Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy's contribution to the ARPANET: the Interfaith Message Processor

My other eternal memory of Ted Kennedy is his famous contribution to ARPANET lore, the "Interfaith Message Processor." In all honesty, Ted did make a significant contribution (albeit non-technical) to the ARPANET, the forerunner of today's Internet. Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) was the major contractor for much of the ARPANET development. Being a big-deal government contractor and a Massachusetts-based company, BBN was championed in Washington, D.C. by Ted Kennedy and the other members of Massachusetts' congressional delegation.

Back in 1974/1975 (or so I recall) a few us from Stevens Institute of Technology drove up to Cambridge, MA to "visit" the famed AI lab at MIT one summer Saturday evening. A couple of the guys knew some people and had been there before. There was hardly anybody in the lab, we had the place to ourselves. We didn't do anything other print out some code, copy some LISP and assembler code onto tape, and take some copies of the infamous "AI Memos" from their storage room.

Mostly I just wandered around to see what all of their computer hardware was. They had old PDP-10 boxes from Digital Equipment Corporation with special virtual memory hardware and their homegrown ITS operating system.

Off in one corner was their ARPANET IMP. The IMP, Interface Message Processor, is the box that hooked their computers up to "the net".

Taped onto the front of the IMP was a clipping of some text that basically said that Senator Edward Kennedy was congratulating BBN on getting a big-deal contract for development of their... Interfaith Message Processor. We thought it was really funny. It let us technies feel infinitely more superior to a mere politician.

-- Jack Krupansky

Ted Kennedy is gone?

Time is certainly marching on. The oldtimers are dropping like flies. Is this fate telling us that they are no longer needed or a warning to the rest of us that we need to get our collective acts together? Probably the latter.

I was never a great fan of Ted's, but he did deserve a lot of respect for his public service.

I never met him personally, but I did see him a few times.

Back in the early 1980's I was working at Wang Loaboraties in Lowell, MA. Ted was on the board of directors since Wang was a big deal in Massachusetts at the time. I remember looking out the window and seeing Ted get out of his limo on one of his visits to the company.

I once saw Ted in a Senate hallway while walking to the public Senate Gallery. He was talking to some kids.

And once I saw him in a fancy seafood restaurant in downtown Washington, DC.

I wanted to check a detail on his Wikipedia page, but boy was I surprised how mean and viciously his page has been hacked. It is currently completely unusable. Oops... I just checked again and it has been restored, but maybe not for long. These idiots have no sense of decency or limit to their idiocy.

-- Jack Krupansky

Friday, August 21, 2009

Evil words from the president: "we're happy to make sensible compromises"

I personally am 100% behind President Obama's health insurance reform efforts. Sure, the process is rather "bumpy", but that's par for the course and not unexpected in any way. I am absolutely confident that President Obama will find a compromise solution that can pass muster in Congress, notably the Senate. Unfortuntely, although "compromise" is a good word in the vocabulary of centrists and moderates, it is a horribly evil word to many liberals (or right-wingers for that matter), especially the so-called "progressives." The political extremists have a rigid and extreme "vision" of the one "truth" that they can accept. Compromise is something that they can never accept. So, I can only imagine the horror experienced by the elitist left-wing progressive extremists when President Obama said that "we're happy to make sensible compromises." Ouch. That must have felt like a dagger to the heart by the progressives.

The president did go on and say very soothing words:

What we're not willing to do is give up on the core principle that Americans who don't have health insurance should get it, that Americans who do have health insurance should get a better deal from insurance companies and have consumer protections.

But, the mere mention of the word "compromise" must have had the progressives seething and weeping in despair. Not to mention that the president had used the plural form, suggesting that multiple compromises may be in store.

President Obama is doing a great job at tackling health care reform. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly a great effort.

As far as those covered by Medicare or Medicaid, they really do not need to worry about losing any of their coverage or care. The current reform efforts will only improve and strengthen the coverage and care that seniors and the disabled get.

