Wednesday, November 25, 2015

For Henry's Sake

It's been well over a year since I posted anything. The Heiress and The Young Master have told me repeatedly how much they miss my scribblings here, so I hope they appreciate that once again I have somehow found the time and motivation to take keyboard in hand.

In light of current events, I thought I would tell you a little about Henry. Henry was an old man when I came to know him. Or at least he seemed old to me because as a small child, which I was, anyone with grey hair seemed really old. I have grey hair now, and I don't feel particularly old, although the offspring rarely miss an opportunity to remind me that I am.

Henry spoke with a faint accent that always made him seem slightly exotic to me. When I got old enough to wonder about such things, he told me that he came from a place called Bessarabia, which for me also had a faintly exotic ring to it. You won't find Bessarabia on a map, unless it's a pretty old one, because it doesn't really exist as an identifiable entity any more, having been divided between what is now Ukraine and Moldova. At the time that Henry left, in 1905, when he was ten years old, it was part of Russia.

Within Bessarabia, Henry lived in a small town called Kalarash. You can find it on a current map of Moldova in its Moldavian/Romanian spelling of "Călărași". Kalarash, at least back then, would more properly be called a shtetl, that is, one of the small, mostly (though not exclusively) Jewish towns in the pale of settlement, that part of the Russian empire in which Jews were allowed to reside permanently.

Henry told me that his family made its living by buying fresh fruit from the local farmers, drying it and then selling it at market in Odessa, on the Black Sea, in what is now Ukraine. If you look on a map, you'll see that Odessa is about 150 miles, or a three-and-a-half-hour trip by car, from Kalarash. I imagine that if you were traveling by foot or in some sort of horse-drawn carriage it would be a multi-day journey and not a very feasible way to get your wares to market, but studying the same maps, it looks like you could travel there by rail (via Chișinău, aka Kishinev) within an acceptable amount of time, even in the early nineteen-hundreds.

The Russian empire in that period was not a hospitable place for Jews. There were restrictions on where you could live, when and where you could travel, how you could earn your livelihood and all sorts of other things. There were plenty of things to remind you that you were a second-class citizen, with no expectation of receiving any kind of fairness or justice from the larger society. But this condition went well beyond just insults and indignities.

Henry recounted to me how during one trip to market, an older cousin of his was commanded by one of the local young toughs to walk a few paces and then turn and stand straight and still; for the amusement of his friends, the upstanding young citizen then demonstrated his knife-throwing skills by hurling his dagger at Henry's cousin, striking him in the heart and leaving him to bleed to death. His distraught family was too terrified for their own lives to retrieve the body until later that night when there was no one else around.

This incident took place in the context of a large wave of pogroms that swept the region during the period of 1903-1906. That wave reached Kalarash in October of 1905. In two days of violence, Jewish houses and shops were ransacked and their residents were beaten, raped and murdered. A number were burned alive when their houses were set on fire as they attempted to hide in attics or cellars. When it was over, some fifty-odd members of the community were dead, scores more were injured and traumatized. Henry told me that this was the event that induced his family to finally leave Russia.

I guess we'll be going, then.

But in 1905, you didn't just leave the Russian empire. Without proper papers of any kind, you had to find a way to sneak out. Henry's family hired the 1905 equivalent of the people that, for the right sum of money, will hide you among the cargo in a truck crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, or put you on a rubber raft in Turkey and point you toward Greece. Each family member was smuggled across the border in a different way. In Henry's case, he was given a flock of geese to drive across the border with a stick, with the guards made to understand that he was just taking them to the market on the other side. Not everyone was able to make the crossing, though; Henry told me he left behind a sister, whom he never saw again. Once across the border, they made their way to Hamburg, Germany and from there traveled via Ellis Island to America, eventually settling in the American Midwest.

One does not simply walk out of Russia.

I can't help thinking of Henry as I follow the news of Syrian refugees. Like them, Henry's family might never have embarked on an uncertain journey to a strange and distant land were it not for the evidence all around them that they were living in increasingly mortal danger. With little more than the clothes on their backs they left behind everything and everyone they had ever known. They risked everything in the hope of ultimately finding a better and safer life in a place they really knew very little about.

Fortunately for me, they were successful. Henry learned to speak English (the only language he had spoken until then being Yiddish), went to school, eventually went into business and had a family. His daughter became my mother; Henry was my grandfather. And he was basically a refugee, forced to leave his home to escape intolerable persecution. Had his family not had a safe place to go, I might not be here writing this today.

