Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Flight of the Headless Chicken

When I was five and spending the summer in a small village a couple of time zones east of Moscow I witnessed the execution of a rooster. My brother and I walked over to a neighbor’s house to pick up some eggs. Just as we arrived the neighbor finally caught the rooster and chopped his head of. The now headless rooster then put on quite an aerobatic performance that was quite amazing. After doing an unlimited takeoff he repeatedly soared and plummeted, executed several touch-and-gos (more like crash-and-goes, actually) and was undeterred by what previously would have been head-on collisions. I was by then quite familiar with the poor aerodynamic qualities of barnyard fowl and was duly impressed with the energetic and breathtakingly erratic behavior of a bird liberated from the mental straitjacket of its brain. Unfortunately, the performance only lasted for a minute or so. A word to the wise: I later learned that it is possible to prolong the show, should the need ever arise, by heating up the hatchet so as to cauterize the severed neck. More recently, I have learned that such sans-tête aerobatics are not restricted to chickens.

Figurative birds, of the mechanical variety, can exhibit something similar. A prime example is the greatest boondoggle in the history of military aviation, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It too is liable to losing its head, in the sense of the pilot blacking out. In addition to being ridiculously expensive (over $1.5 trillion in projected project costs) and plagued with problems (only half of the built planes are considered ready for any sort of mission and there are over a thousand known defects that haven’t been fixed, including ones that make it useless for air-to-air combat or ground support) F-35 pilots often report feeling sick and there have been many incidents where they lost consciousness, probably due to oxygen starvation and circulation problems.

In response, the fatally flawed jet’s maker Lockheed Martin, whose motto seems to be “One boondoggle deserves another,” has decided to add a subsystem. Called Auto-GCAS (for Ground Collision Avoidance System), it takes over automatically if it detects the danger of ground collision and the pilot fails to respond to the alarm and take corrective action. Auto-GCAS then throttles up and directs the plane upward, pulling a maximum of five g’s. What does that do to a pilot who is already feeling sick or is unconscious? Once a safe altitude is reached, the plane levels out and Auto-GCAS shuts off. If the pilot happens to be offline for good, the process repeats until the plane runs out of fuel and crashes. I hope that you are impressed with the sheer brilliance of the plan. A show designed to impress was recently staged at an airfield in Utah, where 35 F-35s took off, one right after the other. It has not been independently verified how many of them landed. Auto-GCAS is slated to be ready for use by 2024, but Pentagon’s planners are hoping to accelerate the process.

All of this made me wonder about the general behavior to be expected of hierarchically organized, centrally controlled systems once they are deprived of their control module. Auto-GCAS is by no means the worst case. For instance, there is the Russian Perimetr system, a.k.a. Dead Hand. If it detects that the Russian military leadership has been incapacitated by a nuclear strike, it will launch an all-out nuclear attack, obliterating the aggressor. This may seem like a really bad plan, but then attacking Russia is a really bad plan too, and one bad plan deserves another. What makes this plan bad is that it doesn’t elicit the right response. The right response is: “Oh, we see, attacking Russia is sheer suicide, so let’s not do that.” But where’s the money in not planning to attack Russia? And so instead the “One boondoggle deserves another” crew sets forth to build anti-ballistic missile systems (which don’t work) and deep underground bomb shelters stocked with years’ worth of supplies (which is gold-plating; a large shallow grave to jump into when the time comes would work just as well).

And yet as far as planning for decapitation goes, Dead Hand is state of the art. Most other large-scale centrally controlled systems are woefully unprepared for the loss of their command modules. For instance, look at finance. After the financial collapse of 2008 it quickly became obvious that nobody competent or responsible was in charge. The “solution” was for central banks to start blowing financial bubbles by zeroing out interest rates and flooding the world with new debt. Debt that expands much faster than the economy is garbage debt, and it gave rise to various other kinds of garbage: garbage energy from shale and tar sands, garbage money in the form of cryptocurrencies, garbage real estate investment schemes, garbage corporate balance sheets bloated with debt used up in stock buybacks, a large crop of garbage oligarchs gorging themselves on all of this garbage “wealth” and much else. Things look good while all this garbage is packaged up in financial bubbles, but once they pop (and as all children know all bubbles pop eventually) everyone will end up wearing the garbage.

