31 January 2012

Nice trick if you can do it

Rico says his friend Kelley forwards this:
A breakthrough in precision bullet technology for small caliber firearms will make striking a target an easier task. Two researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories created a self-guided dart-like bullet able to strike a target more than a mile away.
The self-guided four-inch bullet prototype has been successfully tested in both computer simulations and field testing, where bullet speeds have reached 2,400 feet per second. The bullet differs from missile technology, in that the self-guided bullet has an optical sensor that can detect a laser beam on a target, which allows the bullet to steer toward a target.
In one field test, researchers attached a tiny light-emitting diode to the bullet to tract its path and researchers found the "battery and electronics could survive the bullet's launch", the Sandia Lab reported.
The bullet is still a prototype but, if it passes further testing conducted by a private firm, the bullet will be accessible to recreational shooters, law enforcement, and the military. Lockheed Martin assisted Sandia Lab's research and has worked with the military to develop a self-guided bullet over the years.
"While engineering issues remain, we’re confident in our science base and we’re confident the engineering-technology base is there to solve the problems,” Sandia researcher Red Jones said
Rico says he doesn't know how small they can make it, but there are damn few 'recreational shooters' capable of firing a 'four-inch-bullet'...

A good question

The New York Times has an editorial entitled What Is It About Mormons?
Heading into the Florida primary, Mitt Romney appears to be in the lead. The candidate, whose results so far have been mixed, continues to be stymied by suspicions about his religion. But why are so many Americans uncomfortable with Mormonism? A recent Pew survey found that Mormons are hard-working and civic-minded. Couldn’t the nation use some Mormon discipline: frugality, morality, self-improvement, worldliness? Indeed, with these traits, shouldn’t Americans be dying to vote for a Mormon?
There's a lengthy, multi-part discussion of the issue here.

Rico says that, even knowing a few, he has nothing (much) against Mormons, he just doesn't like their belief structure, and doesn't particularly want one as President...

More history for the day

Ron Cowen has an article in The New York Times for Edison and history freaks (of which Rico is both):
Tucked away for decades in a cabinet in Thomas Edison’s laboratory, just behind the cot in which the great inventor napped, a trove of wax cylinder phonograph records (photo) has been brought back to life after more than a century of silence. The cylinders, from 1889 and 1890, include the only known recording of the voice of the powerful German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Two preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe’s Faust into a phonograph horn. (Moltke was 89 when he made the recordings, the only ones known to survive from someone born as early as 1800.) Other records found in the collection hold musical treasures— lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.
Officials at Edison’s old laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, now the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, recently unveiled the newly identified recordings.
“This is sensational,” said Ulrich Lappenküper, director of the Otto von Bismarck Foundation in Friedrichsruh, Germany. The Bismarck cylinder is documented in the foundation’s archive, but after searching for it in the United States and Germany since 2005, Dr. Lappenküper and his colleagues assumed it had been lost forever.
The unlabeled recordings, all housed in the same wooden box, had been found in 1957. But their contents remained unknown until last year, when Jerry Fabris, the curator at the Edison laboratory, used a playback device called the Archeophone to trace the grooves of twelve of the seventeen cylinders in the box and convert the analog electrical signals into broadcast WAV files. He then enlisted two sound historians, Patrick Feaster of Indiana University and Stephan Puille of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, to help identify the faint recordings.
The lid of the box held an important clue. It had been scratched with the words Wangemann and Edison The first name refers to Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann, who joined the laboratory in 1888, assigned to transform Edison’s newly perfected wax cylinder phonograph into a marketable device for listening to music. Wangemann became expert in such strategies as positioning musicians around the recording horn in a way to maximize sound quality.
In June of 1889, Edison sent Wangemann to Europe, initially to ensure that the phonograph at the Paris World’s Fair remained in working order. After Paris, Wangemann toured his native Germany, recording musical artists, and often visiting the homes of prominent members of society who were fascinated with the talking machine.
Until now, the only available recording from Wangemann’s European trip has been a well-known and well-worn cylinder of Brahms playing an excerpt from his first Hungarian Dance. That recording is so damaged “that many listeners can scarcely discern the sound of a piano, which has in turn tarnished the reputations of both Wangemann and the Edison phonograph of the late 1880s,” Dr. Feaster said. “These newly unearthed examples vindicate both.”
In October of 1889, Wangemann and his wife visited the 74-year-old Bismarck, then chancellor of the German empire, at his castle in Friedrichsruh. Bismarck listened to recordings made in Paris and Berlin, and at his wife’s urging, he made his own. He recited snippets of poetry and songs in English, Latin, French, and German. Perhaps surprisingly, given his involvement in the Franco-Prussian War, he chose to recite lines from the French national anthem. “Bismarck was a very, very witty man” and reciting the Marseillaise “would tickle him,” said Jonathan Steinberg, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the new biography Bismarck: A Life.
Bismarck ends the recording with some advice, apparently for his son Herbert, who heard the recording a few weeks later in Budapest, to live life in moderation. “Bismarck was a gigantic man with gigantic appetites and a gigantic temper,” Dr. Steinberg said. “He never did anything in moderation, and Herbert was just as immoderate.”
Puille, the sound historian in Berlin, said it was not easy to identify Bismarck’s voice. But after he deciphered a reference to Friedrichsruh, Bismarck’s estate, in the announcement of one of the cylinders, “I immediately knew that I was on the right track,” he continued in an email message. “Bismarck’s name is not mentioned in the recording, but I had collected all available information about his cylinder in the contemporary press, and the content of the cylinder matched perfectly.” He added, “No doubt this find is the culmination of my researcher’s life.”
The panoply of musical artists on the cylinders “represented the prominent musicians of the day,” said Jonathan Berger, a musicologist at Stanford. “The fact that their musical lineage and circle of friends included the great composers of the nineteenth century makes their recordings valuable documents of performance practices and musical sensibilities of the time,” he added.
The Wangemann cylinders are just the latest in an explosion of discoveries in early recorded sound over the last five years, said Tim Brooks, a sound historian in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 2008, Dr. Feaster and his colleagues at FirstSounds.org succeeded in playing a version of the French lullaby Au Clair de la Lune, deciphered from a tracing in soot-coated paper dating from 1860— the earliest sound ever recovered. A trove of cylinders recorded in Russia in the 1890s was also recently uncovered.
The ability to digitize old recordings and the use of new imaging techniques to map the grooves of damaged cylinder records without touching them has contributed to the onslaught, Brooks said, adding: “You can actually hear history as well as read about it.”
Rico says it's not quite early enough for the Lincoln recording he wanted, but it'll do...

Pink and tasty...

Rico says that his friend Kelley forwards these salacious cupcakes:

Lest we forget

Rico says that, when he was in Berlin, some forty years ago now, he saw a sign that read Lassen wir vergessen, which translates to the post title, and under the sign was only part of this list (and, if you don't know what they are, you really need to study some history):









Kovno (Kaunas)

Other countries

Precise bunch

Rico says, courtesy of his father, the US Navy ceremonial drill team, competing in Norway:

Nothing like it, true

Rico says his arch-perv friend Dave sends along this, with the comment that "there's nothing quite like the crack of a .30-06 in the morning" and the note that "hunting season is upon us, and she needs a hunting and fishing partner, so I gave her your name. Hope you don't mind?"
After all, what are friends for?

History repeating itself

Rico says his friend Stefan was pondering why the title of Rico's upcoming novel, Cowboys & Indian, was so evocative, and finally found the photo below, of Stefan as a child in Germany. Apparently it was the fashion in the Fifties and Sixties for young boys to dress up for Fasching as cowboys. Stefan is still not sure whose idea it was to dress him as the only Indian...

History for the day

On 31 January 1865, the House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.

30 January 2012

Poising the shithammer

Daniel Politi has a Slate article about the SpecOps base that'll be there if we need it:
The Pentagon is quickly moving forward to convert an aging warship into a a large floating base that will be sent to the Middle East and could serve as a staging ground for commandos at a time of increasing tensions in the region. The Washington Post points out the base has been dubbed a “mothership” because it “could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs”. Although the military already has plenty of presence in the region, the significant aspect of this new base is that it could help launch secretive missions more quickly.
The Wall Street Journal notes that the base will hold drones, effectively giving the “US military the ability to stage a small strike force offshore without obtaining a permission slip from another country for access to a land base”. Although officials wouldn’t confirm the base’s purpose, it seems clear that it is part of President Obama’s efforts to emphasize smaller, specific strikes by Special Operations troops as the military budget continues to contract.
The Washington Post points out that details of the project started coming to light when the Military Sealift Command posted a bid request “to retrofit the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport docking ship, on a rush basis”. The Ponce was set to be taken out of commission after operating for forty years, but now Navy officials say the conversion of the aging warship is moving along with unusual speed and they hope to be able to send it to the Middle East by early summer.
Rico says that he knows the ship was named after the city in Puerto Rico, but ponce means something different (and perhaps more appropriate) in English slang...

