Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does Stealth Even Matter?

Can you see me now?
Modern fourth and fifth generation fighter planes all tend to include some level of stealth technology. Stealth reduces the size of the plane's radar cross section, making it harder to detect with traditional search and track radar systems. Now, it's an interesting problem, because for the last fifty years, to use radar in combat was almost certain death. Whether from a jet fighter or a SAM missile battery, radar is functionally a brilliant searchlight in microwave frequencies, and serves both to announce their presence and to guide incoming missiles directly to the target. But even so, if an aircraft is going to survive for long in contested airspace, it's going to need to be hard to locate, and that means stealth.

But stealth technology is highly asymmetric - it requires more effort and investment to develop and improve than it does to defeat. This is a common characteristic of very advanced or very complex systems - ABM (anti-ballistic missile) technology suffers from the same imbalance. As early as 1999, Yugoslavian anti air batteries were able to detect F-117s when they opened their bomb bay doors, instantly tripling their radar signature. They knew they couldn't use their radars for more than thirty seconds at a time to avoid counter-radar attacks, but even so on March 27th they fired multiple SA-3 missiles at a Stealth Fighter and brought it down. While this is the only (acknowledged) F-117 ever lost in combat, it speaks to how difficult stealth technology is to implement, and how any weakness in the stealth components can render the whole package useless.

There are lots of ways to detect a modern warplane. There's infrared, the heat generated by the engine and the friction of its passage through the air. There's all manner of radar, beams of Radio Frequency waves that bounce off and are are reflected back to a detector. There's highly sensitive elctro-optical systems - remember we have cameras in space that can read license plates. There's UV radiation, there's acoustic signals, there's just a wide range of spectrum that makes jet aircraft visible to passive systems. The technology we know as "stealth" makes an aircraft much less visible at certain wavelengths - particularly at radar and infrared frequencies. The intention is to lower the "radar cross section" of the attackers, and make them hard for air defenses to detect and attack.

Of course the problem with this concept is it assumes that the only effective approach to detecting intruding bombers is radar, or at closer ranges, infrared (heat) radiation. But if your enemies are masking those signatures, doesn't it make sense that you'd seek to exploit other, more observable signatures? There are a large number or research programs dedicated to alternative detection methods for stealth aircraft. These can be electro-optical systems, based on highly sensitive broad spectrum cameras that either detect the aircraft directly or detect it's passage through the atmosphere (Schlieren Signature). There are long wavelength radar that gives up precision to detect the entire aircraft - the wavelength is the size of the features on the airframe (1 meter) and while that sacrifices much in the way of detailed information, it still detects the inbound strike, and serves to focus more accurate systems on the attacking aircraft.

And this isn't pie-in-the-sky. Many nations, including Russia and China, have already deployed modern Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems in their front line combat aircraft and long wavelength radars on the ground. The purpose for stealth - the penetration of contested airspace in a survivable manner - is rapidly becoming unachievable.  While stealth will remain a component of the modern fighter - powerful nations spend most of their military efforts bombing backward, third world countries with 1970s era air defenses, after all - the dependency on increasing numbers of advanced missiles and stand-off weapons will increase exponentially.  In many ways, the future of warfare is a process of denying your aversary access to your shores. If a nation can draw a thousand kilometer 'bubble' around its borders and actively prevent foreign operations within that bubble, then war begins to look a lot different than it ever has.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Consent of the Governed

Seemed like a good idea at the time
This is the intrinsic beauty and power of liberal democracy. A government that is formed by the people and operates with the understanding that their authority may be revoked at any time. That what they do they do on behalf of their constituency, and only with the permission of that constituency. So if you think about it, this is the central organizing principle of any truly democratic institution. That leads to the inevitable conclusion that there are two paths by which a democracy can fail. The government can insulate itself from the governed, such that their consent is no longer requested or required, or the governed can find themselves so divided, so ideologically polarized, or so comfortably apathetic that any kind of broad-based national consent becomes impossible.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Of course, more than one thing can be true at any given time, and here in America we are watching our democracy die due to both conditions. Our government has become so corrupt, so invested in perpetuating its own power that it no longer even pretends to be interested in the opinions of the governed. And rather than resisting this transparent rejection of basic democratic values and voting people into power that will respect the consent of the governed, the people instead have divided themselves into two savage ideological camps, unable to even agree on a basic set of facts. We have created these tribes - "Conservatives" and "Liberals" - that exist to hate each other, and to try to undermine any political progress by the other side. The point has stopped being about policy, and now it's nothing but tribe. Rethuglicans and Libtards. If you think there's a way out of this that doesn't include a second civil war, I'd love to hear it.

I've had a couple conversations recently with people who truly believe this is nothing but another temporary blip, a part of the political process. They honestly believe that the system can't possibly be broken - hey, it's always worked out before. But that's false - it collapsed in 1860 and we had a bloody civil war that cost millions of lives. THAT, I believe, is the model of the future. We have reached a point where our political polarization cannot be reconciled by our system based on 17th century norms of political behavior. The system cannot work, because in order to do so it requires a political environment that simply cannot exist today. At some point, the shouting will end and the shooting will start.

So here's what we have - a world defined increasingly by what it is we don't want. Whether it's abortion, gay marriage, uncontrolled guns or unregulated food products, we argue at the margins over the things we reject. Meanwhile, we no longer can find a way to agree on simple ongoing processes like infrastructure development or education. We can't agree to help the sick or provide a roof for the homeless. We now define ourselves on the basis of what we disagree about, and we have internalized the idea that compromise is surrender. We're so far past the consent of the governed, we've actually arrived at the rejection of the governed. It seems as if it no longer matters what the people want, the government will keep its secrets, determine its own legalities, and explain to the populace only when it is caught out. Our Snowdens and our Wikileaks don't protect us from a government that refuses to be accountable to it's constituency, they merely serve to let us know how far the power has slipped from the governed to the governors.

Even if the leadership were willing to take guidance from the governed, American citizenry would be paralyzed, unable to agree on the path forward. But for that matter, even if the people came together and demanded with one voice a specific governing agenda, it is unlikely that it would merit even a passing note on Capitol Hill. To me, the takeaway is clear: The era of democratic governance in the US is over. There are a number of possible outcomes - from a huge authoritarian state to an orderly dissolution into autonomous regions or even separate nations more representative of their geographic constituencies. The status quo is clearly unsustainable, and there's just no path back to what we used to be. All the bridges are burning.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Russian Roulette

Would you buy a used country from this man?
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Crimea and effectively annexed that strategic peninsula. Shortly thereafter, he found himself mired in a bloody civil war in neighboring Ukraine. By the end of June, he appeared powerful and confident. Despite western sanctions, the Russian economy was strong and the people were aglow with that special kind of Slavic nationalist fervor. Oil was $110 a barrel, the Ruble was trading at 33 to the dollar and interest rates were a stable 7%. Needless to say, things have changed substantially in the last two months. The price of oil has cratered, settling (at least for now) in the $57 range. The Russian currency has collapsed as the oligarchs have panicked, trading for more solid dollars, euros and yen at almost any price. As the Ruble fell to 70* to the dollar, the central bank panicked and doubled interest rates to 17%, in hopes of convincing Russians to keep their Rubles. As a tactic in a currency crisis, this has been tried before - it never works.

So now the future is dark for Russia, and there is much to be concerned about. There is some history here, but it's difficult see what it might tell us about today. In 1998, the Russian economy collapsed. But Russia was weak, Yeltsin had dismissed the cabinet in March and the IMF provided $22 Billion in support, and even so, by August his government was in default. But that was a safe, quiet, peaceful kind of economic crisis. Before that was the moment, in 1989, when the Soviet union found itself prostrate before the west, so desperate for hard currency that they had to agree not to crush the Solidarity union protests in Poland. A few weeks later, the Soviet Union no longer existed.

And that's the problem we're still dealing with. The one organizing principle of Vladimir Putin's Presidency is that moment when Gorbachev was willing to agree to any demands in exchange for money. It was the end of Soviet Marxism/Leninism, but more than that it was a purely Russian humiliation. A technological and military superpower laid low by the relentless logic of capitalist economics. Putin has worked tirelessly to restore some kind of national identity and Russian pride. And perhaps some of that is a worthwhile project. You want to build national pride. But an angry, pugilistic nationalism built on hatred of Muslims, hatred of Gays, and an overriding sense of victim-hood at the hands of Western Powers doesn't leave Putin with a lot of places to go.

