. We're going to win it, and it's going to be tight, and we're going to be up late.”

From the Obama Campaign

Don't Let Up

A European Concert

[Originally at Pittsburgh Symphony Blogs]

This weekend my wife and I went to the Sunday concert and decided to have lunch before the concert on the Strip. And the most obvious thing about a Sunday afternoon on the Strip, is there is a Steelers home game! All around there was Black and Gold. On the sidewalks, in the stores, in the coffeehouse and in the restaurants, waiting for the late afternoon game against the Giants. It was a lot of fun to see the Strip alive on a weekend.

We wanted to try something new so we went to the Chicken Latino (ok, our first four choices were packed with hungry Steeler fans.) And something completely different, we had their Peruvian rotisserie style chicken while getting Clover-brewed coffee from 21st Street Coffee across the street. We knew we were in for a treat when we were looking at the selection of tabasco sauces on the counter and the guy there asked "do you like things spicy" as he reached back for "This is our hot sauce. You'll like it." And we did! A different variety of seasonings in the chicken, and the sauce was wonderful to our jaded taste buds (I'm Thai. We have standards before admiting something is spicy.) And I've long learned to appreciate Clover brewed coffee at 21st Street, even the new ones as they have switched their selection of beans (I liked the Ethiopean coffee I had.)

The soloist for the concert was Arabella Steinbacher. Unlike many of the soloists, she was not from an American school, but from Europe, and I was curious if it made a difference.

The piece was Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. During the concert pre-talk, we learned that Bruch never actually went to Scotland, the piece was composed after researching Scottish folk songs in the library. Being a researcher by trade who values on the ground fact checking, I had to groan at that.

The piece lended itself to very different interaction between soloist and orchestra then the soloists we have had before. While we have gotten used to virtuosi impressing us with their talent and emotion in cadenza, Ms. Steinbacher's strength was the balance with the orchestra. Sometimes the soloist was a secondary theme, weaving with the piece, sometimes the solo rose above the rest of the orchestra holding the audience at attention with the melodies. While I appreciate the raw talent that the soloists who play with the PSO have, I love listening to artists work together. As conductor, Janowski did a wonderful job working with that.

A different soloist, and a day for discovery in the Strip and at the Symphony.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How to Solve It by G Polya

How to Solve It How to Solve It by George Pólya

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a book I wish I had read at the beginning of grad school. How to Solve It is not as much about methods of solving mathematical problems as it is about various approaches to solving problems in general. The method he uses to teach problem solving is to apply the approaches to problems of geometry. This is actually in line with the ancient greek (Aristotle) opinion that the young should learn geometry first, then when they have learned logic and how to prove things with physical reality, then they can go on to things such as philosophy or politics.

The first part of How to Solve It are essays on how to teach and how to approach problems in general. His view on teaching is leading a student to think. Giving the student problems where the answer is not the goal, but the experience in seeing a new type of problem. This is contrasted with viewing teaching as a series of cookbook or algorithms to be taught. It also means the role of the teacher is to provide the problem, then give only what is necessary to nudge the student in the direction needed for the student to discover the method of solution. And presumably, to be able to develop methods for other problems the student has not seen before. Very much like what graduate school is supposed to be.

The bulk of How to Solve It describes a wide range of approaches to problem solving. Some are familiar to a variety of disciplines such as business, crisis management, or general analysis. Some are more familiar to those in sciences or mathematics. But the illustrations are understandable to anyone past a first or second year of high school mathematics, making them much more understandable then, say, a graduate course in real analysis.

If I was in the position of working with first year graduate students in anything, I would recommend this book as something to read before they arrive on campus. It provides a good first exposure to many problem-solving approaches and an exhortation on how to think logically and analytically, that will suit them well when they are faced with the complicated subject matter that is ahead of them.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Operation Enduring Freedom grave

Colin Powell in his endorsement of Senator Barack Obama for President

"Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian, has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer's 'No, that's not America.'"

