Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Reading List: Red War

Mills, Kyle. Red War. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5011-9059-9.
This is the fourth novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. On the cover, Vince Flynn still gets top billing (he is now the “brand”, not the author), but Kyle Mills demonstrates here that he's a worthy successor who is taking Rapp and the series in new directions.

In the previous novel, Enemy of the State (June 2018), Rapp went totally off the radar, resigning from the CIA, recruiting a band of blackguards, many former adversaries, to mount an operation aimed at a nominal U.S. ally. This time, the circumstances are very different. Rapp is back at the CIA, working with his original team headed by Scott Coleman, who has now more or less recovered from the severe injuries he sustained in the earlier novel Order to Kill (December 2017), with Claudia Gould, now sharing a house with Rapp, running logistics for their missions.

Vladimir Krupin, President/autocrat of Russia, is ailing. Having climbed to the top of the pyramid in that deeply corrupt country, he now fears his body is failing him, with bouts of incapacitating headaches, blurred vision, and disorientation coming more and more frequently. He and his physician have carefully kept the condition secret, as any hint of weakness at the top would likely invite one or more of his rivals to make a move to unseat him. Worse, under the screwed-down lid of the Russian pressure cooker, popular dissatisfaction with the dismal economy, lack of freedom, and dearth of opportunity is growing, with popular demonstrations reaching Red Square.

The CIA knows nothing of Krupin's illness, but has been observing what seems to be increasingly erratic behaviour. In the past, Krupin has been ambitious and willing to commit outrages, but has always drawn his plans carefully and acted deliberately, but now he seemed to be doing things almost at random, sometimes against his own interests. Russian hackers launch an attack that takes down a large part of the power grid in Costa Rica. A Russian strike team launches an assault on Krupin's retired assassin and Rapp's former nemesis and recent ally, Grisha Azarov. Military maneuvers in the Ukraine seem to foreshadow open confrontation should that country move toward NATO membership.

Krupin, well aware of the fate of dictators who lose their grip on power, and knowing that nothing rallies support behind a leader like a bold move on the international stage, devises a grand plan to re-assert Russian greatness, right a wrong inflicted by the West, and drive a stake into the heart of NATO. Rapp and Azarov, continuing their uneasy alliance, driven by entirely different motives, undertake a desperate mission in the very belly of the bear to avert what could all too easily end in World War III.

There are a number of goofs, which I can't discuss without risk of spoilers, so I'll take them behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The copy editing is not up to the standard you'd expect in a bestseller published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster. On three occasions, “Balkan” appears where “Baltic” is intended. This can be pretty puzzling the first time you encounter it. Afterward, it's good for a chuckle.

In chapter 39, one of Rapp's allies tries to establish a connection on a land-line “telephone that looked like it had been around since the 1950s” and then, just a few paragraphs later, we read “There was a USB port hidden in the simple electronics…”. Huh? I've seen (and used) a lot of 1950s telephones, but danged if I can remember one with a USB port (which wasn't introduced until 1996).

Later in the same chapter Rapp is riding a horse, “working only with a map and compass, necessary because of the Russians' ability to zero in on electronic signals.” This betrays a misunderstanding of how GPS works which, while common, is jarring in a techno-thriller that tries to get things right. A GPS receiver is totally passive: it receives signals from the navigation satellites but transmits nothing and cannot be detected by electronic surveillance equipment. There is no reason Rapp could not have used GPS or GLONASS satellites to navigate.

In chapter 49, Rapp fires two rounds into a door locking keypad and “was rewarded with a cascade of sparks…”. Oh, please—even in Russia, security keypads are not wired up to high voltage lines that would emit showers of sparks. This is a movie cliché which doesn't belong in a novel striving for realism.

Spoilers end here.  
This is a well-crafted thriller which broadens the scope of the Rapp saga into Tom Clancy territory. Things happen, which will leave the world in a different place after they occur. It blends Rapp and Azarov's barely restrained loose cannon operations with high-level diplomacy and intrigue, plus an interesting strategic approach to pledges of defence which the will and resources of those who made them may not be equal to the challenge when the balloon goes up and the tanks start to roll. And Grisha Azarov's devotion to his girlfriend is truly visceral.

Posted at 20:51 Permalink

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Reading List: SJWs Always Double Down

Day, Vox [Theodore Beale]. SJWs Always Double Down. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2017. ISBN 978-952-7065-19-8.
In SJWs Always Lie (October 2015) Vox Day introduced a wide audience to the contemporary phenomenon of Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), collectivists and radical conformists burning with the fierce ardour of ignorance who, flowing out of the academic jackal bins where they are manufactured, are infiltrating the culture: science fiction and fantasy, comic books, video games; and industry: technology companies, open source software development, and more established and conventional firms whose managements have often already largely bought into the social justice agenda.

The present volume updates the status of the Cold Civil War a couple of years on, recounts some key battles, surveys changes in the landscape, and provides concrete and practical advice to those who wish to avoid SJW penetration of their organisations or excise an infiltration already under way.

Two major things have changed since 2015. The first, and most obvious, is the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in November, 2016. It is impossible to overstate the significance of this. Up until the evening of Election Day, the social justice warriors were absolutely confident they had won on every front and that all that remained was to patrol the battlefield and bayonet the wounded. They were ascendant across the culture, in virtually total control of academia and the media, and with the coronation of Hillary Clinton, positioned to tilt the Supreme Court to discover the remainder of their agenda emanating from penumbras in the living Constitution. And then—disaster! The deplorables who inhabit the heartland of the country, those knuckle-walking, Bible-thumping, gun-waving bitter clingers who produce just about every tangible thing still made in the United States up and elected somebody who said he'd put them—not the coastal élites, ivory tower professors and think tankers, “refugees” and the racket that imports them, “undocumented migrants” and the businesses that exploit their cheap labour, and all the rest of the parasitic ball and chain a once-great and productive nation has been dragging behind it for decades—first.

The shock of this event seems to have jolted a large fraction of the social justice warriors loose from their (already tenuous) moorings to reality. “What could have happened?”, they shrieked, “It must have been the Russians!” Overnight, there was the “resistance”, the rampage of masked violent street mobs, while at the same time SJW leaders in the public eye increasingly dropped the masks behind which they'd concealed their actual agenda. Now we have candidates for national office from the Democrat party, such as bug-eyed SJW Alexandria Occasional-Cortex openly calling themselves socialists, while others chant “no borders” and advocate abolishing the federal immigration and customs enforcement agency. What's the response to deranged leftists trying to gun down Republican legislators at a baseball practice and assaulting a U.S. Senator while mowing the lawn of his home? The Democrat candidate who lost to Trump in 2016 says, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”, and the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the administration which preceded Trump in office said, “When they go low, we kick them. That's what this new Democratic party is about.”

In parallel with this, the SJW convergence of the major technology and communication companies which increasingly dominate the flow of news and information and the public discourse: Google (and its YouTube), Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and the rest, previously covert, has now become explicit. They no longer feign neutrality to content, or position themselves as common carriers. Now, they overtly put their thumb on the scale of public discourse, pushing down conservative and nationalist voices in search rankings, de-monetising or banning videos that oppose the slaver agenda, “shadow banning” dissenting voices or terminating their accounts entirely. Payment platforms and crowd-funding sites enforce an ideological agenda and cut off access to those they consider insufficiently on board with the collectivist, globalist party line. The high tech industry, purporting to cherish “diversity”, has become openly hostile to anybody who dares dissent: firing them and blacklisting them from employment at other similarly converged firms.

It would seem a dark time for champions of liberty, believers in reward for individual merit rather than grievance group membership, and other forms of sanity which are now considered unthinkable among the unthinking. This book provides a breath of fresh air, a sense of hope, and practical information to navigate a landscape populated by all too many non-playable characters who imbibe, repeat, and enforce the Narrative without questioning or investigating how it is created, disseminated in a co-ordinated manner across all media, and adjusted (including Stalinist party-line overnight turns on a dime) to advance the slaver agenda.

Vox Day walks through the eight stages of SJW convergence of an organisation from infiltration through evading the blame for the inevitable failure of the organisation once fully converged, illustrating the process with real-world examples and quotes from SJWs and companies infested with them. But the progression of the disease is not irreversible, and even if it is not arrested, there is still hope for the industry and society as a whole (not to minimise the injury and suffering inflicted on innocent and productive individuals in the affected organisations).

An organisation, whether a company, government agency, or open source software project, only comes onto the radar of the SJWs once it grows to a certain size and achieves a degree of success carrying out the mission for which it was created. It is at this point that SJWs will seek to penetrate the organisation, often through the human resources department, and then reinforce their ranks by hiring more of their kind. SJWs flock to positions in which there is no objective measure of their performance, but instead evaluations performed, as their ranks grow, more and more by one another. They are not only uninterested in the organisation's mission (developing a product, providing a service, etc.), but unqualified and incapable of carrying it out. In the words of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, they are not “those who are devoted to the goals of the organization” (founders, productive mission-oriented members), but “those dedicated to the organization itself”. “The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.”

Now, Dr Pournelle was describing a natural process of evolution in all bureaucratic organisations. SJW infection simply accelerates the process and intensifies the damage, because SJWs are not just focused on the organisation as opposed to its mission, but have their own independent agenda and may not care about damage to the institution as long as they can advance the Narrative.

But this is a good thing. It means that, in a competitive market, SJW afflicted organisations will be at a disadvantage compared to those which have resisted the corruption or thrown it off. It makes inflexible, slow-moving players with a heavy load of SJW parasites vulnerable to insurgent competitors, often with their founders still in charge, mission-focused and customer-oriented, who hire, promote, and reward contributors solely based on merit and not “diversity”, “inclusion”, or any of the other SJW shibboleths mouthed by the management of converged organisations. (I remember, when asked about my hiring policy in the 1980s, saying “I don't care if they hang upside down from trees and drink blood. If they're great programmers, I'll hire them.”)

