You don’t control all the variables

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Trying to figure out why a criminal chooses to commit a crime can be a bit tricky at times, Greg Ellifritz reminds us:

I had been called to a nursing home on the complaint that a homeless man was sitting outside being argumentative with staff and residents. The nursing home staff didn’t want charges filed against the guy. They just wanted me to get him to leave.

I found the man sitting on a bench right in front of the nursing home entrance. I approached him, introduced myself, and explained the reason why I was there. He told me that he was homeless and stayed at a local shelter. He had a bus pass, so I offered to give him a ride to the nearest bus stop so that he could get “home.”

The interaction couldn’t have gone better. I was nice and polite. He was nice and polite. He understood why the nursing home didn’t want him there. I wasn’t going to arrest him. I asked him where he wanted to go and was in the process of taking him there. There was absolutely no motivation for him to attack me.

Yet he did. He extended his hand to shake and when I took it, he shot in for a double leg take down. I sprawled, took his back, and got him cuffed in just a few seconds. As soon as I got his arms behind his back, he stopped fighting and apologized.

If I recall correctly, he was in his mid-40s (a few years older than me at the time). He was really tall, but very skinny and undernourished looking. No past criminal record other than some minor convictions for trespassing and disorderly conduct. He wasn’t on any drugs.

He was just crazy. The voices in his head told him to do it. After I arrested him, he was calm and polite again. He couldn’t tell me why he had tried to take me down. It was almost like he suffered from extremely poor impulse control. He had a strange thought and he just suddenly had to act on it. No rhyme or reason.

Another anecdote:

I was once dispatched to a traffic crash in the early afternoon. After I arrived on scene, I quickly determined that the person who caused the crash was incredibly intoxicated. He was a tiny (103 lbs) male in his 20s and drunk out of his mind (later tested at .229). As I was handcuffing him, I asked him a question:

“Do you have any weapons on you?”

Nods head yes

“What do you have, a gun?”

Nods head yes

“Where is it?”

He says “right here!” and rapidly goes for his waistband.

Greg smash. To the ground we go. I land on top of him, get control of his hands and cuff him. After he’s cuffed, I search him. No gun.

“Why did you say you had a gun?”

Laughs. “Cuz I’m a fuckup”

Another:

About a year ago, I responded to a very chaotic call. A college-age male was playing basketball with his friends on a junior high school playground. His friends reported that he sort of “spaced out” and then suddenly ripped off his shorts and shirt. Clad only in his boxer shorts and shoes, he ran away from his friends at full speed. The friends were puzzled by his actions and started following the nearly naked man.

He ran to a neighborhood across the street from the school. He walked up to the front door of a house and kicked it in. He entered the house and began tearing up all of the furniture and destroying all the art in the house. He did not know the owner of the home and seemingly chose the house randomly. In less than five minutes he caused almost $30,000 in damage and ended up cutting himself pretty badly.

He walked out of the house, took his shoes off, and ran back to the school. There was a girls’ lacrosse game going on. The man ran directly onto the lacrosse field and tried to take lacrosse sticks from a few of the girls. An athletic trainer saw this bleeding man wearing only underwear and appearing disoriented. The trainer approached the bleeding man and asked if he needed medical attention. The man punched the female trainer in the face.

By now, the fans watching the game noticed what was happening. Several of the girls’ fathers chased the man down and tackled him. They held him down until we arrived. It took several cops to get him under some semblance of control and into the back of the police car. He banged his head on the plastic screen that separates the back seat of the cruiser from the driver for almost the entire drive from the scene to the jail.

When he arrived at the station he punched an officer and it took four of us to get him controlled and buckled in to a restraint chair. He soon became almost catatonic. We summoned the medics to come check him out. Blood pressure and heart rate normal. No difficulty breathing. No wounds deep enough to need stitches. He got a clean bill of health.

So why did he destroy a house, attack an athletic trainer, and punch a cop?

We don’t know. About an hour into the arrest, the suspect became fully coherent. He didn’t remember any facet of the incident. He said that he had consumed some “magic mushrooms” and shortly thereafter started acting irrationally. He said he did the mushrooms regularly and that he took the same dose that he always takes. He’s never done anything like this before.

I’ve been a cop for 24 years. My undergraduate degree is in natural resources management. I went to class every day in college with hippie “tree hugger” types who liked to smoke dope and eat mushrooms. I’ve also been to Burning Man five times. I’ve seen LOTS of people high on psychedelic mushrooms. None of those stoned people acted like this guy.

I suspect that he was either lying about what drugs he took, or that he had consumed some contaminated mushrooms. His behavior is more consistent with the behaviors of people doing synthetic cathinones (Spice, K-2, Bath Salts). He was displaying signs of excited delirium, not what I would expect from a person who has taken a “normal” dose of ‘shrooms.

Sometimes the drugs have a more indirect effect:

I asked him if he ever tried to get off the heroin. He said:

“No. I don’t want to get off of it. The drugs don’t even get me that high any more. I inject the heroin just to keep from getting sick. It doesn’t make me happy like it used to.”

“What I like is the adrenaline high from stealing things. I also like the adrenaline high I get from buying the dope without getting caught by the police. Those are my motivations; the drugs just keep me from getting sick. I just really like the thrill I get when I’m stealing things and the heroin ensures that I keep stealing. You can put me in jail, but I’ll start stealing and using again the first day I get out. I’ll never stop. I don’t want to stop”

What’s the point in telling all these stories?

The point is that the criminal who attacks you may have absolutely no motivation whatsoever for the attack. His motivations might also be altered by drugs or alcohol. He might just want the adrenaline spike he gets from committing the crime.

You might never really understand a particular criminal’s motivating drive. Unfortunately that lack of understanding doesn’t prevent the criminal from victimizing you. As I mentioned before, you don’t control all the variables. There are situations where no level of increased awareness, verbal judo, or “de-escalation” will prevent your victimization.

Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History is gargantuan, T. Greer notes:

Really. This intellectual history clocks in at over 760 pages. It narrates various theorists’ attempts to discover and describe the principles of strategy over the last few centuries of Western thought. Freedman covers many definitions of the word ‘strategy’ but never settles on any one of them: the common theme that unites them all is an attempt made by one group of humans to change the behavior of another group. Freedman’s book is divided into three sections and the narrative arc of each follows a different category of strategic interaction: the first, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through military force; the second, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through law, propaganda, media manipulation, revolution, or protest; and the third, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through economic bargaining and financial maneuvering. These categories are less about ends than means. The first group of theories were addressed to generals and statesmen; the second, to activists, revolutionaries, and politicians; and the third, to businessmen and financial strategists.

These three categories of people seem quite different from each other. But they are not. One of the fascinating things about Strategy is how these three groups of theorists regularly faced the very same set of intellectual problems — sometimes stumbling across one of them for the very first time in the same decade theorists in a different stream of strategy were wrestling with the exact same issues. Freedman does not beat you over the head with these parallels. Nevertheless, they vindicate Freedman’s decision to include all of this disparate material in one generously sized book.

Freedman’s history really begins only in the 19th century:

Specifically, 19th century Europe. At this time, no one European country dominates the debates over military, political, or revolutionary strategy. Germany is something of the center-node for strategic thought and practice as the century comes to a close, but the Germans by no means have a monopoly on strategy, and there is no clear division between debates happening within Germany and those happening outside of it. In both military and revolutionary circles, everybody read everybody else.

When American thinkers first show up on the scene in the 1910s, this did not change. They simply joined the conversation. It is clear from Freedman’s profile of American theorists like Jane Addams and John Dewey (not who you expected to show up in this book, is it?), that the American thinkers of this era viewed themselves as voices in an international conversation. Freedman presents them as such; the chapter in which they appear gives equal space to Max Weber and Leo Tolstoy.

This changes in the post-war world. In each of the three eras, Freedman’s intellectual history narrows in on America after 1945. These chapters are devoted almost entirely to case studies involving American social movements, American military conflicts, or American firms. Henceforth he profiles frameworks created by strategic theorists living in America or made relevant because they were written in English and addressed to Americans. There are two main exceptions to this: a chapter on Foucault and French social theory of the 60s and 70s, and a chapter on Japanese business strategy in the 1980s. Even these two chapters earn their place mostly because of the immediate impact their subjects had on American strategic thought in ’80s and ’90s. The utility of French thinking and Japanese praxis is assessed by the impact they had on American conceptions of strategy.

There is a larger pattern here. You will find it on numerous syllabi in philosophy and related topics in the humanities. A chronologically minded 101 course will contain a scatter-shot collection of writings from the ancient and medieval world, a much larger chunk of content from 18th and 19th century Europe, and then around 1950 or so “Western” thought becomes “Anglophone” thought, and most of that is really just “American.” Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it.

