Saturday, April 14, 2018

Cold Partnerships: The Complexity of Syria

Photo Credit: Reuters

On Friday April 13, 2018, US President Donald J. Trump appeared on television announcing the commencement of punitive airstrikes on chemical weapons research and storage installation of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Joining the US in the attack, the United Kingdom and France, struck in response to renewed attacks by the Assad regime against insurgents in the city of Douma located east of the Syrian capital of Damascus. A chemical attack on April 7th killed an estimated forty-two (42) people and effected degrees of injuries on up to 500 more persons following yet another breakdown in a Russian brokered cease fire between factions in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Images and stories in the aftermath highlighted the humanitarian cruelty of the Assad’s sectarian Alawites against their Muslim neighbors. Toxicology and treatment reports from the area reported the use of a nerve agent possibly combined with chlorine, apparently an attempt to conceal the deadlier compounds. The ordnance was reportedly delivered via the Assad regime’s favored method, Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped barrel bomb(s). Typical of the subterfuge that is the Middle East, cover up stories seeking to muddy the finger pointing as to who actually perpetrated the attack followed; a number of them designed to cause doubt that the insurgents themselves may have martyred their own in an attempt to gain attention on the world stage as government forces closed in. Planted pictures, the “fake news” of hacktivism and the exploitation of the internet.  You want to know more about how sophisticated that gets?  Google “Syrian Electronic Army”

The global response so far has been surgically forceful. If you examine it from all sides, rather cooperatively so. The Russians could not have been happy that their attempt at brokering a cease fire in a relentless civil war had failed yet again. The US, which the week before had been contemplating ramping down operations as the war against ISIS waned, found itself dragged into the troubles of Western Syria, where the US does not operate, to deal with a breach of the Chemical Weapons Conventions. The Iranians and Israelis, who had been playing their own tit-for-tat in southern Syria, found their squabbles on the global back burner. And even Turkey, itself embroiled in the sticky multi-national pickle in northern Syria dealing with the Kurdish question of a culture straddling three countries who would rather not have to deal with them except that they’ve managed to charm the Americans, found themselves having to think global.

The world began to maneuver recognizing that the nation of Syria, its civil war including all its factions, had once again crossed that mythical Red Line in the Sand. Except this time, the United States was telegraphing it as going to make good on the threat to pound that sand. In the week between the 7th and 13th the world saw a global negotiation via diplomatic, press and social media channels. Negotiated gruffly yes, but amazingly efficiently turned into an actionable “deal”.

Alignments of Strategic Interests

There is no compelling global interest to take on the task of policing the civil war in western Syria. The “Deliver Us from Evil’ era of human rights interventionism of the last quarter century in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq is over. This dispute is for the Syrians to work out for themselves. The world’s present-day mission is to contain civil wars, not end them.

Digging deeper, there is no compelling interest for non-Syrian regional players to attempt sudden gains in the regional “hill and valley” power matrix while this latest episode unfolds.  Consider,

The Iranians need a more stable Syria with a surviving Assad regime if they ever hope to complete their Shia Crescent hopes to reach the Mediterranean. Tehran’s main worry in the future is less America than it is whether America vigorously back the inevitable Saudi and Israeli opposition to the Persian dream.

The Turks similarly see no gain to upsetting the Syrian status quo to their south; they’re more worried that a break up of Syria would trigger a question of the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey demanding independence and possibly getting American help. This does not serve the Erdogan regime’s objectives.

The Iraqis just want to be left alone to rebuild their country on their own. Their fear is the “Wild West” might come across their border and infect them yet again. I once had a conversation with a diplomat where it came up that Iraq needs a, wait for it, “wall” to keep the Syrian mess on the far side of the Nineveh Plain from Baghdad. I did joke that they could try talking to the best wall builders in the Middle East about that. The response of a charming diplomatic smile noted that perhaps it’s a bit too soon.

What is compelling?

What there is when you get down to the core is a compelling interest to act to curtail the continued use of chemical weapons within the Syrian civil war. That need is paramount regardless of who is perpetrator or victim. As in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, in the end, there are no innocents here anymore. Only those who will die and those who will survive.

What bothers humankind is that there is demonstrated capability and willingness to use chemical weapons in the region. This cannot be allowed. The pathways of negotiation, even by a forceful presence like Russia’s, did not work. Sanctions did not work. Threats did not work. The next step of infrastructure destruction has become a necessity, not an option. It’s interesting to note on this point that the Russians could not themselves destroy Assad’s chemical weapons program, that job had to fall to the militaries of the West. Machiavellian. A turn, within a turn, within a turn.

The West did so with the bulk of the firepower supplied by the United States. Warning time was sufficient to allow the Russians to move personnel and assets out of the area, or at least into avoidable locations; an action that stripped Assad of the ability to defend himself when aerial attack finally came. Regardless of bellicose bluster, that chess converted a field of technically capable air defense assets into a motley collection of bottle rockets. I particularly liked the Russian statement that they would “defend themselves” as a cool nuance.

The telegraphy of statecraft is subtle and consequential. The dance between Trump and Putin as it played out, telepathic … and hopeful.  Within the Twitter storm of the past week, there was this.


For now, mischief managed. Tomorrow? Well that’s another day in the former Garden of Eden.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Those Meddlesome Russians


Russian relations with the Western nations of planet earth are in a tailspin. Scandal erupts over the use of a nerve agent to poison former KGB spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom. The incident ignited concerns of over core principles of international law concerning states failing to honor the sovereign rights of other nations. In global stability, this is a critical barrier between peace and war among nations whose inherent national interests often do not align. It is dangerous precedent, that if allowed to stand, could enable other nations or their actors to pursue perceived enemies with impunity anywhere, regardless of the laws of the nation where the target is located.

Western nations are reacting using an international response strategy sometimes referred to as DIME. It stands for Diplomacy, Intimidation, Militancy and Economic response. They operate as a quartet in managing global stability in cases. So far, the first two response silos have been activated. Intimidation, also known as exposure and shaming, has been acrimonious by the U.K. including Prime Minister Theresa May public calling out the Russian government in parliament. Diplomatically, Britain and the United States have expelled Russian diplomatic personnel, 23 for the U.K. and 60 by the U.S. The Russians, also practitioners of DIME, have so far only activated a diplomatic response by similarly expelling an equal number of diplomats. Overall, despite all the news coverage and posturing, a muted tit-for-tat at best.

