Saving lives obviously had preference

September 7th, 2020

The American way of street and town fighting, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), did not resemble that of other armies:

To Americans, flesh and blood and lives have always been more precious than sticks and stones, however assembled. An American commander, faced with taking the Louvre from a defending enemy, unquestionably would blow it apart or burn it down without hesitation if such would save the life of one of his men. And he would be acting in complete accord with American ideals and ethics in doing so. Already, in the Korean War, American units were proceeding to destroy utterly enemy-held towns and villages rather than engage in the costly business of reducing them block by block with men and bayonets, as did European armies. If bombing and artillery would save lives, even though they destroyed sites of beauty and history, saving lives obviously had preference. And already foreign observers with the United States Army — not ROK’s — were beginning to criticize such tactics.

Observers from France and Britain, realizing that war was also highly possible in their own part of the world, were disturbed at the thought of a ground defense of their homelands. For the United States Army, according to its history and doctrine, would choose the lives of its men over the continued existence of storied cathedrals. These observers wrote news releases — and soon Frank Muñoz could get no artillery on the enemy assembling in plain sight in the villages below him. When he asked Battalion to fire on the village, and burn it down, Battalion replied it could not. Fortunately, such orders in Korea were soon changed.

I saw an opportunity and I took it

September 6th, 2020

Officer Ellifritz got a call about a stolen bicycle:

While I was speaking with my prisoner during the arrest process, I recognized that most of you will never be in such a position to talk candidly with a thief (who also had past arrests for felonious assault, kidnapping, rape, and a host of other crimes). Since I get this “honor” quite regularly, I’m happy to share the what I learn with you all.

Our thief today is homeless. He’s 32 years old and overweight. He’s a regular consumer of crack cocaine. He has no job and no place to live. He sometimes stays at friends’ apartments, but his permanent address is a local homeless shelter. The sum total of his possessions consisted of a change of clothes, a broken phone, and less than $4 cash.

When I asked the man why he stole the bike, his comment was enlightening:

“I took it because I have the chance to stay at my friend’s place tonight instead of the shelter. My friend lives in (the next town over) and it would be about a four hour walk to get there. It rained all day yesterday and it looks like it’s going to rain some more today. I just didn’t want to spend four hours walking in the fucking rain and getting soaking wet again. I figured a bike would be faster.”

He continued by saying: “I knew it was wrong to steal the bike, but I just don’t care. I didn’t want to get wet no more. I saw an opportunity and I took it. I’d do the same thing all over again if I got the chance. Biking is just faster than walking.”

The guy wasn’t rude or trying to play the role of a badass. He was just describing the daily realities for someone who lives in a world very different from the one in which you and I reside.

He wasn’t mentally ill. He knew right from wrong. But he had absolutely no remorse about taking a bike from some girl who probably needs it as just badly as he did. The thought of what the victim would experience didn’t even register in his mind. He “saw an opportunity” and took it. He took a college girl’s only means of transportation, because he didn’t want to be inconvenienced by a long walk.

This is what most folks don’t understand about serious criminals. The fact that the victim of the crime would be affected in a negative manner is not even an afterthought. Your feelings and concerns mean absolutely NOTHING to the criminal. He doesn’t care if you live or die, let alone how “inconvenienced” you will be if he takes all of your stuff or beats you within an inch of your life. If you literally had ZERO concern about the well being of your neighbors and fellow humans, what kind of atrocities would you be capable of committing? That’s something that few people consider.

They now had to play the game the way most American soldiers had learned it

September 5th, 2020

During the early days of the war, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), the North Korean People’s Army never varied its tactics:

It never had any need to do so. Its general maneuver was to press the ROK or American forces closely, engage with them by means of a frontal holding attack, while at the same time turning the enemy flank and infiltrating troops to the enemy rear. Against both ROK’s and United States troops, who were never able to establish a firm battle line, this tactic was ruinous.

But during August 1950, the NKPA tried the same tactics against the Pusan Perimeter, and failed. The U.N. flanks now rested firmly against the Sea of Japan, and the U.N. line, while thin, had no significant gaps.


In short, they now had to play the game the way most American soldiers had learned it. And frontal assault against American troops, from Breed’s Hill to New Orleans to the Pacific Islands of World War II, has always proved both bitter and bloody.

