Dear President Trump: Dealing with the F-35 (and setting an example on other defense procurement).


President Trump, you have a golden opportunity to employ the qualities your supporters believe you have to challenge the Pentagon and the defense aerospace industry to do something that hasn’t been done for many decades: Provide just what the US needs to defend itself on time and at a reasonable cost.  The F-35 is a mess and you know it, Mr. President.  So does Mad Dog.  The F-35 has taken far too long to develop, as costs and serious doubts about its capabilities mount.  Meanwhile, the US military air fleet ages, and costs to maintain it and keep it combat ready increase.  The F-35 has its defenders but, honestly, those defenders are people with a vested interest in keeping the program going — either military pilots who fear that without that plane, they’ll have no ride at all, or people who have been intimately involved in developing and overseeing the program through its long and tortured history.

“Here’s how to do it.  First, tell the Pentagon to define a short, clear set of specifications.  I can give you one as an example they can start from.  Tell them to do this in 90 days.  They can do it — there are really smart people who have been thinking about this a lot for a long time.”

The basic problem with the F-35 is grounded in its fundamental conception: A common airframe that serves all three of the US flying services — Air Force, Navy and Marines.  The US faced a “smart” solution to fighter procurement like this once before in notoriously “smart” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s plan to develop a common Air Force and Navy fighter program in the 1960s.  The two services knew that their needs were very different then and successfully fought that proposal.  By the 1990s, when the F-35 program had its inception, they’d apparently forgotten all that.

“Absolutely no representatives from any contractor who wants to participate in the project should be allowed to participate in drafting these specification.  You define the first and most important specification: Each aircraft is to cost no more than $60 million.  Yes, you read that right.  $60 million.  It can be done.  Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t.”

But I won’t rehash that history here.  Instead, let me propose a straightforward solution.  Don’t totally cancel the program.  The F-35 does have some good characteristics and all three services and our allies who have committed to the program should take some of them.  The F-35B, with its short take-off and vertical landing capabilities is the only possible near-term or even intermediate-term solution for the Marines’ need to replace the rapidly-aging Harrier upon which they depend.  The stealth but especially the incredible smarts built into the basic design of the F-35 can and should be used by the Air Force and Navy in strike missions for which those qualities make it a superior weapon.

You will be told that reducing the numbers of F-35s we buy will increase their unit cost.  That is true to some extent, but at some point we have to cut our losses and do what’s best for the overall, long-term defense budget and the nation’s defense.

Both the Air Force and the Navy need a “backbone” warplane that is a fighter first, but that can do a decent job in the strike role and do it in significant numbers (which means at a reasonable cost).  (They also need a backbone generally when it comes to the defense contractors.  Give it to them.)  Both services did a good job in procuring such planes during the era of the “teen series” fighters: The F-16 for the Air Force, and the F-18 for the Navy.

Here’s how to do it.  First, tell the Pentagon to define a short, clear set of specifications.  I can give you one as an example they can start from.  Tell them to do this in 90 days.  They can do it — there are really smart people who have been thinking about this a lot for a long time.  Absolutely no representatives from any contractor who wants to participate in the project should be allowed to participate in drafting these specifications.  You define the first and most important specification: Each aircraft is to cost no more than $60 million.  Yes, you read that right.  $60 million.  It can be done.  Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t.

Second, allow any contractor who wants to participate two years to build a flying prototype at their own expense.  Two years.  And the contractors pay for it.  It can be done.  Modern rapid prototyping, materials and computer design make this possible.  Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t.   Read the rest of this entry »

Have a Strange Christmas!


Commentary: Trump, Taiwan and China


Today’s South China Morning Post:

Barack Obama: ‘My Incredible Journey’


Byron York writes:

…In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 73 percent of registered voters said the country is on the wrong track, while just 18 percent said it is headed in the right direction. The 73 percent figure is the second-highest in the president’s nearly eight years in office.

The poll was no outlier. These are the wrong-track numbers for the last ten polls in the RealClearPolitics average of polls: 67, 70, 67, 71, 73, 69, 79, 68, 60 and 66.


And yet, in spite of clear evidence that a majority of Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction, the president exhorted the nation, “Thank you for this incredible journey — let’s keep it going.”

Obama spoke as if broad areas of American life are better than ever, even if there remains work to be done. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Take from Hong Kong on Ruling Against China on South China Sea


Here’s a clue: The history of the 100 years before 1949 is taught in mainland Chinese schools with the explicit curriculum title of “The Century of Humiliation.” I have described how China’s history over the time since the 1840s is perceived as a comic book story of a superhero who was transformed into a weakling by the villain, but has now regained his superpowers. EVERYTHING is perceived as “getting even.”

Westerners who don’t specialize in the world I now inhabit can’t imagine the absolutely rabid nationalism that is the mainstream default in China’s public discourse and, wang_never.jpgincreasingly in private sentiment — especially among educated people. Basically the default level of nationalism makes Donald Trump look like Noam Chomsky … I am seriously not kidding.

This will be perceived as an “insult to the Chinese people.” Period. The legal and factual merits of the case will NOT be discussed in official media on the mainland (there is no other kind). Anyone who raises any kind of protest against that view online will be bullied and condemned as a traitor and agent of US imperialism.

There is ZERO chance of China accepting this. It will be lovingly placed into the treasure chest of grievances against the world (and especially the U.S.), to be taken out and paraded around on a regular basis — whenever Xi gets some bad economic news (which is all the time now).

China Notes the Approaching Trumpageddon

Drudge leads with this today:

20160225 China-Trump

Which links to this article at the Washington Free Beacon.  Basically, a Chinese official spokesman said that the US shouldn’t do anything to upset the world economic order, presumably referring to the general Chinese position that the U.S. raising tariffs as a response to China’s devaluation of the yuan would be a Bad Thing — without naming Trump as the source of this proposal.   Big surprise.  China’s in a very tight spot — a very, very tight spot.

Beijing has been running the money printing presses on overdrive for months, trying to pump liquidity into an economy that is turning to thick sludge while, at the same time it’s been springing leaks left and right in terms of capital flight.  In other words, the brilliant minds who make Chinese economic policy (once so beloved by Paul Krugman and the other geniuses at the New York Times) have had to ditch their grand plan to rebalance the Chinese economy from one premised on producing cheap exports to one based on internal demand and services.  This is what they’d like to be doing, by their own admission.  But the boat not only won’t steer, it’s sinking.

To the extent there is any demand out there at all for Chinese exports (and, compared to just a year ago, there’s not much), continuing on the course of being an export manufacturer is the only thing that can generate foreign exchange right now and for the foreseeable future.  If the Trumpocalypse were to occur and he were actually able to do the Smoot-Hawley thing, it would be a torpedo below the waterline for the Chinese economy.

So Beijing is basically saying “Hey, we’re both in the same sh!tstorm — you sink me and we both go down!”  They’re probably right.  But just in case we don’t get the message, there’s this: Another Piece of the Puzzle: China Builds New Radar Facilities in the Spratley Islands.

