Sunday, 20 July 2014

No Place to Hide

No-place-to-hideNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald
Metropolitan Books (a Henry Holt imprint), 2014, 253pp, backmatter online

Opinions regarding Edward Snowden tend to be neatly divided, some see him as a hero, the rest see him as a traitor. I fear that only the former group is likely to read No Place To Hide, I might as well admit at the outset that I am in this group. I feel we owe a great deal to Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning as well, and reading this book convinces me that I need to add Glenn Greenwald to the list, considering the significant risks he took in bringing Snowden’s revelations to light.

The book is surprisingly evenhanded while discussing the incredible details of the NSA’s invasion of our privacy, because of his involvement with Snowden and the timeliness of the story the book largely focuses on this matter but without attempting to demonize America compared to other surveillance states. He could easily have been much harsher, for example his quote of Sen. Joe Biden from 2006 excoriating the metadata collection of the NSA under President Bush is mentioned, the hypocrisy noted, and then Greenwald moves on.

Still, after delineating the extent of the NSA’s surveillance and the cooperation of the other four members of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand) we are left knowing that no surveillance state in history has matched the current levels.

I didn’t grow up under the Stasi like Angela Merkel did, but I was raised in a surveillance state. No, not some reprehensible communist regime, but rather the warm and comforting environment of small town America in the ’60s. My parents were prominent members of the community and any wayward act I might have committed was very likely to be relayed to them by those who happened to see it. Somehow, I came away from that with a warm regard for the safety fostered by that natural watchfulness. As Greenwald clearly points out, governments rely on the expectation that their watchfulness is only a risk to malefactors, that those of us who go about our business responsibly have nothing to fear and in fact benefit from it. Of course he also points out that the division between those we think should be watched for our safety and those who should be left alone tends to change with the times. Ten years ago it was Democrats decrying the ominous intent of the NSA programs we knew so little about at the time, while today most Democrats defend the White House policies and it is the Republicans who are more likely to cry foul. The Panopticon is real, if there is one chapter in Greenwald’s book that is important, it is the one that documents the general dangers of government having the kinds of information that the NSA is currently collecting.

He also does a fair job of demolishing the idea that such surveillance will actually make us safer. He makes it clear what a tiny part of the government’s use of this data has had anything to do with terrorism and how the use of that scary word is a flatly fraudulent excuse for assaults on our rights. Investigating the Brazilian oil company Petrobras or listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls obviously have nothing to do with terrorism, and breaking into Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers systems is all about maintaining the NSA’s ability to “collect it all” rather than any defense against future terrorist acts. He points out that in order to justify the incredible expense of the NSA’s operation, compared to our investment in normal police activities, they would have to stop over three hundred realistic attacks a year when they have, in fact, stopped none at all.

As Greenwald released the first of Snowden’s cache of documents, he was attacked not only by the governments eagerly participating in the surveillance be revealed, but also by journalists, many of whom were quick to define him as an activist or a blogger rather than being one of their august company. I won’t expand on that here, suffice it to say that the chapter covering the foolishness and bad taste of much of the journalistic community is choice reading.

The most devastating effect of reading this book is the awareness that those we see as “the good guys” are, when they are in power, just as likely to pursue these reprehensible activities. Looking back over history it seems to me that even the power of surveillance that J Edgar Hoover had when he so eagerly dug into the background of Martin Luther King, Jr was probably excessive, and I would very much like to see us roll back the federal capabilities in this area at least a half century. If I Were King, I’d like to think that I would dismantle all of it. Alas, this book leads me to wonder if I could do that once I was on the other side. But it should be dismantled, this level of surveillance is damaging to our society and provides little or no safety at huge expense.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Baffled for a bit by Hobby Lobby