In pushing the Americans into a corner, the NKPA probably made its greatest tactical error, for, more lightly armed than the Americans, it had poor odds of smashing the American forces with direct hammer blows.

The one group of people who really took fighting seriously were the foreigners

September 4th, 2020

Americans and other Westerners have an understanding of warfare that does not match most people’s understanding throughout human history:

Americans come from a land of mass literacy and mass politics, a country where even the country rube has received a strong education in his duties, rights, and membership in the American nation. American soldiers go into battle as part of a rigid hierarchy with officers inserted deep into their ranks and receive elaborate training designed to instill in them both discipline and an overwhelming espirit de corps. They also are heirs to a political culture that has never seen a coup nor suffered from a serious military challenge to civilian leadership in its history.

Because of all of this, one has trouble imagining a possible timeline where the Third Army abandons its posts to join the Wehrmacht, Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces devolve into a patchwork of hostile war-bands, or Ulysses Grant turns his guns on Washington and declares himself America’s new leader. Yet most wars in most places for most of our civilized history were running catalogues of just these sorts of sordid happenings! The conquests of every Chinese conqueror right up to the Communists, the wars of Medieval Europe and the early Renaissance, the conflicts of ‘feudal’ Japan, most of the fighting and in-fighting seen on the Eurasian steppe, the squabbles of the Greek city states, the terrific civil wars of the Roman empire, and the greater part of Arab warring right up to the present day looked more like Filkins’ Afghanistan than the Western Front.

The Filkins that T. Greer mentions there is Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War, who gives this account of the dynamics of warlord fighting in the Afghanistan of 2001:

People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

Battles were often decided this way, not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones who were too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.

One of the Afghan militia commanders with whom I traveled, Daoud Khan, was a master of this complicated game. He was portly and well dressed, and he ate very well. The Afghans spoke of him in reverent tones, but he didn’t seem like much of a warrior to me. He’d never fought for the Taliban himself, but thousands of his former soldiers were now in the Taliban ranks. Why kill them when he could just bring them back to his side? Khan captured his first city, Taloqan, without firing a single shot. He did it by persuading the local Taliban leader, a man named Abdullah Gard, to switch sides. Gard was no dummy; he could see the B-52s. I guessed that Khan had probably used a lot of money, but he never allowed me to sit in as he worked the Taliban chieftains on the radio. The day after Taloqan fell, I found Gard in an abandoned house, seated on a blue cushion on the floor, warming himself next to a wood-burning stove. His black Taliban turban was gone, and he had replaced it with a woolen Chitrali cap just like that of Ahmad Shah Massoud. “All along, I was spying on the Taliban,” Gard said, his eyes darting. No one believed him, but no one seemed to care.

On the first night of the long-awaited offensive against the Taliban, carried out at the urging of the Americans, the Alliance commanders bombarded the Taliban lines and then, as night fell, sent their men forward. Yet when I arrived the next morning, the Alliance soldiers stood more or less where they had the day before. They’d run, and then they’d run back. No one seemed surprised. “Advancing, retreating, advancing, that’s what you do in war,” Yusef, a twenty-year-old Alliance soldier, told me with a shrug. He was sitting in a foxhole. It wasn’t that the Afghans were afraid to fight, it was that they’d fought too much. And now, given the opportunity, they wanted to avoid it if they could.

“My dear, I am your brother, you know how much affection I have for you, there is really no point in resisting anymore,” Mohammad Uria, a Northern Alliance commander, said into his radio to a Taliban commander a few miles away. Of course, there were plenty of Taliban soldiers who wanted to fight forever. Fight to the death. They were the Pashtuns from Kandahar, for the most part, a different breed. “I’ve seen them run right into the minefields — they want to die,” Pir Mohammed said, shaking his head in awe. But where I was, in northern Afghanistan, many if not most of the Taliban soldiers weren’t from Kandahar, they were from the north — Tajiks and Uzbeks who’d switched sides when the fearsome Kandaharis rolled in. Now the northerners wanted to quit. The one group of people who really took fighting seriously were the foreigners — that is, the Americans and Al-Qaeda. They came to kill.

Men accustomed to torture and summary execution could not be expected to behave with nicety

September 3rd, 2020

Counterattacking on Hill 303 near Waegwan, the 5th Cavalry Regiment came across a group of American soldiers, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), twenty-six mortarmen of the Heavy Weapons Company, who had been captured earlier by the NKPA:

These men lay packed shoulder to shoulder, their feet, bare and covered by dried blood, thrust out stiffly. They had been shot in the back by Russian-made submachine guns. Each man’s hands were bound tightly behind his back with cord or telephone wire.

