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Sunday, May 23, 2004

General Zinni's Disclosures

Sent to Boston Globe 

So General Anthony Zinni tells us that "everyone knew" General Shinseki was right when he said we needed 300,000 soldiers to pacify Iraq.
What a pity he and his colleagues didn't speak up before the war started. As we knew after the Bay of Pigs catastrophe, "groupthink" is a poor basis for decision making. If those leaders in the military had been doing their jobs properly, they would have spoken out. Then we might never have gone to war, or, if we had done so, we would have had sufficient troops to stabilize the situation right after the fall of Baghdad.
In any case, it is surely time for a new team, one with their ideas firmly rooted in reality, to take over the top leadership of the Pentagon.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Kerry Loses Touch

Sent to Boston Globe, not published

John F. Kerry seems to have lost touch with his most faithful constituency: the voters of Massachusetts.
His ruminations about delaying the acceptance of the nomination until long after the Boston Convention comes like a slap in the face to his most fervent supporters. Why are we to put up with road and rail closings, disruption of traffic, and heightened security controls? We were willing to put up with this at a proper convention where we would see our candidate rallying the troops for a major effort to oust the Bush administration. Without that rallying call from a true candidate, the convention will be a farce, and our discomfiture suffered for nothing.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Troop Rotation


I am not a supporter of the Iraq war, but many Americans are.
The support in this constituency will dwindle for two reasons: the on-going conflict in Iraq and the inept prosecution of the war. There is not a lot to do about the former except to soldier on; but the Administration can do a lot about the prosecution of the war.
The most inequitable feature of the way in which this war is being carried out is the way in which tours of duty are being extended -- often at short notice. This plays havoc with people's lives and with their family members' lives and, for those in the reserve, for their employers' plans. I cannot believe that there are no other troops available to rotate into Iraq to relieve the men and women who have served through the brunt of the war and the recent insurrection. I suspect that the reason for extending the duty tours of those currently in Iraq is that, like overtime, it is cheaper than deploying new troops.
It may be cheaper, but it is grossly unfair.
Many people say that Secretary Rumsfeld should stay in office because it would be a mistake to switch Defense Secretaries in mid-war. I think this is incorrect, his successor could scarcely do a worse job.

Crisis Management

Sent to but not published in Boston Globe

Secretary Rumsfeld seems not to have learned anything about crisis management. The smart thing to do is to get out ahead of the crisis and dominate the story.
Even today, the Secretary is allowing others to determine the pace at which revelations happen. There will be nothing worse for the administration if pictures of atrocities leak out in dribbles over the next few weeks.
Rumsfeld should release all the information and pictures and videos he has now. Get the furor over with in a couple of days rather than the "death by a thousand cuts" that will occur of the pictures are released over weeks or months. If there is concern for the privacy of the perpetrators then their faces could be fuzzed.
It is time Rumsfeld managed something right.

Thursday, May 6, 2004

Abuses in Iraq

Sent to but not published in Boston Globe

The position taken by Joan Vennochi that the prisoner abuses in Iraq are the work of a few "bad apples" is becoming less and less sustainable as time passes. Today's revelation that, for the past few months, the Red Cross has been asking the US to stop prisoner abuse tells us that the "bad apples" are also to be found at higher levels of the military and political hierarchies.
The questions must be asked: when did the Secretaries of State and Defence know what was going on; when did the President know? If they didn't know, who was responsible for keeping this politically explosive information from them. If they didn't know, why didn't they make it their business to make sure that they got accurate and complete information about the situation in Iraq?

