Archive for December, 2017

I Owe Paul Kennedy An Apology

December 22, 2017

Thirty years ago, Yale University professor Paul Kennedy published The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, he reviewed 500 years of great power competition, from 1500 to the then present. His thesis was that international power has both an economic and a military component, and that a nation’s changing place in the international pecking order is based on the relative levels of these elements, compared to other nations. Economics includes new trade opportunities (gold, spices) and new technologies (sail replacing oars, steam power replacing manual labor). Military includes new applications of technology (gunpowder) and new demands on the size and sophistication of armies (WWI vs Franco-Prussian war). Countries that spend more on military can spend less on their economies, but large countries can spend more on both.

So, changing global economics, and changing social and military responses by the various nations, pushed Spain, then France, then England, then the US and Russia into the top positions. Meanwhile, challengers could become overextended, spending more and more on military that provided less and less return.

…the Ottoman army could maintain lengthy frontiers, but could not expand without enormous cost in men and money. And Ottoman imperialism, unlike that of the Spanish, Dutch, and English later, did not bring much in the way of economic benefit. By the second half of the 16th Century the empire was showing signs of strategical overextension….Socially, the system as a whole, like Ming China, suffered from being centralized, despotic, and hostile toward initiative, dissent, and private commerce. (Note: these quotes have been edited and combined to give a better narrative flow)

Kennedy ended by pointing out that these changes would continue, that all powers would see a relative rise and decline, and that there was no guarantee that the US would remain on top.

“…the decline referred to is relative not absolute, and is perfectly natural; and the only serious threat to the US can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order. …The task facing US leaders over the next decades is to recognize that broad trends are under way, and that we need to manage affairs so that the relative erosion of the US position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies that bring short term advantage but result in long term disadvantage. “

Keep in mind, this was all written in the mid-1980’s.

Unfortunately for the long term usefulness of the book, it was written immediately before the end-of-century upheaval in the global order. The USSR and Warsaw Pact still existed, Japan was a rising economic power, China was struggling to break out, and the European Union was moving from European to Union. Over the next thirty years, these trends came crashing down. The results didn’t negate his thesis, but they did do away with most of his short term predictions. Still, statements like

“even in the military realm there are signs of a realignment from a bipolar to a multipolar system.”

are not only true today, but perhaps are more true than they would have been had his predictions held. In fact, the continuing validity of the basic thesis in the face of failed predictions of specific developments may indicate the underlying strength of his approach.

At this point I should say that Kennedy strongly objects to the word predictions. Precisely because the international system is based on complex, anarchic, changing conditions — what a Systems Scientist would call both chaotic and adaptive — it’s impossible to make useful predictions. Perhaps trends would be a better term.

So, this is where I come in. I read the book when it first came out, and it seemed that his underlying thesis missed a major change in the world system. For the first 500 years, it was indeed driven by contending powers, seeking to establish their rule over the rest, either for religious reasons, for prestige, or because their decision-makers could see no other way to protect their position in the world. But WWII changed all that.

I saw two trends that would change how the system worked. First, was the rise of a bi-polar world, based on extreme ideological differences, and the existential threat posed by both sides possession of nuclear weapons. From that point, every economic and military clash had to be viewed from the standpoint of a possible global nuclear war. The second trend was one that made one proud to be an American: the Marshall Plan, and its adjuncts, which poured money into our former enemies and lifted them up from devastation and made them true partners. No country had ever done this before. Every victor of previous wars, including WWI, had looted the vanquished in the name of reparations.

Surely, we had learned from our experiences at the end of WWI and WWII. It was better to be a magnanimous winner, and spend the money and establish the policies that would bring the losers over onto your side.

Of course, that didn’t happen. While we provided some assistance to Russia after the collapse of the USSR, that was mostly in areas where we would benefit militarily — helping them secure their nuclear materials, for example. Otherwise, we treated them as a full scale hostile power, among other things, expanding NATO into what is arguably their sphere of influence (what they would call the close beyond) and supporting anti-Russian regimes right on their borders. How would we respond if Russia announced a treaty with Mexico that would allow them to station troops in Durango Province, and worked to put a pro-Russian government into Hermosillo?

