Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Martian Colonization: A Concern – Solution Breakdown

Ever since humans looked at the sky through a telescope and identified Mars there has been a desire to explore it. Numerous groups have formed with the goal of promoting a human mission to Mars along with various different transit and exploration/colonization strategies. Unfortunately despite decades of space travel humanity seems no closer to exploring Mars in a manned mission than in the 1970s. Perhaps, at this particular moment, this lack of advancement is a good thing.

One of the chief concerns about a human mission to Mars should be the simplicity in which proponents sell such an undertaking. This dismissive attitude is exemplified by the comparisons of explorers in the 1500s going to the ‘New World’ and traveling to and colonizing Mars. These comparisons are foolish in that even though the ‘New World’ was unexplored there was reason to believe that food would be available, gravity would not change, partial pressures of various gases would not change beyond human survival capacities, the Earth’s magnetic field would not suddenly collapse or the temperature would not change so dramatically that it would require specialized equipment just to walk around. Realistically ‘New World’ explorers only had one major threat, which was making landfall before running out of provisions. Overall there is very little genuine comparison between these two different endeavors and to continue to make such a comparison leads one to question the seriousness of those who make it.

This attitude has handicapped Mars exploration and colonization for analysis seems to now rely on broad platitudes and overly optimistic assumptions. Of all of the thousands of pages written by Mars colonization proponents available there is little critical analysis focusing on nauseating specifics of what will be required for both preparation for a Mars mission and when colonists actually arriving on Mars (the most detailed analysis involves transit from Earth to Mars). The lack of detailed economic estimations is also puzzling relying instead on unspecific estimations with no success probability inclusions. In some respects proponent analysis can be compared to a recipe with a list of ingredients yet no information on how they are combined to make the desired food or what quantities are required. Without more deeper and critical analysis there is a very high probability that any astronauts/colonists sent to Mars will die quickly. Nine different concerns with colonizing Mars are discussed below including the popular solution to those concerns and how that solution may currently be lacking.

Concern: Mars has an extremely cold average surface temperature (relative to Earth), thin atmosphere, 38% Earth gravity and low oxygen partial pressure and total pressure (below Armstrong minimum) with high carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide partial pressures. These specific planet characteristics demand a specialized response to ensure survival.

Popular Solution: Mars colonies should be located in underground caves (lava tubes).

Problems with Solution: Colonizing in lava tubes eliminates the danger from radiation exposure due to the thin atmosphere, but does not eliminate the pressure or temperature issues. A side note: some proponents were celebratory when Mars Rover Curiosity identified surface radiation levels similar to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This attitude makes little sense because few people actually thought that Mars radiation levels significantly differed from LEO radiation levels due to its very thin atmosphere. Astronauts are somewhat protected in the International Space Station from radiation, but even then only routinely stay for months where as Mars colonists will need protection for the rest of their lives.

Additional Popular Solution: Robots are landed on Mars prior to human arrival and construct a pressurized heated habitat in a lava tube or on the surface.

Problems with Solution: There is no precedence for such strategy. Robots have never autonomously built anything of significance on Earth (a much easier task theoretically) and due to the location of the lava tube just as it blocks out radiation, radio signals from Earth designed to control the robots will also be hampered heavily reducing build efficiency, that is assuming that the signals can be received successfully at all. Quadrotors from University of Pennsylvania currently have the most potential, but are still far away from any real usefulness. Very little attention has been paid to this seemingly obvious obstacle. One interesting aspect of using robots is that some group shave attempted to create ‘Mars-like’ environments on Earth in order to better understand the conditions colonists would be exposed to, yet none of these environments have included constructing shelter elements with autonomous or radio controlled robots.

Concern: Lack of available oxygen for even short duration stays.

Popular Solution: No one has really proposed a realistic one. The most popular seems to be creating oxygen through the electrolysis of water.

Problems with the Solution: The concern with this problem is that even adamant colonization near/mid century supporters seem to completely ignore it magically thinking that water electrolysis will somehow provide enough oxygen for the continuous and normal breathing of 2-6 colonists. Individuals who propose this solution seem to ignore the fact that water is also necessary for human survival and is currently scarce on Mars so destroying 2 molecules of water for 1 molecule of oxygen is not a wise choice. Also in the early stages of Mars colonization there may be intermittency associated with energy availability, which would reduction electrolysis efficiency and available oxygen.

Also small hydroponic gardens are not going to provide any significant amount of oxygen through photosynthesis in the early/midterm of colonization, but will require water and a small supply of oxygen themselves. Creating additional water through extraction from hydrated materials is extremely optimistic in the short-term because of the high-energy requirements and very low resultant water yields.

Some next century and beyond colonization supporters propose breaking down the numerous amounts of metal oxides on Mars to oxygenate and thicken the atmosphere (a solution that will take centuries and assumes that the Martian atmosphere will retain that oxygen instead of letting it leak into space). Others want to seed Mars with genetically engineered cyanobacteria, which will produce an oxygenated atmosphere similar to how the one on Earth was created. However, such solutions are not applicable to those who want a colonization mission in this century.

Concern: The long transit flight between Earth and Mars will expose astronauts to deadly levels of radiation.

