The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The sack of Kurdistan

Could President Trump be not only a very stable genius, but a strategic one as well, for pulling American troops out of Syria ? I mean, given the obvious consequences of our pull-out (i.e., Russia and Turkey carving up Kurdistan), the alternative explanation is that the Situation Room this week looked a lot like Sir Bedevere explaining to King Arthur how the wooden rabbit trick would work.

Maybe his 71-minute oration at his cabinet meeting yesterday could give us more information about his state of mind and battlefield thinking:

“We have a good relationship with the Kurds. But we never agreed to, you know, protect the Kurds. We fought with them for 3½ to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”

Trump misleadingly frames the agreement as the “rest of their lives.” But the United States had certainly made a deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which lost 11,000 soldiers in defeating the Islamic State, after being trained and equipped by the United States. (Turkey considers elements of this force to be a terrorist threat.) To prevent a Turkish invasion, the United States persuaded the SDF to pull back up to nine miles from the Turkish border. In August, the SDF destroyed its own military posts after assurances the United States would not let thousands of Turkish troops invade. But then Trump tossed that aside.

“I don’t think you people, with this phony emoluments clause — and by the way, I would say that it’s cost me anywhere from $2 billion to $5 billion to be president — and that’s okay — between what I lose and what I could have made.”

The emoluments clause is not phony; it’s right in the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 8): “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Trump’s net worth is valued at $3 billion, so it’s difficult to see how being president could cost him even more than his net worth. Bloomberg News recently estimated that his net worth grew 5 percent in 2018, following two years of declines, bringing it back to the level calculated in 2016. Forbes calculated that as of September, his net worth is $3.1 billion.

So, my conclusion, based on this tiny bit of evidence (and the years of evidence that came before) is that the president is a narcissistic idiot. Why are we still talking about impeachment when the 25th Amendment makes more sense? Oh, right. The Republican Party.

Pausing from parsing

My task this afternoon is to parse a pile of random text that has, shall we say, inconsistencies. Before I return to that task, I'm setting aside some stuff to read later on:

And finally, Crain's reviews five relatively-new steakhouses in Chicago. Since we probably won't eat steak past about 2030, these may be worth checking out sooner rather than later.

It's the future! Our flying cars are nigh!

French inventor Franky Zapata piloted a jet-powered hoverboard across the English Channel yesterday, covering 32 km in 22 minutes, including a refueling stop on a boat:

Mr. Zapata’s first attempt to cross the English Channel had been intended to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the first flight between continental Europe and Britain, made by the French pilot Louis Blériot.

“What I have done is a lot smaller, but I followed my dream, and that’s huge,” Mr. Zapata told the BFM TV channel.

His device, a gas turbine-powered contraption fueled by five small jets, can theoretically fly up to 175 km/h at an altitude of 15 m to 20 m for about 10 minutes.

Last year, the French Defense Ministry pledged nearly $1.5 million to his company, Zapata Industries, to develop the device, which was featured at a military-sponsored convention.

Oh, right. So I don't get a flying car, but the French Army gets a bunch of them...

Still, this is a very cool achievement. And civilians will get jet-powered hoverboards someday.

Specializing vs Generalizing

The US Navy's latest ship class, the triple-hulled Littoral Combat vessels, have small crews chosen for their adaptability. This has given the Navy insight into how people learn:

The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone. Ten years from now, the Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects, 70 to 90 percent of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or superjobs—that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles. Visit SkyWest Airlines’ careers site, and you’ll see that the company is looking for “cross utilized agents” capable of ticketing, marshaling and servicing aircraft, and handling luggage. At the online shoe company Zappos, which famously did away with job titles a few years back, employees are encouraged to take on multiple roles by joining “circles” that tackle different responsibilities. If you ask Laszlo Bock, Google’s former culture chief and now the head of the HR start-up Humu, what he looks for in a new hire, he’ll tell you “mental agility.” “What companies are looking for,” says Mary Jo King, the president of the National Résumé Writers’ Association, “is someone who can be all, do all, and pivot on a dime to solve any problem.”

