Things you should be reading 9/6/13

ImageThe Aviationist: Nobody Wants to Fly Drones

The U.S. Air Force faces a personnel crisis when it comes to the drone pilots. In a report published for the Brookings Institution think tank, Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland said UAV recruitment offices does not get a sufficient number of volunteers. Back in 2008 only 3% of flying crew were related to drones. Last year the number reached 8,5%. Still more are needed because the sorties is on the rise.The UAV fleet of the USAF constitutes of 152 Predators, 96 Reapers and 23 Global Hawks HALE airframes. But there is little request for drones assignments and the amount the rate of drone pilots resigning or retiring is 3 times higher than that recorded among pilots flying traditional aircraft.

Washington Post: US war planners don’t support war with Syria

They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective. They are repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our “responsibility to protect” the world’s innocents.

Schneier on Security: The NSA’s Cryptographic Capabilities

Whatever the NSA has up its top-secret sleeves, the mathematics of cryptography will still be the most secure part of any encryption system. I worry a lot more about poorly designed cryptographic products, software bugs, bad passwords, companies that collaborate with the NSA to leak all or part of the keys, and insecure computers and networks. Those are where the real vulnerabilities are, and where the NSA spends the bulk of its efforts.

South China Morning Post: Timeline of Hayao Miyazaki’s Movies

Esquire: Lt. Col. Bateman has more fun in bars than you do

My family has a somewhat strange relationship with the United Kingdom, the country where I am now stationed. On the Anglophile side, I am the fourth out of the last five generations of my family to come to England, train for war, and then go to war alongside the British. I do not suppose one in a million Americans has quite that same depth of a linkage to this country, forged in blood and sweat over almost exactly a century. All of that affiliation, however, was on my mother’s side. My father’s side of the family has a distinctly different relationship.

On my father’s side things are different. I like to point out this difference when confronted as a “colonist” by one of my English peers who may be “in his cups.” In that situation I enjoy noting that in fact, my family loves England. Indeed, we love it so much, that when we came in 1066, we kept it. This, usually, brings the conversation and condescension to a screeching halt.

 

Italian election farce may become our economic tragedy

While we here in the U.S. have been watching Congress battle over who gets to shoot the U.S. economy in the foot, the heat has risen under Europe’s financial crisis and it is now once again at full boil. The result could be a mess big enough to make people wonder why there was so much fuss over sequestration.

On Tuesday Italian voters, grown tired of austerity measures which made the nation’s economy worse, were offered a choice of political leaders seemingly borrowed from a Marx Brothers’ movie and in their infinite wisdom elected all of them. The resulting stalemate has many analysts thinking that a default is a possibility again.

 “The inconclusive outcome of the Italian election looks set to prompt a renewed bout of market pressure which may eventually force Italy to request a support package from the euro-zone,” writes Ben May of Capital Economics.

The fear is that already skittish investors will demand Italy pay more interest in order to borrow the money it must have to pay its bills. If that cost gets too high then Italy would have to seek some form of financial help from the European Central Bank. In the worst case scenario that help means a bailout and because Italy is the world’s 11th largest economy, it is far, far too big to bailout.

It is also possible investors might be fine with the current situation. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “Italy has never been known for strong governments so arguably not having one at all is a natural state for foreign investors.” While the interest rate on the Italian 10-year-bond has risen since the election took place right now it is around 5 percent, well short of crisis levels.

However, it is very hard to find an analyst who thinks this is likely to continue.

“With political chaos likely to be the prevailing wind in the next few months, our pre-election view that Italy could be in play in again with regards to the sovereign debt crisis is beginning to unfold,” says Raj Badiani, an economist with HIS Global Insight. “As expected, the general election has thrown up a substantial no-confidence vote on the current austerity plan and the need to reform further.”

It is not easy to explain how Italy got to this point. Like a great comic opera, the path to the current stalemate contains far too many improbable plot twists and outrageous stunts for even a quick summation, so let’s just focus on the election itself.

It came about after the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Monti who was appointed to the position in 2011 following the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi, a tycoon who owns most of Italy’s major media outlets, is about to face trial for allegedly having sex with an underage “night-club” dancer and has been sentenced to prison for tax evasion. None of that has anything with why he resigned, by the way.

