Yet crime went up, not down

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The history of academic criminology is one of grand pronouncements that don’t prove out in the real world:

In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, criminologists demanded that public policy attack the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and racism. Without solving these problems, they argued, we could not expect to fight crime effectively. On this thinking, billions of taxpayer dollars poured into ambitious social programs — yet crime went up, not down. In the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, as crime rates continued to spike, criminologists proceeded to tell us that the police could do little to cut crime, and that locking up the felons, drug dealers, and gang leaders who committed much of the nation’s criminal violence wouldn’t work, either.

These views were shown to be false, too, but they were held so pervasively across the profession that, when political scientist James Q. Wilson called for selective incapacitation of violent repeat offenders, he found himself ostracized by his peers, who resorted to ad hominem attacks on his character and motivations. Wilson’s work was ignored by awards committees, and criminological reviews of his books, especially Thinking About Crime and Crime and Human Nature, were almost universally negative.


Evidence of the liberal tilt in criminology is widespread. Surveys show a 30:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives within the field, a spread comparable with that in other social sciences. The largest group of criminologists self-identify as radical or “critical.” These designations include many leftist intellectual orientations, from radical feminism to Marxism to postmodernism. Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship, as represented in books with titles like Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.

A quick perusal of Presidential Awards for Distinguished Contributions to Justice, bestowed by the American Society of Criminology (ASC), shows that the winners were primarily rewarded for their left-wing advocacy. They included a judge in Massachusetts who advocated abolishing the state’s death penalty, an FBI agent who successfully sued the organization for ethnic discrimination, and a former director of juvenile corrections in Massachusetts who closed the state’s juvenile reformatories and wrote a book alleging that the system hunted down black men for sport. The society also honored Zaki Baruti, a radical black activist in St. Louis known for his hatred of police and support for leftist causes.


Liberal criminologists avoid discussing the lifestyles that criminal offenders typically lead. Almost all serious offenders are men, and they usually come from families with long histories of criminal involvement, often spanning generations. They show temperamental differences early in life, begin offending in childhood or early adolescence, and rack up dozens of arrests. Their lives are chaotic and hedonistic, including the constant pursuit of drugs and sex. They produce many children with different women and rarely have the means — or inclination — to support them. Active offenders exploit others for their own benefit, including women, children, churches, and the social-welfare system. They commit many crimes before getting arrested, and they move in and out of the criminal-justice system for decades. Many also report enjoying acts of violence; the social-media accounts of martyred gangsters shot by police often illuminate this subculture. Perhaps not surprisingly, they see the police as another competing tribe that has to be manipulated, controlled, and sometimes confronted. In sum, the lives of persistent criminal offenders are often shockingly pathological. The nature of this world is hard to grasp without witnessing it firsthand.


When it comes to disciplinary biases, however, none is so strong or as corrupting as liberal views on race. Disproportionate black involvement in violent crime represents the elephant in the room amid the current controversy over policing in the United States. Homicide numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Supplementary Homicide Reports, 1976–2005 indicate that young African-American males account for homicide victims at levels that are ten to 20 times greater than their proportion of the population and account for homicide offenders at levels that are 15 to 35 times greater than their proportion of the population. The black-white gap in armed-robbery offending has historically ranged between ten to one and 15 to one. Even in forms of crime that are allegedly the province of white males — such as serial murder — blacks are overrepresented as offenders by a factor of two. For all racial groups, violent crime is strongly intraracial, and the intraracial dynamic is most pronounced among blacks. In more than 90 percent of cases, the killer of a black victim is a black perpetrator.


Reliable evidence tells us that the most effective strategies to reduce crime involve police focusing on crime hot spots, targeting active offenders for arrest, and helping to solve local problems surrounding disorder and incivility. Putting predatory, recidivistic offenders in jail or in prison remains the best way to protect the public — especially those who live in high-crime neighborhoods. Lower-level offenders can often be supervised in the community, and many benefit from programs that seek to modify drug and alcohol addictions that contribute to their criminal behavior. Despite our best efforts, though, most will re-offend and reenter the system at some point.

Arnold Kling notes that it was Robert Nozick who coined the term “normative sociology” as the study of what the causes of problems ought to be:

My fear about academic economics is that it will evolve in the direction of criminology. I foresee ever-increasing social pressure within the community of academic economists to undertake research that confirms left-wing biases.

