Friday, December 25, 2009

Best wishes of the season

I've left it until Boxing Day to wish everybody the compliments of the season and offer my best wishes for 2010.

Why? Because I'm slack.

Its been an interesting year - plenty happening on the defence and aerospace side of things: the Australian government has ordered 14 Joint Strike Fighters (why just 14?); the first RAAF Super Hornet is flying and will be delivered early-ish in 2010; the AWD project continues to move along; the RAAF has short-circuited Canberra's cumbersome bureaucracy and laid its hands on a couple of Heron UAVs while the Army and DMO mess around trying to decide what they'e going to do about acquiring Tactical UAVs under JP129; the government says we need 12 bigger and better submarines than the current Collins-class, and mouths are already pursed censoriously at the prospect of an industry program that's bigger and more complex than the Collins, and run by the same stakeholders; and Navy at some point will have to decide what sort of helicopters it wants. Or, rather, somebody will have to tell the Navy what sort of helicopters it's going to get, because it's not a choice I'd entrust to the RAN just at present. There are two contenders and they need to be compared properly, and on its performance to date I'm not confident that the Fleet Air Arm is equipped to either make that choice or cope with the consequences of getting it wrong.

My viewpoint on this has been sharpened by my three-month sabbatical, courtesy of the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC) in Melbourne, studying defence industry innovation. I'll be flagging up papers and survey results in due course, but it's becoming clear that there are a number of factors which both stimulate industry innovation and affect the prospect of its success; these include the professional and technical expertise of the customer and their effect on his ability to identify, estimate and manage risk; and the customer's willingness to invest in a developmental project - the two seem to be related.

It's nice to see the DMO concentrating on the professional and technical development of its people, but the recent Mortimer and Pappas reviews of Australian defence procurement urge the government to buy more equipment off the shelf, which could see opportunities for Australian innovators reduced significantly. Hope not, but we'll see.

I'll try and blog a bit more frequently next year; the difficulty is finding something interesting to say that I'm not being to write for somebody else. Is that a New Years Resolution? Fat chance!

Conspiracy theories

Just wanted to bring to readers' attention an article in today's (26 December) The Weekend Australia by David Aaronovich. Published originally in The Wall Street Journal his article 'The Truth Is Out There' is a masterful swipe at the growing band of conspiracy theorists. As the Australian defence community has a few of these on its fringes I thought I'd quote a couple of short passages from Aaronovitch's article.

First: "Even where conspiracy theories are not momentous and may sometimes be physically (if not intellectually) harmless - such as with the gorgeous slew of nonsenses that prefaced 'The Da Vinci Code', involving Templars, secret priories, hidden treasures and the bloodline of Christ - they share certain features that make them work.

"These include an appeal to precedent, self-heroisation, contempt for the benighted masses, a claim to be only asking "disturbing questions", invariably exaggerating the status and expertise of supporters, the use of apparently scholarly ways of laying out arguments (or "death by footnote"), the appropriation of imagined secret service jargon, circularity in logic, hydra-headedness in growing new arguments as soon as old ones are chopped off and, finally, the exciting suggestion of persecution. These characteristics help them to convince intelligent people of deeply unintelligent things."

Secondly: "No inconvenient fact or refutation discombobulates the believer; conspiracists are always winners.Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby reverses can be accommodated within the theory itself or simply discarded. So, embarrassing and obvious problems in the theory may be ascribed to deliberate disinformation originating with the imagined plotters designed to throw activists off the scent."

There's more from Aaronovich, and it's all good; the article is based on a book he's publishing early next year titled "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History", which will be published in February 2010 by Riverhead. Looks like it may end up on my bookshelf alongside "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre and "The Australian Miracle - an innovative nation revisited" by Thomas Barlow - useful reality checks, all of them.

For those who enjoy a good conspiracy consider The Stone of Scone, aka The Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish kings were crowned on Moot Hill, at Scone Palace, until King Edward 1 took it south to England in 1296. Supposedly (and there is good reason to believe this) the Monks at Scone Abbey, who had charge of the Stone, were forewarned of Edward's raid on Scotland's heritage and provided him with a poor-quality substitute instead, and this has been in Westminster Abbey for most of the past 700 years, until its recent return to Scotland.

The real Stone, by this account, was a much more elaborate and decorated piece of Pictish art carved from a single chunk of rock, possibly of meteorite origin, possibly something a bit less exotic. It was supposedly spirited away by the Monks and hidden in a cave on nearby Dunsinane Hill. Why is that name familiar? Because it is the site of Macbeth's castle - you know, Macbeth? Three Witches? Lady Macbeth? Killed King Duncan? Got topped by "Lay On" Macduff in Shakespeare's play of the same name? The Hill exists, and there are bare remnants on its summit of a pre-mediaeval castle; from the top of Dunsinane it's possible to watch and control the northern and eastern approaches to Scone and Perth - from the military point of view it's perfectly sited and no doubt Macbeth in his day was familiar with it. On one side of Dunsinane Hill, about a mile north-west, lies the hamlet of Collace with a beautiful stone church whose foundations go back to at least the 12th century (roughly contemporaneous with Macbeth), and possibly further. On the other side, a mile or so south-west towards Bandirran, lie the remnants of a celtic stone circle.

Being so close to Scone, this suggests there was obviously something in the Scone-Perth-Dunsinane district of spiritual importance to the Picts. It isn't hard to imagine the Monks from Scone Abbey hiding the 'real' Stone somewhere near Bandirran. The location of the Stone is a secret known only to a few and guarded by "men of strong opinion".

So far, so conventional - nice legend and all that. What about the conspiracy?

Okay, here goes: You may not be aware that the Depot and Training Centre for one of the British Army's most famous Highland Regiments was in Perth, about seven miles southwest of Dunsinane. The home of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) has been for over 200 years at Balhousie Castle in Perth; but its roots go back to the mid-1600s and earlier when independent companies of men were formed by local clan chiefs to police or 'watch' the Highlands.

Apart from tradition, what reason was there to maintain a standing force of soldiers in Perth? Can't you see it? They must be guarding The Secret of the Stone! The Black Watch are the "men of strong opinion" whose spiritual duty it is to guard Scotland's greatest treasure. For what exactly? Doesn't matter - Make something up.

How do I know this? I don't - I just made it up, based on my own meagre knowledge and some family connections with the area. But all the elements of a wonderful conspiracy are there - this could rival the Loch Ness Monster. All it takes is a short visit by Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) carrying lots and lots (and I mean LOTS) of money to unlock my secret knowledge. And the beauty of it is, there's nobody who could disprove what I'm suggesting: anybody daft enough to believe it would take an official silence, or even worse outright denial, as the automatic response of a secretive Scottish "elite" with something to hide.

Come to think of it, I might write the damn novel myself....