Beauty of Gray



Friday, May 24, 2002
 

Pedestrian safety?


I'm feeling cranky this afternoon, so I feel like discussing a ridiculous article I just noticed, courtesy of the Government Monkey. The article is a scare piece about how dangerous for pedestrians a local road, the Jefferson Davis Highway, is. On this underlying point, the author’s right—the highway (notice that word--highway) is not pedistrian friendly. But I challenge you to find me a 6 lane 45 mph highway in the country that is. The point of the road is to try to get as many commuters to work as quickly as possible.

Any road system is going to involve trade-offs between driver convenience and pedestrian convenience. And the solution that most major urban areas have come up with is to have a collection of bigger roads—travel arteries that have higher speed limits and more lanes—mixed with the more residential streets. Most of the traffic is funneled along the highways, which makes them dangerous for pedestrians or bikers. But that’s just the way it is—it’s not due to malfeasance or some government plot.

The article makes two particularly bad points. The first is to try and cast it as a racial issue. The Government Monkey already took down this canard in his response. The second dumb point the article makes is that the pedestrian unfriendliness of the road is somehow a crisis and that local governments have been neglecting their duty by not fixing it. (This of course is the underlying attitude—that the government is responsible for everything.)

First, let me restate the point I made above. Route 1 is a highway. It is for cars. That is its primary use. Any multi-lane, high speed road is not going to be particularly pedestrian friendly. But what does the writer suggest?

Fairfax County's stretch of Route 1 lacks many of the traffic-calming techniques and safety devices that have sprouted in upscale business districts and affluent residential areas: rumble strips to encourage drivers to slow down, narrowed lanes, highly visible pylons to provide safe havens for pedestrians, walk signals that count down the seconds that pedestrians have to safely cross the street, and curb extensions to reduce the distance pedestrians must travel to cross

OK, let’s go through these. I don’t see the point of rumble strips. They are useful to warn drivers of changing conditions, like an upcoming curve or tollbooth. They are a complete waste of time on a long, straight stretch of road with an unchanging speed limit. Narrowed lanes—now there’s a fine idea. Let’s make the road more dangerous for drivers in order to make it safer for pedestrians! Narrowing the lanes would certainly increase the number of crashes on Route 1. This would increase traffic fatalities, which kind of undercuts the whole safety argument. Not to mention the fact that since it’s a major commuting road, every single crash causes delays that cost tens of thousands of dollars in lost time from traffic jams. Pylons to provide safe havens? I really don’t even know what the writer is talking about here. Pedestrians have safe havens—they’re called sidewalks. Better walk symbols are nice, but expensive. And extended curbs are not possible unless you narrow the roadway.

One of the most delicious aspects of the article is that the writer admits that many people cross the road illegally, jaywalking instead of crossing at a light. And the writer doesn’t present the numbers, but I’d bet almost all of the pedestrians hit, and probably every last one of the fatalities, occur from people crossing when they’re not supposed to. Trying to cross through left turning traffic can be annoying, but I doubt too many people are killed doing so, or by cars just starting up when the light turns green.

Of course, the writer quickly skates by this point, excusing this dangerous and reckless behavior with the fact that there aren’t that many lights and going to a light can mean waiting for up to 3 minutes for it to turn red! Hey, I wait at one of those lights for 3 minutes to turn left onto Route 1, but somehow I doubt the writer would have much sympathy for me if I decided, “screw it, I’m just going to pull out into traffic instead of waiting” and my car got hit. It’s the exact same thing, though. Traffic rules and regulations are there to protect people. I have exactly zero sympathy for someone who gets hit while jaywalking on a busy highway.

The whole argument hinges on this point—that pedestrians shouldn’t have to actually use basic common sense when crossing a busy highway, that they shouldn’t have to obey simple traffic laws that are there to protect them, and basically that the county should be spending huge amounts of money idiot-proofing a system that involves cars going 45 miles and hour right next to people on foot. There’s even a case of a drunk pedestrian who got hit when he obliviously wandered out into traffic. But

Safety advocates dwell not on Mackie's state at the time of the accident but rather on the pedestrian environment he stepped into.

