Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Christmas Eve, babe....

As always, here's to avoiding the drunk tank--and drama in general--as you settle in to enjoy the holidays.


And since we're having this chat: Happy New Year, too!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Armed and dangerous

Let's see if this is possible. Let's see if I can write brief post about gun control that's actually brief.

It can be tough to sort through all the noise to get any signal on this issue. You have probably seen a lot of information thrown around since the San Bernardino shootings: That 2.5 million crimes are averted every year because of guns (laughable); that gun crime is way down since 1993 (true but misleading; the numbers have been same since 1998 or so); that a gun ban in Australia made a big impact in gun deaths there (complex, but probably accurate); and even that it's unthinkable to abridge a constitutional right (also laughably untrue--try buying an RPG or shouting "fire" in a crowded theater).

All of that obfuscates the one fact that is literally undeniable: Americans are killed by guns at an appalling rate. Way higher, UNBELIEVABLY higher, than peer nations... and even some third-world countries. To say this is untrue is to share a Venn diagram with moon landing hoax believers.



That's a problem. A public health problem, in that people are dying who shouldn't be. A human problem, in that sons, daughters, mothers, sons are being taken from their families. And even an economic problem, in that all that those people could contribute--from the big, like starting companies, to the small, like paying sales taxes--is obliterated forever.

Why are we so unwilling, as a country, to address it?

I think the biggest issue is that the problem seems more or less insurmountable now. Distractions like "let's fix mental illness!" ignore the glaringly obvious correlation between gun deaths and the number of guns. Yet no one is seriously proposing confiscating all guns. That's because it would be constitutionally questionable, at best, and also because there are so many guns. The NRA has spent the last 40 years  convincing America that we need more guns as "tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection." Tons of other Americans, including me, have paid money to shoot firearms for fun, or own them at home for the same reason. So the heavily armed horse is way, way out of the barn, and isn't coming back.

It's easy at this point in the conversation to just throw up your hands and say, "Screw it! Nothing can be done." But that's a pretty lame attitude. That's not how we cured smallpox, integrated schools or made cars safer.

So here are some things we could do:
-Require liability insurance. It has been proven with other crimes that making them just slightly less convenient (or harder) to commit deters them. If, as when you buy a car, you have to obtain insurance, that will dent sales. It will also theoretically create economic incentives for insurance companies to find ways to make guns safer, for instance by funding more advanced smart gun systems.

-Mandate a much longer waiting period for buying a gun. Include an onerous background check. Training. The result is fewer gun sales, and guns in the hands of theoretically more stable, responsible owners.

-Make concealed carry illegal. This is probably the most controversial idea. But if we're serious about stopping mass shootings, we should understand that "good guys with guns" are unlikely to prevent such carnage. And worse, they present a complication to responding officers, who must now sort out who are the good shooters and who are the bad shooters before reacting. (Note that this is why, in the Oregon campus shooting, an actual armed student kept his gun holstered.) The U.S. is a modern nation, not Somalia, and if you feel scared enough to arm yourself for everyday life--and you're not in the military or in law enforcement--I would suggest that your money would be better spent on counseling.

-And this seems like the least-controversial idea anyone could suggest: Allow the CDC to study gun violence unfettered. Since 1996, the agency hasn't been able to examine gun violence with any kind of rigor. (Thanks, NRA!) Getting good, unbiased data on gun violence is the first step toward addressing it like the public health and safety issue it is.

The auto industry is a great example of how safety has been regulated into both the product and the user. It would be fantastic to see the same type of results with guns:




But nothing will change if we continue to just shrug our shoulders and complain that it's too big of a problem or too big of a burden on gun owners. Nothing resembling those two obstacles have stood in politicians' way as they happily tried to legislate  solutions to--just pulling an issue out of thin air here--terrorism. Terrorism, yes, which has killed exponentially fewer Americans since 2001 than gun violence. And no amount of gut-churning violence seems to be weighty enough to act as an inflection point. You would think the massacre of a bunch of children by a guy using legal firearms would have given us a push in the right direction. But that was years ago, and here we are again.

Like an addiction, the first step is admitting we have a problem. Denying it will just land us right back in the same bloody mess.