Epic Chasm

For westerners who live in cultures where criticism and defiance of the state is considered a virtue of democratic debate, the appearance of the statecraft and governance of societies like Russia’s where the image and stability of the state stands above that of the citizenry is a bit of a head bender. But in places like Russia, the security of the state is paramount. Russia is a large and poor country. Seventy-five of the eighty-five districts of the Russian Federation are insolvent. Keeping things together constitutes a large portion of the work of the central government in Moscow. Execution of this effort in Russia is not democratic by any means. The central government works though oligarchies that create a semblance of economic stability; albeit, through a corruption prone system rivaling that of any third world ninety-nine percent of the wealth in one percent’s hands. To obtain the narrowest of tenuous hold, Russia sacrifices the quality of life of its people.

Sanctioned Criminals

This generates one of the truly macabre path dependent technology revolutions on planet Earth. Russia is an amazingly intellectual society. Think of a place where community colleges can produce scientists and engineers rivaling the products of MIT, Georgia Tech and Cal Tech in the US. Back in the day, I used to joke with my friends in the stealth aircraft and electronic warfare specialties of the defense game that, as a net assessment risk and stability analyst, I always found it funny that most of the math equations they worked with were named after Russians, and the Reds did their calculations using pencils. They were not amused.

But Russia’s tiny $1.2 Trillion GDP economy cannot absorb all this brain talent into domestic industry. All that talent is poor and looking for something to do. Remember from earlier in this article that the Russian government’s main goal in life is to preserve the stability and image of the state. They are not dumb. They know they have a festering unemployed talent problem that they need to keep distracted while they figure out how to, somehow, centrally plan the growth of the Russian economy’s eighty-five federation districts, such is the way of socialists.

Thus, here comes the resurgence of the old concept of criminal privateering; the sanctioning of unscrupulous behaviors for gain. In technology that means looking the other way as the pauper technocrats engage in credit card fraud, computer hacking, and unethical datamining. In some cases, for personal profit; in other cases, for hire. The simple rule of the letter of mark for a privateer applies. You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t point your stick at Mother Russia; none of that western democracies questioning the state stuff. Indeed, Russia’s FSB has shown it remains stalwart in it’s viciousness against enemies of the state. Pretty sure the Skripals would agree. Today, you can buy any sort of meddle for hire from Russia’s technocrat class; and Moscow will quietly look away so long as you do not violate the social compact of aiming that meddle outside the castle keep.

Thoughts on the Mueller Investigation

And so we get to the alleged Russian meddling in the US 2016 election. By 2016, the Russian system of criminal privateering for hire had reached organizational maturity just in time to meet the demands of the gigantic multi-million dollar ($USD) budgets of intensely competitive presidential campaign motivated to stop at nothing to win. Russia’s pauper technocrats were looking at making five to fifteen times the amount of money a month than they’ve ever dreamed. Moscow correctly judged that it didn’t actually affect the domestic image or stability of the Russian Federation. Therefore, it was ok to look the other way as “Peggy” robots went to work for all sides in American politics resulting in social pandemonium and breakdown of decorum in America. For profit, not policy.

In the end, will the USA, indeed the world, learn the lesson that the reforms we really need are to place safeguards and ethics around our elections, and our economic, not to fall prey to sending checks to pauper technocrats who will use nonsensical memes to obscure the discussion of important issues; not because they are politically activist, but because it generates more click-thru rates and ad serves. We bought the meddling with our own money. It was never the Russian government’s responsibility to stop the hackers.

Friday, March 16, 2018

"All About Vlad"; What I’d Like to Ask Vladimir Putin If I Could Interview Him


We recently passed the equinox of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was ever up. And the European landscape is once again returning to it’s post-Hundred Years War pattern of smaller political rifts and incremental border movements that it has used to blow off steam since 1,453 A.D. Cities like Sevastopol are once again fought over like the days of old when Hapsburgs went tit-for-tat with each other over strategic towns and valleys. Byzantine intrigue emerges again, the cloaks and daggers of spies replaced by the apparent surgical use of weapons grade toxins. The dour of Theresa May addressing Parliament has the indignant ring not heard in the House of Commons since Margaret Thatcher. The Romans would be proud at what the Romani have rediscovered.

The Russian Federation is a perplexing nation still caught, even after all these years, in the fallout of the Cold War. It’s predecessor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, cratered spectacularly many years ago after the Berlin Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact vanished from the face of the earth. It’s $1,283 Billion (USD) GDP in 2016 is a dwarf compared to economic powers such as the United States’ $18.6 Trillion (USD), the European Union’s $11.8 Trillion (USD) and China’s $11.1 Trillion (USD) GDP’s in the same year. At barely three percent (3%) the wealth of it’s competitors, it’s the Duchy of Grand Fenwick from the Cold War era film “The Mouse that Roared” starring Peter Sellers. But this movie now stars Vladimir Putin and he is no mouse.

Putin is a complex man with a complex problem. He strikes me as a cross between the fiery bluster of Nikita Kruschev and the broken heart of Boris Yeltsin. He promotes the image of a strong Russia worthy of respect, which it does deserve; but his methods seem to harken back to times when the Soviet Union was run using the designs of a more dictatorial Stalinist state capitalism. He’s seen the economic dreams of his country stalled and thwarted, often by circumstances beyond his control; sometimes by the work of his own, at times overly prideful, hands. Only ten (10) of the eighty-five (85) districts of the Russian Federation are solvent. The poverty rate is at least twice above levels it should be to create the conditions under which a modern first world nation with a constrained elite, burgeoning middle class and high employment rate working class can be a truly self-sustaining economy. Every year that goes by, Russia’s 3% of the GDP of its most important blocks of competitors for global influence creates greater necessity to roar with bravado rather than walk quietly with a big stick.

