lørdag 13. februar 2010

Sigh: Higher education has come a long way.

Overheard on the bus, two girls talkin about college. One girl was very happy about the place where she planned to go, the other asked what she would have learned afterwards. The answer was baffling (at least to me :-) : "You won't actually be anything afterwards, but you get to do surfing, kickboxing and yoga, and you get som course credits". To paraphrase Beavis & Butthead: Higher education has indeed come a long way.

tirsdag 13. januar 2009

Making sense of Israel's war in Gaza

At first glance Israel's war in Gaza does not make any sense to me:
  • The Israelis claim that their objective is to reduce Hamas's capacity to inflict damage on Israel, in particular they wish to reduce their capacity to send missiles into Israeli territory.
  • The Israelis  claim that they wish to send  the message that they will retaliate disproportionately to anything they determine to be any kind of challenge to their territorial integrity.
  • I don't know how many Israelis has been killed by the Qassam rockets, but the wikipedia article about the Quassam rockets estimate that several hunderd has been hurt and 29 Israelis has been killed, so I'll take that as ballpark figures. So far nine hundred Palestinians has been killed during the war and several thousand injured, so there is indeed a disproportionate response.
However, there is absolutely nothing that makes me believe that the action currently going on in Gaza will have any permanent effect at all on Hamas's ability to inflict damage on Israel. Consider this:
  • The Qassam rockets are (according to Wikipedia) made from sugar, saltpeter (fertilizer), steel pipe and a little high explosives.   Basically they are extreme low tech artillery rockets. Apart from the high explosives, they can literally be made from ordinary household items.  It is extremely difficult to make a simpler weapon with multi-kilometer range.  For all that it is a wildly imprecise weapon,  and it shows.   More Israelis  has died from traffic accidents, or smoking, or probably even from slipping on the bathroom floor. As a destructive weapon they are utterly useless. Their only possible purpose is as weapons of terror.  If they scare anyone, they have accomplished their mission.
  • If Hamas decides, they can easily improve the destructive power of their missiles by using any combination of a simple GPS bases guidance package (it´s much simpler than you think), or biological or chemical warheads.  Spraying a biological payload consisting of a plant disease agent  into the farmlands around Gaza would probaly inflict more economic damage than the high explosives currently used, and perhaps even be more frightening.  There is almost a century of evolution of artillery rockets that Hamas can pick and choose from if they wish to upgrade the hitting power per rocket.
  •  The leader of Hamas has stated that their objective behind sending rockets into Israel is to deny peace to Israel.  In the Shelly Saywell movie "Hamas behind the mask" he said that they wished to convice Israel that they can not have peace if they do not involve Hamas in  the negotiations behind this peace.    This seems to a wholly realistic objective.
  • There has been two intifadas,  a severe invasion into Lebanon, and there is basically no history of success for tactics based on forcing palestinians into complacency.  The Israelis generally succeed in moving the Palestinians from wherever they are, but after a while they are back.
In sum, the military objectives as stated by Israel seems impossible to achieve.  There is just no logical connection from the premises behind the actions and the most likely outcome of the same actions.   Now, there are many things to be said about the Israelis (most of them favorable, by the way), but that they are illogical way beyond the limit of blind stupidity, is emphatically not something I believe they are. Consequently the reasoning illustrated above simply cannot be the whole rationale behind the war.   In the middle east things are interwined and complex, so I don´t believe that I can think here in my peaceful living room and by logic alone uncover the whole "truth" about the Israeli motivation, so I won´t pretend that I have ;)  That said I have a suggestion:
Consider if the main audience for the action is Gaza isn´t Hamas, but the Iranian leadership.   The message the Iranians are receiving is "If small  and militarily essentially worthless missiles fall inside Israels borders, Israel will retaliate by all the conventional forces they posess; what will they do if a missile capable of doing real damage lands from Iran? The most obvious answer is that they will retaliate with nukes."
This is a simple message but perceiving it is just a matter of perspective, no contrived logic necessary. And while ruthless, it is certainly logically consistent and utterly believable.  Supporting evidence (very circumstantial):

  • In a lot of the statements made by Israeli officials, Iran is mentioned more or less in passing as a supporter of Hamas.  No direct threats or anything, just a reminder that Iran is in the picture, somewhere.
  • Never, ever any mention of nuclear weapons. Officialy Israel doesn't have them, so when they are making their nuclear policies known, it will have to be in a roundabout ways. However, whatever method is chosen, it shouldn't  leave much room for doubt when interpreted by the recipients. Also the announcement can't  be overtly or at least literally threatening, since that in itself would give the Iranians the option of showing indignation at an overtly agressive Israel.
All of this fits nicely with what is happening in Gaza.

All in all I belive among other things (including humanitarian disaster, strategic stupidity on Israels part, general knuckleheadedness on both Hamas and the Israeli part etc.) this war should be interpreted as a roundabout announciation of Israel's current stance on nuclear threat policy.