And along the Perimeter front, as the battle increased in intensity and bitterness, worse atrocities were discovered. American soldiers were found who had been burned and castrated before they were shot; others had their tongues torn out. Some were bound with barbed wire, even around the head and mouth.


Men accustomed to torture and summary execution all their lives, both from Japanese and Communist rulers, could not be expected to behave with nicety toward foreign captives. Nor did they.

North America inherited British government and British democracy

September 2nd, 2020

As a geographer, Jared Diamond has some thoughts on North America and Latin America:

In my undergraduate geography course, I have one session on North America and then a session on South America in which I discuss why North America is more successful economically. There are several factors involved.

One factor is that temperate zones, in general, are economically more successful than the tropics because of the higher productivity and soil fertility of temperate agriculture, which in turn relates to the public health burden. All of North America is a temperate zone. South America only has a small temperate zone. It’s in the far south in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Those are the richest countries in Latin America. The richest part of Brazil also lies in the temperate zone.

The second factor is a historical one related to the sailing distance from Europe to the Americas. The sailing distance was shorter from Britain to North America. It was longer from Spain to Argentina and still longer from Spain around the horn to Peru. A shorter sailing distance meant that the ideas and technology of the Industrial Revolution spread much more quickly from Britain, where it originated, to North America, than from Spain to Latin America.

Still another factor is the legacy of Spanish government versus the legacy of British government. One could argue why democracy developed in Britain rather than in Spain, but the fact is that democracy did develop in Britain rather than Spain, and so North America inherited British government and British democracy while Latin America inherited Spanish centralist government and absolutist politics.

Then still another factor is that independence for the U.S. was a more radical break than it was in South America. After the Revolutionary War, all the royalists in the U.S. either fled or were killed. So there was a relatively clean break from Britain. Canada did not have that break, and the break in Latin America was much less abrupt and came later.

Most of the Marine troop leaders knew what war was like

September 1st, 2020

When the Korean War broke out, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), somewhat less than 10 percent of the small United States Marine Corps had seen combat:

But fortunately for the Corps, the percentage was highly concentrated within officer and key NCO grades; most of the Marine troop leaders knew what war was like.

And the Marines, who had always been largely a volunteer organization, had escaped the damaging reforms instituted within the United States Army at the end of World War II. The public clamor rose against the Army, during the war twenty times the small, parochial Corps’ size, and ignored the Marines.

In 1950 a Marine Corps officer was still an officer, and a sergeant behaved the way good sergeants had behaved since the time of Caesar, expecting no nonsense, allowing none. And Marine leaders had never lost sight of their primary — their only — mission, which was to fight.

The Marine Corps was not made pleasant for men who served in it. It remained the same hard, dirty, brutal way of life it had always been.

The Marines may take little credit, either for courage or foresight, in remaining the way they were. The public pressure simply never developed against them in the years after the war, pushing their commanders into acquiescence with the ideals of society. Not long after the end of the Korean conflict, after an unfortunate incident one night at a place called Ribbon Creek, the commandant of the Corps showed no more ability to stand up for his rights in front of a congressional committee than had the generals of the Army.

It is admittedly terrible to force men to suffer during training, or even sometimes, through accident, to kill them. But there is no other way to prepare them for the immensely greater horror of combat.

In 1950 the Marines, both active and reserve, were better prepared to die on the field of battle than the Army.


Except in holy wars, or in defense of their native soil, men fight well only because of pride and training—pride in themselves and their service, enough training to absorb the rough blows of war and to know what to do. Few men, of any breed, really prefer to kill or be killed. These Marines had pride in their service, which had been carefully instilled in them, and they had pride in themselves, because each man had made the grade in a hard occupation. They would not lightly let their comrades down. And they had discipline, which in essence is the ability not to question orders but to carry them out as intelligently as possible.

Marine human material was not one whit better than that of the human society from which it came. But it had been hammered into form in a different forge, hardened with a different fire. The Marines were the closest thing to legions the nation had. They would follow their colors from the shores of home to the seacoast of Bohemia, and fight well either place.

