Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Blogs Of Iraq

I do not want to be right in theory but in nature.
---Paul Cezanne
Nature teaches more than she preaches. There are no sermons in stones. It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral.
---John Burroughs
Year after year
the monkey's mask
reveals the monkey.
I'll never grow to like the word "blog." At, where perhaps blogging was invented, we've used the word "log" to describe the simple acts of composition that record the thoughts and events of our days. Blog is a heavy, slogging sort of word to me, and yields none of the poetic beauty I associate with the act of writing...especially on the Internet. I like the idea I'm keeping a log of my voyage. Even "diary," with its romantic, secretive connotations, is better than blog---a word that invites derision in its very pronunciation.

Be that as it may, I came to the computer this morning with the innocent intention to catch up on email. (Continued apologies to the legion out there to whom I owe messages and replies.) The very first note I read was from Tim Chavez in Columbus, who's a friend of Annie Warmke, proprietress of the innovative I'm sure Tim and I are going to get to meet someday soon, but for now we're still encouraging each other's politics with messages now and then. This one, which he actually sent yesterday, sent me browsing all over the place for an hour...and maybe you'd like to share. Hopefully you already know all about this, but I'm just learning.
There are 2 blogs, written by Iraqis, that are getting more and more visits every day. The first is called Baghdad Burning, written by an anonymous girl (she calls herself that) with the pseudonym Riverbend. Need I say more? Just her choice of a name gives you a taste of how brilliantly she writes and what a beautiful soul she is. I was worried about hoax and so went to Google, but I see no yelling from the military right except for one guy who tried to parody her (fell flat). Wikipedia even has an entry for her that begins "Riverbend is the pseudonymous author of the blog Baghdad Burning, launched August 17, 2003. Riverbend's identity is carefully hidden, but the weblog entries suggest that Riverbend is a young, unmarried Iraqi woman, from a mixed Shia and Sunni family, living with her parents and brother in Baghdad. Before the United States occupation of Iraq she was a computer programmer. She writes in an idiomatic English which appears to reflect a Western education. The blog combines political statements with a large dose of Iraqi cultural information, such as the celebration of Ramadhan and examples of Iraqi cuisine. In March 2006, her website received the Bloggie award for Best Middle East and Africa blog."
Her entries have been collected into TWO books now, easily available at Amazon. There are 2 editorial reviews at that link, but you may also be interested in what The New York Review of Books has to say , and maybe a very moving extract at Open Democracy . The customer reviews at Amazon are indicative of the impact Riverbend is having around the world and here in the States especially. The actual blog is right here at Blogspot, where so many of us also store our writing: .
The other blogger may be considered an Iraqi exile I suppose. Raed Jarrar left his homeland in 2005 and moved here for the time being. Also at Blogspot, he began writing in 2002 at Dear Raed and his earliest entries still are there . But since moving here he writes at Raed In The Middle . Raed's current work, with a photo of him, is described here: "Since the summer of 2006, Mr. Jarrar has worked as the Iraq Project Director of Global Exchange where he facilitates the publication of op-eds and policy papers by Iraqi leaders in U.S. newspapers and works at bridging the gap between Iraqi leaders and U.S. Congress members by arranging face-to-face meetings between U.S. and Iraqi leaders. He is currently based in Washington DC. He is also an analyst and contributing writer for Foreign Policy in Focus and a member of the steering committee of the NY-based coalition United For Peace and Justice."
I have yet really to delve into these blogs but I look forward to do so. I have a feeling, between the two of these young people, we have a chance to learn some different truths about this world.

