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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Letter To The Pakistani People

Dear Pakistan,

The rest of the world is sick and tired of dealing with your dirty laundry. While we do not directly blame you for the recent attacks in Mumbai and we understand how tough it is for you to control your Western tribal areas and perhaps A.Q. Khan's dispersal of nuclear weapon technology was just an oversight, enough is enough. The security situation in your country must change soon.

Pakistanis must admit to themselves that cleaning up the problems within Pakistan's borders is going to require outside help. It is not enough that you are willing to overlook U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and their Hellfire missiles.

Radio-controlled model airplanes alone are not enough. You need more boots on the ground and you need them fast. You need to allow NATO, UN or perhaps even Indian forces to help you clean up the mess within your borders. Now is not the time to resort to nationalist slogans. You need to stop heeding the shouts of the gun merchants in Peshawar and start listening to the international community.

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We understand your nation suffers as much from terror attacks as your neighbors. We have not forgotten the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. We know that your mosques, schools, and army convoys have also been subject to many bombings. That activity all must be brought to a halt now.

Ask for help, the world will not think any less of your great nation if you do so. Invite assistance from your friends and neighbors, that's what good neighbors are for.

If you do nothing, solutions may be forced upon you. If you do nothing the dry rot will continue until one day you may find that you no longer have a functional government or any security whatsoever. If you do nothing there will be more grave consequences for the world community and for Pakistan. If you do nothing, Pakistan will start to resemble Somalia.

Look abroad for new solutions. Look now. Invite assistance. Get professional help now, before it is too late.

Sincerely,

The Rest of the World

Friday, November 28, 2008

How Do We Stop Attacks Like Mumbai?

The attackers terrorizing the city of Mumbai for the past few days appear strangely familiar to many Americans. We have seen angry young men toting automatic rifles and backpacks full of weapons before. The similarities between the U.S. kids that occasionally wreak havoc on our public schools and the Mumbai terrorists may seem slight but there are insights to be gained from a careful comparison of the two situations. It will be especially important for civil authorities in India to look at the way other nations have responded to similar asynchronous attacks.

Pundag, Purulia District 00025

The government crackdown on all forms of protest, such as occurred in the United States after 2001, was not appropriate. Anti-war protesters were met with billy clubs and tasers in many cities. Federal, state, and local authorities were directed to spy on all organized groups, even environmentalists and anti-war groups that opposed any agendas of the Bush Administration. This suspension of Constitutional rights did not result in greater security for U.S. citizens. Suspending or restricting civil liberties for the masses is no way to address the existence of extremely violent fringe groups.

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The British responded to violence from IRA or Protestant militants and even common criminals by increasing the use of sophisticated closed-circuit television systems. This may not prevent attacks from happening but it does allow the authorities to respond much more quickly. Police departments can only afford to put so many eyes and ears on every street at all hours but TV cameras come at a much lower cost. The loss of personal privacy is one counter argument but once you leave your home the expectation of privacy is naturally diminished.

Computer-controlled television systems in use in London and other major UK cities allow the police to track individual faces. However if you are out to do no harm the fact that the police may be looking at you should cause little worry. Yes, there is the Big Brother implication bequeathed to us by George Orwell but young people seem to enjoy recording and sharing their activities these days anyway. Millions of videos and photographs are placed up on the Internet every day with little concern for what they reveal about the subjects.

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As long as the increased surveillance is used only to thwart serious crime and violence it must be tolerated. In any event, the video cameras are unlikely to go away.

There is a more effective way to counter the attacks such as those that just occurred in Mumbai or even the jihadist attacks more frequently seen since 2001. The strategy involves studying and resolving the root causes of deep social unrest. The attackers themselves do seem to offer clues as to their driving motivations. In the same way that we hate to give in to ransom demands from pirates or kidnappers, leaders are often reluctant to admit public policy faults as a cause of violent attacks.

The unresolved problems in Kashmir were well-known for years before they were mentioned by at least one of the Mumbai terrorists. Problems in the Middle East are often cited by Islamic militants. Teenage perpetrators of extreme violence in U.S. schools often display similar signs of anti-social behaviors and even violent tendencies prior to many attacks. As a society we need to get better at spotting these signals of unrest and, as much as we hate to admit it, doing something concrete to solve the underlying problems. While every demand for religious freedom or solutions to economic inequality cannot be met, we need to understand that they do lead some people to take drastic actions. Solving the root problems may take time but very public work still needs to be done, no matter what the time frame. Otherwise fringe groups will see no other alternative except to draw public attention to their causes through mass casualties and disruption of society. These actions typically cause more disruption and cost more to a society than addressing the root problems behind them.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Words Weaving Through My World

Last night I was reading a section of Team of Rivals, a book about Lincoln's presidency. A book I started reading almost a year ago.