Popular Solution: The only safety assured solution is to decrease the length of the trip, thus use of chemical based propulsion is not advisable. One of the more popular solutions to this effect is the use of a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) with a nuclear-electric generator to shorten travel time to between 39-95 days depending on orbital location of Earth relative to Mars.

Problems with Solution: The only major problem is that VASIMR has never been tested in such a manner. Such tests could be conducted by using it to send preparation supplies to Mars (after launch due to its low thrust-to-weight ratio). Also the utilized water supply for transit should be concentrated around the sleeping area to further limit radiation exposure.

There is a disturbing trend by some proponents to mitigate radiation danger by simply making linear additive judgments regarding damage potential when there is no reason to exclude the damage potential as exponential due to the continuous high relative level of exposure (especially for humans having lived on a generally protected Earth); an exponential damage potential could overwhelm biological safeguards for managing mutated DNA resulting in higher fatality rates.

Concern: There are obviously infrastructural power problems for colonists as a pressurized, heated and oxygenated shelter with water filtration and some form of hydroponic greenhouse are required for even short-term survival. Where does the power come from?

Popular Solution: Pre-arrival distribution of solar panels.

Problems with Solution: There are numerous concerns with a solar panel approach. First, the total solar energy that reaches Mars is approximately 43% of that which reaches Earth, thus even in ideal situations of efficiency at least twice the infrastructure will be required. Second, Mars has numerous dust storms that typically last for a few weeks to a few months, which could at best eliminate power generation for the duration of the storm to at worst destroy the solar cells. How will colonists receive power in a dust-clouded environment? Currently Mars does not lend itself well to energy storage options. Third, distance between the colony, more than likely located in a subterranean lava tube, and the solar panels, more than likely on the surface, creates a transmission problem. Basically a transmission infrastructure will need to be created and maintained. The better solution is to use a small modular nuclear reactor. The reactor can either be converted from the VASIMR after landing or can be delivered prior to human arrival. Nuclear waste can be managed due to its limited creation and sealed in a salt vault (sufficient lead availability will be unlikely).

Concern: The ability to grow food on Mars is severely compromised due to poor quality soils, lack of sunlight, dust storms and inconsistent water availability.

Popular Solution: Hydroponics in greenhouse type structures using artificial light.

Problems with Solution: Hydroponics appears to be the appropriate choice, but the lack of detail provided for food growth on Mars in the numerous treaties created by colonization proponents is especially troubling. Food growth is one of the more direct unambiguous elements of Mars colonization. One would expect that an entire ‘meal plan’ had already been designed for colonists so that they would have extra energy for EVA days, restricted calories for rest days and have sufficient vitamins to ward off any diseases brought on by specific vitamin deficiencies. However, proponents seem to have taken the stance of “use hydroponics to grow anything and let other people figure out the details.” This concern is especially important regarding what happens if the hydroponic system fails and plants start to die. So the individuals pushing for near-future colonization want other people to figure out the details of how colonists are going to grow and consume food on Mars?

Concern: Who will make up the crew of the first colonization crew?

Popular Solution: There is no general agreement in age, size, nationality or profession, which is surprising for like food there are very few uncertainty factors surrounding theoretical crew selection. One element that needs to be better identified is the training regiment for potential colonists because just placing candidates through NASA training will not be enough.

Problems with Solution: The fact that there is no recognized strategy is a problem. Some argue that the first colonists should be beyond their reproductive years because of significantly shortened lifespans and problems that would arise from the pioneering group having to care for children (thinking colonists will remain abstinent is unrealistic). Some argue that the first group should be young because of the physical toll living on Mars will take on the body and all of the exploring and general work that will be required for survival. Not surprisingly both youth and experience will be required, but it is essential that these differing age groups not create bias among themselves fracturing the colonists.

Nationality is irrelevant because it is likely that the first group will never return to Earth (one-way mission) and based on the Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: “no celestial body is subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” A government could not claim resources or land on Mars; therefore no one could be directly excluded due to his/her nationality.

Professions for the first group have some clear choices in there must be at least one physician (although multiple people should have some form of medical training), one psychologist, one lab technician and one electrical engineer (if nuclear power is utilized from a small modular reactor nuclear engineering knowledge would be useful as well). Someone with training in physical therapy would be useful for dealing with any muscular or skeletal issues that arise from the gravity and pressure changes, but would not be necessary. The importance of choosing professions is having individuals with experience in elements that will require direct immediate on-site interaction versus time-expanded elements that can be researched or instructed by experts from Earth.

Some may argue that an ‘on-site’ psychologist is unnecessary because individuals can communicate with a psychologist on Earth. While true, a psychologist among the crew fosters increased preemptive action when confronting a problem and allows for easier direct arbitration of a given conflict. Also there will be times when communication with Earth will not be available, thus a psychologist among the crew will be available to mediate problems at all times.