Fact-based hope for our future

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds remembers how Jerry Pournelle offered fact-based hope for our future:

But Pournelle didn’t just write fiction. His 1970 book with Stefan Possony, The Strategy of Technology, outlined a strategy for winning the Cold War (with among other things, an emphasis on strategic missile defense) that was largely followed, and successfully, by the Reagan administration. He was a driving force behind the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy in the 1980s that helped lay the groundwork for today’s booming civilian space launch industry. And, for me, his wide-ranging columns in Galaxy Magazine, back when it was edited by star editor James Baen, were particularly influential.

I was a kid in the 1970s, which was not a great era to be a kid. We had Vietnam and Watergate, the Apollo space program quit abruptly, oil prices skyrocketed and so did inflation. Even a hamburger was expensive.

And while that was going on, the voices in the media were all preaching gloom and doom. Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich, in his book The Population Bomb, was predicting food riots in America due to overpopulation. A group called The Club of Rome published a report titled The Limits to Growth that suggested it was all over for Western technological civilization. Bookstore displays were filled with books like The Late Great Planet Earth that announced the end times. And if that weren’t enough, most people figured we were heading for a global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. It looked like we were headed for some sort of apocalyptic future in which Charlton Heston would be the only survivor besides a few apes or mutants.

But Jerry Pournelle never bought it. In his Galaxy columns — eventually collected and published in book form, and still in print — he actually did the math. The fact was, he reported, we could not only survive but, in his words, survive with style.

Claims of resource limitations were bunk, easily disproved with available data. And beyond the resources of Earth, there were the effectively limitless resources of the solar system: Energy from the Sun, captured by orbiting power satellites that never had to shut down, materials from the asteroids, and an expansionary frontier that would prevent the growth of damaging zero-sum politics on Earth.

Some people found such claims outlandish in the 1970s, but we’re pretty much living in Pournelle’s world now. The 1970s “Energy Crisis” and its turn-of-the-millennium equivalent, “Peak Oil,” have been undone by technological advances in the form of fracking. Private companies are launching rockets into space at a furious rate — Elon Musk’s SpaceX is on track to launch more rockets than Russia this year — and there are even private companies (companies, plural) working on asteroid mining.

I suspect that a lot of the people working on these things were, like me, influenced by Pournelle’s writing. (I know that some of them were, because they’ve told me so, and I doubt those are the only ones.) At one of the gloomiest times in American history, Pournelle offered not only hope, but a plan. We should all be grateful for that. I certainly am.

Bulgaria with nuclear missiles

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

I had no idea that Steve Sailer was friends with Jerry Pournelle:

I didn’t meet Jerry until 1999, but I’d known his son Alex in high school. The Pournelle family asked me to go with them to Kansas City in August 1976 to the science-fiction convention at which Heinlein, the central American sci-fi writer of the 20th century, received his lifetime achievement award. (But I had to be at college that week.)

But Jerry, one of the great Southern California Cold Warriors, had a remarkable number of careers, starting as a teenage artillery officer during the Korean War, which deafened him in one ear. (At the lunch table, he’d choose his seat carefully to position his one remaining good ear next to his guest.)

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.


Jerry once told me that if in early 1951 General MacArthur had said, “Boys, it’s time to clear out the nest of traitors in the White House. Who is going with me?” he would have been on the first flight to Washington with his hero.

After Korea, Pournelle went to West Point for a while, was a Communist briefly, and earned numerous advanced degrees in a variety of hard and soft subjects. He became an aerospace engineer at Boeing and several other companies and spent 1964 writing a Dr. Strangelove-style study for the Air Force on how a nuclear war would be fought in 1975.

He pored over satellite photos of the Soviet Union, counting the ratio of trucks to horse-drawn carts, eventually concluding that rather than the wave of the economic future, the U.S.S.R. represented “Bulgaria with nuclear missiles.” With his mentor, Viennese spymaster Stefan Possony of the Hoover Institution, Jerry wrote The Strategy of Technology, arguing that the way to win the Cold War was to turn it into a high-tech competition over who could innovate faster.

Read the whole thing.

A wee forearm smash would sort it out

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

Ten years ago, Stephen Clarkson found himself in the middle of the Glasgow Airport terror attack:

I was at the airport, picking up my brother, sister-in-law and niece from holiday. As I walked through the terminal, I noticed people being ushered out the way I’d come in. I wasn’t sure what was going on – there was no panic – but I thought that if something had happened, I wasn’t leaving without my family.

I carried on walking in the opposite direction to everyone else. By the time I got to the doors at the other end, I was on my own. I walked outside, and that’s when I saw a burning jeep crashed into the building. There was a guy lying next to it engulfed in flames, a couple of police officers, and parts of the road were on fire, too.

