The Power of Weakness

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

William S. Lind describes the power of weakness:

Imagine that instead of facing rag-tag bands of poorly equipped and trained insurgents, our Marines and soldiers in Iraq were in a very difficult fight with an opponent similar to themselves, but somewhat stronger.

What would fighting the strong do for them? Being David rather than Goliath, they would see themselves as noble. Every victory would be a cause for genuine pride. Defeats would not mean disgrace, but instead would demand greater effort and higher performance. Even after a failure, they could still look at themselves in the mirror with pride. Knowing they faced a stronger enemy, their own cohesion would grow and their demand for self-discipline would increase.

If the enemy’s overmatch were too great, it could lead our units to hopelessness and disintegration. But a fight with an enemy who is stronger but still beatable would buck us up more than tear us down on the all-important moral level.

Now, to see the situation as it is, turn that telescope around. Every firefight we win in Iraq or Afghanistan does little for our pride, because we are so much stronger than the people we are defeating. Every time we get hit successfully by a weaker enemy, we feel like chumps, and cannot look ourselves in the mirror (again, with IED attacks this happens quite often). Whenever we use our superior strength against Iraqi civilians, which is to say every time we drive down an Iraqi street, we diminish ourselves in our own eyes. Eventually, we come to look at ourselves with contempt and see ourselves as monsters. One way to justify being a monster is to behave like one, which makes the problem worse still. The resulting downward spiral, which every army in this kind of war has gotten caught in, leads to indiscipline, demoralization, and disintegration of larger units as fire teams and squads simply go feral.

It’s time to play the music

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

It’s time to light the lights.

Sensational? Celebrational? Muppetational? Potentially.

Three Disasters

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

The catastrophe of World War I encompassed three disasters, William S. Lind and William S. Piper say:

The first and greatest was that it happened. It was not inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II neither wanted war nor expected one — so Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s advisor, reported to the president in 1915 after extensive talks with the German leader.

A European war probably became unavoidable when Tsar Nicholas II, under great pressure from his foreign minister and war minister, reluctantly ordered general mobilization instead of mobilizing only against Austria-Hungary. That set the clock ticking for Germany.

The worst malefactor in turning the conflict into a worldwide conflagration was probably the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who did want war (as did Churchill) and led Germany on, suggesting Britain would stay out until the momentum of the Schlieffen plan became irreversible. Grey said the price to Britain would be little different if she remained neutral or joined the Allies. And so the British Empire bled to death in the mud of Flanders.

The second disaster was America’s entry into the war, engineered by President Wilson after he won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Wilson was a progressive, and the progressives knew the only way they could create the vast and powerful federal government they desired was through war. That would allow Washington to seize any power it wanted on grounds of “military necessity” while labeling critics unpatriotic — and jailing them. So began the devouring of the American republic by Leviathan.

The third disaster was that the wrong side won. Had America stayed out, the war would probably have ended in 1917, following the mutiny that year of the French army, in a compromise peace. Such a peace would have been favorable to the Central Powers, but even with France defeated, Germany had no answer to the British blockade. A balance of power would have returned.

A victory by the Central Powers would have meant a 20th century with no Hitler and no Stalin. Germany used Lenin as a weapon of war, but a victorious Germany and Austria-Hungary would never have tolerated a Bolshevik Russia. Unlike the Allies, who attempted to intervene against the Bolsheviks, the Central Powers were placed to act effectively. German troops occupied Russia almost to St. Petersburg and the Austrian flag flew over Sevastopol. Germany and Austria would have restored a tsar — albeit perhaps not the Romanovs; the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha might have bagged another throne. As to Hitler, victorious Kaisers would have no place for a Führer. Hitler had talent as an architect; perhaps he would have helped found the Bauhaus.

Keanu Reeves and ’47 Ronin’

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Keanu Reeves will be starring in a new version of  ’47 Ronin’ — the famous Japanese epic:

This version is set in a world of witches and giants, making this a battle epic more in tune with  ”300” than, say, ”Gladiator,” at least as far as fantastical elements. More than that, Reeves portrays Kai,  the son of an English sailor and a Japanese woman and a character created specifically for this Hollywood retelling. The 46-year-old actor chose his words carefully on the topic of tilting the classic to fit modern popcorn imperatives.

