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New Pinkertons Redux

Naomi Klein, shilling her new book (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) in the Guardian, observes that:

If [a suspect] is a victim of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme, kidnapped off the streets of Milan or while changing planes at a US airport, then whisked to a so-called black site somewhere in the CIA's archipelago of secret prisons, the hooded prisoner will likely fly in a Boeing 737, designed as a deluxe executive jet, retrofitted for this purpose. According to the New Yorker, Boeing has been acting as the "CIA's travel agent" - blocking out flightplans for as many as 1,245 rendition voyages, arranging ground crews and even booking hotels. A Spanish police report explains that the work was done by Jeppesen International Trip Planning, a Boeing subsidiary in San Jose. In May 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a lawsuit against the Boeing subsidiary; the company has refused to confirm or deny the allegations. [links added]

In other words, the federal government has outsourced elements of its strategy that might be, shall we say, legalistically problematic. Now, who could have predicted that?

But there's more to it than constitutional niceties. To get why this matters, it's necessary to understand that the state of permanent war is highly lucrative. It's not just that Pinkertons or Blackwater[er]s are beholden to no one but their clients (well, really, their management, but that's splitting hairs) -- it's that all these Pinkertons and the companies that make their guns are getting paid a shitload of money. Where money flows, its flow can be tapped for power in a myriad of ways: Jobs for consitutents, favors for powerful men, personal prestige, campaign contributions, tacit promises to participate in financial shenanigans down the road, and so on. There's a whole system of political and economic ecosystems that draws its energy from this flow of private war money.

And as the wars are kept "private", they become divorced from political will. John Robb, as usual, puts it succinctly and clearly:

If you think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end with this US presidency, think again. These wars will likely outlast the next several Presidents. The old Vietnam era formulas don't apply anymore. The reason is that the moral weaknesses that have traditionally limited the state's ability to fight long guerrilla wars have dissipated, and modern states may now have the ability and the desire to wage this type of war indefinitely. Here's what changed:

  • A radical improvement in marketing war. The US military learned from Vietnam that it needed to be much better at marketing wars to domestic audiences in order to prevent moral collapse. It has gotten better at this, and that information operations/strategic communications capability has reached a new level of effectiveness with General Petraeus. Despite this improvement, the military and its civilian leadership still don't have the ability to garner wide domestic support for guerrilla wars beyond the initial phases. However, they do have the ability to maintain support within a small but vocal base -- as seen in the use of weblogs to generate grass roots support for war -- and the capability to trump those that call for withdrawal (by keeping the faintest glimmer of potential success alive and using fear/uncertainty/doubt FUD to magnify the consequences of defeat). In our factional political system, that is sufficient to prevent withdrawal.
  • The threat that justifies the state and the perpetual war that codifies it. The ongoing threat of terrorism has become the primary justification for the existence of a strong nation-state (and its greatest instrument of power, the military) at the very moment it finds itself in decline due to globalization (or more accurately: irrelevance). The militarization of "the war against terrorism" reverses this process of dissipation, since it can be used to make the case for the acquisition of new powers, money, and legitimacy (regardless of party affiliation) -- for example, everything from increases in conventional military spending to the application of technical reconnaissance on domestic targets. Of course, this desire for war at the political level is complimented by the huge number of contractors (and their phalanxes of lobbyists) attracted by the potential of Midas level profits from the privatization of warfare. The current degree of corporate participation in warfare makes the old "military industrial complex" look tame in comparison.
  • The privatization of conflict. This is likely the critical factor that makes perpetual warfare possible. For all intents and purposes, the US isn't at war. The use of a professional military in combination with corporate partners has pushed warfare to the margins of political/social life. A war's initiation and continuation is now merely a function of our willingness/ability to finance it. Further, since privatization mutes moral opposition to war (i.e. "our son isn't forced to go to war to die") the real damage at the ballot box is more likely to impact those that wish to end its financing. To wit: every major presidential candidate in the field today now gives his/her full support to the continuation of these wars.