Of course they are one of our competitors. Ever since the collapse and the emergence of the US as the sole global super-power they have been scrabbling to secure a place at the top of the second tier. Russians are every bit as prideful as Americans, and they bitterly resent the insult of their current position. That’s one reason why they are willing to put up with Putin — he’s Making Russia Great Again (MaRGA).

Meanwhile, what else have we been doing? Invading Iraq on the basis of lies by the President and executive branch. Destroying their government, with no plan for replacement. In effect, taking all those actions that Kennedy would say result in long term disadvantage.

I am not the only one with these opinions. Canadian defence analyst Patrick Armstrong has listed the steps on how we got here. And Michael Brenner (Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh) details the psychology of our response to the realization that we are subject to the same changes others are.

So yes, Paul, you were right and I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. My apologies.


The Tax Bill

December 17, 2017

A report from International Business Times says that last minute changes to the GOP tax bill were essentially bribes to Senators and Representatives to get their votes.

I am reminded of a quote often attributed to Alexander Tytler in the late 1700’s, but which probably originated in Oklahoma in 1951. I have modified it for the 21st Century:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters politicians discover that they can vote largesse from the public treasury.”



December 15, 2017

365 days from now. Second time.
22 years military.
19 years academic.

What? He’s still around?

Memories of my youth: Farewell Compuserve

December 15, 2017

Compuserve dies today. This is where we all say, What? It’s still around?

I got into the CIS online forums very close to the start, back in the early 80’s. It was a perfect activity for someone just home from shift work with time on their hands at 3AM. It was a walled-garden, with lots of good discussions about space and technology, with very little politics and no trolls. An elegant solution for a more civilized time.

Then came the Internet, and buyouts and re-brandings, and people just slipped away. When I finally called in to drop my subscription, the guy on the other end at CIS didn’t even twitch — OK, thanks. Bye.

I am such a pack-rat that I suspect I could find my old Compuserve number, if I wanted to spend a day or so, getting paper cuts.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’m doing tonight.


General Tso’s Oatmeal

December 14, 2017

Never go grocery shopping when hungry. Never go grocery shopping when starving. My third mistake was wandering past the deli section of Safeway in those conditions. Like most supers these days, Safeway Deli has a section of Chinese takeout, so in a moment of weakness I bought a box of General Tso’s Chicken. In deference to my diet (and budget) it was a medium-sized box, only a couple of inches on a side, and only $7.00 worth of food.

And it wasn’t all that good. As with a lot of takeout stuff, it was heavy on the spices, I guess so you could be sure you were getting a properly ethnic meal. A couple of chunks of chicken and spiced cornstarch, eaten with my fingers in the car, and my appetite was suitably suppressed. What to do with the rest?

Two or three chunks of chicken, chunked small, and a couple tablespoonsworth of the sauce looked to be an interesting variant on breakfast. I know it’s chicken, but it was dark meat, and spicy, so I used beef broth.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, one cup of beef broth, a quarter cup or so of chopped chicken, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, salt. Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats. Add the potatoes at the end.

Results: Still too spicy. A grab handful of shredded cheese helped that (paper covers rock, dairy counteracts spice), and the end product was quite good (except it was the first time I’ve had bone fragments in my oatmeal). I’d eat it again (in fact I plan to, as a way of using up the last of the Tso), but I think I’ll stay away from the deli for a while.

Rating: *****

The art of the possible

December 12, 2017

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best — Otto von Bismarck

Some things are going to happen this month that you have a chance of influencing. Some things are going to happen this month that you have no chance of influencing. And some things are not going to happen, no matter what you want.

Case in point, impeachment. That’s the only way to get rid of a sitting President, and it’s not going to happen. Presidents don’t get impeached for criminal actions. Presidents get impeached for political actions that arouse the legislature. The only way that Trump can be impeached is if both the House and the Senate agree that he should be, and as long as the GOP has a majority, that won’t happen. Even Al Jazeera can see that. Flynn may go down, Kushner may go down, the entire White House staff might end up in jail, but Trump will still be President. If someone cries Impeach!, move on to a different story.

Case in point, Presidential and Agency Executive Orders. You and I can’t influence those, as anyone who has followed the derisory responses of the FCC to public comments on Net Neutrality can tell you. It’s not that FCC doesn’t understand the Internet, it’s that the FCC doesn’t care, and anything they say is designed to keep you spun up over it.

