Thursday, December 31, 2015

mikey's Obligatory Best of 2015 List

Sometimes you just have to make the leap
As we sit here on the last day of 2015, contemplating the year that was, we are at first struck by the historic shifts that seem to be driving the world toward some kind of critical tipping point. The  American political scene descended quickly through 'farce' to something deeply surreal. The spread of global violence and hatred continued relentlessly, with more factions choosing to become involved in more wars against more differing factions, driving more civilian death and suffering, and triggering the larges refugee crisis in history. Religiously motivated terrorists are slowly discovering the power of the simple, low tech gun attack, and thus have succeeded in terrorizing entire populations throughout the US and Europe. Meanwhile, income inequality continued to rise, and power structure's front line shock troops, law enforcement and the intelligence community grew ever more militarized and violent in their reaction.

And on and on and on. As it is today, as it has always been. Let's take a look at some of the interesting things that caught our attention during the year, shall we?

Best Operating System:  Android 5 Lolipop
Yes, we have now upgraded to Android 6, but it was with the release of Lolipop that Android appeared fully formed, a completely functional, fully usable, perfectly integrated mobile operating platform. At that point, Android was mature, a product that could compete with iOS and have a real impact on the world

Most Important Technology: CRISPR
CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a breakthrough gene editing system. It allows researchers to actually make changes to operative DNA. Changes such as removing genes that code for undesirable traits, and changes such as changing or even adding genes to make them code for entirely new traits. Is it scary? Oh my yes. Will it be misused? Horribly and repeatedly. Is there another technology with greater power to change everything? No. No there is not.

Science of the year: Tie
In 2015, the Large Hadron Collider restarted after it's planned two year shutdown to be upgraded to its intended 14TeV collision energy. The collider ran for months doing proton/proton collisions, and then finished the year doing lead ion collisions. At these energies, it will be fascinating to see what the data shows us.

In July 2015, the New Horizons probe flew within 12,500 km of Pluto - which is still not a planet, but of immense interest nonetheless - after a nine year journey. At these distances the communication bandwidth is small, so we are still receiving data, but what we've seen has been utterly captivating.

International Relations: Iran Nuclear Agreement
It should never have been necessary. The entire 'negotiation' was based on a false set of premises. The lying, posturing and misinformation from all sides was agonizing. And the American congress crossed several red lines that can never be uncrossed. But in the end, an agreement was reached, the sanctions are being lifted, and this entire shameful example of economic warfare is behind us. A possible additional benefit is that we are less likely to see any kind of unanimity in the UN Security Council for this kind of selective targeting as a result of the Iran debacle.

Firearms: Defense Distributed
Defense Distributed is a non-profit founded by Cody Wilson in 2012. They have previously received notice for creating and posting online the necessary files for a 3D Printed gun. In 2015 they took a slightly different direction, selling a $1500 ready-to-use miniature CNC mill for completing 80% AR-15 lower receivers. However one might feel about this, it is undeniable that technologies like 3D Printing are changing the way governments can restrict various kinds of ownership.

Hardware: Carbon3D
Speaking of 3D Printing, the hardware breakthrough for 2015 is CLIP - Continuous Liquid Interface Production. Unlike existing stereo lithography production methods, CLIP uses a liquid photopolymer and a UV light source to produce production-ready parts one hundred times faster than the previous methods. In production by a Northern California tech startup called Carbon3D, the entire question of what 'manufacturing' means will have to be re-examined.

Book: Rise of the Robots
Martin Ford's look at the increasing capability of work force automation across all industries and job types is both sobering and hopeful. If you have any faith in humanity, the elimination of the drudgery of labor should open up a Utopian world where goods are essentially free and everyone is free to pursue whatever their interests might be. Of course, as Ford also points out, income from labor is the primary human methodology for distributing purchasing power, so the immediate question is whether and how human societies will both compensate owners of capital for the goods they create and distribute funds that the no-longer-necessary workers will need to purchase them.

Television Show: Justified
In April, FX Networks aired the Justified series finale at the end of season 6. The series was based on an Elmore Leonard character, and had the kind of richness of characters and sense of place that Leonard was deservedly famous for. Sam Elliot is perfect as Avery Markham, and the 'Boon' character is classic Elmore Leonard, a polite, soft-spoken, homicidal gunfighter. The story wraps up just right, with Raylan back in Florida, Boyd once again preaching in prison, and Ava raising her son in secret in California. Beautiful, and satisfying.

Television Characters: Three-Way Tie
Much of what is interesting about cable television is the way a show can follow real people doing real things, taking a documentary sensibility to a surprisingly broad set of human activity. With that, 2015 brought us:

Jim Shockey: Shockey is a professional hunter, a conservationist, a huge larger-than-life character who's simultaneously fearless and charming. A preternaturally handsome Canadian, he radiates calm courage and intense integrity. Although his shows are on the Outdoor Network alongside some of the more odious and ideological members of the hunting and shooting community, Jim Shockey makes you feel good about being a human being.

Andrew Zimmern: If you haven't seen 'Bizarre Foods' on Travel Channel, you've missed some fascinating television. But you've also missed one of the really great characters on TV today - Andrew Zimmern. He's a great story - young up-and-coming chef consumed by alcohol and drug addiction, homeless for a year, got clean and re-invented himself. He's a gentle soul, kind and loving, but a certain kind of fearless that just makes you smile. Whether it's hunting, fishing, or eating insects, worms or still living shellfish, he's perfectly willing to try it.

Parker Schnabel and Tony Beets: 'Gold Rush' has been airing on Discovery Network since 2010, but it's in the recent seasons that the characters really began to come into focus. Parker is just a kid - he turned 21 during the 2015 season - but that's part of what makes him interesting. He's also determined and decisive in a way you wouldn't expect from someone that young. He leases his claim from the loud and profane Tony Beets. A huge, bearded Viking, the outspoken and outrageous Dutch Canadian can seemingly do anything with just the force of his will.

Honorable Mentions:
I wanted to include a couple technology advances that I think are important, and will be much more important than we perhaps realize today.

Raspberry Pi Zero:
The advances in technology driven by the availability of small, powerful computers since the 1980s is beyond remarkable - it's almost impossible to even grasp all the ways that accessible hardware and the associated software tools have changed human existence. But when you think about it, all these changes have taken place with fully two thirds of the human population not participating. Brilliant kids in Africa, Asia, Latin America and urban centers all over the world could contribute unimaginable breakthroughs if they had a computer of their own. They could learn to code, and some of them would do really amazing things. Raspberry Pi came out a few years ago, a fully functional computer at a $35 price point, to address this specific problem. But $35 is a lot of money in these places. And so this year, the same people released the Raspberry Pi Zero, at the retail price of five US dollars. This can change everything.