Pundit Planet Command Center



Space Dump

Three interesting stories from Parabolic Arc, a great site covering “New Space:”


Burt Rutan, arguably the greatest living aerospace engineer and designer of the SpaceShip One and SpaceShip Two vehicles, expresses the opinion that all the evidence is pointing to: The loss of the SpaceShip Two vehicle was due to pilot error. And here’s Bill Whittle, former aerospace journalist and now political commentator, on how things like this happen — and why they have to:


Elon Musk provides some new details on how SpaceX will recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.  Spoiler: It’s amazingly cool.


Finally, here’s an article about something I’ve been hearing about for years: A physicist who seems to have developed a true “reactionless drive,” a staple of science fiction.  It’s only at the miniature demonstrations stage but, as this longer article at Boing Boing describes, the theoretical foundation for the work seems sound.  Well worth reading.

MURRKA! Chinese Rocketeers Fear SpaceX as Low-Cost Provider

According to Aviation Week, the Chinese space launch industry appears to believe that its next generation of launchers will cost more to purchase than those already being provided by SpaceX.


In other words, a product designed and manufactured entirely in the USA can beat the Chinese, who have far lower labor costs.  Way to go Elon — we love you!

BREAKING: Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two Explodes, Killing One

Here’s what we know: On its first powered flight with a new motor, Virgin galactic’s Spaceship Two had a major engine failure that resulted in loss of the vehicle.  Two test pilots, names still unknown, were onboard.  One died.  These are the only images I’ve been able to find:


There have definitely been those in the “NewSpace” community who have criticized Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for the way they’ve managed the development of this vehicle — pushing too fast in some areas, while making little progress in others.  But it hurts to already see the kinds of criticisms begin that make me cringe: TIME already has an article up entitled “Enough With Amateur Hour Space Flight.”

Yeah — the Big Government way has done such a great job in the past: Two out of five of the space shuttle orbiters lost to preventable accidents (40% of the fleet, with a loss of 14 lives together) and the first version of the Apollo spacecraft killing three on the launch pad because it was an incinerator waiting to happen.  Those are just some of the more egregious examples. There are plenty more.

It won’t surprise me if this kills Virgin Galactic.  As a business and an engineering and project development enterprise, it is NOT the best of the “NewSpace” initiatives.  Unfortunately, there will be plenty of idiots like the guy at TIME who will lump it all together and insist that NASA, that paragon of efficiency and safety, manage all US space activity.

[EXCLUSIVE] Hong Kong Democracy Protests — Democracy, Strategy and Tactics

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters had planned to have some kind of vote yesterday on how they would go forward.  But they didn’t.  From the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper:

Occupy Central protesters and observers yesterday backed an 11th-hour decision to scrap a poll on the way forward for the month-old sit-in, saying the move made it easier to enter into more talks with the government.

Protest leaders announced the U-turn hours before the electronic ballot was to start at 7pm and apologised for not having sufficiently discussed with demonstrators the poll’s methodology and objectives. But shelving it did not mean they had shifted their stance or intended to end the occupation, Federation of Students secretary general Alex Chow Yong-kang said.

Some protesters had said the poll was redundant. A huge banner that called for delaying the poll was hung from an Admiralty footbridge yesterday morning.

Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting said: “The public may feel there are problems with the movement’s organisation and leadership, and we admit that … I promise that in the future, we will give sufficient notice to and discuss with protesters before making a major formal decision.”

For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society. But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions. It is not surprising to me that the vote called by the protesters did not happen. There was no framework of law and institutional operation within which it could happen.


Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters still occupy the ground in front of the main government offices — but what do they do now?

The smartest lawyers and statesmen in the rebel colonies worked for many months to draft the Constitution of the United States before it was finally implemented. Doing this created the framework of laws and institutions in which democracy operated as only one dynamic part of a system that was crafted after extremely careful deliberation by some of the wisest men who have ever considered these issues. The Framers of the US Constitution did their work after putting in place a temporary structure — the Articles of Confederation — to ensure a stable environment for long enough to work out the permanent “political operating system” for their country. They did not do their work in the heated stress and passion of an armed rebellion against the Crown. They first made an imperfect compromise in the Articles of Confederation to buy themselves the time they knew it would take to work out a truly well-ordered system. My advice to the protesters: study history.

“For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no time for study.  The pro-democracy protesters have been improvising and responding to the largely pro-Beijing government’s actions from the beginning.  They are working from a base that is fueled by legitimate passion for liberty and fear of tyranny, but without a well-established leadership operating within a widely-recognized and accepted organizational structure.

“But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions.”

In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side. For the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government, the strategic “victory condition” is maintaining the status quo, and they have a broad range of tactical options along the spectrum of patiently waiting out the protesters on one end to forcefully removing them on the other. I fear the pro-democracy side may not really realize this or, if they do, can think of no tactical response other than “keep doing what we’re doing.” Without regard to the merits of either side’s goals, this makes the pro-democracy side’s strategic and tactical position very weak. Unless they realize this and adjust their strategy and tactics accordingly, the outcome for them does not look good.

“In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side.”

This grim picture is playing itself out in a situation where the largest number of the anti-establishment protesters are high school and college students, without strong and experienced leadership that has been tested over time, and without any organizational infrastructure to support the building of strategic or tactical consensus.  Unless this situation changes, it looks increasingly unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will put itself into a situation where it can achieve a real “victory.”  If their only tool is a “passion for democracy,” they cannot prevail.


Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is fenced in by its own passions.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 17 — The Empire (sort of) Strikes Back (Hong Kong Style)

Starting this morning, Hong Kong police executed an operation to clear street barricades on Queensway Road and other major arteries in Hong Kong.  It’s unclear to me how the clearing has gone in Causeway Bay and on Nathan Road on the Kowloon side. But in the Admiralty district immediately in front of my office, I’ve been taking periodic trips downstairs to see and photograph the police work methodically all morning and into the afternoon to push protesters back out of the road and systematically dismantle and clear the barricades they had built.

I saw NO violence.  The vast majority of the police wore empty holsters — only very senior officers carried their sidearms.  No riot weapons (shotguns, tear gas grenade launchers) were evident, but other riot gear was visible — small clear plastic shields and helmets (although none of the police were wearing helmets).

A few students were standing on the sidelines weeping, while others had pulled back to the barricades that protected the approaches to the main protest site in front of the government offices, a block away.  Police were making no attempt to clear those barriers.  During one phase of the clearing, the police formed a cordon to allow protesters to retrieve their tents and other personal items from the underpass where they’d been camping.

At one key point along Queensway, students were sitting in the streets leading to the main road.  A line of police standing at the edge of Queensway faced off against this group to keep the students from moving back into the main road.  As of now (1:30 PM Hong Kong time) that is the only large group of police still present on the main road.  I suspect this may stay this way to keep the protesters from trying to re-block Queensway.

All of this was done in what I think of as “Hong Kong style:” Compared to anywhere else in the world (including definitely anywhere else in China), everyone was incredibly polite on both sides, there were a minimum of raised voices, and the police force was professional and outright courteous to the protesters and curious passersby and people who work in the area who had to navigate the work of barricade clearing that was underway all along the road. I saw no arrests and have heard of none.  I spoke with one police officer who told me that no arrests were planned.  The entire operation was very well organized and executed in a very efficient manner — typical Hong Kong.