How can I, therefore, look at these people coming from Syria and say we should keep them out? How can I not want them to have the same chance my own family had? I think of this, and I look at the efforts that prominent American politicians are making to block their entry, and I am ashamed. I hear Trump/Cruz/Rubio/Bush/Christie/Jindal/Carson/etc. saying that we must keep these people out because some could be terrorists just posing as refugees and I do not think, "Hmmm, that man has a point." I just hear a new and convenient excuse to keep people out because, well, they're not like us.

We've come to destroy America.

And were I to believe in such a thing, I would hope that there is a special place in hell for the likes of Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee, who perpetually whine on and on about Christians being persecuted in one way or another but (along with Jeb Bush) want to impose a religious test before dispensing their Christian goodness and mercy. Those guys need to stop waving their bible in my face long enough to look inside it and see what it says about how they are supposed to treat their fellow man. Disgusting hypocrites.

Cruz, Huckabee, Bush… You guys go with the goats.

I understand that there could be terrorists trying to gain entry under the guise of being refugees; it's not utterly implausible. But it seems to me that the risk needs to be viewed in perspective, and that this focus on potential terrorists among the refugees is entirely misplaced. The 9/11 hijackers, who visited upon this country the most devastating act of terrorism ever to take place on American soil, all came in on legal visas. It is also well documented that there are more than a few "native-born Europeans" (a euphemistic press term I have repeatedly encountered that means "white people") who sympathize with or have actually joined the ranks of ISIS and could probably easily enter the US with a plan to cause mayhem and violence, but I don't see any politicians saying we should stop admitting Swedes and Spaniards because, well, you just can't be too careful.

Oh, and just in case you hadn't heard, which is not unlikely, since I've seen little mention of it in the mainstream press: that Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris attackers, which touched off this whole discussion about how admitting Syrian refugees is dangerous folly? It was a fake, probably bought for a few hundred dollars in Turkey.

Just a couple of good ol' boys

Certainly acts of terrorism in the US are a distinct possibility, and I won't say I don't worry about it at least a little; I live in a major American city, I go to concerts and theaters and shopping malls, I ride the subway. We've even had our own bona fide terrorist event right here where I live, after all, in which several people were killed and dozens maimed and injured. It was a horrible thing, but two years on, it has not really changed how people around here go through life, because it was—rightly, I think—understood as an aberration, for which we needed to maybe take some additional precautions, not something that should rule our lives henceforth and certainly not a reason to persecute anyone who looks a little like the perpetrators.

If I'm going to worry about injury or death at the hands of some well-armed malefactor, it seems far more rational to worry about gun violence of the non-terroristic variety. Looking at the statistics on this web site, which tracks reports of mass shootings in the US, I count so far in 2015 (as of 11/20/15) 337 separate shootings in which 431 people were killed and 1,227 injured. Note, though, that these are only the mass shootings so far this year; if you look at gun violence overall, this site reports, as of 11/24/15, around 47,000 incidents, 12,000 deaths and 24,000 injuries.

Recent events in Paris notwithstanding, the threat of terrorism is still pretty abstract compared to the very real violence I read about every morning in my local paper. The unending stream of mass shootings over the past decade shows me that if a would-be terrorist did successfully enter the US—assuming he wasn't here already, very possibly even as a US citizen—he would have almost no problem acquiring the tools he would need to create all kinds of mayhem and carnage. But I don't see any of the politicians who are beating the drum about keeping out foreigners whom they insist are potential terrorists proposing to do something about that. No, their solution is much simpler than that: just don't let Henry in.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Please Just Go Away

Dick Cheney, the Freddy Krueger of American politics, is at it again. Like a horror movie monster who keeps coming back when you were sure he could terrorize us no longer, this week Cheney and his minion daughter Liz have surfaced on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to tell us how badly President Obama is botching Iraq policy under the title, "The Collapsing Obama Doctrine".

Back to Terrorize Us Some More

I've been less than impressed by Obama's foreign policy, which has frequently struck me as somewhat unfocused and directionless. That is not to say that I am not happy about specific policies such as his moves to bring our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, but if there is some overarching program guiding US foreign policy under his administration, I've had a hard time discerning exactly what it is. There are also what I consider to be some real blunders, such as the failed "reset" of relations with Russia or the "red line" fiasco regarding chemical weapons in Syria. 

But if there is one person who has absolutely zero standing to criticize the president, it's Dick Cheney. That one of the leading lights of the George W. Bush administration would author (or co-author) the words, "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many" is an utter denial of his own role as an architect of the mess that is Iraq in the year 2014, and a direct insult to anyone who has bothered to pick up a newspaper in the last decade and a half. If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black—no pun intended—this is it. So humor me while I return to the days of yesteryear to remind you of some of what we lived through in the years 2001–2008 under Bush and Cheney and their pals.

