Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Wars!!

Travel the world, meet new people
and kill them
Well, another year behind us and none of the conflicts from the last year are resolved.  The violence and brutality continues in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Mexico, Congo, Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and all the other local hot spots that most Americans couldn't find on a map.  But fear not, even as these endless conflicts take lives and ruin even more lives, we can expect a host of new violence in 2013.

The big one is Iran.  The economic pressure from the sanctions is increasing, and the Iranians are going to have to try to formulate a strategy to get out from under the most onerous of them.  And virtually any strategy is going to involve raising the stakes, and that will always carry a risk of uncontrolled escalation.   Israel has also invented an imaginary red line determined by the amount of 20% enriched Uranium the Iranians stockpile.  Never mind that this is FAR from weapons grade, Netanyahu has drawn this line, which is expected to be reached, or crossed, in June.  Now, as I have said before, I don't believe Bibi and his advisers actually WANT to launch an attack on Iran.  They are much better off politically and diplomatically with Iran as their own personal boogeyman, that designated 'existential threat' used to justify otherwise intolerable political, military and economic policies.  But things are getting very real for the Iranian regime, and with all the rhetoric a conflict seems almost inevitable.

Another big one is Iraq.  Iraq is both imploding and exploding in a variety of ways.  PM Malkiki's heavy handed political consolidation, including the elimination of Vice President Hashimi and the marginalization of the other Sunnis in the government has resulted in intense friction with other groups. There is a standoff with the Kurds over oil contracts and the status of Kirkuk, and a budding alliance between the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian opposition and even, most surprisingly, Turkey.  In the meantime, the institutionalized mis-treatment of the Sunni population has brought tens of thousands into the street in protests this week, closing the main road north.  The last time there was a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiite government, it took the might of the entire US armed forces to put it down.  If Maliki finds himself fighting not one, but two civil wars, one in Anbar and one in Kurdistan, he's in for a rough time.  But it will be bloody, and like everything else in that blighted land, carries the risk of regional escalation.

Then of course there's Mali.  The Tuareg separatists took the northern half of the country for their homeland, and the Jihadi wackaloons took it from them.  Now they're doing what Jihadi wackaloons always do with their own country, running around beheading and stoning and mutilating people, destroying historic statuary and basically making everybody around them miserable.  So behind French demands, the UN has authorized a force gathered from regional African states to invade Northern Mali and return it to the control of the Government in Bamako.  Of course, the fact that the government in Bamako has changed four times in the last year is problematic to this undertaking, as is the questionable willingness of Mali's neighbors to contribute troops, but sometime this year we can expect to see a decent little local war in the Sahara.

Then there's  a couple of long-shots, not really likely to become shooting wars in 2013, but worth noting because of their massive potential global consequences.  First is a few disputed uninhabited rocky islands in the East and South China Seas, rich in resources and variously claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines.  China is the dominant military power in the region, but under a variety of treaties, agreements and commitments  the United States is almost certain to get involved if things turn hot.  It's interesting that much of the Chinese military developments of the last decade seem specifically designed to control those bodies of water, especially to keep the American Carrier Groups out.  Then there's the real black swan event, the eruption of a revolution or civil war in China.  China is a huge, virtually ungovernable nation with a wildly diverse population, a vast interior full of poor, restless people and tremendous corruption preserving a terribly un-equal system.  The current national government is opaque and inefficient, not at all suited to the demands of governing the largest nation on earth in the 21st century.  It is a veritable certainty that China will explode at some point - the question is whether that will happen in 2013.  While it seems unlikely, we've seen in the events of the Arab Spring that these things can go from isolated demonstrations to full-blown revolution with startling velocity.

Beyond that, there are a lot of hot spots that, while not necessarily poised for imminent warfare, bear watching closely this year.  They include Mexico, Venezuela after the passing of Chavez, Nigeria and our old friend Egypt, which may only be getting started on the path to chaos.  There is also the crisis that hasn't begun, the near-certainty of somebody doing something stupid in some corner of the world, with larger nations rushing in to stake their claim on their fair share of the killing.  We live in a time of endless warfare, and when no conflicts ever end, the violence only grows and spreads.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Downloading Death

Cody Wilson - He wants to kill you
Meet Cody Wilson.  Cody's probably insane, but he's leading an under-the-radar movement that might just make everything we thought about a dystopian future of endless warfare downright optimistic.  You see, Cody thinks going to the store and buying a gun, even in America, is a process with too much friction.  He wants to see true universal firearms availability - so he started a company, Defense Distributed, to produce an open-source downloadable gun.  That's right, downloadable.  The idea is that there will be a variety of tested, verified designs hosted on his site in the appropriate format to load directly into a 3D printer.  Anytime you need a gun, you download the one you want, print it and start killing.  No pesky transaction records, and your only cost is the printer and the ammunition.  We truly live in amazing times.