From the New Yorker

Chamber music at Chatham

[Original is at the Pittsburgh Symphony Blogs]
Yeeha Chiu, Piano
*Dennis O'Boyle, Violin
*Michael Lipman, Cello
Daphne Alderson, Contralto
*Paul Silver, Viola
*Laura Motchalov, Violin
Pauline Rovkah, Piano

* PSO Musician

When I lived in Shadyside, one of the benefits of living there was the close proximity of Chatham College for chamber concerts and talks. Smaller then Pitt and CMU, it made for a more intimate setting. In particular, I like chamber music there. I like the interplay between the players that you don't get as much in a symphony, and everytime I go to Chatham, I engage in conversation with others in the audience during intermission and afterwards.

Last Sunday, several members of the PSO along with notable local pianists and a contralto, had a chamber concert as part of Chatham's Chamber Music series. Among the seven artists, there were five distinct groupings with music by Haydn, Brahms and Schumann.

Why do I enjoy chamber music? It is the interaction between the players. There is the stimulation of trying to follow the motif passed among the parts And in the larger groupings, hearing the various parts weave amongst each other. In Haydn Trio in C Major for Violin, Cello and Piano (Hob XV No. 21) it is between the piano and the strings. For Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44, at times four distinct lines are weaving in and out of each other simultaneously, in addition to each of the five parts taking their turns with the motif in different styles.

And in the end, as we broke for the reception, Pauline (Director, Piano program Chatham) made a special announcement. It was her father-in-law's birthday! And 200+ music lovers sang Happy Birthday along with Piano and Violin. A picture of a community enjoying each other.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Good Night and Good Luck

IMDB (2005)

No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices. (1954)

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. (1954 on See it Now)

Good Night and Good Luck was about Ed Murrow, a broadcast journalist with CBS in the 1940s and 1950s. His fame was based on his broadcasts from England during the London Blitz, which is where his catch phrases "This . . . is London" and "Good night, and Good luck" originated. This movie describes his conflict with Senator Eugene McCarthy during the Red Scare.

What we see is a newsroom as you would hope for it, in the early days of broadcast television. Producers getting stories, and trying to determine what is known and not known, and to pitch a story, as hard as the facts may warrant it, but no more.

And you see the pressure that was put on the journalists for doing this. Senator McCarthy used intimidation, secret evidence, guilt by association, and near blackmail to further his cause. And in it all, there was almost no proof.

Ed Murrow also pushes the point, that Senator McCarthy's primary tactic was to paint people as guilty by association. The mere association with people who were communists was enough to be a target of McCarthy. But unless you live a sheltered life, outside the streams of human suffering and existence, and outside the stream of history, you cannot avoid associating with people with unsavory pasts. Murrow responds to McCarthy's accusation that a socialist author dedicated a book to Murrow by stating that author belonged to a time and tradition that allowed people to be friends with people they disagreed with. And the book dedication that McCarthy gave as evidence of communist leanings acknowledged that Murrow disagreed with the author on principles. McCarthy's argument was pure innuendo, with no substance beneath the surface.

The movie does have a 'just the facts' aura to it. Events and decisions are made bluntly, purely business. There is rejoicing after the job is done, but the actual work is deliberate. The many subplots makes the whole thing almost inhuman. Except for the McCarthy emphasis on character assassination. As the CBS crew reports it, and is a target of it, you see the cost of character assassination in careers ruined, lives ruined, people driven to suicide. All of which steels the CBS crew in their determination to resist the pressure and present the news in an manner beyond reproach.

A very good movie. The antagonist use of character assassination by association is something that has been used many times throughout history, and Good Night and Good Luck does a good job of showing the cost, foreshadowing what kind of world would result if it left unchecked, and showing what resistance to that kind of world looks like.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

PSO: Something new, something old

Saturday night's concert had a treat. Two modern pieces, including a world premier written by Theofanidis with the performer the piece was written for as the soloist. And the Rachmaninoff symphony to provide more traditional meat in the second half of the program.