Long ago I shared what was to be a tale in three parts of my discovery of an old but apparently unread copy of the Boston Globe dated August 22, 2001 in a forgotten corner of my shed. In part one I shared my experiences from that period as I found myself inextricably entwined in dot-com madness that eventually ended in tears—and redemption. In part two I reflected on the period immediately following, which saw both the country and my new job under attack simultaneously. In the third and final installment I thought I would finally open up that paper and share my profound meditations on what I found in there and how it relates to my life now (or maybe just ramble and rant in my usual fashion), but I just somehow never got around to it.

So at last I open up the paper, and… there is actually not that much worth remarking on. There is a story on the front page about Senator Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative republican from North Carolina, deciding not to run for another term. I always thought of Helms as a pompous blowhard extremist and I was glad when he finally exited the scene; by today's Republican standards he would probably be viewed as a right-of-center moderate who could never win a Republican primary election. Otherwise the first few pages mostly contain local and national stories of murder and mayhem, and mundane policy discussions about topics that have long been forgotten but no doubt seemed pretty important at the time.

The international section is a little more interesting. There is a story about Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat agreeing to hold talks about ending eleven months of continuing violence. Another story is about a bombing by ETA in Spain—don't hear much about ETA anymore. There is a report about the US considering easing sanctions on Sudan, citing a reduction in support for terrorism; war and genocide in Darfur still lay a few years in the future. Towards the back of the section there is a story about how the US Army was performing surveillance missions in support of NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans (remember the Balkans?) by means of "miniature spy planes… guided by remote control"—the term "drone" had clearly not yet entered our everyday vocabulary.

The lead story in the business section is about the Federal Reserve cutting the Federal funds rate to 3.5%, the seventh cut since the beginning of the year. Currently it's 0.25%, where it's been since the end of 2008. More than half of the business section is taken up by the previous day's stock prices and other financial market information; I can't even remember how long it's been since the Globe stopped publishing that, since it's all freely available online.

As for the rest… In sports, the Red Sox were in second place in the AL East, several games behind the Yankees, as so often. The prime time TV schedule listed a bunch of shows that I don't even remember, but then I'm not a big TV-watcher anyway. There was still a small classified ads section; I guess Craigslist hadn't yet completely killed that.

Of all the stories in that old paper, there was really only one that still seems very timely, namely this one from above the fold on the front page:  "Bush Takes Firm Line as Surplus Dwindles—Defends Tax Cut, Says Overspending Is Danger". The story begins with this:

With two reports preparing to announce that the federal budget surplus has melted away in recent months, President Bush launched a defense of his budget choices yesterday and argued that overspending by Congress is a bigger danger to Social Security and Medicare than his $1.35 billion tax cut.

[Note: that $1.35 billion number was an error; the Globe published this on Aug. 24: "Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on Page 1 Wednesday about the dwindling federal budget surplus misstated the amount of President Bush's tax cut over the next decade. It is expected to total $1.35 trillion."]

The story continued:

Today's OMB report is expected to reflect a $150 to $160 billion surplus, the second-largest in history. But nearly all but $1 billion of that will probably be composed of the Social Security surplus, which Bush, like most politicians, has promised not to touch. And while the OMB report may show the administration only a few steps short of touching that surplus, other calculations based on a slightly different set of economic assumptions indicate that the White House has in fact dipped into the surplus, a circumstance the Congressional Budget Office may reflect in its report to be released Aug. 28.

It then went on to discuss Bush's promise that his budget would ensure economic growth of 3.2% as the economy faltered in the wake of the dot-com bust, while the Democrats prepared to attack him for funding a tax cut with money that could have been spent on education or defense. Representative quotation:

But Democrats, preparing for a media blitz to accompany the release of the OMB report today, seemed undaunted. "George Bush inherited the strongest economy and the biggest surplus in history. We had eight years of fiscal improvement, and in eight months he's wiped it out," said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee.

Well, we're still chewing on that one, aren't we? Looking back, that story looks to me like the first real taste of what was going to be eight years of ideologically driven foolishness; a series of profoundly bad decisions that, at the end of the G.W. Bush presidency, would find the country embroiled in two largely stalemated wars, the economy in shambles, the federal government running massive spending deficits and a huge segment of the population feeling the kind of deep existential fear that few of us had experienced since the Great Depression. This article reminds us that as they left office, Bush's approval rating was 22% and Cheney's was an even more abysmal 13%. Four years after Bush just sort of disappeared from sight, seemingly overnight, we still have a long way to go toward recovery, but once in a while we should compare that to the state of the country as it stood a little over five years ago.

Actually… no.

