Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Boots on the Ground

In the process of Googling "Kabul Green Zone map", I discovered the blog "Five Star Foxhole", documenting the experiences of its author K.C. over his six month deployment. I specifically recommend his description of Camp Eggers.

K.C. is a far more energetic blogger than I will ever be. He also has a better attitude, for many reasons I won't go into, and a few reasons I will: (1) he appears to be a True Believer (I am not); (2) he specifically volunteered for this assignment (I did not); and (3) he arrived in the summer. In the winter time, the Afghans burn everything for fuel, most conspicuously their own excrement. Kabul is thus suffused in a miasma of smog that makes 1970s Los Angeles look edenic.

Otherwise . . . I promised y’all art.  So:bagram_mountains

Bagram Airfield.  For a second I thought I was in Colorado Springs.  I was not fooled for long.

bagram_tower

The old Soviet control tower.  It is sobering to think of past failures.

smoking

There’s a war on.  The air is too toxic to wear contact lenses, let alone breathe.  But, by gawd, you better not smoke or forget your seatbelt!

bagram_beehuts

These little shacks, called B-huts, house most of the soldiers at Bagram.

bagram_hollywood

The two trainers in the foreground are the outdoor toilets and showers.  Behind them to the right is “Hotel California”, where the transients slept.  No heat.  No blankets.  Tough it out.  Or sleep in a chair at the MWR.

propaganda

I bought this propaganda myself for years.

convoy

Convoy to Kabul.  I was riding in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle similar to the one in the background.  My luggage rode in the panel truck immediately behind us, driven by an Afghani.

disturbed_earth

They taught us that “disturbed earth” was a sign of an IED.  Oh.  Crap.

market

A roadside market maybe?

motel

A roadside motel?

big_fortress

The Afghan landscape is littered with mud-wall fortresses, of which this is a largish example.

billboard

In Kabul.  If you look close, you will see that this is a billboard for Coca Cola.  Remember the 70s jingle?

I’d like to teach the world to sing,
In perfect harmony . . .

Monday, December 27, 2010

Working Out vs. Working

In preparation for my trip to SWA, I spent a couple of weeks learning (or attempting to learn) a skill set wholly unrelated to the work I have heretofore performed in my professional life.  My professional life has been characterized by sedentary cubicle work, whereas my training has involved running around in body armor while carrying an M16 when it’s 19 degrees and windy.  It’s possible to make too much of the physical demands this kind of thing imposes; our class contains many not-especially-athletic individuals, including a couple of women old enough to be grandmothers, and they are completing the course with varying levels of enthusiasm and success.  My point here is that spending every day on your feet lifting heavy things under (simulated) stressful conditions is very different than, say, writing a blog post.

One of the physical effects is how it affected my motivation to exercise.  After a day of cognitive work, hitting the gym is cathartic.  I go in with muscles tense, slowly warm up, eventually achieve a “runner’s high”, and leave feeling relaxed and energized.  But after a day of training, when my muscles have been active throughout the day, a workout becomes an extension of the rest of the day.  On the one hand, there isn’t much need for a warm-up; on the other hand, there is no runner’s high to reward me for my effort.  Exercise is perhaps easier, but less satisfying.

However, my personal theory is that while working hard throughout the day may require fitness to do successfully, it doesn’t really make me fit.  My evening workouts may not be as important perhaps, but they are still necessary for all sorts of fitness goals like weight control and balanced physiology.

I wonder vaguely if this dynamic might partially explain the unkempt appearance associated with “proleness”.  When a middle or upper-middle class office worker exercises, he enjoys rewarding mental and physical sensations that a person who works with his hands and back does not enjoy.  The prole thus finds working out more difficult to sustain and therefore does it less often if at all.  But manual labor does not help avoid getting overweight on a heavy diet.

There are of course many confounding variables associated with future time orientation, but I think this might be part of the explanation.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

All my instincts are wrong.

When an IED disables a vehicle in the convoy, I jump out to assist.  This is wrong.  Unless my help is needed, an up-armored humvee is the best place for a fire team leader.

