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.

Human Sacrifice, Cats and Dogs Living Together

Mass hysteria!

“Truedog” has found the one word necessary to describe modern America: ‘hysterical‘. Everything’s blown out of proportion; no one has an ounce of common sense; we’ve all lost our collective shit. He also offers a most intriguing explanation:

Here’s my theory:  I think everyone in America shares an unconscious, often hidden, and largely unarticulated conclusion that we fucked up, the glory days are over, the country is in deep shit, and there’s no way out.  We know in our bones that we’re falling apart and the rest of the world is moving ahead.  Forget about being #1, we’ll be lucky to level off at #17.  I think that panic is shared across the political board.  Although ideology plays a strong role in who is blamed, the hysteria comes from a common root.  This isn’t just about now or the unemployment rate.  It’s deeper and more primal.  It taps into our inner terror of losing our grip and never getting it back.  Hysteria is just the vibration in our national fuselage as the American empire noses over and loses altitude. People sense they have lost something and are frantic over it.

So let’s just chill the fuck out until we regain our senses, or at least come to grips with our emerging place in the world. In the meantime, we would do well to acknowledge that we’re overreacting, and to at least back up our paranoia with meaningful actions instead of half-assing it. Bruce Schneier suggests that we close the Washington Monument instead of installing airport-like security. “We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it.”

Deep breaths.

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!

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?

H.U.D. not C.H.U.D.

In Las Vegas, they’ve gone underground.

Not in the “off-the-grid” sense, nor in any kind of futuristic post-apocalyptic-themed bunker casino (an idea that I have just now patented), but in an actual we’ve-lost-our-homes-and-live-in-a-tunnel way.

An entrance to the tunnels underneath Las Vegas, Nevada.

The population is estimated to be over 1,000. People who have lost their homes and their livelihoods have instead converted the tunnels – both flooded and dry – into their homes, milk crates to keep their things out of the water. The furniture all comes second-hand; they look for new things at night, to avoid unwanted attention – “it’s kind of embarrassing”.

Steven and Kathryn's 400 sq. ft. "bungalow," deep beneath Las Vegas.

There’s a shadow economy at work here, beyond the obvious gray market in housing. For one of the underground dwellers, his source of income is credit hustling for left behind slot chips and jackpots (he claims to have once found $997).  It’s scraps from above, the remnants of a once proud civilization, that sustain this particular mode of urban life. And all the while, one can’t help but channel Taibbi:

With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country-and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

It’s an unintentional hackerspace – a separation from everyday life borne of necessity, not desire – but nevertheless it achieves some sort of independence.

Can this be taken further? Can our underground and derelict spaces be reused for isolated groups and others who just want to be left alone? Are subterranean environments appropriate for sustained living? Let’s see how long these tunnel folks can go unmolested by the law first.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the “House of Contamination” art exhibit accidentally mocks this way of living.

An aerial shot of a room in the “House of Contamination” installation.

A “life-size maquette of a cultural centre that facilitates cross-fertilisation between the arts?” No, an all-too real representation of modern low living. Perhaps if “House of Contamination” was trying to make a larger socio-economic point. But it appears to just be ‘slumming it’. Read some damn Scalzi.

 

Kids’ Table No More

President Obama dropped a bombshell and a “guaranteed applause line” on his passage to India: he will back an Indian seat on the UN Security Council.  And quite frankly, it’s about time. The only two countries opposing it were China and the US, so while this doesn’t completely clear the path for Indian accession, it does smooth it.

The other question is how this will remake the Security Council as a whole. Tom Ricks has his own solution:

It also probably is time to kick out France and Britain and instead give the EU one seat, which would make the permanent members:

  • United States
  • Russia
  • China
  • India
  • Japan
  • EU

Japan makes sense, but adding/subtracting members is going to irritate virtually everyone no matter how it’s done (which explains why none of it has been done before).

I think we can agree right off the bat that losing members is a non-starter. No one will voluntarily give up a seat, and thanks to veto power, it’s hard to see France or Britain ruling themselves into irrelevance, no matter how much that might make sense. If they both stay then, why would Germany not deserve a seat? As the largest economy and most populous country in Europe, there’s little reasonable objection to their membership.

Then we get into regional representation. If Russia, India, and China all have a seat, why doesn’t Brazil get one? Or if we go the route of an EU seat, why not UNASUR? And/or the African Union? Will the Middle East get its own seat? Would Pakistan demand one?

It is an excruciating set of compromises that would have to be made in order to change the membership of the Security Council at all. Perhaps the largest barrier, though, is the scale of enlargement. The G8 didn’t evolve into a G10, and then a G12, and so forth – it went straight from G8 to G20. And if the Security Council is to add any of the up-and-coming powers, it will probably have to add them all.

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.

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“We the life forms of the United Federation of Planets…”

It’s official: Star Trek is now officially a part of Texas law.  Ruling in Robinson v. Crown Cork Seal Co., Justice Don Willett cited an ancient maxim as the basis for his decision:

Appropriately weighty principles guide our course. First, we recognize that police power draws from the credo that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Second, while this maxim rings utilitarian and Dickensian (not to mention Vulcan), it is cabined by something contrarian and Texan: distrust of intrusive government and a belief that police power is justified only by urgency, not expediency.

A brief mention, to be sure, but then in the footnotes appears this passage:

See STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (Paramount Pictures 1982). The film references several works of classic literature, none more prominently than A Tale of Two Cities. Spock gives Admiral Kirk an antique copy as a birthday present, and the film itself is bookended with the book’s opening and closing passages. Most memorable, of course, is Spock’s famous line from his moment of sacrifice: “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh . . .” to which Kirk replies, “the needs of the few.”

Radley Balko will be so proud.  Not only did the decision invoke Vulcans, but it rolled back the state and arbitrary powers of excess for the police. The Wrath of Khan is now legal precedent in the State of Texas. Highly logical, indeed.

Via io9.

Resilience Through Incompetence

 

The electric grid of the United States.

 

Overall, it’s hard to tell whether this story comes as a relief or not. Short version: the illogicality and inconsistency with which the national power grid has built – that is to say, there isn’t a national grid – means that we are in fact more immune from a Robbian-style global guerrillas attack. The grid is too shitty to be vulnerable.

Which is good for our security short-term, but bad for long-term nationwide electricity. The real question is how do you duplicate the success of of an unplanned system? How do you engineer unpredictability? Answering that will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century.

Via io9.