A Pretty Prize

This is a portion of a post that had been in the works for some time, but was, as they say, overtaken by events. Today, France announced that it would sell the pair of Mistral-class helicopter carriers/C2 ships to…Egypt. This is one of the more intriguing – though less obvious – buyers, and it’s likely that there was no small amount of Russian lobbying behind the scenes in Paris to ensure that the ships ended up there. But let’s examine how – and why – a pair of Mistrals is headed to Cairo.

The former Vladivostok, now to be purchased by Egypt

While Moscow more or less acquiesced to the cancellation of its Mistral purchase, it continued to try and help select the ultimate buyer (perhaps acknowledging that even if the Mistrals can’t project Russian power directly, perhaps they still can through an not-unfriendly power):

Russian Arabic-language television channel Russia Today quoted presidency spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that his country hopes France, now free to use the ships after settling its dues, would take Russian interests into account when reselling the warships to a third party.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an Egyptian purchase of the two Mistrals seems to have been be countenanced by Moscow. From the DefenseNews article was a suggestion that Russia might precondition French sale of the Mistrals to Egypt, specifically, on the purchase of additional Russian-made Ka-52 attack helicopters, but it’s unclear what legal grounds they might have had to compel this. Nevertheless, Egypt completed a transaction with Russia in late August, in which it will indeed receive 50 Ka-52s by the end of the decade. It now becomes apparent what this purchase was intended for.

However, given the Mistral class’s weakness at point defense and subsequent requirements for adequate escorts, Egypt might have a difficult go of it with its existing fleet.  While the Egyptian Navy is one of the largest in the world by sheer number of hulls, few are relatively modern. The French-built FREMM frigate Tahya Misr, delivered only this past June, is the mostly likely candidate to shepherd one of the Mistrals. However, the remainder of the Egyptian frigate force is of 1970s vintage and primarily consists of American surplus ships. It’s unclear which would be considered adequate to escort the other carrier.

Egypt is something of a natural for the Mistrals given their Russian fittings. The systems and electronics on the ships were done to Russian specifications, which could mean better interoperability with Egypt’s Russian- and Soviet-designed weapons systems (two frigates, almost a dozen missile boats, a handful of minesweepers). It might also be one of the few buyers who could and would be permitted to retain the Russian systems. Integration could prove tricky; however, Egypt has never been a slave to a single procurement source. Egypt sails ships of French, American, Chinese, Soviet, Russian, Spanish, and British origin, and in fact between the Russian fittings on the ships and recent purchases of French and Russian aircraft alike, Egypt would seem to be pursuing its own hybrid interests..

However, in this regard it might also represent a break with current Egyptian procurement trends, as future naval acquisitions on the books include French, German, and American ships. Furthermore, in terms of a command-and-control role, the backbone of the Egyptian Army is the M1A1 Abrams and F-16, and in large part its forces are equipped with American platforms and other western designs. Moscow’s enthusiasm for Egypt’s purchase of the Mistrals can probably be seen as an inroads into the Egyptian defense market, with the Russian-equipped ships a “teaser” introduction into a more integrated, comprehensive military system that would naturally call for the purchase of complementary platforms and systems from Russian industry. Whether Cairo is willing to humor Russia’s intentions remains an open question.

The role the flattops would play in Egyptian strategy and operations seems relatively limited, but it’s likely that one would operate primarily in the Mediterranean, while the other freely transits the Suez Canal (the Mistral‘s draught allows plenty of clearance) to patrol the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The latter could portend a much more active role for Egypt on the Arabian Peninsula – while occasionally marred by disagreement, for the most part Egypt’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are solid, and represent a clear force multiplier for the Gulf states. Having a forward presence in the immediate area – particularly around Yemen – would allow Egypt to play a much more active role in ongoing operations there (unless, of course, it is already).

A Mediterranean Mistral might have been cause for alarm in Tel Aviv, but since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi seems unlikely to ruffle any feathers. If anything, a Mistral here would probably support Egyptian operations in Libya, or possibly to affect events on the ground in Syria – though operations to counter which side remains unclear.

