Saturday, September 17

Throwing acid on women

This pisses me off. Seriously and totally pisses me off and makes me want to go medieval on them. This is why I actually applauded the attempts by the Iranian woman who wanted to punish her attacker by asking acid to put out his eyes. Before you call me barbaric and thinking about an eye for an eye, this is what she was left with.

Yes, eye for an eye is good. Same with rapists whose penis’s should be hacked off with a blunt shovel and paedophiles should be physically tortured till their gonads pop out of their eyes. Bastards. As it so happens, this brave woman actually forgave her attacker at the last moment. That’s the level of her humanity, you bastard, may you rot here on earth, forget about hell.

And then I read two stories today. First where in Bangladesh, men were sentenced for life terms for an acid attack. Excellent news, these bastards need to be locked away for life. Good for you, Bangladesh.

Dhaka, Sep 10: Four Bangladeshi men have been sentenced to life in prison for throwing acid on a girl who rejected their advances, a media report said.

The incident had taken place in 2006 in northeastern Habiganj district along the border with India, the Daily Star reported.

The four men were identified as Abdul Quaiyum, Haris Miah, Auli Miah and Alkas Uddin.

They were convicted and sentenced in absentia by the district and sessions court in Habiganj of breaking into the house of Abdur Rahman and hurling acid on his 18-year-old daughter Mayarunnesa in February 2006.

Only Haris Miah was arrested, while the others are still at large.

And then in that lovely country, Pakistan, it was doubly heinous.

QUETTA: Four female school teachers received burn injuries on their faces after they were attacked by unidentified men in Quetta on Saturday.

Police informed that the teachers were on their way home in a van when the attackers riding a motorbike threw concentrated acid on their faces, and then fled.

You bastards have ruined 4 women and also stopped students from learning from them.

This is what you left her with. And knowing about Pakistan, I very much doubt that it will be doing anything to these bastards as compared to what Bangladesh did. And before you think I am taking off on Pakistan, this bloody behaviour is horrid and perhaps even worse in India where bride burning and dowries and acid throwing is far more given that its a bigger country. More women are devastated in India. May the lot of them burn themselves. May the acid sprinkling fleas of 1000 camels infest their groin. Bastards.

More progress at SIFE

The chaps at LSE SIFE are quite ambitious, I love that. This trading game project is really catching fire. They went and sold it to a Malaysian University SIFE unit and they are spreading the word there. More about that later as my hopes to help them in Malaysia needs a bit of digging first.

Second, am going to go speak to the new SIFE recruits and get them all excited motivated. Plus if things work out, I will run investment classes for the volunteers. Teach these undergraduate students how to invest. I wonder if I can replicate what I did with Kannu with them?

Third, there seems to be very good progress with the Transformation Trust and extending the trading game to other schools in London. Watch this space.

The lady who introduced me to the Transformation Trust, Annie Natarajan, has managed to rope me into another initiative. lol, as a member of their advisory board. That’s also quite exciting, to help schools across the world to share best practises. I just got involved briefly in the initial proposals and Annie tells me that we have already got the first donation. Well done. The pilot will be touching some schools in India, Kenya and Brazil. Cant wait to get motoring on that.

Fourth, SIFE Nottingham is working on a pilot project with IT4CH with Pat. They are also pretty aggressive, they are trying to work to getting more donations of computers into our storage offices which we can then sell to get funds to purchase equipment for hospital schools and poor sick children at home.

Fifth, SIFE Nottingham has decided to do a project in Sri Lanka. Here’s the blurb on the email that they sent:

A group of 13 SIFE Nottingham students returned from Sri Lanka 4 weeks ago. To summarise our project, Future for Jaffna is a charitable organisation established under a trust deed. We aim to empower widows of the civil war in North Sri Lanka to create their own businesses, ranging from food processing to sewing and tailoring businesses. The ultimate aim is to establish a community and entrepreneurial/business centre in Jaffna, where the widows can sell their products, and where people can receive help in setting up their own business. Finally, we are looking into an environmental sub-project, mobilising rural communities through the production of biofuels.
We are partnering with a local charity, CORD Sri Lanka who monitor livelihood projects with widows. Their widows receive funding via a rigid scheme from the Bank of Ceylon; we do have more specific details on this scheme.
We require funding for the business start-ups for Future for Jaffna to be successful. This may be via a local bank, offering an independent finance scheme, or through raising funds through sponsorship and donations, and setting up a microfinance scheme. A key objective for us is to raise £5,000, at which point we will meet the £5,000 income requirement for registration by the Charity Commission, opening the floodgates to funding opportunities.

So I have got them hooked up with some of my colleagues in Sri Lanka. I think this should be a good thing to help push forward. Still under discussion on how exactly the firm can help them but broadly, i think we could provide advisory services to these poor ladies. I didn't know we were the only international firm operating there. Good stuff, makes me proud to work for such a nice firm.

I love September, after the hiatus of the Summer, its good to get back in track.

From Scroll to Screen

Interesting evolution, Son. And now we have audio books...I wonder what you will tell your son in 25 years time? :)

The Mechanic Muse

From Scroll to Screen

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang


Something very important and very weird is happening to the book right now: It’s shedding its papery corpus and transmigrating into a bodiless digital form, right before our eyes. We’re witnessing the bibliographical equivalent of the rapture. If anything we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all.


The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was circa 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. But if you go back further there’s a more helpful precedent for what’s going on. Starting in the first century A.D., Western readers discarded the scroll in favor of the codex — the bound book as we know it today.

In the classical world, the scroll was the book format of choice and the state of the art in information technology. Essentially it was a long, rolled-up piece of paper or parchment. To read a scroll you gradually unrolled it, exposing a bit of the text at a time; when you were done you had to roll it back up the right way, not unlike that other obsolete medium, the VHS tape. English is still littered with words left over from the scroll age. The first page of a scroll, which listed information about where it was made, was called the “protocol.” The reason books are sometimes called volumes is that the root of “volume” is volvere, to roll: to read a scroll, you revolved it.

Scrolls were the prestige format, used for important works only: sacred texts, legal documents, history, literature. To compile a shopping list or do their algebra, citizens of the ancient world wrote on wax-covered wooden tablets using the pointy end of a stick called a stylus. Tablets were for disposable text — the stylus also had a flat end, which you used to squash and scrape the wax flat when you were done. At some point someone had the very clever idea of stringing a few tablets together in a bundle. Eventually the bundled tablets were replaced with leaves of parchment and thus, probably, was born the codex. But nobody realized what a good idea it was until a very interesting group of people with some very radical ideas adopted it for their own purposes. Nowadays those people are known as Christians, and they used the codex as a way of distributing the Bible.

One reason the early Christians liked the codex was that it helped differentiate them from the Jews, who kept (and still keep) their sacred text in the form of a scroll. But some very alert early Christian must also have recognized that the codex was a powerful form of information technology — compact, highly portable and easily concealable. It was also cheap — you could write on both sides of the pages, which saved paper — and it could hold more words than a scroll. The Bible was a long book.

The codex also came with a fringe benefit: It created a very different reading experience. With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. You could cross-check passages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim if you were bored, and jump back to reread your favorite parts. It was the paper equivalent of random-access memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering. With a scroll you could only trudge through texts the long way, linearly. (Some ancients found temporary fixes for this bug — Suetonius apparently suggested that Julius Caesar created a proto-notebook by stacking sheets of papyrus one on top of another.)

Over the next few centuries the codex rendered the scroll all but obsolete. In his “Confessions,” which dates from the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine famously hears a voice telling him to “pick up and read.” He interprets this as a command from God to pick up the Bible, open it at random and read the first passage he sees. He does so, the scales fall from his eyes and he becomes a Christian. Then he bookmarks the page. You could never do that with a scroll.

Right now we’re avidly road-testing a new format for the book, just as the early Christians did. Over the first quarter of this year e-book sales were up 160 percent. Print sales — codex sales — were down 9 percent. Those are big numbers. But unlike last time it’s not a clear-cut case of a superior technology displacing an inferior one. It’s more complex than that. It’s more about trade-offs.

On the one hand, the e-book is far more compact and portable than the codex, almost absurdly so. E-books are also searchable, and they’re green, or greenish anyway (if you want to give yourself nightmares, look up the ecological cost of building a single Kindle). On the other hand the codex requires no batteries, and no electronic display has yet matched the elegance, clarity and cool matte comfort of a printed page.

But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine. If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.

The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn’t be done.

God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience. And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving it up.

Lev Grossman is the author of the novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.” He is also the book critic at Time magazine.

No virus found in this message.
Checked by AVG -
Version: 10.0.1392 / Virus Database: 1520/3878 - Release Date: 09/05/11

Friday, September 16

Proposed cap of £500 per week is critiqued

First the story.

The government's benefits cap could make more than 80,000 children homeless and push many thousands more into poverty, says the Children's Society. In a devastating critique of the plan to limit the amount even the largest families can claim in benefits, Bob Reitemeier, its chief executive, said there would be a huge "human and social cost" if the reforms went ahead.

The welfare reform bill, which proposes a £500 a week cap on the amount families can claim for housing, childcare and sustenance, is set to return to parliament in the House of Lords on Tuesday after making unsteady progress through the Commons earlier this year.

The society says 200,000 children will have their lives affected by the changes to the amount their parents can claim and 27,600 adults and 82,400 children could be made homeless.

While supporters of the benefits cap claim it would simply mean families would be forced to move into cheaper accommodation, government figures suggest 70% of those who will be hit are already living in social housing.

Reitemeier said changes to the proposed legislation were urgently needed. "The reason we are so concerned about children is that three in four of the people that are going to be affected by the benefits cap are children and I don't think that's publicly understood", he said. "There are some main concerns: one is that the children will be made homeless, possibly 80,000 children, which would be a significant change to their lives.