One of the things I like about going to the Pittsburgh Symphony is the composer in residence program. As much as I enjoy concert music, I am not versed enough to be looking for new music myself. And frankly, the sheer volume of new material is daunting to wade through and separate the wheat from the chaff. Classics are called "classics" for a reason, they have been filtered through the ages and on several different generations of review, they have a certain level of quality. The newer concert works do not have that, and for someone like me who sometimes enjoys the modern works, it is nice to have a filter. In the literary arts this is an editor. But for concert music, I take advantage of having the Pittsburgh Symphony bringing in composers and giving them space to work.

I've never seen (or heard) Nixon in China. But listening to John Adams The Chairman Dances I could almost see a plot. The first part with the buzz of activity growing as various parts are preparing for the historic occasion. The switch to a more melodic middle during the event itself (and maybe a flashback scene along the way?). And the event ends with slowly diminishing activity, until all goes quiet. Now, granted, I just made all that up, but the story in the music was so strong, the composer and orchestra almost seemed to deserve listener imagination of a story.

Hearing Theofanidis give a pre-performance talk before his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was performed. (I was trying to arrive in time for the pre-concert talk, but traffic was a bear.) I remember a talk of his when he was the PSO composer-in-residence and it was a treat to hear it again. There are not that many opportunities to have an artist talk about the creative process, especially when those that would perform the piece (orchestra and soloist) were providing feedback while the piece was being composed. The whole process is that much more alive then the idea of a composer writing the work, then passing on to an orchestra, conductor and soloist to do what they will. Last year, we had the pleasure of John Corigliano and Joshua Bell being present for the Red Violin Concerto and having both of them talk about how they worked together and what the piece was meant for made the experience richer.

There are many reasons to go to symphonic concerts in person. Part of it is to hear the music in a richer form than would be possible off of recordings in the comfort of home, both because of the acoustics and the uniqueness of the interpretation that always happens with a different combination of performer, conductor, setting and audience. There is the beauty and elegance of the setting (ok, I'm not an expert here). And there is the witnessing of the culmination of a creative process that starts with a spark or theme in a composers head, then gets marinated, developed and refined over time and contact. And the composer-in-residence program at the PSO gives us a window into this.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Leadership in crisis

Watching the two candidates respond to the ongoing U.S. financial crisis has been instructive. While the media spin has been that these are a continuing series of "bailouts" it is hard to think who has been bailed out, instead the owners (stockowners) of the institutions in questions have taken a bath, while their customers, clients and counterparties are merely protected from loss (to the extent that their individual dealings were of good quality).

The two candidates (McCain and Obama) do show their different ideas of leadership. McCain opted for publicly jumping into the fray with his physical presence. Senator McCain openly stated he would jump into the negotiations of the U.S. House of Representatives (which he is not a member) and inject his leadership. Nevermind if the House leadership was interested in this (polite statements afterwards aside). Senator Obama spoke to his colleagues in the House so he could understand the issues, then spoke to the American people to explain what the issues were (see LaCross, WI speech below).

The McCain is the in-your-face Great Man view of how things work. He promises that his vast experience will enable him to survive and be successful in the backroom face-to-face negotiations. Can this occur? Every freshman political science student has seen pictures or descriptions of President Lynden Johnson giving "the Treatment" from when he was Majority Leader of the Senate.

But there are actually facts and realities that lie behind these issues, and it is more then just personalities and "special interests" (are "interests" "special" when you are talking something so broad as the U.S. banking and financial market? Who does not have a bank account, work for someone with a line of credit, or have investments in stocks for retirement?) And this is where Obama shines in comparison to McCain. McCain derides as elitist Obama's tendency to explain the issues in their complexity as opposed to giving out soundbytes. But the historical parallel here is Franklin D Roosevelt, in the 1930s during the Great Depression with his fireside chats. Talking directly to a population scared of the future, he acted as if normal people were capable of understanding issues, or at least listening to them. But he also convinced the people that he had taken the time to understand something that was unfathemable to them, and because of that, he could guide them through the fearful unknown.

