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There he goes again.

David Brooks has another dismal column in the New York Times today. But it ends on a hook that gives me a chance to go out on a limb.

Brooks does a poor-man's variant on a Bill Safire device, that of re-writing someone's speech, or trying to get inside their thoughts. I kind of understand why Safire likes this device, as he's a former speechwriter. If Brooks was a former novelist it might make a bit more sense. But as it is...

So the re-write in question is of Jorge's tongue-tied to the point of stream-of-consciousness interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Here's Brooks' last paragraph, speaking as Bush:

"I could lose this election. I don't know whether the American people are with me or not. But I know our hair-trigger reputation has jolted dictators in Libya, North Korea and elsewhere. I know that if in 20 years Iraq is free and the Arab world is progressing toward normalcy, no one will doubt that I did the right thing."

Oh, yeah. God knows Bush's behavior has caused a jolt in behavior North Korea. So much so that history may well write, "George W. Bush -- Father of the North Korean Bomb".

But, as readers of this LJ know, I had a success rate of 63% when I made 8 predictions regarding the war in Iraq. The big score there: I predicted we would never find any WMD, because the Administration's behavior makes it clear that not even they believe the weapons existed.

So, here's that limb, complete with saw: Iraq will not be free in 20 months, let alone 20 years. 20 months would be... October 2005. Yeah, that sounds safe.

By October 2005, there will be one of four outcomes in Iraq:

* A weak but basically authoritarian regime is still in power, propped up by US troops. (The current status quo.)

* US troops are out, and there's an Islamic theocracy. (This is the "democratic" option, and why, rhetoric to the contrary, we're butt-scared about democracy breaking out in Iraq.)

* US troops are out, and there's another Hussein/Mubarak/Somoza/arap Moi/Marcos/Diem/Musharraf mostly-"friendly" dictator installed.

* US troops are out, and Iraq has broken up into three countries -- Kurdistan, "Iraq" (the Sunni enclave), and... Let's call it Basrastan (the Shi'ite enclave). Basrastan would be an Islamic theocracy (again). Kurdistan may or may not be at war with Turkey. "Iraq" would have no oil, probably be secular, and possibly authoritarian again.

I'll tell you the truth -- I'm not sure which one is the "best" scenario here. But it's where we're going, as of this writing.

Now, all things are provisional, pending better data. It's possible that somehow the Administration will start treating the situation with finesse and competence, and actually figure out a way to rebuild Iraq so that the Iraqis like and cooperate with us. To put John Kerry's spin on it, they might stop fucking up.

What I see as more likely, though, is another Vietnam... But not the way that's usually meant. I think what will happen is that regardless of the final outcome, we have so alienated the Iraqi people that some few will immigrate to the US and become incredibly prosperous, while the remainder stay at home and refuse to have anything to do with us for at least 20 years. Just like Vietnam. Or Iran. In fact, I think the US withdrawal from Iraq, if it happens before the election like so many seem to think it will, will look spookily like the withdrawal from Vietnam, people clinging to helicopters and all.

"A No Doubt Mad Idea"

...which will probably lead to another post about "influential" books, eventually, but for now, this:

"On to the library. And all through his time at the card catalog, combing the shelves, filling out the request cards, he danced a silent, flirtatious minuet of the eyes with a rosy-cheeked redhead in the biology section, pages of notes spread before her. All his life, he had had a yen for women in libraries. In a cerebral setting, the physical becomes irresistible. Also, he figured he was really more likely to meet a better or at least more compatible woman in a library than in a saloon. Ought to have singles libraries, with soups and salads, Bach and Mozart, Montaignes bound in morocco; place to sip, smoke, and seduce in a classical setting, noon to midnight. Chaucer's Salons, call them, franchise chain."

Riddle me this, Batman

Dear Jorge Arbusto:

(two can play this silly-ass cutesy nickname game.)

OK. So, you hoped against hope -- given the crap quality of the intel you've had from the CIA during your residency so far -- that you had the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein pinpointed.

That's cool, and I appreciate the chutzpah of dumping your war plans to attempt to "decapitate" Iraq.

But, um... Jorge. Amigo. A few things.

* What does it say about your supposed quest for disarming Iraq, if you were willing to throw the command structure over those weapons into chaos, given that you don't have control over them?

