Archive for the ‘Government’ Category
Somini Sengupta and Andrew Kramer have an interesting report in the NY Times:
A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system that was used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.
The report largely confirmed the already widely documented Russian government role not only in the deployment of the missile system, called a Buk, or SA-11, but the subsequent cover up, which continues to this day.
The report by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court, while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle over the tragedy. . .
Obviously, the Ukrainian separatists are responsible for firing the missile at the airliner. Russia provided them the missile but was not responsible for targeting the passenger airliner. So Russia in this case is guilty simply of providing arms, which the US does as well: arms deals are a major US export industry, and the US provides arms to groups that target civilians—for example, the US provides the planes and munitions that Saudi Arabia uses to kill large numbers of Yemeni civilians, including the targeting of hospitals. So if Russia is to be punished for provide arms used against civilians, the US should have to answer as well.
And, though the story does not mention it, the US Navy shot down an Iranian airliner, killing everyone on board. The captain of the USS Vincennes, the ship that fired the missile, was William C. Rogers III, and he was awarded the Legion of Merit for his actions while commanding the ship.
I wonder whether those who are outraged that Russia provided a missile to the Ukrainian separatists are similarly outraged at the US Navy for its action in shooting down Irain Air Flight 655, or at the US for selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
Nick Turse reports at TomDispatch.com:
Americans expect to be number one. First Lady Michelle Obama recently called the United States the “greatest country on Earth.” (Take that, world public opinion, and your choice of Germany!) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went even further, touting America as “the greatest country that has ever been created.” Her rival, Donald Trump, who for political gain badmouths the country that made him rich and famous, does so in the hope of returning America to supposedly halcyon days of unparalleled greatness. He’s predicted that his presidency might lead to an actual winning overload. “We’re going to win so much,” he told supporters. “You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please, Mr. President… don’t win so much’… And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again… We’re gonna keep winning.’”
As Trump well knows, Americans take winning very seriously. Look no further than the U.S. gold medal count at the recent Rio Olympics: 46. The next highest total? Great Britain’s 27, almost 20 fewer than those of the country whose upstart rebels bested them in the eighteenth century, the nation’s ur-victory. The young United States then beat back the Brits in the early 1800s, and twice bailed them out in victorious world wars during the twentieth century.
In the intervening years, the U.S. built up a gaudy military record —slaughtering native tribes, punishing Mexico, pummeling Spain — but the best was yet to come. “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” boasted President Barack Obama in this year’s State of the Union address. In this he echoed his predecessor, George W. Bush, who, in May 2001, declared that “America today has the finest [military] the world has ever seen.”
In the years between those two moments of high-flown rhetoric, the United States military fought in nine conflicts, according to a 2015 briefing produced by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the umbrella organization for America’s most elite forces including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. The record of the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, according to SOCOM: zero wins, two losses, and seven ties.
This dismal record is catalogued in a briefing slide produced by SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate last September and obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act. “A Century of War and Gray Zone Challenges” — a timeline of conflicts ranked as wins, losses, and ties — examines the last 100 years of America’s wars and interventions.
“Gray zone” is an increasingly popular term of the trade for operations conducted somewhere on the continuum between war and peace. “Traditional war is the paradigm,” the briefing slide asserts. “Gray zone conflict is the norm.”
While he finds a great deal to fault in SOCOM’s analysis, retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, believes its assessment of post-9/11 conflicts “is quite accurate.” Although American politicians like Hillary Clinton regularly insist that the U.S. possesses “the greatest military” on the planet, they avoid addressing the question of what the country’s armed interventions have actually accomplished when it comes to policy goals — the true measure of success in war. “We have not shown an ability to achieve our stated political aims in a conclusive way at an acceptable cost,” Bacevich says. “That’s simply a fact.”
The Greatest Journeyman Military in History?
Twelve wins and nine losses. In baseball, it’s the annual record of a journeyman pitcher like Bill Caudill of the Seattle Mariners in 1982, Dave LaPoint of the Saint Louis Cardinals in 1983, or Norm Charlton of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, to mention just three examples. It’s certainly not the record of an ace.