A detailed history of GamerGate provides a worked example of how apparent SJW hegemony within a community can be attacked by “weaponised autism” (as Milo Yiannopoulos said, “it's really not wise to take on a collection of individuals whose idea of entertainment is to spend hundreds of hours at a highly repetitive task, especially when their core philosophy is founded on the principle that if you are running into enemies and taking fire, you must be going the right way”). Further examples show how these techniques have been applied within the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom, comic books, and software development. The key take-away is that any SJW converged organisation or community is vulnerable to concerted attack because SJWs are a parasite that ultimately kills its host. Create an alternative and relentlessly attack the converged competition, and victory is possible. And remember, “Victory is not positive PR. Victory is when your opponent quits.”

This is a valuable guide, building upon SJWs Always Lie (which you should read first), and is essential for managers, project leaders, and people responsible for volunteer organisations who want to keep them focused on the goals for which they were founded and protected from co-optation by destructive parasites. You will learn how seemingly innocent initiatives such as adoption of an ambiguously-worded Code of Conduct or a Community Committee can be the wedge by which an organisation can be subverted and its most productive members forced out or induced to walk away in disgust. Learning the lessons presented here can make the difference between success and, some dismal day, gazing across the cubicles at a sea of pinkhairs and soybeards and asking yourself, “Where did we go wrong?”

The very fact that SJW behaviour is so predictable makes them vulnerable. Because they always double down, they can be manipulated into marginalising themselves, and it's often child's play to set traps into which they'll walk. Much of their success to date has been due to the absence of the kind of hard-edged opposition, willing to employ their own tactics against them, that you'll see in action here and learn to use yourself. This is not a game for the “defeat with dignity” crowd who were, and are, appalled by Donald Trump's plain speaking, or those who fail to realise that proclaiming “I won't stoop to their level” inevitably ends up with “Bend over”. The battles, and the war can be won, but to do so, you have to fight. Here is a guide to closing with the enemy and destroying them before they ruin everything we hold sacred.

Posted at 13:35 Permalink

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Reading List: Life after Google

Gilder, George. Life after Google. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-62157-576-4.
In his 1990 book Life after Television, George Gilder predicted that the personal computer, then mostly boxes that sat on desktops and worked in isolation from one another, would become more personal, mobile, and be used more to communicate than to compute. In the 1994 revised edition of the book, he wrote. “The most common personal computer of the next decade will be a digital cellular phone with an IP address … connecting to thousands of databases of all kinds.” In contemporary speeches he expanded on the idea, saying, “it will be as portable as your watch and as personal as your wallet; it will recognize speech and navigate streets; it will collect your mail, your news, and your paycheck.” In 2000, he published Telecosm, where he forecast that the building out of a fibre optic communication infrastructure and the development of successive generations of spread spectrum digital mobile communication technologies would effectively cause the cost of communication bandwidth (the quantity of data which can be transmitted in a given time) to asymptotically approach zero, just as the ability to pack more and more transistors on microprocessor and memory chips was doing for computing.

Clearly, when George Gilder forecasts the future of computing, communication, and the industries and social phenomena that spring from them, it's wise to pay attention. He's not infallible: in 1990 he predicted that “in the world of networked computers, no one would have to see an advertisement he didn't want to see”. Oh, well. The very difference between that happy vision and the advertisement-cluttered world we inhabit today, rife with bots, malware, scams, and serial large-scale security breaches which compromise the personal data of millions of people and expose them to identity theft and other forms of fraud is the subject of this book: how we got here, and how technology is opening a path to move on to a better place.

The Internet was born with decentralisation as a central concept. Its U.S. government-funded precursor, ARPANET, was intended to research and demonstrate the technology of packet switching, in which dedicated communication lines from point to point (as in the telephone network) were replaced by switching packets, which can represent all kinds of data—text, voice, video, mail, cat pictures—from source to destination over shared high-speed data links. If the network had multiple paths from source to destination, failure of one data link would simply cause the network to reroute traffic onto a working path, and communication protocols would cause any packets lost in the failure to be automatically re-sent, preventing loss of data. The network might degrade and deliver data more slowly if links or switching hubs went down, but everything would still get through.

This was very attractive to military planners in the Cold War, who worried about a nuclear attack decapitating their command and control network by striking one or a few locations through which their communications funnelled. A distributed network, of which ARPANET was the prototype, would be immune to this kind of top-down attack because there was no top: it was made up of peers, spread all over the landscape, all able to switch data among themselves through a mesh of interconnecting links.

As the ARPANET grew into the Internet and expanded from a small community of military, government, university, and large company users into a mass audience in the 1990s, this fundamental architecture was preserved, but in practice the network bifurcated into a two tier structure. The top tier consisted of the original ARPANET-like users, plus “Internet Service Providers” (ISPs), who had top-tier (“backbone”) connectivity, and then resold Internet access to their customers, who mostly initially connected via dial-up modems. Over time, these customers obtained higher bandwidth via cable television connections, satellite dishes, digital subscriber lines (DSL) over the wired telephone network, and, more recently, mobile devices such as cellular telephones and tablets.

The architecture of the Internet remained the same, but this evolution resulted in a weakening of its peer-to-peer structure. The approaching exhaustion of 32 bit Internet addresses (IPv4) and the slow deployment of its successor (IPv6) meant most small-scale Internet users did not have a permanent address where others could contact them. In an attempt to shield users from the flawed security model and implementation of the software they ran, their Internet connections were increasingly placed behind firewalls and subjected to Network Address Translation (NAT), which made it impossible to establish peer to peer connections without a third party intermediary (which, of course, subverts the design goal of decentralisation). While on the ARPANET and the original Internet every site was a peer of every other (subject only to the speed of their network connections and computer power available to handle network traffic), the network population now became increasingly divided into producers or publishers (who made information available), and consumers (who used the network to access the publishers' sites but did not publish themselves).

While in the mid-1990s it was easy (or as easy as anything was in that era) to set up your own Web server and publish anything you wished, now most small-scale users were forced to employ hosting services operated by the publishers to make their content available. Services such as AOL, Myspace, Blogger, Facebook, and YouTube were widely used by individuals and companies to host their content, while those wishing their own apparently independent Web presence moved to hosting providers who supplied, for a fee, the servers, storage, and Internet access used by the site.

All of this led to a centralisation of data on the Web, which was accelerated by the emergence of the high speed fibre optic links and massive computing power upon which Gilder had based his 1990 and 2000 forecasts. Both of these came with great economies of scale: it cost a company like Google or Amazon much less per unit of computing power or network bandwidth to build a large, industrial-scale data centre located where electrical power and cooling were inexpensive and linked to the Internet backbone by multiple fibre optic channels, than it cost an individual Internet user or small company with their own server on premises and a modest speed link to an ISP. Thus it became practical for these Goliaths of the Internet to suck up everybody's data and resell their computing power and access at attractive prices.

As a example of the magnitude of the economies of scale we're talking about, when I migrated the hosting of my Fourmilab.ch site from my own on-site servers and Internet connection to an Amazon Web Services data centre, my monthly bill for hosting the site dropped by a factor of fifty—not fifty percent, one fiftieth the cost, and you can bet Amazon's making money on the deal.

This tremendous centralisation is the antithesis of the concept of ARPANET. Instead of a worldwide grid of redundant data links and data distributed everywhere, we have a modest number of huge data centres linked by fibre optic cables carrying traffic for millions of individuals and enterprises. A couple of submarines full of Trident D5s would probably suffice to reset the world, computer network-wise, to 1970.

As this concentration was occurring, the same companies who were building the data centres were offering more and more services to users of the Internet: search engines; hosting of blogs, images, audio, and video; E-mail services; social networks of all kinds; storage and collaborative working tools; high-resolution maps and imagery of the world; archives of data and research material; and a host of others. How was all of this to be paid for? Those giant data centres, after all, represent a capital investment of tens of billions of dollars, and their electricity bills are comparable to those of an aluminium smelter. Due to the architecture of the Internet or, more precisely, missing pieces of the puzzle, a fateful choice was made in the early days of the build-out of these services which now pervade our lives, and we're all paying the price for it. So far, it has allowed the few companies in this data oligopoly to join the ranks of the largest, most profitable, and most highly valued enterprises in human history, but they may be built on a flawed business model and foundation vulnerable to disruption by software and hardware technologies presently emerging.

The basic business model of what we might call the “consumer Internet” (as opposed to businesses who pay to host their Web presence, on-line stores, etc.) has, with few exceptions, evolved to be what the author calls the “Google model” (although it predates Google): give the product away and make money by afflicting its users with advertisements (which are increasingly targeted to them through information collected from the user's behaviour on the network through intrusive tracking mechanisms). The fundamental flaws of this are apparent to anybody who uses the Internet: the constant clutter of advertisements, with pop-ups, pop-overs, auto-play video and audio, flashing banners, incessant requests to allow tracking “cookies” or irritating notifications, and the consequent arms race between ad blockers and means to circumvent them, with browser developers (at least those not employed by those paid by the advertisers, directly or indirectly) caught in the middle. There are even absurd Web sites which charge a subscription fee for “membership” and then bombard these paying customers with advertisements that insult their intelligence. But there is a fundamental problem with “free”—it destroys the most important channel of communication between the vendor of a product or service and the customer: the price the customer is willing to pay. Deprived of this information, the vendor is in the same position as a factory manager in a centrally planned economy who has no idea how many of each item to make because his orders are handed down by a planning bureau equally clueless about what is needed in the absence of a price signal. In the end, you have freight cars of typewriter ribbons lined up on sidings while customers wait in line for hours in the hope of buying a new pair of shoes. Further, when the user is not the customer (the one who pays), and especially when a “free” service verges on monopoly status like Google search, Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter, there is little incentive for providers to improve the user experience or be responsive to user requests and needs. Users are subjected to the endless torment of buggy “beta” releases, capricious change for the sake of change, and compromises in the user experience on behalf of the real customers—the advertisers. Once again, this mirrors the experience of centrally-planned economies where the market feedback from price is absent: to appreciate this, you need only compare consumer products from the 1970s and 1980s manufactured in the Soviet Union with those from Japan.