And that is what Obama is doing. Instead of riding the popular "hang them all" opinion that was seen by the House Republicans, he works behind the scenes in Washington and takes part in the building of a plan that he can understand and then go to the American people, and let them know what the issues are, not just the soundbyte "this is a bailout of fat pigs" rhetoric. He takes risks, as the conservative Republicans threaten they will use any vote that preserves the financial system to cruxify their opponents. And he does this, not in sophisticated audiences like those found in big cities, in university towns, or in a financial audience, but LaCross, WI. In a rural corner of a state that is bordering another rural corner of another state.

As for myself, I'll take intelligent analysis that can be presented to the people over backroom deals, soundbytes, and trying to fly in front of the wind any day.

Reno, NV

"if your neighbor's house is on fire, you can say that he is irresponsible . . . but first you help put out the fire, because it can spread to your house."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

PSO: Something constant in something changing

First concert of the season. Actually, I think I've only been to opening weekend once, two years ago. But I remember the start. The assembled audience openly singing 'The Star Spangled Banner' to the best of their ability accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. A performance I find better then any celebrity with their own interpretation of the piece at a Super Bowl or World Series.

The Star Spangled Banner has changed its meaning to me over the past two works, which is proper as an artistic work (which it is, among other things). In the past two years, I have been attached to military forces to Afghanistan, and I have responded to fires and worked in Hurricane response as a Red Cross volunteer. I've been alongside those in the military, fire, police, all levels of public service and volunteers doing their jobs in non-standard conditions. To use some allusions to literature, classic man vs. man and man vs. nature scenarios. Some of the people I worked with were tuned personally to working in crisis and emergency conditions. Some were not. But even those who were not, generally strove to do their duty even when in situations much larger then themselves. And I was glad to be in their company.

With this frame of mind, I listened to the PSO play 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine.' I've listened to versions on the internet, but somehow, the hearing it live, in the concert environment, with all the variables of the concert setting such as an audience, the orchestra and conductor, and its place on the program, changes its meaning. I spent much of the past month in Texas and Louisiana volunteering for the Red Cross, serving in government operations centers. In these centers, there were representatives from a wide variety of state government agencies, working to provide support for citizens being impacted by the hurricane or in the early stages of recovery. Many of the workers there were used to working in emergencies, like those from law enforcement or fire. Many were not, and these were new stresses for them.

The time in these centers were marked by constant activity, rising and falling in tempo. And there was much repetition, as similar issues would recur in different places. Similar enough to be familiar, but just different enough that they had to be engaged differently. Very much like the orchestral parts in 'Short Ride' with it many repetitions in the parts that were close enough to be familiar, but different enough to sound different with every reprise of a theme.

The underlying unity of 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' is provided by the wood blocks, with their constant marking of a pulse, even as their tenor changes. And the constant where I was working was in the steadiness of the work, the ongoing response to situations by those doing the work, whether steady, calm, frustrated, or overwhelmed, which was the constant tenor amidst the constant activity and sometimes chaos of a hurricane.

My life is a varied one, with many aspects. Among them is this place to absorb and respond to performances of the fine arts. While in Texas and Louisiana I dealt with a wide variety of people. People whose lives have been turned inside out and upside down. People who worked in recovery, to whom hurricane response and recovery was a challenge worthy of applying their talents and skills. People who were responsible for citizens of their towns, counties and parishes, doing their duty. People who heard a calling to help their fellow people, using the talents and abilities they may have. Some of them would view themselves as simple people, far away from the lights of the big city and the great ideas of the world. And many of them would be greatly surprised at being thought of in the context of one of the country's great fine arts institutions. But it is for them that such works were created. And I was proud to know them and glad for the opportunity to serve with them.