The Navy knew early on that not just anyone could handle this kind of multitasking. By the early 2000s, the Office of Naval Research was commissioning studies on how to select and prepare a crew for the new ships. One of the academics brought in was Zachary Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. Instead of trying to understand how well naval candidates might master fixed skills, Hambrick began to examine how they performed in what are known as fluid-task environments. “We wanted to identify characteristics of people who could flexibly shift,” he told me. To that end, in 2010 he administered a test to sailors at Naval Station Great Lakes—and when I traveled to Michigan State to find out more about his work, he invited me to give it a try.

It turns out, experience and openness to new experience have good and bad points. Distractability correlates positively with noticing important new information and negatively with showing up to work on time, for example. Spending 10,000 hours hitting a baseball makes sense if you want to make it in the MLB. Spending 10,000 hours studying sorting algorithms does not (at least to a professional software developer).

About that Russian ship playing chicken

On Friday (Thursday evening in the US) the Russian destroyer Vinogradov maneuvered to within 30 meters of the USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea:

According to Cmdr. Clay Doss of the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Chancellorsville was recovering its helicopter while maintaining a steady course when the Russian ship came from behind and “accelerated and closed to an unsafe distance” of about 50 to 100 feet.

“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said in a statement. “We consider Russia’s actions during this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional.”

The Russian statement, however, said the U.S. cruiser “suddenly changed directions and came within 50 meters [164 feet] of the Russian destroyer.” Russia, which stated that the incident took place in the East China Sea, said its ship was forced to perform an emergency maneuver and warned the American ship of inadmissible actions.

According to a senior US Navy Surface Warfare Officer with whom I spoke, the Chancellorsville was "flying limited maneuvering and Hotel," meaning they had flags on their mast signaling to other ships in the area that they were unable to maneuver freely because they were recovering a helicopter. The Russian crew had no doubt that the American ship would continue in a straight line at low speed no matter what the Russians did. (The officer declined to be identified because the Navy did not authorize our conversation.)

When I asked about the forbearance of the Chancellor's skipper, the officer replied, "I know what I would have done," adding that the rules of engagement allow any military asset to take defensive action, including using lethal force, without waiting for orders if there is an immediate threat.

"Back in the Cold War, the Soviet navy behaved very professionally, since no one wanted to destroy the world because a 19-year-old kid turned the boat the wrong direction by mistake," the officer continued. "We all kept in our lanes. But in the last few years, they've gotten reckless."

The conclusion: the Russian captain, obviously acting under orders from much higher up, deliberately provoked the US warship in a "saber-rattling" maneuver.

Fun times. I think I liked the Soviet navy better than this new Russian one.

This might be what someone used to attack us in Cuba

In late 2016, someone apparently attacked American diplomats in Cuba and China with a device that caused people to hear loud sounds and experience concussion-like brain damage. Now, doctors working with the attack victims may have figured out what it was:

The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.

“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion.

Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety.

In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.

Military strategists have talked about various nonlethal weapons for a long time. I don't remember reading about microwave weapons until now, since sound on its own seemed to be a pretty good way of disabling troops. But this is interesting, and disturbing.

The next war

Via Bruce Schneier, retired USMC Colonel Mark Canclan has authored a report outlining what threats we're likely to face in the next few years, and how to cope with them. He includes some chilling strategic possibilities:

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet' s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls' cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency's initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine's account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron's Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other's throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The report is fascinating, and the vignettes that Canclan describes should be keeping US military and defense personnel up at night.

Let the duping begin!

Now that Kim Jong Un has gotten everything he always wanted from the United States for free, thanks to the truly amazing negotiating skills of President Trump, it turns out—wait for it—he lied the whole time:

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months — and that Kim Jong Un may try to hide those facilities as he seeks more concessions in nuclear talks with the Trump administration, U.S. officials told NBC News.