When I jump out, I’m in a hurry and forget to close the door behind me.  This is wrong, as it leaves the other occupants exposed.

When I take fire, I fire back.  This is wrong, as it is the turret gunners’ job. (Those bits in generation kill that show the humvee crews firing M4s from the windows is, evidently, teevee creativity.)   If I leave the humvee, my job is to get on the “cold” side of the vehicle and assist with the crossload.  I should only use my M4 to engage anybody who makes it too close for the turret gunners to shoot safely.

It’s very difficult for a vehicle commander to assess anything happening behind him.  He has no rear visibility.  He relies entirely on information passed over the radio and from the turret gunner.  These are hard to hear at best and incoherent at worst.

All advantage lies with OPFOR.  The determine the location of an attack and control the pace.  They have surprise.  They are impossible to see unless they fire, and difficult even then.  Depending on the terrain, they can pop up one place, fire a burst, then duck down and appear somewhere else.  Like wack-a-mole.  Depending on the terrain, they face lots of easy targets, especially if they attack from both sides of the convoy.

All advantage lies with the blue force.  Our up-armored humvees  are (mostly) impervious to small arms fire.  The .50cal in the turret can clear a forest in seconds.  Depending on the terrain, a disabled humvee can be surrounded by the other convoy vehicles, protecting everyone during the crossload.

Monday, December 20, 2010

So when do they respect my religion?

The ISAF mission takes place in a country with different culture and standards of living.  ISAF is here to assist the Afghan people with rebuilding their country by contributing to the maintenance of a safe and secure environment.  IJC personnel will adhere to a high standard of personal discipline.  All personnel are representing both NATO and their nation on this important mission.

IJC personnel are to execute their duties under the direction and guidance of their international supervisors, and are  expected to conduct themselves in a fully professional and military manner.

Proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice is prohibited, although this provision does not restrict personal religious observance or discussions (between KAIA personnel) on matters of religion or faith.  However, IJC personnel should remain sensitive to the Islamic traditions of the local Afghan people, and it is recommended that you avoid discussing religion when conversing with locals.

All military personnel at IJC will wear appropriate military uniform in accordance with national regulations and dress codes ordered by COM KAIA or COM ISAF.  When running, it is important to respect the cultural sensitivities of the country, and a shirt is always required when running on the compound.

Female members of IJC should be particularly conscious of local customs in terms of attire.  Civilian females should wear clothing of sufficient modesty so as to avoid attracting attention from the general public.

Serving alcoholic drinks in meetings with the local nationals is not respectful to their culture, and is thus not permitted.

There has been an increase in alcohol and pornographic material being mailed to deployed forces in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility.  This violates U.S. CENTCOME General Order Number 1A and the U.S. Postal Service Policy pertaining to non-mailable items for the Middle East geographical area.  Sending alcohol, pornographic materials or other prohibited items through the military postal system is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 92.  As a result of these violations, customs officials now open all parcels for inspection, causing a slowdown in the processing time and the forward movement of the mail.

Religious Services are available, depending on the rotation of chaplain personnel here at IJC.  Please check with the IJC Command Chaplain upon your arrival for more detailed information on religious services.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tell me again who won the war? (CONTENT WARNING: Language)

A friend writes:

I went to visit a project site, traveling with a Personal Security Detail (PSD). On the return trip, we approached the Entry Control Point (ECP) to get into the International Zone (IZ) where I live.

Although the ECP for my Forward Operating Base (FOB) is controlled by the US military, the ECP into the IZ is controlled by the Iraqi Police (IP). Notice how I'm indoctrinating you into military jargon? Very subtle, no?

The IP allowed two vehicles to pass through the vehicle barrier (which is a metal trap that gets raised or lowered), then wouldn't put down the vehicle barrier to pass through the other two vehicles in our team. We were effectively detained by the IP, our travel team of four vehicles was split into two halves, and we were in the kill zone and unable to go anywhere. Advantage, Iraqis.

