Monthly Archives: February 2009

Kvick Tänkare

They say (Don’t ask me who…I’m just referring to the generic ‘they’, you know?  The ones who tell you that you shouldn’t run with scissors or read your thoughts via satellites.) that if you want a successful blog you should pick a topic and stick with it.  Don’t jump all over the place and people will flock to your site looking for consistent posts on a reliable topic.

Well, nertz (see definition 3 if you aren’t familiar with the term) to that.

In light of recent research which indicates that thinking quickly about different things actually makes you happier

Results suggested that thinking fast made participants feel more elated, creative and, to a lesser degree, energetic and powerful. Activities that promote fast thinking, then, such as whip­ping through an easy crossword puzzle or brain-storming quickly about an idea, can boost energy and mood, says psychologist Emily Pronin, the study’s lead author.

So, I’m going to introduce an occasional feature here that I’ll title ‘Kvick Tänkare’ (I think that’s Swedish for ‘Quick Thinker’)  and use it to put in little bits and bobs that I think are interesting but don’t have more than a line or so to say about them.  Here are today’s items:

  1. Oldest words in English language are “I”, “We”, “Two”, and “Three”.  Sounds like Dr. Suess invented language.
  2. Sad news…Philip Jose Farmer died yesterday.  I was a huge fan of his Riverworld series growing up and recommend it heartily.  He put some very interesting ideas in his work and overlaid it with great storytelling.
  3. Hey, is it just me or does this chick look like she’s got a scar across her wrist?  Does it look like the result of a A) weird lighting B) Cutting obsession or C) just being clumsy?

Economic jocularity

Think economics is all about gloomy forcasts and talk of the Great Depression?  Well, after you’ve had enough purusing your 401(k) statement and contemplating you declining value of your home this weekend, cehck this out for a bit of light hearted economics:

Total War is coming.

Last week, Creative Assembly released their demo for the new installment of the Total War franchise, Empire, which covers combat in the 18th century.  Here’s the trailer:

I downloaded it and gave it a go.  My poor laptop was straining to cope and it did a pretty pitiful job at it but the game was still pretty impressive.  Now I have to admit that I’m a sucker for the Total War series so I’m likely to give anything they do a positive review.  Still, the graphics are (as always) very nice, it sounds good and it looks like they packed this game with some nice improvements over the earlier games.

The naval warfare aspect is totally new, being an upgrade from the old system where naval combat was just done out of sight and the computer would just spit out the results.  Now, you have to maneuver your forces, pick your shot type and decide if you want to board the enemy ships.

Of course, all this realism and cool graphics comes at a cost and that cost is (for me) unachievable processing speeds meaning this game will have to wait until I can justify a new computer.

Intelligence Analysis Training Review – Part 4

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

In my last post I focused primarily on how the course was presented.  There were a number of other observations about the class that seem worthy of note.  Overall, I’d have to say that conversations with the students seemed to validate the findings of the CRS report regarding Fusion Centers around the country (which I commented on here).

It was disappointed (although not necessarily surprised) to hear students (analysts!) say that they were forbidden from doing anything predictive, didn’t create their own products and/or were limited to cut and paste jobs from other products.  I think there are probably multiple reasons for this but if I could list a few suspects:

  1. Most people I spoke to belonged to agencies with strict hierarchies.  In almost all cases, the mid and upper levels of those hierarchies were staffed with people who had no background in intelligence analysis.  Hierarchies are fine for administrative work (making sure people get paid, accountability, etc.) but it certainly makes things difficult if analytical products have to gain approval through the very same channels that, up till then, only had experience in approving your vacation time.
  2. There remains a strong bias among sworn law enforcement that civilians have no ability to provide meaningful insight to issues of law enforcement or homeland security.  This seemed to be a reoccurring theme is discussions during breaks and after class and had universal resonance.
  3. The fetishization of the ‘beat cop’.  Law enforcement is different from the military in that nearly every new scheme, proposal, product is advertised (if its proponents want to have any hope of have it accepted) as being of direct benefit for the individual patrol officer.  ‘Officer safety’ is important (just as the safety of soldiers is) but an obsession on that aspect of operations threatens to crowd out other (dare I suggest) equally, or even more, important issues.  As a result, a lot of ‘intelligence’ focuses on things like concealable weapons, descriptions of serial criminals or summaries of headline grabbing crimes occurring in other parts of the country/world.
  4. The universal analyst.  The rise of 24 news channels, the internet and the plethora of knuckleheads who comment on issues in which they have no expertise (excuse me…Just got a note from my old friend Mr. Kettle.) has resulted in the belief that analysis isn’t that big a deal and anyone who’s read a Tom Clancy novel or watched an episode of ’24’ can do it.  So, some consumers don’t want analysis because they think theirs is just as good.
  5. An emphasis on ‘case support’ (more on that later)