Likewise, 12 victories and nine losses is a far-from-dazzling stat when it comes to warfare, especially for a nation that prides itself on its martial prowess. But that was the SOCOM Intelligence Directorate’s assessment of the last century of American war: 12 and 9 with a mind-boggling 43 “ties.”
Among those 64 conflicts, the command counts just five full-fledged wars in which the U.S. has come up with three wins (World War I, World War II, and Desert Storm), one loss (Vietnam), and one tie (Korea). In the gray zone — what SOCOM calls “the norm” when it comes to conflict — the record is far bleaker, the barest of winning percentages at 9 victories, 8 losses, and 42 draws. . .
In the NY Review of Books Goeffrey Wheatcroft has a very interesting review of three recent books on Britain’s part in the Iraq War failure, one of which is the Chilcot Report. The review is definitely worth reading. The review begins:
How did it happen? By now it is effortless to say that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by American and British forces was the most disastrous—and disgraceful—such intervention of our time. It’s also well-nigh pointless to say so: How many people reading this would disagree? For Americans, Iraq is their worst foreign calamity since Vietnam (although far more citizens of each country were killed than were Americans); for the British, it’s the worst at least since Suez sixty years ago this autumn, though really much worse on every score, from political dishonesty to damage to the national interest to sheer human suffering.
Although skeptics wondered how much more the very-long-awaited Report of the Iraq Inquiry by a committee chaired by Sir John Chilcot could tell us when it appeared at last in July, it proves to contain a wealth of evidence and acute criticism, the more weighty for its sober tone and for having the imprimatur of the official government publisher. In all, it is a further and devastating indictment not only of Tony Blair personally but of a whole apparatus of state and government, Cabinet, Parliament, armed forces, and, far from least, intelligence agencies.
Among its conclusions the report says that there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein; that the British “chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”; that military action “was not a last resort”; that when the United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix said weeks before the invasion that he “had not found any weapons of mass destruction and the items that were not accounted for might not exist,” Blair wanted Blix “to harden up his findings.”
The report also found that deep sectarian divisions in Iraq “were exacerbated by…de Ba’athification and…demobilisation of the Iraqi army”; that Blair was warned by his diplomats and ministers of the “inadequacy of U.S. plans” for Iraq after the invasion, and of what they saw as his “inability to exert significant influence on U.S. planning”; and that “there was no collective discussion of the decision by senior Ministers,” who were regularly bypassed and ignored by Blair.
And of course claims about Iraqi WMDs were presented by Downing Street in a way that “conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of the intelligence,” which is putting it generously. Chilcot stops short of saying directly that the invasion was illegal or that Blair lied to Parliament, but he is severe on the shameful collusion of the British intelligence agencies, and on the sinister way in which Blair’s attorney general changed his opinion about the legality of the invasion.
Planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam “were wholly inadequate,” Chilcot says, and “the people of Iraq have suffered greatly.” Those might seem like statements of the blindingly obvious, as does the solemn verdict that the invasion “failed to achieve the goals it had set for a new Iraq.” It did more than merely fail, and not only was every reason we were given for the war falsified; every one of them has been stood on its head. Extreme violence in Iraq precipitated by the invasion metastasized into the hideous conflict in neighboring Syria and the implosion of the wider region, the exact opposite of that birth of peaceable pro-Western democracy that proponents of the invasion had insisted would come about. While Blair at his most abject still says that all these horrors were unforeseeable, Chilcot makes clear that they were not only foreseeable, but widely foreseen.
Nor are those the only repercussions. Chilcot coyly says that “the widespread perception”—meaning the correct belief—that Downing Street distorted the intelligence about Saddam’s weaponry has left a “damaging legacy,” undermining trust and confidence in politicians. It is not fanciful to see the Brexit vote, the disruption of the Labour Party, and the rise of Donald Trump among those consequences, all part of the revulsion across the Western world against elites and establishments that were so discredited by Iraq. And so how could it have happened? . . .
Continue reading. There’s lots more.