There are many who would argue that the G.W. Bush administration is history now, and we need to look forward and not dwell on those years. Obama has already completed a full term in the White House and is over a year into his second, so whatever may be wrong with the country, it's all about his policies and his performance now. But I reject that. As alluded to above, anything you can say about where we are now needs to be looked at in light of where Bush, Cheney and co. left us some five years ago. Furthermore, the Republican opposition would apparently like nothing better than to not only take us back to the discredited policies of the Bush years, but to double down on them. And now, once again, we have Cheney turning up in the media to continue his campaign to rewrite history. We need to remember where we were, how we got there, and why we can't go back to that place.

Let's review some of what happened during those years. As the Bush era started with his inauguration in January of 2001, the dot-com boom was transforming itself into a giant bust, as I recounted in the first part of this little saga. That wasn't Bush's fault by any means; chalk it up to the strange wave of mass euphoria that somehow led otherwise intelligent people to believe that in the Internet era, giving things away for free is a highly-promising business model, followed by the sudden discovery that it actually isn't. I will remember the summer of 2001 as a period in which the Internet economy was crashing down around our ears, taking jobs and wealth with it. Our president wanted us to believe that cutting taxes would fix this. Unfortunately, even at the time there was no evidence that this actually works. Here is someone's nice little analysis that summarizes this well; here is a more formal analysis by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities. The one qualification here is that tax cuts to low-income people do have some stimulative effect, because people in that category tend to spend every dollar put back into their pockets; unfortunately the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 skewed in the other direction. But don't listen to me; just do a Google search on "evidence that tax cuts stimulate the economy" and draw your own conclusions.

We of course went to war during those years, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. I remember when the first shots were fired in Afghanistan; we were there to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored it. There were all kinds of declarations about how we would be there to rebuild Afghanistan as a nation, we wouldn't abandon them as we had prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and we would generally heave Afghan society from the seventh century into the twenty-first. And what actually happened? 

Well, we got rid of the Taliban government, and in its place installed the fabulously corrupt Karzai government (oh wait, I forgot, Karzai was elected by his countrymen, wink wink). In early December 2001 we located our main targets, bin Laden and his lieutenant al-Zawahri, at Tora Bora and then (according to the 2009 report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) let them escape to Pakistan because General Franks and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld failed to commit the troops needed to kill or capture them, preferring instead to rely on Afghan fighters to do the job (it would be nearly a decade later—under Obama—that bin Laden met his end, and al-Zawahri remains at large). We heard all about how America had to remain engaged in Afghanistan rather than to abandon it to its own devices, and instead help it to become a modern democracy, ignoring both the congenital Afghan allergy to foreigners trying to come in and tell them how to do things and the historic inability of any central Afghan government to control much of the country beyond Kabul (recommended reading: Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban by Stephen Tanner).

Then the Bush administration just sort of lost interest in Afghanistan, letting the situation devolve into a stalemate between the US and its allies on the one hand and a reconstituted Taliban on the other. No, we had more important things to do, namely to invade Iraq on the pretext of fabricated claims that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and conspiring to hand them over to our enemies. So off we went, authorized by Congress—with the votes of, among others, then-Senators Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden, let us not forget—to apply the might of the US military to removing Saddam and his cronies from office, but with no actual plan for what would come next. 

Lacking any strategy for a post-war Iraq, the Bush administration instead blundered from one tactical error to the next, with Cheney playing a prominent role. The list of screw-ups is far longer than I could document here without boring you any more than I already have (more recommended reading: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 by Thomas E. Ricks and Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran). But just to summarize: Thousands of American servicemen and -women died. Thousands more went home with life-changing injuries, not a few of them discovering in the process that no real consideration had been given to how they and their families would be provided with the support and the resources they would need to cope with their new reality for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of billions of American tax dollars were spent on the war itself, with billions more wasted to support ill-conceived projects that accomplished absolutely nothing (one more book recommendation: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren).

We of course have to consider the legacy of the war that Cheney so vigorously—and with such blatant disregard for the facts—promoted on the Iraqis themselves. We don't know the precise numbers, but we can safely say that tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the war and its immediate aftermath. Thousands more have died in the civil war that followed and that has continued with varying intensity ever since. As I read practically every day about people being killed or maimed by this or that bombing in Iraq, or about a government led by a prime minister who tolerates, if not promotes, a practically institutionalized culture of corruption, and who seems determined to disenfranchise large segments of the population and turn Iraq into a client state of Iran (see the recent article about Nuri al-Maliki by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker), I wonder whether the average Iraqi thinks he is better off now than under Saddam. I also wonder why anyone is surprised by the rapid advance of the Sunni-led ISIS militia in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, given Maliki's aforementioned determination to cut them off from any kind of influence or power over the institutions that control their lives. I also wonder how the Cheneys can pretend that the logical consequences of the Bush administration machinations that brought Maliki to power are somehow Obama's fault.