"Secondly, what we think could happen is that those children already in poverty, below 60% of the median income line, will fall into severe poverty, less than 40% of the median income. This has a very human and social impact on their lives."

The Children's Society also believes that children, who are nine times as likely as adults to be hit by the cap because of the prevalence of large families among those claiming benefits, will experience lower levels of wellbeing. It says it understands the element of unfairness in people who are on benefits having large families catered for, but that the government should ensure children do not suffer for their parents' decisions.

The £500 cap is based on the average annual household wage of £26,000. The charity proposes that instead the government should work out the level of the cap – the universal credit – by basing it on the average household income of working families with children, which would include in-work benefits.

So here’s the thing, the government thinks that that the average wage is a good level to compensate people who have fallen on bad times. But people want to raise it? In other words, when you have problems, the state will take money from people (at least 50% yes?) who earn (that’s right, they earn and work) less than what you will get as a household. Hmmm. That is fair? And why would they be made homeless? And why shouldn't they move into cheaper accommodation? I didn't realise that I was paying taxes to give to people who can live in more swanky accommodation? These people are frikking nuts.

Let me throw another statistic at you. Did you know that the number of households in which NO ADULT HAS EVER WORKED IS 370,000? that’s right, you read right, nobody has worked in these households, EVER. And they rely on benefits. Which are currently much more than the average tax payer and citizen. And these frikking muppets want them to have more? WTF?


The Theory of Everything - Esquire


As a fellow enthusiast of physics, and the big bang theory, you might appreciate this article, good overview o the current state.

The Theory of Everything - Esquire


EIGHTEEN MONTHS TO GO. And now some nights Nima Arkani-Hamed can’t sleep. Because in eighteen months someone will flip a switch in something called the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. And when that switch is flipped, billions of protons will fly around a seventeen-mile loop at nearly the speed of light until they smash together hard, harder than any subatomic particles have ever been smashed together on earth. It’s the greatest, most anticipated, most expensive experiment in the history of mankind. And if Arkani-Hamed is right, it could help prove that the laws that govern the universe at every scalefrom the smallest quarks to the largest black holes—are one and the same. Or else, of course, it could prove that Arkani-Hamed is full of shit.

IT’S A FOOL’S ERRAND, this quest for a theory of everything. And Arkani-Hamed is only the most recent of thousands of theoretical physicists to embark on it. The idea seemed logical enough when Einstein first set out on it in the 1920s. If general relativity explains the universe from afar—why gravity pulls the earth around the sun—and quantum mechanics explains the world up close—how atoms, protons, and neutrons react to electromagnetism and the strong and weak forces—surely there must be a way to put the two theories together. After all, whether cosmic in size or minuscule, the particles and forces that govern our universe were all born at the same primordial moment. Yet Einstein failed. And in the interim, armies of physicists, equipped with similarly well-intentioned yet ultimately faulty or unprovable ideas, have followed him to the same well-trod dead end.

Since the mid-1980s, the leading contender for a grand unifying theory has been string theory. The idea is deceptively simple: At the core of every particle in the universe is a tiny thread of energy. Each of these filaments vibrates like a violin string, and its rate of vibration determines its vital characteristics, or tone. There are neutrino strings and electron strings, photon strings and graviton strings. When played together, they compose the symphony of the universe. Or at least, that’s the theory.

There’s a problem, though. The strings have too much range. So much, in fact, that for string theory to agree with the established laws of physics and mathematics, there must be not three but at least ten dimensions (including time) that are curled up and tucked away. And because each of these multidimensional landscapes requires a different string tuning, there are potentially billions and billions of different versions of string theory relating to billions and billions of different universes.

Then there’s the problem of testing string theory. That’s how science works. We hypothesize, then we test. And if a hypothesis passes muster, it becomes law. But the strings that supposedly make up our universe are so infinitesimal—one string is to an atom as a single atom is to the entire solar system—that critics argue that we may never be able to build a collider powerful enough to find them, even the collider that Arkani-Hamed stays up all night thinking about.

So here’s the latest tally: Number of years since string theory became dominant: 20. Number of potential string-theory solutions: 10500 (the number of atoms in the galaxy squared and then squared again). Number of testable theories: 0. In other words, Arkani-Hamed better be at least partially right, because the natives are getting restless.

IF THE PROBLEM WITH STRING THEORY, as some critics claim, is that it’s a closed-minded boys club whose lifetime members hopelessly shuffle and redeal the same deck of equations ad nauseum, then the solution may be found at the Jane Bond, a bar in the staid Canadian college town of Waterloo. The Jane Bond has a decidedly grungy 1970s flair. Tattooed hipsters talk with awed reverence of Brooklyn while DJs spin eclectic and esoteric music next to the bathroom, near the disco ball. And then there are the physicists from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics who have made the Jane Bond their watering hole. They talk theory sometimes. But mostly they just bullshit.

“You want to know the true story?” goads a young postdoctoral researcher at that magical hour in any bar when only bad things can happen. “It’s the post-9/11 theocons.” Just like the rest of America, he continues, the science establishment is afraid of anything new. It doesn’t want to consider any alternatives. “The string theorists just masturbate to their same ideas.” At this, the rest of the table—a mixed group of young cosmologists, quantum-information theorists, and quantum-gravity buffs—breaks into nervous laughter. Yes, their friend is drunk. But he’s right in a general sense, they concede. There is a growing fissure in the physics world between the haves (string theorists) and the have-nots (everyone else). But not at Perimeter, they caution. Perimeter is different.

The first thing you notice when walking through the concrete-and-glass hallways of PI are the lounges with blackboards. They are ubiquitous. And at each one there are usually two or three young physicists—mostly men, most in their late twenties or thirties—arguing over equations. The feeling is more dorm-room TA session than serious discussion about the origins of the universe. Sneakers and jeans rule. The researchers come and go as they please, and they work as they please. And when they grow too tired of drilling through equations and erasing equations and drilling through them some more, they might take a break. There’s a squash court near the billiard table, a few floors below the bistro and bar. But don’t get the wrong idea. Foosball aside, the physicists at PI are doing serious work.

Perimeter was founded by Mike Lazaridis, founder and co-CEO of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry. As the story goes, Lazaridis, who went to college in Waterloo, thought the scientific world was much too focused on areas of research that promised immediate results and fast returns on investment. Nobody was willing to fund basic research into arcane fields, like the foundations of quantum mechanics. So in 2000 he cut a check for $66 million and convinced two partners and the Canadian government to chip in tens of millions more. His plan was to build a physics institute that was different, a place where physicists would have the freedom to probe more foundational physical questions. Along with executive director Howard Burton, he envisioned a true community of scholars, where physicists from disparate disciplines would cross-pollinate in a noncompetitive environment. It now has sixty-four resident researchers, including ten faculty members.

Taking up residence here is a bit like joining the priesthood. You’re segregated from the rest of the world, and your job is to get into God’s head and figure out how the big damn machine works. And though you can work with others, often you’re alone, stuck with only the equations and pictures in your head. It’s like exploring a forest, says Andrei Starinets, a postdoctoral researcher from the former Soviet Union who studies string theory and black-hole physics. You can see the forest ahead, he says; it’s tall and lush and filled with swamps. The task is to figure out how to enter, which path will have the least sinkholes and booby traps. So that’s what he and his colleagues do all day. They gather in PI as if it were a fort, planning a means of attack, looking for the paths of least resistance. This means twisting and retwisting equations as if the search for a unified theory were the world’s biggest game of sudoku.

Here’s how Laurent Freidel, a faculty member in quantum gravity and particle theory, describes the search: “You feel that there is a beast running in the woods. And you don’t let it go, you don’t stop. And sometimes if you need to, you don’t stop at all for two or three days in a row. But that’s the fun part, when you’re on track and when you know something’s out there. There are no rules. You need intuition to make a connection. And then you have to gather evidence; the more evidence you gather, the more you know you’re on the right track. The key for me is not to let go, to continue until I reach it. And there’s always a way.”

Last year, when Freidel discovered a possible rigorous mathematical solution for the strong force—which acts as the glue between protons, neutrons, and nuclei, and which to that point had been studied only by approximation—he didn’t sleep for two weeks straight. “His wife ran into me,” recalls a colleague, “and she said, ‘Can you do something? He’s going insane.’ “

On the third floor of Perimeter, at the far end of the hall, is a small office with a small sofa wedged next to an overflowing bookshelf. And on that couch, dressed more like a New York artist than a theoretical physicist—black, black, and more black—is Lee Smolin. One of PI’s initial faculty hires, Smolin, fifty-one, began his career in string theory before becoming fed up with the lack of progress and turning instead to loop quantum gravity, an alternate possible unified theory. Unlike string theory, which critics describe as background dependent—i.e., space and time are constant and unexplained—LQG posits that space, time, and even people are all formed from the same network of interconnected loops and nodes, which take on electrical charges when twisted. If the tension between string and antistring theorist was once a family argument, Smolin, the author recently of The Trouble with Physics, is the person who decided to air the dirty laundry.

“This is an experiment,” says Smolin of PI. “Like any experiment, it’s a risk and it could fail. The most important question is, Will important science get done here? And I think there are already examples of things that happened here that would not have happened elsewhere, because the people would not have been in touch with each other.”

Things like safer cryptography, recent advances in loop quantum gravity, and a possible refutation of special relativity, the law that nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

But what about the big questions? Was it really necessary to blow up the model of how a science institute should function in order to break the stalemate in theoretical physics and eventually discover a theory of everything? “I think that the pragmatic, antiphilosophical thing played itself out,” says Smolin, referring to results-oriented physics.

