Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Orwell was a Naive Optimist

I had literally forgotten about this blog... I was searching for something else and it weirdly appeared. It's now a kind of time capsule, reflecting what I and my partner John were thinking about ten to fourteen years ago. A lot has happened since then. On November 3, 2008, I wrote:
Today we fear the future and don't want to look at it. We see the future as a place that isn't as good as where we are, or where we just came from. There's a sense that the bright future that earlier generations looked forward to has recently come, and gone. There's lots of evidence that its true.
That was sadly prescient. In the ensuing years since I wrote those words, I've ceased posting anything on the internet and deleted everything I had ever posted before - with the exception of this blog because I had forgotten about it. Today we have aggressive censorship of forbidden ideas across all forms of media. I have also engaged in aggressive self-censorship because I see thoughtful people persecuted and jailed for expressing forbidden ideas and I don't want to suffer their fate. I had written a lot more in this post, but deleted it because I'm afraid for what I see happening to other people for expressing their opinions. I hope that the damage done to the rule of law and our freedom of expression isn't permanent. I don't think it has to be. But here we are in the future and at the moment its looking pretty dark. Update: You know things are pretty weird when the left has lost Noam Chomsky.

Monday, July 1, 2013

UVA student arrested for buying water

I haven't been doing a good job of breaking the blogging hiatus... not sure why. I regularly think about things I want to write about, but have a hard time getting around to it. Perhaps the world is moving faster.

Anyway, today's subject is a case in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a coed was arrested for fleeing arrest after attempted apprehension by several plainclothes Virginia Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) enforcement agents.

Apparently the ABC agents mistook a carton of bottled water for beer in a darkened parking lot and attempted to apprehend Elizabeth Daly, 20, a student at the University of Virginia. Ms. Daly was fearful the six agents were not legitimate law enforcement officers and were trying to assault her. After all, it was a dark parking lot and she was walking to her car with a carton of bottled water.

She apparently reached her car and got in, where the ABC agents flashed "unidentifiable" badges and demanded she surrender. When she started the vehicle in order to lower the electric windows, the agents became violent, jumped on the car, drew their weapons, and reportedly attempted to break into the vehicle.

At this point, understandably frightened, Ms. Daly drove off, while her passenger literally crawled into the back seat, screaming "go-go-go", in an attempt to escape their apparent assailants.

She was then chased (while she was trying to call 911) by a different ABC agent in a vehicle, who pulled her over with the blue lights. At this point, she realized her assailants were, in fact, public servants, and was profusely apologetic for attempting to flee. The ABC arrested her, charged her with three felonies, and put her in jail.

This was in April. This story only came out this week when the local District Attorney dropped the charges against Ms. Daly, while defending the actions of the ABC agents who threatened, assaulted, and chased her in the first place.

OK.... perhaps at this point you're wondering if you read this all correctly...

SIX Agents of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control surrounded and accosted a 20-year-old coed in a dark grocery store parking lot because they wrongly believed wrongly she possessed a 12-pack of beer.

Does this make any sense to anyone? Is it okay to accost a young woman in a dark parking lot, with overwhelming, violent force, for possession of beer? Don't they have anything better to do?

I suspect there was more going on here - training, someone trying to make some kind of point, some kind of warped out-of-control enthusiasm for enforcement of the drinking age in Virginia, or something.

This young lady was 20 years old. Not many years ago, it was legal to drink beer at age 20 in most states. I don't remember that being a Bad Thing. In fact, the world seemed to be a better place when 18 year old college students could drink beer legally. When a college student having a beer was legal, as opposed to the equivalent crime to using marijuana or cocaine, the world seemed to be a kinder, gentler place.

But the question that really sticks with me is how did the six ABC agents know the young lady walking to her car in a dark parking lot was under age 21? When they couldn't tell what kind of beverage she had in her bag? Did they simply assume she was underage and in possession of beer because she was at the grocery store? If so, is that something we want law enforcement to do? Should they not have had a little more probable cause (since she was, in fact, innocent) before jumping on her car and drawing their weapons?

Ultimately I'm interested about what this case really says about our society. Does a majority of Americans support this sort of thing? By this "sort of thing", I mean hyper-aggressive enforcement of the drinking age. Does criminalizing 20-year-olds for drinking beer really make society better? If so, I'm not seeing it. What I am seeing is a degradation in the legitimacy of the rule of law, especially among the young.

I've seen this before: where young people, confronted with such hypocrisy and contradiction, lose trust, confidence, and respect for many or all public institutions. It isn't a situation we want.

The current generation is very passive - they will generally say and do whatever necessary to get along, then they tune out and do what they want. Time will tell what kind of adults they will be. I'm afraid the example that was set for them, however, is among the worst in modern history.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in the Military

Like my partner John, I've been planning to break the recent (years-long) hiatus in blogging. I have a lot of things I'd like to comment about, and I've long appreciated having a semi-anonymous venue to talk about things that interest me. In recent history, social media has become dominant - which explicitly indicates a complete lack of anonymity.

While I really do stand by everything I say, overtly, anonymously, or not, there's a big difference between what I want to publish on social media, to all my personal friends directly, and pretty much only to them, vs. what I'd like to throw out to the internet community to stand or fall on its own merits, independent of any explicit attribution.

I guess I'm eager to have anonymous interaction, based purely on the merits of the ideas proposed or circulated, as opposed to having people judge me as a person based on what they read into what I say or post on social media sites. In this sense, I guess I'm saying I like the blogging format better than more intimate social media for serious intellectual exchange. On the other hand, our little blog here has a pretty limited following, as very few of my readers here know me from anywhere other than the internet and I don't associate any of my overt personal social media accounts with my blog posts.

On the other hand, the world has changed. I don't have nearly the time I used to have for writing blog posts, and I miss it. The "blog" community is less dynamic than it used to be, as many people have shifted to other venues for online interaction. That's too bad as it's a great format for exchanging serious ideas.

So... with all that... some actual content...

Today the Department of Defense announced a policy change opening most (maybe all? it isn't clear...) combat billets to women. This announcement was pretty abrupt and surprising - there was no discussion, no hearings, no political debate about it in advance. It is very unclear exactly what it will mean, apparently to everyone, including most of the US military, who did not know it was coming.

The abrupt shift, however, was not without quite a bit of foreshadowing. DOD has steadily evolved its administrative policies on assigning women to combat support roles, in large part because they simply needed women to fill empty billets. Women have served, by all reports heroically, in many combatant roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many military units would be rendered non-mission-capable if they suddenly lost all the women in their ranks.

I served many years in the military and had quite a bit of experience with women in the service. There were a number of issues associated with women serving in various positions, most of which were not significantly different from issues faced in the civilian world.

The integration of women into military jobs has pretty closely paralleled their integration into civilian jobs. Before the 1970s, there were few women in "tradtionally male" professions. That changed rapidly after the advent of "women's lib" in the 1960s (ignited by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963), to the point where they today dominate many previously all-male professions, as well as a majority of institutions of higher education. Their integration into the military has lagged a few years behind the experience in the private sector, but the trend is similar.