Most law enforcement analysts are dragooned into doing case support which is often portrayed as synonymous with intelligence analysis but it’s not.  Case support may contain elements of analysis but, for the most part, it involves data collation rather than analysis.  It’s a good place for analysts to begin their career, to learn the concepts and procedures involved with law enforcement but eventually you’ll want your analysts to more on to broaden their scope, working less on the link charts and power point presentations and more on the analysis.  Do you really want an analyst spending her day looking up drivers licenses in a data base when the same task can be done at the same level of expertise by a new hire?  Besides the waste of experience it’s also much more costly.

That is not a universally held view, even among analysts.  I’m always surprised by analysts who feel the profession is best served by a focus on case support.  We had an interesting (unscheduled) discussion that touched on this very issue.  This is where introductory courses of intelligence analysis (Yes, I mean you FIAT) drop the ball.  It’s a short course that tries to cram a host of technical processes in a short time frame but they short change the analytical process and throw the word ‘analysis’ around far too often on things that are not analysis.  So, graduates leave the course thinking they’re doing analysis when they aren’t.

While this conflict created some brief friction in the class this discussion needs to be had.  Ideally, the concept would be introduced in introductory level courses and more fully developed through professional journals, conferences, etc.  Unfortunately, that sort of thing requires a community which just hasn’t developed yet (methinks this thought is worthy of another post) so we’re going to have to rely on forums like this training to bear the brunt of the work in introducing and indoctrinating the concept at the same time.  A tough task that I’m not sure can be done given the contradictory messages analysts can expect to get from their agencies.

These issues are exactly why I was so glad to see a dedicated block of instruction devoted to organizational change and why I didn’t think it went deep enough.  ‘True believer’ analysts are going to face a very steep climb in many agencies so they’re going to need to do a bit of ‘guerrilla’ thinking (warfare or marketing…pick your analogy) to have a chance to bring about some change.

So Twilight hasn’t ruined vampires…

This weekend I finally got around to watching ‘Let the Right One In‘, a Swedish movie on the Vampire theme.  I have to admit, I’ve grown quite jaded about vampire literature over the past few years.  It just seems that there hasn’t been much in the way of originality out there.  Once Anne Rice overturned the Bela Lugosi stereotype with the first couple books of the vampire chronicles (of which I can really only claim to be a fan of the first two, Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat), it seemed like everyone just decided to spend the next twenty years just riffing off of her ideas (even her).  So, we had vampires taking normal occupations, struggling with the ethical dilemma of whether or not to kill humans, and, of course, the vampire as the angst ridden teenager.

And really, the only thing more boring than a teenager is a vampire teenager.

Which is why I thought it was quite clever that that the vampire in this movie is a twelve year old girl (comfortably avoiding hitting that age where her obsession with the Jonas Brothers might interfere with communing with the children of the night).

Here’s the trailer…

So, while it was getting quite difficult to get interested about any vampire themed project lately (oh, wait…don’t tell me.  This time the vampire is a psychiatrist?  Trains poodles in his spare time?  Makes funny balloon animals for his victims?) I have to admit this one is quite good.  It’s got creepy atmosphere (in part because of the story and in part because of the pacing and style of the film which is quite different from an American film), subtle yet effective special effects, and raises some interesting questions to the vampire legend (I really enjoyed how they worked with the theme of vampires having to be invited into a house before entering).  Blood and gore was used intelligently and within the context of the plot, neatly and very ably avoiding the cheap torture porn so much in vogue today.  Its sparsity makes its use all the more effective.