Hot Internet Discourse

Well-being means to be fully born, to become what one potentially is; it means to have the full capacity for joy and sadness or, to put it still differently, to awake from the half-slumber the average man lives in and to be fully awake.
---Erich Fromm
How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.
---George Washington Carver
In the midst of the plain
sings the skylark,
free of all things.
Who could have guessed? There now exists a scholarly periodic journal entitled CyberPsychology & Behavior. Actually I'm relieved the psychologists are on this situation. I wouldn't be me if I hadn't run afoul already of various challenges social interaction on the Internet has created for the species.
Fortunately I have been spared the most extreme examples, such as leaving one's wife and children to marry a woman in a faroff land with whom one has carried on only in a chatroom. Or tracking down some guy on a message board who's flamed you once too often, going to his house, and punching him in the nose. Or finding a teenage lovely at MySpace and trying to arrange a chance to spy on her at the Mall. But I've been close enough to understand these strange behaviors.
But what is there to understand, and why do people react differently to Internet situations than ever they would face-to-face? Yesterday an essay appeared in The New York Times on the activity known as "flaming." One time I made a guy so mad at me at a group I was in (now merged with Yahoo) that he booted me out and, since he was an assistant webmaster or something of the thing, found other groups I was in, joined them and proceeded to terrorize me wherever I went.
Here are some reasons they think we do stuff like that~~~
The New York Times
February 20, 2007
Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior
Jett Lucas, a 14-year-old friend, tells me the kids in his middle school send one other a steady stream of instant messages through the day. But there’s a problem.
“Kids will say things to each other in their messages that are too embarrassing to say in person,” Jett tells me. “Then when they actually meet up, they are too shy to bring up what they said in the message. It makes things tense.”
Jett’s complaint seems to be part of a larger pattern plaguing the world of virtual communications, a problem recognized since the earliest days of the Internet: flaming, or sending a message that is taken as offensive, embarrassing or downright rude.
The hallmark of the flame is precisely what Jett lamented: thoughts expressed while sitting alone at the keyboard would be put more diplomatically — or go unmentioned — face to face.
Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.
In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.
The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.
This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.
Research by Jennifer Beer, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, finds that this face-to-face guidance system inhibits impulses for actions that would upset the other person or otherwise throw the interaction off. Neurological patients with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex lose the ability to modulate the amygdala, a source of unruly impulses; like small children, they commit mortifying social gaffes like kissing a complete stranger, blithely unaware that they are doing anything untoward.
Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.
True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.
And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion more likely to fail. Our emotional impulses disinhibited, we type some infelicitous message and hit “send” before a more sober second thought leads us to hit “discard.” We flame.
Flaming can be induced in some people with alarming ease. Consider an experiment, reported in 2002 in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, in which pairs of college students — strangers — were put in separate booths to get to know each other better by exchanging messages in a simulated online chat room.
While coming and going into the lab, the students were well behaved. But the experimenter was stunned to see the messages many of the students sent. About 20 percent of the e-mail conversations immediately became outrageously lewd or simply rude.
And now, the online equivalent of road rage has joined the list of Internet dangers. Last October, in what The Times of London described as “Britain’s first ‘Web rage’ attack,” a 47-year-old Londoner was convicted of assault on a man with whom he had traded insults in a chat room. He and a friend tracked down the man and attacked him with a pickax handle and a knife.
One proposed solution to flaming is replacing typed messages with video. The assumption is that getting a message along with its emotional nuances might help us dampen the impulse to flame.
All this reminds me of a poster on the wall of classrooms I once visited in New Haven public schools. The poster, part of a program in social development that has lowered rates of violence in schools there, shows a stoplight. It says that when students feel upset, they should remember that the red light means to stop, calm down and think before they act. The yellow light prompts them to weigh a range of responses, and their consequences. The green light urges them to try the best response.
Not a bad idea. Until the day e-mail comes in video form, I may just paste one of those stoplights next to my monitor.
Daniel Goleman is the author of “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.” Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
Oh yes, about that photo up there: it appears at a blog called The AV Club with the following caption~~~
Battery Recall PSA
Thursday, August 24th, 2006
This is a Public Service Announcement: if you own a G4 Apple laptop, specifically the 12-inch iBook G4, 12-inch PowerBook G4 and 15-inch PowerBook G4, your battery may be on the recall list. These batteries were made by Sony, and they have been catching fire, hence recall. There are 1.8 Million batteries from Apple on the list, to find out if yours is there, go to the official apple site for the recall. Apparently they ship you a new battery, so you don’t have to lose your lappie or anything. I hope this helps some of you.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Joni: New Art, Ballet, Music

