tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Jun 6, 2016 7:37pm

blog all dog-eared pages: the best and the brightest

David Halberstam’s 1972 evisceration of the Vietnam War planning process during Kennedy and Johnson’s administrations has been on my list to read for a while, for two reasons. Being born just after the war means that I’ve heard for my whole life about what a mistake it was, but never understood the pre-war support for such a debacle. Also, I’m interested in the organizational problems that might have led to the entanglement in a country fighting for its independence from foreign occupations over centuries. How did anyone think this was a good idea? According to Halberstam, the U.S. government had limited its own critical capacity due to McCarthyist purges after China’s revolution, and Johnson in particular was invested in Vietnam being a small, non-war. In the same way that clipping lines of communication can destroy a conspiracy’s ability to think, the system did not really “think” about this at all. Many similarities to Iraq 40 years later.

The inherent unattractiveness of doubt is an early theme; the people who might have helped Kennedy and later Johnson make a smarter move by preventing rash action did not push to be a part of these decisions. Sometimes it’s smartest to make no move at all, but the go-getters who go get into positions of power carry a natural bias towards action in all situations. Advice from doubters should be sought out. I’m grateful for the past years of Obama’s presidency who characterized his foreign policy doctrine as “Don’t do stupid shit.”

The locus of control is another theme. Halberstam shows how the civilian leadership thought it had the military under control, and the military leadership thought it had the Vietnam campaign under control. In reality, the civilians ceded the initiative to the generals, and the generals never clearly saw how the Northern Vietnamese controlled the pace of the war. Using the jungle trails between the North and South and holding the demographic advantage and a strategy with a clear goal, the government in Hanoi decided the pace of the war by choosing to send or not send troops into the south. America was permanently stuck outside the feedback loop.

I would be curious to know if a similar account of the same war is available from the Northern perspective; were the advantages always obvious from the inside? How is this story told from the victor’s point of view?

Here are some passages I liked particularly.

On David Reisman and being a doubter in 1961, page 42:

“You all think you can manage limited wars and that you’re dealing with an elite society which is just waiting for your leadership. It’s not that way at all,” he said. “It’s not an Eastern elite society run for Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations.”
It was only natural that the intellectuals who questioned the necessity of America purpose did not rush from Cambridge and New Haven to inflict their doubts about American power and goals upon the nation’s policies. So people like Reisman, classic intellectuals, stayed where they were while the new breed of thinkers-doers, half of academe, half the nation’s think tanks and of policy planning, would make the trip, not doubting for a moment the validity of their right to serve, the quality of their experience. They were men who reflect the post-Munich, post-McCarthy pragmatism of the age. One had to stop totalitarianism, and since the only thing the totalitarians understood was force, one had to be willing to use force. They justified each decision to use power by their own conviction that the Communists were worse, which justified our dirty tricks, our toughness.

On setting expections and General Shoup’s use of maps to convey the impossibility of invading Cuba in 1961, page 66:

When talk about invading Cuba was becoming fashionable, General Shoup did a remarkable display with maps. First he took an overlay of Cuba and placed it over the map of the United States. To everybody’s surprise, Cuba was not a small island along the lines of, say, Long Island at best. It was about 800 miles long and seemed to stretch from New York to Chicago. Then he took another overlay, with a red dot, and placed it over the map of Cuba. “What’s that?” someone asked him. “That, gentlemen, represent the size of the island of Tarawa,” said Shoup, who had won a Medal of Honor there, “and it took us three days and eighteen thousand Marines to take it.”

On being perceived as a dynamic badass in government, relative to the First Asian crisis in Laos, 1961-63, page 88:

It was the classic crisis, the kind that the policy makers of the Kennedy era enjoyed, taking an event and making it greater by their determination to handle it, the attention focused on the White House. During the next two months, officials were photographed briskly walking (almost trotting) as they came and went with their attaché cases, giving their No comment’s, the blending of drama and power, everything made a little bigger and more important by their very touching it. Power and excitement come to Washington. There were intense conferences, great tensions, chances for grace under pressure. Being in on the action. At the first meeting, McNamara forcefully advocated arming half a dozen AT6s (obsolete World War Ⅱ fighter planes) with 100-lb. bombs, and letting them go after the bad Laotians. It was a strong advocacy; the other side had no air power. This we would certainly win; technology and power could do it all. (“When a newcomer enters the field [of foreign policy],” Chester Bowles wrote in a note to himself at the time, “and finds himself confronted by the nuances of international questions he becomes an easy target for the military-CIA-paramilitary-type answers which can be added, subtracted, multiplied or divided…”)

On questioning evidence for the domino theory, page 122:

Later, as their policies floundered in Vietnam, … the real problem was the failure to reexamine the assumptions of the era, particularly in Southeast Asia. There was no real attempt, when the new Administration came in, to analyze Ho Chi Minh’s position in terms of the Vietnamese people and in terms of the larger Communist world, to establish what Diem represented, to determine whether the domino theory was in fact valid. Each time the question of the domino theory was sent to intelligence experts for evaluation, the would back answers which reflected their doubts about its validity, but the highest level of government left the domino theory alone. It was as if, by questioning it, they might have revealed its emptiness, and would then have been forced to act on their new discovery.

