Not Third World

I disagree with Donald Trump about pretty much everything, but I think he’s right about one thing, at least:  many American airports are pretty crappy.  Describing them as “Third World” in quality may be unfairly insulting to our friends in the Third World.

You realize this when you leave the States.  Consider the Calgary airport, for example.  The E concourse looks newly built, and is spotlessly clean and spacious.  Compare it to, say, some of the cramped, beat-up, and overcrowded terminals at, say, LaGuardia, and you get the President’s point.  It’s sn embarrassing comparison.  We should be able to match our neighbors to the north in the airport department.

Attack Of The “Known Wolf”

One of the jihadists who committed the latest terrorist attack in London — in which men slammed a van into a crowd of people, and then emerged to slash and stab random people who just happened to be present — was known to and under investigation by British police at the time of the attack.  ISIS has since claimed that the attackers were members of that terrorist group.

khuram-butt-afp_650x400_81496714030The “known wolf” was Khuram Shazad Butt, a British citizen of Pakistani descent.  Amazingly, his jihadist sympathies were so well known that he was featured in a 2016 British TV documentary called “The Jihadis Next Door” in which he is seen unfurling an ISIS flag at a British park.  He was part of a group that was identified as supportive of jihadist ideologies and that supported institution of Sharia law in Great Britain.  In addition, Butt’s neighbors have stated that they had reported Butt to the police on several occasions.  The police have stated, however, that while Butt and the group he belonged to were known to the authorities and under scrutiny, “there was no intelligence to suggest that this attack was being planned and the investigation had been prioritised accordingly.”

The London attack is one of several recent “known wolf” incidents, in which an individual with apparently radicalized jihadist views who was under some form of police investigation then proceeded to commit a terrorist act.  The scenario raises a number of difficult questions for police — and for western societies.

Great Britain reportedly has identified thousands of people who are considered to be potential threats.  What should be done with them?  What level of concern must be reached before someone with apparently extremist views receives more active attention, like significant surveillance efforts?  How should governments react to anonymous tips from neighbors?  And if police determine someone is a significant potential threat, should they be jailed?  Deported?  And what level of evidence should be shown before such penalties can be imposed?  If we wait until the threat level becomes critical, are we running too great a risk?

Everyone wants to promote security, but it’s also easy to see how a desire for security could overwhelm and undercut the personal freedoms and civil rights that we enjoy in open western societies.  That is no doubt small consolation, however, to the relatives of the people who were killed in the London attack by a man whose extremist views caused him to be featured in “The Jihadis Next Door.”  We’ve got to figure out how to deal with the radicalized people in a way that respects our civil institutions, religious rights, and presumptions of innocence while also more effectively preventing more mass attacks.

A True Clockwork Expert

More than two hundred and fifty years ago — so long ago that America was still a collection of diverse, squabbling colonies — a British carpenter and clockmaker named John Harrison made an outlandish claim.  He contended that he had designed a pendulum clock that, if wound properly and in timely fashion, would keep time so accurately that it would lose only one second of time over a 100-day period.

clock_3272964b.jpgYou would think that Harrison’s claim would have had some credibility, because he had just invented a device that had solved one of the knottiest problems confronting the British Empire of that day — namely, allowing sailors to figure out their longitude on long sea voyages.  Latitude could be determined by looking at star charts and comparing constellations to the horizon, but longitude posed a seemingly impossible problem.  Harrison solved it by creating the chronometer, a device that kept remarkably precise time calculated from Greenwich, England.  By determining the local time, such as high noon, and then comparing it to the Greenwich time kept by Harrison’s clock, sailors could calculate how far away they were and determine their longitude.

But even though Harrison had solved the longitude problem, and won a large prize from the British government for his ingenuity, his claim to be able to build such an accurate pendulum clock was met with churlish derision.  Harrison was ridiculed, his claims were said to involve “an incoherence and absurdity that was little short of the symptoms of insanity,” and his clock design was forgotten for centuries.  But Harrison’s achievements became the subject of interest again in the 1970s, and a clockmaker attempted to decipher Harrison’s plans for the clock and build a replica.

Harrison’s design, called simply “Clock B,” then was tested, and the test results confirmed that Harrison was right all along.  During its carefully controlled 100-day trial, Clock B lost only 5/8 of a second when measured against official Greenwich time, and it was declared by Guinness World Records to be the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”  Centuries after his death, Harrison was vindicated:  he was right, his critics were wrong, the design of Clock B was an amazing accomplishment for a clockmaker who lived during the mid-18th century,

It just goes to show you — sometimes the conventional wisdom isn’t wisdom at all.

Leaking Like A Sieve

We’re living in the midst of the leakiest America in history, and it’s causing lots of problems for our country.

leaky-sieveThe leakiness isn’t confined to just Washington, D.C., the Democratic National Committee, or the confused conduct of the Trump White House, where it seems as though every confidential meeting must end with a dash to the door so that everyone in attendance can call their favorite journalist and recount what just happened in excruciating detail.  Now the leak-fest is also affecting foreign affairs and criminal investigations, too.

The latest evidence of this problem involves the investigation into the horrendous suicide bombing in Manchester, England, where an Islamic extremist specifically targeted kids and their parents at a concert and killed 22 innocents and injured 64 more.  British authorities shared information about the attack, including the name of the bomber and photos of the debris being examined as part of the investigation, with an intelligence network that includes the United States.  Some unprincipled American recipient of the information then promptly leaked the information to the New York Times, which published it.

The BBC is reporting that British officials are furious about the leaks, which could affect the success of their investigation, and have stopped sharing intelligence about the attack and its investigation with American authorities.  British Prime Minister Theresa May also plans to raise the issue with President Trump at this week’s NATO meeting.  Of course, it’s not clear that Trump has any ability to stop the rampant leakiness — he can’t even get his own White House personnel to keep things confidential.

When the profound leakiness in our government invades the intelligence agencies and the criminal investigators, to the point that our allies can’t even trust us sufficiently to disclose information about terrorist attacks that are bedeviling all western countries, then we’ve got serious problems.  Obviously, we want to get whatever information we can about terrorist attacks, so we can use the information to prepare our own defenses and procedures to try to prevent future attacks.  If our allies withhold information because they’re afraid it will be leaked, that not only embarrasses America, it hurts us, too.  And if criminal investigators become as leaky as White House staffers, the confidential investigatory information they provide may help the criminal actor to avoid capture or prevent a fair trial — neither of which is a good thing, either.

The reality is that some things must be kept secret, and if the people in our government can’t keep their mouths shut about the truly secret stuff, then they aren’t qualified to serve in positions where the ability to maintain confidences is a crucial part of the job. We need to determine who is leaking intelligence and investigatory information and thereby imperiling both our relationships with our allies and our own security and replace them.  The leaks have got to stop.

Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.