Sunday, March 26, 2017

Middle Age 2: Lessons from Physical Therapy

I have, for years now, been going to physical therapy (PT). Bad shoulders, bad knees, and other parts of me creak. Much of this self-inflicted from years of lifting weights, running, and generally trying to keep this aging meat sack fit and capable.

At the core of physical therapy is the concept that around the large muscles are a number of smaller muscles that support and stabilize them.  Exercising the large muscles may not adequately exercise the little muscles and, when stressed, they become tight and ineffective. This of course can lead to pain elsewhere I now have golfer’s elbow (and I would NEVER play golf). This is partially from not exercising my forearm muscles and partly as a consequence of stresses in my back and shoulders.

My rotator cuff is getting stronger, thank you.

But my recent rounds of PT have made me think about it as a metaphor for other things.

Organizational Perspective
Organizations usually have core functions, but also lots of auxiliary functions. Depending on the organization these auxiliary functions may be given the attention they require, but sometimes not. This is where private sector organizations have a huge advantage over government agencies (on which I have a bit more expertise.) Corporate leaders have a great deal more freedom to deploy resources than their public sector leaders. If a corporate head believes human resources is critical and wants to build a great human resources department that can think strategically about the organization’s needs and future and how to build the human capital to meet them – they can do it. They will ultimately have to justify this to their board of course, but if they can demonstrate that this is important to the revenue line they can earn the necessary support.

(There is a significant argument within organizational studies as to whether private sector firms are in fact better at adapting than public sector agencies. It is also possible that rather, private sector firms can go out of business, so that when one becomes too inefficient to survive it dies. Public sector agencies are almost never eliminated.)

In the government, output is more complicated. It is not simply about making money; it is providing a range of services that cannot be withdrawn. Often the service outputs must be balanced against an enormous range of other values – environment, diversity, transparency etc.

Taxpayers and legislatures really like to fund the tip of the spear – Navy ships, law enforcement officers etc. But supporting the back end: human resources, facilities, IT, and logistics are less exciting. These support functions become like my rotator cuff: cramped and unresponsive – ultimately inhibiting the function of the total limb.

This can be extended on a larger scale. A weightlifting champion friend of mine explained that in the U.S. we emphasize the front muscles (particularly the pectorals on the chest.) The Russians in contrast emphasize the back muscles, the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. Of course both are essential. Bench presses without rows will lead to a major imbalance. In current terms one can think of the perennial State-Defense wrangling. We build one capacity, but not the other. This ultimately leaves us weaker.

Mind as Muscle
But since I’m sliding into middle age, I’m also thinking a bit about you know, me.

In the Robertson Davies (my favorite author) novel World of Wonders, a carnival fortuneteller explains that everyone who comes to her asks essentially the same thing, “Is this all that life has for me?”

Our minds and psyches are similar to our bodies. They contain capabilities we like to exercise and which grow stronger. But th

ey also have capabilities that are less exercised and become weaker. This is something writers think about a great deal since the core ability is so very hard, but leaves little energy for anything else. So that many of our other capabilities are cramped and it is painful to use them.

Someone who diligently does their personal budget, but does not exercise their imagination may find as they enter middle age a certain lapse. With more time and freedom, and a decline in pleasure from whatever was enjoyed before, imagination is needed more than ever – but is too weak for the task. The alternative is also true, an active imagination but inattention to finances could lead one to face a different set of problems.

Of course, someone might have both of these aspects of life in good stead, but there will always be a deficit and weakness. It is inevitable that some part of the person has been underused and in middle age it is cramped, stressed, and needs exercise.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some sort of PT for the mind and the soul?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Drones as Cheap WMD? A Skeptical Take

So this blog is the TerrorWonk, but I don't seem to be writing much about terrorism these days. Hell I don't seem to be writing much of anything lately. (I've done a bunch of academic writing that I need to post, but we'll get to that later.)