If this reasoning is true, it opens up some interesting questions as to why?  Does the Israelis have intelligence that makes it imperative to send this type of message now?  Was it just an opportunity and they made the most of it?  I don't know and I think I'll offer a small prayer to my favorite deity that I'll never know for sure.

onsdag 10. september 2008

Bob Woodward's reports on secret assasinations in Iraq

Yesterday I heard about Bob Woodward's exposure of a secret killing program in Iraq. To describe it he used phrases like "Manhattan Project" and "The top secret operations, he said, will 'some day in history ... be described to people's amazement.'"

This made me think a bit about what this was all about. The thoughts below are of course pure guesswork (I don't have a security clearance, hopefully I never will). "Some day in history" I will either be proven right or wrong, but today this is just an intellectual exercise. How do I think the US has organized it's secret killing program in Iraq?

  • The US is selectively targeting central people in the terrorist networks. This means that they have some way of targeting the central people in these networks, which in turn means that they have some kind of metric to sort the Iraqi population by that puts the most central terrorists at the top.

  • A candidate procedure for creating such a metric springs to mind: If they can perform traffic analysis of messages being passed around in the terrorist networks, then they can figure out who is the most central. My guess is that they are hoovering all kinds of networks (phone, cellular, internet, whatever) for clues about who communicates with whom, then they create a big whopping matrix of who-talks-to-who links (nonsymmetrical or symmetrical depending on your preference). Then they run an eigenvalue analysis (a-la pagerank or T-rank). Seed the analysis with data about known terrorists, and see who comes out on top. (Undoubtly there will be a bit more to it than this, like e.g. building a tree structure out of the "strongest change in rank" connections and using that to find the most central people in subnetworks, but I am sure the mathematicians at the NSA and their subcontractors have had loads of fun on this problem and have found some concoction of transforms that does the trick nicely). Voila: Target list. Join (that's a technical term, see the link) that target list with a list of probable locations and you have a target list that can be used operationally (i.e. be used for selecting when to blow up a car or a house).

  • They then send out death squads (or "targeted killing teams" or whatever euphemism they are using) and assasinate the people on the target list. If the measured terrorist activity drops (fewer bombs, kidnappings or whatever), then they assume that the list is working.

  • Of course it's not quite this simple. The algorithmic approach sketched out above will generate a lot of targeting opportunities (a lot of person/location/time tuples), so some more logic is necessary. This probably means that somewhere in the loop some poor officer is presented with a series of choices: We have a probable location of target X in location Y. The cost (measured in e.g. collateral damage) of hitting location Y now is C, but if that number is lower than the estimated value of the target (say "D") then the hit is deemed cost effective, and a decision can be made quickly. "Hitting the target" (i.e. killing whoever happens to be in the target zone) can then be done using anything from a Hellfire missile (launched by unmanned predator UAVs) via snipers on rooftops to a bunch of Blackwater operatives running into a house with blazing (and/or silenced) guns, and anything in between.

  • It is by no means the first time the US is involved in this type of operation. The Phoenix Program during the Vietnam Conflict was in many ways similar. They killed a whole lot of people they believed were the enemy. They probably killed a great deal of enemy personnel, but also a whole lot of people who were not "Enemy" of the US in any particular way, and anyway they lost the whole war. One possibly big difference between the Phoenix program and this program (which surely has a codename that will one day be made public) is the kind of data mining that goes into the targeting. Another difference is the ability to put remote controlled munitions on targets without having to necessarily have to pick up individuals to kill them. Without a proper foresic team on the spot I would guess that it is quite hard to differentiate between a terrorist bomb blast and the detonation of a Hellfire warhead, or between stray bullets and sniper fire, so I guess that a lot of the asssasinations can be camuflaged as something other than what they are.

  • Update (14. aug.) Bruce Schneier just blogged his opinion on Woodward's statement. He believes the main issue here is improved tracking capabilities on UAVs. I agree this might be a factor, but unless you know where to point the sensors in the first, an improved camera (or whatever) won't help very much.
  • Update (Oct. 21) . Washington Post reported yesterday that DARPA is looking very seriously at real time video reconnissance. I don't know how easy or hard it would be to input data from this kind of analysis into a traffic analysis software package. If we assume it is easy, there really is not much of a difference between shaking hands and placing a phone call, if you consider both events from the perspective of a traffic analysis sofware package. They are both events, they take place between people. If you can track individuals (and that is a big "if") and possibly even link them to actual terrorist acts, then you have very useful input for tracking social networks of terrorists.
Well, that's my thoughts on the subject. In a few years we'll se if this morning's tea leaves gave a good or bad reading ;)

Just for the record. My personal opinion on this matter is that extra judicial killings are all bad. Criminals, including terrorists, should be caught and tried in a court of law and if found guilty put in prison. If that takes forever then so be it.

Update: (12. mar. 09) I ust read that Seymor Hersh has hinted that he knows something about a semi-secret assasination squad called reporting directly to vice president Cheney run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This could be part of the picture I paint above.

A blog for my rants

A blog for my rants. Today I decided i need one. I have two rants that need an outlet. That is above the critical threshold, so therefore to commit myself to making them naturally I first create a blog.

So, now all I have to do is to write my two rants, and when they are done, perhaps I´ll write more ;)