Now the big question is how the pro-democracy demonstrators will react.  Over the last week or so, they have proved themselves to be a largely leaderless movement.  Will they try to move back onto the main roads and block them again?  If they do, I fear they may lose significant popular support — and that the police response might not be so polite next time.


Police blockade of area where protesters had encamped under a road crossing.


Police line blocking access to the protester camp under a road crossing on Queensway.


Police lines blocked access to the blockade-clearing operation.


Police carried out the clearing operation with precision and . . . politeness.


After yesterday’s tense confrontation with the “Antis,” the protesters had reinforced their barricades with bamboo fencing. That didn’t last long.


Police cordon through which protesters retrieved personal items left at their encampment when the clearing operation had begun earlier in the morning.


Exclusive PunditCam aerial view of police action on Queensway.


Police line opposite students sitting in access road.


Police and democracy demonstrators face off at the edge of Queensway.


By early afternoon, a few umbrellas are all that was left of the protester encampment in front of the Bank of China Tower.


Students pushed out of the encampment discussing their next steps.


Demonstrators at one of the barricade sites still surrounding the main protest area in front of the central government office.


The main protest site was undisturbed.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 16 — The Empire Strikes Back (sort of)

About an hour and half ago a group opposed to the pro-democracy protesters made a concerted attempt to take down the barricades on Queensway Boulevard near where I work.  Hearing the commotion, I headed down and snapped some pics.  After about a tense hour, the “Antis” backed down and left in groups of ten or twelve.


The “Anti” group heading East on Queensway toward a protester blockade. I’d say there were between 250 and 500 people in this group.


The “Anti” group was accompanied by a handful of taxis. They chanted “OPEN, OPEN” in Cantonese.


The police very quickly mustered and formed lines to separate the two groups.


Looking south, with the “Midlevels” neighborhood (where REALLY rich people — the 0.001% — live in Hong Kong) in the background


Soon the largest group on the scene were curious people drawn down from the surrounding skyscrapers.


Police escort a couple of angry “Anti” folks away who had gotten on the protester side of the barricades and tried to pick fights — I personally witnessed their aggressiveness.


Police lines like this formed very fast to hold strategic roads leading to the site of the confrontation.


Police movements around the area were very well coordinated, and their fast work averted an ugly fight. I personally observed multiple occasions where individual policemen and policewomen acted very calmly and professionally to defuse small confrontations.


The average age of the “Anti” people was probably 40 years higher than the pro-democracy protesters. Interestingly, I observed quite a few groups like this of fairly elderly people who seemed to have come together and, in the end left together — accompanied by one or two younger people who seemed to be organizing them.


More of what I called the “Grey Brigade” that I watched for some time. I was convinced by what I saw that they had come and departed as a group organized by a much smaller number of younger people.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 13 — Comics and Cartoons

The talks between protest leaders and government representatives didn’t happen — the students backed out when they felt the agenda for the first meeting was to be too limited.  They called for a surge in attendance at the main blockaded site in front of the government office last night, and thousands showed up.  Today, I walked down to the site in the early afternoon.  I sensed a relaxed atmosphere among the demonstrators, and more signs that they’re committed to the long haul, including setting up a “study hall” for kids to keep up with the school work they are missing.  Also, both Asian and Western comics and cartoons are making their way into more and more of the new posters that constantly pop up around the site.  Some of the images below are very clever adaptations of the iconography of American comics — something that would give hardliners in Beijing (is there any other kind now?) serious heartache if they got the jokes.












If (like me) you”re a Marvel comics fan, click this to view the larger version and savour the sheer genius


EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 11 — Today’s Sign

There is little true “news” from Hong Kong about the pro-democracy demonstrations.  The students and others in the pro-democracy movement are being urged by supporters to get better organized before talks with the government begin tomorrow.  Meanwhile, various reports have appeared in world media to the effect that there is effectively no support for the Hong Kong democracy movement on the mainland.  I think these are accurate.  The vast majority of Chinese have no idea what’s going on in Hong Kong other than what is spoon-fed to them by the party-approved media, and a common view of Hongkongers on the mainland is that they are “ungrateful,” unpatriotic and too influenced by Western ideas and media.

My personal opinion is that the demonstrators need to declare a tactical victory, raise the road blockades and think very hard about organizing for the long game — the very, very long game.

Meanwhile, two new signs at the blockade outside my office:


EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 10

I’ve been busy with work-work and only have time for a quick update and some pics from a lunchtime walk down to the main protest site in front of the government offices. (…and no time to do translations; if you don’t read Chinese, just make something up . . .) The weather has FINALLY begun to change from broiling summer heat and humidity to the golden “Autumn” Hong Kong experiences — clear skies, relatively dry air and temperatures that would be normal in San Diego. This has taken some heat (literally) off the protesters who continue to hold their ground.  Local news is reporting that “leaders” of the student movement and representatives of the government have agreed to begin talks on Friday aimed at ending the standoff.  It’s hard to see what could come of them but my personal opinion is that pressure is mounting on the protesters from fear that the barricaded roads may be alienating more and more Hongkongers — especially in Kowloon on the other side of the harbor.


















EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 7 — More Scenes and Signs

Last night the local press was full of reports of scuffles and fights breaking out between demonstrators and groups of men — civilians, not police — who were confronting them in the blockade of Nathan Road on the Kowloon side of the harbour.  This neighborhood is far more “blue collar” than the posh areas on the island (where I live) that have been blocked.  Some of those attacking the students have been confirmed to be men with “triad” backgrounds.  The triads are Hong Kong organized crime gangs that are the analog of the Japanese yakuza or the US mafia.  The demonstrators believe the triads have been hired by Beijing’s secret police to create provocations and bad press — to give the impression of popular opposition to the student movement.  Police finally stepped in and calmed things down, but the pro-Beijing commenters are out in force on Hong Kong news websites citing the incidents as evidence of popular, grassroots opposition to the street blockades.

A Saturday stroll through the Central/Admiralty barricades to the blockaded government complex revealed significantly reinforced barriers across the roads, and a still impressive number of protesters in front of the main government building.  Periodic rain squalls and a week on the streets haven’t undermined what looks like a committed core of activists who seem to give no indication of abandoning their blockades of main roads in Hong Kong.


An unmanned barricade on the far western edge of the Central demonstration area in front of the famous Mandarin Oriental hotel. A close look reveals that the demonstrators are now using stout zip ties and plastic wrap to make it impossible to clear the barricades quickly.


The westernmost manned outpost in Central — a small, lonely encampment.


A rare sight in 21st century Hong Kong — a phone booth. It bore a few notes from the protesters.


There are lots of puns and plenty of wordplay in both English and Chinese throughout the site — although what is clever in one language is just straightforward in the other.


One of Hong Kong’s busiest roads remained a pedestrian walkway on the seventh day of the demonstrations.


The ubiquitous umbrella combined with the 5-petaled flower symbol of Hong Kong.