A lot of terrorism analysis (is lousy, but that's another issue) focuses on groups. I'm not so deeply embedded in following ins and outs that I have so much to say anymore. But I do still think about terrorism conceptually and in particular applying my maxim that counter-terrorism is the practical application of Murphy's Law.

So, with the throat clearing out of the way...

The Scenario
I was at a workshop and a speaker discussed how, with advances in AI, small commercial drones could be fitted with a small amount of explosives and then autonomously target people - one drone/one person. A million of these drones could fit in a cargo container and, on arrival, be set loose on the city devastating it.

It seemed a little sensational to me and the more I thought about it, the less likely it appeared.

Technical Challenges
First, the engineering would be non-trivial. Assuming AI (and in particular computer vision) could fly around a city and identify people as people, there would still be a some pretty tough problems to solve. The drone involved is pretty small, loading it with processors, sensors, and explosives (people over-estimate the ease of engineering explosives) is going to add weight. That will limit range and speed (or you need a bigger drone - and thus more cargo containers - more on why that is an issue below.)

Building a small drone that can find and kill a person is theoretically possible, but not easy. (Here's what DOD is doing with experimental micro-drones). Let's assume this complex engineering feat can be overcome, actually deploying it will present a lot of other difficulties.

Deployment Dilemmas
How is this million swarm of killer drones (WMDrone) to be delivered? We have it in a cargo container, but then what? This very nice (and not so tiny) drone has about 30 minutes of flying time. So, how does this work? Do you just release them from the port authority? Will 30 minutes flying time get them to their targets? Won't people notice the swarm of drones flying around the city? What if people go inside?

Also, will the drones need to be packed during shipping? They have explosives and stuff. Unpacking a million drones is a non-trivial endeavor. It requires time, space, and people.

For this to work, the drones need to start near their targets. They need to be transported, hidden, and prepared. This requires having a logistical base and personnel. The problem is that people do stupid stuff (like get pulled over or really insist on getting their deposit back) and get caught. The more moving parts, the more possibilities for something going wrong.

Let's imagine an adversary has a reliable network of supporters and can secure the necessary safe houses.

Logistics Limitations
So in a quick search the least expensive drone I found was this mini quadcopter. It only flies for five minutes and weighs 2 ounces. It is small enough that large numbers could be transported and hidden. Let's imagine with technology improvements it can have enough of a sensor and explosive to do the job, and a network exists to keep large numbers close to a crowd until the right moment.

The drone costs $20, so for a million of them (plus the additional engineering, tens of thousands of pounds of explosives, testing, transportation, acquiring space, paying personnel) and this becomes a pretty expensive project. Even if money were no object, carrying out a project on this scale would have a pretty significant footprint. There would be thousands of tests to ensure the things worked. There would be a pretty extensive supply chain. How does one order a million drones? Where would the testing take place?

Some of these problems could be overcome, the critical question would be about the adversary.

Capabilities and Motivation
A nation-state could overcome a lot of these challenges. A hundred million dollar project is not inconceivable. The drones could be transported over time through diplomatic pouch to the nation's Embassy and then released when everything was in place.

But would this be an effective tool for advancing national interest? Nations pursue WMD for deterrence, but as we all know from Dr. Strangelove, you cannot deter if the other player does not know you possess the system. The WMDrone could not be revealed, otherwise counter-measures could be deployed, rending the system useless for deterrence.

Maybe a nation would choose to use the WMDrone for a decapitation strike. But it might not work. First, given all of these technical challenges, the things could just fail. Also, given the logistical and operational footprint of the project it could be discovered beforehand. The nation building the WMDrone would need to construct facilities, hire experts, and write analysis papers. The intelligence agencies of its adversaries might notice. Even if they got to deployment, nations tend to spy on the Embassies and diplomatic personnel of their adversaries as well. The costs of being caught carrying out this plot would also be high.