The IP slowly began to escalate threat against us. They started out with re-inspecting our vehicles. Then they inspected all of our paperwork, which was in order. After that, the IP boss man got on his cell phone and spent time talking, laughing, and yelling about something to someone. After a half hour had passed, the IP boss man ordered a three-member firing team to draw on our vehicles. There were two shooters behind us, but I couldn't see where they put themselves.

The third shooter positioned himself on top of a 6' tall concrete barrier to the front and left of our lead vehicle.  We had a clear view of his helmeted head and weapon, and he had the elevated protected position over us. He aimed his long gun directly at the vehicle windshield I was riding in, at which point my mind started thinking "international incident." I knew if he chose to shoot an entire focused-fire volley of 7.62mm rounds from an AK-47 on full auto through the windshield, it would likely give way between rounds 3 and 6, which left me on the order of 24-27 to deal with personally. So for the next half hour, I watched this guy watch me and thought, "Holy smokes, batman!" After that, we were alternatively threatened with arrest, confiscation of our vehicles, of both. Iraqis, advantage again.

I knew the name of this game was patience. I figured IP boss man was willing to have but didn't really want a firefight, and eventually offer us an option out as a way to save face. It's strange to play chicken with your own neck. I kept calm and kept talking to our well-armed PSD members in order to keep them calm - they were a little jumpy, go figure.  After being detained a little over an hour in our vehicles, the IP boss man told us we could either turn around and away from the IZ or get arrested. I wasn't sure if the Iraqi detention center food or bed were going to be any good, so I told our PSD team we should exercise the option to leave and go to another FOB where we could have a nice dinner and sleep in a semi-comfortable warm bed.

So we went to the other FOB. International incident averted.

It looks like DADT has become a moot point.  It’s policy now:  we’re all c0cksuckers.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“Everything in Afghanistan is Corrupt”

“How so?” I asked the young officer preparing for his second deployment.

“Most of the world’s opium is grown in Afghanistan and flown out of Kabul International Airport.”

“Wait a second, doesn’t the U.S. own NKAIA?”

“Yes, and we’re in on it.”

“What are we talking about?  A handful of supply sergeants taking bribes to look the other way?”

“Perhaps, but that’s not what I meant.  This goes all the way to the top.”

“Okay, now I’m curious.  Why is the USG cooperating with the drug traffickers?”

“Well, it’s more complicated than that.  The opium trade is controlled by the Pashtun warlords.  These have coopted units of the Afghan National Police, who provide them with protection.  The Taliban is overtly against the drug trade but covertly receives money from it.”

“Didn’t we create the ANP too?”

“Yes, but the Taliban infiltrated it.  Some of the ANP units were so bad that they got in on the extortion racket.  At one point, American troops actually had to ‘re-liberate’ a town whose inhabitants were being shaken down by the ANP.  In Kabul, we routinely see ANP mounted patrols providing armed protection to warlord convoys carrying opium.”

“And . . . everybody’s okay with this?”

“Sometimes, one of our patrols will run into an ANP patrol and there might be a standoff, sometimes a firefight.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!  A lawfully constituted arm of the Afghan state fires on American troops?  Why am I not hearing about this on the teevee?  Why am I not reading theatrical expressions of outrage from the highest levels of our government?  Why aren’t there sternly worded ultimatums put to President Karzai?”

“Karzai is a pimp.  He does exactly what the theater commander tells him to do.  But you have to understand that drug interdiction is not our job.  There are, in fact, multiple organs of the USG operating in Afghanistan at cross purposes.  For instance, the U.S. State Department has the counterdrug mission.  To prosecute this mission, they hire contractors, Blackwater types usually, to conduct search and destroy missions against opium fields.  This pisses off the warlords, who retaliate by putting a car bomb next to an American checkpoint somewhere.  Our job, in contrast, is ‘hearts and minds’.  We don’t really care if the warlords grow opium so long as they don’t support the Taliban against Karzai.  So we look the other way as the opium flies out of KIA.”