The military, however, is very different from the civilian world in quite a few major, significant ways. First there is a great deal of personal sacrifice and intimate personal interaction that comes with the territory. The military tortures its own people for training (if you accept the MSM definition of torture), although those training programs have been substantially moderated over the years, since the admission of women. The military routinely (especially in recent years) asks its people to volunteer to sacrifice themselves, often in horrific, and sometimes in senseless ways.

There's nothing to say that women can't be asked to sacrifice themselves horrifically or senselessly, just the same as men, and many have done so in recent years. While there was, until recently, a general social attitude that women should not be asked to sacrifice themselves just the same as men are, that attitude seems to have mostly eroded in western civilization in just the last several years. This is  possibly a result of women achieving approximate parity in what were previously male-dominated roles in the civilian world.

Women are, however, often (perhaps usually) subjected to much more horrible treatment at the hands of the enemy than men are, for a variety of reasons. Some of these are cultural, some are political, but perhaps most are just plain human nature, consistent for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, a woman captured on the battlefield can expect, with a great deal of certainty, to be gang-raped before being subjected to even worse abuse.  Were I a woman, this would be a consideration for me serving in the military. I do not know if it actually is for any significant percentage of women joining the military today.

At a much more routine level, there are lots of issues associated with women in military units that are significant and don't necessarily have anything to do with women vs. men, but rather with women + men. When you put a bunch of 19-year-old boys and girls together, they're going to have a lot of sex, and a lot of sexual politics, tension, and drama. Trust me: this does not make for a more combat effective unit. It's like a cross between a train wreck and groundhog day. The same boring disasters, over and over again, forever.  It's just human nature and it will take probably at least many tens of thousands of years to change, by which time it probably won't matter.

But the US military has been coping with this issue for a good while now, and continuing to succeed. This is what gets us to the real issue.

We keep kicking butt - and don't get confused - we have been consistently tactically successful in all of the wars we have fought in recent years. If you believe we have been strategically unsuccessful, which I think is a worthy topic for debate - it is hard to argue that strategic failure is attributable to battlefield failure at the tactical level. Of course, if you get down into the tactical weeds, you will find few women, or units with significant numbers of women, in key decisive positions on the front lines. That could change, and future results could be different, but it would be tough to say that we've failed anywhere in recent history due to the introduction of women into combat support billets.

But I would also argue that conventional military forces have played a much smaller role in our success in recent conflicts, as opposed to conventional wars of the past. We haven't been in a conventional stand-up fight at the operational level in any meaningful way since the first gulf war. Which gets me to the main point...

The basic nature of warfare has changed, and with it, the relationship between the people and the act of war. This is a bigger factor in the integration of women into the military than the fact that the military needs them to fill billets or that "social justice" demands that women be provided with equal (or, I would argue, greater than equal) opportunities to sacrifice themselves.

Today, the adversaries we fight are primarily unconventional and not associated with a nation-state nor an organized military force. Military operations in the information age are primarily about policing bad guys, not fighting other formal armies. This may not be universally true - there is nothing to say there could not or will not be formal military clashes between nation-states in the future - just that these types of conventional wars are becoming extremely rare, compared to low-intensity conflict against non-state actors.

In such an environment, the expected and implied roles of women are very different. In low intensity conflicts, there are few well-defined "front lines", so anyone involved could find themselves confronting a guerrilla or terrorist adversary. Consequently it's difficult or impossible to segregate the women into non-combat roles. That is the main reality of the most recent policy shift in DOD.

Also, the enemy is inherently weak and there is an attitude that even our little girls, armed with all our modern technology, can defeat him.

That gets to the next point: if we were worried about losing any of these wars, the calculus would be very different.

In the classical period, men conducted war by lining up in tight squares, shoulder to shoulder, and ran into each other with their shields, then transitioning to hacking each other to death with short swords. It was unbelievably nasty, brutal, and violent. There wasn't any consideration of having women participate in that type of warfare, for a couple of reasons. The first was that it wouldn't work. A phalanx with women it in would simply lose to one that didn't have women. The second reason was that ancient societies had defined gender roles and there was a social imperative to protect women from the misery and brutality of "men's work".

The reasons for this are not mysterious. Women are smaller and weaker than men. Take an average man and an average woman, absent any social modifying influences, and the man will physically dominate the woman. The woman may be able to use other skills to change the terms of the engagement, but it is an exceptionally rare woman who can physically dominate even a slightly-below-average man.

Scale this basic truth up to 10 men (and women) or 100, or 1 million, and the probabilty of success in a purely physical engagement is directly decreased by number of women involved.

Yet we keep winning, despite having lots of women in significant positions.

The reason is that warfare has really changed. We're just not fighting phalanx battles any more (although hand-to-hand combat certainly has not disappeared). Instead, information is the basic commodity of warfare, and in this environment women are much less disadvantaged. (I would argue that women are still not the equal of men in war, pretty much entirely due to hormonal differences.)

But in technological war, where relative physical weakness is much less significant, women are much more likely to be able to hold their own.

Still: if you had an army of male information warriors vs. an army of female information warriors, where no physical confrontion was involved, who would win? Still the men would dominate. Why? Because men and women are different. Men have more testosterone, and are consequently more aggressive. This aggression manifests itself in many different ways - but war and military service primarily about aggression. The people with more testosterone, physical and mental aggression, physical mass, and strength are always going to dominate.

Marty Van Creveld said in The Transformation of War that societies allow women into their military forces when they perceive it doesn't matter - that the military is no longer needed to ensure the survival of the society, or is no longer a symbol of the strength of the society - when it becomes "just another job". At this point, the opposition to having women participate evaporates and the military's segregation of gender roles becomes just another example of "discrimination".

But........look at the social status and reputation today of our special operations forces: the "Green Berets", the Army's Delta Force, the Navy's SEALs, etc. They enjoy an elite, almost legendary status in society that other segments of the military once also enjoyed but no longer do, such as Naval Aviation, the cavalry, the submarine force, or going farther back in history, the Roman Legions or the Spartan phalanx. Why? Because they are the most traditional and romantic warriors left in our post-modern military system. They are well adapted to the unconventional and low intensity conflicts we are fighting. They fight as individuals, often at close quarters, hand-to-hand with vicious and lethal enemies. They are more likely to be wounded or killed in direct combat (as opposed to blown up by a terrorist roadside bomb, which has claimed the vast majority of casualties among the conventional forces in the last decade). And there are no women in their ranks (although there are plenty in support roles, staff jobs, etc.)

Those units are doing the majority of the direct fighting in recent history and are much more heavily engaged, in 2012, than the much larger conventional force.

