20 July, 2018

Raising our eyes to the stars

Happy Moon Day!  On this day, in 1969, people first set foot on the surface of the moon.  I was nine years old.  The computer in the Apollo spacecraft had less computing power that the cheap digital watch you might get today in a Happy Meal.  There was a lot of math involved, of course, but it was generally done on the ground, and much of it with slide rules.  It's hard to remember, sometimes, just how much has changed.

Apollo was a decade-long, incremental, and monumental project.  Only two countries could have assembled the raw power necessary to get to the moon, and one of them pushed so far past the limits of their capabilities that their best minds died in an explosion linked directly to the politics of an arbitrary deadline.  Today there are billionaires in the process of building orbital hotels.  Some are making plans to skip the moon entirely and head directly for Mars.

It was, in many ways, the equivalent of building the pyramids.  It was a contest for bragging rights with the USSR, and when it was done it rolled on by inertia for only a few more missions.  But it was also an achievement "for all mankind."  This was a day for every person on Earth to be proud.  How many of those have there been?

It was the dawn of a new age.  And then we paused to catch our breath and lower our sights.  Leave it to government to make the world's greatest adventure boring.

But maybe we are waking up again.  Today, more people are coming to wrap their heads around the fact that we must go and live (and yes, die) out there.  This planet is too small.  Too vulnerable.  We are still in a race, not just of nation versus nation or corporation versus corporation, but as a species against time.  To survive, we have to become a multiplanetary civilization.  And today, forty-nine years ago, was the first step.
nasa apollo 11 earth africa 1969 AS11 36 5352HR
Photo taken from the Moon.  July 20, 1969.

13 July, 2018

Reading between the lines in Strzok's testimony

It's an old joke among lawyers: If you have the law on your side, argue the law; if you have the facts, argue the facts; if you have neither, pound the table. 

There was a lot of table-pounding (and the occasional foaming at the mouth) at the open hearings yesterday, which attempted to make Peter Strzok into some kind of dark figure and (somehow) defend the president.  It was a failure.  If this is the best they could do, Donald Trump might want to reconsider returning from his foreign trip.  Perhaps Putin would let him stay in Russia. But I doubt that he would.  It's not like Trump was actually an agent.  More like a useful idiot.  And apparently he hasn't been reading his briefing books, and the pros have been avoiding talking to him about sensitive sources and methods, so he may not have all that much useful intelligence to trade for his dacha on the Black Sea.  

If anything, the hearings (what I saw of them) made Peter Strzok into a hero. Credible.  Calm in the face of insults and stupidity.  Clear about what he could, and could not, talk about in an open hearing.  He came across as a professional counterintelligence agent.  He sort of reminded me of my Dad (and that's rare praise).  

But there was one statement he made in the hearing that caught my attention. Actually, it pulled me out of my chair. And since I don't see anyone else making this connection, I guess I will.  Strzok (with permission, I'm sure) pulled the curtain aside just a little bit on the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation.  This is what grabbed my attention:

The information we had which was alleging a Russian offer of assistance to a member of the Trump campaign was of extraordinary significance. It was credible. It was from an extraordinarily sensitive and credible source.

What, exactly, does that mean?  "Intel-speak" tends to avoid exaggeration.  If anything, it tends to be overcautious.  Peter Strzok was a senior counterintelligence official, with years of experience in investigating, disrupting, and prosecuting Russian intelligence operations in the United States.  His record is exemplary.  He was, in fact, one of the first of a handful of people who knew what the FBI knew about Trump-Russia.  He could have, with a few words, undermined the Trump campaign.  He didn't do it.  The best available evidence is that he didn't even think of doing it.  He is that kind of professional.  Which means that every word he uses in an official capacity is considered.  Every word means something--no more, no less.

So what, exactly, was he saying?  It's been decades since I had any special access, but the meanings of some words were drummed into my head.  Most of the politicians probably missed it--exaggeration and spin are their stock in trade.  But, to me, it was like he stood on the desk with a bullhorn.  