120510

Monday, December 13, 2010

Religion and Condoms

Another liberal propaganda set-piece falls to the numbers:

Let's assess that argument that religious teens who have sex will be less likely to use a condom because they have not been taught to act rationally with respect to sex.

The Add Health Study asked teens: 1) if they have ever had sex; and 2) if so, did they ever use a condom? A sample of 516 youths admitted to sexual intercourse.  Here are the percentages who have used a condom by importance of religion to self:

Percent of those who've had sex who have used a condom

Very important 58.1
Fairly important 62.8
Fairly unimportant 64.6
Unimportant 64.7

The probability of condom use falls a little with greater religiosity, but none of the differences is statistically significant.   

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why My Family Didn’t Take Me to the Airport

MEMORANDUM FOR MORON

FROM:  REMF

SUBJECT:  Transporting of Weapons to/from Deployment

Transportation of weapon(s) to and from the airport is only authorized in a Government Owned Vehicle (GOV).  Although AFI 31-101 allows transport of weapons in a private owned vehicle (POV), the REMF commander has opted to continue the previous policy of using a GOV to transport weapons.  Under no circumstances are you permitted to transport your government issued weapon in a POV or take the weapon home with you.  Also, under no circumstances are military dependents allowed to ride in a GOV carrying weapons.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Cultural Suicide: USAF Edition

Air Force 2A Culture General Course (ZZ133104)

Lesson 1:

Slide 19:  Oftentimes, a society has a divided view on certain values.  Take for example racism.  Some people strongly believe that a particular race is superior or inferior to another due to biological differences that predetermine one’s social, intellectual, and moral traits.  This view oftentimes results in racial separatism or the belief that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another.  While the basis for racial discrimination is unfounded, this argument has led to unnecessary animosity and violence.

Slide 21:  Ideally, you should view other people’s behavior within their cultural framework and respect their traditions.  Their perspectives are equally important as yours, just different.  This view of culture is called relativism or the ability to temporarily withhold your opinion in order to understand another standpoint.  This understanding facilitates better planning and more effective action.  However, it’s human nature to judge different societies by your own cultural standards and, by doing so, potentially impede your ability to understand and appreciate other people’s lifestyles.  This rigid view that your own culture is “right” and theirs “wrong” is known as ethnocentrism and should be avoided because it could ultimately hamper your mission effectiveness.

Slide 22:  Geert Hofstede, an influential Dutch writer, illustrates cultural relativism by comparing culture to a computer system or software of the mind.  Inn other words, while human beings all have the same “hardware,” which corresponds to the human brain, our “software” or programming is rather different.  Some of us are running Windows software while others run Linux.  The key point is that computer hardware normally works find regardless of the software it uses.  Culture is no different – no single culture is better than all others.  When you interact with individuals having different cultural backgrounds, at first their ways may make little sense to you.  This is because your cultural upbringing or your “software” is different.  Therefore, your challenge is to be able to effectively operate across different cultural systems with the assistance of cross-cultural communication.

Lesson 2:

Slide 7:  Personality is primarily determined by environment, although biology or heredity has an influence by determining our physical appearance.  While biology may not predetermine our personality, it does determine our gender and the way we look which in turn affect our self-image.  It also influences how others see and interact with us.  Some people believe that behaviors are inherited.  For example, children are expected to acquire a personal temperament or a level of intellect that resembles a parent or relative.  The key point is that while biology is important to personal development, the environment takes the lead in shaping both the individual’s and society’s personality and character.

Lesson 3:

Slide 8:  It may be more accurate to refer to America as a salad bowl rather than a melting pot because we have both shared and rather distinctive cultural aspects.

Lesson 4:

Slide 5:  Humanity’s physical diversity is primarily a result of our ancestors adapting to their environment.  For example, skin color is believed to be influenced by humans adjusting to the equator’s tropical climate or to the Arctic's frigid environment.  As humans interbreed, physical differences change and become visibly more diverse.  While groups of people differ in appearance, there’s no scientific basis for linking intellect or achievement to physical diversity, no more than assuming there’s a relation between skin color and blood type.  Notably, beneath the skin we’re all biologically the same, although ethnocentrists tend to label people with different physical features as inferior.