incentives for teachers

Why incentives for teachers are a bad idea. Teaching is an act of creation: the creation of a new, richer, improved cognitive structure in the mind of the pupil. This can occur through increasing the amount of information stored in that mind (such as learning the batting averages of a baseball player); it can occur through the generation of new connections among the pieces of information stored (like developing an understanding of the physics of the curve ball through a consideration of spin, velocity, and air conditions); most dramatically, it can occur through a radical reorganization of the pattern of connections (through understand how baseball is “not only a game” but is indelibly seared into the self identity of New Yorkers and Bostonians). Creativity in teaching is all about this process. The teacher needs to focus, in a series of one on one or one on many interactions, on the way in which her/his students learn. Unless the teacher focuses on this process, it will be hard for the teacher to adjust the teaching style to match the varied learning styles of the students. Financial incentives will disrupt this focus in two ways: incentives are given for irrelevant behaviors; incentives reduce the intrinsic motivation of the joy of teaching. What will incentives be given for? We now live in a world with teacher incentives: incentives for special training, incentives for higher degrees. This leads teachers into the pursuit of credentials, not, except incidentally, into better teaching. What then would be the criteria for “effective teaching?” There are two relatively simple criteria that might be used: Both are flawed. The first is to have students rate the teacher’s effectiveness, but this tends to develop into a popularity contest with teachers abandoning their professional responsibilities to do what most pleases the students. There is some evidence that higher ratings are associated with grading leniency, at least for average teachers. Another flaw is that teachers are judged relative to their peers. That is student’s mean ratings are anchored to the average level of teacher performance in the school. Even in a school with a superior level of teaching, a quarter of the teachers will be stigmatized as being in the bottom 25%. Similarly in a truly awful school, there will be teachers in the top 10% even if these would be at the bottom of the heap if they taught in a better school. The second criterion is to look at test scores, or at graduation rates, or at college placement. Although it can be argued that these are reasonable criteria that demonstrate the fruits of learning, good teaching is only one of the factors that lead to success. The quality of the intake is more critical, hence Harvard’s success. It is very difficult to control these factors to obtain an accurate assessment of the teacher’s contribution to the success of their students. A third criterion would be to look at the improvement in students over time. The problem here is that teachers will focus on those students in the middle of the pack who have both the capacity to improve and room to improve. They will be less likely to focus on those at the bottom of the class who may have difficulty learning, nor those at the top of the class who don’t need the teacher’s attention to each a relatively high standard of performance. It is hard to see how incentives for teachers will do anything to enhance the activity of teaching. Incentives are the anticipated outcomes for successfully reaching some level of performance; as such they focus attention on the outcome rather than on the process of reaching that outcome. Moreover they reduce or inhibit the intrinsic value of the work process. Students who work with incentivised teachers become means to ends rather than ends in themselves. The teacher worries about the student’s grades or the test scores result rather than on whether the student has learned anything. Incentives for teachers are an idea whose time should not come.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Prisoner Abuse

Why are we surprised at the abuse of prisoners in Iraq? We should not be. Since there were prisons, there has been abuse of prisoners. This was revealed most publically in the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 to the mistreatment of John Geoghan in Concord Prison two years ago. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanford students were randomly assigned to role play Guards and Prisoners. Each were outfitted in appropriate uniforms. The experiment had to be terminated after a few days because “guards” were mistreating “prisoners” and “prisoners” were experiencing psychological distress; fortunately short-lived. What is happening here is a common form of inter-group dynamics: a bonding with the in-group and a rejection of the outgroup. This was coupled with two other things: the gross power imbalance between guards and prisoners and the de-humanizing effects of the uniforms so that people in both groups were not individuals, Joe, and Bill, and Alf – they were Prisoner 123, Guard 789, etc. Guards came to view the prisoners as lesser beings and therefore mistreating them was not the same as mistreating a human being. These tendencies to devalue the “other” are of course even stronger in the case of Geoghan who was a convicted pedophile. These tendencies must also have been strong in Iraq where the prisoners’ status as enemies, as Moslem, and as Iraqi all created differences between themselves and their captors. The dehumanizing effect was exacerbated by the hooding of the prisoners. Those hoods are not just to confuse the prisoners they are to ensure that the guards do not see them as individual human beings. With all those forces operating, it is no surprise that there was abuse. What IS surprising, given all we know about the potential for abuses is that the Army and others in the Administration did not take strong proactive measures to ensure that the abuse did not occur. After all, even the Bush Administration should have been able to foresee the explosive political and international effects that would occur if such abuse were to be revealed. Or perhaps it is not so surprising given this Administration’s cavalier attitude to civil rights, to the Geneva Convention, and to the International Criminal Court - the Bush Administration’s opposition to this Court makes sense in the light of all that has passed since March 2003.

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Ene,y Combatants' Rights

Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

The Supreme Court is presently considering whether US Citizens who have been declared "enemy combatants" should have access to lawyers. In reaching a decision, its members should reflect on the information coming belatedly out of Iraq. In Iraq, prisoners, presumably genuine prisoners of war, held incommunicado have suffered torture. That terrible failure of US policy is a powerful argument in favor of a Supreme Court's ruling in favor of those seeking access to legal support.