The use of verbal probability estimates in National Intelligence Estimates has changed over time (for an overview of word counts see the MA thesis of Rachel Kesselman (Mercyhurst, 2008)).  But this is about the usual: it comes from a (now declassified) 2007 NIE.

Estimates of likelihood.  Because analytical judgments are not certain, we use probabilistic language...  Terms such as probablylikelyvery likely, or almost certainly indicate a greater than even chance.

A chart of the continuum provided in the NIE makes it clear that probably or likely is around a sixty or seventy-five percent estimate of likelihood. Very likely is around eighty to ninety percent.  Almost certainly is over ninety percent.  There is no such thing as a certain assessment (100 percent)--there is always room for error.  But if you have to bet, likely is good enough to bet your money, very likely is good enough to bet your job, and almost certainly is good enough to bet your life.  

One can also chart the confidence in assessments, which is based on the quality, scope, and sourcing of the evidence on which the estimate is based.  A high confidence is an indication of high-quality information.  It's not certain, but it's damn near close.  Moderate confidence means the information comes from a credible source.  It's plausible.  Low confidence means there are questions about the source's credibility or plausibility.  It's possible, but you wouldn't want to base your decision on it.  Curveball, the Iraqi source passed along by German intelligence to the US, was in the judgement of the Germans a low confidence source.  The Americans chose to trust him because he fit the prejudices of senior administration officials, which led (in part) to the Iraq War of 2003.

So let's take another look at the testimony.  Strzok tells us the source was extraordinarily sensitive and credible.  This is the level of having a loyal agent inside the other side's agency--an agent with access to information most other insiders would not have.  This is a source so important, so sensitive, that to even release his report into normal channels (let alone to the public) would lead to an immediate manhunt, his discovery, torture, and execution.

No wonder Strzok kept his mouth shut!

And no wonder, once the Trump-Russia story began to surface through other channels, we began to see a series of murders of people in Russia who might have had some involvement in the operation.  This is not just about the "Steele Dossier".  Steele is a good spy, using the sources available to him outside of Russia, and it looks like he did a pretty good job.  But Strzok had his source before seeing anything from Steele.  And Strzok's source was someone with inside knowledge.  If not inner circle, then pretty damn close.

And Strzok is telling us he knew--perhaps not well enough to prove in an American court, but well enough that he would have been willing to bet his life and the lives of the people he cares about--he knew the Russians were openly offering assistance to at least one member of the Trump campaign.  And if it was happening at all, it was an operation planned and approved at the top.  The top of the Russian government--certainly.  The top of the Trump campaign?  That was something that deserved a much closer look.


OBE--Overtaken by Events--the news has broken that the Mueller team has indicted a number of senior Russian military intelligence officials for breaking into DNC servers, precisely when Donald Trump was calling on them, publicly, to do something like that.  Interesting.  I have to admire the timing.  I have to wonder--did the FBI officials who authorized Strzok to open the curtain, just a little, know this was coming today?

08 July, 2018

Torture (II)

A draft review of Manfred Nowak, Torture: An Expert's Confrontation with an Everyday Evil (Philadelphia: U of PA Press, 2018).  Translated from the German by Roger Kaminker.

The author was the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights Council from 2004 to 2010.  He has also worked with the EU, universities, and NGOs to  investigate cases of torture, promote prosecutions of offenders, and improve conditions of detention.  Yet one of his first observations is that past all the definitions and descriptions of torture, "we cannot fully grasp its essence if we have never experienced it."  And while torture is universally condemned in international law, this direct attack on the essence of what it means to be human is used--"routinely"--by the police of most of the world's states.  The author hopes, by exploring the depths of the evil torture involves, to promote the sense of outrage prompted by the reporting on the Holocaust. Clearly, instruments of international law are not enough. He wants "a new global consensus to effectively eradicate torture."  I sense he will be waiting a long time.