On the ridiculousness of the Special Forces, page 123:

All of this helped send the Kennedy Administration into dizzying heights of antiguerilla activity and discussion; instead of looking behind them, the Kennedy people were looking ahead, ready for a new and more subtle kind of conflict. The other side, Rostow’s scavengers of revolution, would soon be met by the new American breed, a romantic group indeed, the U.S. Army Special Forces. They were all uncommon men, extraordinary physical specimens and intellectuals Ph.D.s swinging from trees, speaking Russian and Chinese, eating snake meat and other fauna at night, springing counterambushes on unwary Asian ambushers who had read Mao and Giap, but not Hilsman and Rostow. It was all going to be very exciting, and even better, great gains would be made at little cost.
In October 1961 the entire White House press corps was transported to Fort Bragg to watch a special demonstration put on by Kennedy’s favored Special Forces, and it turned into a real whiz-bang day. There were ambushes, counterambushes and demonstrations in snake-meat eating, all topped off by a Buck Rogers show: a soldier with a rocket on his back who flew over water to land on the other side. It was quite a show, and it was only as they were leaving Fort Bragg that Francis Lara, the Agence France-Presse correspondent who had covered the Indochina War, sidle over to his friend Tom Wicker of the New York Times. “Al; of this looks very impressive, doesn’t it?” he said. Wicker allowed as how it did. “Funny,” Lara said, “none of it worked for us when we tried it in 1951.”

On consensual hallucinations, shared reality, and some alarming parallels to Bruno Latour’s translation model, page 148:

In 1954, right after Geneva, no one really believed there was such a thing as South Vietnam. … Like water turning into ice, the illusion crystallized and became a reality, not because that which existed in South Vietnam was real, but because it became powerful in men’s minds. Thus, what had never truly existed and was so terribly frail became firm, hard. A real country with a real constitution. An army dressed in fine, tight-fitting uniforms, and officers with lots of medals. A supreme court. A courageous president. Articles were written. “The tough miracle man of Vietnam,” Life called [Diem]. “The bright spot in Asia,” the Saturday Evening Post said.

On the difficulty of containing military plans and the general way it’s hard to get technical and operations groups to relinquish control once granted, page 178:

The Kennedy commitment had changed things in other ways as well. While the President had the illusion that he had held off the military, the reality was that he had let them in. … Once activated, even in a small way at first, they would soon dominate the play. Their particular power with the Hill and with hawkish journalists, their stronger hold on patriotic-machismo arguments (in decision making the proposed the manhood positions, their opponents the softer, or sissy, positions), their particular certitude, made them far more powerful players than men raising doubts. The illusion would always be of civilian control; the reality would be of a relentlessly growing military domination of policy, intelligence, aims, objectives and means, with the civilians, the very ones who thought they could control the military, conceding step by step, without even knowing they were losing.

On being stuck in a trap of our own making by 1964, page 304:

They were rational men, that above all; they were not ideologues. Ideologues are predictable and they were not, so the idea that those intelligent, rational, cultured, civilized men had been caught in a terrible trap by 1964 and that they spent an entire year letting the trap grow tighter was unacceptable; they would have been the first to deny it. If someone in those days had called them aside and suggested that they, all good rational men, were tied to a policy of deep irrationality, layer and layer of clear rationality based upon several great false assumptions and buttressed by a deeply dishonest reporting system which created a totally false data bank, they would have lashed out sharply that they did indeed know where they were going.

On the timing of Robert Johnson’s 1964 study on bombing effectiveness (“we would face the problem of finding a graceful way out of the action”), page 358:

Similarly, the massive and significant study was pushed aside because it had come out at the wrong time. A study has to be published at the right moment, when people are debating an issue and about to make a decision; then and only then will they read a major paper, otherwise they are too pressed for time. Therefore, when the long-delayed decisions on the bombing were made a year later, the principals did not go back to the Bob Johnson paper, because new things had happened, one did not go back to an old paper.
Finally and perhaps most important, there was no one to fight for it, to force it into the play, to make the other principals come to terms with it. Rostow himself could not have disagreed more with the paper; it challenged every one of his main theses, his almost singular and simplistic belief in bombing and what it could accomplish.

On George Ball’s 1964 case for the doves and commitment to false hope, page 496:

Bothered by the direction of the war, and by the attitudes he found around him in the post-Tonkin fall of 1964, and knowing that terrible decisions were coming up, Ball began to turn his attention to the subject of Vietnam. He knew where the dissenters were at State, and he began to put together his own network, people with expertise on Indochina and Asia who had been part of the apparatus Harriman had built, men like Alan Whiting, a China watcher at INR; these were men whose own work was being rejected or simply ignored by their superiors. Above all, Ball was trusting his own instincts on Indochina. The fact that the others were all headed the other way did not bother him; he was not that much in awe of them, anyway.
Since Ball had not been in on any of the earlier decision making, he was in no way committed to any false hopes and self-justification; in addition, since he had not really taken part in the turnaround against Diem, he was in no way tainted in Johnson’s eyes.

On slippery slopes for “our boys,” page 538:

Slipping in the first troops was an adjustment, an asterisk really, to a decision they had made principally to avoid sending troops, but of course there had to be protection for the airplanes, which no one had talked about at any length during the bombing discussion, that if you bombed you needed airfields, and if you had airfields you needed troops to protect the airfields, and the ARVN wasn’t good enough. Nor had anyone pointed out that troops beget troops: that a regiment is very small, a regiment cannot protect itself. Even as they were bombing they were preparing for the arrival of our boys, which of course would mean more boys to protect our boys. The rationale would provide its own rhythm of escalation, and its growth would make William Westmoreland almost overnight a major player, if not the major player. This rationale weighed so heavily on the minds of the principals that three years later, in 1968, when the new thrust of part of the bureaucracy was to end or limit the bombing and when Lyndon Johnson was willing to remove himself from running again, he was nevertheless transfixes by the idea of protecting our boys.