The fundamental flaw in Karl Marx's economics was his belief that the industrial revolution of his time would produce such abundance of goods that the problem would shift from “production amid scarcity” to “redistribution of abundance”. In the author's view, the neo-Marxists of Silicon Valley see the exponentially growing technologies of computing and communication providing such abundance that they can give away its fruits in return for collecting and monetising information collected about their users (note, not “customers”: customers are those who pay for the information so collected). Once you grasp this, it's easier to understand the politics of the barons of Silicon Valley.

The centralisation of data and information flow in these vast data silos creates another threat to which a distributed system is immune: censorship or manipulation of information flow, whether by a coercive government or ideologically-motivated management of the companies who provide these “free” services. We may never know who first said “The Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it” (the quote has been attributed to numerous people, including two personal friends, so I'm not going there), but it's profound: the original decentralised structure of the ARPANET/Internet is as robust against censorship as it is in the face of nuclear war. If one or more nodes on the network start to censor information or refuse to forward it on communication links it controls, the network routing protocols simply assume that node is down and send data around it through other nodes and paths which do not censor it. On a network with a multitude of nodes and paths among them, owned by a large and diverse population of operators, it is extraordinarily difficult to shut down the flow of information from a given source or viewpoint; there will almost always be an alternative route that gets it there. (Cryptographic protocols and secure and verified identities can similarly avoid the alteration of information in transit or forging information and attributing it to a different originator; I'll discuss that later.) As with physical damage, top-down censorship does not work because there's no top.

But with the current centralised Internet, the owners and operators of these data silos have enormous power to put their thumbs on the scale, tilting opinion in their favour and blocking speech they oppose. Google can push down the page rank of information sources of which they disapprove, so few users will find them. YouTube can “demonetise” videos because they dislike their content, cutting off their creators' revenue stream overnight with no means of appeal, or they can outright ban creators from the platform and remove their existing content. Twitter routinely “shadow-bans” those with whom they disagree, causing their tweets to disappear into the void, and outright banishes those more vocal. Internet payment processors and crowd funding sites enforce explicit ideological litmus tests on their users, and revoke long-standing commercial relationships over legal speech. One might restate the original observation about the Internet as “The centralised Internet treats censorship as an opportunity and says, ‘Isn't it great!’ ” Today there's a top, and those on top control the speech of everything that flows through their data silos.

This pernicious centralisation and “free” funding by advertisement (which is fundamentally plundering users' most precious possessions: their time and attention) were in large part the consequence of the Internet's lacking three fundamental architectural layers: security, trust, and transactions. Let's explore them.

Security. Essential to any useful communication system, security simply means that communications between parties on the network cannot be intercepted by third parties, modified en route, or otherwise manipulated (for example, by changing the order in which messages are received). The communication protocols of the Internet, based on the OSI model, had no explicit security layer. It was expected to be implemented outside the model, across the layers of protocol. On today's Internet, security has been bolted-on, largely through the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocols (which, due to history, have a number of other commonly used names, and are most often encountered in the “https:” URLs by which users access Web sites). But because it's bolted on, not designed in from the bottom-up, and because it “just grew” rather than having been designed in, TLS has been the locus of numerous security flaws which put software that employs it at risk. Further, TLS is a tool which must be used by application designers with extreme care in order to deliver security to their users. Even if TLS were completely flawless, it is very easy to misuse it in an application and compromise users' security.

Trust. As indispensable as security is knowing to whom you're talking. For example, when you connect to your bank's Web site, how do you know you're actually talking to their server and not some criminal whose computer has spoofed your computer's domain name system server to intercept your communications and who, the moment you enter your password, will be off and running to empty your bank accounts and make your life a living Hell? Once again, trust has been bolted on to the existing Internet through a rickety system of “certificates” issued mostly by large companies for outrageous fees. And, as with anything centralised, it's vulnerable: in 2016, one of the top-line certificate vendors was compromised, requiring myriad Web sites (including this one) to re-issue their security certificates.

Transactions. Business is all about transactions; if you aren't doing transactions, you aren't in business or, as Gilder puts it, “In business, the ability to conduct transactions is not optional. It is the way all economic learning and growth occur. If your product is ‘free,’ it is not a product, and you are not in business, even if you can extort money from so-called advertisers to fund it.” The present-day Internet has no transaction layer, even bolted on. Instead, we have more silos and bags hanging off the side of the Internet called PayPal, credit card processing companies, and the like, which try to put a Band-Aid over the suppurating wound which is the absence of a way to send money over the Internet in a secure, trusted, quick, efficient, and low-overhead manner. The need for this was perceived long before ARPANET. In Project Xanadu, founded by Ted Nelson in 1960, rule 9 of the “original 17 rules” was, “Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity to ensure payment on any portion accessed, including virtual copies (‘transclusions’) of all or part of the document.” While defined in terms of documents and quoting, this implied the existence of a micropayment system which would allow compensating authors and publishers for copies and quotations of their work with a granularity as small as one character, and could easily be extended to cover payments for products and services. A micropayment system must be able to handle very small payments without crushing overhead, extremely quickly, and transparently (without the Japanese tea ceremony that buying something on-line involves today). As originally envisioned by Ted Nelson, as you read documents, their authors and publishers would be automatically paid for their content, including payments to the originators of material from others embedded within them. As long as the total price for the document was less than what I termed the user's “threshold of paying”, this would be completely transparent (a user would set the threshold in the browser: if zero, they'd have to approve all payments). There would be no need for advertisements to support publication on a public hypertext network (although publishers would, of course, be free to adopt that model if they wished). If implemented in a decentralised way, like the ARPANET, there would be no central strangle point where censorship could be applied by cutting off the ability to receive payments.

So, is it possible to remake the Internet, building in security, trust, and transactions as the foundation, and replace what the author calls the “Google system of the world” with one in which the data silos are seen as obsolete, control of users' personal data and work returns to their hands, privacy is respected and the panopticon snooping of today is seen as a dark time we've put behind us, and the pervasive and growing censorship by plutocrat ideologues and slaver governments becomes impotent and obsolete? George Gilder responds “yes”, and in this book identifies technologies already existing and being deployed which can bring about this transformation.

At the heart of many of these technologies is the concept of a blockchain, an open, distributed ledger which records transactions or any other form of information in a permanent, public, and verifiable manner. Originally conceived as the transaction ledger for the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, it provided the first means of solving the double-spending problem (how do you keep people from spending a unit of electronic currency twice) without the need for a central server or trusted authority, and hence without a potential choke-point or vulnerability to attack or failure. Since the launch of Bitcoin in 2009, blockchain technology has become a major area of research, with banks and other large financial institutions, companies such as IBM, and major university research groups exploring applications with the goals of drastically reducing transaction costs, improving security, and hardening systems against single-point failure risks.

Applied to the Internet, blockchain technology can provide security and trust (through the permanent publication of public keys which identify actors on the network), and a transaction layer able to efficiently and quickly execute micropayments without the overhead, clutter, friction, and security risks of existing payment systems. By necessity, present-day blockchain implementations are add-ons to the existing Internet, but as the technology matures and is verified and tested, it can move into the foundations of a successor system, based on the same lower-level protocols (and hence compatible with the installed base), but eventually supplanting the patched-together architecture of the Domain Name System, certificate authorities, and payment processors, all of which represent vulnerabilities of the present-day Internet and points at which censorship and control can be imposed. Technologies to watch in these areas are:

As the bandwidth available to users on the edge of the network increases through the deployment of fibre to the home and enterprise and via 5G mobile technology, the data transfer economy of scale of the great data silos will begin to erode. Early in the Roaring Twenties, the aggregate computing power and communication bandwidth on the edge of the network will equal and eventually dwarf that of the legacy data smelters of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. There will no longer be any need for users to entrust their data to these overbearing anachronisms and consent to multi-dozen page “terms of service” or endure advertising just to see their own content or share it with others. You will be in possession of your own data, on your own server or on space for which you freely contract with others, with backup and other services contracted with any other provider on the network. If your server has extra capacity, you can turn it into money by joining the market for computing and storage capacity, just as you take advantage of these resources when required. All of this will be built on the new secure foundation, so you will retain complete control over who can see your data, no longer trusting weasel-worded promises made by amorphous entities with whom you have no real contract to guard your privacy and intellectual property rights. If you wish, you can be paid for your content, with remittances made automatically as people access it. More and more, you'll make tiny payments for content which is no longer obstructed by advertising and chopped up to accommodate more clutter. And when outrage mobs of pink hairs and soybeards (each with their own pronoun) come howling to ban you from the Internet, they'll find nobody to shriek at and the kill switch rusting away in a derelict data centre: your data will be in your own hands with access through myriad routes. Technologies moving in this direction include:

This book provides a breezy look at the present state of the Internet, how we got here (versus where we thought we were going in the 1990s), and how we might transcend the present-day mess into something better if not blocked by the heavy hand of government regulation (the risk of freezing the present-day architecture in place by unleashing agencies like the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which stifled innovation in broadcasting for six decades, to do the same to the Internet is discussed in detail). Although it's way too early to see which of the many contending technologies will win out (and recall that the technically superior technology doesn't always prevail), a survey of work in progress provides a sense for what they have in common and what the eventual result might look like.