It also addresses one of the weaker parts of Anne Rice’s book, what happens, practically, to vampires created in the form of a child?  How do they get on?

It does however seem to categorize all Swedes as either drunks, bullies, or vampires which I found very amusing but my better half took slight umbrage at.

It is subtitled, which I know turns some people off but, if you’re even slightly interested in the horror genre generally or vampires specifically you should watch this.  There is talk of an American remake, due out in 2010 but they’ll be using the original novel for source material instead of the screenplay so it may turn out very different from this version.  I am a bit concerned about it getting the Hollywood treatment (age the girl to 18 so they can tart her up a bit and avoid those pesky inferences that kids under 18 actually may have sex, lots more blood, shotguns that shoot wooden stakes, etc. etc.) but will remain optimistic.

Update: I received this comment from ‘Ann’ on my ‘about’ page in reference to this post.

“i red your post on the movies about vampires, and i have a question, can female vampires have babies? (in underword 2, it showed that they can, but i do not think i have read about it anywhere else)”

Well, I’m going to assume she’s talking about the vampire legend here.  As far as I understand most of the literature of vampires, their ‘undead’ status would preclude virtually all biological functions, including procreation.  The one exception would be the need to feed, but even then it’s only blood.  Rice’s work touched on this and in her vampire world, it came to be a cultural taboo among the vampires not to create children vampires because they would have too much trouble getting by.  I assume a pregnant women turned into a vampire could pass that condition along to her fetus but, of course, the undead fetus would remain in that stage of development for eternity and becoming a totally different genre of horror, not to mention a major pain in the neck in terms of care and feeding.

Where else will we get our mavericks?

I’m a huge fan of The Atlantic magazine and really enjoyed Mark Bowden‘s book Black Hawk Down but (you knew there’s be a ‘but’, didn’t you?) his article this month is a piece of hack advertising for Lockheed Martin/Boeing that had better have resulted in some significant ad revenue for the magazine.

Boden’s article, titled ‘The Last Ace‘ tells the chilling tale of how the evil doers of the world are nipping at our heels and the only thing which can guarantee our safety and the continuation of Western Civilization (the F22 Raptor) is in danger of being cut by a bunch of panty waisted, penny pinching bureaucrats.

The problem is this:

Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F‑15 in aerial combat, and given the changing nature of the threats our country is facing and the dizzying costs of maintaining our advantage, America is choosing to give up some of the edge we’ve long enjoyed, rather than pay the price to preserve it. The next great fighter, the F‑22 Raptor, is every bit as much a marvel today as the F‑15 was 25 years ago, and if we produced the F-22 in sufficient numbers we could move the goalposts out of reach again.

Of course, the F15 cost about $38 million in 2007 dollars and the F22 costs over $130 million dollars (by very generous estimates) so ‘the price to preserve’ our advantage has risen 300% in the past quarter century.  There is such a think as a law of diminishing returns.

Now, in his defense, Bowden does do some lip service to the tough decision to continue such a costly program and how such planes don’t defend against guys with box cutters but then, freed of the obligatory disclosures, he can get right into talking about how totally cool the F22 is and how so hot those fighter pilots are.  And, if you actually needed more than that, without the F22 there are going to be tons of dead soldiers and marines on our battlefields.

Because, you see:

A small country can buy a MiG‑21 on the world weapons market for about $100,000, put in a better engine, add more-sophisticated radar and jamming systems, improve the cockpit design, and outfit it with “launch and leave” missiles comparable to the AMRAAM. These hybrid threats are more dangerous than any rival fighters America has seen in generations, and they cost much less than building a competitive fourth-generation fighter from scratch. The lower expense enables rival air forces to put more of them in the air, and because the F‑15 can carry only so many munitions…

Of course, Bowden doesn’t answer the question that if some tin pot country can build an airplane that can match the F15 for 1/10 the cost, why not build a ton of these cheap, effective fighters instead of a handfull of these ‘superfighters’?  While technology is great and all, the reason we haven’t had a significant dogfight in decades isn’t because our aircraft are so far advanced (the Iraqis had pretty good equipment) but rather that we had a training system for pilots that couldn’t be beat.  So even if Sudan manages to get a couple souped up MiG 21s all tricked out, the fact that they can only give their pilots 20 hours of flight time a year is going to tell in a major way when they come up against trained U.S. pilots, even if we put them in an F-86 armed only with a surly attitutde.

