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The skills of ordinary men

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I recently read two articles that actually cover some of the same ground, even though their topics could not be more different.

The first is from 2003, Electric Heroes, and it’s written by a lawyer looking back at one of his early cases where a woman sued an American power company over the death of her husband, who was a linemen.

They clambered up narrow steel ladders and then inched across four-inch-wide “angle-iron” girders made slippery with rain or morning dew, and when they reached out, they touched either the open sky or heavy steel cables whose purpose was to carry enough electricity to power the nation’s fourth largest city.

Because they were so well trained, they were able to work safely, routinely, under conditions that would terrify you or me.

The writer points out that these men (in those days they were all men) were also very careful, which made the case a little strange since this particular linemen had fallen 120 feet to his death or possibly had jumped. Not even his workmates could figure out what had gone wrong.

As the young workhorse lawyer gathering two years of information for the trial, he got to know these men very well.

They had a strong sense of duty, and they had a natural dignity that was boundless.  They were modest men, but they had quiet pride by the mile.  Amongst each other, they were very, very funny.  They cussed a lot, and after work they’d go out together for a beer, or to hunt or play poker or catch an Astros game.  And they stuck up for one another.  You’d think twice about crossing any one of them.

They took the case seriously from the beginning because one of their own had died in their midst, for reasons they couldn’t quite explain or grasp, and they were being accused of having caused his death by their indifference. 

In the end the case was settled out of court and the jury dismissed. The young lawyer had become so bonded with these men that he was incandescent with rage at what he felt his senior lawyers had done to them: as much as admitting that they had been indifferent to their workmate, their friend. But one of the partners took him to lunch and, as he saw in hindsight, helped him grow up a bit:

“In the greater scheme of life, are you really furious that Mrs X is getting the fairly modest amount of money that will be left to her after her lawyers’ fees and expenses are extracted?  She’s not getting a huge windfall.  Our client can afford it.  It all goes into the rate-base, and ultimately it will be paid in tiny, tiny increments by all the families for whom Mr X helped keep the lights on during his twelve years with the company. Can you not see the justice in that result, even if it wasn’t the harsh and total victory you were gunning for?”

The second article is very recent and is written by a Captain Charlie Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard, describing their recent expedition to Kabul to extract American and Afghan civilians before the Taliban took over: A few good ‘Bastards’.

It’s a fascinating look at those events from a soldier’s view, but it’s also a good look at a component of the US military that’s often overlooked or disparaged, The National Guard. They’re part-time soldiers although equipped with the same stuff as the regular forces including, in this case, Bradley’s and Abrams tanks. Having said that I was surprised a few years ago to find out from a mate in the NZDF that the Hawaiian Air National Guard flies F-22’s!

But what shows here is that the training is also right up with the regular forces:

We’d practiced and trained for the past two years. The task force did a combat training rotation exercise at Fort Hood, Texas in 2019 and executed a successful rotation (the first post-Covid) at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 2020. While drilling at Camp Ripley, Minnesota we completed numerous tabletop exercises and worked the Military Decision Making Process repeatedly until it became muscle memory.

We had executed multiple iterations of gunnery tables and were continuing ongoing missions in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We were confident that as the CENTCOM Regional Response Force we’d be poised and prepared to project military power wherever it was needed to accomplish tactical and strategic goals.

When the time came to move out they were ready to go and got to Kabul promptly. Even so such units still endure scepticism from the regulars:

One captain I met from their brigade intelligence section told me he was under the impression that a senator had pulled some strings and got us deployed from Minnesota. When I told him about our task force and that we were already in the Middle East, postured for such a crisis event, he was speechless. Initially, there was an air of distrust, but we proved ourselves worthy partners, dispelling the myth about the perceived capability gap between the active duty and guard/reserve components. 

It was this paragraph that caught my attention in relation to the first article, as the commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, described:

He underscored the life skills the National Guard brought to the 82nd Airborne. “We provided capabilities to the fight beyond trigger-pullers that 1/82 never would’ve been able to — engineers, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy machinery operators – we enabled advanced operations that directly impacted the military’s ability to get people out.” 

