Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Air Force Wants to Retire the A-10, But All Those Pesky Wars Keep Getting In the Way

Sometimes nothing else will do
All air to ground combat is not created equal. A B-52's hundreds of bombs, the intelligent guided Hellfire missile being used against a tank or bunker, a precision guided bomb dropped on a bridge, a cruise missile suddenly striking a headquarters in the middle of a city - these are all different manifestations of the way air power can be used in wartime. And they all require certain capabilities, but they all have spent decades transferring the intelligence and guidance from the pilot and the airplane to the weapons themselves. This allows a more diverse set of airframes to do a more diverse set of jobs. And that can lead to a certain blind spot when there are applications of air power that require an airframe with a very specific set of features - specific roles that intelligent weapons can't fill, at least not by themselves.

The two primary remaining cases that call for specially designed aircraft are the air superiority role and the close air support role. The US continues to have the dominant air superiority fighter in the world in the F-22 Raptor - that the fleet of Raptors is pitifully small is an important consideration, but it cannot be said that the Air Force is ambivalent about the air superiority role. But here's the problem - the US has been 'at war' for the better part of two decades and has NEVER in that time had to operate in contested airspace. In these kinds of 'permissive' environments, stealth and air-to-air capability are useless, and with troops engaged in daily small-unit combat, effective close air support is critical. And the US Air Force provides tremendously effective CAS using the venerable A-10 Warthog and the AC-130 gunship. Both provide the ability to visually identify where the good guys are and where the bad guys are, and then put devastating fire precisely where it is needed by the troops, even when it's 'danger close'.

Unfortunately, the Air Force did something we are taught not to do from kindergarten. They put all their eggs in one basket, a basket called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Because they are committed to buying about 2500 of the expensive jets, they've had to drastically reduce other procurement programs. They canceled the F-22 program after taking delivery of only 187 airframes. And now, even worse, they are committed to retiring the only dedicated CAS airframe in inventory, the A-10. The Air Force insists they can replace the Warthogs with the F-35 and advanced drones, but that's theory. Real life seems to indicate even they know that's not even close to true.

America has found herself fighting endless wars in the middle east, with both American and allied troops engaged in daily combat across a broad thousand-mile front from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. These are all small unit battles fought on the ground with very limited artillery or armor - the quintessential permissive airspace. And despite the rhetoric that has been used to support the elimination of the A-10 from the inventory, the pesky old Warthog just keeps proving too valuable, even necessary to actually do so. The conundrum they face is somewhat ironic - they want to eliminate the A-10, but they fairly obviously won't be able to do so until the US can free itself from these endless decades-long conflicts. As long as we are engaged in this endless "forever war", the A-10 and the AC-130 are going to have to be there, supporting the infantry on the ground.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Single Payer Blues

Umm, OK. But I have a few questions.
Bernie Sanders recently released a campaign plan to create a government-funded single payer health care program that would cover everyone and cost nothing at the individual level. While this plan is fraudulent in a number of ways - more about that in a bit - it has at least started a conversation about the next step in health care reform after the ACA. While that conversation is good, and necessary, it is also fraught with myths, wishful thinking and outright falsehoods. While a properly constructed single-payer plan would be a good thing, America has some unique conditions that make it very difficult to get there, and if it wasn't crafted carefully and thoughtfully, it would leave people much worse off than they are today.

What are some of those 'unique conditions'? Well, first there is the current process of employer funded health insurance. Most Americans never pay an insurance premium. So if you tell them you're going to give them health insurance they don't have to pay for, they don't get terribly excited because they already have that. Then, if you tell them you're going to raise their taxes to pay for that health care, they're going to tell you no thanks.

Second, the big difference between the US health care industry and other nations, particularly nations with their own single-payer programs, is cost. In the US we spend about $10,000 per capita annually on health care. This is far and away the highest cost for health care anywhere in the world. Why is that? Because in the US, we have an agreement that whatever procedures the doctor orders, the insurance company pays for. It is an unusually lavish kind of coverage which produces large profits for the health care delivery network. Single payer plans all have one thing in common - stringent cost controls. They won't just pay for everything, and they define HOW MUCH they will pay for procedures that are covered. This is where the Sanders proposal slips into dishonesty - his cost estimates reflect this kind of dynamic cost-control measures, but he promises the same levels of coverage. It can't be both - the same level of coverage would require several trillion dollars in additional taxation - 20-30% tax increases on the middle class - or there would have to be significant new limitations in coverage.