Didn't listen

Daniel Politi has an article at Slate.com about the Occupy idiots:
Police in riot gear clashed repeatedly with Occupy Oakland protesters recently, firing tear gas and bean bag projectiles to try to disperse the demonstrators. At least three officers and one protester were injured in what was the most violent anti-Wall Street protest Oakland has seen since November, when police forcefully dismantled an Occupy encampment; the Associated Press cited a police official saying that around three hundred people were arrested.
The clashes with police flared up Saturday afternoon, when protesters tried to seize a long-closed convention center “as their movement’s new home”, notes the San Francisco Chronicle. The demonstrators disrupted traffic throughout the afternoon as their numbers grew to anywhere from a thousand to two thousand people. The day of protest began in an “upbeat, even festive mood,” notes the Chronicle. But that quickly changed when demonstrators tried to temporarily occupy City Hall and a YMCA, reports the Oakland Tribune. Police in riot gear battled with protesters who threw “bottles, metal pipe, rocks, spray cans, improvised explosive devices, and burning flares”, according to the Oakland Police Department.
At one point, protesters broke into City Hall, and brought out at least two American flags, which they quickly burned. A clearly frustrated Mayor Jean Quan asked the movement to “stop using Oakland as its playground”. She added that, taking a look at how things unfolded Saturday, “it’s almost like they are begging for attention and hoping that the police will make an error.” Although Quan had previously criticized the police for its heavy-handed tactics, “she seemed to have changed her tune”, writes the AP.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service said that Occupy protesters would be barred from camping in two parks they have been living in since October in Washington, D.C. “That order, which takes effect Monday, was seen as a blow to one of the highest-profile chapters of the movement,” reports Reuters.
Rico says he told them earlier (not that they were listening) not to fuck with the Oakland PD; those guys have no sense of humor about protesters...

Rico knows the problem

Proofmark Cinema is having difficulties getting funding for Zone of Fire, and Michael Ciepley and Brooks Barnes have an article in The New York Times about money problems at DreamWorks Studios:
Movie fans are fretting over where to peg War Horse and The Help in the Oscar pool. But Hollywood is pondering something else: What becomes of DreamWorks Studios, the boutique studio behind those films?
The ten nominations between the two movies, including best picture for each, have made DreamWorks a strong contender for honors on Oscar night, 26 February. The two dramas already lead the best picture pack at the box office, with War Horse passing Moneyball over the weekend, according to estimates, to become the second most popular nominee, behind The Help, which had domestic ticket sales of about $170 million.
Behind the scenes, however, executives at DreamWorks and its partners are quietly opening discussions that in the next few months will determine its future and answer a broader question about the state of Hollywood: Can a faltering film industry sustain a company that insists on making ambitious, Oscar-caliber, studio-size films, but without the deep pockets of a Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures, or a News Corporation, the parent of Twentieth Century Fox?
Created four years ago by Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, in partnership with Reliance Entertainment, an Indian financier, DreamWorks was a successor to DreamWorks SKG. The earlier DreamWorks was an independent studio that was created amid much fanfare by three Hollywood heavyweights: Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Eventually they sold it to Paramount and briefly worked with the studio in what became a failed marriage. (The new DreamWorks is unrelated to the publicly-held DreamWorks Animation.)
Over the years, small, independently financed companies— some with their own distribution mechanisms, others, like DreamWorks, without— have generated hits, only to disappear or be merged into larger corporations. Miramax Films was acquired by Disney after releasing The Crying Game, a box-office success and best picture nominee; Disney has since sold the unit. Summit Entertainment was recently sold to Lions Gate; Summit investors saw the end of their blockbuster Twilight series as a prime moment to cash out.
For smaller film companies, the hunger for capital is a perennial problem. Making a studio-level film can require an immediate investment of a hundred million dollars or more. But even the hits pay back their investors slowly, over a cycle that may last as long as ten years, as movies are sold successively in theaters, on DVDs, to Internet streaming and cable television services, and so on.
DreamWorks is now in the ticklish position of having nearly exhausted its first round of financing, which included $325 million in equity from Reliance, and a matching $325 million in lending from banks led by J.P. Morgan Securities. An original plan called for more from each, but the struggles of the national economy brought the investment up short. Now, DreamWorks is left to line up new financing at a time when movies are struggling.
Attendance at North American movie theaters hit a sixteen-year low last year. DVD sales continue to drop. Although some emerging overseas markets are picking up steam, Europe and other important sales territories are uneven. And there are no indications of an immediate reversal of the trends.
So the question becomes whether, or to what extent, Reliance and allied lenders are prepared to back another round. Executives from Reliance and DreamWorks declined to discuss their plans. Over the weekend, however, they said in a joint email that they remained pleased with their partnership: “Our relationship has always been structured to allow us to adapt to changing market conditions and to create the best chance for success for all parties involved.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with executives of the companies, people familiar with the situation said talks about further financing will probably open in the next few weeks. The outcome will determine whether DreamWorks, which distributes its films under a long-term deal with Walt Disney Studios but has also worked with other partners, will be able to maintain its ambitious course.
If not, it might have to proceed with a smaller slate of films or potentially less impressive projects, these people say. Whether DreamWorks would even be interested in making lower-risk, lower-profile movies, however, is far from clear.
DreamWorks began making movies in 2009 after raising only half of the hoped-for financing from Reliance and lenders. Despite a top-shelf pedigree— Spielberg is by far the best-selling movie director in history, and Snider oversaw hits like Bruce Almighty and The Bourne Identity while chairwoman of Universal Pictures— the company scratched for more than a year to assemble backing during a worldwide financial collapse in which the number of banks engaged in entertainment lending fell from more than forty to fewer than a dozen.
During that hunt for funds, Reliance and Anil Ambani, the chairman of its parent, stood by a commitment to invest in the venture, even as the terms of the involvement became less favorable. But Reliance put up less than a contemplated $550 million in equity, as it became impossible to raise $750 million in loans to go with it. The hoped-for $1.3 billion total would have seen DreamWorks through this Oscar season and perhaps into 2014.
Instead, the company’s resources are nearly played out, even while the potential from its first round of films remains uncertain. The Help, War Horse, and, by a whisker, Real Steel, appear poised to make money, once their full run is complete. But Cowboys & Aliens (released by Universal), I Am Number Four, Fright Night, and Dinner for Schmucks (released by Paramount) were soft at the box office, and either lost money, or made too little to create a strong portfolio for investors.
Spielberg is currently finishing Lincoln, partly financed by DreamWorks, with additional backing from Participant Media and Fox, which is co-financing another Spielberg film, the sci-fi thriller Robopocalypse, which is set for release in July of 2013 by Disney in the United States and by Fox abroad. (Spielberg’s many television projects are financed separately from DreamWorks Studios.)
Despite rumblings in Hollywood of friction between DreamWorks and Disney, their distribution partnership is solid, with years yet to run. “DreamWorks provides a diverse slate that’s a key part of our release strategy, and we’re pleased with the results so far,” Rich Ross, Disney’s movie chairman, said in an email.
And DreamWorks has co-financing avenues to pursue. Fox, which has previously worked closely with Spielberg, appears ready to continue supporting individual projects. Participant, meanwhile, is eager to help pay for issues-oriented films like The Help, which it backed in part. “We plan to continue to work together on at least one film per year,” James G. Berk, Participant’s chief executive, said in an email.
But the pace of film production and development has already slowed for DreamWorks and its eighty employees, who work from a complex on the Universal Studios lot. Instead, Spielberg, Snider, and their lawyer, Skip Brittenham, are preparing for talks with Ambani and his lieutenant Amitabh Jhunjhunwala. Reliance must now decide whether to double down on an initial investment that was never large enough to match the ambitions of the company it supports.
There is no immediate deadline to hurry the discussions, according to people who have been briefed on DreamWorks and its underpinnings. But the company’s Reliance backers are almost certain to be in Los Angeles for some glamour and glory at the Oscars next month.
And the table talk will most likely be more about money than movies.
Rico says that he needs the rounding error from any of these deals to make his video; anyone with money to invest (like, say Rico's friend Pete, who just made a killing in Apple stock) can email him at mseymour@proofmark.com or call him at 215.866.6184