I guess I’m just a bad person for not giving a damn that a guy got drunk and then decided he didn’t have to look both ways or wait for the light to turn red before trying to cross the road (have I mentioned that this is a highway?) at night. The fault must be with poor city planning.

There’s more tiresome claptrap about how it’s all so unfair and that if rich people were getting hit they’d do something about it, and how the county officials are being negligent because they don’t want to spend huge amounts of money on road improvements, but I don’t have the energy to got through it all.

I just have two final points. First, the killer road has claimed the lives of a grand total of 16 people in the last 6 years. It's not hard to understand why the county isn't lining up for the chance to throw money at the problem. Second, no matter what you do, some people are still going to die. The Anacostia Freeway (295) goes through the city of DC, and in most parts there are concrete barriers and fences along the road, and there are pedestrian overpasses periodically. It’s a 4-6 lane highway with cars going 50-70 mph on it. Yet I’ve still heard reports of pedestrians getting killed because they tried to run across the road in spots. They didn’t feel like hiking down a block to the overpass. Life’s tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid. And there will never be any shortage of stupid people in the world.




Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:15 PM


 
Attack of the Clones--Review (Spoilers!)


A short break from politics and foreign policy...

I went to see the new Star Wars movie last night and it was better than I had feared but worse than I had hoped. My impressions were certainly conditioned by my expectations, but I enjoyed the first half more and the second half less than I expected to. (I have tried as much as possible to avoid any discussions of the movie and any spoilers, but had picked up the idea that the first half was full of lame and painful dialogue while the second had fun slam bang action.)

The first section was a bit slow, but I prefer movies that take the time to set up their events. There were a few painful scenes at the very beginning, but on the whole I didn’t find the dialogue overly stilted or flat, and the acting was serviceable. Others have complained about the love story, but I thought Lucas actually did a pretty good job there. Yes, it was sometimes awkward and not very eloquent, but that’s the way first loves are. The characters are teenagers after all, who have led sheltered lives and are just feeling their way toward their feelings. I also thought the actor playing Anakin did a very good job, both with the love story and his impatience and occasional anger. A nice change from the first movie in that sense.

But it wasn’t great; I thought they fell short in a lot of the little things, which is a serious flaw. The dialogue was persistently just a bit off key, particularly in little asides and moments that were supposed to be comedic. The execution was just a touch off. Defenders of the movie have pointed out that even the originals were pretty hokey and had some rough dialogue—they were in the vein of space opera and old serials like Flash Gordon. Which is true, as far as it goes, but one of the things that separated the original Star Wars movies from its predecessors and made it a classic while they are MST3k fodder, was the attention to detail and the fact that Star Wars did all the little things right. The banter between Han and Chewbacca works, while Obi Wan’s mutterings about fear of flying fall flat.

A telling criticism of the current movies is that they are good only because of the connection with the original trilogy. For me, what was most interesting about episode II was the “historical” framework it set up, showing the large scale political maneuverings which led to the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire. Its weakness was in the microscale—the human level story set inside this interesting larger story arc was not really executed well enough to carry the movie.

Before the episode I and II came out I wasn’t sure how they would manage to tell a satisfyingly self-contained tale in a prequel to the original trilogy. As it turns out, it doesn’t look like they will. From events in this movie, it looks to me like the first 3 movies will have much closer and more direct ties to the original trilogy than I had expected (like the note about building the Death Star.) It looks as though the first three movies will really be episodes I to III of a VI part series, rather than a stand-alone story. (I did appreciate the many echoes and foreshadowings of the original trilogy contained in episode II, however. Little pieces of identical dialogue or premonitions—those were nicely done.)

While it’s too late now, I think this problem would have been solved by providing an entirely different framework for the prequel trilogy. In my opinion, it could have been a great, more or less stand alone story, if it had been the story of Obi Wan rather than of Anakin. Because Anakin’s story is only half contained in the events leading up to Star Wars, and half in the following events, putting him at the center of the prequel trilogy inevitably makes their storyline subservient to the climactic events in the original trilogy. However, Obi Wan’s story is 90% contained in these events—his triumph and tragedy is all there, with his mentoring of Luke in Star Wars the epilogue to his story.