“We want genuine universal suffrage” “Hongkongers supporting Hongkongers”



“Hong Kong” “Hope”



Hongkongers making the pilgrimage along the blocked freeway to the main demonstration site has become a regular outing.



Clearly there are some engineering students among the protesters.


Cresting the top of the overpass (“flyover” in Hong Kong’s UK-influenced English), the view of the main center of the demonstration.


Demonstrators have settled into life on the streets.


“689” is code for CY Leung — the number of votes the governor received from the Beijing-controlled electoral council.




A wall covered with post-it notes containing answers to the question “Why are we here” is a magnet for the press and visiting locals.





“Occupy Central” is (was?) the name of a semi-organized group of opposition political figures. The students have been out ahead of “OC” all through this process, for good or ill.



The Chinese is a clever pun on the word for “patriotism” — the meaning is “sorrowful for my country.”


“The people of Hong Kong thank you.”


A comment on the people who attacked protesters in Kowloon last night.


The gate to the main entrance to the government complex — now covered in yellow ribbons and protest signs.


Although the average age of the protesters seems to be somewhere around 20, it isn’t hard to find groups like this — who in more normal times might be doing tai chi in Hong Kong Park.



A van delivering hot meals to the protesters.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 6 — Scenes and Signs

A noon-time walk through the Central/Admiralty demonstration site in front of the main government offices revealed that the end of the National Day holiday and periodic drenching rain had thinned the crowd somewhat, but that there were still more than enough demonstrators to hold the blockade.  Local news sources report that there are some talks going on through intermediaries, but there seems to be no possibility that CY Leung (the Beijing-approved Hong Kong head of government) will resign as the protesters have demanded, nor that Beijing will modify its ruling that candidates for chief executive elections to be held in 2017 will have to be nominated by a body that Beijing will control.  At this point it is hard to see how the demonstrators can stand down without seeming to have been defeated.  Yet it also seems that many in the city are tiring of the disruptions caused by the barricades across three key roadways in a place where limited space means that there are few, if any, alternative routes.


The main entry way to the central government offices, still blocked. The banner says “My parents cry for me; I cry for the future.”


A flyer identifying suspected agents provocateur — they are accused of posing as demonstrators and urging violent action.


A poem entitled “Our Generations’s Tiananmen” — the gist is that although we may die, someday the dream of democracy and freedom will be realized.


“There is no mass demonstration without the masses.”


“Value (our) supplies; carry out refuse.”


A Chinese flag with the stars replaced by the words “Corruption, Illicit Sexual Relations, Obscenity/Excess, Theft, Plunder”


“Don’t become divided”


“[an obscenity involving one’s mother]” to China; for Hong Kong, “Stay strong” (There may be a second level of meaning here connecting the two sentiments . . .)




“Our Demand: Just Universal Suffrage” “Our struggle: Peace, liberty, prosperity”


This seems to be a message from one element of the demonstrators who want to limit the action to just the one area in front of the central government offices and abandon the blockade in the Mon Kok area of Kowloon across the harbor.


The periodic heavy rain has pushed people to congregate under the pedestrian walkways leading to the blockaded government offices


A large contingent held the blockade at a major overpass leading to the government offices. The International Finance Center Tower — the tallest building on Hong Kong island — stands about seven blocks to the west.


Banners on the pedestrian walkway above the center of the demonstration: “Police and citizens – from the same root” and “Support Hongkongers”


The Chinese in the middle: “Peace”


“How do you know things will be better tomorrow?” “We don’t know, but we have hope.”


“A clear appeal for democracy; seeking public nominations”

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations — Night 4

The leading English language paper in Hong Kong is reporting that “leaders” of the student demonstrators have set a deadline of tomorrow for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (basically, the governor), C.Y. Leung, to resign.  If he doesn’t, they say they’ll start to “occupy” government buildings:


I assume that if this happens, things may well turn ugly again, as they did on the first night when riot police fired tear gas into the crowd and sprayed the students with pepper spray.

But tonight, in the middle of the two-day National Day holiday (ironically, celebrating the 65th anniverary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China), the crowds at the Central/Admiralty district site swelled and an almost carnival-like atmosphere prevailed:


Hongkongers have donated thousands of umbrellas to the demonstrators. The movement has come to be known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” because the students used umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray on the first night.


Pictures of C.Y. Leung taped to the street.


Many of the students have been on site for days.


This young lady was drawing caricatures of her companions.



Although the majority of Hongkongers are Cantonese-speaking Chinese, Hong Kong is a multi-ethnic city and many groups had signs expressing solidarity.


Signs along the blocked freeway’s guardrails in many languages expressed support for the demonstrators.


The iconic Bank of China Tower provides a backdrop to one high spot favored by photographers capturing the throng.


The sea of people jammed into the road in front of the central government offices.


Distribution of supplies continues to improve. Stations like this are common throughout the area.


The pedestrian overpass leading to the central government building is festooned with pro-democracy banners and slogans urging Hongkongers to maintain their resolve.


Volunteers press water bottles and food on people passing along the main walkway through the heart of the demonstration.


Volunteers man a spot set aside for crossing over the concrete barriers on either side of the blocked road.


A sea of lights as the crowd waves their cell phones.


You can just make out the cell phone lights through the crowd.


Many posters used the umbrella motif.


C.Y. Leung is a popular subject of protest art work.


The first aid area I spotted a couple of days ago has grown into a well-manned clinic.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations – Day 2 Signs

At noon today I walked through the site of the demonstrations and street blockades in front of the central government offices.  There were slightly fewer people there than at the same time yesterday, but they seemed better organized and definitely better provisioned.  Below are some of the signs I encountered.


One of the few signs in English — posted near one of the main entry ways into the demonstrator’s area.


“Longshore Union” “Strike to support the students”


“Persevere to the End”


The Chinese text clashes with the politeness of the English sign. The Chinese reads “Hong Kong police eat dog shit”


“I love Hong Kong” and “C.Y. Leung (Hong Kong’s Chief Executive) Step Down”


“Resist to the End”


My favorite: “Protect endangered species — Hongkongers”


EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations Day 1.5

I call it “Day 1.5” because what’s really happened here is that student protests grew beyond anyone’s anticipation last night.  The student pro-democracy movement has had a completely different dynamic and wasn’t formally allied with the “official” Occupy Central movement or any of the political actors who are known under the general rubric of “Pan-Democrats.”  The students crowded too close to a couple of major government facilities last night and the police fired tear gas into them.  This brought out lots of Hongkongers in support who hadn’t been participating before, and forced the hand of the “adults” in Occupy and the Pan-Democrats to move up their plans for demonstrations on October 1 and 2 — the Chinese National Day holidays.

At noon I took a different route around the western edge of the barricaded area, and ended up getting a much better view from above of the main body of the demonstrators directly in front of the central government office.  On the way there, I paid a visit to the People Liberation Army’s main barracks on Hong Kong island — which just happens to be a block away from where the demonstrators are blocking access to the central government building.