Better them than us

Ronen Bergman, an analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, author of The Secret War With Iran and a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, has a long article in The New York Times about the situation in the Middle East:
As the Sabbath evening approached on 13 January, Ehud Barak paced the wide living-room floor of his home high above a street in north Tel Aviv, its walls lined with thousands of books on subjects ranging from philosophy and poetry to military strategy. Barak, the Israeli defense minister, is the most decorated soldier in the country’s history and one of its most experienced and controversial politicians. He has served as chief of the general staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, interior minister, foreign minister and prime minister. He now faces, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and twelve other members of Israel’s inner security cabinet, the most important decision of his life: whether to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran. We met in the late afternoon, and our conversation— the first of several over the next week— lasted for two and a half hours, long past nightfall. “This is not about some abstract concept,” Barak said as he gazed out at the lights of Tel Aviv, “but a genuine concern. The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.”
When I mentioned to Barak the opinion voiced by the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and the former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi— that the Iranian threat was not as imminent as he and Netanyahu have suggested and that a military strike would be catastrophic (and that they, Barak and Netanyahu, were cynically looking to score populist points at the expense of national security), Barak reacted with uncharacteristic anger. He and Netanyahu, he said, are responsible “in a very direct and concrete way for the very existence of the State of Israel— indeed, for the future of the Jewish people.” As for the top-ranking military personnel with whom I’ve spoken who argued that an attack on Iran was either unnecessary or would be ineffective at this stage, Barak said: “It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us: the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.”
Netanyahu and Barak have both repeatedly stressed that a decision has not yet been made and that a deadline for making one has not been set. As we spoke, however, Barak laid out three categories of questions, which he characterized as “Israel’s ability to act”, “international legitimacy”, and “necessity,” all of which require affirmative responses before a decision is made to attack:
1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?
2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?
3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?
For the first time since the Iranian nuclear threat emerged in the mid-1990s, at least some of Israel’s most powerful leaders believe that the response to all of these questions is yes.
At various points in our conversation, Barak underscored that, if Israel or the rest of the world waits too long, the moment will arrive— sometime in the coming year, he says— beyond which it will no longer be possible to act. “It will not be possible to use any surgical means to bring about a significant delay,” he said. “Not for us, not for Europe and not for the United States. After that, the question will remain very important, but it will become purely theoretical and pass out of our hands— the statesmen and decision-makers— and into yours— the journalists and historians.”
Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, is the third leg in the triangle supporting a very aggressive stance toward Iran. When I spoke with him on the afternoon of 18 January, the same day that Barak stated publicly that any decision to strike pre-emptively was “very far off,” Ya’alon, while reiterating that an attack was the last option, took pains to emphasize Israel’s resolve. “Our policy is that in one way or another, Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped,” he said. “It is a matter of months before the Iranians will be able to attain military nuclear capability. Israel should not have to lead the struggle against Iran. It is up to the international community to confront the regime, but nevertheless Israel has to be ready to defend itself. And we are prepared to defend ourselves,” Ya’alon went on, “in any way and anywhere that we see fit.”
For years, Israeli and American intelligence agencies assumed that if Iran were to gain the ability to build a bomb, it would be a result of its relationship with Russia, which was building a nuclear reactor for Iran at a site called Bushehr and had assisted the Iranians in their missile-development program. Throughout the 1990s, Israel and the United States devoted vast resources to weakening the nuclear links between Russia and Iran and applied enormous diplomatic pressure on Russia to cut off the relationship. Ultimately, the Russians made it clear that they would do all in their power to slow down construction on the Iranian reactor and assured Israel that even if it was completed (which it later was), it wouldn’t be possible to produce the refined uranium or plutonium needed for nuclear weapons there.
But the Russians weren’t Iran’s only connection to nuclear power. Robert Einhorn, currently special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at the State Department, told me in 2003: “Both countries invested huge efforts, overt and covert, in order to find out what exactly Russia was supplying to Iran and in attempts to prevent that supply. We were convinced that this was the main path taken by Iran to secure the Doomsday weapon. But only very belatedly did it emerge that if Iran one day achieved its goal, it will not be by the Russian path at all. It made its great advance toward nuclear weaponry on another path altogether— a secret one— that was concealed from our sight.”
That secret path was Iran’s clandestine relationship with the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb. Cooperation between American, British, and Israeli intelligence services led to the discovery in 2002 of a uranium-enrichment facility built with Khan’s assistance at Natanz, two hundred miles south of Tehran. When this information was verified, a great outcry erupted throughout Israel’s military and intelligence establishment, with some demanding that the site be bombed at once. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not authorize an attack. Instead, information about the site was leaked to a dissident Iranian group, the National Resistance Council, which announced that Iran was building a centrifuge installation at Natanz. This led to a visit to the site by a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who were surprised to discover that Iran was well on its way to completing the nuclear fuel cycle— the series of processes for the enrichment of uranium that is a critical stage in producing a bomb.
Despite the discovery of the Natanz site and the international sanctions that followed, Israeli intelligence reported in early 2004 that Iran’s nuclear project was still progressing. Sharon assigned responsibility for putting an end to the program to Meir Dagan, then head of the Mossad. The two knew each other from the 1970s, when Sharon was the general in charge of the southern command of the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, and Dagan was a young officer whom he put in charge of a top-secret unit whose purpose was the systematic assassination of Palestine Liberation Organization militiamen in the Gaza Strip. As Sharon put it at the time: “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head.”
Sharon granted the Mossad virtually unlimited funds and powers to “stop the Iranian bomb”. As one recently retired senior Mossad officer told me: “There was no operation, there was no project that was not carried out because of a lack of funding.”
At a number of secret meetings with American officials between 2004 and 2007, Dagan detailed a “five-front strategy” that involved political pressure, covert measures, counterproliferation, sanctions, and regime change. In a secret cable sent to the US in August of 2007, he stressed that “the United States, Israel, and like-minded countries must push on all five fronts in a simultaneous joint effort.” He went on to say: “Some are bearing fruit now. Others”— and here he emphasized efforts to encourage ethnic resistance in Iran— “will bear fruit in due time, especially if they are given more attention.”
From 2005 onward, various intelligence arms and the U.S. Treasury, working together with the Mossad, began a worldwide campaign to locate and sabotage the financial underpinnings of the Iranian nuclear project. The Mossad provided the Americans with information on Iranian firms that served as fronts for the country’s nuclear acquisitions and financial institutions that assisted in the financing of terrorist organizations, as well as a banking front established by Iran and Syria to handle all of these activities. The Americans subsequently tried to persuade several large corporations and European governments— especially France, Germany, and Britain— to cease cooperating with Iranian financial institutions, and last month the Senate approved sanctions against Iran’s central bank.
In addition to these interventions, as well as to efforts to disrupt the supply of nuclear materials to Iran, since 2005 the Iranian nuclear project has been hit by a series of mishaps and disasters, for which the Iranians hold Western intelligence services— especially the Mossad— responsible. According to the Iranian media, two transformers blew up and fifty centrifuges were ruined during the first attempt to enrich uranium at Natanz in April 2006. A spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Council stated that the raw materials had been “tampered with.” Between January of 2006 and July of 2007, three airplanes belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards crashed under mysterious circumstances. Some reports said the planes had simply “stopped working.” The Iranians suspected the Mossad, as they did when they discovered that two lethal computer viruses had penetrated the computer system of the nuclear project and caused widespread damage, knocking out a large number of centrifuges.
In January of 2007, several insulation units in the connecting fixtures of the centrifuges, which were purchased from a middleman on the black market in Eastern Europe, turned out to be flawed and unusable. Iran concluded that some of the merchants were actually straw companies that were set up to outfit the Iranian nuclear effort with faulty parts.
Of all the covert operations, the most controversial have been the assassinations of Iranian scientists working on the nuclear project. In January of 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Husseinpour, a 44-year-old nuclear scientist working at the Isfahan uranium plant, died under mysterious circumstances. The official announcement of his death said he was asphyxiated “following a gas leak”, but Iranian intelligence is convinced that he was the victim of an Israeli assassination.
Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a particle physicist, was killed in January of 2010, when a booby-trapped motorcycle parked nearby exploded as he was getting into his car. (Some contend that Mohammadi was not killed by the Mossad, but by Iranian agents because of his supposed support for the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi.) Later that year, on 29 November, a manhunt took place in the streets of Tehran for two motorcyclists who had just blown up the cars of two senior figures in the Iranian nuclear project, Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani. The motorcyclists attached limpet mines (also known as magnet bombs) to the cars and then sped away. Shahriari was killed by the blast in his Peugeot 405, but Abbassi-Davani and his wife managed to escape their car before it exploded. Following this assassination attempt, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Abbassi-Davani vice president of Iran and head of the country’s atomic agency. Today he is heavily guarded wherever he goes, as is the scientific head of the nuclear project, Mohsin Fakhri-Zadeh, whose lectures at Tehran University were discontinued as a precautionary measure.
This past July, a motorcyclist ambushed Darioush Rezaei Nejad, a nuclear physicist and a researcher for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, as he sat in his car outside his house. The biker drew a pistol and shot the scientist dead through the car window.
Four months later, in November, a huge explosion occurred at a Revolutionary Guards base thirty miles west of Tehran. The cloud of smoke was visible from the city, where residents could feel the ground shake and hear their windows rattle, and satellite photos showed that almost the entire base was obliterated. Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddam, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ missile-development division, was killed, as were sixteen of his personnel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, paid respect by coming to the funeral service for the general and visiting the widow at her home, where he called Moghaddam a martyr.
Just this month, on 11 January, two years after his colleague and friend Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed, a deputy director at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility named Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan left his home and headed for a laboratory in downtown Tehran. A few months earlier, a photograph of him accompanying Ahmadinejad on a tour of nuclear installations appeared in newspapers across the globe. Two motorcyclists drove up to his car and attached a limpet mine that killed him on the spot.
Israelis cannot enter Iran, so Israel, Iranian officials believe, has devoted huge resources to recruiting Iranians who leave the country on business trips and turning them into agents. Some have been recruited under a false flag, meaning that the organization’s recruiters pose as other nationalities, so that the Iranian agents won’t know they are on the payroll of “the Zionist enemy,” as Israel is called in Iran. Also, as much as possible, the Mossad prefers to carry out its violent operations based on the blue-and-white principle, a reference to the colors of Israel’s national flag, which means that they are executed only by Israeli citizens who are regular Mossad operatives and not by assassins recruited in the target country. Operating in Iran, however, is impossible for the Mossad’s sabotage-and-assassination unit, known as Caesarea, so the assassins must come from elsewhere. Iranian intelligence believes that over the last several years, the Mossad has financed and armed two Iranian opposition groups, the Muhjahedin Khalq (MEK) and the Jundallah, and has set up a forward base in Kurdistan to mobilize the Kurdish minority in Iran, as well as other minorities, training some of them at a secret base near Tel Aviv.
Officially, Israel has never admitted any involvement in these assassinations, and after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against the killing of Ahmadi-Roshan this month, President Shimon Peres said he had no knowledge of Israeli involvement. The Iranians vowed revenge after the murder, and on 13 January, as I spoke with Ehud Barak at his home in Tel Aviv, the country’s intelligence community was conducting an emergency operation to thwart a joint attack by Iran and Hezbollah against Israeli and Jewish targets in Bangkok. Local Thai forces, reportedly acting on information supplied by the Mossad, raided a Hezbollah hideout in Bangkok and later apprehended a member of the terror cell as he tried to flee the country. The prisoner reportedly confessed that he and his fellow cell members intended to blow up the Israeli Embassy and a synagogue.
Meir Dagan, while not taking credit for the assassinations, has praised the hits against Iranian scientists attributed to the Mossad, saying that beyond “the removal of important brains” from the project, the killings have brought about what is referred to in the Mossad as white defection— in other words, the Iranian scientists are so frightened that many have requested to be transferred to civilian projects. “There is no doubt,” a former top Mossad official told me over breakfast on 11 January, just a few hours after news of Ahmadi-Roshan’s assassination came from Tehran, “that being a scientist in a prestigious nuclear project that is generously financed by the state carries with it advantages like status, advancement, research budgets, and fat salaries. On the other hand, when a scientist— one who is not a trained soldier or used to facing life-threatening situations, who has a wife and children— watches his colleagues being bumped off one after the other, he definitely begins to fear that the day will come when a man on a motorbike knocks on his car window.”
As we spoke, a man approached and, having recognized me as a journalist who reports on these issues, apologized before asking: “When is the war going to break out? When will the Iranians bomb us?” The Mossad official smiled as I tried to reassure the man that we wouldn’t be nuked tomorrow. Similar scenes occur almost every day— Israelis watch the news, have heard that bomb shelters are being prepared, know that Israel test-fired a missile into the sea two months ago— and a kind of panic has begun to overtake Israeli society, anxiety that missiles will start raining down soon.
Dagan believes that his five-fronts strategy has succeeded in significantly delaying Iran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons; specifically “the use of all the weapons together,” he told me and a small group of Israeli journalists early last year. “In the mind of the Iranian citizen, a link has been created between his economic difficulties and the nuclear project. Today in Iran, there is a profound internal debate about this matter, which has divided the Iranian leadership.” He beamed when he added: “It pleases me that the timeline of the project has been pushed forward several times since 2003 because of these mysterious disruptions.”
Barak and Netanyahu are less convinced of the Mossad’s long-term success. From the beginning of their terms (Barak as defense minister in June of 2007, Netanyahu as prime minister in March of 2009), they have held the opinion that Israel must have a military option ready in case covert efforts fail. Barak ordered extensive military preparations for an attack on Iran that continue to this day and have become more frequent in recent months. He was not alone in fearing that the Mossad’s covert operations, combined with sanctions, would not be sufficient. The IDF and military intelligence have also experienced waning enthusiasm. Three very senior military intelligence officers, one who is still serving and two who retired recently, told me that with all due respect for Dagan’s success in slowing down the Iranian nuclear project, Iran was still making progress. One recalled Israel’s operations against Iraq’s nuclear program in the late 1970s, when the Mossad eliminated some of the scientists working on the project and intimidated others. On the night of 6 April 1979, a team of Mossad operatives entered the French port town La Seyne-sur-Mer and blew up a shipment necessary for the cooling system of the Iraqi reactor’s core that was being manufactured in France. The French police found no trace of the perpetrators. An unknown organization for the defense of the environment claimed responsibility.
The attack was successful, but a year later the damage was repaired and further sabotage efforts were thwarted. The project advanced until late in 1980, when it was discovered that a shipment of fuel rods containing enriched uranium had been sent from France to Baghdad, and they were about to be fed into the reactor’s core. Israel determined that it had no other option but to launch Operation Opera, a surprise airstrike in June of 1981 on the Tammuz-Osirak reactor just outside Baghdad.
Similarly, Dagan’s critics say, the Iranians have managed to overcome most setbacks and to replace the slain scientists. According to latest intelligence, Iran now has some ten thousand functioning centrifuges, and they have streamlined the enrichment process. Iran today has five tons of low-grade fissile material, enough, when converted to high-grade material, to make about five to six bombs; it also has about 175 pounds of medium-grade material, of which it would need about 500 pounds to make a bomb. It is believed that Iran’s nuclear scientists estimate that it will take them nine months, from the moment they are given the order, to assemble their first explosive device and another six months to be able to reduce it to the dimensions of a payload for their Shahab-3 missiles, which are capable of reaching Israel. They are holding the fissile material at sites across the country, most notably at the Fordo facility, near the holy city Qom, in a bunker that Israeli intelligence estimates is 220 feet deep, beyond the reach of even the most advanced bunker-busting bombs possessed by the United States.
Barak serves as the senior Israeli representative in the complex dialogue with the United States on this topic. He disagrees with the parallels that some Israeli politicians, mainly his boss, Netanyahu, draw between Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler, and espouses far more moderate views. “I accept that Iran has other reasons for developing nuclear bombs, apart from its desire to destroy Israel, but we cannot ignore the risk,” he told me earlier this month. “An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its fortieth anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West. With a bomb, it would be very hard to budge the administration.” Barak went on: “The moment Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will feel compelled to do the same. The Saudis have told the Americans as much, and one can think of both Turkey and Egypt in this context, not to mention the danger that weapons-grade materials will leak out to terror groups.
“From our point of view,” Barak said, “a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, which has over fifty thousand rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv. A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations.”