You used to be able to fly into a country on one name and have meetings in another

August 31st, 2020

Modern technology is putting an end to traditional spying:

The beginning of the CIA’s cover and tradecraft crisis dates back to at least February 2003, when a Muslim cleric known as Abu Omar disappeared off the street in Milan. He didn’t resurface until 2004, when he called his wife from Cairo to tell her about his kidnapping, detention and torture at the hands of the CIA.

Italian investigators, eager to get to the bottom of the audacious abduction on their streets, were later able to track a web of cellphones communicating only with each other in close proximity to the disappearance, leading them to a series of hotel bills, credit card statements and other identifying indicators, according to a 2007 investigation unveiled at an annual hacker conference in 2013. Italian authorities charged 23 Americans, including the CIA’s former Milan station chief, for their roles in the scheme — most in absentia.

While Omar was just one target of the CIA’s aggressive post-9/11 antiterrorism campaign, several former intelligence officials described the Milan operation’s aftermath as a “come to Jesus” moment that revealed just how vulnerable the agency’s operators were to technology. At the time, some undercover officials naively believed that methods like using potato chip bags would mask cellphone signals, and operatives were generally “freewheeling,” according to one former senior intelligence official. In the space of a few short years, the rapid advance of technology, including nascent international surveillance systems, increasingly endangered the CIA’s traditional human intelligence gathering.

Singapore was one example, recall three former intelligence officials. By the early 2000s, the agency ceased running certain types of operations in the Southeast Asian city-state, because of the sweeping digital surveillance there. The Singaporeans had developed a database that incorporated real-time flight, customs, hotel and taxicab data. If it took too long for a traveler to get from the airport to a hotel in a taxi, the anomaly would trigger an alert in Singaporean security systems. “If there was a gap, they’d go to the hotel, they could flip on the TVs and phones and monitor what was going on” in the room of the suspicious traveler, says the same former senior intelligence official. “They had everything so wired.”

“You used to be able to fly into a country on one name and have meetings in another,” recalls this person. “It limited a lot of capabilities.”

Those concerns spread to other places, like London, where CCTV cameras are omnipresent, and the United Arab Emirates, where facial recognition is ubiquitous at the airport. Today there are “about 30 countries” where CIA officers are no longer followed on the way to meetings because local governments no longer see the need, given that surveillance in those countries is so pervasive, said Dawn Meyerriecks, the CIA’s deputy director for science and technology, in a 2018 speech.

In the 2000s, the explosion in biometrics — such as fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scans — propelled the conversation forward, according to multiple former intelligence officials. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that in many parts of the world, within a short time, all alias work would likely become impossible.

These fears were largely borne out, say former CIA officials — especially in “hard target” countries like China and Iran. But this trend also affected CIA operations in friendlier countries. By 2012, recalls one former official, some officers were temporarily forbidden to travel for missions in the European Union over fear of exposure, due to widespread sharing of airport biometric data between EU member states. “Facial recognition and biometrics make it very difficult to travel in alias,” says Mike Morell, former acting CIA director and host of the “Intelligence Matters” podcast.

The rise in popularity of consumer DNA kits, which allow people to send in samples of their own DNA, is a growing part of the biometrics problem. Even if an undercover operative hasn’t used a consumer DNA kit, it’s highly likely, say experts, that one of their close relatives has. The Pentagon’s Dec. 20 warning to members of the military not to use these kits appears to be partly in response to that threat.

Greg Hampikian, a biologist at Boise State University and a leading DNA expert, says that with the advent of commercial genetic databases, exposing a spy or other covert operative could be as easy as taking a saliva sample from a cigarette butt or a drinking cup. A suspicious foreign government could send the sample in and potentially find out if the person has been operating under an assumed name.

“It’s right out of a spy novel,” he says.

For spy services, biometric data has become a highly valued currency — leading to a widespread and ongoing campaign by the U.S. and its allies, as well as hostile states, to hack into biometric databases from important airports worldwide. The U.S. has spearheaded breaches of its own, successfully hacking biometric data from the Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports, says a former official. Stealing biometric databases is an attractive strategy for other countries as well. In one case, Chinese intelligence successfully hacked into the biometric data from Bangkok’s airport. “The Chinese have consistently extracted data from all the major transit hubs in the world,” says another former senior official.

