The Romans of the NFL — the Kraft/Belichick/Brady New England Patriots

First let me take a moment to put on flame-retardant clothing and don heavy boots. There.

Are you a big fan of the New England Patriots?

My goodness … that was a fearsome blast of flame, heat and bile!

Well, they’re back. For their sixth Super Bowl since 2001. Playing in 9 AFC championships in the last 14 years. Winning their division (the AFC East) 12 times. Their coach is now #4 in games won in NFL history (regular and playoff games combined). The quarterback owns virtually every postseason NFL QB record except a deeply-coveted fourth Super Bowl ring. And together, the coach/QB currently lead the NFL regular season wins list with 160 … next closest are Don Shula and Dan Marino at 116. There’s a lot to like or a lot to hate, depending on where you hail from.

The AFL-NFL merger (“the Super Bowl era”) kicked off in 1970, though the game itself began at the end of the 1966 season (January 1967). Modern unrestricted free agency began in the NFL in 1992. So New England’s success in the last 15 years, during a period of intentional parity between NFL teams, has been exceptional and exceptionally contested. Their victories and losses in the Super Bowl have never been greater, or less, than 4 points.

What can explain it?

General consensus is “Satan” … followed closely in the polls by “cheating at every turn and at every opportunity … plus Satan … plus Satan’s Mom’s dog.” Certainly a full-throated, if not fully-verified, hypothesis.

Nerdier fans insist Bill Belichick is actually a Sith Lord and Tom Brady is his pretty-boy protocol droid being drawn to the Dark Side, while owner Robert Kraft relentlessly undermines the NFL from within. And maybe Satan’s got season tickets at Gillette Stadium, as well. Not very plausible, I think, but the blurring of reality and Star Wars for millions has always led to some unusual claims.

Back in late 2011, a young QB named Tim Tebow had an improbable run of late season victories with the Denver Broncos, which included a miraculous overtime playoff win in Denver on January 08, 2012 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. An American journalist at the time, whose name Google can’t find for me, wrote an article about how Tim Tebow’s stellar performance triggered a crisis of confidence in his journalistic/secular heart. Maybe Tim actually did have divine support.

Secular redemption, of a sort, only arrived when poor Tim met the New England Patriots, in New England, the week after the miracle in Mile High. The Broncos lost 45-10. For the journalist, the Age of Reason had returned. Order, natural order, had been restored. And the Patriots proceeded to yet another Super Bowl as part of the Kraft/Belichick/Brady era (which they lost for a second time to the New York Giants).

Paraphrasing the journalist’s article of the time, “the New England Patriots play football like the Romans fought wars. Methodically. Relentlessly. Mercilessly.” And Tim Tebow’s supernatural charisma never quite recovered, despite a stint several years later, ironically, at a New England Patriots spring training camp.

As someone with a long amateur interest in Roman military matters, it seemed an appropriate time … here on the verge of yet another Patriots Super Bowl run … to cast a wider net … beyond cheating … beyond Sith Lords … even beyond ever-busy Satan. In the deranged period before the Big Game, let’s take said journalist’s premise, kick the tires, and take it for a spin until the wheels of analogy fall off.

Compare the Patriots and the Roman war machine using the following criteria:

  • Governance
  • Education and Literacy
  • Situational Awareness
  • Organizational Focus
  • Accountability
  • Mercy
  • Battlefield Focus
  • Persistence
  • Likeability

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SpaceX and The Evil That Men Do

Welcome to the big leagues, rookie!

Rand Simberg reports that the Russians have suddenly become concerned about the safety of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket when used as a supply vessel for the International Space Station … now that that rocket seriously threatens the near-term Russian monopoly in heavy lift transport of people and materiel.

SpaceX’‘s story, for those who aren’t space enthusiasts, is a tale of new technology, dot-com money, and threatened “iron rice bowls” from one end of the high-technology world to the other.

Started in 2002 by Elon Musk with money he acquired after co-founding PayPal, Musk’s vision was to develop a new American liquid-fueled rocket engine and use economies of production and scale to reduce per-pound launch costs to a fraction of current commercial rates. Rather than a game of giant consortia, he thought that a relatively small private company could launch commercial rockets safely and much more cheaply.

In the early years, the Falcon 1 rocket, using a new Merlin engine designed and manufactured by SpaceX, was subject to several flight failures that insiders largely attributed to lack of company access to the vast body of engineering lore used in past rocket launches. Not enough engineers. Not enough expertise. Whether that was true or not, the Falcon 1 (single engine) rocket had its first successful launch-to-orbit in 2008. Six years from blank piece of paper to orbit. Nonetheless, Musk has often been dismissed by other commercial space launch organizations as a dilettante, wasting his own money on a venture that would never amount to much, and would certainly never deliver any service cheaper than the giant aerospace companies of Russia, China, the EU, and the United States.