The estimable General Smedley Butler clued us in to this as long ago as 1935, when he penned his infamous and too-poorly-remembered screed War Is A Racket: "A few profit – and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can't end it by disarmament conferences. You can't eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can't wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war."

It's kind of amazing that we need to keep re-learning this lesson, but we do, and part of the reason is that the capitalists are so ingenious at marketing the tiny differences in approach: Instead of sending in the Marines, we send in Blackwater or Executive Outcomes. (But is that really all that different from how we ran things in the Philippines during the 30s?) Then it was manifest destiny; now it's the fight against islamofascism.



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How to Break a Network: Leave the head, take out the third finger of each hand

The standard cliché is that if you want to break an organization, you chop off its head. People who've made their livings as underlings often dispute that. Network theorists have been implicitly supporting them for years. This just in from a researcher at West Point, via War Is Boring:

Assuming your resources for attacking a network are limited —and in the real world, they always are — who do you hit? Graham asked. Using his own department as an example, he advocated killing just three of the dozens of members. Suprisingly, none were examples of density or centrality, since those were all situated in the meaty middle of the network. The network had enough redundant connections to quickly repair itself after their demise. What Graham wanted to do was hit the network where there were no redundancies, so all of his targets were boundary spanners. By taking out three spanners, Graham showed how you could isolate relatively homogenous chunks of the network, rendering it stupider and less adaptive than before.

Funny thing is, the spanners in Graham’s department’s network were mostly low-ranking members such as cadets. Just goes to show, when attacking networks, the most obvious targets aren’t always the most important.

[emph added]

War Is Boring

Again, this is nothing new. I'll add more links later, but the idea that to really hurt an organization you remove the capability to backfill is standard wisdom in any management school that's worth a crap. Which doesn't include Harvard, for sure.

 

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Rise of the soft-phone?

Someone has finally noticed [via SmartMobs] that any PocketPC or Palm OS 5 PDA has the power to become a VOIP phone. But have they noticed yet what the consequences are? I think they have, and they're just keeping quiet about it because they're hoping that their competitors won't figure it out first and out-manouvre them.

But let's play this out. Let's say I go into my local coffee shop with free WiFi, whip out my PDA, fire up the softphone, and start talking. I'm not paying anybody for anything, except my coffee refills.

So something's gotta give:

  • The activity will drive up traffic on the coffee shop's connection. They pay more; maybe they need to switch to a paid service. This induces a competetive spiral with other coffee shops that leaves Starbucks standing.
  • Carriers will raise rates on their bandwidth. Yes, it's a plentiful commodity right now, but if everyone uses VOIP instead of wireless, then we have plenty of broadband traffic all of a sudden and bandwidth isn't plentiful anymore. Price goes up.
  • Softphone networks like Skype add such a load to the net that something has to be done to curb them, or to recoup losses. New fees arise.
  • Mobile phone vendors switch to softphones to preserve market share, and we finally see that shift to high-speed wireless we've been promised.
  • Municipal WiFi networks currently in development gain a whole new significance.
All of this is terribly destabilizing. The softphone, while itself a minor innovation, will drive structural changes across the entire infrastructure that are far out of proportion to its direct impact.

Ultimately I'm thinking we see a flattening of offerings; everything being done via IP (or its equivalent). Phones only actually use "phone" technology in areas where it's not cost-effective to switch over. Phones become a flexible concept in this scenario, so something would have to be done about that. (The beauty of the phone as a communciations medium is the individualized, static "Phone Number": You want someone, you call their Phone Number. Elegant. Simple. Took generations to evolve to its current form and market dominance, and is likely to be the driving metaphor for whatever replaces it.)

Delocating The Village Green

During one particular, unhappy period of my life, I used to cross the street from the Y to the Village Green after my morning workout, and get a large coffee (and some sesame noodles, if I was feeling flush), and sit at the counter while I scribbled in my notebook.