Also, a note about “Occupy Central” — one of the organizing groups.  The choice of the “Occupy” name is unfortunate, because the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has very little in common with the unfocused and disorganized “Occupy Wall Street” thing and its mutant progeny in various Western cities.  The Hong Kong “Occupy” group is not a vague anti-corporate, leftist gesture, as Occupy Wall Street was.  The issues here are real and focused — rule of law and actual democracy (not some vague invocation of “the 99%”).


One of the blockades on the western edge of the protest zone. In the outlying areas, the demonstrators seem to have posted just a few people to block traffic.


Main entrance to the PLA barracks, just a block from the center of the demonstration in Central/Admiralty (there are others in Wan Chai and Kowloon districts). Nothing menacing seemed to be going on and there was less security in this particular spot than I saw back in August when things were cranking up.


Tamar Park — just north of the now-blocked central government building. The sign and facilities are set up for a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China on October 1st. One wonders what will come of that now.


Shots of main center of demonstrators immediately in front of central government building.


Shots of main center of demonstrators immediately in front of central government building.


Shots of main center of demonstrators immediately in front of central government building.


Shots of main center of demonstrators immediately in front of central government building.


Support for things like water and basic shelter (umbrellas) seemed ad hoc, but also seemed to be building up.


Support for things like water and basic shelter (umbrellas) seemed ad hoc, but also seemed to be building up.


Support for things like water and basic shelter (umbrellas) seemed ad hoc, but also seemed to be building up.


Support for things like water and basic shelter (umbrellas) seemed ad hoc, but also seemed to be building up.

EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations — The Morning After

I could not get down to the scene of the action last night, but this morning I walked down to where things had been rocking nearest to my home — the area right between the Central and Admiralty districts.  Here are some pics taken within the last couple of hours:


Lee Ka-Shing, the richest man in Hong Kong, takes no chances and has barricades in front of his building.


Barricades across Queensway Road — normally packed with traffic on a Monday morning.


More barricades on Queensway, in front of the landmark Lippo Centre building.


Barricades on Queensway — clearly put together by demonstrators from the kinds of things one usually finds along sidewalks in Hong Kong.


Queensway — devoid of traffic on a Monday during normal rush hour.


Demonstrators in front of the Lippo Centre blocking Queensway.


Demonstrators on Harcourt Road in front of the Central Government offices appear to be getting some rest in the shade after a long night.


Riot police with grenade launchers for tear gas canisters held a well-manned key location in front of the central government offices on Harcourt Road. Despite the display of firepower, there seemed to be no animosity between the police and the demonstrators — no shouting, no ugly language. Maybe everyone was just exhausted from the previous night.


Demonstrators appeared to be dug in for a long haul.


Demonstrators and police chat across the barricades. I saw more than one scene like this, with lots of smiles on both sides.


The demonstration was kicked off last night by high school and college students. These two seemed a little older — and were taking advantage of a comfortable spot in a barricade across an access road to the central government offices. The woman on the right told me “This is a contest of wills — who will last longer?”


Some of the youngest demonstrators I saw — enjoying a card game while sitting in the middle of what would normally be a very busy entrance to Queensway on a Monday morning during rush hour.

Indian Spacecraft Orbits Mars

And it was their first attempt — beating the less than 50% success rate of all Mars missions to date.  Read all about it here.

Anti-ISISism on the Left

PRIMAI’ve been trying to read as much as time allows of the left’s reaction to the President’s recent speech in which he unleashed at least a couple of the dogs of war. Here’s something from this morning’s sampling:

As for the the Hof article linked above, one of the things it shares with most discussion of the issues in leftish sources is a focus on state politics and an almost complete lack of discussion of the religious and other cultural elements of the ISIS phenomenon. This particular article lays the blame on the structural problem of “state failure”. I would reply that we’ve had chronically failed states in, for example, Latin America for 150 years, yet none of them have become the seedbed for global terrorism. The same could be said for Southeast Asia and, until recently, central and west Africa. I think the unwillingness of analysts on the left to see the uniquely Islamic elements of the ISIS phenomenon hobbles their ability to fully come to terms with it. Whoda thunk that I’d be on the same side of things as Bill Maher? What a world we live in, huh?

[PHOTOS] EXCLUSIVE: Images From the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Rally

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The Chinese central government today announced regulations that would gut Hong Kong’s evolution to real democratic election of the city’s chief executive.  In essence, Beijing imposed rules that would ensure that only it’s hand-picked candidates would be allowed to run for the city’s top government post. I attended the beginning of the rally in the park in front of the city’s main government offices today.  Here are some pictures:

[Also check out the live stream chronicling the protests. Follow the twitter feed for Hong Kong’s main pro-democracy activist group here.]

[Flashpoint Hong Kong: China rules out democracy for the former British territory – Noah Rothman, Hot Air]

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(My apologies for the poor photography — my Hong Kong cell phone has a decidedly inferior camera, and the rally really only got under way after dark.)


Police presence was heavy in the city during the day, with large foot patrols moving around.  Interestingly, although Hong Kong’s police usually carry revolvers (.380s – I asked), most cops I saw today had empty holsters on their belts. Read the rest of this entry »

Rare Photo of Pundit Planet Co-Founder


Our co-found and Editor-At-Large. Though this snapshot looks vintage, it was actually taken fairly recently, around 2007, back when he had a bit less gray hair, and long before he had a 3-D printer. But his hobbies are essentially the same. He’s currently heading up our Hong Kong Bureau, where his time and space doesn’t allow for recreational rocket building, so I’m sure he’ll enjoy this archival snapshot as a winsome reminder of a cherished pastime.


Son of Siri Promises Real AI in Your Pocket — and Everywhere Else …

When Apple announced the iPhone 4S on October 4, 2011, the headlines were not about its speedy A5 chip or improved camera. Instead they focused on an unusual new feature: an intelligent assistant, dubbed Siri. At first Siri, endowed with a female voice, seemed almost human in the way she understood what you said to her and responded, an advance in artificial intelligence that seemed to place us on a fast track to the Singularity. She was brilliant at fulfilling certain requests, like “Can you set the alarm for 6:30?” or “Call Diane’s mobile phone.” And she had a personality: If you asked her if there was a God, she would demur with deft wisdom. “My policy is the separation of spirit and silicon,” she’d say.

He envisions someone unsteadily holding a phone to his mouth outside a dive bar at 2 am and saying, “I’m drunk.” Without any elaboration, Viv would contact the user’s preferred car service, dispatch it to the address where he’s half passed out, and direct the driver to take him home. No further consciousness required.

Over the next few months, however, Siri’s limitations became apparent. Ask her to book a plane trip and she would point to travel websites—but she wouldn’t give flight options, let alone secure you a seat. Ask her to buy a copy of Lee Child’s new book and she would draw a blank, despite the fact that Apple sells it. Though Apple has since extended Siri’s powers—to make an OpenTable restaurant reservation, for example—she still can’t do something as simple as booking a table on the next available night in your schedule. She knows how to check your calendar and she knows how to use Open­Table. But putting those things together is, at the moment, beyond her.

Now a small team of engineers at a stealth startup called Viv Labs claims to be on the verge of realizing an advanced form of AI that removes those limitations. Whereas Siri can only perform tasks that Apple engineers explicitly implement, this new program, they say, will be able to teach itself, giving it almost limitless capabilities. In time, they assert, their creation will be able to use your personal preferences and a near-infinite web of connections to answer almost any query and perform almost any function.