Snapdragon Flight Processor:
Technically, the Snapdragon Flight Processor won't be released until the CES show in Las Vegas next week, but it was announced in 2015 and c'mon, we're not sticklers. Based on the popular and powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the flight processor is a purpose built processor for autonomous drones. It has the functions and libraries to do autonomous navigation, and obstacle avoidance while greatly increasing battery life and reducing overall cost. With a dedicated off-the-shelf processor, we can expect to see an explosion of cheaper, smarter, more powerful drones. This may not be altogether a good thing, but it will have a profound impact on the way we live.

ROS Jade Turtle:
Speaking of ready-to-use, off-the-shelf operating platforms, 2015 saw the release of the latest Jade release of the Robot Operating System. A Linux distribution customized to serve as the intelligence for commercial robots, ROS Jade Turtle is complete and mature. There are thousands of libraries available for download, for everything from sensor integration to location awareness to database connectivity. With tools like this, more people can build more robots that can do more things, and, once again, the world will change in unpredictable ways.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

No. ISIS is NOT 'Losing'...

For now, let's set aside the fact that ISIS represents a theocratic socio-political ideology, not a singular, identifiable group of actors, and there's nothing you can do to 'defeat' an ideology. It would be like the late lamented 'war on terror' - you cannot fight a war against a specific tactical methodology. What we're really talking about, in this case, is finding a way to end the Syrian civil war. Because as long as the various factions are at war within Syria, NONE of those factions can be defeated. Let's look at the current status map.

First, up there in the north  on the Turkish border is the Kurds. They have international access for trade, supplies and fighters, but they don't have the numbers or equipment to launch an offensive across the desert against ISIS-held communities along the Euphrates. The Sunni rebels along with al Nusra hold the area around Idlib and Aleppo, but they are constrained by the government and ISIS forces that completely surround them. They don't have direct access to resources, depending on access to Turkey through the Kurdish Kobani enclave and US/Coalition air drops.

ISIS controls the entire Euphrates river valley from Raqqa in Syria all the way to Anbar province in Iraq. They will alternately gain and lose territory on the edges, but once you get out into the desert it's not territory that they consider strategic. As long as they hold the fertile valley, they'll essentially have their Caliphate.

The Ba'ath/Alawite government is reduced to holding their ancestral stronghold in mountains and along the Mediterranean coast in the far west. But they aren't likely to be dislodged from this vestigial Syria. They have a deep water port and plenty of local and international support from their allies Russia and Iran, while Hezbollah holds down their southern flank along the Lebanese border.

The vast central portion of Syria and Iraq is a trackless desert. Nobody wants it, nobody cares about it, so ISIS can 'hold' it with minimal effort. All the action is around Aleppo, in northern Latakia province and the petroleum center of Deir-ez-Zur, which the government continues to hold onto despite a years long siege.

Now, think about this and tell me who is 'winning' and who is 'losing'. al-Assad knows he can't quit because he'll die, and he has no real incentive to quit. ISIS is under very little pressure except from the air, and that doesn't really do much to effect the strategic situation. The Kurds are in the best situation they've had in years, with a default Kurdish nation in Iraq and another in Syria, both receiving strong western support.

So there's no foreseeable end to the fighting, and there are multiple factions, none of which is strong enough to dominate nor weak enough to be eliminated, all of which are in combat with all the others. Don't even try to come up with a negotiated agreement that would satisfy all of them - it simply can't be done.

And this is why I continue to argue the US has no business being involved. There's no strategy that can do anything but prolong an endless ideological and religious holy war. There's no intervention that wouldn't increase the risk to America. 'Doing something' is a political decision, because in the toxic mix of American politics, the worst thing you can do is nothing.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor and the Folly of War

This isn't going to end well, Admiral
On this anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the global conflict that had already been raging for years, it's worth thinking about the mindset that drives a nation's leadership to undertake war as a solution to some kind of problem. Whether we're thinking about the German attack across the Polish frontier in 1939, their much more problematic (for them) decision to attack east a year later, Kim il-Sung's disastrous blitz across the 38th parallel in 1950, GW Bush's mindless invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the events in Hawaii 74 years ago today, there are commonalities behind these monumental decisions that bear discussion.

Launching an offensive war is often an existential gamble for a nation's leadership. It is the rare set of circumstances that allow a government to lose that gamble and remain alive and in power. So it's even more remarkable to consider how many times leaders choose to initiate hostilities without a viable, rational plan for ending them. If Japan had quickly consolidated their gains in the western Pacific and sued for peace with the US, she might have been able to hold on to many of the resource already conquered - perhaps agreeing to return the Philippines to to the US - and in a few years would have been able to stand with the US as an ally against Stalin. Likewise, if Hitler had negotiated peace with the UK after the fall of France and before he sent his armies toward Moscow, the outcome might have been much different for all. And where might we be today if the American troops stood up a Sunni strongman in Baghdad and withdrawn from Iraq before the end of 2003?

At the International Tribunals in Nuremberg, American Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson famously said:

To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
The world today has been shaped by national leaders who decided their best option was to start a war. In most cases, it turned out to be a disastrous choice, and in all cases it resulted in immense suffering. We're currently demonstrating our inability to learn from the history of our own lived experience, so it comes as no surprise that leaders have repeatedly made the same mistakes, committed the same crimes for the same reasons and paid the same consequences.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Look Around You - WE Are Not Who We Are....

Protip: We're not Winning
I've always slotted more comfortably into the 'lefty/liberal' slot when it comes to political, economic and social ideology. I came by it quite honestly - raised in Northern California with virtually no indoctrination in tribal hatreds - true, very little in the way of diversity, but that's one way to cut down on ingrained bigotry. My mom was a devout Catholic, but never even mentioned it at home, and when I stopped going to church it wasn't seen as a big deal. When I was small my mom warned me that homosexuals might 'try to hurt me', but as I grew up it became increasingly obvious that wasn't true. And my dad taunted me that my long hair made me 'look like a girl', but c'mon, we had mirrors in the house and I most certainly did NOT look like a girl, regardless of the length of my hair.

It was just obvious to me - you lived in a community, you helped the people in your community when they needed it, and they helped you when it came time for that. Why shouldn't a community use it's pooled resources to protect and care for everyone, before ever looking outside? And that was a worldview that scaled well, from neighborhood to city to state to the entire nation. If we were going to ask the people in our community to contribute resources via taxation, those resources should first and foremost go back into caring for the community.

From these simple observations, an entire ideological worldview emerges fully-formed. The answer to any question is always either 1.) does it contribute to the well being of the community or 2.) if it does not, is there any better application of those resources we should consider before committing them to any given initiative?