I’m sorry, but I just can’t pop out a response to the ruling in Burwell vs Hobby Lobby just yet. I have read a fair amount of the coverage, along with most of the decision, and I’ve started to organize some comments on various aspects of it. But the part that nobody else seems to be talking about is the nature of freedom and, more specifically, the nature of religious freedom. If they aren’t perverting the concept, they certainly are inverting it. I do know this much, If I Were King the concept of freedom would be focused on the individual and his spirituality, on his ability to express his spirituality and to live based on what he learned from it. It would have absolutely nothing to do with businesses, corporations, or families of billionaires who think religious freedom means enforcing their narrow-minded concepts of spirituality on tens of thousands of employees, never mind extending those concepts through the legal system to apply to tens of millions of other citizens. Those supporters of Hobby Lobby who are crowing about this ruling as a victory for religious freedom have the spirituality of Simon Legree and the intelligence of platyhelminthes.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The God Argument

The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism
A. C. Grayling
Bloomsbury USA, 2013, 258 pp plus backmatter

god-argument-graylingThe God Argument, as the subtitles suggests, has two parts. The first delineates most of the religious arguments in favor of religion, and refutes each in its turn. The second lays out the case for humanism, establishing it as a rational basis for moral and ethical behavior, expanding on an earlier argument that a peaceful and productive community is not based on, and does not require, a set of rules laid down by a religion, or the presence and action of a higher being. Despite a careful academic approach to these points, Grayling’s text is reasonably easy to follow.

As I find myself drifting from a traditional Western Catholic view of creation and life, toward perhaps my own modified deism, and at times finding myself all the way in the atheist camp, I found The God Argument to be reassuring. As Grayling points out, one of the essential elements of most religions is that the doctrine is presented to children by those who have a natural authority and credibility. The survival of the species does, after all, depend on children learning certain facts about the world and their place therein, our genes give children a bias towards accepting instruction from their parents and other trusted members of the community. This point by Grayling was not really a surprise to me, nor were the others. But as a “public intellectual” and prolific writer he has spent significant organized time addressing each of the arguments. It turns out to be a significant comfort, for one abandoning such long held beliefs, to see the logical work of refutation presented with very little effort on my part.

If your faith, regardless of the religion, is strong and you are comfortable in this position, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Grayling approaches each of the various arguments very calmly, with little or no rancor towards any of them, but perhaps not with the strength and energy required to convert a devout follower to become an atheist. Even if I thought this book could bring about conversion in the devout, I really don’t find that an appealing or pressing need. If your faith suits you, and brings you comfort and moral clarity, without demanding the privilege of judging the lives and actions of those around you, I’m completely happy for you to keep it. On the other hand, if you are among the baby boomers who, on the downhill side of life, find the faith you formed earlier in life no longer as rewarding, no longer a source of certainty, Grayling’s calm presentation is very likely to help you get the rest of the way out of the superstitions you grew up with and make you more comfortable with the decision that you have already been coming to.

The chapter “A Humanist on Love, Sex and Drugs” could well stand alone as a guide to how we address those subject, possibly as individuals and certainly as matters of law. I found this quote to be particularly apt, “Nature has made sex pleasurable not just to ensure reproduction but, in some of the higher mammals at least, to create bonds. The narrow views of the ancient Jews and the modern Catholics, that sex must always have pregnancy as a possible outcome, miss a very important point here.”.

If I Were King there would be no state church, nor any state objections to the churches supported by my subjects. Religion often offers benefits to the believer which I would certainly not wish to deprive anyone of. Many churches, despite being based on revealed wisdom and superstition, are positive influences in our communities, although certainly not a net benefit when balanced against the great evils that have been committed in the name of one deity or another at various times. But it’s up to each person, and if you are in a transition in this regard, this book will be a helpful read.