Novak's description of the operations of the United Nations follows a familiar pattern: noble goals, undermined by state practice. Systematic cruelty is hidden behind a wall of lies.  So he describes how, as an investigator, he had to work under the rules promulgated by each state he was investigating. And he explores how it was possible, sometimes, to work within those rules and still learn something of value. Arranging confidential interviews and medical examinations was crucial.  When victims would describe, without police in the room, what had been done to them the evidence would almost always back up their stories. And these are the states that allowed interviews.  At some level, the officials of those states believed (or told themselves) it "wasn't so bad."  Or at the very least they thought they could whitewash the conditions sufficiently to get out of the international spotlight.  It says a lot that neither Russia or the United States would allow these interviews to take place.

The book is divided into two parts.  Part one is an overview of torture, inhuman detention, and other "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment.  Despite the Convention, what counts as torture varies by region and culture. Corporal punishment and capital punishment? At the insistence of many Islamic states, the UN Convention against torture does not include pain or suffering arising from "lawful" sanctions. Like those who define "terrorism" as the act of a non-state, this is potentially a loophole that renders the Convention meaningless.  At the same time, if a state does not enact legislation (and enforce it) against private acts of dehumanizing violence, it endures as the norm.

Part two is a survey, chapter by chapter, of torture in individual states. These are based on Nowak's investigations, ranging from Georgia to Mongolia, Nepal to China, Jordan to Austria, he established torture had occurred in seventeen of eighteen states.  The only counterexample he found, Denmark, began with a very different model of what a prisoner is and what a prison is for.  A retributionist system must be replaced by one that sees the prisoner as a human being, with all the rights that involves,working to integrate himself back into the community. We have a long way to go.

04 July, 2018


First, where are we now?  Since I haven't written about my life (or much of anything) for several months, I feel I should probably do some catching up.

First, I have Parkinson's Disease.  Have had it, for at least several years.  It's now gotten to the point that my performance as a professor (teaching, research, administration) has suffered.  It has gotten to the point that I'm probably going to go on sick leave in the fall semester., and retire as disabled in January 2019.

It's damn frustrating.  For the most part (not always) I can get my body to do what I want it to do.  But standing in front of four classes a week is too much.  Besides, I have to spend more of my time and effort on the act of maintaining my focus.  Doing it on demand, day after day, every day, is beyond me.  I get tired.  I also can't handle the two hours a day (or more) driving between my home in Pittsburgh and my office in Slippery Rock.  Not every day.

My father died of Parkinson's, so I have some idea of what my future might look like.  In the meantime I live, I exercise, I read and I write.  I get to give my wife the attention she deserves (although the focus issue still comes up--I have to write myself more notes, I have to be more scheduled and less spontaneous).

Actually, for the immediate future it's not all that bad.  I'm as intelligent as ever (my IQ has actually gone up a few points, as a result of getting my depression under control). I can learn.  I can contribute.  If I can arrange the money (still in progress) I can visit some of the places I normally couldn't go when the full-time professorship got in the way.  Maybe I can give a guest lecture or three.  Maybe I can see what's going on with others' projects.  Maybe I can get some people to take a critical eye to mine.

In some ways, it feels like grad school--but without the arbitrary assignments and the anxiety about grades.

I know, I know--I may not be in denial, but I'm clearly putting the best possible spin on events. It's a conceit--but I'd like to think it's a healthy one.

So what am I doing today?  Among other things, reading a book entitled Torture for a short book review.  With a title like that, written by a former UN Special Rapporteur, it's bound to be a laugh a minute for the whole family.  But it should also be valuable.  You see, most of us Strategic Studies types don't read these horror stories because we like what we learn, but because it might help us to do something to improve the situation.  It's much like an oncologist reading the latest research on cancer, or a political psychologist who examines a case study on president Trump (and yes, that parallel was intentional).

But enough of this.  Back to the book...