Has the engine of thought really left the Old World behind?

I doubt that it has. My reasoning reflects my second observation about the grand course of Freedman’s narrative: the theorists of the post-’60s, for a lack of a better way to put it, seem far less brilliant than those that came before.

Zing!

Zoltan believed he could still turn his ancient missiles into lethal weapons

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

The Serbian battery commander whose missiles downed an American F-16 and F-117 in 1999 retired as a colonel a few years later and revealed how he did it:

Zoltan had about 200 troops under his command. He got to know them well, trained hard and made sure everyone could do what was expected of them. This level of quality leadership was essential, for Zoltan’s achievements were a group effort.

Zoltan used a lot of effective techniques that American air defense experts expected, but did not expect to encounter because of poor leadership by the enemy. For example, Zoltan knew that his major foe was HARM (anti-radar) missiles and electronic detection systems used by the Americans, as well as smart bombs from aircraft who had spotted him. To get around this, he used landlines for all his communications (no cell phones or radio). This was more of a hassle, often requiring him to use messengers on foot or in cars. But it meant the American intel people overhead were never sure where he was.

His radars and missile launchers were moved frequently, meaning that some of his people were always busy looking for new sites to set up in, or setting up or taking down the equipment. His battery traveled over 100,000 kilometers during the 78 day NATO bombing campaign, just to avoid getting hit. They did, and his troops knew all that effort was worth the effort.

The Serbs had spies outside the Italian airbase most of the bombers operated from. When the bombers took off, the information on what aircraft they, and how many, quickly made it to Zoltan and the other battery commanders.

Zoltan studied all the information he could get on American stealth technology, and the F-117. There was a lot of unclassified data, and speculation, out there. He developed some ideas on how to beat stealth, based on the fact that the technology didn’t make the F-117 invisible to radar, just very to get, and keep, a good idea of exactly where the aircraft was. Zoltan figured out how to tweak his radars to get a better lock on stealth type targets. This has not been discussed openly.

The Serbs also set up a system of human observers, who would report on sightings of bombers entering Serbia, and track their progress.

The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time. This made it difficult for the American SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) to use their HARM missiles (that homed in on radar transmissions.) Zoltan never lost a radar to a HARM missile.

Zoltan used the human spotters and brief use of radar, with short range shots at American bombers. The SA-3 was guided from the ground, so you had to use surprise to get an accurate shot in before the target used jamming and evasive maneuvers to make the missile miss. The F-117 he shot down was only 13 kilometers away.

Zoltan got some help from his enemies. The NATO commanders often sent their bombers in along the same routes, and didn’t make a big effort to find out if hotshots like Zoltan were down there, and do something about it. Never underestimate your enemy.

(Hat tip to Alrenous, who mentioned this recently. Frankly, I thought I’d posted about it long ago…)

Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Amazon’s Rekognition face-recognition software doesn’t always work that well, particularly on people of color:

An MIT study released earlier this year found that Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time, yet made no mistakes for lighter-skinned men.

It is the safest force option available

Friday, July 19th, 2019

Rick Smith, CEO of Taser (now Axon Enterprises), does an ask-me-anything on Reddit and surprises the crowd by answering their questions:

Can you please explain why Taser sues medical examiners who cite tasers as a cause of death? And why they push junk science “excited delirium” (a once-obscure medically-unsupported cause of death that, though it predates Taser, has been heavily pushed by the company) explanations rather than the obvious (being electrocuted to death)?

Great question.

First, there is a misperception that TASER sued medical examiners personally—that somehow we’d get monetary damages from them. This could not be further from the truth. The case you are referring to happened in Ohio, where a medical examiner listed the TASER as a cause of death in two different cases. As a result of that ruling, several officers were charged criminally, and many were sued in civil court.

Here’s the problem: there was no supporting evidence that the TASER caused these deaths, and there was ample evidence of other causes of death. In Ohio, the procedure for challenging a medical opinion is to file a challenge in the court—which is exactly what we did. Far from being a spurious claim, we prevailed in court. The judge ruled that the medical examiner had no scientific evidence to support their findings, and the court ordered the TASER be stricken from the cause of death.

I want to be crystal clear: there was never any risk of that medical examiner, or any other, having to pay us a dime. What we wanted was a court to assess the truth of their findings—and that’s what happened. Medical examiners are public officials, and as with any public official, medical examiners have to be able to support their findings with scientific evidence, not personal or political beliefs. We stood up to help defend the officers involved in those incidents and to ensure that medical findings are accurate and supported by science.

Regarding your assertion that electrocution via a TASER is “obvious,” this is not accurate. Electrocution refers to when an electric current passes across the heart and causes it to go into ventricular fibrillation. This is an immediate phenomenon, and the person will lose consciousness within a few seconds. In most cases where there is a death in custody, electrocution can be ruled out by two facts: first, the electrical pathway would need to have the darts in the chest with a current pathway across the heart, and second, the collapse would be immediate. In the vast majority of cases, electrocution can be ruled out because these factors are not present.

We then need to look at other factors involved in these cases. Each year, over 325,000 people die of sudden cardiac death in the U.S. (the #1 cause of death), and another 70,000 people die of drug overdoses. A top trigger for sudden cardiac death is physical exertion and stress (one reason why you see cardiac defibrillators in health clubs). It is hard to imagine a more extreme physical stress and exertion than fighting with the police—and in many cases, people are also under the stress of toxic doses of stimulants like methamphetamines, PCP, or cocaine.

Of course, we continue to do extensive research into how to maximize both the safety and effectiveness of TASER devices. But we also will challenge unsupported claims to ensure the public record is based upon solid science.

Is it really reasonable to suggest that in all 33 wrongful death cases, the person still would have died if they hadn’t been tased?

Yes, there have been cases where the effects of the TASER directly caused a death. There have been a number of fatal injuries related to falls (approximately 15-20) and a number of cases where the energy from a TASER discharge caused combustion of a flammable fluid (approximately 5 cases). So, I do not dispute that TASER weapons have caused deaths.

That said, much of the speculation about direct cardiac risks are not accurate. Our intuitions tend to make us believe that electricity is dangerous. So it’s very difficult to believe that a TASER weapon didn’t cause a death when it happens in an incident where one was used.

However, if you look at the timeline and fact patterns in cases where a subject dies in police custody and there was no TASER used, they tend to follow a similar pattern to the ones in which TASERs are used. In most cases, the fact patterns can rule out a direct cardiac stimulation of VF (see my other answer for details). We then need to look at how much the stress of the TASER contributed to the overall physiologic stress on the individual. We have done several studies in this space, measuring stress either by cortisol levels or by measuring the generation of lactic acid in the bloodstream.

In both cases, the level of physiologic stress caused by a TASER exposure was similar to or less than the pain and stress from pepper spray or physical exertion (such as running or wrestling). It is simply not possible to say that the TASER weapon had no impact, or that the situation would have ended differently if the TASER had not been used. But we can say that, based upon every measure of stress or injury I have seen to date, the risks associated with TASER weapon use are lower than just about every other use-of-force option available today.

I have been hit with a TASER seven times myself, and millions of police officers have been exposed to TASER hits in training with only limited reports of injuries, mostly related to falls. So, while I cannot assure that the TASER weapon is 100 percent safe, I can say I believe it is the safest force option available. And, if the police are ever called to an incident involving one of my family members who becomes violent, I hope they would use the TASER rather than any other force option (once force becomes necessary).

Have you tested the effects of Tasers on people with cardiac abnormalities or other health issues, which may magnify the effects of being hit by a Taser?

Not in people… but in various animal models.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16904553
http://www.aele.org/uk_taser_eval_2006.pdf

It was great, except it neatly sidestepped being shocked as a contributor to cardiovascular stress. Fighting with police and pcp will contribute but I’d imagine every muscle in your body seizing uncontrollably isn’t exactly a non factor.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236947.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19019594

“Conducted electrical weapons were not more activating of the human stress response than other uses of force.”

Net: they do cause stress, but the studies so far suggest the level of stress is similar or lower than other force options such as physical force

Any comment on a recent NPR study that says the police find the taser less effective than the company claims?

https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/729922975/despite-widespread-use-police-rate-tasers-as-less-effective-than-believed

Thanks for the question. I think the point of my book “The End of Killing” is, in some ways, this exact point: TASER weapons are not yet as reliable as firearms. That’s the moonshot for the next 10 years. However, today they are already the most effective and reliable non/less-lethal weapons available.

