Your Top Ten Favorite Articles

The top ten favorites appear below.  Most readers access the blog through the front page. This table lists only direct references, as when a friend sends you a link to an article:

1 Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 1 1.18 %
2 The Unfortunate Poisoning of Sergei Skripal 0.93 %
3 Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 1 0.56 %
4 How it all started…”Forecasting World Events” 0.55 %
5 The Russian SVP-24 Bombsight 0.45 %
6 Kim Jong Nam & Vladimir Kara-Murza; All About Poisons; Novichok 0.45 %
7 Address to Davos; Avoiding the New Dark Ages 0.45 %
8 The Senate Report, Torture, & Anatomy of Fear 0.44 %
9 Iran Protests 0.44 %
10 Russia: Psychoanalysis or Policy Analysis? 0.44

Novichok, Raman, and Why the Sea is Blue

If you want to know what goes on inside a nerve gas detection lab, read on.

(Guardian) Salisbury nerve agent attack: expert criticises lack of information. Quoting,

De Bretton-Gordon said he had reassured people who contacted him asking if he thought they were at risk. “…The CBRN regiment was disbanded in 2011 as part of a cost-cutting defence review. “I expect we need a new one as soon as possible,” he said.

He added that the UK was “blindsided” by the Salisbury attack. “…We thought we had considered everything but not this scenario. There are not many people around with current and deep experience of things like this…. Now we’re paying the price. If [Russian president Vladimir] Putin is responsible, he probably doesn’t think anything’s going to happen because we haven’t done anything about chemical weapon use in Syria and Iran.

I would quote the whole thing, but for “fair usage.” Read it. As for the lack of information, let’s take a virtual trip inside one of the labs who so assiduously worked to identify the poison as one of the Novichok agents. What follows is inevitably incorrect in detail, offered only because the actual capabilities are of necessity secret, and because nobody else has written it. It is a schematic view.

The most poisonous substances known are all organophosphates that contain fluorine. The organophosphates include many insecticides. The nerve poisons bind with acetylcholinesterase, putting it out of action, so that it cannot  break down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Without the “ase”, the “message” never stops sending. This has two effects:

  • It causes all the muscles in the body, both voluntary and involuntary, to spasm and then stop working completely.
  • The switched-on state of the neurons in the brain causes them to overload and die.

The remarkably small amounts of a nerve poison required to kill are because these molecules are designed for specificity. Upon entering the body, these poisons prefer to bind with acetylcholinesterase. To the agent molecule that does not hit this target, two other things happens to a nerve agent inside the body:

  • The molecule can be metabolized. Metabolism is the normal process by which nutrients, as well as bodily reserves, are recomposed to serve needs of the organism. Some substances that are not useful to the body, such as alcohol, are disposed of in this way. Since poison is not a food, metabolism doesn’t go all the way. With  Sarin, the metabolites are detectable in the blood. But Novichok is so potent, the metabolites are correspondingly less. On the other hand, it is less volatile.
  • The poison molecule can form an adduct.  The entire molecule of poison joins another molecule, probably something a little fatty — hence, a new compound.

Once inside the body, one of the above things happens. This means that the search for a pure sample relies on luck. With luck, some of the agent lands on a nonreactive surface, like a porcelain tile.  In the case of the brother of Kim Jong-un, a huge amount of VX landed on his face, ample for direct detection.

So we are really looking for footprints, not the assassin himself. Most of the Novichok doesn’t reach the synapses. Most of it clings desperately to the first approachable fatty thing. Among the infinity of choices, squalene comes to mind. It’s simple and ubiquitous.

If we have any sample of Novichok, it’s very small. We can’t taste or smell it. There isn’t enough for fractional distillation. But things have advanced a long way since the days of the beaker and alembic.  It has to do with why the sea is blue, Raman scattering, which also gives us a look at tiny bits of matter, much smaller than a grain of sand, perhaps microscopic.

This is why the Raman microscope exists. It illuminates the sample with a laser. All molecules vibrate like these Russian belly dancers, doing a Salsa Rumba (You didn’t know Russians can rumba? You should see their molecules!) If you’re in the audience, and tag a dancer with your laser pointer, she vibrates even more wildly. But she flings some of your light back at you (sequins?) The Raman effect shifts the color (wavelength) of the light just slightly, spreading the even green of your pointer into peaky green shades, the Stokes shift. A spectroscope attached to the microscope records all of this.