The mind creates the chasm which only the heart can cross.
---Stephen Levine
It is our very search for perfection outside of ourselves that causes our suffering.
---The Buddha
A disciple lived for a time with Zen master Kassan. But feeling that the teachings did not suit him, the disciple decided to go on a pilgrimage. But everywhere he went, the disciple only heard praise for how Master Kassan was the best of teachers. Finally the disciple returned, and when he greeted his old master he said, "Why did you not reveal your profound understanding of the dharma?"
The Master smiled, and replied: "When you cooked rice, did I not light the fire? When you served food, did I not hold out my bowl? How have I failed you?"
At this the disciple was enlightened.
---Zen mondo
When someone creates a work of art that seemingly captures, describes, celebrates your life at the moment, you get spoiled. You think you must have a personal connection with this artist, that somehow you are universal and famous: an archetype, a microcosm, a herald. You develop expectations of the artist...and if the next piece doesn't continue the synchronicity, you're disappointed and maybe resentful. Perhaps you dismiss the artist as having dimmed and missed the boat. Washed up, a has-been.
Everyone knows, and especially today's teen-agers, this kind of thing used to happen a lot in the rock music of the 1970s. Few singer-songwriters did it to us more than Joni Mitchell...and few suffered our disdain for her later efforts more than she. Joni didn't seem to need our illusions and fantasies about her as much as other performers though. Probably when you grow up in Saskatchewan, you're accustomed to the richness of solitude...and there's always something else to do.
People cruelly have responded to Ms. Mitchell's solitary ways by calling her "reclusive," which really isn't true at all. She always is creating and her art is for others, as well as an expression for herself. New music and paintings have been around if you cared to look for them. But suddenly now once again, Joni Mitchell seems to be everywhere. A big feature article in yesterday's New York Times, a gallery showing in LA last month, an award ceremony in Toronto last week (where the decorating photo of her was taken), choreographies for ballet companies, and a new album of songs in the wings. Alas, she still smokes.
Here are a few links to whet your appetite~~~
An account of the Canadian Songwriters ceremony last Sunday night
And there always are updates at her delightful site
The Times article by David Yaffe is especially good and concludes with these words, beginning with lyrics from a new song~~~
On “If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry,” one of the songs she used in the ballet, she sings,
“Holy earth
How can we heal you
We cover you like blight
Strange Birds of Appetite
If I had a heart
I’d cry.”
I asked her to replay me the song a few times. It is one of the most haunting melodies she has ever written.
“During that song,” she explained, “there are seven night photographs of the earth from every angle, and when you see it, it’s frightening to witness what an electronic blight we are at night.”
There was an electronic blight as she drove me back to my hotel at 5 a.m. in her Lexus, with her Jack Russell terrier, Coco, perched on her lap. The block had lost its electricity, as if on cue after a night of dire ecological warnings.
“My heart is broken in the face of the stupidity of my species,” she said. “I can’t cry about it. In a way I’m inoculated. I’ve suffered this pain for so long. We were expelled from Eden. What keeps us out of Eden?” She thought about this for a moment before riffing on a Dylan line: “I tried to tell everybody, but I could not get it across.”
“Well, I’m being more specific now,” she allowed. “The West has packed the whole world on a runaway train. We are on the road to extincting ourselves as a species. That’s what I meant when I said that we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Government For Sale

The digital art print is Business and Pleasure by Dale Kennington.

An old Hasidic rabbi asked his pupils how to tell when night ended and the morning began, which is the time for certain holy prayers."Is it when you see an animal in the distance and know whether it's a sheep or a dog?""No," the rabbi answered."Is it when you can look at a tree and tell whether it's a fig tree or a pear tree?""No," the rabbi answered again.After a few more tries, the pupils said, "Then tell us, what is it?""It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and know that they are your sister or brother. Until then, it is still night."

---Hasidic mondo

The important point of spiritual practice is not to try to escape your life, but to face it---exactly and completely.

---Dainin Katagiri

I do not seek, I find.

---Pablo Picasso

What has happened to a civilization when the people decide government itself is an infringement upon their freedom? What is the basis of the belief that nobody can tell me what to do? Is it that rights are determined only by the might and mood of one's neighbor? How is it that a human can assert ownership of any space of ground on this earth? Is it a weapon and money to buy the very best that determines righteousness in this life?