Redskins name change

Last week the US Patent and Trademark office stripped the Washington Redskins of registered trademark status for six of their trademarks, on the grounds that the name was “disparaging to native Americans”. Really? Apparently there are a number of dictionaries that have declared it to be  “usually offensive”, “disparaging”, “insulting”, and “taboo” (see Wikipedia entry footnotes for which dictionary makes which claims). I flatly don’t believe this. To start with, the name is so rarely used in reference to actual aboriginal tribe members that I suspect any disparaging meaning of the name is actually referring to the football team. (See “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder” by Dave McKenna of the Washington City Paper.) I suspect that if you’ve heard the term used to refer to actual Native Americans, you were watching a very old western.

According to a Washington Post article by Johathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, the only actual poll of Native Americans found 90% weren’t bothered by the name. The National Congress of Native American Indians adopted a resolution in 1993 denouncing the name, but the fact that tribes that are members of that group represent 30% of all Native Americans doesn’t mean that anything like 30% of the individual members were offended.

And at least one Indian, Don Wetzel of the Blakfeet Nation in Montana, sincerely likes the name and the logo, his father (obviously also a Native American) designed it, making specific efforts to render the logo in ways that related to actual Indian tradition rather than Hollywood depictions. See this article in the Great Falls Tribune.

I think that if we’re going to start stripping teams of their names we should start with all the allegedly aggressive carnivorous creatures. I much prefer the names of the teams from my daughter’s schools: The Wombats of John Woolman School and The Geoducks of Evergreen State College. Note that wombats are not only cute and fuzzy, they’re herbivorous. Geoducks are, of course, really big ugly clams. Both species are are primarily subterranean, so aren’t likely to bother anyone that doesn’t go trying to dig them up.

If I Were King I might be tempted to ban trademarks that offend me. For example, I think that “realtor” should never have been made a trademark because it was already a word (British English), and based on comments from people that have had real estate deals turn out less advantageous than they hoped, you could probably come up with quite a few people that thought that term was disparaging. But it’s just plain silly for a government to get involved at all. If the business wants to use the mark, perhaps risking offending paying customers, let them.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Communications needed in the Levant

A few days ago I opened up a nasty can of worms by suggesting that one of the reasons the US should keep the Warthogs on the job was the vicious fighting in places like Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine. I hope that it doesn’t actually come to that. In fact, if there is to be a deployment of US air power in that part of the world I think the best plan would be to establish 24/7 drone coverage of the Ukraine-Russia border so the world knows exactly what levels of troops and materiel transfers are going on there.

But before any decisions are made on that possibility I think there’s another program that would serve the interests of the US and quite a few others. My thought is that whether on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq or inside the various dictatorial states states that aren’t actively at war, one of the crucial needs is communication between individuals and from the area to the outside world.

Google has tested a balloon-based internet system in New Zealand. Several players have talked about other possibilities, such as a lightweight solar-powered aircraft that would carry the wireless equipment for networking on the ground below, loitering for months at a time. If the Sunni population under ISIS control had a way to get videos of atrocities out to YouTube it wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be a good thing. If an Iranian Snowden or Manning could upload nuclear plans to Wikileaks it could dramatically help efforts to come to a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran. (It would royally piss off the mullahs that rule there, please don’t think this would upset me even slightly!)

Last year I suggested we should be developing a reasonable anti-aircraft weapon that included user identification and target verification to eliminate any possibility of the weapons being used by jihadis against us. I’m not aware of any development of such weapons, but if someone did read that post and wants to make them real, they’ll need a reliable network to make them work.

If you’ve been reading my posts here for a while, you know for certain that If I Were King I would support open communications within my realm. I’d also be willing to temporarily extend such a boon in other areas where poverty, military action, or small-minded governments prevent their people from enjoying what should be available to every sentient being.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Supremes wrong on Aereo

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in American Broadcasting Companies vs Aereo that the service provided a “public performance” of broadcast materials and thus infringed on broadcasters copyrights. I believe that they got it wrong, and I am disappointed in several of the justices while equally surprised that the three most conservative members of the court (Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) got it right.

