Thursday, December 31, 2015

mikey's Obligatory Best of 2015 List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

No. ISIS is NOT 'Losing'...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor and the Folly of War

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

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

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

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