Slide 6:  This practice of categorizing different cultures based on appearance, known as biological determinism, began when early global travelers noticed physical diversity throughout the various regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and made judgments about different people.  For example, Europeans, who explored the world from the 15th to the 19th centuries, considered societies both biologically and culturally different from them as inferior.  Their later domination of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in regional boundaries, exploitation of valuable natural resources, and slavery.  Regional ethnic groups were merged under colonial rule causing internal strife and loss of ethnic identity.  When colonial rule ended after World War II, Africa stood divided into independent countries in which ethnic groups competed for power by engaging in ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Slide 7:  Then there was the early 20th-century eugenics movement that attempted to promote selective breeding.  It centered on a socio-racial philosophy that certain privileged people had desirable traits worthy of preserving, while other people’s heredity was classified as unfit.  Eugenics pre-dated the discovery of DNA and was widely embraced throughout academic and social circles as the so-called blueprint for humanity, reaching its heights with the WWII Nazi dominant-race movement.  Today eugenics is remembered as a brutal form of racial discrimination that inflicted massive human rights violations on millions of people.  wile many societies frown upon this practice, some cultures continue to discriminate through racism.

Slide 8:  Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another due to biological differences and therefore suggests that social, intellectual, and moral traits are genetically predetermined.  This view oftentimes results in racial separatism or the belief that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another.  While the basis for racial discrimination is unfounded, some governments have used it as a means to exert power.  Popular examples of racism include 18th and 19th-century American segregation of whites and blacks and apartheid in Africa.  In Japan, despite the presence of a substantial minority population, the dominant racial ideology describes the country as racially and ethnically homogeneous or the same.  This theory stems from Japan’s isolationism in its early history.  Her ruling monarchs shunned foreign visitors and closed its shores to non-Japanese settlers and influences.  As a result many Japanese believe their heritage is hereditary.

Slide 10:  Contrary to Japanese racial consistency, Brazil’s race structure is known for its flexibility.  Brazilians are able to determine their own identities as influenced by their surroundings.  They tend to modify their identity through achieved status, maturity, and physical changes.  A Brazilian can claim multiple racial identities because differences are insignificant.  Notably, racial discrimination is less likely to occur there than in other societies.  Unlike Japan’s unfounded perspective, Brazil’s approach illustrates how societies more rationally use race as a social method of categorizing its members into ethnic groups.

Slide 11:  In daily interactions, some people commonly use race and ethnicity interchangeably, although race is one of a broad set of cultural traits that collectively define ethnicity.

Slide 13:  Multiculturalism is the view that cultural diversity is good and desirable.  It promotes cultural relativism and the acceptance of other ethnic traditions and practices.  Multiculturalism has taken root in both the United States and Canada, with noticeable growth in recent years.  It counters assimilation or the belief that minorities should renounce their own views and adopt the cultural traditions of the dominant group.  Ideally, when deployed to different societies, you too will effectively embrace a relativistic perspective.

Lesson 5:

Slide 11:  The honeymoon phase comes at the beginning of deployment, whereby Airmen experience high expectations and a positive attitude.  You would typically expect the new environment to be adventuresome and exciting, although you may initially look for familiar similarities to help you adjust.  This phase normally lasts for a week to a month.

Slide 12:  The Honeymoon fades as cultural differences begin to make you uncomfortable.  At this point you may become irritable and withdrawn, instinctively avoiding contact with local inhabitants.  Some people even become aggressive and hostile.

Slide 14:  Adaptation means you’ve adjusted to local customs and gained confidence when interacting with the local people you've grown accustomed to a new lifestyle that you’ll likely miss when you leave.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

For Aslan and Narnia!

My employer (and really, who am I still kidding at this point) has a long-term contract in Southwest Asia. I have been sent to fulfill the terms of that contract for the next 4 1/2 months, give or take.

I had a week's notice.

I have two weeks of training before heading off to the mountains. Steve says it’ll be like Colorado.