Now, we're not quite all the way there yet.  While any high-end 3D printer is capable of producing a device with the complexity and tolerances of a gun, the materials used are typically plastics and light ceramics that are not nearly robust enough to survive the heat and pressure associated with modern ammunition.  The record for service life, as far as anyone knows, is a .223 rifle Cody produced that fired six rounds before becoming unusable.  Even so, the writing is on the wall.  It's not a technology problem any more, merely one of material science, and that happens to be one of the areas Americans have historically excelled in.

So the interesting question is not if this is possible or how it works or how much it costs.  Like aerial robotic murder and cyber-destruction of real physical installations and intrusive remote surveillance, this is another example of an evolutionary technology that has profound implications on the world of the near and medium-term future.  What will a world be like where guns are instantly available as a single-use disposable item, when anybody can produce a deadly weapon without any human intervention or regulation, when any dispute can become a gunfight with one mouse click?  Nations with restrictive firearms laws will have no choice but try to regulate ammunition, and nations with liberal firearms laws will find those policies resulting in yet another dimension of madness and bloodshed.

If I may get slightly technical here, consider the now infamous AR-15.  The AR is comprised of two main parts groups called the upper and lower receiver groups.  The upper receiver group contains the barrel and is not considered a firearm, so it is not legally controlled.  Anyone can order them over the Internet and own them.  The "gun" is the lower receiver, which contains the action, trigger group and chamber.  This is worth mentioning because it may be much easier to print a lower receiver only, and then it is a simple matter of mating it to an upper with the regular steel barrel.  There is, of course, no reason why that downloadable lower receiver can't have a selector for full auto fire - that's nothing but a different mechanical arrangement.

I don't know about you, but I look into the future I see a place of violence and death.  Just as ethnic, sectarian, tribal and class hatreds become the primary drivers of human interaction and greed and inequality leads inevitably to hunger and hopelessness, we have a series of powerful, deadly technologies becoming available to anyone, many of them inexpensive and simple to produce.  With intelligent, autonomous drones bringing sudden death from the skies and printable guns supplying neighborhood-level uprisings, it's very hard to imagine how one might ever feel safe in this world we are creating.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

It's the Debt Ceiling, Stupid

Well, the same concept, just not nearly
as rational this time
Are you tired of hearing about the Fiscal Cliff?  Good.  You should be.  The fiscal cliff is a sideshow, a self - imposed artificial crisis created by too many politicians trying to make deficit spending into some kind of existential threat in order to accomplish the goals of their individual economic and social agendas.  Let's be clear here - the debt does not represent any sort of near term threat.  It is largely money owed by Americans to other Americans, and because of the very low Treasury yields of the last few years the cost to service the debt is actually falling, even as the debt is high by historical standards.  A nation with its own currency, whose debts are denominated in that currency, simply cannot be "broke".  It is not possible for the very government that prints the currency in the first place to "run out of money".

The interesting thing about the fiscal cliff is that it is strictly a problem in Keynesian economics.  If you refused to believe that stimulus spending could help the economy grow, there is no basis for you to then claim that austerity will cause the economy to contract.  To believe either one is to believe both, and it is by that hypocrisy (along with the one where the debt is the biggest crisis we have ever faced but raising taxes isn't an allowable solution) that we can clearly recognize the malicious intentions behind the fear mongering of the fiscal cliff.

There is no cliff - at some point Congress will agree to reset tax and spending policy and they will do so retroactively.  There will be some short-term shrieks of panic and false outrage as markets overreact to the change to "the baseline", but at the end of the day it is just an opportunity for grandstanding and the making of grand pronouncements and dire threats, which is what our political leadership today substitutes for actual governance.  So, nothing to worry about, right?

Whoa.  That, it turns out, is hardly the case.  The fiscal cliff is an artificial problem, but we have a different, self-inflicted problem that is very, frighteningly real.  It's called the Debt Ceiling.  Think about this.  Congress is responsible for "the purse", that is, all spending and revenue collection.  The fact that congress has historically found it difficult to carry out this role responsibly has led to a number of problems, one of which is deficit spending.  So, in an attempt to impose the very discipline the legislators were unable to demonstrate willingly, they passed a law putting a hard cap on the amount of debt the United States could legally carry.  For years, this was seen as an opportunity for the minority party to rail against "spending" before the limit was raised.  It really served no purpose but to create the conditions for a few scolding speeches.  It wasn't like anybody would seriously force the United States government to default on its debt, right?

Then came Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the tea party and the intellectual decline of the Republican Party.  And suddenly, the very same political caucus that brought us the Bush tax cuts, two unfunded wars and Medicare Part B was holding the entire American economy hostage in order to drive very deep spending cuts, claiming a new found fear of large deficits.  At a time of political and economic weakness, the President capitulated, but severe economic damage was done nonetheless.