Concern: Funding a colonization mission to Mars is not a problem in the initial/capital cost, but instead becomes costly and potentially problematic in the maintenance cost because of numerous pre-colonization missions for preparation and post-colonization missions for support. Estimates that colonizing Mars will only take 11 to 30 billion dollars could be accurate if one has little interest in the landing colonists surviving beyond a very short period of time. One of the biggest problems with this issue is that even ardent supports have yet to produce an invoice cost structure for the overall capital and maintenance costs associated with Mars colonization detailing every single task and cost estimate with appropriate assumptions. Overall without the intricacies of a mission design it is impossible to reasonably estimate costs, thus realistically any number that has been estimated cannot be taken seriously (this statement should be noted by Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin especially).

Popular Solution: Sell sponsorship elements to private corporations and heavily materialize the idea of a mission to Mars and associated colonization.

Problems with Solution: Privatizing the issue of Mars colonization comes off as tacky and cheapens the whole idea among the honorific charges that the ideal behind Mars colonization is enrichment of the human spirit, feeding humanity’s innate curiosity and enhancing survival probabilities of the species. How inspirational will it really be for the public to hear about the Google Solar Searcher making landfall and the Apple iPhone 27 colonist setting foot on Mars? Proponents of this marketing solution also typically overestimate the amount of money that will be raised forgetting that a vast majority of people are interested in characters not concepts. For example what drives ‘Star Wars’ sales… people buy more because of an affinity to Hans Solo or Darth Vader over an affinity to space travel in general.

People like drama, but only when there are no real life-death consequences to that drama. Watching people actually die on Mars as a part of some reality show concept will instantly turn-off most of humanity (or at least it should otherwise that says something about humanity). Also little traction has been made on a mission to Mars; this lack of progress may have diluted its believability in the mind of the public, thus a reality series may not draw the attention proponents want until the public has the belief that a colonization mission will actually occur; otherwise such a ‘show’ will be viewed as a publicity stunt, which would further damage colonization credibility. Unfortunately for proponents this ‘chicken/egg’ issue is a similar one that faces electrical vehicles with the relationship between its required infrastructure and total sales.

Popular Solution #2: Exploration of Mars will pay for itself because valuable minerals and precious metals mined from Mars can be returned to Earth and Martian land can be sold to private citizens. In fact some propose a triangle trading system between Earth, Mars and localized asteroids.

Problems with Solution: The idea of creating an economic ‘juggernaut’ from Mars is rather far-fetched at the moment. Even the most optimistic estimates would acknowledge that even with basically everything going right in colonization (something proponents always seem to assume) it will still take decades until even a little economic productivity on Mars is produced beyond the simple elements required for survival. Name the number of companies that are willing to invest billions of dollars in a project that has a low payoff probability with a successful ROI of over a decade? The idea of selling Martian land is quite insane because sovereign nations are not allowed to claim ownership and a first come first served privateer mentality would probably also not be viewed as valid legally due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the colonization of Mars. Thus the very idea of Martian land ownership until thousands of people are on Mars will do nothing but cause problems and increase the probability of death for the colonists.

Speaking of private organizations…

Concern: The state of the government sponsored space program places significant limitations on Mars colonization because the United States, who has been the leader for the last two decades in space exploration, has quasi-quit manned space travel, largely due to the setbacks in the Constellation Program, creating a significant gap in space travel capacity for humans.

Popular Solution: Mars proponents think that privatization can drive the colonization of Mars citing such successes as SpaceShipOne (Mojave Aerospace Ventures) and SpaceX.

Problems with Solution: Proponents are thinking very short-term with this solution. As stated above the realistic profitability potential of a colony on Mars is decades, if not a century, away from any positive potential and companies do not like to invest in things that have such a large uncertainty time frame. For example suppose a private corporation responsible for transport for Mars colonization goes bankrupt, in part because of the colony infrastructure transport, before the colony is self-sufficient? Is another private company going to pick up where that first company left off, especially if the colonization project had a role in driving the bankruptcy?

What proponents fail to consider is that 99.99+% of all cost estimates in business are underestimates with the actual costs being greater. To those who think that corporations would never simply allow the colonists to die… corporations kill people everyday and think nothing of it and could easily scapegoat colonist deaths by blaming the colonists themselves. The simple fact is that as of this moment it is difficult to justify the direct involvement of private corporations in a Mars colonization endeavor. Realistically unless it is very lucky privatization will probably be relegated to LEO space tourism versus spearheading Mars colonization.

Concern: The possibility of life on Mars in the form of rudimentary bacteria has not been eliminated, thus what should be the response of colonists to this possibility?

Popular Solution: There is no definitive solution offered. Most plans involve colonists eventually searching for this life and conducting routine collection and cultures to identify.

Problems with Solution: While standard protocol for exploration and classification of any discovered life after colonization is understandable very little discussion exists regarding addressing bacteria on the colonization site itself. While the probability that any encountered life is pathogenic is remote, without the existence of a biohazard analysis area (including such a structure for the initial portion of the colonization is rather inefficient) the region surrounding the initial colonization site should be sterilized. Sterilization is easy enough as an UV light strobe can be deposited in a centralized location of the colonization environment and a continuous pulse should be sufficient to eliminate any Martian life in the region. Some may argue against this idea citing morality issues of killing indigenous Martian life, but it stands to reason that if life exists on Mars then it is not concentrated in a single place. Therefore, such killing can be attributed to killing E. Coli in milk through pasteurization.