No promises about internet access. My employer blocks my blog, but not blogger.com, so I may be able to post but not respond to comments. (My employer blocks most of your blogs as well, but not Google Reader, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep up with your posts even if I can't comment.)

Mrs. Φ bought me a digital camera for my trip, so if I can post I’ll try to post pictures. But posting will probably be light.

The odds are pretty good that I will come back safely, but in the event, I’ll try to write a farewell post set to publish a year from now or so.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Nod vs. Toss

Via Roissy, a study on head angles:

Our research investigated if looking at the face from different perspectives as a result of the height differential between men and women influenced perceived masculinity or femininity. The research found the way we angle our faces affects our attractiveness to the opposite sex.”

Men, typically taller than women, view a woman’s face from above; and women view men’s faces from below. Through a series of simulations, the research tested whether the angle of view was an important determinant of masculinity/femininity and attractiveness.

The research found that female faces are judged to be more feminine and more attractive when tilted forwards (simulating viewing from above), and less feminine when tilted backwards (simulating viewing from below). Conversely, male faces are judged more masculine when tilted backwards and less masculine when tilted forwards.

Back in the early 80s when I was a freshman in high school, I noticed that some male students, when they greeted people, would give a little toss of their head.  This “reverse nod” (up, then down) was remarkable because it ran counter to my own habit of nodding (down, then up) to people when I greeted them.  I don’t know how it got to be a habit, but it’s probably what I saw the adults around me do, and adults in movies and TV do, rather than something that somebody told me I was supposed to do.

Because the toss was new, and because the upperclassmen did it, I associated it with being “cool”, and tried to emulate it.  I may have had a dim sense of the biomechanics, but I lacked the analytical tools and vocabulary to appreciate what was at stake.  But as much as I practiced the toss in front of a mirror, I almost never remembered to deploy it in an actual social situation, and eventually I gave up.

As I have moved from youth to adulthood, I have observed others using the toss with diminishing frequency, although this could be me just not paying attention anymore.  But it’s easy to see how the study cited above maps onto the implications of the head toss.  The question I have now is, how did everyone else seem to understand the importance of the toss vs. the nod sufficiently to adopt it for themselves?  Why didn’t I get that memo?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Depressions Suck

Three things happened today that struck me as part of a pattern.

1. I received an email from American Express (with whom I have a card that I never use) promoting something called "Small Business Saturday":

Imagine a day when everyone comes together to support small businesses. A day when everyone helps boost our local economies and preserve neighborhood character.

That day is November 27, 2010, the first-ever Small Business SaturdaySM.

JOIN THE MOVEMENT, AND SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY ON FACEBOOK.

We will donate $1 for each "Like" on Facebook—up to $500,000¹—to Girls Inc. to help teach and empower young women to be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

GET $25² FOR SHOPPING ON SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY.

As part of our commitment to supporting small businesses, we will give you a $25 statement credit when you make a purchase at your favorite local stores and restaurants on Small Business Saturday. Enroll and use your registered American Express® Card. Availability is limited, so enroll today.

2. I received a facebook message from the younger brother of one of my best friends from high school. After a brief how-ya-doin', friend's younger brother's (FYB) email proceeds:

Just recently, I obtained a dealership for an environmental-conditioning technology company that has been one of the fastest growing companies in America, [Company X]. For 23 years, they have been designing and producing cutting edge Environmental and Energy technologies . . . . Clean air, pure water, clean clothes, good nutrition and clean electricity provide long term benefits for not only the earth and the environment but also our loved ones.

The best part is our ability to provide healthy living technologies at your fingertips, without ever leaving the comfort of your own home. Please look over my new online virtual stores and let me know what you think. Right now we have some great holiday specials that you might be interested in. I'd love to hear your opinion and if you care to share it with those you love, feel free to do so.

Would you like to do your shopping online this year, from the comfort of your own home?

Would you like to give a Gift of Health to the people you love with some unique items you won't find anywhere else?

Would you like to skip the shopping traffic, crowds and check-out lines?