This time will be different.  The President realizes that by agreeing to negotiate with a gun to the head of the American economy he created a monster, one that will perpetually reappear on a regular basis unless the entire hostage-taking construct is eliminated.  He cannot allow a weaponized debt ceiling to remain intact, no matter what the consequences.  The Republicans in the House are dangerously ignorant of real-world economics, and the hatred their constituency feels for Obama will drive them to new levels of intransigence.  It is on this matter of raising the debt ceiling that they believe they have leverage over the President, and both sides see this as the defining fight of a generation.  Neither can afford to lose.

Interestingly, the President has a number of technocratic solutions he could fall back on if the standoff became uncomfortable - from invoking the 14th amendment to authorizing the Treasury to mint several trillion dollars in platinum coins (this is by far my favored solution).  But even before that, the federal government can keep paying it's debts as they come due and continue sending out social security checks, while paying defense contractors, government employees and other vendors with IOUs.  This would certainly create a widespread demand that a solution be found, with everyone from CEOs to FBI agents to Park Rangers demanding immediate action.

It's hard to see how it's all going to play out, but it's going to be very loud, very messy and quite probably destructive to lives and families.  It's completely pointless, as there is no reason to even consider deficit reduction at this time, and the political and ideological reasons for pretending otherwise are vile.  But it's the real action in town.  Forget the fiscal cliff - that's just the opening band, some locals with day jobs.  The main act will take the stage sometime around March 1st.  And that's when the real bleeding starts.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stand There, Don't Just Do Something

Or at least start thinking about it pretty soon
In the aftermath of the gruesome slaughter of 20 children in Newtown Connecticut, the latest in a string of mass killings by gun-wielding madmen in the United States, a not-so proud tradition that can be traced directly back to Charles Whitman in the midst of the bloody sixties, there is suddenly a new-found American conversation around some sort of firearms regulation.  This is an unalloyed good, necessary and long overdue.  The combination of greed and delusional ideology has been successful in silencing the discussion for too long, and if anything good is to come out such a horrific tragedy, it would be something that reduced the likelihood of another, similar tragedy in the future.  At this point, however, another, similar tragedy, indeed many of them, is a certainty.

Now, this will be a short post, because it will merely serve, once again, to recap what I've been saying, shouting and ranting for years.  We'll start with the reality.  The things people want to do are wrong, and even those things won't happen this time around.

Ok, mikey, why are they "wrong"?  America has a gun violence problem.  Last year we had over 12,000 murders, over ten thousand of those committed with firearms.  Less than four hundred of those were committed with rifles.  America does not have a rifle problem.  America has a handgun problem.  Rifles are expensive and cannot be concealed.  You cannot wander around town with a rifle.  You can't go in a bar, or a restaurant, or knock on your estranged wife's door with a rifle.  You cannot lose your temper, get drunk, get high, get angry and pull out your rifle.  Yes, the events of last Friday were another high profile event featuring a rifle.  But can we really say we are addressing our gun violence problem if all our efforts are focused on banning SOME rifles?  That would be like seeking to address traffic fatalities by banning trains.

The other thing you keep hearing about is banning high capacity magazines.  OK, fine, go ahead and spend some of your political opportunity doing this.  It won't actually hurt anything, but you have to understand how pointless and valueless it is in reducing gun murders.  First, reloading an automatic is easy and fast. Seung-Hui Cho fired hundreds of rounds in the process of shooting fifty people with his pistols.  Adam Lanza notoriously used thirty round magazines, but nobody seems to mention that even with that, he reloaded four or five times at least.  Changing mags is fast and easy because it's designed to be fast and easy.  You can kill an awful lot of people with ten round mags - you might say "ahh, but not as many" and that may be true, but you haven't really addressed the gun violence problem.  The key problem with magazine capacity regulations is enforceability.  Magazines are not guns.  They are not complex, machined to tight tolerances or hard to design or manufacture.  They are aluminum or plastic boxes with a spring inside.  They will be made in places where it is legal to do so, or they will be made in garages and barns.  They will be sold on the internet, or there will be kits to expand the capacity of legal magazines sold on the internet.  And law enforcement will wink at it all, because they will have no way to interdict this commerce.

Some people even say that we should ban semi-auto firearms.  I have no idea how you could do that - I'd love to see a sample bill, because to my knowledge nobody's ever tried to actually write one, but if you believe you could get such a ban on a concept that can executed an infinite number of ways past the Supreme Court, you're delusional.