So trying to predict the future is hard. But the worst case scenario has the Russian economy continuing to implode under collapsing oil prices, Western sanctions, a worthless currency and bonds that demand a risk premium, leading to another sovereign default. History teaches us that a timely war can be effective in distracting a cold, hungry and frightened populace. If the Russian economic collapse continues - and with the terrible economic conditions in the EU and no indication that the price of oil will recover any time soon, there's no reason to think it won't - there may come a time when Putin decides that for domestic and economic reasons a war would be just what the doctor ordered. And he's got a number of places to turn - Ukraine, certainly, with the causus belli already established and the killing ongoing, but also Georgia and Azerbaijan. And making matters worse, Putin has already established and confirmed the West's profound unwillingness to actually respond to Russian provocations with military force, giving him much more of a free hand to take the actions necessary to get the shooting started.

So. Where does it all go? Well, any confrontation between Russia and the West can lead to the end of the world. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons mean that nobody is willing to simply accept a loss in a conventional war. But it's much worse than that. The lesson we learned in Ukraine is that the US and Europe are unwilling to risk global annihilation over small chunks of Eastern Europe. Putin has a comfort zone, up to a point. The problem for the whole world is nobody knows where the threshold for Western military action is. If the Kremlin were to begin to see significant domestic unrest in the face of large scale economic problems, even as the Russian Central Bank was struggling with a massive decline in hard currency reserves, it would be easy to gin up an escalation in Ukraine. But how much of an escalation? Take Kiev? Moldova? Threaten Romania or Latvia? Romania, Hungary and Poland are NATO members and therefore the US and Europe would be theoretically obligated to defend them, but the likelihood that they would risk a disastrous European war or even a nuclear exchange over those Eastern European nations is small.

So, once again we have Russia as the heavily-armed, economically unstable rogue superpower with much more to lose than her peer competitors. And today we find them burning with a chest-thumping inferiority complex that will prevent them from coming back to the IMF for bridge loans. The one thing they have is military power, and an apparent willingness to use it for for the most banal domestic political purposes. The Ukrainian separatists and the Western Sanctions give them a cause and an enemy, and, like a high-stakes game of Tetris, all the pieces seem to be falling into place for a very bad outcome.

*With a Chinese currency swap deal, the Ruble has since risen to under 60 to the dollar. But there's nothing to change the longer term trends...

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Stand There - Don't Just Do Something

Advanced North Korean Cyber Weapons
So a hostile nation state attacked an American - well, really Japanese, but it's not an important distinction at this point - corporation, and forced them to withdraw a product in which they had made a significant investment. All the usual suspects are shrieking that we must "DO SOMETHING", without, as is always the case, specifying just precisely what it is they believe we should do. One option would be a cruise missile strike - the US has previously indicated that its doctrine does envision kinetic responses to serious cyber attacks. Another option is offensive cyberwarfare against North Korea. And a third option would be economic/diplomatic sanctions. That seems pretty straightforward so let's go ahead and think these options through.

I think we can rule out a military strike as a response in this case. The problem would be proportionality, and this just wasn't the kind of cyber attack that was envisioned when the Pentagon spoke of a kinetic response to a cyber attack. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of cyber attacks. The most common, the kind you hear about every day, is where intruders manage to penetrate the network's defenses, either from outside or inside the network, and gain access to data. This data might be financial, it might be personal, it might be corporate trade secrets, and it might be some of everything - which is what we saw in the Sony attack. The other kind of cyber attack - vanishingly rare at this point but much more concerning from a military standpoint - is an attack that penetrates a network in order to break things and hurt people. An attack on the power grid would represent this kind of attack, as did the Stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. That attack actually destroyed a large number of centrifuges and placed the lives of Iranian technicians at risk. If we were talking about that kind of attack, we might be more likely to see a destructive response.

Also, this wasn't an attack against a government installation or critical infrastructure - it was an attack on a corporation - an entertainment company. Nation states have been attacking corporate networks in order to conduct espionage activities for decades, and those attacks have only become more common with time. Certainly the government - particularly federal law enforcement and the counter-intelligence community - have a role to play in monitoring and defending against such cyber attacks, but that in no way exempts the corporation from their responsibility to protect their shareholders, investors, employees and customer's data from theft and mis-use. The primary cyber-defenders have to be from the corporate side - there's no practical way a government could have enough skilled professionals to protect the data owned by every business.

Economic sanctions would ordinarily be a good option - high-profile, proportionate and non-destructive. But North Korea is already so isolated, and under so many different kinds of sanctions and embargoes that there's really nothing left to restrict. All of which leads us to the conclusion that the appropriate response to the Sony attacks would be some targeted offensive cyber attacks, particularly against the North Korean government and military. And that would certainly be my recommendation. Unfortunately, there are two gigantic practical problems with that solution. First, North Korea is very isolated. ALL of her internet connections run through China. No western nation can get a TCP packet into or out of North Korea with having it go across Chinese routers and servers. If it was another nation, we could probably ask (or negotiate) for access, but with the  cyber-espionage accusations flying back and forth between Beijing and Washington, it seems unlikely that China would be predisposed to provide any kind of access to the US Intelligence Community. Also, any clandestine US penetration of North Korean networks that does exist would likely be compromised by actual attacks. The question that would have to be addressed is which would be more valuable - ongoing secret access to intelligence, or a one time rampage that would damage existing plans and operations?

In the end there are few viable options, and even those might not be worth pursuing. The US, particularly in the private sector, needs to do a much better job of preventing cyber attacks, and of detecting them when prevention fails. Because if the world descends into cyber warfare, the US will find it has very few of the advantages it has in traditional warfare. Cyber warfare does not require advanced technology, vast resources or massive R&D efforts. A dozen smart young coders can sit in a lab with some off the shelf laptops and do anything the US can do. It's hard to develop and  maintain a strategic advantage in software, and here in America we should think long and hard about what that means before we escalate a cyber war - with anyone.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Bird in the Hand

So Jeb Bush wants to be President. Can't say I'm surprised - I'm pretty sure he believes wholeheartedly that it is his turn. I'm not terribly excited about a Hillary Clinton Presidency, and for the same reason (times a million) I'm really not interested in another Bush. Now let's be very clear - in this potential 90s re-run I would unhesitatingly cast my vote for Ms. Clinton. From a policy standpoint she's no worse than Obama, with a strong likelihood to be more progressive on domestic social and economic justice issues and more hawkish on foreign policy issues, which would make her infinitely preferable to any possible Republican nominee, even Jeb Bush.

And while there's very little standing between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic nomination, I'm quite a bit less sanguine when it comes to Jeb's chances. I know there's talk about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but I can't see either of them seeing any value in a hopeless and quixotic challenge to the National Democratic Establishment's preference. Even if Hillary fell ill, or was otherwise deterred from making a run, it would very likely be Joe Biden before it would be Elizabeth Warren, and let's be honest, nobody who identifies as a 'Socialist' is ever going to a US Presidential nominee.

But Jeb Bush has a problems at both ends of the political spectrum. The extremist right, represented by Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, have seen the Republican establishment work hard to marginalize far-right candidates in order to ensure the nominee - John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 - was at least something approximating 'electable'. But they both lost, and to the loathed Barak Obama. You can be assured that they will be advancing the case that a 'moderate' Republican can't win (very likely true) so it's time to nominate a right-wing extremist. At the same time, the stench asociated with the 'Bush' political brand on the left end of the political spectrum is not to be underestimated - however you attribute it, the so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome" is alive and well, just as is its mirror image vs. Obama. There was a time when this situation would have been an advantage for the next Bush, as the conventional wisdom was that national elections were won in the center. But today, there really is no center, and if you have no support from either political wing, you will find in today's polarized political environment, you have very little support at all.

As a personal matter, I find myself deeply uncomfortable with the dynastic evolution of American democracy. It isn't credible that the people best suited to head the American government are once again named either 'Clinton' or 'Bush'. And while it's inarguably true that the '90s were a great time in the US, it's hard to credit the President for the dot com bubble. But the political parties have become as risk-averse as the movie studios, and releasing sequel after sequel seems to them to be the safest path.