What happens when a people are convinced government is the problem, an evil? We had a president in the United States not long ago who said so. We had a Speaker of one house of our Congress who said government workers were worthless, terrible people who should be sent away. How many feel all "bureaucrats" should be eliminated and taxes done away with? How well has this country done, within itself and in the world of nations, after eliminating the process of regulation?

Has total reliance upon the "free" marketplace been a triumph? Are we happier being consumers than citizens? Without regulation, who keeps track of outsourcing? Is it even necessary to do, since capitalism is the most perfect way for humans to organize themselves, realize their needs, and celebrate the competitive spirit of innovation?

Is it Super Bowl Sunday that has me wondering all these things? No, actually I wonder this stuff all the time. What has happened however is the introduction today of a new series on outsourcing by The New York Times. Say what you will about that newspaper, but when they send reporters to cover a process like this I declare they are doing us a great service. I don't know of the reporters who have signed off on this first story, except that Scott Shane is a writer in their Washington bureau and Ron Nixon is a projects editor at the business desk. The first article is 4 Internet pages long, and the link at the bottom is to the first page. For those without registration at The Times, here is a post of the whole thing~~~

The New York TimesFebruary 4, 2007

In Washington, Contractors Take on Biggest Role Ever By SCOTT SHANE and RON NIXON

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 — In June, short of people to process cases of incompetence and fraud by federal contractors, officials at the General Services Administration responded with what has become the government’s reflexive answer to almost every problem.

They hired another contractor.

It did not matter that the company they chose, CACI International, had itself recently avoided a suspension from federal contracting; or that the work, delving into investigative files on other contractors, appeared to pose a conflict of interest; or that each person supplied by the company would cost taxpayers $104 an hour. Six CACI workers soon joined hundreds of other private-sector workers at the G.S.A., the government’s management agency.

Without a public debate or formal policy decision, contractors have become a virtual fourth branch of government. On the rise for decades, spending on federal contracts has soared during the Bush administration, to about $400 billion last year from $207 billion in 2000, fueled by the war in Iraq, domestic security and Hurricane Katrina, but also by a philosophy that encourages outsourcing almost everything government does.

Contractors still build ships and satellites, but they also collect income taxes and work up agency budgets, fly pilotless spy aircraft and take the minutes at policy meetings on the war. They sit next to federal employees at nearly every agency; far more people work under contracts than are directly employed by the government. Even the government’s online database for tracking contracts, the Federal Procurement Data System, has been outsourced (and is famously difficult to use).

The contracting explosion raises questions about propriety, cost and accountability that have long troubled watchdog groups and are coming under scrutiny from the Democratic majority in Congress. While flagrant cases of fraud and waste make headlines, concerns go beyond outright wrongdoing. Among them:

¶Competition, intended to produce savings, appears to have sharply eroded. An analysis by The New York Times shows that fewer than half of all “contract actions” — new contracts and payments against existing contracts — are now subject to full and open competition. Just 48 percent were competitive in 2005, down from 79 percent in 2001.

¶The most secret and politically delicate government jobs, like intelligence collection and budget preparation, are increasingly contracted out, despite regulations forbidding the outsourcing of “inherently governmental” work. Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said allowing CACI workers to review other contractors captured in microcosm “a government that’s run by corporations.”

¶Agencies are crippled in their ability to seek low prices, supervise contractors and intervene when work goes off course because the number of government workers overseeing contracts has remained level as spending has shot up. One federal contractor explained candidly in a conference call with industry analysts last May that “one of the side benefits of the contracting officers being so overwhelmed” was that existing contracts were extended rather than put up for new competitive bidding.

¶The most successful contractors are not necessarily those doing the best work, but those who have mastered the special skill of selling to Uncle Sam. The top 20 service contractors have spent nearly $300 million since 2000 on lobbying and have donated $23 million to political campaigns. “We’ve created huge behemoths that are doing 90 or 95 percent of their business with the government,” said Peter W. Singer, who wrote a book on military outsourcing. “They’re not really companies, they’re quasi agencies.” Indeed, the biggest federal contractor, Lockheed Martin, which has spent $53 million on lobbying and $6 million on donations since 2000, gets more federal money each year than the Departments of Justice or Energy.