The dozens of peaky shades that come off the sample comprise the fingerprint of the molecule. Only Chiquita can do her rumba. If a move isn’t hers, it isn’t her. But we’re not looking for the Novichok, because it’s gone or hidden. We’re looking for adducts.

The number of possible adducts is staggering. If our microscope points at more than one at a time, the fingerprint is smeared. So we have to separate them. Two mainstream, commonplace methods are used, chromatography, and electrophoresis. Both amount to hop races for molecules, over an obstacle course that could be a viscous liquid, or a strip of paper. The speed of a molecule varies according to what it is. Talent is not required. So they separate out into bands, each one a pure adduct — or nearly so.

The workflow looks like this:

  • Field workers collect samples from the environment.
  • Processors  use many techniques, including   those described above, to purify the samples. Many steps are required.
  • Fingerprint makers deliberately combine known pure Novichok samples with various fatty substances, all pure, to make adducts. Each adduct has a Raman fingerprint, which goes into a database. Without this, there would be nothing to compare to.
  • The Raman specialists  examine the samples  with Raman microscopes, obtaining the fingerprints of the field specimens.
  • The data analysts compare the fingerprints of the field specimens with the fingerprints in the database.
  • Everybody works as fast as they can.

Even though we are comparing adducts, not the Novichok itself, the fingerprint is so specific, it takes very few comparisons to eliminate doubt.

Unlike older nerve agents, no simple chemical tests exist.  But even if a test strip existed that satisfies the NATO requirement, to detect wide area dispersal of tons of agent, it might fail when the agent is precisely delivered, as with an e-cigarette. And Novichok is not one agent. Developed in the age of designer drugs, it comprises over a hundred compounds. To effectively counter the Novichok family requires active machinery, a “lab-in-a-box”, not a test strip. It’s not impossible, but  expensive.

This  oversimplified article neglects the myriad techniques available to the modern laboratory.  I’ve tried to take at least a little of the mystery out of it. But we were terribly unprepared for this, even though the Novichok formulas were made public years ago.

It’s time to catch up.















The Unfortunate Poisoning of Sergei Skripal

It’s now being called a “suspected poisoning.” (Reuters) Russian ex-spy, daughter still critical after suspected poisoning in UK.

Sergei Skripal’s  wife and son predeceased him.  (Daily Mail) Cancer, car crash and liver failure: Mysterious deaths of wife and son of Russian ‘Spy with the Louis Vuitton Handbag’ This reminds of the ancient punishment of defeated kings, where the monarch is forced to witness the death of his dependents, before going to his fate.

But what motive could the Russians have had for this streak of primitive, cruel revenge? Though the U.S. has been victimized by quite a number of our own spies,  none have been executed. But I’ve always wondered whether the fatal fall of Edward Lee Howard was an extracurricular job. Or the KGB could have done it  as a matter of convenience. That his fall was an accident is remote.

One purpose of this blog is to develop reasoning skills. One of them is to recognize when a valid statistical sample with expected outcomes exists. To distinguish this from conspiracy synthesis is a skill of the first order. We look for:

  • Individuals with known involvement in espionage who have switched sides, or tried to.
  • Expected outcomes, provided by actuarial tables, with normal modifications for profession.
  • Outcomes markedly different from the tables.
  • Indeterminate cause of death in spite of thorough investigation.
  • Motive  of revenge, deterrence, or interdiction.

In the language of epidemiology, we would try to identify a cluster of events. A cluster is a set of coincidences, which can be used for statistical inference. But statistical inference goes out the window in the face of facts.

The deaths of  Kennedy assassination witnesses is such a cluster. But in this case, there is enough factual evidence to prohibit the conclusion  of widespread conspiracy.  But we don’t have to be conclusive. It is frustrating, but intellectually honest, not to force a solution. More topically, if Harvey Weinstein had alibis, such as, “I was somewhere else at the time”, for  each of the dozens of his sexual abuses. the cluster of accusations would imply no inference. But he does not.

In the case of Skripal, denials by the Russian state have no credibility, so the statistical inference remains valid. But when did statistical inference escape the legal protection of the accused? A suspect is innocent until proven guilty, right?

It actually escaped a long time ago, in the form of standards for civil code that are different from criminal code. Just as a reminder,

  • In a criminal case, the plaintiff is “the people”, argued by the state.
  • In a civil case, the plaintiff is a private party.
  • In a criminal case, the standard of guilt is “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
  • In a civil case, the standard is the weight of evidence.