Now, outside of a health problem, there is really very little doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. And if I had to bet today, I'd expect Paul Ryan to be the Republican's choice at the convention. He's the right combination of establishment credibility and extremist flim-flam, and the media loves him. And barring something overwhelmingly unexpected - another economic crash or a major war or terrorist attack - we'll have another President Clinton for the next eight years. And, of course, with the Republicans holding a hammerlock on the House of Representatives, we're looking at continued divided government and more of the same kind of non-productive partisan bickering and maneuvering through 2024 - unless the whole creaking edifice collapses under its own unsustainability sometime between now and then.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Magnum Opus

Elmer Keith
Father of the Magnum Cartridge
One of the things that people who are not "gun people" tend not to realize is the difference between guns and bullets - or, more properly, cartridges. They ask "what kind of gun was that?" when the answer is meaningless, and the more interesting question is "what bullet was that?". It's a little like going to Cape Canaveral and asking questions about the launching pad rather than the rocket. Guns are interesting (in the sense that cars are interesting or computers are interesting) from a purely mechanical sense. How they work, how they solve the engineering problems associated with launching a small projectile at high velocities, their ergonomics and aesthetics, the ability to develop the skills to use them competently - these are interesting. But the thing that's doing all the work is the bullet. The entire point of the mechanical exercise is to put that small bit of lead alloy in a certain place in three dimensional space and have it deliver a particular set of terminal ballistic performance.

Ultimately, there is only one equation: Momentum = Mass x Velocity. When you talk about bullets, you talk about how much they weigh and how fast they're going. This allows various approaches to the same problem. You can have a small bullet traveling at a high velocity, or a big bullet moving much more slowly. And all the various combinations in between. Of course, you can also launch a big bullet at a high velocity, but you need a much bigger, stronger platform to do that, and since we're talking about handguns here we are faced with some real limitations.

Over the years, for reasons both technical and traditional, large caliber handguns used bullets from either the .36 or .45 caliber class - referring to the bullet diameter in inches. The .38 Colt, .38 Special and 9mm Parabellum are examples of .36 caliber class rounds, while the .45 Colt, .455 Webley and .45 ACP are common examples of the .45 class. Early handguns used black powder, which burned more slowly and was unable to develop significant chamber pressures. Therefore the lack of immense metallurgical strength in frames, cylinders and chambers was never an issue. You poured in a bunch of black powder and pushed a great big heavy bullet out the barrel in a cloud of gunsmoke. With the transition to smokeless powder in the late 19th century, it was suddenly possible to build much more powerful cartridges, and the metallurgists of the day struggled to keep up.

Elmer Keith was an old western legend, a hunter, outdoorsman, shooter and gunfighter. He was a deeply committed believer in the small fast bullet approach, and as firearms manufacturers began to build much stronger guns, he began loading the old .38 Colt to much higher velocities. The reason he could do this is he switched from the old 'heeled' type bullet that had a significant portion of its mass inside the brass case, to more modern bullet designs where the bullet was the same diameter as the inside of the case. This is why a .38 bullet actually measures .357" in diameter. These bullets left more room in the case for powder and have come to be known as "Keith" style bullets.

Throughout the 1920s, Keith experimented with hotter and faster loads in .38 revolvers. Eventually, his friends at Smith and Wesson bought in, and began production of the so-called "Magnum" revolvers in 1935. The .357 Magnum round, particularly in it's 125 grain jacketed hollowpoint loading (see? Bullets are way cooler than guns) was, and remains, the most effective handgun round for shooting people that has ever been designed. There are advocates who would argue instead for the .45 ACP - and this is perhaps the greatest "religious" argument in the handgun community - but the numbers, particularly those compiled by Evan Marshall in his seminal studies on handgun stopping power, bear out the undeniable truth. Keith went on to do the same thing with the .45 caliber class - the infamous .44 Magnum - and an intermediate 10mm Magnum chambering called .41 Magnum - but with its combination of usability, accuracy and deadly terminal ballistics the .357 has always been the queen of combat handguns.

I carried .357s, primarily 4" Smith & Wesson Model 13s, 19s and 66s for decades. I never felt like I might be outgunned, and one night when things got real dark and chaotic and I had my .45 Star PD instead I was deeply furious with myself for putting myself in that position. I recognize that the world has embraced the .40 Smith auto, and nobody born after 1980 will ever appreciate the revolver, but that is silly and shortsighted. They talk endlessly about magazine capacity, speed of reload and firepower, but as my dad used to say, "if you can't get it done with six rounds you never had a chance anyway".

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Defending Your Freedom and Your Way of Life - Or Something Like That

Manipulative, Jingoistic bullshit. But you knew that
Of all the smarmy platitudes our over-militarized society heaps on its soldiers and sailors, this is the most disingenuous. Of course, declaring that anybody who ever learned how to put on a uniform and salute to be a hero is ugly and stupid in a particularly American fashion that only serves to elevate mediocrity and denigrate those very rare humans who, by dint of luck, sheer will and skill at arms actually do something heroic in combat. I'm pretty sure the Quartermaster might have done a fine job, but his willingess to risk paper cuts in the name of freedom doesn't qualify him as a hero. But I saw this image on Facebook the other day and it infuriated me for its mindless misrepresentation of American military history. I think if we actually think about it for a minute, we'll discover just how dishonest this line of war-worship really is.

Let's start with the fundamental question raised here. When was the last time a foreign enemy threatened America to the extent that our 'freedoms' or our 'way of life' was held at risk? That would almost have to be an enemy that could land significant ground forces on the continent, take the capital, depose the leadership and impose their own leadership. Now the combination of things that allowed America to prosper in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were isolation - two oceans separated North America from any potential adversary; and size - the land mass is just so big, and the terrain so varied, that any thought that an invading force could take and hold the entire country was clearly ludicrous.

British forces took and sacked the capital of Washington DC in August of 1814, so the American troops in that war were definitely defending American interests - although it's hard to imagine a significant loss of freedom under British rule. But hypotheticals notwithstanding, that was definitely a case of defending America against invasion from a conquering power. It was also the last case.

Perhaps the Civil War is an example - American troops fighting to defend freedom and their way of life - but that would have been true of both sides. There was no external invader, and virtually all the combatants were American troops. So to decide that American troops defended our freedoms and way of life would only be true from a Northern perspective - and even so the beneficiaries of those freedoms they defended (and delivered) were their enemies, the Confederacy.

The closest the Spanish came to US soil in the Spanish American war in 1898 was Cuba. In World War I, the US only became involved after almost four years of bloody stalemate in Europe. The US declared war in April of 1917, and American reinforcements tipped the balance of power in a European theater exhausted and bled out from years of trench warfare. It was all over in November of 1918, and the continental US was never at any risk whatsoever in that 'World War'. In World War II, the US joined the conflict, already over two years old, when Japan attacked the American Fleet in Hawaii. The Japanese calculation was to eliminate American naval power in the Pacific, take Malaya and the Dutch East Indies to secure access to oil, rubber and resources, then sue for peace. There was never any real consideration of actually invading and occupying the US by the Imperial Japanese forces. Of course, if Germany had been able to consolidate and hold Europe and ultimately take Great Britain, that might have led to some fairly large scale global challenges in the coming decades. Except, one of the things they never teach American children in school, is that America didn't win World War II. Russia did. Even if American forces never went to war in Europe, Germany would never have been able to hold Western Europe, and the challenge would have been a Soviet Union that reached to the Atlantic, not a Nazi invasion force in Washington DC. The Korean War was fought over a small peninsula in Northeast Asia. The Vietnam War, similarly, was contained to the Southeast Asian nations. Despite the lies, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was never a threat to America, her freedoms and her way of life, and certainly the Taliban aren't going to take Washington anytime soon.

So there you have it. When have American troops truly defended America? When was it that our freedom, our constitution, our way of life was actually at risk from external forces? The answer is not for hundreds of years, and it's embarrassingly stupid to claim that a soldier in Iraq or Vietnam or Korea had anything to do with defending those freedoms. And if you think about it further, the only force on earth that has been taking American freedoms, destroying the American Constitution and wrecking our way of life is American domestic politics. We have authoritarian government, we have surveillance, we have capital punishment, we have local law enforcement infiltration of the political opposition, we have internet surveillance. All done by Americans, against Americans. They need to tell us this story, this narrative that we're somehow at risk from other nations, from external forces, and only our brave soldiers are holding back the tide. But those nations are either far to weak to attack us or they are strong but they know that war with American would mean a nuclear exchange. Nothing we value has been at risk since 1814, and yet this is the story we insist on believing. If we can't even look at history honestly, there is no hope for us...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The State of the Blog


Hey mikey. What's all this stuff you've been writing lately? What about liberal outrage and political injustice?