Putting Obi Wan at the center—as a real, emotional character rather than an action hero—would also have emphasized the larger, more mythic levels of the story. The action will always be there; what separated Star Wars from other action movies was the greater story of temptation, corruption, redemption, and family. The larger continuum of the story arc is really a tale of 3 generations—Obi Wan, Anakin, and Luke, with Anakin the connecting figure straddling the lives of both other characters. Each faces temptations of pride and power (although they only make a few half-hearted references to this in the current movies rather than really showing them.) Count Dooku’s offer to Obi Wan is mirrored later in Darth Vader’s offer to Luke—to join him and rule the universe together. But while this is the emotional pivot of the original trilogy, the current movies spend too much time playing with visual effects—an area that countless other movies have largely inured us to—and not enough on the powerful central story.

But it’s no use pining for what will never be. The potential greatness has been missed by Lucas, and so we are left with these very middling efforts. They are worth watching for fans of the original series because of the historical background they provide, but at the lower level of the human story it is merely serviceable, and the actual execution of the story in the script and direction was slightly below that. I can’t imagine wanting to see episode II again anytime soon.


Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:41 AM



Thursday, May 23, 2002
 
Important article on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks


I don't normally write just to point out a link, but I think this article (found via Tal G.) is interesting and important enough to send you there. It is the memories (based on written notes taken at the time) of one of the lead Israeli negotiators during Oslo and Camp David, and is a fascinating account. Any discussion of the possibility of negotiating with Arafat needs to take these revelations into account.

I believe today that no rational Israeli leader could have succeeded in reaching a settlement with Arafat at that encounter. The man is simply not built that way."

Why?

"Arafat is not an earthly leader. He sees himself as a mythological figure. He has always represented himself as a kind of modern Salah a-Din. Therefore, even the concrete real-estate issues don't interest him so much. At Camp David, it was clear that he wasn't looking for practical solutions, but was focused on mythological subjects: the right of return, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount. He floats on the heights of the Islamic ethos and the refugee ethos and the Palestinian ethos.

"Arafat's discourse is never practical, either. His sentences don't connect and aren't completed. There are words, there are sentences, there are metaphors - there is no clear position. The only things there are, are codes and nothing else. At the end of the process, you suddenly understand that you are not moving ahead in the negotiations because you are in fact negotiating with a myth.


Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:24 PM


 
Kashmir and Nuclear War


All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land
Trying to find, trying to find where I've been.


While you might not be able to tell from reading most American papers (certainly not the Washington Post, which buries the story well below important things like Chandra Levy’s remains being found, and puff pieces on the new Virginia first lady), the world is now closer to nuclear war than it has been at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Others have weighed in with their own opinions about the likelihood of the current stand-off escalating into nuclear war, so here are mine.

First, check out this map, which gives a good view of the area. Also check here for some additional maps including mineral and agricultural resources.

The most likely scenario for a first strike is, as pointed out by Stephen Den Beste, a defensive use by Pakistan against invading Indian forces. The problem with this scenario, though, is that it assumes Indian defense planners haven’t taken the same facts into account. Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, I can’t see Indian forces under any circumstances conducting a large scale invasion of Pakistani territory. Pakistan developed the bomb in large part to deter just that—a nuclear power can’t be decisively conquered unless the conquering power is willing to suffer a nuclear strike. So it provides a tremendous defensive deterrent.

However, India has no interest in conquering Pakistan. The source of the conflict is the disputed territory of Kashmir, and its proximate cause is the support of Pakistan (or at least element of the Pakistani government) for militant Muslim guerillas in the Indian controlled region. India is mad that Islamic guerillas/terrorists are able to cross over the border from Pakistan to carry out attacks in Kashmir. The most recent attack on the Indian camp occurred in the south in Jammu. Since this is the only part of the border that isn’t mountainous, and is also the most heavily populated, my assumption is that it is this area that India is most interested in protecting.