“I think what’s going to succeed in the big-open-questions part of gravity unification and so forth are going to be approaches that take the foundations and the fundamental questions more seriously than they have been. And why do I believe that? Because if these problems could have been solved by this very pragmatic approach, they would have been. Because a lot of really smart, motivated people have been working on these problems for three decades in that frame of mind, and if it were possible to solve these problems, they would have done it. I should say, we would have done it. Because it was my generation.”

FAR AWAY FROM WATERLOO and Perimeter, both in geography and state of mind, stands an old clock tower surrounded by vast fields of overgrown grass and hickory trees. It was here that Albert Einstein first began pondering a grand unified theory in earnest. And it is here at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, that some of the world’s most prominent string theorists—including their master guru of sorts, Edward Witten—now gather in their own fort. If PI is a model of the theoretical-physics think tank of the future, then IAS—like the storied Ivy League university next door—is a reminder of the well-mannered past. You won’t find a bar or a foosball table here. But tea is served daily at 3:00 P.M.

At six two, Witten is big both in size and presence. He began focusing on string theory in the mid-1980s, soon after the first string revolution suggested that it was a viable theory of everything. Ten years, a MacArthur grant, and a Fields Medal in mathematics later, he ushered in the second revolution by postulating that the five main competing string models of the time were all part of a bigger, more complex model, which he termed “M-theory.” His synthesis—the name of which is still a matter of fierce debate in the physics world. Mother? Membrane? Magic? Masturbation?—broke a logjam that had snared progress in string theory for nearly a decade and added to his mystique as perhaps the true heir to Einstein.

But now string is at another logjam, in which there are literally billions of possible string-theory solutions and perhaps no means of testing any of them. “Well, you can’t have your best year every year,” he says of the frustration in the field, weighing every word very carefully in a voice that is just a few decibels above a whisper. “I’ve lived through two periods, the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties, where for about six or seven years, roughly, there were a lot of really interesting results that were also relatively easy. And I’ve also lived through several periods by now where you have to work a little harder to get something interesting.”

To Witten, the game is far from over for string, and he hopes the something interesting will be found in Geneva. When it begins tests about a hundred yards below the border of Switzerland and France in spring 2008, the Large Hadron Collider and its 1,232 thirty-nine-ton superconductor magnets will propel billions of protons with seven times the strength of the current strongest particle collider in Illinois, and will mimic the conditions of the universe a millionth of a millionth of a second after the big bang.

At the very least, Witten believes, the LHC should be able to explain the lack of symmetry between electromagnetism, which shapes many of the phenomena of daily life, and “weak interactions,” which affect the decay of subatomic particles and are related to radiation. “There’s something deeply, deeply wrong if the LHC doesn’t discover that,” says Witten. Both interactions appear nearly identical at the atomic level (they are grouped together as “electroweak interactions” in the standard model) yet behave very differently in the real world.

One possible explanation is the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” which has never been seen or measured but which theorists speculate could be responsible for giving all particles mass. According to Witten, its discovery would be a simple, long-theorized solution to the problem of electroweak “breaking,” yet carries numerous pitfalls of its own. For example, the value of the Higgs mass has only been estimated so far; an actual measurement may well require adjustment of that value, which could carry huge implications for how the whole machineour universe—is put together and whether other universes tuned with different Higgs bosons might exist.

A different, even more extreme explanation for the symmetry breakdown is known as supersymmetry, which theorizes a set of counterparts to our known subatomic particles that are embedded in the architecture of space-time. Besides explaining electroweak interactions, the discovery of supersymmetric particles, with cool names such as squarks, sleptons, and selectrons, would be a huge boon to string theorists, whose model of the universe depends upon them.

Finally, there are the wild-card explanations, such as very large dimensions or low-scale string theories, or perhaps solutions that physicists have not yet even dreamed of. Each of these would vastly change our entire outlook of the universe and our place in it. Luckily for us all, perhaps, the chance of discovering them any time soon is rather unlikely.

JUST DOWN THE HALL from Witten is another leading theoretical physicist who also speaks in hushed tones. Like his mentor, Witten, twenty years ago, Juan Maldacena, a thirty-eight-year-old Argentine, is regarded as one of the great young thinkers of his time. Need proof? Well, here’s the song:

You start with the brane

and the brane is B.P.S.

Then you go near the brane

and the space is A.D.S.

Who knows what it means?

I don’t, I confess

Ehhhh! Maldacena!

Sung to the tune of “Macarena,” those words were used to serenade Maldacena at the 1998 string-theory conference in Santa Barbara. The occasion was Maldacena’s newly published work on black holes, which became known as the Maldacena conjecture. It’s complicated stuff, but by demonstrating a relationship between quarks and black holes, Maldacena showed that quantum field theory could be used to solve string equations. This was huge, a method of inquiry that might finally bridge the gap between the forces that govern the cosmos and the forces that govern particles. Nearly overnight, thousands of string theorists got to work on Maldacena’s work. And at the conference, it was an occasion to sing and dance.

But there’s more. The way Maldacena solved his conjecture—by converting complicated five-dimensional equations into four-dimensional equations, then back again—was a discovery in and of itself, leading to an even more jarring conclusion: Gravity and time could be an illusion. Just like the shimmering holograms we grew up with—say, Michael Jordan jumping out of a shiny silver sticker for a slam dunk—our universe could be a giant hologram: a massive two-dimensional plane encoded with quantum information at the edges that makes it appear three-dimensional. It’s a mind fuck, for sure, but the payoff could be huge. Holograms could provide an explanation of how a theory of everything might relate to the whole universe and beyond.

Think of our universe, or dimensional landscape, as a giant DVD floating among an infinite number of other DVDs. Each two-dimensional DVD was built in the same factory according to the same theory of everything, yet each one is embedded with a different movie. While our DVD shows a three-dimensional universe ruled by the standard model, the DVD landscape next door could be embedded with a five-dimensional movie and a separate, slightly different standard model. If we could view all of these separate landscapes in four dimensions—perhaps the equivalent of a universal HD-DVD player—we might be able to glimpse the underlying architecture that they all share.

If Maldacena is right, the holographic principle could reveal the order behind everything; there might be an infinite number of universes, but they’d all be ruled by the same laws, just experienced slightly differently.

Still a mind fuck, but not crazy.

FOR CRAZY, YOU HAVE TO GO about 250 miles north. At thirty-four, Nima Arkani-Hamed, born in Houston to Iranian physicists, is in the sweet spot of his career: young enough to still have fresh, insubordinate ideas; old enough to have the wherewithal and grounding to push fresh and insubordinate ideas. His office at Harvard is clean and minimal, all polished wood offset by a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall blackboard. He’s made a career of producing models of the universe that are staggeringly elegant. And so it figures that when he speaks—and he speaks a lot—it is with authority and simplicity. Plus there is his overwhelming sense of urgency, excitement, and swagger—forget the antistring polemicists! They’re just reactionaries! This could be the greatest discovery of our time!

Nima, as everyone calls him, first stunned the physics community in 1998 by postulating—along with Savas Dimopoulos and Gia Dvali—that unknown extra dimensions could be far larger than anyone ever thought possible, perhaps even nearly a millimeter wide. This was counter to everything physicists had theorized about hidden dimensions, which were believed to be only one hundredth of a thousandth of a trillionth of a centimeter wide. In an insular community where hidden universes, parallel realities, and black holes are discussed with the nonchalance of the weather, this was crazy talk. But nobody could find any mathematical or theoretical evidence to disprove it.

Much of Nima’s work relates to the theory of the multiverse to which Maldacena’s work on holograms alludes. In this model, as described by Nima’s colleague Lisa Randall, our universe is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes floating through the soup of space-time like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Each universe is a completely self-contained habitat—no particles or forces can go in or out—with one big exception: Gravity can travel freely, slipping from one membrane of strings, or universe, to another.

This is a big deal, because it offers a possible solution to what is called the hierarchical problem—why gravity is far, far weaker than the current theories might predict. (When compared with the electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity appears to be ten million billion times weaker than it should be.) Nima’s answer is as simple as it is astounding: The gravity that affects us has been deflected and diffused by other universes, like a bottle of whiskey that has been passed around the galaxy a few too many times. By the time the bottle reaches us, all that’s left is a few fingers of backwash.

But here’s the exciting part: Because Nima’s proposed extra dimensions are so large, we may actually be able to see this cosmic shell game between universes in real time with the LHC—gravity from one dimension disappearing into the next. While a long shot by all accounts—including Nima’s—this would be near irrefutable experimental evidence of string theory. The world, in fact, would be on a string.

And yet there’s more. Because the most

controversial ideas Nima hopes to test with the LHC don’t deal with gravity but with the question of why there are 10500 possible string-theory solutions rather than just one. Unlike Maldacena and Witten, who believe that the near-infinite number of string theories may one day be reconciled into a single solution, Nima thinks each string solution could randomly apply to a different universe, and he hopes to prove it. It just happens that humans live in a universe tuned precisely to support life as we recognize it.

The idea is that each possible string theory, when coupled with a cosmological constant that varies randomly, corresponds to a different universe in the multiverse. The reason humans and all life exist in our universe is chance—the conditions just happened to be finely tuned in a way that allowed it. Termed the anthropic principle, it’s a theory that drives many physicists insane, both because humans recapture their role at the center of our galaxy from Copernicus and because it seems utterly untestable: How could we ever test or even perceive the conditions in other universes if we’re stuck in our own?