Terrorists might find the WMDrone quite appealing. They would have the desire, but the capability would be lacking. First, it is expensive. Terrorists usually do not have tens of millions of dollars for R&D. Second, because they act clandestinely, extensive testing would be difficult. Also, the mechanics of purchasing and assembling a million of these devices for a secret group would be very, very challenging. Finally, in the actual delivery phase, they would not benefit from an official tolerated infrastructure the way a nation-state would.

Terrorists might find a much smaller deadly drone attack - say a few hundred - possible. But this would not be easy to do. Let's emphasize, right now the technology needed does not exist. Frankly a terrorist group that can get hold of a couple dozen pounds of high quality explosives has much simpler and sure-fire options.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Middle Age 1: Shoveling Waters

It isn’t a shovel, it’s an entrenching system and I really needed it.

A quarter century ago, when I was an usher at a movie theater, I saw “A River Runs Through It.” Based on autobiographical stories by Norman MacLean, the film ends with the author as an old man fly-fishing in a river and thinking over his life, the people he has loved, and their places in the great river of time. The film ends with him intoning, “I am haunted by waters.”

I was haunted by the soundtrack and every day since I first heard it I have been humming it to myself. Just a few weeks ago it finally occurred to me to buy it.

What does this have to do with buying a portable shovel? I mean entrenching system?

I will turn forty-seven years old in a few months. By no means is my life over, there is a lot still to come. Some wonderful things. But outside of rarefied roles like Supreme Court Justice or Pope, I am not young anymore.

If life is a sort of vacation from something else – and sometimes I believe it is – I don’t need to start packing yet. But if there is something I really want to do before heading home, I should probably get to it sooner rather than later.

We live for possibilities and I still have many. But there are also limitations. There are so many things that I know will not happen now. There just won’t be time or I don’t really have the drive or talent. This is a hard thing to know, but in time the bigger things become smaller and the smaller things become bigger.

I’m not the old man at the end of the movie yet, but he is not some distant relative. I greet him as a friend. So I bought a shovel – I mean an entrenching system.

I am not one to take up fly-fishing in a beautiful Montana canyon. But I live close to a creek. An ancient one that, in the winter when the trees are bare and you look, you can see the sinews of the land and how over time this little trickle of water has gouged the earth.

After a heavy rain this little creek runs hard and deep, show its great power – moving swiftly enough that it is plain even to us with our lives of mere decades.

After one storm, I saw a spot where the water crashed over rocks clogged with leaves. I watched for a long while as the water pressed forward, colliding, forming eddies. I could have watched forever.

But instead, with a stick I began clearing the debris. And it brought me such a simple joy to ease the way of the waters.

As days went by, I returned and I found more and more places where I could unblock the water. But I needed tools. Sometimes there were small shoals where water gathered and sat, stagnant.

So I bought a little shovel, rather an entrenching system and I headed to
the stream.

My wife observed that there is no shortage of chores around the house. A yard to clear, gutters to clean. She’s right of course. My work clearing the stream has no purpose. The waters have been going where they are supposed to go since the earth formed and will do so until it is no more. My small efforts amount to nothing.

But whenever I have a few moments, I take my shovel, I mean my entrenching system and go to the creek. My headphones stream the soundtrack to “A River Runs Through It,” though sometimes I take them off to hear the waters murmur. And for a little while I touch something so much greater than myself and my tiny cares.

I am haunted by waters.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Meditations on 9/11

Life is full of pain. Pain is how we know we are alive. People living in in the wealthiest, most tolerant and modern social welfare states still face challenges and strife. People become ill, are humiliated, suffer setbacks, fall in and out of love. As Joyce shows in Ulysses, even the humblest among us is in fact the hero of his or her own great quest.

Fifteen years ago today people went to work, went about their lives, facing these private struggles when the world interrupted their private struggles with a cataclysmic global one.

We saw wondrous heroism that day. We really did see the best of humanity, not only in the air above Pennsylvania, and the Ground Zeros in New York and DC – but also in far off Newfoundland. Humanity’s worst brings out humanity’s best.