The current Cheney op-ed asserts that "[t]his president is willfully blind to the impact of his policies. […] President Obama is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom." What a breathtaking exercise in hypocrisy and cynicism. What a sad commentary on the state of our society that a major newspaper will publish such nonsense, and that a large segment of our country will no doubt eagerly lap it up. The one thing George W. Bush did right was to just sort of go away when his time in office was up. I wish Dick Cheney would finally follow him.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Health Care and Apartheid: Basically the Same Thing

As Republican politicians fight their never-ending battle to out-stupid one another, one of the more consistent front-runners is Rick Santorum. Santorum's regularly demonstrated ability to combine right-wing dogma, pseudo-Christian hypocrisy and general tone-deafness is nothing short of breathtaking. That someone with multiple university degrees is capable of saying so many profoundly dumb things (as reported previously) just goes to show that book-larnin' ain't everything, I guess.

Today's award-winning demonstration of Santorum's ignorance took place on Bill O'Reilly's show (an appropriate forum for that sort of thing). Discussing the passing of Nelson Mandela, Santorum told O'Reilly, "Nelson Mandela stood up against a great injustice and was willing to pay a huge price for that, and that's the reason he is mourned today, because of that struggle that he performed… And I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people's lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that."

Wow! I'm impressed. And he said all that with a straight face, no less. Yes, Rick believes that a law enacted to extend the benefits of affordable health care to tens of millions of Americans, and to keep millions more from getting screwed over by their health insurance providers, is pretty much the same as a brutal government-mandated system of racial discrimination that regulated where you could live, where you could work, where you could go, whom you could associate with. The similarities are pretty obvious, no?

You're right, this does remind me of Obamacare

I think that with this pronouncement, Santorum has secured himself a comfortable lead in the stupid sweepstakes, ahead of perpetual challengers Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Not that they aren't putting up a fight, mind you. Palin's recent statement about the federal debt and slavery come to mind (helpful hint: when someone prefaces a statement with, "and this isn't racist, but…", you can safely assume that whatever comes next will be pretty offensive). Bachmann has since countered with claims that Barack Obama "has rewritten the Constitution for himself as a part of his effort to fundamentally transform the United States of America"—golly, I didn't learn in my high school civics class—the one in which I scored 100% on every test but only got a "B" because the teacher said I "had a bad attitude"—that the president gets to rewrite the Constitution. But I think Santorum, with his "ACA=apartheid" equation, once again leaves Sarah and Michele in the dust.

What is it about these right-wing Republicans that enables them to make these pronouncements that attain an almost magical level of stupid? I am simultaneously fascinated and repulsed; I guess it's the same thing some people get out of watching those "Saw" movies. I don't need to watch that stuff—I can just watch Republicans being interviewed on Fox News to get the same kind of sick thrill.

Turn that thing off! It's frightening the children.

Nelson Mandela was, and I'm sure will remain, an inspirational figure to people the world over. He was a man who fought against outrageous injustice, suffered his punishment for that with dignity and ultimately emerged triumphant. Where others might have sought retribution, he worked for reconciliation. He was a respected statesman who was elected to lead his country and, unlike so many of his peers among African leaders, when his term was up, he went. I cannot for the life of me imagine a Santorum or a Palin or a Bachmann (or a Cruz or a Paul or practically any of the more vocal Republicans) ever rising to even a small fraction of that level of moral authority. That Rick Santorum, the supposed champion of Catholic teachingswould somehow link this figure, who for the good of his country truly turned the other cheek to seek rapprochement with his former tormentors, to his own immoral crusade to deprive America's least privileged citizens of a little bit of progress toward health care security tells me everything about him (and his fan base) that I would ever care to know.

Wait… Jesus said what??!!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 DOA

The President came up to Boston last week to tell us that his ACA (Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare") really is going to work. Maybe the eyes of the rest of America were upon him, but I think that greater Boston was more preoccupied with the impending game six of the World Series, in which the Red Sox might win the series in Fenway Park for the first time since 1918 (which did in fact come to pass). Giving a speech at the historic but unpronounceable Faneuil Hall ("FAN-ee-ull" in case you were wondering), on roughly the same spot where Mitt Romney (remember him?) signed the Massachusetts health care act into law in 2006, Mr. Obama apologized for the botched rollout of and assured us all that things will get better soon, reminding us that the debut of Massachusetts' own revamped health insurance framework was also pretty shaky, although it has ultimately worked out well.