27 December, 2017

Dead Hand

Remember Dr. Strangelove?  For those of you too young to get the reference, "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" was a black comedy by Stanley Kubrick released a couple of years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It described an accidental attack on the the Soviet Union, which triggered an automatic response, which essentially destroyed the world (except, maybe, for a few top leaders and their harems, deep underground).  Much of the dialogue could have been taken directly from a couple of the leading books of the day: Herman Kahn's On Thermonclear War, and Henry Kissinger's Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.

Kubrick tried to make the movie look very accurate, and for the most part he succeeded (the "War Room" was designed for drama, not for accuracy). His story tried to take the ideas of the nuclear strategists to their logical conclusions. Since the people he was condemning were already trying to push their ideas to their logical conclusions, there wasn't much farther to go.  One of the devices he mentioned, from a thought experiment, was the "Doomsday Machine"--an automated system that would, when certain conditions were met, launch an  overwhelming strike against the projected enemy without any human involvement whatever.  In fact, it was designed so it couldn't be turned off.  Once activated, the threat was automatic, unlimited, and unstoppable.

What nobody realized for years is the Russians really built the damn thing.  For all we know it's still there.  The "Perimeter" system, also known as "Dead Hand" would (does) monitor for evidence of a nuclear strike, check that it was out of touch with higher authorities, and unlock a key that would enable an officer on duty (the only human in the loop, told that everything he ever loved was dead) to launch the counterstrike (or first strike, if the system glitched).

A big question, even addressed in Dr. Strangelove, is if this is meant to be the ultimate deterrent "why would you keep it a secret?"  In the movie it had just been activated, and it was to be announced at the next Party conference.  In reality, the Russians never mentioned it.  Today, they avoid talking about it.  The Americans never knew it was there.  And we still don't know if if it is, or is not, active today.

The more I learn about the Cold War, the more amazed I am we are still alive.  And stories like these lead me to wonder if we can keep it that way.

Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine | WIRED

29 November, 2017

This is an interesting idea

Put Chinese soldiers in North Korea, matching the American soldiers in South Korea.  China would have to be desperate to do it.  The U.S. would have to restrain itself from responding in kind.  But the interesting question is "would the North accept it?" Would they tolerate the troops of a foreign power--the foreign power in their immediate neighborhood--to be stationed on their soil?  Would Kim see it as a threat, or a promise?  If the Korean program is really about deterrence, then they might accept it.  If the motivation is not deterrence but attack, they definitely would not.

It would also allow China and the US to call Kim's bluff.  I'd love to see the Korean reaction.

China Should Send 30,000 Troops Into North Korea – Foreign Policy

27 November, 2017

Is there a natural connection between sexual malfeasance and espionage?

First, let me get this out of the way:  no, I don't think there's a direct link.

That said, it's amazing how often we seem to find them in the same cases.  The Commander-in-Chief who bagged about his taking advantage of women now seems to be connected to a deal with Putin going back to at least 2013.  His connections with Russian organized crime may go back to the 1980s.  The "icon" of the House has not only abused women, he's been an active abetter of Russian propaganda organizations for decades.   Like Trump, I don't know if he's an active agent, or just stupid.  And the quote from a counterintelligence type in thi story jumps out at me: “Do you really think anybody’s that stupid?”

I'll still assume stupidity until I have solid evidence of mens rea.  But in each case, the proclivities of each man to use and discard women, coupled with the opportunities for Soviet/Russian intelligence to document it, made it easy to maintain an "insurance file" to keep them on the path.

The connection, to the extent it exists. seems to be a general lack of ethics.  People who are willing to make exceptions for themselves in one area are willing to make exceptions for themselves in others.  And each operated in an environment where the norm was to look the other way (or to celebrate) violations of conventional morality.

The Swamp is deep.

John Conyers Accused of Sexual Harassment—But His KGB Ties Are Worse | Observer

26 November, 2017

Millennials are the new peasants

Yet another reminder that the statisitical mean, when dealing with the distribution of wealth, is a terrible way of understanding the world.