Fifteen years on, I hate the social pathologies across the Middle East. These pathologies keep metastasizing into rage and madness. Middle Eastern societies cannot provide the space for people to get on with their lives. I worry that modernity – this wonderful enterprise that has brought extraordinary wealth and opportunity to so many – is also undermining ancient patterns of life, leading to more of the rage we saw on 9/11.

I am not a pacifist. Since Cain set upon Abel, there have been dark places in the souls of individuals and in humanity’s collective soul. We institute governments to protect us from this darkness. Part of that protection is the authority to kill. Good governments deal in death judiciously – inasmuch as they are able. Like physicians, they must strive to first do no harm. I will defend the United States as the least bad great power in history (something that must be graded on a steep curve), which for all of its mistakes has also done great, great goods.

But push the politics and analysis aside. Seeing lives snuffed out pointlessly and en masse, is a terrible, terrible things.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mourning in America: Tisha B'Av Thoughts

Today is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year.

(Tisha B'Av means the 9th day of the month of Av, so technically it is not. It is the 10th of Av today, but because yesterday was Shabbat and we don't mourn and fast on Shabbat, the day of sadness was pushed to today.)

Tisha B'Av remembers the day the First and then the Second Temples were destroyed (according to legend this occurred on the same day, separating by hundreds of years - round one was the Babylonians, round two the Romans.)

In both cases the city of Jerusalem was besieged and sacked. The people were forced into exile. The suffering was immense. (We read the Book of Lamentations by the Prophet Jeremiah.)
Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Loss of Jerusalem
The religious theme is that the Jewish people were not faithful to the Lord, but with a return to faith and observance will come redemption. It ends on a hopeful note. Especially now that the great exile is over and there is a Jewish state.

But my mind went elsewhere.

In Lamentations, Jeremiah discusses people - kings and priests even - dying by sword and plague. Mothers cannot feed their children and jackals emerge. A great vibrant city full of life is no more.

Civilization, this vast edifice, appears strong. But so it appeared to the Romans until the Goths burst through. In some profound ways it is built on thin, weak bonds. Our financial system (to take one example) is based on the word of the United States government. When it comes to it, so much of our civilization is based on words - the weakest bond and yet the strongest.

What if it isn't robust? True, as horrible as the World Wars were, civilization survived. But there were bastions far removed from the fighting to preserve. That same interconnected world that makes it all seem strong, would allow contagion to spread blindingly fast.

Could a few bad policy decisions start to undo all that has been built, allowing the jackals to emerge?

I would like to think not. The Jewish people survived that and much, much more, and our culture is built on words.

But many other great civilizations fell and disappeared into the dust.

The physical infrastructure that preserves lightning communications is pretty extensive. The resources and expertise to preserve would remain, too much depends on it. They are far stronger bonds than the old Roman roads. But of course the Romans couldn't imagine their world coming to end and bringing on the Dark Ages either.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Oh Canada! Part 1 - Capital is the Window to the Soul

As my followers on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram know, I was just in Ottawa. It was an absolutely delightful city and I had a terrific time. But I also learned something about Canada, a magnificent and interesting country. It just so happens to be Canada Day, so as good a time as any to kick off a series of posts.

There are three facts about Ottawa that are useful to know (particularly for an American):

  1. This friendly, modern, low-key city, when it was established was a rough town of lumberjacks, slowing hewing a life out of a vast difficult wilderness.
  2. The city's development took off with the building of the Rideau Canal which linked the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. This impressive feat of engineering was undertaken to create a secure line of communication between Upper and Lower Canada that couldn't be cut by the Americans.
  3. The dominant official architecture is effectively neo-medieval.
I'll take on one and two in later posts. But the third item fascinates me. Readers of this blog know my interest in Canada stems from several sources, including Canadian bravery on the world stage and the fact that it is a liberal democracy that doesn't systematically abuse its citizens. I also really like Canadian literature and my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies, is Canadian and - heavily influenced by Jung - was fascinated by the middle ages.