On Robert McNamara making shit up, page 581:

Soon they would lose control, he said; soon we would be sending 200,000 to 250,000 men there. Then they would tear into him, McNamara the leader: It’s dirty pool; for Christ’s sake, George, we’re not talking about anything like that, no one’s talking about that many people, we’re talking about a dozen, maybe a few more maneuver battalions.
Poor George had no counterfigures; he would talk in vague doubts, lacking these figures, and leave the meetings occasionally depressed and annoyed. Why did McNamara have such good figures? Why did McNamara have such good staff work and Ball such poor staff work? The next day Ball would angrily dispatch his staff to come up with the figures, to find out how McNamara had gotten them, and the staff would burrow away and occasionally find that one of the reasons that Ball did not have the comparable figures was that they did not always exist. McNamara had invented them, he dissembled even within the bureaucracy, though, of course, always for a good cause. It was part of his sense of service. He believed in what he did, and this the morality of it was assured, and everything else fell into place.

On the political need to keep decisions soft and vague, page 593:

If there were no decisions which were crystallized and hard, then they could not leak, and if they could not leak, then the opposition could not point to them. Which was why he was not about to call up the reserves, because the use of the reserves would blow it all. It would be self-evident that we were really going to war, and that we would in fact have to pay a price. Which went against all Administration planning; this would be a war without a price, a silent, politically invisible war.

On asking for poor service, page 595:

Six years later McGeorge Bundy, whose job it was to ask questions for a President who could not always ask the right questions himself, would go before the Council on Foreign Relations and make a startling admission about the mission and the lack of precise objectives. The Administration, Bundy recounted, did not tell the military what to do and how to do itl there was in his words a “premium put on imprecision,” and the political and military leaders did not speak candidly to each other. In fact, if the military and political leaders had been totally candid with each other in 1965 about the length and cost of the war instead of coming to a consensus, as Johnson wanted, there would have been vast and perhaps unbridgeable differences, Bundy said. It was a startling admission, because it was specifically Bundy’s job to make sure that differences like these did not exist. They existed, of course, not because they could not be uncovered but because it was a deliberate policy not to surface with real figures and real estimates which might show that they were headed toward a real war. The men around Johnson served him poorly, but they served him poorly because he wanted them to.

Dec 29, 2011 3:07am

blog all kindle-clipped locations: normal accidents

I’m reading Charles Perrow’s book Normal Accidents (Living with High-Risk Technologies). It’s about nuclear accidents, among other things, and the ways in which systemic complexity inevitably leads to expected or normal failure modes. I think John Allspaw may have recommended it to me with the words “failure porn”.

I’m only partway through. For a book on engineering and safety it’s completely fascinating, notably for the way it shows how unintuitively-linked circumstances and safety features can interact to introduce new risk. The descriptions of accidents are riveting, not least because many come from Nuclear Safety magazine and are written in a breezy tone belying subsurface potential for total calamity. I’m not sure why this is interesting to me at this point in time, but as we think about data flows in cities and governments I sense a similar species of flighty optimism underlying arguments for Smart Cities.

Loc. 94-97, a definition of what “normal” means in the context of this book:

If interactive complexity and tight coupling—system characteristics—inevitably will produce an accident, I believe we are justified in calling it a normal accident, or a system accident. The odd term normal accident is meant to signal that, given the system characteristics, multiple and unexpected interactions of failures are inevitable. This is an expression of an integral characteristic of the system, not a statement of frequency. It is normal for us to die, but we only do it once.

Loc. 956-60, defining the term “accident” and its relation to four levels of affect (operators, employees, bystanders, the general public):

With this scheme we reserve the term accident for serious matters, that is, those affecting the third or fourth levels; we use the term incident for disruptions at the first or second level. The transition between incidents and accidents is the nexus where most of the engineered safety features come into play—the redundant components that may be activated; the emergency shut-offs; the emergency suppressors, such as core spray; or emergency supplies, such as emergency feedwater pumps. The scheme has its ambiguities, since one could argue interminably over the dividing line between part, unit, and subsystem, but it is flexible and adequate for our purposes.

Loc. 184-88, on the ways in which safety measures themselves increase complexity or juice the risks of dangerous actions:

It is particularly important to evaluate technological fixes in the systems that we cannot or will not do without. Fixes, including safety devices, sometimes create new accidents, and quite often merely allow those in charge to run the system faster, or in worse weather, or with bigger explosives. Some technological fixes are error-reducing—the jet engine is simpler and safer than the piston engine; fathometers are better than lead lines; three engines are better than two on an airplane; computers are more reliable than pneumatic controls. But other technological fixes are excuses for poor organization or an attempt to compensate for poor system design. The attention of authorities in some of these systems, unfortunately, is hard to get when safety is involved.

Loc. 776-90, a harrowing description of cleanup efforts after the October 1966 Fermi meltdown:

Almost a year from the accident, they were able to lower a periscope 40 feet down to the bottom of the core, where there was a conical flow guide—a safety device similar to a huge inverted icecream cone that was meant to widely distribute any uranium that might inconceivably melt and drop to the bottom of the vessel. Here they spied a crumpled bit of metal, for all the world looking like a crushed beer can, which could have blocked the flow of sodium coolant.
It wasn’t a beer can, but the operators could not see clearly enough to identify it. The periscope had fifteen optical relay lenses, would cloud up and take a day to clean, was very hard to maneuver, and had to be operated from specially-built, locked-air chambers to avoid radiation. To turn the metal over to examine it required the use of another complex, snake-like tool operated 35 feet from the base of the reactor. The operators managed to get a grip on the metal, and after an hour and a half it was removed.
The crumpled bit of metal turned out to be one of five triangular pieces of zirconium that had been installed as a safety device at the insistence of the Advisory Reactor Safety Committee, a prestigious group of nuclear experts who advise the NRC. It wasn’t even on the blueprints. The flow of sodium coolant had ripped it loose. Moving about, it soon took a position that blocked the flow of coolant, causing the melting of the fuel bundles.
During this time, and for many months afterwards, the reactor had to be constantly bathed in argon gas or nitrogen to make sure that the extremely volatile sodium coolant did not come into contact with any air or water; if it did, it would explode and could rupture the core. It was constantly monitored with Geiger counters by health physicists. Even loud noises had to be avoided. Though the reactor was subcritical, there was still a chance of a reactivity accident. Slowly the fuel assemblies were removed and cut into three pieces so they could be shipped out of the plant for burial. But first they had to be cooled off for months in spent-fuel pools—huge swimming pools of water, where the rods of uranium could not be placed too close to each other. Then they were placed in cylinders 9 feet in diameter weighing 18 tons each. These were designed to withstand a 30-foot fall and a 30-minute fire, so dangerous is the spent fuel. Leakage from the casks could kill children a half a mile away.