Here's the answer.  Lots of people think it's illegal to own a machine gun in the United States.  Actually, it's not.  It's perfectly legal to own a machine gun - Charleton Heston famously owned hundreds of them.  Machine gun ownership is regulated under the National Firearms Act, or Title II, originally passed in 1934.  The NFA is an excellent model for regulating all firearms, particularly handguns.  It does not make it illegal to purchase a gun - it is entirely compatible with the 2nd Amendment.  It merely makes it difficult, time consuming and expensive.  It makes the owner accountable for his behavior, at the risk of losing his rights.  Something along those lines, although probably watered down to some extent, coupled with changes to tax and product liability policy will make it much more expensive to produce, distribute, purchase and own firearms.  And we know precisely how markets work - more expensive commodities are scarce commodities, and if our current problem is rooted in the easy availability of firearms, scarcity is how it must be solved.

All that said, we're not there yet.  The politics for some firearms regulation have improved, but they still represent the losing side of the argument.  In the November election, the NRA spent 24 million dollars supporting their candidates, the Brady Center spend less than six thousand.  The NRA has over 4 million members.  They have political power, and they are highly adept at deploying it.  Because of the way the American population is distributed, the Republicans have a firm grip on the House of Representatives, and will happily protect their deeply ideological rural constituency and their NRA paymasters until such time as it becomes simply politically untenable for them to continue to do so.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Light's Better Out Here*

Oh.  It's also helpful if the MVP plays for your team
One of the things that endlessly fascinates me is the human tendency to abjectly refuse to learn even the most obvious lessons.  I was reminded of this oh-so predictable trait watching the almost mindless machinations of Major League Baseball since the end of the World Series.  While there has been a certain rationality beginning to appear in free agent signings, it has manifested itself more in years than in dollars.  That is to say teams are spending as much money as ever, if not more, on players they deem to be stars and superstars, they are just committing to them for shorter contracts.  Age and injury history are being factored in in a way they haven't been recently - see the hesitancy to sign Josh Hamilton to a long-term contract and the Giants unwillingness to pay Brian Wilson until they know if he can ever pitch again.

But beyond that it's business as usual, even though business as usual can be seen, in the light of repeated history, as a failure.  The Yankees outspent every franchise for decades, and yet have won only one World Series in a dozen years.  Last year the Marlins made a huge off-season splash, and finished last in their division with an abysmal 93 losses.  The Rangers built an offensive juggernaut and went to the World Series two consecutive years, without success.  Now we see teams from Toronto, Cleveland and even the woeful Kansas City Royals desperately trying to make a push into the playoffs.  And none of that even mentions the platinum-and-private-jet shopping spree of the Los Angeles Dodgers, expected to field a payroll of over $230 million dollars next spring.

Now this is understandable, at least in part, because the new structure has one third of all teams qualifying for the playoffs.  The theory goes that all you have to do is get to the dance, and from there any team can get hot and be the first to win eleven (or perhaps twelve) games and bring home the trophy.  But is it true?  Recent history says it most certainly is not, that a collection of superstars doesn't make a team and a team built to win over the long, grueling 162 game season is poorly adapted to win in the playoffs.

Much could be learned from the recent success of the San Francisco Giants.  The first key is the stadium.  A winning team needs to play in a stadium with a signifcant, repeatable bias.  That would either be a small, hitter - friendly park or a cavernous building that favors the pitchers.  Then the management must be relentless in building a team that is complimentary to that specific park.  Creating the conditions for a lopsided home record is the most controllable factor available to the team, and the teams that do it will have a measurable advantage.  In addition, though it was obscured by a couple decades of widespread steroid use, offense wins games, but it does not win championships.  There are always a few teams with mashers all up and down their lineups, intimidating hitters in every position, but they seldom win it all.  Why?  Because an overemphasis on hitting, especially power, results in a team deficient in defensive skills, and often means a neglected pitching staff, especially the bullpen.

And those two factors have once again become prominently necessary for a deep run in the playoffs.  The Giants have been offensively challenged in recent years, but with their defense and bullpen they have a ridiculous record of winning games in which they score more than three runs.  And in the post-season, a best-of-five and two best-of-seven series, it is all about pitching.  Being able to keep the other team from scoring - allowing your team to be in every game late, when the weaker bullpen will very often give up the winning rally - is the formula for success.

So the formula is clear, even as it continues to be ignored or poorly implemented:

✔Build a team that is complimentary with your home park

✔Do what it takes to get a very GOOD catcher - this is the hallmark of most successful teams

✔Build around pitching.  Develop a starting staff that can all give you 180+ innings, and put extra emphasis on the bullpen.  Being able to put up zeroes for the last four innings will win more games than any other factor.

✔Pay attention to defense.  Infielders who don't make a lot of errors and outfielders who can run down balls in the gap and make strong throws will quietly win a lot of games in the course of the long season.  If the difference is between a .245 hitter and a .285 hitter, go with the healthier, better defensive player every time.

