Books that I meant to do reviews of

but …

Maybe someday — recommend them anyway:

1.  Pat Lang’s Devereux novels, The Butcher’s Cleaver, followed by Death Piled Hard. Confederate secret agents in DC and Richmond.  Pat is a career intel pro — ran DoD’s human intelligence operations for a while — and he also turned out to be a great story teller.

2.  The Rules of Victory, by James Gimian and Barry Boyce.  An in-depth look at the foundations of the strategic thread that led to Boyd.  Essential reading if you want to understand where Boyd is going.  This is deep stuff, and I recommend it only to people who have a strong working knowledge of the Sun Tzu text and have at least skimmed the Demna translation, upon which this book is based.

3.  The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad.  The grandfather of spy novels and still one of the best.  Like Colombian coffee — rich, satisfying, and meant to be savored.

4.  Counterclockwise, by Ellen Langer. Professor Langer, of the Psychology Dept. at Harvard, describes research she and her colleagues have done on what she calls “mindfulness” and what Boyd called “orientation.”

Consequences and costs

From an article on CNN.com today:

The Mexican cartels, the report says, are “the single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States.” The Mexican organizations have operations in every region of the United States and are expanding into more rural and suburban areas. … They’ve also stepped up cooperation with U.S. street and prison gangs for distribution.

According to Michael T. Walther, director of the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center, which produced the report. “The economic cost alone is estimated at nearly $215 billion annually.”

Note that this compares with the annual direct costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So while we’re off in those places, guess what’s happening in our own back yard.

More than 2,500 people were killed in drug-related violence in Ciudad Juarez (across the Rio Grande River from El Paso) last year. That’s in one city, right across our border, and only the murders we know about.

With this amount of money at stake, and with the level of violence that the Mexican drug cartels routinely employ, we might rephrase the National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 report’s conclusion as:

The Mexican cartels, the report says, are “the single greatest threat to the United States.”

We have to choose where to use our limited resources, and our survival as a free and democratic country rests upon our choosing wisely.

Apple Gripe Update

By fishing around on the Apple Support site, I finally found an article that addressed my problem. It turns out that I needed to delete the SC folder and restart the computer. Wonder why I didn’t think of that? By the way, this isn’t just a Mac thing — the article has instructions for how to do it in Vista.

It worked like a charm, which is good. But somehow the whole process reminds me of what we all had to go through with Microsoft circa 1995.

For want of a nail …

According to a story on BBC.com, the radar observatory at Arecibo may have to cancel its mission to observe the asteroid Apophis.

Times are tough, I hear you say. And indeed they are.

But there’s significance here, over and above interesting data on a 300 meter wide rock, with a mass of 27 million tons, hurtling through space. The first is that Apophis stands a small chance of striking the earth. How small? Well, that’s what the mission is, or perhaps “was,” supposed to determine. And Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, is the only telescope that can make that determination.

What if Apophis does hit the earth? It’s only 300 m wide, after all. We can already calculate that it will come within 18,300 miles of us in 2036, but an uncertainty of only a few hundred meters could, given the complexities of gravitational mechanics, solar winds, and unknown objects in space, mean the difference between hitting or missing. That’s what Arecibo could determine when the asteroid makes a flyby in January 2013.

What if it hit? The object that caused the Tunguska event in 1908 has been estimated at a few tens of meters across. The resulting blast over Siberia was roughly equivalent to a decent sized nuke (10-15 megatons). An asteroid like Apophis would likely produce a much larger effect. It would obliterate any city it landed near and could cause tsunamis if it struck in the ocean.

Low probability stuff, no doubt, but possible. What would it cost to have Arecibo find out? Brace yourself: $2-3 million. That’s “million” with an “m,” roughly what we spend in 20 minutes in Iraq alone. Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation doesn’t have the money for the mission. In fact, it’s cutting Arecibo’s overall budget by about 25%, which leaves just enough to keep the observatory running.

Point is that actions have consequences, and this small incident shows how we are beginning to feel the consequences of spending $3-5 trillion (Bilmes-Stiglitz estimate) on eradicating non-existent WMDs in Iraq and hounding rag-tag Taliban light infantry in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. May be worth doing, but as the late Milton Friedman loved to point out, there’s no free lunch. Actions have consequences, and costs.