No need to call up the US Army Corp of Engineers to build barricades and reinforce walls when you’ve got a bunch of people who do that in their everyday lives.

The article is lengthy but well written and packed with a lot of coal-face detail about what they dealt with in a horrific and rapidly deteriorating situation. Well worth your reading time.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 14, 2022 at 9:53 am

Failing to Scale

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It took only a few years for me to learn that in corporate environments a lot of things just don’t scale up, despite the fact that such corporations were scaled up versions of the small businesses they had once started out as, even if a hundred years ago prior to endless takeovers, buyouts and so forth.

Centralised accounting certainly scales, as does marketing, IT and a handful of other core functions. But even then there are limits, what test pilots refer to as “the envelope”, outside of which things start breaking down. Even those centralised things are built upon smaller clones of themselves in the corporation. And corporations often stagnate precisely because the small, inventive, creative parts of themselves get stifled or outright killed off.

In fact, one of the secrets to the creation of Silicon Valley and its fantastic wealth, lay in the fact that people inside existing corporations who had ideas that got flattened or ignored, were actually encouraged internally to leave and set up their own companies to develop their ideas, and where they weren’t encouraged they did so anyway as venture capitalism also grew to supply such start-ups with seed money. This “culture” took off, with one company after another spawning new companies:

With the backing of Fairchild Camera and Instrument in Long Island, NY, eight engineers from Shockley’s lab resigned, including Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, to form Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957. Led by Noyce, Fairchild would eventually grow into the most important company in the history of the Santa Clara Valley after Noyce independently invented the Integrated Circuit along with Texas Instrument’s Jack Kilby in 1958.

And when I say I “learned” that’s only in terms of learning what specific things did not scale in corporations: even by my early 20’s I’d seen enough of life, let alone business case-studies and history, to understand the principle that big is usually not better, and often worse.

To that end, with Three Waters specifically in mind here in NZ, but also with the gigantic beast in the US known as the Federal government, I appreciated this brief “rant” in Ace of Spades, which I’ll re-produce here in full:

An oft-heard theme from preschool classrooms to corporate meeting rooms is that one should not be afraid of failure. Failure sucks and is a miserable experience – failure hurts – but it’s also the mechanism through which one learns. Failure is a great teacher, and makes you less likely to fail next time because you’ve learned from the experience. This is true, but there are limits to the concept. Sometimes failure is catastrophic.

The higher you are, the riskier failure becomes. If you’re running a small team in a corner of a large company to try to make something new and you fail, the results are unlikely to be disastrous. You might get fired and your staff might get fired, too, but the scale of the potential damage is fairly small. If you’re a senior executive who bets the business on something and that something doesn’t pan out, the entire enterprise can fail and everyone ends up fired with the owners holding worthless paper that used to be shares.

So it is with government and its failures and boy do we have a lot of government failures to consider. Fiscal policy has failed. Monetary policy has failed. Energy policy has failed. Medical policy has failed. War policy has failed. Border policy has failed. Drug policy has failed. Environmental policy has failed. Law enforcement has failed. Intelligence has failed (in every possible interpretation). Both domestic and foreign policy, writ large and in totality, has failed. Its failure across the board and at all levels.

Sure, some of it was probably not failure but rather was deliberate destruction, but that distinction is more important in the final reckoning than it is in the day-to-day reality. Malice or incompetence (or malicious incompetence, which I think is closer to the mark) is less important than the results. The results are similar regardless of the motivator. Poor is poor, sick is sick, dead is dead.

And those failures are increasingly catastrophic as more decision-making occurs in Washington D.C.. This isn’t just because of corruption, dishonesty, malevolence and incompetence, but because of scale. We have forgotten the valuable lesson of subsidiarity. Decisions should be made at the smallest workable scale, not the largest possible scale. A town imposing some insane and destructive policy destroys only the town. When Washington imposes some insane and destructive policy, it can destroy the entire country. Subsidiarity isn’t maximally efficient, but it is highly reliable. It’s expensive but robust. Its opposite – what we have today and will have more of tomorrow – is tremendously fragile. It isn’t even efficient because the government is populated with thieves, liars and fools (and often in combination).

