Today’s* Unsurprising News

This should come as a shock…to just about no one:

A top Chinese military official has confirmed that Beijing is building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s secretive armed forces.

[…]

Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA’s general staff, told the newspaper that the carrier would not enter other nations’ territories, in accordance with Beijing’s defensive military strategy.

“All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers – they are symbols of a great nation,” he was quoted as saying.

Of course, the Chinese carrier will primarily be used for “training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship.” If the sister ship Admiral Kuznetsov is any indication, the former Varyag will not be a particularly reliable platform for power projection abroad – Kuznetsov has been at sea for approximately 12 months in total since the year 2000. Along a similar tack as the Chinese, Kuznetsov has remained operational primarily “to preserve its school of deck aircraft pilots.”

Still, any kind of operational Chinese naval aviation platform is an interesting development, even if it has been a long time coming. But for real blue-water capabilities, the world will almost certainly have to wait for China to produce its first domestic carrier.

*It has come to my attention that the Defense News article is actually dated June 8, so not exactly today, per se. Blame Google Reader, I suppose.

Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117’s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20’s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

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.

Two Steps Back

Do you get the feeling that we’re slowing down? I mean that in the entropic sense, that humanity may have gone as far as it can and is now contracting. Look at how far we’ve come since the year 1910 – two world wars and all the carnage and technological progress they produced, rocketry and space exploration (we put a man on the moon), the rise of computing, Moore’s Law, all the conveniences of modern life. And yet, where are the big breakthroughs?

John Horgan recently wrote in Scientific American about “scientific regress,” fields of science that are not just slowing down as a result of diminishing returns, but that are actually retreating from their own discoveries. Infectious disease is back, including some that were on the brink of eradication. The Concorde, fastest commercial jet in history, was entirely scrapped, and there are no plans to replace it. Even science itself has come under fire – evolution has shifted from common knowledge to a disputable “theory.”

Research and technologies without ‘practical’ application never get off the ground. Hence the hole in the ground that could have been America’s own Large Hadron Collider. Who knows what CERN’s will discover? Alexander Fleming was just studying some bacteria. He ‘invented’ penicillin. Or consider the Vela satellites used to detect nuclear explosions on Earth, which ended up discovering the existence of Gamma-ray bursts. Even the most mundane of new technologies can have serendipitous results, and that’s why continued innovation and discovery is so important. But we’ve stopped.

Even in terms of military procurement – and let’s not forget that ARPA and DARPA brought us the internet and the global positioning system – we’re taking steps backwards in the name of fiscal sanity. Not that balanced budgets are an ignoble pursuit, but we’re voluntarily ending production of the most advanced fighter in the world (the F-22) in favor of its slightly less capable cousin (the F-35). Production of the F-35 itself will be notably slashed. With Britain retiring the Harrier and the F-35B variant in jeopardy, the novel technology of VTOL aircraft may itself not be long for this world.

Meanwhile, the Russian-designed contemporary of the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-35, is making waves, with China about to become a major purchaser of the technology. It takes ages for a new system to come online – the Airbus A400M military transport just now making maiden flights has been in the works since 1982! And even the new weapons systems intended to create capabilities where there are none – the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle comes to mind – are being canceled.

We don’ produce anything any more. The picture of our economy, especially vis-a-vis China, is that of a junkyard. We have a resource economy now, where we ship raw materials out for “more skilled” hands to mold into a finished product. These products are things that just fuel our consumerism, a consumerism wherein we look forward to things breaking just so we can feel the rush of buying something new.

We put so little energy into real long-term thought. Everything we do as a society is all about the quick buck, the near-term gain, what we can see and hold and spend now. Politics continue to be an internal, mind-numbing struggle with no winners and no vision beyond the next election. And of course today’s politicians won’t be living with the consequences of their decisions (there’s still time to atone, though). As the Great Society gets rolled back, the New Deal is next. And what then, the gains of the Progressive Era?

It’s not like I don’t understand why – when you don’t even have a paycheck to look forward to in the next week, every day becomes its own micro-scale struggle just to get to the next one. But it’s not impossible to take care of today’s problems and plan for the future. I’ve previously called for stronger leadership, or a real public works plan, or maybe some British-style openness and transparency (and when the Brits are leading the way in those fields, you just know something’s gone horribly wrong somewhere). These things are not impossible. And they’re not too expensive. I don’t care how bad the deficit looks; no one cares (no, really, outside of a vocal few, it’s not the most pressing concern). It’s certainly a problem, but we have the chance to solve other problems while still looking to the future.