White House

In Team of Rivals, author Doris Kearns Goodwin mentions how Major Robert Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie in South Carolina on December 26th, 1860. South Carolina had just voted to secede from the Union and Major Anderson deemed Fort Moultrie too difficult to defend against the angry southerners.

This morning I awoke to read the headlines on the Washington Post's web site. There was a triple homicide on Moultrie Road in Fairfax County, Virginia. (Link)

In the great scheme of things this means nothing. William Moultrie was a general in the American Revolution. His name is plastered all over the U.S.. There's a county with that name in Illinois. A town in Georgia is named after the old general and a large lake in South Carolina. However I had never come across the name until last night, at least not consciously.

Words and ideas weave their way through our lives for reasons we cannot begin to fathom. I started reading Team of Rivals after receiving the book as a Christmas present last year. In an unusual pattern for me, I jumped around the book rather than reading it consecutively as I do most books. Last night was just one more session of continuous reading, an attempt to put all the events of Lincoln's presidency in the correct order.

Only just recently have I learned that another person is reading Team of Rivals and trying to learn from Abraham Lincoln's choice of cabinet officials, President-elect Barak Obama. This only further demonstrates to me the mystery of how ideas and words weave their way through our lives.

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This could all be attributable to my keen ability to associate disparate ideas. I have always been a puzzle-solver. I treasured those 1,500 piece puzzles of the 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Course as a young boy. I loved the way my mind would start to work automatically as I came closer to completing the puzzle.

Various employers have benefited from my ability to solve complex problems, especially those involving computers and humans. I can sit down and study the software along with the intended end-user audience, and solve the problem of getting everyone trained in many locations. It is every bit a puzzle as those jigsaw puzzles I put together years ago.

There is no visible relationship between the mention of Fort Moultrie in Goodwin's Team of Rivals and the triple homicide on Moultrie Road in Fairfax. I usually let those oddities slip into the past easily, though I may use them to spur me into examining other relationships in my world. This brief essay would not have been written if not for the appearance of General Moultrie's name twice in my life in less than 12 hours. This is where a life examined intersects with events taking place elsewhere. It all stimulates the brain to create other new associations and isn't that really where life takes on meaning?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Preventing the spread of radical islam is not the sole responsibility of the United States

13/11/08 UPDATE: Ten members of the European Union have joined together to send naval forces to the region to counter the rapid growth of piracy in the region.

Original article:

A recent article in the New York Times describes the dire situation in Somalia. In brief, the entire nation is about to be taken over by Islamic extremists. In the words of Somalia's ambassador, Abdi Awaleh Jama, “These Islamists are terrorists. The American Congress and administration have to wake up. We have a common interest in defeating them.”

U.S. Capitol 0035 USS Wisconsin 000026

Besides the imminent fall of Mogadishu to Islamic radicals, there are several other important issues raised by Ambassador Jama's words. First, he implies that the United States, as a result of the U.S. military support of Ethiopian troops, represents the main source of relief in his country's war against Islamic extremists. While this may well be true, it should not be the case.

The effort to stop terror attacks such as car bombs, suicide bombers, piracy, and even the use of hijacked aircraft to destroy buildings, is not the sole responsibility of the United States. The people of all nations are threatened by the continuation of these violent acts intended to disrupt the normal lives of humans. The list of nations already attacked by individuals and groups allied to various Islamic extremist organizations is a long one. It includes Yemen, the U.K., Spain, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, India, the U.S., Tanzania, Kenya, and many others. Few experts will dispute the fact that other nations will experience such violent attacks in the near future.

A primary task of the new Obama Administration must be to redefine the fight against violent extremists in such a way that all nations clearly understand the threat these continued bombings and other attacks pose. The United States may be the wealthiest nation on Earth but it cannot be expected to always act as the world's policeman. The governments and citizens of all nations are impacted when the people of any one nation are subject to asymmetric attacks. Radical extremists do posses the ability to impact the global economy despite the relatively low numbers of deaths their violence causes in any one nation*.

Human society is already nearly paralyzed in large regions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. International travel and trade is severely disrupted. Besides the human and financial costs of the attacks themselves, more and more tax dollars must be directed to security efforts, military build-up, and anti-terrorist training efforts. In addition, the psychological toll this violence places on human society cannot be underestimated.


The Obama Administration, the European Union, the United Nations, Asean, the G20, and the African Union, along with the leaders of all nations, must unite to thoroughly understand the root causes of terror attacks as well as implement co-ordinated counter-measures. Until they face the combined effort of the people of the entire world, the extremists will not stop at the borders of Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia. In any event, their acts have already disrupted global trade, humanitarian aid efforts, and therefore human life in all regions of the planet. It is now time for all nations to stand up and respond to this violent activity so that we can build a peaceful society in which to live, raise our children, and prosper.