Totalitarianism doesn’t and can’t work for this reason. Even assuming the starry-eyed sincerity of the totalitarians (a situation we most decidedly do not have), mistakes have perfect coverage and no one is immune from the totalitarians’ decisions. Failure not only stops being a good thing from which you learn, it becomes a constant threat and source of terror. This is compounded and made infinitely worse when the totalitarians are dishonest, lying, stupid psychopaths.

Centralization and incompetence, centralization and malice, and centralization and malicious incompetence are poisonous combinations.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 9, 2022 at 2:58 pm

Sustainable Living?

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I came across this rather sweet video a few weeks ago by an English guy who has, over the last five years, built an off-the-grid lifestyle on eighteen acres in the countryside.

The video is him showing viewers all the things he has built, which is a pretty impressive list:

  • A “cob” house.
  • Miniature hydro-electric dam.
  • Solar panels and power shed/workshop for batteries, invertors, etc.
  • Woodwork shop.
  • Metalworking shop (in progress).
  • Greenhouse.
  • Saw milling machine.

He’s also done this for very little money.

I suspect that he and his unseen girlfriend, “Pip”, are vegetarians because while he’s very proud of their vegetable gardens, he only refers to their chickens as a source of eggs, and although their are sheep there’s no mention of them being sources of meat.

But here’s the thing. As impressive as all this is, the fact is that he’s done it using machinery that had to be produced in factories: all of his big 3-phase woodworking machinery; numerous other smaller woodworking and metal working tools; the very useful chain saw; various electronics, including the components of the power system.

Those factories can’t be run off solar panels and small hydro dams. While it would have been possible to do all this by hand without such tools it would have been a hell of lot harder, taken longer, and the results likely more primitive. Aside from the construction itself his ongoing lifestyle will require regular replacements of components or entire machines – like the solar panels and batteries – which he cannot produce.

In short, it’s an industrial civilisation that’s enabling him to live like this. To what extent such a civilisation can be reduced or downgraded while still being able to support hundreds of millions or billions of people to live such a poetic and rustic lifestyle is an unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, question. Certainly in the Developing world, billions of people are moving in the opposite direction from this guy – with all that implies about their demands for energy and technology.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 9, 2022 at 7:00 am

Engaging with a Foreign Business Culture

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Our family have bought rather a lot of electronic equipment from PB Tech here in NZ over the years, in my case mainly small stuff, in my son’s case, everything required to build a computer.

They’re well-known and New Zealand’s largest chain of stores that specialise in computer gear. This gushing Spinoff article (gushy mainly because it raved about their policy of demanding vax passes from customers before they entered a store) explains the “PB” in their name:

“In the early years, [Pat] Huo was supported in the accounts department by his wife Brenda Yu, hence the company name PB Tech.”

That would explain all the Chinese immigrants running the store in Penrose. I may have seen the occasional Indian or White chappie but they’ve been rare. I guess you go with the culture you know.

According to the blurb in the link above, they deliver lower prices by “cutting out the middleman”, doing direct deals with manufacturers and so forth. Then there’s this:

Being able to support the products we sell in-house gives PB Tech a huge advantage when it comes to rectifying faulty hardware quickly and painlessly for our customers. The scale of our in-house service operation and our team’s vast experience are the reasons why we’re an authorised repairer for leading brands such as HP, Samsung and LG, as well as top insurance companies within New Zealand.

Oh really? About six months ago my son’s two year-old PB Tech supplied monitor began glitching so he contacted them since it was still under warranty. Bit of a run-around but he finally was able to drop it off.

Then silence. No response to emails or phone calls where he left messages. Buck passing as to who to talk to and just a general run-around.

However, a couple of months later a box appeared at the door. It was “a” monitor: not the original one repaired but a replacement. No contact made to say it was on the way. Before opening the package he tried to find out via email and phonecalls what the story was. Same run-around again but worse.

Finally he opens the package and this is what he found.

They sent him an identical, replacement monitor – that’s damaged.

By now – seriously pissed – he went looking for reviews of PB Tech to see if he was an exception. He wasn’t. Click on the image to read.

There’s plenty more where those came from, and you can read about the $77,000 fine here.