-- Jack Krupansky

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The PolicySpeak Disaster for Health Care

George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, Author, and blogger for The Huffington Post has an interesting post entitled The PolicySpeak Disaster for Health Care on what he believes are communications mistakes that have been committed by the Obama administration when selling people on health care reform. It is a very long and detailed post, so I am not going to try to summarize it with accuracy here in any detail. He starts out:

Barack Obama ran the best-organized and best-framed presidential campaign in history. How is it possible that the same people who did so well in the campaign have done so badly on health care?


What has been going wrong?


The answer is simple and unfortunate: The president put both the conceptual framing and the messaging for his health care plan in the hands of policy wonks. This led to twin disasters.

The PolicyList Disaster

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Howard Dean was right when he said that you can't get health care reform without a public alternative to the insurance companies. Institutions matter. The list of what needs reform makes sense under one conceptual umbrella. It is a public alternative that unifies the long list of needed reforms... one idea, properly articulated, takes care of the list: An American Plan guarantees affordable care for all Americans. Simple. But not for policy wonks.

The policymakers focus on the list, not the unifying idea...

The PolicySpeak Disaster

PolicySpeak is the principle that: If you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly.


To many liberals, PolicySpeak sounds like the high road: a rational, public discussion in the best tradition of liberal democracy. Convince the populace rationally on the objective policy merits. Give the facts and figures. Assume self-interest as the motivator of rational choice. Convince people by the logic of the policymakers that the policy is in their interest.

But to a cognitive scientist or neuroscientist, this sounds nuts. The view of human reason and language behind PolicySpeak is just false. Certainly reason should be used. It's just that you should use real reason, the way people really think. Certainly the truth should be told. It's just that it should be told so it makes sense to people, resonates with them, and inspires them to act. Certainly new media should be used. It's just that a system of communications should be constructed and used effectively.

The good professor details what he believes is a flawed model of how people reason:

What Is Reason Really Like?

PolicySpeak is supposed to be reasoned, objective discourse. It thus assumes a theory of what reason itself is -- a philosophical theory that dates back to the 17th Century and is still taught.

Over the past four decades, cognitive science and neuroscience have provided a scientific view of how the brain and mind really work. A handful of these results have come into behavioral economics. But most social scientists and policymakers are not trained in these fields. They still have the old view of mind and language.

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

Ideas are physical, part of brain circuitry. Ideas are constituted by brain structures called 'frames' and 'metaphors,' and reason uses them. Frames form systems, called worldviews.

All language is defined relative to such frames and metaphors. There are very different conservative and progressive worldviews, and different words can activate different worldviews. Important words, like freedom, can have entirely different meanings depending on your worldview. In short, not everybody thinks the same way.

As a result, what is taken as "objective" discourse is often worldview dependent. This is especially true of health care. All progressive writing supporting some version of health care assumes a progressive moral worldview, in which no one should be forced to go without heath care, the government should play a role, market regulation is necessary, and so on.

Those with radical conservative worldviews may well think otherwise: that everyone should be responsible for their own and their family's health care, that the government is oppressive and should stay out of it, that the market should always dominate, and so on.

Overall, the foundational assumptions underlying PolicySpeak are false. It should be no wonder that PolicySpeak isn't working.

Ultimately, he claims to know what to do to fix the problem, but then suggests why progressives are not receptive to such a fix:

They may find it hard to comprehend framing, metaphor, and narrative as the way reason really works -- as what you need to do to communicate truth. Instead, they may well think of framing as merely manipulation and spin, as the mechanism that the right wing uses to communicate lies.

I'll try to summarize:

  • Lists of features don't "sell" people on anything of importance.
  • Traditional, classical, 17th century "reasoning" doesn't sell people.
  • Ignore recent advances in neuroscience and cognitive science at your peril.
  • Framing is essential.
  • Metaphor is essential.
  • Narrative is essential.
  • Empathy and emotion are essential.
  • Tools do not lose their validity just because "the other side" uses them against you.

