Friday, March 30, 2012

A Great Idea - and the Force That Opposes It

There's a nifty little article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education, about a biologist thinking about national security. You can find it here.

The thrust of the article is that natural creatures (the subject of the article is apparently very fond of the octopus as an example) have defense systems that are decentralized and adaptable. They don't rely on central control, but on distributed systems that can autonomously react to new situations, including situations that haven't been thought of yet. It's a very effective approach.

This idea isn't a new one. Others studying organizational efficiency have demonstrated that you're much better off having disparate, interdisciplinary groups working on problems than having rigid silos all controlled from the top. Studies of creativity have found that mixing people from very different backgrounds in the same space and an environment of few constraints can produce amazing results.

The problem isn't that these ideas aren't right. The problem is that they run counter to two very powerful forces, one common to the modern human condition, the other inherent in any system that has a governance structure.

The first problem, put simply, is trust. In order for a distributed, flexible, autonomous system to work, we have to trust each other. In particular, I have to trust that Team A sent out to secure area X or deal with problem Y will do just fine, without someone checking in on them constantly, making them write reports, and otherwise dealing with their work. "Accountability" is the positive spin we've put on this, but anybody who's worked in a large organization knows that "accountability systems" are often extremely stifling of both creativity and effective work.

Then there's the governance problem. Organizations that involve some kind of hierarchy are almost invariably self-selecting. The people who aspire to positions of "leadership" are, far too often, those whose motive is to be "in charge". They enjoy telling other people what to do, or think that they know better than others how those others should do their jobs. I have worked for some very egregious examples over my career; I'm sure many of you have, too.

So when you go to an organization - a government, a corporation, an "institution" - and tell it to develop a distributed system of autonomous responders, you're telling those same people to give up their power, their control, their authority. And it is that power that, very often, motivated them to get where they are in the first place. So they scoff. They find reasons why they shouldn't. They hide behind high-minded arguments about accountability and tradition. And the result is a lot of wasted effort and really lousy results.

At least the biologists can tell us why.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Brief Thoughts (But No Solutions) to Healthcare

There's been an awful lot written on the US healthcare system this week, largely because of the Supreme Court case. Trying to guess how justices will vote by listening to their questions is a bit like trying to infer Soviet policy in the old days by seeing who stands next to who at the May Day Parade. I have no idea what the Court will do - we'll find out in a few months.

There is one core observation that is both obvious and, to my eye, vastly under-reported. There are a lot of arguments about "Obamacare" and "individual mandates" and insurance and all sorts of other technical details. There are even arguments about whether universal health care should be a goal or not. But in one sense, we've already answered that last one. The moment we made it the law that anybody who walks into a hospital gets treated, regardless of their ability to pay, we essentially made health care universal - sometimes lousy, but universal.

I worry about government power as much as the next guy (and more than many). But on this issue, I think the horse has long since left the barn. We are ALL paying for everybody's health care, especially the poor - it's just a question of how. So long as we stick, as a matter of public policy, to the requirement that hospitals treat everyone - and I haven't heard even the most strident anti-Obamacare Republicans calling for a repeal of THAT law - all we're really arguing about is who should pay for it, and how to make the system more efficient. Political scare tactics aside, we have already socialized medicine - we've just done it badly.

We can all appreciate the irony of Republicans attacking a Democratic President for doing something that Republicans themselves once championed as an alternative to a different Democratic President. But then, most politicians of both parties are happy to use the old political Etch-a-Sketch when it suits their purposes.

I don't know if I like the particular solution that the Obama administration has come up with or not. There are some parts of it that everybody likes - like the inability to exclude for preexisting conditions, which has a serious drain on mobility in the labor market (you'd think free-market Republicans would care about that). I'm not keen on the government telling me to buy something, except in this case it's something I (and over 90% of the country) already have. Maybe there's a better way to do this. I'm certainly open to ideas.

But for all those who are simply opposed to this particular health care bill because, well, it's The Other Team - let's stop replaying Monty Python's Argument Sketch in public. If you think something else would work better, say so. And if you really mean it when you say you want to "get government out of health care" - try to repeal EMTALA first, and see where that gets you.

More on "Stand Your Ground" and Self-Defense

This is another of those tenacious things that just won't go away. I've seen part of the Trayvon Martin argument split off into a discussion about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. Some want to blame the law, at least in part, for Martin's death. Some of these people are my friends, so I have to take that view seriously. But I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the conclusion.