Of all the things I pontificate about in these (electronic) pages, here, at last, is something I actually feel professionally qualified to ramble on and on about. I make my living as a project manager for information technology (IT) projects. I've been doing this now for 20+ years as my primary or secondary role in a number of different companies. I have run a lot of projects, many that were big successes, and a few that, well, gave me an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. When I first heard about the problems at the launch of the web site, the words that immediately sprang to mind were the ones that no project manager ever wants to hear from the users of the system of which he or she has just led the delivery: Didn't anybody test this thing?

Well, sort of open. And sort of not.

IT projects generally follow about the same lifecycle, or sequence of activities. First you define requirements: what exactly is this system supposed to do, what technical and organizational constraints need to be addressed and so forth. Then you create the design that will deliver on those requirements. Then you actually build the system and test it to make sure that what you built follows the design and meets the requirements. If testing shows that things aren't working right, you fix those things and then test again, and keep doing that until testing confirms that the system performs as it is supposed to. Then you roll out the finished product by training the people who will operate the system, maybe training end users as well, making sure that you have some kind of helpdesk function in place to field any user issues, loading the system with whatever data is needed to initialize it, making any other logistical preparations that are needed and then finally turning users loose on it ("going live", in IT jargon).

Variants of the "classical" project execution approach (the "waterfall approach") may devote months to each of these major steps, and there are rigid rules about when you can exit each phase and enter the next. Some projects follow approaches such as the "Agile" method in which you define a basic framework of intended capabilities and then develop the details by rapidly iterating through requirements, design etc. in multiple cycles. There's a lot more to either approach than what I've hinted at here, but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that the different approaches each work best for different kinds of IT projects, although as in any profession, there are adherents to each approach who will argue with religious fervor that one or the other is the only true path to IT nirvana. Here, for example, is a writer who blames the problems with on the use of the waterfall approach instead of Agile. To this I say only, beware of anyone who preaches the one-size-fits-all solution. I have seen Agile projects that were quite successful, and others that devolved into complete chaos and wasted a lot of time and money delivering a Frankenstein-like whatchamacallit that was rejected by users. You have to match the methodology to the circumstances of the project, and consider that often the problem is less in the methodology than in its execution.

Standard IT Project Lifecycle

Whatever the methodology, things can go wrong at any step in an IT project. If requirements are incomplete, or vague, or weren't reviewed and approved by whomever is the sponsor of the project and/or the ultimate owner of the system that will be delivered, you run a very high risk of expending a lot of effort, only to be told, "this isn't what we wanted; go back and build what we wanted, and don't expect us to pay for this other thing you built." If the design is poorly thought out, the final product won't deliver the intended functionality, or it will deliver it in a way that is incomplete, or runs too slowly, or is confusing to users, or crashes frequently, or otherwise renders it essentially unusable. If the individual components and the overall system aren't properly tested at each stage of development, you are pretty much closing your eyes and hoping for a miracle when you put it in front of end users as a supposedly finished product. And if the necessary preparations are not made as part of rollout, taking the system live with actual users can be pretty stressful.

Of all of these parts of the process, in my experience at least, testing is probably the most neglected. Requirements gathering is interesting because you get to talk to a lot of people and drink a lot of coffee and then write everything up in professional-looking documents. In design you produce cool-looking diagrams and have more meetings in which you can show off all of your technical knowledge and tell your war stories about how you cleverly solved this same problem back when you worked for General Electric or Sears or Bank of America. In development you do all the coding and configuration work and experience the satisfaction of having made some conglomeration of hard- and software bend to your will.

But testing is anything but glamorous; on the contrary, it can be mind-numbingly tedious. Testing consists of poring over all of the requirements and design documentation and boiling the intended functionality of the entire system down to a mass of test cases, each of which basically consists of this: If I do A, B is supposed to happen. Now I will do A. Did B happen? Yes? Test passed, move on to the next one. Did B not happen? Test failed, give it back to the developers and let them figure out how to fix it, then run the same test again when they claim it's fixed.

There are lots of different kinds of testing that need to be performed in a typical IT project. At the most basic level, you need to test each individual component of the system to verify that it functions correctly. Then you need to verify that components that interact with other components in some way do that as intended. Then you need to verify that the overall system functions the way it is supposed to in an "end-to-end" test wherein you simulate each of the intended "use cases", that is, specific scenarios or operations that the system is supposed to perform, expecting to see all of its individual components working together in harmony. 

