Monday, August 5, 2013

Pre-Emptive Cringing...

Yesterday, throughout the Muslim world, American embassies that are normally open on Sunday were closed because of a rise in the level of terrorist “chatter” picked up by the NSA and other intelligence-gathering organizations.

Mark Steyn finds this “pre-emptive cringing” to be unseemly for a great country.

I agree with that (though asymmetric war is full of awful choices that must be made), but wonder if we're still a “great country” in some ways that matter, at least to me.

I don't think there are easy answers for the challenges the Middle East poses for itself and other countries in the world.  I don't believe there is any one “right answer”, either.  But I do believe there must be a myriad of better paths than the one our country is currently embarked on, and this response to “chatter” is a great example.  The only messages this response sends to the terrorists are bad ones: that we can be cowed, that we respond to threats like little girls, that victory may be achieved over us very easily.

Want examples of responses that would have been preferable?  Ok, here are two:

In those countries where we had reason to believe our embassies were threatened, close those embassies, permanently.  Ban all travel by Americans to those countries.  Ban all business by Americans with those countries.  Stop all foreign aid to those countries.  And so on.  Make the threat have a cost.

In those countries where we had a reason to believe our embassies were threatened, station a significant contingent of U.S. Marines there, and deploy our significant intelligence resources in support of their mission.  Subtract the cost of this protection from our foreign aid to that country.  Make the threat have a cost.  Then, if we are attacked, retaliate with overwhelming asymmetric response (in crude terms, if they kill one American, kill a hundred of them).  Make the attack have a cost.

The response we have chosen has only good consequences for the terrorists.  Brilliant.  “Smart power” is hard at work...

3D Printing....

Lots of press are all agitated about 3D printing.  You can see all sorts of doomsayer predictions for the technology – just like you can for nearly any disruptive new technology.  Stories about 3D printed guns and 3D printed keys are typical. 

What's missing in most of the stories is that 3D printing doesn't actually make something possible that used to be impossible.  Anything you can make at home with 3D printing could be made at home before using other techniques.  What's different is this: 3D printing is cheaper and easier than the other techniques.  It's especially easier – you don't need much in the way of skill to run a 3D printer, whereas milling a gun from blocks of metal requires significant machine shop skills.  However, even conventional techniques are getting easier: you can now buy a quite good computer-controlled milling machine with 6 degrees of freedom for under $10,000 – and that cost is going nowhere but down.

So when you're reading the breathless stories about 3D printing, just remember that it's really no different than the entry of digital computer technology into other areas.  It's disruptive, it makes things cheaper and easier, and there will always be people who object.  Remember film cameras?  Remember dumb cell phones?  Remember car engines before they got computerized?  Remember slide rules?  All these technologies were overwhelmed by their digital competition that did things faster, better, cheaper – and all of them had hordes of naysayers predicting various and sundry dire outcomes.

Never happened.  Things just got better.  I wouldn't trade my digital camera even for my favorite film SLR (The Minolta SRT-101).  I certainly wouldn't want my dumb cell phone back – I use my iPhone every day for email, text, camera, maps, etc.  Car engines without computers?  No way, Jose – I remember all too well carrying a toolbox and overalls with me in those cars, so I could make adjustments and repairs on the road – and I needed to do so quite frequently.  Slide rules?  I collect them, and I know how to use them – but for my real computational work I use calculators and spreadsheets, or software I wrote myself.

I don't remember the world ending after the introduction of any of those things...