You can do nothing about it, but the courts can. Net Neutrality, Bear’s Ears, otherly-gendered folk in the military. The only institution who can push back against these decisions are the courts, and then only if a suitably rich and motivated group, with standing, can goad them into it. And even then, we might still lose, because of the way the courts are being politicized, all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Case in point. Legislative action. Ah, now we have a hook. Politicians hate taking a risk, and every time they vote against their constituent’s wishes, it’s a risk. Unfortunately, most GOP legislators are in safe, deep red, districts, and don’t care, in the same way most of the voters in those districts don’t care. The voters want conservative representation, and the only question is, is he conservative enough? When that happens, their constituents are no longer the local voters. Their true “constituents” are actually industry lobbyists.

Breaking it down, are you living in a red district in a red state? Then you have no influence. Are you living in a blue district in a red state? No influence. Are you living in a blue state? No influence, other than baseline, ineffectual opposition. This is why a horribly unpopular tax bill can get passed.

I say no influence, but you do have the ability to push for small, but perhaps significant, changes. The thing is, you can’t oppose something (like the tax law) in general and across the board. Well, you can, but do it in the privacy of your own home, where it will do you more good. What you can do is pick a niche topic of interest to your local politician and concentrate on that. For example, if there’s a college in your district, you could point out to him what the new tax bill will do to higher education. Or complain about the lack of action on CHIP funding. At a minimum, you might fix some small detail. Ideally (from a Democratic viewpoint), you can help create a legislative roadblock that might (for example) derail a bad tax bill.

So, pick your battles. Be willing to accept small victories. Go for the possible.

Don’t heed the troll 2

December 11, 2017

Trump denies watching TV: “Another false story, this time in the Failing @nytimes, that I watch 4-8 hours of television a day – Wrong!”

Trump gets in twitfight over Florida photos: “Packed house, many people unable to get in. Demand apology & retraction from FAKE NEWS WaPo!”

Trump slags CNN: “CNN’S slogan is CNN, THE MOST TRUSTED NAME IN NEWS. Everyone knows this is not true, that this could, in fact, be a fraud on the American Public.”

Trump continues to obsess over Clinton: “totally Crooked Hillary, AFTER receiving a subpoena from the United States Congress, deleted and “acid washed” 33,000 Emails”

Trump’s stock in trade is the outraged tweet. He has said that he looks at every day as an episode in a TV series, and what matters to him is winning that day’s ratings.

This is, obviously, no way to run a Presidency, but we have to make do with the President that we have, not the President that we’d like to have. I have talked about Trump’s distractions before, as have others. This is all smoke and mirrors, and your reaction has no impact on anything important.

So don’t waste time worrying about it, or jumping up and down like a macaque every time he does something outrageous. My next post will talk about what’s worth doing.




Memories of my youth: Titan OSTF

December 10, 2017

It was a cool December night on the central coast of California. The year was 1960, and we were living on Vandenberg AFB. I had  my telescope out in the back yard, doing some star-gazing, when a friend called and said they were doing some interesting stuff at a Titan I silo across the valley.

Family housing at VAFB was all new construction on the north side of the facilities area of the base. Looking north from there (you had to climb up on the roof, which I did), you could see across a plateau (where the 4th Armored Division trained in WWII, back when this was Camp Cook) and San Antonio creek (where wild boar would wander now and then) to where the USAF had built a number of test/training launchers for their various ICBMs.

Ready to launch

Ready to launch

In fact, VAFB had at least one of every kind of AF launch pad, from the Atlas D gantries to the Minuteman I silos. The one I was looking at that night was Operational Silo Test Facility, used for the Titan I ICBM.

Titan I was one of the early ICBMs, and was not designed to be launched from within a silo. The procedure was to load the fuel (RP-1) and oxidiser (liquid oxygen) in the protection of the silo, then bring the missile to the surface and launch it — lift to launch, in the parlance of the day.

On the 10th of December they were conducting a fueling test, a mock wet firing, in preparation for an actual launch later in the month. The plan was to load the missile, bring it to the surface (stages 1-5 in the graphic below), run a bunch of diagnostic tests, and then lower back down and defuel it. Unfortunately, something went wrong.

Steps 1 through 5

Steps 1 through 5

My first indication was a beautiful fireball, more blue than orange, with lots of sparkly bits. Fifteen seconds or so later came the rumble of the explosion, and then a lot of smoke and fire and flashing red lights.