At each of these levels you need to do not only "positive testing", in which you simulate ideal conditions to see how the system behaves, but also "negative testing" in which you verify that errors and unexpected events of whatever kind are properly handled. For instance, if a user enters his or her name in the field that is meant for a driver's license number, does the system return a message like "this is not a valid license number—please correct your entry"? Or does it just fill the user's screen with incomprehensible warnings, or crash the user's web browser, or maybe just do nothing, leaving the user wondering what to do next?

As already noted, if tests fail, the offending component needs to be fixed, and then the fix needs to be tested. However, it's usually not enough to just test the one item that was fixed; in principle, you need to retest the whole system. The reason for this is that fixes to software can introduce "regression errors", which is a fancy way of saying that you may have fixed one thing, but in a way that broke some other part of the system; you do "regression testing" to verify that you didn't fix one defect and inadvertently introduce a new one in the process. In principle, the system should not be declared ready for users until every individual test case has been performed on the final version of the system (i.e., after all fixes are deployed) and no test case has failed.

Other things need to be tested besides the pure "when I do A, I want B to happen" functionality of the system. Among other things, there is usability testing, in which you basically put test users in front of the system and verify that things like the way screens are laid out or the way you progress from one step of some process to the next makes sense to them. There's also performance testing, in which you verify that your system can meet the volumes of users and transactions that it is likely to encounter in real life; if you expect to have a thousand users accessing the system at any given point in time, you want to simulate that in testing before you turn users loose on the system and discover that it bogs down to the point of being unusable beyond fifty concurrent users.

Am I boring you yet? I guess not, if you've read this far. I did warn you that testing is about the dullest part of any IT project. But unfortunately, it's inescapable if you hope to deliver a reliable, working system. No shortcuts allowed! Something I see again and again is that some IT project is progressing toward the end of the testing stage, at which point the prospective owners think of a half dozen new features they want to add, and maybe a few things they want to change. When this happens, you really need to redo the testing of the whole system (remember the risk of regression errors we talked about). But more often than not, these changes get bolted on toward the end of a project; nobody feels like going back and redoing all that tedious testing, everybody just wants to finish the project and let it go live. So in the end, any defects introduced by those last-minute changes get discovered not by the project's testing team, but by the system's (increasingly irate) end users., and there's a mad scramble by the project team to fix everything under massive time and cost pressure.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, as I read all the news reports about the mess that is, it appears to me that practically every one of the principles I've outlined above has been largely ignored. I'm exaggerating a little for effect here, but I think the thing speaks for itself. Reading the various analyses that have come out recently, experts who have looked at the technical design of the system think some pretty poor design decisions were made. Among other things, you can't just go onto the site to answer the simple question, "what kind of insurance is available and what does it cost?", like you would if you were shopping for, say, car insurance or a home loan or just a pair of pants of a certain size and color. Before you can get an answer to that question, you have to provide a large quantity of personal information that will be verified by the web site through a series of data look-ups in other systems. Besides giving a crappy user experience, the convoluted process requires a lot of communications between systems, and if any of these don't execute perfectly, the user is left sitting and wondering what's happening. 

Shortcomings in the design of the system no doubt are partly a function of just plain poor design decisions, but also a result of the underlying system requirements being changed repeatedly, as recently as a month before the system was to go live (as reported here, among other places). And as for testing? Testimony in the recent congressional hearings on's rocky rollout imply that testing was at best an afterthought. Hey, let's build a massively complex IT system that's going to provide a vital service for millions of users and only spend two weeks testing before we shove it out the door—what could possibly go wrong?

So… let me finally come to my point, which was… oh, yes: IT projects are hard. Lots of them fail abysmally and the bigger they are, the more spectacularly they fail. But this is not some new revelation, it's an established phenomenon you can read about here or here or here, or many other places. The President himself has tried to make the point that the ACA is more than a web site, but that's really missing the point. For those people who want to, or have to, sign up for insurance, is the ACA, or at least the primary manifestation of it in their own lives. It's also the most visible part of the ACA for the media; surely the Obama administration understood that if this web site was not working smoothly from day one, the administration was going to be pilloried in the press and it would be—fairly or unfairly—a major I-told-you-so moment for the Republicans. From what I'm reading now, for anyone on the inside of this project it must have been pretty clear, for a pretty long time, that it wasn't going to end well, and yet there are few or no indications that any sort of measures were taken to address that. This is not a technical failure so much as a management failure of the first order.

The administration's attempts at damage control have also been fairly laughable. First they tried to downplay the problems as "glitches", a cute word that sort of implies this is just a temporary and minor inconvenience; but it's not a "glitch" when the only reliable thing about the system is that the damned thing won't work when you try to use it. And trying to put things in perspective by talking about how the Massachusetts healthcare program got off to a slow and rocky start, or about how IT projects in general often have problems, is just making excuses—if you knew about these potential pitfalls, why didn't you take measures to keep from getting tripped up by them instead of just making the same mistakes as everyone else?