O.J. Simpson beat a murder rap, but in a civil suit, was held liable for wrongful death. It was the same issue, killing somebody, with contradictory outcomes: innocent, but liable.

But now, in American society (and we’ll see how this relates to assassinations shortly) the standard of guilt has not just escaped  its cell, but vaulted clear over the prison walls. It is occasioned by the sudden acknowledgement of sexual abuses that are poorly addressed by the criminal justice system.  Society’s new remedy is to turn our backs to the alleged perpetrators, with consequences of social sanction that are much harsher than could be rendered by civil judgment.

This is a hot potato. The purpose of the above is not to value the change, but to outline that American society is continuing to evolve, with changing standards of behavior, guilt, and sanction. Our Russian “partners”, as Sergei Lavrov, would say, see the West through their own distorting prisms. They should read this carefully, because it pertains precisely to the issue of extrajudicial assassination on foreign soil.

We do not require proof of legal quality that Sergei Skripal has been the target of assassination. American society has moved beyond it. Statistical inference, as  with Harvey Weinstein, does just fine. The Russian defense, along the lines of  “you don’t have anything on us”, doesn’t play here. So when Russians decide to liquidate someone on foreign soil, every Russian foreign policy goal is at least slightly compromised. You can see it in the slightly yellow tinge of our eyes, what we call a “jaundiced” view, a slightly poisoned outlook towards Russians.

And there is the fact of pre-announcement. With respect to the betrayal of Anna Chapman et al., another name was mentioned, Shcherbakov. Quoting from  Did Putin approve of Litvinenko Assassination? ,

Whether there is still a black market in polonium, or whether there is a laxity of controls that would exculpate Putin,  is one of those questions that bedevils the fixation of blame. Russia is one of several  countries that run assassination squads on foreign soils. Currently, they are looking for Colonel Shcherbakov ,  the betrayer of Anna Chapman. Referring to Leon Trotksy, a Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying “We have already sent a Mercader.”

Whether there is a factual contradiction in naming both Shcherbakov and Skripal is unclear. But what’s  good for the goose is good for the gander.

Maybe it is really important that Sergei Skripal, and his entire completely innocent family, die. Perhaps the Kremlin worries about disloyalty in the ranks. Perhaps the spaced killings are intended to keep up the whisper.

Some readers may be wondering if Vladimir Putin approved this. If anyone knows, it will remain the secret of those who possess it. But it’s a mistake to personify a country in a person. Russia has had a poison lab since1921, devoted to the development of novel and undetectable poisons. The autobiography of one of the directors, Special Tasks, by Pavel Sudoplatov, is actually available in the West. I cherish my autographed copy. When the lab was reactivated in the 90’s, it had a new asset, the Novichok agents.

The formulas of the Novichok family were made public by Vil Mirzayanov, so the detection problem is being studied. Unlike VX, chemically treated test strips are not available. But last year, research by Iranian chemists, undertaken with microscopic quantities, suggested that detection of the unbound substance is possible in a well equipped  laboratory.

But this is not the same as detection in the organism, where the agent is bound to tissue. VX exposure is usually detected by indirect enzymatic changes. Hence Novichok may remain an unsolved challenge, unless  the chemistry of the neuromuscular junction can be directly observed.



Reuters: What the U.S. should do about Putin’s nuclear threats

Reuters: Commentary: What the U.S. should do about Putin’s nuclear threats.

This is a terrible piece. It should be read carefully, and with great attention. It expresses every wrong question with great clarity, with delicate waffles that incite anxiety, as all good op-eds should. But like CNN — see CNN, Shame! Raise Your Standards! “Russia unveils ‘Satan 2 Missile”. Like CNN,  Reuters needs column inches. The reader gets a cheap scare, and then the comforting burp provided by a dish of Moo Goo Gai Pan.

These sins were preceded by a sin of (Newsweek) The U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Race Is Over, and Russia Has Won, by Scott Ritter. Mr. Ritter has impressive credentials, but fell on hard times, so I’ll proof the article for him. Quoting,  “The RS-28 is itself a wonder of modern technology, capable of flying in excess of five times the speed of sound,…”  Stop right there. It doesn’t fly. It is not an aerodynamic object. The maximum speed of the RS-28 is about the same as all other ICBMS, greater than 15X the speed of sound, and less than orbital, which is about 24X the speed of sound.