* What does it mean when, presumably, you have someone inside Hussein's circle both close enough to him to know where he is, and is willing to fink him out to get him killed... But you don't have anyone willing to say where these much hypothesized weapons are?

Just a thought.

Well, there you have it:

According to Mr. Bush's speech last night, Iraq is anywhere from one to five years before being capable of launching a strike against us. Which is why it's so desperately urgent we hit them... um, tomorrow. {cough}

But the most disturbing thing about this whole scenario is how it plays out if you look at it logically.

There're two axes here: Either Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or it doesn't. And Iraq will either use them, or they won't.

That means there're four outcomes, one of which is impossible:

Iraq doesn't have WMD, and won't use them. For me, this is the most likely outcome. You can see it all over the place in our own planning, with the devil-may-care attitude we're showing both about how long this war will last (over quickly enough for Tony Blair to stay PM a day or two, we hope), and the possibilities about retaliation. Then again, that means we're about to send 300,000 combined troops over to a country looking for weapons that don't exist. According to some polling data released during today's Talk of the Nation call-in show, 80% of Americans think Iraq has WMD, and that disarming Iraq is a major criterion for "victory". (Dear 80% of the US: Iraq is likely already unarmed, and you're likely to get a massive disappointment.) Either that, or I would look really carfeully at the serial numbers of whatever WMD we "find" -- especially after the fiasco of the forgery of the documents purporting to show Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Also, this is the scenario most likely to generate the previously predicted 1-14 vote in the Security Council calling for sanctions against the US (and maybe the UK, if they're still in the game).

Iraq has WMD, and uses them. But if that's true... then we're sending 300,000 soldiers good and true to basically be burnt to a crisp so the Administration can then justify massive retaliation. And the Administration is doing this knowingly, with malice aforethought. Oddly, this doesn't comfort me. (Marshmallows at the Reichstag, anyone?)

Iraq has WMD, but won't use them. This appears to be the Officially Approved Plan. I hope Mr. Hussein has been properly briefed, and he sticks to the script. But it's the only way to explain the combination of no obvious contingencies for the use of WMD against our trops, intertwined with no apparent hesitation about the fact that months of concentrated effort through inspection, espionage, satellite flybys, and surreptitious signals listening has turned up... radio chatter with nothing else to back it up. {ooh! aah!} Ruel Marc Gerecht appears to have gotten it right in The Atlantic back in July 2001 -- our intelligence agencies appear to have about zero assets in the Near East region. Almost every breakthrough we've had appears to have been done by either the Israelis or the Pakistanis, with Our Boys brought in at the last minute for the photo op.

Iraq doesn't have WMD, but will somehow use them. This is the outcome that's logically impossible. Unless Mr. Hussein just rang up a massive credit card bill tonight. Or unless he just cut a deal with the North Koreans -- who almost certainly do have WMD at this point, which is why the Cowardly Lion treats them with such shyness -- to bomb us on his behalf.


I heard an interview with Jeffrey Rosen, who has an article in today's New York Times. The article is called "Silicon Valley's Spy Game", and it's all about how many Valley companies are rearranging their products to be sold as national security and anti-terrorism items.

Prominent among these companies is Oracle. Oracle tends to pitch their databases as great predictive tools -- Amazon can guess which books you'll buy because they track you in an Oracle database, your airline can predict your travel patterns, etc. Now they're trying to sell the idea that they can predict who terrorists are, just by integrating various governmental databases, both at the Federal and local level.


In an anecdote not in the Times article, Rosen told interviewer Terry Gross, on the radio program Fresh Air, how he visited Oracle's headquarters campus one day. Apparently, it's notoriously difficult to find parking there, and the space he finally found was far enough away from the door that he had to walk something like 15 minutes to get to the building.

Here's the big question: If Oracle can't even reliably predict how many people will park at their own building -- which is presumably why they haven't built adequate facilities, and not because, say, Larry Ellison is a cheap bastard who doesn't care about his employees much -- how reliable do you think they'll be at predicting terrorists?

Just a thought.


A related in-the-Valley parking anecdote.

Apple also has parking problems, it seems.

Steve Jobs is a guy well known for running late.

Apple, at the time, didn't have assigned parking.

So... One time, the Interim President for Life got into the lot, and everything was full.