At first, I thought it had been an accident. A police officer used a fire extinguisher on the burning guy, then they turned away. I thought he was dead, and maybe they did, too. It was when he got up that I realised he was an attacker. It was eerie – he didn’t even groan as he stood; it was as if being on fire hadn’t affected him. I learned later he was on morphine.

He tried to get to the jeep’s boot – apparently, it was full of petrol bombs. The police were trying to stop him, but he kept kicking at their legs. As they fought, they moved towards me. One of the officers used pepper spray, and my eyes were streaming. The next time I opened them, this lunatic was coming in my direction.

When you’re involved in something like that, it’s hard to remember afterwards exactly how it went. You just act on instinct. My partner, Gillian, had recently passed away, after battling cancer. I had watched her fight like hell to survive, and these characters were trying to take people’s lives as if they meant nothing. It enraged me, as did having pepper spray in my eyes, to be honest. So I went for him.

As soon as I hit him, I knew that he was going down. I don’t mean to sound blasé. He’d been doing these commando-style moves to fight off the police, and he seemed well trained, but I grew up in Glasgow: it seemed natural to me that a wee forearm smash would sort it out. I’m not a street fighter, but I know how to look after myself.

I threw my full weight into it. My arm and shoulder met his chest and he clattered down. I stood on his legs while the police cuffed him. One officer shouted at me, “Who are you? Get out of here.” That annoyed me. Who am I? I’m the one who’s just put him on his backside.

Low explosives deflagrate

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

High explosive detonate, while low explosives deflagrate:

Low explosives are compounds where the rate of decomposition proceeds through the material at less than the speed of sound. The decomposition is propagated by a flame front (deflagration) which travels much more slowly through the explosive material than a shock wave of a high explosive. Under normal conditions, low explosives undergo deflagration at rates that vary from a few centimetres per second to approximately 400 metres per second.


Low explosives are normally employed as propellants. Included in this group are petroleum products such as propane and gasoline, gunpowder (both black and smokeless), and light pyrotechnics, such as flares and fireworks.


High explosives (HE) are explosive materials that detonate, meaning that the explosive shock front passes through the material at a supersonic speed. High explosives detonate with explosive velocity ranging from 3 to 9 km/s. For instance, TNT has a detonation (burn) rate of approximately 5.8 km/s (19,000 feet per second),

Detonation has an interesting etymology:

Detonation (from Latin detonare, meaning “to thunder down”) is a type of combustion involving a supersonic exothermic front accelerating through a medium that eventually drives a shock front propagating directly in front of it.


In classical Latin, detonare means “to stop thundering”, as in weather. The modern meaning developed later.

Just 2 Seconds

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Gavin de Becker’s Just 2 Seconds looks at assassinations — “attacks, near attacks, and incidents against at-risk persons all over the world from 1960-2007″ — and includes an appendix for bodyguards to provide their clients:

Just 2 Seconds Appendix 1.1

Just 2 Seconds Appendix 1.2

Just 2 Seconds Appendix 1.3

Just 2 Seconds Appendix 1.4

They were warriors out of a very organized society

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Archaeologists uncovered four ancient ring-shaped fortresses in Denmark in the 1930s and only recently discovered another:

Q: How did you discover the fortress?

A: It’s a bit of a detective story. I’ve been working with these ring fortresses for quite some time, and I came to the conclusion that their distribution didn’t make sense. There were gaps in the network of known fortresses where logically another fortress should have been. I went out looking for landscape features that matched those of the fortresses we knew already, namely accessibility to land and water routes. There were only a few locations in Denmark that really fit the pattern. The Danish state has made a high-resolution LIDAR image of the whole country, so we searched that and found this very, very big feature.

Q: How did it go unseen for so long?

A: The agricultural activity around it was extremely destructive. For hundreds of years throughout the Middle Ages, peasants ploughed and leveled the field. When we came, the fortress’s ramparts were less than half a meter above the average level of the field. You could walk the field, and I might have a hard time convincing you there was anything at all, but the LIDAR image was decisive.

Q: Why did Vikings build ring-shaped fortresses?

A: The ring is the perfect shape for a fortress. It’s the shape that encompasses the greatest area within the smallest circumference. But there’s no need to make it a perfect circle, and that’s what distinguishes the Viking Age ring fortresses in Denmark. Clearly the person who built these Viking ring fortresses—and we think that was King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson [who united Scandinavia, converted the Danes to Christianity and, more recently, lent his name to Bluetooth wireless technology], whose father was the first ruler of the Danish kingdom—wanted something more. All the fortresses share this strict geometry. Somebody with magnificent land-surveying skills was involved in this building work for no other reason than sheer prestige and to signal command and ability.