This may change soon - I don't know. I do know that if there is a change, the standards will be lowered to permit women to compete and succeed and consequently the social status and reputation of these elite forces will be diminished. Ordinary men (and women) (including among our enemies) will look at the Green Berets or SEALs and say "if little girls can do it, it can't be all that tough" and the mystique, as well as the effectiveness, of these legendary warriors will be permanently eroded. (As an aside: the Marine Corps is somewhere in between the special operations forces and the conventional military. It remains highly respected and admired, like SOF, and has few or no women in front-line combat jobs. The Marines experimented, in their typical, straightforward way, with allowing women into the infantry and the female Marines reported, straightforwardly, that they were unable to meet the male standards. Not sure what they'll do next.)

The lowering of standards has happened in every segment of the military that has integrated women. It is inevitable. Women simply cannot perform in military roles in the same way as men. If they could, as some of the political proponents of the new policy claim, the NFL would have a lot of female linebackers as well. This does not necessarily mean, however, that we will lose future wars. Our military forces have been so preponderantly dominant in recent years that perhaps we will continue to succeed and win with a fully-integrated military. That probably depends on what kind of wars we will fight, and how formidable our enemies will be.

If our future wars continue to look like police actions - rounding up idiots and bad guys who make trouble but don't threaten the survival of the society - as Marty Van Creveld says they will, then integration of women will likely make no difference.

It is also possible (probably probable, eventually) that we could fight a major conventional war against a dangerous but weaker adversary (such as Iran, although I doubt that one) where we will still succeed with a fully-integrated military. Another scenario, which is probably very, very unlikely, that we'll fight a major world war against a peer competitor who may be stronger than us (e.g. China), in a repeat of the World War II experience. In that scenario, this peer competitor may be likely to have women integrated into its conventional military forces in a similar way to us, so again the integration of women is unlikely to matter very much.

So... it seems that we're as a point where sexual integration of the military is inevitable, and probably irrelevant. It probably says more about the roles of the military in society and women in society than it does about our need to preserve our national security. The military has always been an engine and a laboratory of social change, and this is just one more example. Many military traditions will likely change, but military traditions have always changed over time. Apparently the sense in our society is that our security as a nation-state faces no serious threats - if it did, I believe we would not be having this discussion. Hopefully this situation will endure and we will enjoy our sense of security for many years to come. I'm not betting one way or another, however, on whether it will.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Escalator to Hell