Texas seems burdened by a terrible state government. Charles Ornstein in ProPublica takes a look at how Texas is moving against another group of citizens now that their efforts to shut down medical services for women’s health have suffered a setback. He writes:
Federal law mandates that school districts provide special education services to students with disabilities–physical, emotional or developmental. But outside the public’s view, the state of Texas has decided that fewer students should get those services. It pressured school districts to meet an artificial benchmark of 8.5 percent, a rate far below that of any state, according to aHouston Chronicle investigation.
The article, by Brian M. Rosenthal, documents how “unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids” out of special education.
“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” one former teacher told Rosenthal. “It was all a numbers game.”
In a related piece, Rosenthal deconstructs the various excuses provided to justify the reduction in students receiving special education services. There’s no evidence, for instance, that fewer Texas babies are being born with disabilities; in fact, statistics suggest the reverse is true. He also debunks efforts to credit innovative new teaching techniques for the reduction.
In response to the Chronicle’s reporting, the U.S. Department of Education said it is looking into the matter, and the Texas Education Agency also has promised a detailed review.
We talked to Rosenthal about the genesis of the story and what he found. Some highlights, edited for length and clarity:
One thing I think our listeners will be interested in is how you found out about this story.
Actually, it was from an advocate. This particular advocate actually was confused about the fact that Texas had the lowest percentage of students receiving special ed services by far of any state in the country. This advocate didn’t actually even know about the 8.5 percent, he just thought that we should be looking into this mystery of why Texas serves so few children with disabilities. We started looking into it and in talking with other advocates and people working in schools, we found out about this unannounced 8.5 percent target.
Where did these students go? So if they existed before, and one would presume they exist now, where are they getting educated?
Most of them, it appears, are in schools in general education classrooms and simply not receiving these services that they are entitled to. We’ve heard from some parents that a lot of these children, from some parents and advocates, that a lot of these children have actually been pulled out of public schools when parents were unable to obtain services they decided to homeschool their child or pay to put them in private school. So there were certainly cases like that but it appears as if most of these children are just in regular schools and just not receiving the services that they could be.
How did nobody know about this?
[Many school officials] said that they were told by the TEA, the Texas Education Agency, that this was a policy that was mandated by the federal government or at the very least, backed by research. Turns out neither of those things are true. I think school officials kind of accepted it as reality. They didn’t realize that it was arbitrary and originated from the TEA itself.
After your story ran, it seems that you received quite a bit of feedback from parents who had children with special needs and who had tried to get services. What did they tell you? . . .
There’s also a podcast at the link.
The penny stock Chris DiIorio invested in that crashed and burned was one of many stocks with similar trajectories traded by the same two giant companies. But if one was the buyer and the other the seller, how could this be in both of their interests?
It’s worth reading the entire series.
Freeman Dyson has an interesting review in the NY Review of Books:
How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight
by Julian Guthrie
Penguin, 432 pp., $28.00
Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets
by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix
Pantheon, 320 pp., $27.95
All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life
by Jon Willis
Yale University Press, 214 pp., $30.00
Robert Dicke was an experimental physicist at Princeton University. He liked to build things with his own hands. When NASA began making plans for landing astronauts on the moon, he thought of a scheme that would allow the astronauts to make a serious contribution to science. This would be good for science and also good for the astronauts. The scheme was to measure accurately the distance between two objects, one fixed on Earth and the other fixed on the moon. The measurements would give us improved understanding of the dynamics of the Earth-moon system.
The object on Earth would be a laser emitting very short pulses of light. The object on the moon would be a tray holding a hundred corner-cube glass reflectors. A corner cube is a piece of solid glass cut so as to reflect light efficiently. The corner cubes would reflect the laser pulses back to the laser. The timing of the reflected pulses would measure the distance between the laser and the tray. The astronauts would plant the tray on a firm piece of ground on the moon facing Earth. Because the corner cubes reflect light straight back to its source, the small variations in the orientation of the moon as it moves in its orbit do not disturb the measurement.
