JSCoRE: Trust Us

The release of a heavily redacted table of contents from the secret cybersecurity research journal JSCoRE highlights the audacity of a hermetically sealed intelligence community that feels free to call this homegrown publication “widely-recognized, high-quality” because, well, trust us. That it is similarly deemed to be “peer-reviewed” adds another layer of chutzpah to the illusion of academic respectability. A secret journal is a kaffeeklatsch, not a scientific exercise. Like a tinpot dictator pinning medals on his own chest because, well, he can, the editors of JSCoRE need only fear the rolling of eyeballs beyond their secure puzzle palace.

Won and Lost at SAIS

Anyone in academic circles expressing dismay over the apparent demise of the “U.S-Korea Institute” at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington now that the government of South Korea has cancelled its funding might pause to ask why Seoul was paying for USKI lock, stock, and barrel in the first place. Hopkins is not known for turning away big donors with shady financials, though nailing down whether it is more or less tainted in this regard than any other major American university would be a lengthy homework assignment. But the obvious conflict of interest at USKI was right up there with drug industry money behind drug research at the School of Medicine (a few IRB’s get involved in East Baltimore, at least).  No doubt Seoul will find some new professors happy to accept 20 billion won for their totally unbiased scholarship.

Google No! APL Si!

If Google were to take the (highly unlikely) step of nixing participation in Project Maven, employees gung-ho about military tech can always jump to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which has never seen a Pentagon dollar it wouldn’t glom (most of its budget is secret, so I’m compelled to make this reasonable assumption). With new machine learning algorithms, warfare intelligence analysts currently mired in a glut of data from drones “should be able just to sit there” and enjoy hot target alerts in real time instead of wading through endless boring video feeds, according to APL senior research scientist Pedro Rodriguez.  Whether this is fulfilling enough to move young eager-beaver engineers from the Bay Area to Baltimore is, of course, problematic.

Springtime for Novichok

Like “yellow rain” and aerosolized anthrax, we now have another wide-open accusation of Soviet–well, okay, Russian–CBW capers that will be denied and disparaged by Moscow while Western governments sit tight on whatever evidence they claim to possess. Thank goodness that Matthew Meselson at least put an end to the bee poop scare long ago. A dog-eared script awaits new personalities to reprise classic Cold War roles for dissident scientists, double agents, defectors, miscellaneous spooks, and mysterious casualties. It is safe to assume that only the public will be left in the dark, which is where these dramas always play best.

Missile Defense: No News is Bad News

The Pentagon has decided to pull its blackout curtain over news about Ballistic Missile Defense flight tests, claiming a need to “safeguard critical defense information.”  That this need has never existed before for such trials raises the timeworn question of whether what’s so terribly critical is the information or the risk of embarrassment. The latest GAO report on missile defense sums up the situation perfectly: “The lack of traceability of MDA’s [Missile Defense Agency] integrated test schedule makes it difficult not only to determine what is happening with a test, but also with its testing progress as a whole, including what and when requirements were originally planned to be met and which ones have been met, when they were met, and with what test.” Might as well classify the entire mess, indeed.






Project Pluto/Putin (Project Plutin?)

News that Russia is developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile will send aerospace buffs to the history stacks to peruse Project Pluto, a wacky 1950’s U.S. Air Force project that epitomized Cold War technology mania.  About $2 billion in today’s dollars swirled down the loo before it was cancelled in 1964. No doubt such contraptions would be a bit smaller now than the locomotive-sized behemoth of golden olden days, but the drawbacks then–such as the prospect of a radiation mother lode loitering in the skies–will still raise eyebrows, if not hackles. Will this be enough to bring back JLENS? Stay tuned.

Home Sweet Debris Basin

Daytime temperatures returned to the normal mid-60’s this weekend in Los Angeles, but for the past couple of weeks they rose to the paradisiacal 80’s in clear skies and sweet morning air that answered the old question of why anyone would want to live here in a semidesert on the grinding edges of two tectonic plates. It’s a megalopolitan Garden of Eden at times like this, but like Adam and Eve you need to maintain a state of happy obliviousness to enjoy it. That’s the business of chambers of commerce and real estate agencies, which thrive on short memories and buyers who don’t read. When a visitor from the frozen East Coast gazes up along the golden San Gabriel front at all those showplace homes, envious awe slowly gives way to amorphous anxiety, especially after a month of headlines about wildfires and landslides.  They’ve got to be kidding themselves up there.