Here’s another juicy bit, the caption on the picture of the submarine:

And Russia is on the verge of completing the deployment of its own anti-missile shield, one that will seal off its air space to bombers, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, negating in totality America’s nuclear triad.

Where the hell does that come from? We’ve been trying to defend against one or two North Korean missiles for 15 years, with doubtful results. And RItter announces that the Russians are miracle workers? The article is yellow journalism of the worst kind, an incitement to hysteria for the sake of page hits. It’s crap.

We live in the age of MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction, as we have since the Soviets acquired their own substantial capacity to do to us what we could do to them. This has not changed. Both the U.S. and Russia possess substantial overkill. Literally, this means that each country has the ability to wipe out the population of the other several times.

Some of the new Russian weapons have potential for a decapitation strike. But it is a principle of the command structure of both  powers that someone will survive with command authority to end the existence of the opponent. Quoting Reuters,

Putin’s audience, made up of Russian lawmakers and other leading figures, frequently stood up and applauded his presentation, which culminated with the Russian national anthem being played.

It’s hard to understand why the audience would applaud a scenario that simulates the end of their own lives. That is the scariest part of the whole thing. It’s disgusting. But there is nothing we can do directly about sentiment in Russia. Our own understanding of the meaning and implementation of deterrence are what count.

Nuclear weapons may have staved off a major war for 73 years. But our species has apparently unlimited capacity for violence and cruelty. The free press has an important role in moderating this tendency. It is their responsibility to convey the concept of MAD, from experts who have actually been involved in its operational intricacy.  We are as secure as MADmen can be.

So now you know what I sound like when I get mad. Members of the press, this time, don’t go for column inches. Go for civic virtue.










Putin says shrinking labor force to limit economic growth

(Reuters) Russia’s Putin says shrinking labor force to limit economic growth. Quoting,

“This trend will stay for the coming years and will become a serious limit to economic growth,” Putin told lawmakers. “

Vladimir Putin, you’re right. But why? Why does our disorderly society outperform one structured by a few “masterminds”, free to implement supposedly optimal policies without conflict?

Alienation, provoked by the sense of personal impotence,  is the cause. You’ve tried to stem  it with patriotism. It fails to stir Russia to growth because it works only for followers. It fails with anyone who has the human  potential to participate, even to the minutest degree,  in changing society in a positive way.

These people need something else to flourish. In a dynamic society, thinkers comprise a much larger slice than you might think. They are all over the place. It  includes all those  who contribute, in the minutest way, their personal visions of society. In Russia,  these little seeds of thought scatter, without germinating, to the winds.  Their alienated owners live stunted lives. In Russia, the soil of change is barren.

In Russia, bad things happen to the best people. No society can waste so much human potential and flourish. No society can idealize a dark past to become a model for the future, and flourish.

Grandeur is part of the problem, not the solution. Jeff Bezos uses a door as his desk. Visible displays of wealth occur everywhere. But particularly in Russia, pride of wealth has displaced pride of innovation. I suggest you introduce the door.

When you look at us, you see a disordered bunch, and wonder, how can a society with so much misdirection have created so much of the 20th century, and continue our dynamism into the present? What is our secret?

It’s hidden in plain view. There are so many of us, who are much less than leaders, yet so much more than followers. We each have our spheres, some tiny, some large. We have the opportunity to influence, if just minutely, everything we touch. And we use it. You see chaos in what is really our garden of change. That’s our secret.

Having replaced the destructive disorder of the Yeltsin years with sterile concentrations of power, your next challenge is to create the soil of change, replacing alienation with involvement. You can’t supply the seed of what is to grow, only the soil. Pick a few weeds, but use no poison.

All the good thing will follow.

Reuters: U.S. prepares high-seas crackdown ; N. Korea Submarine Hazard

(Reuters) U.S. prepares high-seas crackdown on North Korea sanctions evaders – sources.

North Korea has a fairly large submarine fleet,  as many as 70 antiquated diesel-electrics. In stealth or submerged range, none of them compare to Germany’s modern reinvention of the non-nuclear submarine, the Type-212, and Sweden’s Gotland class. These submarines use AIP, air-independent propulsion. Relieved of the necessity to recharge motive batteries by surfacing or snorkel, they have  submerged mobility similar in character  to nuclear submarines.

Various reports suggest that members of the above classes sank three U.S. aircraft carriers in mock exercises. None of the reports have been substantiated by the U.S. military. If the reports are approximately true, they are exceptions to the remarkable transparency of U.S. military self criticism. While official substantiation of these incidents would not endanger lives, it would endanger the congressional budgetary process that maintains the surface fleet.