✔Coaches matter.  Without Bochy and Righetti the Giants might not have had nearly the same success.

✔Chemistry.  Over a long season, when hardships mount, little injuries nag, travel is endless and emotions ride a roller coaster, it's important to let the players create a sustainable environment.  Don't worry too much if some of them seem wacky or serious or quiet, but do whatever you can to encourage them to bond with one another.  There will come a point in the season when that bond is all they have left, and if it's strong, it can be enough.

* Refers to the drunk crawling around in the gutter - when asked by the policemen why he was doing so, he says he is looking for his keys.  "Well, where did you see them last", they ask.  "In the bar" he responds, pointing at an establishment down the street.  Why isn't he looking for his keys in the bar?  "The light's better out here", is the response.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The First Rule of Climate Change

Still can't get a taxi
Contrary to what you might read in the American media, there's no real argument about the existence of global climate change due to carbon pollution from human burning of fossil fuels.  But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of uncertainty around the topic.  Increasingly, scientists are discovering that their models have tended to underestimate the rate of planetary warming, and the timing of the more severe consequences.  And the reason for that is starting to be clear - the reports tended to describe the various changes to the atmosphere and the climate from carbon pollution as discrete issues.  Warming oceans, melting permafrost, major storms, droughts, acidification of the sea, deforestation, disappearance of glaciers etc.  What we are beginning to realize, much to our horror, is that all these events are tightly bound in a planetary system of feedback loops that serves to accelerate the process, even if we were to somehow manage to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions today.

Here's the key realization: Only one thing can slow climate change - reduction in greenhouse gas pollution.  Everything else contributes to climate change.  Everything.  Melting ice and permafrost releases trapped carbon dioxide while reducing ocean salinity.  Warming oceans release trapped methane, and if you think carbon dioxide has been fun, wait 'til you get a load of methane in the atmosphere.  Droughts and other changes to the climate make existing agricultural land unusable, so farms move north, clearing trees to plant their fields.  As the temperature warms, insects and parasites move into areas where the trees have no defenses against them, and vast numbers die off.  The reduction of forests both eliminates the carbon capture function of plant life, but the dead trees themselves give off greenhouse gasses as they decompose.  Switching to electric cars sounds great, but if they run on electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, they continue to emit greenhouse gasses.

You hear a lot about conservation, and on the whole conservation is an unalloyed good.  But we must be careful not to delude ourselves - the biggest strides in the reduction in energy usage happen in the more technologically advanced nations, where better insulated, more efficient buildings, mass transit and more energy efficient urban communities are actually options.  In the rest of the world, people still burn firewood, burn coal in vast quantities and clear forests to create new farms.  Every geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, solar and wind electricity generating plant reduces greenhouse pollution, but to what real effect when processes we have put in motion, most of which we only dimly understand, are already increasing the rate at which the planet warms?  It's interesting that the dire predictions we used to hear for 2100 are no longer at the top of climate science's concerns, but rather we hear dates like 2050 and even 2030.  And we've already seen Katrina, the great Russian heat wave and superstorm Sandy.

Remember, people have built-in, intrinsic characteristics that make them dangerous.  The ugliest results of global warming won't be the rise in the seas or the droughts or the disease, it will be the savagery with which the human populations fight each other for survival.  Resource wars, responses to disease and pandemics, the slaughter of displaced refugees, the food riots - nothing nature can be induced to do to us rises to the level of butchery we will rush to perpetrate on each other.  Just wait until an entire nuclear armed nation is starving, or severely short on drinking water - at that point we'll begin to see what humans are genuinely capable of.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mali Hatchet Job

In Gao, a young man's fancy turns to Jihad
The Tuaregs are a nomadic Berber people who have roamed the North African Sahara desert for centuries.  At the end of the colonial period in the 1960s, those with local power played a game of independence musical chairs and divided North Africa into separate independent nations from Niger and Mali, across Algeria and Morocco to Libya.  You'll notice there is no Ténéré and no Azawad, which is what the Tuaregs call their homeland in Niger and Mali.  Right from the beginning, the Tuareg people have been fighting for their own independence, each uprising successively crushed by the armed forces of Mali and Niger, ultimately leading to a peace agreement in 2004.

Meanwhile, arbitrary national borders and social and ecological pressures were making a nomadic lifestyle increasingly difficult, and many Tuaregs tried to find arable land to farm.  But without a nation in the interior Sahara farming is an iffy proposition at best, and in the face of tribal bigotry and government oppression many of them found a willing sponsor and employer - Muammar Qaddafi.  Libya's leader paid them and armed them, and they served as his private mercenary army, willing to act across borders and directly against Gaddafi's own people as his whims demanded.  But ultimately Qaddafi was deposed and his Tuareg militias took their money and their weapons and returned to their homelands in northern Mali.  There, they joined the Tuareg rebels already fighting to establish an independent homeland, and in the vast, lightly populated Saharan wilderness they were enough to tip the balance in their people's favor.   The political pressure from losing a fight with separatist rebels led to a coup that toppled the elected government, even if the military later appointed an interim "acting" civilian President.