I believe we are very transparent about their effectiveness and limitations. We have entire segments of our training focused on what can go wrong and how to reduce ineffective uses. That said, I want to address your question specifically, and for simplicity and speed, I am going to do something we never get to do: publish exactly what we sent to NPR in our response to their questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of this made it into the final story, but without further ado:

The “effectiveness” of TASER® Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs) cannot be discussed without first defining relative parameters. When reviewing the “effectiveness” of TASER CEWs at a particular agency, one must ask how the agency is defining effectiveness, how the agency is tracking CEW use, whether the agency is including subject compliance with no deployment (display, LASER or arc only), and in probe deployments, whether the agency is documenting the reason why the deployment is classified as ineffective (missed probe, no completed circuit, etc.). Unfortunately, the answers to these questions vary from agency to agency, as does tracking of CEW deployments, resulting in varying and inaccurate “effectiveness” rates.

At the very least, effectiveness should be defined in a manner that encompasses all possible uses of a TASER CEW: probe deployments, drive stuns and display only (to include LASER and arc display). For example, full neuro-muscular incapacitation (NMI) would not apply if a CEW is only displayed and not deployed. A broader definition which accounts for the intended purpose of CEWs in any mode – to gain the subject’s compliance or control – is more appropriate.

The use of CEWs must also be consistently reported to produce reliable results. For example, very few U.S. agencies consider the mere display of a CEW to be a “use of force” even though that display may result in the subject’s compliance. As a result, those display only CEW uses are not reported and are not included in an agency’s CEW effectiveness numbers. Agencies in other countries, on the other hand, often do include “display only” CEW uses in their use of force reports and report very high compliance rates for those uses. As one example, England and Wales reported that between April 2017 and March 2018, 85% of CEWs uses were “display only” and did not require probe deployment or drive stun.

CEW reporting should also take into account the conditions that must be met for probe deployments to have the potential to cause NMI. These required conditions include a completed circuit and sufficient muscle mass (probe spread). If there is no completed circuit (one or two missed probes), there is no potential for NMI without taking additional steps. All users are trained on these required conditions as well as potential causes of not achieving NMI. By including the reasons a deployment did not achieve NMI, an agency can determine if it was caused by environmental or situational factors versus a weapon error, which can guide what action is needed to increase the chance of obtaining NMI (additional officer training or weapon service).

TASER 7, X2 and X26P CEWs

TASER CEWs are the most studied less lethal tool on an officer’s belt with more than 800 reports, abstracts and studies on the safety and effectiveness of TASER weapons. These studies, along with nearly 4 million field deployments over 25 years, establish they are the most safe and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement. In fact, it is estimated that TASER CEWs have saved more than 200,000 lives. This figure is derived from Dr. Alexander Eastman’s 2008 research wherein he concluded that 5.4% of the CEW deployments included in his study clearly prevented the use of lethal force, as well as the known number of TASER deployments over the course of the company’s history.

Notwithstanding this wealth of research confirming the safety and effectiveness of TASER CEWs, Axon remains committed to continuous product development that keeps the needs of our customers and the communities they serve top-of-mind. Through extensive voice-of-customer sessions, including police ride-alongs to experience the realities of their jobs firsthand, Axon employees gain insight into customer needs, as well as opportunities for improvement and pain points. Axon engineers are also constantly striving to improve our products with new inventions and developments that may not have been possible just a few years ago. As technology improves, so do our products.

The TASER 7 is the result of Axon’s commitment to develop new, innovative products and improve its existing products. Some of those developments sought to address common reasons why a CEW may not cause NMI, including missed probes, clothing disconnects and insufficient probe spreads. The TASER 7 provides significant changes to range deployments by offering two re-designed cartridge options: the Close Quarters Cartridge with a 12-degree probe spread is optimized to be deployed at a distance of 4 to 12 feet, and the Standoff Cartridge with an 3.5-degree probe spread is optimized to be deployed between 11.5 and 22 feet. The redesigned cartridge also has an improved probe design and increased kinetic energy to provide better connection to the target at angles and through thick clothing.

Assuming all conditions are met, a TASER CEW’s ability to cause NMI in probe mode is determined by its waveform, which is described using three main parameters: pulses per second, pulse duration and charge. All three parameters contribute to a CEW’s ability to cause NMI, and must be considered together. Generally speaking, increasing the pulses per second and charge, and decreasing pulse duration, increases the ability to cause NMI.

When testing its CEWs for effectiveness, Axon uses the human motivation protocol which is published and peer-reviewed. That testing includes a panel of law enforcement and medical experts evaluating whether and to what extent the volunteer experiences NMI, which helps the company determine the effectiveness of a particular CEW model or waveform. All testing completed by Axon indicates the X2 and X26P reliably produce NMI when all conditions are met and, in fact, provide increased effectiveness through charge metering. The X2 also increases the potential for achieving NMI by providing a second shot in the event the first deployment is unsuccessful.

Have you ever felt that police over-use their Taser specifically because it is non-lethal?

This is certainly a concern. It’s one of the reasons we built a recording device called the “dataport” into the original TASER M26 in 1999 and every model since then. The dataport records every trigger pull, so we can determine how many times an officer used a TASER weapon and allow agencies to monitor for overuse. It’s also why we developed the TASERCam (a camera mounted on the TASER), and ultimately why we developed body cameras.

Because a TASER weapon causes far less injury than a firearm, it is certainly more likely to be used. In most cases, this is a good thing, because the risk of injury from a TASER is about 3 injuries per 1,000 uses—which is far less than for other force options such as batons (about 780 injuries per 1,000 uses). So, generally speaking, if officers are using a TASER instead of a firearm, baton, punch, or other physical force, it’s a move in the right direction because it reduces risk of injuries.

The risk is that officers use the TASER instead of patience and verbal skills. This is a phenomenon some call “TASER dependence,” where officers over-rely on the TASER weapon and escalate to use force when they shouldn’t. I believe this is where body cameras can play a huge role in ensuring that agencies can review the specifics of every TASER weapon use and deter overuse. It’s also why we’re using VR technology to build trainings specifically designed to help officers de-escalate tough situations.

Nothing is truly “non-lethal”. At best it’s “less-lethal”.

This one’s worth diving into, and again, forgive the length. Usually I bore my family with these discussions, so it’s actually a treat to nerd out about it at length on Reddit.

Here’s what I think: the terms “non-lethal,” “less-lethal,” and “less-than-lethal” are all terms for the exact same thing—weapons that are designed to deter or stop a threat without killing the target. Sometimes people think these terms describe varying levels of danger, when they don’t—as if a less-lethal weapon was a more dangerous category than a non-lethal weapon. This is a false dichotomy.

These terms are fundamentally synonyms used to describe one concept: weapons that are designed to achieve their effects without causing fatalities as an intended effect. Less-lethal is the term used in policing. I often use non-lethal in writing and in public, since it is the simplest, most widespread label. It remains the term of choice in both academia and the military. The term “non-lethal” describes the intent of weapons that are designed to achieve their effects with a low probability of death or serious damage. However, given the very nature of weaponry and the context in which it’s being used, this risk can never become zero.

As non-lethal weapons became widely adopted by law enforcement, the language used to describe them came under much more intensive legal scrutiny, especially in cases in which police departments were sued for the alleged misuse of those weapons. While the phrase “non-lethal” might get the point across in plain English, it can be a troubling term in a court of law. If one interprets “non-lethal weapon” to mean a weapon that will never cause death, it sets a very high bar. That led to the adoption of different terminology, such as “less-lethal” or “less-than-lethal.”

But as I just noted at the beginning, these terms don’t correspond to any meaningful differences between weapons. In this case, I believe that the clearest distinction is also the most meaningful: the one between lethal weapons (those specifically designed to kill as an intended effect) and non-lethal weapons (those designed to avoid killing, which nevertheless carry some level of risk). That’s the distinction I use, and I find it’s the simplest one.

What’s your opinion about police using tasers as compliance weapons? I’m not talking about drive stun — I’m talking about repeated discharging of the weapon on someone who was already tasered once. I’ve seen quite a few videos where police say, “Roll over (or do X) or else you’re gonna get it again!” after the suspect has been shot once and is already on the ground.

I understand that for a rural officer dealing with an armed man, this is probably warranted and preferable to shooting him. But so many times, I see people who are unarmed and are merely non-compliant (for example, they’re already on the ground but just not rolling over). Taser is meant to incapacitate, and the suspects are already incapacitated — and yet the officer applies it again and again as a compliance tool. Is this how taser should be used? Is this how officers are trained?

This one is, indeed, complicated, as it depends a lot on the circumstances and level of threat perceived. In general, we train that officers should move quickly to rapidly disarm and restrain the subject and to minimize the number of TASER applications. Each subsequent application of a TASER discharge is its own use of force and needs to be justifiable based on the facts and circumstances of each case at the moment the decision was made to apply another discharge. There certainly have been cases where the first TASER discharge was found justifiable, but continued discharges were found unjustifiable.