In the end it is understandable that after reading the above criticism some could argue that this post did little to advance the aspect of specifics associated with a mission to colonize Mars. Such a contention is correct, but this blog is also not devoted to promoting a mission to colonize Mars thus there is less expectation or responsibility to produce the nauseating specifics required for such a mission. Such an expectation would be akin to wondering why a biomedical engineer did not draw up the blueprints for the largest skyscraper ever in lieu of a civil engineer. However, it is appropriate for a biomedical engineer to ask questions regarding the blueprint even if some of them may be regarded as unnecessary/stupid. One interesting option to expand the demand for specifics is if various Mars colonization groups could organize a televised debate among ‘experts’ on the various elements associated with Mars colonization. Such a debate would force speakers to expand details beyond checklists and rosy assumptions that everything would always work out in favor of the colonists. As of now no rational person should support a mission to colonize Mars with the lack of details and DIY attitude that most proponents seem to have relative to the colonization. Colonizing Mars and colonizing North America is hardly the same thing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Strategy for Military

The debate concerning the national deficit has increased in fervor in recent years with significant escalating costs associated with military spending including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, large tax cuts for all Americans including the super wealthy and the specter of rising healthcare and social security costs. While discussion of various strategies to head off further accumulation of future debt is appropriate, an interesting element is how obstinate numerous individuals are when it comes to discussion of reducing military expenditures. While it is true that the controversial Simpson-Bowls deficit reduction strategy included military cuts most of those cuts were haphazard and unfocused. The simple reality is that a significant amount of funding will have to be cut from the military budget intelligently to effectively address future deficit problems while maintaining public confidence in the military itself.

There are two central issues when discussing the matter of reducing funds to the military: first, the paranoid belief that national security is somehow greatly compromised by reducing funds at all and second the lack of a clear strategy for the military in modern society. The first issue can be better addressed by highlighting the second issue. At the moment there is no consistent recognized role for the military. While there is a mission statement: “protect the sovereignty of the U.S. of America from foreign aggression” there does not seem to be a clear execution strategy for that mission statement. Basically should the military be offensive, preemptively attacking potential enemies or defensive, counteracting clear aggressive behavior towards the U.S. and her territories? On its face the better execution strategy seems to be defensive, especially when considering future costs.

The biggest concern with an offensive strategy is the dynamic nature of the attack targets. Without an imperial mindset there is nothing to conquer, thus initiating an occupying force is not appropriate, yet large state complexes are no longer the chief threat. The shift away from single sovereign state forces applies focus to stress the moving parts associated with the interrelated groups that exist within sovereign nations and can move between nations. However, without acquiring cooperation from those nations direct attacks against these independent groups can be complicated. A chief example of this complication is the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan with regards to Al Queda and the Taliban. The U.S. cannot simply invade Pakistan to remove Al Queda so they resort to smaller scale unmanned drone attacks, which still cause problems both in their collateral damage and how they influence the relationship between the two countries. These complications decrease cost and probability efficiencies of defending the sovereignty of the U.S.

The administration of a defensive strategy offers numerous financial advantages. First, standing military manpower can be significantly reduced to a reserve force, which can be periodically rotated during non-global war to ensure performance excellence. For example the military could have 500,000 total members with 100,000 on active duty (weekend training, etc.). After a set time period individuals would rotate from active duty to reservists and a pre-determined new 100,000 would move from reserves to active duty. Such a rotation would keep everyone in the military reasonably fresh and up-to-date on new combat techniques and strategies; current focus would more than likely be on urban combat. Rotations would be true to the proportional representations of the total military demographic. Basically suppose the 500,000 troops were 33% army, 28% navy, 22% air force and 17% marine then the 100,000 active duty troops would be 33,000 army, 28,000 navy, 22,000 air force and 17,000 marine.

A defensive strategy could also eliminate the old standing ‘two ocean front war strategy’, highlighted by the Vinson-Walsh Act in 1940, that has been used by pro-military spending advocates, but is no longer appropriate because no real legitimate threat can materialize in the Atlantic Ocean/Caribbean Sea front. No African or South American country can field a naval threat that a land-based or air-based counter-attack force could not neutralize effectively with almost zero to zero collateral damage. Currently all Western European countries are allies and if foreign relations change the change will not occur so quickly that some of the existing eleven carrier groups could not be adjusted appropriately.

Of the existing carrier groups two can be anchored in Annapolis, one with a European Ally (if needed due to concerns in the Middle East similar to the 5th group currently in Bahrain) and the remaining eight at various places in the Pacific theater to ensure Pacific maritime rights for all East Asian countries. With the elimination of the two ocean strategy no additional naval forces will be required in the budget until an existing high-value ship is decommissioned saving significant funds over the long-term. As a rule of thumb a single carrier group could be replaced every ten years, thus significantly reducing procurement costs. In addition with the focus on the Pacific Theater some carrier groups will not have to be replaced and could instead be sold abroad when viewed as out-of-date if so desired. Basically no additional naval forces will be required under such a strategy.