All militaries, the U.S. included, have been subject to shock of new vulnerability similar to the above. The 1982 Falkland War sinking of the British destroyer H.M.S. Sheffield, by  a French Exocet missile, is a case in point. Even though the precise characteristics of the French missile were known, and available for simulation, serious consideration by Western navies required a catastrophe. Curiously, the earlier sinking of Israel’s Eilat by a Russian Styx missile was not enough to trigger this.

To the credit of the U.S. Navy, the apprehension of inadequate torpedo defenses has not required a catastrophe. The mock sinkings were enough.  A crash program, the Anti-Torpedo Defense System, is partly functional on five attack carriers. Carriers are distinguished as high value targets. But the distinction is obsolete. Today, all naval combat ships are high value. The days are long past when a destroyer could be manufactured in less than a year. The weapon systems contained by the hulls are too complex. Large hulls and superstructures are required to host these systems.

The general conclusions of the U.S. reviews were:

  • Towed sonar arrays, the mainstay of detection, are not effective against  AIP submarines.
  • Nuclear attack submarines, with the ability to deploy and orient sensor arrays at varying depths, are more effective. Compared to noisy surface ships, the awareness of the attack submarine is enhanced by the quietness of the submarine itself. This facilitates patrol of a volume of water with reduced chance of detection by the opposing submarine.
  • Passive defense, which includes screening of a high value ship  by lower value ships, is ineffective. Part of this owes to the fact that an Arleigh Burke class destroyer is not a low value target.
  • Active torpedo defense is a requirement.

But is the sophistication of an AIP submarine required to sink a ship? In 2010, a primitive North Korean midget submarine, with limited range and negligible endurance, sank the ROKS Cheonan. The location was less than 100 miles from an ongoing joint U.S.-South Korea antisubmarine exercise. Perhaps it is not coincidental that Kim Yong Chol, credited by some for the sinking, was (Reuters) on display at the Olympics closing ceremony.

In the case of  hostility with unlimited rules of engagement, the strategy of the Allied navy would be to decimate the opposing submarine fleet faster than the “replacement rate”. This was the essence of the Battle of the Atlantic.  The losses table is telling. Between 1939 and 1945, about 14.1 million tons of Allied shipping was lost to U-boats. Although massive technology deployments made  successful U-boat attacks increasingly unlikely,  Allied losses ceased only when the U-boat fleet had been effectively eradicated.  This would be more clear in the historical record if the sunk ships had been of high value. But Liberty ships were built in less than a month.

 Although the German U-boat, and the similar North Korean submarines, have limited mobility while submerged, they share in common the ability to lay in wait, with absolute silence, subject only to the limitations of battery charge and breathable atmosphere.  In this state, the submarine is detectable only by active sonar in circumstances manipulated by chance. The water column itself protects a submarine from detection by reflecting, refracting and redirecting sound in ways difficult to unravel.

So a program of high-seas interdictions involves complex hazards analogous to those of  recent and current limited wars.  The Battle of the Atlantic was not limited war, but the deployable assets and goals  of the interdiction program are  just as  asymmetric:

  • The U.S. desires only to interdict North Korea shipping.
  • North Korea wants to raise the cost  of this to the  unbearable level.
  • Exposed U.S. naval targets are high value.
  • Concealed North Korea naval targets (submarines) are low value.
  • Destruction of North Korea naval targets is preferably avoided as an escalation.
  • Destruction of U.S./Allied naval targets is a goal.
  • In unrestricted conflict, U.S./Allied forces have overwhelming advantage.
  • In conflict restricted to exclude proactive destruction of the North Korean submarines, North Korea may perceive an advantage.
  • U.S. / Allied naval assets have high mobility.
  • North Korea naval assets have limited mobility.
  • Q-ships are a possibility.

The above admits the possibility of a  shock of new vulnerability, particularly if operational planning is manipulated by diplomatic concerns.

In the Battle of the Atlantic, German U-boats, as a “wolf pack”, were pre-positioned so the target convoy would intersect the path of the U-boat. North Korean submarines  are similar in capability, slow, noisy and detectable when they move rapidly, yet silent in wait. This inspires a reverse tactic for North Korea., with the Allied warship lured to the submarine. By coordinated action, a North Korean cargo ship acts as bait, sailing “suspiciously”, in a track intersecting a North Korean submarine, as many times as required to make the kill.