I’m a current LEO and our department is the only one in the county (on top of being the largest in the county) who dont carry and use tasers. We usually hear the same talk of them being too expensive, too aggressive looking, and them possibly being abused if we got them. I think the town manager is currently for them, but our chief seems to be very much against them. I think we might get body cameras before we actually get tasers.

What are some things we could say to change their minds?

Here are some stats that might help you make your case: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232215.pdf. But sometimes stories are more powerful than statistics. Here’s a true story, which, full disclosure, I’m cribbing from my book (hence the italics), but which I think could help:

A highway patrolman is cruising on the interstate when an urgent call comes over his car radio: there’s a disturbance at a residence involving a woman who’s belligerent, possibly intoxicated, and armed. The address is a five-minute drive away, so the officer radios back that he’s en route. He puts on his sirens and speeds to the destination.

When he arrives, two other officers are already at the scene, a darkened, one-story house. The other officers are posted at either side of the screen door, their handguns drawn at their sides. The highway patrolman draws his handgun, edges up to a safe distance, and tries to communicate with the woman through the screen. From the radio dispatcher, the two officers already on the scene, and his communication with the woman, he’s able to piece together the story: she’s recently had two children removed from her care by the Florida Department of Children and Families, she’s deeply distraught, and she’s talking about hurting herself.

In the moment, the cop makes a judgment. He looks at the house, hears the grief in the woman’s voice, and realizes that she isn’t homicidal—she’s suicidal. She is attempting what is known as suicide by cop. She would leave the police no choice but to shoot her. Sensing this, the patrolman holsters his handgun and reaches for his TASER instead.

Seconds later, the woman kicks open the screen door, brandishing butcher knives in each hand. The patrolman fires his TASER device, hitting the woman in the chest and rendering her immobile on the ground. He and the two other officers are able to remove the knives from her clenched hands and to handcuff her without resistance. As they walked her to a waiting police car, one of the officers hears her mumble, “I’m sorry.”

Soon after, the woman’s family members arrive on the scene. Seeing the police cars with their lights flashing and an ambulance that has been called to perform a medical evaluation, they think that the woman has been shot dead. In statements given to the police, they confirm that the woman had discussed her plans to provoke a police officer into shooting her. They aren’t surprised that she has gone through with it; they are surprised that she is still alive.

The story has a postscript, and it takes place several years later. The patrolman who fired the TASER weapon is eating at a local restaurant, when he recognizes one of the servers: it is the woman whose attempt at suicide by cop had failed on that April night, because one of the responding officers was equipped with a non-lethal weapon. The woman recognizes the patrolman, too. She points him out to another employee and says, “See that guy? He saved my life.”

The story of a patrolman who avoided suicide by cop is real. It happened and the police officer shared it with me. Suicide by cop (SBC) is a real phenomenon—and it illustrates just how perverse incentives and behaviors can become when police officers have the ability to take a life. The term goes back to the 1950s, and by one estimate, almost 10 percent of the police shootings that happen every year are attempts at suicide by cop. Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical and police psychologist, notes that while some incidents evolve in the moment into suicide by cop shootings, many are planned: “While some SBC incidents arise spontaneously out of the anger and panic of these situations, a good number of them appear to be planned, as shown by the fact that in nearly a third of SBC cases investigators find a suicide note that apologizes to the police for deliberately drawing their fire.”

I’ve read some opinions/studies that claim less than lethal weapons increase escalation and police use it instead of de-escalating with words or physical force and not instead of using their gun. Since a taser, or most less lethal weapons, can kill this is obviously not a good thing.

I for one am quite glad the police here don’t carry tasers and most if not all less lethal weapons are illegal for the general public. But on the other hand we don’t have the same issue with gun violence that the US has.

What’s your view of this?

While there is some risk that having less dangerous weapons might lead to more frequent usage, this argument taken to the extreme would conclude that we should only give police officers guns and nothing else. But we give police pepper spray and batons, because even if they are more likely to be used, we believe that they are preferable to firing a gun. We want police to have options—not just to depend on the firearm as their instrument of first and only resort.

Even compared to traditional force tactics like punches, baton strikes, etc., the TASER weapon has a far lower injury rate. (See this study from the Department of Justice. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232215.pdf.) If your local police do not have the TASER weapon as an option, the risk of them injuring someone is significantly higher. That’s one reason that every constabulary in the United Kingdom now uses TASER weapons—and the UK is probably at the far end of the spectrum in terms of gun violence compared to the U.S.

Didn’t Axon Enterprises created facial recognition software for use by the police? Did the project really stop, or is it on pause for the moment? Would greater transparency around the process help the public understand the dangers to law enforcement’s use of such technology, particularly given its various constraints and its racist applications? Could you speak to the use of FRT (facial rec technology) by police and why Axon started created the software to be deployed in things like body-worn cameras in the first place? Did no one at Axon notice that they were potentially creating a mass surveillance system?

I really appreciate the question. We specifically have not developed facial recognition software to run on a body camera.

Simply put, the accuracy of the technology—particularly disparities in accuracy across different ethnicities—is highly questionable today. Ultimately, I think the bias problems will be solved, at which point in time we will need to think hard about the appropriateness and constitutionality of using facial recognition on body cameras. We’ll need to decide as a society whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Today, my view is that the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

That said, we are continuing to monitor developments in the facial recognition space, because there’s real potential there to help improve public safety. We’re also working together with an AI ethics advisory board we created before deploying any solutions in this space. Happy to say more if have follow-up questions, but if you want to learn more about all that, you can go here: https://www.axon.com/company/news/responsible-ai. And for something more recent, here: https://www.axon.com/company/news/ai-ethics-board-report.

I appreciate tasers in principle as less-lethal options but I worry about head injuries when I see tasered subjects fall. Has there been any research done in that area?

That’s a meaningful question as injuries from falls are likely the greatest risk. I currently estimate the risk on the order of about 1 fatal fall injury per 200,000 uses (i.e., 20 cases in 4 million field uses). The primary way to reduce the risk is through training—to avoid using a TASER weapon on people at elevated risk from falls. This includes people running, people who are at elevated heights, or who are operating a vehicle of some type. Unfortunately, the act of incapacitation itself does carry the risk of an uncontrolled fall, and while we try to mitigate that risk as best we can, it’s something we can reduce but not eliminate entirely.

Rick, I have read that tasers made for Police use have a setting called drive stun, which is designed to inflict pain in order to Force compliance. this sounds an awful lot like a torture device to me, what sorts of precautions are you considering to keep this from being abused?

From Wikipedia: A Las Vegas police document says “The Drive Stun causes significant localized pain in the area touched by the Taser, but does not have a significant effect on the central nervous system. The Drive Stun does not incapacitate a subject but may assist in taking a subject into custody.”[22] The UCLA Taser incident[23] and the University of Florida Taser incident[24] involved university police officers using their Taser’s “Drive Stun” capability (referred to as a “contact tase” in the University of Florida Offense Report).

Great question. One of the key limitations of today’s TASER weapons is that they only have 1 or 2 shots. So, if the officer deploys the weapon and misses the target and the subject attacks the officer, the officer can press the front of the weapon directly against the body of the subject and it will deliver an electric jolt from the front of the device. This is called a “Drive Stun” as the user must physically push the front of the weapon against the subject.

When we originally designed the device, this was a fall-back defensive measure. However, some agencies had policies where they would remove the cartridge from the front of the weapon and only use the front of the device to deliver a “drive stun.” Because it did not involve firing the darts, some agencies felt this was a lower use-of-force than firing the darts.

What we have seen in the field is that the use of the weapon in drive stun does not cause incapacitation, but rather only pain. So, most agencies have moved away from using the drive stun as a stand-alone capability. In our training guidelines, we recommend against using the drive stun as a primary use case because it is less effective than using the darts.

One powerful positive aspect of the drive stun: our newer weapons (X2 and TASER 7) allow the operator to display a warning arc across the front of the weapon without unloading the cartridges. In the UK, agencies have seen over 80% of situations resolved only by showing the arc display—which means they avoided the need to fire the darts or use any force other than the display of the electric arc.

Much of our training now focuses on how to de-escalate any situation, either through verbal skills or through the display of the arc in attempts to attain cooperation without deploying force. We have also recently deployed VR based training to teach officers better empathy for persons suffering from mental health issues such as autism or schizophrenia. (To see more about this, check out: https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/virtual-reality-training-tech-takes-cops-directly-minds/story?id=63125741)

On the topic of avoiding abuse, this was the primary driver for us to create body cameras—to record how police officers were using TASER weapons precisely to deter abuse, and hold officers accountable for their use. I’ll say more about that shortly!