Most - if not all - of my friends are similarly aligned politically, mostly because conservatives and libertarians find me insufferable, adroit enough in my grasp of political history and economics to be equipped to poke an endless series of holes in their assumptions and fallacies. For that matter, I find anyone who is forced to believe false 'information' and fallacious assumptions in order to hold a clearly untenable worldview to be insufficiently intellectually curious to be tolerated.

But here's the thing. When we talk to each other, and we listen to each other, and we collectively point and laugh at the malicious mean-spirited buffoonery on the other side, we start to believe that EVERYBODY believes the things we do. After all, we talk on Facebook, we read Daily Kos and Kevin Drum and TPM and Vox, we see the ridiculous bile spewing from Fox and Limbaugh, and we just know that America is coming around to seeing things the way we do.

So here's a little reminder - think of it as a PSA, or maybe just a reality check. America is a place where diversity and tolerance are considered toxic, where tribal, racial and sectarian hatreds are taught from birth, where concepts like education and health care are socialism, that most un-American of concepts, where war and violence and incarceration and capital punishment - even torture - are American 'values'. "Liberals" are increasingly hated and feared - the leaders of the far right decry 'secular progressives' as their most dangerous and hated enemy. The stand united against everything America is supposed to be, and they stand under a banner that un-ironically says FREEDOM.

Whether you look at state and local government, abortion, guns, human and civil rights, even at something as uncontroversial as peace, we are not winning. Bernie Sanders has almost a million donors. Setting aside that ALL money in politics is bad, no matter who's money it is, there are 140 million registered voters in the US, and the vast majority of them HATE Bernie Sanders with a passion that even exceeds the hatred we felt for GW Bush. We keep thinking that demographics will eventually turn the US into a place we would recognize, but look around you. How's that working out for us?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mischief Is Afoot at Mischief Reef

Chinese Dredging Operations at Subi Reef
Pointless wars, endless military interventions and meaningless saber-rattling are very bad strategies for international relations. The US has been far too willing to engage the world with a military-first strategy - that simply cannot be argued. With 25 years in Iraq and 15 years in Afghanistan, with nothing, not a single positive outcome on offer, it's worthwhile for the American leadership to examine how we deal with foreign challenges and adversaries, and what international leadership really looks like in the 21st century. So given that interpretation, the current American naval 'provocation' in the Spratley Islands would seem to be irresponsible and unnecessary. But maybe not. Let's think this through.

As you probably know, the Chinese have claimed sovereignty over a number of tiny island chains in the South and East China Seas, delineated by the infamous "Nine Dash Line". These rocks and outcrops, mostly uninhabited, stretch from Taiwan down to the Philippines, and are alternately claimed as sovereign territory by Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, The Philippines and even Brunei. But go back and look at that list of competitors for these lonely rocks. China has nothing close to a peer-competitor in the international contest for the ownership of the South China Sea. So the Chinese rolled out a massive dredging program to build islands where there had been nothing but submerged reefs. On Mischief Reef, on Subi Reef, on Fiery Cross Reef, they turn submerged rocks into islands large enough to support an airstrip and a garrison.

Here's the thing. The Chinese are claiming a 12 nautical mile 'Exclusive Economic Zone' around these man-made islands. Setting aside that 12 mile EEZ doesn't allow the restriction of international navigation, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea addresses this specifically and directly - you get 500 meters around a man-made island. And here's the really fun irony. The Chinese have signed and ratified the UNCLOS, and are making claims that run directly counter to its specifications. Meanwhile, the US, who signed the UNCLOS twenty years ago but has never ratified it, is demanding the power to enforce its provisions.

So there's the background. It's in this environment that the US Navy dispatched the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) to conduct FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) by sailing intentionally through the 12 mile EEZ claimed by China around Subi Reef. And to be very clear, this is a good thing. China is what we call a 'regional hegemon', the 800 pound gorilla in their neighborhood. Nobody's going to go to war over shipping traffic in the vicinity of man-made islands in the middle of the South China Sea, but China could easily intimidate her smaller, weaker neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines. But it's very hard to intimidate a Burke class Destroyer, arguably one of the most powerful surface warships in the world.

This isn't about beating our chests or provoking war. This is merely telling a regional bully that we're not going to sit back and let them take control of international waters. This mission wasn't about the US at all, it was intended to show the Chinese that if they make statements like this, we're going to make them eat those words with the whole world watching...

Monday, October 26, 2015

Catastrophic System Failure Part 1 - The Electoral College

The numbers don't always add up
The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six Presidential General Elections in the US. Clinton won in '92 and '96, Gore won in 2000, and Obama won in 2008 and 2012. It's interesting to note that the only General Election they actually won outright was the very first election held after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. From this we can conclude that without a major transformative black-swan event, the Republican party is no longer a competitive national party. And this is intuitively reasonable, given that the Republican electorate skews older and whiter than the nation actually is as a whole, and every year that demographic represents a smaller portion of US voters.

So why don't they do something? It's clearly a conscious decision on the part of party strategists to accept the complete loss of the minority and gay vote, and the largest portion of the youth vote. The answer to this question can be found, as can so many other bits of convoluted governance theory in the US, in our national original sin, that Peculiar Institution, slavery. While Wilson and Madison very much preferred a popular election, they recognized that such a proposal stood no chance of success due to the differences in suffrage in the north and the south. At the same time, a system where the President was directly elected by congress ran the risk of an executive beholden to the legislative, diminishing the usefulness of the separation of powers. So they proposed a system where each state would choose a number of electors equal to the number of Senators and Representatives from that state, and those electors would actually cast the votes that elected the executive.

This 'Electoral College' - the term does not appear in the Constitution, but was formalized in federal law in 1845 - is, remarkably, still the system in use today. Now, there are many breathless discussions of how this system could be used to undermine the will of the people - indeed, there is no actual requirement that electors vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged - this is highly unlikely because they are pledged to that candidate for ideological and political reasons. Rather than some kind of inside skulduggery, the Electoral College instead radically changes the demographic realities of a national election. There are about 150 million registered voters in the US, and about 120 million of them can be expected to vote in a Presidential contest. With so many states uncontested 'Red' and 'Blue', a national election isn't dependent on the popular vote, but rather on a few hundred thousand 'swing' votes in highly contested states. And many of these states and regions within them skew to white, christian, rural voters.

You can see the inherent Democratic advantage reflected in the numbers they have locked in already. It's kind of interesting that the vast majority of those 191 starting electoral votes come from just four states - California, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So you can see quite clearly what this election will be about. The Republicans will be trying to win votes in the Rust Belt, while the Democrats try to exploit changing population dynamics in the Southwest and Southeast. 