I have been planning to break my blogging hiatus sometime in the fall, as I have been going through a transformation of sorts and this blog is the place I want to muse about that in public.
But one of the topics I used to blog about, back when I posted more-or-less regularly, was the internal workings of science and how we scientists can communicate that better to the lay public, and how badly the press reports on science and medicine (arguably the most conspicuous areas among many other subjects the press seems to get wrong).
The shootings in Colorado brought this topic rather forcefully to my attention lately.
The perpetrator (there is absolutely no need to say “accused” or “alleged” in this case) was a first-year graduate student in Neuroscience, and I noticed the pundits and journalists paying special attention to his training and intelligence, playing up the “wasted potential” story of one of America’s top budding scientists going off the rails in such a spectacular fashion.
It is very interesting to note, in the wake of the missed calls on the Supreme Court Obamacare vote, some quiet retractions have taken place.
If you Google the phrase “ a young man recognized as one of the nation’s “outstanding neuroscientists and academicians” ,   what do you see? The first hit I get is to this page, which has obviously been abandoned.
If you Google the title, you get this page, which is a pastiche of updates to several older stories, including the titular story, and the phrase does not appear anywhere in that story.
But the Internet never forgets, does it? Look at the Google cache of the first link, and you find something like the story I remembered reading and rolling my eyes at the day after the shooting:
Investigators spent a day and a half working to gain access to the booby-trapped Aurora, Colo., apartment of James Holmes, hoping to discover there clues to what would make a young man recognized as one of the nation's  "outstanding  neuroscientists  and academicians" unleash a storm of terror in a packed movie theater.
I came away from those first few days shaking my head at the characterizations of Holmes.  The term academician to a scientist sounds both pretentious (and somewhat European) and prestigious – a well-known member of the academy. Usually that term refers to an assistant professor or above, I’ve never even heard of granting that form of address to a post-doctoral fellow and usually not to anyone below the rank of associate professor , to say nothing of a first-year graduate student.  That was the first alarm bell that went off indicating that the journalists covering this story were less than well-informed about, well, pretty much everything.
The program at Colorado Denver was  described as “one of the most competitive neuroscience programs in the country”.  Now, I’m not a neuroscientist by any means, but my job spills over into that arena, and I work with some of the top neuroscientists in the academic world. Not a single one holds a degree from Denver. In fact, U Colorado - Denver is most definitely not one of the most competitive programs in the country,  it is ranked number 63 out of 94, not even making the top 2/3 . To add insult to injury, another Colorado program ranks higher than Denver:  U Colorado - Boulder rings in at number 47, putting that department at least at the top of the bottom half of all US programs.
As far as I can tell, the phrase “one of the most competitive” has now been replaced with the less meaningful  and arguably more accurate “highly competitive” (whatever “highly competitive” means at a #63 ranked institution, though I’m sure the competition is very intense for the best of the second and third tier students who didn’t go to better programs to make sure that the institution does not slip any further in the rankings) in the national news feeds and websites, in exactly the same manner as the characterization of Holmes as an outstanding neuroscientist and “academician” has been edited out, but not marked as an update or correction.  We have always been at war with Eastasia.
You can still see the source in that local story above, though, just as you can see the original ABC news story ripped off word-for-word by a plagiarizing English-Language Chinese news site. Unfortunately for ABC, the internet never forgets.
Alongside the inflation of the relative importance of his neuroscience program was the inflation of the NIH grant he was studying under.  “Holmes was awarded a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.”  After all the other foolishness surrounding the initial reports of Holmes’s background, I decided to look into this one, too. Because at first blush, it did sound pretty prestigious to me.
In Chemistry, the National Science Foundation funds grants for promising first year graduate students  in a nationwide competitive process, and while not all professors push students to apply to those grants, the pool is still pretty large and obtaining one of those awards is quite prestigious . After the first year or two of taking classes, trying to decide which advisor to choose (and praying the good ones will take you) all the while being paid to teach weed-out courses of students under-prepared by their high schools for a career in the sciences, a Chemistry student is supported on grant money his or her advisor obtains from the funding agencies, hence many of us refer to our advisors as our “boss”. This grant-funded status is true for upper level graduate students in almost all of the sciences, in fact.
From the glowing praise the press heaped on the NIH award in the reporting on Holmes, I assumed that he had, indeed won a national competition for the stipend similar to the NSF awards I was familiar with from Chemistry.  However, once I discovered the exact nature grant, the luster came off of the award and the press came off with egg on their faces. Color me unsurprised.
The NIH Neuroscience grant is specifically earmarked for first and second year  students. It takes the place of those non-existent Neuroscience 101 teaching jobs that fund Chemistry graduate students. This grant is from the NIH to institutions.  The institution then decides who among its students will get the grant. Competition is then restricted to the students matriculating at the institution in question – a much smaller pool, and in the case of Colorado, a pool of students willing to attend or forced to settle for the #63 program. And the bare minimum requirements for an institution to enter the program are not tied to quality, merely to the breadth of the Neuroscience program (which, to be fair, ensures some minimum level of quality).
The fact, however,  remains that this is an institutional grant.  Colorado Denver is a small program - about 35 students total – and the average time to complete a Ph.D is about 6 years.  That means that there are about 6 students in each year. This “prestigious” grant, the one that Holmes was “one of six students” to obtain, is, upon further investigation the normal and standard way in which Colorado Denver funds its students in the first and second years who have not yet joined a lab to be supported by their advisor’s grant monies.
Colorado Denver itself supplied the verbiage around “neuroscientists and academicians", but at least some other institutions participating in the NIH program use the same language , so it may be that the language comes from the NIH itself, it certainly sounds like the kind of verbal smokescreen a government officer would use to shield a program from funding cuts. But it’s the kind of verbiage a trained reporter should spot as hype and follow up on with facts, such as the easily Googlable rankings of Ph.D. Neuroscience programs.
I don’t know how Colorado administers its grants. If they supply 2 year grants, then running the numbers indicated that every one of their six first year students is supported by this NIH program in their first and second years. If the grants are distributed among the roughly 12 first and second year students, then Holmes is in the top half of his class. I don’t know about you, but even in the best case scenario of being in the top half of a #63 program, the NIH stipend is not all that prestigious to me.
Let’s not be too hard on Colorado Denver, here. It is not a bad program, just not as good as its PR hype would indicate, a fact that any experienced journalist should have noted right away – given the time to research a thorough story. And to be honest, Ph.D. from any reputable research program in the US is pretty impressive.  As an accepted student at such a program, it’s likely Holmes is smarter than any of the reporters writing about him, but I’m reminded here of an article from the humor column of my undergraduate Engineering and Science program newspaper. It had a quote from some coach saying that “hyperintelligent” people were too aware of the risks of injury to be good at sports – they shy away from large opponents and fast moving objects instead of running at them. The Chem. E. major who was the columnist took the coach’s point as valid, but also noted that the coach’s definition of “hyperintelligent” and an engineer’s definition were likely to be light years apart.
Speaking of hype that should be taken with a grain of salt, the pompous phrase used by the press: “outstanding neuroscientists and academicians” comes from the UC program’s description of itself , in that it seeks to develop those people from among the pool of fundees, not that everyone who participates will deserve those adjectives.  And looking at the list of participating institutions , one wonders how U Colorado Denver got into the program in the first place – along with even more securely Podunk  programs at Iowa, Maryland and Michigan State, for example.
The reason for the lower ranking institutions’ inclusion is likely to be due to a variety of factors. Some prestigious programs may opt out of the NIH funding because it places an administrative burden on at least one professor designated as the institutional program director, and richer programs may not find the opportunity worth the cost. Some of the lower ranked institutions may also be up-and-comers program that the NIH decided to gamble on, or they may simply have one or two top professors with some influence at the NIH. In any case, participating in this institutional grant does not mean that Denver is a first choice school of the top budding neuroscientists in this country. Not even close.
One suspects several factors went into this. The self-aggrandizing press releases of UC Denver, which inexperienced reporters probably took at face value.  Programs sitting that low on the totem pole tend to over-exaggerate their importance, just as small companies tend to play up minor advances to stimulate the stock price. The desire of the press to put Holmes up on an intellectual pedestal, the better to knock him off of it also played its part. I suspect various reasons for that, as well – a super-intelligent  killer plays into the latent anti-intellectualism of much of the American public and  makes for a juicier story, perhaps even for a morality tale of sorts.
I came away from the first few days of reporting with the distinct impression that the press thought that Holmes was a whiz kid.  Of course, in the back of my mind was that quote from my college humor paper, and the odd impression made by the characterization of a program I had never heard of as one of the best in the Nation. Because of my background, I started digging into the program rankings right away, and my first impressions were discarded in short order. I think most lay people did not hear these warning signs. And I am pretty sure that most lay people still have the impression from those early but quietly retracted statements, that we are dealing with someone whom nearly everyone in the national Neuroscience community knew as an up-and-comer. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The story I now read between the lines is not the story – or the lingering impression of the story – that I got from the press initially. What I gather from snippets hastily and unintentionally reported in the filler quotes to the main narrative of super-scientist gone bad is the kind of big-fish-in-a-small-pond-dropped-into-the-ocean mentality I expected to see based on some rather scary past experience.
