A note about the site

Hello dear readers,

Just a note about this site.  Early in 2011 I transferred Travels with Shiloh to its own domain (http://twshiloh.com) and I left this site abandoned but accessible since I knew some posts received a regular level of hits from searching and I saw no need to deny the public the right to access this most excellent content.

Recently I found a technological trick (not that much of a trick actually) which allowed me to cross post new content from my new home to here with just a touch of a button.  Since it requires no work on my part I indulged and so now this site will be updated with my new content as well.

BUT…this site remains a ‘zombie blog’ and does not really have a life of its own.  As it is hosted on wordpress.com embedded items and flash which you’ll see on http://twshiloh.com will not appear here, depriving you of the total TwShiloh experience.

So, I’m very pleased you found (or returned to) this site but allow me to recommend you get your full daily allowance of TwShiloh at the fully functioning blog over here.

Friday music

TwShiloh commandment #36…I hereby decree that this is the only version of ‘Call me maybe’ authorized to be played in this part of the solar system.

Kvick Tänkare

While you may think that reading this blog gives you all the 18th century British grenadier goodness you can stand, you really need your very own grenadier.  Fortunately, the people over at Paper Replika have posted plans that let you create your very own.  Looks really cool.

My latest time sink has been Turntable.fm.  I am absolutely hooked.  My most frequent haunt is a ‘room’ which specializes in rock and heavy metal music.  One of my fellow metalheads recommended the movie Anvil! The Story of Anvil and I heartily pass along that recommendation.  Even if you aren’t a fan of heavy metal music (and Anvil isn’t my particular cup of tea) you should check this out.  It’s all about friends, family and following your dreams.  While it would have been quite easy to make a mocking, real-life Spinal Tap, the movie does a great job of showing the human faces of the band and their families.  Quite possibly the best documentary I’ve seen in a very long time. Really, don’t miss this.

I’m a bit skeptical of the ‘Oh no! China will bury us!’ meme but there are real consequences at the prospect of tens (hundreds?) of millions of people moving from poverty into the middle class.  Some of those we can guess pretty easily like the increase in demand for consumer goods and energy which will make resources scarce and likely accelerate climate change.  Others you might not readily think of.  Take, for example, the boom in hunting mammoth tusks in Siberia to feed the ever increasing demand for ivory in China.

Nearly 90 percent of all mammoth tusks hauled out of Siberia—estimated at more than 60 tons a year, though the actual figure may be higher—end up in China, where legions of the newly rich are entranced by ivory. The spike in demand has worried some scientists, who lament the loss of valuable data; like the trunk of a tree, a tusk contains clues about diet, climate, and the environment. Even Yakutiyans wonder how quickly this nonrenewable resource will be depleted. Millions of mammoth tusks, perhaps more, are still locked in Siberia’s permafrost, but already they’re becoming harder to find.

Probably not a huge deal in the big picture but you never know what this might lead to.

The Swedes continue to astound the world.  Recent low water levels have revealed the wrecks of two 17th century Danish warships.  Pretty amazing when you consider it’s a capital city and the waterways are heavily developed and used.

So, the economy is changing fast…manufacturing jobs are going overseas, technology is making old jobs obsolete, you know the deal.  So, what happens to people lacking education, opportunity for reeducation or other reasons they can’t keep up?  Well, the U.S. government has (unintentionally) created a program to warehouse all these people in poverty.

It’s called disability insurance.  And in addition to poverty wages of about $1,000 a month you also get health insurance.  Since that’s a better deal than most low wage and/or part time jobs out there it basically incentivizes people to stay on the program until they are eligible for social security.  And since ‘disability’ is a subjective evaluation rather than a medical diagnosis, this is a problem that won’t get better on its own.

There’s a whole lot more you should know about our disability system may not do what it was intended to.  Check out this brilliant explainer from NPR.