With the advancement of unmanned drones offensive air-to-ground capacity can largely be transferred from manned bombers to these unmanned drones. Therefore, no new bombers will be needed in the near future. The emphasis on offensive air-to-air combat is limited as well due to the strength of the U.S. carrier groups and surface-to-air missile defense networks, thus the need for new fighters will be significantly reduced. New fighters would only be required when existing technology is completely out of date and computer analysis identifies kill ratios of greater than 5 to 1 against potential existing opponents. Based on these new criteria unnecessary further procurements like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can be eliminated.

Playing defense would also eliminate the need for expansion of heavy armor because only two countries have the capacity to engage in a land war with the U.S.: Canada and Mexico; the likelihood of either one of those countries invading the U.S. is incredibly small. If the unthinkable did happen any invasion force can be countered with air superiority and naval counterattacks from both coasts (the carrier group at Norfolk and those in California). Therefore, no procurement of additional heavy armor will be needed in the budget for decades under a defensive strategy. In honest analysis with the increasing likelihood of urban combat, the cost/benefit ratio of heavy armor in general becomes less and less viable.

Some would argue that such cuts to the military would result in lost jobs. Of course it would because that is how a consumer based economic system operates, when spending in a particular field decreases the size and structure of organizations providing goods and services to that particular field decreases. However, it is completely irrational to continue spending money on military equipment that would not be necessary in a real defensive strategy over an offensive-defensive “bi-polar” strategy. Jobs that exist based on this irrational spending can be regarded as pure inefficient government subsidized jobs because the defense contractor that employs person A in that particular job is creating inefficiency in the transaction by siphoning off a large portion of the money for itself which then leaves the economy versus that money going directly to the employee. Any free-market capitalist should be in favor of eliminating such inefficient transactions. For any argument of sympathy for these individuals losing their jobs… why is it that these individuals, most who have had large five to six figure yearly salaries and should have large savings accounts, should receive sympathy yet there is no sympathy when thousands of lower paying, but more essential teaching or police jobs are eliminated?

It is important to note that while a defensive strategy will significantly diminish the number of new military projects and overhead costs of current maintenance, there should be no reduction in funding for DARPA. While there are some instances where research at DARPA may be viewed with a roll of the eyes the overall structure and importance of DARPA cannot be understated for it is these homerun/strike out research projects that have the higher probabilities of creating innovating weapon and armor technologies, which will reduce costs over the long-term. In addition a defensive strategy will reduce the probability that active military personnel enter combat. However, despite this reduced probability salaries and benefits currently granted to military personnel should not be withdrawn or reduced, but can be rearranged more efficiently if need be.

Reducing military costs will also require the expansion of cheaper surface-to-air and surface-to-sea missile systems as well as alternative fuel-based unmanned drones. One means to improve the ability to design these drones is to reduce carrying weight by reducing missile capacity. Also developing localized electrical magnetic pulse weapons due to less collateral damage engagement will be useful. In large part a significant amount of savings will come from reducing use and size of the mobile carriers (drones over fighters and bombers). Finally increasing funding for intelligence operations (CIA etc.) will increase preparation time for attacks against the U.S. reducing the total cost of defense. Basically consider the similar medical analogy in that if one knows the pathogen causing the illness one can deduce its method of attack, thus the cost of treatment is significantly reduced.

It stands to reason that there will be three major areas of global conflict over the next few decades. First, Eastern Asia as India and China continue to via for influence and economic development while nursing old grudges, China competing with other Southeastern Asian countries and Japan for control of local waterways and other oceanic bodies, India and Pakistan continue to via for control of the Kashmir region and the continued saber-rattling of North Korea towards South Korea. Realistically this area has the greatest potential for sparking a larger global conflict. Second, in the Middle East with Iran’s progressing attempts to acquire nuclear arms and the fierce determination of Israel to prevent a nuclear Iran and the continued Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Third, various elements of unrest could breakout in Central and Southern Africa. Fortunately these conflicts will largely remain regional and have little global catalyst effect. The above considerations for military spending in a defensive strategy will allow the U.S. to effectively address these potential conflicts with the ability to protect U.S. sovereignty as well as assist in protecting the sovereignty of other independent nations. It could be argued that all foreign military bases outside these combat areas could be eliminated with no additional new bases being built.

Some raise concerns about how allies would respond to significant cuts in the U.S. military budget. Any negative response would be derived from unnecessary fear and ignorance. First, there are very few nations that even directly make use of an “intimidating” influence of the U.S. military in foreign relations (Japan and South Korea come immediately to mind in their relationships with China and North Korea respectively). Second, there is a lot of overreaction in that any cuts to the U.S. military will somehow exponentially diminish its ability to conduct battle operations. With eleven carrier groups the U.S. navy will be able to effectively intervene in any major conflict area that is not in central Africa for decades to come even if zero new ships are constructed. Third, the emergence of new drones can compensate for losses due to their repeated use without placing pilot lives in danger or requiring new training for who would have replaced those killed. Unfortunately almost all complaints by allies about military spending cuts are largely driven by self-interests and one could wonder why these allies have not planned for the eventuality of a cut in U.S. military spending because one is inevitable one way or another.