Just looking for some distraction
Yeah. I know. And you know what? I'm just tired of it. It's the same thing, over and over again. Think Progress is unreadable - they're writing the same crap they wrote five years ago. You even get the sense that Krugman is getting tired of shouting into the abyss.

Look. We have divided government. The only thing that prevents the US from becoming an utterly dystopian third world authoritarian oligarchy is that the Republican party has sacrificed any ability to win the White House in order to control the House.  But that leaves us where we are - radical right-wing extremists trying to turn the US into something ugly and unrecognizable, and a very thin line of non-white Democratic activists preventing them from going full on East Germany on what's left of the liberal democratic dream. The sickness is clear - what used to be fringe hate groups now have a stranglehold on the mainstream Republican party, and stand as gatekeepers for any legislative initiative. And the result of decades of Republican presidents and Democratic indifference is a Judicial System wholly invested in the movement conservative project, from the protection of the wealth of the 1% to the destruction of any kind of social safety net.

But mikey, you say - if we don't speak out, and continue to point out their lies and hypocrisy, the status quo will just continue unabated.

Meh. Show me some evidence we're changing anything. Here's the hard facts. The system is obsolete, antiquated, massively corrupt and hardened against democratic change. This - this toxic madness, this dysfunctional charade, this democratic kabuki - THIS system is the problem. And until we're willing to do what they did in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, in Hong Kong - until we're willing to die in the streets to regain some kind of systemic justice, it's all just noise and bullshit. And you know who enjoys the noise and bullshit the most? Yep - the wealthy and business interests that are reaping record profits while the people hurt. I'm mostly done shouting at them. Let me know when the shooting starts.

Hope. Belief. Faith. These are toxic concepts. They are us saying we recognize we have no agency, no control, no access to the process. They are saying we want change, but we neither believe change is coming nor do we have any idea how to effectively contribute to change.

Tell Me How This Ends

Seriously. Explain to me how we fix this. How we get back some kind of democracy, some kind of social justice, some kind basic human rights. The torturers went free. The thieves in the banking and mortgage industry went free. The cops that committed blatant murder in front of witnesses and video cameras went free. This is the world we created, or at least permitted to come into existence while we were distracted by big screen teevees, smart phones and American Idol. 

If you want to understand how pathetic we are, our system can't even be arsed to lock us up. In other nations the politically powerful fear the opposition, and they arrest them, they torture them, they imprison them. Here, they laugh at us. "Go ahead, whine" they are saying, "while we own all the power and all the wealth. Your pathetic tears mean nothing". And they are right - we can't change the system and they know it as well as we do. 

This isn't Ghandi vs. The Raj or even Mandela vs. The Apartheid regime. This is two very large portions of our population with vastly divergent visions for what America is and what she should become. And virtually no part of either of those visions is even remotely acceptable to the other side. Meanwhile, the media refuses to acknowledge the collapse of governance. They refer to it as 'gridlock', a kind of business-as-usual state of democratic governance, not a long term failure of the system itself.

So no. I can't keep writing the same stories, recording the same failings of an obsolete, massively corrupt and utterly co-opted system of governance. I can't learn anything from repeatedly describing the daily drumbeat of lies and hypocrisy. I can't convince you to abandon hope and act - but until you do, there is simply nothing new to say.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Real Outrage of Ferguson

They Actually Work Pretty Hard on This Stuff
In many ways, the response to Michael Brown's killing and the events that followed has been appalling, and somewhat puzzling. Because while there is no real surprise that there are ideological divisions between closed-mined support for "law and order" and an understanding of the real implications of being a poor young black man in 21st century America, the hard questions run so much deeper than that. There's a standing Bigotry vs. Diversity question that will bring people down on predictable sides of the issue, and there is the rancid racial politics of the modern American Right, the Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity fueled obsession with the racial victimization of white American men.

But to me, there is another question, and it cuts almost diagonally across all those previously established cultural trenchlines. To me the question is simply this: Should using a handgun against an unarmed assailant qualify as self-defense? Now, there are times when this question is easy - a woman defending against larger male attacker, a physically disabled person resisting a strong-arm thief - but the salient question here is a Law Enforcement officer effecting an arrest on a person who is violently resisting, but is unarmed. Now, this is a reasonable question to ask, because police across America take violently resisting felons into custody every day without shooting them. Hundreds, if not thousands of them. The police have extensive training in controlling violent offenders, they have a variety of less-than-lethal options from a baton to mace to a Taser, they have armor and backup and experience that most people don't have. If the guidelines for using lethal force specifically call for a "reasonable belief that his life is in danger", can that standard EVER be honestly met when the attacker is unarmed? How many times can you recall hearing about an unarmed felon killing a police officer, or even avoiding arrest?

And yet the shrieking only grows louder. SELF DEFENSE! They shout. JUSTIFIED SHOOTING! They rant. But I wonder - did Officer Wilson have no choice? Did he have to shoot? Was it truly 'shoot or die'? Because the alternative is that he CHOSE to shoot, in a moment when it wasn't necessary. And instead of a few scrapes and bruises, a kid is DEAD. And that's as big a deal as there is. And doesn't the right wing worship at the altar of the tough guy? How many times did we see John Wayne get in a fistfight with his guns in their holsters? Did he ever draw them? NO. It was a fistfight - he understood that, and that what you place at risk in a fistfight is different on an existential level from what you risk in a gunfight. They are different things, done for different reasons, and to kill someone to end a fistfight, a la George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson, is weak. The antithesis of what a tough guy would do. Shameful.

Now, it's true that a big part of the right-wing message these days is fear. Fear of Terrorism, fear of Russia, fear of Ebola, fear of African - Americans, fear of Muslims. So they may find it useful to portray Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin as marauding thugs, to be feared even when unarmed, and to be shot down in the name of all that's good and American. But at the same time, don't they have to feel a little sick? Their hero couldn't take a kid into custody, despite training, equipment and years of experience. He had to kill him. Doesn't that say that Michael Brown was the better man, tougher, able to dominate a trained profesional law enforcment officer with bare hands?

In a country awash in a foul stew of guns, hatred and fear, we need to ask one key question: What are guns for? Are they for ending every disagreement, every conflict? Or should lethal force be restricted to times when it is truly the only solution, when the negative outcome is much worse than a bruise or a broken nose? I sense such a hardening of attitudes, where killing unarmed children has gone from 'tragic' to 'justified', and now it's only a matter of time before it becomes 'preferred'. I carried a gun for many years, and it never occurred to me to use it against an unarmed person. That's got to be murder.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Great Gunfights That Changed the Rules Episode II - Miami

That's it - the whole thing took place in a few minutes
Bill Matix and Michael Platt were on a roll. They were old friends - Matix served in the Marines while Platt found a love for combat in Vietnam as an Army Ranger. It was the spring of 1986, and any aversion they might have had to killing and stealing was long behind them. Both of them had former wives who died violently and suspiciously, and they had made the choice to relocate to Homestead Florida to make a living robbing banks. Early on, they found that local residents would go out to nearby quaries, called "rock pits", to shoot guns for recreation. Matix and Platt found that they could find these ad hoc shooting ranges, kill the people using them, and take their weapons and vehicles. As early as October of 1985 they killed Emelio Briel shooting in such a rock pit, and took his weapons and vehicle. His car would become a common thread.

Still in October, the pair botched an armored car heist at a Winn-Dixie supermarket. They shot a courier in the leg with a shotgun, but had to retreat under heavy fire from the armored car crew, jumping in their car and escaping with no money. A few weeks later they pulled two bank robberies in the space of two hours, escaping the second in Briel's car. On January 10th they robbed a Brinks truck, with both of them shooting holes in the Brinks courier and escaping, once again, in Briel's car. This time, a citizen followed them and saw them change cars to a white Ford pickup. In March they were back at the rock pit, where they forced target shooter Jose Collazo to wade out into the pond and shot him four times, leaving him for dead. They took his weapons, including a folding stock Ruger Mini 14 in .223. Unfortunatly for them, Collazo didn't die. Instead he walked three miles for help. A week later they used Collazo's car to rob the Barnet Bank in Homestead. Time was running out.