Q: Did the they invent the ring-shaped fortress?

A: No, they probably learned it from their own invasions in England. The people there built a network of fortifications about 100 years before our structures as a defense against the Vikings. It worked so well that the invaders could not get a foothold and had to turn back. It was a huge success for the Anglo-Saxon kings. So we believe that when ring fortresses then pop up in Denmark, it’s a copying of that strategy.

Viking Ring Fort Reconstruction

Q: Why are these structures important?

A: These ring fortresses have been the biggest mystery in Viking archaeology since the 1930s. People couldn’t believe the Vikings in their own country built these structures. They thought foreign armies must have built them. But as we found more of these, we found it was indeed a Danish king and his Viking warriors, and for that reason they have been part of the most fundamental reassessment of what the Vikings were all about. They were warriors, obviously, but they were warriors out of a very organized society.

Hitting a bullet with a bullet

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Hitting a bullet with a bullet is far from easy, as the history of ballistic missile defense has demonstrated, but the US had some success in the Gulf War:

The Gulf War story is overwhelmingly one of Coalition military and technological success, with one notable exception: the campaign against Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles. Initially this aspect of the war looked to be a lopsided contest pitting Iraq’s outdated missiles against the Coalition’s overwhelmingly superior technology and complete air dominance. But this is not how events unfolded. Despite using nearly every type aircraft in the Coalition’s considerable air fleet against the Scuds, in the words of one participant and student of this campaign, there was “scant evidence of success.” The Iraqis effectively used their Scuds to frustrate the Coalition, seize the initiative, and to apply great political and psychological pressure that had the potential to unravel the alliance. In this way, the Scud campaign was the high point for the Iraqis and low point for the Coalition airmen.

From the outset the reader should realize that the Gulf War was neither the first nor the largest ballistic missile war. These distinctions belong to the German V-2 missile campaign that rained destruction on Allied cities during World War II. The V-weapons campaign was much larger in numbers and much more destructive, albeit shorter in range, than the Iraqi missile offensive. However both campaigns had similar limitations (poor accuracy and small conventional warheads) and were mainly political and psychological in their intent and impact. Forty-five years separated the two operations, but the severe problems, frustrations, and failures experienced by the Allies while defending against German missiles, despite expending tremendous resources, were similar to those encountered by Coalition airmen during the Gulf War. One major difference between the two campaigns was that in the more recent war is that the defenders had an active ground-based defense.

Scud is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) code word for a Soviet surface-to-surface ballistic missile that evolved from the German V-2. It is little improved over the German missile, primarily having a longer range, somewhat better accuracy, but carrying a smaller payload. The Soviets tested the Scud A in April 1953 and deployed it in 1955. Scud B was an improved version that extended the missile’s range from 180km to 300km, and enhanced its accuracy from 4,000 to 1,000 meters CEP but carried only half the 989kg warhead of the “A.” ” It was first launched in 1957. A key feature of this type missile was its mobility, made possible by its wheeled chassis that served as a transporter, erector, and launcher (TEL). In 1961 the Soviets began exporting the Scud A to their Warsaw allies and then in 1973 shipped the first Scud B to Egypt, and later to a number of other middle east countries, including Iraq.


Casualties were far lower than estimated. The Israelis suffered only two direct deaths from the Scuds, and another eleven indirectly, four from heart attacks and seven 95 suffocating in their gas masks. In addition, probably 12 Saudis were killed and 121 wounded. There were also American casualties. On 26 February a Scud hit a Dhahran warehouse being used as a billet by about 127 American troops, killing 28 and wounding 97 others. This one Scud accounted for 21 percent of the US personnel killed during the Q7 war, and 40 percent of the wounded. A number of factors explain this incident. Apparently one Patriot battery was shut down for maintenance and another had cumulative computer timing problems. Another factor was just plain bad luck. The Scud warhead not only hit the warehouse, but unlike so many others, it remained intact, and detonated. Conversely, one Scud impacted in Al Jubail Harbor about 130 yards from the USS Tarawa and seven other ships moored next to a pier that was heavily laden with 5,000 tons of artillery ammunition. The missile’s warhead did not explode. These are the fortunes of war. Thus, the overall death rate was less than one killed per missile fired.