India’s largest possible goal would be to seize control of the northern region of Kashmir which is currently ruled by Pakistan, and perhaps to gain a military presence along the Pakistan border, as a DMZ type buffer zone, particularly along the lower lying regions in the south of Kashmir, near the city of Jammu. A narrower goal would be to take control of the low lying western strip of Kashmir that is currently ruled by Pakistan. This is the only part really worth having from an economic standpoint. The problem with this is that the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, lies just on the other side of this border, which would make any military action in the this area very touchy. Regardless, India has no interest in the larger region of Pakistan—they merely want to provide some security for their troops and citizens inside Kashmir.

So the only reason for Indian forces to move in Pakistani territory would be to outflank front line positions inside Kashmir or just over the border. Knowing that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, I think India would seriously constrain any actual invasion to prevent provoking Pakistan. Given this, and given their relatively narrow goals, I think it makes more sense for India to pretty much try a head on assault, and to avoid deep penetrations into Pakistan even if they could manage a breakthrough. Rather, their campaign should be a WWI style broad push, aimed at driving Pakistan forces back 50 or so miles. If I had to predict, I’d say the main focus of their attack would be on the southern border between Pakistan and Kashmir, with the hope to occupy some territory to act as a security zone and to try and crack down on any terrorist attacks from there. If, as a side benefit, they got to deal a blow to the Pakistan military, so much the better for them.

India would probably at least try to advance north into the upper reaches of Kashmir, but given the difficulty of terrain and the lack of anything worth winning up there, I think any fighting in that area would be limited.

I think if India limited their attacks to these narrower goals, the risk of a nuclear response is very small. As I said before, the Indian military planners are surely much more aware than we are of the geography, the political implications, and the possible repercussions of military action against Pakistan. Perhaps my optimism is misplaced, but I have to think that they would avoid taking any action which would have even a slight chance of provoking a Pakistani nuclear response.

Update: Joe Katzman writes on the subject with similar points, stated more clearly. He also points out the option of Indian air strikes against terrorist bases in Pakistan as another possible Indian action unlikely to provoke a nuclear retaliation. (Found via the USS Clueless.)

Update the second: Bryan Preston over at the JunkYardBlog points out that I haven't factored in how much India and Pakistan really son't like each other. That animosity could drive them to take more extreme actions than they otherwise might, especially if a war gets started and emotions are running high.


Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:05 AM



Tuesday, May 21, 2002
 
Crusader Wars, Part III


Update: Before getting on with my own commentary, I’d like to point out this article from yesterdays Washington Post, which makes some of the same points I did. I think the author is far too confident in the truth of his own opinions, but that’s an argument for a different day.

Anyway, the Crusader conflict is also an interesting case study because it show up the various fault lines which are contained inside the DoD itself, conflicts that contribute to the difficulty of canceling any existing program. These conflicts occur at three levels.

The first is between the civilian heads of the DoD—the Secretary of Defense and the various civil servants under him—and the uniformed military. As a rule, the military doesn’t take kindly to political appointees coming in and telling them how to run their business. If you will remember, before September 11 there were a lot of stories about friction between Rumsfeld and the uniformed military, to the point that there was speculation that Rumsfeld would be losing his position. He came in as a reformer, wanting to shake up the military and institute a “revolution in military affairs,” which is pretty much a meaningless buzzword but still sounds worrisome to a lot of people with vested interests.

In addition to the resistance to civilian meddling (as they perceive it), there is also a bureaucratic inertia here, since with any reform it’s usually clear who the losers are but less clear who the winners are. Thus, for any reform there is a built in coalition opposing it but not necessarily an equally strong group inside the military supporting it. This, combined with the natural slowness of reforming any huge organization, makes it tough to enact any changes. The military moves on a timescale of decades in the acquisition of new equipment, but SecDef’s come and go every 4 years or so.

The next area of conflict is inter-service rivalries. Each service is constantly jockeying for more money and influence, and to protect the turf they already have. There is a political and economic balancing act that goes on trying to keep everyone happy. For example, the number of flag officers (Generals and Admirals) each service is allowed is strictly regulated, to keep a balance between them. The Navy isn’t allowed to just suddenly promote 4 Captains to Admiral if they felt like it. Similarly, the main joint commands are divvied up between the services, with certain regional commands either unofficially assigned to a specific service (usually for good reasons—the predominant force in the area usually gets the commanding officer) or rotating between several of the services.