And yes, they are. Several hundred yards above a friend’s house in gentrified Tujunga is a modest dam called the Haines Debris Basin.  Its job is not to conserve water, but to absorb the avalanche of mud and boulders that debouches out of the canyon whenever it rains hard, which is not often, but inevitable. (Forty years ago today, Haines Canyon recorded a deluge of 1.4 inches in 30 minutes during a monstrous storm that, among other gruesome catastrophes, washed at least 30 corpses out of Verduga Hills cemetery near Tujunga.) Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent during the 20th century on more than 150 such catchments across Los Angeles County. They may sit empty for decades, but every once in a while they fill up with liquified mountain, which maybe overflows across your neighborhood, fortified by cars and carcasses. In 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers paid a local contractor $3,263,814 just for clearing the muck out of Haines to make room for the next onslaught–a tiny portion of the perpetual taxpayer subsidy behind the LA lifestyle. These basins caught John McPhee’s imagination in a 1988 New Yorker article , which you may safely assume is not widely perused around here today. Where people construct multi-million-dollar homes on the uphill side of an avenue locally admired for its wideness and easy parking, the fact that it was designed as a fire break is not dwelt upon. Likewise for that little lake at the bottom of a scenic canyon. Near Haines is another debris basin that appears on Apple Maps as “Blanchard Canyon Pond,” which must please the real estate agents who list houses inside the precipitous ravine above it as “artistic space” in a “tranquil setting.” Blanchard Canyon was ravaged by a debris inundation on New Year’s Eve, 1933, during a deadly flood memorialized by Woody Guthrie.

In another world, there might be a trusted government that prevents people from hurting themselves in such a hazardous locale, like a lifeguard at the beach. But this is an American paradise, this is freedom, and neither hell nor high water will change it.

Robert Parry, 1949-2018: American Journalist

Required reading on State-of-the-Union day.

“History is kind of, you know, it’s quirky sometimes.”


Strategic Thoughts, pre-owned

In days of yore, when The Bomb was new and the Russkies were everywhere everyday, the halls of academe and government teemed with suits who made prosperous livings by theorizing about how Washington’s nukes and Moscow’s nukes matched up against each other. From the paskudnyak Herman Kahn’s homebuilt Hudson Institute to the endowed chairs of Ivy League colleges of arts and sciences, from the Pentagon’s E-ring to the Russell Senate Office Building, prodigious brainpower churned day and night for decades on the minutiae of throw-weights, yields, circular error probabilities, survivabilities, and so much more. And then it stopped. The Soviet Union dismantled itself. All those careers glided to a halt. For those few brains that endured past retirement age (like William J. Perry, say), how to get rid of the doomsday weapons became more fascinating than how to build new ones, especially if they needed a good heart to get to heaven.  But that was long ago–the defense budget never stopped growing, the military academies and armed services committees and aerospace companies never stopped needing each other, and now they have a President who quips about his big button. So the theorizing has started again, only this time it’s not as sharp as it used to be.  It’s a little thick, actually, like so much else since January 2017: eg., let’s put mini-nukes (sic) on $5 billion strategic submarines, never mind that the boats would be torpedoed to Davey Jones as soon as one junior SLBM was launched. The new generation of suits took up a profession, after all, that had become threadbare 20 years ago. The hawkish Republican committees of Congress hired second-rate Ph.D’s, the only kind who still thought this work was glorious.  But now they have their little hands on the big levers, especially the Treasury sluice, and we’ll all have to start dreaming about Armageddon again.

War Stories

Bill Broad and David Sanger seem to have nothing else to do in the twilight of their New York Times careers than beat the North Korea anxiety drum. In the tradition of Drew Middleton, who never met a general whose bugle he wouldn’t blow on page one, they continue to pen the creative nonfiction prologue of war with Kim Jong-un. Today’s installment, citing military and intelligence sources who do not rise to prominence in their profession by thinking thrice, fleshes out a narrative of high-level American nonchalance that let canny Kim join the nuclear club. If only all those national security careerists had been as motivated as Broad and Sanger, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Even dear old Dick Garwin, 89, the last of the H-bomb fathers, gets hauled out for a pipesmoke comment about “enormous advances” in computer modeling. And cars run better than they used to, too, readers. The one sure thing that will come from this ongoing Clancy-esque oeuvre is more money from Congress for the spooks and brass, who would be cashiered tomorrow morning if they dared feed any other message besides urgency to the Daily Planet.