Stardate 20011006.1410 (On Screen): Nothing's perfect. One of the disadvantages of a free press is that if there is no story to be reported, there's a strong impulse to make one. Wars are good to reporters; there's a lot going on and they get air time. It's enough to make someone go to a dreadfully uncomfortable place and risk their life; and many reporters have died doing it. But having gone to such a place and paid the price in terrible discomfort, there's a natural disappointment when it turns out that there's nothing to report. According to this, reporters have gone into the northern part of Afghanistan not controlled by the Taliban, in hopes of observing and reporting on the offensive that the Northern Alliance will be mounting Real Soon Now™. Only it's not happening, and the reporters are doing things like bribing the locals to fire their artillery pieces just so that pictures can be taken of them doing so (to be shipped back home again). This makes much more sense of that report I criticized recently where the details didn't make any sense. Likely many of the events described in it never actually happened. (discuss)
Stardate 20011006.1346 (On Screen): I think the US theory of the Russian jet liner being downed by a misdirected Ukrainian SAM is very likely. If you look at it from a very cold utilitarian viewpoint, it would be to the political advantage of the US for it to have been an act of terrorism. It would have given President Putin much more political cover for supporting us in our struggle against Afghanistan, for example, and it would show that international terrorist activity didn't end on 9/11, as some may wish were the case, which would help increase the urgency and cooperation of a lot of other nations. And there is no advantage for the US in embarassing Ukraine; we've had our differences, but they're not an enemy.
So I believe the US claim to have spotted a missile launch at the time from a spy satellite. The US has no incentive to have made up and publicized such a story, and it is inevitable that such a claim would have to be backed up (and the Russians have indeed asked for proof, "urgently"). So there is a very high likelihood that such a missile was actually launched when and where the US says it was. And in a case like this I don't believe in coincidences: if a missile designed to shoot down jets was launched at the time and place where a jet exploded and crashed, there is a strong likelihood that the two events are related. (After all, it's happened before.)
Reports of "bullet holes" in a recovered pilot's door may or may not be relevant. These kinds of missiles don't necessarily move in and physically contact the target; that would be too difficult and the miss rate would be too high especially when trying to intercept an enemy missile. Missiles like the Patriot actually work by exploding short of their target and firing forward a large number of small projectilesm, more or less like a big shotgun round going off. It's entirely plausible that the SAM which was fired from Ukraine had a similar warhead, and if so the "bullet holes" would have been caused by some of the projectiles from the missile warhead and not actually by a firearm. (discuss)
Update: Evidence is mounting that it was a Ukrainian missile.
Stardate 20011006.1048 (On Screen): This article proclaims that the US is still vulnerable to attack. That's true, and it always will be as long as it remains a free and industrialized nation. There are a hundred thousand potential targets in this nation alone, and many more than that in allied nations. Between schools and office buildings and apartment complexes and oil refineries and chemical processing plants and ships and highways and stadiums and large factories and dozens of other kinds of places, there is no way to prevent every possible kind of attack on every one of them by passive defense. (discuss)
Stardate 20011006.1031 (On Screen): There may be another attack coming. It's not certain, and there's no telling where it would be. Some of the people who might be involved are under surveillance, but some may not be. It probably can't be prevented except by normal prudence and by the willingness of civilian individuals to resist if they are nearby. If it does happen, we will all be tested. (And it should shut up those who think it will all go away if we just wish hard enough and live virtuous lives.) (discuss)
Stardate 20011006.0942 (On Screen via long range sensors): Before your ride begins you will first board Deja Vu's 32-passenger suspended train, designed with six rows, seating four abreast. Where do the other eight people sit? (discuss)
Stardate 20011006.0904 (On Screen): I love baseball. Last night in a game between the Giants and the Dodgers, Barry Bonds hit two home runs, setting a new record for most home runs in a season, and his team scored 10 points. And they still lost the game, because the Dodgers scored 11. (This was not a pitcher's duel.) (discuss)
Stardate 20011006.0856 (On Screen): Xerox is suing Palm for infringing a patent it has on handwriting recognition, used by Palm's Grafitti user input system. If Xerox prevails in this suit, Palm is dead. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011006.0756 (Crew, this is the Captain): Until now, my only information about referers was from the canned Cobalt administration frame, which is convenient and brief, but doesn't really have as much detail as I would have liked. Yesterday I finally got motivated and visited the Apache web site and figured out how to change Apache's settings so it would create a complete referer log for me. That required a reboot last night, and so far the results have been very amusing. Routinely it's been the case for the last several weeks that my most common referer was Google, and I had been wondering if that was actually Google's crawler. Nope; they're real search hits, and the search strings are, well, strange. One of my essays is called "Beautiful Women" and it is hit consistently. Since I put per-essay hit counters at the end of July, it's been hit more than 2000 times, an average of more than 30 per day. (That's more than some people's web logs.) It appears now that nearly all those hits are from search engines. (One advantage of being verbose is that there is a lot of text in each page and this increases the chance of getting hit by complex searches, apparently.) So, I give you some examples of search hits to that essay:
There were some others which were odd which hit other things:
IBM+Via+Voice+Crack (hit the main page)
And there were even a few which may have found what they were looking for:
tony+blair+%22Give+up+Bin+Laden+or+give+up+power (found my main page)And those are all just in the last 12 hours. Folks, if you want to get a lot of hits, write at length and register with Google. (And be sure to use the phrase "Pictures of Beautiful Women".) You'll get all sorts of spurious attention. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011006.0724 (On Screen): In the wake of the bombing, there was considerable fear that there might be a racist backlash in the US against everyone who looked even remotely Arab, and indeed some of that did happen. But much less than people feared, and to the contrary what there has mostly been is an outpouring of support for them by their neighbors. It's "not news" so it hasn't gotten the kind of coverage that acts of violence and hatred have gotten, but it's actually much more widespread. That is a very promising sign, and I'm very glad to see that it now is actually getting coverage. I think that President Bush had a lot to do with this, when he issued announcements condemning violence against Arabs and Indians and Sikhs in this country, and attended a service at a mosque and quoted the Quran, and had photo-ops with American Arabs. I voted for Gore, but I have to say I've been very impressed with how his administration has handled this crisis. (discuss)
Stardate 20011006.0711 (On Screen): Sometimes when an enemy does things which seem to make no sense, I find myself suspecting that they're crazy like a fox (engaging in disinformation), or that their cultural point of view is so different from mine that I can't understand their rationale. But sometimes it is simply an indication that they are bumblers. I'm coming to believe that the leadership of the Taliban are simply inept, and this story is an example. They criticize the US for making plans to drop food to Afghan refugees. (!) The Foreign Ministry released a statement that said that There is no doubt that the real objective of such propaganda by the United States is to defuse the anger of the Afghan people against it. With such tactics, it wants to tell the Afghan people that it does not have any enmity against the Afghans. Well, yes. You bet your sweet ass. We're not fighting against the Afghan people; we're only fighting against the Taliban. Apparently that's cheating; we're not acting like the monsters that the Taliban want us to act like, so that they can whip up patriotic ferver among their people against us.
Rather than making air drops, they think we should bring the food in by convoy on the ground. You bet; right where it is concentrated and can be attacked and stolen by Taliban troops and our people killed or taken prisoner. Then they remove any shred of identification of its source and distribute it themselves and take the credit, or they simply keep it. Great plan. This is another tacit admission by the Taliban that the propaganda war is succeeding admirably in eroding their support among the Afghan people. (discuss)
Update: Mullah Omar again tries to claim that bin Laden could not have been involved in the WTC bombing. His reason? "No one will commit suicide on the orders of another." I gather he's never heard of the Kamikazes.
Stardate 20011006.0650 (On Screen): Apparently Taliban anti-aircraft gunners fired on a plane of unknown origin which flew over Kabul. It's described as silvery, slow-flying and very high altitude; it was almost certainly a U-2 spy plane, and it would not have been at any danger from AAA because it flies much too high for any gun to reach. They can only be brought down by large SAMs, and I doubt that the Taliban have any of those. I'm sure that the pilot was amused by all the gun flashes; he appears to have gone about his business (photorecon) and then left when he was finished. (discuss)
Update: How did the AP get this report?
Update: there seem to have been two of them and at least one was a remotely piloted vehicle.
Update: The Taliban admitted that the planes were outside the range of their guns.
Stardate 20011006.0636 (On Screen): And now we come to it. Now is when we have to show resolve. I am confident that our government will do so. The Taliban have offered to free the 8 western missionaries if the US will reassure the Afghani people that they should return to their cities, and stop making threats. This is a tacit admission by the Taliban that they have lost control, a desirable situation for us. It is something we have worked very hard to achieve. Now they are actually asking us to help them regain control of their people; why should we do that for them? Doing so would make them far more difficult to fight later, and cost more of our soldier's lives to defeat them. This is another inept diplomatic move by the Taliban; the only problem is that there will be people in the West who will go for this carrot by focusing exclusively on the 8 missionaries, without seeing the larger and more important issues. We cannot make this trade. (discuss)
Update: An interesting military tactic might be to make occasional overflights of the Afghani cities by lone F-117A's at night to drop leaflets. It hardly matters what the leaflets say; the real message would be "Hi; our bomber was here and these leaflets could have been high explosives." Sun Tzu tells us that Supreme excellence in war lies in making your opponent surrender without a fight. One of our goals is to destabilize the Taliban so severely that they either collapse without action by us, or with as little direct action on our part as necessary. By so doing, we shorten the war and minimize the risk to our soldiers. It appears that this is part of what is going on, and that is good.
Update: Here's the actual announcement by the Taliban Foreign Ministry.
Update: The US government has rejected any trade for the missionaries.
Stardate 20011006.0012 (On Screen): There is what is known as an "open code". During the later years of WWII, the BBC would broadcast its news and then end with a sequence of strange phrases, each of which would be repeated once. It sounded like a conversation with a schizophrenic, with phrases like "Please take me to the garden. Wound my heart with monotonous langour." That latter one (or its French equivalent) is probably the most famous of the lot; it was broadcast on June 4, 1944, and what it meant was "Invasion will begin within 48 hours." Most of the phrases read over the BBC actually meant nothing whatever, but a lot of them were messages to the French Resistance; for example, one phrase might mean "Airdrop of supplies tonight at the usual place".
Open codes are particularly difficult to prevent, because nearly anything could be an open code. Radio stations in the US were forbidden during the war from accepting requests to play specific songs, because having a specific song played on a radio station might be a signal from a German agent in the US to a waiting U-boat that meant "Convoy leaving now".