I don’t understand how a company can continue to remain in business while pulling this shit on its customers – even in the wake of that fine, although given that the company is worth $280 million perhaps they don’t give a shit about such a number. Perhaps it’s simply that they sell a lot of tech gear to companies that chuck it quickly before it even hits the depreciation age and operate at such volumes that they don’t care about the occasional failure? Perhaps such business customers have … replace and fix arrangements with PB Tech that the latter accept because they’re not individual customers? Although I see some small business owners also getting screwed in those reviews.

But it’s this one that gives the clue as to the real problem with that third point.

I know a number of companies that have dealt with Chinese businesses, both here and in China, and that last one is a symptom of the real problem with their business culture:

They just assume everyone is lying and trying to rip off everyone else, so why are you complaining? In fact you’re probably lying to us now about your “problem”.

Which is exactly the experience several reviewers talk about and which my son is now experiencing; they’ve accused him of damaging the monitor. At first this might seem shocking, but that just how it be in Chinese business. Next stop is the small claims court: it seems they do respond to legal threats – which is also another aspect of Chinese business culture.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 7, 2022 at 2:49 pm

The Plastic Plinth of Capitalism

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It has taken a year but I finally completed building a new fence around the farm house after changing the layout of the track leading to it. It was only while sorting photos in the online library that I discovered how much time had passed during the Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter of Chinese Lung Rot.

However, I only lost time whereas other people lost jobs, businesses, and in some cases their homes and pretty much everything.

There are of course some businesses that thrive in good times and bad, courtesy of the fact they’re a monopoly.

Thus I introduce to you to Chorus.

Well, one of their objects anyway. That plastic plinth contains the old copper lines for the phone/internet connection. When it was put in I have no idea, but I replaced the old fence with a new one in 2001 without changing the fence line, so it could date back to the 1970’s, although I suspect it’s something that arrived with de-regulation in the late 1980’s when the local phone systems were upgraded with the arrival of Telecom NZ.

In a history of the district published a decade ago I was amused to read a chapter specifically about the phone system here over the years, starting with local farmers doing some of the work themselves, including cementing a beer bottle to the top of one large rock as an insulator to allow the line to run across a deep gorge. Who actually climbed said rock (it’s over 100 feet high), what climbing equipment and rock climbing experience they had, is not recorded. It was also interesting to read of the endless applications to government for the NZ Post Office to improve the system, something that reached high levels of frustration in the 1970’s/80’s with fuzzy, buzzy connections, hours-long drop-outs and so forth. The system just wasn’t improving, not even at the glacial pace of the past. We still had a party line in 1989 – two long tones for us, a long and short for “Y”, three shorts for “X”…. and that occasional “click” on the line that told you that someone had been listening to your conversation.

All that miraculously changed with de-regulation; no more years-long pleading with the bloody government. In the late 80’s the system was upgraded in just a couple of years in almost all ways and it would not be until the demands of the Internet arrived in the late 90’s/2000’s – meaning the actual use of farming apps and farm supplier websites – that the system began to show its age again, although I have no complaints about streaming speeds and the like now.

With the old fence and fence line now gone it was time to move the plinth so the lawn can be extended and to avoid having to mow around it. I just wanted to move this thing about 3m closer to the house, so a few weeks ago I applied to Chorus to get that done. I received their reply a couple of days ago:

Four thousand seven hundred and fifty five dollars?

AYFKM?

A.Y.F.K.M?

And twenty five cents – just to rub it in.

Even better are the list of “work” things that this cost covers:

God, I can just imagine the fees being internally charged for all the record searching and the intense design work, plus the fees charged by external agents for the “build works” paperwork.

Naturally I won’t be picking up this fabulous opportunity to enrich Chorus. What I do now is either try to move it myself (ummmmm..), put a giant pot plant over it, plant a native tree right beside it, or would there be ex-Chorus/Telecom people who would know how to do the job – for much less money?

But that’s where the monopoly status of Chorus comes into play. They own this equipment so you likely are not allowed to bugger around with it yourself or via some hired gun.