The narrow basis for the decision is that the Aereo’s service counts as a public performance. There is rarely any infringement in a private performance, for example watching a time-shifted program at home, or even sharing it with family and friends, while it has always been an infringement if you shared the same video with the paying customers in your tavern. In one of the earlier cases, a lower court actually pointed out the differences that would need to be maintained for Aereo to be considered as a conduit for many private performances, and Aereo built their system to accomplish exactly that. Apparently the facts don’t matter, it looks like a public performance so it must be an infringement.

Actually, the court has ruled correctly on this distinction in the past, specifically Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc. (1968) and Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc. (1974). The ruling lays out that history and notes that Congress’ desire in drafting revisions to the Copyright Act in 1976, specifically to overturn the court’s rulings in those two cases. As we said in an earlier post, until then, cable systems were seen for what they were, a service to viewers in remote areas by which they could get clear reception from distant stations, or from stations that were otherwise difficult to watch over the air as often happened with reflections from buildings in big cities even for nearby stations. The changes to copyright law clearly should never have been made, the cable systems were acting on behalf of individual viewers and though they were making money as a result of carrying that copyright material, their service benefited the broadcasters by expanding their audience at no cost to the stations.

But money was being made and the copyright interests had already bought enough congress critters to change the law and grab some it in the form of “rebroadcast fees”.

Even with those changes, I feel that the sophisticated way in which Aereo organized their systems is legal. If I Were King, this would be dispositive. I’m not, so the case goes back to the Second Circuit which will, most likely, end the service soon.

Update, 29 June 2014

Chet Kanojia, chief executive of of Aereo, sent a letter to all Aereo customers yesterday, announcing the suspension of service, “We have decided to pause our operations temporarily as we consult with the court and map out our next steps”. “The spectrum that the broadcasters use to transmit over-the-air programming belongs to the American public, and we believe you should have a right to access that live programming whether your antenna sits on the roof of your home, on top of your television or in the cloud,” said in the letter, which also asserted the suspension was temporary and promising refunds of the last month’s fees.

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty:
Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About
Dave Barry
Putnam Adult, 2014, 224 pp (no backmatter)

YOU_CAN_DATE_jacket_imageWhen the Empress Larkin and I are both home at the end of the evening, I join her in the bedroom and we share a few light moments. Specifically, she reads for ten or fifteen minutes, normally something light from Erma Bombeck, Tom Bodett, Pat McManus, or with the most titles on our shelves, Dave Barry. This isn’t any intellectual exercise, it’s just fun – it gives us a few minutes afterward to connect at the end of the day.

Here’s the heart of my review: If you like Dave Barry, you’ll enjoy this book. If you don’t, it’s hard to predict.

FACT: If you see a paragraph in this book that starts like this one, you can depend on only one thing: not much of it is true. On the other hand, anything followed by “I am not making this up” is probably verifiably true, although there is a good chance he’s moved it way out of context for humorous effect.

For example, “How to Become a Professional Author” is riddled with paragraphs like these:

FACT: The Hunger Games, as originally conceived by the author, was supposed to be a three-book series on the historical impact of salad dressing.”

FACT: The average children’s book author works two hour per year.”

Somehow, you always come away from a Dave Barry essay with something worth keeping in mind. In this volume, “Seeking Wifi in the Holy Land” relates an eleven-day tour of Israel. Barry is not a believer but his wife, Miami Herald sports writer Michelle Kaufman, is a member of Temple Judea of Coral Gables which is a reformed congregation so open-minded they don’t mind taking the occasional atheist into their bosom. The result is both occasionally hilarious (a visit to the Dead Sea – “my butt still stings”) and touching (after an evening in the home of a local couple, the husband says of his wife who has been holding court while he served endless food, “I do not agree with her. <pause> About anything.”).

It’s unlikely that Sophie is dungeoned up to the extent the book’s title suggests, although Barry’s comments on the subject will resonate with any man who ever raised a daughter. But he’s braver than I am: He actually took his daughter Sophie, as in bought tickets and went inside with her and one of her girlfriends, to a Justin Bieber concert. That may not be the equivalent of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, but I’m impressed.