If you read the official documents that go out to the Party’s 90,000 members, you get a world view that’s surprisingly similar to The Pentagon’s New Map

August 30th, 2020

T. Greer (of The Scholar’s Stage) recently spoke with ChinaTalk. Most modern “takes” on China are biased, he notes, by the easy access “China hands” have to Westernized Chinese who don’t take Marxism seriously. If you read the official Party documents that go out to the Party’s 90,000 members though, you get a world view that’s surprisingly similar to The Pentagon’s New Map.

For an overview of Chinese history, Greer strongly recommends F.W. Mote’s Imperial China 900-1800 and laments that Mote never wrote a similar volume on earlier Chinese history.

He recommends the usual Chinese classics — and a satirical novel called The Scholars.

Readers of this blog might be interested in The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. Taiwan could defend itself militarily, with its favorable terrain, but the will to do so is almost completely lacking.

They had no interest in fighting a half-ass war like this one

August 30th, 2020

Frank Muñoz, commanding officer of G Company, realized he had too few men to do the job, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), and he also had a morale problem:

Almost all of the riflemen, dug in along the rear slope of the hill, had jumped in their holes and pulled the zipper. They didn’t want to come out even to shoot.


Some of the men told him they didn’t mind fighting a big war. Americans, he found, tend to take pride in doing things in a big way. But they had no interest in fighting a half-ass war like this one.

Then they started taking mortar fire:

The instant he understood the mortar fire had finished, Frank Muñoz jumped from his hole and ran up to the top of the ridge, where he could see across the rice paddies to the front. Quick as he was, he was too late.

At the top of the ridge, he made eyeball to eyeball contact with a North Korean soldier. Muñoz moved first. His .45 slug killed the Korean at a range of inches. As he shot, he could see two waves of enemy infantry, bayonets fixed, charging up the slope, firing from the hip.

He went into the nearest hole, which was already occupied by a man with a BAR. “Fire to your right front!” he snapped at the BAR man.

The enemy boiled up over the hill and ran at George’s thin line of holes. George Company met them with a blast of fire, stopping them only yards away. The first wave fell apart a few feet in front of Frank’s own position.


Then the second wave of charging Koreans swarmed over the crest. In a wild melee, some of the Inmun Gun jumped into foxholes with Muñoz’s men, bayonets flashing.

Muñoz yelled at his Artillery forward observer to bring fire down on the hill. The FO, Lieutenant Hartman, yelled back, “No! I don’t want to do it!”

But Frank grabbed a field phone and reached Battalion. He got the Artillery liaison officer there, and he got action — two salvos of 105’s, to be put down on his own position.

Seconds later, the shells screamed down, bursting with ear-shattering noise. They caught most of the attacking Inmun Gun still swarming down the ridge.

Dug in, Muñoz’s boys suffered no harm. The enemy, in the open, died. And, as suddenly as they had been attacked, George’s men were all alone on the hill.

Any virus that can make people sick has to have at least one good trick for evading the immune system

August 29th, 2020

The immune system is very complicated, Ed Yong notes, but it works, roughly, like this:

The first of three phases involves detecting a threat, summoning help, and launching the counterattack. It begins as soon as a virus drifts into your airways, and infiltrates the cells that line them.

When cells sense molecules common to pathogens and uncommon to humans, they produce proteins called cytokines. Some act like alarms, summoning and activating a diverse squad of white blood cells that go to town on the intruding viruses — swallowing and digesting them, bombarding them with destructive chemicals, and releasing yet more cytokines. Some also directly prevent viruses from reproducing (and are delightfully called interferons). These aggressive acts lead to inflammation. Redness, heat, swelling, soreness — these are all signs of the immune system working as intended.

This initial set of events is part of what’s called the innate immune system. It’s quick, occurring within minutes of the virus’s entry. It’s ancient, using components that are shared among most animals. It’s generic, acting in much the same way in everyone. And it’s broad, lashing out at anything that seems both nonhuman and dangerous, without much caring about which specific pathogen is afoot. What the innate immune system lacks in precision, it makes up for in speed. Its job is to shut down an infection as soon as possible. Failing that, it buys time for the second phase of the immune response: bringing in the specialists.

