An Unpronounceable Volcano as Black Swan?

Taken 10 km east of Hvolsvollur Iceland on April 18th, 2010. Lightning flashes and glowing lava illuminate parts of Eyjafjallajokull's massive ash plume in this 30-second exposure.

Way back in 2004, John Robb wrote a piece on scale-free networks:

Scale-free networks are everywhere. The can be seen in airline traffic routes, connections between actors in Hollywood, weblog links, sexual relationships, and terrorist networks. So what exactly is a scale-free network? A scale-free network is one that obeys a power law distribution in the number of connections between nodes on the network [emphasis mine].

Obviously, considering the plight of the airlines right now in the midst of an apocalyptic (yet curiously invisible) ash cloud is particularly fascinating to do in the context of Robb’s networks. In characterizing the nature of scale-free ones, he comes up with a positive and a negative:

  • Scale-free networks are extremely tolerant of random failures. In a random network, a small number of random failures can collapse the network. A scale-free network can absorb random failures up to 80% of its nodes before it collapses. The reason for this is the inhomogeneity of the nodes on the network — failures are much more likely to occur on relatively small nodes.
  • Scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable to intentional attacks on their hubs. Attacks that simultaneously eliminate as few as 5-15% of a scale-free network’s hubs can collapse the network. Simultaneity of an attack on hubs is important. Scale-free networks can heal themselves rapidly if an insufficient number of hubs necessary for a systemic collapse are removed.

Examining the fallout from Eyjafjallajokullin in this light does present an interesting dichotomy. If we consider the entire globe as one big air traffic system, then it definitely is showing resilient capabilities. Flights are diverted around the affected nodes and redistributed to areas unaffected by the ash cloud. It’s as if Europe was a tumor that has been surgically removed from the rest of the airborne world.

Thus, of course most everyone can continue to fly whether or not Europe’s airports are open. The global network is continuing to function.

And in fact, it’s hard to conceptualize European airspace as an isolated network. At this point all air traffic to and from the continent is inextricably bound to the rest of world, and so it’s hard to imagine an inverse scenario in which the rest of the world ceases to fly while Europe muddles on.

However, this picture changes slightly if we consider the voluntary closure of most European airspace as an intentional attack. Robb gives the threshold as 5-15% of a system’s capability. Of the 30 busiest airports in the world in 2009, seven are in Europe, those seven with total passenger traffic of 268 million people a year. If 1.5 billion people travel by plane every year, that’s roughly 18% of world capacity (and that’s before taking into account all the other European airports that didn’t crack the top 30). For the rest of the world, it’s a relatively stable – if infuriating – situation. I suppose the real determining factor is that while the initial closures were shocks to the system, they didn’t begin on a Europe-wide scale, and by the time those in the east started closing, it was no longer a surprise.

Either way, the system is voluntarily taking at least a fifth of itself offline, which gives rise to an interesting third possibility that Robb doesn’t mention: how much of a system can turn itself off before collapse?

But I Repeat Myself

A reminder that history does not repeat itself; it merely rhymes:

Beneath azure blue skies on Sunday, an intrepid band of Englishmen tried to stage a scaled-down rerun of the “little ships,” hundreds of private craft that joined the Royal Navy in the improbable 1940 rescue [at Dunkirk], saving hundreds of thousands of British, French and Canadian soldiers to fight on against Nazi Germany.

This time, the effort centered on a group of men in a flotilla of inflatable speedboats who set out from Dover to ferry some of their stranded compatriots home from the rail and ferry chaos created by the cloud of volcanic ash that has shut down much of Europe’s air traffic.

Operation Tannenbaum, Part III

While the odds were against any sort of meaningful Swiss victory in the event of invasion, such a German offensive was equally unlikely in the early years of the war. By 1943, the possibility of a successful German invasion had dwindled to virtually nothing, as the Swiss Army had expanded and modernized to a point that would make Tannenbaum a suicidal mission. This begs the question: why, then, would Hitler ever have chosen to invade Switzerland? Let us proceed with our counterfactual under the following premises.