The Scuds lacked numbers, warhead size, and accuracy to be militarily significant. But General Norman Schwarzkopf’s continued restatement of these facts not only missed the point, it was politically dangerous. The general’s words indicated to the Israelis a lack of America’s concern, and encouraged Israeli counteraction. Scuds had a great psychological and political impact, especially as they were coupled with the threat of poison gas. The Israelis were not about to stand by as Iraqi missiles showered their cities with death and destruction. If they intervened, however, the carefully constructed Coalition could quickly unravel, which, of course, was what the Iraqis intended.100 In sharp contrast to the field commander, the top American leadership, specifically Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman, General Colin Powell, saw keeping Israel out of the war as the number one priority and the Scuds as the number one problem.

Although the Israelis rejected American aid before the shooting started, the first Scud impact changed everything. The Israelis quickly requested both American Patriot missile assistance and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) codes to allow their aircraft to strike Iraqi targets without tangling with Coalition aircraft. The US quickly agreed to the first, but refused the second. However, the decision makers realized that the Scud menace had to be contained to keep the Israelis out of the conflict. One important element in this effort was the Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM).


The Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile formed the last line of active defense against the Scuds. The US was able to airlift 32 Patriot missiles to Israel within 17 hours and get them operational within three days. Patriot deployment to the Gulf eventually consisted of seven batteries to Israel, 21 to Saudi Arabia, and four to Turkey.

Crucial to the active BMD was early warning provided by strategic satellites. Although American Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites were designed to give warning of ICBM launches, they demonstrated the ability to track the lower flying, cooler, short range, tactical ballistic missiles, as demonstrated against hundreds of tactical ballistic missiles during their tests and in two Mid-Eastern wars.111 Before the shooting started in the Gulf War, two young captains at Strategic Air Command (SAC), John Rittinghouse and J.D. Broyles, worked out a system that coordinated information from the satellites, routed it through three widely located headquarters (SAC, Space Command, and Central Command), and passed it along to the user in the field. While the satellite did not precisely indicate either the location of launch or anticipated point of impact, it did give general information. The bottleneck was the communications, nevertheless, the juryrigged system gave a few minutes’ warning to both the defending Patriot crews and people in the target area. During the war, the satellites detected all 88 launches.

One of the main controversies of the war centered on the effectiveness of the Patriot against the Scud, or more precisely, how many Patriots hit Scuds. Of the 88 Scuds launched, 53 flew within the area of Patriot coverage. The defenders engaged most of these, 46 to 52 according to secondary accounts, with 158 Patriot missiles. Schwarzkopf initially claimed 100 percent Patriot success. After the war the manufacturer boasted of 89 percent success over Saudi Arabia and 44 percent over Israel, then in December 1991 the Army asserted 80 percent and 50 percent success, respectively. The next April the official success claims were further reduced to 70 and 40 percent in the two areas.


This misses the main point: regardless of the exact interception figures, Patriots proved very effective. Just as the Scuds were primarily a psychological weapon, so too were the Patriots. They provided great theater, with live videos of fiery launches, smoke trails, and aerial fireworks made more vivid with a dark, night background that had a positive impact on civilians and decision makers in the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. (There is no indication that any Iraqis saw this very visible performance, and if so, what impact it had on them.) The situation was manageable for the defenders as long as the Scud attacks were limited in number, inaccurate, and killed few people. Missile warning protected civilians from death and injury, while active missile defenses bolstered morale. The Patriots were an important factor in keeping Israel out of the war.

The most formidable of twenty-first century weapons

Monday, August 21st, 2017

A new study from RAND examines Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and shares some lessons learned in Gaza:

For starters, smart weapons are no panacea. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attempted to destroy Hamas rocket launchers and tunnels with airpower alone (surprising in light of the failure of such an approach in the 2006 Lebanon War). Lack of success meant ground troops had to be sent in.

The failure of airpower meant the revival of artillery. The IDF barely used artillery in 2009, but used lots of big guns in 2014. “On a technical and tactical level, the IDF’s use of artillery support was impressive,” RAND noted. “It increased its use of precision artillery from earlier campaigns and reduced the minimum safe distances for providing fire support. Artillery fire often proved quicker and more responsive than other means of firepower, such as CAS [close air support].”

Armor also proved its worth in Gaza. “Before Protective Edge, the IDF invested in intelligence and airpower, often at the expense of particularly heavy armor,” RAND found. Or as Israeli sources told RAND, “Half a year before, they closed the Namer [a tank converted into a troop carrier] and we said it was a mistake; and immediately after, they reopened the project. You need protection. Mobility is protection.”