Which leads us to the other unasked question Bowden left out.  Why do we need piloted fighter planes at all?  If we can build hordes of low cost drones (put a remote control system in a few of those MiG 21s, load ‘em up with missiles and let them swarm) why isn’t that a possible alternative.  Hey if you lose one of those, who cares?  Have a bunch flying stand-by, have the controller take a swig of Mountain Dew and fly another into the fray (ok, I’m simplifying a lot but you get my point).

Then Bowden talks about how old the F-15s are.  You’ve heard this before.  ‘The pilots weren’t even born when these pieces of junk were built.’  That argument just doesn’t carry any water any more, espeically when it comes to air warfare.  After all, the B-52 is going to have a service life of at least 85 years when all is said and done.  Twenty five years for the F-15?  The thing is barely out of the prototype stage.

And then we get to the real heart of the matter:

“I flew in a comparison test with both the F‑15 and the F‑22,” he continued. “You flew against the F‑22 one day, and the next day we took the same profile and flew against the F‑15. I fought both of those, and there was absolutely no comparison. This is not a paid advertisement for the F‑22. You talk to any aviator in the world, ask what they would like to fly, and if they don’t say the F‑22, then they are lying. I would kill to fly it.”

Hey, I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but maybe there’s another way for this guy to get his kicks other than a $130 million airplane (paid for by our tax dollars, of course).  And that’s really what it boils down to for much of the rest of the article.  You hear about how clunky the F15 is.  How you have to work to fly it.  You can almost hear them saying “Awww..C’mon!  It’s so old all the other pilots are making fun of me.”

On second thought, perhaps this is just a commercial for Boeing.  Bowden does take a shot at the equally expensive F35 (because the only thing better than one super expensive high tech fighter is two of them).

So America’s fighter fleet is likely to remain F‑15-based, backed up by the F‑22 and F‑35, a fifth-generation fighter that resembles the Raptor but without the same maneuverability and speed.

Is that a (not so subtle) hint for the powers at large to stop and go ‘Hey…what do we need the F-35 for?  It’s got less maneuverability and speed?  Why not just buy more F22s?!’

And no defense related story is complete without a dash of fear.  So…who are the boogeymen today?

Russia, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and others are now flying fourth-generation fighters with avionics that match or exceed the F‑15’s. Ideally, from the standpoint of the U.S. Air Force, the F‑22 would gradually replace most of the F‑15s in the U.S. fleet over the next 15 years, and two or three more generations of American pilots, soldiers, and marines would fight without worrying about attacks from the sky. But that isn’t going to happen.  “It means a step down from air dominance,” Richard Aboulafia, an air-warfare analyst for the Teal Group, which conducts assessments for the defense industry, told me. “The decision not to replace the F‑15 fleet with the F‑22 ultimately means that we will accept air casualties. We will lose more pilots.

Oh…an honest assessment from a defense industry consultant.  I’m sure he doesn’t have a vested interest in the purchase of new fighter planes.

North Korea?  Iran?  Really?  And are tensions looking that high with India?  Why not throw in Great Britain too.  What the heck…what if the U.S. Navy attacks?  They have all sorts of advanced fighters…and are right off our shores!!!

Bleg – Chinese Rock Music edition

I was listening to a recent edition of This American Life and there was a story in it that revolved around China.  At the end of the segment they had this crazy sounding music that was using an electric guitar to riff off of (what I assume) traditional Chinese folk music.  So, I did a bit of searching to see if I could find out who it was (I couldn’t) or just more about the Chinese rock scene in general.  I quickly came to two discoveries.

  1. There ain’t much information in english and the stuff there is makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  2. Even if I could figure out was was worth listening to, I have no idea where to get downloads of the stuff.

So, if any of you can help a blogger out here I’d really appreciate it.  Please leave any hints or links in the comment section or email me.