The Internet of Watchful Things

So right now the United States security services are beginning to realize the potential of the Internet of Things.  The Internet of Things refers to a sort of techno-utopian vision of computer chips being cheap enough to put into everything, adding new features and convenience to everything from light-switches to toothbrushes.

For some reason this is supposed to be a good thing.  I mostly imagine the acts of violence that would result when my light-switch takes three minutes to boot up and then refuses to work until I install a ‘critical update’.

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Revisiting Gun Rights for Terrorists

Some readers may remember a time not quite a year ago when I wrote an in-depth rebuttal of a New York Times Op-Ed titled “Gun Rights for Terrorists” by Mary Lewis Grow.  I am a long-time critic of the watch-lists and no-fly lists that, hypothetically, are filled with dangerous characters bent on destruction, possibly via self-destruction.  In reality, they produce penalties without due process for millions.

Well, every bad idea has its time.  And then another.  And another…

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Egypt: Why Not A Bomb?

On Halloween, a Russian airplane left the southern tip of Sinai, only to suffer a catastrophic failure and be scattered across several square miles of desert.

This is bad news for Russia, whose citizens died.  It is bad news for the airline company, likely to lose business.  It is bad news for Egypt, facing yet another obstacle to its tourism industry.  All three organizations had an incentive to spin it, one way or the other.

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What Good Is A President, Anyway?

As the interminable election season grinds on (though we are constantly assured that it is still ‘early days’ and that Trump still has plenty of time to self-destruct in a suitably flamboyant manner), I continue to attempt to ignore the ins and outs in the same way I try to ignore Christmas music in mid-November.

With about as much success.

As perhaps in every presidential election, I find signs that the nation is wondering what exactly a president is good for. Continue reading What Good Is A President, Anyway?

The Dabiq Experiment

The Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL, & Daesh) has provoked a lot of questions since it first exploded on the world stage.  These questions range from the philosophical (the ever-popular “how can anyone be so cruel to another?”) through the practical (say, “is Assad now a potential ally?”).  One of the more interesting questions remains: what is the Islamic State, anyway?

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The Irony of Security

This won’t be a very long post.  It hardly needs to be – the stories speak for themselves.  Various security procedures, implemented at great cost, have made people less safe.

Recently, it was discovered that (presumably Chinese) hackers obtained access to millions of forms related to background checks of those who apply for U.S. security clearances.  Embarrassing actions, run-ins with the law, bankruptcy, at-risk relatives – these are classic levers that foreign agents use to bend people with important knowledge.  The government, quite reasonably, makes an effort to discover such levers first.  The tragic irony of all of this is that with these forms being hacked, the Chinese now have the best road-map imaginable to practically every pressure point any employee whose records were stolen might have.

Next story relates to the TSA.  This is NOT about the 3/70 success rate in detecting weapons and explosives – a story I have not covered because other media sources have done a sufficient job, and to me the story is merely depressingly repetitive.  No, this is about the TSA agents abusing their (poorly-paid) position to smuggle drugs past the very check-points they are supposed to be manning.  Those measures emplaced to prevent dangerous objects from going on airplanes become a new way to get them on an airplane (without, as previously noted, significantly limiting the more classic methods).

We’ve covered government bureaucracy and civilian security.  How about national security?  When the United State overthrew Saddam Hussein they went to a concerted effort to remove/fire/expel all Baath party loyalists in the military, lest they support a Hussein-like regime that would eventually return Iraq to its pre-war, anti-American, terrorist-hosting ways.  This put most of the medium-to-upper leadership of the Iraqi army out of work, and made them very unhappy.  The eventual result was that the incalculably valuable logistical and tactical experience of an entire military command found itself a new home in ISIS.  Whether these ex-Hussein officers run ISIS or merely organize it, their presence explains ISIS’ easy transitions from artillery and mechanized divisions to suicide bombers and back as needed and/or practical.  Yes, the United States prevented the security risk of a continuing Baathist shadow regime in Iraq, but the result was a depressingly effective group that uses violence as advertising.

Unintended consequences remain the most direct route to tragic irony.  Sadly, just because they were unintended does not mean they were uniformly unforeseeable.

Military Science

There’s an old joke about how military intelligence is an oxymoron.

Unfortunately, it appears that Military Science is as well.

The products of science are, of course, still in high demand.  Consider the modern arsenal of fusion bombs, GPS guided missiles, autonomous weapons, fission powered submarines, and research into lasers, bioweapons, and railguns.  Never has the aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ been more literally true.

All of which makes the current practices of the U.S. military even more depressing, because science is more than a way to obtain better weapons, it is a method, and one that the U.S. military doesn’t seem to care about in the least.

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Feared & Fearful

The United States is the predominant world power, the world’s lone superpower.  This is said so often that it is easy to forget just how ridiculously unbalanced the situation really is.

The United States spends $581 Billion a year on its military, more than the next nine largest budgets put together.  China, #2 on the list but with four times the US population, only spends $129, and most of the rest are allies: England, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, France.