I live in the Washington, DC area and Washington DC is the greatest accumulation of neo-classical architecture in the world. I love all the white marble and pillars. Every other building looks like a Greek temple. Rooted in symmetry, the buildings reflect the Enlightenment values the Founding Fathers revered. The core of these values is reason.

Canada went another way. Here's a picture of the Ottawa skyline from the river. My phone doesn't do it justice, but there is a line of neo-medieval buildings. The neo-Gothic parliament and its buildings and then the French chateau inspired Supreme Court. With this line of stone (granite and sandstone mostly) buildings sitting on a high bluff, it really made me think of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Beyond it of course are the glass and steel offices of any big city.) If you want more pics, they are on my twitter feed (from some angles, Canada's gorgeous Parliament Hill looks like Hogwarts.)

Sorry I didn't do justice to this magnificent view!
There are two obvious explanations for these architectural decisions. The first is simply fashion, neo-Gothic is what they were building in England when Ottawa was growing into its role as Canada's capital in the late 1800s. Or Canada specifically chose neo-Gothic to contrast with the U.S. neoclassical style (but I don't think so - everything doesn't have to be about us!)
Entrance into Canada's House of Commons

Davies, a good Jungian, recognized the limits of reason. It has its place of course, but it is not the only way of understanding the world. He felt that in an era that revered reason, feeling was lost. One of his main characters, Dunstan Ramsey - a sort of personification of Canada - is a flinty Scottish schoolmaster. On the side he writes about Saints and believes he has witnessed miracles.

This is perhaps the central theme of his work, that all things (people, institutions, eras) contain their opposite. That opposite or shadow or devil needs to be met. Not fought, not defeated, but understood. We cannot exist without it and are the better when we know it.

Chateau Laurier, a renown hotel, next to Parliament looks like a fairy-tale!
The neo-Gothic revival was part of the broader Romantic movement which arose as a response to neo-classicism. The steady rationalisation of society (including the industrial revolution) brought progress, but also pain. Conservatives worried about a loss in human spirit as well as the suffering. In contrast to the Enlightenment's reason, there was a need for feeling. As the scripture reminds us, "Man cannot live by bread alone."
Parliament Hill really looks like a castle

In the Middle Ages, a great Empire had just collapsed and Europe was only just recovering. There was still an echo of the Dark Ages, the vast frightening disorder that dominated after Rome fell. For all the soaring architecture, there was a humility to the Middle Ages and that too needed a re-awakening after Enlightenment confidence. For a nation carved from an incomparably vast land, that caution and humility - with a hint of spirituality seems just right.

I don't want to overdo it with this mysticism and talk of the Middle Ages. Ottawa is a pleasant lovely city, dominated by civil servants, with an air of earnestness and particularly Canadian politeness. When the weather was nice, EVERYONE, was on their bike. They were not the wizened sages of Robertson Davies, just people going through their lives. But perhaps that is part of the point. In Washington, much seems portentous (even if it doesn't) as technocrats and legislative aides imagine they are shaping the world to come - the American extraversion Davies criticized. Strip that away, that is all surface - politics is not what really feeds the soul - this according to a top political scientist.

And that is the point, getting the stuff we need - material and spiritual - to get through and make something of our lives. Everyone faces that same quest.

With all the Jung and Davies rattling around in my head, I thought I was encountering my shadow when I saw this piece of public art on the Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau. Entitled Zoom! V2 by Randall Anderson, who is interested in the impact when a body collides with the unknown. So, maybe...


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thin Red Line at Normandy

Every summer brings a host of military anniversaries. Tomorrow is the centenary of the Somme, that vast, tragic battle in which modern machinery devoured Romantic chivalry by the tens of thousands.

But there is a smaller engagement I remember in late June. Operation Epsom (or the First Battle of the Odon), in which my favorite Scottish unit (the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) went head to head with some of the toughest formations of the Wehrmacht.