Also, none of that appears to have hurt him at the polls as much as you might expect. His People of Freedom Party and its allies got 29 percent of the vote, which put him in a virtual tie with Pier Luigi Barsani of the Democratic Party and its allied parties. Coming in third with 25 percent was the 5 Star Movement Party which is headed by an acknowledged comedian, Beppe Grillo.

Grillo has so far refused to form a coalition with either of the other two and this is unlikely to change as his party is built around his low-opinion of the professional politicians. When Bersani tried to get Grillo to agree to an alliance Grillo called him a “dead man talking” who should resign as leader of his party and stop making “indecent proposals” to the Five Star Movement.

It is worth noting that Italy’s election law is known as the Porcellum, which is Latin for pigsty.

And, just like here in the U.S., all this would be tremendously amusing if the consequences weren’t so very scary.

(A very different version of this originally appeared on CBSNews.com)

The best books I read this year

I read a lot. This year for the first time I actually kept track of all the books I read. As of today the total is 71. I just started Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel The Company Man (very good, btw) and will certainly finish it by tomorrow. Next up is Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley and I may get through another before Jan. 1.  (I read fast and I always have. In 8th grade I read Decline and Fall of the Third Reich twice.)

So out of all those books these are the best one’s I read this year in history, fantasy, SF and what is usually called Fiction. Very few of them were published this year if it matters.

I am always on the look out for something to read and I don’t care what the topic is, so if you’ve read anything really good lately please let me know.  I am particularly looking for a good biography of Lord Palmerston and a history of the Hanseatic League in English. Now you know why Mrs. CollateralDamage finds me so difficult to shop for.

History (First Person)

  • The Indian War of 1864 by Eugene F. Ware — This manuscript was discovered after the death of Ware who served as an officer in the war against the Native Americans during the Civil War. It is a superbly well-written account of life on the frontier and life in the frontier army. While he is certainly a racist, he also shows surprising moments of compassion.
  • My Diary North And South by William Howard Russell — It astounds me that this book is out of print. Russell was England’s best and most acclaimed journalist in the middle 19th century. This book is the story of the year or so he spent covering the start of the US Civil War. Russell was soon hated by both the armies and civilians of the North and the South because he was in fact an impartial reporter. The story of his effort to get out of the U.S. and back to England is, by itself, more than enough reason to read this. He was a remarkable writer, too.

History (Narrative)

  • Constantinople by Philip Mansel — A history of the city under Ottoman rule from 1453 to 1922. Until the Young Turks overthrew the Ottomans and began forcing out non-Turkish peoples Constantinople was the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Its many, many different ethnic and religious groups forged a unique collective identity and a truly fascinating city. This was done through bloodshed and eventual acceptance that anyone from the city — no matter what their background — was better than anyone not from the city.
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman –Fascinating look at our Civil War from the outside and where I found out about William Howard Russell.
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk — Lots of appearances by William Howard Russell and more terrifying and true adventures than I would have believed possible. There are just far, far too many similarities to the U.S. recent invasions of the same areas.

Science Fiction

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami — I really can’t describe this book so I’m just putting in someone else’s summary of the opening:  “A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.” That last phrase is quite an understatement.
  • The Dervish House by  Ian McDonald — Had I not read 1Q84 this would have been the best SF I read this year. It is set in Istanbul and I picked it up just after reading Constantinople so I can say with confidence that he gets the city and its history perfectly. I won’t go into the plot except to say it’s very good and very plausible. My favorite element though was one of the main characters, an old man, who with three of his old friends are the last members of a Greek orthodox church still in the city and most of their scenes take place at the cafe where they gather for coffee and talk. I would have given anything to have joined them.
  • Ares Express by Ian McDonald — This is such a wild, fantastical, fun story of life on a strange railroad-based society on another planet that I had to keep checking to see it was the same guy who wrote Dervish House. It is not as good as Dervish House but it is very good.