This article again speculates that Taleban operatives may be receiving activation signals by steganography in pictures. It may be true, but if the only thing which is being sent is "Make your attack now" then nothing that elaborate is needed. The Internet is uniquely susceptible to open codes. For example, "When my weblog has an article in it lauding the Stones, that's your signal to go." But if you're in love with the idea of using a picture, there's a much easier way to use such a thing: use its "last changed date". Every html file or picture has a date associated with it, and the browser can retrieve that; it uses that to decide whether to use its cached version of the file or to retrieve it again. If you open your browser cache, you can look and see the change dates for all the files it's retrieved. So if someone wanted to send several open-code messages, the way to do it would be to create a web page which was graphics-busy, and to assign one of those pictures to each signal. Each time the change-date on that file is refreshed, the signal is sent. There is no way to defend against this; in fact, there's no easy way to even detect it, with the fantastically large number of sites out there which are constantly changing. Why would anyone screw with steganography for such messages? (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.2157 (On Screen): Osama bin Laden can run, but he may not be able to hide after the U.S. carried its war on terrorism to the heavens on Friday with the launch of what is believed to be a finely focused spy satellite to hover over Afghanistan. ... Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine said Washington had been readying a KH-11 "Keyhole" satellite with imaging resolution down to a few inches from 200 miles (360 km) out in space and could be used to track small groups of Afghans on foot and even spot their campfires. Say what? A satellite 200 miles up is going to hover over Afghanistan? That's going to be quite an orbit! (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.1613 (On Screen): There's good reason to believe that the Taliban have ordered their forces in Kandahar to abandon the city, move into the mountains to the south, and dig in. I can't think of a nicer thing they've done for us for a long time. If they'd stayed in the city, we would have been forced to bomb them there, destroying buildings and killing civilians. Now they've kindly moved their troops out into the countryside away from any distractions, so that they can be bombed more efficiently. There must be something I'm missing about them; everything they're doing seems completely irrational. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.1554 (On Screen via long range sensors): Now this is fuzzy-headed. "The media say that the Taliban wants to negotiate. Great!" Well, what the Taliban ambassador says he wants, and what the Taliban really wants may not be the same. Professor Fisher is an expert in negotiations and he can't recognize a delaying tactic when he sees it? He then goes on in a similar vein: "Our current demand appears big and fuzzy." On the contrary, they're very straightforward and clear: we want bin Laden surrendered, we want all the terrorist bases shut down, we want all members of Al Qaeda turned over to us, and we want Afghanistan to never be used as a base for terrorism again. What's so fuzzy about that?
He proceeds to ask some questions, and I had no trouble at all answering any of them:
The problem is that he's assuming that the offer to negotiate by the Taliban ambassador is actually being made in good faith, and as a supposed expert in negotiations he assumes all problems can be solved that way. "A man whose only tool is a hammer..." He's apparently also not aware of just how entangled Al Qaeda and the Taliban are, especially militarily. The Taliban appear not to be able to capture bin Laden or to root out Al Qaeda, because a substantial part of their armed force would mutiny if they did. Their most reliable troops are actually loyal to bin Laden, not to the Taliban. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.1413 (On Screen): The government of Uzbekistan is getting cold feet. They'll let the US deploy units there, and they'll let us use their airbases for humanitarian and rescue operations. I suspect part of the reason why is that they still have a (well-founded) fear of Taliban forces. For the moment, we don't have any military power there, and if they announce what amounts to a full alliance with us against the Taliban, the Taliban might invade. I don't think that Uzbekistan has anything like a first class military. Once there is a substantial US military presence in the vicinity, and once it becomes clear that the Taliban are on the run, they may change their tune. But what's interesting is that there seems to be something of a bidding war going on amongst the various nations in that area to try to curry favor with the US, because of course after hostilities cease we'll remember who helped us and who didn't.
For instance, President Shevardnadze of Georgia is actually in Washington DC right now and has announced that the US can use Georgian bases to launch attacks. For Georgia that's an easier thing to do, since they share no border with Afghanistan. It's not a trivial offer, either; Georgia borders the Black Sea and we could use ships to move supplies there (which is far more efficient than using air, which would be necessary for Uzbekistan) and if Russia permits us to use its airspace (which I expect; President Putin has been playing a canny game, too) then it might be the case that Uzbekistan might permit its airspace to be used for attacks as long as the attacks don't actually originate from there. If it doesn't, then it would give Turkmenistan a chance to make a bid by letting us use its airspace instead. And of course, the Georgian offer puts pressure on Turkey in case they hold back. I'm still not sure that there's any advantage of air strikes launched from these areas over using Oman, except for the fact that strikes from Oman would have to cross Pakistani airspace, and all of this may simply be a way of making sure that we're not closed out in case Pakistan gets cold feet. The preferred approach is still from the south, for bombers from Diego Garcia and Oman and fighters from Oman and our carriers, and helicopters from our carriers. Who said diplomacy was simple? It's no wonder this is taking so long to put together. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.1343 (On Screen): Except for Great Britain, it seems that the United States hasn't really asked NATO members for a great deal: intelligence data, law enforcement cooperation, use of air space and military bases, and to replace our units currently engaged in NATO operations so that they can be deployed elsewhere. Aside from that, the US's response to the invocation of Article 5 seems to be Thanks, we'll call you if we need you. Which makes this press conference with Germany's Chancellor Schroeder and France's Prime Minister Jospin particularly curious. Two quotes stand out:
"You have a situation which is favorable to terrorism if you do not deal with these problems, such as the Middle East and inequalities of development," said Jospin, whose theme was sustainable economic development.
Now if I read that correctly, it says that Schroeder acknowledges that poverty isn't directly responsible for the recent attack, but it actually is anyway (he contradicts himself), and he'd like to use it to push his agenda for debt relief for the Third World. This is the latest in a pretty long series, now, of people trying to use these events in a dishonorable way to push what are fundamentally honorable goals. (I happen to agree with the goal of Third World debt relief, but I don't think it is related in any important way to the WTC attack.) More curious is this statement:
The two leaders reiterated support for American action following the September 11 attacks on targets in New York and Washington, dismissing suggestions that Washington was not adequately communicating its plans to its allies.
But in fact they're not being asked to make any serious decisions; the US hasn't asked them for any deployment of their own troops. ("Yes, you can use our airspace" is not a particularly challenging decision, one would think.) Which means that this isn't an answer. It could be interpreted as "We're not involved and we're not being told anything." They probably are being told some things, but perhaps not as much as they might like -- no sign of "We're fully informed" or any such statement. (Like as not, they're not being told when or what we intend to attack.) This looks like a major case of duck-and-cover to me; I wonder if there may be some political rumblings in both France and Germany asking "What are we doing to help our friends the Americans? They're sending their men off to war; are we?" Well, no, "we" aren't because they haven't asked us. "The British are involved, aren't they?" Um, yes. "Well then, why aren't we?" A damned good question, that -- and it may actually turn out to be a political problem for Jospin. The reason is national pride: France still likes to think of itself as a being a major world power. To be snubbed and left warming the bench during the game may bruise the French ego. And there's no answer to the question "Why aren't we?" which would not doing some further bruising. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.1300 (On Screen): Well, I suppose he had to say something but this pronouncement by the Taliban's ambassador in Pakistan is pretty pathetic. "Tony Blair has come to encourage war. We have no message for him. Had he come for negotiations and talks, then we would have liked to have said something." I suspect Blair didn't want to talk to him, either. He's in Pakistan to talk to the government, not to talk to the Taliban -- but his message to the Taliban is nonetheless clear. "The issue is not Osama. The issue is Islam." No, the issue is a corrupt and brutal regime who harbors and encourages international terrorism and won't stop.
I'm really not sure who, exactly, this statement was intended for. It sure isn't going to have any effect on the West; it may have been intended for the ears of people in other Islamic nations. Of course, it all falls apart if the US starts making food drops to Afghani refugees; if we were opposed to Islam, why would we be helping out the Islamic poor? (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011005.1049 (On Screen): Chemotherapy for treatment of disease is one of the most miraculous inventions of modern medical science -- and one of the most fragile, for it runs right into the theory of Evolution. There is genetic variation in the disease pathogens and mutation takes place constantly. When a single victim of a disease may have upwards of a billion pathogens inside, and when they reproduce every half hour, and when you have millions of victims, there's plenty of opportunity for newer, more resistant strains to develop. The drugs simply become part of the environment, one more aspect of selection. The pathogens who are susceptible to the drug will preferentially die, the ones resistant will preferentially survive, and soon resistant forms of the disease will spread and become common. Thus development of drugs for treatment of diseases has to be thought of as a holding action. As soon as you've found one, you need to start looking for the next one, because the one you've found will eventually become useless.
As many as one sixth of the people in the US who are infected with HIV have a version which is resistant to the drugs currently used to treat the disease, and of course that will continue to become more common. All the existing drugs work by trying to interfere with the reverse transcription by which HIV, an RNA virus, adds its genetic information to the DNA in the chromosome of the cell it infects (using an enzyme called Reverse Transcriptase). A research team has now found a new target which could potentially be attacked with drugs, the protein which the virus uses to exit a cell so as to try to infect another one. It's an interesting approach and I hope it works, but it isn't going to be a cure, and even if it does work it won't work forever.
The right treatment for HIV is still prevention. Though I have enormous respect for him and don't wish him ill, I sometimes find myself wishing that Magic Johnson didn't look so damned healthy. He's unconsciously a walking poster child for the idea that HIV isn't really very serious. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.0930 (On Screen via long range sensors): Peggy Noonan's heart is in the right place; she writes to honor the firemen who died in NYC when the WTC towers collapsed. Three hundred men who went to the scene of a disaster and were killed there when the buildings fell. We surely must remember and honor them; we owe it to them to be as brave as they were. They died for all of us, and they set the standard for our future.
But Noonan compares them to the Charge of the Light Brigade, and I find that offensive. Yes, Tennyson's poem can seem like a paen to bravery if someone doesn't know the historical background of it. Once one does, it becomes clear that it was nothing at all like the firemen in New York. The "Charge of the Light Brigade" happened during the Crimean War, a misbegotten operation started by England and France against Imperial Russia in the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. The only good thing to come out of the Crimean War was that this was where Florence Nightingale observed the horrible way in which wounded soldiers were cared for, inspiring her life's work, and indirectly leading to the founding of the Red Cross. Aside from that, the operation was a shambles, inspired by stupidity, and commanded by blatantly stupid men, and ultimately a failure. The famous charge happened at the Battle of Balaclava. The Light Brigade was a unit of light cavalry who had just observed their brothers in the Heavy Brigade make a successful (and "glorious") charge against Russian units, and were eager for a piece of the action. An order was finally issued for an attack, but it was miscommunicated and the attack was directed at the wrong target, through just about the most dangerous zone of the battlefield. It is a tribute to the discipline of the cavalrymen that the charge went home despite the horrible losses they took from cannon and rifle fire, but in fact more than two thirds of them were slaughtered and the military effect of the charge was negligible. They were wasted, simply wasted. No soldiers should ever be wasted that way; the commanders should have been shot. Noonan quotes extensively from the poem but does not quote the most important line of all: Someone had blunder'd.
I don't think this has anything whatever to do with the firemen in NYC. The Light Brigade was wasted by stupid orders from incompetent commanders. The men who entered the WTC towers did so without being told to do so. The Light Brigade was trying to kill an enemy; the firemen were trying to save lives. The Attack of the Light Brigade was foolhardy; the behavior of the firemen in NYC was among of the most valorous and selfless acts I have ever heard of. The only thing they have in common is that they died. We should honor the firemen in NYC for how they lived, not for how they died. They routinely risked their lives in order to save the lives of their fellow residents, and finally some of them paid the ultimate price for that bravery. Can any of us now refuse to do the same? (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011005.0900 (On Screen via long range sensors): Charles Krauthammer makes a convincing argument that this cannot be a limited war. Its purpose is not punishment or retaliation, its purpose is prevention of future attacks of even greater destructiveness. That, in turn, means that we must fight not just people who are guilty of this or previous attacks, but people who have the potential to make such attacks in future even if they have not actually attacked us yet.