The Washington Post apparently has an annual peep contest every year.  Check out one of this year’s finalist…Zero Peep Thirty.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has continued the most excellent tradition of releasing an unclassified threat assessment. I can’t describe what a good initiative this is as it is a big step in providing transparency into the thinking of Intelligence Community. While something like this could certainly be manipulated, it is at least one check against the powers that be cherry picking intelligence. By publicly proclaiming their analysis (broadly) to the world, the Intelligence Community have their colors nailed to the mast and face the consequences (good or bad) of their work.

I’m particularly happy with this edition of the assessment for a couple of reasons.

First, the report starts off with a discussion of the cyber threat. I am by no means a tech geek and I agree that there are many serious vulnerabilities to our electronic data and networks but I’ve been concerned by the increasingly hysterically drum beat of talks about cyber ‘Peal Harbors’, 9/11s or Kratatoas. Coupled with the ominous ‘It’s not a matter of if but when…’ statements by very serious people, these predictions would seem like a slam dunk.

So, I was glad to see this:

We judge that there is a remote chance of a major cyber attack against the US critical infrastructure systems during the next two years that would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.

First take away: ‘Chill the fuck out.’

Those that can carry out those big attacks are going to be nation states and countries (even ones like Iran) are going to be reluctant to do so because a cyber attack today can lead to a physical retaliation tomorrow. Just because we now pay our bills online doesn’t mean the idea of retaliation has gone away.

But, what about those crazy terrorists? They’re already under the gun (so to speak) so threats of retaliation aren’t going to mean much to them, right? Well, true, but there are a couple of reasons why we might not have to worry too much about that. First, most ‘traditional’ terrorists are still thinking in terms of traditional fighting. Taking down a multinational corporation or a power station might be a significant win for these players and a step in their ultimate plans but just about all of them have goals of temporal power and for that you need to get our from behind the keyboard and pick up a gun. That’s the first part…the second is that it doesn’t look like any such groups have the capability to conduct such attacks.

Instead of the risk coming from well planned and executed attacks over the next two years, the assessment says that our vulnerability to less sophisticated attacks having an unexpected result because of particular ‘system configurations and mistakes’. In other words, our crappy system designs might go loopy. Just like the HAL9000 in 2001.

Al-Qaida continues their downward spiral with the various affiliates being either concerned more with local matters (AQIM, AQI, al-Shabaab, etc.) or just suffering from a long string of general ass-kickings (AQ Central). Not much to say there other than to say that my personal opinion is that history is passing them by. They still might be able to launch attacks over the coming years but both as a terrorist organization and a broader movement, they’re starting to look like they’re past their expiration date. The thing to look out for will be those who came to political maturity over the past decade. Just as AQ is really the function of the cohort that came out of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, how will the next generation of…who? Islamic radicals? The global ‘have-nots’? Others communities we aren’t even aware of yet? Anyway, how will these people internalize these events (and then externalize them!)?

My prediction: I suspect we’re in a terrorism ‘lull’ that probably began in 2009 or so and will go on for at least another year or two. Now, a ‘lull’ does NOT mean there won’t be any terrorism activity occurring around the world. I think, instead, that we’ll see a general retreat of international terrorist organizations from targeting the United States. Targeting U.S. interests (like the Benghazi attack which, contrary to Fox News, Sen. McCain, et. al. was NOT a sign of a resurgent al-Qaida) will probably continue but occur in places that lack adequate security (post-revolutionary Libya, Bulgaria, etc.). But attacks like 9/11, or even 7/7 , are going to continue to recede into the realm of hypotheticals dusted off to protect pet funding projects.

I suspect 9/11 will eventually be seen as al-Qaida’s battle of Cannae. A brilliant tactical success but with no real strategic benefits for them. Yes, 9/11 did cause the U.S. to make a number of really, really (really) bad decisions that didn’t do them any favors but they didn’t really translate into any sort of net gain for al-Qaida. Maybe bin Laden’s strategy of using a 50 or 100 year time scale will prove him right but I suspect not. Trying to game the global system decades in advance is virtually impossible (at least now). If we weren’t able to do it when we were the global hegemon how can al-Qaida expect to? Indeed, they had better have a deity on their side as that’s what I think it will take.