What had happened was this: when they were finished with the exercise and started to lower the missile back down for defueling, the elevator slipped, and the fully loaded missile fell to the bottom of the silo. There, it ruptured, mixed the fuel and oxidiser, and blew up with a force strong enough to pull the entire steel scaffolding structure out of the silo. It was later reported that the explosion broke down two of the three blast doors between the silo and the launch control center.

That's the interior structure of the silo, laid out to the left

That’s the interior structure of the silo, laid out to the left

Today, OSTF lies rusting, covered in creosote bush and manzanita. Here’s a Wikipedia picture:

It's still a hundred feet deep, so watch your step

It’s still a hundred feet deep, so watch your step

And here is a link to a gallery of current pictures. The grey, overcast background is typical of the California coast that I remember from my youth.

The Long Farewell: Chemotales 2

December 8, 2017

The second three-week chemo session


  1. It’s working, and working well. Marker levels are back within normal range.
  2. It’s showing side effects. We’ll pause Revlimid for one cycle, then adjust the dose.
  3. It’s still there. After we adjust, we’ll keep pounding down the cells and driving them back in their holes, like errant Taliban, to make sure we get as much time as possible before the recurrence.

So, there’s a lot of physiology going on. Some of it may be me and old age, or winter, or cumin. Some of it may be the chemo, specifically the Revlimid. At least I’m not growing fins.

Rash: Revlimid makes my stomach looks like a supermarket tomato. Not a garden-fresh bright red tomato, one of the pale red ones that look like there’s too much grey in the paint. Stopping the drug caused the red to go away.

Blood pressure: Dex makes my BP drop for some reason — 94/60 the day of, improving thereafter. Not a typical response.

Fatigue/sleep disruption: Not fatigue, lethargy. Not tired, just, wouldn’t a nap be nice right now. Sleep for 2-4hrs, up for 6-8, sleep for 2-4. Fortunately, at this point in the year, I’m pretty well in charge of my time, so I’m not deprived, just …. um … scattered. I can make classes, but too many meetings do me in. I can correct finals, but I have to time it right. The students have been remarkably supportive and understanding. Thanks, guys.

Intestinal: Dire rear. You don’t want to know. Words like explosive would be involved. On the good side, I am all set for my next colonoscopy. On the bad side, it hasn’t kept my weight from going up ten pounds.

Loss of stamina: I used to go up stairs fast. Now, I go up slow, and breath heavily when I hit the top. At least I don’t have to actually pause anywhere in the process. Is this the chemo? Old age? Lack of outdoor exercise due to it being 30F most days?

Feet: Ankles still swelling, and making me look like someone’s great aunt. Raising the foot of the mattress helped. Not bad enough to need intervention. May be some interaction between the chemo and my heart meds.

Looking back, not a lot different from Cycle 1, except that the side effects are shouldering their way into my life.

Doctor is pleased. I am pleased. I told him I’d was willing to be his poster boy for miracle cures.

What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2017

Periodically, people revive an alternative history narrative, where Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor, where they followed their, and the US, original warplans and invaded the Philippines instead. This was the old-fashioned style of warfare: invasion of nearby territories, clashes between rival fleets, extended land campaigns.

The Japanese were particularly enamoured of these ideas because of their strategic doctrine of the big, decisive, naval battle. Their concept was to induce, entice, or invite the enemy to send its fleet out for a major clash, one-throw-of-the-dice to see who won. Of course, based on their disastrous victory at Tsushima, they were sure it would be them. I say disastrous because if it had been harder and more painful, they might have drawn better lessons from it.

What Admiral Yamamoto did was shift the decisive battle from the waters of the Western Pacific to Pearl Harbor. The decisive strike would be from the air, not from opposing line-of-battle ships. This succeeded, partially, but left some…issues…unresolved. The rest, as they say, is history.

But let’s step back one more step. What if the Japanese hadn’t attacked the US at all?

You see, attacking the US was never the primary goal. The Japanese looked on us as an enemy because of our embargoes, our support for China, and our alliance with their local opposition, the Dutch and the British. But we were not a foe in the same way as the Dutch and the British, or as Russia. We were an adversary who they might or might not have to fight.