And he can be clumsily shifty; something that the Obama-era played down but the more pragmatic and tangible result-oriented Trump-era shows little tolerance to put up with. His political apparatus can at times seem comedic, like Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, were it not also as deadly as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s National Intelligence Organization; with similarly disastrous results in foreign relations that just make it harder for Putin to reach this heart’s national vision. Overall, it’s not a globally stabilizing path.

So the first question I’d like to ask Vladimir Putin is “Can you swallow your pride to reach a better tomorrow?” This is a question not so much for Mr. Putin himself but for this government and its apparatus. The blustery fire resurgent in Russia today is about as effective as the 1950’s Soviet attempt to blockade Berlin. Once again, it’s causing the world to build a new wall. The world, even a Twitter speaking pragmatic Trumpian world can still smell a Red Menace with there’s one in the room; and it will protect itself reflexively from it by isolating the source and cause of the bravado. It’s beginning to happen to Russia as deteriorating trade agreements, narrowing diplomatic ties and confrontive deterrent force postures begin to build and erase the “peace dividend” that people like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev worked so hard to assemble. This is not a good thing for the 85 districts of the Russian Federation. It’ll leave them poorer and more isolated from the global economy; maybe even less well off than the sacrifices made to endure the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

Russians went on to be the poorest of the members of an uneasy Cold War era that, quite frankly, had a lot to do with creating a world where it would be impossible to create any more Third Reich’s or Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Spheres. The Russians still wait for their turn, to borrow a term from America’s past, for Reconstruction. But it won’t happen if Russia’s leadership remains prideful. And Vladimir Putin, because of his position, is the man on the spot to either change that path so that Russian pride evolves to for better or degrades into another half century of worsening quality of life for his nation. I’m really curious to know how he and his apparatus sees this challenge they have no choice to face.

And then I’d like to ask an even tougher follow up question. “For the good of the Russian people’s future, are you willing to do what it takes to obtain ‘Most Favored Nation’ (MFN) trading partner status with the United States?” This is a powerfully loaded question. One I’m sure that would not be lost on Mr. Putin. MFN status is the modern equivalent of the US post-World War II Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe and Japan from ruins. The conferring of MFN would establish pathways to create free trade zones with preferred trade and tariff treatment with each of the 85 districts of the Russian Federation. It would raise the standards of living in these districts and create tangible pathways for each of them to become part of the first world economy in ways presently impossible as long as their survival stems solely from the health of their central government in Moscow. For the US, it would create a vast new trading partner that over the next fifty years would almost assuredly blossom for both economies. It’s not unreasonable to envision a future Russia with GDP’s in the $4 to $10 Trillion (USD) range under such bilateral conditions. It’s probably the single most unfulfilled “peace dividend” on this planet from end of both the Second World War and the Cold War.

Are there implied demands that would come from the US to grant MFN status? Of course. Ensuring graft and corruption are nowhere near the economies that would emerge in each of the economic free trade zones so everyone feels comfortable that the risk-reward economics meet competitive world standards is one of them. Altering the behavioral culture of Russia’s central government from one that still believes it is fighting the shadow puppets of the Cold War to one that is focused on being a fully participating member of a hegemon free economic circle of trading partners is another. Put more bluntly, it demands that Russia take the therapy it needs to move beyond the PTSD of losing the Cold War.

One day, I hope to hear Mr. Putin’s reply in person. To be honest, I’d really like to ask Donald Trump and Xi Jinping what they think of the same questions.

Friday, March 9, 2018

“Getting to Yes”; Getting a Little Closer



Global stability is a titanic art. Planet earth is witnessing an earthquake on the 38th parallel. A man made one orchestrated by U.S. president Donald Trump. Since taking office, the president and this team, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, have labored tirelessly to create a “peace through strength” opportunity for the world in the Korean peninsula. Along the way they have garnered the cooperation and assistance of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian Vladimir Putin to coerce the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, and its leader Kim Jong-un on a path towards de-nuclearization, peace and normalization; including even the possibility of the peaceful re-unification of the entire Korean peninsula.

I first wrote about this possibility in January 2018 in an article “Getting to Yes”; Can Donald Trump Manage the Ultimate “Art of the Deal” and bring Korea to Camp David?”(1) After a year of global pressure, the thaw in the ice happened, poetically, at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The two Koreas, countries divided against their will in the 1950’s by a Cold War among the very powers now coercing the north, basically said “WTF, let’s talk.” To the horror of US hawks, South Korean president Moon Jae-in combined forces with North Korea creating goodwill teams and contingents to participate in the Olympiad. American delegations, including Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, stood in assigned positions next to North Korean general Kim Yong-chol at the closing ceremony on February 25, 2018. All the while, the Koreans talked, like two long lost families meeting anew. Barely eleven days later, Kim Jong-un offered to meet with president Donald Trump. That meeting will happen by May of 2018.

What does it mean for the United States to have a provocateur President? What can a Nation accomplish when it looks at old problems with “out of the box” eyes? What pathways to global stability are open today that were not open when America led incrementally? As noted earlier, American hawks, our crusty contingent that see the world through the lens of the Cold War are aghast at the possibility that a fundamental global stability paradigm they use to frame the meaning of “US leadership” in the world might change pivotally. A world where the 38th parallel is just another mile marker on an empty road to another town is scary when all you’ve known is a world with a Red Menace the speaks in sinister Russian and Chinese tongues. A world where conflicts are economic not nuclear. Back in the 1990’s, theorists that studied post-Cold War global stability organizing alternatives for the planet would describe this as a northern powers option.

We see other artifacts of this “northern” option in things like the emerging steel and aluminum tariff battle between the United States and China. Both countries are struggling with the same question of the sustainability of their base industries even as the global economy in finished goods continues to seek less and less friction to benefit a free market. Neither country has really explained well to their people, or to each other, why it’s perfectly fine to fight over adjustments to tariffs about the things like raw materials such as metals until a sustainable balance for every nation’s domestic, import and export industrial bases are in good order.