I was also pleased to see an acknowledgment of the negative influence of environmental crime around the world:

constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry annually, endangers the environment, and threatens to disrupt the rule of law in important countries around the world. These criminal activities are often part of larger illicit trade networks linking disparate actors-from government and military personnel to members of insurgent groups and translational organized crime organizations.

One reason such crimes are so lucrative is that the enforcement and penalty mechanisms are so lax.

The really frightening part of the assessment is the section titled ‘Natural Resources: Insecurity and Competition’. It presents a bleak picture of the state of food, water and natural resources now in which many stocks are at or near capacity with little margin for unexpected (or, in some cases, expected) shocks to the system. So, who cares if a bunch of peasants in central Africa can’t get wheat? Well, what would you do if all the supermarkets ran out of food? And what if the next town over had full supermarkets but either charged all outsiders a huge markup or just didn’t let outsiders in at all, deciding to save food for their citizens? Things could get ugly really fast. I believe it was Isaac Asimov who said something like ‘No civilization is more than three missed meals from anarchy.’

The other big problem with this issue is that it’s just not a national (or international) priority. In a country where we’re still debating whether global warming is an insidious crypto-Socialist-academic plot to deprive honest, hard-working citizens of the ‘American Dream’, who in the hell is going to get support to try to address the question of food security? You can almost hear the tin foil hat brigade talking about how the market will solve everyone’s problems. Make not mistake, these are big problems that are going to create all sorts of new, more traditional problems before everyone realizes just how bad things are. The fact that us humans just aren’t that good at dealing with threats like this doesn’t fill me with a great deal of optimism.

But in the short term (perhaps the next year or three) things don’t look too bad, relatively speaking. As the assessment runs down the various regions of the world we continue to see instability (Africa), slides towards authoritarianism (Central Asia), rampant crime (Central/South America) and emerging rivals (China) but none of these things seem ready to drive the international system into crisis. The more I read these things the more I find myself thinking of the later Roman Empire. Not as a direct correlation but rather the sense of the system gradually falling apart while those at the center seem unable to focus on anything except trivial matters. Shocks to the system are dealt with in a temporary and ad hoc manner. Hopefully that impression is just my age and cynicism catching up to me. I suppose we’ll see…

How the mighty have fallen….

Wow…who would have thought it could happen.  I think I’m actually feeling sorry for al-Qaida.  The terrorist masterminds who brought us 9/11 are now reduced to…these:

1)  Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was flying pretty high a year ago.  They were kicking ass in Mali, portrayed as the next ‘big thing’ in terrorism circles.  They were, as the young people say, ‘the shit’.  And then the French invaded and ruined everything.  So, what’s an ambitious terrorist group to do after suffering several military defeats?

Make a video game, of course.  An incredibly lame video game.  In the game, you play the pilot of a jihadi fighter plane (?!) that fights the French air force.  Does anyone other than me find it ironic that the Jihadi air force is comprised of the Su-47?  I mean…the defenders of the faith flying an aircraft made by godless successors to the Soviet Union?

And at some point does it ever irk these fighters that virtually all the weapons they use are created by people they consider the enemy?  I mean, it’s not like there’s even an authentic jihadi assault rifle that hasn’t been created and sold by infidels.  Don’t games that pretend there’s an Islamic air force just make the true believers feel more inadequate?

2)  Inspire #10:  For awhile, the idea that al-Qaida was producing a slick, English language magazine with instructions for attacks was pretty frightening.  Then, after a few issues, the shine began to wear off.  After al-Awaki and Samir Khan (who were the driving force behind the magazine) were killed by drone in 2011, the quality did a quick nosedive from which is hasn’t recovered.  Now, just pumping something out is seen as a sort of a victory by the al-Qaida types (and the counter terrorism folks who prophet off them) but it’s getting harder and harder to take this stuff seriously.   The latest big al-Qaida tactic that’s going to bring the West to their knees?  Setting cars on fire and causing automobile accidents.  Yeah, knocking down the twin towers didn’t do it but giving me a fender bender in the Whole Foods parking lot is totally going to get us to surrender.