I actually do not agree with everything he says and I believe that the Obama administration really is following the optimum path given the realities called Washington and America, but many of his ideas do have merit, at least in an abstract sense on paper. In truth, I believe that the Obama administration is in fact already following the essence of a lot of his advice even if not to the degree and specificity that he would prefer.

-- Jack Krupansky

Monday, August 17, 2009

Full text of H.R. 3200 Energy/Commerce health care reform bill

Just in case you cannot access the "official" text of the H.R. 3200 House Energy and Commerce Committee health care reform bill at the Library of Congress Thomas web site, you can find it here:

The official name of the bill ("Act") is "America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009."

-- Jack Krupansky

Is the public option for health insurance reform now dead?

The public option for health insurance reform has been on shaky ground for about a month or so, ever since the Senate Finance Committee effectively endorsed co-ops as a preferred alternative. Even before the recent town meeting brawls, President Obama had taken to emphasizing the public option more lightly or even de-emphasizing it. Does that mean that the public option is dead? No, not at all. What it does mean is that the supporters and proponents of the public option are on notice that they must come up with a reformulated public option which is a lot more palatable and far less "socialist" than the current proposals, otherwise the public option will die in favor of the co-op approach. Personally, I do not expect the public option crowd to simply roll over and play dead, but I am not necessarily optimistic that they are emotionally ready to admit defeat and "go with the flow."

Personally, I think the president really does want the public option, but he is enough of a politician to be able to read the writing on the walls and recognize that "the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good."

I personally even think the president really wants a single-provider solution, but he is enough of a realist, pragmatist, and moderate to understand that single-provider is a non-starter, now and for the foreseeable future.

I would rate the prospects for the public option at 50-50. The votes in the Senate are close enough that the balance between the public option and co-ops probably wobbles back and forth on a weekly if not daily basis. How the vote might go today is not an indication of how the vote might go in September or October, especially if the public option is reformulated, possibly even with a "trigger" that puts the insurance companies on notice that it is up to them to take the lead in reforming themselves, otherwise the public option would almost automatically be "triggered" into existence.

The bottom line is that regardless of the fate of the public option, President Obama is still definitely on track to preside over passage of health insurance reform legislation before the end of the year.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Will the health care reform protests sway the decision?

Boisterous protesters at health reform forums certainly get great press coverage, but will they actually have any significant impact on the decisions about whether and how reform will occur? I think not.

Even without the noisy protesters, there are still plenty of thorny issues up in the air. That is why there were four separate reform proposals floating around in Congress and why Congress decided to punt and defer further decisions until September.

The protesters simply add another layer to the discussion and are simply raising the volume for the pre-existing objections from conservative Republicans.

Put simply, the protesters are not adding any new information to the debate.

In fact, by highlighting extremist positions and clearly false claims about health reform the protesters are inadvertently undermining the case against health reform.

I think that national (and local) polls are a much more valuable indicator of the level of support for health reform and the level and type of concerns that people have about both the current system and any proposed reform.

Clearly there are plenty of (non-protesting) Americans who have deep concerns about the reform "plan". And they should! After all, that is why there are four separate plans and key issues that are unresolved.

The good news is that Pres. Obama is striking a reasonable balance between staying out of the specific details of the reform proposals and staying engaged and keeping the heat on moving forward with a credible plan as soon as possible. In other words, he is being very realistic and very pragmatic. He knows what is at stake, both from the perspective of health care and health insurance on the one hand and the political reality of America on the other.

There are still plenty of important details which will be decided at the eleventh hour, which is typical of how Washington works, but sometimes that is actually a great way to get all of the relevant parties to focus more intensely on the decisions that really matter. At that stage, the extremist rantings of a few thousand mindless protesters will carry very little weight at all.

-- Jack Krupansky

Friday, August 07, 2009

Do we have a constitutionally protected right to listen and to be heard?

All of us Americans have a constitutionally-protected right of "freedom of speech", but do we have a protected right to listen and hear what someone else is saying and do we have a protected right to be heard by those who we are speaking to? Maybe or maybe not.

Amendment I of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution simply says:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...