FANTASY

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss — This is fantasy fiction for grown-ups — the characters, plot and setting are all deep and believable. This is the best new fantasy writer I have read in at least a decade.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle — Written in 1968 and considered one of the all time classics of the genre, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. It deserves its reputation. And Mr. Beagle, as my brother Aristo and his wife Stacy can attest with much more knowledge, is a really great guy.
  • The Knight by Gene Wolfe — If Gene Wolfe wrote a grocery list I would pay to read it. In this an American is transported to a fantasy world. Any resemblence to anything else you’ve read with that device ends there. Wolfe is almost totally unknown outside the world of genre fiction and that is a shame. I also reccommend his great collection of short works: The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories … and Other Stories.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — I am a huge fan of Abercrombie’s work. He and Glenn Cook are the best writers I’ve read telling epic fantasy stories from the view of the grunts on the bottom of the chain of command. Like the battle of Helms Deep narrated by one of the front line orcs. Red Country is my favorite of Abercrombie’s to date because it tells stories that are only epic to the people involved in them, not because the FATE OF THE WORLD is involved. (I hate FATE OF THE WORLD as a plot device. ) The stakes — and the rewards — are small but far from unimportant.

So-Called-Traditional Fiction:

  • Hav by Jan Morris — A travelogue to a fictitious, nearly isolated European nation somewhere between Italy and Greece. Nothing and everything happens in this book. It reminded me of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars — not in a derivative way — for perfectly documenting a culture and a world that don’t exist. You will want to buy train or boat tickets to go here (there is no airport yet).
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad/A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul — I read them in that order and they bookend colonialism and its impacts. Conrad’s story is a tragedy that is heroic in scope and examines the costs to the colonizers of being the overlords. There are elements that remind me of Melville’s non-Moby writing — the atmosphere/sense of place and also because it has a plot that would have been hackneyed in the hands of a lesser writer. Naipul presents a tragedy on a minute scale. It is the story of the aftermath of colonialism. It is set in Africa and the main character is from a family that moved their during colonialism from another colonized nation. The society has broken down and then found a great new leader and everyone is struggling to figure out what it means to be from this nation. That is a gross simplification but it will have to do.

POINTS TO CONSIDER WHEN THINKING ABOUT GUNS AND SAFETY

In the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School people are understandably trying to find ways to prevent any such thing from happening again.  Here are some facts to consider when looking at the ideas being put forward:

GUN CONTROL:

As of 2007 civilians in the U.S. owned approximately 294 million firearms: 106 million handguns, 105 million rifles, and 83 million shotguns, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That is nearly 1 for every legal resident, making the U.S. the most heavily armed nation in the world.

The issue of controlling access to guns appears to have been settled in fact if not in law. Setting aside legal issues, there is no practical way for the government to find and seize anything resembling a significant number of these weapons.

Further, criminologist David M. Kennedy, developer of the Boston anti-gang violence program which reduced the city’s youth homicide rate by two-thirds, views gun control laws as irrelevant. He believes reducing violence requires intensive and consistent face-to-face action.

MONITORING GUN SALES:

Current federal law requires criminal background checks for guns sold through licensed firearm dealers, which account for 60 percent of all U.S. gun sales. However, individuals not “engaged in the business” of selling firearms may sell guns without a license and without processing any paperwork; this is widely referred to as the “gun show exemption,” although it applies to all sales by individuals. Changing this law would make it more difficult to legally procure a weapon and would increase the ability of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to prevent criminals and people with mental illnesses from buying weapons.

ARMING MORE PEOPLE:

Arming more people has been suggested as a way to prevent incidents like what happened in Newtown. Nearly a third of all U.S. citizens – 96,000,000 people – owned guns as of 2010, according to a University of Chicago Survey, down from 50 percent in 1973. If nearly 100,000,000 civilians owning guns have not prevented mass shootings – and there are no reports of this happening – it is difficult to believe that arming let’s say 30,000,000 more would actually make a difference.

There have also been suggestions that teachers or other school personnel should be armed. However, simply issuing a weapon to a person without proper training will do much more harm than good. It takes extensive training in order to use a firearm correctly in a situation where you or others are being fired at. That training is expensive and given the relative rarity of school shootings would be useless to more than 99 percent of the people who received it.

RESTRICTING ACCESS TO TYPES OF WEAPONS:

In the U.S. it is illegal to purchase automatic weapons without a Class III weapons license. An automatic weapon is one that fires continuously with one pull of the trigger. A semi-automatic gun is one that fires once each time the trigger is pulled. The AR-15 Bushmaster, the type used in the Newtown shootings, is a semi-automatic version of the M-16 used by the military and can fire 45 rounds in a minute. The M-16, when set to fully automatic, can fire 700 to 950 rounds a minute.