He decided, in that ever-so-considerate Jobsian way of his, to park in a handicapped space.

When he returned to his car at the end of the day, he allegedly found a note stuck into his wiper blades:

"Park Different"
This is a draft of a review I just wrote for Amazon. It's a draft and not the final submission because I tweaked the review in Amazon's own edit box, and forgot that now it's gone to their never-never land of "internal review".

Jakob Nielsen has made a career of overriding data found in the lab with quirky, idiosyncratic interpretations of his own. In an earlier book, he actually condemned empirical research on usability because "real users can be difficult or expensive to recruit," and that therefore the best method to establish usability is to "combine empirical results and inspections" -- inspections that just happened to be conducted and interpreted by himself, of course. (Usability Inspection Methods, p. 2, 1994)

This wouldn't be so bad if he interpreted data well. Instead, he has a pronounced tendency in this book to either refer to unsourced material, or to come up with some truly bizarre tangents.

For example, one of his most widely influential ideas from this book is the idea of "chunking" text. The premise is that users don't like to read on the Web -- which is inexplicable in itself, since there are only two activities one can do well on the Web, read text, and write text -- so they're averse to using the Scroll key. Therefore, one should break up long stretches of text when writing for the Web into multiple pages.

Why does he think users don't like reading online? "Research has shown that reading from computer screens is 25 percent slower than reading from paper. Even users who don't know about this human-factors research usually say they feel unpleasant when reading online text." (p. 101) Whose research? What methodologies did they use? When was the research done? Was the comparison between similarly themed texts (i.e., one may well read more slowly when reading difficult material like science texts, and more quickly when reading for leisure)? What percentage of users overall had these "unpleasant feelings" reading online -- 1%? 10%? 70%?

What do you want for today's Amazon price of $31.50? Information?

So his aversion to reading online text is unsupported, and would appear to be refuted by ever-increasing Web use -- what about scrolling?

Well, one could look at the index -- and see how badly it's done, with a scant few references to "reading" and "scrolling", despite both of them being frequently used terms throughout the book.

But on p. 112 we find: "In the usability studies I did of early web users in 1994 and 1995, few users ever scrolled. Maybe 10 percent or so of the users would scroll beyond the information that was visible in the window when the page came up. The only exception from this finding was users who had arrived at a destination page with an article that they found interesting or important to their work."

Fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon had a maxim: "90% of everything is crud." Rather than the obvious conclusion one could take from these data -- that 90% of Web writing is neither interesting nor important, and that therefore one should recommend to Web writers to make their writing better -- Nielsen decides the culprit is scrolling. Yup, if only Aunt Ethel would "chunk" her 30,000 word treatise on the antics of her cat Fluffy, it would suddenly become useful and important, and users would read more of it. Honest. Truly. Jakob says so. He has data from eight years ago to back it up.

Even all this wouldn't be so bad, if it wasn't for the fact that chunking directly contradicts one of Nielsen's other dicta -- keep the site simple, and easy for the user to access.

Here's an example Amazon users may find familiar: I have a number of Amazon friends who have written reviews. After reading their reviews on their personal listings, I would like to vote favorably for them. But because their reviews sometimes took place a long time ago, they're often buried pages and pages away from the book's main listing, because the reviews have been chunked ten-at-a-time. True to form of one of Nielsen's accurate observations -- that web users are an impatient lot -- the necessity of having to load all those pages in order to scan for my friends diminishes my enthusiasm.

Which is a shame, as some of my friends have written fine reviews.

Another contradiction: on p. 385 we're shown a screen capture of an early page from Cosmopolitan magazine's web site. The caption tells us: "The Web is not print. And a home page is not a magazine cover... A magazine must be arresting above all... On the Web, the user is already at the site and has already chosen to do business with the site." But on p. 112 we're told, "...each hypertext page should be written according to the 'inverted pyramid' principle that is commonly taught in journalism schools." Why? Because users can leave a site at any time, and they should be able to take away as much of the web site author's ideas as possible. You know, much like the way newspapers and magazines work. Not that the web is print, or anything. Or that the web is, to use a term not in the index but frequently used by Nielsen, an "attention economy".

I will concede the book has a certain entertainment value for one critically minded -- let's play Find The Inconsistency! -- but one would do better to seek clarity, empirical results, and wisdom elsewhere.