On Osirak Redux: Zero-Day or Day-After problems for Israel?

Last week President Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran had a carefully choreographed press day announcing further advancement of the Iranian Nuclear programs and was adament their progress would continue:

“The era of bullying nations has passed. The arrogant powers cannot monopolise nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed… our nuclear path will continue.”

The  EU and US sanctions are beginning to bite but the day Iran possesses a nuclear weapon appears to get ever closer.  The general consensus by western analysts and media is that the chances of Israel bombing Iranian Nuclear facilities is relatively low, as the cost benefit analysis of limited damage and delay versus inevitable blow back would be just  too costly.   If it does happen at all, it will likely be this year, before the Iranians can move sufficient enrichment facilities in their mountain bunkers, so goes the story anyway

The Fordow enrichment facility buried deep in the mountains (Google Earth)

The Fordow enrichment facility buried deep in the mountains (Google Earth)

What is interesting is the possible logistics and mechanics of it, along with the decision process in giving it the green light.  Israel’s famous bombing run of Saddam’s Osirak reactor in the early 80s is legendary, and the bombing of the Syrian reactor in 2007 was relatively straight forward.   But they were mere cakewalks compared with trying to bomb the fortified enrichment floor in Natanz, and the deep mountain bunkers in Fordow.  Everything just seems  much more difficult compared to those previous missions if they were to try a conventional air attack.  Some MIT researchers have written an interesting paper on the subject entitled Osirak Redux?.

For starters, the 1700KM distance to Iran is beyond the range of Israel F-15s and F-16s without mid-air refueling.  And no matter what route they pick, the airspace of multiple neighbouring countries needs to be flown through, with not just jets but also possibly with the tankers.  The have a reasonable chance of success, anywhere between half and all the Israeli air force would need to be deployed in the one mission, risking their military resources for any follow on conflict. Not only does the number of fighters deployed need to be high for success, but to puncture the roof of Natanz would require back to back bunker busting bombs hitting the same area, one on it’s own would not be sufficient.  Combine those hurdles with the fact there is no element of surprise, the Iranians preparing for an attack.  Iranian air defences, while not cutting edge, are more than capable of spotting the Israelis jets lack of stealth.

Israel has other options of course.  They have ballistic missiles with suitable range that could be launched from Israeli soil, along with submarine based missiles that could launch from the Gulf.  Although, unlike the bunker busting bombs, neither of these are designed to penetrate concrete bunkers.   They could also combine all three approaches, combined with some commandos on the ground.  This is all assuming conventional weaponry.   But would Israel rally use their Nuclear weapons or Iran, thus justify a reason for Iran to require them.

Even if they did use any of these approaches and were successful in destroying the nuclear complexes, they have a “Day After” problem.  They would have just bombed a soveriegn nation without UN approval, and strengthened it’s unpopular regime .  The disgruntled Iranian populace could easily begin to rally around their embattled leadership once images of blood spattered centrifuge technicians get broadcast on state media.  Iran could easily kick of a proxy war via terrorists in Lebanon and Palestinem, that would see rockets shower down upon Tel Aviv and Haifa.  The diplomat bombings of the last few days could go into overdrive and Iran currently has the capability to deliver ballistic missiles to Israel should it choose that path to retaliate.

Now imagine a weapons system that could destroy the target, but not be traced back to Israel.  This would eliminate the “Day After” problem, and make the decision to attack a much easier one.  Well it turns out Israel may have already attacked Iran with such a weapon, but the perpetrator can’t be determined for sure.

A computer worm called Stuxnet was released in late 2009, targeting specifically computers in Iran, and more specifically computer running Siemens control software that manage specific industrial processes, namely spinning centrifuges.  The worm infected hundreds on computers at the Natanz site, with the intention of changing the speed of the centrifuges rapidly, which would in turn cause their destruction.  While it is not clear how much damage was done, the Iranians have admitted damage was caused by the incident, and their Nuclear program was delayed in some way.

Centrifuges were damaged by changing their speeds of rotation rapidly

However, while this weapon eliminated the “Day After” problem, is has a different  problem.  Since it was not a knockout blow, ideally the Israelis would liked to have hit reload and tried again, exposing the same vulnerabilities in the Iranian computer systems to cause more damage.