But even without significant military pressure from the Malian government, the Tuareg hold on the North was destined to be short-lived.  The independent Tuareg governing body, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), despite being a secular nationalist political organization, had partnered with the extreme Muslim fundamentalist organization Ansar Dine in order to raise a sufficiently large and capable rebel army.  Throughout the spring they consolidated their hold on Northern Mali, but the ideological tensions were already causing a major rift in their coalition.  In late June the rebel union shattered, resulting in the battle of Gao.  Ansar Dine joined forces with the local al-Qaeda affiliate, AQIM and an umbrella group calling itself The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and drove the MNLA out of the city.  By June 28th the Islamist groups held Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, essentially controlling all of the Northern half of Mali.

The West African regional nations, along with Europe, reacted with shock and fear.  The west had learned a hard lesson about allowing extreme religious fundamentalists the security and autonomy of their own sovereign nation, and the regional governments feared the strength of the Islamist movement, seeing it as a threat to their own nations independence.  There is a strong and building consensus that a coalition of West African soldiers supported by western financing and logistics should attack Northern Mali and remove the Islamist fighters.  France, as the nation with the strongest colonial-era ties to the West African region is leading the charge, but there is significant consensus from ECOWAS, NATO and the US.

It's a small bit of desert the size of Texas in the middle of nowhere, indeed, over the years Timbuktu has become synonymous with a mysterious and distant place, but it's important because it is a critical harbinger of things to come.  The MOJWA is a bunch of crazed, messianic theocrats of the worst kind, who have already executed hostages, implemented the requirement that women be veiled, the stoning of adulterers and the mutilation of thieves.  They have destroyed ancient historical artifacts out of a violent allegiance to a savage god.  It's probably a very good idea to cripple their movement and deny them a place from which to build on their capabilities.  But make no mistake, this won't end with their removal from Mali - not the Turaegs struggle for a homeland, and not the Islamists desire for iron-fisted Theocratic governance.  From a modern standpoint, a commitment to a fantastic mythology that describes a world we know to be impossible is nonsensical, but when that commitment leads to murder and brutality the world is going to have take action.

But just as when despots slaughter their citizens in order to retain power, it's far beyond time for the world community to form some kind of consensus for action.  As these events arise, they are dealt with on an ad hoc basis, as if every one were something entirely new, and history and experience, however recent, had nothing to teach us.  The fighting will go on - from resource shortages to sectarian disagreements to independence movements to ethnic cleansing.  In recent times, human conflict tends to be smaller and, in pure numbers less bloody, but much more protracted in nature.  Wars start, but they never end, and peace is never the outcome.  Just as we Americans have to come to terms with our own nation's taste for and exposure to endless war, we are entering a phase of human history where there are no longer discrete conflicts, just an endless series of battles in an open-ended global war.  Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, Israel...The number of places in which there is no foreseeable end to the fighting and bleeding grows, because once it gets started, the fighting doesn't ever come to an end.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Satellite Game

Sohae Launch Facility.
Is everything in North Korea in the middle of nowhere?
Later this month, North Korea is expected to make yet another attempt to launch a weather satellite into earth orbit.  This is considered problematic because it is the key to building and deploying an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.  An ICBM launch is essentially a sub-orbital spaceflight - you cannot deliver a weapon over extremely long distances until you can successfully launch a multi-stage rocket into space.  So even though the nature of the specific launch is peaceful and even laudatory, it is quite cliear that in North Korea's hyper-militarized society the reason for doing it is weapons development.

Now, this will be the fifth attempt by the Hermit Kingdom to launch a payload into orbit - previously they are a perfect 0 for 4.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, an impoverished nation that cannot afford to feed its people or develop its infrastructure is unlikely to have access to the kinds of resources necessary for a project as complex and demanding as spaceflight.  Second, and much more importantly, launching a satellite into space truly is rocket science, and to do rocket science you need rocket scientists, along with mathematicians, metalurgists, materials scientists, engineers and a capacity for very high precision manufacturing.  North Korea has none of the domestic educational institutions necessary, and won't allow their young people to be educated abroad, on the (highly reasonable) expectation that they would never come back.

