Tuesday, June 02, 2020

A salute to Elon Musk

The greatest unmentioned fact about Saturday's docking of the Dragon Crew capsule with the International Space Station is that it was the work of an immigrant.

Elon Musk was born and reared in Pretoria, South Africa, but left at 17 to study at Queens University in Ontario, then at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1997 with a double degree -- BA in economics, BS in physics. He was then nearly 26, but he'd spent the extra time well, interning at Silicon Valley, starting and dropping a PhD program at Stanford, and setting  up his first company, which in 1999 was acquired by Compaq, giving Mr Musk a payout of $22 million. He used this money to start a new company that morphed into PayPal, from which he walked away with $165 million in 2002. That money went to establish SpaceX, which on Friday became the world's first privately owned company to launch astronauts into earth orbit.

And in his spare time, of course, Mr Musk upended the US and indeed the world's car industry with a little company called Tesla. According to Wikipedia, he was worth $36.5 billion in May, and I suspect it's a bit more today. But what Elon Musk has brought to America -- in pride, progress, and taxes paid -- is incalculable.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Grocery shopping in the time of the Wuhan Virus

Among the changes the pandemic has brought to our lives, the greatest for me is that I have become the family grocery shopper. I do it online, of course, and I try to grab the 7 a.m. slot at the nearest Walmart, a twelve-mile drive. I've become a huge fan of Mr Walton's store, and indeed it's rivaling Amazon in my affections. I drive up, park in a Reserved slot beneath an orange pavilion, pop the truck, and listen to music until Ms Walton appears with a cart and a blue box of groceries (and wine, as you can see). We greet one another through our masks and the Subaru's window glass; she checks my driver's license; she loads the trunk. Usually I am out of there in ten or twelve minutes.

 Here I am with yesterday's haul, arriving home at 7:45 a.m. I see a lot more cars on the road than I did a month ago, and a lot more customers in the Walmart parking lot. (Most of them, alas, not wearing masks. There is something about New Hampshire residence that makes people flout rules. Perhaps it's our license plates, which boast "Live Free Or Die" -- words, however, that were originally spoken in a somewhat different context.)

Sunday, May 03, 2020

We are all home-schoolers now

With exquisitely bad timing, the May issue of Harvard Magazine features an ill-tempered screed against home schooling. It arrived in mailboxes toward the end of April, just as virtually every American youngster, and most of those around the world, was being schooled at home.

When our daughter was a Harvard undergraduate, the alumni magazine was one of the best periodicals in the country. But the then-editor has long since retired, and his successors have turned it into yet another politically correct soapbox. In this case, the author's argument hinged on the possibility that some home-schoolers aren't actually being schooled at all. This is certainly true: we know a mother who took her daughter out of high school and, as far as we could tell, that was the end of the girl's education. But how many thousands -- millions! -- of young American get their high-school diplomas without effectively being able to read and write?

Now that virtually every young person is a home-schooler, I have a bit of good news for their parents. Our daughter graduated in 1990 and went to sea. In time she married, had two daughters, and for three years she and her husband fitted out a sailboat in our back yard. They sailed away on Christmas Day 2004, when the little girls were four and three years old. The kids were home-schooled (boat-schooled?) from then till high school graduation. The older girl was a Presidential Scholar and got early admission to the Dartmouth Class of 2023. The younger spent the spring of her senior year deciding between Oxford and Yale.

So relax, home-school parents, and pay no attention to Harvard Magazine. The kids might do better than you did. To help them on their way, you could do worse than buy a copy of Kate Laird's Home School Teacher.