“Japanese kids grow up with this story told to them. They hear it from family and they learn it in school, it’s part of the culture,” Reeves said. “It’s been made into movies many times and on television. It’s like our westerns, the story keeps being told.  It’s been reworked in some ways [for this new film] but with great care and respect.”

My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic

Friday, June 24th, 2011

The Internet exists for sharing things like My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic:

A Tale of Two Movies

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Two influential fantasy characters — John Carter of Mars and Conan of Cimmeria — are coming to the silver screen, but a  quick comparison shows just how differently the two directors are approaching their adaptations:

Just take a gander at the IMDB listing of the cast of characters for a moment. What you see there is a listing consisting nearly completely of characters who actually appear in Barsoom tales written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, unless I am mistaken not a single named character of significance in the film is an invention of Stanton or his co-writers.

Compare this to the similar listing of the cast of characters in the upcoming Conan the Barbarian, where, aside from the titular Cimmerian, none of the characters has any basis in the source material.

Everything modern people think they know about the Middle Ages is wrong

Friday, June 24th, 2011

After three centuries of “Enlightened” propaganda, almost everything modern people think they know about the Middle Ages is wrong, William S. Lind and William S. Piper say:

Living standards rose, and with them population. That was true for all classes, not just the nobles. Monarchs were far from absolute — royal absolutism was in fact the latest thing in 18th-century fashion, a system for promoting rational efficiency — and subjects had extensive rights. Unlike the abstract Rights of Man, as practiced during the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror, Medieval rights were specific and real, established by precedent.

Our Medieval ancestors were observant and creative. They invented important technologies: the wheeled plow, the windmill, soap. (Medieval people loved to bathe; it was the Renaissance that stopped.) They had elaborate table manners; latter-day “Medieval feasts” would have appalled them. They made beautiful objects. And they built — oh, how they built! Can anyone visit the cathedrals at Chartres or Salisbury or the now desecrated St. Chapelle in Paris and think these people were primitive? And yes, they knew the world was round.

The Enlightenment’s picture of the Middle Ages, like so much it produced, was a bright, shining lie. We would be wiser to speak of the enlightened Middle Ages and the verdunkelte 18th century.

Verdunkeln is German for to darken or to obscure — the opposite of to enlighten.

Art Nouveau Mutants

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Megan Lara has produced a number of art nouveau-style illustrations featuring characters from video games and comic books:

(Hat tip to io9.)

New Urbanism is Liberal?

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

New Urbanism is perceived as liberal, by both the Left and the Right, which puzzles William S. Lind, a paleoconservative:

Conservatives are supposed to love sprawl, but many of us actually like the idea of living in traditional neighborhoods, villages, and towns — cities perhaps a little less. We have nothing against walking and want nice places to do it. As conservatives, we believe traditions should be upheld, in architecture as elsewhere. And conservatism has always favored local variety over broad-scale uniformity.

Edmund Burke told us more than 200 years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

MMOWGLI and the Pirates

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

The Institute For The Future is working with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) on MMOWGLI — a Massively Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet.

Despite the silly name, and despite that fact that it’s been delayed, the “game” sounds interesting from its documentation, which describes three “moves”:

  1. Protecting the Sea Lanes
    • February 2010, Major International Anti-piracy Conference is being convened under the auspices of the IMO (International Maritime Organization), the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia and the UN [Game artifact].
    • As members of the Contact Group’s Working Group 1, Game Participants, representing various anti-piracy stakeholders, will address activities related to military and operational coordination and information sharing and the operational role of the regional coordination center.
    • {Option} Participants, may also address other related issues such political, economic, informational, and law enforcement responses to a worsening situation.
  2. Attacks at Sea
    • May 2010, Multiple (2-3) near-simultaneous attacks on ships transiting Red Sea to the Horn of Africa.Blue Force player participants could assume game roles, as for example, US combatant commander(s), SEAL team members, other nation combatant skippers, USCG LEDET, FBI teams, Combined Task Force 151 commander, merchant & cruise ship captains, on-board security team (if inserted by Control).
    • Game participants could also play the roles of Somali pirates, pirate mother ship commander and on-shore pirate chieftains/war lords of the Red Force.
    • There could also be a White (or Neutral) team representing regional governments, NGOs, the Somali government, etc.
  3. Hostage Rescue
    • Most likely a Joint SOF mission: SEAL or MEUSOC primary assets on the target(s).
      • Coastal Village
      • Inland
    • Participants play traditional Red-Blue roles as enemy combatants holding people and ships and as various members of a combined — or US-only — assault force.