At that point Barak leaned forward and said, with the utmost solemnity: “And if a nuclear Iran covets and occupies some Gulf state, who will liberate it? The bottom line is that we must deal with the problem now.” He warned that no more than one year remains to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. This is because it is close to entering its “immunity zone”— a term coined by Barak that refers to the point when Iran’s accumulated know-how, raw materials, experience, and equipment (as well as the distribution of materials among its underground facilities)— will be such that an attack could not derail the nuclear project. Israel estimates that Iran’s nuclear program is about nine months away from being able to withstand an Israeli attack; America, with its superior firepower, has a time frame of fifteen months. In either case, they are presented with a very narrow window of opportunity. One very senior Israeli security source told me: “The Americans tell us there is time, and we tell them that they only have about six to nine months more than we do and that therefore the sanctions have to be brought to a culmination now, in order to exhaust that track.”
Many European analysts and some intelligence agencies have in the past responded to Israel’s warnings with skepticism, if not outright suspicion. Some have argued that Israel has intentionally exaggerated its assessments to create an atmosphere of fear that would drag Europe into its extensive economic campaign against Iran, a skepticism bolstered by the CIA’s incorrect assessment about Iraqi WMDs before to the Iraq war.
Israel’s discourse with the United States on the subject of Iran’s nuclear project is more significant, and more fraught, than it is with Europe. The U.S. has made efforts to stiffen sanctions against Iran and to mobilize countries like Russia and China to apply sanctions in exchange for substantial American concessions. But beneath the surface of this cooperation, there are signs of mutual suspicion. As one senior American official wrote to the State Department and the Pentagon in November 2009, after an Israeli intelligence projection that Iran would have a complete nuclear arsenal by 2012: “It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States.”
For their part, the Israelis suspect that the Obama administration has abandoned any aggressive strategy that would ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran and is merely playing a game of words to appease them. The Israelis find evidence of this in the shift in language used by the administration, from “threshold prevention”— meaning American resolve to stop Iran from having a nuclear-energy program that could allow for the ability to create weapons— to “weapons prevention,” which means the conditions can exist, but there is an American commitment to stop Iran from assembling an actual bomb.
“I fail to grasp the Americans’ logic,” a senior Israeli intelligence source told me. “If someone says we’ll stop them from getting there by praying for more glitches in the centrifuges, I understand. If someone says we must attack soon to stop them, I get it. But if someone says we’ll stop them after they are already there, that I do not understand.”
Over the past year, Western intelligence agencies, in particular the CIA, have moved closer to Israel’s assessments of the Iranian nuclear project. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed this explicitly when he said that Iran would be able to reach nuclear-weapons capabilities within a year. The International Atomic Energy Agency published a scathing report, stating that Iran was in breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and was possibly trying to develop nuclear weapons. Emboldened by this newfound accord, Israel’s leaders have adopted a harsher tone against Iran. Ya’alon, the deputy prime minister, told me in October: “We have had some arguments with the U.S. administration over the past two years, but on the Iranian issue we have managed to close the gaps to a certain extent. The president’s statements at his last meeting with the prime minister— that ‘we are committed to prevent ’ and ‘all the options are on the table’— are highly important. They began with the sanctions too late, but they have moved from a policy of engagement to a much more active (sanctions) policy against Iran. All of these are positive developments.” On the other hand, Ya’alon sighed as he admitted: “The main arguments are ahead of us. This is clear.”
Now that the facts have been largely agreed upon, the arguments Ya’alon anticipates are those that will stem from the question of how to act, and what will happen if Israel decides that the moment for action has arrived. The most delicate issue between the two countries is what America is signaling to Israel and whether Israel should inform America in advance of a decision to attack.
Matthew Kroenig is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and worked as a special adviser in the Pentagon from July of 2010 to July of 2011. One of his tasks was defense policy and strategy on Iran. When I spoke with Kroenig last week, he said: “My understanding is that the United States has asked Israel not to attack Iran and to provide Washington with notice if it intends to strike. Israel responded negatively to both requests. It refused to guarantee that it will not attack or to provide prior notice if it does.” Kroenig went on: “My hunch is that Israel would choose to give warning of an hour or two, just enough to maintain good relations between the countries but not quite enough to allow Washington to prevent the attack.” Kroenig said Israel was correct in its timeline of Iran’s nuclear development and that the next year will be critical. “The future can evolve in three ways,” he said. “Iran and the international community could agree to a negotiated settlement; Israel and the United States could acquiesce to a nuclear-armed Iran; or Israel or the United States could attack. Nobody wants to go in the direction of a military strike,” he added, “but unfortunately this is the most likely scenario. The more interesting question is not whether it happens but how. The United States should treat this option more seriously and begin gathering international support and building the case for the use of force under international law.”
In June of 2007, I met with a former director of the Mossad, Meir Amit, who handed me a document stamped Top secret, for your eyes only. Amit wanted to demonstrate the complexity of the relations between the United States and Israel, especially when it comes to Israeli military operations in the Middle East that could significantly impact American interests in the region.
Almost 45 years ago, on 25 May 1967, in the midst of the international crisis that precipitated the Six-Day War, Amit, then head of the Mossad, summoned John Hadden, the CIA chief in Tel Aviv, to an urgent meeting at his home. The meeting took place against the background of the mounting tensions in the Middle East, the concentration of a massive Egyptian force in the Sinai Peninsula, the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and the threats by President Gamal Abdel Nasser to destroy the State of Israel. In what he later described as “the most difficult meeting I have ever had with a representative of a foreign intelligence service,” Amit laid out Israel’s arguments for attacking Egypt. The conversation between them, which was transcribed in the document Amit passed on to me, went as follows:
Amit: “We are approaching a turning point that is more important for you than it is for us. After all, you people know everything. We are in a grave situation, and I believe we have reached it, because we have not acted yet... Personally, I am sorry that we did not react immediately. It is possible that we may have broken some rules if we had, but the outcome would have been to your benefit. I was in favor of acting. We should have struck before the build-up.”
Hadden: “That would have brought Russia and the United States against you.”
Amit: “You are wrong... We have now reached a new stage, after the expulsion of the U.N. inspectors. You should know that it’s your problem, not ours.”
Hadden: “Help us by giving us a good reason to come in on your side. Get them to fire at something, a ship, for example.”
Amit: “That is not the point.”
Hadden: “If you attack, the United States will land forces to help the attacked state protect itself.”
Amit: “I can’t believe what I am hearing.”
Hadden: “Do not surprise us.”
Amit: “Surprise is one of the secrets of success.”
Hadden: “I don’t know what the significance of American aid is for you.”
Amit: “It isn’t aid for us, it is for yourselves.”
That ill-tempered meeting, and Hadden’s threats, encouraged the Israeli security cabinet to ban the military from carrying out an immediate assault against the Egyptian troops in the Sinai, although they were perceived as a grave threat to the existence of Israel. Amit did not accept Hadden’s response as final, however, and flew to the United States to meet with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Upon his return, he reported to the Israeli cabinet that when he told McNamara that Israel could not reconcile itself to Egypt’s military actions, the secretary replied, “I read you very clearly.” When Amit then asked McNamara if he should remain in Washington for another week, to see how matters developed, McNamara responde: “Young man, go home, that is where you are needed now.”
From this exchange, Amit concluded that the United States was giving Israel “a flickering green light” to attack Egypt. He told the cabinet that if the Americans were given one more week to exhaust their diplomatic efforts, “they will hesitate to act against us”. The next day, the cabinet decided to begin the Six-Day War, which changed the course of Middle Eastern history.
Amit handed me the minutes of that conversation from the same armchair that he sat in during his meeting with Hadden. It is striking how that dialogue anticipated the one now under way between Israel and the United States. Substitute Tehran for Cairo and Strait of Hormuz for Straits of Tiran, and it could have taken place this past week. Since 1967, the unspoken understanding that America should agree, at least tacitly, to Israeli military actions has been at the center of relations between the two countries.
During my lengthy conversation with Barak, I pulled out the transcript of the Amit-Hadden meeting. Amit was his commander when Barak was a young officer, in a unit that carried out commando raids deep inside enemy territory. Barak, a history buff, smiled at the comparison, and then he completely rejected it. “Relations with the United States are far closer today,” he said. “There are no threats, no recriminations, only cooperation and mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty.”