There are three keys to significantly reducing military spending without compromising national security. First, prioritize a defensive strategy taking advantage of the geographical location of the U.S. and her surrounding allies in order to reduce the demand for military force. Second, eliminate expansion of the military (no new forces) instead focus on replacing aging technology with relevant significant upgrades. However, one should not replace a piece of technology just because something better exists, only do so when that new technology is a significant upgrade versus perceived enemy capacity. Third, expand FBI and CIA intelligence gathering to eliminate potential attacks before they materialize and create more efficient strike opportunities against mature threats. It is sad how little money is spent on FBI and CIA activities domestically and internationally versus how much money is spent on developing a helicopter or jet fighter that is 2% better than the previous model. Similar to the second point sometimes one wonders if Congress masquerades as Apple consumers in that they need to buy the next model even if there are no real fundamental improvements. Overall controlling military spending is easier if priorities are reassigned to focusing on a defensive front over an offensive one and do not reduce U.S. protection probability.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Winning Back Honesty

It can be said that human beings in general are akin to water in that they seek the path of least resistance. The epidemic of cheating and unethical behavior, especially in education, has become more rampant in the past decades largely due to the inception and development of the Internet, which has made dishonesty easy. Schools as early as middle schools to as advanced as prestigious universities are experiencing this problem, thus the increase in the number of cheating and other unethical behavior events is not isolated to any specific age group, but permeates a majority of them. So the question is what can educational institutions do about this problem?

A number of individuals argue that it is important to understand the psychological triggers that lead to this unethical behavior and counter them at the source. However, the efficacy of such a mindset is put at risk when unethical behavior is motivated by rationalities such as “need good grades, but don’t want to work for them”, “I don’t need this class for the future, but it is required so cheating doesn’t matter”, “I have too many other important things to do” or even “everyone else cheats (despite having no evidence of this) so why should I have to work hard?”. How does society challenge a mindset that is basically predicated on laziness and apathy? Complicating the problem is that there is rarely a single governing reason for cheating, instead numerous reasons similar to those above are intertwined, thus attacking one reason in isolation cannot be the strategy, yet attacking multiple strategies is overly complicated and may create excess necessary work for instructors that will not be compensated.

One of the most counterproductive elements regarding cheating is how society tries to obfuscate the blame. Instead of blaming the cheaters themselves people apply blame to the school, the instructors, the parents, peers, heck it almost seems like some would rather blame Taylor Swift versus actually blaming the cheaters. Frequent is the ridiculous claim that instructors drive ‘justifiable’ cheating because they don’t clearly demonstrate the relevance of the class or make the class interesting. Even the most plausible excuse for cheating, forgiving plagiarism because students don’t have an explicit definition of it, seeks to defer blame because it suggests that someone else should have taught students both the definition of plagiarism and that it is unethical because these students are so inept they cannot do these two things for themselves. Until society is prepared to place the onus of cheating on the individuals who are actually committing the action there is little that can be done to genuinely stem the problem. The first step to placing the onus of cheating on individuals is to apply significant punishment to those who cheat.

There are three chief elements which encapsulate the problem of cheating in education: students cheating on tests, students plagiarizing work they find on the Internet including purchasing papers from paper mills and instructors changing answers on tests. Addressing the first element raises an immediate question regarding test structure. The most obvious way to address students cheating on tests is for the instructor to give essay tests. It is very difficult to cheat on an essay test when the questions are not previously known, especially when test questions are scrambled and alternated between rows. Essay tests also have the advantage of judging whether students not only understand the basics of the subject, but can also translate those basics into more complex ideas over regurgitating memorized facts. This methodology can also psychologically demonstrate to students that there is meaning behind understanding the basics. The chief disadvantage of essay tests is the additional work demanded of instructors to create and grade them, especially in large (30-40 student) classes because no additional salary or respect is drawn for this additional un-required workload.

Regardless of whether or not an instructor uses essay tests or another testing format, an important element to limiting cheating is to control the situation by creating a standard and uniform testing environment. For example one such environment is outlined below:

- On the day of the test when students enter the classroom they place their books and all other objects brought to class against a sidewall including the removal of caps and hats then students sit at their respective desks.

- The instructor creates two separate tests using the same questions, but in different order. The instructor hands out the tests facedown along with a #2 pencil to alternating students in such a way that a student is surrounded by individuals with the other test. This strategy heavily limits the positive outcomes for a student who decides to look at another student’s paper or makes it incredibly obvious to anyone proctoring the exam that someone is looking at another’s paper. For example a 30-student class with a 6 x 5 square desk arrangement with tests A and B would see a distribution as followed:


- It is thought among ethicists that a vast majority of people are honest because they are not faced with temptation, not because they stare down temptation and walk away from it. This psychological reality may be why the laughable ‘Entrapment’ defense in the criminal justice system even exists. The two above steps are designed to reduce available ‘cheating’ temptations, thus reducing the amount of work any proctor has to engage in to provide honest evaluation.

- When the period begins the students will be instructed to turnover their tests and begin. During the test if the instructor sees anything that is not a #2 pencil or the test in a student’s hand or on/around his/her desk that student will receive a zero on the examination and be sent to the principle’s office.