Quoting the Reuters article,

Some U.S. officials believe the risk could be minimized if Coast Guard cutters, which carry less firepower and technically engage in law-enforcement missions, are used in certain cases rather than warships.

Unless other assets are deployed in combination, this idea, prioritizing appearance over firepower, ignores what we have learned of  North Korean psychology. Temperate rules of engagement are unsuited to this adversary. Perhaps those officials need a reminder. Perhaps they should take instruction from Hannibal Lecter’s artful escape.

Since the (Stars & Stripes)  “can-do” culture of  U.S. Navy is reluctant to decline a job, beware the shock of new vulnerability.





WaPo: Putin ally said to be in touch with Kremlin, Assad before his mercenaries attacked U.S. troops

(Washington Post) Key Russian oligarch in touch with Russia, Assad before mercenaries attacked US troops.

Or, if you’re afflicted by the paywall, (CNN) WaPo: Key Russian oligarch in touch with Russia, Assad before mercenaries attacked US troops.

Several narratives might be contemplated. One could be an additional item for the question posed in Mueller Indictments; Why We’re Mad; Walter Lippman’s Democracy:

  • Should this be confirmed by U.S. intelligence, will it inevitably force the conclusion that we are in a state of low intensity, “hybrid war” with Russia? Are there circumstances such that we could we let this pass as “water under the bridge”?

But the hopeless odds, and the apparent wish that the episode of the Wagner Group attack would simply go away offers yet another narrative: the ultra-nationalist tail wagging the Russian dog. Russia has a serious problem with ultra-nationalist steam in the kettle, with rare opportunities to blow it off.  By some accounts, it took about two weeks of unsanctioned, and at least partly self-financed activity by ultra nationalists in eastern Ukraine before Putin became a convert to that cause. He’s still stuck with it.

Ultra-nationalists are romantics, not in the delicate sense of flowers and perfume, but instead for blood-and-soil, and  mystical glorification of primitive tribal instincts. Russia has too many of these, the remnants of an aging, backwards mono-culture stuck in a downtrend. Vladimir Putin has found them useful tools in the reinvention of a Russia in the imperial image. But they are crude, uncontrollable, and have all the unstable, fulminating tendency of gunpowder that has been badly stored for a long time.

If you like Google Earth, take a close look at 35°24’17.07″N, 40°14’21.15″E. (or thereabouts). It’s 6.78 miles bearing 49.68 degrees out of Deir ez-Zur. Areas of vegetation extending as much as 2.3 miles east of the Euphrates were thought by Russian mercenaries to provide cover for river passage by tanks and infantry.   Once out of the cover of vegetation, it would take at most a  2.82 mile dash over flat terrain, with no cover, to overrun the SDF HQ.

But Wagner Group was pitting their spirited but primitive, full-of-guts but poorly trained, wanna-kill but short-on-brains ultra-nationalists against a reasonably professional Kurdish force hybridized with American doctrine and technology, combined with deep tactical air support. Incomprehensibly, the Wagner Group planners did not understand that the modern battlefield is electronic. It sensed their presence, even as they poked their way through the palms along the river, (Bloomberg) late  2/7/2017.

It appears that Yevgeniy Prigozhin received approval from a Kremlin figure for the operation to seize the al-Omar oil field, with Prigozhin rewarded by royalties on the oil. But what chance of success did the Kremlin give it? It wasn’t a small operation. The proposal had to be studied by somebody.

The Russian military intelligence counterpart to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency is the GRU. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the evolving tactics of  the U.S. military have been the main focus of their study. The modern Russian military is in many ways an emulation of that of the U.S. As a matter of course, the proposed operation of Wagner Group would have been studied,  the hazards, opportunities, and chances enumerated, and a prognostication rendered.

So it’s down to this. If the GRU produced a report, it expressed one of these opinions:

  • Significant chance of success, with deniability,  justifying Kremlin approval.
  • Coin-flip, But since it was deniable, and the reward substantial, approval was granted.
  • Failure, or small chance of success. But even if the op failed, approval by the Kremlin would constitute a safer diversion of ultra-nationalism than denial of approval by the Kremlin.

The assumption of reasonable or better competence of the GRU, and their long period of study of the American military, implies the the estimate of “failure.”

Approval of a hopeless mission has  not been the most severe sanction applied by the Kremlin to ultra-nationalists. In eastern Ukraine, a number of “first generation” “separatist” leaders, found uncontrollable by the Kremlin, were assassinated by Russian special forces.