But with all the dust and smoke and Ben and Bernie in the Primaries, keep this in mind. The campaign is going to be about a few communities in a few states in odd corners of the country. Your vote almost certainly is meaningless - unless it isn't. This could very well be a close run thing.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

On Squeaky Wheels

Our Heroes
Year after year, a hundred thousand Americans are shot with guns. Thirty thousand or so die. Another 40,000 - mostly young men - are convicted of a weapons felony and sentenced to an average of 4 years in prison. The families of all these people, their parents and children and spouses and siblings and cousins and friends and lovers - they all find their lives disrupted, their incomes reduced, their security threatened. But what's really interesting about this social, cultural and community catastrophe is that nobody really cared. Oh, there were the usual liberal checkbox for gun control. There were occasional discussions around closing the gun show loophole, or banning certain types of weapons. Small bore, pointless feelgood legislative proposals that nonetheless never went anywhere. Oh well, ho hum, let's talk about taxes.

But along came a tiny population of violent, disaffected lunatics. There was Columbine, and the outrage that followed. Michael Moore made a film, hands were wrung about what we knew or didn't know about what our children were really doing. Then came Virginia Tech, where one crazy kid with two handguns shot 50 people, killing 33 of them (including himself).  Years later there was Sandy Hook. Another crazy man, this time with an AR-15 killed two dozen children and their teachers. And on and on it goes.

Time after time, our attention is grabbed, our outrage is fired, our social media explodes in pain and demands that we DO SOMETHING. Even though mass killings like this represent a tiny percentage of our gun violence crisis, and killings with rifles represents a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction, these are the events we care about. Not, apparently the hundred thousand people who are shot every year, or the million other lives affected or ruined. Just these black swan slaughters.

OK then. If that's who we are, so be it. Given this bizarre condition, we will eventually succeed in regulating firearms in the US, in line with all other developed countries. But only if we have enough of these horrific mass slaughters. Only if a thousand or so people are killed in a concentrated series of these highly unusual murders. We apparently desperately need MORE mass killings, more of them more often. Because it certainly appears to be the only hope we have of saving tens of thousands of American lives every year, and reducing the associated social and economic costs. The only way to reign in the ludicrous availability of deadly handguns in America. The only way to get hundreds of millions of guns out of circulation, increasing scarcity and driving up costs.

It shouldn't be this way. But these heavily armed mass killers of unarmed children, these twisted madmen who leave lakes and rivers of blood in a brief burst of fire and hate, these butchers may be our last, best hope for sanity. In an odd twist that indicates just how insane the gun problem in America has become, if we are ever to succeed in getting our gun crisis under control, these odious, damaged mass killers will be the heroes that made it possible.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

P-38 - Mark of Excelence

There are at least three things that have carried the moniker "P-38".  And in some cosmic convergence or bizarre coincidence, all three were unprecedented design breakthroughs. Two were seminal enough to remain in use for the better part of a century, while the other had a much briefer production life, but defined a path from the past to the future that influenced similar designs for decades to come.  Whether there is some magic in the 'P-38' designation, or it's all just a tremendous triple-coincidence, you can assume that anything called P-38 is very likely very good at whatever it does.

And in the case of the P-38, the coincidence is even more remarkable because all three iconic P-38s were developed within five years of each other. Here, in approximate chronological order, are the P-38s that changed the world:

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning

The Fork-Tailed Devil
In 1937, Lockheed designed the P-38 Lightening in response to a US Army request for a twin-engine high altitude interceptor. The design team, lead by the design rockstar Kelly Johnson, came up with the famous twin-boom design. The airframe had features that ended up serving it well in both the European and Pacific theaters. The long range and speed of the heavy fighter made it perfect for bomber escort and fighter sweeps over Europe, while the range and reliability of two engines made it ideal for long flights over ocean waters. In both theaters, the heavy firepower of 4 .50 caliber guns an a 20mm Hispano auto-cannon made it deadly in both air-to-air and ground attack roles.

The P-38 was the only American fighter that was in production every day of the war, with more than 1800 still on order that were cancelled when the war ended. The top two American aces of the war, Richard Bong and Tommy McGuire, both flew P-38s in the South Pacific. It was a P-38 piloted by Rex Barber that shot down the Japanese bomber carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, killing him.

The P-38 served with the US until 1949, rendered obsolete by the jet age. But in its time it was a necessary part of the US arsenal - a heavy, fast, reliable, powerful fighter to complement its  smaller, more nimble brethren.

The Walther P-38

A VERY good gun
At about the same time that Kelly Johnson was working on the design for the P-38 Lightening, the German army was considering a problem. They had what was arguably the best military sidearm in the world - the iconic, nearly perfect P.08 Luger. But the Luger was terribly complex, and expensive to produce. With another European war increasingly inevitable, they needed a lot of modern, effective weapons, and that meant cheaper, simpler designs. The Pistole 1938 design was accepted in 1938, and went into full production in 1940.

The P-38 was a true breakthrough in automatic pistol design. It can be fairly regarded as the first 'modern' handgun. The major breakthrough was the DA/SA design that would ultimately become the default for modern autos with the advent of the 'Wondernine' in the early 1980s. This feature allowed the gun to be carried with a round in the chamber and the hammer 'decocked'. A single long-stroke pull of the trigger allowed the gun to be cocked and fired (DA, or Double Action), with subsequent rounds being fired with the hammer automatically cocked by the cycling of the action (SA, or Single Action). The P-38 also included a visual/tactile loaded chamber indicator, a small metal post that would pop up above the surface of the slide when a round was in the chamber. Even in total darkness, you could know for certain whether the gun was ready to fire.

The venerable Walther design is still available today. It has been produced by manufacturers in dozens of countries. I have owned two, a Walther and a Spanish Manhurin version. They are accurate, dependable and easy to shoot well. They are small and light for a service pistol - I often just stuffed mine in the back pocket of my jeans. Some of the early Walthers are collectable, but so many were made, and made so well, that they are still shooters today. Alongside the classic 1911 and K frame revolver designs, the P-38 is an iconic and very long lived 20th century handgun design.

The P-38 Can Opener

You always kept one on the chain with
your dogtags
In the early months of 1942, America found itself at war on both sides of the globe. The 'Arsenal of Democracy' needed lots of almost everything - uniforms, weapons, trucks, planes, explosives  - and food. Food that could be preserved and shipped around the world, in packaging that would stand up to life on the march, and on the battlefield, in all kinds of conditions. In terms of the technology  of the time, that meant sealed in steel cans. And that meant that there had to be a way to ensure that every GI, no matter where he might be, could open those cans. The obvious solution - include a can opener with every meal - seemed impractical at first, but when the C-Ration units were shipped in 1940, they came with an accessory pack that included, along with sugar, gum, cigarettes and toilet paper, an ingenious tiny folding can opener called the P-38. GIs immediately developed the habit of keeping one on the chain with their dogtags where it was readily available.