#3 And finally, poor, poor Oman Hammami.  If you don’t feel sorry for this guy, your heart is two sizes too small.  The would be jihadis left sunny California for the badlands of Somalia…Then he got involved in some tribal politics, a death threat from one side, a couple of twitter fights, a $5 million dollar bounty from the U.S. government for his capture and credit for some shitty rap songs.  And this was the guy we were afraid would serve as a beacon for hordes of young American kids to take up the mantel of jihad and run riot.  Meh…not so much.




I’m back

This may not be the best time to make the announcement as you may think it is an elaborate hoax but I’ve decided that I’m going to revive TwShiloh.  So, beginning tomorrow you’ll be seeing new content on a regular basis again.

When I first started this blog I was my primary audience.  I had a bunch of ideas pinging around in my head and I was looking for a way to explore them.  The act of writing them down here gave me that platform and, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure there was anyone else interested.

But, now I want to look outwards a bit more for for TwShiloh 2.0.  So, while I imagine the content here will roughly be the same (discussions on intelligence issues with a smattering of foreign policy, military, history, reenacting, and some randomness through in for good measure) I’d really like to build a bit more of a multi-directional conversation.  So, dear reader, I humbly ask you for some assistance in this endeavor.

  1. If you like what you read here, please spread it around.  Put it on Facebook, twitter, hell, print it off and slide it under the door of your neighbors.
  2. Within the general scope of what I normally write about, let me know what you’d like to see discussed.  Got a question?  Throw it at me!
  3. I can be reached here (in the comments section), on my Twitter feed and by good ol’ email (twshiloh <at> gmail <dot> com).  Don’t be a stranger…
  4. Well, there is no #4 but thanks for reading this far!

Kvick Tänkare

Foreign Policy takes a look at the stuff a rebel commander from the DRC carries.  Really interesting stuff, particularly for the amount of technology it includes.

It appears some Swedes are looking to even up the score in terms Scandinavian horror movies(the Norwegians seem to be on a role lately in producing good quality horror).  Playing to their Nordic strengths, this movie will rely on a monster from local folklore called the ‘vittra‘.

Slate has an interesting piece about inter-species cooperation between human and dolphins.  In one small Brazilian city, the two work together to catch fish.

If you thought the F-35 was a boondoggle that is unique to 21st century American defense procurement, Sven at Defense and Freedom has a nice piece of satire about German aircraft development from WWII.  As they say, the more things change…

Spiegel has this picture from the Syrian rebels.  Who knew you could mash up indirect fire capability along with sensible gas mileage?

A mortar that belongs to the Free Syrian Army fighters, is pictured attached to a car to be pulled to the front line in Binnish in Idlib province

I’m sure this is a metaphor for something…I just can’t put my finger on what:

According to the Dallas Morning News, on Monday afternoon a Fort Worth police officer used his Taser to subdue a 19-year-old man dressed as “Lady Liberty” when he refused to comply with an order.


Wrapping up Iraq and Afghanistan

It seems like the collective psyche is determined to suppress memories of Iraq and Afghanistan as our involvement of those two countries continues to diminish.   Everyone culpable for the horrendous mistakes are safely ensconced as professorsdistinguished fellowships, think tank hacks, etc. apparently none the worse the wear for managing the biggest American foreign policy disaster in generations (maybe ever).

The Obama administration decided long ago that ‘looking backwards’ wouldn’t be helpful so there will be no consequences for those who failed us.  But we are, at least, starting to see a fuller accounting of what exactly was done in our name.

Money was thrown away in vast quantities.  I guess we knew this but the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction released a new report recently.  Waste, fraud, abuse.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

Over in Afghanistan, ISAF has decided not to report data about Taliban attacks any more.  It used to but a recent report included a data entry error which significantly changed the findings of the report.