This sounds like a traditional wargame, where experts discuss what might happen in a high-pressure scenario, only with input from hundreds of interested amateurs — not a massively multiplayer online video game, where everyone’s playing a character (a pirate, a captain, a SEAL operator) in the shared game world.

This bit of the background information caught my attention:

  • Ships turning southward at the Horn of Africa transit the SLOC (Sea Lane of Communication) along the east coast of Somalia because of the prevailing southerly currents there. It’s about 1,500 nm on to Mombasa, which is just south of the equator in Kenya. Comparably, that’s about the transit distance from Portland, Maine down the east coast of the US to Miami, Florida. In other words, the ocean area being patrolled by our naval forces off the coast of Somalia is comparable to that in the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River east to Miami then up the eastern seaboard to Maine.

Here is an “illustrative range of [potential] player responses related to arming crews” drawn from various web sources:

  • Vessels of the Military Sealift Command, which carry Defense Department cargo, use civilian crews who are trained to use weapons.
  • Odds of any one ship being seized by pirates are still very small, and those risks are outweighed by the potential dangers of having guns on board a vessel.
  • Mr. Pundt (Maine Merchant Marine Academy) said he would “…prefer to see an international armed force handle piracy, rather than putting merchant marine crews in the
    position….” of having to do what Navy Seals did Sunday.
  • The shipping industry has resisted arming their boats, which would deny them port access in some nations.
  • Arming big merchant ships will only drive the pirates to more vulnerable private yachts and other ships that can’t afford such protection.
  • “The global shipping industry should consider placing armed guards on its boats to ward off pirates who have become increasingly violent…”, the U.S. military commander who oversees the African coastline, Gen Petraeus, said Friday.
  • Sure, a few of the more zealous and enterprising ship owners will man their vessels with numbers sufficient to repel pirates. But then their overhead will go up and more business
    will shift over to their cheaper competition that is perfectly prepared to risk the lives of their third world sailors in the interest of higher profits. Simple economics nearly guarantee
    that fully manned ships in pirate-infested waters will remain the exception rather than the rule.
  • Italian cruise ship “MSC Melody” had Israeli private security forces (deemed to be the best available) on board. When attacked by pirates the security detail returned fire, startling the pirates, who gave up and turned around. Use of weapons on board were at the discretion of the commander and the security forces.

The Phases of a Bubble

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Steve Blank explains the phases of a bubble and the five types of participants:

Smart Money are prescient angel investors and Venture Capitalists who started investing in social networks, consumer and mobile applications and the cloud 3, 4 or 5 years ago. They helped build these struggling ventures into the Facebooks’, Twitters’, and Zyngas’ before anyone else appreciated these companies could have hundreds of millions of users with off-the-chart revenue and profits.

In a bubble the smart money doubles down on their investment in the awareness phase, but when it starts becoming a mania — the smart money cashes out. (Really smart money recognizes it’s a bubble and bets against it.) They manage this all with knowledge of the game they’re playing, but they don’t hype it, talk about it or fan the flames. They know others will.

The Shills are the middlemen in a bubble. They profit from the boom times. They’re the mortgage brokers and real estate agents in the housing bubble, the investment bankers and technology press in the bubble. Since it’s in their interest to keep the bubble going, they’ll tell you that housing always goes up, that these bonds are guaranteed by a big bank, and that this tech stock is worth its opening price. All the stories peddled by Shills have at their heart why “it’s a new age” and why “all the old ways of measuring value are obsolete.” And why “you’ll be an idiot if you don’t jump in and reap the rewards and cash out.”

The Marks are your neighbors or parents or grandparents. They’re not domain experts. They know nothing about real estate, financial markets or tech stocks, but they don’t want to miss the ”investment opportunity of a lifetime”. They hear reassurance from the Shills and take their advice at face value, never asking or questioning the Shills financial incentives to sell you this house/mortgage/tech stock. They see others making extraordinary amounts of money at the start of the mania (just buy a condo or two and you can sell them in six months.) What no one tells the Marks is that as they’re buying, the smart money and institutional investors are quietly pulling out and selling their assets.