“Siri is chapter one of a much longer, bigger story,” says Dag Kittlaus, one of Viv’s cofounders. He should know. Before working on Viv, he helped create Siri. So did his fellow cofounders, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham.

“Intelligence becomes a utility,” Kittlaus says. “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if you could talk to everything, and it knew you, and it knew everything about you, and it could do everything?”

For the past two years, the team has been working on Viv Labs’ product—also named Viv, after the Latin root meaning live. Their project has been draped in secrecy, but the few outsiders who have gotten a look speak about it in rapturous terms. “The vision is very significant,” says Oren Etzioni, a renowned AI expert who heads the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “If this team is successful, we are looking at the future of intelligent agents and a multibillion-dollar industry.”

Read the rest at WIRED.

China Chat Crackdown

beijing cybercafe

Beijing’s recent efforts to tighten control over the Internet have so far included a crackdown on online rumors given partial credit for prompting a mass exodus from microblogging platform Sina Weibo to private messaging services, a subsequent crackdown on Tencent’s instant messaging app WeChat (and month-long renewal), and an ongoing anti-vulgarity drive. Yesterday, China’s State Internet Information Office (SIIO) announced new rules for users of instant messaging platforms. The China Copyright and Media blog has translated the new regulations in full. From Xinhua:

The Chinese government has passed a regulation that will require users of instant messaging services to use real names when registering in an effort to hold users responsible for content.

[…] Targeting China’s 5.8 million public accounts on subscription-based mobile apps such as Tencent’s mobile text and voice messaging service WeChat, the new regulation will take immediate effect.

Registrants of public accounts are obliged to register with real names and reviewed by service providers before being qualified to release information.

“A few people are using the platforms to disseminate information related to terrorism, violence and pornography as well as slander and rumors,” said Jiang Jun, spokesman of the SIIO. “Such behaviors have raised bitter feelings among netizens.” [Source]

Read more at China Digital Times.




[VIDEO] The Universal Hot-Crazy Matrix: A Man’s Guide to Women

The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry meets Popular Mechanics. Potentially offensive to unprepared viewers, but good-natured, sharp, silly, revealing, brilliant, based on solid science and in-depth research. Bonus: watch it all the way through. Also includes a brief Women’s Guid to Men, but it’s very brief, ’cause the research is less developed. Hysterically funny. Drop whatever you’re doing, and watch this.

Thanks to our Hong Kong Bureau Chief for the link.


UNDERNEATH the “Hong Kong Miracle”


EXCLUSIVE: A few days ago, The Butcher posted a link to a good article about the origins of “the Hong Kong Miracle” – a term that is justifiably used to describe Hong Kong as a near “capitalist paradise” of very limited government intervention into all aspects of the lives of its citizens, very low apparent taxation and nearly wide-open individualism and personal opportunity. I’ve seen pieces like this before and hopefully, people will be writing them inInternational_Commerce_Centre the future (and not discussions about how China “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs”).

“As part of my study, I’ve come to realize that there is a somewhat hidden key to the magic of Hong Kong’s economic, social and political success story.”

As an on-again, off-again resident of Hong Kong (“on” right now and for the next few months), I’m an avid reader of Chinese history in general, and Hong Kong history in particular. Last year I began the grueling process of becoming admitted as a lawyer (solicitor) in Hong Kong, taking the very difficult test administered to foreign lawyers from other Anglosphere jurisdictions as a gateway to that honor. (I’m nearing the end of that long journey now – in two weeks I’ll be in court here for my formal admission before a Chinese judge wearing the white wig and crimson robes that English judges have been wearing for over three hundred years, a wonderfully rich experience of the cultural melting pot that is Hong Kong.)

“And it behooves people who support the political philosophy (free-market capitalism and political liberty) underlying Hong Kong’s wonderfully free and open society to be aware of this key.”

As part of my study, I’ve come to realize that there is a somewhat hidden key to the magic of Hong Kong’s economic, social and political success story. And it behooves people who support the political philosophy (free-market capitalism and political liberty) underlying Hong Kong’s wonderfully free and open society to be aware of this key. Because, while I am as libertarian as they come, there IS a functioning government here that provides essential public goods. The seven million people who live and work here depend on the fantastically well-built and well-maintained physical and social infrastructure: Massive public works (like the great new airport – no one misses the dangerous approach to good old Kai Tak, huge bridges and tunnels), a clean, efficient mass-transit system, pretty darned good public schools, a semi-public health-care system, adequate police and an amazingly open and un-corrupted legal system.

[Also see: The Man Behind the Hong Kong Miracle]

The mystery comes from looking at all of these great elements of the public sphere in Hong Kong, and comparing it with the tax regime. The highest marginal income tax rate here is 18% (only the very highest earners pay this, and most of them figure out a way to avoid the highest rate), there is no capital gains tax, and there are very few other explicit taxes of any kind. Although most government services have associated user fees in the form of some kind of “stamp duty” (an Anglicism Americans understand as a tax), these stamp duties are fairly low – and would come nowhere near raising enough revenue to support the public sector. Likewise, while there are fees for riding on the MTR (the integrated mass transit system that includes subways, above-ground trains, buses, trolleys and ferries) and some tolls (for instance on the main tunnel linking Hong Kong Island with Kowloon and the mainland side), these charges again can’t raise enough revenue to support their overall function, much less the massive improvements in Hong Kong’s physical infrastructure I’ve personally seen in the 35 years since I first came here. Read the rest of this entry »

[VIDEO] ‘Hello, Dimitri’ Dr. Strangelove 1964

Hong Kong: Demonstrators Occupy Legislature

From the Pacific Daily Times:

DEVELOPING… It’s now happening in Hong Kong. Unarmed protesters overran security and occupied another legislature, this time over construction projects and what is reported to be something like “crony capitalism”. Here is a link to a video from Apple Daily and another link to an article from Taiwan’s Sunflower Facebook Page.

As a sometime resident of Hong Kong, I read this news with mixed feelings.  At one level, I can see this as a completely legitimate response to the domination of the legislature by what Americans would call “crony capitalist” interests.  (See the weird “functional constituency” element of the current legislative election process.)

On another level, though, I’m very afraid of the backlash from Beijing.  Coming just two days after the 25th anniversary of the TianAnMen massacre, the CCP will view this event with the greatest displeasure.  Democracy in Hong Kong is very fragile, and is seen by reformers in China as a bellweather of how reform might work there.  Unruly popular demonstraations are perceived by the Party as the absolute worst threat to its monopoly on political power.  Hong Kongers and those who wish them well hold their breath . . .


Two words: RAIL GUNS!



“Black” Aircraft Sighting — The Real Deal?

Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week covers the recent sighting — and photographs — of an unidentified aircraft over north Texas.  You can see the pics here and here.

I’ve been a black aircraft enthusiast all my life (and that goes back to the days when the SR-71 was still “secret”).  Sweetman is one of the best aerospace/defense/mil-tech journalists around, although he’s been accused of being willing to run with a story a little too soon.  I personally feel like he does sometimes report on rumors and informed speculation, but is careful to identify them as such.