What’s your view on Tranq darts as they seem to be your prime competitor?

Okay, I have to go long on this, because it’s a subject I’ve spent a lot of time on. So my TLDR response, for those who don’t want all the shop talk: I haven’t seen tranquilizer darts deployed by police or military anywhere in the world to date. They get a lot of play in Hollywood movies, but in the real world, I have only seen them used on animals.

The longer answer: If you want to stop someone without requiring physical injury, the best way to do it is to interfere with their command and control system—their nervous system. For all its complexity, the motor nervous system functions via two general mechanisms: electrical and chemical.

On the chemical front, we can think of nerve cells a bit like biological transistors. They switch on and off, passing information around the body. Where two nerve cells meet, the junction is called a synapse. At the synapse, chemicals are released from one nerve cell, and those chemicals stimulate the nerve cell on the other side. We can influence the nervous system through various chemicals, such as anesthetics or paralytic agents. If you have ever had surgery, you have experienced a chemical influence that shut down consciousness across your central nervous system.

There are a wide number of chemical agents we could use to impair someone’s nervous system, but there are only a few ways you could deploy them: primarily through injection or inhalation (or perhaps through skin contact or ingestion). For injection, we have tranquilizer darts, as you asked about, and they are used frequently for subduing wild animals, or large animals in zoos. Darts can inject a tranquilizing drug into the subject, usually using an intra-muscular pathway. But injecting a drug into the muscles is a slower pathway to effectiveness than injecting it directly into the veins — because it takes some time to absorb, which is why if you’ve seen lions on a nature documentary get hit with a dart, they can keep running around for a while before they collapsed. Of course, it’s essentially impossible to hit a moving target in their vein, meaning that instant incapacitation is out. It’s also difficult to control the dosage relative to body size and to predict allergic and other reactions. In fact, in conversations with animal control specialists, we have heard anecdotally that tranquilizer darts have a reasonably high fatality rate, on the order of 10%-20%.

For inhalation, there are nerve agents like nerve gases. Some can be combined with chemical formulations that may allow them to transmit transdermally (through the skin). Most nerve agents that have been created as weapons have been intended for lethal use. Nerve agents typically disrupt the motor nerves at the synapses by preventing the nerve cells from functioning properly. In theory, inhalants could be developed for the intended use of delivering a non-lethal effect. In 2002, Russian special forces tried this. They actually attempted to rescue 850 hostages from 40-50 armed Chechen rebels who had seized control of a Moscow theater in 2002. On the fourth day of the siege, Russian special forces pumped an aerosol anesthetic into the theater. The effects were neither immediate nor entirely safe. It killed a number of hostages and failed to incapacitate many terrorist fighters (apparently some had gas masks). In all, about 200 people died in the raid. (https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/world/hostage-drama-in-moscow-the-toxic-agent-us-suspects-opiate-in-gas-in-russia-raid.html)

So where does that leave us? Well, it brings us back to electricity. As I said, nerve cells are like transistors. While chemistry rules the day at the connections between nerve cells, it is electricity that transmits the signals along nerve fibers. We can impair the command and control systems of the human body by electrical means that stimulate motor nerves using the same mechanism of their normal function. And electricity has some real advantages. Its effects are immediate—there is no waiting for it to take effect. Dosing can be controlled electronically, allowing precise measurement and adjustment. Electricity also has a very large safety margin. The difference between the effective dose and a potentially lethal dose is more than 10-fold, meaning that we should be able to design a weapon that has enough electrical charge to be highly effective while maintaining a significant margin of safety to avoid dangerous unintended effects.

So for those reasons, I’m not particularly worried about tranquilizer darts, and I’m much more sanguine on electricity as the backbone of nonlethal weapons. Forgive the length, but this is something I’ve thought about a lot!

How would you go about transitioning away from lethal weapons for domestic law enforcement when criminals have access to similar weapons but don’t adhere to any principles?

The only way this will happen is if the non-lethal weapons reach a point where they are more effective at stopping the threat than a police pistol. At first, this might sound crazy: “What could be more effective than making somebody dead?” But the truth is that pistols don’t stop people immediately, every time. A bullet from a handgun causes traumatic tissue damage, and 30-50% of the time eventual death. However, an FBI analysis found that a lethal shot directly to the heart may not even stop someone from firing back for up to 14 seconds (the period of time it takes for the brain to shut down from lack of blood flow). During the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death fight, many people don’t even realize they have been shot until it’s over. The only way a bullet from a pistol causes and immediate incapacitation is a hit to the brain or upper spinal cord, which is pretty hard to do under stress.

An upside of electrical weapons is that they can provide a higher degree of incapacitation even if the hit is to a remote portion of the body. The downside is that, today, the ability to put two electrified darts onto the target and through the clothing is less reliable than using a traditional bullet from a police pistol that gives you 17 shots. But these are engineering problems—and I believe we can engineer solutions. Electric effects are more profound and immediate than bullet wounds outside of the central nervous system. We just need to meet or exceed the reliability levels of getting the effect delivered to the target.

Let me say one more thing about this: police officers don’t sign up to become police officers in order to take lives, and you’d be surprised at the negative after-effects of a shooting death on a police officer. There’s an assumption that just because they’re trained to use a firearm professionally that somehow the pain and trauma of taking a life disappears. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Most officers involved in a lethal force incident eventually leave policing, citing the lethal force incident as one of the key reasons–if not the key reason–why they left.

We need better nonlethal weapons, period. Even police were skeptical of our weapons in the early days—based, at least in part, on the principle behind your question–but now they tell us they want the best non-lethal options they can get. If they can deal with a situation without taking someone’s life, that’s the best-case scenario for everyone involved.

As an entrepreneur in the weapons industry, how hard did you have to search to get funding for your ideas? Or did you just fund it entirely yourself?

I’m running into this challenge myself, it seems there’s no clear path to find funding for a product when it involves weapons or firearms. Crowdfunding seems like the obvious answer in my mind but firearms and weapons products are banned on every major crowdfunding platform. I’ve dumped a lot of my own money into my own R&D but taking the product to market is the big leap I can’t afford.

We had to fund TASER entirely via friends and family. Venture capital was allergic to this space, partially because it didn’t easily fit into existing focus areas (such as the internet or health care), and partially because it is inherently controversial.

I believe this is a real problem, and why I challenge the tech industry to rethink their ban on supporting work or even advertising in this space. If we are going to solve the hardest problems facing our society, we need our brightest minds working on these problems, and investors supporting that work. It was a brutal process in creating TASER, and we drove my parents to the brink of financial ruin before turning the corner in 1999. The first outside capital we ever raised was in an IPO in 2001 – after we had already proven the business a success. I wish I had a better answer for you, but raising money in this space is insanely hard. Your best bet is to find angels who believe in your mission.

What are the plans for extending distance and accuracy for future models?

One of the ideas for long-range is to use drones to carry a TASER payload. See https://www.flipsnack.com/endofkillingcomic/the-end-of-killing/full-view.html for an online graphic novel depicting some of those scenarios. To be clear, the drone idea is still a concept, not a product. I put it in the book to get feedback about the idea, the risks, and the possible use cases. Would love your thoughts!

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the taser is named after the book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, which featured — at least, according to Wikipedia — Jack Cover’s ‘childhood hero’ Tom Swift.

Be honest: were you and the other early developers all on board with that as a name? Or did you think it was a bit of a strange choice to name it after a children’s book? How did that pitch go?

The name TASER was selected in the late 1960s. I was born in 1970, so the name was set well before I had any input. I would say, though, that when I first started to research the non-lethal weapons space, I thought the name TASER was an amazing brand name. It is powerful in connoting what the device is and does, and honestly, I was surprised when I learned it was an acronym.

Let me also add: Tom Swift was a huge inspiration for a lot of innovators and futurists, including, among others, Ray Kurzweil.

As much as I love it, what concerns me about the product is its high rate of failure. From memory I believe my force cites a 43% success rate upon firing.

43% sounds really low to me. I just saw statics out of the UK showing the success rate of the X2 is 96% when both darts make skin contact with a spread of 30 cm or greater. That number drops to 50% if one dart is in clothing only and the spread is less than 23 cm. So, it’s all about penetrating the clothing and getting good spread conditions. The new TASER 7 is in review for approval in the UK, and we believe it will significantly improve both accuracy and clothing penetration.

Has anyone ever tried to calculate how many lives have been spared already because tasers were used instead of bullets? What’s the next big leap in non-lethal alternatives to guns?

Our estimates put it at over 218,000 instances where TASER weapon was used when police were legally justified to use lethal force. This is based on a study out of Dallas that found in about 5.4% of TASER deployments, police were legally justified to use lethal force. We then multiply that rate by the estimated number of TASER uses in the field (now over 4 million) to get to an estimate.