If I Were King, those who bring this kind of positive energy to the kingdom would be knighted, mostly because the honoree would be required to spend a little time with the monarch, and I wouldn’t want to miss that chance.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Farts of death

GAU-8 rotary cannon in the A-10

GAU-8 rotary cannon in the A-10 (National Museum of the US Air Force photo)

Last week’s Economist (14-20 June 2014) included a piece titled “Don’t save the Warhog”, strongly supporting the US Air Force decision to scrap the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, generally known as the Warthog. (The story does not appear on the magazine’s website.) In the table of contents they list the story as “farts of death”, a phrase occasionally used by the infantry to refer to the sound of a burst of fire from the Warthog’s 7-barrel Gatling-style rotary 30mm cannon at up to 4,200 rounds per minute. As far as I know, there is nobody that really minds the disrespectful terminology.

What bothers a lot of folks in the infantry is that the Warthog is, in their opinion, the absolutely best tool available for “close-air-support” — when your company is attacking an enemy position and is suddenly under attack what you want is a noisy bird that can come in low and slow and dump a huge amount of lead into the enemy position.

The Economist article is subtitled “Why a plane that is easy to shoot down is hard to scrap”, but the truth of the matter is that the Warthog isn’t easy to shoot down. To start with, the pilot and all the controls are located in a titanium “bathtub” that makes the plain almost immune to rifles and machine guns on the ground, although it has few defenses against incoming missiles. Yes, that means that there are environments where you don’t want to dispatch Warthogs, but we seem to be entering an era in which there are a lot of battles going on where the bad guys don’t have missiles. In Iraq, for example, ISIS has taken over quite a few government weapons, including tanks, but tanks are the targets for which the Warthog was originally created.

A-10 Thunderbolt II in flight (USAF photo)

A-10 Thunderbolt II in flight (USAF photo)

The Air Force is generally in love with speed; they’re spending billions of dollars on the F-35, the most expensive fighter ever at $125-155 million and still not ready for combat. And though the infantry loves the Warthog pilots, status in the Air Force comes from winning battles and flying the latest and fastest hardware. I’m sure that the pilots that accept close-air-support tasks do their jobs well, but the obvious truth is that there is more glory in winning an air battle than there is supporting an infantry unit win a ground battle. It’s the difference between a blue ribbon and an honorable mention.

In the story Air Force sources are quoted as saying that a mix of fast jets and bombers can handle the close-air-support task “reasonably well”. For some reason, the ground pounders don’t want to settle for “reasonably well” when a better approach is available.

Which brings up a salient point that doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of the writers covering this: The Air Force doesn’t have infantry, why are they flying in supoprt of the Army in the first place? Sure, the Warthogs have wings and are flown by pilots, but the Navy and Marines operate their own planes, so why not the Army?

The Warthog is ugly, there’s no getting around that. For $12 million each, I don’t think anyone cares. And the US currently has 345 of them, you could do a lot of damage to sectarian militias with a force of that size.

If I Were King this would be a simple matter of requiring those who are in charge of a mission to have a role in choosing their tools. Let the Air Force pick the toys they want for their mission and let the Army pick theirs. The battles that seem to be happening in the Levant and central Africa seem to call for exactly this aircraft.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Forcing the Spring

Forcing_the_SpringForcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality
Jo Becker
The Penguin Press, 2014, 434 pp plus back matter

I’ve read a lot of books in one or two days, but that was when I was reading sci-fi or whodunits that you could race through. Now that I’m reading big fat non-fiction titles with some regularity, it doesn’t happen often. But Forcing the Spring demanded that I keep turning pages, ignoring my normal habit of switching between three or four books. It also may be the first time I’ve ever read a book less than two months after it was released.