And so maybe the next post I write on the subject will actually be short. Maybe even just one word: "Finally!"

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Tigershark and a Falcon Hawk walk into an arms market....

China is trying very hard to sell its J-31 Falcon Hawk (sometimes referred to at the Gyrfalcon) stealth fighter to other countries. Most recently, it was on display at the Dubai Airshow, where officials with its manufacturer, AVIC, promoted such features as:

-It has two engines
-It has vertical stabilizers (i.e. "tailfins")
-It can carry weapons

If you thought to yourself, "Self... aren't these features that many military aircraft have?" you'd be asking a legitimate question. But lest you think I'm exaggerating, here--watch the promotional video for yourself:


They didn't go into great detail about anything, as you can see. What is arguably the plane's biggest selling point, its stealthiness, is asserted without any quantification. What's the radar cross-section? How far away can it be detected? All open questions.

Another key detail not addressed was how much each plane would cost buyers. And here's the most important bit: there are no customers. A major aerospace company is selling a low-cost (maybe?) stealth fighter to anyone who wants it, but, well... no one wants it. Including the Chinese military, which is focusing on the J-20 and has no plans to buy any J-31s.

It's easy to mock AVIC for this. But this isn't the first time a company invested money in what it thought was a superior product, only to find its plane utterly ignored.

In the mid-1970s, the American defense giant Northrop (now Northrop Grumman, maker of such obscure aircraft as the B-2 stealth bomber) began developing a light fighter for export. The idea was to supply U.S. allies with a high-quality fighter that could defeat front-line Soviet gear, but not sell them top-of-the-line U.S. hardware, like the newly developed F-15.

Thus spawned the F-20 Tigershark. It was basically re-engineered F-5 Tiger II, with its wings and tail tweaked to improve maneuverability and a single engine that generated more than 50 percent more thrust that the F-5s two engines. Overall performance was, in the end, comparable to the more-expensive F-16. It looked like this:



Neat, right? But despite its relatively low cost and relatively high performance, there were no buyers. Well, Bahrain ordered a few, but they were never delivered. The biggest issue was that the U.S. changed its export policies, allowing better equipment--including the F-16--to be sold overseas. Northrop was never even able to sell any to the U.S. government. And so after the better part of a decade, Northrop abandoned the program after spending more than $1 billion on it.

So there are all kinds of factors at work with the J-31. Buyers who are allowed to purchase an F-35 or Eurofighter Typhoon probably will. Buyers who aren't--I'm looking at you here, Pakistan--are probably reluctant to shell out money for a plane that may or may not do any of the stuff its advertised to do. (And a J-31 buy would not generate goodwill with Washington, either.)

In the end, the J-31's problem is that it's probably just a dog, developed for Chinese use but discarded in favor of the superior J-20. AVIC is trying to get something back on its investment. But like Northrop, it might be better served moving on to the next project and leaving the Falcon Hawk alongside the Tigershark as a footnote to aviation history.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

They did it. They did it!

After losing the World Series in seven games last season, the Kansas City Royals are once again world champs.

As I wrote last year, I have clear memories of the games, the celebrations across the city, the parade. I was right there in the middle of it in '85, a nine-year-old watching the games on TV at home and the victory parade on TV in the cafeteria of my elementary school.

Now I have literally never been farther from home--7,796 miles, if Google is to be trusted--and the Royals have done it again.

I wish I were there to celebrate with my Kansas Citian friends. I wish I had been there to watch some of the nail-biting late innings with my parents (and my dad, especially, who HATES nail-biting late innings). But in the end, I can't complain: I'm here with Mrs. Blog and the increasingly adorable Little Blog, and thanks to the Internet, I was able to follow nearly every minute of the post-season. That's literally a win-win.

And you know what? Thanks to that 7,800-mile distance, most of the games came on around breakfast time here in Hong Kong. And thanks to the extra innings, right around lunchtime on November 2, I was able to see this:


Go, Royals!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tragedy, journalism and everyday life

It's true, I think, that when you get into journalism you know you're signing up for being exposed to things you can't unsee.