In our conversation on 18 January, Ya’alon, the deputy prime minister, was sharp in his criticism of the international community’s stance on Iran. “These are critical hours on the question of which way the international community will take the policy,” he said. “The West must stand united and resolute, and what is happening so far is not enough. The Iranian regime must be placed under pressure and isolated. Sanctions that bite must be imposed against it, something that has not happened as yet, and a credible military option should be on the table as a last resort. In order to avoid it, the sanctions must be stepped up.” It is, of course, important for Ya’alon to argue that this is not just an Israeli-Iranian dispute, but a threat to America’s well-being. “The Iranian regime will be several times more dangerous if it has a nuclear device in its hands,” he went on. “One that it could bring into the United States. It is not for nothing that it is establishing bases for itself in Latin America and creating links with drug dealers on the U.S.-Mexican border. This is happening in order to smuggle ordnance into the United States for the carrying out of terror attacks. Imagine this regime getting nuclear weapons to the U.S.-Mexico border and managing to smuggle it into Texas, for example. This is not a far-fetched scenario.”
Ehud Barak dislikes this kind of criticism of the United States, and in a rather testy tone in a phone conversation with me on 18 January said: “Our discourse with the United States is based on listening and mutual respect, together with an understanding that it is our primary ally. The US is what helps us to preserve the military advantage of Israel, more than ever before. This administration contributes to the security of Israel in an extraordinary way and does a lot to prevent a nuclear Iran. We’re not in confrontation with America. We’re not in agreement on every detail, we can have differences— and not unimportant ones— but we should not talk as if we are speaking about a hostile entity.”
Over the last four years, since Barak was appointed minister of defense, the Israeli military has prepared in unprecedented ways for a strike against Iran. It has also grappled with questions of how it will manage the repercussions of such an attack. Much of the effort is dedicated to strengthening the country’s civil defenses— bomb shelters, air-raid sirens, and the like— areas in which serious defects were discovered during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Civilian disaster exercises are being held intermittently, and gas masks have been distributed to the population.
On the operational level, any attack would be extremely complex. Iran learned the lessons of Iraq, and has dispersed its nuclear installations throughout its vast territory. There is no way of knowing for certain if the Iranians have managed to conceal any key facilities from Israeli intelligence. Israel has limited air power and no aircraft carriers. If it attacked Iran, because of the thousand or so miles between its bases and its potential targets, Israeli planes would have to refuel in the air at least once (and more than once if faced with aerial engagements). The bombardment would require pinpoint precision in order to spend the shortest amount of time over the targets, which are heavily defended by antiaircraft-missile batteries.
In the end, a successful attack would not eliminate the knowledge possessed by the project’s scientists, and it is possible that Iran, with its highly developed technological infrastructure, would be able to rebuild the damaged or wrecked sites. What is more, unlike Syria, which did not respond after the destruction of its reactor in 2007, Iran has openly declared that it would strike back ferociously if attacked. Iran has hundreds of Shahab missiles armed with warheads that can reach Israel, and it could harness Hezbollah to strike at Israeli communities with its fifty thousand rockets, some of which can hit Tel Aviv. (Hamas in Gaza, which is also supported by Iran, might also fire a considerable number of rockets on Israeli cities.) According to Israeli intelligence, Iran and Hezbollah have also planted roughly 40 terrorist sleeper cells across the globe, ready to hit Israeli and Jewish targets if Iran deems it necessary to retaliate. And if Israel responded to a Hezbollah bombardment against Lebanese targets, Syria may feel compelled to begin operations against Israel, leading to a full-scale war. On top of all this, Tehran has already threatened to close off the Persian Gulf to shipping, which would generate a devastating ripple through the world economy as a consequence of the rise in the price of oil.
The proponents of an attack argue that the problems delineated above, including missiles from Iran and Lebanon and terror attacks abroad, are ones Israel will have to deal with regardless of whether it attacks Iran now and, if Iran goes nuclear, dealing with these problems will become far more difficult.
The Israeli Air Force is where most of the preparations are taking place. It maintains planes with the long-range capacity required to deliver ordnance to targets in Iran, as well as unmanned aircraft capable of carrying bombs to those targets and remaining airborne for up to 48 hours. Israel believes that these platforms have the capacity to cause enough damage to set the Iranian nuclear project back by three to five years.
In January of 2010, the Mossad sent a hit team to Dubai to liquidate the high-ranking Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was coordinating the smuggling of rockets from Iran to Gaza. The assassination was carried out successfully, but almost the entire operation and all its team members were recorded on closed-circuit surveillance television cameras. The operation caused a diplomatic uproar and was a major embarrassment for the Mossad. In the aftermath, Netanyahu decided not to extend Dagan’s already exceptionally long term, informing him that he would be replaced in January of 2011. That decision was not well received by Dagan, and three days before he was due to leave his post, I and several other Israeli journalists were surprised to receive invitations to a meeting with him at Mossad headquarters.
We were told to congregate in the parking lot of a movie-theater complex north of Tel Aviv, where we were warned by Mossad security personnel: “Do not bring computers, recording devices, cellphones. You will be carefully searched, and we want to avoid unpleasantness. Leave everything in your cars and enter our vehicles carrying only paper and pens.” We were then loaded into cars with opaque windows and escorted by black Jeeps to a site that we knew was not marked on any map. The cars went through a series of security checks, requiring our escorts to explain who we were and show paperwork at each roadblock.
This was the first time in the history of the Mossad that a group of journalists was invited to meet the director of the organization at one of the country’s most secret sites. After the search was performed and we were seated, the outgoing chief entered the room. Dagan, who was wounded twice in combat, once seriously, during the Six-Day War, started by saying: “There are advantages to being wounded in the back. You have a doctor’s certificate that you have a backbone.” He then went into a discourse about Iran and sharply criticized the heads of government for even contemplating “the foolish idea” of attacking it. “The use of state violence has intolerable costs,” he said. “The working assumption that it is possible to totally halt the Iranian nuclear project by means of a military attack is incorrect. There is no such military capability. It is possible to cause a delay, but even that would only be for a limited period of time.” He warned that attacking Iran would start an unwanted war with Hezbollah and Hamas: “I am not convinced that Syria will not be drawn into the war. While the Syrians won’t charge at us in tanks, we will see a massive offensive of missiles against our home front. Civilians will be on the front lines. What is Israel’s defensive capability against such an offensive? I know of no solution that we have for this problem.” Asked if he had said these things to Israel’s decision-makers, Dagan replied: “I have expressed my opinion to them with the same emphasis as I have here now. Sometimes I raised my voice, because I lose my temper easily and am overcome with zeal when I speak.” In later conversations Dagan criticized Netanyahu and Barak and, in a lecture at Tel Aviv University, he observed: “The fact that someone has been elected doesn’t mean that he is smart.”
In the audience at that lecture was Rafi Eitan, 85, one of the Mossad’s most seasoned and well-known operatives. Eitan agreed with Dagan that Israel lacked the capabilities to attack Iran. When I spoke with him in October, Eitan said: “As early as 2006 (when Eitan was a senior cabinet minister), I told the cabinet that Israel couldn’t afford to attack Iran. First of all, because the home front is not ready. I told anyone who wanted and still wants to attack, they should just think about two missiles a day, no more than that, falling on Tel Aviv. And what will you do then? Beyond that, our attack won’t cause them significant damage. I was told during one of the discussions that it would delay them for three years, and I replied: ‘Not even three months.’ After all, they have scattered their facilities all over the country and under the ground. ‘What harm can you do to them?’ I asked. ‘You’ll manage to hit the entrances, and they’ll have them rebuilt in three months.’ ”
Asked if it was possible to stop a determined Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Eitan replied: “No. In the end they’ll get their bomb. The way to fight it is by changing the regime there. This is where we have really failed. We should encourage the opposition groups who turn to us over and over to ask for our help, and instead, we send them away empty-handed.”
Israeli law stipulates that only the fourteen members of the security cabinet have the authority to make decisions on whether to go to war. The cabinet has not yet been asked to vote, but the ministers might, under pressure from Netanyahu and Barak, answer these crucial questions about Iran in the affirmative: that these coming months are indeed the last opportunity to attack before Iran enters the “immunity zone”; that the broad international agreement on Iran’s intentions and the failure of sanctions to stop the project have created sufficient legitimacy for an attack; and that Israel does indeed possess the capabilities to cause significant damage to the Iranian project.
In recent weeks, Israelis have obsessively questioned whether Netanyahu and Barak are really planning a strike or if they are just putting up a front to pressure Europe and the U.S. to impose tougher sanctions. I believe that both of these things are true, but as a senior intelligence officer who often participates in meetings with Israel’s top leadership told me, the only individuals who really know their intentions are, of course, Netanyahu and Barak, and recent statements that no decision is imminent must surely be taken into account.
After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012. Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that. Instead there is that peculiar Israeli mixture of fear— rooted in the sense that Israel is dependent on the tacit support of other nations to survive— and tenacity, the fierce conviction, right or wrong, that only the Israelis can ultimately defend themselves. 
Rico says this will doubtless all end badly...