Then there were apologies and expressions of frustration from on high, and assurances that the whole thing will be working fine by the end of November—we shall see, but I'm not holding my breath because I think it will take a few months to do all the testing and rework that should have been done before the thing went live. We also heard that even if the web site isn't working, one can sign up by phone or mail, but what goes unmentioned is that the people who then do the processing  for you use basically the same unreliable system to do so.

Compounding the trouble with are the many reports that people who were repeatedly assured by the President that "if you like your insurance, you can keep it" are finding out that isn't true. It is true that most of the people affected are getting their coverage dropped because that coverage doesn't meet ACA standards, and what they can get to replace it is probably going to be a far better plan than the one they lost. But strictly speaking, what the President said simply wasn't true and so that becomes one more unnecessary black mark against the program in the eyes of so many.

I really want to see the ACA succeed. I suspect, or at least hope, that a year or two from now, things will be running reasonably smoothly, people who could not previously get decent, affordable health insurance will be quite happy, and like Social Security or Medicare, the ACA will be just another part of the social services landscape that nobody seriously questions. But for now, I'm just appalled at the amateurish way this thing was rolled out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Lose-Lose Proposition

So, we're back from the brink. At least for another three months, then the whole cycle of madness starts again. I am, of course, talking about the debacle that was the Republican attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act and threatening to wreck the economy if they didn't get their way. I don't know what I can say about it that hasn't already been said by someone somewhere, but I just have to vent because keeping all that impotent rage bottled up always messes up my digestive system, which can prove embarrassing to everyone around me.

I don't know that I should expect any better of them, but I can't help but be utterly repulsed by things like John Boehner, shortly after the vote, going on some stupid radio program to babble nonsense about how Republicans fought the good fight but didn't win, then going on to say, "We did everything we could to get them to the table to negotiate… They just kept saying no. No, no, no.

Of course the Democrats said no! Is Boehner too stupid to understand why? Actually, he probably isn't. But he clearly thinks you are. And he may be right. I went to get my hair cut today, and one of the barbers was going on and on about how bad it's going to be for everyone when the ACA kicks in fully on Jan. 1, though he wasn't able to articulate any specifics. Ironically, this is a guy who had a quadruple bypass a couple years ago and might be facing a cap on benefits and an inability to get different insurance elsewhere, were it not for the provisions of ACA that now prohibit such insurance company practices. But that's just the way we think in this country, especially if we rely on sources like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News for "information". (As an example of the latter, see this article exposing Sean Hannity's extremely misleading "reporting" on the ACA on Fox News.)

Let's replay what happened here. In a nutshell: Obama put his Affordable Care Act before Congress. Congress approved it. Obama signed it into law. The Supreme Court confirmed it, with a few exceptions. A minority of House Republicans, egged on by the idiot Senator Ted Cruz, demanded that the ACA be defunded before the House would approve a continuing resolution on the budget and approve an increase in the debt ceiling. Boehner, fearing that it would cost him his job as Speaker if he did, refused to let the CR come to a vote, even though it was clear that enough Republicans would vote with the Democrats to pass it without any problem. The Democrats, following the principle that one should not negotiate with terrorists, refused to budge, and Boehner & Co. ultimately had to back down. So what do the Republicans have to show for this whole circus?

Well, they got a couple of very small face-saving concessions, like a requirement that the Department of Health and Human Services report to Congress on procedures to verify income of people who would get subsidies for health insurance. There was a guarantee to pay back pay to federal employees who were forced to work without pay while the government was partially shut down. Oh, and some pork. Who doesn't like pork? The Republicans can be glad they got anything, since at some point they themselves apparently didn't even know what they wanted any more, as illustrated by Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind., with Tea Party backing), who famously told the Washington Examiner, “We’re not going to be disrespected… We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

And what did the rest of us get? Well, we eventually got the government reopened. Also, according to Standard & Poors we got a reduction in GDP equivalent to around a $24 billion cost to the US economy—exactly the sort of thing we need right now. Remember when Boehner said this?

“Helping Americans get back to work is our number one priority, and we’re going to do everything we can to help create jobs and to boost our economy."

That was back in May, 2011. It's good to know that Boehner's job creation plan includes temporarily putting thousands of people out of work, threatening all the small businesses that depend on their patronage, creating the threat of a global financial crisis, and generally shoring up international investors' faith in US Treasury Bonds by demonstrating to the rest of the world that our government is capable of financial management on par with the governments of Greece or Cypress. It's a novel strategy. Good work, John.

Why didn't you just smack him with that thing while you had the chance?