That’s completely insane.

Jun 17, 2010 3:02am

blog all kindle-clipped locations: the big short

I picked up Michael Lewis's new book, The Big Short, pretty much as soon as it hit the Kindle a few weeks ago. It's a post-catastrophe account of the subprime mortgage crisis, told through the eyes of a small group of traders who shorted the supposedly unshortable mortgage backed securities that made everyone rich five years ago.

It's partially a financial story, but to me it's also a story about assumptions. I've been thinking a bit about the effects of unspoken, day-to-day dependencies that we all rely on in our lives. Can we live without them? Are we light enough on our feet to adjust when they shift? Do we even know what they are, and can we explain how they fit together? In a small company like mine, these questions can lead to some fairly serious existential crises. A few years ago, our client base seemed disproportionately tied to the galloping Web 2.0 economy. More recently, the brash announcement by Apple that Flash would be unsupported on the iPad confirmed a long-held suspicion that the platform was on rocky ground. In the trenches of my day-to-day as technology director, I've become excessively sensitive to the problems of cross-dependencies among projects, code bases, and servers. This is not so much an issue of identifying single points of failure as it is a matter of understanding which doorknobs you've tied your teeth to and subsequently forgotten.

Three questions:

  1. Do you depend on anything outside your control? What is it?
  2. Can you repeat past successes with those same externalities?
  3. Could you quarantine, isolate, or replace them, if you had to?

The Big Short is the story of one particular set of external dependencies that turned out to be hopelessly intertwined. Specifically, it's about the revelation that an entire class of financial products based on the performance of mortgage payments was more deeply interdependent and market-distorting than anyone had imagined. It's the moment near the end of a Stephen King novel where all the townspeople are revealed to have first names that start with "K" and they're sitting silently in their cars waiting for you up the road. NPR's Planet Money does a better job of explaining the details ("we bought the toxic asset..."), but the underpinning of the story shows how difficult it is to reject a lie when your livelihood depends on believing it.

Anyway.

Loc. 476-82, an opening anecdote showing the matter-of-fact cultural role of Wall Street greed:

When a Wall Street firm helped him to get into a trade that seemed perfect in every way, he asked the salesman, "I appreciate this, but I just want to know one thing: How are you going to fuck me?" Heh-heh-heh, c'mon, we'd never do that, the trader started to say, but Danny, though perfectly polite, was insistent. We both know that unadulterated good things like this trade don't just happen between little hedge funds and big Wall Street firms. I'll do it, but only after you explain to me how you are going to fuck me. And the salesman explained how he was going to fuck him. And Danny did the trade.

Loc. 483-87, Steven Eisman is one of the main characters, a brusque gadfly with odd listening habits:

Working for Eisman, you never felt you were working for Eisman. He'd teach you but he wouldn't supervise you. Eisman also put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. "Steve's fun to take to any Wall Street meeting," said Vinny. "Because he'll say 'explain that to me' thirty different times. Or 'could you explain that more, in English?' Because once you do that, there's a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they're talking about. And a lot of times they don't!"

Loc. 985-89, on the undesireability of defending an idea:

Inadvertently, he'd opened up a debate with his own investors, which he counted among his least favorite activities. "I hated discussing ideas with investors," he said, "because I then become a Defender of the Idea, and that influences your thought process." Once you became an idea's defender you had a harder time changing your mind about it. He had no choice: Among the people who gave him money there was pretty obviously a built-in skepticism of so-called macro thinking.

Loc. 1788-96, on the role of research that seemingly no one else wants to do. This is actually one of the most interesting aspects of The Big Short for me, the relative rarity of legwork compared to the ease of sticking to first appearances:

It wasn't a question two thirty-something would-be professional investors in Berkeley, California, with $110,000 in a Schwab account should feel it was their business to answer. But they did. They went hunting for people who had gone to college with Capital One's CEO, Richard Fairbank, and collected character references. Jamie paged through the Capital One 10-K filing in search of someone inside the company he might plausibly ask to meet. "If we had asked to meet with the CEO, we wouldn't have gotten to see him," explained Charlie. Finally they came upon a lower-ranking guy named Peter Schnall, who happened to be the vice-president in charge of the subprime portfolio. "I got the impression they were like, 'Who calls and asks for Peter Schnall?'" said Charlie. "Because when we asked to talk to him they were like, 'Why not?'" They introduced themselves gravely as Cornwall Capital Management but refrained from mentioning what, exactly, Cornwall Capital Management was. "It's funny," says Jamie. "People don't feel comfortable asking how much money you have, and so you don't have to tell them."

Loc. 1830-34, on arguing convincingly:

Both had trouble generating conviction of their own but no trouble at all reacting to what they viewed as the false conviction of others. Each time they came upon a tantalizing long shot, one of them set to work on making the case for it, in an elaborate presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides. They didn't actually have anyone to whom they might give a presentation. They created them only to hear how plausible they sounded when pitched to each other. They entered markets only because they thought something dramatic might be about to happen in them, on which they could make a small bet with long odds that might pay off in a big way.