The United States has ten aircraft carriers.  The entire rest of the world has ten, and Russia’s, China’s, and one of India’s are all horribly out of date.  China and India both bought the same model from Russia, and both carriers are never seen without a tugboat given the tendency for massive powerplant failures.

On airplanes and tanks, the bare numbers are less impressive, but this is mostly due to Soviet mass production.  The US equipment is undeniably more modern and (more importantly) more capable than the equivalent opposition.

We have bases in over a hundred countries – but imagine the outcry if another country wanted to put a base on U.S. soil.  We place troops that guarantee our involvement and support in the case of a war on a number of disputed borders, yet we would be deeply offended if anyone offered to help us guarantee our own in a similar way – a sign that on some level the U.S. feels very certain about its sovereignty and national security.

And yet, this country is afraid.

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Liquid Paint: A brief discussion of art and investment.

On May 11th the record for most expensive painting sold at auction may be swept away yet again. Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers (Version “O”) will come under the hammer and is expected to be sold for over $140 million. However, if you follow the art market, events such as this seem to happen with alarming regularity. Edvard Munch’s canonical Scream held the record for paintings starting in 2012 only to be broken the very next year by Francis Bacon’s Triptych. Auction houses like Christie’s have been posting record sales on a surprisingly regular basis. What might be one of the causes for the impressive expansion of the art market, and what does that mean for the future of the arts?

A great deal of articles one might read about the art market are focused on the skyrocketing values of works, and the new and clever ways that investors are using art as a way to expand and diversify their portfolios. Many publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have been discussing the merits and dangers of investing in art.

New infrastructure and processes have arisen to reinforce the investment mentality for art. “Freeports” or tax sheltered storage, often attached to airports, have grown in popularity and house untold numbers of priceless objects. The warehouses were originally meant for the temporary storage of goods during shipment, but have evolved into highly sophisticated private storage units. Items housed in these facilities are exempt from import taxes as long as they remain there, and any sales made within the facility are also free from transaction taxes until they are removed. Showrooms and apps to track works and their values are becoming part of the storage package and seek to increase the liquidity of art and luxury items. This expanding practice promotes the sale, trade, and subsequent storage of luxury items within the tax free zones.

In this morning’s paper, the New York Times explored “like-kind” or 1030 exchanges which are used to defer taxes when trading items of art. Because of the stipulation that like-kind exchanges must be only for investments for business purposes, the works cannot be displayed for personal enjoyment after the trade. This further bolsters practices similar to those promoted by freeports.

Although they make up a small portion of the investment landscape, Art funds are another growing and notable practice in the art world. In their most simplistic form, Art funds allow investors to buy into a collection of art that they may otherwise be unable to afford. At the end of a predetermined term, the art is sold and the returns are split up between the investors.

The point I am attempting to highlight is that art is becoming increasingly accepted as a financial instrument. Furthermore, the majority of the art market’s inclusion in the media highlights this change. This acceptance has expanded the demand for art past the prototypical collectors and museums and into the realm of investors and fund managers.

My foremost concern with the increased practice of using art as an investment is that it will detract from the social value of the arts. It seems that where art prices were once defined by works of art, the works are now defined prices. One can see that the new practices and infrastructures in the art world are directly opposed to the general enjoyment of the art for its artistic value. Art is increasingly being horded by investors and fund managers in vaults that discourage their removal. The soaring prices for high end art may also become prohibitive for the lower range of museums and collectors, detracting from the gross social value of art.

Well, one might ask, won’t this all be solved when the market corrects itself from what seems to so obviously be a bubble? A problem with this theory is that the bursting of the bubble relies on investors and collectors realizing that prices being paid are higher than the intrinsic value of the item. The increased use of art as a financial instrument has raised the intrinsic value of art by expanding its usefulness from an aesthetic item and status symbol to legitimate investment opportunity.

The moral of this story, I guess, is that the art market has some issues. Or, perhaps, in the way art was once used to glorify the revered ideologies of religion we are seeing it morph to play the same role for capitalism and our financial sector. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Tactical Depth

There is an interesting consequence of military drones and other (semi)autonomous war machines that I have not yet seen described anywhere else.

An urgent question for military planners throughout history has been: should we attack first (thereby gaining initiative and the element of surprise) or wait for the enemy to attack (thereby claiming moral superiority as not the aggressor, or having the opportunity to fight on familiar terrain and with in-place logistics networks).  Sometimes, the choice is dictated by political goals more than military preference.  Often, chance, fate, and questionable luck appear to take the question from both sides’ hands.

In the past, states sought Strategic Depth – time in which to react, reorganize, and realign in response to an attack.  Historically, the standard Russian doctrine was to retreat, burn the fields, destroy the bridges, and wait until winter and/or the massive behemoth of the conscript army could be brought to bear.  The Russian example highlights Strategic Depth’s key element – vast tracts of borderland that the state can afford to – temporarily – lose.  Today, however, Strategic Depth is obsolete.

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