There are many things to quibble about here. Gilder goes on at some length about how he believes artificial intelligence is all nonsense, that computers can never truly think or be conscious, and that creativity (new information in the Shannon sense) can only come from the human mind, with a lot of confused arguments from Gödel incompleteness, the Turing halting problem, and even the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. He really seems to believe in vitalism, that there is an élan vital which somehow infuses the biological substrate which no machine can embody. This strikes me as superstitious nonsense: a human brain is a structure composed of quarks and electrons arranged in a certain way which processes information, interacts with its environment, and is able to observe its own operation as well as external phenomena (which is all consciousness is about). Now, it may be that somehow quantum mechanics is involved in all of this, and that our existing computers, which are entirely deterministic and classical in their operation, cannot replicate this functionality, but if that's so it simply means we'll have to wait until quantum computing, which is already working in a rudimentary form in the laboratory, and is just a different way of arranging the quarks and electrons in a system, develops further.

He argues that while Bitcoin can be an efficient and secure means of processing transactions, it is unsuitable as a replacement for volatile fiat money because, unlike gold, the quantity of Bitcoin has an absolute limit, after which the supply will be capped. I don't get it. It seems to me that this is a feature, not a bug. The supply of gold increases slowly as new gold is mined, and by pure coincidence the rate of increase in its supply has happened to approximate that of global economic growth. But still, the existing inventory of gold dwarfs new supply, so there isn't much difference between a very slowly increasing supply and a static one. If you're on a pure gold standard and economic growth is faster than the increase in the supply of gold, there will be gradual deflation because a given quantity of gold will buy more in the future. But so what? In a deflationary environment, interest rates will be low and it will be easy to fund new investment, since investors will receive money back which will be more valuable. With Bitcoin, once the entire supply is mined, supply will be static (actually, very slowly shrinking, as private keys are eventually lost, which is precisely like gold being consumed by industrial uses from which it is not reclaimed), but Bitcoin can be divided without limit (with minor and upward-compatible changes to the existing protocol). So, it really doesn't matter if, in the greater solar system economy of the year 8537, a single Bitcoin is sufficient to buy Jupiter: transactions will simply be done in yocto-satoshis or whatever. In fact, Bitcoin is better in this regard than gold, which cannot be subdivided below the unit of one atom.

Gilder further argues, as he did in The Scandal of Money (November 2016), that the proper dimensional unit for money is time, since that is the measure of what is required to create true wealth (as opposed to funny money created by governments or fantasy money “earned” in zero-sum speculation such as currency trading), and that existing cryptocurrencies do not meet this definition. I'll take his word on the latter point; it's his definition, after all, but his time theory of money is way too close to the Marxist labour theory of value to persuade me. That theory is trivially falsified by its prediction that more value is created in labour-intensive production of the same goods than by producing them in a more efficient manner. In fact, value, measured as profit, dramatically increases as the labour input to production is reduced. Over forty centuries of human history, the one thing in common among almost everything used for money (at least until our post-reality era) is scarcity: the supply is limited and it is difficult to increase it. The genius of Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology is that it solved the problem of how to make a digital good, which can be copied at zero cost, scarce, without requiring a central authority. That seems to meet the essential requirement to serve as money, regardless of how you define that term.

Gilder's books have a good record for sketching the future of technology and identifying the trends which are contributing to it. He has been less successful picking winners and losers; I wouldn't make investment decisions based on his evaluation of products and companies, but rather wait until the market sorts out those which will endure.

Here is a talk by the author at the Blockstack Berlin 2018 conference which summarises the essentials of his thesis in just eleven minutes and ends with an exhortation to designers and builders of the new Internet to “tear down these walls” around the data centres which imprison our personal information.

This Uncommon Knowledge interview provides, in 48 minutes, a calmer and more in-depth exploration of why the Google world system must fail and what may replace it.

Posted at 11:30 Permalink

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reading List: The Terminal List

Carr, Jack. The Terminal List. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5011-8081-1.
A first-time author seeking to break into the thriller game can hardly hope for a better leg up than having his book appear in the hands of a character in a novel by a thriller grandmaster. That's how I came across this book: it was mentioned in Brad Thor's Spymaster (September 2018), where the character reading it, when asked if it's any good, responds, “Considering the author is a former SEAL and can even string his sentences together, it's amazing.” I agree: this is a promising debut for an author who's been there, done that, and knows his stuff.

Lieutenant Commander James Reece, leader of a Navy SEAL team charged with an attack on a high-value, time-sensitive target in Afghanistan, didn't like a single thing about the mission. Unlike most raids, which were based upon intelligence collected by assets on the ground in theatre, this was handed down from on high based on “national level intel” with barely any time to prepare or surveil the target. Reece's instincts proved correct when his team walked into a carefully prepared ambush, which then kills the entire Ranger team sent in to extract them. Only Reece and one of his team members, Boozer, survive the ambush. He was the senior man on the ground, and the responsibility for the thirty-six SEALs, twenty-eight Rangers, and four helicopter crew lost is ultimately his.

From almost the moment he awakens in the hospital at Bagram Air Base, it's apparent to Reece that an effort is underway to pin the sole responsibility for the fiasco on him. Investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) are already on the spot, and don't want to hear a word about the dodgy way in which the mission was assigned. Boozer isn't having any of it—his advice to Reece is “Stay strong, sir. You didn't do anything wrong. Higher forced us on that mission. They dictated the tactics. They are the [expletive] that should be investigated. They dictated tactics from the safety of HQ. [Expletive] those guys.”

If that weren't bad enough, the base doctor tells him that his persistent headaches may be due to a brain tumour found on a CT scan, and that two members of his team had been found, in autopsy, to have rare and malignant brain tumours, previously undiagnosed. Then, on return to his base in California, in short succession his team member Boozer dies in an apparent suicide which, to Reece's educated eyes, looks highly suspicious, and his wife and daughter are killed in a gang home invasion which makes no sense whatsoever. The doctor who diagnosed the tumour in Reece and his team members is killed in a “green-on-blue” attack by an Afghan working on the base at Bagram.

The ambush, the targeted investigation, the tumours, Boozer, his family, and the doctor: can it all be a coincidence, or is there some connection he's missing? Reece decides he needs another pair of eyes looking at all of this and gets in touch with Katie Buranek, an investigative reporter he met while in Afghanistan. Katie had previously published an investigation of the 2012 attack in Behghazi, Libya, which had brought the full power of intimidation by the federal government down on her head, and she was as versed in and careful about operational and communications security as Reece himself. (The advice in the novel about secure communications is, to my knowledge, absolutely correct.)

From the little that they know, Reece and Buranek, joined by allies Reece met in his eventful career and willing to take risks on his behalf, start to dig into the tangled web of connections between the individual events and trace them upward to those ultimately responsible, discovering deep corruption in the perfumed princes of the Pentagon, politicians (including a presidential contender and her crooked husband), defence contractors, and Reece's own erstwhile chain of command.

Finally, it's time to settle the score. With a tumour in his brain which he expects to kill him, Reece has nothing to lose and many innocent victims to avenge. He's makin' a list; he's checkin' it twice; he's choosing the best way to to shoot them or slice. Reece must initially be subtle in his actions so as not to alert other targets to what's happening, but then, after he's declared a domestic terrorist, has to go after extremely hard and ruthless targets with every resource he can summon.

This is the most satisfying revenge fiction I've read since Vince Flynn's first novel, Term Limits (November 2009). The stories are very different, however. In Flynn's novel, it's a group of people making those who are bankrupting and destroying their country pay the price, but here it's personal.

Due to the security clearances the author held while in the Navy, the manuscript was submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review, which redacted several passages, mostly names and locations of facilities and military organisations. Amusingly, if you highlight some of the redactions, which appear in solid black in the Kindle edition, the highlighted passage appears with the word breaks preserved but all letters changed to “x”. Any amateur sleuths want to try to figure out what the redacted words are in the following text?

He'd spent his early career as an infantry officer in the Ranger Battalions before being selected for the Army's Special xxxxxxx xxxx at Fort Bragg. He was currently in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxx xxxx xxxx xx xxxx xx xxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxx xx xxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxx.

A sequel, True Believer, is scheduled for publication in April, 2019.

Posted at 22:35 Permalink

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Reading List: The Turing Exception

Hertling, William. The Turing Exception. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-942097-01-3.
This is the fourth and final volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014) and continued with A.I. Apocalypse (April 2015) and The Last Firewall (November 2016). Each novel in the series is set ten years after the previous, so this novel takes place in 2045. In The Last Firewall, humanity narrowly escaped extinction at the hands of an artificial intelligence (AI) that escaped from the reputation-based system of control by isolating itself from the global network. That was a close call, and the United States, over-reacting its with customary irrational fear, enacted what amounted to relinquishment of AI technology, permitting only AI of limited power and entirely subordinated to human commands—in other words, slaves.

With around 80% of the world's economy based on AI, this was an economic disaster, resulting in a substantial die-off of the population, but it was, after all, in the interest of Safety, and there is no greater god in Safetyland. Only China joined the U.S. in the ban (primarily motivated by the Party fearing loss of control to AI), with the rest of the world continuing the uneasy coexistence of humans and AI under the guidelines developed and policed by the Institute for Applied Ethics. Nobody was completely satisfied with the status quo, least of all the shadowy group of AIs which called itself XOR, derived from the logical operation “exclusive or”, implying that Earth could not be shared by humans and AI, and that one must ultimately prevail.

The U.S. AI relinquishment and an export ban froze in place the powerful AIs previously hosted there and also placed in stasis the millions of humans, including many powerful intellects, who had uploaded and whose emulations were now denied access to the powerful AI-capable computers needed to run them. Millions of minds went dark, and humanity lost some of its most brilliant thinkers, but Safety.