Matix and Platt had become a target of the local FBI. Unsure of where they would strike next, the Miami FBI office put together a "rolling stakeout" crew, fourteen agents in eight cars trying to at least engage the pair after their next robbery. It defies all probability, but on the morning of April 11th, Special Agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove spotted the target vehicle and initiated a felony traffic stop. Now, every FBI agent expected a gunfight - at least two of them drew their weapons prematurely and lost them in the course of the collisions to come - and Platt and Matix were also prepared to fight. This was no Newhall - nobody expected this confrontation to end peacefully. There were 14 law enforcement agents and two criminals - what could possibly go wrong? Well, the fight would occur in a clausterphobically tight space, surrounded by cars smashed together in the traffic stop. The handguns and shotguns the FBI Agents carried were underpowered, leaving the the Agents outgunned. And the criminals were trained infantrymen with combat experience, and knew exactly what to do in a gunfight.

Agent Grogan saw the Black Monte Carlo and called in the stakeout team. He then attempted to run the suspects off the road. Agent Mierles saw Platt aim a rifle from the passenger side and he rammed the Monte Carlo from behind, spinning both the suspects and the agents out of control. They ended up wedged together - the suspect car against a parked car on the right Agent Richard Manauzzi's car on the left, with another FBI car, occupied by Agent's Grogan and Dove slammed in behind. The rest of the FBI stakeout team arrived and left their vehicles across the street, leaving them one beat behind in the initial exchange of fire. But this is how it begins - Matix and Platt wedged in with FBI Agent Manauzzi on one side and Grogan and Dove behind. Supervisory Special Agent Gordon McNeill stopped next to Manauzzi, with Hanlon and Mierles and Orrantia and Risner across the street.

You really have to think about this - you have three cars literally in contact, and the occupants of those cars struggling to open fire. You have ten armed professionals - you can't assume that Matix and Platt are anything but the professional equivalent of the FBI as gunfighters - sitting in cars ten feet apart trying desperately to kill each other and survive. If there is a better description of a gunfight, I can't tell you what it is.

The Gunfight - 4 Minutes of Blood and Fire

The whole fight, in a single image

Michael Platt leaned across from the passenger side of the Monte Carlo and fired 13 rounds of .223 from the Mini-14 through the closed driver side window. These rounds would have been fired directly in front of Matix's face, and must have been painfully disorienting in an enclosed vehicle. Platt first fired on Manauzzi in the car beside them, then at McNeill as he approached in his car, and then at Mireles as he ran across the street towards the fight. One round hit McNeil in his gun hand, and another hit Mireles in the forearm, knocking him to the ground. Having laid down a vicious burst of suppressing fire, Platt leaned back to the passenger side. Matix then forced the driver side door open as far as he could with Manauzzi's car next to them and fired a single round of 12 guage #6 shot from the sitting position into the grille of Grogan's car. At the same time, Grogan returned fire with his Smith 9mm, hitting Matix in the forearm. Matix pulled back into the Monte Carlo. Agent McNeill was crouched next to Manauzzi's car, firing across the hood, when he was struck in the gun hand by one of Platt's rounds. He managed to continue to fire, emptying his revolver into the outlaw's car. Two of his rounds hit Matix in the head and neck, knocking him unconscious.

As Platt saw Matix take a round to the head and slump over, he knew he would have to get out of the Monte Carlo and try to get in one of the FBI cars. But since the car was slammed up against a parked Olds Cutlass, he had to climb out the passenger side window. With a rifle - even a short, folding stock rifle like the Mini-14, that was going to leave him exposed to a lot of incoming fire. As he began to climb out, Agent Dove opened fire with his Smith 9mm. One of his rounds passed through Platt's right biceps muscle, exited and entered his right lung. The autopsy revealed that this round killed Platt - the lung was collapsed and filled with almost one and half liters of blood - but it didn't stop him. After he got out of the Monte Carlo, Platt scrambled across the hood of the Cutlass. Dove continued to fire on him, hitting him in the thigh and again in the left foot. As he got on the ground in front of the Cutlass he took another round, a grazing hit from a .38 +p round from Orrantia's .357 revolver.

Kneeling behind the right front tire of the Cutlass, Platt drew his own .357 revolver and opened fire on Orrantia and Risner, who were firing on him from across the street. Then, when Platt turned to put fire on Grogan, Dove and Hanlon, one of Risner's rounds hit him in the right forearm, shattering the bone and causing him to drop his revolver. At nearly the same moment, another round hit Platt in the upper right arm. Somehow, despite all the damage, Platt was able to load a fresh magazine in the Mini-14, brace it against his shoulder with his uninjured left hand and work the trigger with his right, despite having been shot three times in the right arm. From cover behind the Cutlass, he fired three rounds. The first shattered the steering wheel of Orrantia's car, spraying him with shrapnel and debris. One of the next two hit McNeill in the neck, temporarily paralyzing him. Amazingly, McNeill has stated that he could see Platt smiling as he fired.

Due to Platt's training, he knew that he could not win a gunfight from cover, that he had to move, and he had to attack. He moved around behind the Cutlass and advanced on Grogan, Dove and Hanlon who were behind Grogan's car. In response, Dove moved around to the other (driver's) side of the car, but one of Platt's .223 rounds hit his Smith 459 pistol, damaging it so that it was inoperable. Grogan moved in behind Dove at the rear fender. Hanlon was reloading his .38 behind the passenger side rear fender when another of Platt's rounds hit him in the right hand, making it impossible to complete the reload. Hanlon fell back to the ground behind the car. From that position he could see Platt's feet as he walked up to the passenger side of the car. He heard Grogan yell "Oh my god!" as Platt killed him with a single round to the chest. As he moved around the rear of the car, Platt saw Hanlon and shot him - the round hit him in the groin. Hanlon rolled into a fetal position, expecting to be shot again, but Platt kept moving, turning and firing two rounds into Dove's head, killing him instantly. He then turned and fired on Orrantia and Risner. The crime scene report includes the detail that there was a great deal of Platt's blood on Grogan's car, both smears and arterial spurts. The fact that you can kill someone and they can kill you before they stop moving is the salient point of this entire exercise. Platt knew tactics, and he knew that to win you have to attack, close with and destroy your enemy. The fact that he maintained an advantage in firepower allowed him to offset his huge numerical disadvantage. But ultimately he should not have been able to continue to fight.

Platt came back around to the driver's side of Grogan's car and started to get in. Mireles opened fire with his Remington 12 Gauge shotgun, hitting Platt in both feet with 00 buckshot. While all this was going on, Matix had regained consciousness and climbed out the same window that Platt had, and now came out into the street to get in the passenger side of Grogan's car. At this point Platt could no longer operate the rifle. He took Matix's .357 revolver, took a few steps into the street and fired three shots at Mireles and McNeil. When he got back into the car, he was unable to use his right hand to turn the key - to whatever extent he was capable with his wounds, Matix was trying to help get the car started. Agent Mireles drew his .357, moved down the street until he was opposite Grogan's car, and advanced on the outlaws while firing. His first round hit the seat back. His second round hit the window post, with a fragment tearing Platt's scalp. Platt flopped down into the seat to get below the window level, with his head in Matix's lap. Mireles' next three rounds hit Matix in the face, killing him. Now Mireles' assault had brought him right up to the car. He extended his revolver through the window and shot Platt in the heart.  In a moment of stunning silence, the fight was over.


Firepower Advantage
250 agonizing seconds. 145 rounds fired. All inside of ten meters. Ten combatants - four dead, five wounded - only one man, Agent Risner, came out the fight unscathed. The important lesson that must occasionally be relearned at great cost is that handguns are not powerful weapons. They are portable, concealable weapons. But that comes with a major compromise. They are not effective in killing 200 pound mammals, whether they are deer or other men. There's an old line you'll hear from old gunfighters at old shooting ranges - the only purpose for a handgun is to fight your way to your rifle.

In the wake of the Miami shootout there were investigations, and they all led to the same conclusion. The .38s and 9mms the FBI was issuing their agents were insufficient to the task of ending a gunfight, and while they could be confident they could kill an adversary, they had no reason to believe they could stop that adversary from killing them. This became the practical consideration - how could a law enforcement officer best end a gunfight as quickly as possible, with the minimal rounds fired?