When I was reporting in Chicago, there were dead people. And body bags. And violent crime scenes that hadn't been cleaned up. But even if you never leave the newsroom, you're surrounded by images--on TV, the Internet and in print--that aren't always wonderful.

Right now, I'm more or less in the second situation: I've got a desk, two monitors and a phone. I deal with business news in Asia, which is never more than metaphorically depressing. But the refugee situation in Europe means that, like most of the world, I've seen horrifying pictures of dead children on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Like I said, you know you're signing up for it. And for better or worse I think you get kind of inured to it after a while.

But for me, the emotion leaks through sometimes. There are two times this happened to me that stick out in my memory.

Once was when I was covering the kidnapping and killing of a boy (a celebrity's nephew, actually) in Chicago. I interviewed some of his family's neighbors. Talked to the police. Did normal reporting things. Was fine. Then I saw the picture we had been given to use with the story. It was from his birthday party. He was seated at a table, holding a balloon. A huge, innocent, joyous smile just radiated from his face.

Someone had taken that kid--defenseless and innocent--and killed him. I came home from work that night and cried. It was hard to stop.

The second time was today. You've probably seen the picture too: a three-year-old Syrian boy, lying motionless in the surf in Turkey. You can't see his face. He's dressed in a tiny red T-shirt and tiny blue pants and tiny black shoes.

He died because his parents are war refugees, unable to travel normally, legally, to a safe haven. I cried (discreetly, because I'm a professional) at my desk.

The latest one hit me harder, I think, because I have a kid of my own. I dress her every day. Sometimes she wears tiny pants and a tiny T-shirt and tiny shoes. She's defenseless and wonderful and I never want anything bad to happen to her. So what happened to the Syrian toddler seems all the more tragic and unjust. His parents' choice was to risk their lives living in a war or risk their lives trying to claw their way into a more promising country.

That's not a fair choice. Developed countries have plenty of room to help those trying to escape war, or religious or political persecution. It's the right thing to do, but if you're more of a "how does it help the bottom line?" type, the economic benefits of immigration--legal and illegal--are pretty unambiguous, at least in the United States.

As for me, I'm glad I'm not too calloused to react emotionally like that. I'd be worried if I were. But I hope--naively, I know--that the world will improve, and there will just be fewer images like this for me to react to.

That's the world I want my daughter to live in. Not the one where generosity is seen as weakness, and refugees treated as a nuisance.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A dark and loosely plotted future

Greetings, friends of the blog. You're in for a treat: this will be the second post in a row about writing! I'd like to talk to you about "Ghost Fleet." (Like "Callahan Crossroads," it's about a world war, but it's a little... less kid-friendly.)

I'll try to keep this general and spoiler-free, but if a few plot points slip through here and there, my apologies--you've been warned.

The subtitle of "Ghost Fleet" is "A novel of the next world war." And almost immediately, it delivers on that idea. The setup, broadly, is that in the near future there has been some calamitous radiological warfare in the Middle East--not by the U.S.!--that wrecks the oil market, the stock market, and the global economy in general... except for China, which somehow escapes in a position of strength.

Ghost Fleet--the cover.

'Murca, facing sudden and gigantic budget constraints, cuts military spending, leaving a lot of research and development in limbo, and a lot of the Navy's vessels in mothballs. With me so far? OK. China is rich and powerful, and the U.S. is less so, although things are getting better, as American companies do brisk business with the Chinese. Oh, and the Communist government has fallen in China, laid low by the economic downturn. A military-business partnership called The Directorate runs the show now.

Then China discovers a huge petro-energy deposit in its waters, giving it energy independence, and that leads its leadership to decide the time is ripe to crush the United States.

For me, this was a bit of a "needle scratches on the record and the jukebox stops" moment.

It could be that the authors have greater insight into Chinese military thinking than I do, but this seems like a move with almost no upside and tons of downside. Right? If the Chinese military pulls it off, then China's position (as the book describes it) is not greatly improved, and if it DOESN'T pull it off, then China is in for a world of hurt, both militarily and economically. China is already top dog, and starting a world war just seems like trying to hit boxcars on one roll.

But hey, it's a novel, and every novel needs a starting point. From there, of course, things get heated.