Finally, there is the question of health care delivery - the point where the rubber meets the road. Everyone wants to talk about the additional costs imposed by a private, for-profit insurance industry, but they never seem to get around to addressing a private, for-profit delivery system. If you're going to offer a plan to convert the United States to a government funded health care system, you're going to have to include the hospitals, doctors, ambulances, dentists, urgent care centers and clinics. Who owns them? Who pays the doctors and nurses and specialists? What's their incentive to cooperate? What happens if they limit the number of single-payer patients they'll see? What happens if employers continue to offer private insurance policies to their employees?

You're going to have to figure out what the comprehensive plan is, how you're going to pay for it, and then you're going to have to convince people to accept less coverage at a higher personal cost than they're paying today. In the end it would probably a good thing, but at least you should recognize that there is simply no direct route from where we are today to that point.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Republican Party and the Struggle for the Conservative Soul

And maybe their voters are catching on to the scam
For the last few decades, the Republican party has walked a fine high-wire act between the Party as a political organization and the Movement conservatives that are considered its 'base' of voters. The problem is, as much as they need each other, they don't really like each other very much. The party has a single policy agenda, which it pursues with a laser like focus. It is strictly an economic policy goal - the upward transfer of wealth from the poor and minorities to the wealthy and the corporations - essentially the 1%.  This goal explains their perpetual demands for lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, paid for by a reduction in social spending on the poor, and reduced regulatory limits on unfettered corporate profitability. Of course, the problem with the 1% as a political constituency is that it represents, well, 1% of the voters. It's hard to gain electoral power with such a small committed voting bloc, no matter how wealthy and powerful they are.

Movement conservatives don't really care about any of that. To whatever extent such a policy agenda affects them, it harms them. What they want is an activist government that will intervene to protect white privilege, working class jobs and an unusually religious definition of social and cultural constructs. With the advent of the 'abortion issue', and the resulting politicization of evangelical Christians, the Republican party found its army of voters. Time and  again, Republican political candidates promised vast, sweeping rollbacks of modern diversity and the cultural depravity they saw as an inevitable result, along with attempts to keep a strong white male patriarchy at the top of American society. And time and again, once elected, the Republican politicians promptly forgot all that in order to get along with the business of transferring American wealth to the wealthy.

The base noticed. They got angry, they railed against the Republicans that 'made deals' and 'sold out' the cause. But the party didn't care - after all, who were they going to vote for? Bill Clinton? John Kerry? Barack Obama? Hah. When the party needed them at the next election, they'd be there again, a reliable army out in the streets knocking on doors and manning phone banks. In 2008 the party establishment convinced them they needed John McCain, a politician who represented everything they loathed, at the head of the ticket due to his 'electability'. They said that Sarah Palin would be there to protect their interests. In 2012, movement conservatives were more up in arms than ever, sputtering bile in their hatred for Barack Obama and his Muslim loving socialism. But once again, the Party sold them on Mitt Romney's electability, and Paul Ryan as the conservative that would keep things on the 'right' track.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. Neither McCain nor Romney were electable enough to actually, you know, win the election. Now, in 2016, it seems that movement conservatives have had enough. Early in the process they wrapped their arms around the incoherent but somehow charismatic Donald Trump and unlikable but dependable rigid ideologue Ted Cruz. Once the party establishment realized that Jeb Bush was nothing more than the Fred Thompson of the 2016 election cycle, and after a stronger-than-expected third place showing in the Iowa caucuses, they seem to be coalescing around the young, handsome stumblebum Marco Rubio.

So now the big question is simply this: Will the right-wing populist voting base of the Republican party once again allow themselves to be bamboozled into supporting someone who will tell them what they want to hear, use them throughout the campaign, and once again ignore them in the service to the 1% after the election? Or will they continue to thumb their nose at the party and eventually award enough delegates to Donald Trump (let's face it, despite his ideological reliability, Ted Cruz is just too appallingly arrogant and unpleasant to ever win a national election) to make him the nominee in spite of the party establishment? I think between the deeply flawed Rubio being the best the party can bring to bear, and the recent Republican electoral history, signs point to a Trump nomination.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Most Dangerous Border in the World

The simple problem - Too many factions,
too many agendas
In northern Syria, there is a jagged 700 kilometer border with Turkey. The territory along the border is occupied mostly by Syrian Kurdish rebels, but also by Turkmen rebels. The Turkmen are longtime ethnic and linguistic allies of Turkey, while the Erdogan government has recently re-started its savage war against the Kurdish population. With Russian support, the Syrian Arab Army has recently been pushing north, taking rebel held cities and towns in Northern Latakia province. Russian jet fighters make daily bombing runs against Turkman positions, which brings them into close proximity with the Turkmen's ally and sponsor, Turkey. Turkish territory juts sharply into Syria near the town of Reyhanlı, and it's nearly impossible for the Russian pilots to hit targets nearby in Syria and not overfly that part of Turkey. This has resulted in one Russian jet already downed by Syria, and more threats and increasing fury in Ankara over recent additional Russian incursions.