[Also posted at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra PSO Blogs]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Word of the day: Doves

Doves: Disaster Operations Volunteer Escapees. retired couple that for their vacations travel to disasters in their RVs to work as Red Cross volunteers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

QOTD: If you are not pissing everybody off

"If you are not pissing everybody off, you aren't going to make it as a government liaison."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hunkering down for Hurricane Ike

I've been here for a week now. Mostly working in the Louisiana State Operations Center. Very busy, lots of phones going off with all the state agencies here. Lots of different groups in the room. Numerous state agencies including State Police, Environmental Quality, National Weather service, Dept. of Agriculture, Department of Transporation and Development. Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Hospitals. Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Red Cross. Corps of Engineers. And many that you may not expect. All with a job. Some jobs are obvious, some are not. Because there is a disaster. It is a surprise that everyone can be thrown in a room and work together. Well, ok, there is a learning curve for everyone to work together, but still, 50+ people in a room who have never been in the same room before working together is pretty impressive.

At one point one of the other Red Cross guys with me took a moment to step back to watch the room. He figured there were thirty phones going off at the time. Let's see, what kind of things to I work on. . .

- Calls from mobile kitchens that are running out of fuel

- Shelters that needed supplies, showers, generators

- Requests for data on feeding activities for planners

- Requests for information on state emergency and disaster declarations

State agencies asking 'Can Red Cross do . . .?'

Governor's representatives coming to ask 'How does Red Cross . . .?'
- Big, unsolicited, unexpected donation of food that we had to figure out how to use (or if we could use it)

Lots of big issues. Very different from being one of the people on the ground, talking to people, feeding people, setting up cots, surveying damage, all the other things I've done in Red Cross. But it is not too hard to see how it fits into everything else. Especially when some of the resources that get coordinated here keep other operations from shutting down. Like feeding people who do not have another source of food because the power is out.

But now, Ike is making landfall overnight. Everyone is hunkering down. The place I'm staying has had its power on and off today. And waiting out the storm. So we can go back to work tomorrow.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Greeting Hurricane Gustav in Texas

Last week Wednesday
"Please update your availability to deploy for Hurricane Gustav"

"Can you deploy for Hurricane Gustav? I'll get back to you with an assignment."

Friday 1430:
"Book the first available flight to Tyler, TX. You will be a government liaison. Call me when you have flight information."

I've been spending the past week in Tyler, TX volunteering for the Red Cross responding to Hurricane Gustav. It has been a hectic week, almost all of it spent inside a state operations center here starting from morning until late at night. I joke it is my first Red Cross deployment, it is for a hurricane, and I never got wet.

Tyler, TX is in northeast Texas, and while it did not get hit by Hurricane Gustav, its partner city, Beaumont, did. And in the first test of the Texas evacuation plan, all evacuees from Beaumont were sent to Tyler. The center I was in was responsible for state of Texas resources in 20 counties in northeast Texas, who were housing evacuees from various parts of the Texas coast around Beaumont and Galveston. It is a massive burden, as the receiving counties are not nearly as densely populated as their coastal partners. Red Cross and locally sponsored shelters had 5000+ evacuees, and every hotel and motel room in the region was booked, mostly with evacuees. And they have to be fed, medical needs met, and issues of all sorts that happen when you have this large a population over any period of time. And then, when the all clear comes, everyone that evacuated with help from the state, needs to get back.

Does it work? Like all concepts that are implemented for the first time there are kinks, but everyone here looks pleased by the end result, and much better then last time around (2005). Evacuees were around people from the same place as them, and it was easier to organize the transporation back, as people in one shelter were going to the same destination point along the coast. Still, I submitted a 5 page report with some issues, and everyone has been told to do the same, quickly, because there is another hurricane on the way.