No wonder people are moving to all-cell technology or a combined model with cell tech to a local box that then mimics a landline inside the house. I know of a number of these and they work well: in all cases the telecomms company simply said it was cheaper than re-routing an old copper line or extending off an existing one to a new house – or fixing the old one. I’m guessing that those are not options for me because the line was torn up by a digger last year and was fixed in place by Chorus with no suggestion of setting up a new cell-box system.

Perhaps the same thinking applies here but in terms of just not wanting to do the job and putting a cost on it that the customer will refuse?

Still, it’s a good example of the challenges faced by businesses in this nation when even a simple job like this is converted into such an expensive “project”. One could argue that it’s just capitalism at work, in that it forces you to explore alternatives like cell-tech. But I can’t help thinking that this is just another of those false choices forced on a marketplace; if there were a plethora of Chorus competitors and rules around buggering with the cables – you assuming the risk in other words – would we see excessive cost bullshit like this?

Written by Tom Hunter

June 6, 2022 at 1:22 pm

A different kind of war

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Putin and his cronies have recently rattled their nuclear sabres over Ukraine, in a rather pathetic effort to frighten the West into stopping their support for the latter and thus hopefully achieving some sort of Russian success in the conventional war.

Given that no Western nation has increased their nuclear alert levels it’s clear that they don’t take this threat of nuclear war seriously, and I think they’re correct (circumstances can change of course).

But there are other ways to wage war. We’ve already seen how much a part of warfare drones have become in Ukraine, a capability that has built up steadily in the last twenty years and, like planes in WWI, has gone from mere observation in the battlefront to combat and whose capabilities are sure to expand given that a $10 million tank can now be destroyed by a $300,000 drone.

But one thing that has not been considered very much is the prospect of a full-scale Cyber War. If this sounds less harmless then read this:

The event that would come to be known as “Cyber Harbor,” or “Cyber 11th,” started small. One morning, the “autopilot” mode on some Tesla cars started going haywire. First, dozens, then thousands of cars began veering into oncoming traffic all across the country. Emergency rooms were swamped with crash victims. Then, office workers in dozens of industries watched in shock as their computers began spontaneously deleting files. It took about 24 hours for officials to realize that these scattered problems were connected. The power grid was next: Blackouts began in California and soon rolled across most of the U.S. The Internet started crumbling as well. Routine communications became impossible.

It took only a few days for grocery-store shelves to go bare. Gas stations put out “No Fuel” signs. Even if supplies of food and gas were available, trucks couldn’t deliver them. The country’s banking system had collapsed; with credit cards and ATMs disabled, truckers had no way to buy diesel fuel. The backup generators powering hospitals, police stations, water-treatment plants, and other critical infrastructure eventually drained their fuel tanks and went silent.

There is also an eerie similarity to nuclear warfare in that you can’t really defend against this sort of attack either because to do so involves a degree of rebuilding our IT control networks and systems far beyond even what’s required to build a missile defence. As with nuclear warfare the best that can be hoped for is to make it clear to potential attackers that you have the same weapons and they have the same vulnerabilities.

But what if an enemy calculates that dragging the West down to its level would enable a second war, more conventional, to be won? The old nuclear First Strike scenario but without the radioactivity?

Written by Tom Hunter

May 22, 2022 at 10:29 am

Twisting the day away

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There are various people who investigate things, of whom it could be said that they’re a little crazy.

People like volcanologists, who dress up in flame-proof suits so that they can grab some fresh, hot lava for analysis. Sure, it’s necessary research, but I can’t help thinking that there’s an element of thrill-seeking here, at least with some of them. More than a few have paid with their lives for getting too close to the object of their desire.

Similarly with the so-called storm-chasers in the USA; largely amateurs who live for getting video and photos of tornados and other violent weather events. There’s not usually much science involved, although the mid-90’s movie Twister certainly pushed that aspect with a team trying to get a batch of science instruments into the heart of a tornado. One of my favourites from the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series was the guy who had built an armoured car as protection for getting close to a twister.