Nima may be in the minority, but he is undeterred. In fact, he’s convinced that just as Maldacena showed how quantum mechanics could be used to show what happens in the formation and decay of black holes, quantum mechanics could help describe the contours of the multiverse we can’t otherwise see. And just like many of the other aspects of string theory, the answer could stem from the LHC’s experiments. It’s a possible outcome that Witten acknowledges but despairs over. It would mean that science has finally jumped a barrier from being fully experimental to mostly theoretical.

Yet Nima is steadfast. “The mantra of string theory ten years ago was that the theory was smarter than you,” he says. “So people would work on it, and there would always be more things coming out than went in. Well, exactly that—just follow the theory where it leads you, and it leads to this precipice. And now we have to decide what to do. So now a number of people are deciding to jump. … And I think that those of us that decided to take the plunge are staring at the true nature of the beast for the first time.

“I think this is the correct answer, and we are going to have to come to terms with it. And coming to terms with it is going to require a revolution of comparable magnitude to the revolution going from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics. So I think something similar is at stake. And the struggles we are having right now feel a lot like the sort of birthing pains in the twenty-five years from 1900 to 1925, when quantum mechanics started off as a twinkle in the eye of Planck and ended up as a full-fledged theory. I think we are sort of in the 1908, 1909 part of that period right now.”

Which is to say, he thinks this moment is comparable to the most potent and revolutionary period in the history of physics, when Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Einstein entirely changed the way we look at the atoms that make up our universe and our place in it.

SO THAT IS WHY Nima can’t sleep. Much will be at stake when the LHC powers up. Supersymmetry, with those dreamed-about shadow particles string theorists have bet their careers on, could be a no-show, accelerating the end of string theory and giving renewed life to different ideas, like loop quantum gravity. Perimeter’s unorthodox approach to research would be celebrated as prescient, Smolin and other vociferous critics of string theory remembered as visionaries with the guts to shout that the emperor has no clothes. Or else, of course, the pendulum and the Higgs boson could swing the way string theorists predict—and hope against all galactic hope—that it must. With a single selectron or graviton, M-theory and the holographic principle could begin their slow shift from the category of conjecture to principle; the theory of everything would be tantalizingly closer than ever before, our lonely place in the cosmos, trapped in an obscure two-dimensional universe within a sea of other two-dimensional universes, glimpsed for the first time.

Like Nima, we are all overlooking a steep precipice.

Connect With Esquire

Thursday, September 15

Swamp Dreams

Here's an interesting article son. Malls are the natural evolution of the high street. The reason why I raise this is that they are now morphing outside their primary purpose, shopping. In our local mall, we have shopping AND entertainment. But then there is sports now and slowly the next element is coming in and that's tourism. I wouldn't be surprised if museums and exhibitions are included. I also think housing units and integrated transport systems will come up soon as well.

Dubai is an example where life revolves around malls. People go there to just walk around. They don't need to shop. Just enjoy themselves. Teenagers hang out there. Have you noticed that old people usually congregate there as well? Sit around the millie's cookies shop? It's a social area. I have seen the same behaviour in USA uk china hong kong and has started to show up in countries like india. Saw that in gurgaon and of all the places, Bhopal. Your dadu actually likes to hang out in one of the malls sometimes!

So if you are ever interested in retail, then this needs to be a bit on your mind.

Swamp Dreams

The water-park element of the development, currently under construction, is modeled after Hawaii.
Rendering courtesy of Triple Five Worldwide

Out on the edge of the Meadowlands, where the Hackensack River begins a grand and gentle sweep west, a ruin rises from the fields of mosquito-­patrolled phragmites and mostly empty parking lots. It sits between the New Jersey Turnpike’s vast superhighway and the older roads that serve paintball parks and low-slung manufacturers: a ­giant edifice that resembles a ship washed ashore. Or perhaps it was sent here from space, by a race of creatures who mistook Carlstadt, New Jersey, for a ­regional capital and crashed on landing beside Moonachie Creek.

Then again, to call it a ruin is misleading. To say that this empty giant indoor shopping center—larger than the malls at nearby Paramus, Short Hills, Woodbridge, and Wayne combined—is some kind of after suggests there was a before, a time when people ate at Cheesecake Factories or tried on Ray-Bans at Sunglass Huts. This is not the case.

For this ruin has never been ruined, or might be considered pre-ruined, given that it has only ever been a plan, or a series of plans. What is currently half-built is the product of the last plan, hatched in the Bush era, that, even before the economic downturn killed it, was loudly and universally derided—Governor Chris Christie called it, boldly, the “ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America.” But after almost a decade of talks and schemes, of construction starts and stops in which the stalled mall passed from one developer to another (and the parking lot started to sink into the swamp), construction has begun again. The mall is now in the hands of Triple Five, the Alberta-based developer of some of the largest malls in North America. The company was hand-picked by Christie, who has praised its owners for “their commitment and vision.” This is a considerable understatement.

If you disregard military bases and airports, and maybe the dam the Chinese government is beginning to regret it built on the Yangtze, the mall currently under construction at the Meadowlands will be one of the biggest feats of construction in history: the world’s largest commercial space, with at least six zeros attached to all the calculations. There is to be an astonishing 7.5 million square feet of retail space. Every year, the mall’s developers expect 55 million people—almost the population of Italy—to show up for, say, breakfast and some jeans and maybe a luxury item, as well as a show or a ­fighter-jet flight simulation or a grande decaf latte beneath a TV screen that will make Times Square seem like a rec room from the seventies. There will be the first indoor ski slope in North America: 800 feet long, sixteen stories high, with fresh snow made daily. There will be a skating rink the size of a small lake. And in the water-themed part of the structure, there will be a gigantic room modeled after Hawaii, with a tropical climate, a pool featuring six-foot waves, and possibly some kind of whale or unusual fish, explained to shoppers by sea-life educators.

If things go according to plan—a Yangtze dam–size if—the first stage of the complex will be completed in 2014, in time for the Super Bowl, which will be held that year across the parking lot. It is to be called ­American Dream at Meadowlands.

“I will probably be going to Hawaii with the girls,” Governor Christie is saying, imagining a family outing to the Meadowlands. He’ll be heading to the faux tropics, while his wife and sons will be skiing on the faux mountain next door.

Christie is standing on an incomplete balcony of questionable safety, in the unfinished sports court of American Dream, speaking to a crowd of regional journalists who have arrived one morning this spring to tour the mall under construction. New Jersey has offered Triple Five up to $350 million in state subsidies, making American Dream one of the few ­government-supported endeavors Christie hasn’t enjoyed saying no to. In fact, the governor is noticeably revved up, taken by the mall’s bigness, and charmed by its developers, whose enthusiasm roughly approximates the scale of the project itself.

Triple Five is run by the Ghermezians, an Orthodox Jewish family of four brothers and their nephews from Edmonton, Alberta. Nader Ghermezian, the company’s chairman, is standing next to Christie, playing Teller to Christie’s Penn. He has spent a career promising absurdist marvels, cutting ribbons on indoor lakes. “Today, we are proud to announce that we will be developing the world’s largest and most comprehensive retail, entertainment, amusement, recreation, and tourism project ever built,” he declares.

Numbers fly from Ghermezian like French fries out of a Burger King. “We will create 30,000 permanent jobs,” he says, citing an “economic benefit” of $3.8 billion that will be injected in the area’s economy. He points out that 25 million people live within driving distance, and begins to paint a picture of Newark Airport as less a gateway to the Greater New York area and more like a pipeline to American Dream at Meadowlands. (There are plans for Newark baggage check-in at the mall, and chartered flights destined specifically for American Dream.) “We are going to bring them in from far away,” he says. “From Europe, from South America, from all over the world!”

But Ghermezian also imagines that ­American Dream will end up being a time-saver for New Yorkers. “How would you like to go skiing in the middle of summer?” he asks. “Come here instead of going to Aspen!” When American Dream opens, he expects it will be that much harder to justify leaving the New York area at all. “You don’t have to go anywhere—Rome, Paris, Milan—for shopping. We will have them all here in the Meadowlands in New Jersey.”

Ghermezian is channeling something—a little Robert Moses, a little Norman Bel Geddes designing Futurama for the 1939 World’s Fair. He is not bashful, and he betrays no doubt that his dream will be realized. “So let’s work together, let’s be positive,” he says, and then adds, with steely confidence: “We will have a water park in here.”

Before it was a mall, or even a sports stadium, the Meadowlands was a place where people planned and plotted, where they dreamed of big things and sometimes even realized them, though mostly not. In 1824, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving’s Dutch pseudonym, saw the meadows as nothing but emptiness, marked by Snake Hill, the extant rise that, before the pre-ruins of American Dream, was the biggest thing on the horizon: “It appears proudly overshadowing a gentle river, which rolls gracefully by its side, and stands like a giant amidst the desert, frowning upon the monotonous landscape around.”

Even during Irving’s time, however, there were developers who believed the swampy, mosquito-infested “wasteland” could be converted into the most productive farmland the world had ever seen. Just after the War of 1812, General Robert Swartwout bought land and diked it, planning grasses and a giant dairy farm to supply the growing populace of New York. “How can the success of such a work be denied when the most invincible proofs are before us?” Swartwout asked, just before his success was denied, the dikes breaking, the farmland sinking, the site eventually becoming an insane asylum. After the Civil War, Samuel Pike, a New York real-estate developer and distiller, founded the Iron Dike and Land Reclamation Company, also with an eye toward farmland creation. His special iron dikes avoided the erosion of the previous projects, though it is said that corn stalks that grew on the reclaimed land produced no corn. Pike sold his land to the railroads. “The enterprise of bringing it into cultivation bids fair to be a success,” the Times reported of the next giant land-reclamation scheme, before it, too, failed. In 1896, Cornelius C. Vermeule proposed developing the Meadowlands into an industrial city. This plan never got off the ground, either.