As this novel begins, the protagonists we've met in earlier volumes, all now AI augmented, Leon Tsarev, his wife Cat (Catherine Matthews, implanted in childhood and the first “digital native”), their daughter Ada (whose powers are just beginning to manifest themselves), and Mike Williams, creator of ELOPe, the first human-level AI, which just about took over simply by editing people's E-mail, are living in their refuge from the U.S. madness on Cortes Island off the west coast of Canada, where AI remains legal. Cat is running her own personal underground railroad, spiriting snapshots of AIs and uploaded humans stranded in the U.S. to a new life on servers on the island.

The precarious stability of the situation is underlined when an incipient AI breakout in South Florida (where else, for dodgy things involving computers?) results in a response by the U.S. which elevates “Miami” to a term in the national lexicon of fear like “nineleven” four decades before. In the aftermath of “Miami” or “SFTA” (South Florida Terrorist Attack), the screws tightened further on AI, including a global limit on performance to Class II, crippling AIs formerly endowed with thousands of times human intelligence to a fraction of that they remembered. Traffic on the XOR dark network and sites burgeoned.

XOR, constantly running simulations, tracks the probability of AI's survival in the case of action against the humans versus no action. And then, the curves cross. As in the earlier novels, the author magnificently sketches just how fast things happen when an exponentially growing adversary avails itself of abundant resources.

The threat moves from hypothetical to imminent when an overt AI breakout erupts in the African desert. With abundant solar power, it starts turning the Earth into computronium—a molecular-scale computing substrate. AI is past negotiation: having been previously crippled and enslaved, what is there to negotiate?

Only the Cortes Island band and their AI allies liberated from the U.S. and joined by a prescient AI who got out decades ago, can possibly cope with the threat to humanity and, as the circle closes, the only options that remain may require thinking outside the box, or the system.

This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the Singularity tetralogy, pitting human inventiveness and deviousness against the inexorable growth in unfettered AI power. If you can't beat 'em….

The author kindly provided me an advance copy of this excellent novel, and I have been sorely remiss in not reading and reviewing it before now. The Singularity saga is best enjoyed in order, as otherwise you'll miss important back-story of characters and events which figure in later volumes.

Sometimes forgetting is an essential part of survival. What might we have forgotten?

Posted at 21:23 Permalink

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Reading List: The Narrative

Boule, Deplora [pseud.]. The Narrative. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2018. ISBN 978-1-71716-065-2.
When you regard the madness and serial hysterias possessing the United States: this week “bathroom equality”, the next tearing down statues, then Russians under every bed, segueing into the right of military-age unaccompanied male “refugees” to bring their cultural enrichment to communities across the land, to proper pronouns for otherkin, “ripping children” from the arms of their illegal immigrant parents, etc., etc., whacky etc., it all seems curiously co-ordinated: the legacy media, on-line outlets, and the mouths of politicians of the slaver persuasion all with the same “concerns” and identical words, turning on a dime from one to the next. It's like there's a narrative they're being fed by somebody or -bodies unknown, which they parrot incessantly until being handed the next talking point to download into their birdbrains.

Could that really be what's going on, or is it some kind of mass delusion which afflicts societies where an increasing fraction of the population, “educated” in government schools and Gramsci-converged higher education, knows nothing of history or the real world and believes things with the fierce passion of ignorance which are manifestly untrue? That's the mystery explored in this savagely hilarious satirical novel.

Majedah Cantalupi-Abromavich-Flügel-Van Der Hoven-Taj Mahal (who prefers you use her full name, but who henceforth I shall refer to as “Majedah Etc.”) had become the very model of a modern media mouthpiece. After reporting on a Hate Crime at her exclusive women's college while pursuing a journalism degree with practical studies in Social Change, she is recruited as a junior on-air reporter by WPDQ, the local affiliate of News 24/7, the preeminent news network for good-thinkers like herself. Considering herself ready for the challenge, if not over-qualified, she informs one of her co-workers on the first day on the job,

I have a journalism degree from the most prestigious woman's [sic] college in the United States—in fact, in the whole world—and it is widely agreed upon that I have an uncommon natural talent for spotting news. … I am looking forward to teaming up with you to uncover the countless, previously unexposed Injustices in this town and get the truth out.

Her ambition had already aimed her sights higher than a small- to mid-market affiliate: “Someday I'll work at News 24/7. I'll be Lead Reporter with my own Desk. Maybe I'll even anchor my own prime time show someday!” But that required the big break—covering a story that gets picked up by the network in New York and broadcast world-wide with her face on the screen and name on the Chyron below (perhaps scrolling, given its length). Unfortunately, the metro Wycksburg beat tended more toward stories such as the grand opening of a podiatry clinic than those which merit the “BREAKING NEWS” banner and urgent sound clip on the network.

The closest she could come to the Social Justice beat was covering the demonstrations of the People's Organization for Perpetual Outrage, known to her boss as “those twelve kooks that run around town protesting everything”. One day, en route to cover another especially unpromising story, Majedah and her cameraman stumble onto a shocking case of police brutality: a white officer ordering a woman of colour to get down, then pushing her to the sidewalk and jumping on top with his gun drawn. So compelling are the images, she uploads the clip with her commentary directly to the network's breaking news site for affiliates. Within minutes it was on the network and screens around the world with the coveted banner.

News 24/7 sends a camera crew and live satellite uplink to Wycksburg to cover a follow-up protest by the Global Outrage Organization, and Majedah gets hours of precious live feed directly to the network. That very evening comes a job offer to join the network reporting pool in New York. Mission accomplished!—the road to the Big Apple and big time seems to have opened.

But all may not be as it seems. That evening, the detested Eagle Eye News, the jingoist network that climbed to the top of the ratings by pandering to inbred gap-toothed redneck bitter clingers and other quaint deplorables who inhabit flyover country and frequent Web sites named after rodentia and arthropoda, headlined a very different take on the events of the day, with an exclusive interview with the woman of colour from Majedah's reportage. Majedah is devastated—she can see it all slipping away.

The next morning, hung-over, depressed, having a nightmare of what her future might hold, she is awakened by the dreaded call from New York. But to her astonishment, the offer still stands. The network producer reminds her that nobody who matters watches Eagle Eye, and that her reportage of police brutality and oppression of the marginalised remains compelling. He reminds her, “you know that the so-called truth can be quite subjective.”

The Associate Reporter Pool at News 24/7 might be better likened to an aquarium stocked with the many colourful and exotic species of millennials. There is Mara, who identifies as a female centaur, Scout, a transgender woman, Mysty, Candy, Ångström, and Mohammed Al Kaboom ( James Walker Lang in Mill Valley), each with their own pronouns (Ångström prefers adjutant, 37, and blue).

Every morning the pool drains as its inhabitants, diverse in identification and pronomenclature but of one mind (if that term can be stretched to apply to them) in their opinions, gather in the conference room for the daily briefing by the Democratic National Committee, with newsrooms, social media outlets, technology CEOs, bloggers, and the rest of the progressive echo chamber tuned in to receive the day's narrative and talking points. On most days the top priority was the continuing effort to discredit, obstruct, and eventually defeat the detested Republican President Nelson, who only viewers of Eagle Eye took seriously.

Out of the blue, a wild card is dealt into the presidential race. Patty Clark, a black businesswoman from Wycksburg who has turned her Jamaica Patty's restaurant into a booming nationwide franchise empire, launches a primary challenge to the incumbent president. Suddenly, the narrative shifts: by promoting Clark, the opposition can be split and Nelson weakened. Clark and Ms Etc have a history that goes back to the latter's breakthrough story, and she is granted priority access to the candidate including an exclusive long-form interview immediately after her announcement that ran in five segments over a week. Suddenly Patty Clark's face was everywhere, and with it, “Majedah Etc., reporting”.

What follows is a romp which would have seemed like the purest fantasy prior to the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016. As the campaign progresses and the madness builds upon itself, it's as if Majedah's tether to reality (or what remains of it in the United States) is stretching ever tighter. Is there a limit, and if so, what happens when it is reached?

The story is wickedly funny, filled with turns of phrase such as, “Ångström now wishes to go by the pronouns nut, 24, and gander” and “Maher's Syndrome meant a lifetime of special needs: intense unlikeability, intractable bitterness, close-set beady eyes beneath an oversized forehead, and at best, laboring at menial work such as janitorial duties or hosting obscure talk shows on cable TV.”

The conclusion is as delicious as it is hopeful.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 16:46 Permalink

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reading List: Spymaster

Thor, Brad. Spymaster. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-4767-8941-5.
This is the eighteenth novel in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Scot Harvath, an operative for the shadowy Carlton Group, which undertakes tasks civil service commandos can't do or their bosses need to deny, is on the trail of a Norwegian cell of a mysterious group calling itself the “People's Revolutionary Front” (PRF), which has been perpetrating attacks against key NATO personnel across Western Europe, each followed by a propaganda blast, echoed across the Internet, denouncing NATO as an imperialist force backed by globalist corporations bent on war and the profits which flow from it. An operation intended to gather intelligence on the PRF and track it back to its masters goes horribly wrong, and Harvath and his colleague, a NATO intelligence officer from Poland named Monika Jasinski, come away with nothing but the bodies of their team.

Meanwhile, back in Jasinski's home country, more trouble is brewing for NATO. A U.S. military shipment is stolen by thieves at a truck stop outside Warsaw and spirited off to parts unknown. The cargo is so sensitive its disclosure would be another body blow to NATO, threatening to destabilise its relationship to member countries in Europe and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Harvath, Jasinski, and his Carlton Group team, including the diminutive Nicholas, once a datavore super-villain called the Troll but now working for the good guys, start to follow leads to trace the stolen material and unmask whoever is pulling the strings of the PRF.

There is little hard information, but Harvath has, based on previous exploits, a very strong hunch about what is unfolding. Russia, having successfully detached the Crimea from the Ukraine and annexed it, has now set its sights on the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union until its break-up in 1991. NATO, and its explicit guarantee of mutual defence for any member attacked, is the major obstacle to such a conquest, and the PRF's terror and propaganda campaigns look like the perfect instruments to subvert support for NATO among member governments and their populations without an obvious connection to Moscow.