There is a man dying of anthrax in Florida now, the first in the US in 25 years. He was almost certainly not the victim of a foreign attack. Anthrax is rare in the US but not unknown. But watch him suffer and die, and think what it would be like if that were to be deliberately spread in a big city (like the one you live in). The resulting suffering and death would dwarf that of the WTC attack. Prevention of that is top priority, and if we insist on "proof of guilt" before attacking anyone, then it means we automatically cede first blow to them -- by which point it will be too late. (discussion in progress)
Update: Mr. Stevens has died of anthrax.
Stardate 20011005.0706 (On Screen): Haven't these people got anything better to do? They want to create dozens of fake sites with pornish names which are actually squeaky clean, to decoy web surfers looking for pr0n. Their chance of creating enough sites to make a difference is nil; there are tens of thousands of real porn sites out there, most of which are crap. In any case, real porn afficionados don't use search engines; they use something like Persian Kitty, which wouldn't be fooled by this. (Or so I'm told.) (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.0637 (On Screen): A lot of people are in favor of an international treaty banning land mines. I oppose it. I understand the evil that land mines do in a nation after a war is over (let alone during a war), but there are things which mines do better than anything else. What if you have a very high value installation where the absolute top priority is to prevent it from being captured by your enemy? Take, for example, Pakistan's stockpile of nuclear weapons. Destruction of the facility would be vastly preferable to capture by hostile forces, for obvious reasons. What better way to defend such an installation than with a deep mine field, backed by military forces? Mines make ideal front line defenders; they will wait patiently for years, if need be; they will never abandon their positions, and cannot be scared away. They are cheap and reliable and deadly. Were any insurgent force to try to capture Pakistani nuclear weapons, a mine field would serve as a far better deterrent than would any other kind of defense I can conceive of. A mine field is the modern equivalent of castle walls, except that a mine field costs far less and can be deployed in hours. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.0617 (On Screen): About a thousand troops from the 10th Mountain Division are being moved to Uzbekistan. That isn't even remotely enough for an actual assault on Afghanistan. This force will be intended to create and protect a US base there, likely as a secure point for air units or special forces, or in preparation for later deployment of other elements of the 10th. Some of this initial group are likely to be engineers, to start working on necessary facilities, while most of the rest will set up a secure perimeter. It should be recalled that it took about six months for the US to build up sufficient forces in Saudi Arabia to launch the Desert Storm campaign; we're beginning to see the first stages of a similar buildup in the vicinity of Afghanistan, and it may take even longer this time because of transportation difficulties. If indeed the US does ultimately launch a ground assault, Uzbekistan might well be a reasonable place to base part of it. Other forces would likely come in from the south, via helicopters from our carrier task forces. Having a force come in from the east from Pakistan would also be nice but there are serious concerns about whether large scale deployment of US forces in Pakistan might destabilize the situation; that would have to be handled very carefully. And of course, any of these could actually be a feint. (discuss)
Stardate 20011005.0546 (On Screen): International charities are calling on everyone involved in the Afghani struggle to make sure that agencies like CARE and Oxfam are capable of operating in Afghanistan without being hampered or harmed, so as to avert mass starvation. While I think that is a good thing (see below) I don't see what the US is capable of doing about it. We aren't capable, for example, of providing armed guards on the ground for food convoys; any such attempt would instantly set off a ground war, which isn't something we're ready for yet. As to our bombing, we cannot promise to avoid hitting areas where the NGOs are operating, because they're going to be operating everywhere and that would too thoroughly tie our hands. Once bombing begins, anything and everything could potentially be a target. Most things won't be, but it is vitally important that our enemy not think that anything in particular is potentially off-limits, because if we provide them any predetermined safe zone they will surely use it to protect their combatants and critical equipment. If they place anti-aircraft batteries or concentrations of troops in the middle of refugee camps, for instance, we will still have to bomb them.
I think that the NGOs know this. Their plea has to be made to all sides equally in order to avoid seeming partisan, but it's really the Taliban that they're pleading with, given how the Taliban has in the past treated international aid agencies. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011005.0533 (On Screen): I fully support the idea of the US making air drops of food and supplies into Afghanistan to help out refugees, but it is a policy fraught with danger. One danger is that the planes doing the air drops might be shot down, unless we were to neutralize Afghani air defenses at the same time. Another danger is that the food we drop might be taken by armed Taliban troops, doing the refugees no good. The third danger is that each air drop might start a riot on the ground as people rush to the packages and struggle to get some. If the air drops are plentiful and if numerous small packages (rather than a few really large ones) are dropped on a regular basis, that would diminish with time, but it's likely that there would actually be self-inflicted civilian casualties on the ground after the first few. Short of actually putting people on the ground to supervise distribution, which is impractical, I don't see any way to avoid that. That said, the propaganda value of such air drops would be enormous: with the Taliban every day releasing ever more shrill condemnations of the US and characterizing us as ever more demonic, the wordless act of dropping food (with a "USA" logo on it in red-white-blue) would speak far louder than all the press releases and religious exhortations Mullah Omar could issue in a century, not only to the people of Afghanistan, but to all the people of all the Islamic nations. It would say, "We're not fighting Islam, we're fighting a corrupt, brutal, incompetent regime and the terrorists it harbors." It would completely deflate the attempts of the Taliban to cast the struggle in religious terms. (And, sad to say, if Taliban troops were to seize the food then that would even further enhance the propaganda value.)
But there is one more danger: the kinds of planes which airdrop food must be different than those which might ultimately drop bombs. If Afghani refugees start to associate airdrops of food with overflights by American planes, they may flock towards the site of a bombing later and suffer far more casualties than they otherwise would. That is not too much of a danger for the most part; the food will most likely be dropped from C-5A's, and bombs will be dropped by other kinds of aircraft which look much different. On the other hand, if the US ever decides to start using fuel-air bombs, it may present a problem. Those are too large to be carried by more traditional bombers; in the Gulf War they were dropped out of the back of C-5A's. It may not be a problem: food drops will be relatively low altitude (which is why there's a danger from anti-aircraft artillery) and will use parachutes, whereas a fuel-air bomb is dropped from quite a high altitude and does not use a parachute. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.2155 (On Screen via long range sensors): This article makes an interesting point: maybe there's something to be said for indiscriminate bombing. There has seemed to have been a cognitive disconnect in the actions of the Taliban and other groups sympathetic to them; perhaps they really do believe that we're gutless and unwilling to strike, and if so then the mere fact that bombs are falling may change their world-view, even if the bombs don't hit anything important. He points out that the attacks on Libya and Sudan, while perhaps misdirected, also had the effect of convincing those two countries that they really didn't want to be in the terrorist business after all. The US government is considering attacking the Taliban's anti-aircraft weaponry so as to remove any potential threat to cargo planes carrying food to Afghani refugees; that seems like a reasonable excuse. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.2042 (On Screen): It's fun to watch a season record being made. Today Barry Bonds tied McGwire's season home run record when he hit his 70th; with two more games to play he has a good chance of getting one more and setting a new record. But there's a different kind of record, a career record, and we are watching a giant play now. Ricky Henderson doesn't get the publicity that some other players have gotten, but he is the all-time leading base stealer, with 1395; given that he broke the previous record in 1991 it's clear that he's long since left #2 in the dust on this one. Earlier this year he set the career record for walks, taking that record from the great Babe Ruth. And today he broke another record, when he scored his 2246th run, breaking a record set by Ty Cobb. (It is pleasing that it was a homer; that's icing on the cake.) He is two hits short of 3000; when he gets two more he'll be only the 25th player ever to get 3000 hits in a career. And those are not the only records he holds. He is the greatest offensive player in the history of the game. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.1940 (On Screen): Whatever we hate, Israel is it. Last month, when the subject was racism (in South Africa) there was an attempt to declare that Israel was racist. Now that terrorism is the villain du jour, apparently Israel is terrorist. Next time they talk about chemical pollution, expect to hear that Israel's relationship with the Palestinians is a form of pollution. It's probably also over-fishing and deforestation. Meanwhile, Iraq has declared that the US war against terrorism isn't legitimate. I guess that means we have to give it up. I sure am glad we're members of the UN, so helpful friendly nations like Iraq and Libya can tell us these things. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.1701 (Crew, this is the Captain): There is a political position which has appeared in certain quarters in the wake of the WTC attack that ultimately this was a side effect of decades of American foreign policy, and that we just reaped what we had previous sown. Not too many people subscribe to this viewpoint wholely, but there seem to be many leftists who at least consider it to be somewhat true. But it occurred to me today that in its most extreme form, it is deeply contemptuous of those outside the US and deeply ethnocentric.
If "right" and "wrong" mean anything, they can only apply to situations where someone has a choice. If you have no choice at all, then your situation is morally neutral. So the claim that "it's all our fault", coupled with the unspoken assumption that those who attacked us were ultimately manipulated into doing so as an effect of our policies, makes the assumption that we act but everyone else in the world reacts. We make decisions, they simply respond. We bear moral blame for what happens; they don't because they're simply responding rationally to the evil we have committed.
But this is actually an extension of a broader feeling which appears in a lot of places. When a couple of kids go berserk and shoot up a school, the search is on for what caused them to do it: was it violent video games? Mistreatment by their parents? Mistreatment by fellow students? Movies? Who is responsible? Um, how about the kids themselves?
When are we not morally responsible for our own actions? There is an ethical theory called "psychological hedonism" which is one of the first theories we studied in my ethics course in college. It states that we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain and could not do otherwise even if we wanted to. The problem with it is twofold: what is "pleasure"? And if it is true, then how can any act by anyone ever have any ethical value at all? First, pleasure comes in a lot of forms, some direct and some extremely subtle and indirect, and when you analyze it, biological hedonism comes down to an extended rationalization session trying to find some way in which every act ultimately benefits the guy who did it: someone gives a lot of money to the poor -- but they get pleasure out of doing so from the fact of having done a good thing. Someone joins an extreme sect and gives up all worldly goods and lives in poverty -- but they're getting psychic pleasure out of doing so. And so on. If you look hard enough, it turns out that everything we do can be explained this way, but like all worthless theories it doesn't permit predictions. It's unfalsifiable; anything that happens can be explained with it, and thus nothing is impossible. For example, if the guy who gave money to the poor had not done so, it could just as easily have been explained as him spending the money on himself giving himself pleasure that way instead.
The other problem with it is that it posits that we're all machines and that we don't actually have free will. It ventures to provide an explanation for everything we do, and claims that the explanation is biological. We act as we do because of our genes and biological makeup. But if that is true, then none of us is morally responsible for anything because none of us is actually physically capable of making a choice -- free will is an illusion, and "ethics" becomes a null set.