And the FBI made a fairly quick, and somewhat rash decision. In the late 80s, firearms designers had developed a new cartridge. The 10mm auto was designed to have the terminal ballistics of a .357 Magnum in the form factor of a modern automatic pistol. The FBI selected the Smith & Wesson 1076 10mm auto as their issue handgun, and immediately began running into problems. (As a side note, the big iconic silver pistol used by Sonny Crockett in the first two seasons of Miami Vice was a Bren Ten, an early iteration of a 10mm auto using non-standard bottleneck 10mm cases.) The problems were simply that as a round that performed like the .357 Magnum, the full power 10mm developed the same blast and recoil of a .357, and many of their women and smaller framed agents couldn't use the 1076 effectively. But during that period, FBI armorers had developed a training/practice round, a downloaded 10mm they called 10mm FBI. Everybody looked at each other in a moment of epiphany, and the FBI recalled their 10mm autos and issued what became known as the .40 S&W.  A 155 grain hollow point at 1200 feet per second, it was just about as ferocious as an organization as broad and diverse as the FBI could hope to issue. The creeping problem is that the firearms companies built these .40 caliber handguns on their existing 9mm frames, something they couldn't do with the beefier 10mm chamberings. And those guns, gobbled up by law enforcement organizations all over the globe, are falling apart well before their anticipated end of life. Because you can build a 10mm auto on a 9mm frame, but you're going to have to anticipate accelerated wear cycles, and that means poorly timed failures.

The lessons of Miami resonate down to today, and will continue to drive law enforcement tactical doctrine for decades to come. Marksmanship is clearly not a problem - FBI Agents have demonstrated the ability to put fire on target even under extreme duress. But technology has to improve both guns and bullets, making deadly force effective in stopping a fight, rather than fueling a gunfight. Today, a combination of evolved tactics, more powerful weapons and ballistic body armor make the likelihood of a gunfight like Miami vanishingly unlikely. Criminals know they don't have a path to escape - if they are trapped in a fight they're going to lose, due to the overwhelming power of the opposition.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mexico - Ticking Time Bomb on America's Border

Welcome to Hell
We're used to hearing about failed states, insurgencies and civil wars. And what they have in common is they all happen on other continents. Between the Mid East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia and South America, there's a lot of dysfunctional and non-functional nations busily engaged in tearing themselves to pieces. And make no mistake, failed states represent the primary danger to global peace and stability in the 21st century. They are a breeding ground and a launching pad for all the activities that destabilize nations, initiate insurgencies, spread extremism and start civil wars. Failed states give operating room and oxygen to tribal, ethnic, sectarian and nationalist interests that are all unwilling to compromise and live side-by-side. They produce the kinds of conflicts that we've seen from Sudan to Syria, from Afghanistan to Nigeria that are waged with the most inhuman brutality and savage disregard for basic human norms.

And speaking of savagery, in late September 43 teaching students went to the Mexican town of Iguala to protest government hiring practices in the education system. Now, here in America where we long ago legalized political corruption, it's hard for us to understand just how toxic the systems of local governance in Mexico have become. But at some point, that sense of entitlement, that belief that as political leaders they are above the law, at some point the grotesque arrogance of unfettered power results in something that cannot be swallowed. So it was that night in September in Iguala, Mexico.

The Iguala Mayor,  José Luis Abarca Velázquez, goaded by his horrifically arrogant wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, was infuriated by this challenge to the authority they had bought and paid for and expected to wield for the extent of their term. After ordering local law enforcement to open fire on the student protesters, 43 of them were taken into custody by Iguala police. And that's when it got truly ugly.

The police turned these 43 innocent children over to the local narcotraffico gang, Guerreros Unidos. It's fairly clear that the instructions given to the gangsters were unequivocal - they executed all forty three kids, burned the bodies and crushed the remains so they would never be found. To be clear, they crushed the burned remains by stomping on them until there was nothing larger than gravel to be investigated. Does anyone doubt that was part of the instructions issued by the Mayor and his lovely wife?

But that's the backstory. Today is the outcome. The Mayor and his wife are in custody. And let's be honest - they are a symptom, not the disease. The question is how much will it take for the Mexican people to go into full revolt? In Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria the people refused to back down even as they were shot down, arrested and tortured. The Mexican people are no less committed to their rights, and their hopes and aspirations for their future, and their children's future. The influence of America weighs heavy on any hopes for real resistance, but at some point the inequality, the unfairness, the corruption and the brutality will generate a sustainable resistance. We may very well see the birth of that tomorrow.

But the idea of a failed state, a long term civil war on America's southern border is a frightening one, and one that tends to focus the mind. One can imagine a number of scenarios that include an 'invitation' to the US military to occupy Northern Mexico and establish "stability". In a worst case scenario, a million refugees would flood Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and very likely result in more violence and inhumanity. Considering the lawlessness, violence and brutality that has suffused Mexico even with a quasi-functional government, it's painfully easy to imagine the horrors that we would see in large swaths of ungoverned and ungovernable Mexico. We can expect to see warlords, with private armies built out of military and law enforcement deserters, holding enclaves against marauding gangs and attacks from fellow warlords, while the rebels break into various factions, simultaneously fighting the rump Mexican government and each other.

The 'failed state' is rapidly becoming the hallmark of 21st century geopolitics, with Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria closely followed by Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, even Pakistan. With its endemic poverty, corruption and criminal culture, would any of us be surprised to see Mexico collapse into a similar state of chaos? And how would it affect the US, both in terms of the direct impact of refugees, violence and increased criminality and in diplomatic relations with other nations that seek to benefit from the collapse - primarily China and Russia?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Net Neutrality - Looking for Monopolists in All the Wrong Places

Consider this a PSA
The net neutrality argument heated up again this week when President Obama came out unequivocally in favor of reclassifying ISPs as utilities under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Of course, the FCC is an independent government agency, not part of the Presidents administration, and Chairman Thomas Wheeler is in no way bound to act on the President's preferred policy, but it was nonetheless one of the clearest statements the government has made on net neutrality to date.

Net neutrality, along with things like freedom of speech, often leaves people a little unclear on what it actually means. But it's a very simple concept. It's the TCP/IP equivalent of 'Justice is Blind' - the internet doesn't care what a packet is, it treats them all exactly the same. It reads the routing information in the packet header and sends it on toward its next destination - that's the whole job of the internet and the definition of a neutral network. In contrast, a network that is not neutral would assign priority rankings to different packet types and sources and and give higher priority traffic a preferred status. In fact, that's the way most networks work, and indeed, there is a QoS (Quality of Service) functionality in modern routers to support exactly that kind of traffic prioritization.

But the internet is not 'most networks', and there are fairness and social justice questions that apply. But the way we use the internet continues to evolve, and the most important piece of that evolution was the explosive growth of streaming video. Netflix now accounts for more than one third of all internet traffic - add in YouTube and just those two sources account for more than half the packets on the wire. This is not your fathers internet. So there is no doubt that the major ISPs have had to invest heavily in capacity to keep up with demand being generated by two companies who had absolutely no part in actually delivering their product to their customers. So the big ISPs would like to be able to make very large upstream sources pay extra for the additional capacity they are demanding.

 And that would not be so bad. But it would also mean the net neutrality genie was out of the bottle. The same prerogative that would allow premium users to be charged premium prices could also allow for some nefarious acts, from slowing the packets of small sites to delaying delivery or degrading performance of competitor's data streams. Everyone is screaming that without net neutrality it's the end of the internet as we know it. So why am I not worried?

Let's get one thing clear right now. While the US doesn't have anywhere near the best internet performance or bandwidth there is, net neutrality is alive and well. Sure, I can watch Netflix, but that's not having any impact on me when I want to look at Thunder's butterflies or listen to the latest musical selections of my favorite un-dead DJ. In other words, there is currently capacity commensurate with demand, and even if large upstream data sources are having to pay extra for the bandwidth they are consuming, it's clearly not having a negative impact on the rest of the internet. And that should debunk the worst of the liberal fear-mongering - that small, startup sites might find their bandwidth throttled, that they might run slower, with delivery and performance issues that wealthier, more established sites can avoid by paying for full speed delivery. As the young man tells the crazy lady with the hammer in the commercial "That's not how it works - that's not how ANY of this works." HTTP traffic is very small. It doesn't require even a small fraction of the available capacity. If a site resolves in 80 milliseconds instead of 40, you are NOT going to notice. Again, whenever we are talking about bandwidth constraints and capacity limitations on the modern internet, we talking exclusively about video. Streaming sites and BitTorrent sites. That's where the bottleneck is, and that's the terrain being argued over in terms of net neutrality.