The mighty little can opener is a classic of industrial design. Simple, foolproof and a perfect solution to a specific problem, the P-38 was ubiquitous in war zones and disaster areas - anywhere there were C-Rations, there were P-38 openers - right up through the Vietnam war. Modern food preservation and packaging techniques have lead to the MRE and the elimination of the steel can, but even today, campers and backpackers happily go into the wilderness with a couple of P-38s in their gear. 

Why is it called P-38? Well, some have said that it's because it measures 38mm in length - which it does - but that seems unlikely as very few Americans had any familiarity with the metric system in 1942. The most common explanation is that, on average, it took 38 twists of the opener to open a standard ration can. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Three Little Pigs

Amid all the frantic posturing and wild claims emanating from both sides of the gun debate, we find ourselves locked in another endless, circular argument around "assault rifles". What are they good for? Why do we 'need' them? What makes them assault rifles, what makes them desirable, what makes them unacceptable and what would make them acceptable? In all the shouting and flecks of spittle, it's easy to forget that we have been all through this before. Not just the arguments over the original assault weapons ban of the Clinton years - although that event does serve as a kind of a coda to this story - but well before, going back to the years of great firearms innovations from 1960 to 1980.

In this period we saw the rise of a new kind of weapon, a submachine gun the size and form factor of a pistol, characterized by cheap, stamped metal construction, high rates of fire and corresponding large capacity magazines and representing a level of portable, concealable firepower that had simply never been available before. In the end there were dozens of different manufacturers and models, but the family tree has three branches, and at the top of each branch is an icon, a shining star in the firmament of global bloodshed in the latter half of the 20th century.

What was required to kick off this mini arms race was an engineering breakthrough. The challenge is the bolt - it has to have enough mass to operate with the right timing to cycle the weapon. Conventional wisdom had always been that the bolt was behind the barrel, and never the twain shall meet. Slowly, the firearms design community began to think about another option. What if, they wondered, we could extend some of the mass of the bolt over or around the barrel in front of the chamber? You could then envision a system that would use a ten inch barrel and would only be fourteen inches overall. Then, if you put the grip under the chamber and loaded the magazine in the grip, as in a typical automatic pistol, you might just be able to build something that had never been seen before.

In the beginning, there was Uzi

Where the HELL did he get that thing?
The revolution started small - or rather large. In the early fifties, designer Uziel Gal was working on a 9mm submachine gun for the Israeli Defense Forces. His design utilized the breakthrough telescoping bolt, extending it forward past the breech to provide it with enough mass to make the gun cycle reliably. The magazine fed through the pistol grip, and while the early versions had long barrels and fixed stocks in 1954, it evolved into the tiny, deadly weapon we saw most famously appear from nowhere during the attempt on President Reagan's life in 1981.

The world noticed, an icon was born, and weapons design would never be the same. The concept was irresistible - a small, concealable, high capacity automatic weapon was a game changer. Its time had come.

Shortly after the success of the Uzi came the MAC 10

Miami Vice had their finger on the pulse of
American firearms in the '80s. And white
Linen jackets.
In the mid-sixties, Gordon Ingram took the idea of the Uzi, stripped out all of the quality and elegance, and made a small, ugly, ridiculous gun that became the weapon of choice in the drug wars. The MAC 10 was a crude, stamped, welded .45ACP submachine gun that was eleven inches long and weighed six pounds.  It was clunky and ugly and worst of all, it had a ridiculously high rate of fire - for technical reasons around the distance the bolt had to travel, it was very hard to reduce without affecting reliability. So it fired 1000 rounds per minute in .45 ACP - the equivalent of a full 30 round magazine in a little over a second. Not terribly useful in an extended firefight.

The MAC 10 spawned lots of imitators, primarily because the companies that made it kept going out of business. But it became ubiquitous in the '80s - I had one of the Cobrays in 9mm that my fiance bought for my birthday. As crude and cheap as they were, they were so simple that they were utterly dependable, and you could push 30 rounds downrange in the blink of an eye. With the very short barrel, loose tolerances and the tendency to load cheap 9mm realoads - if you are loading a bunch of 30 round magazines, cost starts to become a consideration - accuracy was not great. Although it was hard to hold and aim, so it was an ongoing debate as to the inherent accuracy of the gun - but it was designed to put a LOT of lead downrange, and it did that very well.

But now we were getting into the late '80s, street violence was off the charts, crack wars were raging in Florida and gangs were exploding along with the growth of crack cocaine. And that leads us to the final straw.

As street crime and the drug wars heated up in the '70s and '80s, the US market responded with the TEC9

He seems to have anger issues
As the cocaine and gang wars of the 80s continued to dominate both the news and popular culture, a company called Intratec - a spinoff of a Swedish arms manufacturer - produced a design destined for infamy, called the TEC-9. The TEC-9 was a little different from its fellows - it was designed from the ground up as a semi-auto for the American market, and despite its own version of the telescoping bolt, it had a magazine that loaded in front of the pistol grip. Rather than being a submachine gun re-designed for civilian use, it was a high capacity semi-auto pistol targeted on the civilian market from the very beginning. And since the earliest versions fired from the open bolt, converting it to full auto was trivial. Eventually, Intratec was forced by US regulators to redesign the TEC-9 so it was much more difficult to convert, but by then there were dozens of copycats and knockoffs. If any one weapons design drove the first round of 'assault weapon' bans in the '90s, it was the cheap, deadly little TEC-9.

Now, there is a reason why, out of 12,253 murders in the US in 2013, only 285 were committed with rifles. They are big, expensive and impossible to carry or conceal. So it is these very small, high capacity weapons that use the ammunition and form factor of the handgun and build onto it the firepower of an assault rifle that are probably a more realistic concern. But of course, the real danger is the availability of the plain vanilla, run-of-the-mill handgun, any old thing you can stuff in your pocket or in your belt and reach for when you're angry, frightened or drunk.