Amid all the fighting in your airways, messenger cells grab small fragments of virus and carry these to the lymph nodes, where highly specialized white blood cells — T-cells — are waiting. The T-cells are selective and preprogrammed defenders. Each is built a little differently, and comes ready-made to attack just a few of the zillion pathogens that could possibly exist. For any new virus, you probably have a T-cell somewhere that could theoretically fight it. Your body just has to find and mobilize that cell. Picture the lymph nodes as bars full of grizzled T-cell mercenaries, each of which has just one type of target they’re prepared to fight. The messenger cell bursts in with a grainy photo, showing it to each mercenary in turn, asking: Is this your guy? When a match is found, the relevant merc arms up and clones itself into an entire battalion, which marches off to the airways.

Some T-cells are killers, which blow up the infected respiratory cells in which viruses are hiding. Others are helpers, which boost the rest of the immune system. Among their beneficiaries, these helper T-cells activate the B-cells that produce antibodies — small molecules that can neutralize viruses by gumming up the structures they use to latch on to their hosts. Roughly speaking — and this will be important later — antibodies mop up the viruses that are floating around outside our cells, while T-cells kill the ones that have already worked their way inside. T-cells do demolition; antibodies do cleanup.

Both T-cells and antibodies are part of the adaptive immune system. This branch is more precise than the innate branch, but much slower: Finding and activating the right cells can take several days. It’s also long-lasting: Unlike the innate branch of the immune system, the adaptive one has memory.

After the virus is cleared, most of the mobilized T-cell and B-cell forces stand down and die off. But a small fraction remain on retainer — veterans of the COVID-19 war of 2020, bunkered within your organs and patrolling your bloodstream. This is the third and final phase of the immune response: Keep a few of the specialists on tap. If the same virus attacks again, these “memory cells” can spring into action and launch the adaptive branch of the immune system without the usual days-long delay. Memory is the basis of immunity as we colloquially know it — a lasting defense against whatever has previously ailed us.

In general, the immune system’s reaction to SARS-CoV-2 is what you would expect:

Still, “any virus that can make people sick has to have at least one good trick for evading the immune system,” [Shane Crotty from the La Jolla Institute of Immunology] says. The new coronavirus seems to rely on early stealth, somehow delaying the launch of the innate immune system, and inhibiting the production of interferons — those molecules that initially block viral replication. “I believe this [delay] is really the key in determining good versus bad outcomes,” says Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale. It creates a brief time window in which the virus can replicate unnoticed before the alarm bells start sounding. Those delays cascade: If the innate branch is slow to mobilize, the adaptive branch will also lag.


Immune responses are inherently violent. Cells are destroyed. Harmful chemicals are unleashed. Ideally, that violence is targeted and restrained; as Metcalf puts it, “Half of the immune system is designed to turn the other half off.” But if an infection is allowed to run amok, the immune system might do the same, causing a lot of collateral damage in its prolonged and flailing attempts to control the virus.

This is apparently what happens in severe cases of COVID-19. “If you can’t clear the virus quickly enough, you’re susceptible to damage from the virus and the immune system,” says Donna Farber, a microbiologist at Columbia. Many people in intensive-care units seem to succumb to the ravages of their own immune cells, even if they eventually beat the virus. Others suffer from lasting lung and heart problems, long after they are discharged. Such immune overreactions also happen in extreme cases of influenza, but they wreak greater damage in COVID-19.

There’s a further twist. Normally, the immune system mobilizes different groups of cells and molecules when fighting three broad groups of pathogens: viruses and microbes that invade cells, bacteria and fungi that stay outside cells, and parasitic worms. Only the first of these programs should activate during a viral infection. But Iwasaki’s team recently showed that all three activate in severe COVID-19 cases. “It seems completely random,” she says. In the worst cases, “the immune system almost seems confused as to what it’s supposed to be making.”

Somebody give me a white phosphorous grenade

August 28th, 2020

T. R. Fehrenbach (in This Kind of War) shares the story of an officer coming across a T-34 that had just been disabled with a well-placed bazooka shot:

Pointing to the tank, Schmitt wanted to know, “What’s with that?”

“The crew is still inside — won’t give up,” Frank said.

“Hell,” Schmitt said. He stood out in the open and began to yell at the tank in the Korean he had picked up during the Occupation. “Ede wha!” Come out!

The tank stayed quiet, even when Schmitt went up beside it and banged on the turret with his hand. Then Schmitt climbed up on the sponson and tried to pull open a hatch. Suddenly, then, there was movement inside. A crewman partly opened the hatch, thrust a pistol through, and fired point-blank at the Weapons Company commander.