Holmes was, of course a loner in high school.  No surprises there. His pastor noted that “the shy boy he knew “wanted to go out and wanted to be the best,” but he never saw Holmes interacting with kids his age.”  Beyond that lack of friends, in high school “ Holmes was “the kind of person that if you teased him, he would sit there and smile and really not do anything about it” according to a high school classmate. One wonders what was going on behind that smile.
Although his undergraduate chancellor described him as “the top of the top” , and a friend noted that he apparently cruised through his classes:    “ ‘Everything came easy for him,” Duong said in a telephone interview Saturday. “I had one college class with him, and he didn’t even have to take notes or anything. He would just show up to class, sit there, and around test time he would always get an ‘A.’” One wonders why such a gifted student settled for Riverside.
Oh yes, I went there. As soon as some of my Asian friends from California heard “Riverside”, they immediately and snidely remarked “oh yes, so gifted, he couldn’t even hack it with the Chinese at Berkeley or UCLA”. That’s a bit harsh, since the Asian population of 40% at Riverside is only slightly lower than Berkeley’s incoming Freshman Asian student contribution of 43% . But they are spot on in noting that Riverside is at the very bottom of the UCal heap (with the exception of the brand new and tiny program at Merced). If the academics were so easy at Riverside, why did the whiz kid matriculate at a more prestigious (and difficult) UCal school?
But the real point of pointing out that Riverside is the safety school in the UCal system is that our boy who was at the “top of the top” in his school could not gain admission to Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona, the #43 ranked graduate institution in Neuroscience.  We’re not talking MIT, here, we’re talking about a middle-of-the-pack school, the bottom of the upper half of all US programs.  I think that more than anything points to some potential academic deficiencies that could stem from either Holmes or Riverside, or more probably, both.
Since Arizona requires a GRE (although not a subject test) and a CV as well as transcripts it is pretty reasonable to speculate that it was not the honor student’s GPA that got him rejected. More than likely it was a combination of an applicant from lower-ranked school without a spectacular GRE score or significant undergraduate research on his CV. A upper-percentile GRE score could have made up for the lower tier undergraduate school, as could a top flight research experience. The fact that a “top of the top” honors student did not have either speaks volumes about Riverside’s Neuroscience program.
I would dearly love to know which of those factors (and by what weights) were involved in the rejection by Arizona, because they would shed more light on his character and state of mind than any number of “he was so quiet I hardly knew him” interviews with neighbors in Colorado.
Yet despite his firm hold on the lower tiers of the American scientific establishment, he struck new acquaintances as a kid who “ seemed smart, with a "swagger."” That’s a little piece of information that bears following up on.
He, unusually not just for a scientist, but for any young person, did not have an Internet presence, except, of course on and  Adult Friend Finder, where he actively contacted, and was rejected by, three women in the days before the attack, though his high school friend indicated that he did not seem to have trouble with women before college. The approaches on AFF were not, apparently creepy, or even that overtly sexual.
I’m starting to get a picture, here, and it’s not the tale of a murderous latter-day Linus Pauling going off the rails before his brilliance had time to be recognized with a Nobel. 
This is pure speculation on my part, but it begins to look to me like a tale I’ve seen many times in science- a tale of a kid who was one of the smartest in High School, a loner who put all of his ego into the concept that he was smarter than everyone else. That allowed him to sit and smile when the taunts that come every nerds way were hurled at him. They’ll see someday. They’ll be back here working shit jobs while I’m a famous professor.
He wanted to be the best, but he could not accept that even the best get beaten sometimes. I wonder what his first defeat was?  Was it not scoring a perfect SAT and discovering that being the best student in High School doesn’t mean being the best in every high school and that the college world was not his oyster? Or did he instinctively shy away from a UCLA or a Berkeley because of the subconscious fear of defeat, of not being the counted as the best among those fabled genius Chinese kids?
At any rate he shied away from competition. He went to the least selective UCal school to preserve the facade. He coasted because he was slumming, and the competition was not up to his level. But the real world was waiting, and he got another defeat (or maybe this was his first):
 “The bookish demeanor concealed an unspooling life. Holmes struggled to find work after graduating college, Tom Mai said.” 
I’m not sure what job Holmes hoped to get with a degree in Neuroscience. It’s one of those degrees that, while rigorous, does not translate well into the entry-level workforce. It is a degree designed for continuation into graduate study.
So in the time-honored tradition of jobless recent graduates everywhere, Holmes did what he should have done in the first place with his particular degree – he applied for graduate school. Hot on the heels of the bitter realization that a Riverside degree in a highly specialized field did not mean employers would beat down his door, came another defeat  in the form of the rejection from Arizona and possibly other schools. The carefully constructed facade began to crumble more than a little bit, but still, he was going into a Ph.D. program straight out of college. That had to impress the rubes back home.
Then came the fatal blow.
Graduate school actually has very few classes. There are some basic core classes, and a few electives required for everyone, but most programs only require one to two years of classes, the rest are taken on an as-needed or as-interested basis. Most of a graduate student’s career is spent in the laboratory, learning on his or her own actually doing science. It is very similar to a medieval apprenticeship.
But that doesn’t mean that those classes are not important. Failing them means you are not quite Ph.D. material after all. Before Colorado Denver went mum about the whole thing, they let it slip that Holmes had failed his preliminary written exams.
The quoted official went on to add that a failure shouldn’t send a student over the edge, as there was a mechanism to bone up and pass a second, oral exam in this program. But university officials have stated that Holmes had already voluntarily withdrawn from the program.  At approximately that time, he had also begun his plans for the rampage.
This fits with my amateur profiling here. I’m not sure how much the sexual rejections in his life played into this. While they certainly didn’t help, I am sure the press will blow them out of proportion. I believe that the ego bruising of washing out of his graduate program did more damage than a polite “no thanks” on Adult Friend Finder. And I wonder where I've seen that pattern before?  I will be watching the news with some interest in the coming months to see how many of my guesses prove to be correct. I’m willing to bet a substantial amount that mine will be closer to the mark than the media’s initial speculations.
Though this story is a footnote in history compared to the press failure after the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, the media pattern of hasty reporting and quiet retraction illustrated here is a serious problem in information warfare.
And that problem can be illustrated with with escalators.
Or rather, with a study about escalators that came to the conclusion that shoppers riding up an escalator were more likely to give to a charity bell-ringer. That study has been cited and repeated multiple times since its publication. There’s only one problem with that:  it’s complete bollocks. Well, there are two problems with that. It’s not only complete bollocks, but even though it’s been publicly exposed as complete bollocks,  people -scientists - continue to cite it:
But retracting the paper doesn’t mean it will go away. It will probably continue to pop up in Google Scholar searches, just like the papers of the disgraced psychologist Diederik Stapel. Those news articles will still get stumbled on, forwarded, Tweeted. Unsuspecting readers will pick up those books and read aloud the passage about the incredible escalator trick to their spouses. There may be Salvation Army bell ringers standing hopefully at the tops of escalators next Christmas season, counting on the magic of science.
Maybe that isn’t a big deal in this case. It was a harmlessly interesting study. But it goes to show how once a study leaves journal-land for the wider world, there’s really no erasing it. A nifty finding takes on a life of its own, even if it’s flawed or fraudulent.
It may not be a big deal in this case, either. Or it may be. Security guards and authority figures on campuses nationwide will think, rightly or wrongly, that they need to pay attention to people who fit the shooter’s profile.
But over time, this pattern of press behavior is a big deal. Despite a quite apparent liberal bias in the press, certain widely-held, pernicious conservative and liberal notions are pandered to quite regularly. In this case, the largely conservative anti-intellectualism that I believe was pandered to in the initial characterizations of Holmes. The idiocy even extended to questioning his right, as a graduate student, to earn a stipend and do with that money what any other wage-earner may legally do. OF COURSE Holmes “pocketed” the money he received from his employer for showing up to work (repeat after me – graduate studies are a full time job). James Holmes was not an “unemployed college student”. Don’t you “pocket” the money your employer pays you?
OF COURSE taxpayer money indirectly  purchased the weapons that devastated that movie crowd. Where the fuck do those reporters think Academic science money, including salaries, comes from? Private donors?  Just because Holmes or any other first or second year science graduate student is being paid to spend two years training in a job that second rate internet new gathering website authors (who drank their way through college majoring in the easiest subject  they could find) could never hope to be considered for does not mean he was “pocketing” federal money.
When post office employees so famously shoot up their places of employment, where are the internet pundits crying that taxpayer money funded those massacres? I’ll tell you why they are absent. Because the blue collar guy at the Postal Service does not fit any narrative beyond “going postal”.
At least one major news blog site published a rebuttal  to those idiotic notions that Holmes, or any other scientific trainee, is not entitled to a stipend. Thank you LA Times for at least printing the letter, but that missive by a real subject matter expert should have been on the front page of the newspaper, not stuffed in the back of your science coverage. And those headline-generated impressions of the taxpayer-teat-sucking super-egghead gone bad will linger like the lingering lie of gender-based lexical budgets , and enter the subconscious decision making of millions of voters.
Even if the press is engaging in this sloppy reporting out of reflex, laziness and a desire to play in Peoria, i.e. not out of malice, those on the right who like to use this sort of misinformation are happy that the press reliably engages in it.
Not for the first time, nor I suspect sadly, for the last, do I view the press as less of a Fourth Estate and more of a Fifth Column for the ignorant and those who would manipulate them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pan Am - The Series