That does not necessarily guarantee that you can and will be heard whenever and wherever you want, but simply forbids Congress from trying to stop you from speaking.

That same amendment gives us the right to assemble:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

What if one or more citizens seek to prevent you from being heard?

What if one or more citizens seek to prevent you from hearing what someone else has to say?

Do constituents have a right to hear what their elected representatives and officials have to say?

Is trying to "shout someone down" constitutionally-protected exercise of "freedom of speech"?

Stray hecklers are to be tolerated, but is the same true if large numbers of them gang up and act in concert as a mob, seeking to prevent a speaker or a citizen from being heard and preventing others from hearing what is being said?

Do members of a mob of hecklers have a right to use their constitutionally-protected "freedom of speech" to intimidate, both physically and verbally, citizens from speaking, being heard, and hearing others?

Does the constitutional protection of "freedom of speech" extend to using that speech to disrupt a constitutionally-protected and lawful gathering of citizens?

Does the right of assembly really permit hecklers from outside the district to "pack" the available seating of a venue to prevent citizens of the district from peaceably assembling?

Lately there have been quite a number of incidents where "right-wingers" have been nominally exercising their constitutionally-protected rights  to freedom of speech" and "peaceably to assemble" at "town halls" of numerous congressmen across the country, but with their extreme heckling and mob-like behavior having the effect of causing extreme disruption, and as I suggest here interfering with the ability of citizens to: 1) assemble in a peaceable manner,  2) hear what their congressman has to say, 3) to speak and be heard by their congressman, and 4) to hear what their fellow citizens have to say to them and their congressman.

In my view, this kind of behavior is in fact abridging the rights to freedom of speech and assembly of the non-hecklers and their congressmen, and that this behavior is in fact a misuse of the freedoms of speech and to assemble, analogous to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater or inciting a mob to disruptive and disorderly behavior.

Where exactly to draw the line for what is protected and proscribed is a thorny matter. Nonetheless, it is deeply disturbing that we do not have "community standards" of decency and courteous conduct that would cover these types of situations.

I would hate to have to make it a crime for a group of people to heckle and heckle loudly, but it is ridiculous that this type of behavior should be tolerated let alone contemplated here in the 21st century.

-- Jack Krupansky

Great idea: Require all Wall Street bonuses to be paid with "toxic" assets

Various people are complaining about Wall Street bonuses and how "banks" are still carrying so much in "toxic" assets on their books at uncertain valuations, so I have the solution to all of these problems:

For the foreseeable future, until the value of these toxic assets goes to zero, require all Wall Street bonuses to be paid in the form of these toxic assets that are on the firm's books.

Give these bozos a taste of their own medicine. Yeah!!

The beauty of this approach is that lets management balance discounting of the value of the toxic assets on the one hand and the willingness of the bozos to accept such assets on the other hand.

In truth, a lot of sharp financial gurus would in fact accept a lot of these assets if only the discount was steep enough.

Of course banks don't want a steep discount because that decimates their capital. Somewhere in the middle is a balance that both sides can accept. The bozos certainly won't get as steep a discount as they would want, but that is probably okay with the American people, the taxpayers, the people who bailed out these bozos.

So, what do you think? Great idea, or am I being too unkind to the bozos on Wall Street?

I really think this could work.

-- Jack Krupansky

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Bill Clinton shows us (U.S.) how it's done

I am personally all in favor of diplomacy, but between the badmouthing of diplomacy by the right and the "diplomacy by public pontification" of the left, it is all but extinct. Until yesterday, when former President Bill Clinton reminded everyone (by example) how it is done: in private. Private talks with no public pontification in advance that is likely to poison the actual talks.

Now, whether such private diplomacy will ever again be tolerated in a Washington that is obsessively focused on public pontification remains to be seen.

There is plenty of opportunity for working towards a "working relationship" with Iran, but it will take a lot of this "true" (private) dipomacy, especially when just about everybody is poised, itching to jump up and say something incredibly stupid  and counterproductive in public.