- The instructor will proctor the exam from the front of the room watching for any inappropriate behavior. If any is witnessed the instructor will place a small token on the desk of the offending student and make a record of the offense. If a single student receives three tokens over the course of an exam then there will be a predetermined consequence. It is understandable that some individuals may view this element as worrisome because of the possible power abuse that can result. For example it is no secret that there are situations where instructors and students do not get along and that dislike can evolve into bias. In the above situation credibility involves a instructor-said student-said structure because other students are taking the exam. However, with the above testing environment it is unlikely that such a system will be heavily utilized. Students will be able to inquire on the reasoning behind any tokens after the completion of the test and will be able to appeal if he/she believes that a three token ‘performance’ was unfairly/inaccurately awarded.

- At the end of the period students will place their completed exams in a box positioned on the instructor’s desk. The instructor will remove the box eliminating the ability to turn in the test (resulting in a zero) 30 seconds after the class period has completed. If a student completes his/her exam early that student will not be allowed to retrieve possessions until the end of the period. The idea behind this restriction is to mitigate additional distractions and inter-period cheating by granting access to electrical devices.

The above outline only addresses how to stem cheating in a single class it does not address stemming cheating between classes. Normally, especially in high school when there are multiple periods of the same class and students do not have a single testing session, opportunity exists during common periods for early period students to tell friends in later periods about the test revealing unethical details. For example someone who takes the exam in 1st period may tell a friend in a common 3rd period class about the test that the second person will take during 5th period. Multiple tests eliminates this cheating opportunity because individuals may not be getting the same questions, thus any information about specifics acquired from previous test takers will not be applicable.

There are two popular means of utilizing a multiple test methodology. First, three different tests are created, 1st and 2nd period are given test #1, 3rd and 4th period are given test #2 and 5th and 6th period are given test #3. Therefore, there is no reasonable time frame in which relevant test questions can be transmitted to other individuals either electronically or verbally. Second, three different tests are created and all students randomly receive a copy of a given test.

This second strategy has strengths and weaknesses versus the first method. The chief weakness is that cheating is only limited to a random probability of 33% for success instead of basically 0% for the first strategy. The strength is that keeping the multiple tests a secret will result in a 67% chance that the latter student involved in any cheating will have a lower performance probability due to inaccurate information. Therefore, those who attempt to cheat will actually have a significant chance at putting themselves at a greater disadvantage versus not having attempted to acquire unethical information in the first place. The long-term hope is that after realizing the inaccuracy of the illicit information, individuals will no longer seek the information viewing it as a waste of time.

Overall thought it stands to reason that if the idea is to reduce the ability of individuals to cheat the consistency of the first methodology proves superior to the benefit/cost risk structure of the second methodology. However, some caution must be taken, for depending on the circumstance after the completion of the test some students may complain that certain periods received more difficult questions than other periods which would raise concern that grades are more influenced by what period an individual was in versus what that individual actually knew pertaining to the subject matter. While a possibility, the above concern is rather muted if the instructor practices appropriate test design.

The second chief element to educational cheating is students plagiarizing work they find on the Internet. The first issue when developing a counter strategy to this form of cheating is to determine whether or not the instructor will include homework and quizzes in the final grade. If the instructor will include homework/quizzes in the final grade then the instructor can give numerous small ½ to 1 page long essay assignments that can create an ‘answer fingerprint’ for given students. This fingerprint will indicate a particular style of writing, sentence structure, word choice, presentation depth, etc. that can be used by instructors as a metric for longer more detailed papers to detect inconsistencies and potential plagiarism. Issuing the quizzes in class precludes the ability to use the Internet from the beginning to contaminate the samples.

If homework/quizzes are not going to count towards the final grade then the above strategy will more than likely not be successful for most students because in modern culture most students tend not to view the intangible rewards of knowledge that come from doing homework. If material is not going to affect the final grade most judge that there is little reason to actually perform the work. If the work is not completed then there is no ability to create a reliable ‘answer fingerprint’, thus there is no standard to compare to future works. In this situation it stands to reason that the total number of graded elements will be small, suppose two to four. If this is the case then one strategy to address potential plagiarism is to split the assignment into two parts. First, the students write the paper and second the students have to defend the position taken in the paper on a ‘written test’ in class. Basically the next class day after the papers are graded will be reserved for each student to answer a three/four question mini-test about their paper.

The idea behind this strategy is two-fold. First, for individuals who actually wrote their paper they should have a grasp of the knowledge that was required to formulate the ideas that produced the paper. If an individual did not write a paper, but instead acquired it from a paper mill there is a much smaller probability that the individual has enough of a grasp of knowledge to perform well on the test. Second, the point of education is to acquire established knowledge that can be used in the future not create ephemeral knowledge that disappears after a few weeks. Therefore, even if limiting plagiarism is not a goal the above strategy serves as a valuable purpose to advancing education, thus there is reason in doing it. One might argue that instructors do not have enough time to take such a strategy as it would waste class time which is limited as it is, but recall that this strategy is tied to large quality low volume grading thus only two to four class days will be used for the method. Note that these days are not ‘sacrificed’ because they do serve the purpose mentioned above.

A supplemental strategy for addressing plagiarism has been to utilize the online service www.turnitin.com. However, the service does cost a significant amount of money (thousands of dollars for a one year license for even medium sized schools (1,000 students)). With the omnipresence of budget problems for most public schools, amplified by the continued emergence of charter schools driven by unsupported positive bias, paying this additional sum for this private service may be more detrimental to students than beneficial in how school funds are distributed.