The True Believers don’t financially participate in the bubble like the Marks (lack of assets, timidity, or time) but they could if they would. They have no rational evidence to believe, but for them it’s a “faith-based” belief. By their numbers they give comfort to the Mark’s around them.

The Promoters are the ones who keep the bubbles inflated even when they know that the asset exceeds its fundamental value by a large margin. While Shills have no credibility, Promoters have “brand-name” credibility that makes the Marks trust them. What makes the role of the Promoter egregious is that they are a small subset of the Smart Money. They loudly tell the Marks and Shills that everything is just fine, enticing them to buy into the bubble, even as the Promoters are liquidating their own positions.

Investment banks who sold CDO’s (synthetic collateralized debt obligations,) in the financial meltdown and the mortgage lenders in the housing bubble are just two examples. Some investment banks actually bet that the very investments they were selling their customers would fail. There’s a special place in hell waiting for these guys (only because our political and financial regulatory system won’t deal with them while they’re on earth.)

The armour strikes back

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

The future of armour — that is, tanks and other armored fighting vehicles — has been bleak for decades, ever since Soviet-made anti-tank missiles wiped out Israeli forces in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, but The Economist looks on the bright side:

Anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) penetrate armour with a shaped charge. This explodes after the tip of the warhead has sunk into the target. The brunt of the blast is projected straight ahead, forcing a powerful spike of metal, usually copper, into and through the armour. Using steel alone, few vehicles today could carry enough armour to stop even an inexpensive RPG reliably.

To provide added protection, engineers have developed explosive-reactive armour. This involves covering parts of a vehicle with bricks of plastic explosives sandwiched between metal plates. When a warhead hits the outer metal plate, the explosives underneath (also specially shaped) detonate and force the sandwich to rapidly bulge as the plates move apart. This can shear the armour-piercing spike into bits, which are then less likely to pierce the underlying armour.

The Israel Defence Forces, shaken by their losses during the Yom Kippur war, developed an early but effective explosive-reactive armour that kept tank losses exceptionally light during the 1982 Lebanon war. The innovation, however, created a new problem: the explosive bricks generate shrapnel which can kill nearby infantry or civilians. As a result, when America’s Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles are clad in explosive-reactive armour they are not used in civilian areas.
Another approach is to use new materials. Steel armour performs well against a powerful, broad blast, but if the energy is focused on a small spot the metal can “melt like butter”, says an engineer with an American manufacturer of armoured vehicles. To cope with that, scientists have developed hard ceramic composites made from rubber and epoxy resins. Unlike steel, they respond to tremendous pressure by snapping. This action can break up a projectile or a shaped charge. A ceramic armour called Dorchester Level 2, used on British Challenger 2 tanks, is reportedly at least three times as resistant to some strikes as the same weight of steel.

The shockwave from a buried “improvised explosive device” (IED) can tear into a vehicle or toss it over. SJH Projects, a small British company, has developed a so-called “stone sponge” material that, fixed to a vehicle’s undercarriage, partially absorbs the blast. XPT, as it is called, is a roughly 2cm-thick sheet of silica particles glued together with a strong, heat-resistant resin. Small pores, visible with a magnifying glass, channel the blast into mazes of micro-chambers. As they are destroyed, the blast-energy is absorbed. It costs about $17,000 to protect a jeep-sized vehicle using XPT, and it only works once. Steve Holland, the owner of SJH Projects, says NATO trials with crash-test dummies show that the material dramatically reduces spine and skeletal injuries.

The other option is to fight fire with fire, something large naval vessels have been hoping to do for decades:

On March 1st an RPG was fired at an Israeli tank patrolling near the Gaza Strip security barrier. A radar system on the tank tracked the incoming warhead, feeding data to a computerised gun that shot it down with a small burst of projectiles. Israel plans to deploy the system, called Trophy, more widely. Daniel Klein, an armaments official at the EDA, reckons that the foiled attack, probably the first of its kind, bodes well for defending military vehicles. An additional benefit, he believes, is that Trophy and other so-called “active protection” systems are lightweight.