It is now September 15. The unrestricted bombing campaign authorized by Churchill four months ago has been relatively unsuccessful. Fewer than 25 percent of the bombs dropped are landing within five miles of their intended targets, and only 30 percent have landed in any built-up areas.[1] However, this has had an unintended benefit. Having disguised the few industrial plants manufacturing jewel bearings, the Germans were fairly certain of their security. However, in a truly ironic case, this ended up being more costly, as the plants have been disproportionately hit by the British bombs. Jewel bearings are a main component of bombsights, and without them, Hitler is reluctant to press his luck in the Battle of Britain, much less Operation Sealion.

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The Hummingbird has Landed

The A160T Hummingbird Unmanned Helicopter/Rotorcraft.

Boeing’s A160T “Hummingbird” robot rotorcraft has been cleared for liftoff.

A series of tests conducted at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah achieved all of the necessary goals laid out for it. The Hummingbird can successfully

deliver at least 2,500 pounds of cargo from one simulated forward-operating base to another 75 nautical miles away in well under the required six hours. The simulated mission carried 1,250-pound sling loads over two 150-nautical-mile round trips, with the A160T operating autonomously on a preprogrammed mission.

A max payload of 2,500 pounds? 20,000 foot ceiling? This thing is badass.

The real question how long before garage tinkerers make rotary-wing variants of their DIY drones. At the rate they’re advancing for fixed-wing, it won’t be long at all. Just think of all the things you could do with a helicopter as opposed to a plane…

Attack of the Caspian Sea Monster!

The ekranoplan rusting in its berth, 2010.

If you’ve never heard of the Russian ekranoplan, here’s what you need to know. A ground effect plane that flies only a few yards above water (right, it’s also a water-plane, I forgot to mention), the one-off ekranoplan was an ingenious attempt by the Russians to solve… some problem they’d come up with, presumably. It was retired in the early 90s.

Recently, some intrepid photographer found the ekranoplan in drydock, and has taken a number of pictures (along with a photoessay in Russian) so you can see the magnificent beast in all its glory.

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Via War is Boring.

The Bombing of Auschwitz

A consolidated B-24 Liberator of the 15th A.F. releases its bombs on the railyards at Muhldorf, Germany on 19 March 1945.

Via Blog Them Out of the Stone Age:

What if the Allies had bombed Auschwitz? That’s the counterfactual Mark Grimsley poses in his brief, but intriguing piece for World War II magazine (article at BTOSA). As he admits, “most ‘what if’ scenarios begin with a plausible rewrite of a historical event. The bombing of Auschwitz does not have this characteristic.” A strike on the death camps was not seriously discussed at high levels, much less considered a viable option.

It was certainly possible to launch such an attack:

The Auschwitz complex was well within range of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, based at Foggia, Italy … By the summer of 1944, escapees from Birkenau had supplied the Allies with detailed, accurate information about the facility. The crematoria and gas chambers could be readily identified in aerial photographs.

Owing to political considerations and the diversion of “considerable air support” that targeting the camps would require, a raid was never launched. Debate has raged for thirty years whether or not it was a moral imperative to attack the camps, but simply put, it was absolutely within Allied strategic air capabilities.

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Like the Hand of God

If you’ve ever played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, you’ll remember the AC-130 level. It’s even more accurate and realistic than I’d realized (the level could have been even less professional in tone, and still outdone the real-world scenario). It’s also something that was missing from the recent sequel.

Bonus: is Modern Warfare 2 sexist? A girls’ night in determines the answer…

John Boyd and the OODA Loop

I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion on this lately, and I was fortunate enough to stumble on Bill Whittle’s “Forty Second Boyd and the Big Picture.” The OODA Loop is something getting talked about quite a bit, and Whittle’s summary simultaneously shows off the simplicity and mind-blowingness of Boyd’s achievement.

If OODA is as universally applicable as Whittle claims, though – to business, to a love life, et cetera – then is deliberation never the right choice? It remains to be seen whether the new Obama surge in Afghanistan will have the desired effect, but judging from the fairly widespread approval of the new strategy, it was well worth the wait.

Of course, the delay was between orientation and decision, which as Vinay Gupta points out, is the same place corporate change sputters out. The difference between thinkers/doers and senior/junior personnel is no less real at the White House. But can it be overcome?