Actually, I have to interject that I’ve sort of found the US argument about needing enough steel plants to sustain its defense needs is a weak one in my opinion. I think the there’s a much stronger economic case to be made that the US wants, no needs, to claw back outsourced labor into its domestic economy and create local sources of raw materials supply with which to build the next 50 to 100-year generation of American cities, infrastructure and quality of life. This is something the Chinese can understand, because, they’re doing the exact same thing in China. I respectfully suggest that both nations may do better the rest of this year to negotiate with cooler heads with regards to their practical needs. These are year 2050 and 2100 strategic planning concerns that both countries have vital national interests in finding ways to coexist.

President Trump has a unique opportunity here to frame future coexistence between the Chinese and American economic engines in the context of his domestic infrastructure agenda. If he can find the right champions to explain and campaign it to the US Congress and the American people, despite all the hawks and protectionists that will attempt to derail it, he stands a chance to place the Pacific Rim of planet earth on a better path for posterity. Not a bad “nice to have” created by the catalyst of thinking out of the box with North Korea.

And then there’s Russia. The country that wears the “Scarlet Letter” on its chest, the Red Menace itself. The pinnacle of hawk fears and without whom the next step of demobilization of military might from the end of World War II would turn into plowshares. It’s president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, plays the role of Dr. Evil in an ever more mediocre rendition of smaller and smaller Fulda Gaps. I wonder if America will ever be able to look beyond the bluster of an echo of Nikita Kruschev that Putin plays up in his role as leader in Russia to also hear the hopes of a Russian patriot who cries to improve the quality of life of his people the way the world once heard Boris Yeltsin cry at the door of a Texas supermarket. They are so loud because they have so little. Russia has a $1.283 trillion dollar GDP compared to the US $18.57 trillion dollar GDP.

Drowned out in the bluster of Putin’s March 1, 2018 speech announcing the defiance of a new generation of destabilizing nuclear weapon delivery systems to put the US and the EU on notice that Russia is not to be trifled with in it’s agenda in places like the Ukraine and Syria, I listened to the other half of Vladimir Putin’s address to his nation. His vow to raise living standards for the people of Russia was just as passionate, I thought maybe even more so. Definitely a mix of Kruschev and Yeltsin in that speech. The press reported on the salacious half of course. And I’m told that true to the Russian sense of humor, the jokes about he’ll raise the standard of living by declaring the poverty line to be half what it is now immediately rang across the cities and villages of the former Soviet Union. I thought that was funny because that’s kind of what the US did by manipulating unemployment figures to only count people actively looking for work as unemployed.

But let me end this week’s column with a message to President Trump and his cabinet. There’s an asymmetric response to Putin that I believe should be explored that would benefit the US and improve yet another global stability facet on the planet.  Consider the possibility of not responding to Russia one dimensionally by deflating his bluster about weaponry. To be sure, American weapon systems technology can respond to almost any Russian weapons initiative. That’s not the problem. Humiliating the Russian military gaining no diplomatic or arms control progress between the two nations is a problem; that is not a path to peace. If I may suggest, look at responding economically.  Not with sanctions, but with carrots. In exchange for not developing this next generation of advanced nuclear delivery technologies, that could very well proliferate to rogues, offer to set up free trade zones within Russia where the US can help improve the quality of life of Russians. Demand corruption free guarantees be made by the Russian government as a condition for the US to help. It plays onto the Kremlin’s needs and desires anyway and they can use the US as a lever to accelerate their clean up. If we do something like this creative version of a latter day Marshall plan, the US potentially gains a preferred export market that would further the agenda of consolidating a stronger US industrial base. I believe this is worth looking into.

I also believe it would create an even more compelling “peace through strength” hand for the United States in May when “Donald the Strong”, as the Chinese call him, meets “Rocket Man”. That just sounds so delightfully WWF doesn’t it?


Friday, February 23, 2018

Good Bot, Bad Bot: Countering America’s Addiction to Belittling Unwanted Men


An Internet Full of Bad Robots

We already live in an age of robots. In the aftermath of a shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida, the internet sprang into action.  I’m not talking about the mainstream media that filled the airwaves and papers with coverage like voracious locusts; I mean the even more parallel world of the Internet with its “fake” social media rumor mongering of malicious trolls and confirmation bias exploiting army of robotic software, known as “bots” that shape and amplify the polarity of public opinion in America.

On February 16th, Politico reported that internet trolls had successfully pranked major news outlets and their sources. Politico noted, “Following misrepresentations by a white nationalist leader and coordinated efforts by internet trolls, numerous researchers and media outlets spread a seemingly false claim that the man charged with killing more than a dozen people at a Florida high school belonged to an extremist group.”

The echo chamber effect was instantaneous thanks to the efficiency of content propagation bots on the Internet.  A spokesman for actual white supremacist group Republic of Florida the told the Anti-Defamation League it never wanted the shooting to happen.  This was enough to cause ABC and the Associated Press to pick the story up and put it into the mainstream media news cycle.  But none of it was true. Politico went on to report that, “a few hours later, after law enforcement agencies said they had no evidence linking Cruz to ROF, Jereb said his identification of Cruz was a “misunderstanding” and that he, too, had been the subject of a “prank.” On online forums and Twitter, trolls and white nationalists gloated at the disinformation they had sowed.”

On online forums and Twitter, trolls and white nationalists gloated at the disinformation they had sowed.

But it didn’t stop there.  The so-called “Russian” bots – they actually originate from many places, those automated click-bait programs designed to exploit rifts in opinions raising emotional activation to garner ad serves for profit also swung into action; apparently, an army of them.  Enough that by February 20th, sites like Twitter and Facebook had to begin using “bot” purging utilities to attempt to cut down on the clutter plaguing the social media ecosystem.  If you got asked to confirm your identity by getting an email and typing back a code into a box, that was their factor authentication utility confirming your account was not a robot.  Yes, technically, that is a pain in the butt to activate.  It inconveniences a lot of people and causes additional ripple effects to the social media companies as they are accused of bias in their actions.  Not really.  They are mostly trying to get noise out of the system to bring the server load factors levels back down to normal.  They only do that when the noise density is so great it requires extraordinary measures to quell it.  And no, those followers weren’t real, they were software programs named Peggy, like in that credit card commercial.  Yes, thousands of them.