Yet on some level explanations like this appear all the time. Someone goes bad and does something horrible, and some people start searching for an explanation in their past: were they mistreated by their parents? Maybe they have some sort of mental illness? There is some level of validity to this but not as much as some people would like, for again it assumes that the person is an automaton with no free will themselves. The point of ethics is to assume that we do have the ability to make decisions, that we are not automatons, and that there is an ethical value to the decisions we make. (Then the arguments begin on how that value is determined.) If a criminal becomes a criminal because he was mistreated in the past then he isn't responsible and therefore what he did wasn't "wrong". But is that valid?
Brain tissue isn't invulnerable, and the psyche can be badly damaged. The real question is not whether the guy was subjected to evil influences (all of us are), but whether he was so badly damaged by them that he no longer has the ability to understand right and wrong and actually make a decision for himself. If so, we judge him "insane" and permit that plea in court, but we confine him afterwards, for if he could not make a decision before then he still cannot and remains dangerous. If not, then even in the face of a horrible past we must hold him responsible now for what he does. As long as he has a choice and has the ability to make it, then he is responsible for doing a wrong thing irrespective of what happened to him in the past.
And that is also true for the people who made the attack in NYC and DC, and those who worked with them to set it up. Regardless of whether they were inspired by sins committed by the US in the past, in its foreign policy or economy policy or cultural policy or any policy at all, the fact is that they had a choice and understood the choice and made the choice to attack and kill people in the US. The choice was theirs, and therefore they are ethically responsible for it no matter what happened to them in the past. They are 100% responsible for it. No other point of view is acceptable. We can study their circumstances to try to learn why they decided to do what they did, but we do so to learn what to change to prevent it in future, not in order to apportion blame. It's a form of cultural epidemiology -- and it doesn't imply that we are ourselves even slightly at fault.
Moreover, the problem with that argument is that it is mostly being used in an effort to try to argue against an armed response by the US. But either way you slant it, it fails. If our attackers are automatons with no moral responsibility, then they are mad dogs, and so we should fight back, for if we don't they will surely attack us again.. If, on the other hand, they have free will, then we are justified by their acts in visiting punishment on them -- and killing them anyway. Neither point of view justifies pacifism on our part.
And if they are responding to things we did, then would we not in turn be responding to things they did? If they are not culpable for attacking us, how would we be culpable for responding in kind? If their attack on us was ethically neutral because they were responding to things we did to them, then our counterattack will equally be ethically neutral because we will in turn be responding to things they did. Ultimately no-one is responsible for anything, and ethics again becomes a null-set.
Deep down this theory assumes that we are not the same as them. We really can think, we really can make decisions, but they ultimately are stupid creatures who merely respond to their environment. It is deeply chauvinistic. It is only by assuming a gargantuan moral inequivalency that this argument stands. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011004.1250 (On Screen): The contribution of one frigate to participate in US fleet activity in the Indian Ocean next to Pakistan does not give the French veto power or necessarily even consultation on any attack we might launch. French Defense Minister Richard apparently hasn't twigged to the fact that he and his nation are not yet involved in this; this is, so far, a US war and not a NATO war, and we'll attack when we feel ready to do so, and not when we get permission from NATO to do so. Richard may find out about the attack the same way the rest of us will, by reading the newspapers. As to "haste", lead, follow, or get out of the way. (discussion in progress)
Update: And if Richard was privy to our war planning, he probably won't be any longer. It is not generally a good idea to let your enemy know ahead of time that you're not actually ready to attack. "OK, Taliban, you've got several weeks yet to prepare." Thanks heaps, buster. Of course, a different possibility is that this is deliberate misinformation, intended to lull the Taliban. I, myself, wouldn't be surprised if bombing began within a week. The situation inside Afghanistan appears to be near crisis, and it might not take much of a nudge for things to fall apart completely.
Stardate 20011004.1216 (On Screen): Bose-Einstein Condensates are one of the stranger manifestations of Quantum Theory, and they are not well understood. A BEC is a direct result of the Heisenberg principle, but it's not immediately obvious why.
The Heisenberg Principle says that it is not possible to precisely know the position of a particle and its velocity at the same time. The more accurately you measure one, the less you'll know about the other. The product of the error in the two measurements can never be less than Planck's Constant. This is not a statement about our incompetence in building measurement equipment, it's a fundamental statement about the characteristics of matter. At the scale of atoms and sub-atomic particles, reality is fuzzy. The Heisenberg principle applies to all objects no matter their size, but the amount of the error is so tiny that at "normal" scales (whatever that means) it is too small to be perceptible. But when you start messing around with atoms and electrons, it becomes a real phenomenon. It is, for instance, a critical part of semiconductor theory, and if it were not true then MOSFETs would not work (and there would be no computers like the one I'm typing this on).
Velocity is a speed and a direction, so velocity is a vector, while speed is a scalar. Temperature turns out to be kinetic energy at the particle level. The speed a particle is trying to travel is a function of the temperature it is at. So when objects are very cold, they have a low speed, which means they have a low velocity. When they are extremely cold, their speed is very, very low, and thus their velocity is very low. Which means that the error in the measurement of the velocity cannot be very large, since it can't drastically exceed the speed. This means that the universe is doing a good job of measuring the velocity of those particles, which therefore means that their position must be indistinct, to keep Heisenberg happy.
So when you cool atoms of, say, rubidium waaaay down and keep them in a bunch, their apparent diameter grows drastically and they overlap. You can do this with hundreds of atoms at once, and the result is what appears to be a sort of super-atom of rubidium rather than a whole bunch of atoms near each other. This isn't fusion; it's still rubidium. It's just that the dividing line between the atoms breaks down. That's a BEC, and it is a fundamental state of matter which is different than solid, liquid, gas, plasma, or neutronium. But to do this you have to achieve extremely low temperatures indeed. Liquid helium is scaldingly hot by comparison.
To achieve it, they use a variation on Maxwell's Demon. What they do is start with a cloud of atoms which are near the temperature they want, and then extract out all the hotter ones and leave the coldest ones behind. This used to be done in a laser trap, where intersecting beams of laser light would create a quantum zone where it required too much energy to escape, so the atoms in question were trapped. The hotter ones had enough energy to cross the hump, the colder ones could not. Leave it for long enough and pretty soon your BEC forms. (Of course, it's a lot more difficult than I just made it sound.) Now some folks have figured out how to do the same thing using a EM field generated by a special IC. This is pretty neat, because the laser-trap method is difficult. No-one really knows what kinds of things might be possible with BECs; they may have all sorts of miraculous characteristics. No-one knew that fullerenes might be useful in superconductors and semiconductors when they were first discovered, either. Pure research is pretty cool, even when it's frigid. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.1150 (On Screen): The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Plague, has shown up in Afghanistan to help make Afghani refugees lives even more miserable. (Death, War and Famine have been there for years.) There has been an outbreak of Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever at the border of Pakistan. Haemorrhagic fevers are among the most deadly viral infections known; other members of that group include Marburg and Ebola. CCH is not quite as deadly as those; it "only" kills one third of those it infects on average (as opposed to 70% for Marburg and upwards of 95% for Ebola) but it is horrible nonetheless. There are forms of haemorrhagic fevers all over the world; there was one which afflicted troops during the Korean war, for instance, and there's one which pops up every once in a while in the American southwest. CCH is apparently endemic to Afghanistan, but like all diseases it will spread much faster in the conditions present in refugee camps, where people are cold, badly fed, concentrated together and have terrible sanitation. And in those kinds of conditions the death rate will probably be higher than normal. As a result, there may be tens of thousands of deaths from this disease at make-shift refugee camps in Afghanistan right next to the Pakistani border, since Pakistan will now have to really clamp down and stop letting refugees into their nation. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.0718 (On Screen): "Well, if we have to have a war, is there any way we can fight it without actually hurting anyone?" The pacifists are being dragged, kicking and screaming, toward the realization that there's no way to avoid a fight. So in the forlorn hope that maybe death and destruction can still somehow be avoided, they seize on "non-lethal weapons". Sorry, folks, we're still a few years away from "set phasers on stun."
There do exist non-lethal weapons, but they're not appropriate for battlefield use. They are mainly intended for area denial, and our military forces do indeed have them. But they are intended for riot control in occupied cities, to disperse unruly crowds without having to slaughter huge numbers of them. They include such things as tear-gas, stink bombs, and other non-lethal gas weapons; fire hoses; directed energy weapons such as high power microwave beams, and painfully loud sirens.
But these are not appropriate weapons for use in a real battlefield situation against enemies who are shooting real bullets and firing real artillery pieces. In a battlefield situation your goal is not to take ground, it's to destroy your enemy's ability to resist. If you do that, you can take as much ground as you like. If you don't, taking ground does no good. If we use area-denial weapons to displace our enemy without harming him, the problem is that each time we do some of our soldiers will be killed to no purpose. No sane person will sacrifice their own people for no good that way.
In a battlefield situation, all the non-lethal weapons just listed have countermeasures. They are slow and ineffective and very short range; to use them at all requires exposing our soldiers to enemy fire which means some of them will get shot. It requires us to close with the enemy without first softening him up with lethal bombing or lethal artillery fire, which means that his force will be at their maximum effectiveness in using lethal weapons against our force. And against men in tanks with gas masks and earplugs, none of them work.
There do exist non-lethal weapons which could reasonably be used in a battlefield situation, but all work by maiming rather than by killing. For example, there are antivision weapons. This would be a laser beam which would be attached to the standard infantry rifle, issued to all front line troops. They incapacitate an enemy without killing him by blinding him, and I mean permanently blinding. Enemy troops would be alive but no longer able to fight because they would never be able to see again. You can take out a large army this way, but you do so by leaving a huge number of profoundly crippled men behind. It is possible to build an equivalent capability for artillery shells and bombs, such that when they go off they create a huge flash of light so bright as to fry the retinas of anyone in the vicinity, sort of an area-blinding. There would still be some danger from the concussion, but that could be minimized by making it an air-burst, which would also increase the effectiveness of the flash. Such shells would have to be used multiple times in an area to make sure that they got everyone, but you do that with artillery shells anyway. But I don't think this is quite what the pacifists had in mind.
Blinding lasers and other anti-vision weapons violate international treaties, but the real argument against them is the same as the argument against the use of lethal poison gas: retaliation in kind. Anti-vision weapons are relatively low tech (although expensive) and easily captured and used against our own people, and they are very difficult to defend against. I don't like the idea of 20,000 young American men coming home from the war with their eyes burned out.
Non-lethal weapons make sense as anti-riot weapons. They do not make sense on the battlefield and won't any time soon. All effective non-lethal weapons work by permanently maiming rather than killing. There does not exist any effective non-lethal weapon, even in theory, which incapacitates an enemy without doing permanent damage to him, and any such conceivable weapon would still require us to excessively expose our own people to the lethal weapons of our enemies.