At least as far as the available information on this one goes, I feel like this is a solid lead.  The photos do not look photoshopped at all (there is a history of shopped pics among back plane chasers), and the aircraft does fit into a niche that many have wondered about — the US lacks a large, high-altitude, stealthy ISR platform and, as Sweetman points out, sat photos of Groom Lake (Area 51) show way more capability than can be accounted for with known programs.

So I put this one in the “definitely possible, maybe even probable” category.

Goodbye to the Warthog and the Dragon Lady?

The current proposed defense budget from the Obama administration would mothball the US fleets of venerable A-10 close air support (CAS) aircraft and the even more venerable U2 spyplanes (of Francis Gary Powers fame).

Miltech fans like me become attached to quirky planes like these, whose specialized missions lead to extreme designs (in the case of the A-10, basically a flying tank, and for the U2, an elegant jet-powered sailplane).  Both aircraft have survived multiple attempts to kill them in the past, and both have proven their worth over and over again in surprising ways.  Like the ancient B-52, that has been reborn over and over again to carry out missions it was never conceived for, these two aircraft have proven the value of a design that does one thing very well but isn’t all things to all people for all missions.  Hated by the bean-counters and mega-defense contractors because they are such sturdy hedgehogs of the air, these old soldiers stand their ground in one corner of “mission space” against all comers.  In this they are the opposite of what Defense Secretary Hagel says will replace the A-10, the gold-plated Swiss-Army-Knife F-35, which tries to do everything for everyone everywhere and, in doing so, does nothing extremely well.

Both the Warthog and the Dragon Lady have very vocal fans in and out of Congress.  Time will tell whether they finally fall to the dreams of the budgeteers and bloated defense contractors.

Most Valuable Real Estate in the Solar System?

I came across this last night:

In mid-2015, the asteroid probe Dawn is scheduled to establish orbit around Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, as well as the largest asteroid, to begin roughly six months of close-up observation. The level of interest in this mission has significantly increased with the detection by the ESA’s Herschel space observatory of plumes of water vapor being exuded from Ceres’ surface from a pair of local sources.

It turns out that Ceres may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth.  If that’s true, it may well be the the best place to actually create a robust human presence off Earth (after a real foothold is established on Earth’s moon).  Some people might think that water would be useful on Mars, but why put it at the bottom of a gravity well one-third as deep as Earth’s?

Now the only question is: Who’s going to grab this uniquely valuable spot?

After Raising $200 Million More, Airbnb Built a Replica of the Dr. Strangelove War Room in its Office

  reports this gem:  Airbnb‘s last round of funding totaled $200 million, bringing its total funding to $326 million. The company also has a new office that includes a replica of the war room from the film Dr. Strangelove.

A profile of its digs in Modern Luxury’s SanFrancisco magazine documented the room, essentially an aggrandized meeting space, along with the new office’s glut of themed rooms, including “a Milanese one-bedroom that features lavender toile wallpaper, a flat-screen TV, and a dining table seating eight.” Sure.

As Valleywag notes, the Room of War has its own Foursquare check-in point!

It’s no secret that there is ample cash slopping around the San Francisco-area technology industry. One excess leads to another, and so while Airbnb is certainly a serious service (I used it this weekend to rent a cabin for a wedding I’m going to, kicking $55 to the company in fees as part of the process), it also managed to build the replica.

TechCrunch‘s own Matt Burns thinks that the war room is “rad.”

Is Airbnb alone in its pursuit of whimsical office space? Of course not. Google’s Googleplex has been around for ages, a visit to Yahoo will likely include your sitting in a ridiculous oversized purple chair, and Snapchat‘s first office was Jim Morrison’s old house. In this regard Microsoft stands out as a square, which probably isn’t much of a surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding the Norks

The behavior of the North Koreans in the last few weeks may well be explainable if we think about our experience with and knowledge of China.  Reading the news this morning, three closely connected thoughts that have been floating around in my head finally came into focus.

The first thesis is that North Korean institutions are like Chinese institutions we got to know when we first started working with large state-owned enterprises, only a LOT, LOT worse, in terms of a) their lack of knowledge and understanding of the outside world and b) their internal, institutional inability to accommodate realities (especially realities that arise from cultural differences of those outside the DPRK with whom they are dealing) that conflict with policies and edicts promulgated by those in authority.

The second thesis is that “juche” — the bizarre Nork ideology — is an extreme and pathological admixture of traditional “Sinitic” cultural elements (especially Confucianism) and “modern” nationalism.  From the Chinese/Confucian substrate comes reliance on strict hierarchical structures of authority.  From nationalism comes extreme chauvinism ramped up to hyper-paranoid levels.

If you combine these two elements with the fact that the Norks have a new leader that doesn’t have enough internal political capital to do ANYTHING that is inconsistent with these fundamental elements of North Korean society and polity, the result is a kind of rigidity that is basically inconceivable outside of their world.  No one can say ANYTHING that is inconsistent with the established line.  And the established line is a militaristic chauvinism that would make Hitler blush.

The last thing I’ve been thinking about is also based on my knowledge and experience of the Sinitic world: FACE (“mian”).  Think about how Japanese military and political figures before 1945 REGULARLY killed themselves rather than come to terms with failure or embarrassment.  When that was going on, Japan had been “open” to the West for decades.  North Korea has NEVER been open to the outside world.  Korea was a backwater that the Western imperial powers had completely ignored when the Japanese came in and took the peninsula over in the 1920s.  For the northern part of Korea, the ONLY experience they’ve ever had of the outside world was the most rapacious and extreme form of Japanese militarism and imperialism.  They went straight from that to the Kim dynasty.  North Koreans have never been exposed to any form of culture other than the most extreme and brutalized forms of pride/shame-based “face culture.”  To say that for North Koreans, “failure is not an option” is an understatement of gargantuan proportions.  The concept of dying — at one’s own hands, if necessary — rather than come to terms with failure — as failure is defined by the bizarre world in which they live — is FUNDAMENTAL in Nork culture.

… just some cheery thoughts for a Monday morning.

A Real “Warp Drive”?

I’ve always been ultra-conservative in my thinking about this kind of thing, suspecting that there may be theoretical possibilities for wormholes and warp bubbles, but thinking that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and that practical technologies using this kind phenomena just can’t be possible.
This is literally the first time in my life that I’ve seriously doubted this.
Naturally, though, being the mil-porn addict that I am, I couldn’t help but almost immediately jump to the weapons potential this technology might make possible. I shudder to think what destruction might be wrought if one were to create a warp bubble in or just under a city. Could this be our Tralfamadorian moment?  On the other hand, if one could create a shell-shaped zone of compressed space, then perhaps something like a Star-Trek-style “shield” might be possible, another “magical” technology I’ve always sniffed at in disdain as a “hard” SF purist.
One last (very preliminary) thought: Given the potential of space-warping technology, I can’t imagine it could be stopped if it were proven to be feasible. On the other hand, it seems like the early stages of such R&D would be pretty friggin’ dangerous. THAT might well be a great spur to space development with current technology: The best place to do space-warping experiments would be WELL away from the Mother Planet.