However, to pull-off the initial Stuxnet attack, the creators utilised no less than four Zero-day attacks.  Zero-day software vulnerabilities are so named because no one is aware of them at the moment they are used, and the developer of the original software has no opportunity to distribute a fix.  However, once the attack is detected, a fix can plug the hole forever more. For that reason they are highly prized by hackers, and used sparingly.  Further vulnerabilites in the software used by the Iranians becomes harder to find, and follow-on attacks become more difficult to create or impossible.

So this type of cyber weaponry solved one problem, but has it’s own inherent problem, the inability to attack more than once with the same weapon.  It would be like only having 4 F-15s, and never being able to buy more once they were destroyed in combat.

Back to the conventional military attack, who knows what decisions the Israelis will come to over the coming months, what form the attack will take, and what the consequences will be.  The consensus view of analysts in that the chances of an attack are low.  I disagree, and believe it is highly likely based on their  leadership and recent history.




On the Exponential Growth of the Irish Economist

Ah, the Irish Economist.  In the current climate, ask the average man on the street to name a full team of national soccer players that might tog out against Georgia next week and he would struggle.   Sure there is Keane, Duffer, Shay Given, and that guy with three grannies who won’t play, Stephen Ireland.   But the rest of the squad is not very visible, and wouldn’t slip off the tongue of Joe public.   However, ask him to name his economist dream team, and he would have no shortage of names to throw on the team sheet – Jim Power, David McWilliams, George Lee, Morgan Kelly, Alan Ahearn, Austin Hughes, Dan McLauglin.  These guys and their brethren get an enormous amount of face-time and print-line in our media, both back during the boom and now even more during the recession.   Do other countries have such an array of high profiles economists?  I doubt it.  Americans would generally know whether Greenspan or Bernanke are in charge of the federal reserve, but that would be as far as it goes.  Likewise in the UK.  But over here, these guys are borderline celebrities.  And they come in so many different flavours.


In retreat - Austin "Comical Ali" Hughes and "Desperate" Dan McLaughlin

There are the bank chief economists, the paid shills for mortgage banks who constantly predicted during the property bubble would never end and interest rates would never go up.  Austin Hughes at IIB and Dan McLaughlin of Bank of Ireland were the too most shameless mouthpieces here, constantly predicting interest rates would drop while in the real world they clicked up every month.  Finally, with the the house crash barbarians at the gate, they talked of a “Soft landing”, then a “Soft-Hard landing”, and finally gave up and retreated back into bank headquarters.    There hasn’t been a peep heard out of either in months.  A closely related species was the estate agent chief economist.  Again not sighted for some time, they may also be in hiding but more likely extinct.

Then there are the academic economics. These are a more recent media phenomenon, slowly coaxed out of the wood work as the clouds began to darken, with all sorts of doomy predictions that were not really predictions at all since the crash was apparent.  Morgan Kelly and Alan Ahearne seem to be the two main players in this grouping.  In fairness to Mr Kelly, he made a very strong if somewhat late call on the direction of the banks and the housing market, while his academic economic brethren kept their eyes closed.  A particularly rare species is the trade union economist.  I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but they do exist, and occasionally someone like Paul Sweeney from SIPTU will turn up on the radio waves to argue the economic benefits of communism.


Who is number one? - David "McDreamy" McWilliams or Jim "Max" Power

 And of course, who could ignore the freelance economist like David McWilliams.  Tied to neither boom nor bust, this guy has been a constant presence , coining the phrase Celtic Tiger, and predicting a house-price crash for over 15 years.  However, I think it would be cruel to say a stopped clock is right twice a day.  Despite the ginger Hugh Grant look ,and an awful habit for gimmicky stereotypes like the increasing extinct “Breakfast roll man” and the Asbourne inhabiting “Decklander”, I actually have quite a lot of time for him.  He stuck to his guns while others threw muck at him and called him a crackpot for ten years.  He even proposed the idea of a bank guarantee in the Sunday papers just before the government brought it in.  And while a scary thought, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine one of the Brians got the idea by idly reading the Sunday Business Post over breakfast.  In recent months, I think even McWilliams might have been overtaken as number one all round media economist by Jim Power.  He seems to be on Questions and Answers, Primetime, Newstalk, and writing newspaper editorials all day, every day.   Representing pension product operator  Friends First as their chief economist,  I can only surmise the company’s current sales strategy for flogging PRSAs is to put him on the airwaves 24/7 to whinge about public sector pensions and pile on uncertainty over the future of the masses.