Friday, May 01, 2020

How the snakes and dragons got the better of us

Most Americans, and indeed most people in the world today, have spent their lives under threat of a Third World War, triggered by accident or malign intent. For much of that time, the threat seemed to be a nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union (or, if you lived in the USSR, by the United States). In time, that faded into a more generalized dread of an electronic pulse that could blitz a nation's economy without physical damage -- and perhaps without knowing who launched the strike. Then, in the past quarter-century, we've learned that a third-rate nation, or even a cult with no national presence, could attack the American homeland as no one has done since the War of 1812. Even more sobering, our weapons have proved almost useless in defense, as we discovered to our cost in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

I first encountered David Kilcullen's writings in an online course at King's College London, tailored to mid-career officers in the British Army. (About half the class came from other militaries or civilian life.) A veteran of the Australian Army, he was an adviser to General Petraeus in Iraq and Condolezza Rice in Washington, contributed to the US military's  Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and published the must-read The Accidental Guerrilla. Today he's what we used to call a "public intellectual," still concentrating on what we're doing wrong in our 20-year War on Terror. In The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, he plays off a notion by former CIA Director James Woolsley after the Soviet Union imploded: "we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes." And the snakes, says Kilkullen, have learned to fight us on their terms. Worse, there are now four dragons out there -- Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea -- at least four! -- and they too have learned from our swift though temporary victories over Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and the Taliban: Only a fool meets the US military in frontal warfare, so the wise opponent goes behind its back.

The day is probably not far off when China decides it's an exception to this rule of 21st century warfare, but in the meantime it too will attack us in ways that defy retaliation, the way Russia does by sending its "little green men" into neighboring countries to annex them or mire them in a low-grade war of defense; by messing with the democracies' elections and social media; and by dirty tricks like sending a horde of Syrian refugees across the Norwegian frontier, no doubt accompanied by Russian agents. The extent of Russia's cyberwar and hybrid warfare, as Kilkullen demonstrates in chapter after chapter, is astonishing. This is essential and unsettling reading, now that Vladimir Putin has set himself up as Russia's dictator-for-life.

And Russia is a pygmy compared to China, which has proved even more successful in declaring ownership of neighboring territory, occupying and fortifying its conquests, and all without meaningful punishment. Xi Jingping meanwhile has something better than Mr Putin's lifetime lock on the presidency: he has the potentially immortal Chinese Communist Party. Xi likewise has made himself leader-for-life and, unlike Putin, can easily be followed by someone out of the same mold. Thirteen years ago, as a student at King's College London, I wrote a paper called O Brave New Hegemon, predicting that China's growing dominance of Asia and the world must end fairly soon. I was of course wrong: China today is closer than ever to replacing the US as the world's dominant power. (China even has a target date for the takeover: 2049, the centenary of the Red Army's victory in the Chinese Civil war, and the Nationalist Government's exile to Taiwan.)

In Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, the Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani does a masterful job of showing how the democracies -- meaning the United States, primarily, since potential great powers like Germany and Japan have been happy to let the US act as the world's policeman -- have handed over their economies to China. (He's less convincing when he writes of China's accomplishment, basically parroting Beijing's propaganda.) What this means for the future was thrown in our faces this year, as a virus that had its origin in the triple city of Wuhan, supposedly in the "wet market" where wild animals are sold for food, but possibly in one of the city's two virus labs, tipped much of the world into an economic contraction on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nor was this unavoidable. Beijing's obsessive secrecy and manipulation of statistics enabled it to lie about the danger long after the democratic island of Taiwan had warned us what was coming. Instead of being grateful, the World Health Organization parroted Beijing's line until it was too late to head off an economic collapse in Italy and other nations heavily dependent upon China, including the United States. Long after Wuhan was blockaded from the rest of China, its airports remained open for travel to the West, carrying the Wuhan virus around the world.

Some 40 percent of the world's "personal protective gear" comes from China -- or anyhow came from China, because in mid-April their export was shut down, supposedly to ensure quality but more likely to keep them available locally. In the 1970s, when the Organizaton of Oil Exporting Countries boycotted the United States, the US established a Strategic Oil Reserve to supply fuel in time of shortage, and into the bargain helped transform the country from an energy importer into one that has flooded the world market with oil. Time now for a guaranteed reserve of face masks, ventilators, and pharmaceuticals before the next epidemic comes out of China, as most epidemics have done for more than a century. Time to take back the World Health Organization, or to replace it with one not beholden to Beijing. Time to broaden the supply chain, and to bring essential parts of it back to Western shores.