Another strategy for reducing plagiarism is to have students hand in rough drafts of their work a week before the due date for the assignment. Such a condition limits the opportunity for plagiarism because the instructor can see the development of thought and presentation in the rough draft and use that as marker of comparison against the final copy. If there are significant differences then the instructor can ask the student why he/she decided to go in such a radically different direction between the rough draft from a week ago and the final draft. An incoherent or insufficient explanation will typically only be given if work has been plagiarized. Finally to ensure proper boundary conditions there must be clear definitions of plagiarism given at the beginning of a class year along with clear consequences. Having students sign a ‘contract’ of sorts confirming that they have received and understood these ethical standard expectations would eliminate any ‘confusion’ regarding student comprehension.

The third and final type of cheating has actually emerged as significant only over the last decade. The increased importance of standardized testing has created an environment of additional pressure for some instructors who believe that the use of the standardized testing as an evaluation metric for schools and individual instructors is weighted inappropriately. This pressure has lead some to resort to cheating for their students, with some schools even having ‘answer correction parties’ for their instructors after the completion of a given standardized test. Clearly such behavior is inexcusable and precautions must be established to ensure that it no longer occurs.

While the best option would be to replace instructors with independent test auditors for national testing days, most school districts and/or states would not want nor typically even have money budgeted to pay for these individuals. Therefore, one option may be to ‘instructor swap’ where instructors from school A administer tests at school B and instructors from school B administer tests at school A. For most schools the logistics of such a temporary swap would not be difficult, but the swap itself raises an interesting psychological question among the instructors, a question similar in nature to that of the prisoners’ dilemma (PD).

In the swap scenario there are two compelling forces that may act upon the substituted instructors. The first force is the standard comrade support structure that exists in most occupations where Person A of occupation A looks out for Person B of occupation A and visa versa solely because they both have the same occupation. Therefore, the swapped instructors may not go out of their way to help another instructor that does not teach at their institution, but may ‘bend’ the rules a bit to assist in a positive manner.

The second force is the direct principle of the PD. While there may be a natural leaning towards helping a fellow instructor, that leaning is not guaranteed, especially in the same school districts with the weight of standardized tests on bonuses in a more evaluation heavy environment. In PD the best outcome is derived from the prisoners trusting each other and both admitting guilt; however, if one fails to follow through on this trust the consequences are disastrous for the individual that admits guilt. In the competitive environment that education ‘reformers’ are trying to craft among instructors if one instructor does not reciprocate assistance it will help him/her both in salary and job security. Therefore, this aspect of the PD may suppress any occupational equality bias.

Crafting appropriate punishments for cheating is tricky because the punishment must be severe enough that students have proper respect for ethics, but not so severe that it creates a self-catalyzing negative situation. Initially it can be argued that there is no such thing as a ‘too severe’ punishment for cheating (within the scope of common sense i.e. no death penalty, etc.) because cheating does not occur by accident, it is a willful and conscious occurrence. Factors like ‘family problems’ or ‘too much stress’ are frequently mitigated as rationalities because students that use them do not make instructors aware of the situation, thus it is viewed as a scapegoat or excuse not a negative trigger. Basically assigning any punishment severity to cheating is akin to giving a motorist a $2000 speeding ticket. Whether an individual exceeds the speed limit is entirely under the control of the individual (clearly stuck accelerators are not given valid speeding tickets, etc.).

While any punishment is justified from the standpoint of free action it may not be appropriate. There are larger issues to consider in that a single mistake should not create a situation that is ‘unrecoverable’. For example it can be argued that expelling a student for a single cheating event creates an undue burden on both the student and his/her family. However, just as there must be temperance in the first offence there must be the prospect of more significant punishment in the case of relapse. Therefore, one punishment option would be for a first-time cheating event to result in a zero for the given test/paper (as mentioned above) and a calendar year long probation period where further cheating will result in automatic failure of the class in which the second event occurred. In this punishment structure the student does not receive multiple ‘first-time’ event depending on the class, if the student cheats in class A then cheats in class B he/she automatically fails class B. In this system it must be recalled that cheating is a conscious choice.

Punishment for instructors changing student answers or other cheating is rather straightforward for as adults they should understand the consequences of such behavior. There should be no quarrel if an instructor is fired after committing such an act. One could even argue that such a penalty will not be misappropriated because high quality instructors will not need to cheat because a majority of their students will be able to perform at least adequately on the examinations, thus only low quality instructors will be driven to cheat. Granted the legitimacy of this conclusion is dependent on the influencing weight of standardized tests on instructor evaluation.

Overall while addressing the root causes of cheating would be ideal unfortunately such a strategy does not appear overly viable due to the psychological factors that embody those causes. Until society is willing to judge methodology as an important element to gained results, cheating will always be regarded as beneficial. Therefore, in order to ensure the importance of genuine understanding and accomplishment in lieu of fraudulent actions society must develop the mindset to detect and punish cheating. Education is one of the prime battlegrounds for morality. The battle against cheating is two-fold: ensuring that it is not a successful strategy and demonstrating the values of ethics and knowledge.