Loc. 2206-11, more on Eisman's listening habits:

Eisman had a curious way of listening; he didn't so much listen to what you were saying as subcontract to some remote region of his brain the task of deciding whether whatever you were saying was worth listening to, while his mind went off to play on its own. As a result, he never actually heard what you said to him the first time you said it. If his mental subcontractor detected a level of interest in what you had just said, it radioed a signal to the mother ship, which then wheeled around with the most intense focus. "Say that again," he'd say. And you would! Because now Eisman was so obviously listening to you, and, as he listened so selectively, you felt flattered.

Loc. 3260-64, on $1.2 billion:

In early July, Morgan Stanley received its first wake-up call. It came from Greg Lippmann and his bosses at Deutsche Bank, who, in a conference call, told Howie Hubler and his bosses that the $4 billion in credit default swaps Hubler had sold Deutsche Bank's CDO desk six months earlier had moved in Deutsche Bank's favor. Could Morgan Stanley please wire $1.2 billion to Deutsche Bank by the end of the day? Or, as Lippmann actually put it - according to someone who heard the exchange - Dude, you owe us one point two billion.

Loc. 3413-22, on eight days of chlorine for all of Chicago:

His wife's extended English family of course wondered where he had been, and he tried to explain. He thought what was happening was critically important. The banking system was insolvent, he assumed, and that implied some grave upheaval. When banking stops, credit stops, and when credit stops, trade stops, and when trade stops - well, the city of Chicago had only eight days of chlorine on hand for its water supply. Hospitals ran out of medicine. The entire modern world was premised on the ability to buy now and pay later. "I'd come home at midnight and try to talk to my brother-in-law about our children's future," said Ben. "I asked everyone in the house to make sure their accounts at HSBC were insured. I told them to keep some cash on hand, as we might face some disruptions. But it was hard to explain." How do you explain to an innocent citizen of the free world the importance of a credit default swap on a double-A tranche of a subprime-backed collateralized debt obligation? He tried, but his English in-laws just looked at him strangely. They understood that someone else had just lost a great deal of money and Ben had just made a great deal of money, but never got much past that. "I can't really talk to them about it," he says. "They're English."

Loc. 3747-52, on being dumb and looking for grownups:

The big Wall Street firms, seemingly so shrewd and self-interested, had somehow become the dumb money. The people who ran them did not understand their own businesses, and their regulators obviously knew even less. Charlie and Jamie had always sort of assumed that there was some grown-up in charge of the financial system whom they had never met; now, they saw there was not. "We were never inside the belly of the beast," said Charlie. "We saw the bodies being carried out. But we were never inside." A Bloomberg News headline that caught Jamie's eye, and stuck in his mind: "Senate Majority Leader on Crisis: No One Knows What to Do."

Loc. 3880-82, a last word on dependencies:

The changes were camouflage. They helped to distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture. The surface rippled, but down below, in the depths, the bonus pool remained undisturbed.

Jan 16, 2009 4:05am

blog all dog-eared pages: the process of government

Arthur F. Bentley's 1908 The Process Of Government (A Study Of Social Pressures) found me through a a review in the New Yorker a few months ago. This summary got me interested:

The Process of Government is a hedgehog of a book. Its point - relentlessly hammered home - can be stated quite simply: All politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups. Any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure. It was, in his day as in ours, a wildly contrarian position. Bentley was writing The Process of Government at the height of the Progressive Era, when educated, prosperous, high-minded people believed overwhelmingly in "reform" and "good government," and took interest groups to be the enemy of these goals.

Normally I summarize the books I read, but in this case Nicholas Lemann's review is a much better and more interesting writeup than I can offer. Instead I'll just mention that it's a delivery mechanism for the kind of worldview that burrows its way into your subconscious and won't let go. I have a weakness for reductive explanations, and Bentley offers a big one: "ideas", "the public", "zeitgeist", and other hive-mind explanations of political activity are meaningless in the face of often-temporarily organized interests arrayed in groups of people, playing a species-wide game of king of the hill. Law and morality exist because they are useful and helpful to someone, somewhere, more than they are harmful. When these things fall out of kilter, organizations form to rebalance them.

Read the review, check out the passages below, and then try to celebrate Tuesday's inauguration, read a political blog, watch Milk, follow Tim O'Reilly's losing battle to define "web 2.0", bemoan the passage of Prop. 8, or digg (something) for (some reason) without seeing groups, groups, groups, and groups all vying for your attention and support.

Page 13, on reform, opportunity, the absence of personal change:

What was to be seen, in actual human life, was a mass of men making of their opportunities. The insurance presidents and trustees saw opportunities and used them. Their enemies in the fit time saw opportunities and used them. The "public" by and by awoke to what it had suffered, saw its opportunities for revenge and for future safeguard and used them. All these things happened, all of them had causes, but those causes cannot be found in a waxing and waning and change or transformation of the psychic qualities of the actors.

Page 58, Rudolf von Jhering on the usefulness of law:

He set himself in opposition on the one hand to theories which made laws take their origin in any kind of absolute will power, and on the other hand to theories which placed the origin in mere might. It was the usefulness of the law, he said, that counted.
Stripped of terminology and disputation, this came to saying that you cannot get law out of simple head work, and you cannot get it out of mere preponderance of force; law must always be good for something to the society which has it, and that quality of being good for something is the very essence of it.
The formal element of the law he placed, at this time, in the legal protection by right of action ("Klage", "Rechtsschutz"); the substantial element in "Nutzen", "Vortheil", "Gewinn", "Sicherheit des Genusses". He defined laws as legally protected interests, and said that they served "den Interessen, Bedrfnissen, Zwecken des Verlkhes". The "subject" of the law, using the term habitual among the jurists, is the person or organization to whom its benefits pass. The protection of the law exists to assure this benefit reaching the right place.