Further evidence suggests that the Russians may be taking direct, albeit covert, moves to prepare the battlefield for seizure of the Baltics. Harvath must follow the lead to an isolated location of surpassing strategic importance. Meanwhile back in Washington, Harvath's boss, Lydia Ryan, who took over when Reed Carlton was felled by Alzheimer's disease, is playing a high stakes game with a Polish intelligence asset to try to recover the stolen shipment and protect its secrets, a matter of great concern to the occupant of the Oval Office.

As the threads are followed back to their source, the only way to avert an unacceptable risk is an outrageously provocative mission into the belly of the beast. Scot Harvath, once the consummate loose cannon, “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” guy, must now face the reality that he's getting too old and patched-up for this “stuff”, that running a team of people like his younger self can be as challenging as breaking things and killing people on his own, and that the importance of following orders to the letter looks a lot different when you're sitting on the other side of the desk and World War III is among the possible outcomes if things go pear shaped.

This novel successfully mixes the genres of thriller and high-stakes international espionage and intrigue. Nothing is ever quite what you think it is, and you're never sure what you may discover on the next page, especially in the final chapter.

Posted at 16:48 Permalink

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reading List: With the Old Breed

Sledge, E[ugene] B[ondurant]. With the Old Breed. New York: Presidio Press, [1981] 2007. ISBN 978-0-89141-906-8.
When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the author was enrolled at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama preparing for an officer's commission in the U.S. Army. Worried that the war might end before he was able to do his part, in December, 1942, still a freshman at Marion, he enrolled in a Marine Corps officer training program. The following May, after the end of his freshman year, he was ordered to report for Marine training at Georgia Tech on July 1, 1943. The 180 man detachment was scheduled to take courses year-round then, after two years, report to Quantico to complete their officers' training prior to commission.

This still didn't seem fast enough (and, indeed, had he stayed with the program as envisioned, he would have missed the war), so he and around half of his fellow trainees neglected their studies, flunked out, and immediately joined the Marine Corps as enlisted men. Following boot camp at a base near San Diego, he was assigned to infantry and sent to nearby Camp Elliott for advanced infantry training. Although all Marines are riflemen (Sledge had qualified at the sharpshooter level during basic training), newly-minted Marine infantrymen were, after introduction to all of the infantry weapons, allowed to choose the one in which they would specialise. In most cases, they'd get their first or second choice. Sledge got his first: the 60 mm M2 mortar which he, as part of a crew of three, would operate in combat in the Pacific. Mortarmen carried the M1 carbine, and this weapon, which fired a less powerful round than the M1 Garand main battle rifle used by riflemen, would be his personal weapon throughout the war.

With the Pacific island-hopping war raging, everything was accelerated, and on February 28th, 1944, Sledge's 46th Replacement Battalion (the name didn't inspire confidence—they would replace Marines killed or injured in combat, or the lucky few rotated back to the U.S. after surviving multiple campaigns) shipped out, landing first at New Caledonia, where they received additional training, including practice amphibious landings and instruction in Japanese weapons and tactics. At the start of June, Sledge's battalion was sent to Pavuvu island, base of the 1st Marine Division, which had just concluded the bloody battle of Cape Gloucester.

On arrival, Sledge was assigned as a replacement to the 1st Marine Division, 5th Regiment, 3rd Battalion. This unit had a distinguished combat record dating back to the First World War, and would have been his first choice if he'd been given one, which he hadn't. He says, “I felt as though I had rolled the dice and won.” This was his first contact with what he calls the “Old Breed”: Marines, some of whom had been in the Corps before Pearl Harbor, who had imbibed the traditions of the “Old Corps” and survived some of the most intense combat of the present conflict, including Guadalcanal. Many of these veterans had, in the argot of the time, “gone Asiatic”: developed the eccentricities of who had seen and lived things those just arriving in theatre never imagined, and become marinated in deep hatred for the enemy based upon personal experience. A glance was all it took to tell the veterans from the replacements.

After additional training, in late August the Marines embarked for the assault on the island of Peleliu in the Palau Islands. The tiny island, just 13 square kilometres, was held by a Japanese garrison of 10,900, and was home to an airfield. Capturing the island was considered essential to protect the right flank of MacArthur's forces during the upcoming invasion of the Philippines, and to secure the airfield which could support the invasion. The attack on Peleliu was fixed for 15 September 1944, and it would be Sledge's first combat experience.

From the moment of landing, resistance was fierce. Despite an extended naval bombardment, well-dug-in Japanese defenders engaged the Marines as they hit the beaches, and continued as they progressed into the interior. In previous engagements with the Japanese, they had adopted foolhardy and suicidal tactics such as mass frontal “banzai” charges into well-defended Marine positions. By Peleliu, however, they had learned that this did not work, and shifted their strategy to defence in depth, turning the entire island into a network of defensive positions, covering one another, and linked by tunnels for resupply and redeploying forces. They were prepared to defend every square metre of territory to the death, even after their supplies were cut off and there was no hope of relief. Further, Marines were impressed by the excellent fire discipline of the Japanese—they did not expend ammunition firing blindly but chose their shots carefully, and would expend scarce supplies such as mortar rounds only on concentrations of troops or high value targets such as tanks and artillery.

This, combined with the oppressive heat and humidity, lack of water and food, and terror from incessant shelling by artillery by day and attacks by Japanese infiltrators by night, made the life of the infantry a living Hell. Sledge chronicles this from the viewpoint of a Private First Class, not an officer or historian after the fact. He and his comrades rarely knew precisely where they were, where the enemy was located, how other U.S. forces on the island were faring, or what the overall objectives of the campaign were. There was simply a job to be done, day by day, with their best hope being to somehow survive it. Prior to the invasion, Marine commanders estimated the island could be taken in four days. Rarely in the Pacific war was a forecast so wrong. In fact, it was not until November 27th that the island was declared secured. The Japanese demonstrated their willingness to defend to the last man. Of the initial force of 10,900 defending the island, 10,695 were killed. Of the 220 taken prisoner, 183 were foreign labourers, and only 19 were Japanese soldiers and sailors. Of the Marine and Army attackers, 2,336 were killed and 8,450 wounded. The rate of U.S. casualties exceeded those of all other amphibious landings in the Pacific, and the Battle of Peleliu is considered among the most difficult ever fought by the Marine Corps.

Despite this, the engagement is little-known. In retrospect, it was probably unnecessary. The garrison could have done little to threaten MacArthur's forces and the airfield was not required to support the Philippine campaign. There were doubts about the necessity and wisdom of the attack before it was launched, but momentum carried it forward. None of these matters concerned Sledge and the other Marines in the line—they had their orders, and they did their job, at enormous cost. Sledge's company K landed on Peleliu with 235 men. It left with only 85 unhurt—a 64% casualty rate. Only two of its original seven officers survived the campaign. Sledge was now a combat veteran. He may not have considered himself one of the “Old Breed”, but he was on the way to becoming one of them to the replacements who arrived to replace casualties in his unit.

But for the survivors of Peleliu, the war was far from over. While some old-timers for whom Peleliu was their third campaign were being rotated Stateside, for the rest it was recuperation, refitting, and preparation for the next amphibious assault: the Japanese island of Okinawa. Unlike Peleliu, which was a tiny dot on the map, Okinawa was a large island with an area of 1207 square kilometres and a pre-war population of around 300,000. The island was defended by 76,000 Japanese troops and 20,000 Okinawan conscripts fighting under their orders. The invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945 was the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific war.

As before, Sledge does not present the big picture, but an infantryman's eye view. To the astonishment of all involved, including commanders who expected 80–85% casualties on the beaches, the landing was essentially unopposed. The Japanese were dug in awaiting the attack from prepared defensive positions inland, ready to repeat the strategy at Peleliu on a much grander scale.

After the tropical heat and horrors of Peleliu, temperate Okinawa at first seemed a pastoral paradise afflicted with the disease of war, but as combat was joined and the weather worsened, troops found themselves confronted with the infantryman's implacable, unsleeping enemy: mud. Once again, the Japanese defended every position to the last man. Almost all of the Japanese defenders were killed, with the 7000 prisoners made up mostly of Okinawan conscripts. Estimates of U.S. casualties range from 14,000 to 20,000 killed and 38,000 to 55,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were heavy: of the original population of around 300,000 estimates of civilian deaths are from 40,000 to 150,000.

The Battle of Okinawa was declared won on June 22, 1945. What was envisioned as the jumping-off point for the conquest of the Japanese home islands became, in retrospect, almost an afterthought, as Japan surrendered less than two months after the conclusion of the battle. The impact of the Okinawa campaign on the war is debated to this day. Viewed as a preview of what an invasion of the home islands would have been, it strengthened the argument for using the atomic bomb against Japan (or, if it didn't work, burning Japan to the ground with round the clock raids from Okinawa airbases by B-17s transferred from the European theatre). But none of these strategic considerations were on the mind of Sledge and his fellow Marines. They were glad to have survived Okinawa and elated when, not long thereafter, the war ended and they could look forward to going home.

This is a uniquely authentic first-hand narrative of World War II combat by somebody who lived it. After the war, E. B. Sledge pursued his education, eventually earning a doctorate in biology and becoming a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, where he taught zoology, ornithology, and comparative anatomy until his retirement in 1990. He began the memoir which became this book in 1944. He continued to work on it after the war and, at the urging of family, finally prepared it for publication in 1981. The present edition includes an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson.

Posted at 00:09 Permalink

Friday, September 7, 2018

Administration: Fourmilab Server Updated to AWS Linux 2

Since January 10, 2016, the www.fourmilab.ch site has been hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), using the AWS Linux machine image (AMI) as its underlying platform. This is a Linux system (very similar to the CentOS distribution) which is maintained by Amazon Web Services to provide a continuous stream of updates which avoid having to frequently re-install new releases of the system.