In the mid-1900s, a sea-plane base is said to have prospered for a time, and people are thought to have camped in the Meadowlands for the 1939 World’s Fair. But the area was mostly abandoned and the farms were slowly reclaimed, piecemeal, by illegal dumping and the tides. Swarms of mosquitoes—dark clouds of aedes sollicitans, their stingers geared for blood—were frequently said to fly from the marshes to Newark, and were even blamed for infestations in New York. In the fifties, sand drains allowed engineers to build on swamps that had previously proved impervious to development: thus the New Jersey Turnpike, which led to the stadium and racetrack, which led to more plans to do something with the land adjacent, which brings us to American Dream.

The land in question is owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. It was first planned to be developed by Kajima International, a Japanese company that in 1996 proposed a retail-entertainment “pleasure dome.” By 2002, the project had gotten nowhere, and soon control over the land was granted to the Mills Corporation, a maker of giant malls named after mills (Franklin Mills in Philadelphia, St. Louis Mills in St. Louis, etc.). It was the not-so-halcyon days of the James McGreevey governorship, when shopping seemed as if it would never stop, when malls were the rage. Mills, adopting the pleasure-dome idea, approached the $1.3 billion project with gusto. It called the development Meadowlands Xanadu.

But like many of its forebears, the Mills Corporation’s plan went down the tubes. The company got so far as to build a shell and even an indoor ski slope before skirting bankruptcy in 2007. The Sports and Exposition Authority was stuck with a half-building. Enter Colony Capital, a L.A.-based investment firm with an international background in casinos and hotels. “We are pleased to have the complex negotiations of the last few months behind us and are extremely excited about the project’s momentum,” Colony stated in 2006, immediately before it lost momentum. By 2009, the Xanadu site was a metaphor for the bad-deal rich economy: swampland and every­thing sinking.

Stephen Ross’s Related Companies flirted with the project next, in 2010. Ross’s team proposed changing the name from Xanadu to Meadowlands, and came up with a logo centered on the letter M. “The Meadow­lands will usher in a new era and a bold redefinition of what a retail destination can be,” read a Related brochure obtained by the Bergen Record. The ski slope, né Snow Dome during the Xanadu days, was renamed ­SnowPark. A 286-foot Pepsi Globe (or Ferris wheel) was also retained. But Ross’s Meadowlands Plan stalled, and Cabela’s, the outdoor store that was to be an anchor tenant, began threatening to opt out.

This is more or less where Christie stepped in. Some observers expected him to compare the development to other unwieldy projects, like the federally financed regional train tunnel he had recently squashed, and simply declare the mall dead. But he chose to double down, to go bigger and better, to show himself as an executive who gets big business moving. He met the Ghermezians at a Giants game and was reportedly impressed by their track record. Triple Five is the developer of the Mall of America (4.25 million square feet) in Minnesota, as well as the West Edmonton Mall (5.3 million square feet) in Canada, which reigned briefly as the Guinness Book of World Records’ largest mall before the opening of Beijing’s Golden Resources Mall (6 million square feet). With ­American Dream, Triple Five is looking to take back the No. 1 spot.

“Okay, so this is the ski slope,” Paul ­Ghermezian says, standing in an empty concrete room with a big hill in the ­middle of it. “It’s essentially a large refrigerator.”

Paul, Nader Ghermezian’s nephew, is in charge of the tour. He is tall and charming, relaxed and meticulous; he has inherited his uncle’s pitchman genes. “I grew up in the Rockies, so this is awesome,” he says. “You have to imagine the half-pipe. I already skied the equivalent of this. It’s in Madrid, and it’s a good time.”

He stays upbeat, enthusiastic. “It’s a great climate-controlled environment, so it’s not too cold,” he says. “And it’s real snow. This is something to really understand. It’s real snow!”

“You have to imagine the half-pipe. I already skied the equivalent of this in Madrid, and it’s a good time.”

Next stop, a mall-size sports bar, with a proposed TV set that Paul is bubbling over. “Our vision here is this wall, it’s going to be outfitted with the most amazing high-definition screen you’ve ever seen!” And then: “I told the management that I wanted a second one for my house,” he says, winking at the cameras.

Paul’s tour necessitates a lot of imagining, some of it fairly difficult (indoor skydiving, for instance). At the moment, walking around American Dream feels like entering a Battlestar Galactica episode in which a team boards an evacuated space station with a possible alien presence lurking. Workers’ lunch trash is scattered around rooms next to fancy terrazzo tiling; boxes of Kohler toilet fixtures are stranded near sheets of wallboard and rolls of insulation. If you didn’t know, you might not be able to tell whether the theater was on its way up or down. “This will be very similar to what was the Nokia Theater in Times Square,” we’re assured.

Toward the end of the tour, Paul finally gets the question he is looking for—why the name American Dream?

“Obviously, it’s a very vetted thing,” he says. After asking reporters for their theories, he says the name comes down from his uncles, who, after immigrating from Iran in the late fifties, believe they have lived the American Dream, albeit via Canada. “In all instances, they achieved it,” he says. “And they want to share that.

“We want people to live the American Dream, and what I mean by that is they have a great time,” he goes on. “There’s no feeling like it. And the tourists who come here are going to say, ‘This is America!’ ”

By this point we have ascended the mall’s roof, which looks out over the reeds and the parking lots and the disused radio towers across the muddied Hackensack River, beyond Secaucus, to the view of midtown Manhattan, creeping over the hills of Union City. Paul points to the city skyline, then unveils a revolutionary rethinking of the view, an American Dream in reverse. “When you look out at Manhattan, all our eyeballs are on them,” he says. “But when they look out, they’re going to see us. They’re going to say, ‘Wow, what’s going on out there?’—and they’re going to make that trip.” He waxes enthusiastic about the Jersey-centered panorama. “These investment bankers working late hours, looking out on the Meadowlands, they’re going to long to go to New Jersey,” he says. “You’re going to see children tugging at their parents—this is where we want to go!”

As you might imagine, some people have difficulty understanding why New Jersey needs to compete with China in the shopping-mall category, or why a ­biospherelike amusement park is necessary, or why this particular project needs to be built right now, during what can generously be called a precarious retail environment.

“I don’t know which is worse—if it fails or if it succeeds,” says Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “If it fails, New Jersey is going to be out of $350 million in taxpayer subsidies. And if it succeeds, it will be the worst traffic, and it will destroy shopping areas in cities and malls all over the state.” Even American Dream proponents acknowledge the traffic situation, though they predict that road improvements will accommodate the anticipated 150,000 additional cars. But Tittel, citing an average capacity of roughly 1,800 cars per hour per lane, thinks the project will be a Giants fan’s worst game-day-traffic nightmare. “I don’t think people understand the size and scope of it,” he says. “At the Port Authority, the bus will just sit there and never be able to leave the building.”

An equally pressing question is whether the mall will succeed on its own terms. Is it possible to build anything that can attract 55 million visitors a year? In New Jersey? Throughout the country, high-end malls have endured the recession surprisingly well, especially those with entertainment components. And as crazy as it may seem to shoppers in Cobble Hill or Nolita, retail experts say the region is facing a mall gap. “If you look at the Greater New York area,” says David Harris, an analyst with Gleacher & Company, “I know it’s hard to relate to for a lot of New Yorkers, but we are under-malled here.” It is true that older shopping centers are struggling throughout New Jersey, but the owners of the Nanuet Mall announced this spring that they would demolish it to build a fancier one in its stead.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason why the Xanadu–American Dream site has sat empty for so long. “If this project is viable, why hasn’t it been done over the years?” asks Deborah Howlett, the president of the New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Why does it take $350 million from the people of New Jersey?” She finds it particularly galling that the financing for the almost $4 billion megamall was arranged in a year when Christie slashed 5 percent of the school system’s annual funds. To make the deal, the government had to rewrite the Economic Redevelopment and Growth grant and the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Act. An affordable-housing element was scratched in negotiations, reducing the project to a giant version of a highway-side box store. “There will just be places for business,” Howlett says.

Still, even most of the development’s opponents appear resigned to the opinion that the Meadowlands’ future belongs to American Dream. Bill Sheehan, the executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, is a local environmentalist who has done much to help restore vast tracts of wetlands over the past decade. He took me on a tour of the place from the river, and as we boated past fields of lush spartina grasses teeming with osprey and egret, he, too, spoke of the megamall as if it were a fait accompli. “My feeling is, it has to be something because, No. 1, it’s there. It’s gotta open. The other reasons it’s gotta open—it’ll give the economy here a real kick in the ass. I just hope they figure out a way not to use so much power.”

The Meadowlands has always been a land of larger-than-life proposals, where failure mingles with success so frequently that sometimes the difference is debatable. Dreamers in the Meadowlands have seldom accomplished what they set out to do, but new ones keep arriving anyway, and the region is typically accommodating.

On a humid morning in East Rutherford, with mosquitoes patrolling the parking lot of the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel and Conference Center, Paul Ghermezian is at the Starbucks inside, reminiscing about the family business. His family has always been willing to do anything to create a spectacle. He remembers the first time his uncles brought a submarine to the indoor lake at the West Edmonton Mall. “It was a real submarine—if you drop it in the ocean, it will work.”

Triple Five brought a submarine to Bloomington, Minnesota, too, when they were pitching the Mall of America to the local community. Now Paul sees the Mall of America concept imitated around the world. “You have a mall and you just put a country on the end of it,” he says disparagingly. “But none of these has conjured up the same level of success and cachet that we have.”

The Meadowlands project is especially significant to Paul. His uncles bid on the project a decade ago, before it became Xanadu, so this is their second time at bat. He acknowledges that there will be some difficulties. Parking may not be free, and thanks to Bergen County blue laws, a portion of the mall will not be allowed to sell clothes on Sundays. But he faithfully sticks to the vision his family has put together, and he works it hard. “This is going to be more grand than Vegas,” he declares. “It’s going to be more classy.