Dicke was a practical person. He went to the Edmonds Scientific Company toy store down the road from Princeton and bought a hundred high-quality glass corner-cube reflectors for $25 each. He asked the machine shop at the Princeton University physics department to attach the cubes to a metal tray with a stand to support it. The complete package, including materials and labor, cost a total of $5,000. Then he got in touch withNASA officials and told them he would be happy to supply the package at this cost for a moon mission. The NASA officials accepted his proposal enthusiastically, but they said, “You do not get to build it. We get to build it.” The proposal to build the package was put through the normal bureaucratic NASA acquisition process. According to Dicke, NASA paid $3 million to an industrial contractor for it. The reflectors were duly installed on the moon and are still reflecting laser pulses as Dicke intended. Doing things the NASA way increased the cost by a factor of six hundred.
The moon missions happened long ago. Now, fifty years later, there is still a clash between two cultures. There is Big Space, with big corporations receiving contracts from NASA to produce custom-built hardware and software following NASAprocedures at enormous cost. And there is Little Space, aiming to carry out space operations in the Dicke style, using hardware and software mass-produced for other purposes by companies in a competitive market at vastly lower cost. The Big Space culture is still dominant, carrying out spectacularly successful high-cost missions, such as the Cassini mission that sent back detailed pictures of the satellites of Saturn, and the Kepler mission that discovered thousands of planets orbiting around other stars. But there are now several start-up companies operating independently of NASA in the Little Space culture, hoping to do space missions that will be bolder, quicker, and cheaper.
Will Marshall was a young engineer working in the Big Space culture at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA center that builds big expensive spacecraft such as Cassini. He rebelled against that culture and decided to do things differently. Along with two other NASA alumni, he started his own company and built a satellite that he called Dove in his garage in Cupertino. The company then changed its name to Planet Labs and built 150 Dove satellites in a few years, with 150 more to be launched next year. His satellites are radically smaller and cheaper than anything built at the JPL, but they are equally well engineered and more agile. They belong to the Little Space culture, using modern miniaturized cameras and guidance systems and data processors, like those that are mass-produced for the cell phone and recreational drone industries.
A Dove satellite weighs about ten pounds and costs under a million dollars, including launch and operations and a communication system for distributing large amounts of information to the Planet Labs customers. The information consists of pictures of the ground taken from low earth orbit, with accurate color to show the type and condition of vegetation, with complete coverage of the planet every few days, and with “resolution”—the size of the smallest patches that can be seen in the picture—about ten feet. The customers are farmers looking at crops, foresters looking at trees, fire-control authorities looking at fires, environmentalists looking at pollution and erosion of land, and government officials at all levels looking at ecological problems and environmental disasters.
Marshall likes to describe how he lost twenty-six Dove satellites in 2014. They were sitting together on a big rocket that exploded on the launch-pad. The loss hardly affected his business, since he had had nine successful launches and only one failure. The lost satellites were quickly replaced and the replacements put in orbit. The great advantage of the Little Space culture is that every mission is cheap enough to fail. It makes a huge difference to the running of a business if failures are acceptable. Missions in the Big Space culture are too big to fail. In that culture they typically take a decade to plan and a decade to build. A Dove satellite is planned and built in a few months. Occasional failures in the Little Space culture are a normal part of the cost of doing business. If there are too many failures, the company running the business may collapse, but that is not an unacceptable disaster. Start-up companies evolve in a Darwinian ecology, where the fit survive and the unfit collapse.
Planet Labs and other start-up companies have proved that the Little Space culture is ready to take over a large share of future unmanned activities in space. The question remains open whether the Little Space culture can have a similarly liberating effect on manned missions. Can we expect to see manned missions becoming radically cheaper, so that we can travel with our machines at costs that ordinary people or institutions can afford? Neither Big Space nor Little Space shows us a clear path ahead to the fantasy worlds of science fiction, where bands of brave pioneers build homes and raise children among the stars.
Halfway between Big Space and Little Space, there is a group of companies that grew rapidly in recent years, led by SpaceX, a company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk. Musk is a young billionaire who has dreams of founding human colonies on Mars. His company builds big spacecraft paid for by big NASA contracts in the Big Space style, but he tries to keep the design and manufacture cheap and simple in the Little Space style. In ten years he has built a launcher, Falcon, and a transfer vehicle, Dragon, which ferry unmanned payloads from the ground to the International Space Station. He intends soon to include astronauts in his payloads. The SpaceX culture is a compromise, using commercial competition to cut costs while relying on the government for steady funding. The twenty-first century is likely to see manned missions exploring planets and moons and asteroids, and possibly making spectacular discoveries. But this century is unlikely to see costs of such missions low enough to open space to migration and settlement by ordinary citizens.