In turn, armor needs active protection systems. “there was near-universal consensus among IDF officers and outside analysts interviewed for this report that vehicles equipped with the Trophy system stood a better chance of surviving not only RPG fire, but also the Kornet ATGM [anti-tank guided missile],” RAND found. “Indeed, according to some accounts, there were at least 15 instances of active protection systems intercepting Kornet-style missiles.” Another unexpected benefit was that the sensors on the Trophy also proved useful in detecting the location of hostile fire.

However, neither smart weapons nor artillery can stop that most formidable of twenty-first century weapons: lawfare, or the use of international law and public opinion to stymie an adversary’s superior firepower. Under intense media scrutiny, the IDF grappled with how to destroy rocket launchers that Hamas had emplaced in densely populated civilian areas. To its credit, Israel tried a variety of means to avoid civilian casualties, including calling residents on their phones to evacuate, social media and the memorable “door knocker” inert bombs landing on roofs as a signal to get out of the target zone. Lawyers even reviewed targeting decisions, and yet Israeli still suffered a public relations disaster, including public and UN accusations of war crimes. Now the IDF General Staff is adding a lawfare section. “For better or worse, lawfare is here to stay, and the IDF — like all Western militaries — will have to wrestle with its implications in any future operation,” RAND concludes.

The Celtic Holocaust

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Dan Carlin’s latest Hardcore History, episode 60, about The Celtic Holocaust, is self-recommending, as Tyler Cowen would say.

Celtic Holocaust

While listening, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there were a beautifully illustrated and annotated Landmark Gallic Wars, like the Landmark Thucydides I picked up a few months back? Well, it turns out that a Landmark Julius Caesar is on its way. Go ahead and preorder it now. You deserve it.

SciFutures offers “corporate visioning”

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Hoping to distract himself from the boredom of his day job as the president of a market-research company, Ari Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at UCLA:

“It was, like, the best ten weeks of my life,” Popper told me recently. “But I knew I wasn’t going to pay the bills as a science-fiction writer.” Still, the course gave him an idea: since businesses often spend money trying to predict how the world will change, and since speculative fiction already traffics in such predictions, perhaps one could be put in service of the other — corporate consulting through sci-fi narratives. Soon, Popper quit his job, moved to a smaller house, and launched his own firm, SciFutures. Today, his network of a hundred or so authors writes customized stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and nato. Popper calls their work “corporate visioning.”

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged. The authors’ stories, she added, which range in length from a few hundred to several thousand words, are “not just marketing pieces, but sometimes we have to pull back or adjust to accommodate a brand.” She and Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters.


One of SciFutures’s more prominent contributors is Ken Liu, a Hugo Award-winning author and the translator of the popular Chinese science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem.” Liu told me that he relishes the level of influence that the firm offers. “As a freelancing gig, it’s not much money,” he said; typically, stories pay a few hundred dollars. “But you have the chance to shape and impact the development of a technology that matters to you. At a minimum, you know that your story will be read by an executive, somebody who’s actually able to decide whether to invest money and develop a product.” Liu dismissed the notion that writing science fiction for corporate clients compromised something essential about the genre. “I’m not a big fan of this vision of the artist as some independent, amazing force for good,” he said. “Everybody writes in a context for an audience.”

The audience that gives SciFutures writers the most freedom to imagine negative outcomes is, not surprisingly, the military. “Those stories can be grittier,” Phillips said. “They already do a lot of worst-case-scenario planning.” Last year, she and her colleagues produced thirteen stories that were read and discussed in a workshop for forty senior officials from a range of nato member countries. One involves a “smart gun” that gets hacked, nearly causing a massacre of civilians. Another, told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl in Uruguay, describes a group of child soldiers around the world who shoot targets through an online gaming site without realizing that the game is real: they are operating drones and other remote weapons that kill enemies of the Russian government. (Readers familiar with Orson Scott Card’s novel “Ender’s Game,” from 1985, may notice some similarities.) A third story follows a member of a Chinese “Fear Battalion,” a group of soldiers who have been genetically modified to emit a pheromone that induces terror in anyone who smells it.

Some workers simply aren’t worth the trouble

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Some workers simply aren’t worth the trouble, Tyler Cowen notes, and these “zero marginal product” workers account for a growing percentage of out workforce. Handle makes a similar point about military recruits:

During the surge and temporary force-builds, the Army and Marines had to lower standards and accept less impressive applicants in order to meet accession quotas for enlistedmen. Usually that involved relaxing each of the many standards each by a little bit. Actually, the system pretends the standards aren’t being changed at all, but that individuals are being granted discretionary ‘waivers’ of a typical standard on a one by one basis by commanders, which is the system ordinarily used rarely in exceptional cases for people with extreme talent or value in some area, but maybe just under the threshold for one of the standards. Well, suddenly these waivers were routine. Still, there is value to keeping the standards ‘in the book’ the same, since everybody still knows what they are supposed to do, and the waivers will eventually go away when the pressure is off.