Which leaves Pyongyang with two options, neither of which is particularly optimal.  First, they can try to buy the requisite technology from abroad, but the number of nations that have the requisite technology remains quite limited, and very few of them would want to see North Korea improve their offensive and strategic capabilities.  In fact, North Korea seems to be the rogue missile technology exporter of choice, marketing their short-range missile technology to Iran and throughout Africa.  Their other option is to take their forty-plus year old Soviet missile technology and try to scale it up to build a multi-stage rocket capable of reaching orbit.  Unfortunately for them, there are a lot of pesky details in this process that nobody will tell them, and the only way to learn them is by trial and error.  And a trial and error based space program is a likely ticket to an 0 for 4 record of success.

Of course, at some point the very likely will succeed in launching a satellite into orbit, accompanied by much crowing and their own special brand of hackneyed propaganda.  It will also come with endless breathless hand-wringing and rending of garments from western experts, crying out that they are now (along with al-Qaeda, Iran and Hamas) the greatest threat to freedom and liberty since smallpox.  Lost in all the hue and cry will be any mention that a successful launch rate of 1 for 5 (or 1 for 6 or 1 for 10 - whatever it actually turns out to be) does not bode well for a nation trying to launch a nuclear first strike, that there are still very large questions about the quality of their weapons design (their nuclear tests to date have mostly been seen as a "Big Fizzle") and the fact that they have a long way to go to build a nuclear warhead small enough to launch on a missile.  But we don't do reason here, we do threat-hyping, because perceived threats are what keeps the defense dollars pouring in.

A more reasonable concern is of a another failure, but one of a particularly ill-fated variety.  If their erstwhile spacecraft once again fails to reach orbit and falls out of the sky in large chunks, there is every reason to wonder if it will fall on anyone we care about, such as Japan.  Much of the anti-ballistic missile capability being brought into the theater is actually there in case there is a need to try to scatter the ballistic wreckage on its way down.

Even with all that said, North Korea serves as the poster child for all unpopular and "rogue" nations.  They don't have long range missiles, and they don't have much of an air force or a blue water navy, but they've got a couple of nukes, and nobody seriously threatens to attack them anymore.  The blueprint is clear - if the international pressure becomes too intense, kick out the IAEA inspectors and go balls to the wall to produce a couple devices.  It won't end the sanctions, but it'll back off the war mongers.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What Do Republicans Actually Want?

I thought you said you WANTED to cut the deficit
We used to know the answer to that.  They wanted to protect the wealth of the richest Americans and the profits of the largest corporations.  They wanted to reduce spending that went primarily to the poor and minorities and redistribute that money to the rich.  And specifically, they wanted to roll back the guarantees of the New Deal.  Since Ronald Reagan promised apocalyptically in the sixties that adopting Medicare would destroy the United States of America, programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even Planned Parenthood and NPR were seen by the American Political Right as stealing money from people like them and giving it, Soviet Communism-Style to people who were lazy, shiftless criminals.  The Republicans have been unrelentingly clear on their opposition to these kinds of government financed social spending programs, culminating in the odious GW Bush's ham-fisted attempt to pass a Social Security privatization scheme.

Then along came President Barack Obama, the ear-splitting summer of 2009 and the Affordable Care Act.  Suddenly there was another social spending program that benefited people who weren't even white men, and the Republicans predictably deployed in a phalanx of opposition, not just to the plan itself, which was modeled on the basic Republican-preferred structure of universal coverage through private insurance and a mandate to sufficiently broaden the risk pool, but to the very idea that society should protect people who couldn't protect themselves.  In their frenetic desperation to create an aura of fear and uncertainty around what was a very pedestrian proposal, the Republicans did something nobody would have predicted, something that has increasing ramifications in the American political discourse today:  They took the position that the ACA was destroying Medicare, and attempted to present themselves as the guarantors of that very social spending program they had invested so many years in trying to eliminate outright.

The cognitive dissonance of a major conservative political party demanding NO cuts to Medicare, not even on the provider side, while their budgetary agenda still demanded "Entitlement Reforms" and their thought leaders came up with yet another plan to privatize and ultimately eliminate both Medicare and Medicaid only got louder in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election.  This left them in the difficult position of a Presidential campaign that could not offer any specifics about its proposed governing agenda.  Even to people predisposed to vote for a more conservative candidate, this abject refusal to provide information about their policy plans left voters ultimately heeding a fully internalized caveat emptor worldview they had learned since childhood.

Republicans like to say that the primary driver of the "fiscal crisis" represented by the budget deficit is "Entitlement Spending", primarily Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, with a number of small-bore social spending programs like Food Stamps tossed in for good measure.  But this is an artificial construct, because all dollars are the same.  It would be just as easy to characterize America's massive military spending as the primary driver of the debt - indeed, you could eliminate most of the annual deficit and still be able to defend the US from attack.  A nation, like any community, must reach some kind of consensus around what services they expect to be provided by the community as a whole, and then it's merely a matter of agreeing on how the population will contribute the necessary funds.  Deficits don't happen by accident, some act of an angry fiscal god.  Congress appropriates funds for spending programs and passes bills that raise the revenue for those appropriations.  If they lack the discipline or courage to legislate as much revenue as they do spending, they will have a budget deficit, but it is ridiculous for them to cry out in anguish over a problem they created and only they can solve.