Page 113, on beef, alternatives, and inevitability:

To take an illustration of a kind most unfavorable for my contention: Does anyone believe that a states'-rights Bryan in the president's chair could have taken any other course in dealing with the nation-wide beef industry when the time for its control had arrived than was taken by a republican? ... But given the national scope of the industry and its customers, given also its foreign trade, given the emergency for its control which was bound to come through its own growth and methods, if not in one year then in another, given presidential representation of the mass of the people on approximately the same level, could a states'-right president have found a different solution from any other president? The answer is most decidedly, No.

Page 169, on the social rootedness of emotion:

No matter how generalized or how specific the ideas and feeling are which we are considering, they never lose their reference to a "social something". The angry man is never angry save in certain situations; the highest ideal of liberty has to do with man among men. The words anger and liberty can easily be set over as subjects against groups of words in the predicate which define them. But neither anger, nor liberty, nor any feeling or idea in between can be got hold of anywhere except in phases of social situations. They stand out as phases, moreover, only with reference to certain position in the social situation or complex of situations in the widest sense, within which they themselves exist.

Page 181, on what material to study if not ideas:

When our popular leader - to revert to the Standard Oil illustration - gets upon the platform and tells us we must all rally with him to exterminate the trusts, we have so much raw material for investigation which we must take as so much activity for just what it is. If we start out with a theory about ideas and their place in politics, we are deserting our raw material even before we take a good peep at it. We are substituting something else which may or may no be useful, but which will certainly color our entire further progress, if progress we can make at all on scientific lines.

Page 197, on social activity as the raw material:

We shall find as go on that even in the most deliberative acts of heads of governments, what is done can be fully stated in terms of the social activity that passes through, or is reflected, or represented, or mediated in those high officials, much more fully than by their alleged mental states as such. Mark Twain tells of a question he put to General Grant: "With whom originated the idea of the march to the sea? Was it Grant's or was it Sherman's idea?" and of Grant's reply: "Neither of us originated the idea of Sherman's march to the sea. The enemy did it;" an answer which points solidly to the social context, always in individuals, but never to be stated adequately in terms of individuals.

Page 206, on acting groups:

There is ample reason, then, for examining these great groups of acting men directly and accepting them as the fundamental facts of our investigation. They are just as real as they would be if they were territorially separated so that one man could never belong to two groups at the same time. ... Indeed the only reality of the ideas is their reflection of the group, only that and nothing more. The ideas can be stated in terms of the groups; the groups never in terms of the ideas.

Page 211, on groups, activity, and interests:

The term "group" will be used throughout this work in a technical sense. It means a certain portion of the men of a society, taken, however, not as a physical mass cut off from other masses of men, but as a mass activity, which does not preclude the men who participate in it from participating likewise in many other group activities. It is always so many men with their human quality. It is always so many men, acting, or tending toward action - that is, in various stages of action. ... It is now necessary to take another step in the analysis of the group. There is no group without its interest. An interest, as the term will be used in this work, is the equivalent of a group.

Page 227, on the source of group strength:

There is no essential difference between the leadership of a group by a group and the leadership of a group by a person or persons. The strength of the cause rests inevitably in the underlying group, and nowhere else. The group cannot be called into life by clamor. The clamor, instead, gets its significance only from the group. The leader gets his strength from the group. The group merely expresses itself through its leadership.

Page 347, on the deception of appearances:

Taking all the conditions, it would have been natural to expect that the tariff movement would have found a leader in Roosevelt, and have made a strong struggle through his aid, which, of course, is just what has not happened up to date. And the reason for this is exceedingly simple. It is not that Roosevelt "betrayed" the cause nor that he sacrificed it to the "trusts", but that under present conditions, despite all superficial appearances, there is not an intense enough and extensive enough set of interest groups back of the movement to make a good fight for thoroughgoing reform with reasonable prospects of success.

Page 348, on subsurface movements:

The essential point in an interpretation of government concerns the great pressures at work and the main lines of the outcome. It is relatively incidental whether a particular battle is fought bitterly through two or more presidencies, or whether it is adjusted peacefully in a single presidency, so long as we can show a similar outcome. This is true because the vast mass of the matter of government is not what appears on the surface in discussions, theories, congresses, or even in wars, but what is persistently present in the background. It is somewhat as it is when twenty heirs want to contest a will, but have only a single heir apparent in the proceedings, while the other nineteen hang back in the shadow. The story will concern the fight of the one; but the reality concerns the silent nineteen as well.

Page 418, on the inadequacy of policy to explain political parties:

Like all "theory", policy has its place in the process as bringing out group factors into clearer relation, and as holding together the parties, once they are formed, by catchwords and slogans. So far as it gives good expression to the groups on its particular plane, all is clear. But to attempt to judge the parties by their theories or formal policies is an eternal absurdity, not because the parties are weak or corrupt and desert their theories, but because the theories are essentially imperfect expressions of the parties.
The vicissitudes of states' rights as a doctrine are well known enough. Another passing illustration concerns the government regulation of commerce. If we may identify the commercial interests of a century ago with those of today for the purposes of illustration, we find that the very elements which then under Hamilton's leadership were most eager to extend the power of government over commerce are now the most bitterly opposed to any such extension. Then and now the arguments made great pretenses to logic and theoretical cocksureness, and then, as now, the theories were valuable in the outcome only as rallying the group forces on one side or the other for the contest.

Page 432, on writing legislation yourself:

Still more striking if the organization which at times can be found which produces what may almost be described as substitute legislatures. When there is some neglected interest to be represented, when the legislature as organized does not deal on its own initiative with such matters, when a point of support in party organization can be found - a point let us say of indifference, at which nevertheless the ear of some powerful boss can be obtained - a purely voluntary organization may be formed, may work out legislation, and may hand it over completed to the legislature for mere ratification.