Relax in your own home/computer chair and simply browse through our online Healthy Living Stores to select items or gifts for special occasions all year long.

As near as I can tell, this company is basically network marketing.

3. At work today, we had a visit from a representative of an independent research institute that's a pretty big deal in the southwest (big enough for me to have heard about it back when I lived there). She was in town for an "industry day" sponsored by another division of the company I work for, but had secured an opportunity to make a pitch to us. Her own business card identified her simply as a "manager", but she brought up on the speakerphone an engineer who obviously worked in my own area of expertise. The two of us dominated the conversation for about twenty minutes, which wasn't hard since there were only three of us in the room.

Question: What do these three have in common?

Answer: Desperation.

Let's take item 2 first since it's the easiest. I remember my first introduction to modern network marketing. It was in the middle of the recession of the early nineties. I was living in the southwest, and I remember hearing about the pay scale at the research institute in item 3 and being appalled at how much lower it was than the engineering salaries of a few years earlier, and even then it was supposedly difficult to get a job there.

But anyway, I received several network marketing pitches from casual acquaintances in fairly short order. The first guy, before I knew how this thing worked, actually got me to attend a meeting, convened in a massive auditorium, wherein the host (who I swear looked exactly like Wayne Newton) invited everyone who had achieved the "Level 1" level of sales to stand. Hundreds of people stood. He proceeded to work his way up the levels until he arrived at the "full time" level at which participants earned the princely annual salary of . . . $20K. As I remember, only 3 - 4 people were standing at this point.

The second time was actually a personal sit-down. Someone at work, junior to me in the company hierarchy, asked to come by to discuss what I got the impression was a personal problem he was having. He showed up with a fellow network marketeer who made the bulk of the pitch; evidently, this was Training Day.

"So . . . ," I said at some point in the presentation, "this is basically a pyramid scheme."

"NO IT ISN'T!" he hotly denied. "WE HAVE AN FTC RULING THAT SAYS IT ISN'T!"

"Look, I'm not making a moral judgment here," I replied, "but it's mathematically tautalogical that everyone who succeeds at making the kind of income at this you're talking about will need hundreds of people under him also hoping to make this kind of income. At some point you will reach market saturation, and judging by the number of people I already know that are doing something like this, that point is already at hand."

Well, here we are in another recession. FYB originally friended me on Facebook early in the year and his newsfeed was already showing the network marketing symptoms. You know what I mean: the investing the project with quasi- (and not-so-quasi-) religiosity. The self-help jargon about overcoming adversity with hope. The kind of thing that makes a chronically depressive personality like mine think, oh sh!t, I hope this works out for him, but my expectations are low. Sure enough, he's now reduced to pimping his products directly to his real-life friends, friends like me who, were he to call and say that he had a job offer in my city and needed a place to stay while he got settled, would reply without hesitation: Come on up. You and your family are welcome as long as you need.

Now let's consider item 1. I don't have a lot of visibility into whatever scheme AmEx has cooked up here, nor do I know which businesses count as "small" and which do not. I have no idea how much of the promised $25 comes out of the AmEx end of the transaction and how much comes out of the merchant end, but I do know on the face of it that nobody can make money this way. So what's the angle? Incentives to try new stores? Incentives to start using AmEx? I can't imagine a thriving enterprise would be trying stuff like this.

Finally, item 3. What made the presentation so pathetic was that of all the recipients of the invitation, the only person (other than the meeting organizer) who bothered to show up on time was . . . me. We did have a couple of people show up about half way through, one of whom was my boss, but the fact is that none of us do development, nor do we have much influence over how money gets spent. The best the meeting organizer could do was to tell the research institute rep: here's the front door to our acquisition effort. Well, DUH! This manager, who was clearly trying really hard to sell her institute and its services, wouldn't be here if she didn't know where the front door was. I felt really bad for wasting her time.

But this is where the recession has brought us. An increasing number of people putting in an increasing amount of effort to achieve ever diminishing returns. The question crossed my mind, how hungry would I have to be to undertake this kind of work? Pretty hungry, I think.