Faced with the unworkable combination of a deeply unpopular core policy agenda and a deep political commitment to both sides of their key economic issue, the Republicans are left in the awkward position of being utterly unable to specify their policy preference.  On taxes, they keep saying they prefer revenue increases generated by eliminating deductions, but have never been able to say which deductions they would target.  They keep demanding some kind of vague, non-specific "Entitlement Reform" but seem unable to formulate a proposal.  They have been shrieking for years about the impending calamity that is the budget deficit, but are resolutely unwilling to support any proposal that actually reduces deficit spending over the medium term.  Until they are prepared to articulate their vision for financing the federal government, any and all demands for "serious, bipartisan negotiations" on the budget should be seen for exactly what the are - the helpless bleating of a dysfunctional political organization...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Meaning of Life

Curiosity scoops up an alien civilization
This weeks mostly uninformed speculation about the discovery of Organic Compounds by the Mars Science Laboratory has got me thinking about extraterrestrial life.  For eons, and increasingly since Arthur C.  Clarke challenged us to think more clearly about it in "Childhood's End", it has been received wisdom that the discovery of any life anywhere that was not planet earth would be the most profound discovery of human civilization, changing forever our perception of the universe and our place in it.

But is that really the case?  First, we are challenged by what we are trying to detect, and how we are able to try to detect it.  This weeks frantic mass-media response to a particular Curiosity scientist's excitement over the current soil analysis research reminded me of nothing so much as the year long tug-o-war over ALH84001, the Martian meteorite that might or might not have evidence of fossilized microbes less than 100 nanometers in size, and which shows evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which may or may not be biogenic in origin and may or may not be the result of contact with the earth's atmosphere.  The assumption that Curiosity might have discovered organic molecules on Mars was predictably greeted with mass media questions that boiled down to "have we discovered life on Mars?"  Their difficulty, as always, is to try and understand the nuance of the "necessary but not sufficient" condition.  Life would require organic compounds, but organic compounds do not require life.

So we are confronted by the challenge of determining the threshold for declaring some discovery an actual extra-terrestrial life form.  What we are seeking isn't even just cellular, microbial life on another planet, but very likely long-extinct cellular microbial life.  So perhaps this would be a good moment to take a giant step back and re-think the entire endeavor in a top-down fashion.

Given what we know from studying earth, life seems universally common and almost cartoonishly robust.  In spite of eons of periodic global disasters and mass extinction events, life always rebounded to cover the planet, from ice sheet to tropics, from the ocean depths to the mountain tops.  With that understanding of life, it seems inevitable that we will eventually determine these simple microbial life forms also have existed on other planets and moons in our Solar System.  And from that relatively safe assumption we can comfortably conclude that the universe literally teems with life, some small fraction of it evolving into a diverse ecosystem that includes larger, more complex creatures and even, in some cases, intelligent species.  And therein lies the key question.

If and when we discover some single cell nano-bacteria fossil on Mars or a simple algae drifting in the oceans of Europa, will this really be the profound, civilization-shaking discovery conventional wisdom has come to expect it to be?  Or will it be simply affirming something we already, on some level, know to be true?  Will it be a discovery that 'changes everything' or one that is scientifically interesting but ultimately meaningless in the way we perceive the universe?  Indeed, I think as we become more capable of exploring our own Solar System even as we come to grips with the fact that we will never visit planets orbiting other stars, it's a very good time to recalibrate our expectations in this realm.  In the case of the extra-terrestrial creatures we're likely to meet, the introductions will be mediated by an electron microscope, and it may very well be mummies we're meeting rather than living creatures.

Me, I'd begin to get excited by something like a fish, and I'd be positively bowled over by something of the size and intelligence of a dog.  But there's really no world within our reach that can support that kind of complex evolutionary development.  Bacteria?  I think that's a foregone conclusion, on any planet or moon that exists within the temperature and energy thresholds that might possibly support it.  All this hyperventilating over the possibility of organic precursors to life on Mars is simply setting us up for another giant misunderstanding-fueled anticlimax, like the Y2K outcome but orders of magnitude worse.  The profound moment of discover will come not from a space probe at all, but from the receipt of radio frequency signals from an intelligent culture's equivalent of Television.  That will be simultaneously wildly exciting and deeply frustrating, because we will know they are there without being able to talk to them.  But we won't learn anything important about ourselves from extraterrestrial bacteria...