Rethinking the U.S.

Chirol, long-time blogger at Coming Anarchy, has struck out on his own and started a new blog, Rethinking the United States.  He plans to cover a lot of ground, mostly serving to answer the question “does the United States serve its purpose?” His welcome post lists the topics to be covered as:

sustainability, autonomy, devolution, decentralization, political identity and loyalty,  political organization, self organization, superempowerment, technology, resilience in general and resilient communities.

Other related and more directly political topics and of great personal interest to the author will be Libertarianism, civil liberties, small government and firearms though they will almost always come back to the topic at hand.

Sounds like a perfect synthesis of stuff that I’m interested in. I cannot wait to see what he comes up with.

But They Knew Where the Keys Were

Even if they misplaced the tanks themselves. From the Telegraph:

‘There are tanks all over the forest, abandoned,’ an unnamed reporter on the video says. ‘If you need one, come and get it.’

Locals in a nearby village said the tanks had been sitting there for almost four months covered in snow. The armoured vehicles were identified as a mixture of T-80 and T-72 battle tanks, the workhorses of the Russian army.

Who has time to worry about where they left an entire armored regiment’s worth of tanks? What with the nation-state collapsing anyways and all manner of intrigue on every conceivable frontier… Or are the Russians early adopters of the “tanks do not equal power projection” school?

22 Bahman as COIN

Crossposted at Secure Nation.

So in addition to using their Chinese-made riot trucks and gas attacks on the protesters, the Iranian security forces were able to quell much of the 22 Bahman uprising by simply relying on the weakness of the movement’s organizational structure. Letting the enemy defeat itself; very Art of War. The very lack of hierarchy in the green movement was both a blessing and a curse. From Foreign Policy:

Like many of the green movement activists, Sadeghi’s belief in the protests seems related to their “horizontal organization,” the fact that they were structured without hierarchies. This was supposed to be the great strength of the movement, but it is also an abiding weakness. A horizontal organization can’t clearly delineate different roles to different people according to their strengths; it can’t reward those who participate, or sanction those who hesitate. Facebook enabled many young Iranians to forget these points.

Now obviously the Taliban is not organizing via Facebook, but the principle of decentralization is the same. Avoid having a center of gravity, put together your demonstrations (attacks) at the last possible minute; coordinate, execute, and then melt away into the night. But if the Iranian green movement using the same principles was successfully put down, does this offer us a rubric for approaching insurgencies?

Mir Hossein Mousavi's Facebook page.

The short answer is probably not. The Taliban is not planning its operations through Facebook or tweets. But the reason the Revolutionary Guard so effectively shut down the protests was by blocking access to means of communications; that is to say the internet. No Gmail, no Facebook, no twitter meant that there was no coordination between demonstrators, nor was there a way to quickly spread the word of crackdowns in a particular area. The networks used by the Taliban for communication are more dispersed, making a system-wide shutdown more difficult. Walkie-talkies and satellite phones are the order of the day, and while we can intercept calls, we cannot easily end them. Even if we did, human couriers would merely proliferate further.

Also worth keeping in mind is the psychological element. The pushback given by the Iranian regime was demoralizing and a clear setback for the movement, slowing momentum and further progress. Presumably more than one green movement adherent changed his colors, or at least plans to lay low thanks to the IRG. But when ISAF and the United States attempt to stop the movement (the Taliban), it disperses them without costing the Taliban anything. Most of the Iranian protesters were relatively concentrated – do we need to herd Taliban fighters into a single killing zone? And is the Battle for Marjah a step in that direction?

Just Do It Yourself

Rapidly spreading around the internet right now is Chris Anderson’s article in Wired, “Atoms Are the New Bits.” Anderson talks about the spread of small-scale garage manufacturing, thanks to the advent, miniaturization, and drastically falling prices of 3D printers and the like. Works on the level of resilience, decentralization, sustainability… a win-win for everyone.

It’s definitely got me excited for the coming microindustrial revolution (or is it an industrial microrevolution?). I may very well need to invest in a MakerBot.