For the forseeable future, any offensive operations will be conducted with lethal weapons. We're in a shooting war, and in a shooting war people are killed. Get used to it. (discuss)
Stardate 20011004.0534 (On Screen): Things continue to deteriorate diplomatically for the Taliban. The US sent a classified document to Pakistan showing the evidence connecting Al Qaeda to the 9/11 attack, and the Pakistani government says that the evidence is convincing. Now comes a revelation by the Taliban itself which should pretty much settle the question of negotiations: their ambassador to Pakistan (their sole remaining diplomatic representative outside Afghanistan itself) says that even if evidence of bin Laden's guilt was given to them and was convincing, they still wouldn't hand him over. Rather, they'd try him themselves. I think even American pacifists would have to admit that this is not acceptable. It also reveals the emptiness of the Taliban's plea for negotiations, in as much as they never intended to negotiate in good faith. Neither did we.
We have a non-negotiable position and we've said so, and as a result we've refused to participate in negotiations. That's honest. The Taliban's position was equally non-negotiable, but they wanted negotiations anyway as a delaying tactic. That's lying. The Taliban cannot be trusted. The reason they want to see the evidence is twofold: finding out what we know will tell them what we don't know, and finding out what we know will indirectly tell them how we found out. They want to see the evidence so they can fix their security leaks. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.1819 (On Screen): Bill sends a link to one of the more crackpot schemes I've seen in a while. (The search for simple painless solutions to complex problems proceeds apace.) You posit the ability to create satellite cell phones for $30 each; you buy a millon of them, airdrop a pile of them into areas like Afghanistan, and then wait for informers to call. Informers are offered a reward which they can collect anonymously. As a result, terrorists in the area are themselves stricken with terror because they know that anyone around them could be an informer.
Nice if it could work. There are a lot of flaws with this but the biggest flaw is the one about the $30 satellite cellphone. If that had been possible, Iridium would not have gone out of business. They weren't charging $2000 per phone because they wanted to. Globalstar does somewhat better; its phones sell for about $800. In fact, we can't even make and sell digital terrestial cell phones for anything close to $30; the only cell phones which can be made that cheaply are old-style analog phones (such as AMPS).
If you figure a round number like $500 per satellite phone, and assume 99 phones out of a hundred are never found or are destroyed by the bad guys, then you're talking about $50,000 per phone which actually gets into sympathetic hands. Most of those people won't know anything; figure one person in a thousand who does and it costs you $50 million dollars per satellite phone which is actually used to phone in a tip. (And one in a thousand is a generous estimate; it's probably more like one in a hundred thousand who knows something and is willing to snitch.)
AMPS phones, though, can be made for somewhere near that $30 number. The problem is that AMPS is power-hungry and short range. It cannot be used with satellites; it must have a relatively dense local infrastructure, and most of the nations where this would be useful there is no such system. And even in the nations where such infrastructure exists, it wouldn't be accessible with these air-dropped phones, since it would presumably under the control of hostiles.
Their idea for implementing a local cell system by air-dropping solar-powered cells is ridiculous. An AMPS cell requires somewhere near a half a kilowatt absolute minimum, and no reasonable solar cells can generate anything like that amount of power. They would also be absurdly vulnerable to looting or outright destruction. Also, they are not cheap; you're looking at upwards of $50K per cell. (The phones can be made cheaply because the cells are expensive.) Digital requires less power, but both digital phones and digital cells are much more expensive -- perhaps five times as much per phone and three times as much per cell.
The idea of mounting cells in planes is perhaps a bit more practical -- the cell equipment could be powered by the plane itself instead of silly solar cells, and it wouldn't be on the ground where it could be destroyed, but it would be fantastically expensive to cover a large area that way, given that current cell technology has at most a reliable range of about 15 miles. One plane would cover an area of about 700 square miles. Afghanistan has a surface area of about 260,000 square miles. Do we really want to keep 500 planes in the air over Afghanistan nearly all the time? That would require a fleet at least twice that large, plus all the infrastructure to support them with fuel and spare parts. Who's going to defend them against anti-aircraft artillery and SAMs? Figure another 500 or so war planes just for that. That would actually make this one of the largest air forces on earth. The US only deployed 1800 combat jets in Desert Storm; we're going to use 1500 planes just to get tips from informants? Our heroes say that this is extremely cheap; they figure the whole thing could be done for $10 million. I figure that between design time for the phones and cell equipment, gearing up for mass manufacturing and deployment of all the planes you'd need, and everything else, you're looking at spending at least a thousand times that just to deploy, and a daily operation cost of $10 million just to pay for all the men and fuel and supplies. And it couldn't go into operation even in a small nation for at least five years; it's going to take you at least year just to design the ASICs before you can begin mass production. This stuff doesn't happen overnight. What we have here is a classic example of "Everything is easy for the man who doesn't have to do it himself." (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.1723 (On Screen): I bet you thought you'd heard the last of Elian Gonzales, did you? Not in America; nothing happens here without ten years worth of lawsuits just to keep the memory alive. The Cuban community of Miami did their best to create as dangerous a situation as possible to make rescue of the kid as perilous as they could, and Reno ordered a heavily armed raid led by US Marshalls, who train for this kind of mission. During that raid, some members of the crowd were sprayed with non-lethal gas and had other small indignities inflicted on them -- and they're suing Reno. A judge has decided that they have that right, though he dismissed a claim of excessive force. My opinion is that the level of force used was completely necessary, and I consider this suit completely baseless. But it will ultimately be decided by a jury. More to the point, it will be decided during jury selection, and that is going to be acrimonious. If the jury is loaded with Cubans, Reno is screwed. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.1656 (On Screen): Senator Biden will propose a project to rebuild the central Asian countries after any war we fight there. It is, perhaps, a bit premature to be thinking about this, actually. But I also forsee problems; this isn't really quite the same as what happened with the Marshall plan, after which it is consciously patterned. In the case of the nations rebuilt by the Marshall plan, there was already a history and tradition of industrialized capitalism, and already in place a substantial well-educated middle class. What was missing was infrastructure, which can be brought in with ships.
It is naive to believe that the central Asian nations could be converted into liberal democracies in that way in such short order; it's more likely that this would result in wholesale embezzlement, useless projects which are built and then don't get used, and general waste with no important long term result. In other words, it would go about the way that most of the aid to Africa in the 1960's and 1970's went, rather than the way the aid to Europe in the late 1940's and 1950's went. Senator Biden's heart is in the right place, but this program would need to be very carefully considered to make sure up front that it actually accomplished anything useful. Those nations unquestionably need infrastructure, but they need a lot of other things which we can't really give them without which that infrastructure would mostly be useless. They need a culture change which really has to come from within. The Marshall plan was rebuilding; what Biden is proposing is building. That's not as easy. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011003.1418 (On Screen via long range sensors): I see nothing has changed in Massachusetts since I moved away. The test of leadership is crisis. Mayor Giuliani has measured up; Massachusetts governor Swift has not. Security at Logan Airport has evidently been terrible for a long time, and it was no accident that two of the four jets involved in the 9/11 attacks originated there. Since that event, security at Logan has by all accounts continued to suck. Governor Swift has responded forthrightly by ducking the issue, and transferring the career bureaucrat in charge of security at Logan to take over security in Boston Harbor, at the same salary he had before. (Obviously he's qualified for the position; he's got plenty of relevant experience.)
Has Governor Swift lost her mind? It's hard to conceive of a less well advised move under the circumstances in terms of damage control and political fallout. The writers of Saturday Night Live couldn't have scripted a worse blunder. What is she thinking? (Is she thinking?) (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0933 (On Screen): RIAA is taking its second swing of its sword against the heads of the file-swap hydra by suing the companies behind Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa. But those file swap systems are designed so that they'll keep working even if the parent companies die, and this does nothing about Gnutella, which is not sponsored by a company at all. What, exactly, do they hope to accomplish by this? (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0919 (On Screen): HP's VP in charge of being a loose cannon, Bruce Perens, says that if W3C starts writing specs which include proprietary licensed intellectual property, then he and his buddies in the Open Source movement will fork the web and create their own standards. "We do have our own Free Standards Group - it was called LSB - we could definitely get some mileage out of that!" I believe, I surely do. The Open Source movement, which has three mutually incompatible GUIs and over a hundred versions of their favorite OS (all of which are to some extent mutually incompatible) will pull together and rapidly create a single open standard for the Web. You bet I believe it. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011003.0828 (On Screen): Here's another example of someone using this tragedy to push their own political agenda, even when it's a complete non sequiter. In this case the contention is that one way for all of us to fight terrorism is to conserve energy. It's not obvious to me that drying my clothes on a clothesline will in some way convince Al Qaeda not to attack us again, though that is what this article seems to suggest, with a startling lack of logic. Conservation may indeed be a good thing, but political opportunism is not. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0808 (On Screen): 800 Oregonians will travel to NYC to visit, spend money, and show solidarity. They'll all wear T-shirts which say "Oregon loves NY". I wonder if this will actually teach the people in New York how to pronounce the name of the state: ORR-ree-gun, not ORR-reh-gone. (Probably not.) (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0801 (On Screen): France has committed to help the US militarily, sort of. They will send a whopping two ships to the Indian ocean, only one of which is a warship (and probably not their carrier; likely it will be a destroyer). That should come in handy in case it becomes necessary to fight a surface action against the Afghanistan Navy, and in case all the American destroyers and cruisers out there (more than fifty of them which are part of four carrier battle groups) manage to get disabled. France has also magnanimously offered to let the US use French airspace to launch attacks against Afghanistan, which might only come up if we launch B2 strikes from Missouri. This is pitiful; it's completely token and symbolic. It has no military significance at all -- and it comes with the inevitable strings attached: Chirac and Jospin have pledged to help Washington's 'war on terrorism' while insisting Paris would remain sovereign over the extent of any involvement. In other words, they might take their lonely warship and go home with it at any time, which means we can't rely on it.
No mention of aircraft or troops or anything actually capable of helping. Not even the Foreign Legion. Article 5 of the NATO charter, which has been invoked, says that an attack on any member will be considered an attack on all, and that each nation would respond militarily as if it had been the one which had been attacked. If the attack had been on Paris instead of NYC, would the French have sent exactly one warship to the Indian ocean to sit off the coast of Pakistan and look fierce?
But I suspect that the US didn't actually ask for anything more and may not even have asked for this, simply because it didn't want the help, and the entanglement which would come with that help. (Now to see what the Italians do; that should be amusing.) (discuss)
Update: The warship that France is committing isn't even a destroyer; it's the frigate Courbet and it was already in the Indian Ocean. Fantastic; simply fantastic.
Stardate 20011003.0732 (On Screen): W3C is considering a plan to permit the incorporation of proprietary technology into future web standards. Actually, it's even less than that; they're considering a procedure which would be used in future if someone does propose using proprietary technology into future web standards. Predictably the largest howls of protest are coming from the rock-throwing wing of the Open Source movement (i.e. Stallmanites). Hysteria seems to have set in: "They're going to start charging for use of the web!" No, not really. This won't affect any existing standard, it merely means that it will be possible to create new standards which are not free and open. There's a great deal on the web now which is not free and open (i.e. Flash, Realplayer), but under current rules those things can't be formalized into a spec by W3C. The new rules will permit standardization of those things -- but that won't force anyone to use them. There are a lot of unused standards out there. Anyone who proposes a standard which has unreasonable licensing provisions may get it approved, but won't necessarily convince anyone to buy or use it, and if their technology is a good one and the licensing is reasonable, it will get used anyway even if there is no spec. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0720 (On Screen): The ultimate guarantor of our freedom is our willingness to fight for it, and if necessary our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the freedom of our fellows and our children. Not just officially designated gladiators but every single one of us. No one gets to sit in the grandstand and watch the game and cheer for the good guys; we're all out on the playing field. Any of us may be called on, at any time, to make a decision to sacrifice ourselves for the good of the whole. This is the price we pay for being citizens; it is a duty we all carry.