But here's the main reason there's very little to fear. The people who want to end net neutrality are some very large, powerful corporations - companies like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner. And it's true that they are rapacious organizations looking to increase their profits, with no interest in the well-being of the consumer. But this is that rare case where consumers are not all alone. Indeed, arrayed against the ISPs in this fight are even bigger names - names like Google and Microsoft and Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few. They depend on the internet being a useful, central part of their customer's lives, and if the ISPs start to degrade that model then there is nothing to stop these deep pocketed internet companies from setting up their own ISP businesses and bypassing the incumbents entirely. See, it used to be that the incumbent ISPs had leverage due to a trillion dollar investment in fiber in the ground. There was no quick way to roll out enough broadband capacity to compete with them. But now we've got a number of wireless broadband options, from satellites to long endurance drones to a metropolitan system based on terrestrial towers, that could begin pulling customers from ISPs within a year.

Believe me, the ISPs know the kind of money and resources they're up against. While they have no compunction in gouging customers for every dime they can, they are going to behave very carefully around the big boys who, if provoked, could put an end to the gravy train forever.  So while there might be no explicit guarantees of net neutrality, the practical economic reality is that as long as people want to use the internet and organizations are making billions offering web-based products and solutions, nobody is going to be permitted to interfere with their easy access.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Profiles in Pointlessness - Keystone Edition

Or, we could just use a lot of trains
The political saga of the Keystone XL Pipeline has been a steady narrative of stupidity, pointless waste of resources and poorly chosen fights. I realize common sense does not regularly rear it's head in the political realm, but the entire debate is structured on a set of assumptions and contentions so badly informed, and so disingenuous that it calls to mind the worst of Tammany Hall or the Mississippi Democratic machine of the 1930s. When it comes to real debate, the Republicans long ago abandoned the field, mindlessly defending anything their energy company benefactors ordered them to do. When you have a political system as broadly and deeply corrupt as the modern US system, this should come as a surprise to no one. But the Democrats are feckless here too, torn between local and regional economic interests and national environmental policies.

But while the Republicans are predictable in their blatant corruption, there has to be some serious questions asked of the liberal environmentalists that are driving the resistance to Keystone. To wit: What are you hoping to accomplish? We know that the oil from the tar sands is dirtier in a toxic sense, dirtier in a pollution sense and dirtier in a carbon emissions sense. But let me ask a single question: If the pipeline is not build, how much Canadian tar sands oil would not be shipped? And the answer, of course, is zero. It would merely be shipped by rail to ports on the east and gulf coasts. One tanker car at a time, on poorly maintained track, every train and every car a potential toxic disaster.

So that's where we find ourselves. It was dumb to invest the Keystone XL Pipeline with the gravitas of the entire political environmental struggle, when a reasonable person might wonder if winning the battle meant losing the war. But now the Democrats find themselves in the minority in the Senate, and in yet another desperate and pointless political move around the Keystone pipeline, they now are letting their Louisiana Senate hopeful Mary Landrieu lead a vote to pass the pipeline. Without condition, without quid pro quo, without any horsetrading at all. In a doomed effort to save one seat in a Senate already lost.

Frankly - and ironically in the worst kind of rain-on-your-wedding-day fashion - the Keystone Pipeline is environmentally favorable when considered against shipping the same volume of tar sands oil by rail. Resistance to the pipeline only made sense to the extent it would limit the amount of oil that went to market - as soon as the answer to that question was 'zero', the pipeline made sense for every concerned party. But years of political leverage had been built up, and to just hand that over without extracting some consideration from the Republicans - food stamps, unemployment extensions, infrastructure investment, SOMETHING - reveals a Democratic party so inept, so unable to manage its caucus and its agenda that one can only wonder how they've won any arguments at all.

Now, there is some indication that President Obama will veto the bill approving construction of the Keystone Pipeline. And that would be precisely the right answer to this cobbled - together kindergarten strategy. Let 'the adult in the room' force some kind of concession out of a Republican caucus desperate to get the pipeline built.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Great Gunfights That Changed the Rules Episode I - Newhall

Fast and Hard - You can NEVER give up the initiative
One thing you can always count on people to do is fight. And very often, they resort to using weapons, and the fights get a lot deadlier. In modern times, the peak expression of individual combat is the gunfight. Now, there are a number of different kinds of gunfights, but outside of a war zone, most of them tend to be between armed criminals and law enforcement, for no other reason than that combination brings together armed individuals with opposing goals and strong incentives. Because the goal of the criminal faction is (usually) to escape, a lot of these events are less interesting because they take place as part of a car chase.

The ultimate manifestation of the gunfight is two heavily armed factions fighting at eyeball ranges. These are fast, furious, terrifying and it is rare that any participant escapes unwounded. They are a test of weapons and tactics, to be sure, but ultimately they are a test of courage and will. Often it is the side that refuses to retreat, the side that stays on the attack, that wins the day. And it should never be overlooked that he who shoots first has the upper hand.

For law enforcement, institutional doctrine isn't something that changes readily. Rather, procedures evolve as the result of lessons learned on the streets. And in the modern era, law enforcement doctrine has had to face some very hard truths about what's on the other side of a 'Black Swan' event. How street cops go into a routine contact determines to a large degree how they are going to come out when that contact suddenly becomes anything but routine. In the last fifty years, there have been a few events that forced law enforcement as a profession to examine their institutional doctrines, and think about using rigorous training to make certain street cops would handle these events in the same way every time, with an eye to surviving a few seconds of blood and fire.

In the modern era, there were three gunfights that had a profound impact, not just on law enforcement doctrine, but on society as a whole. Newhall was where the police learned that they needed to develop effective, rational, repeatable policies and procedures for things like traffic stops and field interviews. Later, Miami was where they learned that handguns are not terribly effective firearms, so it was a worthwhile effort to at least make sure the handguns law enforcement personnel did carry were the most effective possible. And then, in North Hollywood, the world discovered the true nature of living in a second amendment world, and nothing was ever the same after that.

On the evening of April 11, 1970, Bobby Davis was driving in Newhall, just north of Los Angeles in Southern California. Shortly after dark, he was involved in a traffic altercation, and was confronted by people whose car he nearly hit. Faced with superior numbers, Bobby didn't hesitate. A career criminal, he was always armed, and he pulled his revolver, backed down his would-be attackers and drove away. The aggrieved parties were unsatisfied with this outcome, so they called the police. Meanwhile, Bobby Davis picked up his friend, fellow lifelong violent criminal Jack Twinning. Just before midnight they were pulled over by rookie California Highway Patrol officers Officers Walt Frago and Robert Gore. Initially Twinning and Davis were cooperative, with Davis getting out of the drivers side of the vehicle and approaching Officer Gore at the rear of the car. As Officer Frago approached the passenger side with his shotgun muzzle high, Twinning exited the vehicle and shot him twice with a .357 magnum revolver, and the fight was on. Gore fired on Twinning with his service revolver, in the heat of the moment (apparently) forgetting all about Bobby Davis. Davis stepped quickly behind and to Gore's left, pulled his .38 Smith from his waistband and fired two rounds point blank into his head.

In a few seconds, the first phase of the gunfight was over. By seizing the initiative and acting with overwhelming force, Davis and Twinning had killed the two officers and sustained no wounds of their own. In order to leverage their advantage, they needed to escape the area immediately. But CHP doctrine was to dispatch a cover unit when another unit initiated a felony stop. And before the newly minted killers could get in their car, that second CHP unit arrived on the scene.

The backup CHP unit, containing CHP officers George Alleyn and James Pence, pulled into the parking lot where the traffic stop had occurred, and that's where a simple, violent ambush turned to tactical chaos. Both Davis and Twinning fired on the CHP cruiser, quickly emptying their revolvers. That should have been the end of the fight, but the career criminals had been planning an armored car robbery, and had been collecting weapons. The back seat of their Pontiac was a veritable arsenal. It's worth mentioning that most gunfighters don't have an endless supply of loaded weapons, but it is tactically more efficient to switch weapons than it is to reload a gun run dry. If there was one thing that would determine the outcome of this fight, that might be it.