A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.

In short, atoms are the new bits.

Not everyone is quite so excited. But Joel Johnson might be the only naysayer. He does have a slight point – outsourcing some manufacturing to China is nothing new. Shlok Vaidya likes it except for the emphasis on China, and has further reading for you. John Robb loves it, of course (and is even more concerned with the business implications). Bostonist is proud of local Local Motors.

I know what I want for Christmas.

Brave New War: A Review

I had the pleasure of reading John Robb’s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization over the last week. I’ve been familiar with his excellent blog, Global Guerrillas, for some time now, but reading the framework that he’s constructed for his own analyses has added a great deal of depth to my own understanding of his philosophy. Robb has a peculiar style of interpreting news and events, and one that’s very much influenced me. His predictions may not come true, but regardless, he has laid out some fine groundwork even just as a futurist.

Continue reading

Handheld Technology and the Red Queen

According to John Robb et al., one of the primary enablers of ‘global guerrillas’ is cheap, accessible technology. The possibilities that modern technology allow for are nearly limitless, and much of today’s problems are locked in an escalating war of symmetry.

If you’ve ever studied evolution (or possibly just read Michael Crichton’s The Lost World), you’ve probably come across the Red Queen scenario. As originally found in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do, just to stay in the same place.” As a complex system, the Red Queen definitely finds some parallels in warfare.

Need to brief from the field? There’s an app for that. Modern technology is miniaturizing and decentralizing, so that tools once in the hand of a battalion commander or higher have devolved to sub-squad levels. An individual soldier now has access not only to real-time satellite intelligence, but also has the ability to reposition those satellites. From the field.  For the cost of roughly $1 million per satellite. It’s trial-by-fire, as the military is deployed to several hotspots around the world.

Right now, much of the devolved abilities available to the average soldier come through consumer-grade products; iPods and iTouches and the like. To a certain extent, the development of specialist equipment seems redundant. But that’s where the Red Queen comes in.

The nature of warfare and arms competition means that the enemies of America are doing the same thing. Both are modernizing as fast as they can, but the technologies take very different paths. Whereas the United States, having seen the potential of these consumer devices, is now rushing to design a proprietary purpose-built system, the other team is making do with what they’ve got. We may be able to control our Predator drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan from thousands of miles away, but the neo-Taliban can “hack” them with $26 software (though as The Security Crank points out, it’s not really hacking).

That’s the difference in a nutshell: they make do with what they’ve got (Rumsfeld’s “army you have”); we’re constantly trying to forge our own path. I’m not making a judgment one way or another, but that’s the choice ahead. ‘Open-source warfare’ means that these ideas spread without any additional prompting. With off-the-shelf technology, you can go right ahead and set up a self-organizing peer-to-peer wifi network.

The neo-Taliban has been cracking and forcing cell networks offline in Afghanistan for years, and we can merely react. It’s really an open-ended question as to where this all might lead. You can’t stifle innovation at home just for the sake of denying advantages to our adversaries (besides, it’s not like they operate on the cutting edge).

We’re running as fast as we can just to stay standing.

…And We’re Back.

Sorry for the incredibly long delay. Between flying, driving, holidays, and snow, I haven’t had much time to post or write much.

I have, however, had plenty of time to catch up on some reading. I finally finished Military Orientalism, and while it seems a bit rushed towards the end, it’s an excellent, insightful analysis that is well worth your time. I’ll have a review up shortly.

Rounding off an excellent Christmas, I received a ton of books for both the holiday and my recent birthday (which I’d otherwise prefer not to think about). The plane ride was enough time to finish Michael Crichton’s new posthumous Pirate Latitudes, which was a great, quick read.  Yesterday I was still on a fiction kick, so I finally got around to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. It’s even better than I had imagined, and my only regret is that I’d put it off for so long.

Currently, I’m in the middle of John Robb’s Brave New War (it’s about time, no?) and Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible.