But eventually you are going to be cutting into muscle and bone and not able to relax some standards any more. And someone is going to discover where you are going to get the most bang for your buck in terms of the greatest numbers resulting from a policy change in the other standards. That turned out to be in background check department, which gave rise to the whole ‘moral waivers’ problem. A lot of these guys were good soldiers, fit enough and smart enough to fit in, go fighting downrange, and get the job done well, but, inevitably, a huge number of them got into serious disciplinary trouble at some point. They were good workers who would get in trouble, which is a very different problem from the obedient and law-abiding ones that just aren’t up to snuff.

In times when men were desperately needed, when those men got in trouble, they’d get slapped on the wrist with minor penalties, or even just a good old-fashioned “smoke the shit out of him” extended painful-exertion session with an NCO. But as soon as Congress announced the numbers had to go down — by a lot, and quickly — then a very different message went out to commanders. Suddenly every little thing was a dischargeable offense, and it was, predictably, disproportionately the moral-waiver guys who were getting kicked out.

Combining data-visualization and cinematic storytelling to explore the driving factors of war and peace

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Neil Halloran, who previously produced The Fallen of World War II, returns with The Shadow Peace:

Non-permissive even to motorcycles

Monday, August 7th, 2017

American special operations forces famously found themselves riding to war on horseback in Afghanistan in 2001:

When the 5th Special Forces Group’s Operational Detachment Alpha 595 touched down and linked up with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum — a Soviet-trained ethnic Uzbek military officer who had sided with the Northern Alliance against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban and who ultimately became a highly controversial figure accused of multiple human rights abuses and war crimes — they found his forces already conducting cavalry raids on horseback due to the lack of roads and even established trails in the area.

“Looking back, it was the best means for travel because some of those places we went would have been non-permissive to even motorcycles,” retired U.S. Air Force combat controller Bart Decker, who had served attached to ODA 595, said in 2016.

“It was the wild, wild west,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Sciortino, another former combat controller, who was then serving with the 31st Surgical Operations Squadron, added at the time. “When we first got in, they said we were probably going to ride horses … I had never ridden a horse before. I was like, are these guys serious?”

ODA 595 and Northern Alliance on Horseback in 2001

The whole situation might have been a disaster had it not be for an amazing twist of fate. ODA 595’s commanding officer, U.S. Army Major Mark Nutsch, had grown up on a cattle ranch in Kansas and competed in rodeo events while he studied at Kansas State University. “The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain,” he said in a later interview. “Initially you had a different horse for every move … and you’d have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider. … The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. … Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly.”

Their laws don’t matter, their culture is uninteresting, and their civilization is going to fall

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Dr. Cheryl Benard was program director of the Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth and the Alternative Strategies Initiative within the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Division. So she has worked with refugees for decades, and what she’s seen of Europe’s Afghan crime wave is mind-boggling — and not easily explained by alcohol or a clash in cultural values:

This brings us to a third, more compelling and quite disturbing theory — the one that my Afghan friend, the court translator, puts forward. On the basis of his hundreds of interactions with these young men in his professional capacity over the past several years, he believes to have discovered that they are motivated by a deep and abiding contempt for Western civilization. To them, Europeans are the enemy, and their women are legitimate spoils, as are all the other things one can take from them: housing, money, passports. Their laws don’t matter, their culture is uninteresting and, ultimately, their civilization is going to fall anyway to the horde of which one is the spearhead. No need to assimilate, or work hard, or try to build a decent life here for yourself — these Europeans are too soft to seriously punish you for a transgression, and their days are numbered.

And it’s not just the sex crimes, my friend notes. Those may agitate public sentiment the most, but the deliberate, insidious abuse of the welfare system is just as consequential. Afghan refugees, he says, have a particular proclivity to play the system: to lie about their age, to lie about their circumstances, to pretend to be younger, to be handicapped, to belong to an ethnic minority when even the tired eye of an Austrian judge can distinguish the delicate features of a Hazara from those of a Pashtun.