A new addition has been drones, which I would think would be tough to use given that winds and weather are bad around tornados. However, this video of the tornado that just hit Andover, Kansas, shows what can be achieved. It’s certainly quite different to ground-based video. A full nine-minute version can be seen here.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 2, 2022 at 12:32 pm

Posted in Science, Technology, USA

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The future of New Zealand’s Defence

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My co-blogger The Vet had a very interesting post earlier on the rather sad state of affairs with the NZDF.

This is the accumulated result of thirty years of our military suffering death-by-a-thousand-cuts via successive Labour governments who really don’t like the concept of killing people and smashing things, with “peacekeeping” as the desired goal, and National governments who have looked at the cost/benefit and concluded that a slow and steady (very slow and steady – and quiet) replacement of assets is the way to go. I should also add that when you look at things like the godforsaken LAV purchase, a case where Labour did spend a lot of money, the advice they got from our military was not very good in the face of 21st century developments. As far as I know about half of them continue to sit in splendid preservation because we don’t have enough people to man them.

To that end the following video from Reason is interesting as it looks at possible lessons that can be drawn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine about what defending a nation and military combat may mean in the 21st century.

Key comments from the video:

Every Russian tank that gets fried in Ukraine is sending the message that traditional armies can no longer expect to dominate simply because they have more troops, weapons, and money. Russian armored vehicles are falling victim to Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAWs), which can be carried by individual soldiers, unslung in seconds, and deployed with little training and fatal accuracy.

That’s the reality of contemporary warfare: Smaller, nimbler groups fighting back effectively against lumbering, dumb relics of the past. Despite being the fifth largest fighting force on the planet and starting the war with five times the number of active military as Ukraine, Russia has been stymied in what virtually all observers expected to be a cakewalk.

I’m sure my Dad would be amazed at the idea that individual soldiers could inflict fatal damage on things like tanks, helicopter gunships and even jet fighter bombers. In his day, and perhaps even as recently as the Vietnam war, a single soldier or even a group of them, would usually have to go to ground in the face of such weapons unless they had support from their own tanks, planes or helicopters, or at a minimum, anti-tank guns and SAM. But the reality of today’s technology is that an awful lot of firepower is now boiled down into man-portable missiles.

As weapons have become smaller, cheaper, more effective, and more widely dispersed, it’s harder and harder for old-style militaries and countries to quickly and effectively achieve their objectives through brute force as they meet resistance at every turn. That resistance includes “information warfare”

The future belongs not to the ignorant armies of the night who seek to command and control but to those who embrace and empower the decentralization of weapons, technology, information, currency, and individual ingenuity and courage.

Now there are several caveats to that piece. Reason is a libertarian place so of course they’re going to sneer at centralised systems. But the reality of nation-state warfare is still that the side that doesn’t centralise efficiently and effectively is usually the side that loses. In the USA there was no alternative but to centralise for the Revolution, the Civil War (the Confederates rapidly got sick of “States Rights” when that meant lack of cooperation from bolshie States), WWI, WWII and the Cold War. That was not just done for the military but for the massive industrial effort required to support them in modern warfare.

I should point out that one of the problems for society was always winding back such centralisation when the war was won, something that was done successfully after the first two wars, much less for the others even as the size of the military shrank dramatically after each conflict. It’s part of the reason for the failures of today’s US military, as covered in these two posts:

But even in Ukraine you can bet that there are some aspects of centralisation that are in place for intelligence gathering plus command and control that directs those drones and Javelin-armed men towards their targets. It must also be remembered that Ukraine is not producing these weapons but relying on a somewhat centralised system of production in other nations.

Also, with regard to New Zealand, some of this stuff just doesn’t work anyway because it’s very unlikely that we’re ever going to be invaded, so Ukraine and Swiss-style defences really don’t come into the picture here.

No, for better or worse our defence strategy remains as it has for over a century; partnerships with friendly, allied nations that pull the focus of our defence into projection overseas before anything can get close enough to hurt us. Sure, as the Left will point out (and perhaps an Isolationist Right?) that means we may get dragged into foreign wars, but if we’re talking about stuffing up China’s Navy and Air Force than that is something we want to have happen well away from our shores – unless you thrill to the idea of trying to shoot at such things as they patrol off our beaches and fly in our skies?