Egyptian Air Base Locations

Cairo’s impetus for acquiring a pair of Mistrals is presumably less about their helicopter-carrying capabilities and more about command-and-control as well as the power projection that a flattop entails. Such capabilities might be especially helpful should Egypt plan to expand its involvement in the various regional anti-Daesh and anti-Houthi campaigns to include a significant ground force presence. In terms of the perpetual struggle for leadership roles in the region, the ability to project power reinforces Egypt’s status as one of the real players, a top-tier regional power that can throw its weight around.

But hey, if it also turns Egypt into an even bigger market for Russian arms, that’s another win, too.

The Means of Consumption

PC sales are down. Way, way down.

What’s to blame? Zero Hedge says that in addition to lackluster sales and poor reception for Windows *, we are, after all, still in a pretty severely depressed economy and that there’s just no end-user demand for new OSes or new computers in general. None of which is wrong. Windows 8, in particular, severly hamstrings Windows as an operating system, forcing it to suffer from the same limitations as a phone (which is just silly, especially when Windows 7 was a solid OS).

But the comments point out that we’ve really reached a point in modern computing power where most people just don’t need it. The rise of mobile and tablet devices has only compounded that. If the average person uses a machine just to tweet or surf the internet or check email or even just watch a movie, what’s the point of having several cubic powers worth of CPUs and RAM capacity greater than that of hard drives less than a decade ago? The smaller devices speak to that and obviate a need for real “computing” devices.

But two comments in particular caught my eye. The first:

[M]ost people don’t do physics simulations, train neural nets, backtest stock trading strategies and so on.

In tight times – why upgrade something that’s already better than most need?  Even I still use some  2 core relative clunkers (that were the hottest thing going when bought).  Because they do their job and are dead-reliable.

And the second:

[E]very manuf [sic] caught the disease it seems.  They don’t give a shit about their installed base, only new sales, and are just slavishly following the migration of most people to crap mobiles – crap if you need any real computing power and flexibility and multi-tasking.

I recently got a Nexus 10 – it’s cute, sometimes handy and so on.  But solve any real problem on it?  You must be joking, it’s just not there.  It’s great for consuming content, sucks for creating anything real – it’s a toy that probably does match the mainstream mentality – the “average guy” who half of people are even dumber than.  That ain’t me.  I’m a maker…I need real tools.

This is just the digital embodiment of a long-time trend. We don’t shape our environments how we used to – we don’t create; we only consume. We refine what exists without thinking bigger. And the sad part about something like the news about PC sales, which could conceivably serve as a wakeup call, is that it won’t matter. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that Windows 7 was fine and why should we bother iterating new versions. But the lesson is that there is at least some segment of humanity that’s trying to create and only needs the proper tools to do it. Possessing the means of consumption allows one only to consume (the Apple model); if we can repopularize “dual-use” technologies that don’t restrict content distribution but also enable its creation, well, now we might see innovation for all the right reasons.

The Windup Girl: A Review

Everything I hoped it would be and more. This morning John Robb referenced aspects of The Windup Girl and that brought it all rushing back.

Bacigalupi paints the picture of a world where the “calorie men,” representatives of the midwestern agricultural combines that released the blister rust plagues into the wild, whose “U-Tex” and other genetically-engineered crops are the only defense against the diseases created by the same men, and the sterility of which forces India, Burma, and the other starving nations of the world into semi-feudal servility. A world in which rising seas have swallowed New York, Mumbai, New Orleans, and Rangoon, and where only the coal-powered monstrous pumps of King Rama XII prevent the similar fate from befalling Bangkok. Where the combustion engine has been replaced by kink-spring power wound by men and elephant-derived megadonts, where the exertion of labor to power the world requires the fuel of food, and calories are the currency of the realm.

In the midst of this, a former Japanese pleasure construct – the titular “windup girl” – discovers instincts and desires beyond the total obedience and urge to please that has not just been bred into her, but programmed into the very fiber of her being. An accidental übermenschen trapped among a peoples who regard her as trash, she represents a future that she can’t even understand yet. Which, coincidentally, is precisely what Bacigalupi has written here.

It is a rich portrait, indeed, and Bacigalupi excels at the alternate history/speculative fiction techniques of hint-dropping and hastily-sketched background details that he doles out like candy along a forest trail. But you’ll want to go where he’s luring you.

Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

Continue reading

On Chicago

The Chicago skyline, as viewed from Wrigley Field looking south, April 5, 2011. Photo by the author.

I meant this to be a stand-alone post on Chicago, but life circumstances will also turn this into a farewell to that most quintessentially American city. Things have necessitated a homecoming, but I see it as being for the best.

Yes, I have now departed Chicago and returned home to Boston for now. Career-wise this is almost certainly the right move; the kind of work I want to do is based pretty much entirely on the East Coast, and now I’m that much closer to potential employers, etc. But I got a pretty awesome trip out of it, somehow accidentally theming it around baseball. Did you know that for some games tickets to Wrigley Field are as little as $8?

And then our road trip route took us past Jacobs Field in Cleveland, past the sign for Cooperstown (sadly, summer hours had not yet begun), and home to Boston, where Sunday night I was able to watch at Fenway as the Red Sox won their first (and to-date, only) series of the year. Against the Yankees, no less. But I digress.

Much of my thinking on Chicago as a city is reflected perfectly in a post from my old professor, Fredric Smoler:

It was thus a hyper-modern and ultra-American city, more modern and in a sense more American than New York, which predated the Republic. The quintessential American architectural form, the skyscraper, was invented here, and approaching the city from its airport the spires rise above the plain like Oz. L. Frank Baum had lived in Chicago, and I think it shows…

A fantasy of Chicago made a vast impression on people like Bertholt Brecht, for whom it symbolized immensely violent capitalist energies. Chicago no longer seems to evoke that intense energy in the minds of foreigners, or for that matter for too many Americans, and we seem to have also lost the once more varied sense of its history as well… Continue reading


Last week I had the pleasure of attending another Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs event specifically for Young Professionals. In this case it was a conversation between all-around-urban-intellectual Greg Lindsay and architect Jeanne Gang on nothing less critical than “The Future of Cities.”

Lindsay just cowrote the book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next with John Karsada, which at its most basic is about the coming airport-centric design and planning that will determine the future of cities and the course of twenty-first century urbanism. But even that mouthful of a description doesn’t really do the book justice. Reading Geoff Manaugh’s interview of Lindsay (and also, Lindsay’s of Manaugh), puts the book in a new light and raises a whole variety of additional interpretations to Aerotropolis‘ main theories.

The talk, however, did not focus solely on Lindsay’s book. After a rather stilted introduction from a local Boeing representative, Lindsay launched into a brief overview of the cities of the future. In the next twenty years more “urban fabric” will be created than in the entire rest of human history. And none of them will look like Chicago. They will be born into nowhere, separated from their surrounding regions. Continue reading


And so all too soon, my tenure at Fortnight comes to a close.

I like to think that my last article, “Hyphenated-Americans,” ends on an optimistic note. What we are is as much what we make it as what we’re born with; we are the architects of our own dreams.* The baggage that identity carries with it is forever changing, from liability to asset, cornerstone to curiosity, cast away to embraced. And all of that goes for collective identity and culture as well.

In the grand scheme of existential questions, “Who am I?” is a close second behind “Why am I here?” Identity remains the catalyst for countless struggles within families, communities, states and nations. The heyday of 1960s-era identity politics may have passed, but we live in an age of unreconciled, increasingly fluid social boundaries.

The idea of a single American identity is a relatively recent construct. During the American Revolution, it was hard to find a single unifying idea beyond that of throwing off the yoke of British rule. But after the war was won, the fledgling Republic suffered its own trials. The failed Articles of Confederation presaged Shay’s Rebellion, and the final Constitution used today. We struggled through a bloody five-year civil war before reuniting, even if at gunpoint. There has always been tension and impetus in different directions here; the United States has always been a restless melting pot.

Today, we’re anything but united. Politically, ethnically and regionally, we’re split even more than perhaps we realize. The number of overlapping identities and allegiances that exist lead to an incredible number of constructed personas. Are Americans a collection of adjectives –Jewish, gay, Christian, Muslim, white, black, Arab, female, young, old–or, are we something more than the sum of these parts? And in an age of ever-increasing fracture, what do we still have in common?