Most of us will not ever have to face that challenge, but if we do and refuse to carry that burden, then this nation will fall. And it will deserve to fall, for it will no longer be worth saving. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0439 (On Screen): Last year the Fed was concerned about the fact that the economy was running hot, and feared a resurgence of inflation. To preempt that, they raised rates again and again, and it's now generally recognized that they went too far and helped precipitate the downturn we're now in. Since January they've cut interest rates in half, and yesterday they issued another one of their nifty half-point drops. I think they're overdoing it again. The conditions we're in now, and the decline we're about to face, are not being driven by monetary conditions and I don't believe that the Fed is capable of affecting it. But when the recovery does come, if interest rates are too low then it will be necessary for them to raise rates again back to something like the historic norm and that could actually choke off the recovery due to the psychological effect of the rise. I honestly think that it would have been more of a confidence builder if yesterday the Fed had announced no change in interest rates at all. In many ways, stability is more important than the actual rate. When the Fed is moving things around as much as they have been recently, it makes it hard to do long term planning. If they're willing to cut interest rates in half in 9 months this year, will they be willing to double them in nine months next year? That tends to make companies bring their horizons in and operate only for the short term, which is not good for the economy. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0428 (On Screen): A top Amazon executive, Christopher Zyda, has been hired away by eBay, and Amazon is suing to prevent him from taking the job on the basis of him having had access to a great deal of proprietary information about Amazon's business. This actually comes down to a simple question: Was there a "non-compete" agreement in Zyda's employement contract with Amazon? If so, they have a case. If not, they can get stuffed.
Absent a specific contractual limitation to the contrary, Zyda has the right to work for whomever he wants to, and Amazon doesn't have any right whatever to prevent that. If, later, it can be demonstrated that some of his knowledge of Amazon's operations have been used by eBay then they would have grounds for a suit, but for the moment we have to assume that he will not violate confidentiality. Most professionals have this kind of knowledge and the vast majority of us honor the confidentiality of former employers as a matter of professional honor. Amazon's suit is perilously close to defamation of character; they're saying ahead of time that they think he's going to engage in unsavory business practices even though so far there isn't any demonstration of that. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0420 (On Screen): The big thing holding back a lot of really neat portable devices is battery technology. It has not been following the kind of advance-curve that electronics has been following over the years. We need much higher power densities than it appears that standard batteries can provide. The future appears to be fuel cells, and progress is being made. However, this announcement makes clear that there's still much that needs to be done before they're really practical and will really make a big difference, primarily because they're still too large. On the other hand, it's also showing that serious progress is being made; they only need about another 3:1 shrink. In about five more years, when they can make a really practical fuel cell (probably powered by methanol) there's going to be a revolution in portable electronics devices to make the current revolution look tame by comparison, and the LiIon cell will join the NiCad on the scrap heap of history. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011003.0414 (On Screen): Yet more movement to try to control the use of strong cryptography as a result of the WTC attack. The only problem with this argument is that the attackers didn't actually use crypto in their communication because it would have made them stand out from the background. Instead they transmitted in clear and depended on the "small fish, big ocean" defense -- which worked. Mr. Straw's proposal, had it been in effect at the time, would have made no difference whatever. (discuss)
Stardate 20011003.0411 (On Screen): Processor design upstart Transmeta, having been less than successful in the PC market with their Crusoe processor, is eyeing the embedded market now. The problem with an announcement like this is that it isn't a two way street. The fact that Transmeta would love to sell to the embedded market doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to get much interest. For one thing, Transmeta is jumping out of the frying pan into the fire: in an attempt to escape from competing with giant Intel, they're now taking on an even bigger giant: ARM. ARM isn't as big a company as Intel but it sells far more processors. The barriers in front of Transmeta here are formidable: are they selling only chips or are they selling cores? With ASICs as cheap and easy now to make as they are, anyone who makes a mass-product which has a microprocessor in it won't be using a CPU chip; they'll design an ASIC and incorporate a core into it -- and core design is a field all its own. What makes a good chip may not make a good core. If Transmeta does have a core, is it as small as an ARM? What advantage does Transmeta offer over ARM to justify moving to a new processor core and biting the learning curve cost of doing so? ARM is well understood and trusted now in the embedded world; if Transmeta is only "just as good" then they're going to die. They've got to be obviously better, and I sure don't see how they will be. While Transmeta may indeed make a few sales, I don't expect them to become a big player in the embedded market any time soon. This is looking to me like yet another move by a PC-market company into a new and radically different market that they don't really understand very well. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011002.2056 (On Screen): What we have here is "failure to communicate." The Taliban once again are calling for negotiations and evidence of bin Laden's guilt. Are we having translation problems here? Does the Taliban need a new set of interpreters? What part of "no negotiations" do they not understand? Someone needs to explain to them the difference between a "request" and a "demand".
"We prefer the negotiations than the war. The negotiations are the way of solving our problems." No doubt. Negotiations would be a way of stalling; I can definitely see why they'd prefer that to war. Unfortunately, it's no longer a choice. The clock is ticking, and it's possible they've only got a few hours left. (discuss)
Update 20011003: While we're at it, someone needs to explain to the Taliban what an ultimatum is.
Stardate 20011002.2047 (On Screen): UK Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech and announced that either the Taliban could give up bin Laden or give up power -- capitulate or be destroyed. While White House spokesman Ari Fleischer applauded the speech, he would not make a commitment that the US wanted the Taliban to be deposed. The reason is that this would make Pakistan very nervous. Blair can say what the US cannot, but that doesn't mean it isn't actually the US's goal. (discuss)
Stardate 20011002.2033 (On Screen): When we were kids and played baseball, the worst player on the team was invariably put in right field, where he would have the least opportunity of actually having to field anything. (That was always where I played, when I wasn't warming a bench. I was really terrible.) So it's pleasing to see that the star player for the Chicago Cubs, Sammy Sosa, is their right fielder. (discuss)
Stardate 20011002.1035 (On Screen): More than one person has remarked on how much I have studied military science. Anyone care to hear how I got interested in it? (If not, skip to the next log entry!) Just after I got out of college, I took a job at Tektronix and was living in the Beaverton area. I used to spend a lot of time in taverns (the standard recreation for twenty-something single men, you know) and at one pizza place I used to go to I got to know one of the guys who worked there. He was a member of Western Oregon Wargamers, a rather informal club down in Portland (at the time, about 1978), and he invited me to come. His thing was WWII tanks, but I tried it a couple of times and found it dull (and unrealistic, since they never seemed to include infantry in any of their battles). But there were other things going on there, and I got hooked on Napoleonics. This was a club which played with miniatures, tiny painted lead figures on stands, moved around on large tables, playing out battles according to published rules which simulated the style of battle in various eras. About the time I joined, the club's Napoleonic gamers were just switching over to a rule set called "Fire and Steel", which was designed for 15mm figures (i.e. the scale was 15 millimeters == 6 feet for the figure sizes). We had to do a little fiddling to make it work reasonably (there was a bug in the standing rules for cavalry, for instance, which would have made light cavalry more powerful than heavy cavalry) but for the most part it was excellent, and I played it steadily for more than three years. To play a game like this, you obviously have to have painted figures, and when there's a good core group of people what happens is that individuals will select a single army and try to paint up a representative group. Ideally, all the major nationalities will be represented. So people were picking nationalities; there were several people who were going to do French (which is fine; you need a lot of those) and two guys doing Russians, one Swede, one Austrian, one British, some Confederation of the Rhine, one guy even did Spain (boy, did they suck), but no-one was doing the Prussians, so I did. That fateful decision was what set me on the road I've followed since.
We didn't refight historical battles; oddly enough, those are rarely very interesting. Usually the forces involved were uneven and one side has little chance. Rather, we created a point-system valuing the various units, and then each side would have a budget to buy units with. The point system was pretty well tuned, so that two armies with the same point value were pretty competitive on the battle field. We played a lot of other eras, too; I remember a fascinating naval battle with Greek triremes, for instance, and we did some messing around with a table-top version of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" (from the age of fighting sail). Civil War was pretty popular but my problem with it as that it always seemed to be the same. Of all the eras we played, I liked Napoleonics the best. First was the sheer variety of armies involved; and second was that this was an era of great experimentation, and different nations used different tactics. The Austrians emphasized fighting in column, the British emphasized line. The French used more cavalry. After the defeat of 1806, the Prussian army was completely redesigned from the ground up; my Prussians were from 1813, not from 1805. (The 1805 army was wussy and no fun to play.) One distinction in the Prussian army was that the units tended to be overstrength and larger than average. Swedish units, on the other hand, averaged smaller. The differences between two-rank and three-rank troops, and different marching speeds -- all of these things permitted enormous variety. The other big reason I liked Napoleonics was that in this time the three classic branches (infantry, cavalry, artillery) were more closely matched in battlefield power than at any other time in the history of warfare. In the Thirty Years War or Seven Years War, cavalry dominates the battlefield; by the Civil war cavalry was useless and infantry dominates. In Napoleonics the cavalry is somewhat weaker than the other two branches but not yet useless the way it is in the Civil War. By the Civil War, battlefield cavalry was effectively mounted infantry; they would use their horses to move but fight dismounted. (Cavalry were essential but for strategic rather than for tactical reasons: scouting and screening. That's why all of their cavalry was light.) The only actual cavalry battles as such I'm aware of were versus other cavalry (such as the one in which Jeb Stuart was finally killed). If light cavalry had tried a sabre-charge against infantry they would have gotten butchered by rifle fire and the charge would not have gone home. As a result, no-one in the Civil War ever formed square; the way to meet a cavalry charge was in line.
Which may seem gibberish: another thing that's interesting about older forms of battlefield combat was the use of specialized formations. In the Napoleonic era there were five main ones: skirmish order, where the men are spread out in a cloud which minimized vulnerability to enemy fire (the only one still used); march column, a loose formation which gave maximum speed but minimum fighting power, which was used to move from one place to another as rapidly as possible; battlefield column, a tight disciplined formation used primarily when charging an enemy which maximized the effectiveness of the bayonet or sabre; line, a formation where the unit is as wide as possible with minimum depth which maximized firepower; and square, an infantry formation used for defense against cavalry charge. The point of square was that it had no flanks or rear, but its drawbacks were that it couldn't move very well, it was vulnerable to artillery fire, and it had poor firepower in any direction. It's a purely defensive formation, and by the time of the Civil War it was obsolete. Since rifle fire had gotten so good by then (compared to the muskets used in the Napoleonic Wars) the best way to meet a cavalry charge was to stand in line and shoot the crap out of them before they even reached you. I've never heard of a cavalry charge even being attempted against ordered infantry in line.