O course, there is no way of knowing how many of those people would have been shot and either killed or seriously injured, but it’s a pretty good rough-order-of-magnitude estimate of the number of very high-risk situations resolved with a TASER weapon. (For more details on the estimates and the studies: https://www.axon.com/how-safe-are-taser-weapons)

Our Chief recently made the statement in a training that “if it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen.” Cameras can be very helpful in some cases but I feel that they also contribute to an erosion of public trust. No video can show the full picture of an incident and it allows for “armchair quarterbacking.” Graham v Conor specifically states that “a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” How do you feel about body cameras being used in direct conflict of that principle?

From my perspective, I think body cameras are really helping rebuild the public trust in police. Without them, all we would have are videos from third-party observers, who only tend to record the end of a confrontation without all of the context leading up to it.

Consider, for instance, the anger and emotion around the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri. People formed very strong opinions very quickly, and many people assumed the cop executed an innocent man. The subsequent investigation largely supported the officers’ testimony that he was in the midst of a violent assault. (See this story for the details: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/03/16/lesson-learned-from-the-shooting-of-michael-brown/?utm_term=.8df35a2aaffd)

If Officer Wilson had been wearing a body camera, I think the facts of the case would have come to light much more quickly, and perhaps we would have seen less anger and distrust toward police. While a body camera cannot capture the exact perceptions happening in the mind of a police officer under stress, the impartial events captured on the camera can help us all get to the truth of the situation faster.

As an aside, I have experienced that most officers don’t want to wear a body camera when it is first proposed. After about 90 days in the field, most refuse to go on patrol without it—because they have already captured an incident that will protect them from a potential complaint.

Is there some level of electricity that would even bring a really strong/big crazy person on a ton of drugs down? Or would it have to be so high it would most likely kill most other people that are smaller or not on such drugs?

Thanks for the question! One advantage of electricity is that it has a large margin between the level we need for an effective dose and a potentially lethal dose. I believe that the output of the TASER 7 is optimized for maximum effect with maximum safety. Namely, we have looked at whether it would make sense to have multiple settings for the electrical output, and the answer is “no.” It would add one more level of confusion for the operator, and I don’t believe it would improve safety.

When TASER weapons fail to subdue a subject, it is almost always due to some circumstance such as a missed probe, a clothing disconnect that breaks the circuit, or a close spread of the darts that does not stimulate enough body mass. We are focusing on improving performance against these areas to ensure an even higher degree of effectiveness in the field.

I have seen many videos where a good TASER weapon connection incapacitates even the most violent offenders, whether they are on drugs or not. Here’s one example of a violent subject on meth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVKLulFG5hg

So, the real challenge is solving for effective reliable connection to the target more so than giving the user the ability to adjust electrical output.

Taser does offer a few civilian models: the tiny Pulse, the not-so-gun-like Bolt, and the much larger X26P Professional Series. This is the key point:

All other stun guns only induce pain and do not incapacitate muscle or knock down an attacker. Only a TASER weapon is equipped with neuromuscular incapacitation which will immobilize an attacker.

Kiwis are keeping their guns

Monday, July 15th, 2019

New Zealand has an estimated 1.5 million firearms. It’s not clear how many of those are semi-automatic, but it’s probably far, far more than the 700 that have been turned in under the new gun control scheme:

That gun owners would, in large numbers, defy restrictions should have been anticipated by anybody who knows the history of government attempts to disarm their subjects — or who just glanced across the Tasman Sea to Australia.

“In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities,” wrote Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, after Australia’s 1996 compensated confiscation of firearms following a mass murder in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Csaszar put the number of illegally retained arms in Australia at between two and five million.

“Many members of the community still possess grey-market firearms because they did not surrender these during the 1996–97 gun buyback,” the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission conceded in a 2016 report. “The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission continues to conservatively estimate that there are more than 260,000 firearms in the illicit firearms market.”

How to fight a war in space (and get away with it)

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

We depend on satellites, so knocking them out is becoming a military priority:

Today, much more civilian infrastructure relies on GPS and satellite communications, so attacks on them could lead to chaos. The military leans more heavily on satellites too: data and video feeds for armed UAVs, such as the Reaper drones that the US military has flying over Afghanistan and Iraq, are sent via satellite to their human operators. Intelligence and images are also collected by satellites and beamed to operations centers around the world. In the assessment of Chinese analysts, space is used for up to 90% of the US military’s intelligence.

[...]

Non-state actors, as well as more minor powers like North Korea and Iran, are also gaining access to weapons that can bloody the noses of much larger nations in space.

That doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations. Some hackers are thought to have done this already.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands.

[...]

There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground. Again, it’s surprisingly easy. In the summer of 2013, some students at the University of Texas used a briefcase-sized device to spoof a GPS signal and cause an $80 million private yacht to veer hundreds of meters off course in the Mediterranean. Their exploit wasn’t detected (they later announced it themselves).

[...]

There’s no evidence that anyone has yet used lasers to destroy targets in space, though aircraft-borne lasers have been tested against missiles within the atmosphere. The DIA report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent.

Lasers need to be aimed very precisely, and to work well they require complex adaptive optics to make up for atmospheric disturbances, much as some large ground-based telescopes do. Yet there is some evidence, all unconfirmed and eminently deniable, that they are already being used. In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

[...]

In November 2016, the Commercial Spaceflight Center at AGI, an aerospace firm, noticed something strange. Shortly after it was launched, a Chinese satellite, supposedly designed to test high-performance solar cells and new propellants, began approaching a number of other Chinese communications satellites, staying in orbit near them before moving on. It got within a few miles of one—dangerously close in space terms. It paid visits to others in 2017 and 2018. Another Chinese satellite, launched last December, released a second object once it reached geostationary orbit that seemed to be under independent control.

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically.

Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

They suddenly find themselves in a society that is disgustingly self-centered

Monday, July 8th, 2019

T. Greer’s life’s short course has brought him to many places, bound him to sundry peoples, and urged him to varied trades:

Yet out of the lands I’ve lived and roles I’ve have donned, none blaze in my memory like the two years I spent as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ. It is a shame that few who review my resume ask about that time; more interesting experiences were packed into those few mission years than in the rest of the lot combined.

To be a missionary is to confront the uncanny. You cannot serve without sounding out the weird bottoms of the human heart. But if missionary life forces you to come full contact with mankind at its most desperate and unsettled, so too it asks you to witness mankind at its most awesome and ethereal. Guilt’s blackest pit, fear’s sharpest grip, rage at its bluntest, hope at its highest, love at its longest and fullest — to serve as a missionary is to be thrust in the midst of the full human panorama, with all of its foulness and all of its glory. I doubt I shall ever experience anything like it again. I cannot value its worth. I learned more of humanity’s crooked timbers in the two years I lived as missionary than in all the years before and all the years since.

Attempting to communicate what missionary life is like to those who have not experienced it themselves is difficult. You’ll notice my opening paragraph restricted itself to broad generalities; it is hard to move past that without cheapening or trivializing the experience.

Yet there is one segment of society that seems to get it. In the years since my service, I have been surprised to find that the one group of people who consistently understands my experience are soldiers. In many ways a Mormon missionary is asked to live something like a soldier: like a soldier, missionaries go through an intense ‘boot camp’ experience meant to reshape their sense of self and duty; are asked to dress and act in a manner that erodes individuality; are ‘deployed’ in far-flung places that leave them isolated from their old friends, family members, and community; are pushed into contact with the full gamut of human personality in their new locales; live within a rigid hierarchy, follow an amazing number of arcane rules and regulations, and hold themselves to insane standards of diligence, discipline, and obedience; and spend years doing a job which is not so much a job as it is an all-encompassing way of life.

The last point is the one most salient to this essay. It is part of the reason both many ex-missionaries (known as “RMs” or “Return Missionaries” in Mormon lingo) and many veterans have such trouble adapting to life when they return to their homes. This comparison occurred to me first several years ago, when I read a Facebook comment left by a man who had served as a Marine mechanic in Afghanistan. He was commenting on an interview Sebstation Junger had done to promote his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

I really enjoyed the audiobook of Tribe, by the way, but audiobooks don’t lend themselves to excerpts.

Many RMs report a sense of loss and aimlessness upon returning to “the real world.” They suddenly find themselves in a society that is disgustingly self-centered, a world where there is nothing to sacrifice or plan for except one’s own advancement. For the past two years there was a purpose behind everything they did, a purpose whose scope far transcended their individual concerns. They had given everything — “heart, might, mind and strength” — to this work, and now they are expected to go back to racking up rewards points on their credit card? How could they?