Mueller Indictments; Why We’re Mad; Walter Lippman’s Democracy

The pdf of the indictment can be downloaded here.  Although the trolling itself was conducted under the cover of a visible public company, several items of KGB tradition also appear.

An  “illegal” is a Russian operative who assumes a fictitious identity in the target country, complete with a fictitious nationality. In the past, one fictitious identity was used to enter the target country, and then discarded. A second identity was used in residence. During the Cold War, KGB agents spent a lot of time combing graveyards for IDs that could be recycled.

The most recent illegals ring, busted in 2010, was made notorious in the media by Anna Chapman. This time, “illegal” was modernized.  Russian operatives visited the U.S. using their true identities. Once here, they used traditional spy craft to create “web illegals” via identity theft.

We begin with a set of questions for a worksheet. Fill in tentative answers, and read all the way to the end. Then have another look at the worksheet.

  • What is the overall state of our relations with Russia? Sergei Lavrov often used the word “partner”, which seems a little deceptive. This Russian Embassy link is provides an example of the word in context. Quoting,  “However, our American partners refuse to discuss these embarrassing issues…”

Your multiple-choice is: a) partner, b) rival; c) adversary, d) enemy. But Facebook lets us “un-friend” people. (CNN) Nikki Haley said. “Russia is not our friend.” Is Russia an  e) “unfriend”?

  • The election hacks did not occur in isolation. There is increasing suspicion that in Cuba, Russia permanently damaged the health of American diplomats by assault with a novel weapon. Should this be confirmed by U.S. intelligence, will it inevitably force the conclusion that we are in a state of low intensity, “hybrid war” with Russia? Are there circumstances such that we could we let this pass as “water under the bridge”?

(NPR) What Was Russia’s Role In 2016 U.S. Election? 2 Former KGB Officials Weigh In samples some interesting Russians, close enough for insightful perceptions, but distant from the Kremlin, yet tolerable enough to the Kremlin to survive in Russia. Both appear to be dissident patriots, with viewpoints that are different from ours, but not intentionally deceptive.

Quoting ex KGB Colonel Gennady Gudkov, “In fact, Putin and his entourage are absolutely not interested in bad relations with America. They’re scared of that,” Gudkov said. “But the circumstances are such that they can’t help but use anti-Americanism to strengthen their grip on power.”

Alexander Lebedev, also ex-KGB, who has already exported a good amount of his wealth from Russia, but afraid to leave Russia to be denied reentry, said, “It’s only fair to treat it as a phenomenon where all the major countries are using all the resources they can to influence others to follow their goals,” he said. “So why should it be one-sided – that the Americans are always right, and the Russians are always wrong?”

Vladimir Frolov defines a red line. Quoting, “When intelligence-gathering went to an influence operation, that was crossing the red line…”

  • So does interpreting the election hacks as an act of aggression depend solely on our perceptions of the gravity, or also  the Russian perception of the same? Does it matter that espionage, under the aegis of the Russian state, was used to enhance the operation?

The “sonic attacks” have yet to be factored into American anger with Russia. But our answers to the above questions could be influenced what psychology calls “floating anger”, an emotion searching for attachment to a cause. It could be that we are angry about our new vulnerability. Simply put, before social media came about, the influence of the election hacks could not have been accomplished. Even at the height of communist infiltration, in the years preceding and following World War II, the Russians lacked the capacity for influence of this magnitude. Now they have it with the press of “Enter.”

Walter Lippmann figured this out in 1922, with the publication of Public Opinion. He grappled with the fact that democracy works, even though many issues are beyond the comprehension of the average citizen. Recently, I mentioned Lippmann to a Columbia journalism teacher, who, surprisingly, was not familiar with him. This paragraph, published in 1922, reflects today’s problem (Wikipedia,  additional boldface):

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power…. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

Lippmann proposed that public opinion is molded by elites. Such was his reputation that his public persona survived his attack on the myth of democracy. If he was correct, this explains our new vulnerability. Social media has destroyed the hierarchy of the elites, replacing it with  random, and lateral structures.

In 1955, in Public Philosophy, Lippmann repudiated much of Public Opinion, arguing that the elites are destroying democracy. Perhaps both points are true. Thomas Jefferson thought we should have a revolution every 19 years.

