Belmont Club

The House of the Usher

According to Robert Sczcerba, a health technology venture capitalist and former director of life sciences at Lockheed Martin, the greatest health technology danger is the cacophony of beeps that attend medical devices in every hospital.  Because if everything is a priority then nothing is. He writes:

Have you ever stood in line at a fast food restaurant listening to a loud, persistent beeping from the kitchen’s deep fryer? If so, you’ve probably wanted to yell, “Hey, could somebody get the fries, or press a button to make that stupid dinging stop?” The employees, meanwhile, have long since stopped paying attention to the beeping, their brains having assigned it to the pile of unnecessary stimuli that is safe to ignore.

In a clinical setting, the same problems have much worse consequences than burnt fries and annoyed customers. In emergency rooms, operating rooms, ICUs, and patient’s hospital rooms, there is a constant cacophony of alarms designed to catch the attention of healthcare professionals.

The Secret Service also had an alarm system when intruder Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence and made it into the East Room. It played little part in the proceedings because it was muted at the request of an usher. “An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”  It had probably given off a false positive in the past. They did exactly what many people did when faced with an inconvenient alarm.  They turned it off.

The Secret Service ‘failed’ president Obama just as the intelligence agencies ‘failed’ to warn him about ISIS.  The data explosion has the downside of flooding us with alarms. On any given day a thousand indicators cross a certain threshold.  Then they cry “wolf” but not all of them are true, urgent cries for help.  Still one of them — Murphy guarantees it — eventually may well be.

The way bureaucracies deal with this problem is to put a man in loop to check if the wolf is there. The amount of information that the US military processes is staggering. The news watching public could be forgiven for thinking that the administration’s drone warfare requires nothing more than a hi-tech model airplane, a satellite and a bunch of teenagers operating a glorified game console. In reality it requires 268 people to operate each drone, as explains.

CAP also needs people—186 people, to be exact. Fifty-nine people launch, land and repair the Predators at airfields near the actual combat zones, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Djibouti. Forty-five CAP members live and work at an air base in the United States, flying the drones via Ku-band satellite.

Another 82 people scattered across the U.S. pore over the video imagery the robots acquire and forward it onward to intelligence officials and front-line commanders.

In the span of just a few years, the Air Force went from employing only a few hundred drone operators, analysts and maintainers to needing tens of thousands of them.

Many of the drone operators were yanked straight from the cockpits of fighter aircraft and they haven’t taken a break in years. And there’s no end in sight. No time to fly real fighters, not even time to take their authorized vacation.

The drone air force grew fast—but not fast enough. As demand outstripped supply, the Air Force yanked pilots from the cockpits of their supersonic F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and forced them to sit in trailers in Nevada, from where they steered flimsy robots via satellite.

These involuntary robot operators didn’t get many days off. And they had little chance of ever returning to their beloved fighters. Drone crews became so unhappy that, in one chilling moment in late 2005 or early 2006, a group of Predator operators actually booed their commander.

“They were just so bitter and so angry,” the commander said, according to a redacted U.S. Air Force official history that War Is Boring obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

When a 65-CAP requirement was issued in 2007 “the Air Force began acquiring hundreds of drones, which can cost between $5 million and $17 million per copy. “We’re going to tell General Atomics to build every Predator they can possibly build,” Air Force Gen. John Jumper, then the flying branch’s top officer, said in 2007.” And that was before the current administration made drones the centerpiece of its whatever-you-call-it effort. These CAPs and their associated targeting effort are probably generating incredible amounts of raw data. Algorithms assigned to pore over the data cross their thresholds and beep, like in a hospital.

Still, something gets missed. Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss at the Long War Journal say ISIS keeps annihilating Iraqi armored columns, despite US airstrikes.