What exactly is a bot?

According to the entry on Wikipedia, “An Internet Bot, also known as web robot, WWW robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone. The largest use of bots is in web spidering (web crawler), in which an automated script fetches, analyzes and files information from web servers at many times the speed of a human. More than half of all web traffic is made up of bots.”

There are also malicious bots that do everything from spreading disinformation to dangerously hacking computer databases and hardware.

Bots are getting smarter.  The technology of machine learning and artificial intelligence improves daily and “chat bots” that perform automated customer services are expected to pass something called the Turin test where you cannot tell the machine from a human soon, some say by the end of 2018.  Google the term “chat bot” and you’ll see a proliferation of solutions providers in the marketplace.
It’s when you combine bots with the analytical power of big data mining running on supercomputer speed class hardware the things become truly interesting. That’s when you can begin to ponder profound things.

Theory Underneath the Internet

Have no doubt this article is a policy and strategy assessment. I believe we are at a watershed moment in American society where we can either improve the lives of all our people or continue to descend into mediocrity.  I intend this article to posit a somewhat bold solution to a deeply systemic societal issue.  I intend to challenge people to think “outside the box”. I am deliberately taking a masculine tone here because I want to distinguish this line of thinking from the more feminine genre protective, holistic philosophy that currently dominates the landscape of mindfulness and nurturing being explored by American society.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like the holistic stuff.  My observation in this article is that it’s out of balance with other equally important societal architecture needs.

The theory behind my proposals is what is called the deliberate engineering of the “ground” of the medium.  That’s an ode to the construct of the “medium” as described by theorist Marshall McLuhan in his work that explored how technology shapes society.  In his work, “figure” is the trappings of information humans emotionally react to; in today’s parlance, the mainstream media slant, the internet trolls, and the army of bots.  The “ground” is the underlying infrastructure that shapes the inevitable “message of the medium”, it’s hidden rational economic wealth maximizing tendencies to put a long winded academic tint on it.

The structure of the ground in McLuhan’s time was dominated by the economics of marketing and advertising to sell products by Madison Avenue.  It remains largely so to this day whether one looks at the economics of commercial news bureaus or the behavior of Eastern European “bots” in US social media.  The “ground” is out to make money by pulling people’s emotional strings.  Emotion creates engagement.  Engagement begets viewership.  Views mean channel time to display commercials.  Advertisements are what puts cash in the bank account.   It’s a medium devoid of morality.  But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be so.

… deliberate engineering of the “ground” of the medium.

A good example of the economics of “ground” at work is the television news network CNN.  It’s coverage of the shooting in Parkland, Florida is increasingly coming under attack for their alleged attempts to “craft a narrative” using the voices of student survivors of the shooting, “Florida Shooting Survivor Doubles Down: CNN's Entire Townhall Was Scripted “(1)  Viewed in the light of McLuhan’s “figure and ground” paradigm, it makes perfect sense that CNN would want to construct a unique and compelling narrative in order to maintain capture of audience share; it’s the economics of the medium’s core design that selling advertising to the maximum number of eyeballs is the objective of a for profit business.


Of course, there’s also this thing in the world called “agency theory”.  That’s academic speak for people are allowed to think and act for themselves.  And in this case, agency theory has come to haunt CNN’s crafting of the narrative in the form of students such as Colton Haab and his revelations about CNN “Tucker Carlson Tonight” producer Carrie Stevenson scripting questions for a town hall.  That’s a big no-no in the rules of journalism; perfectly fine in the world of entertainment and advertising.  Oh from the mouths of babes, youthful honesty reveals the dirty laundry of McLuhan’s “ground”.   

New “Ground” for America’s Unwanted Underclass, Men

There’s nothing that says you cannot redesign the “ground” of technology to deliver constructive benefits to society.  There are some rules for this that present “ground” design of the information medium does not follow.  The most important of which is that “you must not pre-judge what that social outcome should be”.   That’s called an artificial modeling constraint.  It amplifies prejudice, always in the name of someone’s greater good, and suppresses pent up needs by the forgotten and unwanted. It almost always leads to bad societal outcomes.  It opens the opportunity for malicious bots to wreak havoc with people’s “figures”.  And they won’t realize they are falling victim to a lousily implemented technology architecture.  We can and should do much better.

There’s nothing that says you cannot redesign the “ground” of technology to deliver constructive benefits to society.

I alluded to this in two previous articles “America’s Unwanted Young Men”(2) originally published in 2015 and updated in 2018 “Systemic Failure; America’s Continuing Inability to Deal with Unwanted Young Men”(3).  These are “figures” in McLuhan parlance.  The outcome of a social and technological environment that discards unwanted social segments because there’s no attractive return on investment of economic capital.  I mean who wants to be around a boy who is not yet a man who lacks the suave and polished mannerisms of the perfect male model?  They don’t fit the image of cool.  They don’t deserve constructive “ground” infrastructure tailored to meet their needs.  They are unwanted.  And so general society shuns them.  But, and read this sentence over again until it gets through your thick head, malicious “ground” infrastructure loves them.  Dark net social media and bots compete to fill the painful void of isolation and rejection that politically correct society bullies upon the unwanted.  This is how you get ISIS.  This is how you get school shooters.  We manufacture them … because we don’t care to learn the inconvenient truths about how not to.

But it is possible to design “ground” infrastructure that doesn’t reject, isolate and bully people for their awkward phases of life. Every male remembers what it was like to be that unsure boy wondering how to sort through the confusion about how to become a good man. Every man knows that whatever outside face we put on to carry ourselves onward in life, we still ponder the imperfection and frailty of the masks we wear.  And we are expected not to say anything about it.  We have become non-persons, fashion accessories expected to play our parts.  We are all in whole or in part, unwanted young men. It’s a stifling isolated fate.  In Japan, it’s estimated that seventy-percent (70%) of men are lonely and there’s a high suicide rate accompanying the stress disorder that comes from such an existence.  In America, men quietly grumble and rarely connect with each other … for now.