But while the airspace violations are certainly ongoing, it's unlikely that they are the source of Erdogan's ire. The real problem is that the al-Assad regime's troops have recaptured Rabia, a Turkman held enclave in Northwestern Latakia province. It would not have been possible for the Syrian Army to advance into Rabia without Russian support, so the Turkish regime is seeking ways to push back against the mostly successful Russian intervention in support of the Ba'ath party leadership.

In the meantime, the Turks themselves are active in Syrian territory along the frontier, carrying out a series of punishing airstrikes against the Kurds who hold most of Northern Syria. After the success of the Kurds, represented by the HDP political party, won almost 10% of the vote in the August, 2014 Presidential elections, Erdogan has found it politically expedient to re-ignite the long running civil war against the Kurdish population in the region. This is, however, complicated by the international support for Kurdish resistance -against both the Syrian regime and the Jihadist factions - and the fact that no other rebel faction - with the exception, perhaps, of ISIS - has been so effective in combat.

So all of that leaves us with a dangerous, chaotic situation along the border. Particularly in the west - from the Mediterranean to Raqqa - you have Turkmen and Kurds fighting the regime and their Russian supporters, Turkish jets bombing the Kurds and Russian jets bombing the Turkmen.  As the loyalist troops move up to the border, the possibility of direct combat with the Turkish Army - a NATO member, it must be pointed out - and of Russian involvement, at least with advanced surface-to-air missiles increases exponentially.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The (Incredibly Cool) Future of Personal Computing

Shhh. They don't actually 'exist'...
When you use a website or web application, the processes that make it work are not running on anything you'd normally recognize as a 'computer' or a server. The infrastructure that hosts the modern web is a disparate collection of bits scattered around the data center. It's impossible to walk in the door, point to one rack of hardware and say "that's the AirBnB servers". Most compute hardware today is virtualized, delivered not as a box of hardware, but as a set of services at a defined service level. Just as in the early days of electrification, if you wanted electricity, you had to generate it yourself, in the early days of the internet every server represented a capital investment of thousands of dollars, and the thing that killed so many early internet business was growth. Adding capacity took time and a huge amount of money.

Later, electricity was produced in large-scale facilities and was available for purchase off the grid. You didn't have to have infrastructure, and you only paid for what you needed. That is the nature of compute resources today. You specify a system - some processor cores, some memory, some storage, a network fabric - and you supply or specify an operating "image" - the OS and software stack you want to run. Then you tell your cloud provider you want five hundred of these virtual servers. When demand runs high, you easily add another thousand, and when you no longer need them, you shut them down, minimizing your operating overhead and producing profits that would have been impossible a few years ago.

This model has changed everything, and made computers much more powerful tools. When processing power requires no up-front capital investment, all of that capital can be shifted to software development. And as a result, we've seen huge advances in machine intelligence that have resulted in incredible technologies. At the high end, that means no more multi-million dollar super computers. Just hand over a credit card and spin up 50,000 cores on AWS, run them for 20 or 30 or 50 hours, get your results and shut them down. Anyone can do it, and they can do it NOW. At the low end you get Siri, and OK Google, and real-time navigation and traffic, at the high end genomics research and climate models on-demand.

But so much more is coming. The simple fact is you no longer need an actual computer. They are just another resource, and you can use one with the power (and cost) appropriate for the job. When you're surfing the web and and chatting on Facebook, you can use a tiny VM that costs virtually nothing. When you want to play a more demanding game or use a higher end piece of software, you seamlessly switch to a more powerful platform, and only pay for it while you use it. If you want to use a Mac for internet and a Windows PC for games, you don't have to buy the OS - the image comes provisioned.  Instead of the computer you are using today, you merely need a box that connects you with your resource provider, and a display.  Even your handheld and wearable devices gain access to much more powerful processors and you are never again constrained by what hardware platform you chose to buy, say, two years ago. You'll always have the latest version (or a specific older version if you prefer) and all the available security patches.

And once we are freed from the costs, complication and compromises of hardware purchases, access to the global digital infrastructure will truly be ubiquitous. Capacity will be whatever we need, whenever we need it, and even dedicated platforms like game consoles and Bitcoin miners can be virtualized.