The intelligence assessment, which has not previously been reported, seems to counter the sentiments expressed by President Donald Trump, who tweeted after his historic June 12 summit with Kim that "there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

Analysts at the CIA and other intelligence agencies don't see it that way, according to more than a dozen American officials who are familiar with their assessments and spoke on the condition of anonymity. They see a regime positioning itself to extract every concession it can from the Trump administration — while clinging to nuclear weapons it believes are essential to survival.

I wonder if Trump believes, as a lot of the people he duped, screwed over, or stole from over the years must have believed, that he was too smart a guy to get taken in by a con. Well, as it turns out...

Who is Reality Winner?

Kerry Howley, writing for New York Magazine, profiles the "terrorist [with] a Pikachu bedspread:"

In those first months on the job, the country was still adjusting to Trump, and it seemed possible to some people that he would be quickly impeached. Reality listened to a podcast called Intercepted, hosted by the left-wing anti-security-state website the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and featuring its public face, Glenn Greenwald, and listened intensely enough to email the Intercept and ask for a transcript of an episode. Scahill and Greenwald had been, and continue to be, cautious about accusations of Russian election meddling, which they foresee being used as a pretext for justifying U.S. militarism. “There is a tremendous amount of hysterics, a lot of theories, a lot of premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff,” Scahill said on the podcast in March. “And there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back it up. There may be evidence, but it’s not here yet.”

There was evidence available to Reality.

The document was marked top secret, which is supposed to mean that its disclosure could “reasonably be expected” to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the U.S. Sometimes, this is true. Reality would have known that, in releasing the document, she ran the risk of alerting the Russians to what the intelligence community knew, but it seemed to her that this specific account ought to be a matter of public discourse. Why isn’t this getting out there? she thought. Why can’t this be public? It was surprising to her that someone hadn’t already done it.

The classified report on the Russian cyberattack was not a document for which Reality had a “need to know,” which is to say she wasn’t supposed to be reading it in her spare time, let alone printing it, and were she to print it for some reason, she was required to place it in a white slatted box called a “burn bag.”

Why do I have this job, Reality thought, if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless?

Reality folded up the document, stuffed it in her pantyhose, and walked out of the building, its sharp corners pressing into her skin. Later that day, President Trump fired James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into Russian election-meddling. Reality placed the document in an envelope without a return address and dropped it in a standing mailbox in a strip-mall parking lot. Court documents suggest she also sent a copy to another outlet, though which one we don’t know.

For a bad decision she made at 25, she may spend most of her productive years in prison. And in the current climate of secrecy and surveillance, it's hard to see how she can even defend herself against the charges.

Her trial is set for March.

My project in the news

The Washington Post is reporting tonight something that I've known for several weeks. My current project's customer, USMEPCOM, recently promulgated a directive to begin accepting transgender applicants into the U.S. armed forces:

The military distributed its guidance throughout the force Dec. 8. Lawyers challenging President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service, which he announced on Twitter in July, have since included the document in their lawsuits. The memorandum states the Pentagon will comply with federal court orders, now under appeal, that direct the military to begin accepting transgender recruits Jan. 1.

The policy paper was issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in Chicago, “and shall remain in effect until expressly revoked,” the memorandum said. It states that allowing transgender military service is “mandatory” and repeats a previous directive from Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said all people will be “treated with dignity and respect.”

Military recruiting personnel are responsible for inputting into databases recruits’ personal information. They should do so while using a copy of a recruit’s birth certificate, court order or U.S. passport “reflecting preferred gender,” according to the Pentagon’s new guidance.

“For the purposes of military entrance processing, the applicant’s preferred gender will be used on all forms asking for the ‘sex’ of an applicant,” the guidance said.

So, it turns out, we're writing the database mentioned in the article. In fact, our Scrum board has this story: "As a user, I can enter the preferred gender of a applicant, so that I can enroll them into the military." And the USMEPCOM directive from December 8th is attached to the card.

Months of policy disputes between the President and the Federal courts, news articles, marches, protests, lawsuits, and committee meetings has produced...one database field.

This is our crazy country right now.

If you're curious, here's the policy memo. Don't worry, you can read it: it's unclassified.