So what does all that mean for actually doing military things in NZ. I’m going pick up three points from a NZDF commentator’s suggestions, with one additional point from Wayne Mapp:

  • A deployable combat brigade.
  • A combat navy well-geared against submarines;
  • Both supported by an air force for tactical airlift and aerial reconnaissance / surveillance – and submarine attack.
  • The rule of three to be applied to all of these: the army needs to be at least three times as big as a brigade, to allow for training and respite posts, the navy needs three frigates to be able to sustain the deployment of one at a time.
  • Special Forces providing high quality maritime surveillance and protection.

Still, the Ukraine lessons could be applied to such home defence as well, noting the Reason commentary above that “it’s harder and harder for old-style militaries and countries to quickly and effectively achieve their objectives through brute force as they meet resistance at every turn..”.

In other words, even if we think a direct attack on NZ is unlikely, it wouldn’t hurt to provide some military capabilities that show even the Chinese that they’ll take a lot of damage, forcing them to ask themselves whether it’s worth it or not. Sad to say I’m sure a blockade and/or cyber warfare against us would be just as effective, but still:

  • Long and short-range, land-based, mobile anti-ship missiles.
  • Long and short-range mobile anti-aircraft missiles.
  • Remote and possibly autonomous air and submarine drone forces (there’s some references and links about this in my old post on the Aussie-US submarine deal).
  • Cyber warfare, both offensive and defensive: as with other capabilities the best we can do is demonstrate that we’ve got smart people and systems that can integrate attack or defense with our allies, something we’re undoubtedly already doing with the GCSB in Five Eyes.

Written by Tom Hunter

March 28, 2022 at 12:25 pm

A string of bright pearls in heaven

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By a sheer fluke I was outside on the deck last night just after 10pm when I saw not one bright moving light in the sky but an entire string of them, rising in the North West and passing almost directly over head before vanishing to the SouthEast. There may be another such pass tonight (Jan 30) at around 9pm.

I knew what it was of course. SpaceX has been launching their Starlink satellites for a couple of years now and I’d wondered when I’d get the chance to see such a sight. It happens only in the first couple of days after a launch before the satellites climb to their working orbits around 330km altitude and vanish from sight.

It actually made the NZ news, very briefly of course, since few people are interested, and I see they had to throw the word “UFO” into the headline as extra click-bait, even though the article immediately explains what’s going on.

The picture supplied in the Herald does not do justice to the spectacle; we’re so used to seeing satellites that it takes something bright like the ISS to catch our attention, and to see a string of bright moving lights stretching from horizon to horizon does. Each launch releases about sixty of the machines, each weighing about 250kg. They look like a flat panel with a solar “sail” sticking out the side to supply power. The clever little beasties can even adjust their orbits autonomously, which they have to do to work with each other.

Musk’s idea is to blanket the Earth with these things to allow high-speed Internet access with nothing more than a specialised satellite dish, eliminating the need for fibre-optic cables or Microwave towers. Download speeds of 60Mbps (Mega Bits Per Second) are already available, with 150Mbps expected in the future. You can be a Beta user here in NZ.

Of course to do this requires thousands of the things to orbit the Earth. Starlink currently has about 1700 and in the future it will be tens of thousands. The technology of sending and receiving information to such rapidly moving objects is complex but in principle no different than a cellphone switching between towers as you drive along in a car.

Astronomers are concerned about such vast numbers of the things screwing up their observations of the heavens so Starlink is working to try and darken the machines, even though they vanish from sight in their orbits anyhow.

Others are concerned about the “space junk” problem. It was already bad enough with thousands of things whizzing around at tens of thousands of km/h, ranging in size from bolts and specs of paint and foil to dead satellites (and ones blown up in anti-satellite tests). Adding tens of thousands of 1/4 tonne machines sounds like a recipe for a disaster. But orbital space is big and in the low orbits used there’s not much else, plus the fact that being so low means that failed Spacelink satellites burn up quickly. As with the rest of SpaceX, Musk is aiming for mass production of a standard design, so such turnover is accepted as part of the business model, as opposed to the huge, expensive geosynchronous, telecoms satellites that take years to build and replace. Spacelink is currently building six per day.