It was a good place to work. Incident Command System (ICS) works, I had my role, and I fit into the team here pretty much seamlessly. Like all operations, there is a lot that is learned everytime you go on one in a different place. It gets hectic. Problems arise at the local level that were not anticipated (after all, this is a disaster). There are the information requests from higher up that are overly burdensome. And there are long hours trying to plan the next stage of the disaster response, which has to happen the same time you are working on issues in the here and now. And you have been doing this for N hours that day, with another M hours to go before you even think of sleep. Along with everyone else in the room who have been doing the same thing.

Deep thinking will have to wait. The last couple days were spent getting buses to people, people on buses, and buses moving south. And people arriving back home. And now, I head east, to Louisiana, where it seems like it was not so easy. Because, even though I've noticed that Hurricane Gustav is not on the news anymore (pushed off by Hurricane Hannah. We heard a reporter say "it may make a moderate category 1" and we all started laughing. A moderate category 1 can be experienced by driving on the highway with the windows open during a thunderstorm), Red Cross, police, medical, and military personnel are still helping those evacuees, feeding those who have returned to homes without electricity and gas, and helping hospitals who have their populations back, but are not operating at full themselves.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Patriotism "the world as it should be"

'My country, right or wrong' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober'.

- G. K. Chesterton - A Defense of Patriotism

All of us driven by the simple belief that the world as it is just won't do, that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.

And that is the thread that connects our hearts. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack's journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope.

And, you see, that is why I love this country.

-- Michelle Obama - 2008 Democratic National Convention

I was listening to the Monday evening keynote address by Michelle Obama. And the lines that I remember, is when she talks about love of country, and of what she, and others strive for, that we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be.

This is the best form of patriotism can hope for. G.K. Chesterson has a illustration of Pimlico,

It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. . . . If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great.

Patriotism, like love in its best forms, should not be blind. It had a loyalty, not because its object is perfect, or even that its object is great. But because of what the object of that loyalty can be. And the expression of that patriotism is the desire for what could be, to become true. And for Michelle Obama to speak of working for "the world as it should be" is to talk of patriotism and love of this nation in its finest form. I remember, back in April, Barack Obama's speach after his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, USMC (Ret.) refused to repudiate his talk of racial hate. Barack Obama then spoke of "a more perfect union." A desire to see his country become greater than it is, because that is the way it should be, not what it is now.

The contrast is discussed by C.S. Lewis. The opposite of patriotism and love is not hate, it is cynicism. The view that things will never be great, that patriotism and love are tools of manipulation to protect a history of lies and iniquity.

To listen to a Michelle Obama or a Barack Obama, or to read an essay by G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, you have options on the kind of world you want to live in. One that can think of a world or nation or city that can be, or one that prefers to remember the lies, deceits, hatreds and destruction that has created the wrongs one sees.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Importing spreadsheet data into Derby/JavaDB

Adding spreadsheet data to Apache Derby

I have a number of Spreadsheets with data in them, and the trick is to get them into a database so I can make some sense out of them (or be able to tell that they do not make sense, as the case may be). And I figured this would be a decent time to work on a new database. I could have used SQLite that I've used in the past. But I decided to use a server-class database, just because I've never used one. So I choose Derby (because I can still use it as if it were a single-site database). Also, there is some sensitive data, so I needed to password protect it.

Import CSV files

Creating CSV files
The first trick is always getting the data into the database. I opened up the spreadsheet in, then copied the row names to text file. That text file turned into a CREATE TABLE statement. The first problem was some of the names were reserved words, in particular 'Case'.

Next, I removed extra rows from the top of the database, including some instructions and the column headers. To make the comma-separated-values text work, I checked the formatting for all the columns. In particular, I formated the dollar figures to remove currency symbols, and insured that fields intended to be numbers were explicitely formated as numbers.

Then I exported the data to text (CSV) with double-quotes (") to delimit text, and semi-colons (;) to delimit fields.