But trying to legislate against certain kinds of rifles due to a few very bloody, high-profile incidents is not productive. Whether you want it to be true or not, rifles like the AK-47 and AR-15 do have many legitimate uses - the argument "why would you NEED one of those?" simply doesn't hold water. But guns like the three little pigs? These are street guns, concealable killing machines, and while they are ridiculously fun to shoot (full disclosure: I had a MAC-11 for a number of years in the '80s), they really don't have much purpose beyond putting a lot of lead downrange in a very short period of time from concealment.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Make America Great Again

You can tell he's stupid because his lips are moving
This is, as you surely are aware, Donald Trump's campaign slogan. It always strikes me in a number of ways as being kind of tone deaf and off-putting. First of all, why aren't all the other Republican 'American Exceptionalism' candidates shrieking that America is the greatest country in the universe, and Donald is saying we're NOT great? I suspect because even they don't want to claim an America lead by that noted Marxist/Kenyan/Nazi Barack Hussein Obama could possibly be great, even if it America, which is always great. Or something.

But what is that Trump is saying? What would make America great again? Why, it's about growth, and business, and trade, and making good deals, and creating jobs, and building infrastructure - Walls, lots and lots of WALLS - and deportations, and military power, and threatening adversaries, and threatening allies, and all the other things you'd expect when you combine entitlement, bluster and ignorance.

Now, ask yourself: What do all these things have in common? Money. They all cost money. Trump is essentially talking about undertaking a series of large-scale investments, to the tune of several trillion dollars over two terms. Plus, he's now proposing very large deficit financed tax cuts. Of course, he just waves that off - he's too SMART to have investments cost money - but we know that's just because he's a.) too lazy to actually do any research and b.) dishonest enough to be willing to promise everyone a free pony.  This at the same time he's claiming to be a great businessman, and he can't even speak to the value of good investments because of the Republican government spending obsession.

But there's the key trade-off in modern American politics. What will government do, and what will legislators fund? We're making a series of desperately poor decisions now, around how to fund the Highways and choosing NOT to fund infrastructure and R&D/Big Science projects. The refusal of the institutional Republican party to allocate any resources while everything just gets older and we fall farther behind is the most frustrating thing to watch I can imagine.

So here comes The Donald, saying no, no, we CAN do all these things, we just don't need to actually PAY for them. Donald Trump will not be the President of the United States, but people would do well to think about what he's saying - not the self-aggrandizing nonsense, but the part about how we need to invest in our own future, and we need to start NOW.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Today in Pointless Destabilization

Let's start with this - nuclear weapons policy is desperately important. We're fooling around on the edge of extinction, and we need to be very certain we understand what we're doing and how it's being interpreted around the world. And the current bloodthirsty arrogance of the American and Russian leadership - coupled with the beligerent assertiveness of the increasingly capable Chinese military is frightening in this context.

During the cold war, the US and Russia, along with minor contributions from Europe and China, learned to use their nuclear arsenals to prevent nuclear war. It was a thing nobody wanted - if you can't win, what's the point in even playing? So elaborate signaling and systems grew up, even as systems evolved to the incredibly dangerous "Launch on Warning" standard we still carry today. But even so, when something went pear-shaped - and it did fairly often - they were able to avoid the most obvious, and horrific, outcome.

 The problem is, as technology advanced, the window for decision making got shorter, and we're now faced with a condition where it would be very easy for the situation to outpace our ability to manage it. And yet, the cold-war logic holds even today, if we operate within its constraints. Here's what you can't do - you can't build a system that takes you out of the 'MAD' - Mutually Assured Destruction - construct. As long as we sink or swim together, we can work together to prevent the use of strategic nuclear weapons. The situation is destabilized, however, when one side or the other has a qualitative advantage that would permit it to launch an effective preemptive strike that effectively 'wins' a nuclear exchange by preventing substantial retaliatory strikes by the targeted country.

There are exactly two ways you can do this - using anti-missile technology to render your nation invulnerable to ICBMs or to develop a weapon/delivery platform combination that would allow you to eliminate your opponents strategic capacity without warning. This combination of stealth, accuracy and weapon effectiveness is much more likely to find itself in play than some kind of imaginary missile defense system.

Which brings us to the US Nuclear Weapons Policy. The Obama administration has affirmed that they will not develop 'new' weapons, but just where the line between updates and modifications to existing designs and entirely new weapons is can be difficult to agree on. A nuclear weapon is comprised of the nuclear explosive element itself, called the 'physics package', the mechanisms that render it safe until they actually detonate it, and the 'packaging', the functional bomb or missile itself. If you retain the same physics package, but you add modern digital control circuitry and an advanced guidance and delivery package, is that a new weapon, or just an upgrade to an existing weapon?

That is the effective description of the B61-12. The US has had the B61 thermonuclear gravity bomb in inventory for decades. It's always had a few key features - variable yield technology, and limited accuracy. The B61-11, fielded in 1997, was built in a ground penetrator 'bunker buster' configuration. The B61-12 is the same 'physics package', but packaged in a modern precision-guided gravity bomb and deliverable from stealth aircraft like the B-2 and the F-35. This combination of stealth, precision and low yield make it ideal for decapitation and anti-nuclear first strikes, which makes it inherently destabilizing. When the Russians have to realize that the first they would know about a US first strike would be the destruction of the Kremlin or their missile silos, their finger is going to be that much tighter on their own nuclear trigger.

So we have to ask: Why? Why do US forces see a need to turn a 1970s era gravity bomb into the most destabilizing nuclear weapons system in the world? What problem are they solving with the B61-12? The answer is as obvious as it is frightening. They are working not to preserve a strategic 'balance of terror', but rather their own budgets. They have to walk a fine line, being able to plausibly claim these are mere upgrades of existing weapons, but the only way they can deliver an upgrade is to turn a city-killer into a silo-killer. And make no mistake, the Russians and Chinese are watching very closely.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Slouching Toward Armageddon

End Game for al-Assad - for the rest of them
there will be no end to the killing
The issue is no longer in doubt. Syria is falling. The al-Assad regime no longer has the personnel and military organizations to effectively fight the various forces in action in the North around Aleppo. There are currently ISIS, al Nusra, Kudish forces and the loose aggregation of insurgents often referred to as the 'Free Syrian Army', or simply as 'Syrian Rebels' in combat with each other and the Syrian Armed Forces, but after nearly five years of non-stop warfare, the Syrian loyalist troops are depleted, exhausted and frightened. One of the advantages the Islamist groups have is al-Assad's forces bowel-loosening fear of getting captured by them. The loyalist troops will abandon their positions long before the fight is over, just to make sure they make it back to the next secure town or village before they get overrun.

Bashir al-Assad and the mostly Alawite Ba'ath leadership has had ongoing support from Russia and Iran. The reasons for this support are complex, but the simple explanation is that Russia needs Syria because it provides them with a proxy state in the Middle East and Iran is supporting the government because, as Alawites, they are Shi'ite Muslims, and the opposition is almost entirely Sunni.