In one picture, at least six captured M113 armored personnel carriers and four Humvees are shown abandoned in a field. Other photos show several damaged or abandoned vehicles. And in another photograph, An Islamic State fighter fires an anti-tank missile at an M1 Abrams tank and successfully hits the target. …

If confirmed, the Islamic State’s successful rout of the Iraqi military unit in Albu Aytha is the second major setback for the Army in Anbar in the past two weeks. On Sept. 21, an Islamic State unit overran an Iraqi base in Saqlawiya, a town just northeast of Fallujah in Anbar. An estimated 300 Iraqi soldiers were killed during the Islamic State’s assault and subsequent ambush of retreating Iraqi troops. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were wounded or are reported missing. [See LWJ report, Islamic State overruns Iraqi military base in Anbar.]

Islamic State fighters have successfully ambushed Iraqi armored columns in Anbar in the past. In July, the Islamic State destroyed a column of Iraqi Army M1 Abrams tanks, M113s, and other vehicles in Khalidiya, a town that is between Ramadi and Fallujah. [See LWJ report, Islamic State routs Iraqi armored column in Anbar.]

In the end, somebody has to decide which of the device alarms to answer. And if US imaging potentially knew an ISIS ambush was lying in wait, that was one of those data sets the analysts should have answered but couldn’t get to.  The patient died.

Rand Paul correctly observed that the problem with the 3 a.m. phone call metaphor isn’t the phone; it is whether anyone wants to pick it up. Speaking of Hillary he said.

“She had her national security challenge, and the phone just kept on ringing,” Paul said, referencing Clinton’s 2008 television ad in which an announcer says a phone is ringing in the White House and asks, “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safely asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?”

The same is even more true of the president. Accusations the Secret Service ‘failed’ to protect president or that intelligence agencies ‘failed’ to warn him about the rise ISIS must account for the fact that he is ultimately in charge of these agencies. He is part of the loop; in fact, he constitutes the most critical part of it.

On any given day thousands of things are happening, although only a handful are above the fold in the newspapers. Syria may be in the headlines, but disasters in Iraq still happen. Catastrophes in Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan continue.  The world keeps turning, even below the fold. Recently a friend suggested that Washington has simply muted the alarm bells in Ukraine.  By the time you get the 3 a.m. phone call it is typically too late.  The ideal situation would be to get the 3 a.m. call at the same time the previous day.

Hong Kong dissidents have just issued an appeal for Obama to pick up their phone call. But in fairness to the president most of the others are ringing off the hook. Should he answer Hong Kong? Can he answer it? At the heart of every combat system is prioritization algorithm which decides which the threats are real?  Which is worth resources? In the American system of government these last decision branches are determined by the president, who jealously keeps the power in his hands.  One hopes he’s listening for the bells because he has to answer the alarm. Or maybe he’s muted them. It could happen you know.

Too many alarms tend to cheapen the emergencies. The Washington Times cites a study which claims “zero-tolerance disciplinary environment, excessive political correctness” in the Navy has created a “risk averse” environment for which the admirals are widely hated. The result of avoiding too many risks means you can’t pay attention to avoiding the ones that matter.

“2014 Navy Retention Study.” “What was originally intended to demonstrate accountability to the public has, instead, resulted in a significant breach of trust with our sailors and resulting in an almost ‘reality TV’ mentality.”

It would be interesting too see how many critical boxes the Secret Service had monitor. Eventually there’s one box too many to watch and you turn off the ones that boss doesn’t really care about.

Recently purchased by readers:

The Caretaker, season 8 of Dr. Who
Midlife and the Great Unknown, audio CD, poetry
Night Soldiers, Alan Furst’s novel of secret service action on the eve of World War 2
Logitech Wireless Combo MK270 with Keyboard and Mouse
Killing Patton, The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General

Mathematics and the Real World, the talent needed to cope with logical mathematics gave the human race as a whole no evolutionary advantage. With this in mind, he offers ways to overcome these innate impediments in the teaching of math.
The Imperial Japanese Army, The Invincible Years 1941-42
Killing Bin Laden – Operation Neptune Spear 2011, build-up, execution, and aftermath
Fire HDX 8.9 Tablet, Amazon tablet
Casio fx-300MS Scientific Calculator, 240 functions
Acer C720 Chromebook (11.6-Inch, 2GB)

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The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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