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 

24 November, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Trump

It looks like General Flynn is talking.  As we've heard from his lawyer since the beginning of the Trump/Russia/etc. investigation, the general "has a lot to say"--enough to cut a deal with prosecutors.  The only reason for the investigation to cut a deal with him is that he has information that incriminates someone with an even higher status.  There aren't a lot of people with an equal or higher status than the National Security Advisor:  Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon (perhaps), Melania Trump, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence, John Kelly, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway (maybe), Steven Miller, Paul Manafort (maybe), Donald McGahn, Jeff Sessions, Chris Christie, Eric Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Rebekah Mercer, Steve Mnuchin, Anthony Scaramucci, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, Dan Coats, Mike Pompeo, Sean Spicer, Donald J. Trump.  Manafort is already under indictment, without Flynn's testimony.  Mattis and Tillerson didn't have enough overlap with Flynn to make either of  them them the object of a deal.

If we are focusing on the campaign and/or Trump business dealings, the names to look for are Jared Kushner, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump. Eric Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, and Donald J. Trump.  I'd exclude Pence, since he was such a late addition to the campaign (although he did have a role in the transition).  That leaves Kushner, Sessions, and five Trumps.

One person only has value as an "ultimate" target: the president.  All he has to offer Robert Mueller is a relatively painless resignation, and a complete debriefing to investigators for counterintelligence and financial crimes.  Everyone else has to be talking to their legal teams, asking for options.  I wonder how many other senior defense teams have cut ties with the DJT defense?


A Split From Trump Indicates That Flynn Is Moving to Cooperate With Mueller - The New York Times

Some days it's hard to be an old-fashioned globalist

Now even Angela Merkel has to deal with the rising tide of nationalism.  It was too easy for too many of the elite to forget that opening borders, encouraging European integration, and fighting climate change has a cost for a lot of people.  They're tired of paying that price.  And even if some of it is a misperception of the consequences of globalization, that perception is important.  Let's see if she gets the message.

Merkel -- and Davos -- Rebuked in Germany | RealClearPolitics

13 November, 2017

The Poland march shows the normalization of the country's far right

In my memery, Poland has always been a country with a love of freedom, and a love for the Catholic Church.  But now we see what happens when nationalism means that freedom only applies to "my" people and "my" church.  The idea there could be universal values doesn't seem to register with these marchers.  I can understand wanting to protect your sovereignty, especially when it has been so hard to win and to keep.  The strong cosmopolitanism of the EU is a hard sell, and it will remain so for a long time.  But that doesn't imply a celebration of hate, and that is all too often what we are seeing.


Poland has a long liberal tradition, but we may be asking more of them they they are ready to handle.  If Britain can leave the EU, Poland can too.  Not NATO--I've found Poles far more interested in NATO than in the EU.  A Catholic Turkey seems to be where this is headed.

How the Poland march shows the normalization of the country's far right - The Washington Post

08 November, 2017

What the End of ISIS Means

In the immortal words of Han Solo (Star Wars):  "Great Kid!  Don't get cocky."

What the End of ISIS Means