Read the rest at Fortnight. And also, stay tuned for Fortnight, Volume II. My editors, Adam and Samantha, already have some amazing names lined up: James Ransone of Generation Kill and The Wire fame, author Benjamin Hale (whose debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is really quite excellent), Army Lieutenant Rajiv Srinivasan, and Digital Democracy founder Mark Belinsky, just to name a few. And those are just the contributors. I can’t even imagine what kind of luminaries they’ll find. As always, thanks for humoring these digressions.

*Apologies for the reference, I only just saw Inception for the first time the other night.

Howard Davies, Libya, and the LSE

The big news yesterday – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many friends repost the exact same link before – was that the director of the London School of Economics, Howard Davies, had resigned his position over the the Libyan donation scandal that’s brewing.

I’ve said this all before, that there was some bad mojo brewing on Houghton Street, but no one seemed to care. Despite the thuggery and brutality clearly emanating from both Gaddafi son and pere, no one seemed to care until the regime was literally killing people in the streets. At the same time, obviously Davies is not the sole person to blame – much of the institution’s staff and even student body should be held with some degree of contempt. And the LSE is hardly the only institution guilty of this sort of disreputable association. Still, there was in incredible lapse of judgment shown on Davies’ part.

I advised the [LSE] council that it was reasonable to accept the money and that has turned out to be a mistake. There were risks involved in taking funding from sources associated with Libya and they should have been weighed more heavily in the balance.

I’m not sure in what reality accepting the donations would have been a good thing – it either would have been secretive blood money or eventually public-knowledge blood money – and while Davies may have held the best of intentions, it was still an utterly wrong decision. He did do the honorable thing by resigning, and that at least restores a bit of luster to his reputation. But coupled with accusations of plagiarism by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on his PhD dissertation, it seems like a pretty nefarious spot the school has found itself in.

I would also like to take this occasion to point out that Simon Jenkins is a bit of a dick, accusing all LSE students of not caring about the whole affair because it didn’t involve the Tories and General Pinochet:

When the school’s distinguished Arabist, the late Fred Halliday, protested about these links before his death last year, he appears to have been alone. Money did not just talk, it strutted the LSE campus and swept aside all dignity and common sense. Needless to say, the place is now awash in self-flagellation. But as yet there has been no inquiry into this bizarre episode in the school’s history. I wonder what LSE staff and students would be saying if the saga had concerned Oxford University, a Tory government and General Pinochet.

Halliday was one of the most honorable men at the school; it was very sad indeed to see him go. And no one of any standing has yet replaced him. I fear no one will. And in all likelihood, this will not deter future acceptance of questionable donations. The big ‘gamble’ that Howard Davies took was not in accepting the money, but in whether anyone would find out. And if that happened, whether anyone would even care. As it turns out, nothing short of mass murder will cause much of an outcry at all. Is that really the bar we want to set?

The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at Amazon.com.

On Value

Recent headlines like this:

And this:

And this:

Are enough to make you ask: why are we still pretending that these people produce anything of value whatsoever? That their hyper-inflated ‘MegaJob‘ salaries are anything close to realistic compensation? When will we publicly acknowledge that the vast majority of the American finance sector is completely full of shit and damages the reputation and capabilities of this country?

Manipulation of numbers produces nothing. It contributes nothing. If you want to do that, download R and make a graph. But don’t make $500,000 a year to do nothing.

Supposedly the recession is ‘over’ and we’re beginning to recover. But if ‘recovery’ means restoring the finance sector to its previous pedestal atop the grand pantheon of economic bullshit, then that kind of recovery leaves us worse off than we were before. Nothing has changed. It could take ten years to restore unemployment levels to what they were before the recession, and all the while new immigration will be rewriting the face of the country. Much as Elizabeth Warren tries (bless her heart) to change the culture of Wall Street, she is fighting a losing battle. Who would voluntarily surrender an obscene paycheck ‘for the good of the nation’?

We have never been particularly good as a country at rewarding the right kind of work – at paying firemen and manufacturers and miners and the other types of employees that produce something tangible. But the current state of inequality is mind-boggling. And for those like Matt Ridley, who would seek to lull us into a sense of complacency by comparing human life not to that of our parents, not to that of the last three decades, but to the entirety of human history, that’s not where we get out benchmarks for today. We misplaced our priorities a long time ago; are we ever going to find them?