Economist is a title that has been muddied and devalued over the years, particularly in this country.  It seems like any old hack with a business degree can now use the title.  And while the shameless exploits of the bank mouthpieces have done much damage to the profession’s reputation, the main reason I have little time for them anymore is that they are just not very good at their job.   As a social science, economics is always going to be a bit fuzzy, lacking some of the harder laws and certainities of the physical sciences.  But as current climate shows, none of them really have a clue what is going on.  They never agree and their predictions seem to change on a daily basis.   I would would have more faith the Eamonn Dunphy’s prediction on whether Ireland will qualify for the world cup finals than when Jim Power predicts we will climb out of recession. 

The reality is the global economy is a vast, interconnected, non-linear system, and any prediction you hear on the radio from any economist, a shill or a genuine academic, should be first dipped in a tub of margurita salt.  We simply do not understand the system we have created.  And while economists never have a concensus on whether we are going to shrink or grow, because their simplistic models make accurate predicitons impossible, they are unified in believing that economic growth is a good thing that should be pursued at all costs.   Indeed, all economic theory revolves around the idea of growth.  In my opinion, that is the biggest problem.  And modern economic and monetary policy doesn’t just require linear growth, it needs to be exponential.  Unfortunately we live on a finite planet with finite resources.  Until the  economic theory moves to a model where things don’t go haywire when economies stop growing, it is doomed to failure.  And not just the failure of repeating cycle of recessions but the complete destruction of the planet.

However, I  am not asking the world’s economic theory be upended immediately.  The planet should survive my lifetime.  But what I do want is an exponential decline in the amount of Irish economists fighting for room in our media.  I’m over you guys.  Yes, we are in a recession.  Yes, you didn’t really see it coming.  Yes, I know, you have no idea when it will end.  But get off the TV, the matches are starting.  Did Andy Reid make the squad?

On Invention

There was a special Primetime program on RTE on Wednesday dedicated to the country’s economic predicament. The first half was heavy with the doom and gloom that has become so prevalent on the TV here.  A set of interviews with unemployed brickies and couples in negative equity, followed by a panel discussion, where the main participant from what I could see was George Lee’s ever more deeply furrowed brow.  However, to second half tried to be a little more upbeat, and the presenter,  Mark Lyttle, went out in search of some optimism and hope, exploring roads out the current mess.   The key message thrown forward was that a “Smart economy” (Knowledge Economy is so 2008) of innovation and invention would be required.  Several companies were profiled, and there was a discussion on how to drive invention in the country.

And who were these innovative companies?  NTR,  Creganna and Steorn.  Apparently NTR, of West-Link fame, have bought a company in Arizona developing solar Stirling engines, which while innovative, is only going to fatten the company’s coffers further, but not drive any real employment in Ireland.  It is still an improvement on gouging commuters for a living.  Creganna are a positive story, an indigenous producing innovative and viable biomedical products in an industry in which Ireland can compete.  The country badly needs more companies like it. 


Saviours of the economy?

 This brings me to Steorn.  Initially I laughed out loud about how we were pinning our hopes on a company that claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine.  Now while I am almost 100% sure that they are either a) not very good at taking correct measurements or b) a bunch of chancers and the whole thing is a continuous PR exercise to loosen gullible investor’s wallet, I tried to take something positive from it in these pessimistic times.  And there are some elements of the story I like.