“The rest of the world—especially those emerging markets—have built really great facilities,” he continues, “and when you come back to the U.S. you see some of these places have not kept up.” His BlackBerry is filled with photos from shopping experiences around the world: a chandelier in a new Vegas store, benches in Mexico. He has been to the Golden Resources Mall in Beijing, and came away unimpressed. “It is basically a stacked retail experience, without any jazz.”

As we are finishing our conversation, mosquitoes begin to make their way into the Sheraton, and then deep into the Starbucks. One lands nearby, but Paul Ghermezian is not concerned. “Mosquitoes don’t like my blood,” he says. Then, looking at his watch, he gets up to drive through the maze of service roads for a meeting at his trailer on the edge of Moonachie Creek.

(via Instapaper)


Sent via iPhone. Apologies for formatting and typo errors

Rules for being a gentleman

Fail miserably at the third but i like the sentiment.

Wednesday, September 14

Nice Guys Never Win (Neither Do Mean Girls)

You are a nice boy and agreeable as well. I also think you are fairly good at stating your opinion but only sometimes. While saying 'I don't know' is a perfectly good response when you genuinely do not know but when it's a question of your salary or your fees or charges, you have to be pushy. You have to know your worth, son. You are a smart intelligent boy and you should be able to show the value you add. That in turn should be commensurate with the salary or fees you charge. Don't be too nice otherwise you get short changed and paid less. Be strong and know your worth! We do and we love you for it :)

Freakonomics » Nice Guys Never Win (Neither Do Mean Girls)

Nice Guys Never Win (Neither Do Mean Girls)


For years, we’ve been hearing from fictional alpha males like Ari Gold and Gordon Gekko that nice guys finish last. Now, according to a collection of studies soon to be released in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there appears to be some truth to the axiom. While nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, they rarely finish first. Researchers Beth A. Livingston of Cornell, Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, show how “agreeableness” negatively affects monetary earnings. Moreover, their research shows that this “agreeable gap” is more pronounced in men than women, who still trail their male counterparts. Here’s a full version of the study. And here’s the abstract:

Sex and agreeableness were hypothesized to affect income, such that women and agreeable individuals were hypothesized to earn less than men and less agreeable individuals. Because agreeable men disconfirm (and disagreeable men confirm) to conventional gender roles, agreeableness was expected to be more negatively related to income for men (i.e., the pay gap between agreeable men and agreeable women would be smaller than the gap between disagreeable men and disagreeable women). The hypotheses were supported across four studies. Study 1 confirmed the effects of sex and agreeableness on income and that the agreeableness – income relationship was significantly more negative for men than for women, controlling for each of the other Big Five traits. Study 2 showed that the differential effects of agreeableness on income for men versus women were replicated when job responsibility and occupational status were taken into account. A third study, using a policy-capturing design, yielded evidence for the argument that the joint effects of agreeableness and gender are due to backlash against agreeable men.

The paper goes on to state:

Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings. From a humanistic perspective, it seems remarkably unfair that men who are amiable would be so heavily penalized for not conforming to gender norms. Yet, seen from the perspective of gender equity, even the nice guys seem to be making out quite well relative to either agreeable or disagreeable women.

The authors are careful to tease out what exactly constitutes “disagreeable.” Rather than a raving psychopath, a disagreeable person is “more likely than people high in trait agreeableness to behave disagreeably in certain situations by, for instance, aggressively advocating for their position during conflicts (van de Vliert & Euwema, 2004).”

Women, on the other hand, experience a smaller gap in earnings in terms of their relative “niceness,” and still earn salaries well below their male counterparts.

Nice girls might not get rich, but “mean” girls do not do much better. Even controlling for human capital, marital status, and occupation, highly disagreeable women do not earn as much as highly agreeable men.


Tuesday, September 13

Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas

Here's an interesting way of looking at languages. I never considered it so. So if you want to be in business or in law or in diplomacy, knowing more languages helps, son. One of the reasons why I am going to start learning Persian/Farsi.

It's good you are learning Latin but you should get Ma to enhance your Hindi. It's a very rich language and will stand you in good stead.

Incidentally, talking about languages and going extinct, it's my belief that gods and worshippers have the same status. When the worshippers of a god die out, the god also dies. Their existence as far as the human realm is concerned is finished. Yes you might have their statues, their paintings, even the hymns that were sung to them but if there are no worshippers, then there is no god. Baal was the sun god of the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians but he isn't worshipped now. You are named after the son of the sun god so you will appreciate this example. He was a jealous god, demanding human sacrifice in some cases. But his worshippers died out or were killed. And now the only thing left of him are paintings, statues and some hymns. Have a think about this argument, there are some very good logical and philosophical holes in this argument. See if you can pick them?

Also think about if we need to save these languages and if we don't, what will be the loss? And how much should we spend to save our history. Also look up the history of Esperanto as a language :)



Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas - Miller-McCune


August 19, 2011

Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas

While saving the world’s threatened languages may seem informed more by nostalgia than need, federally funded researchers say each tongue may include unique concepts with practical value.

By Emily Badger

Endangered languages don’t seem as self-evidently valuable as, say, endangered species essential to the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. If the world loses Chuj, a particularly endangered Mayan language of Central America, or Itelmen, a language with fewer than two dozen native speakers on an isolated peninsula in the far east of Russia, people will still be able to communicate. They’ll just do it in Spanish, or maybe Russian. And history will move on.

Human language, though, encapsulates more than just different ways to say to “hello.”

“The debate about the universality of language, that we all have the same ideas and therefore language is just a function of history, that we’re basically using verbs and nouns [to say the same thing] — that’s a hypothesis,” said Anna Kerttula, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation. “Or maybe it’s reached the level of theory. But that’s in no way been proven.”

Miller-McCune’s Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

As the famous example says, Eskimo have numerous words to describe what Americans would just call “snow” and “ice.” This suggests language systems don’t merely translate universal ideas into different spellings; they encode different concepts. And when we lose a language, we risk losing those concepts.

A lot of concepts are on the edge of oblivion — out of about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, half are projected to disappear by the end of the century, if not sooner.

“That’s an amazing amount of knowledge,” Kerttula said.

She helps run a joint program of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities that’s been trying for seven years to fund efforts at recording and documenting endangered languages before they disappear. (The program received an infusion of $3.9 million last week to pay for 10 fellowships and 24 grants.) The project may sound like a punch line for another anti-science tirade from a small-government politician, but its work touches on fundamental questions about how the brain works, how people express ideas, how societies adapt and how human history has evolved. And of how researchers benefit.

“We’re talking about neuroscientists, we’re talking about computer scientists, we’re definitely talking about historians, anthropologists and biologists in some cases” working on nearly extinct language, Kerttula said.

Lingua Preservation!

Ten endangered languages the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered Languages program has attempted to preserve:
Bangime, Northern Bali
Navajo, Southwestern U.S.
Kosati, Louisiana.
Witchita, Oklahoma.
Arawak, Brazil
Máíhiki, Peru
Cherokee, Southeastern U.S.
Chechen, the Caucasis
Southeastern Tepehuan, Mexico
Defaka, Nigeria

The National Science Foundation actually has physical scientists working with Inuit people to identify different aspects of ice that aren’t captured in the English language but could inform our understanding of the changing Arctic ecosystem.

“If you don’t understand and don’t have the language for what ice is, what ice should be, you’re not going to understand how it’s changing,” Kerttula said. “Language is critical in recognizing change in your environment.”

One researcher receiving the money allocated last week, Jürgen Bohnemeyer at SUNY Buffalo, wants to know: If people talk differently about objects in space, does that mean they also think differently about them? He’ll investigate how spatial concepts are represented in 25 languages on five continents.

Another researcher, Pedro Mateo Pedro, will study how children acquire Chuj, the endangered Mayan language. Other projects will document endangered native languages in Oklahoma and the construction of Cherokee grammar. Some will develop learning and training resources for communities to record their own language.

A few of the researchers will be working with languages spoken by fewer than 30 elderly people. But the designation “endangered,” Kerttula says, isn’t necessarily a measurement of the small number of people still speaking a language. Rather, she said, languages become endangered when children no longer speak them.

Out of 92 languages known to have been used in the Arctic, for example, she says 72 still have some speakers. All but one (Greenlandic) are endangered, the result of the steady encroachment of other dominant languages like English into the domains of public schools and legal systems, television and now the Internet.

“Pretty soon, all of the domains of your life are in English, and the only place where you get to speak your native language is to your grandmother,” Kerttula said. “So how long is that language going to last? It’s basically not.”

The government program’s efforts of course won’t save them all.

“With 7,000 languages, that means 3,500 languages are going to disappear, and we’re funding how many projects a year?” Kerttula asked rhetorically. The National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities aren’t the only ones doing this work; some individual states, for example, have programs that include keeping native languages on life support. But the number of programs worldwide is small, and for each language that one of them targets, there are exponentially more elements to understand, from grammar to vocabulary to the cognitive processes of children.

Kerttula is effusive about the individual projects now trying to do this. But, she adds, “It’s a Sisyphean task.”

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

Monday, September 12

Going back to school

So I decided to go back to school. To be precise, Institute of Persian Language and Literature Studies. To learn Persian as a language. Why? well, good question. Now that I have finished my last PhD, I am at a bit of a loose end and need to do something to keep the old couple of rusty neurons in knick otherwise I will end up spending time on facebook or blogging jokes or watching tv or eating. Wait, I already do that. Erm. Well, ok.