All that started to change when less than two years after the successful launch of the Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 (running 9 Merlin engines in tandem) was able to reach orbit. Suddenly SpaceX had a rocket big enough to deliver serious weight to space, and compete with the biggest commercial and state-sponsored launch services. Musk’s philosophy of rocket modularization (and cost reduction) had been proven out. A mere six months later, the company launched a second Falcon 9 to orbit with a pressurized “Dragon” capsule on top. SpaceX became the first private firm to launch and recover a crew-capable space capsule, with a splash-down off the Pacific coast of the US. To successfully launch a brand-new model of rocket, twice, with complete success, defies the laws of probability in the space launch industry. Maybe Musk really had stumbled onto a new way of designing, manufacturing, and operating rockets.

The idea that a private firm could deliver cargo, let alone crews, to the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost of the Space Shuttle or Russian Soyuz capsules would have been inconceivable a decade ago. And yet here we are in 2011 with an American dot-com multi-millionaire announcing new rockets and successfully delivering them.

Just recently, SpaceX announced plans to develop the “Falcon Heavy” which would run three Falcon 9s (3×9=27 engines) as a single first stage, delivering a proposed 117,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit … more than the capacity of all other currently available commercial heavy-lift rockets. More, in fact, than has ever been lifted in single launches since the Saturn V carried the Apollo moon missions star-wards. First launch of the Falcon Heavy is scheduled for 2013, from Vandenburg Air Force Base. Characteristically, Musk isn’t shy about his dream for the Falcon Heavy. Hypothetical trips to the Moon, to Mars, to an asteroid, now fill his speeches.

Musk’s earlier claims of “game-changer” technology and corporate process appear to be coming true. If he delivers on his recent promises with anything near the success rate of his earlier claims, almost every space-faring nation or corporation is going to be deeply affected.

Let’s be clear, also. Musk has played the taxpayer-dollar game skillfully as he’s found initial technical success and grown his company’s staff and technical capacity. He’s received several multi-million dollar contracts from NASA for demonstration flights and future cargo delivery to the Space Station. He’s parked his corporate facilities in California (HQ and manufacturing), Texas (engine test-stand), and Florida (Cape Canaveral launch facilities) … covering his political bases by hedging good relations with US senators who already know what kind of money and jobs are created by space industry. The only senator not to dip his beak, as far as I can tell, was from Alabama (Huntsville). So Mr. Musk knows his domestic politics, or has learned its harsh anti-market lessons. And he’s successfully squared the circle of NASA bureaucracy, launching rockets on the one hand, and reassuring various government agencies that he should be allowed to.

But the opening salvo by the Russians is a prelude to a new playing field that Musk will need to master. International politics.

There are a lot of rocket engineers around the world who’ll be out of work if Elon Musk and his company can deliver cargo and people to space for half of what it costs the current aerospace giants. And even the Russians and Chinese, who can subsidize launch costs to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, still can’t afford to give away those launches indefinitely. Both nations operate in the market economy to the extent that they can, at the very least, estimate their per-launch losses trying to undercut SpaceX’s prices.

As an amateur who’s thrilled by the appearance of a private space industry in the last ten years, I enthused about SpaceX’s successful December launch to an colleague (ex-military) who specializes in high-tech project management. His response was “now the sabotage begins.”

And he may well be right. Whether Musk has been smart, or just plain lucky, the progress of SpaceX over the last decade has been (to my mind) dramatic. My sense is that it’s a matter of capital investment leveraging a backlog of knowledge (in technology and operational process). As long as he was a unproven minnow at the government trough, he could be ignored. Now however, SpaceX is getting big enough to put a dent in established companies’ profits and executive bonuses. There’s no reason why nations or large corporations could not have duplicated what Musk has done … but they either had no incentive or had organizational and social impediments. An “installed base.”

At the moment, they don’t seem to be trying to beat him with comparable technology. And he doesn’t seem to want to be bought out. So what competitive strategy is left? Political impediments are cheapest. Intellectual property theft is likely but it still takes time to turn that into a competing product. And what if the technology is just a part of the equation. What if workforce optimization and “one rich, risk-taking, boss” are the essential components of SpaceX’s rapid success? Will sabotage of SpaceX rockets be the only route to slowing the company down? Fulfilling, conveniently, Russian “concerns.”