Firstly, we need people challenging the so-called Laws of Physics, whether they are complete crackpots or people conducting legitimate research.  The term Laws of Physics has always made me uncomfortable.  It gives off the impression to the general public they are gospel, set in stone, some sort of platonic forms.  Whereas all they are in reality are base scientific rules we have learned from empirical evidence.  All the evidence we have found so far fits the rule, but we can never proves it is true.  The only thing we can do it possibly falsify them, and then come up with and new and improved rule.  Newton’s Law of Gravity becomes Einstein’s Law of General Relativity and so on.  And while this does not happen very often, it is no harm to have people continually pounding away at the foundations of science, just to make sure they are as solid as we think they are.

And then there is how Steorn claim to have invented the technology – Serendipity.  Accidentally discovering a perpetual motion machine while developing an anti-fraud device for a cash machine?  In this case it seems a little too big a leap to be credible.  But serendipity is the key to almost every great invention.  It is not too be confused with plain luck.  Louis Pasteur probably put it best when he said”In the fields of observation, chance favours only those minds that have been prepared”.  After the show, I talked to my dad about this idea and he reminded me of an invention of his own that came about from serendipity.  Working away in the UCD veterinary lab in the early 1960s, he was trying the concentrate the level of antibodies in a blood serum using a centrifuge.  He accidentally spun a test tube from the freezer than had not fully defrosted.  Along with noticing his mistake, he also noticed that some thick liquid that collected at the bottom resembled concentrated serum.  He tested it and found it was indeed concentrated serum.  Somehow, spinning half frozen serum was more successful than the regular method.  After a few more experiments, fine-tuning the temperature and centrifuge speed, he submitted a letter to Nature magazine,  “A Freezing-thawing Technique for Concentrating Antibodies in Serum”  outlining his method, although at this stage he did not know the exact underlying mechanism, merely that it worked.

Back in the 1960s, scientists only read journals in libraries, and without photocopiers, they would mail the authors for reprints.  My mum pulled out a dusty old bag that had been stored up in their attic, which contained over five hundred letters from laboratories and universities around the world that had been sent to my dad asking for reprints of the published letter.   Looking online, many biological and medical science papers in the 1960s cite my dad’s letter in Nature, with one Russian scientist referring to it in his 1966 paper as “McErlean’s Method of Concentration”.  Eventually a chemist wrote to him proposing the mechanism, and they fine-tuned the process further.  Essentially,  the ease at which serum is removed is due the to the fact that the water freezes first and the substances suspended or dissolved therein are trapped in the lattice work of ice crystals in a concentrated form and are removed by centrifugal force.  If the temperature is too high, the water doesn’t freeze, too low and everything gets frozen.  He never patented the idea, and it simply became standard laboratory practice over the years, his association with the idea fading from view.   He also managed to recover salts from solution using the same method, and it occurred to him later it could possibly be used as another method for de-salination of seawater.

Alexander Fleming was not very tidy

Unlike in this picture, Alexander Fleming's lab was apparently an untidy disorganised mess. If he had been tidy, we mightn't have antibiotics today

Serendipitous discoveries seem to be most prevalent in medicine, biology and pharmacology.  Possibly the two biggest weapons we have in fighting diseases, antibiotics and vaccination, were discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming and Edward Jenner.  Fleming’s sloppiness meant fungus managed to grow on a sample he had forgotten about, and Jenner happened to be working in a rural community where cowpox and cow maids could be observed, something not possible if he had be working in an urban laboratory.  There was an rural myth about cowmaids being immune to smallpox and he was able to join the dots.  Another newer invention, reminiscent of Jenner’s, is that of this years Young Scientist winners, two 13-year-old boys from Cork, John O’Callaghan and Liam McCarthy.  They developed a cheap test for measuring the level of infection in dairy cows, by investigating a belief that infected milk visibly thickened when a drop of washing up liquid was added.  I doubt the initial person who spotted this deliberately added a drop of washing up liquid, and I doubt the two enterprising boys would have investigated and developed it further had they not lived on dairy farms, heard about the belief, and worried about the financial effects of undetected infection.