The first refill was free; some days I'd go through four large cups. I'd mostly just write, alternating with long stretches of staring out the window. Sometimes I'd take a break to make a to-do list (top item of which was usually something on the lines of "GET JOB"). "The Green" was one of those large-ish, eclectic bookstores that you often used to find in urban to marginally-urban settings, featuring huge selections of magazines, unusual selection, and a section filled with some interesting food and candy.

And coffee. They always sold coffee, and as early as when I started visiting Rochester in the winter of '90/'91, it was good coffee -- not that crap that chain coffee shops dark-roast or pump full of artificial flavor to conceal its poor grade. Later, as they expanded in an attempt to compete with the suburban mega-bookstores, they added tables and chairs to go along with a new selection of pastries, cake, and vegetarian deli goods. They expanded their big suburban store in Pittsford; they built out their "flagship" store (really the much smaller of the two) to add a new CD store, trying to target the custom order market.

They went out of business not long after that, like a player at Risk who gambles on too rapid an expansion. It was a slow death-spiral, first rumored around the neighborhood, then heralded by the closure of the Pittsford store. As I saw it at the time, it was purely a matter of bad cost-containment: The wastage in their coffee shop operation was terrific. I counted one time, while I sat there, and noted that on any given weekday, they'd keep a dozen or more cakes, pies, torts and cheesecakes in the display case. At the end of the day, they might have completely consumed four or five of them. Still, they stubbornly insisted on keeping their food inventory until almost the end.

When the Green finally went under, they walked through and put price tags on everything: The books, the bookshelves, breadracks, refrigerated cases, anything that wasn't nailed down. Then one day, it closed, and was replaced a few weeks later by remaindered book wholesaler. He stayed for a month or two (probably sitting out the end of their lease), and then the space was closed. Half of the ground floor would be refurbished into a Pizza Hut; the old record area, upstairs, became a YMCA youth center; and the main building became a Hollywood Video.

It didn't take long for a succession of new coffee shops to open up, in a pair of buildings across the street and down a half-block. Neither lasted: The first was badly-managed and ahead of its time (an Internet cafe in 1997), and the second got knocked out cold when a Starbucks opened right across the street. Right between the sushi place and the trendy boutique, and across the alley from a cozy, carefully-hidden used bookstore called the Brown Bag, in a residential home that once housed a trendy wood-fired pizza place. (The Brown Bag used to be called the Oxcart, until its owners got out to write childrens books full time. That was something more than 15 years ago. It changed so little that lots of folks still call it the Oxcart.)

Starbucks is much busier than the Green ever was. In my gut, I don't know why; the Green was cheaper, their coffee better, their desserts were from the best dessert bakers in town. (Cheesy Eddie's carrot cake is pretty hard to beat.) Intellectually, of course, I know that people don't go to Starbucks with any conventional notion of value in mind. They go for an upscale version of that same ritualized sameness that Ray Kroc grokked: The beverage names are an incantation, a call-and-response to the baristas; the packaged and routinized baked goods are offerings to some god of status-through-commerce. I feel unclean whenever I go into a Starbucks, because I know that I'm in the temple of a faith to which I am apostate.

I've been to lots of coffee shops since then, and even spent a fair amount of time in one or two or three. But it's not the same. They're more expensive, and that's a big part of it. It's not that I'm cheap; it's that the cost starts to feel like an offering to those same gods of style, of status-through-commerce. It's a different sect, but it still feels like the same creed. Still, the coffee is good, the food is good, and the old Hallman Chevy building is fairly charming.

All of this is brought to mind this morning by an entry on the Daypop top 40: Delocator can help you find an independently-owned coffee shop near any US zip code. I don't see any near my zip code that I didn't already know about; it would be nice if they could take proximity arguments, which would let me see several more. But this is a pretty unusual area; we had "indie" coffee shops here before they were cool, and some of the best of them weren't proper coffee shops at all. Like the Green.

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