Up until now, Musk has been calculating costs based on his technical requirements for design and manufacture (with a fudge factor for domestic political arbitrage). I rather doubt he’s also factored in the burgeoning security apparatus he’ll need to wrap around SpaceX’s activities to inhibit industrial espionage and/or industrial sabotage. And as he takes on more government contracts (both military and civilian), no doubt the bureaucratic restrictions on payload handling and the extra demands for operational oversight will boost company costs dramatically. Will SpaceX be strangled by a combination of bureaucrats, thieves, and saboteurs?

It’d be disheartening to see SpaceX costs slowly but surely reach equilibrium with pricing in the rest of the industry. But there’s no doubt that, left to itself, the private space industry will make some wealthy men incredibly rich, and some aerospace executives unemployed. How clever people respond to that challenge will be interesting to watch.

Enough SpaceX technology appearing in other countries in bootleg form, and enough “unexplained” failures of those really big (really expensive) SpaceX rockets, will spell a new and grimmer phase of the private space business. More and more “iron rice bowls” are being broken by SpaceX with each passing year. Hope Elon’s brushing up on his Sun Tzu.

Book Review — Wolff — Tibet Unconquered

Wolff, Diane, Tibet Unconquered: An Epic Struggle for Freedom, Palgrave McMillan, New York, 2009, 248pp. Foreword by Robert Thurman.

The publisher kindly provided a copy of this book for review.

A year ago, my Holiday 2009 Book Roundup on chicagoboyz here recommended Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road as an outstanding overview of Central Asian culture from prehistory to the present day. Complementing that title is Diane Wolff’s new and approachable overview of Tibet’s relationship with China.

It’s hard to imagine an extended American family that doesn’t have at least one member who’s been fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism in some way. The Dalai Lama remains as one of the few religious leaders given wide respect in the Western world. His recent emphasis on the preservation of Tibet’s environment (which forms the headwaters of five major Asian river systems) gives him even more popularity with Greens. As Wolff notes, Buddhism has been the default “cool” religion in Hollywood for many years apart from the recent and occasional forays into Jewish Kabbalah by the Malibu crowd. In turn, Tibetan Buddhism also appeals to adolescents looking for a way to peeve their parents … without getting kicked out of the house.

A book that tries to give a general reader a solid historical understanding of Chinese-Tibetan relations is welcome. It’s a tangled and tragic piece of history, one fraught with opportunities missed on both sides and historical trends that have largely worked against Tibetan culture. We have a vivid “virtual Tibet” (in Orville Schell’s phrasing) but will we still have a Tibetan culture in 2050? Wolff offers a heart-felt and practical solution to the current style of Han occupation of Tibet. She’s also realistic enough to understand that the current generation of Chinese leaders may not be suited to making the adjustments and compromises necessary to pull a Tibetan thorn from the Chinese paw. A Fifth Generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders may be needed.

Wolff’s book is written for the non-specialist. It requires close reading (because she often approaches subjects thematically with a certain amount of bouncing back and forth between time periods) but Tibet Unconquered is pitched for mortal readers, without a forest of footnotes.

An intelligent high school student can easily make their way through this book, with profit. So if you’ve suddenly found your kids flying Tibetan prayer flags in your backyard, Diane Wolff’s book definitely belongs on your 2010 holiday book buying list. You can bask in some of that reflected “cool” yourself. It’s a very affordable, useful introduction to a fascinating subject. It works fine as a springboard to the specialist literature for motivated readers. Those interested in China’s capacity to adapt to a world demanding more transparency, more honesty and more credible self-reflection could hardly find a better ongoing touchstone than Tibet. Educating yourself about how things got the way they did in Tibet (and China) is therefore well worth the time. The Han Chinese have plenty of challenges facing them. Tibet is where the world proclaims they are most “uncivilized.” That’s a slur the Han cannot, cannot bear after a millennium ruled largely by northern barbarians and more recent humiliations by industrial nations. So the Roof of the World is where the Han must come to a successful solution without losing face. For them, let alone the poor Tibetans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s a situation worth watching.

Even better for those of you racing into the e-book world, Amazon offers an even more affordable Tibet Unconquered. Consider this title as a gift or for a thought-provoking bit of holiday reading.

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CIA Leviathan Wakes Up and Hunts Ishmael

Word came early last week from the Washington Times and Washington Post, while I was away on vacation, that Ishmael Jones, pseudonymous author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture would be sued for breaking his secrecy oath.