Anyway, this is what I am currently thinking about. You see, the antecedents of the current Companies Act and how they were established goes back to the British East India Company, Dutch East India Company etc., way back bazillions of years. In particular, the British East India Company was particularly instrumental in the way they established the principles of corporate management for the world. The other strand which impacted modern corporate management is the accounting strand going way back to the Egyptians and then down to the Venetians and and and, but not interested in that, had enough of accounting thank you very much.

So we have the British East India Company now arriving in India back in the time of the Mughals and they are starting to trade. So how did they actually trade? What were the corporate structures? How did they manage the liaison with local counterparties? How were the contracts arranged? Indemnified? Collateral? In cases of disputes locally, who dealt with them and under what legal code? How did the local Indian code influence the workings of the British East India Company?

But then what happened was that the British East India Company slowly started to have fiduciary as well as political power locally in India. This meant that it had to actively rule. Now there was a body of law here in the UK back at that time, there was some maritime law, but for a corporate like BEIC, it had to start drawing up an Indian corpus of law otherwise it would be absolutely chaos and corruption (as it proved). So it started drawing up various laws and and and. But that gave rise to many issues. If the BEIC is going to rule Indians on the basis of British Law, then how can it handle the fact that the Indians previously were ruled on the basis of Sharia, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, etc. etc. legal systems. And you simply cannot take up a legal system which has been designed for the UK and plonk it down locally. As you can appreciate, this created an almighty stink, confusion and massive set of inconsistencies. As soon as they would reconcile one bit between say British maritime law and local Madras shipping, it wouldn't fit in with the processes in Fort William or Surat or Bombay. If they fixed everything in India, it would be out of kilter with what’s happening in the UK. Based upon my reading, this was one of the major reasons why the BEIC lost, the mutiny happened, etc. etc.

So how did the local Indian magistrates and royal courts function when the BEIC was bumbling around? How did they deal with disputes? How was the escalation made way back to the British Crown? How did they respond? What were the differences between the Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Tribal, etc. etc. courts and how did they mesh with the BEIC legal work?

I can get the British end of the information quite easily from the Kew Archives, India Office Archives and and and. Tons of stuff here. But guess what? the information in India is not that easy to procure because at this period, the court language in most of the Indian Kingdoms was? Guess. Yes, you are right, it was Persian. So I have to get to a middling level of Persian understanding of formal, courtly, scholarly writing in couple of years. Don't need to learn philosophy level of Persian. So when I go to the Indian archives, I will be faced with Persian stuff. Sanskrit I can handle (ish). So that’s the plan.


So off I toddled over to school. Lovely place, you enter and there is a huge open hall. That’s the library, full of wonderful books in Persian and a small section of English language books. And just off it, was the classroom. Popped in there and there were 4 more students in this elementary class and a lovely teacher. We explored some of the common Persian words. I was amazed, so much of India’s history, linguistics, culture and and and has been borrowed from Iran. Its extraordinary. I never knew that.

Spent the 1.5 hours being totally befuddled. The habit of writing right to left, the fact that the numbers are written left to right, the alphabet is borrowed from Arabic but not fully, there are differences. So many times, I was looking bewildered at the teacher, but we went through the vowels and made some words and sentences. More to work. And I have assignments (10-20 sentences to make), write 20-50 Iranian words. So my very rusty knowledge of Urdu should come in use, but fun.

I could almost feel some of the neurons getting stretched. Nice one. But for the next couple of years, I guess my Saturdays have gone. lol. But I have to immerse myself in Iran and Persia, so have ordered a shedload of Iranian history books, culture, and and and. Happy days, now I know how a pig feels when he has been given a load of warm potatoes and a bed of warm squishy mud.

Sunday, September 11

A hidden world, growing beyond control


Here is a classic example of how government programmes run out of control. Governments are a beast which has to be very tightly controlled otherwise they devour you. We didn't have income taxes till recently in human history. In the uk, the public sector now takes up about 52% of GDP. This is extraordinary.

That said, the USA has still managed to survive any major attacks. But as you can read from the article, the solution is becoming a problem in it's own right.

A hidden world, growing beyond control (Printer friendly version)|

A hidden world, growing beyond control

< 1.0) return false; window.location.href = ">

Monday, July 19, 2010; 4:50 PM

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.


These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.


An alternative geography
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the top-secret world created to respond to the terrorist attacks has grown into an unwieldy enterprise spread over 10,000 U.S. locations. Launch Photo Gallery »

These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.

They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation’s security.

“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that - not just for the CIA, for the secretary of defense - is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials - called Super Users - have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

“I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said.

Underscoring the seriousness of these issues are the conclusions of retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs. Vines, who once commanded 145,000 troops in Iraq and is familiar with complex problems, was stunned by what he discovered.

“I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities,” he said in an interview. “The complexity of this system defies description.”

The result, he added, is that it’s impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities. “Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,” Vines said. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

The Post’s investigation is based on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because, they said, they feared retaliation at work for describing their concerns.

The Post’s online database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track.

Today’s article describes the government’s role in this expanding enterprise. Tuesday’s article describes the government’s dependence on private contractors. Wednesday’s is a portrait of one Top Secret America community. On the Web, an extensive, searchable database built by The Post about Top Secret America is available at

Defense Secretary Gates, in his interview with The Post, said that he does not believe the system has become too big to manage but that getting precise data is sometimes difficult. Singling out the growth of intelligence units in the Defense Department, he said he intends to review those programs for waste. “Nine years after 9/11, it makes a lot of sense to sort of take a look at this and say, ‘Okay, we’ve built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?’ ” he said.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was also interviewed by The Post last week, said he’s begun mapping out a five-year plan for his agency because the levels of spending since 9/11 are not sustainable. “Particularly with these deficits, we’re going to hit the wall. I want to be prepared for that,” he said. “Frankly, I think everyone in intelligence ought to be doing that.”

In an interview before he resigned as the director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair said he did not believe there was overlap and redundancy in the intelligence world. “Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers,” he said.

Blair also expressed confidence that subordinates told him what he needed to know. “I have visibility on all the important intelligence programs across the community, and there are processes in place to ensure the different intelligence capabilities are working together where they need to,” he said.

Weeks later, as he sat in the corner of a ballroom at the Willard Hotel waiting to give a speech, he mused about The Post’s findings. “After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country,” he said. “The attitude was, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth overdoing.”

Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.

Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can’t conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.

Past the armed guards and the hydraulic steel barriers, at least 1,700 federal employees and 1,200 private contractors work at Liberty Crossing, the nickname for the two headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its National Counterterrorism Center. The two share a police force, a canine unit and thousands of parking spaces.

Liberty Crossing is at the center of the collection of U.S. government agencies and corporate contractors that mushroomed after the 2001 attacks. But it is not nearly the biggest, the most costly or even the most secretive part of the 9/11 enterprise.

In an Arlington County office building, the lobby directory doesn’t include the Air Force’s mysteriously named XOIWS unit, but there’s a big “Welcome!” sign in the hallway greeting visitors who know to step off the elevator on the third floor. In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it’s in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.


Each day at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, workers review at least 5,000 pieces of terrorist-related data from intelligence agencies and keep an eye on world events. (Photo by: Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

This is not exactly President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” which emerged with the Cold War and centered on building nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union. This is a national security enterprise with a more amorphous mission: defeating transnational violent extremists.

Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106. It was phenomenal growth that began almost as soon as the Sept. 11 attacks ended.

Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget to fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.

With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

With so many more employees, units and organizations, the lines of responsibility began to blur. To remedy this, at the recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, the George W. Bush administration and Congress decided to create an agency in 2004 with overarching responsibilities called the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to bring the colossal effort under control.

While that was the idea, Washington has its own ways.

The first problem was that the law passed by Congress did not give the director clear legal or budgetary authority over intelligence matters, which meant he wouldn’t have power over the individual agencies he was supposed to control.

The second problem: Even before the first director, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, was on the job, the turf battles began. The Defense Department shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so that the ODNI could not touch it, according to two senior officials who watched the process. The CIA reclassified some of its most sensitive information at a higher level so the National Counterterrorism Center staff, part of the ODNI, would not be allowed to see it, said former intelligence officers involved.

And then came a problem that continues to this day, which has to do with the ODNI’s rapid expansion.

When it opened in the spring of 2005, Negroponte’s office was all of 11 people stuffed into a secure vault with closet-size rooms a block from the White House. A year later, the budding agency moved to two floors of another building. In April 2008, it moved into its huge permanent home, Liberty Crossing.

Today, many officials who work in the intelligence agencies say they remain unclear about what the ODNI is in charge of. To be sure, the ODNI has made some progress, especially in intelligence-sharing, information technology and budget reform. The DNI and his managers hold interagency meetings every day to promote collaboration. The last director, Blair, doggedly pursued such nitty-gritty issues as procurement reform, compatible computer networks, tradecraft standards and collegiality.

But improvements have been overtaken by volume at the ODNI, as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system’s ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The practical effect of this unwieldiness is visible, on a much smaller scale, in the office of Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Leiter spends much of his day flipping among four computer monitors lined up on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. The data flow is enormous, with dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another.

There is a long explanation for why these databases are still not connected, and it amounts to this: It’s too hard, and some agency heads don’t really want to give up the systems they have. But there’s some progress: “All my e-mail on one computer now,” Leiter says. “That’s a big deal.”

To get another view of how sprawling Top Secret America has become, just head west on the toll road toward Dulles International Airport.

As a Michaels craft store and a Books-A-Million give way to the military intelligence giants Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, find the off-ramp and turn left. Those two shimmering-blue five-story ice cubes belong to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes images and mapping data of the Earth’s geography. A small sign obscured by a boxwood hedge says so.