The three books under review describe space activities belonging to the Big Space and Little Space cultures that are now competing for money and public attention. Each book gives a partial view of a small piece of history. Each tells a story within the narrow setting of present-day economics and politics. None of them looks at space as a transforming force in the destiny of our species. . .
Continue reading. Later in the review:
. . . With Tsiolkovsky, we leave behind the parochial concerns of the twenty-first century and jump ahead to a longer future. In the long run, the technology driving activities in space will be biological. From this point on, everything I say is pure speculation, a sketch of a possible future suggested by Tsiolkovsky’s ideas. Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. I give the name Noah’s Ark culture to this style of space operation. A Noah’s Ark spacecraft is an object about the size and weight of an ostrich egg, containing living seeds with the genetic instructions for growing millions of species of microbes and plants and animals, including males and females of sexual species, adapted to live together and support one another in an alien environment.
After the inevitable mistakes and failures, we will have acquired the knowledge and skill to build such Noah’s Arks and put them gently into suitable places in the sky. Suitable places where life could take root are planets and moons, and also the more numerous cold dark objects far from the sun, where air is absent, water is frozen into ice, and gravity is weak. The purpose is no longer to explore space with unmanned or manned missions, but to expand the domain of life from one small planet to the universe. Each Noah’s Ark will grow into a living world of creatures, as diverse as the creatures of Earth but different. For each world it may be possible to develop genetic and other instructions for growing a protected habitat where humans can live in an Earth-like environment. The expansion of human societies into the universe will be a small part of the expansion of life. After the expansion of life and the expansion of human societies have started, the new ecologies will continue to evolve in ways that we cannot plan or predict. The humans in remote places will then also have the freedom to evolve, so that they can move out of protected habitats and walk freely on the worlds where they have settled.
The essential new species, enabling Noah’s Ark communities to survive in cold places far from the sun, will be warm-blooded plants. A warm-blooded plant is a species with leaves and flowers and roots and shoots in a central structure, kept warm by sunlight or starlight concentrated onto it by mirrors outside. The mirrors are cold, separated from the warm center by a living greenhouse with windows that let the light come in but stop heat radiation from going out. The mirrors are attached to the greenhouse like feathers on a peacock. The mirrors and the greenhouse perform the same functions for a warm-blooded plant that fur and fat perform for a polar bear.
The entire plant, with the warm center and the greenhouse and the mirrors, must grow like a mammal inside its mother before it can be pushed out into the cold world. The new species of plants will be not only warm-blooded but also viviparous, growing the structures required for independent living while still inside the parent plant. To make viviparous plants possible, the basic genetic design of warm-blooded mammals must be understood and transferred to become a new genetic design for plants. Our understanding and mastery of genetic design will probably be driven by the needs of medical research, aimed at the elimination of disease from human, animal, and plant populations. Warm-blooded and viviparous plants will fill empty ecological niches on Earth before they are adapted for life support in Noah’s Arks. They may make Antarctica green before they take root on Mars.
Almost all the current discussion of life in the universe assumes that life can exist only on worlds like our Earth, with air and water and strong gravity. This means that life is confined to planets and their moons. The sun and the planets and moons contain most of the mass of our solar system. But for life, surface area is more important than mass. The room available for life is measured by surface area and not by mass. In our solar system and in the universe, the available area is mostly on small objects, on comets and asteroids and dust grains, not on planets and moons.
When life has reached the small objects, it will have achieved mobility. It is easy then for . . .
Penny stock gadfly Chris DiIorio tells the SEC about his suspicion that Knight Capital is tanking penny stocks on purpose and racking up unsustainable balance-sheet liabilities. But that leads to another mystery: Why don’t they seem to care?
The entire series so far is very much worth reading.