Creating Next Generation Good Robots; Constructive Men-Centric Bots

In a technological world where chat bots, machine learning and artificial intelligence can construct pathways for men’s pent up needs, one could design a support structure for the other 50% of the XY chromosome hominids walking on the surface of the third rock from the sun.  For societal health reasons, I respectfully suggest that it is important that men should not have to adapt to feminine social support network paradigms.  Men are from Mars.  We speak Martian to each other.  We support each other and find perspective in what’s good and what’s not in our own ways.   There is no reason the fundamental ruled for designing technological “ground” infrastructure should not accommodate systems specifically tailored to be constructive to the needs of such a large population group.  Logic is that you should ask why so little has been done.  

Men need each other’s support to cope successfully.

Men need each other’s support to cope successfully.  Men check on each other’s welfare.  “How’s it hanging?” is a very open-ended question.  In terms of welfare checking, the way veterans buddy check their peers that suffer from PTSD is a classic example.  You can go to therapy all you want, it’s not a substitute for a phone call from someone you’d go back-to-back with and fight to the last drop of blood for.  It’s the comradeship of teamwork; something increasingly missing from the lives of a modern first world male. 

Males need mutual support systems tailored to their needs just like any other human.  Men are complex creatures.  Men are more than the one-dimensional imagery of their sexual utility, or inappropriateness thereof, in the eyes of women.  The reality is that boys lean on each other for mutual support in the face of it.  The activities of men bely the fact that they create forums for interaction where more important conversations about manhood can take place.  Most men, the ones that lead normal healthy lives, are not the “ballers” seeking fame on the internet.  That’s a form of porn, the over 50% of traffic on the internet that feeds and distorts libidos; a circus show.

The most common sidebar conversations at a gun range between men are exchanging information about how marriage and fatherhood is coming along; sharing tips and learning from each other. Men talk about husbanding their teenagers though their rites of passage.  Men share thoughts on their marriages wondering if theirs will survive; fearful that they won’t, hoping for tips that might help them find the girlfriend they fell in love with so long ago; coping strategies to survive the grief when they don’t.  The chats are interspersed with exchanges about work; the how men go about finding ways to the thing most expected of them, to provide.  They are conversations of support, advice, ethics, hope, success, loss, and thankfulness.

Now shift your focus to the 19-to-25 year-olds.  The rite of passage boy still learning to be a man.  The one done with video games, experiencing his first stresses of figuring out how to provide for himself – let along others, and having awful, imperfect ideas about how to deal healthily with women.  Now thrust that young man into a judgmental world intent on telling him his fate is to be a second-class citizen on a new more matriarchal planet that despises everything he ever dreamed of as a boy.  It’s confusing message for sure.  The reality though is that it’s rhetoric.  The world and its women still expect him to learn the ways of a man and live up to it’s implied expectations; just muffle mentioning it in mixed company.  Really?  WTF?  No!  I submit to you that for the good of the entirety of society, it’s ok, indeed essential, to teach young men to become great men.  This is a time for mentors, when more experienced men pass on the knowledge about what good manhood is all about.  The real-world support systems for this are sorely lacking these days.  And the internet provides mostly bad ideas aimed at their balls instead of their brains.

But what if you had internet bots tailored to have these kinds of sidebar conversations.  What if machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data mining helped these bots deliver knowledge and pride to men that today’s educational systems presently does not?  What if the internet disintermediated the social engineering turning men into second class citizens?  Would that help restore balance in the force?

To be fair, a number of sites attempt to discuss such issues, but they are not open ended interactive systems.  They are prescriptive.  Uh oh!  Men don’t like being “told” things.  Men also don’t like excessive noise factors in their discussion so raucous social media, the medium of self-promoting narcissism, doesn’t really address such needs very well either.  God forbid one tweet one’s honest feelings.  The avalanche of internet shaming that would result isn’t worth it.  Better to go insular and suffer in silence.  No.  That’s wrong too.  This makes the future of such conversations supporting men far more suitable to robotic assisted environments capable of creating controlled connectivity dynamically customized to the comfort zone of each man. It creates a connection to a greater whole; a new form of safe space, to adopt a term from the mindful community.

There’s a need to reconfigure at least a portion of the “ground” of the internet medium to create the infrastructural incentives to give good men a better place on the internet.  Once the groundwork is in place, everything will “figure” itself out. These new bots, if implemented properly, can create constructive change. There should be bots that check up on people to make sure they’re alright at every stage of manhood, every state of mind, good and bad. Bots that have open-ended algorithms to provide awareness of norms and expectations that evolve as the community of men adapt to the world around them.  Community connector bots that seek out and identify mentors of substance, as well as call false god figures to account.  For efficiency, the bots should speak the universal grunt filled language of men.  Trust me on that specification, it’s a very thought end-user ergonomics statement.

Epilogue Thoughts 

The internet began with boys playing with toys. It’s about time the toys paid them forward.

If American bot makers don’t take the lead in this, you can bet Macedonian ones will.  Just saying.



(1) “Florida Shooting Survivor Doubles Down: CNN's Entire Townhall Was Scripted”, February 23, 2018, Tyler Durden, ZeroHedge, https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-02-23/they-rewrote-all-my-questions-student-says-cnns-gun-control-town-hall-was-entirely

(2) "America's Unwanted Young Men", Dennis Santiago, June 19, 2015, Huffington Post, (original) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-santiago/americas-unwanted-young-m_b_7623966.html, (reprint) http://www.pickingnits.com/2018/02/americas-unwanted-young-men.html

(3) “Systemic Failure; America’s Continuing Inability to Deal with Unwanted Young Men”, Dennis Santiago, February 17, 2018, AmericaOutLoud.com, http://americaoutloud.com/systemic-failure-americas-continuing-inability-deal-unwanted-young-men/

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Systemic Failure; America's Continuing Inability to Deal with Unwanted Young Men



Systemic failure is defined as a deeply fatal flaw in a social or mechanical system that ensures catastrophic collapse as a consistent outcome.

It was June of 2015.  Dylann Roof had just killed nine people at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina when I penned the article "America's Unwanted Young Men"(1). In it, I made the following accusation that, sadly, holds true to this day.