The Crusader debate, as part of the larger debate about the next generation military force, pits the Army against the Air Force. Pilots from Goering on have been confidently predicting that air power alone would be plenty to win any war and destroy the enemy, so you should stop spending so much money and tanks and buy us a few more planes, Mr. President. It’s a great bargain and you won’t regret it. Act now, and I’ll throw in these beautiful GPS guided bombs…

Anyway, this debate has taken on new force recently with the success of the USAF with precision guided munitions. So once again they are making the claim that ground forces have become secondary, and artillery is no longer necessary. Just let us know what you want to blow up and we’ll do it for you. For both political (they don’t want the Air Force to get more money and power) and military (artillery is much more responsive and is able to deliver a lot more sustained fire than an airplane) reasons, the Army is fighting the idea that air power can take over many of the roles of ground based fire support. From the decision to put the funding earmarked for the Crusader towards other Army and artillery projects, it looks like the Army has at least won this part of the argument. (Which I happen to think is justified. Air power simply cannot replace artillery in the fire support role, and anyone who claims it can is lying or deluded.)

The final area of internal DoD rivalry is intra-service. This takes two forms. First, each service has different functional divisions. Each of which, like the branches themselves, fights for their own funding and interests. In the Navy, the biggest groups are the surface warfare guys, the submariners, and the aviators. In the Army, you’ve got infantry, artillery, aviators, tankers, light armor guys, and probably more. Again, each group will fight to maintain their own programs, even if in the larger picture the money might be better spent elsewhere.

Once a program gets funded, a program office is set up. The program office basically runs the show for the acquisition of this program. They write the detailed requirements for the system, they head the judging of proposals, they hold the purse strings for the development and operational testing of the system, and generally act as the intermediaries between the services and the contractors. While their highest goal is to serve the interest of the service, they also have a very strong vested interest in maintaining the funding of their program, and so they will often act as de facto lobbyists for the program in question inside the service. Controlling money is a source of power, so the program offices want to keep all their own funding and increase it if possible. They won’t lose their jobs if the program is cancelled, but it’s also not the best way to get promoted either. While shepherding a program through to deployment is a gold star ont eh resume when it comes time for review.

So, all of these forces are arrayed against any general, admiral, Secretary, or President who wants to kill a program. And that’s why it’s so hard to do, and why even a clear and decisive decision by Rumsfeld might very well not be enough to get the funding for the Crusader stopped. Inside the Army, the Crusader program office opposes the decision, the self-propelled artillery guys oppose it, the Army in general would rather get more new toys, the Pentagon is not thrilled with being dictated to by Rumsfeld, and the defense contractors who stand to benefit are lobbying Congress hard to get the decision overturned, and those Congressmen whose districts were getting money are already against cutting the funding. It’s a daunting and formidable array of forces in favor of the status quo.


Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:59 AM



Monday, May 20, 2002
 
Crusader Wars, Part II


But there’s more to it than just the political side. There’s also a real operational issue, since any program that actually starts getting funded is probably a really good weapon that is substantially superior to anything the services have now. That’s how the systems came into existence in the first place—there was a perceived need on the part of one of the services and they went out and solicited proposals to fill that need.

So no new military system is truly pork in the full sense of being a useless expenditure. There is almost never a clear case that a weapon system just isn’t any good—it’s always a relative argument; that the system isn’t as good as something else that could be bought with the same money. As a result, defenders of a program can always point to the real capabilities of the system in question, and what an advance they are over anything currently in the nation’s arsenal. In the case of the Crusader, it can travel much faster than existing self-propelled guns, allowing it to keep pace with M1 tanks. The Crusader also can fire shells much farther and at a faster rate than the systems the Army currently has.

There are two consequences of the usual capability of new weapons systems. First, it makes it tough to kill systems since doing so deprives “our boys” of a very real capability in war. That is a very powerful argument, and one that is hard to resist. It has visceral force, while the counter arguments—that we can fill the gap now and there are some logistical problems with Crusader and that we can get better cost effectiveness for other systems—are more nuanced. Second, you often end up with the two sides arguing past each other. Those supporting the Crusader talk up its capabilities. Those opposed to it talk about some of its shortcomings, and the fact that it was conceived as a Cold War weapon. But what’s missing is the piece that ties these two together—the total cost-benefit picture.