Hopefully such private "preparations" are already underway with Iran. But all of the incessant public babbling about "nuclear ambitions" and sanctions really is counterproductive and useless compared to true, private dipomacy.

-- Jack Krupansky

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What is our strategy to win and exit in Afghanistan?

Anybody out there have even the slightest clue as to what our strategy for winning in Afghanistan really is? Or what our exit strategy is for Afghanistan? As far as I can tell there isn't any!

Yeah, sure, you can read about "A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" on the White House web site, as of March 27, 2009, including the six-page "White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group's Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan", but it basically only tells us what we wish we could do rather than a true, hard-core strategy that will actually get there:

... the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.



Achieving our core goal is vital to U.S. national security. It requires, first of all, realistic and achievable objectives. These include:
  • Disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan to degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks.
  • Promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.
  • Developing increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance.
  • Assisting efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunity for the people of Pakistan.
  • Involving the international community to actively assist in addressing these objectives for Afghanistan and Pakistan, with an important leadership role for the UN.

Those are all truly great things to do, but that still does not constitute a hard-core strategy to win and to get out.

Notice, for example, that it seeks to get the Afghan security forces only to a level where they can fight with "reduced U.S. assistance." How about a goal of zero U.S. assistance? There simply isn't a game plan in place for that.

Notice, for example, that it seeks to "disrupt" terrorists and to "degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks." Yes, "degrade" is good, but it is not good enough to win and get us out. No strategy or plan is offered to eliminate "any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks." If there is no elimination of the threat, then guess what? The implication is that we have to stay, potentially for a very long time.

Go ahead and pore through that white paper as closely as you can, but you won't find any mention of two concepts: win and exit.

Sure, the white paper tells us of "the desired end state":

the removal of al-Qaeda's sanctuary, effective democratic government control in Pakistan, and a self-reliant Afghanistan that will enable a withdrawal of combat forces while sustaining our commitment to political and economic development.

And it even gives a set of "steps" that must be taken and they are indeed great steps to take, but there is still a massive disconnect between lofty goals and "steps" on the one hand and how to actually close the deal and win in a way that leads to a full wind-down of U.S. military involvement and realistic exit.

If we intend to stay as long as al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other "bad actors" (including drug lords) are running around, I would simply say that is a fair assessment of the problem, but it is not a strategy for winning.

Adding more troops is not a strategy either. Double, triple, quadruple the troops. Increase by an order of magnitude. Whatever. There is no number of troops that would assure the complete elimination of all of the "bad guys." Especially, if they can easily slip across the border into Pakistan, Iran, or wherever.

Even if we did eliminate all of the "bad guys" that we could find, Afghanistan is still a relatively uncivilized and tribal country that simply does not have a robust social structure that could deter a reemergence of "bad actors" in the future. The lure of poppies and opium assures that, no matter what.

Pres. Obama said a lot of the right words back in March:

Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course.  Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.  We'll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents.  We will measure the growth of Afghanistan's economy, and its illicit narcotics production.  And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.

Unfortunately, that means that we are still essentially clueless as to what "progress" really is in terms of a complete elimination of the terrorist threat.

The really key problem is that the phrase "our goals" essentially and effectively means a collection of tools and tactics to "pursue" rather than tangible real-world targets to objectively obtain.

In truth, my hunch is that the "bad guys" in Afghanistan is only a small part of the reason why we are there. The big reason we are there is more likely as a semi-permanent base to deter Iran in the region.

In any case, the bottom line is that we have no strategy or plan to end the war in Afghanistan and exit the region.

How long are we going to simply keep adding more troops with no realistic strategy for how they will actually achieve a conclusion of hostilities?

How high will the body count get before the American people finally say enough?

The bottom line is that a large U.S. force in Afghanistan is simply a long-term losing proposition. Eventually, a U.S. president will come to that same conclusion and we will some years from now simply pull out, much as the Soviets did. Meanwhile, the infamous "consensus" is that increased troop levels in Afghanistan is "the way to go."

-- Jack Krupansky