From the CSV file, I removed empty rows and some extraneous text. The big one was where a space " " was in a cell that should have been empty. I got rid of those by searching for [;" ";] where there should have been a [ ;; ] that represented an empty field.

Import CSV files using ij

Finally, was the actual import. I had earlier added the Derby scripting tool, ij, into my path by putting

# add DERBY environmental variables
export DERBY_HOME=/usr/share/javadb
export PATH="$DERBY_HOME/bin:$PATH"

into my .bashrc file. In my script file, I had added the following above the CREATE TABLE SQL text:

connect 'jdbc:derby:Sample;create=true';
DROP TABLE Sampletable;

Then at the bottom, I entered the data into the newly created table by adding the following after the CREATE TABLE statement

CALL SYSCS_UTIL.SYSCS_IMPORT_TABLE (null,'Sampletable','Sampledata.csv',';',null,null,0);

At this point, I ran

Select * from Sampletable;

in ij just to make sure it got in.

Setting a password

Next question was could I put a password on this. From within ij I created a database user with password, then set the database to require a password.

call syscs_util.syscs_set_database_property ('derby.user.testuser', 'test');
call syscs_util.syscs_set_database_property ('derby.authentication.provider', 'BUILTIN');
call syscs_util.syscs_set_database_property ('derby.connection.requireAuthentication', 'true');

Exiting from ij, then reconnecting using

connect 'jdbc:derby:Sample' user 'testuser' password 'test';

confirmed that the connection worked.

Connecting through Eclipse

The next task was to ensure that I could use the data through other tools, specifically Eclipse and In Eclipse, I had BIRT installed. It gives a few choices for perspectives and I chose the Choose Report Design perspective. The perspective then gives the choice of 'Databases' or 'ODA Data Sources'. I right-clicked on 'Databases' and then chose 'Derby Embedded Database.' The next screen asked for a connection profile name and description. Next was the driver details. I clicked on the option box with the three dots, and looked at available drivers. These were not set properly, so I set the embedded driver to /usr/share/javadb/lib/derby.jar and a client driver to /usr/share/javadb/lib/derbyclient.jar. Filling in the Username 'testuser' and password 'test', then clicking on 'Test Connection' showed that this succedded.

In Eclipse, under 'Databases', the 'Sample' database shows up. Under 'Sample' was 'Schemas'. Under the 'APP' schema, undert 'Tables' was my 'SampleTable', waiting to be found.

Connecting using

Before starting, I opened and selected Tools -> Options. In the window that comes up, in the right I opened up the tree (click on '+' if it does not show) then selected 'Java'. On the right, there is a button for 'Class Path' Click on that button, and I added the derby.jar and derbyclient.jar archives to the Classpath. These were at /usr/share/javadb/lib/derby.jar and /usr/share/javadb/lib/derbyclient.jar respectively.

Using, I selected File -> New -> Database. In the Database Wizard that comes up, I picked 'Connect to an existing database', with 'JDBC' as the chosen option.

In the 'Set up a connection to a JDBC database' screen I entered

Datasource URL: jdbc:derby:/path/to/Sample
JDBC driver class: org.apache.derby.jdbc.EmbeddedDriver

Clicking on 'Test Class' confirmed the driver was in the Classpath as set earlier. The next screen is 'Set up the user authentication' I leave the 'User name' blank, but check the box labeled 'Password required'

On the next screen, 'Decide how to proceed after saving the database', click 'Yes, register the database for me' which allows to access the database (or you just have an odb file that includes database connection parameters) and 'Open the database for editing' ('Create tables using the table wizard' is not useful now since there already are datatables). then asks for a name for the .odb file it will create to maintain the connection to the database (as well as any queries created in The database can be accessed by clicking on any icon ('Tables', 'Queries', 'Forms', 'Reports'). will then connect to the database (asking for the database username and password along the way. Entering 'testuser' for username and 'test' for password does it). Then the database can be used from the GUI, which includes a graphical Query Design view or the usual SQL.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Clover at 21st Street Coffee

I've been wanting to try coffee made on The Clover ever since I first heard of this. Of course, there is only one in Pittsburgh, 21st Street Coffee in the Strip. Which I don't go to all that often. So a few weeks ago, my wife and I made the decision, we will go to 21st Street Coffee sometime. And today was sometime.