The Fog of War and Clouds of Battle-Bots

A few days ago I posted about my own personal early exposure to missile defense, and how that technology is now on the verge of bringing about a truly revolutionary change at almost every level of tactics, strategy and foreign policy.  Thinking about that has led me again to some on-going musings about the impact that other, related technologies may well have on military and foreign policy over the next few years and decades.

The military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), called “drones” in the popular press, has become a commonplace in the news.  By and large, what reporters are covering is the use of the General Atomics (I just love that name) Predator and Reaper UAVs.  Occasionally a reporter will take note of the larger Global Hawk intelligence platform.  Every once in a while, you’ll come across a report that seems to be aware that these specific systems are part of a larger trend.  On rare occasions, you see a reporter or commentator make the point that the use of UAVs seems to represent a qualitative change in military and foreign affairs.

But you may have to be a regular reader of publicly-available mil-tech geek material to realize that work proceeds at a furious pace on a pervasive suite of technologies that go beyond the Predator.  And you have to squint just a little bit to see out to a horizon where warfare and conflict among states and others with access to these new technologies may create a military, diplomatic and geopolitical world that would look very, very different from the one we’ve known since the birth of “industrial warfare” in the US Civil War and World War I.

Looking back, the primitive liquid fuel rockets developed by civilian German and American pioneers in the inter-war years gave rise to Hitler’s V-2 “wonder-weapon.”  Work with gyroscopes and analog electronics provided the guidance for that rocket.  But the V-2 was merely prologue to the nuclear-tipped ICBM that completely changed the global military balance and, likewise, the Predator is only a foreshadowing of what lies not far ahead.  Now, digital micro-electronics, and early artificial intelligence and robotics technology have given birth to the aerial “drones” that are making appearances over battlefields (declared and otherwise) and in popular news media.  Beyond that is something that will seem very different from today’s battlefields.

Here is the promise of what is currently in development: As military robots become smaller, more capable and more autonomous, the kinds of “sensor fusion” being developed for the F-35 and other command, control, communication and intelligence applications (again, the “3CI” acronym) point toward unprecedented and qualitatively more acute penetration of the “fog of war.”  Smaller, far more capable military robots will exist pervasively throughout the “battle space,” the information they collect will be of much greater quality, and that information will be made available to other robots, commanders and other humans on the battlefield and beyond in a more usable fashion.  These military robots will shift seamlessly along a spectrum from 3CI at one end to actual attack and defense at the other; i.e. many of the very same robotic platforms that collect and share intelligence will also carry or be weapons of extreme precision.  The evolution of the Predator from pure intelligence-gathering to the Reaper weapons platform presages the kind of  highly flexible military robots that lie just over the horizon.

With these trends in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine a battlefield that is dominated by pervasive robots — a “bot cloud” that identifies and tracks threats, and then can respond and become a “bot swarm” in the blink of an eye aimed at destroying those threats.  One reaction to this vision that I see from time to time is a fear that this robotic battlefield threatens some kind of “Terminator” nightmare.  There is one such piece in the Washington Post just this last weekend.  For some reason — perhaps because I’ve been steeped in military technology my whole life — I don’t harbor these kinds of fears.  Every new kind of weapon presents novel threats and ethical challenges to those who would wield them.  I actually think that the possibility of warfare with more precise and more intelligent weapons promises a more humane, not a less humane future: one with less collateral damage to civilians, and one in which the aims of warfare can be achieved with the application of less, not more, violence.

Instead, I’m concerned about the headlong rush into the promised future of robotic warfare for a different reason: the potential fragility of the command and control of the “battlefield bot cloud.”  All of the wonderful sensor fusion we are promised, and the processing taking place within the individual elements of this battle bot cloud depend on electromagnetic radiation and electronic processes.  And therein lies the problem.  High-energy radiation can cause computer chips to go gaga, and the streams of communicated bits the robots must share over radio waves are subject to increasingly sophisticated jamming and spoofing.  (The ignominious end of a stealthy RQ-170 intelligence UAV in Iran last year may have been due to jamming and spoofing.)

Jamming and spoofing are as old as warfare.  Going back to the days of Sun-Tzu, combatants have laid down smoke screens and sent out false signals to confuse their enemies.  Someday, robotic combatants may have the autonomy and ingenuity that have always served as countermeasures to overcome these things.  But even that, as impressive as it will be, isn’t the best “solution” to the problem.  Creating military robots that can act on their own when confused by enemy jamming and spoofing only gets you back to where you were before — admittedly with a saving of human life, but still without the coordination that makes the battle-bot cloud such a formidable concept.

In many ways, my concerns about the fragility of the battle-bot cloud are the same as the concerns I have about the civilian cloud and the Internet itself: These wonderful technologies depend on a connectivity that is easier to disrupt than many want to believe.  The constant struggle between security systems  and the assaults on our computers, smart phones and networks that have become a part of our daily life are a pale shadow of what all-out cyber-war would look like.  The simple fact is that the Internet could be basically wiped out in any real cyber-war.  Even short of a total Internet melt-down, the operation of big chunks of our civilian infrastructure could be brought to a grinding halt, both in the ethereal world of communication and data, and in the “real” world of actual machines with which we interact all the time.  Basic industrial processes, banking, retail sales, inventory and logistics … all are now utterly dependent on reliable flow through the Internet.  All are at great risk.

While the networks of communication upon which the military battle-bot cloud depends are already (mainly) much more robust than the civilian Internet, weapons designed to attack those networks and the processors and sensors they connect will also be more capable than the ones that could bring the civilian Internet to a halt.  The mother of all network and processor disruptors, of course, is the EMP-inducing nuke blast.  But you can be sure that America’s potential adversaries are hard at work on creating such havoc for military systems on a more focused and less catastrophic level.  As are we.

We already deploy “hardened” chips and fiber optic networks that are more or less impervious to electromagnetic jamming.  But the benefits of a truly pervasive battle-bot cloud can only be achieved if those robots can range freely, untethered by fiber optic cables.  Is there a solution to the fragility of the battle-bot cloud?

I can imagine some directions that will have to be explored.  Laser communication has to be one.  But this solution is limited to line-of-sight.  By itself, this isn’t as much of a limitation as it might seem.  An advanced battle-bot cloud could create and maintain laser networks on the fly.  When it is finally fully implemented, the F-35 points the way toward how this would work: Each aircraft is designed to act as a network node for all others, sharing the communication load on a flexible basis.  It isn’t hard to imagine just a few steps beyond this, where each sensing and weapon node is festooned with laser transmitters and receivers.

But if such a counter-countermeasure is implemented, then we will come around in a full, ironic circle: The Fog of War will once again be a real thing.  Not only will adversaries blanket the battlefield with beams and broadcast waves of shrieking radio-frequency jamming, but they will also literally seek to impose a shroud of real fog — clouds of smoke and dust to interrupt the flickering network of laser light by which military robots communicate with each other and their human commanders.  If this happens, somewhere, Sun-Tzu will be smiling.