That’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons.  First, assuming the data was worthwhile, an accident in reporting (even with the embarrassment of having to admit it) shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that the way to avoid future such incidents is simply to not make future reports public.

If the data isn’t worthwhile (and that’s ISAF’s official reasoning for not publishing future reports) then you shouldn’t continue collecting that data (which ISAF is doing – but why if they say it’s not accurate?) AND you should find metrics which do work.

And then there’s the word which must never be spoken:  torture.

Jane Mayer writes about the need for the Administration to share the findings of the still classified report about U.S. government torture.  There’s a 300 page summary report of the program that was apparently damning enough to convince the next head of the CIA to conclude that he was misled about the effectiveness of the program.  Others have gone further:

Colorado’s Senator Mark Udall stressed, “Inaccurate information on the management operation and effectiveness of the C.I.A.’s detention-interrogation program was provided by the C.I.A. to the White House, the D.O.J., Congress, and the public. Some of this information is regularly and publicly repeated today by former C.I.A. officials, either knowingly or unknowingly. And although we now know this information is incorrect, the accurate information remains classified, while inaccurate information has been declassified and regularly repeated.”

Since prosecutions are out of the question, the least the administration can do is release the report so we can all know what’s been done in our name.  It’s also another datapoint for why the CIA needs to have its operational arm stripped out of it.  No president needs (or should have) a private, unaccountable army.

The future of aircraft carriers (the scrap heap?)

Aircraft carriers are hideously expensive and, in the world of anti-ship missiles, increasingly vulnerable when facing a semi-sophisticated opponent.  Sir Humphrey takes a very good and detailed look at how the cost issue is pushing more and more nations out of the carrier club.

So, what will nations that worry about their bottom line do if they want to project power but can’t afford a carrier and/or might not want to put all their eggs in one basket?

Drones make sense.  They’re cheaper than outfitting a manned aircrew and have a great deal of future potential.  DARPA seems to be looking to address this issue with plans to create a drone that can carry a decent payload over an extended distance but can also take off and land on relatively small ships.

While we’re probably far ahead of most of our competitors, this technology will certainly be achievable and spread.  Once even a small ship is capable of launching a capable drone that can conduct offensive operations becomes a reality, aircraft carriers are going to look more and more like dinosaurs.  Why spend the huge costs involved in building a carrier (and airwings…and support ships…and escorts) when you can build a number of smaller ships which can operate individually for routine missions or ‘swarm’ when the punch of an aircraft carrier is needed?

How might we measure the usefulness of fusion centers?

It’s been a few months since the U.S. Senate (or at least one of their subcommittees) released a scathing report about the 72 fusion centers that have popped up around the country since 9/11.  While the initial firestorm appears to have subsided I’m sure it remains a touchy subject and be rest assured as soon as fusion centers have something to bolster their case you’ll be seeing a whole lot of crowing about how much value they have.

It does raise an interesting, and still unanswered, question of how we should evaluate the value of fusion centers.  Certainly there should be something besides anecdotal reports either in favor or against.  Right?  One would think so, but given we’re more than a decade into this experiment, the fact that we haven’t really gotten far in beyond simple quantitative figures (we’ve answered 1,000 phone calls! We sent out 5 bazillion emails!) should have you consider that nobody is really interested in finding answers.

Let’s face it, identifying metrics for the effectiveness of something as squishy and ambiguous like ‘homeland security’ (similar to ‘counterinsurgency’) is going to be really hard, fraught with errors and, even if you get it right today, subject to change as the operating environment changes.

But, allow me to provide one possible piece of the puzzle.  One of the problems of determining effectiveness of something as big as a fusion center or as simple as even the smallest intelligence bulletin is if people actually value the darned thing.  You can try to send out surveys but a) response rates are abysmal and b) if you think grade inflation is bad in our universities check out evaluation forms in government work.  Everyone has learned that by giving straight ‘excellents’ you usually aren’t asked to answer any open ended follow up questions.  Therefore, the quickest way to be done with an evaluation form is to say everything is great and forget about it.