Page 440, on leadership and personality cults:

A leader once placed will gather a following around him which will stick to him either on the discussion level or on the organization level within certain limits set by the adequacy of his representation of their interests in the past. That is, as a labor-saving device, the line of action in question will be tested by the indorsement of the trusted leader. The leader may carry his following into defeat in this way, but that very fact helps to define the limits of the sweep of groupings of this type.

Page 441, on the primacy of groups over forms of government:

The citizen of a monarchy who sees his kind ride by may feel himself in the presence of a great power, outside of him, entirely independent of him, above him. The man busy in one of the discussion activities of the time may look upon ideas as masterly realities self-existing. But neither ideas nor monarchs have any power or reality apart from their representation of reflection of the social life; and social life is always the activity of men in masses.

Page 442, on leadership and esprit de corps:

Not only are discussion groups and organization groups both technique for the underlying interests, but within them we find many forms of technique which shade into each other throughout both kinds of groups. In the older fighting, soldiers might sing as they went into battle, or an officer might go ahead waving the colors. The singing and the officer illustrate the technical work of the representative groups. They serve to crystallize interests, and to form them solidly for the struggle, by providing rallying points and arousing enthusiasm. For all that, it is the men organized behind the singing, the cheering, and the colors that do the fighting and get the results.

Nov 27, 2008 6:12pm

blog all dog-eared pages: implementation

The full title of this 1973 U.C. Berkeley public planning book (recommended by A Better Oakland) is formidable: Implementation: How Great Expectations In Washington Are Dashed In Oakland; Or, Why It's Amazing That Federal Programs Work At All, Economic Development Administration As Told By Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek To Build Morals On a Foundation Of Ruined Hopes. It seems significant that all the illustrations are excerpts of Rube Goldberg machines.

I bought this book because of the Oakland connection, but there's a lot in here that's relevant to any form of project planning and completion, especially for software developers and designers (like me) trying to figure out why it's so easy to start, and so hard to finish, a project. Other writers in the development world have touched on this before, and there's an entire discipline called Agile that seeks to cut through impediments to completion like a Gordian Knot.

There's an undercurrent of misery and pathos to the book - nothing ruins dinner like 200+ pages on fucked-out-of-the-gate early 1970's social welfare programs in a city you love. The historical framing is an EDA jobs program for the hardcore unemployed that sought to deliver funding to projects and businesses which would in turn employ economically disadvantaged Oakland residents. The late-1960's urgency behind the project stemmed from a desire to nip in the bud further urban race riots like those that had taken place in Watts and elsewhere. Oakland, home of the Black Panthers, was viewed as a potential trouble spot. Rapid flows of federal money aimed at helping the unemployed was identified as the solution. As you might expect from the title, things didn't turn out as planned: money and time were generally wasted, and few people received the promised help. The program fit the general pattern of the past 50 years: splashy introduction, front page news, energy and excitement at the outset, slow leakage of enthusiasm, and an eventual page 10 notice of cancellation several years later.

This is going to get wildly relevant in the coming years, especially in light of Obama's recently-alluded-to New New Deal: "We'll be working out the details in the weeks ahead, but it will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jumpstart job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy." Part of me is saying "uh oh", but a bigger, louder part of me is saying "hellz yeah, where do I sign up to help?"

The core question that authors Aaron Wildavsky and Aaron Pressman hope to answer is: why is the road to hell paved with good intentions? Is there a difference between policy and implementation that can be somehow bridged, or at least described more precisely? "Implementation" refers to that often-overlooked part of the project that happens after the ideas, funding, and excitement, but before any tangible results.

Page 87, on the complexity of joint action:

When we say that programs have failed, this suggests we are surprised. If we thought from the beginning that they were unlikely to be successful, their failure to achieve stated goals or to work at all would not cry out for any special explanation. If we believed that intense conflicts of interests were involved, if people who had to cooperate were expected to be at loggerheads, if necessary resources were far beyond those available, we might wonder rather more why the programs were attempted instead of expressing amazement at their shortcomings. The problem would dissolve, so to speak, in the statement of it.

I love this idea, and it slots in neatly with the commercial world's wisdom that successful companies create room for mistakes, if those mistakes can be used to gain experience and learn. From a project point of view, no one wants to be on the job that fails. From a societal point of view, failed experiments that are adequately described point the way toward eventual success.

Page 98, on mismatched means and ends:

When programs are not being implemented, it is tempting to conclude that the participants disagreed about the special ends they sought rather than the ordinary means for attaining them. Thinking about means and ends in isolation, however, imposes an artificial distinction, especially when more than one program is involved. One participant's ends, such as a training facility, may be another actor's means. Once innumerable programs are in operation, the stream of transactions among people who are simultaneously involved in them may evidence neither clear beginning nor end but only an ebb and flow. As the managers of each program try to impose their preferred sequence of events on the others, their priorities for the next step, which differs for each one and cannot be equally important to all, may conflict. The means loom larger all the time because they are what the action is about. Actually, it is easier to disagree about means because they are there to provoke quarrels, while ends are always around the corner.

The difference between success and failure seems to be the difference between turbulent and laminar flow. Each participant has the same end in mind, but one is relaxed while another is in a hurry, one wants to start here and another there. Even with all actors ostensibly moving in the same direction, turbulence and chaotic flow result from these seemingly-small differences in chosen velocity.

Page 113, on delay:

What had looked like a relatively simple, urgent, and direct program - involving one federal agency, one city, and a substantial and immediate funding commitment - eventually involved numerous diverse participants and a much longer series of decisions that was planned. None of the participants actually disagreed with the goal of providing jobs for minority unemployed, but their differing perspectives and senses of urgency made it difficult to translate broad substantive agreement into effective policy implementation. It was not merely the direction of their decisions - favorable or unfavorable - but the time orientation of the participants - fast or slow, urgent or indolent - that determined the prospects of completion. When so many future decisions depend on past actions, delay in time may be equivalent to defeat in substance.