¶Contracting almost always leads to less public scrutiny, as government programs are hidden behind closed corporate doors. Companies, unlike agencies, are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Members of Congress have sought unsuccessfully for two years to get the Army to explain the contracts for Blackwater USA security officers in Iraq, which involved several costly layers of subcontractors.

Weighing the Limits

The contracting surge has raised bipartisan alarms. A just-completed study by experts appointed by the White House and Congress, the Acquisition Advisory Panel, found that the trend “poses a threat to the government’s long-term ability to perform its mission” and could “undermine the integrity of the government’s decision making.”

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whose new Democratic chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, added the word “oversight” to signal his intentions, begins a series of investigative hearings on Tuesday focusing on contracts in Iraq and at the Department of Homeland Security.

“Billions of dollars are being squandered, and the taxpayer is being taken to the cleaners,” said Mr. Waxman, who got an “F” rating last year from the Contract Services Association, an industry coalition. The chairman he succeeded, Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, earned an “A.”

David M. Walker, who as comptroller general of the United States leads the Government Accountability Office, has urged Congress to take a hard look at the proper limits of contracting. Mr. Walker has not taken a stand against contractors — his agency is also dependent on them, he admits — but he says they often fail to deliver the promised efficiency and savings. Private companies cannot be expected to look out for taxpayers’ interests, he said.

“There’s something civil servants have that the private sector doesn’t,” Mr. Walker said in an interview. “And that is the duty of loyalty to the greater good — the duty of loyalty to the collective best interest of all rather than the interest of a few. Companies have duties of loyalty to their shareholders, not to the country.”

Even the most outspoken critics acknowledge that the government cannot operate without contractors, which provide the surge capacity to handle crises without expanding the permanent bureaucracy. Contractors provide specialized skills the government does not have. And it is no secret that some government executives favor contractors because they find the federal bureaucracy slow, inflexible or incompetent.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents government contractors, acknowledged occasional chicanery by contractors and too little competition in some areas. But Mr. Soloway asserted that critics had exaggerated the contracting problems.

“I don’t happen to think the system is fundamentally broken,” he said. “It’s remarkable how well it works, given the dollar volume.”

Blurring the Lines

Wariness of government contracting dates at least to 1941, when Harry S. Truman, then a senator, declared, “I have never yet found a contractor who, if not watched, would not leave the government holding the bag.”

But the recent contracting boom had its origins in the “reinventing government” effort of the Clinton administration, which slashed the federal work force to the lowest level since 1960 and streamlined outsourcing. Limits on what is “inherently governmental” and therefore off-limits to contractors have grown fuzzy, as the General Services Administration’s use of CACI International personnel shows.

“Hi Heinz,” Renee Ballard, a G.S.A. official, wrote in an e-mail message to Heinz Ruppmann, a CACI official, last June 12, asking for six “contract specialists” to help with a backlog of 226 cases that could lead to companies being suspended or barred from federal contracting. The CACI workers would review files and prepare “proposed responses for review and signature,” she wrote.

Mr. Amey, of the Project on Government Oversight, which obtained the contract documents under the Freedom of Information Act, said such work was clearly inherently governmental and called it “outrageous” to involve contractors in judging the misdeeds of potential competitors. CACI had itself been reviewed in 2004 for possible suspension in connection with supplying interrogators to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The company was ultimately cleared, though the G.S.A. found that CACI employees had improperly written parts of the “statements of work” for its own Iraq contract.

The price of $104 an hour — well over $200,000 per person annually — was roughly double the cost of pay and benefits of a comparable federal worker, Mr. Amey said.

Asked for comment, the G.S.A. said decisions on punishments for erring contractors “is indeed inherently governmental.” But the agency said that while the CACI workers assisted for three months, “all suspension/debarment decisions were made by federal employees.” A CACI spokeswoman made the same point.

The G.S.A., like other agencies, said it did not track the number or total cost of its contract workers. The agency administrator, Lurita Doan, who previously ran a Virginia contracting firm, has actively pushed contracting. Ms. Doan recently clashed with her agency’s inspector general over her proposal to remove the job of auditing contractors’ proposed prices from his office and to hire contractors to do it instead.