I reviewed Jones’ 2008 book here on chicagoboyz in April, and followed it up more recently with a late September review of a similar book by Canadian “Michael Ross” on his time with Mossad.

I found both books surprisingly revelatory about the organizational culture of these two intelligence organizations, but found little that would interest the James Bond crowd, or be of much value operationally to foreign governments.

Jones’ book was by far the most damning, however, because he illustrated (with incidents from his own deep-cover career) the extent to which the CIA now operates for its own bureaucratic benefit with minimal attention to its central mandate – gathering actionable intelligence. All the most virulent criticisms of the Tea Party against big government are understatements when it comes to how national security has been subordinated to the HR nostrums of the day at CIA. Jones effectively outlined how “the emperor has no clothes.” Not so much inept as indifferent. As someone operating under “deep cover” in the clandestine branch, away from the support and comforts of consular life, he was certainly qualified to note the career paths and day-to-day obsessions of the “home office” and his colleagues. While he didn’t name names, he described enough duplicity and lassitude in the CIA’s management and staffing to earn the undying enmity of “tap dancers” and “clock watchers” alike.

Most notably, Jones outlined in some detail how the vast number of clandestine officers that were supposedly hired and deployed by the CIA post 9/11 (at huge expense) were posted to the continental US. Numbers were further bulked up by counting support staff as “officers.” Meanwhile, CIA clandestine officers already in the field overseas at the time were being methodically hindered and removed to avoid bureaucratic risk. Jones contrasted this institutional predilection with his time in Iraq as part of a team of intelligence agents (largely Army).

Apparently the Panetta CIA will now conduct lawfare against one of its own, after having done so much to limit his success when he was overseas secretly working on WMD proliferation. No good deed goes unpunished. Execute the messenger when the news is bad.

It’s still early days in the legal matter. I’ve not seen any indication that Jones’ legal team has formed a strategy for protecting or saving their client. Goodness knows Jones’ pocketbook will necessarily take a massive hit, which may well be the intent of the suit in the first place. Having delayed Jones’ out-of-pocket reimbursements during his active clandestine career (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars), it’s only appropriate that the CIA’s parting shot would be to take away what they did pay him. Pour encourager les autres.

After risking his life overseas, there’s some irony that his own employers will hold him accountable for leaking their institutional dysfunction, rather than any actual secrets.

Will a change in control of the House mean that the CIA finds itself under Congressional scrutiny for misleading elected representatives about how they were spending billions of dollars? One would imagine that Jones’ defense lawyers will be dropping hints about the potential perjury committed by his CIA managers testifying on the Hill over the last decade. Be a shame if something should happen to all those shiny careers. Horse-trading ahead, I assume.

The intelligence agency that works safest, works not at all. And a CIA entirely based in the US or ensconced behind the walls of embassies can look busy without actually being busy. The current CIA bureaucracy, for entirely understandable reasons, has preferred Potemkin villages and iron rice bowls to aggressive intelligence-gathering. Jones’ misfortune is to have been a witness to it all. I hope this all turns out OK for him.

My mini-book review offers additional details for those with an interest in intelligence organizations.

Mini-Book Review — Ross — The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad

Ross, Michael with Jonathan Kay, The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2007. 278 pp.

Recommended by Ishmael Jones, author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Culture, reviewed here on chicagoboyz.

In late 1982, 21 year-old Michael Ross arrived in Israel to escape cold weather. After a three year hitch in the Canadian Army, tackled right out of high school, he was on vacation. Backpackers visiting Europe on a budget often traded their wintertime labour at Israeli kibbutzim for free room and board. Michael was soon headed for one in the Beit Shean valley.

Hailing from Victoria, British Columbia and a mildly Anglican religious background, even being in Israel was a stretch. Far more likely that he’d be kayaking, or mountain-biking, or growing dope up in the Rockies. Short of the North Island of New Zealand, or perhaps Marin County, California, there’s hardly a more heavenly place in the English-speaking world than the Gulf Islands between the city of Vancouver and Vancouver Island. It’s “Lotus-land” to eastern Canadians. A young man just out of an army should have found all the pleasure and excitement he could want in the Pacific Coast lifestyle.

Michael’s background certainly didn’t suggest a future in one of the most respected, yet constantly imperiled, clandestine services in the world — the Mossad. Nor could it predict that he would take a side in one of the nastiest confrontations between the modern industrialized world and its neighbours. Yet for almost two decades “Michael Ross” was to serve in a variety of military and intelligence roles for his adopted home under conditions of unimaginable danger. How he came to do so is both fascinating and rather unsettling.

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