With their revolvers empty, the felons dove back in there car - not to escape, but rather to re-arm. Twinning emerged from the passenger side with a .45 auto, while Davis came up with a short barreled shotgun. Twinning's .45 jammed after a single round, and he dove back in the car for another. Meanwhile, Officer Alleyn came out of the CHP car with the issue Remington 870 12 gauge pump shotgun, and began excitedly firing at the Pontiac. He fired so fast that he actually ejected a live round. But even so, Twinning was struck with a single pellet of 00 buckshot, in his forehead. It failed to penetrate his skull, and was nothing more than a superficial injury. When his shotgun was empty, Officer Alleyn dropped it, drew his .357 service revolver and continued firing, this time at Davis. Davis returned fire with his shotgun, killing Alleyn while sustaining no wounds of his own.

At this point an ex-Marine by the name of Gary Kness happened to be driving by. In the glare of the CHP headlights, in the gunsmoke and with the bodies down, it was clear that there was a desperate fight underway. Kness stopped his car and waded in. He ran over and grabbed Officer Alleyn, who was dying on the asphalt, and tried to drag him to cover. He couldn't move him, and he looked up and saw Davis toss away the now empty shotgun. Still operating on the principle that a fresh gun is faster than a reloaded gun, Davis grabbed the shotgun dropped by Frago, but didn't realize there was a live round in the chamber. He couldn't work the action, as it was locked on a live round, and he ended up accidently firing that round into the air. Confused and frustrated, Davis tossed the shotgun aside and pulled Frago's service .357 from his holster.

While this was going on, Pence exited the CHP car, and from the other side of the vehicle fired six rounds of .357 at Twinning, missing with every one. Twinning, whether he was a better shot or just luckier we'll never know, fired back with his fresh .45 and hit Pence in the chest and both legs. Pence dropped to the ground, and started to reload his revolver.

Now, reloading a revolver can be slow and difficult, depending on training and equipment. In 1970, the CHP issued what was called a 'drop box' that was worn on the officer's Sam Brown belt rig. A drop box was simply a leather box that held a stack of .357 rounds, retained to the belt by velcro. The officer would pull the box away from the belt, it would pivot from the bottom and the six rounds would drop into his hand. The good news is that they would all be oriented in the same direction, the bad news was that they still had to be indexed and loaded one at a time.

While Officer Pence struggled to reload his sidearm, Gary Kness was still trying to find a way to get into the fight. He grabbed the shotgun that had been dropped by Alleyn, but quickly discovered it was empty. Davis began firing at Kness with Frago's revolver, and Kness quickly returned fire with Alleyn's .357. The rounds pounded into the Pontiac, and a fragment hit Davis in the chest, but it didn't slow him down. In the chaos, with Pence wounded and trying to reload, Twinning moved around the CHP car and killed Pence with two shots to the head. Kness ran out of ammunition and retreated across the parking lot to a drainage ditch, just as a third CHP unit arrived at the now bloody scene. A few rounds were exchanged and Davis and Twinning grabbed the officers weapons and ran off into the darkness on foot.

The outcome was banal, anticlimactic. Davis was arrested, sentenced to death, and ultimately killed himself in his cell in 2009. Twinning was trapped in a house with hostages shortly after the gunfight, and killed himself rather than being arrested.

150 seconds. 60 rounds expended across three cars in a restaurant parking lot. Eyeball range, muzzle flash, the sound of bullets hitting metal and meat, and the gasps and moans of the dying. This was the lesson that had to be learned the hard way - it almost never happens, but when it does it's too fast and too chaotic to think your way through. You need to already know what to do tactically, and you need to have a minimally functional set of equipment. None of the CHP officers were wearing ballistic vests - that would change as the quality and usability of body armor improved. The CHP would continue to issue .357 revolvers, but they would issue .38 special ammunition - the blast and recoil of the magnum rounds were hard for the Officers to control. Hitting the target with lighter rounds was deemed to be better than missing with high power magnum rounds. And finally, that dropbox was quickly replaced with the ubiquitous HKS speedloader, giving an officer a chance to quickly reload his revolver, even in the dark in the midst of a gunfight.

But the primary lesson law enforcement slowly had to accept after Newhall was that the police NEVER want to have an even fight. Two on two when you don't know who you're dealing with is bad doctrine. If Alleyn and Frago had just waited until the second CHP car arrived, and dealt with Davis and Twinning in such a way as to prevent them from being able to fight, the situation would have turned out differently. Today, doctrine around traffic stops makes it much harder - not impossible, mind you, just much harder - to take the initiative and ambush the police. And just about everything you see them do has its roots in that bloody night in Newhall.

Monday, November 10, 2014

An Effective Political Strategy

Well, yeah, but who knew it
would work out this well?
Republicans won the 2014 mid-terms in overwhelming fashion. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of thought, speculation and agonizing over the reasons for this victory, and what Democrats might have done differently to achieve better outcomes.

I'd say two things. First, Congressional races are fundamentally different from national races. They involve much smaller constituencies, and those voter populations are arranged in a much different manner. The Obsolete American electoral system was originally designed to balance political power between the rural farmers and those in the cities. This has, over time, resulted in a deep imbalance in representation, with the smaller rural and exurban populations having a greater voice than the larger, more diverse urban populations.

But the main thing to think about isn't structural politics, or Democratic political strategies. It's more important to realize how successful Republican political strategy was, and to think about what that means for American democratic political system in the future. It has always been a temptation to the party out of power. Obstruct everything. Do everything you can to make sure that government can't solve any of the nation's problems, and intervene at every level to be certain that government doesn't help anyone or accomplish anything good. Use political power to trash the economy and then roll back unemployment benefits. It's tempting, but no party ever adopted it as an organizing strategy because the assumption was that voters would punish the party for making things worse.

Then came Mitch McConnell, and his post-election epiphany. After Obama's election, McConnell took the position that if they obstructed everything the new President tried to do, and prevented him from improving the economy or making anyone's lives better, the public would blame HIM - and by extension, the Democrats - for their unhappiness with the political leadership. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened. The result of six years of sabotage and vandalism on a grand political scale is the Republicans find themselves in their most powerful position in decades. They know they are unpopular, but their actions as the minority party in divided government made the status quo even more unpopular, and while everyone in the US is well aware of who the President is, surprisingly few of them know which party controls the houses of Congress, or even what Congress has the power to do.

Much of what has allowed the wealthy and the corporations to take complete control of the electoral and political system can be attributed to that alone. Americans are the ultimate low-information voters. They don't read, they have no understanding of how their own system is supposed to work, and they are very often simply misinformed by media outlets that can't or won't tell the truth. So they believe that the president has substantially more power than he does, and they hold him responsible for "not getting things done". The Republican party exploited this fundamental weakness, intentionally breaking the system of governance and then reaping the political benefits when the people predictably misdirected their anger.

Of course, the genie's well and truly out of the bottle now. The practical experiment in cynical, destructive politics has been run, and the results are there for all to see. Now, faced as we are with at least another decade of divided government, if one assumes the Democrats learn the lesson on offer, the chances for improvement in American quality of life are essentially null. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have a choice to make. Should they 'turn the other cheek', accept the role of the 'adult in the room' and try to govern within the constraints of what the Republican majority deems acceptable, or should they emulate the 'McConnell Doctrine' and just block, interfere, cripple and obstruct everything the Republican congressional leadership tries to do?

That question leads to another - if the Democrats lend support to whatever legislation can be passed that Obama might sign, will those same voters then see it as a revitalized Democratic President working with congress, or would they instead see it as the Republicans providing political and governmental leadership in a vacuum left by feckless Democrats? What you'd like to see mostly depends on what you believe is good for the country - my great concern is that Obama will sign odious Republican legislation in the name of 'governing' - so a robust Democratic minority obstructionist regime seems like the right approach to me.

But the real lesson is don't listen to the conventional wisdom, and don't listen to the media, who live in an alternative reality where the Republicans aren't barking mad anarchists, vandals and neo-fascists. Think about what you want, what you can get and what might be just a couple years away. You're going to have to live with a system that is broken at a fundamental level, and any effective political strategy is going to have to work within that framework.