Other books that I now own and am waiting to dive into:

Marcus Aurelius – The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations

Allan Dulles – The Craft of Intelligence

Alistair Horne – The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

Theodore Roosevelt – The Naval War of 1812

Russell Weigley – The American Way of War

Here’s some food for thought (before an absurdly huge links collection tomorrow): Ray Kurzweil declares solar power on the verge of providing 100% of human energy needs. One more benefit of solar? It’s decentralized and “safe from disaster and sabotage.” No more Iraqi pipelines?

The Church of Knowledge

Kevin Carey writes in Democracy Now about the ‘quality’ of colleges in the United States. Comparing higher education to the Catholic church, he describes the modern university as in institution terrified of actually trying to evaluate how well they’re teaching. Answerable to no one, accountable to none, non-profit colleges try to maximize reputation rather than profits, including gaming the U.S. News & World Report rankings. I can speak from experience here: my own undergraduate college was unceremoniously dropped from the list in 2005. This came solely because we stopped looking at S.A.T. scores, which were a quantifiable measure of – I don’t know, something – an ability to take tests, and we were duly punished. Yet, the college flourishes, admission has only grown more selective, and I don’t for a minute think less of Sarah Lawrence for her absence from the USNWR tables.

After moving from the unique style of an SLC education to that of the British university, the biggest difference is in fact the alumni donation/endowment-based system of private American colleges. It seems like a bad idea from the start – too close to a business/consumer model, but not actually responsible in the same way. The British schools can count on receiving their funding from the Exchequer each year; they have the benefit of stability. But it’s in fact the endowment system that allows students to change their educational experience while it’s happening. Schools that rely on alumni donations (especially true for those with smaller endowments) must address the needs of current students, whether they be shortages in the curriculum or draconian alcohol policies. Otherwise they risk losing a lifelong source of income, in a state of even further dependence than a business.

Carey misses this almost entirely: “If bad teaching created negative publicity or materially affected the ability of college presidents to recruit students and raise money from alumni, presidents would have much stronger incentives to tackle reform head-on.” So then, is the problem that the alumni of prestigious schools are all idiots, unable to realize they were fleeced? Not sure how to remedy this.

It could be pointed out that the future alumni donation model merely ensures that the wealthiest students have the loudest voices, but I’d have to disagree. A college doesn’t know who’s going to be wealthy or not down the road. It could produce a world-renowned director/producer or a White House Chief of Staff who majored in dance. It’s the ultimate equalizer, and the inverse relationship between the size of a college and its dependence on alumni donations means that the most supportive, responsive colleges will be the tiny liberal arts ones. The big universities are too big to learn. Lectures tell you, seminars engage you (even if some smart people think otherwise).

Carey’s prescription is for new modeling and quantitative assessments of teaching quality and other intangibles. The problem with this (as with all sociological attempts at structuring human behavior) is that it’s too individualistic and subjective a measurement to boil down to a formula. The NSSE and the CLA, even if accurate, merely tell you how a given college is. What’s truly needed is an instrument to change how that college will be. Students should affect their own destiny.

What it comes down to is a need for decentralizing higher education. Harvard as the Ma Bell of universities?

Why They Fight

They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.” The perceived ignorance of Americans as to the wider world around them was often cited as a compelling reason for the mass murder of several thousand citizens on September 11, 2001. Low scores on math and science, and the inability of two-thirds of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four years old to locate Iraq on a map in 2006 merely perpetuated this claim; that somehow American geographical ignorance is responsible for jihadists and regional strife around the world.

This is of course not the only suggested explanation for conflict in the developing world. Essentially, all the arguments put forth can be summarized as pertaining to ‘greed’, or monetary and personal gain, and ‘grievance’, i.e., ideological and cultural clashes. Abridging the vast array of motives to these two is oversimplifying the matter to begin with; further choosing one of the two as the sole factor would be downright spurious. Complicating matters is the tendency to use the ‘pre-modern’ character of third world conflicts to build an intellectual bridge back to the very beginning of history. Continue reading