But they're a peace-loving people...

On 30 January 1948, Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu extremist.

29 January 2012

Yin & Yang

Steve Lohr has an article in The New York Times about innovation:
In the hunt for innovation, that elusive path to economic growth and corporate prosperity, try a little jazz as an inspirational metaphor. That’s the message that John Kao, an innovation adviser to corporations and governments— who is also a jazz pianist— was to deliver in a performance and talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Jazz, Kao says, demonstrates some of the tensions in innovation, between training and discipline on one side and improvised creativity on the other.
In business, as in jazz, the interaction of those two sides, the yin and the yang of innovation, fuels new ideas and products. The mixture varies by company.
Kao points to the very different models of innovation represented by Google and Apple, two powerhouses of Silicon Valley, the world’s epicenter of corporate creativity.
The Google model relies on rapid experimentation and data. The company constantly refines its search, advertising marketplace, e-mail, and other services, depending on how people use its online offerings. It takes a bottom-up approach: customers are participants, essentially becoming partners in product design.
The Apple model is more edited, intuitive, and top-down. When asked what market research went into the company’s elegant product designs, Steve Jobs had a standard answer: none. “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want,” he would add.
The Google-Apple comparison, Kao says, highlights the “archetypical tension in the creative process.”
Google speaks to the power of data-driven decision-making, and of online experimentation and networked communication. The same Internet-era tools enable crowd-sourced collaboration as well as the rapid testing of product ideas— the essence of the lean start-up method so popular in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
“These are business and management innovations lubricated by technology,” says Thomas R. Eisenmann, a professor at the Harvard Business School.
The benefits, experts say, are most apparent in markets like Internet software, online commerce and mobile applications for smartphones and tablets. “The cost of creation, distribution and failure is low, so it takes relatively little time, money, and effort to float trial balloons,” says Randy Komisar, a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm, and a lecturer on entrepreneurship at Stanford.
That style of innovation is being applied well beyond Google’s products and Internet start-ups. The National Science Foundation, for example, is embracing the formula to try to increase commercialization of the university research it finances. Last fall, the foundation announced the first of a series of grants for what it calls the NSF Innovation Corps. The 21 three-member teams received a crash course at Stanford in lean start-up techniques, and have been given $50,000 each and six months to test whether their inventions are marketable.
The lean formula, with its emphasis on constantly testing ideas and products with customers, amounts to applying “the scientific method to market-opportunity identification,” says Errol B. Arkilic, program director at the foundation.
Yet, while networked communications and marketplace experiments add useful information, breakthrough ideas still come from individuals, not committees. “There is nothing democratic about innovation,” says Paul Saffo, a veteran technology forecaster in Silicon Valley. “It is always an elite activity, whether by a recognized or unrecognized elite.” Successful innovation, Saffo observes, requires “an odd blend of certainty and openness to new information.” In other words, it is a blend of top-down and bottom-up discovery.
Open innovation isn’t a new idea. It flourished, in its way, even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notes Tom Nicholas, a historian at the Harvard Business School. In fields like electricity, pharmaceuticals, and communications, big corporations including General Electric and Dow Chemical routinely monitored the research beyond their walls, and bought or licensed promising work, especially the inventions of university scientists. The result, Nicholas says, was a thriving “ecosystem of private and corporate innovation.”
A century later, the corporate labs at GE are trying to quicken the pace of innovation, but this is long-cycle innovation, since GE’s power generators, jet engines, and medical-imaging equipment last for decades. The company is opening a software center in Northern California to make its machines more intelligent with data-gathering sensors, wireless communications and predictive algorithms. The goal is to develop machines, such as jet engines or power turbines, that can alert their human minders when they need repairs, before equipment failures occur. Such smarter machines, the company says, are early arrivals in what it calls the Industrial Internet.
To tap outsider ideas, GE’s research arm has made investments with venture capital funds in clean-energy technology and health care, and it works with corporations, government labs and universities on hundreds of collaborative projects. “We’re much more externally focused and connected to the outside world than we were several years ago,” says Michael IdelchikGE’s vice president of advanced technologies.
Apple’s smartphones, tablets, and computers typically have life spans measured in a few years instead of decades, with new models introduced regularly. But, like GEApple is in the hardware business, where innovation cycles are beholden to the limits of materials science and manufacturing.
Apple’s physical world is far different from Google’s realm of Internet software, where writing a few lines of new code can change a product instantly. The careful melding of hardware with software in Apple’s popular products is a challenge in multidisciplinary systems design that must be orchestrated by a guiding hand; though it will no longer be the hand of Jobs, who died last October.Yet Apple has also repeatedly displayed its openness to new ideas and influences, as exemplified by the visit that Jobs made to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in 1979. He saw an experimental computer with a point-and-click mouse and graphical on-screen icons, which he adopted at Apple. It later became the standard for the personal computer industry.
In 2010, Apple bought Siri, a personal assistant application for smartphones. At the time, it was a small start-up in Silicon Valley that originated as a program funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon. Last year, Siri became the talking question-answering application on iPhones.
Apple product designs may not be determined by traditional market research, focus groups or online experiments. But its top leaders, recruited by Jobs, are tireless seekers in an information-gathering network on subjects ranging from microchip technology to popular culture. “It’s a lot of data crunched in a nonlinear way in the right brain,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.Apple and Google pursue very different paths to innovation, but the gap between their two models may be closing a bit. In the months after Larry Page, the Google co-founder, took over as chief executive last April, the company eliminated a diverse collection of more than two dozen projects, a nudge toward top-down leadership. And Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s CEO, will almost surely be a more bottom-up leader than Jobs.
“What we’re likely to see,” Kao says, “is Google and Apple each borrowing from the playbook of the other.”
Rico says that Randy Komisar was the corporate attorney at Claris, and Rico almost got a job at PARC (where his old high school buddy Ted Kaehler worked) just before Steve Jobs showed up there...

Remember bookstores?