I can see terrorists using reactive armor and active protection to cause civilian casualties.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Chess Is An Accurate Wargame

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Chess is an accurate wargame, Jim Dunnigan argues, for the period it covers, the pre-gunpowder period:

Chess is a highly stylized game. It is always set up the same way, the playing pieces and the playing board are always the same. The board is quite simple. Each of the pieces has clearly defined capabilities and starting positions, much like soldiers in ancient warfare. Given that ancient armies were so unwieldy and communication so poor, it is easy to see why each player in chess is allowed to move only one piece per turn. Because the armies were so hard to control, the battles were generally fought on relatively flat, featureless ground. Then, as now, the organization of the army represented the contemporary social classes. Thus the simularity between chess pieces and the composition of ancient armies.

As a minor point on the history of chess, the “queen” was, until quite recently, called not the “queen” but the “general,” “prime minister,” or other similar titles to represent the piece’s true function, namely, the actual head of the army who had under his personal command the most powerful troops. This is why the “queen” piece is so powerful. Not only does it represent the single best body of troops, but also the very leadership of the army. The king, on the other hand, is indeed the king of the kingdom, without whose presence the army is lost. Thus, the king is not necessarily a soldier of any particular talent. During the battle his main function is to survive and to serve as a symbol, a rallying point for his army.

Lessons from the Japanese Nuclear-Plant Disaster

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

US Marines have learned lessons from the Japanese nuclear-plant disaster:

The first Marines deployed for ground operations in northern Japan were equipped with lightweight radiation suits and hoods, potassium-iodide pills and handheld radiation detectors. Briefers said that all crew members wore so-called dosimeters to track potential exposure to radiation, and dosimeters were also installed aboard Marine aircraft. At the end of each flight, personnel, aircraft and equipment were scanned for possible exposure. A specialized team prepared daily reports with updated radiological readings around Japan to give military commanders and officials a snapshot of the situation.

According to briefing slides prepared by the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s nuclear-incident response team, Marine teams surveyed a total of 73 aircraft, more than 300 vehicles and major pieces of equipment, and hundreds of personnel.

The exposure of personnel was, for the most part, negligible. But Marine teams identified a total of 25 aircraft requiring decontamination. Stripping down and cleaning aircraft of radiological contamination became a manpower-intensive task.

According to Marines, it took 1,200 man hours to decontaminate one “hot” CH-46 helicopter that had contact with radioactive debris. Certain parts on the aircraft were particularly hard to clean. In some cases, washing down contaminated parts was not enough; some had to be hand-cleaned with industrial wipes.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Russell, the squadron’s maintenance chief, said that “hot spots” tended to develop around parts of the aircraft that force compressed air into the engine. He also said that some surfaces, such as paint on helicopter rotor heads, “soaked up the contamination.”

All told, it took a month to decontaminate all the Okinawa-based aircraft. While that meant aviators fell behind in scheduled flying hours, the squadron commander said the lessons drawn from the operation were worthwhile.

Hang Son Doong

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

The mountain river cave in Vietnam sounds like the kind of place you’d expect to find a shrine to the elder gods:

In the spring of 2009, Sims was a member of the first expedition to enter Hang Son Doong, or “mountain river cave,” in a remote part of central Vietnam. Hidden in rugged Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park near the border with Laos, the cave is part of a network of 150 or so caves, many still not surveyed, in the Annamite Mountains. During the first expedition, the team explored two and a half miles of Hang Son Doong before a 200-foot wall of muddy calcite stopped them. They named it the Great Wall of Vietnam. Above it they could make out an open space and traces of light, but they had no idea what lay on the other side. A year later, they have returned — seven hard-core British cavers, a few scientists, and a crew of porters — to climb the wall, if they can, measure the passage, and push on, if possible, all the way to the end of the cave.

The trail disappears before me into a difficult pile of breakdown — building-size blocks of stone that have fallen from the ceiling and crashed onto the cave floor. I crane my head back, but the immensity of the cave douses my headlamp’s tiny light, as if I were staring up into a starless night sky. I’ve been told I’m inside a space large enough to park a 747, but I have no way to know; the darkness is like a sleeping bag pulled over my head.