Who Has Done the Best Since the 2008 Meltdown? Hint: Not Millennials | Big Think

If this goes on

It's relatively easy to anticipate first-order effects.  It's harder to anticipate second-order effects.  It's harder still to anticipate the interactions of second-order effects (and so on).  Maybe we'll eventually have an improved Watson to use as a tool to guess where we are going, but I doubt it.  The act of guessing, and acting on those guesses, changes the system.  That's why speculative fiction, especially dystopian literature, is useful: it helps one to anticipate and avoid some of the bad possibilities.  But even that, by insisting on a minimal "realism" will fail to catch black swans.  And if it does, nobody will believe them until the very last moment.

In that light, take a look at some speculations from the head of Daimler-Benz.  In his limited area, I think he's getting some of the first-order effects, and maybe a few of the second-order effects.  But assuming it doesn't all fall apart (always a not trivial assumption) we can figure he's missing ninety percent of what's going to happen.  And he fails to consider the political and social pushback.  So a few good rules for thinking about the future:
  1. The next year isn't going to change as much as you hope it will.
  2. The next five years isn't going to change as much as you think it will.
  3. The next twenty years will change more than you can imagine.

P.S. If anyone has the original source, I'd like to see it.

25 November, 2017

I've heard of the parasitic state, but this is beyond merely "evil"

A North Korean soldier recently escaped across the DMZ.  He was shot six times by his comrades before he reached safety.  But his new wounds were the least of his troubles:
Along with the bullet wounds, he also had hepatitis B, pneumonia and “an enormous number” of parasitic worms in his intestines, some up to 11 inches long. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20 years as a physician,” said his South Korean surgeon. The worms can burrow into fresh wounds, with potentially devastating effects.
And remember, this was a soldier, quite possibly one trusted enough to help guard the Demilitarized Zone.  There's no way he was from an "hostile" caste:
Every one of North Korea’s 23 million people is subject to the brutal state-imposed caste system known as songbun. The word “songbun” should be notorious around the world. From birth, every North Korean is marked by the government as a member of a loyal “core” caste, a “wavering” middle caste or a “hostile” caste, and this designation determines access to food, housing, education, jobs — everything. During the famine of the 1990s, when more than two million North Koreans perished, the songbun system often determined who ate and who starved.
If this is what life is like for him, what is it like for the others?

I'm not calling for war, especially with North Korea.  It's not my place to be judge and executioner.  But it seems to me there are a lot of people in North Korea who deserve to die.  Economic sanctions?  That'll only hurt the innocent.  Assassination?   The people who deserve it are so hard to get, and so well protected.  Perhaps, like the French Resistance, we can air-drop thousands of cheap, one-shot handguns on the territories of the prison farms, momentarily giving some of the victims a chance to fight back.  But it wouldn't hurt the top, and it might trigger a war.

So how about thinking slightly outside of the box?  There has been talk of "ethno-weapons" for several years now, but there isn't enough genetic diversity in the Korean population to target only the monsters.  Could someone develop a weapon that sickens only the well-fed, or the obese?  Or a weapon tailored to a specific target?  In 2012 The Atlantic reported on the progress made in engineering bioweapons tailored to a specific person's DNA.  It seems the US has been collecting the DNA of world leaders for years, and recently Russia has lodged protests at what they claim are American attempts to collect Russian DNA.  If some other stories are true, there is an attempt by the Secret Service to collect and dispose of everything touched by the president, in order to reduce his vulnerability to a tailored attack.  I can't see how that can work, however, even for a germophobe like Trump.

So how about something tailored to Kim Jong Un?  Or his family?  I don't have the capability to do it, but with the availability of genetic technology increasing, and the price dropping, it's probably only a matter of time before some smart kid engineers biological viruses.  Like computer viruses, it may be a problem too pretty to not hack.  And today, governments can already do much, much more.

Again, I'm simply thinking aloud.  Even if I could do it, I wouldn't.  But BioAnonamous, are you listening?

The Parasites Feeding on North Koreans - The New York Times

Hacking the President's DNA