Unhurt, Schmitt jumped down. “You son of a bitch, we’ll fix you!” he said. “Somebody give me a white phosphorous grenade—”

Pulling the pin, Schmitt dropped the incendiary grenade on the tank’s back deck, over the air intake.

The North Koreans never did come out, though they made a number of unpleasant noises as they stayed inside and burned.

Disabling location services on a mobile device does not turn off GPS, and does not significantly reduce the risk of location exposure

August 27th, 2020

Location data can be extremely valuable, the National Security Agency notes, and must be protected:

Using a mobile device—even powering it on—exposes location data. Mobile devices inherently trust cellular networks and providers, and the cellular provider receives real-time location information for a mobile device every time it connects to the network. This means a provider can track users across a wide area. In some scenarios, such as 911 calls, this capability saves lives, whereas for personnel with location sensitivities, it may incur risks. If an adversary can influence or control the provider in some way, this location data may be compromised. Public news articles have reported that providers have been known to sell data, including near-real time location data, to third-parties [1].

Location data from a mobile device can be obtained even without provider cooperation. These devices transmit identifying information when connecting to cellular networks. Commercially available rogue base stations allow anyone in the local area to inexpensively and easily obtain real-time location data and track targets. This equipment is difficult to distinguish from legitimate equipment, and devices will automatically try to connect to it, if it is the strongest signal present [2].

Additionally, location data is stored on the mobile device. Past location information can be used to forecast future locations [3]. Other examples of risk exist: websites use browser fingerprinting to harvest location information [4], and WiFi access points and Bluetooth sensors can reveal location information [5].

A mobile device provides geolocation data as a service to apps. This is known as location services, and users can disable them in the settings of a device. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that disabling location services on a mobile device does not turn off GPS, and does not significantly reduce the risk of location exposure. Disabling location services only limits access to GPS and location data by apps. It does not prevent the operating system from using location data or communicating that data to the network.

Also important to remember is that GPS is not the same as location services. Even if GPS and cellular data are unavailable, a mobile device calculates location using Wi-Fi and/or BT. Apps and websites can also use other sensor data (that does not require user permission) and web browser information to obtain or infer location information [6].

Even if cellular service is turned off on a mobile device, Wi-Fi and BT can be used to determine a user’s location. Inconspicuous equipment (e.g., wireless sniffers) can determine signal strength and calculate location, even when the user is not actively using the wireless services. Even if all wireless radios are disabled, numerous sensors on the device provide sufficient data to calculate location. Disabling BT completely may not be possible on some devices, even when a setting to disable BT exists. When communication is restored, saved information may be transmitted.

If a mobile device has been compromised, the user may no longer be able to trust the setting indicators. Detecting compromised mobile devices can be difficult or impossible; such devices may store or transmit location data even when location settings or all wireless capabilities have been disabled.

These bridges were invisible

August 26th, 2020

The NKPA built underwater bridges across the Naktong at the ferry site, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), employing an old Russian trick:

These bridges were invisible and therefore invulnerable to air attack.

Magnetometer readings are much less easy to jam than GPS signaling

August 25th, 2020

The U.S. Air Force is looking into using Earth’s magnetic field as an alternative to GPS:

Magnetic fields emanating from the earth’s surface vary in intensity, just like topography, and so-called magnetic anomaly maps of those fields have existed for years. Back in 2017, Aaron Canciani, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology, set out to see if magnetic sensors (magnetometers) affixed to aircraft could measure the intensity of those magnetic fields and, thus, locate the plane based on where it was in relation to those “landmarks.” His paper (and this video) shows how to outfit a Cessna plane with magnetometers in the rear and the front. Forty flight-hours worth of data and a lot of work reducing noise from the readings proved the idea viable.

But swapping magnetic fields for GPS isn’t easy. Unlike a crisp clear signal from space, factors such as the electrical operations of the plane itself can interfere with a sensor’s ability to detect the strength of the field. This is where artificial intelligence comes in, canceling out the noise from the sensor readings to allow for a better signal and more accuracy.

Researchers in the Air Force’s-MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator. community, working with scientists at MIT, continued to work on the problem, publishing their own paper in July. They showed that magnetic field readings can be accurate to ten meters, only slightly inferior to GPS, which is accurate down to three meters. But magnetometer readings are much less easy to jam than GPS signaling. GPS readings rely on a signal sent along a specific wavelength across vast distances. Magnometers just have to read the magnetic environment around the vehicle.