The soldier understands this question. He understands how strange and wonderful life can be when every decision is imbued with terrible meaning. Things which have no particular valence in the civilian sphere are a matter of life or death for the soldier. Mundane aspects of mundane jobs (say, those of the former vehicle mechanic) take on special meaning. A direct line can be drawn between everything he does — laying out a sandbag, turning off a light, operating a radio — and the ability of his team to accomplish their mission. Choice of food, training, and exercise before combat can make the difference between the life and death of a soldier’s comrades in combat. For good or for ill, it is through small decisions like these that great things come to pass.

In this sense the life of the soldier is not really his own. His decisions ripple. His mistakes multiply. The mission demands strict attention to things that are of no consequence in normal life. So much depends on him, yet so little is for him.

This sounds like a burden. In some ways it is. But in other ways it is a gift. Now, and for as long as he is part of the force, even his smallest actions have a significance he could never otherwise hope for. He does not live a normal life. He lives with power and purpose — that rare power and purpose given only to those whose lives are not their own.

[...]

This sort of life is not restricted to soldiers and missionaries. Terrorists obviously experience a similar sort of commitment. So do dissidents, revolutionaries, reformers, abolitionists, and so forth. What matters here is conviction and cause. If the cause is great enough, and the need for service so pressing, then many of the other things — obedience, discipline, exhaustion, consecration, hierarchy, and separation from ordinary life — soon follow. It is no accident that great transformations in history are sprung from groups of people living in just this way. Humanity is both at its most heroic and its most horrifying when questing for transcendence.

Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

The term “confidence man” appears to have been coined in 1849 during the trial of one William Thompson in New York:

A debonair thief, Thompson had a knack for ingratiating himself with complete strangers on the street and then asking, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Many did, which cost them their expensive timepieces. The much-publicized trial and the odd crime at its heart piqued the interest of Herman Melville, who reworked it eight years later for his under-appreciated high-concept final novel, The Confidence-Man. After boarding a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool’s Day, its Mephistophelean titular character adopts a succession of guises with evocative backstories and surnames (Goodman, Truman, Noble) with the aim of getting one over on fellow passengers. Spurred by self-interest and reflective of society at large, the dupes place unquestioning trust in tokens such as attire and profession, making them as complicit in the con as the perpetrator. In The Adman’s Dilemma, which used literary and cultural waypoints to chart the evolution of the common snake-oil salesman into the modern man of advertising, Paul Rutherford bleakly described Melville’s novel as “a study in deception and even a self-deception so complete that there was no possibility of redemption”.

These contests will be byzantine

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

Suez Deconstructed aims to be a historically rooted how-to manual for statecraft:

The book seeks to convey the experience of “masterminding solutions to giant international crises,” Zelikow writes, by providing “a sort of simulator that can help condition readers just a little more” before confronting their own crises. It sets up that simulation by scrambling the storytelling. First, Suez Deconstructed divides the crisis into three phases: September 1955 through July 1956, July 1956 through October 1956, and October through November of that year. In doing so, the authors hope to show that “most large problems of statecraft are not one-act plays” but instead begin as one problem and then mutate into new ones. This was the case with Suez, which began with Egypt purchasing Soviet arms and which became a multipronged battle over an international waterway. Second, the book proceeds through these phases not chronologically but by recounting the perspectives of each of the six participants: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Egypt. The goal — and the effect — is to deprive the reader of omniscience, creating a “lifelike” compartmentalization of knowledge and perspective.

Zelikow encourages readers to assess Suez by examining three kinds of judgments made by the statesmen during the crisis: value judgments (“What do we care about?”), reality judgments (“What is really going on?”), and action judgments (“What can we do about it?”). Asking these questions, Zelikow argues, is the best means of evaluating the protagonists. Through this structure, Suez Deconstructed hopes to provide “a personal sense, even a checklist, of matters to consider” when confronting questions of statecraft.

The book begins this task by describing the world of 1956. The Cold War’s impermeable borders had not yet solidified, and the superpowers sought the favor of the so-called Third World. Among non-aligned nations, Cold War ideology mattered less than anti-colonialism. In the Middle East, its champion was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who wielded influence by exploiting several festering regional disputes. He rhetorically — and, the French suspected, materially — supported the Algerian revolt against French rule. He competed with Iraq, Egypt’s pro-British and anti-communist rival. He threatened to destroy the State of Israel. And through Egypt ran the Suez Canal, which Europe depended on for oil.

Egypt’s conflict with Israel precipitated the Suez crisis. In September 1955, Nasser struck a stunning and mammoth arms deal with the Soviet Union. The infusion of weaponry threatened Israel’s strategic superiority, undermined Iraq, and vaulted the Soviet Union into the Middle East. From that point forward, Zelikow argues, the question for all the countries in the crisis (aside from Egypt, of course) became “What to do next about Nasser?”

Israel responded with dread, while, Britain, France, and the United States alternated between confrontation and conciliation. Eventually, the United States abandoned Nasser, but he doubled down by nationalizing the Suez Canal. This was too much for France. Hoping to unseat Nasser to halt Egyptian aid to Algeria, it concocted a plan with Israel and, eventually, Britain for Israel to invade Egypt and for British and French troops to seize the Canal Zone on the pretense of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces. The attack began just before the upcoming U.S. presidential election and alongside a revolution in Hungary that triggered a Soviet invasion. The book highlights the Eisenhower administration’s anger at the tripartite plot. Despite having turned on Nasser, Eisenhower seethed at not having been told about the assault, bitterly opposed it, and threatened to ruin the British and French economies by withholding oil shipments.

[...]

Even so, it is possible to extract several key lessons about statecraft. Chief among them is the extent to which policymakers are informed as much by honor and will as by interest. Britain and France, for example, ultimately joined forces to invade Egypt, but they did so for different reasons and with different degrees of resolve. As Zelikow notes, in the mid-1950s, France, recently beaten in Indochina, seemed beleaguered, while Britain “still seemed big,” boasting a “far-flung network of bases and influence.” But appearances could deceive. France was led by men who “had been heroes of the resistance” during World War II and were determined to restore their country’s honor. Outwardly strong, meanwhile, Britain suffered from a gnawing sense of exhaustion.

This imbalance of morale would shape each nation’s actions during the crisis and contribute to Suez’s strange outcome. France’s Socialist-led coalition, Zelikow writes, was “driven by ideas and historical experience.” It possessed a vision of restoring French pride and a dedication to defeating what it saw as “antimodern throwbacks” in Algeria backed by a Mussolini-like figure in Cairo. It was thus undeterred when complications arose and “more creative in [its] policy designs.” But because Washington, Moscow, and Cairo all judged France by its seeming lack of material power and its recent defeats alone, they underestimated its will.

British leaders, equally eager to topple Nasser and more capable of acting independently than the French, nevertheless struggled to overcome their nation’s fatigue. Initially behind the government’s desire to punish Nasser, the British public, as the book details, “[lost] its appetite for military adventure” as diplomacy commenced. British Prime Minster Anthony Eden had long argued for the need to reconcile with anti-colonialism and with Nasser, its chief Middle Eastern apostle. The British public, tired of war, could not long support Eden’s reversal. London ultimately joined French-Israeli strikes not so much out of conviction but to save face — avoiding the embarrassment of abandoning the demands it made of Nasser.

The second lesson that emerges is the centrality of relationships between statesmen, which drove events just as much as, if not more than, money, power, and ideas. One of the central drivers of the war, in fact, was the bond between French and Israeli statesmen. France’s Socialist leaders had all fought in the French Resistance during World War II. They sympathized with Israel, feeling morally obligated to prevent another massacre of the Jewish people and, as one author in the book describes, viewing Israel’s struggle “as a sort of sequel” to the fight against fascism. The Israelis, many of whom were former guerilla fighters themselves, easily related to the French and appreciated their support. Paris and Jerusalem grew closer for practical reasons as well: France sought Israel’s aid in addressing the Algerian revolt. But the relationship extended beyond material interest. As one chapter relates, during French-Israeli negotiations regarding the attack on Egypt, “there was an emotional connection between [the French and Israeli leaders] that documents do not easily capture.” The affection between French and Israeli officials repeatedly propelled the war planning forward.

If intimate ties catalyzed the invasion of Egypt, so, too, did combustible ones — none more so than the rancor between Eden and Dulles. Eden detested Dulles as moralistic, legalistic, and tedious (as related in Suez Deconstructed, he once described Dulles with the quip, “Dull, Duller, Dulles”). Their mutual disregard plagued U.S.-British cooperation. At key moments, Eden believed, Dulles would intervene with a maladroit statement that would harm planning or undermine British leverage. In early October 1956, for example, Dulles stated that there were “no teeth” to the diplomatic plan that the powers had been devising and that when it came to issues of “so-called colonialism,” the United States would “play a somewhat independent role.” For Eden, feeling isolated, this statement “was in some ways the final blow,” spurring him to join the French-Israeli initiative.