I see his point. In the course of my research, I encountered thirty-year-olds with family in Austria who were passing themselves off as “unaccompanied minors.” I met people misrepresenting an old traffic injury as proof that they had been tortured. I learned of an Afghan family that had emigrated to Hungary two decades ago. The children were born there and attended Hungarian schools. When the refugee crisis erupted, enticed by news of all the associated benefits, this family decided to take on a new identity and make their way to Sweden on the pretense of being brand-new refugees. Claiming to have lost their papers during their “flight,” they registered under new assumed names and reduced the ages of their children; the mother declared herself a widow. Now ensconced in comfortable free housing along with their hale, hearty and very much alive father — whom they pass off as an uncle — with a monthly welfare check, they are smug parasites leeching off the gullibility of Sweden’s taxpayers.

Western legal systems are meticulous and procedural, operate on the basis of rules and rights and forms and documents, and consider you innocent until proven guilty. It didn’t take the refugees long to figure out how to leverage this to their advantage. “They’ll stand right there, balding, grey at the temples, and insist that they’re eighteen,” an exasperated Austrian prosecutor told me. Having “lost” their documents, the only way to refute even the most patently absurd such claim is through expensive lab tests. If you have no documents and no shame, you can assert just about anything and then lean back and wait for the system to try and prove otherwise. If you are rejected, no problem: you can launch multiple appeals. Once you have set foot in Europe, it will be almost impossible to get rid of you; indeed, you can literally commit murder. If a court finds you guilty of rape, you need only argue that if you are sent home, your conservative society will kill you for the dishonorable act — then you can’t be shipped out, because EU law forbids extradition if doing so puts the individual’s life at risk. And murderers cannot be sent back to countries that have the death penalty or a judicial system known to be harsh.

But we are still left with a mystery. Welfare fraud is one thing: it makes a certain kind of sense, if you have no regard for rule of law or fairness and you are lazy. But why is this current cohort of Afghans making its mark as sexual predators… and inept, stupid ones at that? In search of an answer, perhaps we should take a closer look at the victims. We have eliminated improper attire and an unwittingly seductive manner, but might they have any other traits in common to shed light on why they became the targets of such madness? Reviewing them, one word comes to mind: fulfillment. A Turkish exchange student, happy to be advancing her education in industrial design at a good university in Vienna. A girl in a park, enjoying the sunshine. Two friends, taking their babies for a walk. A mother, enjoying a summer stroll with her two children. A contented old lady, out with her pet. Attractive, accomplished, happy, normal people… an unbearable sight, perhaps, to — and here I must agree with President Trump — losers. That is what he proposed we should call terrorists, and he is right. These young men, even minus a suicide vest, are losers, which has inspired them to become social terrorists.

The young Afghan attackers are saying, yes, that they have no impulse control, that their hormones are raging, and that they hate themselves and the world — but most especially, that they will not tolerate women who are happy, confident and feeling safe in public spaces. They are saying that they have no intention of respecting law, custom, public opinion, local values or common decency, all of which they hate so much that they are ready to put their own lives, their constructive futures and their freedom on the line for the satisfaction of inflicting damage.

Established middle-class diaspora Afghans are understandably upset and embarrassed to see their nationality thus disgraced by these uncouth newcomers. And yet they are part of the problem. Many of their actions and reactions, however natural or unintended, amount to complicity. They cover up, make excuses for, advise on best ways to wriggle out of consequences, and even directly abet the deceptions, illegal acts and disgraceful manners of friends, relatives and random unknown fellow Afghans.

The reasons for this are many-layered. There is the perceived obligation to be loyal to friends and relatives and countrymen. I think there is also a certain lack of true identification with Western notions of bureaucratic and biographic fact; many, if not most, Afghans currently living in the West have some lies of necessity in their past. Whichever of them arrived first — a father, an older brother — generally had to make up a supposed family name and a birthdate on the fly, because back home, until one generation ago most people did not have a last name and birth dates were not recorded. I know respectable, law-abiding Afghan families where everyone’s birthdays are implausibly sequential — June 1, June 2, June 3 and so forth, because the family member who filled out the immigration paperwork had to make up birth dates and thought it would be easier to remember them this way.

It is also possible that this diaspora community, given the weakness of state institutions in their country of origin, the arbitrariness of its corruption-riddled administrations for centuries, and a certain lack of rootedness that comes from being dropped into someone else’s culture and way of doing things, is fine with a bit of finagling of welfare benefits. They don’t, of course, endorse rape, but here embarrassment kicks in and inspires them to make excuses. “They’re young.” “They’re confused.” “They grew up in Iran, where one learns bad behavior.” Others just disavow them altogether and want nothing to do with them. That’s regrettable, because Afghans who have already made respected lives for themselves abroad are in the best position to discipline and teach the delinquent newcomers, to know what combination of sanctions, pressures and encouragement will be effective.