Background: or why I even have a favorite Scottish regiment
I’ve written that I have a certain fondness for the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. They are a storied unit that has fought around the world with bravery and distinction. They faced the Americans under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans and were the famed “Thin Red Line” holding off the Russians at Balaclava.

Why I like the Argylls is a bit more complicated, and starts about a quarter-century ago. I'd had a fondness for things Scottish. On a family trip to the UK I absorbed a Holiday History of Scotland. This inspired me to write a short story about MacBeth in which he was a reforming liberal and practical politician.  I interspersed it with quotations from Machiavelli's The Prince and cleverly titled it The Scottish Prince.

I was taking a class in college on the history of the Bible, taught by a wonderful curmudgeon who insisted we learn actual dates. I went to a school filled with very creative people who found this almost as overwhelming as algebra. I, on the other hand loved history and had been through Hebrew school, so this material was not unfamiliar.  I didn't really need to study for the exam, and when I took it, I finished in about 10 minutes and blew the curve.  (This was unique, I am generally a terrible student.) But I helped organize and lead a study group (there might have been a young woman I was enamored with, I really don’t remember).

We stayed up all night studying, I had everyone make timelines. It was around Passover/Easter – The Ten Commandments was on TV in the background. Heading home through Brookline, someone had left a painting of redcoats with kilts out for the trash. I liked it. It stayed with me, through several moves and getting married. I always found a place for it on my wall.

Fast forward about fifteen years. I was at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. My wife was with me and we were doing some sightseeing. (I could happily tour every castle and battlefield in Scotland, followed by fish and chips at a pub. Is heaven like Scotland on a sunny day? I hope so.)

At Stirling Castle, we had done the tour and I was wandering around when I heard my wife calling for me. There it was, my painting. The castle is the home of the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The painting is The Thin Red Line (from the regiment’s stand at Balaclava.)

Operation Epsom: The Argylls at Normandy
So, as I was listening to Keegan’s Six Armies at Normandy, there was a little added thrill that the Argylls were present with the Scottish Division.

Of course, these weren’t really the Argylls. The regular regiment had been captured when Singapore fell. The Argylls of D-Day were originally a Territorial unit, which virtually overnight inherited the weighty traditions and history of their namesake unit.

They were, Keegan writes, “innocents to war inasmuch as Scots can ever be.”

Hearing this, as I drove to and from work, I was worried about their fate and became even more worried as they were deployed in Operation Epsom.

The German plan was to use its Panzer divisions to split the allied forces and crush them. The large force being assembled included Panzer Lehr, the most formidable armored division of the Wehrmacht. If Darth Vader were working for Hitler (an entirely imaginable scenario) Panzer Lehr sounds like his personal strike force. It is a unique quality of the German language to take utterly innocent words and make them sound frightening. Lehr means teaching, Panzer Lehr was the teaching division - which is why they had to be the best, they set the example. So they were pretty bad-ass.

Meanwhile, the British were planning their own offensive to seize strategic ground in preparation for liberating the city of Caen. The Scottish Division led the way, attempting to establish a corridor through which allied troops could move into the critical territory. The Argylls had a lead position and, fighting through German defenses had moved across the Odon River when they Germans counter-attacked. Five Panzer divisions struck the Scottish Division, with the Argylls most exposed and without tanks of their own to counter the Germans. 

Over the next five days, Panzer divisions savaged the Scottish division. It paid a high price, 2500 casualties, but was not dislodged. Operation Epsom did not achieve its objective, but in absorbing the counter-attack it had blunted Hitler's strategic reserve and foiled his plan of using his armor to split the allied forces.

In the past, I wrote about a unit’s colors representing its soul - that a military unit has a certain, ineffable quality. In Operation Epsom, the Argylls lived up to their history. Keegan writes:
Unspectacular, muddied, wearisome and intermittently terrifying, it had blunted the assault of one of the most formidable fighting formations in the German army and stood fit to rank with those other small epics of Argyll and Scottish stubbornness, the destruction of the 93rd at the battle of New Orleans and the stand of the 'thin red line' at Balaclava.