"Time is short," wrote Edward Lucas in The Times on April 13. "Look at the way the Chinese leadership treats its own people. Then imagine how they would like to treat us."

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Brings tears to my eyes!

The governor tried to shut down yesterday's primary, but the Wisconsin supreme court ruled that democracy should Keep Calm and Carry On. It was a lesson in civic duty, as the NYT reports today: 
   The country may be in lockdown, but Cheryl and Terrence Moore — black natives of the Deep South — felt there was no more important place to be Tuesday than their polling site, in surgical masks and latex gloves, voting in Wisconsin’s fiercely disputed primary.
   “After the polls taxes and the poll tests, the lynchings and attack dogs, our ancestors dying and people putting their lives at risk at every opportunity, not to do our part because of a virus?” said Terrence Moore, 50, a pastor and business development coordinator at a Milwaukee neighborhood chamber of commerce.
   “I would betray that legacy by staying home,” said the former South Carolinian, who waited 2 1/2 hours with his wife to cast their ballots at the city’s Riverside University High School. “It would be a dishonor not to honor them in this capacity.”

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

From Flying Tigers to Flying Dutchman

 There's another plague ship at sea, and its name should ring a bell for Flying Tiger buffs. The original Zaandam was a Dutch liner that carried 10 AVG pilots from San Francisco to Singapore in the fall of 1941, along with flight instructors and ground crew. The new Zaandam, shown above, is a cruise ship of the Holland America Line, and she is cruising aimlessly this week in the Gulf of Mexico with her sister ship Rotterdam, like Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" doomed to remain at sea. Today's curse is Covid-19.

Zaandam sailed from Buenos Aires March 7 for a trip around Cape Horn to Chile, arriving one week later. By that time, the virus had hit the fan, and passengers were supposed to fly home from the far-south city of Punta Arenas. But Chile wouldn't let them come ashore. Zaandam sailed on, looking for a port. Panama graciously allowed her to transit through the fabled Canal, but not to dock. Nor did Mexico, nor the state of Florida.

Meanwhile the China-born plague descended. As of Tuesday, 4 people are dead, 9 test positive for Covid-19, and 210 have "flu-like" symptoms. The stricken vessel was able to rendezvous at sea with Rotterdam, transferring healthy passengers out while food and medical supplies were brought aboard. Both ships now desperately need a port. Let's hope that Florida's governor knows that US Navy and Marine pilots made up a majority of the Flying Tigers, that they got their wings of gold at Pensacola Naval Air Station, and that some actually went to war aboard the original Zaandam. (Louis Hoffman, KIA January 1941, was among them.) In their memory, he should let the new "Flying Dutchman" and her sister ship make port. 

Update: Trump persuaded the governor to change his mind, and the two ships will dock at Fort Lauderdale this afternoon, April 2. Blue skies! — Dan Ford

Monday, March 30, 2020

The DMV continues its fabled tradition of helpfulness to citizens...

Here in New Hampshire we must have our vehicles inspected the month we register them, with a 10-day grace period. I got my renewal notice on March 18 and mailed off a check the same day. On March 27 I received the tags in the mail, with only four days remaining in the month. Since the grace period expires April 10, I emailed the DMV to explain that I was in the age group that has been asked to "shelter in place" (the government's way of saying "stay home") and asking if there would be an extension or waiver for such as we. A few minutes ago, I received the following gracious response from Concord:
Good Morning,
At this time, there has been no extensions for vehicle inspections. If you have any additional questions or need further assistance, please contact us at 603-227-4000.
Thank you and have a great day.
Cara F.
NH Division of Motor Vehicles