By cutting off their oil and steel (and remember, the US was the world’s major oil exporter, so this was the equivalent of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, only more effective), the US forced the Japanese to look for other sources of supply: British Borneo and Dutch Indonesia. So, the main thrust of the Japanese expansion was to be south, to the oil and rubber supplies.

The Japanese logic on how this would work out was plausible but incomplete, possibly because the Japanese Army, who by the late 1930’s was running Japan’s foreign policy, didn’t really understand international relations. Their logic chain said go to war with the Dutch, and the British will/must join them. Go to war with the British and the US will/must join them. Therefore, we have to go to war with the US. But they seriously miscalculated the US willingness to go to war.

Remember, this was 1941, and Britain had been fighting in Europe for almost two years. They had been defeated on the Continent, and were in serious danger of invasion, and the US still hadn’t gone to their aid. This was because the US Congress and the US people were strongly against war, and President Roosevelt was desperate enough to get us in to one to spawn shoals of conspiracy theories about what he knew and when he knew it, and how much of the action had been at his behest. (My take is, not as much as people think, later than most people think, and very little of import).

So, suppose the Japanese had concentrated on a strike to the south, and had actively avoided involving the US. What might have happened then?

Well, the southern thrust likely would have played out as it did in real life, except there would have been no ABDA Command and no US participation in battles like Java Sea. The US would have increased supplies to Australia, but could have done little west of Manila, given that, politically, we did not wish to take any overtly hostile actions. Increased reconnaissance and intelligence sharing is about all that could have been done until some suitable causus belli had occurred.

We would still occupy Wake and Guam and the Philippines, with troop buildups on all three.

More importantly, Midway would not have happened, and US troops would not have landed on Guadalcanal.

Having avoided a Pearl Harbor, what might have caused the US to enter WWII at this point? Perhaps some naval incident, either in the Atlantic or the Pacific. German u-boat attacks on tankers, perhaps, or Japanese attacks on US resupply shipments to Australia. Maybe a Japanese attack on US assets in China. It would have to be something blatant enough to tip US public opinion.

And then, Plan Orange would be executed, and the US participation in the war would begin. Six months or a year late, against an enemy that was more deeply entrenched, had seized key geography, like Guadalcanal, and New Guinea, and still had the majority of its fleet intact.

History would have been different.



Memories of my youth: Nuclear warfare

December 4, 2017

I did not expect to be doing so many of these Memories entries, but we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of lots of things, and then new events force their way in.

Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, has just published a memoir on his time with RAND corporation, studying command and control in nuclear war.

According to the article, the book officially comes out tomorrow, the U.S. nuclear war plans of the 1960’s, and the C3 system that supported them, were marked by hair-trigger responsiveness, all-or-nothing rigidity, and unimaginable overkill. That was before my time, but it sounds about right.

The problem is, all this was new. No-one had ever worked way through the problem. As with many such, you had to do it to see what you had done (Kissinger once said that he wished we’d given more thought to  the implications of MIRV’d weapons). Plus, we were all driven by a very real Cold War fear. And as with many fear driven situations, we were willing to read the worst possible meaning into every Soviet action. When Khrushchev said “We will bury you“, we heard “We’re putting you down“, not “We will dance on your grave“, which is probably a better translation of the phrase. Things that now appear to be stupid (with 50year hindsight) were urgent and compelling in the day. I suspect that in time our successors will view the war on terror the same way.

Everybody knew the system was insane at the core, but no-one knew how to defuze it, given the very real trust and perception issues between us and the USSR. The key, then, was to make sure we never got in a situation where those decisions were necessary.

Fast forward to 1973. I was assigned to the Military Airlift Command Indications and Warning Center at Scott AFB. Our job was to keep an eye on everything that went on around the world, if there was the possibility it could require some sort of MAC involvement: war in the Middle East, non-combatant evacuation from Congo, airlift of relief supplies to Bangladesh. Support the rest of the US military when fighting a nuclear war.

Shortly after I arrived, we had a visit from the USAF assistant chief of staff for Intelligence, Major General George Keegan. He was travelling to every I&W Center in the AF, and he had one message, that he was delivering personally:

Your primary mission is to prevent a nuclear war.

We knew that Russia and the US had painted ourselves into a corner, and were doing the best we could to keep things from getting out of control. So far, it’s worked.