I'm the first to admit - I didn't know what the law actually says (and I suspect that most of us haven't read it). For those of you policy wonks, you can find the full text here; the relevant passage is this:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. (emphasis added)
As this is written, I don't think I have a lot of problems with it. If someone attacks me with a club or a knife, I'm going to defend myself forcefully if that's what's necessary. I might even break an arm or dislocate an elbow if that's what's needed to get the person to stop. If the attacker is unarmed, I probably wouldn't even have to go that far (unless the person is extremely persistent).

What I don't see here is a license to kill someone for punching me. Even if they are punching me repeatedly, deadly force is not necessary - the word in the law - in order to prevent my death or great bodily harm. I have LOTS of other options; using a gun, especially against an unarmed assailant, should be the absolute last of those options, and indeed it's difficult to imagine a scenario where that level of force becomes "necessary".

Laws, of course, are only as good as their enforcement. Stories have emerged of a man who survived being shot in Florida by someone who claimed the protection of this law - even though he was 10 feet away and had his hands up. It also appears that at least one Florida judge has taken a rather liberaI interpretation of "necessary" that law enforcement isn't comfortable with. If that's the case - and if, as appears to be the case in the immediate instance, George Zimmerman didn't provide much proof that shooting Martin was absolutely necessary - then the law itself is not the issue.

The problem, as usual, is culture - in this case, a culture of law enforcement which (for whatever reason) fails to apply the law as written, and a culture that is quick to jump to lethal force as the "only" option of self-defense (see my earlier post). A claim that lethal force was necessary to stop a teenager armed only with skittles and iced tea is ridiculous on its face - getting that recognized is not a matter of changing laws, but of changing hearts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Hard the "Easy" Stuff Is

I'll admit it - I do sometimes catch a little grief from university professor friends for having gone into administration. And while I enjoy a good "join the Dark Side" joke as much as anyone, there is an underlying current to some of what professors think of administrators. It boils down to this: administration is really much easier than research, writing, and teaching. The corollary is this: only those who aren't any good at the latter go into the former.

This sentiment isn't universally shared, even among those faculty who have good reason to dislike their administrators. But it's out there in the background.

Today was one of those days that showed how false this is. Good administration is hard. It just doesn't look like it.

A modern university is an incredibly complicated machine. You've got tons of departments and programs and faculty, each taking care of students in their own area. You've got tons of students who need to pay their bills, get the proper credit, be advised in the proper classes and course of study, and somehow get through the whole thing in a reasonable amount of time (if they don't drink themselves under their desks, which sadly some do). You've also got lots of programs and support services to help those students, each with its own needs and resource requirements. And all of these moving parts have to work together, even though they're all staffed by different people in different offices.

That's where administrators come in. Real administration doesn't have anything to do with "being in charge" - although I've known my share of administrators who got into it for exactly that reason (they usually stink). What real administration is about is getting things done. And since you have all of these different offices and functions running around, mostly not talking to each other (generally out of habit, not malice), somebody's got to do the coordinating. It is, to use the overused phrase, a lot like herding cats.

What makes it work? An ability to see things from lots of different points of view. An understanding of what you have control (and authority) over, and what is somebody else's job - and a willingness to respect those boundaries. Some creativity in knowing when to enforce the rules and when to make exceptions to the rules. And an unshakeable commitment to one phrase: "How can I help?"

The irony is that administration done well is largely invisible. Students are admitted, go to class, do well, earn their degrees, move on. Departments and faculty have what they need (if not all that they want). Everyone gets to go about their business, which feels pretty normal. It's only when something goes wrong that suddenly people notice that there are administrators who do things - and then, it's easy to blame them (and sometimes, we deserve it!)

The longer I work in different areas, the more I begin to see how hard it is to really make things work. Ideas that seem to simple on paper become seriously challenging when you try to make them actually happen. It's not impossible - and when it works, it's fun. But it's never, ever easy.

Self Defense, "Stand Your Ground", and the Choices We Make

Heaven knows there's been plenty of ink spilled already about the Trayvon Martin shooting. There are federal and state investigations, hearings on Capitol Hill, and a host of folks calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman. There are folks blaming Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and folks defending it; folks condemning lax gun control laws and folks claiming this is another example of gun self-defense; and everywhere, "hoodie protests" to complain about the very real issues of profiling (on race, class, or otherwise).

As usual, folks look at a case with plenty of ambiguity and see what they want to see. I'm not much different - I look at this through the lens of my own experience, like everybody else. I'm not really sure what I want to see here. But there is one issue that I don't think anyone's picked up on - the nature of "self defense".

It has become a given in America that "self defense" means, most of the time, carrying a gun. The vast majority of our arguments are about guns - where you can and can't carry them, who can or can't have a permit to carry one (or whether you even need a permit at all). Our national conversation assumes, tacitly, that guns are the primary means that people can use to defend themselves.