China invades Pearl Harbor! Destroys most of the U.S. fleet at anchor! Has hacked critical systems in American weapons like the F-35! And, critically, destroys nearly all of America's space capabilities--GPS satellites, communications, and so on. (This is accomplished via every space nerd's worst fear: an ostensibly peaceful space station having hidden weaponry.)

The key to America's ability to strike back, or strike at all, lies in the aforementioned mothballed ships, which are called--wait for it!--the ghost fleet. In the book, they are America's only hole card: new enough to do damage but old enough to not have been hacked.

Ghost fleet--the real thing.

I will omit details from here, because, you know... you might want to read the book and enjoy it yourself. But the plot follows a reluctant Navy captain thrust into a position of heroism; a Marine forced to lead a jihadist-style insurgency in Hawaii; and various players on the Chinese and Russian side. Oh, yeah, about the Russians: they collaborate with China in the sneak attack.

America is left mostly without allies, as NATO dissolves itself and Japan turns its back, kicking the U.S. out of its bases there.

It's one of the few books I have read in which the United States is involved in a war in which it has literally zero advantages. After the Pearl Harbor invasion, China holds all the cards. This was illustrated nicely, to the point where I as a reader was feeling angry at China in real life--yikes.

Now, the thing about this book is that it is written by two defense analysts, and the text is heavily endnoted. Just about every supposition they make about technology or capabilities in general is supported by at least a smidgen of research, which lends some smaller plot points some weight. And the story itself moves fast. As Mrs. Blog can tell you, I traded sleep for reading time a couple of nights in the last week, which is rare.

Having said that, "Ghost Fleet" suffers from some problems in both the plot and writing departments.

In terms of plot, the setup is kind of a worst-case scenario. A lot of things have to go wrong to get to the status quo, but sure, OK--it's not implausible, I'd say, just unlikely. But from there, I was disappointed that the story did not have more sweep. America, in the book, is left with two allies: 'Straya and Great Britain (Scotland has seceded). But the story takes us to neither of those places, although they are mentioned repeatedly.

Some key stuff (like how the deus ex machina behind China's ability to target its anti-ship ballistic missiles works) is never explained, which is a little jarring considering the pains taken to add realism elsewhere. Other things, like where the huge U.S. military presence in Korea was during this whole affair, never even come up. And broadly, the story feels like it is missing a third act; there is a major battle at the end, but to me there was still a lot of war remaining. I would also have liked to see some of the politics play out, as the U.S. dealt with former allies like Japan.

In terms of writing, there is only one (maybe one and a half) human relationship in play in the book. That leaves plenty of action-based tension but not a lot of personal stakes. Characters often sort of fill archetypes rather that inhabit their own space. And on occasion, people take the time to explain to each other things they already know--just for the sake of the reader.

But let me reiterate, it's a good read. Just feels to me like it was cut off abruptly, and missing a resolution to a lot of subplots and themes that are abandoned by the end.

In conversations with others in the defense industry, it has become clear to me over the years that there is indeed a genuine fear that China might underestimate a U.S. response to aggression. China hasn't fought in a major war in forever, whereas--for better or worse--America has been shooting or blowing up enemies pretty much constantly since the early '90s. And this might lead China to make the same mistake Japan did at the outset of Pacific hostilities in World War II.

Let's hope everyone remembers the lesson from that bloody affair (China, in "Ghost Fleet," clearly did not):


Friday, July 24, 2015

Callahan Crossroads, Anola Pickett, and You

Greetings, Friends of the Blog! Today I bring you a brief conversation with the children's author Anola Pickett, a talented writer who also--in the interest of full disclosure--happens to be my mother.

Her latest book, "Callahan Crossroads," came out earlier this month and it's a bit of a departure from her previous work; it has a male protagonist, it's set in the middle of the country and it takes place during a war. Here's the jacket summary, which pretty much nails it: 
It's the summer of 1918, and all twelve-year-old George Callahan wants to do is hunt for spies with his best friend. But with America at war, the Callahan family is facing new challenges on all fronts. Thoughtfully researched, beautifully written, and filled with historic detail, this heartwarming family drama is an instant classic both children and adults will enjoy.
I of course can't give an unvarnished review "Crossroads" for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact that I'm [REDACTED] years outside the intended audience to the fact that, again, I am the author's son. But as a Kansas City native, I enjoyed seeing so many familiar streets and places (even ones that really only exist in old pictures now) name-checked. And as a guy who maybe knows more than he should about military history, a snapshot of what it was like at home during World War I was fascinating too--especially as seen through the eyes of a tween.