On some of the biggest government projects, Bush administration officials have sought to shift some decision making to contractors. When Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, addressed potential bidders on the huge Secure Border Initiative last year, he explained the new approach.

“This is an unusual invitation,” said Mr. Jackson, a contracting executive before joining the agency. “We’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business.”

Boeing, which won the $80 million first phase of the estimated $2 billion project, is assigned not only to develop technology but also to propose how to use it, which includes assigning roles to different government agencies and contractors. Homeland Security officials insist that they will make all final decisions, but the department’s inspector general, Richard L. Skinner, reported bluntly in November that “the department does not have the capacity needed to effectively plan, oversee and execute the SBInet program.”

A ‘Blended Work Force’

If the government is exporting some traditional functions to contractors, it is also inviting contractors into agencies to perform delicate tasks. The State Department, for instance, pays more than $2 million a year to BearingPoint, the consulting giant, to provide support for Iraq policy making, running software, preparing meeting agendas and keeping minutes.

State Department officials insist that the company’s workers, who hold security clearances, merely relieve diplomats of administrative tasks and never influence policy. But the presence of contractors inside closed discussions on war strategy is a notable example of what officials call the “blended work force.”

That blending is taking place in virtually every agency. When Polly Endreny, 29, sought work last year with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, she was surprised to discover that most openings were with contractors.

“The younger generation is coming in on contracts,” said Ms. Endreny, who likes the arrangement. Today, only the “Oak Management” on her ID badge distinguishes her from federal employees at the agency’s headquarters.

She said her pay was “a little higher” than that of comparable federal workers, and she gets dental coverage they do not. Such disparities can cause trouble. A recent study of one NOAA program where two-thirds of the work force were contractors found that differences in salary and benefits could “ substantially undermine staff relations and morale.”

The shift away from open competition affects more than morale. One example among many: with troops short in Iraq, Congress in 2003 waived a ban on the use of private security guards to protect military bases in the United States. The results for the first $733 million were dismal, investigators at the Government Accountability Office found.

The Army spent 25 percent more than it had to because it used sole-source contracts at 46 of 57 sites, the investigators concluded. And screening of guards was so lax that at one base, 61 guards were hired despite criminal records, auditors reported. Yet the Army gave the contractors more than $18 million in incentive payments intended to reward good performance. (The Army did not contest G.A.O.’s findings and has changed its methods.)

A Coalition for Contracting

Mr. Soloway, of the contracting industry group, argues that the contracting boom has resulted from the collision of a high-technology economy with an aging government work force — twice as many employees are over 55 as under 30. To function, Mr. Soloway said, the government must now turn to younger, skilled personnel in the private sector, a phenomenon likely to grow when what demographers call a “retirement tsunami” occurs over the next decade.

“This is the new face of government,” Mr. Soloway said. “This isn’t companies gouging the government. This is the marketplace.”

But Paul C. Light of New York University, who has long tracked the hidden contractor work force to assess what he calls the “true size of government,” says the shift to contractors is driven in part by federal personnel ceilings. He calls such ceilings a “sleight of hand” intended to allow successive administrations to brag about cutting the federal work force.

Yet Mr. Light said the government had made no effort to count contractors and no assessment of the true costs and benefits. “We have no data to show that contractors are actually more efficient than the government,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, a potent coalition keeps contracting growing: the companies, their lobbyists and supporters in Congress and many government managers, who do not mind building ties to contractors who may hire them someday. “All the players with any power like it,” he said.

That is evident wherever in Washington contractors gather to scout new opportunities. There is no target richer than the Homeland Security Department, whose Web site, in a section called “Open for Business,” displays hundreds of open contracts, including “working with selected cities to develop and exercise their catastrophic plans” ($500,000 to $1 million) and “Conduct studies and analyses, systems engineering, or provide laboratory services to various organizations to support the DHS mission” ($20 to $50 million).

One crisp morning in an office building with a spectacular view of the Capitol, Alfonso Martinez-Fonts Jr., the agency’s assistant secretary for the private sector, addressed a breakfast seminar on “The Business of Homeland Security.” The session drew a standing-room crowd.