But if democracy is a fiction, it is a very useful one. By all measures, the democracies are the most humane governments on the planet. All attempts to supplant their imperfection with the “perfection” of the dictator’s “vision” have failed.

Now social media purveyors are attempting to patch the vulnerabilities exploited by malign, lateral connections. This corporate limitation on the purest form of democracy cannot be denied. But what else  can we do? We still have the best serviceable democracy. We’ll keep rolling along. And after a while, maybe we’ll lose some of the anger.

Keep on truckin’.




School Shootings; Parkland, Florida; What is Patriotism?

There was a time,  before America became divided, when mass shootings were rare. A period of cultural unity and quiet occupied the space between successes of the civil rights movement, and before the erosion of the standard of living and the stress of terrorism. Perhaps the period between1972 and 9/11 will be recognized as our golden age.

With our division, there has come a change in the meaning of patriotism, which has multiple meanings to different people. The linkage between gun purchases and which party is in power suggests that a new idea of freedom has taken hold. Confidence in government to uphold civil liberty has been replaced by  the freedom to kill.

The most obvious kind of patriotism is devotion to national unity, symbolized by a national flag. But there was a time when the other form of patriotism, devotion to our fellow citizens, was the higher calling. Then, respect for the flag was  transcended by the civil right to desecrate it.  People were more important than symbols.

There is a spiritual war in America right now.  It’s about who owns the ideal, with the right to define it. The flag-wavers are now in ascendance. If they win, they get to define America in terms of a piece of dyed fabric.

Anyone who has read a little history, and understands that people change slowly over centuries, knows where that leads.

CNN: US personnel suffered ‘symptoms resembling brain injury’ in Cuba; New Weapon Design

This article sketches another design for an ultrasound weapon.

CNN: Study: US personnel suffered ‘symptoms resembling brain injury’ in Cuba. Quoting,

The report found “audible or sensory phenomena” were from an unknown source but came from a specified direction. In conclusion, the authors say their study raises “concern about a new mechanism for possible acquired brain injury from an exposure of unknown origin.”

I’ve written extensively about this. You could start with Senate Hearings on Havana Sonic “Attacks”. Further articles are accessible through this link. Quoting further,

“We actually don’t think it was the audible sound that was the problem,” said Dr. Douglas Smith, another of the study’s authors….We think the audible sound was a consequence of the exposure,” added Smith, who is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair.”

That’s right. The audible component was not responsible. It’s just a byproduct of nonlinear mixing of ultrasonic components.

In order to overcome skepticism of a practical ultrasound weapon, I wrote a six-part series on the design of such a weapon, beginning with  Havana Sonic Attack Weapon — Let’s Build It! Part 1.  Although I attempted to anticipate Russian capabilities, my design does not necessarily resemble the actual weapon. There are probably six ways from Sunday to design one. My design is a didactic example, separating  the problem into easily digestible pieces.

Fragments of the victims’ experience suggest possible deployment of more than one design. Quoting, “One patient said they heard two short 10-second pulses,…” , differing in duration from all the other reports. Was this divergence the result of:

  • Immediate dysfunction of the auditory nerve?
  •  Efficient, active nulling of the audible mixing product by the weapon?
  • Delivery of tremendous power in a short interval, differing with the long duration of exposure of the other patients, requiring less power?

Given Russia’s relative strength in hydrodynamics and weakness in electronics, a Russian design might be even less electronic and more mechanical. So here’s another design. Unlike  the “Let’s Build It” series, it isn’t going to help the typical reader of this blog understand what is going on. But physicists will understand immediately:

  • The ultrasound generators are arrayed around a cavity filled with gas under high pressure. The pressure increases the “characteristic impedance” of the gas, so the generators can couple better.
  • The gas could be a non-ideal gas-law “gas”. Instead of PV=NRT, it has a triple point near room temperature. A Freon, perhaps.
  • Multiple coupled cavities can be used for impedance matching.
  • The frequencies of the sound generators are adjusted to random correlation, so the mixing products are “white”. This doesn’t help with power, but the combination still contains peaks.  Goal: sigma that exceeds Gaussian.
  • My first design used piezo transducers to generate ultrasound. The actual weapon may use ultrasonic gas whistles, or cavitation coupled to resonance. For high power, the gas whistle could be powered  by deflagration, or detonation slowed to subsonic by a “gas capacitor.” For longer duration with less peak power, gas could be pumped or stored in an accumulator.

The above design is not a good explainer, but it fits well with Russian capabilities. It could have been built by the 1950’s.




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