One of the reasons many law enforcement associations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police favor a ban on semi-automatic rifles is because it is very easy to make them fully automatic.

It is important to keep in mind that had a federal assault rifle ban been in place it would have changed nothing about what happened at Newtown.

First, Connecticut has an assault weapons ban, which is modeled after the now-defunct federal law. Under it semi-automatic rifles are restricted only if they include a detachable magazine as well as at least two of five specific features: A pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, a grenade launcher or a flash suppressor. The AR-15 has a pistol grip but none of the other features and thus does not qualify as an assault weapon.

Second, it would have made no difference even if the AR-15 or similar rifles had been banned. Adam Lanza was carrying two semi-automatic pistols which could have been fired nearly quickly as the AR-15: a Glock 10 mm handgun and a Sig Sauer 9 mm. Both weapons typically use magazines which carry 15 bullets, although magazines with larger capacities are available.

Lanza used 30-round magazines when firing the AR-15 and as a result some lawmakers have called for banning their sale. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., says he will reintroduce legislation to ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

This ban would also have made no difference had it been in place prior to the Newtown murders. Magazines can be changed in seconds. That is why magazines were developed.

The above was wrong. I am grateful to TC/Writer Underground  for correcting my sizable error in such a considerate way:

I’m compelled to disagree about a few of your points about assault weapons, and suggest that if an effective assault weapons ban had been in place, Newton might not have happened.

For example, if a law based on California’s current assault weapons laws had been in place (and it’s quite possible a new federal assault weapons ban would be modeled on CA’s), then all guns would have been limited to 10 round magazines.

It’s tempting to say that a few reloads wouldn’t have made a difference, but it’s likely they would have, and it’s also likely the shooter would have carried fewer rounds (his mother likely would not have bought 3x as many 10-round magazines as 30-round mags).

Also, under CA law, the magazine release button (you push the button, the mag drops out) would have been replaced with a “bullet button” — which dramatically slows mag changes. It won’t release the mag unless you jam something pointy in it (like a bullet). That doesn’t sound too difficult, but toss a little adrenaline into the mix and it becomes surprisingly hard to do.

With mag changes coming 3x more often than with 30 round magazines, the time would have added up, and in these cases, seconds and minutes equal lives.

(Keep in mind the shooter suicided when he heard the first responders closing in.)

Also, California requires gun buyers to own a gun safe, and if these weapons had been locked in a safe (and inaccessible to the shooter), this whole nightmare might have been prevented at the start.

Finally, as a competitive shooter, I think it’s naive to suggest the shooter — who was not an expert — would have done as much damage with a pair of semi-auto handguns like a 10mm Glock or a Sig. Shooting a handgun accurately — especially in stressful situations — is damned difficult, and novices tend to quickly develop a flinch that dramatically impairs accuracy.

Cops don’t hate assault rifles because they’re easy to conver to full auto. Though it seems counter-intuitive, if this gun had been full auto, it’s quite possible the shooter would have killed fewer people.

Police don’t like them because — unlike most handguns — the rounds are going fast enough to penetrate body armor, and the guns are also very easy to shoot accurately and quickly.

In other words, I think a weapons ban could have altered the outcome here, and in a best-case scenario, maybe prevented it entirely.

Again, I shoot competitively and I’m not love with all of California’s gun laws, but those involving the AR-15 platform make a fair amount of sense, yet they don’t really impair its sporting use.

As you noted, the genie’s pretty much out of the bottle when it comes to gun ownership in the USA, but I’m not yet willing to throw my hands up when it comes to sensible regulation of a certain class of guns.

W.B. Yeats and the Matter of 9/11

1:  On The Day Of

ONCE more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind.
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER

2: Six Months After

THEY must to keep their certainty accuse
All that are different of a base intent;
Pull down established honour; hawk for news
Whatever their loose fantasy invent

—  THE LEADERS OF THE CROWD

3: The Anniversaries

NOW that we’re almost settled in our house
I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in th’ ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.

—  IN MEMORY OF MAJOR ROBERT GREGORY

4: What Else Matters

MY dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

— from TO A YOUNG GIRL

 

Star Wars, Murdoch, Oprah, the economy, My Little Pony, Google+ and the FDIC are just a few of the things I have been writing about

Come check out these and many other topics at my new blog for BNET, Fun & Games.