One side compares the Crusader to a vacuum, with no other systems. Only the Crusader’s benefits are mentioned. The other side points up its flaws, comparing it in essence to a hypothetical perfect system that will never be realized. This is not an accident, since the bridge between the two—a real exploration of the options and a full cost-benefit analysis—is a very complex and tricky thing to do. In fact, there really isn’t any accepted methodology to balance all the different apples and oranges in these sorts of operational arguments. In this case, battlefield performance versus logistics burden. There are combat models that can be run, but they’re complex and are not something that you should have too much faith in. Furthermore, any evaluation will depend on a choice of scenarios to run a simulation or an analysis on, which will bias your result.

So there’s an inherent fuzziness to systems analysis at this level. I’m sure it’s not unique to the military, but it’s important there because it involves billions of dollars. And it means that any decision will involve some subjective factors, and even worse that analysis will involve subjective decisions. The contractors will do their own analyses, of course, and not surprisingly each “proves” that their own systems are the best, most cost effective option. The DoD tries to avoid this problem by having their own analysis groups, either internally or, better yet, third party organizations like the Institute for Defense Analysis, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. But the ability to bias analyses means that its almost always possible to make a strong case for any side in a dispute, which makes it easy to lobby congressmen. On the flip side, it makes it hard to make a “slam dunk” analysis showing that a system is not needed, which in turn makes it tough to overcome the inertia of the status quo and actually kill a program.

Next up: Part III, on internal DoD maneuvering


Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:31 AM


 
Crusader Wars, Part I


I’ve been following with interest the maneuverings surrounding the status of the US’s proposed new self-propelled howitzer, the Crusader. I think it’s an extremely interesting case study in a lot of the issues surrounding military procurement in the US (and presumably in most Western countries.)

This Washington Post article gives a good summary of the situation. In brief. Donald Rumsfeld said publicly that he wants to cancel the program. At least some in the Army opposed this decision, to the extent of sending out faxes of talking points to congressmen in favor of the Crusader. The Crusader’s main contractor, United Defense Industries, also has, obviously, been lobbying for it and the House restored all of the funding for the program originally in the budget. The Senate is due to make a decision today.

The main comment you hear about this whole debate is the old but true saw about it being hard to kill Defense weapons programs. But I don’t think the reasons for this are adequately explored. The simple explanation is that it’s due to political pressures. Any major defense program will have subcontractors scattered throughout the country, so that the DOD funding becomes a more defensible (so to speak) form of pork. The congressman gets to funnel federal money to his district, but Defense contracts are generally immune to the charge of wasteful pork barrel spending. Thus, any major program has a substantial built in constituency in Congress that will fight to keep it alive.

The political problem is even worse than this, though, since defense contractors also are major campaign contributors and have powerful lobbying presence on the Hill. The consolidation of defense firms into a small number of big players has made this problem even more acute, since with increasing size each company’s clout has also increased. (It’s also a not so secret secret that defense contracts are divvied up between the major firms. Given a big missile contract to Raytheon? Well, then the next airplane contract should go to Lockheed. And better send the next ship contract over to Northrup. Etc. It's not quite this blatant, but there's a definite tendency to share the wealth in major contracts, which is as influential as the technical merits in many cases.)

This lobbying is tough enough to deal with when the services are competing a contract for a new system. In at least one case I am aware of a sizable contract was awarded to one of the big contractors in a decision over another one. From the DoD side, it was a clear choice—one proposal was substantially cheaper than the alternative, would deploy faster, had lower technical risk, and was almost as capable. But lobbying on the part of the losing contractor forced the DoD to go back and spend what was probably close to a million dollars to justify their decision. It was a waste of money, but somebody in Congress had a little voice in their ear and they held up the whole program for 6 months to try and change the initial decision.

The problem is much worse once a program gets off the ground. With a new system, you have competing lobbies, so they sort of cancel each other out. Once a program gets off the ground, then there’s only one side to the argument, and if it’s cancelled there’s only a loser and no winner, which makes it a tough sell.

Next up: Part II on other, non-political issues

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:10 AM







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