"I mean when you think about it, whenever something goes wrong, we’ve argued ourselves to a frenzy blaming each other’s values, composure, backgrounds, upbringing, religion, race, whatever. None of that really matters. It’s just us making ourselves selfishly feel better. We’ve never actually been brave enough to put our narcissism aside and admit we have done a disservice to these young men. In the end, we like them being invisible, faceless and inhuman. It makes it easier to tighten the screws when one of them slips up and justify our march towards making all of America an open prison for those who inconvenience our utopian bubbles.

So let’s admit one thing. At this point in time, we don’t have any intention to do anything about making the life paths of America’s young men better. There’s nothing in the collective national consciousness I’m hearing that says this is even remotely important. It should be."

This week I watch events unfold once again with all too predictable repetition. We've heard it all before. Nikolas Cruz was a deeply disturbed young man.  He had a history of explosive anger and an interest in politically incorrect subjects.  He was known to practice cruelty to animals, a classic sign of a future serial killer in the making.  He was rejected by conventional society and welcomed by radicalizing influences.  And he experience a catalyzing catastrophic trauma in the loss of his lifeline to ground in the loss of his mother to influenza in November 2017. You couldn't create a better set of profiling templates saying this person needed to be taken in, evaluated and appropriately adjudicated in court to place him onto a less dangerous path.  Everyone around him knew it.  People attempted to inform authorities of it.  And nothing happens to divert this young man from adding his name to America's list of young men who failed the test of real manhood since Columbine.

See Something, Say Something, Means Nothing

What really stands out about this incident is that it was technically preventable and practically infeasible to act upon. Members of society in both "Internet America" and "Real America" did attempt to do all of the things we said we wanted to do to detect and intercept Nikolas Cruz on his way to being the next American mass murderer.   The FBI was alerted ... twice.  Local law enforcement visited Cruz thirty-nine (39) times over a period of seven (7) years. The problem wasn't a lack of case history; it's that there was no clear course of action to do anything constructive with that case history.  The time critical catalyst event of the mother's death, significant as it is in the psychology of these cases, had no place to augment the system's forty-one (41) entries in the NCIC other than as an anecdote in officialdom; and an imposition on ill prepared family members.

Really?  WTF America?  We've been watching this happen for how long now and we're still handling cases like this with case management systems with holes like Swiss cheese?   Who are we kidding here?  Nobody wants this to happen.  Something's clearly broken and finger pointing with our emotional responses has clearly done nothing.

The First Step to Solutions is Perspective

Do you know what your personal chances are of falling victim to one of these mass shooting?  You hear all sorts of statistics making it sound dire, as if you should fear even stepping out into the street.  The noise has a predictable effect on the human fight or flight response.  It will either make you want to disarm everyone on the planet or pack a piece of your own. Neither approach actually increases or decreases your chances of encountering a situation where you will have to fight or flee in real time.

Let's break down the odds by removing some of the layers of statistical manipulation out there shall we?  Let's start with an often quoted number.  The National Safety Council says that "The lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting is around 1 in 110,154 — about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution."  For argument sake, I'll take that as an earnestly researched estimate.  But what we all want really to know as we decide whether to stick a Glock into a holster and pack it around is what are the odds of getting into a mass shooting in the next 24 hours. So let's say the average lifetime is 80 years and there are 365.25 days per year of a lifetime on planet earth, yes I am accounting for those leap years.  That works out to a 1 in 3,218,699,880 chance you're gonna need to shoot back or run away before the next sunrise.  You're 11 1/2 times more likely to win the PowerBall by buying one single number ticket on the same day.(3)

You can debate your fears all you want but the reality is that the fear is mostly in your head and solutions based on the fantasy of cleansing the planet of non-believers is equally in your head.  Bear in mind that if the National Safety Council did its analysis properly, and I have no reason to think they didn't try to, all the factors for exposure to dangerous situations, activation levels of high risk personalities, and efficacy of mitigation (or lack therof) is technically embedded into their lifetime risk factor number.  As for me, I don't really feel an urge to hate everyone that disagrees with my politics nor do I plan on getting into a massacre scenario active shooter gunfight on any given day. On balance, I know it's more important to live my life in the everyday world focusing on run of the mill things. Judge tolerantly. Don't hate. Don't get sucked into other people's irrational fears.

Acting on the Situational Risk

So where is the actual situational risk here?  It's in the risk posed by "activated individuals"; meaning, those persons for whom at risk character traits have come together with catalyst factors pushing them over the edge to commit mass murder.  As stated earlier in the article, everyone from cop to shrink to neighbor to internet troll knows how to "see something".  People, as we've seen in this case, do "say something".  Enough of these episodes have transpired that we know the real factors that indicate when action is necessary.

The thing here is that we've also known what the solution to these situational risk scenarios has been for a long time.  Back in the 1990's when I was helping Los Angeles area law enforcement invent this concept called community policing, I ran into an early pilot programs at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office (LASO) for a dual-agency P.C. 5150 response car containing both a Deputy Sergeant and a Department of Mental Health employee.  5150 is police code for a report of a mentally unstable individual.  Police officers keep public order.  They do not have authorization to commit someone to psychiatric evaluation.  It takes a mental health professional to do that.  Back in the 1990's, there was one car on duty equipped with both sides of the coin to handle 400 square miles with millions of people.  For all that we have learned about the situational risks we face, nationally, our case handing infrastructure remains woefully sparse.  HIPPA constrains records comparisons with NCIC.  Procedures to act, and more importantly, follow up to make sure that the most at risk persons are improving, are practically nonexistent.  Forty-one contacts with law enforcement should have been more than enough to spring the system to help before 17 people had to die.  It wasn't.  That is a fundamental systemic failure.

Overcoming Antiquated Flaws

I have no doubt that the Federal Bureau of Investigation feels awful that Nikolas Cruz slipped thought the crack on their watch.  It should cause a period of deep introspection for the agency asking if anything they've done has even changed the lifetime risk rate to Americans one iota.   I suspect the answer is presently an inconvenient truth. But it's not a hopeless truth. There are ways to reach out before it's too late.  I've see this personally in other life and death situations.