OK - we're on week 4 of the new Pan Am series. I started this review after the first episode but didn't finish it, so now I've got more data to review. They seem to be trying very hard and, with the fourth episode, appear to be trying to respond to criticism.

Warning: lots of "spoilers" below...

Overall I'd give it about three Pan Am Globes out of a possible five... the design and effects are outstanding and the plots are OK, but the writing and acting are not very good. A lot of the details, mainly associated with the cabin crew and service, are very good, but the aviation and operational details were not very good in the first episode, although they have made some progress in the subsequent episodes. The music, however, is great, although it still has some room for improvement as well.

I've seen reviews on the internet sceptical of some of the details, such as the inspections and the weigh-ins of the stewardesses in the first episode, but I've heard from many actual former Pan Am crew that those details were totally realistic and accurate.

One of the best things about this new TV show, however, is that it has publicized the stories of many of the real Pan Am alumni who lived the real-life version of the story. It is always fascinating to hear from the wonderful people of Pan Am who made up "the world's most experienced airline".

The show really missed an opportunity, however, to show how Pan Am was a huge, well-oiled, highly professional machine in its prime, maintaining the highest standards ever set in the airline industry and setting the example for all other airlines to follow. The true story is 100 times more exciting and dramatic than the fictionalized version, as is often the case with TV and history.

The worst parts of the whole show are the pilot characters. They look about 11 years old - no way old enough to be crewing a 707 in 1962 - and they acted about the same age. The pilot characters were clearly an afterthought and it showed, and it seriously marred an otherwise very good effort. The aviation detail wasn't good either - the Idlewild tower calls the aircraft at the gate to tell the crew their purser is inbound, then the 11-year-old 707 captain calls Gander Control to track down his girlfriend. It would take very little tweaking to make those scenes realistic and more effective, rather than stupid-sounding.

The most recent episode (#4, 16 October) made an effort to bring some realism to the pilot characters, and the effort was appreciated, but this first effort mostly missed the mark. In episode three, the crew flies to Rangoon, Djakarta, and Hong Kong, with the 11-year-old captain shooting the famous "Hong Kong Curve" IGS (the rare Instrument Guidance System) approach to runway 13 at (now closed) Kai Tak airport. That approach was considered the toughest in the world, especially at night and bad weather, so its inclusion in the Pan Am TV show was a really nice touch and would have been the highlight of the series thusfar if they writers hadn't had the first officer bitching at the pilot all the way through the approach. You'd have to be an amazing idiot to deliberately distract an 11-year-old pilot flying the Hong Kong Curve at night in bad weather. If I had a First Officer who carried on like this guy did, in a dangerous night IFR approach, I would not fly with him again, and might complain to the company about him. The writers and producers, had they wanted to make this scene more realistic, and dramatic, could have just watched YouTube videos of airliner approaches to get an idea what its really like.

There was some Navy plot line in episode 4, with the stewardesses meeting a couple of supposed Navy pilots by the pool in Rangoon. Not an unrealistic scene, except the so-called "pilots", an Ensign and a Lieutenant Junior Grade, were not wearing wings, which was very odd. The Navy "pilots" bantered with First Officer Ted Vanderway, himself a former Naval Aviator, which segways to a flashback illustrating how test pilot Vanderway was disqualified following a mishap with an experimental aircraft for which he was blamed. This provided more back-story how he had wanted to be an astronaut and his father got him the job at Pan Am.

Again, Vanderway is shown bobbing in the waves following the crash of his aircraft, and later before the FNAEB (Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, pronounced Fee-Nab) being grounded for causing the crash. Vanderway is shown not wearing any wings - a huge technical error - but wearing (only) the National Defense Service ribbon. The National Defense Service medal was not re-authorized (after Korea) until 1966, so military members would not have been wearing it in 1963. This was another, minor-but-avoidable, error that marred an otherwise-technically-good effort. The FNAEB scene itself was not well written - the writers should have found someone with firsthand experience to help with the dialog, as they should be doing with the Pan Am pilots cockpit exchanges.

Although the plot suggested First Officer Vanderway was not really responsible for the mishap but was blamed because of service politics and big defense contracts, it is highly, highly unlikely that Pan Am would hire a pilot grounded by the Navy, innocent or not. That plotline, however, is more believable than the scenario where a 20-something pilot convinced Juan Trippe in an elevator to make him a 707 captain without the requisite experience or seniority, just because "he represented the new generation". Oh Please...

The second and third episodes were a little better than the first and fourth, set in Paris and Berlin and developing the stewardess characters a little more. The scenes showing the strong emotions of the French girl, apparently orphaned during WWII, towards the Germans in 1963 was very realistic and very touching and probably the best effort of the series to date. The "spy angle" was, I thought, pretty well played throughout the series, with the stewardess-spy struggling with the general stress and uncertainty of being a part-time secret agent. For all those who think this angle is unrealistic: think again.

Various people told me they were sceptical of the whole "espionage and intrigue" plot angle, where two of the stewardesses are used as an agent by the CIA and MI6. But if anything, that story is probably understated. Pan Am was the "chosen instrument", heavily involved in government-sponsored intrigue from the days of their earliest air-mail contracts, when the famous Pan Am flying boats were fitted with secret lockboxes to transport sensitive government secrets and Pan Am captains were issued classified orders, transferring them to active duty in case of national emergency.

By the 1960s, Pan Am operated the Pacific Missile Test Range, where top secret nuclear missile tests were conducted, and managed the civil reserve air fleet, a sizeable reserve of commercial aircraft available to be mobilized wholesale for strategic airlift, or selectively for more confidential and sensitive missions. No other organization in the world had Pan Am's access to as many destinations around the world, or the ability to rapidly transport sensitive cargoes between them. It is certain - and confirmed by Pan Am's employees - that "secret missions" such as those portrayed in the TV show really did take place.

Pan Am producer Nancy Ganis was a Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s so she has nearly perfect perspective for the stewardess characters - but it doesn't look like she has much of anyone from the other parts of the airline advising her on the rest of the Pan Am story. She mostly needs some input from cockpit crew, on the dialog, on the characters, and on the technical aspects. It looks like she may have gotten a little bit on the "Hong Kong Curve" episode, although not nearly enough.

I think they missed an opportunity by not starting the series a little earlier - maybe a little before the advent of the 707, with the main characters flying the Boeing 377. They could have used the introduction of the 707 as a plot device, as well as various other historical events involving Pan Am from the early postwar period. They could still do it with flashbacks, and I hope they will. I also hope they will bring in more Pan Am characters than the so-far-introduced pilots and stewardesses, which could make the series a lot more realistic and believable.

It would have been a much better story if they had used Pan Am itself as a plot device, instead of a setting for a pretty simple and limited plot line surrounding the escapades of the flight crew who seem to always fly together. In reality, a crew might make one trip together, then never see each other again, unless they made an effort to schedule trips together.

The best television series are able to integrate the real history, making the drama that much more compelling. I really hope "Pan Am" will try to do as much of that as possible.