Things are expensive. But in the long long term, doing nothing and stagnating will be even more costly. We need to keep building, inventing, dreaming, knocking over test tubes accidentally, leaving petri dishes next to each other, and to stop arguing over today. Tomorrow is more important.

Think big. Think bold. But most importantly, think ahead.

A Brief History of Future War

Another article at Fortnight today, this one the most relevant to regular readers of this blog. Simply titled “Future War,” it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of Things I’m Interested In militarily. Opening excerpt:

Much as we in the United States may have forgotten our two land wars in Asia, we’re still in them.

But if all goes according to plan, we’ll be completely out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2015. Except for the “advisory and assistance brigades.” And special forces. And drones. And all the other minutiae and caveats that will have essentially set the stage for a near-permanent American presence in Central Asia for the foreseeable future.

But some day, an end will come both in name and in deed—even if that end turns out to be anticlimactic. It’s said all too often that “today’s generals are preparing to fight yesterday’s wars.” By the same token, the ascendancy of counterinsurgency doctrine in the United States military could be here to stay.

Charting the future course of war requires wisdom—and prescience. Who will do the fighting? How will our fighting be done? Why will we fight? And why will they fight? The pithy answers, in order, are: Very few people, remotely, preservation and economics.

Go read it!

Rational Pessimism

Matt Ridley’s new book about how we’ve got it so good today, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, has met with pretty decent reviews. I only just got around to reading Brendan O’Neill’s review for The American Conservative today (yes, yes, I know it’s dated August 1, but I’ve been busy), and it quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

I mean, I know I’m a pretty ornery cuss, but let’s face it: despite rapid advances in material prosperity, we as a society don’t seem particularly happy with our lot. O’Neill is right in saying that all the threats guaranteed to kill us all – Y2K, Bird Flu, that Man-Bird-Pig disease of a year or two ago – have never materialized, and that despite our constant worrying over the end, if it indeed comes it is almost certain to catch us by surprise.

And yet, there is so much of Ridley’s overall hypothesis that seems to make no sense. At the risk of becoming one of the “angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking” types O’Neill warns against, I think it would make sense to examine Ridley’s actual claims and see why they ring hollow.

In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Right off the bat, I can see one problem here: the average human. While wages and prosperity have risen steadily around the world, in the United States income disparity is at historical levels. Productivity has soared in the past fifty years,  but relative worker pay has dropped precipitously. We’re doing more and getting paid less to do it. So while much of the world may have seen a tangible increase in quality-of-life, we’re in many ways worse off than we were 20, 30 years ago. Continue reading

Underground Testing

Recently, France and Britain concluded a defense agreement which, among other things, provides for increased joint nuclear research between the two. In the spirit of that nuclear cooperation – and also in the spirit of getting things done while Congress has their heads up their asses – I have decided to reprint my essay “Underground Testing: Anglo-American Nuclear Cooperation, 1946-58.”

The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.

In 1946, atomic collaboration between Great Britain and the United States screeched to a halt. The fruitful partnership between the ‘Tube Alloys’ team in the United Kingdom and the scientists of the Manhattan Project had grown increasingly one-sided, with the United States’ research contributions far outstripping those of the British by the end of World War II. Two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, demonstrating the arrival of nuclear hegemony. The British were merely informed of the decision, to which they acquiesced with “little or no debate.”[1] As the technology gap across the Atlantic Ocean continued to widen in the immediate postwar period, Britain was increasingly thrust into a lesser, subordinate role.

With the passage of Senator Brien McMahon’s Atomic Energy Act in 1946, Anglo-American collaboration in the field of nuclear power and weaponry appeared to be at a congressionally-mandated end. Much of Thatcher-era historiography views that collaboration as entirely dormant until the McMahon Act’s repeal in 1958, and that in the meantime Britain forged on as the jilted partner in the ‘special relationship’.[2] While true on an official level, this ignores the underlying reality of close continuing cooperation on atomic weaponry between 1946 and 1958. Nuclear cooperation did not hit a wall in 1946; it merely endured ‘underground’ for twelve years.

Continue reading

High Technology in the Hermit Kingdom

The Main and Academic Buildings at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

38North (the US-Korea Institute at SAIS blog) has been producing some fantastic reporting lately, and today came out with an article on the new Pyonyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which opened in October.

Its very existence is a contradiction in terms. It is a pool of 160 of the best and the brightest computer and engineering students in North Korea, proud graduates of the Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University. Perhaps most out-of-character for the tightly sealed country, these students will eventually be allowed free access to the internet. At first, only email capabilities will be granted, but eventually their access will open up and students able to venture beyond the Guang Myung internal North Korean intranet.