Julie Bosman has an article in The New York Times about Barnes & Noble:
In March of 2009, an eternity ago in Silicon Valley, a small team of engineers in Palo Alto, California was in a big hurry to rethink the future of books. Not the paper-and-ink books that have been around since the days of Gutenberg, the ones that the doomsayers proclaim— with either glee or dread— will go the way of vinyl records.
No, the engineers were instead fixated on the forces that are upending the way books are published, sold, bought and read: e-books and e-readers. Working in secret, behind an unmarked door in a former bread bakery, they rushed to build a device that might capture the imagination of readers and maybe even save the book industry.
They had six months to do it.
Running this sprint was, of all companies, Barnes & Noble, the giant that helped put so many independent booksellers out of business and that now finds itself locked in the fight of its life. What its engineers dreamed up was the Nook, a relative e-reader latecomer that has nonetheless become the great e-hope of Barnes & Noble and, in fact, of many in the book business.
Several iterations later, the Nook and, by extension, Barnes & Noble, at times seem the only things standing between traditional book publishers and oblivion.
Inside the great publishing houses— grand names like Macmillan, Penguin, and Random House— there is a sense of unease about the long-term fate of Barnes & Noble, the last major bookstore chain standing. First, the megastores squeezed out the small players. (Think of Tom Hanks’ Fox & Sons Books to Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner in the 1998 comedy, You’ve Got Mail.) Then the chains themselves were gobbled up or driven under, as consumers turned to the internet. B. Dalton Bookseller and Crown Books are long gone. Borders collapsed last year.
No one expects Barnes & Noble to disappear overnight. The worry is that it might slowly wither as more readers embrace e-books. What if all those store shelves vanished, and Barnes & Noble became little more than a cafe and a digital connection point? Such fears came to the fore in early January, when the company projected that it would lose even more money this year than Wall Street had expected. Its share price promptly tumbled seventeen percent that day.
Lurking behind all of this is Amazon.com, the dominant force in books online and the company that sets teeth on edge in publishing. From their perches in midtown Manhattan, many publishing executives, editors and publicists view Amazon as the enemy— an adversary that, if unchecked, could threaten their industry and their livelihoods.
Like many struggling businesses, book publishers are cutting costs and trimming work forces. Yes, electronic books are booming, sometimes profitably, but not many publishers want e-books to dominate print books. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, wants to cut out the middleman— that is, traditional publishers— by publishing e-books directly.
Which is why Barnes & Noble, once viewed as the brutal capitalist of the book trade, now seems so crucial to that industry’s future. Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But, in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books. If something were to happen to Barnes & Noble, if it were merely to scale back its ambitions, Amazon could become even more powerful and, well, the very thought makes publishers queasy.
“It would be like The Road,” one publishing executive in New York said, half-jokingly, referring to the Cormac McCarthy novel. “The post-apocalyptic world of publishing, with publishers pushing shopping carts down Broadway.”
Shouldering the responsibilities of Barnes & Noble is one thing. Holding the fate of American book publishing in your hands is quite another. But William J. Lynch Jr., the CEO of the company, says he is up for the battle. With all of three years of experience in bookselling, Lynch must pull off a balancing act that would be tricky even in good times. He must carve out a digital future for Barnes & Noble without forsaking its hard-copy past, all while his company’s profit and share price are under pressure, his customers are fleeing to the web and Amazon is circling.
It might come as a surprise, but Lynch says Barnes & Noble is, in fact, a technology company. Never mind that it has seven hundred bookstores and operates in all fifty states. To the delight of publishers, he has pushed hard into e-books and, with the help of the well-reviewed Nook, even grabbed a lot of market share from Amazon. But he is playing David to Bezos’ Goliath. Barnes & Noble’s stock closed on Friday at $11.95, putting the value of the company at $719 million. Amazon’s shares closed at $195.37, valuing Bezos’ company at $88 billion.
“We could sit here and bang our head against the wall and get sick about it like we do every week,” Lynch, 41, said of his company’s stock price. But he contends that pushing into e-books with the Nook is the right way, and perhaps the only way, forward.
“Had we not launched devices and spent the money we invested in the Nook, investors and analysts would have said, ‘Barnes & Noble is crazy, and they’re going to go away,’” Lynch said.
Before Lynch joined Barnes & Noble in 2009, he had never sold a book in his life. (The last book he read— on the Nook, he said last week— was The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré.) Lynch came to the job from IAC/InterActiveCorp, where he worked for HSN.com, the online outlet of the Home Shopping Network, and Gifts.com.
And yet, in three years, he has won a remarkable number of fans in the upper echelons of the book world. Most publishers in New York can’t say enough good things about him: smart, creative, tech-savvy— the list goes on. It helps that he has forged the friendliest relations between publishers and Barnes & Noble in recent memory. They are, after all, in this together.
Lynch grew up in Dallas and still speaks with a hint of Texas twang. But he has the foot-tapping intensity of a tech type running on four Mountain Dews. It seems fitting, then, that he usually works out of an office in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where Barnes & Noble’s web and digital operations are based, rather than at the company’s stately headquarters on Fifth Avenue, not far away. When he talks, you get the sense that he could be selling just about anything. As it happens, he is selling books.
Lynch says Barnes & Noble stores will endure. The idea that devices like the Nook, the Kindle, and the Apple iPad will make bookstores obsolete is nonsense, he says. “Our stores are not going anywhere,” he said in an interview this month in his office. He pointed to a surprisingly robust holiday season. In the nine weeks leading up to Christmas, sales were up four percent from the previous year. Titles for children and young adults are doing well, partly a result of the popularity of fiction with paranormal or dystopian themes, like The Hunger Games. And, in the second half of 2011, Barnes & Noble picked up a big chunk of business from its vanquished rival, Borders.
Yet, no sooner had the holidays passed than Barnes & Noble came out with some downbeat news for the year ahead. On 5 January, it projected it would lose as much as $1.40 a share in fiscal 2012. On top of that, Lynch said shareholders seemed to be underestimating the Nook’s potential so much that perhaps the company would be better off if it just spun off its digital business. Wall Street howled, and Barnes & Noble’s stock still hasn’t fully recovered. A bit of good news for the company is that, thanks to the Nook, it’s been grabbing e-book business from Amazon. Lynch said Barnes & Noble now held about 27 percent of the market, a number that publishers confirm gleefully. Amazon has at least 60 percent.
Responding to questions about the battle over e-books, Amazon issued a statement pointing to its own recent growth. In the nine-week holiday period ending on 31 December, it said, “Kindle unit sales, including both the Kindle Fire and e-reader devices, increased 177 percent over the same period last year.”
Granted, Lynch inherited a company at a pivotal moment in its long, winding history. Barnes & Noble dates back to 1873, when Charles Barnes went into the used-book business in Wheaton, Illinois. His company later moved to New York City, bought an interest in an established textbook wholesaler, Noble & Noble, and opened a large bookshop on Fifth Avenue. So it went until an enterprising young bookseller, Leonard Riggio, came along. After gaining a foothold in college bookstores, he bought that Barnes & Noble bookshop in 1971. Before long, he was offering deep discounts— and expanding wildly across the nation.
Early in his tenure, Lynch pressed Riggio’s brother, Stephen, his predecessor as CEO, to explain the business he’d gotten himself into. “I had this La Femme Nikita immersion with him,” Lynch recalled. “We went to lunch and I just told him: ‘Tell me everything you know about the book business.’”
But, at that time, Amazon had already made the first successful move in e-readers: the first-generation Kindle hit the market in November of 2007. Lynch had arrived in the C-suite, but was perilously late to the party.
On Homer Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is a tiny, two-story building that once housed the maker of Palo Alto Bread. It was here, in March of 2009, that Barnes & Noble brought a few new hires to create the Nook. Outsiders weren’t quite sure what the company was up to. The landlord figured that Lynch wanted to open a store.
What began as an almost quixotic effort to catch up with the Amazon Kindle has now grown into a three-hundred-person operation in the heart of Silicon Valley. Lynch has hired engineers, software developers and designers, who are today spread among five low-slung buildings.
In one room, a virtual wallpaper of Nook color devices hangs in rows neat as a checkerboard. A common area holds a foosball table and a cooler of VitaminWater. Some of the walls are made of silver-colored mesh. Some of the cubicles are lime green.
But there are also reminders of the old Barnes & Noble. Over here is a basket of actual books, including Travels With Charley and The Little Prince. Over there on a wall are enormous vintage covers of books like Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby. It was Nick Carraway who told Jay Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past.” That warning seems to hang over these offices. A sign above one group of engineers says: “We are changing the future of bookselling.”
For all the bells and whistles and high-minded talk, Barnes & Noble doesn’t exactly have the cool factor (or money) of, say, a Google or a Facebook.
Ravi Gopalakrishnan, the first engineer whom Lynch hired and now the chief technology officer for digital products, said his techie friends were incredulous when he joined Barnes & Noble. “They were all wondering what I was up to,” Gopalakrishnan, 46, said. “I’m a technology guy— why I was working for a retail company? They thought I was nuts. There were a lot of e-mails that said ‘Barnes & Noble?!’”
Bill Saperstein, a mild-mannered surfer and a veteran of Apple, said he was persuaded to leave retirement to join Barnes & Noble as vice president for digital products hardware engineering. “We don’t see a lot of the stock and the free sushi bar and everything else that you find at Google, but there’s a lot of responsibility,” said Saperstein, 62, who spent seven years working for Steve Jobs. “It was stuff that I strongly believed in, which was reading.”
Barnes & Noble is trying to strike at Amazon with another device. At its labs in Silicon Valley last week, engineers were putting final touches on their fifth e-reading device, a product that executives said would be released sometime this spring. (A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman declined to elaborate.)
Back in New York, Lynch has been working to revamp the look of Barnes & Noble stores. Last year, the company expanded sections for toys and games and added shiny new display space for its Nook devices. In another sign of the digital revolution, Lynch expects to eliminate the dedicated sections for music and DVD’s within two years— while still selling some of them elsewhere in the stores. He also plans to experiment with slightly smaller stores. And, before long, executives will take the Nook overseas— a big switch, given that Barnes & Noble has focused almost exclusively on the American market for decades. The first stop is expected to be Waterstones bookstores in Britain.
All of this would be a tall order for any CEO, and some analysts wonder if Lynch has bitten off more than he can chew. Then again, given this industry’s pace of change, Barnes & Noble may have to adapt to new realities, or die trying.
“I think they realize they can’t continue at the rate they’re going,” said Jack W. Perry, a publishing consultant. “They need more money to invest, to slug it out.”
These are trying times for almost everyone in the book business. Since 2002, the United States has lost roughly five hundred independent bookstores— nearly one out of five. About 650 bookstores vanished when Borders went out of business last year.
No wonder that some New York publishers have gone so far as to sketch out what the industry might look like without Barnes & Noble. It’s not a happy thought for them: certainly, there would be fewer places to sell books. Independents account for less than ten percent of business, and Target, Walmart, and the like carry far smaller selections than traditional bookstores.
Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold, and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually makes economic sense, suddenly seems a reach. Marketing books via Twitter, and relying on reviews, advertising and perhaps an appearance on the Today show doesn’t sound like a winning plan.
What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.
“That display space they have in the store is really one of the most valuable places that exists in this country for communicating to the consumer that a book is a big deal,” said Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations, and digital for Random House.
What’s more, sales of older books— the so-called backlist, which has traditionally accounted for anywhere from thirty to fifty percent of the average big publisher’s sales— would suffer terribly.
“For all publishers, it’s really important that brick-and-mortar retailers survive,” said David Shanks, the chief executive of the Penguin Group USA. “Not only are they key to keeping our physical book business thriving, there is also the carry-on effect of the display of a book that contributes to selling e-books and audio books. The more visibility a book has, the more inclined a reader is to make a purchase.”
Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, says the biggest challenge is to give people a reason to step into Barnes & Noble stores in the first place. “They have figured out how to use the store to sell e-books," she said of the company. "Now, hopefully, we can figure out how to make that go full circle and see how the e-books can sell the print books.”
Bezos, for one, isn’t waiting. Amazon has set the book industry on edge by starting a publishing unit that has snagged authors like Timothy Ferriss and James Franco. And, each day, the stock market provides a sobering reminder that Bezos, not Lynch, has the deeper pockets.
While publishers’ fates are closely tied to Barnes & Noble, said John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan, it’s not all about them. “Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt,” he said, “if Barnes & Noble does not prosper.”
Rico says remember Borders? His local one is now a furniture store... But you can buy Rico's books at Amazon.com (but not for a Nook or a Kindle, sorry). And any traditional publisher who wants to pick up Rico's 'backlist', or buy his next book, is welcome to do so. (But Rico used to hang out on Homer Avenue in Palo Alto, many years ago, long before it was Silicon Valley.)

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