Across the street, in the chocolate-brown blocks, is Carahsoft, an intelligence agency contractor specializing in mapping, speech analysis and data harvesting. Nearby is the government’s Underground Facility Analysis Center. It identifies overseas underground command centers associated with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups, and advises the military on how to destroy them.

Clusters of top-secret work exist throughout the country, but the Washington region is the capital of Top Secret America.

About half of the post-9/11 enterprise is anchored in an arc stretching from Leesburg south to Quantico, back north through Washington and curving northeast to Linthicum, just north of the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Many buildings sit within off-limits government compounds or military bases.

Others occupy business parks or are intermingled with neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers and go unnoticed by most people who live or play nearby.

Many of the newest buildings are not just utilitarian offices but also edifices “on the order of the pyramids,” in the words of one senior military intelligence officer.

Not far from the Dulles Toll Road, the CIA has expanded into two buildings that will increase the agency’s office space by one-third. To the south, Springfield is becoming home to the new $1.8 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, which will be the fourth-largest federal building in the area and home to 8,500 employees. Economic stimulus money is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this kind of federal construction across the region.

Construction for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield (Photo by: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post)

It’s not only the number of buildings that suggests the size and cost of this expansion, it’s also what is inside: banks of television monitors. “Escort-required” badges. X-ray machines and lockers to store cellphones and pagers. Keypad door locks that open special rooms encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes. Every one of these buildings has at least one of these rooms, known as a SCIF, for sensitive compartmented information facility. Some are as small as a closet; others are four times the size of a football field.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. “In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF,” said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. “They’ve got the penis envy thing going. You can’t be a big boy unless you’re a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.”

SCIFs are not the only must-have items people pay attention to. Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.

“You can’t find a four-star general without a security detail,” said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. “Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, ‘If he has one, then I have to have one.’ It’s become a status symbol.”

Among the most important people inside the SCIFs are the low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year, whose job is at the core of everything Top Secret America tries to do.

At its best, analysis melds cultural understanding with snippets of conversations, coded dialogue, anonymous tips, even scraps of trash, turning them into clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.

Their work is greatly enhanced by computers that sort through and categorize data. But in the end, analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years, said a senior ODNI official. Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters.

When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day. The ODNI doesn’t know exactly how many reports are issued each year, but in the process of trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. “Like a zombie, it keeps on living” is how one official describes the sites.

The problem with many intelligence reports, say officers who read them, is that they simply re-slice the same facts already in circulation. “It’s the soccer ball syndrome. Something happens, and they want to rush to cover it,” said Richard H. Immerman, who was the ODNI’s assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards until early 2009. “I saw tremendous overlap.”

Even the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original, or at least better than the reports already written by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency.

When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. “I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!” he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.

Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington’s bureaucracy. “Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn’t gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?” he said. “Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn’t produce the same thing?”

He’s hardly the only one irritated. In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight …

It’s too much, he complained. The inbox on his desk was full, too. He threw up his arms, picked up a thick, glossy intelligence report and waved it around, yelling.

“Jesus! Why does it take so long to produce?”

“Why does it have to be so bulky?”

“Why isn’t it online?”

The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don’t dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency’s analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.

A new Defense Department office complex goes up in Alexandria. (Photo by: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post)

The ODNI’s analysis office knows this is a problem. Yet its solution was another publication, this one a daily online newspaper, Intelligence Today. Every day, a staff of 22 culls more than two dozen agencies’ reports and 63 Web sites, selects the best information and packages it by originality, topic and region.

Analysis is not the only area where serious overlap appears to be gumming up the national security machinery and blurring the lines of responsibility.

Within the Defense Department alone, 18 commands and agencies conduct information operations, which aspire to manage foreign audiences’ perceptions of U.S. policy and military activities overseas.

And all the major intelligence agencies and at least two major military commands claim a major role in cyber-warfare, the newest and least-defined frontier.

“Frankly, it hasn’t been brought together in a unified approach,” CIA Director Panetta said of the many agencies now involved in cyber-warfare.

“Cyber is tremendously difficult” to coordinate, said Benjamin A. Powell, who served as general counsel for three directors of national intelligence until he left the government last year. “Sometimes there was an unfortunate attitude of bring your knives, your guns, your fists and be fully prepared to defend your turf.” Why? “Because it’s funded, it’s hot and it’s sexy.”

Last fall, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opened fire at Fort Hood, Tex., killing 13 people and wounding 30. In the days after the shootings, information emerged about Hasan’s increasingly strange behavior at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he had trained as a psychiatrist and warned commanders that they should allow Muslims to leave the Army or risk “adverse events.” He had also exchanged e-mails with a well-known radical cleric in Yemen being monitored by U.S. intelligence.

Gallery thumb< 1.0) return false; window.location.href = ">

Anti-Deception Technologies
From avatars and lasers to thermal cameras and fidget meters, this multimedia gallery takes a look at some of the latest technologies being developed by the government and private companies to thwart terrorists. Launch Gallery »

But none of this reached the one organization charged with handling counterintelligence investigations within the Army. Just 25 miles up the road from Walter Reed, the Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group had been doing little to search the ranks for potential threats. Instead, the 902’s commander had decided to turn the unit’s attention to assessing general terrorist affiliations in the United States, even though the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces were already doing this work in great depth.

The 902nd, working on a program the commander named RITA, for Radical Islamic Threat to the Army, had quietly been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and al-Qaeda student organizations in the United States. The assessment “didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already,” said the Army’s senior counterintelligence officer at the Pentagon.

Secrecy and lack of coordination have allowed organizations, such as the 902nd in this case, to work on issues others were already tackling rather than take on the much more challenging job of trying to identify potential jihadist sympathizers within the Army itself.

Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness in other ways, say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.

These are called Special Access Programs - or SAPs - and the Pentagon’s list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what’s going on.

“There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs - that’s God,” said James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence.

Such secrecy can undermine the normal chain of command when senior officials use it to cut out rivals or when subordinates are ordered to keep secrets from their commanders.

One military officer involved in one such program said he was ordered to sign a document prohibiting him from disclosing it to his four-star commander, with whom he worked closely every day, because the commander was not authorized to know about it. Another senior defense official recalls the day he tried to find out about a program in his budget, only to be rebuffed by a peer. “What do you mean you can’t tell me? I pay for the program,” he recalled saying in a heated exchange.

Another senior intelligence official with wide access to many programs said that secrecy is sometimes used to protect ineffective projects. “I think the secretary of defense ought to direct a look at every single thing to see if it still has value,” he said. “The DNI ought to do something similar.”

The ODNI hasn’t done that yet. The best it can do at the moment is maintain a database of the names of the most sensitive programs in the intelligence community. But the database does not include many important and relevant Pentagon projects.

Because so much is classified, illustrations of what goes on every day in Top Secret America can be hard to ferret out. But every so often, examples emerge. A recent one shows the post-9/11 system at its best and its worst.

Last fall, after eight years of growth and hirings, the enterprise was at full throttle when word emerged that something was seriously amiss inside Yemen. In response, President Obama signed an order sending dozens of secret commandos to that country to target and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda affiliate.

In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.

That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.

As military operations in Yemen intensified and the chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, the intelligence agencies ramped up their effort. The flood of information into the NCTC became a torrent.

Somewhere in that deluge was even more vital data. Partial names of someone in Yemen. A reference to a Nigerian radical who had gone to Yemen. A report of a father in Nigeria worried about a son who had become interested in radical teachings and had disappeared inside Yemen.

These were all clues to what would happen when a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Yemen and eventually boarded a plane in Amsterdam bound for Detroit. But nobody put them together because, as officials would testify later, the system had gotten so big that the lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred.

“There are so many people involved here,” NCTC Director Leiter told Congress.

“Everyone had the dots to connect,” DNI Blair explained to the lawmakers. “But I hadn’t made it clear exactly who had primary responsibility.”

And so Abdulmutallab was able to step aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. As it descended toward Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear. It wasn’t the very expensive, very large 9/11 enterprise that prevented disaster. It was a passenger who saw what he was doing and tackled him. “We didn’t follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan explained afterward. “Because no one intelligence entity, or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation.”

Blair acknowledged the problem. His solution: Create yet another team to run down every important lead. But he also told Congress he needed more money and more analysts to prevent another mistake.

More is often the solution proposed by the leaders of the 9/11 enterprise. After the Christmas Day bombing attempt, Leiter also pleaded for more - more analysts to join the 300 or so he already had.

The Department of Homeland Security asked for more air marshals, more body scanners and more analysts, too, even though it can’t find nearly enough qualified people to fill its intelligence unit now. Obama has said he will not freeze spending on national security, making it likely that those requests will be funded.

More building, more expansion of offices continues across the country. A $1.7 billion NSA data-processing center will be under construction soon near Salt Lake City. In Tampa, the U.S. Central Command’s new 270,000-square-foot intelligence office will be matched next year by an equally large headquarters building, and then, the year after that, by a 51,000-square-foot office just for its special operations section.

Just north of Charlottesville, the new Joint-Use Intelligence Analysis Facility will consolidate 1,000 defense intelligence analysts on a secure campus.

Meanwhile, five miles southeast of the White House, the DHS has broken ground for its new headquarters, to be shared with the Coast Guard. DHS, in existence for only seven years, already has its own Special Access Programs, its own research arm, its own command center, its own fleet of armored cars and its own 230,000-person workforce, the third-largest after the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Soon, on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths mental hospital in Anacostia, a $3.4 billion showcase of security will rise from the crumbling brick wards. The new headquarters will be the largest government complex built since the Pentagon, a major landmark in the alternative geography of Top Secret America and four times as big as Liberty Crossing.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

(via Instapaper)


Sent via iPhone. Apologies for formatting and typo errors