Overall, there are a lot of topics that you don't often see in a book for this age group. One of the biggest is how we are expected to act on the homefront during wartime, and how that can trample everyday human concerns. Feminism also makes an appearance, in the form of a debate over women's suffrage and Aunt Nora, who plans to join the Marines.

Here's what the author has to say about "Callahan Crossroads." Very minor spoilers within:

Q: Kansas City features almost like a character in the book. Why did you choose it as a setting?

A: Kansas City, of course, is familiar territory because I grew up and have spent most of my life here. It was fun to put George and his family in a neighborhood close to my own childhood home and to include streets and sites that are part of my hometown. For someone researching a book about the "war to end all wars," Kansas City was a logical setting because it's home to the National World War I Memorial and Museum. (www.theworldwar.org) I wanted to honor the spirit of Kansas City. After the war, Kansas Citians raised $2,000,000 to build a memorial “In honor of those who served in the world war in defense of liberty and our country.”

Q: How much of the characters and situations are based on your own family and memories?


A: As I wrote the book, some situations from my childhood flowed into the story. My mother was a seamstress, as was George's. She woke us up by pounding on the ceiling with a broom handle--a highly effective wake-up call! She and I struggled daily over her insistence that I eat what I considered lumpy oatmeal. When I was very small, a man came around every evening to light the gas street light and returned each morning to extinguish it. Milk and bread were delivered via horse-drawn wagons, as was ice in the summer and coal in the winter. Our house was on a terrace, as were the homes of the Callahans and the Kellys. Mrs. Schmitt's gingerbread men came from the memory of a woman who lived next door to my family. My mother often talked about her days in St. Vincent's parish and school. My extended family reflects the disparity of attitudes and action towards war. Like George's brother Charlie, one of my brothers was a conscientious objector and some nephews refused to register. I also have cousins and nephews with military experience and one nephew proudly serves in the U.S. Navy. I'm proud of them all for following their hearts and beliefs.

Q: How do you think attitudes toward war have changed since 1918?
 

A: In 1918 everyone in the country was aware that we were at war. The government established many departments to make sure that everyone was involved. Daily messages and omnipresent posters called the nation to serve--not just in the military--but at home by conserving food and energy, by saving metal and fruit pits (for gas mask filters), by collecting books for the soldiers, by buying Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps to financially support the war. Today, it seems to me, only those in military service and their families are directly involved in the war. The citizenry is not asked to sacrifice financially or to conserve resources or collect anything to help in a war. Military action seems removed from the daily lives of Americans.

Q: How unusual was Nora's situation? How many women served in the Marines during World War I?

A: Although a woman named Lucy Brewer served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the War of 1812, she was disguised as a man. The Corps began recruiting women into their ranks in August, 1918. They were assigned to office and communications work here in this country. Opha Johnnson was the first official woman Marine and 304 women had followed her into the Corps by the end of the war. General Jack Pershing (a Missourian) had already recruited young women to serve overseas as telephone operators. He gave priority to those who could speak French. In my book one of Nora's friends had left for Europe to do just that. Other women were "over there" as well: nurses, Red Cross workers, etc. None of them were on the front lines.

Q: You weren't around during World War I, but how were things during World War II in Kansas City? What do you remember? Did you have any German neighbors, and if so, how were they treated?
 
A: World War II brought back many of the efforts from the first war. Citizens were asked to buy bonds and stamps to support the war effort; food was rationed, along with shoes and gas. Schools held paper and metal drives. We collected grease and took it to the butcher. I don't remember any antipathy toward German neighbors, but there were negative feelings about the Japanese. Although there were no Japanese-Americans in my neighborhood, I remember that the owners of a Chinese restaurant were whispered about. I'm sure their business suffered because some local gossips thought they looked "Oriental."

Want to know more about Mom/Anola and her work? Visit her website, anolapickett.com.