*For example, 41,000 people were killed in U.S. automobile accidents in 2007 alone.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Harvard and other schools need to do more, not less

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Harvard University President Drew Faust recently hinted that cutbacks will soon begin in Harvard's workforce. Faust is worried that investments made with Harvard's nearly 40 billion dollar endowment may shrink by a few billion. President Faust needs to take a step back from her spreadsheets and white boards to consider the community living beyond her ivory towers.

It should not be entirely up to governments to re-build a nation's economy. While it is understandable that a failing industrial giant like GM might need to layoff employees it makes no sense for Harvard to follow suit. Universities are all about preparing society for the future. At a time like this colleges and universities should not be acting like profit-seeking firms owned by shareholders, The issues of how some schools handle patents resulting from student inventions and the size of their financial investments already makes the "nonprofit status" of some higher-education institutions suspect.

Schools of all sizes need to be looking hard and deep for more ways to reach out to the stricken communities they inhabit. In tough times educators should be expanding extension services, helping to re-train workers, and opening their doors to more people seeking advancement. This is the primary purpose of educational institutions. It is also the main reason governments exempt schools from most taxes imposed on corporations.

This author is not suggesting that Harvard start competing with private trade schools but rather partner with those firms to expand the menu of courses they offer. Schools should not be in business to make profits but they surely have the knowledge and expertise to help struggling enterprises. The last thing they need to be doing is adding to the burgeoning rolls of the unemployed and under-employed.

Granted there should be careful thought given to the ways that schools use their money and other vital resources to help communities. A few years back Pennsylvania State University got so aggressive buying land, building retirement communities and expanding their dairy operation that they negatively impacted several local businesses. The university catering operation alone drove many smaller catering firms out of business. The region known as Happy Valley saw numerous larger firms close up shop while the University blindly grew into the dominant employer. It took a wiser President and board of trustees to change some Penn State business practices.

Harvard is located in a larger community and should look for more effective ways to reach out to the people of Massachusetts and beyond. Job retraining programs, business incubators, and sending those smart professors out into the community makes more sense than layoffs. Expanding enrollment, offering practical courses to the community, and taking more steps to share the precious knowledge that Harvard helps create should be the primary responsibility. Encourage your alumni, arguably a major source of wealth in the U.S. and beyond, to give back to their communities instead of to Harvard's endowment.
  • Why not help graduates and other community members that are unable to find work in their fields?
  • Why not offer space to potential new employers to try out their new business ideas?
  • Why not create a committee of experts to help our leaders tackle the huge economic problems they face?


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All of these ideas may sound absurd to President Faust but they follow in the footsteps of one Harvard graduate who has chosen to take on the nation's most difficult job instead of a lucrative law practice. President-elect Obama needs all the help he can get, from friends and former foes alike. Harvard surely counts itself as a friend of Barack Obama's and needs to behave like one in actions large and small.

T.H. Williams

Links:

New York Times
Cable News Network
Washington Post

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It does seem as though the pace of change is quickening in all aspects of human life. Unfortunately this rapid change is taking a huge toll on many individuals. The world's existing financial systems are failing on an almost daily basis. Who would have thought UBS, the largest private Swiss bank, would fail along with ING, the largest Dutch bank, and most of the largest banks in the U.S.?

These major events are not merely the stuff of wealthy person's conversations in tall buildings. Millions of people all over the world are losing their primary source of income and any savings they may have accrued, almost overnight. Those who still have jobs are being asked to take more unpaid time-off, and can expect no significant raises in pay, while everyone's basic living costs go up and up.

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Crime and likely even warfare, will increase as some people get just that desperate. Europe and Asia descended into warfare the last time the world's economy soured this much. There are regional wars even now but those too will escalate outside current boundaries.

People want solutions but they also just want things. In fact if most people stopped desiring so many things the economic situation would get even worse. We have built much of our world on acts of almost pointless consumption. Now this crisis forces us to stop consuming everything except the basic necessities.

It becomes difficult to sit in quiet contemplation when you are not certain about how much longer you will have a roof over your head. This mental turbulence is shared by people in all strata of society, though the deprivations each person suffers may differ.

I offer no solutions but I do know that everything seeks balance, a return to the mean, if you will. Giant societies, small villages, fields and forests share many aspects though you may need to slow down to learn the similarities.

I am sometimes drawn to prose and lyrical answers when my head stops working properly. Here is one song that offers a little insight into the present human condition:

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Trees by Rush

There is unrest in the forest,
There is trouble with the trees,
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas.

The trouble with the maples,
(And they're quite convinced they're right)
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light.
But the oaks can't help their feelings
If they like the way they're made.
And they wonder why the maples
Can't be happy in their shade.

There is trouble in the forest,
And the creatures all have fled,
As the maples scream "Oppression!"
And the oaks just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights.
"The oaks are just too greedy;
We will make them give us light."
Now there's no more oak oppression,
For they passed a noble law,
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw.