Saturday, August 29, 2015

As it Happens, Hope is Fungible

I saw the decade end
Thinking the world could change
In the blink of an eye

As most are already aware, I am a cynical person. Cynical to the point of pessimism. I just can't look at the way my species has mis-managed its opportunity, and even today, with so much knowledge available, is still unwilling to take even  the most obvious steps to protect itself and its habitat. How 'intelligent' is a species, really, when it can't look just ten or twenty years into the future and make concrete plans to preserve even the most basic necessities as food and clean water?

What makes it worse is that we were all witness to a moment of profound hope, of the most sweeping change in longstanding policy madness, a moment when the world changed in the space of one hundred days. And yet in hindsight of mere decades we can see how the hope for something as simple as peaceful coexistence never had a chance of taking root. That even when we surprised ourselves by our own clear vision of humans as community, as a species inhabiting a planet, not some collection of tribal entities, we turn away from that vision, almost as if the possibility of the possibility frightens us.

The first East Germans crossed the border from Hungary to Austria in August of 1989. On November 9th, the checkpoints from East Berlin were opened. Do you remember? Did you sit, transfixed by the images on the television news, watching in head-shaking disbelief as everything we understood about our world and how it was arranged, everything we had lived for our entire lives, changed into something we never even dreamed was possible? And all without guns, without war, without fighting and killing. Everything changed because there was something utterly, fundamentally wrong with the system as it stood, and finally that system could no longer sustain itself based on the self-evident madness of its basic premise.

Do you remember the faces? Not just the faces of the kids dancing together, East and West, on top of that wall that November night at the end of the decade, but the faces on your friends and co-workers that day? The thought that, maybe, just maybe, there WAS a different path for humans to walk.

Of course, there wasn't. Our species isn't capable, apparently, of that kind of self-salvation. Our own greed and fear and hatred and ideology will prevent it. We will destroy ourselves, paradoxically because it is a path that feels safer than the alternative. It is a path that indulges our worst beliefs, both in ourselves and in those we view as 'others'.

So yeah, I'm cynical, to the point of pessimistic. But the next time you look at some mundane political event and tell me that it means I should feel hopeful, think back to that one brilliant moment in our entire lifetimes when the world shifted on its axis, that moment when we truly had reason to feel hopeful, and watch how we squandered it all in our mad rush back to the madness that humans seem to crave.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Biden His Time?

Will he? Won't he? Should he?
As speculation about a Joe Biden Democratic primary campaign heats up, it's a little hard to parse what it means, and how he perceives the playing field and where he fits into it. I certainly think he's got an electability problem, in the same way Bernie Sanders does - albeit for somewhat different reasons.  He's a lifetime professional pol, a longtime Democratic legislator, a government insider with a lifetime of public service. In public life his history is a compelling story, but his tendency to say off the wall and sometimes off color things has given him a reputation for a kind of professional un-trustworthiness that would haunt his campaign.

I suspect he would position himself ideologically between Clinton and Sanders, offering a more liberal yet still 'mainstream' option. He would pull votes from Ms. Clinton - probably less so from Sanders, whose political base is the left wing of the party. Since it's hard to imagine someone running from Sanders' left, he'll keep the support he has - he's just unlikely to be able to expand it. Certainly Biden would benefit from those Americans who are uncomfortable with a woman in the Oval Office - we are, among other things, a fairly misogynist nation, and Biden would be the choice for Democrats who fall into that category.

He'd essentially be offering an extension to the Obama administration, just as Bush the Elder offered another term for the Reagan White House. Those who understand how much Obama remarkably got done in the face of the worst obstruction in decades would find that desirable, while those who are uncomfortable Obama's foreign policy, his support for the intelligence community, his war on whistle-blowers and his relentless pursuit of bipartisan solutions might be less pleased with the thought.

At the end of the day, I suspect he'll decide not to run. He can't win, and he'll only weaken the Clinton brand - she'll still be the nominee, but she'll arrive at the position after a more divisive, expensive primary season. If he does end up running, however, it leaves open an intriguing question - who would Barak Obama end up endorsing?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Stuck Between the Dentist and the Deep Blue Sea

This is a monumental fuckup. A meaningless
Monumental fuckup....
So, just from a starting point, we can agree that Walter Palmer is a pathetic loser, a man with no male genitalia, a criminal mastermind and a sociopathic killer of the first order. Or maybe not. Maybe the question is more nuanced and complicated than the knee-jerk reaction is giving it credit for. I know, the very thought that maybe Cecil's killer might have been anything but some historical combination of Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy makes you uncomfortable, but perhaps there is something to be learned by thinking through the lessons of this event in deeper detail.

The questions are there, whether we choose to engage with them or not. Why do people hunt these magnificent animals? Why do African governments provide permitted hunting in their countries?  Did Walter Palmer break the law? If he didn't break the law, was what he did ok? And what about that 40 hour stalk after the initial shooting? Wasn't that the worst thing ever?

I'm not sure I can answer every one of those questions, but the grey areas so massively outnumber the black and white conclusions I've seen on the internet that I've got to try. Let's start with our friend the dentist. The man everyone knows is the second coming of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. It seems pretty clear that he did some things that are either illegal or at least outside the realm of legitimate African big game hunting. So if we start from the premise that this guy - or his guide, or both - cut corners in order to get a trophy Lion, then the whole conversation is pointless. He's a bad guy, a criminal, and what he did has nothing to tell us about legal hunting in Africa.

At the end of the day,  hunting is one of those things - like abortions and pickup trucks - that are value neutral. If you don't think they are good, or right, that's perfectly fine. Don't participate. But standing up and declaring that anyone that disagrees with you is evil and should be shunned, or worse, makes you just another extremist, no different than the Westboro Baptist Church.

You don't have to love hunting, or be interested in hunting, or even be slightly positive about hunting. You just have to understand a genuine fact, even if you find it distasteful or outside of your belief system. The hunters care deeply about the conservation of the species - they WANT to be able to hunt them again in the future. If you deny that, you are dishonest and closed-minded. Why do I make such a big point of this argument? Because there are so many 'true believers' on the internet who cannot integrate their worldview with reality. Which is funny - their policy positions are legitimate, but they become ludicrous and illegitimate as soon as they deny reality.

Two things remain true regardless of the level of spittle flecked ideological denial. First, the primary threats to large African species are habitat loss and poaching. Particularly poaching. Elephant ivory, Rhino horn, Bear liver - these are things that have ridiculous value on the global market, and there are local people with modern weapons - AKs, even RPGs - that will slaughter large numbers to generate as much near-term revenue as possible. And second, licensed, permitted, regulated hunting is designed from the ground up to preserve the species and conserve the ecosystem. The animals that can be hunted are old and outside the growth of the herd, and those same regulations prevent the taking of young breeding populations.

Finally, let's address the aftermath of the hunt. The dentist only wounded the lion, and then spent two days following the wounded animal, until he could finally track him down and finish him off. Isn't this proof of his cold-hearted brutality? Actually, no. Remember, sometimes surgeons mess up. Sometimes Serena Williams misses a shot. Hunting is hard, and while hunters are generally very good about taking good, clean shots, the tiniest error or change in environmental conditions can cause your shot to go awry. That's always been part of the the reality of the hunter, and hunting 101 speaks to this very question before all others. Take a good shot, and never, NEVER let a wounded animal go off to die alone. A cruel, self-interested hunter might shrug his shoulders and say, 'oh well, we missed that one, fuck him, let's start over and try again'. That simply NEVER happens. Hunters dig in and track their targets, and sometimes, when those targets are Cape Buffalo or something similarly dangerous, this is the most frightening part of the hunt. Let me know when you're prepared to go into a dense forest to follow a wounded Grizzly Bear. I'll be six paces behind you.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

It Would Serve Them Right

Memo to the US Congress: These guys don't
give a shit what you think
The nuclear deal with Iran is a good deal for everybody. It's a good deal for Iran, for the US, for Europe, for Russia, for China - it's even a good deal for Israel. If we're going to be honest, the whole thing has been unnecessary - both North Korea and Pakistan are orders of magnitude more dangerous and unpredictable than Iran, and they already have nuclear weapons. If post-revolutionary Iran wanted a nuclear weapon, they would  have had one by 1990 - '95 at the latest. Nuclear weapons are just not that difficult to produce - they are much harder to deliver. But the technology of uncontrolled nuclear fission is a well understood 70 year old science. Given access to the right equipment and materials, a precocious physics postdoc could probably make a working weapon.

But for many reasons - Israel's domestic politics, Saudi Arabia's viciously sectarian state religion, the American hostage crisis and its historical enmity - Iran had to be singled out. An entire case had to be built that Iran was a dangerous, rising regional power desperately focused on developing nuclear weapons. If you note a chilling similarity to descriptions of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in post 9/11 America, you get a gold star. There were just too many agendas too well served by hostility to Iran, and Iran's leadership couldn't make the decisions necessary to get out of that box.

So now it all comes back to American domestic politics. The Israel lobby, their large congressional constituency along with their powerful media voices are in full-throated cry to kill the agreement. They can't explain why this would be a desirable outcome - after all, the deal is objectively good for all parties. But the state of hostilities with Iran is valuable to them all, and cannot be put at risk by diplomatic progress.

What the US congress refuses to understand is this is a global, multi-lateral agreement. The Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese invested huge amounts of time and prestige in getting the deal done. A few hundred hillbillies and extremists in the US don't have the power to alter the deal - they only have the power to alter America's participation in the deal, and hence how the world views American reliability in global diplomacy in the 21st century.

So here's what I'm thinking today. Maybe they SHOULD win the argument. It won't change anything - the sanctions will end, Iran will honor the deal, and the US and Israel will be on the outside looking in, shrieking in spittle-flecked outrage at their irrelevance and impotence. The only thing that would happen is the American Republican party would own the greatest diplomatic debacle in American history. They would have cemented a prominent place in the downfall of American global power. They would have contributed greatly to rising respect and authority for the EU, China and even Russia, all at America's expense. And the next time the US went to the UN, or to the negotiating table with another nation, the very first question will be 'why should we trust you?' Why don't you get your political leadership house in order first and THEN come and talk to us'.

The simple fact they are ignoring is that if the sanctions aren't lifted, Iran won't be obligated to comply with the terms of the deal. If the US Congress abrogates the deal, the UN will still pass a resolution lifting the sanctions - and the Obama administration won't veto it. The agreement will go into effect - the US congress will then pass legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran - and Obama will veto them. If they somehow became law, the rest of the world would ignore them. The sheer irrational futility of American governance will become starkly clear to the rest of the world, and that will have unpredictable effects in the future.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

OK, We Have a Deal - Now What Happens?

You tried, I'll give you that. But maybe you
tried too hard
The reason that the international diplomatic community favors the use of economic sanctions as a tool to change the behavior of a national leadership is that sanctions are unique - they are a 'stick' with a built-in 'carrot'. The end goal is not to impose sanctions - it is to achieve specific, verifiable goals and then lift the sanctions. A sanctions regime that can never be lifted is useless - why would a government bother to alter their behavior if the sanctions would remain in place anyway?

Which brings us to the agreement the US, Europe, Russia and China reached with Iran this week restricting their civilian nuclear program and fuel cycle work. From any reasonable viewpoint, the sanctions 'worked'. Iran came to the table, and ultimately accepted the most onerous, intrusive inspection regime in the history of the NPT and simultaneously agreed to stringent limitations on centrifuge development, reactor design, fuel cycle R&D and amounts of LEU they are permitted to stockpile. You have to understand that these things have NEVER been controversial before - they were part of the 'peaceful use' of nuclear technology that the NPT actually encouraged. (The lesson here is that, if the international community is going to use the NPT as a weapon, it might be better in some cases for a signatory to abrogate it.)

But I'm not actually optimistic. Why? Because, under pressure from wingnuts, Israel and France, we actually drove TOO hard a bargain. Under the agreed upon terms, Iran will have to begin complying immediately - reducing stockpiled LEU, shuttering facilities, mothballing centrifuges, taking an entire reactor offline - and yet they won't see any meaningful sanctions relief for almost a year, and other sanctions (the arms embargo) will stay in place for five years. If Ayatollah Khamenei can hold it together while the IRGC hardliners are screaming, Iranian sovereign pride is in tatters and he has exactly nothing to show for it, month after month after month, great. But I don't think he can. I think what could have been a reasonable agreement that let each side get a win is inherently unsustainable, booby trapped from within, and it's very hard to see how this is going to work over the next 12 months.

As always, the net result of 'American Exceptionalism' is overreach, and we might very well see another example of everything we tried to do ended up making things orders of magnitude worse. If the IRGC stages a military coup to depose the supreme leader and impose a military government with far less concern about economic deprivation (think North Korea with big oil reserves) the middle east is going to be a much uglier, more violent and more unstable place.

I used to have a little lapel button that said: "Congratulations - you have somehow managed to turn a routine transaction into a bizarre ritual". And that's where I think we find ourselves with Iran.

Monday, July 13, 2015

On the Aptly-Named New Horizons Mission to Pluto

You gotta have a badass mission patch
Tomorrow, for a very brief few minutes, a probe that was launched from earth nine years ago will fly by Pluto at 31,000 miles per hour, coming within 8000 miles of the former planet. It will record images and data all along the approach and departure, and then return this data across a 3 billion mile chasm of space at a data rate of about 1 kilobit per second. For a year after the momentary close approach we will continue to receive information about the only major body in our solar system we have never seen in any detail before.

The science is not that remarkable.

New Horizons was designed in 2001 and constructed between 2003 and its launch in January of 2006. The technology that was used was mature at the time - in a probe like this one, only robust, well-understood and highly reliable systems can be used - essentially 20 years old at the time of the flyby.

The instrument package consists of:

LORRI - The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager - a high resolution camera with a 1024x1024 CCD and a resolution of approximately 1 arc-second.

SWAP - Solar Wind At Pluto -  one of the two instruments comprising New Horizons‍ '​ Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM), SWAP measures particles up to 6.5KeV

PEPSSI - Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation - the other component of the PAM, PEPSSI measures higher energy particles than SWAP

Alice - An ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, Alice will help analyze Pluto's atmospheric composition

Ralph - Another camera, Ralph includes both a multispectral (color) visible light imager and a near-infrared imaging spectrometer

SDC - The Student Dust Counter - this instrument has been operating all throughout the mission, measuring the interplanetary dust levels. It will provide the first measurements of dust in the Kuiper Belt ever. This instrument was built by students at the University of Colorado Boulder.

REX - The Radio Science Experiment - a transmitter that will use New Horizon's communication systems to send a signal through the atmosphere of Pluto and Charon, to be received and analyzed by radio telescopes on earth.

The engineering is incredible.

The orbital dynamics are impressive. A mission travelling 3 billion miles over 9 years with a very precise gravitational boost from Jupiter, aimed at a point not just in space, but in time - a very specific point in three-space that will, at that precise moment, also be occupied by Pluto. The margin for error is so small it's difficult to even calculate. You'll hear repeatedly that that New Horizons is the fastest space probe ever launched - that's only partially true. It is the spacecraft with the fastest launch - it left earth orbit at 37,000 miles per hour and passed the lunar orbit in 9 hours. But the fastest spacecraft is Voyager 1, now leaving the confines of our solar system at 17 Kilometers per second.

The meaning is profound.

This is real science. We'll be learning things we didn't know, not just about Pluto and its moons, but then about the region outside Pluto's orbit, the Kuiper Belt. This is a region populated by icy chunks of the original primordial 'stuff' that formed the solar system five billion years ago. This is the material that drifts around in vast reaches of interstellar space until some gravitational perturbation starts pulling it all into a disc. This is our best chance to understand our own actual creation story. But it is so much more than that.

Set aside whether Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet or something else altogether. This is the last completely unexplored, unobserved body in our solar system. And beyond that lies more, much more, of the great unknown. For all their bloodthirsty brutality, humans have always, from the very beginning, been driven by a need to know. What's over the next ridge, whats across the ocean, what's at the edge of the solar system. It is the one thing that makes our species noble, and special. It is the one thing that truly does unite us. Curiosity, the willingness to take great risks to learn, and the ability to make that knowledge meaningful and useful.

And tomorrow we're going to Pluto.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

20 Years After Srebrinica - Have We Learned Anything?

Never Forget
Twenty years ago this weekend, Bosnian Serb forces under their notorious General Ratko Mladić took the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. The women and children were rounded up and put on buses, ultimately to a UN airbase in Tuzla. The Serbs promised that the Red Cross would have access to the remaining 8000 men and boys, but of course, that never happened. We now know what did. Over the next two or three days, Serbian forces systematically murdered all 8000 Bosnian men and boys and bulldozed the bodies into mass graves. It was by far the worst war crime, the worst ethnic cleansing, and the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War.

The thing that makes the Srebrinica massacre so outrageously apalling was that, as early as April, 1993, the UN had declared Srebrinica to be a specifically designated 'Safe Zone'. It was a place that Bosnia refugees knew they could go to receive protection from UN forces. And in early 1995, as Serbian forces rolled across Bosnia, thousands fled to Srebrinica specifically because of that explicit promise of protection. UN Resolution 819 declared the Srebrenica and Zepa safe zones and ordered that they be de-militarized. Of course, the Bosnian forces were woefully underequipped, and the Serb forces simply ignored the order.

Throughout early 1995, the Serb forces, operating on very specific orders from Serb President Radovan Karadžić, prevented supplies from getting into the enclave. When Dutch UN forces would patrol outside the city, the Serbs would prevent them from returning. When the UN would attempt to reinforce or resupply their garrison, the Serb forces would prevent it. All throughout this slow motion catastrophe, the world watched in horror as the UN forces, day after day after day, refused to use their weapons, refused to fight, and refused to defend the people who had come to the safe haven the UN itself had promised them. In the end, the city fell without a shot being fired, with no UN casualties*, and on July 11th, after being filmed drinking a toast with Mladić, Lieutennant Colonel Thom Karremans, head of the Dutch UN contingent charged with the defense of Srebrenica, was permitted to take his forces and march out of the city. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, this is often the story of UN protective forces in various war zones around the world. An unwillingness to fight, highly restrictive rules of engagement, political fears of the fallout from getting involved in the fighting - the UN in New York has many times written checks it could not cash, and the people who believed their promises died hard, and in large numbers. The obvious irony here is the 'Blue Hats' are almost always the best trained, best equipped and most disciplined forces in theater, and yet a curious weakness in leadership has crippled their ability to carry out their mandate time and time again.

To be fair, this may be slowly changing. The actions of the Force Intervention Brigade under MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Great Lakes Region were brilliant. In a series of offensive operations in 2014, particularly in Kitchanga in May and Kiwanja, in the battle of Governors Ridge in September, they utterly crushed the M23 movement and put an end to a long running war. They used their superior forces and mobility, especially armored fighting vehicles and helicopter gunships to support the domestic forces and effectively put an end to the fighting.

But Srebrinica will always stand out as the darkest moment for the UN. Rwanda was bad, in that the west could not muster the will to intervene at all, but for the UN to promise all those people safety and then be utterly unwilling to assume the risk necessary to make good on their promises was cowardly to the point of craven. It is a black eye they can never live down, and we can never forget how they marched out of town and left those people to die.

*On July 8th, a Dutch YPR-765 armored personnel carrier on the perimeter came under Serbian fire and withdrew. The Bosnian forces in the area demanded that the Dutch stay and provide fire support. The Dutch soldiers refused, and as the armored vehicle continued to pull back one of the Bosnians threw a grenade that killed one of the Dutch Soldiers.

Finally, mid-afternoon on the 11th, NATO agreed to UNPROFOR requests/demands for air support and flew a few strike missions against advancing Serb armored forces. After a few hours, the Serbs threatened to murder their French hostages, kill Dutch UN personnel and begin shelling the UN Potočari compound, and air attacks were halted. It should be noted that this is not how armed forces are supposed to react to threats of attack.