This is a mistake for two reasons. First, as a defensive technology guns are terrible. They are inherently offensive. I can't prevent you from hurting me with a gun except by hurting - possibly killing - you. Indeed, guns are a particularly strong form of offense, because of their strong proclivity to kill. Judging from the stories we see, it's very easy to kill someone with a gun, and rather difficult to merely wound. They are roughly equivalent to nuclear weapons at the interpersonal level - they have a very all-or-nothing quality, and unlike nuclear weapons (where one country might survive a first strike and be able to strike back) they promote a shoot-first, preemption logic.

The second reason that focusing on guns as self defense is a mistake is that there are lots of other options. There are chemical agents, like mace and pepper spray, that are widely available, easy to use (as easy as a gun, certainly), and non-lethal. There are devices like tasers that can be deadly, but usually aren't, and also aren't any harder to use than guns. And many of these options don't require a permit or any particular paperwork.

Then there's the option of simply learning to defend yourself. In the Martin shooting, Zimmerman's claim is that he had to shoot Martin because Martin was beating him up with his bare hands. Setting aside the legality question - what theory of violence allows us to escalate to the ultimate penalty immediately? What happened to principles of proportionality? Shooting someone as a response to a bare-handed attack is a bit like Israel launching a nuclear strike on Gaza when Hamas fires some rockets over the wall. We don't accept this at an international level - why does this make sense at the interpersonal level?

But this is exactly the logic we accept when we call guns "self defense". Yes, it's true that if someone else has a gun and is farther than arm's reach from me, my only chance to defend myself is with a gun, by shooting them first. I'm not saying that guns are worthless as protection in all cases. But when facing an unarmed assailant, a gun is simply an inappropriate response. Legal or illegal, it is wrong.

So here's what puzzles me. George Zimmerman, whatever his views on race or hoodies or people who look suspicious, put himself on a volunteer neighborhood watch. He expected to find "suspicious" people, and he obviously planned to confront them. And his plan to defend himself was to carry a gun. Not a can of pepper spray, not a taser. Not to learn how to defend himself against an unarmed assailant using only his bare hands. Just to carry a gun. That, to me, was the choice he made - long before he laid eyes on Trayvon Martin.

So here's the takeaway for me. Most of us defend ourselves first and foremost by avoiding situations where we might be attacked. And for a lot of people, that works pretty well. If you live in a gated suburb of Orlando, that should work fine. Some people - like Zimmerman - put themselves in potential danger as a service to the rest of the community. That's their choice. But if you're going to do that - if you think you might be confronted by someone potentially hostile - you need to develop a range of responses to defend yourself. Buy a can of pepper spray and learn to use it. Better still, study self defense or take up a martial art. Chances are good that there are at least a half-dozen schools within 20 miles of wherever you're sitting. Is that harder than learning to use a gun? Sure - becoming competent in a martial art takes years and lots of practice. It's not easy. But would you rather say to some kid's parents, "sorry I killed your son - I was lazy and guns are easier"?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Muse That Won't Go Away

I've been reading blogs for years. Friends' blogs, informative blogs, news blogs. Some I stick with, some I read for a while and then move on. And I always thought to myself, that's for them ... for other people. Bloggers. People with important things to say (or who think they have important things to say).

But I have this persistent need to write. It isn't there all the time, but sometimes when an idea comes it just won't shut up. From what I've read, a lot of writers are like this - characters, or ideas, or what have you just wander in uninvited and refuse to leave. Berkeley Breathed, creator of Bloom County, talked about that. My highly successful children's author stepmother has said much the same thing. I get these uninvited musings, from time to time. So I finally broke down and created a blog, just to have some place to put them.

I don't have any illusions about the importance of these things for anybody but me. Unlike my co-author and friend Steve Saideman (whose blog, which is on my blog list, is excellent - he writes good stuff!), I'm not much of a narcissist. I don't need people to pay attention to me, or to share everything that crosses my mind (that's what Facebook is for - and my friends know how infrequently I post anything there). So if you read any of this and find it useful, great. If not, that's cool too.

I wrote for another blog once, now defunct (you can still find it at That was a different thing altogether - it was a business blog, for business purposes. Heaven knows that my letting a few musings out of my head isn't going to make me any money. I just need to write. This seems like a decent place to do it.

If you spend any time writing, you find that the Muses can be both fickle and tenacious. I don't know how often I'll post things here - that's the fickle part. But when the Muse comes calling, it's hard to ignore. Hopefully this will be a comfortable space for those thoughts.