There are plenty of examples of political auto-decapitation as well. In the US, Trump realized that he can become president simply by insulting all of his competitors (who richly deserved such treatment) and so he did. But now the hive mind of Washington is deeply at odds with the bumblebee-mind of Trump, and neither qualifies as any sort of a head, except perhaps in a strictly symbolic sense. Things are no better in Europe. In the UK, an anti-Brexit team is in charge of negotiating Brexit, struggling to make it as anti-Brexit a Brexit as possible. That doesn’t seem like any sort of “headedness.” In Germany, Merkel is on her way out, and her replacement has the unenviable task of hammering together a governing coalition out of parties that are too busy knocking heads with each other. The multi-headed bureaucratic hydra in Brussels is not exactly popular with anyone. What is the recourse? Emperor Macron of France, perhaps? Is Europe ready to be headed by a diacritical character? (A macron is a horizontal line you place over vowel letters to represent a long vowel: Mācron.)

There are systems that are properly headless: flocks of birds, schools of fish, communes of anarchists, etc. They are anarchically structured and individuals within them take on temporary, task-based leadership roles as the situation demands and can only expect to be obeyed in accordance with their competence in executing the tasks. But most of the human systems we have are hierarchically structured and require to be headed by someone. Democratic elections are but a recent innovation, and a most uncertain one. For instance, during the 2016 election in the US, the establishment trotted out an entire array of craven, feckless, corrupt opportunists, and Trump knocked them all out with a feather, not because he is any sort of proper leader, but because it was so easy.

For an even more amazing example of democratic failure, look at today’s Ukraine—the most recent experiment in Western democracy. There, a constitutionally elected, though remarkably corrupt and indecisive president was violently overthrown in 2014 in a US-managed coup and replaced with an American puppet so unpopular that yesterday he was forced to introduce martial law—just in order to be able to cancel the elections scheduled in three months and to remain in office de facto. To produce a rationale for declaring martial law he sent some small boats on a truly idiotic mission. The boats sailed into a Russian-controlled high traffic zone in the Black Sea, refused to respond when hailed and then pointed weapons at Russian border patrol. For this they were duly arrested and hauled off to jail, and their boats confiscated. Previously, an ongoing civil war instigated by this same president resulted in some fifty thousand casualties, but no martial law was ever deemed necessary. What’s different now? Oh, the elections, of course!

If these are the fruits of democracy, perhaps the Ukrainians should consider going back to a monarchy. Dynastic succession has worked much better and for much longer periods of time. For instance, at the time of its annexation by Russia in 1783, Crimea was ruled by Shahin Girei, a descendant of Genghis Khan who was born around 1155. That one dynasty, spanning 628 years, ruled the largest empire that ever was. At one point it included all of China, most of Russia, Korea, Persia and India, plus many lands in between. Genghis had decreed that no part of the Mongol Empire could be ruled by anyone who wasn’t a direct descendant of his, and so it was. The Mongol Empire ended peacefully, with Shahin Girei abdicating his throne and accepting protection from Catherine the Great. Maybe that’s the plan, then: install a Ukrainian Emperor and immediately have him abdicate his throne and accept protection from Putin the Great. Then Putin will turn the heat and the hot water back on, the armed thugs will be marched off to someplace safe for disarming and de-thugging, and the nuke plants will stop breaking down.

Since we seem to be headed (no pun intended) for unstable and disrupted times, it bears pointing out that while democracy may be very nice when everything is going along according to plan, it is not particularly resilient in the face of severe disruption. And what is the plan now—in the US, or in the EU (or what will be left of it)? We have some truly ghastly examples of the fruits of democracy in the form of the Weimar Republic in Germany or the Interim Government between February and October of 1917 in Russia. If you don’t fancy being ruled by headless chickens, consider picking a leader using whatever ad hoc procedure that works. The idea is to avoid any more Robespierrian Reigns of Terror, Reichstag fires or October Revolutions—because we already know what those are like.


RogerB said...

The BBC reports that there was a 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia allowing joint access to the Sea of Azov and that Russia moored a cargo vessel under the bridge preventing access by Ukraine.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Good point, RogerB. But that agreement is conditional on the Friendship and Cooperation Agreement of May 31, 1997 which the Ukraine repudiated in 2018. Because of this, the Russian Federation is under no obligation to recognize Ukrainian borders, sovereignty, or any other rights under either Russian or international law.

romar said...

... In which case passage rights are governed by international law, including the Law of the Sea, whose Art. 25 - "Rights of protection of the coastal State" stipulates that:
1. The coastal State may take the necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage which is not innocent.
3. The coastal State may, … suspend temporarily in specified areas of its territorial sea the innocent passage of foreign ships if such suspension is essential for the protection of its security....

Silychristen said...

Macron’s new army is to be formed from 10 states...rather biblical...he was elected by 66.06 of votes cat...his name is Emmanuel...the man of sin

Robin Morrison said...

While I admire the perfect aptness of headless chickens as metaphor for modern civilization in general, with cauterizing red-hot axes prolonging the agonizing leaps and falls like banks holding their collective debt breath until they, uh, die, it was nonetheless a brutal shock to read at 5am even for me, a veteran of brutal shocks.