As a journalist for The New York Times, Jo Becker covered the dramatic story around the selection of Ted Olson and David Boies as the attorneys to challenge California’s Proposition 8. The attorneys had normally been on opposite sides, most notably the case before the Supreme Court that decided the 2000 presidential election, with Olson leading the team for Bush and Boies arguing for Gore. But the conservative Olson had come to support same-sex marriage on conservative and constitutional grounds, and it was a significant symbol to have him lead the charge. After Becker finished her piece for The Times, she was granted rare access to the legal team, including strategy sessions in the “war room”, the plaintiffs and various significant supporters, along with time off from The Times to write a book on the case. She also was given a lot of time with Charles Cooper, the opposing counsel, as well as with Edie Windsor who brought the case against the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as counsel on both sides in that case that proceeded in parallel.

The book starts as final votes are being counted in the 2008 general election, with mixed emotions for Chad Griffin; elation at the election of the first black president, distress over passage of Proposition 8. Griffin was gay, a former staffer in the Clinton White House, and half of a Los Angeles political communications firm. In the face of a gay community that was adamant that the cause of marriage equality should be pursued only at the state level, for whom a federal lawsuit was absolute anathema lest a negative ruling come from the Supreme Court, Griffin decided to challenge “Prop 8″ in federal court.

Rob Reiner, the actor and producer, and his wife started the ball rolling with cash and contacts. Activists that had supported Harvey Milk’s work years before were also unwilling to wait calmly for the larger gay community to get results.

The case itself started in Federal District Court for northern California, where Prop 8 was overturned in a case argued before Vaughn Walker, a Bush appointee. Because the official defendants (Gov. Schwarzenegger, et al.) refused to defend Prop 8, it was defended by Charles Cooper on behalf of the proposition’s sponsors. Walker’s ruling was then appealed to a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the west coast. The Olson team challenged the standing of the sponsors, so the Ninth Circuit petitioned the California Supreme Court for a ruling on whether the sponsors had standing under California law. Only after a positive response did the Ninth Circuit rule that Prop 8 had no purpose other than to disadvantage gay men and lesbians and thus the law was unconstitutional. Cooper then appealed for an en banc review by the entire Ninth Circuit, which was denied. Cooper then applied for “cert”, a hearing by the Supreme Court on the case, which finally ruled on 26 June 2013 that the sponsors did not have standing, with the result that the District Court’s original ruling stood. This narrow ruling meant that the case did not apply outside of California, but given the growing popular support for same-sex marriage this bit of caution was not considered particularly bad news.

Through all of these events Becker treats us to a fly-on-the-wall view of  the legal team at work, hear how different elements of their arguments and press statements were crafted to appeal to individual members of the SC, including references to the major cases related to same-sex marriage and the cases related to mixed-race marriages that came decades earlier.

Forcing the Spring includes not only the legal events and the strategy behind them but also the careful efforts to make the case an educational exercise for the nation as a whole while remembering that the real audience for everything they did was the nine judges who would eventually rule on the case. That and an ongoing effort to heal the rift between the aggressive team in the case and the more cautious members of the gay community, such as Lamda Legal and the ACLU.

There are plenty of reviews of Forcing the Spring that attack Becker for ignoring the players that were moving forward in other areas at the same time. For example, in 2012 there were state efforts in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and my own state of Washington, these campaigns are barely mentioned and, for the most part, the people that waged them are not named. These reviews come down hard on Becker, clearly unwilling to allow Becker, or probably anyone else, to write about part of the long battle without lauding the other players. But no matter how much credit is due to Evan Wolfson and others who started the ball rolling, they had lost 70% of their election campaigns, and when adoption or marriage had been at stake, they lost them all. Besides, an author has every right to pen a narrow story, even if there is a larger one. If she made any mistake, it was to start the book with, “This is how a revolution begins.” That is a bit much, the revolution was well underway, but plenty of authors have led with overstatement without paying this price in critical opinion.