Even if you can swing in person interviews (very time and personnel intensive) you’re likely to hear only praise if not conducted properly (and very few in the community know how to conduct such interviews even if they were interested in doing so).

And yet, across lunch tables, while sharing a brew or via electronic communication device I receive a steady stream of dissatisfaction among erstwhile ‘consumers’ of intelligence.  Why don’t they speak up when given the chance?  Most often it’s because of concerns about reprisals.  Either institutional (‘Oh, you said something unflattering about our agency.  Yeah, we’ll get to your request.  Look for it around half past never.’) or personal (‘Oh, Ms. T applied to work at your agency.  Yeah, she’s not really a ‘team player’. I’ve got a brother in law though who’d be perfect…’).  And with no payoff there’s only downside in speaking up.

So, if you can’t always rely on what people and organizations say in this environment, you can look to what they do.  Most organizations jealously guard their resources and don’t spend them unless they think they can make a net profit on the deal.  Fusion centers, as the name implies, are designed to bring elements from many different agencies together so that each representative can contribute their expertise.

I suppose you could, therefore, look to see who puts there money where their mouths are when it comes to providing resources to these fusion centers.  Specifically:

  • What agencies have ever provided personnel or other resources to the center?
  • Has that level of commitment increased, decreased or remained the same over periods of time?

Of course, this would by no means be a complete picture but it would give you an idea of who feels such a center provides value.  We all know that joint centers also provide agencies the opportunity to dump under-performers and sometimes contributions reflect more of a ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ sort of arraignment but I think it could provide some important hints as to the value of the center.  Some agencies you could automatically exclude from this (for example the agency that owns the building or is mandated by law to participate and the Department of Homeland Security which has a organizational commitment to provide liaisons to these facilities but how many other partners are out there.  And how long do they stay?


On fauxhawks, cognitive biases and intelligence analysis

I’ve been out of the military now for slightly more than a year but still found myself adhering to AR 670-1 when it came to my trips to the barber.  Over the ears, over the collar…pretty short all over.  Some of that is necessity (my hair is very think and festooned with cowlicks everywhere and if left to its own devices would soon turn into a birds nest) but mostly it was habit.  So, I decided to change that…Here are the results :

photo(1) Note the Hitler Pillsbury Doughboy in the background. That’s a fuck you to white supremacists, not baked goods, for the record…

Now the reaction from the people I work with was quite interesting.  My close co-workers are used to my hijinks so this was just sort of a status quo but for those a bit further out from the center of our social circle there was some consternation.  My coworkers and I received questions along the lines of:

‘What’s going on? Did he lose a bet? What does it mean?’

In short…none of these people could imagine a scenario in which someone like me (or, at least someone in our community/situation/etc.) would do this unless he was compelled to.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t do such a thing.

So, what does this mean for intelligence analysis?  Part of an analyst’s job is to ‘think red’ or, consider what may motivate our foes, what priorities they may have, and what actions they may take.  Part of doing that involves avoiding the cognitive bias of ‘mirror imaging‘.  Now, I’ve been working in this particular office for a couple of years now and many of these people have seen me, heard me, had the opportunity to get to know me and with regard to my haircut they were under no pressure to reach a snap decision.  Yet, these individuals were unable to come up with potential motivations for my actions.  Were unable to put themselves ‘in my shoes’ to understand my actions.  How much more difficult when dealing with people involved in more complex activities, perhaps intentionally attempting to deceive, maybe with different cultural norms, with incomplete information and when under time pressure?

Cognitive biases aren’t something to be addressed once and then considered ‘dealt with’ for all time.  We need to be aware that they are the default setting for our brains and without active measures to control for them, we’ll slip into the same old thinking ruts that can lead to shoddy analysis.