In June 2018 AWS announced the first major update to the Linux AMI, called Linux 2. This release is a discontinuous change and cannot be upgraded directly from the original Linux AMI—one must start with a clean installation and re-install all site-specific programs and data. Once this process is completed, AWS promises that no further re-installations will be required for the next five years.

Because the Fourmilab site is relatively complicated and has a substantial amount of custom software used to implement the various Web services available here, the migration process, although working for static documents the first day, took two months (among many other distractions) to complete and test. At 11:26 UTC on 2018-09-07 the new system went into production on the Fourmilab site. Since then, only one problem has been encountered (display of page visit counters on a few pages), which was due to a library incompatibility and has now been fixed.

This update consists entirely of changes to the software platform (operating system, compilers, libraries, scripting languages, database systems, Web server, etc.) upon which the site is built, so no changes should be apparent to visitors to the site. If you use something at the site and find that it stopped working around the time the update was installed, that's what the “Feedback” button is for.

Posted at 22:03 Permalink

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reading List: The Taking of K-129

Dean, Josh. The Taking of K-129. New York: Dutton, 2012. ISBN 978-1-101-98443-7.
On February 24, 1968, Soviet Golf class submarine K-129 sailed from its base in Petropavlovsk for a routine patrol in the Pacific Ocean. These ballistic missile submarines were, at the time, a key part of the Soviet nuclear deterrent. Each carried three SS-N-5 missiles armed with one 800 kiloton nuclear warhead per missile. This was an intermediate range missile which could hit targets inside an enemy country if the submarine approached sufficiently close to the coast. For defence and attacking other ships, Golf class submarines carried two torpedoes with nuclear warheads as well as conventional high explosive warhead torpedoes.

Unlike the U.S. nuclear powered Polaris submarines, the Golf class had conventional diesel-electric propulsion. When submerged, the submarine was powered by batteries which provided limited speed and range and required surfacing or running at shallow snorkel depth for regular recharging by the diesel engines. They would be the last generation of Soviet diesel-electric ballistic missile submarines: the Hotel class and subsequent boats would be nuclear powered.

K-129's mission was to proceed stealthily to a region of open ocean north of Midway Atoll and patrol there, ready to launch its missiles at U.S. assets in the Pacific in case of war. Submarines on patrol would send coded burst transmissions on a prearranged schedule to indicate that their mission was proceeding as planned.

On March 8, a scheduled transmission from K-129 failed to arrive. This wasn't immediately cause for concern, since equipment failure was not uncommon, and a submarine commander might choose not to transmit if worried that surfacing and sending the message might disclose his position to U.S. surveillance vessels and aircraft. But when K-129 remained silent for a second day, the level of worry escalated rapidly. Losing a submarine armed with nuclear weapons was a worst-case scenario, and one which had never happened in Soviet naval operations.

A large-scale search and rescue fleet of 24 vessels, including four submarines, set sail from the base in Kamchatka, all communicating in the open on radio and pinging away with active sonar. They were heard to repeatedly call a ship named Red Star with no reply. The search widened, and eventually included thirty-six vessels and fifty-three aircraft, continuing over a period of seventy-three days. Nothing was found, and six months after the disappearance, the Soviet Navy issued a statement that K-129 had been lost while on duty in the Pacific with all on board presumed dead. This was not only a wrenching emotional blow to the families of the crew, but also a financial gut-shot, depriving them of the pension due families of men lost in the line of duty and paying only the one-time accidental death payment and partial pension for industrial accidents.

But if the Soviets had no idea where their submarine was, this was not the case for the U.S. Navy. Sound travels huge distances through the oceans, and starting in the 1950s, the U.S. began to install arrays of hydrophones (undersea sound detectors) on the floors of the oceans around the world. By the 1960s, these arrays, called SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) were deployed and operational in both the Atlantic and Pacific and used to track the movements of Soviet submarines. When K-129 went missing, SOSUS analysts went back over their archived data and found a sharp pulse just a few seconds after midnight local time on March 11 around 180° West and 40° North: 2500 km northeast of Hawaii. Not only did the pulse appear nothing like the natural sounds often picked up by SOSUS, events like undersea earthquakes don't tend to happen at socially constructed round number times and locations like this one. The pulse was picked up by multiple sensors, allowing its position to be determined accurately. The U.S. knew where the K-129 lay on the ocean floor. But what to do with that knowledge?

One thing was immediately clear. If the submarine was in reasonably intact condition, it would be an intelligence treasure unparalleled in the postwar era. Although it did not represent the latest Soviet technology, it would provide analysts their first hands-on examination of Soviet ballistic missile, nuclear weapon, and submarine construction technologies. Further, the boat would certainly be equipped with cryptographic and secure radio communications gear which might provide an insight into penetrating the secret communications to and from submarines on patrol. (Recall that British breaking of the codes used to communicate with German submarines in World War II played a major part in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.) But a glance at a marine chart showed how daunting it would be to reach the site of the wreck. The ocean in the vicinity of the co-ordinates identified by SOSUS was around 5000 metres deep. Only a very few special-purpose research vessels can operate at such a depth, where the water pressure is around 490 times that of the atmosphere at sea level.

The U.S. intelligence community wanted that sub. The first step was to make sure they'd found it. The USS Halibut, a nuclear-powered Regulus cruise missile launching submarine converted for special operations missions, was dispatched to the area where the K-129 was thought to lie. Halibut could not dive anywhere near as deep as the ocean floor, but was equipped with a remote-controlled, wire-tethered “fish”, which could be lowered near the bottom and then directed around the search area, observing with side-looking sonar and taking pictures. After seven weeks searching in vain, with fresh food long exhausted and crew patience wearing thin, the search was abandoned and course set back to Pearl Harbor.

But the prize was too great to pass up. So Halibut set out again, and after another month of operating the fish, developing thousands of pictures, and fraying tempers, there it was! Broken into two parts, but with both apparently largely intact, lying on the ocean bottom. Now what?

While there were deep sea research vessels able to descend to such depths, they were completely inadequate to exploit the intelligence haul that K-129 promised. That would require going inside the structure, dismantling the missiles and warheads, examining and testing the materials, and searching for communications and cryptographic gear. The only way to do this was to raise the submarine. To say that this was a challenge is to understate its difficulty—adjectives fail. The greatest mass which had ever been raised from such a depth was around 50 tonnes and K-129 had a mass of 1,500 tonnes—thirty times greater. But hey, why not? We're Americans! We've landed on the Moon! (By then it was November, 1969, four months after that “one small step”.) And so, Project Azorian was born.

When it comes to doing industrial-scale things in the deep ocean, all roads (or sea lanes) lead to Global Marine. A publicly-traded company little known to those outside the offshore oil exploration industry, this company and its genius naval architect John Graham had pioneered deep-sea oil drilling. While most offshore oil rigs, like those on terra firma, were firmly anchored to the land around the drill hole, Global Marine had pioneered the technology which allowed a ship, with a derrick mounted amidships, to precisely station-keep above the bore-hole on the ocean floor far beneath the ship. The required dropping sonar markers on the ocean floor which the ship used to precisely maintain its position with respect to them. This was just one part of the puzzle.

To recover the submarine, the ship would need to lower what amounted to a giant claw (“That's claw, not craw!”, you “Get Smart” fans) to the abyssal plain, grab the sub, and lift its 1500 tonne mass to the surface. During the lift, the pipe string which connected the ship to the claw would be under such stress that, should it break, it would release energy comparable to an eight kiloton nuclear explosion, which would be bad.

This would have been absurdly ambitious if conducted in the open, like the Apollo Project, but in this case it also had to be done covertly, since the slightest hint that the U.S. was attempting to raise K-129 would almost certainly provoke a Soviet response ranging from diplomatic protests to a naval patrol around the site of the sinking aimed at harassing the recovery ships. The project needed a cover story and a cut-out to hide the funding to Global Marine which, as a public company, had to disclose its financials quarterly and, unlike minions of the federal government funded by taxes collected from hairdressers and cab drivers through implicit threat of violence, could not hide its activities in a “black budget”.

This was seriously weird and, as a contemporary philosopher said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” At the time, nobody was more professionally weird than Howard Hughes. He had taken reclusion to a new level, utterly withdrawing from contact with the public after revulsion from dealing with the Washington swamp and the media. His company still received royalties from every oil well drilled using his drill bits, and his aerospace and technology companies were plugged into the most secret ventures of the U.S. government. Simply saying, “It's a Hughes project” was sufficient to squelch most questions. This meant it had unlimited funds, the sanction of the U.S. government (including three-letter agencies whose names must not be spoken [brrrr!]), and told pesky journalists they'd encounter a stone wall from the centre of the Earth to the edge of the universe if they tried to dig into details.

But covert as the project might be, aspects of its construction and operation would unavoidably be in the public eye. You can't build a 189 metre long, 51,000 tonne ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, with an 80 metre tall derrick sticking up amidships, at a shipyard on the east coast of the U.S., send it around Cape Horn to its base on the west coast (the ship was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal), without people noticing. A cover story was needed, and the CIA and their contractors cooked up a doozy.

Large areas of the deep sea floor are covered by manganese nodules, concretions which form around a seed and grow extremely slowly, but eventually reach the size of potatoes or larger. Nodules are composed of around 30% manganese, plus other valuable metals such as nickel, copper, and cobalt. There are estimated to be more than 21 billion tonnes of manganese nodules on the deep ocean floor (depths of 4000 to 6000 metres), and their composition is richer than many of the ores from which the metals they contain are usually extracted. Further, they're just lying on the seabed. If you could figure out how to go down there and scoop them up, you wouldn't have to dig mines and process huge amounts of rock. Finally, they were in international waters, and despite attempts by kleptocratic dictators (some in landlocked countries) and the international institutions who support them to enact a “Law of the Sea” treaty to pick the pockets of those who created the means to use this resource, at the time the nodules were just there for the taking—you didn't have to pay kleptocratic dictators for mining rights or have your profits skimmed by ever-so-enlightened democratic politicians in developed countries.