On that front I saw an interesting article showing how the cost of getting into space has dropped since the dawn of the space age, with SpaceX having had a massive impact.

Every time I see that Shuttle cost I’m reminded of how the concept of “reusability”, like other ideas, can actually be counter-productive: look at the cost/kg versus that of the “throwaway” Saturn V that sent men to the Moon. As I pointed out a couple of years ago for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing:

When the Shuttle program itself ended in 2011 the NASA Administrator set a team of accountants to work up the lifetime cost, adjusting for inflation. They found that each Shuttle flight ended up costing more than each Apollo flight. In other words, rather than flopping around in LEO for three decades, the USA could have continued to send two teams to explore the moon each year, every year, from 1973 to 2003, for less money. Even that ignores the possibilities that would have been enabled by the ever-reducing costs of production line Saturn V’s. The Russians still use fifty year old designs for their rockets.

Looking at SpaceX, that number is what the Space Shuttle program was supposed to achieve: it may be ambitious but looking at his progress to date I would not bet against Musk on this issue.

Finally as a fun note is this piece of silliness for spaceflight.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 30, 2022 at 6:00 pm

“Celebration Day”

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Do we have something to celebrate?

I guess the end of the bullshit vaccine passport or C-19 test checking for Southbound Aucklanders on the Waikato Expressway on Monday this week, counts as something. You have to take your wins where you get them.

I doubt many readers of NM are also on Instagram but for anybody under the age of 30 it’s very much a thing. While working on the agricultural contracting job last year I was astounded at the constant camera-sound from a phone as my Irish workmate “communicated” with friends around the world via an endless stream of selfies while I drove us to our harvesting sites.

Then there are the woman of Instagram, exceeded only in obnoxiousness by those on TikTok. The following captures well what’s really going on with those endless photo streams.

I wonder how many dates and marriages will result from all this, or is it all just hookup culture? I guess we’ll know in a few years via surveys.

Back in the real world, increasingly meaning the old world, there were caches of things more valuable than butt-shots.

Is that stack of $500 notes Confederate money? A DDG search says no, and the same for the Union, so perhaps it’s Mexican? I don’t recognise the dude in the picture. Readers are invited to guess or find out. I suppose whoever planted this stash either died or never found their way back to their hiding place.

Jumping back a century or so is another tale of a hard-living chap.

As Captain Benjamin L. Willard would say: “A Tough Mother Fucker!”

And they’re still around. Looks like Hideaki Akaiwa’s story was real enough for Wikipedia, but I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him despite watching several documentaries on the 2011 Japanese Tsunami, given how often we focus on one person’s story amidst many. The lack of body cam video means it can’t compete with Reality TV!

Then there are these heroes, who managed to be heroes while having fun. MUCH FUN.

I wonder why Ferrari, who I think of as the quintessential Italian sport car, have been beaten out for this role by Lamborghini. Also – given that I doubt even modern developments in automotive technology have changed the Italians that much, in that they still love their manual gear shifts – what must the service costs on these babies be like, given Lamborghini’s history.

More history.

And as a final sop to history there’s the story of the sequel to the semi-famous TV series of the late 1990’s, Sex and The City. I saw glimpses of it from time-to-time because it was truly a chick-flick and I never got what was so great about living the loves and travails of four glamorous mid-30’s White Woman in NYC. Still, a lot of ladies around the world loved the characters and their joys and sorrows, all happening in stunningly fashionable clothes and apartments in the New York City of Rudy Guliani, meaning when it wasn’t a shithole like the 1970’s or today.

As a result these fans, now aged twenty more years, were filled with anticipation for the sequel. Had they known any Star Wars fans they’d have guessed what they were in for.

The show is fucking awful, it’s even getting panned by woke Leftie fans who were wanting more than the original four White-girls world. One writer summed it up pretty well by saying that “the writers clearly hate the characters, hate the show and hate the fans”. They even hated the original name and called this one, And Just Like That, which is hopeless. Who could have done this? Fans investigated and…

Yep. The lead writer is someone who hates the characters, hates the show and hates the fans.

So not a celebration then.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 19, 2022 at 6:00 am