Mr. Martinez-Fonts, a banker before joining the government, said he could not personally hand out contracts but could offer “tips, hints and directions” to companies on the hunt.

Joe Haddock, a Sikorsky Helicopters executive, summed up the tone of the session. “To us contractors,” Mr. Haddock said, “money is always a good thing.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Molly: Enough Is Enough

Photo of Molly Ivins by Carolyn Mary Bauman/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT
To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.

---Henry David Thoreau

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore!

---Ralph Waldo Emerson

In prayer, come empty, do nothing.

---St. John of the Cross
The title grows in significance when we learn Molly gave it to her last column in The Texas Observer a week ago Friday. She was writing about "the war" and it was a phrase she found herself using often these past several years, but with her death this week it rings like an epitaph. Of course I could never get "enough" of Molly, and like someone egging on a fighter I usually wanted even more. When Bush was running for president I wanted her to be harder on him, knowing all she did about him as an atrocious Texas governor (who touted educational programs he never funded and used the death sentence on prisoners whenever he could) and also as a fellow teenager in Houston. And now who can possibly take her place? When my wife gave me the news the other night, weeping I lamented, "With Ann Richards gone too, there are no more wild Texas women." I hope I'm terribly wrong about that.

The past few hours I've done the research of mourning by just beginning to ascend a mountain of anecdote and praise written for her by bloggers and fellow journalists. I haven't been able to compile a "best-of" collection for you, because there is just so much. I can tell you there is writing going on everywhere, and I don't remember an outpouring like this for anybody. Maybe I can list a few names and a few sites where I went, in case you want to celebrate her life too.

I loved seeing Molly Ivins show up on TV, which wasn't that often. Bill Moyers tried to get her on, but she didn't fit onto most news analysis programs. If she was a lively "talking head," she may have been a headache for the guys in the control room whose job was to bleep incendiary material. The Rude Pundit reminds us of what she said on FoxNews in 1998 about Clinton/Lewinsky: "If we had devoted this much time and this much space in the newspapers to the single most important problem in American politics today, which is the money that finances campaigns and the way the people that get elected respond to that money, we would have solved the problem by now. We would have the people of this country so outraged, they would be demanding campaign finance reform. What are we doing? We're talking about the president's dick. It's ridiculous."

Merseydotes reminded me in her posting of November 20, 2006, of what Molly said the single time I saw her in person a few years ago: "I don't know where these Christian conservatives get off anyway; Jesus was the biggest bleeding-heart liberal you ever saw!" At the time liberals at OU and in Athens were struggling to "reframe" ourselves as progressives or some other word to escape neocon mockery. Molly never swerved from calling herself a liberal and daring anybody to knock the proud chip off her shoulder over it. I think she said something like "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and hearts hafta bleed."

And a bigger heart there wasn't ever. John Nichols' piece reminds us of her fervent pursuit of justice in East Texas where "no one famous ever came." She said she wanted to write a book someday with that title about the civil rights movement in her home area, where no folk singers came to stir up the big demonstration. There WERE no big demonstrations there, just hard work in little offices trying to help people get jobs and housing.

I think the first tribute I read was among the first written, and I'm not surprised it was by Zepp. He begins his essay with a reference to Molly's father who, like mine, was a Republican. As she came home for holidays from Smith, where she was learning plenty more about the world, she said his politics guaranteed topics never would be lacking for conversation around the dinner table. Hmmm, yes, how well I remember when my father became convinced college had succeeded only in making me crazier! In more ways than one I felt a sibling comradery with Molly.

The best site for a series of reminiscences is here at The Texas Observer. What they've done is just open up for tributes from just about anyone. Here's Bill Moyers, Garrison Keillor, Dan Rather, John K. Galbraith, Jim Hightower to name a few. Some of them touched me profoundly.

A memorial service in Austin is tomorrow. I went to a memorial service in Texas once (for John Lomax Jr) and ended up on the floor in a corner crying my heart out---while a Dixieland band from New Orleans played, and Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins vied with each other over whose blues best belted out East Texas. I wouldn't be surprised if Molly's gets like that too...and Lordy, how I wish I could be there!