The statesmen of the Suez Crisis were haunted by history as much as they were guided by pride and personality — another striking theme that surfaces in Suez Deconstructed. Zelikow begins his overview of the world in 1956 by stating that “[t]hey were a wartime generation,” nations that had “lived through conclusive, cataclysmic wars, some more than one.” Those experiences permeated their approaches to the crisis. French and British leaders could not help but see Nasser as a 1930s potentate.

[...]

It is a rare quality in world leaders to be able to make historical analogies without fully embracing them, thereby becoming trapped.

[...]

The wars of the coming decades, however, are likely to look more like Suez than Berlin or Iraq. They will likely be multi-state conflicts, in which states of every size and strength play major roles. These contests will be byzantine. Like Suez, they will be local skirmishes and global crises simultaneously. They will feature webs of overlapping rivalries and alliances (and rivalries within alliances), strategic and ideological considerations at multiple levels, and high-stakes signaling amid confusion and disinformation.

How did war become a game?

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

How did war become a game?

The older woman recognized the warning signs

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

We can learn from history, Jared Diamond argues (Upheaval) — both personal history and history history:

I write these lines just after spending an evening with two women friends, one of them a psychologically naïve optimist in her 20’s, the other a perceptive person in her 70’s. The younger woman was devastated by the recent break-up of her relationship with a fascinating man who had seemed so caring, but who suddenly, after several years, cruelly and without warning abandoned the woman. But as the younger woman related her story, even before reaching the devastating denouement, the older woman (without having met the man) recognized the warning signs that the man was a charming but destructive narcissist, of whom she had come to understand quite a few.

[...]

Thucydides described how the citizens of the small Greek island of Melos responded to pressure from the powerful Athenian Empire. In a passage now known as the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides reconstructed the gut-wrenching negotiations between the Melians and the Athenians: the Melians bargaining for their freedom and their lives, attempting to convince the Athenians not to use force; and the Athenians warning the Melians to be realistic. Thucydides then briefly related the outcome: the Melians refused Athenian demands, just as the Finns two millennia later initially refused Soviet demands; the Athenians besieged Melos; the Melians resisted successfully for some time; but they eventually had to surrender; and—the Athenians killed all the Melian men and enslaved all the women and children.

We know of at least three false alarms given by the American detection system

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

The most obvious crisis that the US has faced — and continues to face — Jared Diamond argues (in Upheaval) is nuclear armageddon:

For example, on the first day of the week-long Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy announced publicly that any launch of a Soviet missile from Cuba would require “a full retaliatory response [of the U.S.] upon the Soviet Union.” But Soviet submarine captains had the authority to launch a nuclear torpedo without first having to confer with Soviet leadership in Moscow. One such Soviet submarine captain did consider firing a nuclear torpedo at an American destroyer threatening the submarine; only the intervention of other officers on his ship dissuaded him from doing so. Had the Soviet captain carried out his intent, Kennedy might have faced irresistible pressure to retaliate, leading to irresistible pressure on Khrushchev to retaliate further…

[...]

Once missiles have been launched, are underway, and have been detected, the American or Russian president has about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory attack before the incoming missiles destroy the land-based missiles of his country. Launched missiles can’t be recalled.

[...]

We know of at least three false alarms given by the American detection system. For example, on November 9, 1979 the U.S. army general serving as watch officer for the U.S. system phoned then-Under-Secretary of Defense William Perry in the middle of the night to say, “My warning computer is showing 200 ICBMs in flight from the Soviet Union to the United States.” But the general concluded that the signal was probably a false alarm, Perry did not awaken President Carter, and Carter did not push the button and needlessly kill a hundred million Soviets. It eventually turned out that the signal was indeed a false alarm due to human error: a computer operator had by mistake inserted into the U.S. warning system computer a training tape simulating the launch of 200 Soviet ICBMs.

[...]

We also know of at least one false alarm given by the Russian detection system: a single non-military rocket launched in 1995 from an island off Norway towards the North Pole was misidentified by the automatic tracking algorithm of Russian radar as a missile launched from an American submarine.

[...]

U.S. policy towards Russia today ignores the lesson that Finland’s leaders drew from the Soviet threat after 1945: that the only way of securing Finland’s safety was to engage in constant frank discussions with the Soviet Union, and to convince the Soviets that Finland could be trusted and posed no threat (Chapter 2).

Stone versus steel arrowheads on a deer

Friday, June 21st, 2019

“Primitive archer” Billy Berger performs a penetration test comparing stone versus steel arrowheads on a fresh deer carcass:

I don’t want to get shot with either option.

They would be able to salvage the reputation of their physics community

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

In Captain America: The First Avenger, the quasi-Nazi villain Red Skull wields a cosmic cube, and I must admit that’s what came to mind when I read about the two-inch uranium cubes at the center of Nazi Germany’s nuclear program:

Several German physicists were involved in that research program; perhaps the most widely recognized was Werner Heisenberg.

Rather than working together under central leadership the way the Manhattan Project scientists eventually would, the German nuclear researchers were divided into three groups that each ran a separate series of experiments. Each was code-named after the city in which the experiments took place: Berlin (B), Gottow (G), and Leipzig (L). Although the Germans began their work nearly two years before serious US efforts began, their progress toward creating a sustained nuclear reactor was extremely slow. The reasons for the delay were varied and complex and included fierce competition over finite resources, bitter interpersonal rivalries, and ineffectual scientific management.

In the winter of 1944, as the Allies began their invasion of Germany, the German nuclear researchers were trying desperately to build a reactor that could achieve criticality. Unaware of the immense progress the Manhattan Project had made, the Germans hoped that though they were almost certainly going to lose the war, they would be able to salvage the reputation of their physics community by being the first to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear reactor.

In holding out that hope, officials moved the Berlin reactor experiments headed by Heisenberg south ahead of the Allied invasion. They eventually landed in a cave underneath a castle, shown in figure 1, in the small town of Haigerloch in southwest Germany.

B-VIII reactor entrance at castle in Haigerloch, Germany

In that cave laboratory Heisenberg’s team built their last experiment: B-VIII, the eighth experiment of the Berlin-based group. Heisenberg described the setup of the reactor in his 1953 book Nuclear Physics. The experimental nuclear reactor comprised 664 uranium cubes, each weighing about five pounds. Aircraft cable was used to string the cubes together in long chains hanging from a lid, as shown in figure 2. The ominous uranium chandelier was submerged in a tank of heavy water surrounded by an annular wall of graphite. That configuration was the best design the German program had achieved thus far, but it was not sufficient to achieve a self-sustaining, critical reactor.

B-VIII reactor, 664 uranium cubes

In 1944, as Allied forces began moving into German-occupied territory, Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project, ordered a covert mission code-named Alsos (Greek word for “groves”) to take a small number of military personnel and scientists to the front lines in Europe to gather information on the state of the German scientific program. The mission broadly aimed to gather information and potentially capture data and instrumentation from all scientific disciplines from microscopy to aeronautics. The most pressing task was to learn how far German physicists had gotten in their study of nuclear reactions. The initial leg of the Alsos mission began in Italy and moved to Germany as the Allied military forces swept south.6 Among the men involved in the mission was Samuel Goudsmit. After the war, he went on to be the American Physical Society’s first editor-in-chief and the founder of Physical Review Letters.

As the Allies closed in on southern Germany, Heisenberg’s scientists quickly disassembled B-VIII. The uranium cubes were buried in a nearby field, the heavy water was hidden in barrels, and some of the more significant documentation was hidden in a latrine. (Goudsmit had the dubious honor of retrieving those documents.) When the Alsos team arrived in Haigerloch in late April 1945, the scientists working on the experiment were arrested and interrogated to reveal the location of the reactor materials. Heisenberg had escaped earlier by absconding east on a bicycle under cover of night with uranium cubes in his backpack.

[...]

Many scholars have long thought that the German scientists could not have possibly created a working nuclear reactor because they did not have enough uranium to make the B-VIII reactor work. In Heisenberg’s own words, “The apparatus was still a little too small to sustain a fission reaction independently, but a slight increase in its size would have been sufficient to start off the process of energy production.” That statement was recently confirmed using Monte Carlo N-particle modeling of the B-VIII reactor core. The model showed that the rough analyses completed by the Germans in 1945 were correct: The reactor core as designed would not have been able to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction given the amount of uranium and its configuration. But the design might have worked if the Germans had put 50% more uranium cubes in the core.