THAT'S the next step, and it's coming to a screen near you.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sagittarius A*

Never forget to be awestruck by what we can do
What the heck is Sagittarius A*, you ask? Is it a band? An album? A novel? An indie movie? Nope, none of those things. Sgr A* (pronounced Sagittarius A Star), as the scientists like to write it, is an intense radio source in the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Scientists have long believed that at the center of every large spiral galaxy there resides a 'supermassive black hole', with a mass of several million suns providing the 'anchor' around which gravity could build the galaxy itself. Proving this perfectly reasonable assumption, however, has been problematic for a number of reasons.

First, the very concept of a black hole makes it impossible to 'see'. A black hole emits no energy at any wavelength (well, except for something called 'Hawking Radiation' that we can skip over for now), so none of our observational tools can measure it directly. And second, the center of the galaxy is a very dense, busy, messy place full of huge clouds of interstellar dust and gas - essentially the same stuff planet earth is made of. These clouds effectively block a broad portion of the EM spectrum, including visible light, which prevents us from seeing much of anything going on in the entire central region.

But all is not lost. We have radio telescopes, which capture the longer wavelength energy that passes easily through the obscuring interstellar medium, and we have IR - infrared radiation that is generated by heat, that can be detected behind and through the clouds of dust and gas. And what's that we see? Stars orbiting the black hole in small, tight orbits. The bell cow was a star they called S-2, and by measuring the mass of that star and analyzing its orbital dynamics, scientists could reach some conclusions about the structure of the black hole we call Sgr A*.  And the numbers are beyond mind boggling. With the mass of nearly four and a half MILLION times that of our sun, it's only 13 million miles across. The density of an object like that is unimaginable. And sitting way out here, we figured all that out.

Is this a new breakthrough? Actually, far from it. Sgr A* was first discovered in 1974, and named ten years later. You'll notice on the attached image that we've been tracking the orbits of surrounding objects for more than 20 years. Also note that the key objects, S-2 and S-102 together encompass a tiny bit of sky less than half an arc-second across. This is precision astronomy of the first order. And here we are, a species of intelligent primates evolved all on our own on a dusty little rock in a distant rural corner of our galaxy, looking at the enormity and complexity of our universe, and coming to understand it. If I take any comfort in my own mortality, it is rooted in that accumulated knowledge, and in our drive and cleverness that allows us to keep accumulating more.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Twitter Paradox

One of these is not like the other
Twitter and Facebook are often considered a kind of bookends, the quintessential social media platforms. And it's true that, in general, they both serve as a kind of global digital communication platform, albeit serving altogether different purposes and constituencies. And as a result of this tendency to view them as two pieces of the same business model, their financial and operational performance is often compared. When, industry watchers wonder, will Twitter become profitable? Why has their growth stalled while Facebook continues to add users and subsidiaries? And yet, the comparison is odd - Facebook is by far the industry juggernaut, the second most viewed site in the world with a billion and a half users and a market capitalization of $40 billion. Twitter, on the other hand, has struggled to acquire 330 million users and has a rather hard-to-justify market cap of $12 billion.

Considering that neither platform will ever have the option of charging their users any kind of subscription fee, both companies have had to be somewhat innovative in how to monetize a gigantic global digital communication service. Where Facebook has been mostly successful, Twitter continues to try to figure out a model that would make the service economically viable and financially sustainable. From where we stand here in January 2016, the most likely forecast will be that, at some point, Twitter will be subsumed into a larger ecosystem that can afford to subsidize its operating costs forever. The alternative is that it merely sinks beneath the waves, to be 'replaced' - as much as possible - by a large number of smaller services.

But here's the paradox. Of all the social media tools and services available today, the only one that is absolutely irreplaceable is Twitter. The world could simply not do without a Twitter, and the human and social costs if it were to disappear are hard to even imagine. Through Twitter, the way we see the world, the way we understand events in far-flung places, the way we participate and interact has changed forever. Long before the first headlines break on the news sites, those of us on Twitter are getting eyewitness reports, rumors, live video, cries of anguish and sobs of joy. With Twitter, we can now be everywhere at once, meeting the actual people who are doing the actual things that change the world. From Fukushima to Maidan, from Tunisia to Cairo, from Wall Street to Ferguson, we learned about the world first hand, and in real time. And we were able to make our voices heard.

So this is the paradox, and the challenge. Twitter may very well not be something that can be operated profitably. But as a people, as a society, as a species, we must never lose access to these kinds of global, instant communications. If Twitter were to fail as a business, it would be necessary to continue to operate it as some kind of global NGO - ideally under the auspices of the UN, but at any rate in a way that continues to permit the world to have unfettered access to this kind of real-time conversation. There's just no going back.