The bottom line to all this is we can try and plan a “Smart Economy”, but pouring money from a government venture capital funds into start-up companies and continuing billions in funding through SFI to heavily directed university research programs will not necessarily produce any immediately useful innovation.  Forced innovation has a very poor record. Instead, we need to focus on creating an army of prepared minds rather than a handful of PhDs, an army who are taught to question their everyday work, whether they are milking cows or designing anti-fraud systems for ATM machines.  And eventually someone, somewhere will eventually have a “That’s weird” moment, realise their mistake or result wasn’t a necessarily a bad one, and go on to discover something game changing.  And creating prepared, questioning minds starts well before university or industry, in a school system that promotes thinking, not learning things by rote, and practical application,  not repetitive homework.  And it would also help if we stopped being gloomy, downbeat and seeing failures before they happen.  And if they do happen, they are not always a bad thing.

On Bearded Union Leaders

With all the murmurings from Governments building about public sector pay cuts and the threats of “Mayhem” from the unions in today’s papers, if the stereotype holds true, there is one thing you can count on – Prepare to see much more angry facial hair on the nine o’clock news over the next few weeks. But how true is this stereotype of bearded union leaders and where does the trend come from? To answer the first question, I decided to do a highly scientific study of both opposing sides of the “Social Partners”, examining the level of facial hair in the members of their respective leaderships.


Jack O'Conor (SIPTU)- Standard Bearer

First up the left corner of the ring, we have SIPTU, ICTU and IMPACT. SIPTU is proudly lead by the heavily bearded Jack O’Connor (pictured), whose thick Sinn-Fein-esque face mane must be the envy of every shop-steward in the country. However, the remaining members of their board, Joe O’Flynn and Brendan Hayes have decided to go for the clean shaven look, giving SIPTU a disappointing 33% hit-rate. Over at ICTU, they only furnish one picture, that of David Begg, sporting a more dashing trimmed white beard and matching quiff. No other pictures of the leadership are available, giving ICTU the full 100%. I would give more points if I could for Mr Begg’s refined look, but I sure David would agree with me on union principles that all beard should be rewarded equally, independent of merit.


David Begg (ICTU) - The refined beard

Finally we have IMPACT, the public sector union that are going to be revving into full gear over the next few months opposing Lenihan’s plans. But are they equipped for the job? Well, General Secretary Peter McLoone is letting the side down badly, but his deputy Shay Cody makes amends with, if not the full beard at least a very impressive goatee, giving them a score of 50%. So overall, the leadership of the three main unions are going into battle with a beard ratio of 3/6 or 50%


Brendan McGinty (IBEC) and Jim Curran (ISME) - Committed capitalists or closet communists?

Over in the right corner of the ring, we have the government, IBEC, and ISME. While hardly ardent capitalists, the two Brians score full marks for the government with 0%. Heading further right, we have IBEC, and of the six men on their executive board, only Brendan McGinty is in trouble, with a dubious moustache. Not the full crime, I’ll let him off with half-marks, giving IBEC 8.3%. And finally, we have ISME. Again, six men on the executive, but Jim Curran had to go even further than Brendan with a goatee, which I will have to penalise fully. While ISME would consider themselves the true voice of free enterprise, over and above the semi-state influenced IBEC, their facial hair tells a different story, with a score of 12.5%. So no-one displays the full beard in the coalition of the government and the business bodies, but a goatee and moustache means that overall, they have a beard ratio of 1.5/14 or 11%

So the results are in. Irish union leaders are almost 5 times more likely to have a beard than their opposition in either government or the business bodies. The union beard is truly alive and well in 21st century Ireland, and will no doubt be getting bushier over the coming months. Now for the second question, where does this tradition come from and why do the union leaders persist with it?

I assume they are just copying a trend started their communist forefathers Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, and continued on by newer generations like Che and Castro right through to today. But what was the point of the original beards. Were Marx and Lenin really distinguishing themselves from the establishment with beards back in the 19th century? Hardly considering beards were much more the norm back then, for both the working man and the men at the top. However, Marx’s beard was a sensational effort, only really equalled by Charles Darwin, and of course the beard of their joint nemesis, God.

Perhaps it symbolises how the common working man might not be able to afford a fresh Gillette Mach 3 blade, and the extravagance of clean shaven faces on the union leadership would not display solidarity with their proletariat. Who knows?