So I'll offer the same metaphor but with a different cast and background:

First time I drove a car (1976) was when two drunk Indians gave me a lift from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Chadron, Nebraska. Asked me to drive. I was 18 but dropping out of high school had deprived me of driver's ed. I had no license.

"It's easy. Just point and push."

It was a late '50s tailfin longboat with a sagging front end and bad steering. You practically free spun the wheel to make turns, like a Spanish galleon, and keeping it straight on the road felt like Han Solo weaving through the asteroid belt. Front tire blew out and I was suddenly all over the road until we hit the ditch and cork-screwed several times, coming to rest upside down. With no injuries and one of the gentlemen still passed out, sprawled upside down sideways over the front seat backrest.

Police arrived and took us to Chadron's jail, the drunk Injuns in one rig, me in another. I witnessed a small miracle of death when we swerved but failed to avoid hitting a white kitten with glaring green eyes that appeared of a sudden under a street lamp as we turned a tight small town boulevard's curve that late summer night. It shot out from under, back of the car, flying straight up almost as high as the street lamp bulb, a snowball of white fur in a frozen explosion with flailing claws, hit the ground and rebounded several times more, losing a bit of altitude each bounce, until another curve removed it from view.

"Shit," the officer up front had said quietly under his breath. Breathlessness overtakes me now, almost 40 years later, remembering it.

P.S. I am not a robot! Free gluten for everyone! Hail the future, wherein the Singularity gives us not only a chicken in every pot but a pot in every self-cooking chicken! Hail Atlantis!

Slo Mo said...

It seems like there are two realities. In one Crimea made a choice to become independent, much like Kosovo before them, and then decided to join Russia. In the other Russia used its military presence to annex a part of Ukraine. Depending on which reality you happen to occupy things look very different. And no meaningful dialogue is possible. This can only end with the two realities battling it out until one is populated by nobody.

Mark said...

There are much better ways of harvesting chickens.

Jayhawk said...

@Slo Mo
No, there is only one reality; the other is propaganda and delusion. The argument is about whether truth will prevail over propaganda and delusion, or whether the liars will write history.

Moshe said...

This kind of pieces made me realize that my patronage to Club Orlov ($4/month) is worth every penny... Or kopeck...

Dmitry Orlov said...

@Slo Mo There is reality, and then there is "fake news" and "alternative facts". Some people can't distinguish the two. But any idiot can absorb the fake news while it takes a careful study of history to develop an appreciation of history—difficult in a country that has no history and doesn't remember what history it has. (The American Civil War over slavery? Riiiight...) Crimea pre-existed the Ukraine by a few thousand years, and it went from being part of the Mongol Empire to being part of the Russian Empire, then the USSR, then Russia. The Crimean population held multiple referenda, and never once did it choose to leave Russia or to join the Ukraine: that was the injustice. For a few decades it existed as an autonomy within the Ukrainian SSR, then the Ukraine, based on a transfer that was illegitimate under the constitution of the USSR. When in 2014 the coup took place and an illegally installed, foreign-dominated Ukrainian government violated its own constitution and attempted to deprive Crimea of its autonomy, the Russian troops already stationed in Crimea under an international agreement acted as peacekeepers and prevented violence, allowing the Crimeans to finally make their own choice without a single shot fired. Please study a bit of history, and you'll find that the alternative "fake news" version will vanish like the morning mist.

Slo Mo said...

@Dmitry, telling all this to someone who has already "studied a bit of history" would be preaching to the choir. Telling it to those who disagree with you, confused by fake news or unable to resist to the pull of the consensual reality that makes them feel comfortable, would be equally pointless. It seems like everyone has picked a side and the choice is final. The board is set. Doesn't it scare you?

RB Seymour said...

I have to laugh when reading your very entertaining articles.
If the next ten years turn out to be the unsettling endurance contest that I think they might, those of us who live that long will need all the laughs we can get.

So I hope you keep doing this...,,,

Unknown said...

As England's Cardinal Thomas Wolsey said, in Henry VIIIs time, it's not the words of a treaty that matters, it's the making of the deal. Mutatis mutandis in the Azov scenario, the Ukraine is deceiptful and malicious. Trading on the words of treaties that they belie by their conduct. Consequently, Russia should deliver them a right good smacking as one would to a nasty drunk. No apologizing. Draw a clear line. Administer pain. Then stop. Very controlled conduct. I believe this sort of posture wins widespread respect. Considering the Ukraine is a corrupt regime under the influence of factions of the U.S. Russia is obliged. The U.S. will continue to employ the Ukraine as a cat's paw and Russia had better be prepared to sink some ships soon or shoot down some planes and then follow through. The U.S. howls a lot but has no sticking power.