What is the big deal? Well, the Clover fixes the quantity of beans, the water temperature, and the time steeped for a single cup serving of coffee. That means the coffee is fresh (ground just before being added to the Clover) and the barista and coffee place can experiment with those three settings to get the best coffee given the bean and the roast.

S, C (who we conned into coming) and I had three cups of coffee: Kenya, Costa Rica, and Honduras (all roasted at Chicago's very own Intelligencia). My Kenya was a bit mild for my taste. We liked the Costa Rica. Honduras was not bad. But at the end of the day, we bought a bag of the Costa Rica.

The benefit of the Clover? The taste that is there comes through more then normal and the coffee is smooth, more than drip or the french press, or even vacuum press. S and I were tasting the coffees like they were wines. Now, I'm not going to pay wine prices for this, but it is quite good.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

On the labeling of ideas (or, how to identify a liberal or conservative)

I have been entertained by someone who has been trying to use the word "Liberal" as an epitath. Like in the way 3rd grade boys shout insults to each other, and not nearly as sophisticated as the trash talk that can be found on any inner city basketball court. But words should have meaning, and to use it as a meaningless insult is, well, meaningless. And why would I not want to be considered a liberal? The classical meaning is a doctrine stressing individual freedom, limited government, stressing the importance of human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, protection of civil liberties, constitutional limitations of government, free markets and individual freedom from restraints (taken from Wikipedia). Its foundation is on the writings of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Paine.

But there persists those who would rather turn a distinguished idea such as this as an insult, and seek to make words mean whatever they want it to at the time, instead of using words for what they really mean. And sometimes the purpose is the creation of hate and dissention, which is not useful, especially to those who believe that the United States experiment in a democratic republic is a useful one.

So, how to identify a "liberal" or a "conservative" (or a "progressive" or an "idealist", "realist", you get the idea)? The principal tthat is useful is to look to those who actually claim the label as their own, and see who they agree with. So ask liberals who are the liberals, conservatives to find out who are the conservatives, etc.

The current U.S. presidential campaign is remarkable in that both the liberals and the conservatives appear to have lost their respective nomination campaign, which is causing much wringing of hand and gnashing of teeth. The Democratic Party is furiously trying to keep the liberals in the fold, trying to appease the Clinton supporters and the disappointes supporters of universal health care, and hoping the demonstrations of the progressives do not get out of hand. The Republicans, well, have the spector of John McCain, who conservatives used to ask "Is McCain a Republican?"

Why It's Important to Note that Obama is NOT Liberal or Progressive at Open Left

Taylor Marsh at The Huffington Post, Barack Obama's Progressive Cannibalism

Oscar Howard at The Conservative Voice, John McCain is Not a Conservative

Babbin at Human, John McCain: The Anti-Conservative

What to make of it? Numerous newspaper columnists have had a chance to amuse themselves at liberals who have realized that Obama is not one of them by in effect observing some progressives seem to be intent on fooling themselves that he is only seeming centrist but a hidden progressive "In effect, they convinced themselves that he was a transformational figure behind a centrist facade. They may have had it backward." (Paul Krugman, New York Times, The Obama Agenda) Or, it could be that maybe that there are other labels besides 'liberal' or 'conservative' that properly identify the candidates positions (which is the Obama position on this labeling). There are plenty to choose from ('idealist/realist', 'progressive/reactionary'). Or maybe it would pay to pay attention to what the candidates actually say.