Much of the process methodology behind Agile seems to recognize that priority-setting is the critical point for most friction: people must agree on what the next most important task is, and this is where most negotiation is designed to take place.

Page 133, on the need for bureaucracy:

If one wishes to assure a reasonable prospect of program implementation, he had better begin with a high probability that each every actor will cooperate. The purpose of bureaucracy is precisely to secure this degree of predictability. Many of its most criticized features, such as the requirement for multiple and advance clearances and standard operating procedures, serve to increase the ability of each participant to predict what the others will do and to smooth over differences. The costs of bureaucracy - a preference for procedure over purpose or seeking the lowest common denominator - may emerge in a different light when they are viewed as part of the price paid for predictability of agreement over time among diverse participants. The price may be too high, but the cost of accomplishing little or nothing otherwise must be placed against it.

Big, dumb bureaucracy has a lubricating effect here. Things take a long time because processes are designed to insulate actors from each others' instabilities. The computation metaphor that seems appropriate here is boundedness: CPU or I/O? What exactly are you waiting for at any given time, and how can project management help participants understand that some given task or responsibility is simply going to take a while, and maybe you should find something else to do?

Page 134, on coordination:

When one bureaucrat tells another to coordinate a policy, he means that it should be cleared with other official participants who have some stake in the matter. This is a way of sharing the blame in case things go wrong (each initial on the documents being another hostage against retribution) and of increasing the predictability of securing each agreement needed for further action. Since other actors cannot be coerced, their consent must be obtained. Bargaining must take place to reconcile the differences, with the result that the policy may be modified, even to the point of compromising its original purpose. Coordination in this sense is another word for consent.
Telling another person to coordinate, therefore, does not tell him what to do. He does not know whether to coerce or bargain, to exert power or secure consent. Here we have one aspect of an apparently desirable trait of antibureaucratic administration that covers up the very problems - conflict versus cooperation, coercion versus consent - its invocation is supposed to resolve.
Everyone wants coordination on his own terms.

This is the part where I criticize unilateral approaches like 37 Signals' Getting Real. The core tenets of Getting Real seem to essentially boil down to a pathological aversion to commitment: commitment to people ("small teams"), to goals ("flexible scope"), and to details ("ignore details", "it doesn't matter"). Generally speaking, people who believe this will have already put themselves in a position to live it: it's no accident that Stamen is seven people. The act of externalizing Getting Real makes it a process, one that's spectacularly bad at addressing coordination. Fine for small projects where everyone starts on roughly the same page, but disastrous for any situation where other actors need to give consent: managers, clients, investors, customers. The universe of Getting Real is a cramped, airless one populated by to-do list managers and communication software for tiny teams.

Where someone needs to be convinced, coerced, or seduced into cooperating with you, process gives way to sub-rational animal instinct.

Pages 165-166, on implementation-as-control:

In this view, for instance, implementers must know what they are supposed to do in order to be effective. Yet, "street level" bureaucrats are notorious for being too busy coping with their day-to-day problems to recite to themselves the policies they are supposed to apply. ... Writing about the administrative process in the regulatory commissions of the New Deal era, James Landis recalls how "one of the ablest administrators that it was my good fortune to know, I believe, never read, at least more than casually, the statutes that he translated into reality. He assumed that they gave him power to deal with the broad problems of an industry and, upon that understanding, he sought his own solutions."
The planning model recognizes that implementation may fail because the original plan was infeasible. But it does not recognize the important point that many, perhaps most, constraints remain hidden in the planning stage, and are only discovered in the implementation process.

This is what I think Agile seeks to address: the idea that requirements change because they flex and respond to previous requirements already met.

Pages 167-168, on implementation as interaction:

This view is strangely reminiscent of old syndicalist doctrines summarized in once-popular slogans like "The Railroads to the Railroadmen" and "The Mines to the Miners." The syndicalists' demand for "industrial democracy" actually concealed a view of production as an end in itself rather than a means of satisfying consumers' wants. We feel the emphasis on consensus, bargaining, and political maneuvering can easily lead (and has, in fact, led) to the conception that implementation is its own reward.
The interaction model of implementation carries interesting evolutionary overtones. The results are not predictable, an element of surprise is maintained, and the outcomes are likely to be different from those sought by any single participant.

This is where I think Agile falls apart: the manifesto promises to do away with process, but introduces process of its own. In particular, the process it introduces is fundamentally introspective, a kind of "Programming for the Programmers" frame of mind that seems to focus on the needs of the development team over the needs of the broader project. The outcomes are likely to have been bent or twisted somewhat along the way.

Page 215, on implementation as adaptation:

In a world of flux, it is only through continuous negotiation between administrators, implementers, and decision makers that any "congruence between program design and program implementation" (mentioned as essential in the literature) can ever be achieved.

"Adaptation" is Pressman and Wildavsky's final watchword for a useful view of implementation. It encodes ideas of flexibility, negotiation, while still leaving room for a deeper goal. This is not willy-nilly natural selection, but a process of constant self-evaluation. There's a lot more on this topic in a future post on Arthur Bentley's The Process Of Government.

Page 228, on learning from error:

In reaction to what is widely perceived as a dismal record, students of implementation, like the evaluators before them, have sought to guard themselves against failure. Instead of learning from error as it is occurring, they hope to prevent future failure before it takes place. Since there can be little learning without mistakes to learn from, however, the field of implementation is caught in a double bind: too much error suggests incompetence and too little inhibits learning.
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