So with the government forces on the run, losing territory to ISIS in the East and Syrian Rebel forces and al-Nusra in the West, it is not surprising that both Russia and Iran would step up their support. Russia is particularly concerned about the rebels westward advance. Idlib fell in March, and Jisr al-Shughur in April, and now the rebels are only ten kilometers from the Mediterranean seacoast, and only 20 kilometers from Syria's primary port, Latakia. Even worse for the Russians, their only naval base on the Med is at Tartus, just another 84 kilometers down the coast road. Meanwhile, Iran needs a friendly Syrian government to retain access to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

So Russia has undertaken a buildup of their own frontline equipment, including tanks, APCs, attack helicopters and modern multi-role fighter jets. There's even some evidence that they've brought in advanced air defense systems, the significance of which we'll get to in a minute. It seems pretty obvious that this is a precursor to the deployment of Russian combat troops in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad and his core leadership group. The justification will be they are fighting ISIS and the other Islamist militants - hmm, that sounds awfully familiar - but make no mistake: They are there because the Syrian army no longer has the combat power to hold on to their remaining territory.

So this will bring Russians, Syrians, Kurds, ISIS/Nusra, Hezbollah, Gulf States and American militaries into close proximity in a combat zone. And why do the Russians need anti-air defenses? ISIS doesn't have any air assets, and neither do the Kurds. The only combat air assets in theater will be Syrian, Russian and American/Allied - and occasionally Israeli. The likelihood of a fatal accident or mis-calculation is very high.

When the Syrian revolution started, the world thought it was just another Arab Spring uprising against an authoritarian dictatorship. What we forgot to notice is how strategic Syria was to a large number of powerful external entities. And no matter what happens - if the Ba'ath leadership can hold on to power and some territory or not, if al - Assad clings to power or steps aside, if the Damascus perimeter holds or if the capital city falls  - Syria will remain a war torn failed state for many years to come. The refugees will continue to stream out of the area, the the Iraqi and Syrian borders will be erased and the region will continue its spiral into chaos and desperation. Only now we also have an opportunity for it to explode into a major powers confrontation and an unpredictable and dangerous regional war.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Shutdown Express Rolls Into Town Again

Actually, no, we're not sorry at all
Stop me if you've heard this one before. The fiscal year ends in a couple weeks, on September 30th, and we are once again hearing a chorus of voices threatening to refuse to fund the US government if their ideological demands aren't met. As usual these demands are so extreme and so toxic that they can't accomplish them with legislation, so the only path they have is political terrorism. Do the incredibly unpopular things we demand or we'll blow up the entire system. This time it's not the deficit, and it's not Obamacare. Oh no. This time it's orders of magnitude more extreme and stupid than those - this time it's Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood is a very popular reproductive health services delivery program, depended on by well over 100 million Americans every year. Virtually nobody who isn't a privileged white male fascist wants to see Planned Parenthood defunded. But beyond that, it's unclear what they even mean when they say they want to defund Planned Parenthood. They shriek that Planned Parenthood gets HALF A BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR from the government - and that's  sort of true. As a non-profit organization, PP reports its revenue every year, and they did receive over $500 million from federal, state and local governments. But here's the thing. Over $400 million of that, about 80%, was Medicaid reimbursements. In other words, it wasn't the government giving money to Planned Parenthood, it was a government insurance program reimbursing doctors for perfectly legal and important health care work. 71 million Planned Parenthood patients are covered by Medicaid. Are they suggesting they could pass legislation preventing Medicaid from reimbursing doctors if they see patients under the auspices of Planned Parenthood? Even without a Democratic filibuster or a Presidential veto, I just don't see how you could even write, let alone pass, a bill like that.

Now, this time around, the Republican leadership is no longer delusional - they are quite sanguine in their acknowledgment that it is their party and their candidates that will suffer if they shut down the government again. But they are also terrified - they know that if they don't find a way to at least appear to go along with Ted Cruz and his band of thugs, they could lose their positions within the legislature, and they could even lose their seats. The sop they're throwing the tea party loonies is a hopeless and probably unconstitutional bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. But the rabble is up in arms over a very specific entity - Planned Parenthood - and at this point it doesn't look like the leadership can talk them down with another hopeless tilt at the abortion windmill.

At any rate, we'll see how it all plays out over the next eighteen days or so.

Note: But politics watchers, don't despair. The budget will work itself out either at the last minute or after a short, ugly shutdown, probably with another short term continuing resolution. But that doesn't mean the high wire act is over. Oh no. Remember, we hit the debt ceiling back in March, but the usual 'extraordinary measures' employed by the Treasure coupled with $40 billion more in taxes collected than expected has allowed the government to limp along. Nobody can say when they'll need to raise the cap, but most observers are looking at November. So another bloody debt ceiling fight looms around Thanksgiving, so keep your popcorn handy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Is Abnormal the New Normal?

Allow me to introduce...A box of particularly
dense hammers...
The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee will meet on September 16th. There is an increasing clamor for, and increasing indications of an interest rate hike. Unemployment is down to 5.1%, they say, the economy is growing, and this darn zero percent interest thing is just downright weird. We are looking for a way to get rates 'back to normal'. There are English language words for this position, words that include 'specious' and 'stupid'. Interest rates remain well below even the meager target of 2% and wage growth is flat, indicating additional slack in the labor market. And yet the Fed is itching to raise rates, despite tremendous risk, because they are just plain uncomfortable with the zero rate.

Their lack of 'comfort' with the Zero Lower Bound, and their desire for something arbitrary that they choose to define as normal, is a ridiculous basis to undertake something so fraught with risk and second-order ramifications as an interest rate hike. If the economy is indeed growing, low cost of capital is a good reason for that to be the case, and with below target inflation and minimal wage growth, it's clear that the economy is nowhere near overheating, that unemployment has farther to fall, and that putting on the brakes at this point with the weakness in both Europe and Asia risks giving back all the slowly earned gains of the last two years. All because they're uncomfortable with a number.

Think about that - the people who run American monetary policy, who are supposed to be some of the most accomplished an thoughtful economists in the world, these people are going to do something that is at a minimum controversial, and beyond that is widely recognized to be stupid and destructive. All because they want things to be 'normal' as they've experienced it over their lifetimes.

So many catastrophic decisions in the US have been self-inflicted wounds. Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, the government shutdowns - stupid decisions made for stupid reasons and yet they keep calling them governance. The lesson we've failed to learn is that ideology is not a governing principle, because governing requires negotiation and compromise, and ideology by definition prevents compromise.

Yes. Interest rates are at zero. And they ought to be, as inflation is well below target and wages aren't rising. This is the textbook reason for keeping rates low. And the Fed lunatics don't dispute that - they just want to raise rates because that would make them 'comfortable' that things are moving towards 'normal'. And this is what we've come to call governance in the 21st century.