Of course, I was intensely interested in trying to learn more about this so as to try to become better at it, and I heard, somewhere or other, about Clausewitz. He was one of the top commanders in the Prussian Army and was a protogé of Scharnhorst, the genius who led the group of people who redesigned the Prussian Army after the disaster of 1806. He was chief of staff of the Prussian Second Corps in the Waterloo campaign (which is to say that he was one of the ten top ranking officers in the Prussian field army). In the 1820's he wrote (but didn't complete) "On War", and not knowing much about it, it occurred to me that it might be a great source of information about how the Prussian Army should be fought in our games. How wrong I was.
Clausewitz was writing for the ages. His book is rightfully recognized as a classic of political and military science, because he was able to recognize and ignore those aspects of warfare which were local to his place and time, and concentrate on those aspects of war which were universal and timeless. Like most translations from German, it's a difficult book to read, but it was a revelation. And I started reading. I read "The Age of Napoleon" by Will Durant -- and discovered that history was fascinating. I had always hated history in grade school and high school, and hadn't take any history courses at all in college. But it isn't that history is awful, but rather that it is so badly taught (at least in the schools I attended) and also that I wasn't yet mature enough to appreciate it. I've been hooked on history ever since, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. About ten years ago I largely stopped reading fiction because it was keeping me from all those fascinating history books. After I read the novel "Shogun", I then read the classic book "The Five Rings" by Myamoto Musashi, and got hooked on Japanese culture. When I got involved in a group which played Thirty Years War (1618-1648, the first major war were infantry firearms were broadly and effectively used) the dramatic differences between it and the Napoleonic era got me fascinated in the technology of weapons. (More study.) And always, always, the issue that Clausewitz raised of how warfare was affected by the politics of the time. Durant's "Caesar and Christ" got me interested in the Roman Empire, and I read "The Twelve Caesars" and Caesar's history of the Roman Civil War (which apparently wasn't actually written by him). The question ceased to be "How did they fight" and changed to "Why did they fight and how and why did they win?" War is very revealing; no nation reveals its true nature more completely than when it is in a war. For example, there can be no greater contrast in World War II than between how the United States and Japan treated POWs and people in occupied territories. (There is also no greater argument against moral equivalence.)
Before I began this learning process, I thought that war was both straightforward (it's just people shooting at each other) and invariably wrong, something to be avoided at all cost. The more I learned about it, the more complicated it became. There's a famous quote from Jefferson: "Your education is complete when you realize how little you know." That certainly applies here: with all my study, I now know how little I actually know about war, even though I probalby know more about it now than 99% of my peers, having studied it off and on for more than twenty years. And even more strange, I'm no longer convinced that it is always wrong, or always something that should be avoided.
It's not that I want war; no sane man wants a war. But it is not always the worst alternative. There are cases where war must be chosen because all the alternatives are worse. And in a war it is necessary to do many evil things -- but ethically speaking you don't compare those against peace time and brotherhood and bunnyrabbits dancing among daisies in the sun; you compare those evil acts against how awful things would have been if you'd avoided the war and let your enemy do unmolested what he wants to (which is rarely to let bunnyrabbits dance in the sun). There should be an economy to war: you use exactly as much force and exactly the tactics which let you win, without doing any more evil than is absolutely necessary (though when there is any doubt, you err on the side of winning). But you cannot avoid all evil in war. Though war is never good, it is sometimes ethically correct.
But it all began for me with Clausewitz. Clausewitz is to military science what Darwin is to biology, or Newton to physics; he's the one who tied it all together, and changed it from a collection of observations into a unified field. He provided the framework into which everything else fit. He made sense of it all. If you read no other book about war, let it be Clausewitz. (discuss)
Stardate 20011002.0824 (On Screen): "Intel PIII, 256MB PC133, 1.44 FD, GeoForce II 4xAGP 32M, Mid Tower w/300W/2Fan, PS2 KB & Mouse, USR 56k v90 Fax Modem, 12X DVD (48X CD), 3D Sound & 140w Spks, 10/100 Network Card." If you understand computers, that's as easy to read as the Sunday comics. And if you really understand computers, you can spot the typo and not replicate it in your column. What the heck is a "GeoForce"? (discuss)
Stardate 20011002.0603 (On Screen): It's amazing how many things suddenly are critical for the war on terrorism. I was surprised to learn from this article that the development of a domestic industry for manufacture of flat panel displays would be important to that effort. I'm still not exactly clear why, though. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011002.0556 (On Screen): The web advertising war has been escalated -- but it isn't the final step. It's been something I've been expecting for a while: a new package for web hosters which checks to see if the advertising gets loaded at the same time as the main page. The idea is that if a given user loads the main page but doesn't load any of the advertising files, then they get blocked from accessing the site. But there are a couple of problems with this. First off, a lot of the advertising is hosted by other companies (i.e. Doubleclick) and correlating loads between servers belonging to different companies will be more difficult. They also have to be wary of false-positives; if they start blocking users who are not using ad-blocking software, there's going to be backlash. But the real weakness of this scheme is that what they're detecting is whether the files are transferred and not whether they are displayed. If this kind of checking becomes widespread, then the ad blocking software (such as is used by me) will be altered so that it transfers the advertising and then stuffs it in the bit bucket. And there's absolutely no way for the web hosters to detect that this has happened. It remains the case that web viewers control the experience. (discuss)
Stardate 20011002.0535 (On Screen): Salon has finally realized that it won't get many people paying for subscriptions when most of its material was being given away. But there will be a lot of wrong-headed analysis of this. For example, a lot of people will observe that Salon's readership will plummet. This is true. This is also good; it means that Salon will spend less on bandwidth. (It also means that advertising revenue will drop, but that's already inadequate.) The real question will be whether the number of people paying for subscriptions rises. If out of every ten current free readers one buys a subscription and nine simply stop showing up, then Salon wins and will survive. If all ten go away, then Salon is doomed. This is, of course, a desperation move; it will be interesting to see if it works. I don't expect it will. (discuss)
Stardate 20011002.0500 (On Screen): Seth Dillingham asks where the money goes during a recession? Actually, it doesn't go anywhere. What happens is that the rate at which it changes hands slows down. What happens is that any given dollar will on average get spent multiple times per year. Joe gives it to John's Store to buy bread. John's Store pays it to Shirley the cashier. Shirley takes it to Henry's Gas Station and spends it to fill her tank. Henry pays it to his employee Fred. And so it goes.
During normal economic times, the rate at which this happens is quite high. During a recession, it slows. Instead of any given dollar changing hands ten times per year, say, it may change hands only seven times. So the amount of currency doesn't change, but the GDP (which is the sum of the number of times that all the dollars change hands) will decline. GDP is not a measure of the amount of currency in circulation; it's a measure of how much spending is happening. (discuss)
Stardate 20011001.2034 (On Screen): USS Kittyhawk has been sent to the Arabian Gulf region from its home port in Japan. That will make the fourth carrier ordered into that area, including Theodore Roosevelt, Enterprise and Carl Vinson. According to this news report, Kittyhawk is not carrying a normal air wing. Ordinarily a Nimitz-class carrier carries about 70 jets plus 20-30 other aircraft. Somewhat more than half of those jets will be fighters (F-14 Tomcats) and the remainder bombers (F/A-18 Hornets) and electronic warfare jets (EA-6B Prowler). There's no word on what it actually is carrying, but I would guess it's carrying exclusively Hornets, and no Tomcats at all. If the US is intending to make sustained air attacks against Afghanistan, then the fighters from one carrier should be more than enough to protect against any potential attack, given that Afghanistan's air force is a joke. The main threat would be if Iran got involved against us, which seems extremely unlikely. Also, the F/A-18 Hornet is actually a pretty decent fighter in its own right when it's not carrying bombs, and it should have no difficulty handling anything that Afghanistan is capable of putting into the air, or Iran either for that matter. (discussion in progress)
Update 20011002: It appears I was wrong. What they may be doing with Kittyhawk is using it as a helicopter platform.
Stardate 20011001.1647 (On Screen): "The Americans discovered in Kosovo that NATO is a difficult body to deal with. This will probably be the first and the last major war run by NATO," Heisbourg said. "It is now a case of 'Don't call us, we'll call you'."
This article got me to thinking about just what kind of military relationship the US does have with the European nations. While it is true that NATO did invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter (which says "an attack against one is considered an attack against all") they also almost immediately started backing off from that, in essence saying "within reason". There are a lot of nations which are members of NATO, but only ones which actually have the ability to project substantial military power are the British, the French and the Italians. The Germans have a formidable military but are not permitted to operate outside of German territory, and none of the other nations have any substantial capability which could be of use to us. (The only other one which could at least be somewhat useful is Canada, but their forces are not as formidable as the big three.)
Which got me thinking about Operation Desert Storm. That was an "allied effort", but when you look at who committed how much to it, it ends up that about three quarters of the force there was American. There were token forces from a swarm of nations, but the only significant contributions came from the French, the British, the Egyptians, the Saudis, Syria, the UAE and Kuwait itself. Politically it was necessary for this to be an allied force; in particular, it was politically vital that there be substantial Arab forces involved to defuse any hint of this being a war of the West against Arabs. (It was also politically necessary for there to be a significant European presence, to defuse grumbling from American voters.) But from a military standpoint, it's much different.
When you look at a map of the deployments and eventual movements of the various forces, it becomes clear that while the other forces involved did indeed do the jobs they were assigned, Schwarzkopf actually set up his battle so that he would win even if they didn't and retreated. (On that map, any unit which is represented by a symbol which is not a flag is American.) No non-American unit except one was given an assignment without being backed up by a substantial American force. The Arabs were collected together into two major commands on the right flank and given the assignment to move directly to Kuwait City to liberate it -- but they did so bracketing two American Marine divisions who were quite capable of doing the job on their own if the Arabs had not done so. The French were used to guard the left flank of the theater, to protect against any potential counter-attack from the NW, but any such movement of troops would have been spotted by air recon and gotten the crap blasted out of it by bombing; it's doubtful if it would even have made it to the theater and engaged on the ground at all. And even if it did, not only were the French there, so the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. Had the French not stood, our Airborne would have held the position. The only non-American formation given a substantial job without American backup (i.e. the only one which was really being relied on) was the British armor.
You get the same picture when you add up the aircraft deployed in the theater. You end up with the Americans providing at least three quarters of the air power, and in fact I suspect that we flew an even higher proportion of the important missions. And in terms of naval forces, there were a lot of ships from a lot of nations, but the only ones which mattered were the American carriers and the American amphib support ships which performed the feint that tied down substantial Iraqi forces away from the front.
It's not that the allies in that war did badly; they in fact did a superb job. If any of them failed to fight well, I have never heard of it (though if that were the case it would probably have been hushed up). The point is that there is no question that the US was capable of fighting that war completely without military help from anyone else. The only non-American support which was critical was logistical help from Saudi Arabia; all the rest could have been dispensed with, on a strictly military basis. The other forces were there for political reasons.