In 2009, as a volunteer working with the Manhattan Beach Police Department, I spent long nights watching the beach. Departments along the coast had received a request from the L.A. County Lifeguards to please do something because they were finding too many dead bodies in the morning; people who had committed suicide because of the ruin ravaged by the 2008 financial crisis and sub-prime mortgage debacle. The job was a macabre lifesaving mission. I had the keys to the lifeguard headquarters tower and would bring the latest night vision gear, a spotting scope and a radio up to the platform and watch the beach; a 4x4 beach patrol truck was on call at the other end of the radio.  I would watch looking for individuals walking down to the water late at night lingering.  Most were just living life doing people things that, were it not for the mission, would make for funny stories similar to scientists watching penguins.  But every once in awhile, you'd see the pattern of someone moving in a way in the greenish light of the imager that just told you they might be contemplating that maybe this would be their last sunrise. "2 Ocean 1 to 2 X-Ray 1, can you run out there and check the welfare?"  Sometimes, that's all it takes to save a life.  Someone watching.  Someone who cares.

In a world with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data mining, we now have tools that can leverage the finding that one person lingering on the edge out of millions of disparate data elements spread all over the internet.  There are ways to integrate data from official sources and social media in both machine and natural language that can watch the beach as America surfs the web.  These systems can be integrated into law enforcement and mental health systems to not only watch but incorporate algorithms that tolerantly analyze and caringly raise concerns to agencies to "check the welfare". We can make bots that find the weak, save innocent lives, and prevent America's unwanted young men from falling through the cracks.

I respectfully suggest that we should endeavor to do so.


(1) "America's Unwanted Young Men", Dennis Santiago, June 19, 2015, Huffington Post, (original) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-santiago/americas-unwanted-young-m_b_7623966.html, (reprint) http://www.pickingnits.com/2018/02/americas-unwanted-young-men.html

(2) "Deputies called to suspected shooter’s home 39 times over seven years"Yaron Steinbuch, February 16, 2018, NYPosthttps://nypost.com/2018/02/16/deputies-called-to-suspected-shooters-home-39-times-over-seven-years/

(3) The published odds of winning the Powerball lottery are 1 in 279 million.

America’s Unwanted Young Men



Reprint: Originally published on June 19, 2015 as a contributor blog on the Huffington Post. The article was in response to the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina by Dylann Roof.

(June 2015) I’ve been watching a sad tale of prejudice and hate. It started years ago in a place called Columbine. Two misfits named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold started the United States down a path that would destroy this country’s tolerance for what used to be called “boys will be boys.” In their aftermath, the police would radically change emergency response philosophy from negotiation to assault. The schools would expel anyone for even hinting they had a stray thought outside the boundaries of unforgivingly rigid political correctness. To want to “be your own man” would become a dirty thing, to aspire to it would make you an enemy of the state.
But “boys will be boys” and disenfranchised young men are real. The names that have followed since Columbine are too many. But they come in many forms. The poor ones with little hope for economic opportunity getting in trouble with the law so that for the rest of their lives every traffic ticket becomes a felony stop. They are the immigrant ones hated because they struggle through the confusion of being men without a country trying to make sense of the conflicting expectations of the cultures they came from and the one they are so unable to fit into. Their anguish is dismissed and labeled to be the evidence of suspected radicalized candidates for the TSA no-fly list. They are the mentally anguished ones whose brains are gifted by their creator to exist in a part of the spectrum the majority feels uncomfortable interacting with. We shunt them aside. We fill them with drugs and hope we’ve dulled them to the point that what drives them within never comes out. For every egregious case that makes it to the headlines, many others deal with the same societal rejection. What’s amazing with so much stacked against them is that somehow they cope; they make it to the other side. But why do we make them suffer so?
Whenever I think of it, I cannot help but ask how much of America’s future have we destroyed in this mean thing we do to our young men? If there’s one common character flaw in the United States, it’s that we seem to have no problem about torturing each other’s minds. It saddens me to witness in the Internet how many actually take pleasure in it. I’ve asked myself many times over the years if the price of condemning so many young men to being unwanted and unseen has been worth it. Has what we have been doing all these years just made the problem worse? We talk about being a tolerant and plural society and do things like this to our own.
I mean when you think about it, whenever something goes wrong, we’ve argued ourselves to a frenzy blaming each other’s values, composure, backgrounds, upbringing, religion, race, whatever. None of that really matters. It’s just us making ourselves selfishly feel better. We’ve never actually been brave enough to put our narcissism aside and admit we have done a disservice to these young men. In the end, we like them being invisible, faceless and inhuman. It makes it easier to tighten the screws when one of them slips up and justify our march towards making all of America an open prison for those who inconvenience our utopian bubbles.
So let’s admit one thing. At this point in time, we don’t have any intention to do anything about making the life paths of America’s young men better. There’s nothing in the collective national consciousness I’m hearing that says this is even remotely important. It should be.
More likely we are about to engage in another round of narcissistic self-indulgence. We’ll use this an excuse to beat each other up again pretending that gun control will make a difference to the core problem that we are still condemning all of our young men to a societal purgatory during the very point in their lives they can do the most good for our country. We’ll use it as an excuse to turn public schools into “safe spaces” so disconnected from reality that all of tomorrow’s youth will be unprepared to tackle the mess we are now making of things. We’ll pay lip service to mental health but won’t really change anything.
Can we do better? Yes of course. But it’s been a long time since Columbine and our track record of mediocrity speaks against us. Would it have changed anything on Wednesday? Possibly. If America were a climate where our politics was not about making animus laden statements to feel good at the expense of others would that have been enough to prevent the mental trigger from going off? Maybe. We’re never going to find out unless the rest of us change our behavior.
Parting Shot: If it bothers you that I’ve lumped the problems of all 50 shades of urban youth, immigrants of every faith and origin, and the problems of the troubled privilege class into the same dog pile of “young men” so be it. I see them all suffering equally from our collective neglect and reject the notion that treating one segment of them while ignoring the others is an equitable strategy for the United States.