Two days after the Supremes’ ruling, the Ninth Circuit lifted it’s stay of the original ruling, and the first weddings commenced, starting with the four plaintiffs. The two gay men were married at Los Angeles City Hall, by the mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. The two lesbians were married on a balcony at San Francisco City Hall by Kamala Harris, the state attorney general, just steps from the room where city supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot.

If I Were King, of course, this would never have come to trial in the first place. Nobody actually wants a “same-sex marriage”, they just want to marry the person they love, and no government should have the power to tell them their love isn’t as valid or worthy as that of any other applicants for a marriage license. If you agree and want to learn how this team accomplished a big part of the campaign that will, probably soon, result in legal recognition of marriage equality in all fifty states, Forcing the Spring is a gripping story well told.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Turbulence

Turbulence: Boeing and the Sate of American Wrokers and Managers
Edward S. Greenberg et al.
Yale University Press, 2010, 194 pp plus back matter

turbulenceI frequently get involved in discussions on the Seattle Times website, generally related to news about Boeing. As long as I can remember I’ve been a big fan of “The Kite Factory”, also known as “The Lazy B”, and even worked at headquarters for a few months, but this has rather changed in the last fifteen years. Many involved in the discussions refer to the 1997 “merger” with McDonnell Douglass as the McDonnell takeover of Boeing. One of the authors interviewed Ron Woodard in 2007; Woodard was the former president of the commercial aircraft division, who had been unceremoniously fired on a Saturday in September of 1998. “I was dead-set against the merge. … We thought that we’d kill McDonnell Douglass and we had it on the ropes. … I still believe that Harry [Stonecipher, of MD] outsmarted Phil [Condit, then Boeing president] and his gang bought Boeing with Boeing’s money.” A major transformation of the company began once the bean counters from McDonnell Douglass took charge.

After a period in which Boeing had been resting on its laurels, the focus turned to maximizing stockholder value. The Boeing “family” approach to employees changed to a “team” focus, promising even less employee stability than had been the rule in the past, although the ups and downs of the industry had led to several massive layoffs over the previous three decades. Headquarters, long located at “Plant 2″ in Seattle, moved to Chicago. Computers became part of the workflow for almost every employee rather than just the engineers and managers. The company lost ground to Airbus, finally starting work on the 787 Dreamliner only in 2003. That project involved transferring unprecedented levels of the design and manufacturing to outside companies, mostly overseas. New management strategies came frequently, leaving confusion throughout the company. The company, long a macho environment of beefy mechanics and remote engineers finally began the changes to increase the level of women in the company and to empower them to contribute.

The authors of this book began a decade-long analysis of the changes within the company. The heart of the longitudinal study was four extensive questionnaires mailed to Boeing employees at their homes in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2006. Over three thousand employees completed at least one survey, but the core of the analysis is based on the 525 that responded all four times. Additional surveys and interviews were done on smaller groups, including employees who were laid off or chose to leave the company during the decade.

The text is a bit dry, given the academic focus (one author from Yale, two from the University of Puget Sound, and one consultant), but they don’t pull their punches. They admit that the results might have been more meaningful if they had started a couple of years earlier, before most of the changes started, but they did get a good look at the most stressful period.

Turbulence is probably only of value to those who are big fans of the company or who are interested in the effects of change on employees (assembly line to middle-management) during times of corporate change. Or, perhaps, those who are simply disgusted with the short-term bottom-line focus of far too many companies and what it can do to the people employed.

The saddest part of the story came on 21 May 2014 when Boeing CEO John McNerney told the Seattle Times, “Every 25 years a big moonshot … and then produce a 707 or a 787 — that’s the wrong way to pursue this business. The more-for-less world will not let you pursue moonshots.” In other words, instead of ramping up to create great products at a faster pace to compete in changing world, the company has committed to simply scraping by on marginal improvements. If I Were King, I’d move headquarters back to Seattle and then dropkick McNerney and the current board back to Chicago. Without any golden parachutes, they’ve done a dreadful job as this book, and the marketplace, demonstrate.