Is it sad or frightening? It's very hard to believe, but the Federal Reserve - an independent entity not subject to control from the political leadership - is willing to point a gun to the head of the recovery for no quantifiable reason. There's something particularly chilling about the self-inflicted wound, the economic equivalent of cutting or suicide. A clear understanding on an intellectual level that what you're doing is wrong, but an equally clear personal and ultimately meaningless reason for doing it. All the while, secure in the knowledge that it's not the Board of Governors that will suffer for their misguided attempt to find their own economic comfort zone, it is millions of Americans who's jobs and futures are at immediate risk from this selfish and disreputable decision.

It's not too late, but they've made it pretty clear. This is something they're going to do, sooner rather than later, not because the numbers call for it - quite the contrary - but because they WANT to and regardless of the havoc that results, they've made it very clear that at least THEY will feel better for it.

THIS is the state of governance in 2015.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Killing Comes Home

Just STOP fucking killing us
Actually, the beast has been at my doorstep before. Just over the bridge, the bastards murdered Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009. But that was the East Bay - they have real racial problems over there, racist cops, a lot of minorities, a history, you know? This is Silicon Valley - Home of Intel, of San Jose State University, the beating heart of the tech revolution, the font of so much wealth and success. How could the beast come here to feed?

And yet.

And yet, once again, early on Thursday morning, three so-called 'correctional officers' - nothing but thugs and gangsters with a government sanction and a license to kill savagely beat Michael Tyree - a homeless bipolar kid being held on a nothing paraphernalia charge until a bed in a mental health facility opened up - to death. The inmate in the next cell heard the beating, and watched them turn out the light and close the cell door, leaving Michael Tyree to bleed out slowly from his torn and ruptured organs.

The Santa Clara Sheriff's office knows exactly which way the wind is blowing. The three officers were promptly charged with Tyree's "cowardly" murder (Sheriff Smith's words) arrested and held without bail. That's the good news - the free pass that uniformed law enforcement personnel have enjoyed to kill, torture, maim, injure and humiliate the citizens they are responsible for protecting is slowly ending. Accountability, at least in some jurisdictions, is coming.

Of course, there is a true gang mentality within law enforcement organizations, and it's going to take a while for the new realities to sink in, and more will die hard before the murderers, bullies and thugs figure out that they very well might NOT get away with it. Meanwhile they push back, characterizing the disgust people feel when the cops kill the citizens as a 'war on cops'.  It's a well known and oft-used tactic to try to silence the people trying to upset their apple cart, but I don't think it will work this time.

We've had it. 

We've had it right up to here with criminals killing us on one side and cops killing us on the other. We've had it will living in a crossfire, surrounded by the various heavily armed gangs who think they can kill us with impunity. War on cops? Nah. War on COPS KILLING US. And all it takes is doing what we do, prosecuting murderers. As soon as the bullies and thugs in the blue uniforms realize that they are going to be held to the same legal standard as the 'dirtbags' they lord over, they'll have to behave the way they're supposed to, or switch sides.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Democrats: Be Careful What You Wish For

He's for equality. That's great. Is it too much to
ask how he plans on governing?
Hey, I get it. You don't love Hillary Clinton. She's part of the system, she's been a little slippery, the press hates her, and c'mon, where there's smoke there's fire, right? She's friendly with the banks, she's a foreign policy hawk - hell, she voted with the odious GW Bush to invade Iraq in a pointless self-inflicted policy wound. I get your concerns, but you need to think very carefully about where you're going with this.

Bernie Sanders can't get elected. If Hillary is crippled, Bernie still won't get the support of the national party organization. So we either end up with a crippled Hillary Clinton or an unelectable Bernie Sanders as the nominee. How is that good?

The question is simply this: What is the goal? None of these people are people we WANT to be President. 'But mikey', you say, 'you're wrong. I WANT President Sanders.' But you really don't know that. Let me remind you of history - you thought Obama would be the liberal savior - I know, you don't remember it that way now, but I was there. I KNOW what you said. Constitutional Scholar, community organizer, everything he said led you to believe he would do great things to advance the liberal agenda.


But the realities of reality left you unhappy. He stayed in Afghanistan. He couldn't close Guantanamo Bay. He put troops back on the ground in Iraq. He routinely assassinates people with CIA drones without even knowing who they are. He never prosecuted the bankers that blew up the financial system and then took taxpayer money to cover their stupidity and greed (even though the President isn't a prosecutor and can't really do more than define a broad enforcement agenda through his Attorney General).

So I invite you to go to Bernie Sanders' campaign website. Here, let me help you. Now, I invite you to tell me where he stands on a broad measure of foreign, economic and taxation policies. Because he either has no idea or he's not willing to tell us. Either way, bear in mind, you  trusted Barak Obama, are you really prepared to just blindly trust Bernie Sanders? Even now, in an interview with Stephanopoulos on Sunday, he said he'd continue the drone assassination program.

But even worse, if Sanders was to get the nomination, I can already see the campaign advertising screaming 'Socialist'. And this time they wouldn't be pretending - he identifies that way. And if you think Americans are going to elect a self-described Socialist to the White House, you are living in an alternate reality. If Bernie Sanders is the nominee, Scott Walker is your next President of the United States. And you'll cry 'no, it's not my fault, I was just being true to my beliefs', while all the while you KNEW that none of the choices were optimal and you created the conditions where the right wing lunatics were able to take control of all three branches of government.

Fucking congratulations.

This is a game that has to be played for real, and pretending you can get what you want is infantile. The people who reach the pinnacle of American politics are not nice, and they owe a lot of quid to a lot of pro quo. You're not going to get the workers paradise you long for - America is a harsh place, filled with angry, delusional, frightened people who will thwart your desire. All things considered, Obama was pretty good. He made some real progress, and there's more to come. He did what he could with the legislative path closed off to him. Don't forget that the next president may appoint as many as FOUR supreme court justices. You may not love Hillary Clinton, and you may loathe the DNC, but if you read Paul Ryan's budget and listen to Lindsay Graham's pants-wetting rhetoric and Bobby Jindal's idiocy, if you take note of the popularity of the spittle-spewing anger inchoate that is Donald Trump, you might decide that, as a political priority, getting Ms. Clinton elected might just be an undertaking worth considering.

Look. At the end of the day, it's your vote. You can use it tactically, strategically, ideologically or just mindlessly. Nobody can tell you how to use it, and if they try you should kick them in the junk. I'm just here to implore you to think about the secondary and knock-on effects of enough votes in enough places. If you're ok with that, great. Pull that lever. But don't try to pretend you didn't know what outcome you were creating. You can't kill your parents and then ask for mercy because you're an orphan.

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.