This review is pretty disjointed and "all over the place" but unfortunately I just don't have the time any more to write about Pan Am as much as I would like but I do plan to continue to talk about the "real history" as the series unfolds, and I do hope it will be a success and continue on the air for a long time to come. Nancy Ganis: if you read this drop me a line - I'd love to help!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Holiday Blues

So this weekend I was spending my days working. Irene left our town a hell of a mess, and I had yet to muck the water out of the corners of the garage and clear the brush. Since I had to check for flooding on the garage floor (luckily it was just seepage at the edges), I figured now would be a good time to clean the entire garage out and throw out a bunch of crap I brought home from the office when I started to work from. Anything not on legal hold went in the garbage.

I’m working my way over to the little alcove where I keep the lawn tractor, the generator, and bags of patchmaster, grass seed and birdseed. The garage would be a large rectangle except that a quarter of it on one side is taken up by a the space for the laundry room and a half bath, but this does not stretch the whole way across the garage, hence the roughly 10 ft by 8 ft alcove.

Now we do have a rodent problem, living as we do at the edge of the state forest, so I have glue traps, snap traps, and live traps all over the damn place. I haven’t caught a mouse since June, so I figured they were out enjoying nature’s bounty in the woods. Imagine my dismay when I find that the bag of birdseed has a giant hole in it, and seed is spilled all over the floor. Damn mice.

I continue to put things on the new shelving unit I just put together, and my son comes out to talk to me. We were bantering about something when I glance ahead to the tractor’s alcove and I see something. Biting back the first ten curse words I think of, I yell for my son to get his little butt back in the house. “Why?” he asks. “Just get back in the house,” I yell, “there’s a … skunk in the garage”. The ellipsis stands for the slight break in my cadence where I censored out the word “fucking” in my mind before talking to the boy. Though I think he heard me yell after he got inside “get out of here you furry bastard”.

But the skunk seemed, if not unconcerned, only minimally perturbed by my presence and ambled over to the wall opposite the wall with the seeds, where he slid behind some plywood sheets I had leaning against the wall. Wonderful. “Get my car out of the garage,” yells my wife. “I’m not driving the kids in to the first day of school in a skunkmobile!”. Yes, dear, thank you so much for your concern about my welfare.

I continued to clean up, then went inside for lunch and to watch Ming practice cello. “Is the skunk gone?” the kids ask when I go back out. “I don’t see or hear him,” I reply. So I continued organizing, setting out recycling, and doing other things. Then it came time to put the generator back in the alcove. As I approach, something scuffles from under the mower deck to hide behind the plywood again, and he’s baaaaack. Fuck.

So. In the immortal words of Chernishevsky, what to do? I’m really not enthused about getting him out, but there is no way my wife is going to let me wait for animal control to get here in a few days. So I get the most powerful flashlight I have and shine it down the tent formed by the wall and the plywood. The skunk gives me a look that seems to say: “Watchoo lookin at?” But I have to do something, right?

My wife expresses the opinion I’m being a chickenshit and am only dealing with a possum. My daughter comes out, peers down the plywood tunner and starts jumping up and down. “I see black and white! It’s a skunk! It’s really a skunk!”. Yes, kid. Get back inside, kid.

So. Well. Yes. I have a long pole, more than 15 feet long, I use to clean hard-to-reach gutters. It seems really long and unwieldy on the top of a stepladder, but now it doesn’t seem nearly long enough, you know what I mean? So. At the back of the alcove, right next to the breaker box, there is a door to the outside. I open it, thinking that every egress is an opportunity for the skunk to run in the right direction – out. But the fuzzy fucker hunkers down behind the plywood. There is a sheet of plexiglass there, too, and only the front half of the skunk is hidden, the business end is sticking out behind the plexiglass. At the end of the alcove wall the garage opens out into the second bay, there is a row of shelving units at a right angle to the wall he’s hiding behind. I can see him making a break for it, making a sharp left turn at the end of the alcove, and me with an entirely new problem on my hands. Since I don’t need him running from his current hiding place to that one, I begin pulling some of the plywood sheets out. Every time I do it spooks the skunk and it jumps until it hits its head on the remaining plywood sheets. Making it even jumpier. Just what I needed.

Once I’ve pulled some plywood out and blocked the shelving unit off with a makeshift wall of plywood sheets, so he has nowhere to run but straight ahead for a good 20 feet, I go outside with my pole. And, yes, I poke the skunk in the ass with a stick. A very looong stick. Nonetheless, it does not seem quite long enough to me, and I consider that while there may have been dumber things that I have done in my life, but I can’t seem to recall them at the moment. However the skunk simply lifts up his butt and rides the stick like he’s sliding down a banister. So I lift him up. Hey, now he’s a real pole cat, right?

Eventually, he gets tired of the ass lift and the banging of plywood sheets, so he runs for it. As I predicted, he made a hard left, fortunately well clear of hiding places because of the plywood. He runs right across the open bay where my wife’s car was, to the other wall, and down to the end of the garage in the corner formed by the long wall and the little bit of wall that frames the garage door. That little bit of wall is only 18 inches wide. He’s in a corner only 18 inches from the freedom of an open garage door, and once again he hunkers down. There is a large, thin box leaning against the wall there, and in the corner is some road salt and a post hole digger. He ensconces himself behind the post hole digger.

Once again I resort to trying to lift and flip his ass out of the garage with the pole, but skunk hair is deceptive. They only look fat like badgers because they are the Persian cats of the weasel world. Their bodies, at least of adolescent ones like this one, are built like ferrets. So he kept doing rolls around the pole every time I got his ass in the air. Then he turns to run behind the box – towards me and the shelving unit. “Wrong answer, shithead,” I yell as I poke him in the nose with the pole. Back he goes to the corner. The post hole digger is in my way, so I dash forward to do an even dumber thing – grab the digger – which puts me about 18 inches from fuzzy junior there. Fortunately, he was facing me.

With the digger gone, we resume the pole dance until I get fed up. I give him a sharp poke to keep his head down and run to get a shorter, thicker pole - a 1 inch dowel about 7 feet long. Fortunately, he’s still cowering in the corner. Now I try to use the two poles like a pair of chop sticks to lift and toss this little piece of stinky tofu into the bushes. Nothing doing. Now we’re doing the two pole dance, and I am not enjoying the show.

Fed up with this new source of irritation, he runs for the shelter between the box and the wall again. Did I mention about our mouse problem? Did I mention about the variety of traps I have along the wall where mice are likely to run? Did I mention some of them are glue traps? Big glue traps, because once a mouse got its back stuck to a small one and walked away glued to a plastic sheet and I had to chase the damn thing around the garage like a demented mammalian turtle? So. Big glue traps. And the running skunk plants his two front feet firmly in a glue trap. Too close to the edge for me to grab the trap and flip it outside without getting bitten. Oh yes, did I mention that the local paper carried a story about a rabid skunk last week? If you are paying attention, you are probably making up the same bit of doggerel that popped into my head at that moment: “how do I get the skunk unstuck without getting fucked?”