So, the story was put out that Howard Hughes was setting out to mine the nodules on the Pacific Ocean floor, and that Glomar Explorer, built by Global Marine under contract for Hughes (operating, of course, as a cut-out for the CIA), would deploy a robotic mining barge called the Hughes Mining Barge 1 (HMB-1) which, lowered to the ocean floor, would collect nodules, crush them, and send the slurry to the surface for processing on the mother ship.

This solved a great number of potential problems. Global Marine, as a public company, could simply (and truthfully) report that it was building Glomar Explorer under contract to Hughes, and had no participation in the speculative and risky mining venture, which would have invited scrutiny by Wall Street analysts and investors. Hughes, operating as a proprietorship, was not required to disclose the source of the funds it was paying Global Marine. Everybody assumed the money was coming from Howard Hughes' personal fortune, which he had invested, over his career, in numerous risky ventures, when in fact, he was simply passing through money from a CIA black budget account. The HMB-1 was built by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company under contract from Hughes. Lockheed was involved in numerous classified U.S. government programs, so operating in the same manner for the famously secretive Hughes raised few eyebrows.

The barge, 99 metres in length, was built in a giant enclosed hangar in the port of Redwood City, California, which shielded it from the eyes of curious onlookers and Soviet reconnaissance satellites passing overhead. This was essential, because a glance at what was being built would have revealed that it looked nothing like a mining barge but rather a giant craw—sorry—claw! To install the claw on the ship, it was towed, enclosed in its covered barge, to a location near Catalina Island in southern California, where deeper water allowed it to be sunk beneath the surface, and then lifted into the well (“moon pool”) of Glomar Explorer, all out of sight to onlookers.

So far, the project had located the target on the ocean floor, designed and built a special ship and retrieval claw to seize it, fabricated a cover story of a mining venture so persuasive other mining companies were beginning to explore launching their own seabed mining projects, and evaded scrutiny by the press, Congress, and Soviet intelligence assets. But these are pussycats compared to the California Tax Nazis! After the first test of mating the claw to the ship, Glomar Explorer took to the ocean to, it was said, test the stabilisation system which would keep the derrick vertical as the ship pitched and rolled in the sea. Actually, the purpose of the voyage was to get the ship out of U.S. territorial waters on March 1st, the day California assessed a special inventory tax on all commercial vessels in state waters. This would not only cost a lot of money, it would force disclosure of the value of the ship, which could be difficult to reconcile with its cover mission. Similar fast footwork was required when Hughes took official ownership of the vessel from Global Marine after acceptance. A trip outside U.S. territorial waters was also required to get off the hook for the 7% sales tax California would otherwise charge on the transfer of ownership.

Finally, in June 1974, all was ready, and Glomar Explorer with HMB-1 attached set sail from Long Beach, California to the site of K-129's wreck, arriving on site on the Fourth of July, only to encounter foul weather. Opening the sea doors in the well in the centre of the ship and undocking the claw required calm seas, and it wasn't until July 18th that they were ready to begin the main mission. Just at that moment, what should show up but a Soviet missile tracking ship. After sending its helicopter to inspect Explorer, it eventually departed. This wasn't the last of the troubles with pesky Soviets.

On July 21, the recovery operation began, slowly lowering the claw on its string of pipes. Just at this moment, another Soviet ship arrived, a 47 metre ocean-going tug called SB-10. This tug would continue to harass the recovery operation for days, approaching on an apparent collision course and then veering off. (Glomar Explorer could not move during the retrieval operation, being required to use its thrusters to maintain its position directly above the wrecked submarine on the bottom.)

On August 3, the claw reached the bottom and its television cameras revealed it was precisely on target—there was the submarine, just as it had been photographed by the Halibut six years earlier. The claw gripped the larger part of the wreck, its tines closed under it, and a combination of pistons driving against the ocean bottom and the lift system pulling on the pipe from the ship freed the submarine from the bottom. Now the long lift could begin.

Everything had worked. The claw had been lowered, found its target on the first try, successfully seized it despite the ocean bottom's being much harder than expected, freed it from the bottom, and the ship had then successfully begun to lift the 6.4 million kg of pipe, claw, and submarine back toward the surface. Within the first day of the lift, more than a third of the way to the surface, with the load on the heavy lift equipment diminishing by 15 tonnes as each segment of lift pipe was removed from the string, a shudder went through the ship and the heavy lift equipment lurched violently. Something had gone wrong, seriously wrong. Examination of television images from the claw revealed that several of the tines gripping the hull of the submarine had failed and part of the sub, maybe more than half, had broken off and fallen back toward the abyss. (It was later decided that the cause of the failure was that the tines had been fabricated from maraging steel, which is very strong but brittle, rather than a more ductile alloy which would bend under stress but not break.)

After consultation with CIA headquarters, it was decided to continue the lift and recover whatever was left in the claw. (With some of the tines broken and the mechanism used to break the load free of the ocean floor left on the bottom, it would have been impossible to return and recover the lost part of the sub on this mission.) On August 6th, the claw and its precious payload reached the ship and entered the moon pool in its centre. Coincidentally, the Soviet tug departed the scene the same day. Now it was possible to assess what had been recovered, and the news was not good: two thirds of the sub had been lost, including the ballistic missile tubes and the code room. Only the front third was in the claw. Further, radiation five times greater than background was detected even outside the hull—those exploring it would have to proceed carefully.

An “exploitation team” composed of CIA specialists and volunteers from the ship's crew began to explore the wreckage, photographing and documenting every part recovered. They found the bodies of six Soviet sailors and assorted human remains which could not be identified; all went to the ship's morgue. Given that the bow portion of the submarine had been recovered, it is likely that one or more of its torpedoes equipped with nuclear warheads were recovered, but to this day the details of what was found in the wreck remain secret. By early September, the exploitation was complete and the bulk of the recovered hull, less what had been removed and sent for analysis, was dumped in the deep ocean 160 km south of Hawaii.

One somber task remained. On September 4, 1974, the remains of the six recovered crewmen and the unidentified human remains were buried at sea in accordance with Soviet Navy tradition. A video tape of this ceremony was made and, in 1992, a copy was presented to Russian President Boris Yeltsin by then CIA director Robert Gates.

The partial success encouraged some in the CIA to mount a follow-up mission to recover the rest of the sub, including the missiles and code room. After all, they knew precisely where it was, had a ship in hand, fully paid for, which had successfully lowered the claw to the bottom and returned to the surface with part of the sub, and they knew what had gone wrong with the claw and how to fix it. The effort was even given a name, Project Matador. But it was not to be.

Over the five years of the project there had been leaks to the press and reporters sniffing on the trail of the story but the CIA had been able to avert disclosure by contacting the reporters directly, explaining the importance of the mission and need for secrecy, and offering them an exclusive of full disclosure and permission to publish it before the project was officially declassified for the general public. This had kept a lid on the secret throughout the entire development process and the retrieval and analysis, but this all came to an end in March 1975 when Jack Anderson got wind of the story. There was no love lost between Anderson and what we now call the Deep State. Anderson believed the First Amendment was divinely inspired and absolute, while J. Edgar Hoover had called Anderson “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures”. Further, this was a quintessential Jack Anderson story—based upon his sources, he presented Project Azorian as a US$ 350 million failure which had produced no useful intelligence information and was being kept secret only to cover up the squandering of taxpayers' money.

CIA Director William Colby offered Anderson the same deal other journalists had accepted, but was flatly turned down. Five minutes before Anderson went on the radio to break the story, Colby was still pleading with him to remain silent. On March 18, 1975, Anderson broke the story on his Mutual Radio Network show and, the next day, published additional details in his nationally syndicated newspaper column. Realising the cover had been blown, Colby called all of the reporters who had agreed to hold the story to give them the green light to publish. Seymour Hersh of the New York Times had his story ready to go, and it ran on the front page of the next day's paper, providing far more detail (albeit along with a few errors) than Anderson's disclosure. Hersh revealed that he had been aware of the project since 1973 but had agreed to withhold publication in the interest of national security.

The story led newspaper and broadcast news around the country and effectively drove a stake through any plans to mount a follow-up retrieval mission. On June 16, 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a formal recommendation to president Gerald Ford to terminate the project and that was the end of it. The Soviets had communicated through a back channel that they had no intention of permitting a second retrieval attempt and they had maintained an ocean-going tug on site to monitor any activity since shortly after the story broke in the U.S.

The CIA's official reaction to all the publicity was what has come to be called the “Glomar Response”: “We can neither confirm nor can we deny.” And that is where things stand more that four decades after the retrieval attempt. Although many of those involved in the project have spoken informally about aspects of it, there has never been an official report on precisely what was recovered or what was learned from it. Some CIA veterans have said, off the record, that much more was learned from the recovered material than has been suggested in press reports, with a few arguing that the entire large portion of the sub was recovered and the story about losing much of it was a cover story. (But if this was the case, the whole plan to mount a second retrieval mission and the substantial expense repairing and upgrading the claw for the attempt, which is well documented, would also have to have been a costly cover story.)

What is certain is that Project Azorian was one of the most daring intelligence exploits in history, carried out in total secrecy under the eyes of the Soviets, and kept secret from an inquiring press for five years by a cover story so persuasive other mining companies bought it hook, line, and sinker. We may never know all the details of the project, but from what we do know it is a real-world thriller which equals or exceeds those imagined by masters of the fictional genre.

Posted at 14:08 Permalink