PUST itself is backed and funded by evangelical Christians, but steps are taken to ensure that no proselytizing takes place on campus. The university is also in negotiations and talks with the Department of Commerce and South Korean agencies, clearing everything from the names of schools to the curriculum itself. PUST’s cooperation is deemed necessary to securing new technology and avoiding dual-use restrictions on tech imports.

School officials have voluntarily cleared curricula with the U.S. government, which has weighed in on details as fine as the name of one of PUST’s first three schools. The School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies, says Park. North Korean officials, meanwhile, forbid PUST from launching an MBA program—a degree too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “So we call it industrial management,” Park says. “But the contents are similar to those of an MBA.”

The school hopes to have 2,600 students by 2012, visiting faculty, and all the other accoutrements of a successful modern research university. But they will also have some unique challenges to North Korea:

Kim Chaek University of Technology had around 500 Pentium 4’s and 5’s connected to the system. He estimates that nationwide, tens of thousands of computers of all types are now linked in. However, it’s not clear how effective Guang Myung is outside Pyongyang, where clunky routers funnel information to ancient machines—remember 386s and 486s? Another major woe is an unstable electricity supply that regularly fritzes electronics. Lee, who has visited North Korea 15 times, says that when he asks what scientists need most, they request laptops, whose power cord adaptors and batteries can better handle electrical fluctuations.

Signs of openness? An attempt to forcibly drag North Korea into the 21st century? A smokescreen for weapons-grade technology imports? Or just an opportunity to drastically improve the lives of a few lucky North Koreans?

It’s hard to say, on the whole, whether this is a good or bad development. The students attending PUST will have more access to knowledge and the broader world than ever before, and depending on whether their contact with ‘normal’ North Koreans is limited, could possibly spread the gospel of the free world. Then again, developments and breakthroughs made at PUST could very well have military implications, despite all assurances to the contrary (indeed, how could Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong Un resist?).

If this really “might nudge the country’s tattered manufacturing-based economy toward an information-based economy,” that should be good for North Korea in the long run. But then again, we’re still feeling the agony of our shift from one to the other, and for a country like the United States that transition was not an easy one to make. I suspect it may be even more painful for the DPRK.

Collapse

Thanks to Netflix finally appearing on my PS3, I’ve been able to watch all sorts of ridiculous National Geographic documentaries like Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence, and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure. Mixed in with those are some gems, though, like the Inside series (Inside Special Forces, Air Force One, Inside the US Secret Service, etc.).

I saw and decided to take a chance on Collapse: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire Book by Jared Diamond. I should admit that I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but the premise is clear enough. The major factors contributing to our hypothetical demise are a lack of water, food, and oil, all multiplied by the effects of global warming. The story of our collapse is told through the eyes of fictional scientists and researchers in the year 2210 combing the desertified ruins of the globe for evidence pointing to one factor or another (at one point, I think they even recycled five seconds of footage from I Am Legend). This is interspersed with historical reenactments of other collapsed civilizations, including Rome, the Mayans, and the Anasazi.

One-line review: it’s kind of like those Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero ‘documentaries’, but with more anthropology and more science. I mean that in a good way.

But anyways, I was left with two burning questions at the end of it.

The first was where and how did these scientists survive and come to be? Oral tradition alone should explain our downfall, but they have ridiculously advanced technology. Like iPads with the Minority Report interface. And where are they based? They’re exploring the American West and Southwest, along with the British Isles, Southern Europe, and the underwater ruins of Hong Kong. But where do they live? Did New York miraculously escape destruction?

The second has to do with our impending water crisis. I know that we’re on the brink of the first water wars, but for long-term considerations: what the hell are we doing with desalinization?

According to my research, the most intensive barriers to more widespread adoption are the cost of the technology itself and of the power needed to operate the plants. But in most of the Middle East, for example, virtually every new power plant is constructed with some sort of desalination capacity incorporated into it. Current desalinization, though, can start recycling some of its own energy, meaning with a viable renewable energy source – nuclear comes to mind – a plant can be self-sustainable and contribute energy back to the grid.

As is, the costs of desalinization are passed on to end-users to the tune of $3 per thousand gallons. That seems steep, but then again, we buy bottled water, don’t we? Bottled water runs about $7,945 per thousand gallons. Seriously, this seems like a proactive step we could take. Now. To secure our water reserves for a long time to come and maybe, just maybe preserve California’s Inland Empire as a viable place to live while recycling much-needed energy to the grid.

But forget Phoenix, humans seriously have no business living there whatsoever.