Like a human who has just stepped in dog shit, the skunk picks up one leg and shakes it, with what I swear is a look of disgust. Unfortunately for the skunk, he puts that foot right back into the glue trap to pry the other leg off, so for a moment we have the skunk doing the stick / unstick / stick routine like a demented grape stomper. Finally he gets himself free and heads back to the corner where he cowers. Now I figure I’d better give him some cover to get him comfortable enough to move 18 FUCKING INCHES out the door to freedom. So I dash back to the (firmly shut) door to the house open it up and holler for my wife. She comes down expecting the worst. Not yet, but the night is still young.

Now, I want her to hand me a cat carrier to give it a tunnel to hide in. But she refuses. Refuses. A man in my position, and she refuses. Something about cat carriers costing money, why don’t I use this cardboard box? Well, because I can aim the carrier away from me as I toss it, but the box had a big open lid and the skunk could jump anywhere as I’m throwing it out the door – including backwards onto me. But, you know, I’m not in the strongest negotiating position here, trying to squeeze the skunk with two gargantuan chopsticks and getting a lesson in skunk agility instead. So she tosses me the cardboard box and I go to war with the army I have, not the army I want.

I get the bright dead to leave a gap between the box and the door, and I catch my first lucky break of this while affair. As I poke it in the ass once again, it runs, not into the box, but between it and the door. I give the box a mighty shove with the pole as the skunk rolls over onto its back and power slides onto the driveway and under the bushes. You have not seen a man hit a garage door switch as fast and hard as I hit that one, standing there, pole in hand, in case the skunk decided to double back. But he didn’t.

Afterwards, my wife says “I was robbed.” “Robbed of what?” I ask. “Of the maximum entertainment value of the situation. I didn’t even have to use this brand new jug of tomato juice”. And indeed, she had a gallon of the stuff sitting on the kitchen table. Thanks for the vote of confidence, babe.

And that, friends, is how I spent my Labor Day.

How was yours?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden

It is a very good thing that Osama bin Laden was finally caught and killed. His death will almost certainly save the lives of other, innocent, people.

All day I've been thinking about the subject (as have many people, I would imagine) and have reflected on how poor most of the mainstream media coverage of this gigantic story has been. There have a few flashes of coherence or insight, but most of the coverage has run the gamut from obvious to irrelevant to wrong.

Before I get into that, however, I wanted to share this link:
Although I understand the emotional reaction to the death of bin Laden, I didn't participate in it. I'm objectively encouraged by the outcome because I think it is a good thing for humanity, but it seems there ultimately is no point in celebrating anyone's death, even the death of someone without whom the world is a markedly better place.

The big thing about this event is the opportunity to exploit bin Laden's elimination to advance the overall campaign against al Qaeda. While the elimination of OBL represents a major blow to the organization, it is not destroyed and remains dangerous. We need to act fast to exploit and act on information collected from the compound in Pakistan and seek to interdict, capture, or kill the remainder of "Tier 0", especially Dr. Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaqi, who are the most prominent remaining leaders. By necessity the raid team had to rapidly egress the objective area, but had several minutes (around 30) to exploit the house. They should have been able to gather up essentially all media present there in that time, and that media should provide a treasure trove of information about al Qaeda.

There is essentially no possibility that Osama was living within sight of the Pakistani Military Academy, in a former ISI safehouse, without the knowledge and complicity of the ISI and the Pakistani Army. Some of the best insight I've heard today (from Ralph Peters) was that Osama essentially had to be under ISI "house arrest", held in a (fairly comfortable) jail cell to keep him out of the way as an "ace in the hole" to keep the US $$ flowing and to try to cover up Pakistani complicity in terrorism. Realpolitik does not explain why they would do this - it has to be Islam, and in fact a very specific, extreme form of Islam that would motivate the Pakistani security establishment to ally themselves with al Qaeda. That's a subject for another day.

The CIA probably deserves a lot of credit for the success of this effort. I believe many in the military believed (based on speculation) that bin Laden was dead at various points over the years, including after Tora Bora and again after his rather strange video message in 2007, when his beard appeared dyed, or else the video was made much earlier, and his lips didn't move when he talked. But the CIA, it would seem, kept focused on finding bin Laden when the military seemed to be losing interest or focus on the HVT hunt, in favor of the much more maintream counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few people have said that we "clearly assassinated" bin Laden, with the implication that this was a Bad Thing. It was not. Reportedly the US team offered bin Laden the chance to surrender and he resisted and was shot. While a better argument could be made that UAV Hellfire strikes (I guess they're also dropping JDAMs these days as well) are properly classified as assassination, this raid most certainly was not. It's a somewhat screwy argument anyway. There is an Executive prohibition on assassination (EO12333) but the President can break his own rules (or those of his predecessors) and since 9/11, Presidents have not been terribly squeamish about using assassination. I wish they would amend or replace EO12333, which was signed by President Ford in response to the Church Committee's expose of the CIA in the 1970s.

There have been many occasions over the years when there was an opportunity to use counterterrorism forces to execute this type of "surgical raid" to interdict some dangerous target - including Osama himself on more than one occasion before 9/11, I believe. But in almost every instance in the past, political decision makers have lacked the will or fortitude to give the final "execute order", and in many cases, badness ensued (President Clinton passed on several opportunities to get Osama before 9/11, I believe). Two previous Presidents have preferred to use the seemingly anonymous and low-risk, but somewhat imprecise UAVs to do their dirty work, rather than "doing it manually". President Obama deserves quite a bit of credit for making the ballsy call on using SEALs vs cruise missiles or precision bombs to get Osama, resulting in a positive ID and more worthwhile outcome, with a probable rich intelligence haul in addition to elimination of bin Laden.

I didn't quite get the emphasis on making a big public point about giving bin Laden a semi-pious Muslim burial (I say semi-pious because I've heard burial at sea is not very Islamic, although I don't really know.) I probably would have said nothing about disposal of his body but characterized him as not a legitimate Muslim, and therefore not entitled to a Muslim burial, because he was a mass murderer. Then I would have conducted an exhaustive autopsy to exploit his body for intelligence about where he's been and what he's been up to for the last few years. The big emphasis on burying him as a Muslim gave him a lot more legitimacy in death than he deserved and highlighted his (improper) status as a martyr.

This operation highlighted the value of Special Operations forces in contending with fourth generation warfare. Although JSOC has a pretty big budget and tend to be major prima donnas, they are still way cheaper than the high-dollar conventional acquisition programs that don't have much relevance to the wars we're fighting lately and seem to usually fail in recent years anyway. The Chinese refer to the fusion of special operations and information operations as "sixth generation warfare" and it was JSOC and CIA's only-recently-learned 6GW tactics that led to the elimination of fourth-generation adversary bin Laden. I don't think they use that term and even fourth generation warfare is a dirty word in the (second generation) conventional US military, but, like many events since 9/11, this one has illustrated the fundamental changes in the nature of society and warfare that have been underway in modern times.