The United States is, sometime soon, going to begin some sort of offensive military operations against Afghanistan. In this case there is no chance whatever of getting substantial military help from any Arab nation except possibly from Pakistan. As to NATO, the problem is that help from France and Italy would come at too high a price. We don't need their help, and if they committed units they would quite naturally want a say in how they were used and in the overall strategy of the war, and in especially where it would be fought, against whom, and when it would stop. But if the US doesn't actually need their help (and so far that appears to be the case) then in fact French or Italian involvement would be a burden, not an asset, because it would impede our ability to prosecute the war in the manner we ultimately decide that it needs to be prosecuted. If the French and Italians are not involved, then they can bitch if they don't like what we do but they won't reasonably expect to be able to affect our strategy.
It truly is the case that the only NATO military force which probably will get involved will be from the UK, simply because it's the only one which really would be more of an asset than a burden. While assistance from the RN would be welcome, it's not obvious that it's needed (Afghanistan is not known for being a big naval power and the US Navy is not exactly weak); in fact the only asset that the UK has which really would be useful would be the Royal Air Force and certain elite ground formations such as the SAS -- and even that isn't actually needed. The demonstration of this is the fact that of all the coalition members who were involved in Desert Storm, the only nation which still actively assists the US in Iraq are the British, who still fly patrol missions. The UK is the only militarily potent nation the US can rely on politically.
If the US decides to engage in substantial bombing, we are quite capable of doing so on our own. In fact, if NATO forces do get involved, except maybe for the British, it will be for political reasons, not for military ones. From a strict military standpoint, it would be much smoother if all the forces were strictly American.
Why is this important? Because eventually someone in Congress is going to ask why it is that the US is committing such a substantial amount of military power to be present in Europe, now that there is no longer any Warsaw Pact. Just what are we defending against? And why are we committing such forces to defend Europe when it becomes clear that Europe would not actually be of much practical use in defending the US? This alliance has, in actual fact, been a form of military charity; it wasn't an alliance so much as the US defending Europe -- or so it will be said. It had to be called "an alliance" to placate America voters and taxpayers, who were disproportionately paying for it -- but now we come to it, and in fact NATO won't be of much use to the US in the war it is about to fight. And that is, I think, what was going through the mind of NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, which caused him to try to talk now about just how important NATO is. I think he realizes that in fact, to the US it isn't, which is the point of the quote from Francois Heisbourg, the director of the Institute for International Politics in Geneva, at the beginning of this log entry. Of course, it remains to be seen how this war will develop and where it will end up; it may turn out that NATO is actually important after all. But if it isn't, and if this war ends up being fought primarily by American forces, then this will be the beginning of the end for NATO, to be replaced by a combined EU military that doesn't include a substantial presence by the US. (discussion in progress)
Update 20011002: The US has presented intelligence data to NATO proving the involvement of Al Qaeda in the attack on the WTC. NATO SG Robertson now says that Article 5 is now "fully invoked". It remains to be seen just how fully "fully" is.
Stardate 20011001.1427 (On Screen): The pacifists keep demanding proof. How do we know that bin Laden, or Al Qaeda are actually involved in the bombing? they ask. How do we know that Afghanistan is where training takes place? Here is your proof. And it makes for chilling reading. It also makes clear what fate awaits us if we allow guilt and introspection to immobilize us. (discuss)
Stardate 20011001.1223 (On Screen): Of all the ill-advised features of HTML, the "onclose" tag has to be one of the most easily abused. It's easy to see how idealistic the original creators of HTML were, given that they incorporated so many features which could be so easily used to annoy the user. For example, if an "onclose" pops a new window, and that in turn has yet another "onclose", you can get trapped. This is a favorite ploy of porn sites, as anyone unfortunate enough to stumble on some of the more vicious ones will know. (Of course, no-one ever deliberately looks for porn online, do they?)
One of the most obnoxious operators of those kinds of sites has been ordered by the FTC to shut down precisely because of this behavior, which is interesting. But if something like this happens to you, you don't actually have to fight with it. If you think you're stuck with a trapped site, pop the task manager and terminate every IE task, though there's usually only one. This actually kills the browser without giving it an opportunity to execute any more "onclose" tags. (discuss)
Stardate 20011001.1121 (On Screen): Health food advocates tell us "you are what you eat", though there's seemingly no consensus among them as to exactly what a "healthy diet" might be. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Reduce your salt intake, right? Not necessarily. For instance, people who take Lithium for treatment of mania are advised to make sure that they have plenty of salt in their diet. The problem is that the toxic level of lithium is only about three times the therapeutic dose, and lithium is chemically very similar to sodium. When we limit our sodium intake, our bodies try to conserve sodium, and as a result of this we will retain lithium as well, and it can build up to an overdose, leading to arrhythmias, coma, hypotension, peripheral vascular collapse, and seizures.
How about organic foods? Say, "free range chickens", for example. Better for you? Not in the UK, anyway. It seems that they have a much higher rate of infection with Campylobacter, a common cause of food poisoning. Factory-raised chickens are kept isolated and the entire factory is sterilized once per generation. Free range chickens are exposed to the manure of previous generations of chickens and of other animals, massively raising their chances of becoming infected. (Never eat "rare" chicken! In New England, about one third of poultry products, eggs and meat, are infected with Salmonella, and the rate is lower but significant nearly everywhere. Adequate cooking will kill it and render it safe.)
But a low fat diet -- now that is one we can all agree on, right? Fat is evil, carbos and protein are good. Oddly enough, not even that one is invariably correct. Epilepsy can be a terrible and debilitating condition, and for some unfortunates modern drugs have no effect. Some people have as many as 400 seizures per month. A study now shows that a large number of them can be helped by a diet very high in fats (saturated fats, at that!) while being very low in carbohydrates. The exact mechanism by which it works is not known, though there are hypotheses, but the clinical results are unambiguous -- and the positive effects of a two year diet of this kind may well be permanent.
I'm certainly not saying all of us should go out right now and eat high-fat high-salt diets; of course not. But it's important to keep in mind that a "healthy diet" is what is healthy for you, and that this may not be the same as what is healthy for someone else. (discuss)
Stardate 20011001.0925 (On Screen): "Excite U.K. looks in a healthy position. The company has enough cash to last it beyond the end of the year and its operations are pulling in a lot of business," according to Ben Starkey, a spokesperson for Excite U.K. I thought we'd gotten over dot-com madness. Time was that when a company only had enough cash for a year it was considered to be deathly ill. Now the fact that it has enough cash to last three months is considered "healthy". Sheesh. (discuss)
Stardate 20011001.0918 (On Screen): Times have been bad for airlines recently and they just took a major step downwards with the WTC attack, and now a major European airline is probably going to declare bankrupcy. Does every nation in Europe really need its own national airline? Is there really a need for Lufthansa and SwissAir and Air France and KLM and British Airways and... Is the Netherlands really big enough to justify a national airline? (Nobody actually takes a jet to go within the Netherlands.) Wouldn't Europe be better served by some mergers, reduction of redundancy, and streamlining? In airlines as in nearly everything else, there is economy of scale. A larger airline can get better deals on jets and on fuel through mass buys and increased leverage in negotiations. And if an airline is multi-national, it may be more free from parochial political pressure to carry unprofitable routes because of national pride. Is it politically possible for Air France to merge with Lufthansa? (And what would the result be called, and where would it be based?) If such mergers don't happen, I suspect consolidation will happen anyway through selective business failures. Merge or die! (discussion in progress)
Update 20011004: CNN reports that the European airlines are considering consolidation to relieve overcapacity.
Stardate 20011001.0835 (On Screen): Occasionally I see a story which lends itself to so many slants that it almost seems as if it must have been a plant and not something that really happened. A girl just flunked one of her secondary school courses and as a result probably won't qualify for college in the career she wants. She's suing her school because of it.
Here are some of the slants this story lends itself to:
"Whew!" It turns out that it's law school that she's not going to qualify for. Frankly, if her first reaction in a situation like this is to sue, we're better off without her in the legal profession.
"I thought this only happened in America." Turns out she's a Brit. This is the kind of thing that litigious Americans are famous for.
"Latin?" The test she failed was for Latin -- what has that got to do with anything? Why are those [epithet] Brits studying Latin? And why is a high score in it required for a law career? (You can learn to pronounce Latin in ten minutes, and all you'd need were the specific phrases that were used in law, which they'd teach you in law school anyway.)
"What's her hurry?" Can't she just study it again, take the test again, and qualify later?
"Why blame the teacher for the failings of the student?" I know a lot of people who claim that their dumb-as-a-board-and-lazy kids are "bright" -- it's not necessarily the school's fault if she failed. Or conversely, "Maybe a product liability suit will make the schools finally shape up." Between tenure and public funding, they're not accountable to anyone -- only now they will be, and they'll be forced to fire the incompetent teachers and start really teaching.
Actually, all of those are too glib, and I had almost decided I wasn't going to write about it at all. Then it occurred to me that the mere fact that it inspired so many glib put-downs was itself noteworthy. It's just too easy to get righteously indignant about this one; don't be too surprised if you see a lot of commentary about it elsewhere, all of which will be slanted in one way or another toward simplistic points of view. (discuss)
Update: Aha! I was right!
Stardate 20011001.0603 (On Screen): Twenty years ago I was involved in the design of logic analyzers. This was, at the time, a relatively new kind of test-and-measurement equipment, and we were just beginning to figure out what they were and what they needed to be. For a while we concentrated on trying to capture as much as we could, and then we realized something rather profound: the value of a piece of test equipment is measured not by how much it can capture, but by how much it can exclude. For example, our logic analyzer was capable of capturing data at a rate of a hundred megasamples per second (slow by modern standards but blazingly fast at the time) and had a memory which was 512 samples deep. Somewhere out there, in the next few minutes, some event is going to take place, and our user wants to see the details of it. At full sample rate, we can capture a 5 millisecond window. If we capture the wrong 5 milliseconds, then we have failed our user. Even if we do get the right one, the user doesn't really want to plow through that much data; he just wants to see the particular event. In that 512 samples, there may only be five or six which are really critical. After that realization, we stopped concentrating so heavily on faster capture and deeper memory, and paid more attention to smart triggering, programmable storage control and data post processing. The user didn't want us to drown him in data, he wanted us to show him the precise thing he was interested in and nothing else.
I had a similar experience at Qualcomm. There was a very obscure window-of-vulnerability bug which ahd manifested intermittently causing the phone to lock up. It took a few weeks for it to annoy someone enough to make them start to hunt for it, a few days for us to figure out a suitable trigger which permitted an emulator to capture the critical events, about three hours for me to wade through the resulting execution trace to diagnose the problem -- and five minutes to fix it. This is far more common than you might think. Diagnosing problems is nearly always far more difficult than fixing them. The difficulty is that there's just too damned much going on, and nearly all of it is irrelevant.
That has only gotten worse. In nearly every aspect of the digital world now, the quantity of data moving around has gotten immense. No-one can process it all; they need assistance to find the pieces of it which are important. This is a difficult problem; it may have no permanent solution. Filtering and organizing data will continue to get more complex as the data itself expands and the filtration criteria get more sophisticated.
Heinlein once observed that library science may well be the most important one of them all, and I think he may have been on to something: it does no good for the information you need to have been preserved if you can't locate it amidst all the dross. It may as well not exist. So it isn't too surprising to learn that the US intelligence community may have collected enough clues to have sniffed out the WTC attack plot ahead of time, but didn't put them to