Monthly Archives: December 2016

The alternate world of the holidays

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SearsHouse115.jpg

Going home for the holidays,  for many of us,  involves extended travel by planes, trains and automobiles.  In our current world, this involves no more than fueling up the car, buying a ticket, and showing up to a terminal or airport at the right time.   Because of this ability to travel to easily, relatively cheaply, and quickly, it means some of the family can live a half a continent away, take a half a day for travel, and be in their hometown on the same day they left.

This is great while it lasts, but at some point, whether it be due to fuel shortages, political unrest, weather strangeness, or some other gumming up of the works, this sort of travel ( as well any other non-essential kinds) may become almost non-existent.   This has happened before, of course – before rapid and cheap air travel, going cross country took days (by train), and going across an ocean took weeks.    Families lived a lot closer, if they wanted to be, you know, close.

Questions:

  • Now that we’ve spread out so much, what will happen, as these conveniences slip away?   Will families give up on moving apart for work, school and leisure?   Or will our self-centeredness still be so strong that we move away anyway?   Moving, in general, will entail a lot more resources, and trust on where you are going.
  • The World Made By Hand novels had travel being incredibly difficult, and people not moving much at all, but this may have been to the times (war, pestilence, unrest).  Given that world, after it settled down a bit, what would be a reasonable travel radius/time/distance?
  • If a modicum of telecommunications still exists (i.e. private radio/telephone, Internet of some sort), how much will this change the equation?

 

 

Indiscriminate Warfare For the 21st Century?

gasmask

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gasmask.jpg

For those of you with an even cursory knowledge of World War I, the image above, of soldiers in gas masks should immediately remind you that even some types of warfare can be outlawed, and for good reason.   War brings out the worst in people, and unfortunately, in the frenzy of war, some very lethal and deadly things can be brought to the battlefield.  During World War I, chemical weapons of all sorts were used, and it was a nasty business.

Public outcry let to the Geneva Protocol, where use (but not stockpiling) was banned.  According the Wikipedia article:

The use of deadly poison gas was not only limited to combatants in the front but also civilians as nearby civilian towns were at risk from winds blowing the poison gases through. Civilians living in towns rarely had any warning systems about the dangers of poison gas as well as not having access to effective gas masks. The use of chemical weapons employed by both sides had inflicted an estimated 100,000-260,000 civilian casualties during the conflict. Tens of thousands of more (along with military personnel) died from scarring of the lungs, skin damage, and cerebral damage in the years after the conflict ended. In the year 1920 alone, over 40,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel died from the chemical weapons effects.

There is always tragedy in war, but weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction such as nuclear,  biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons make that tragedy vastly greater.  Yes, some biological and chemical weapons have been used over the years since their large scale use in World War I, but for the most part, their use has been relatively minor, and no major power thinks that they would be good to use in a conflict.

The thesis put forward today is that indiscriminate warfare doesn’t just extend to NBC weapons.  With the rise of our interconnected world, there has been a great deal of talk about cyberterrorism, and cyberwarfare.  Cyberwarfare has already been initiated, with the Stuxnet  virus, and one can reasonably assume that it is not the only government sponsored malware out there.

For anyone with a background in industrial controls and some knowledge of cybersecurity, the Stuxnet virus was a tour-de-force piece of work; it was incredibly clever, and did an amazing job of doing what it did (destroying Iranian centrifuges).   When this story first broke, my reaction was along the lines of Robert Oppenheimer’s “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”   The target that the Stuxnet virus attacked was peripherally PCs (that most people are familar with), but the ultimate goal was to affect the PLCs (programmable logic controllers) that ran those Iranian centrifuges.

PLCs are probably some of the most “unsexiest” parts of the computer world; they are generally not the fastest or newest things out there.  In fact, one of the attractions of them is that they have very long lifetimes, and you can still get parts for them years after they’ve been developed.  Their main job is to run the industrial world; factories, water treatment plants, and good portion of the infrastructure that is in our modern world.  They aren’t primarily designed to be cyber secure; their first job is to be bulletproof, and to simply work forever.   Control system security is a hot topic these days, and frankly, is a bit scary.   Four main things (from the article above) are why these kinds of attacks are more possible these days:

  • Heavy use of Commercial Off-the Shelf Technology (COTS) and protocols. Integration of technology such as MS Windows, SQL, and Ethernet means that process control systems are now vulnerable to the same viruses, worms and trojans that affect IT systems
  • Enterprise integration (using plant, corporate and even public networks) means that process control systems (legacy) are now being subjected to stresses they were not designed for
  • Demand for Remote Access – 24/7 access for engineering, operations or technical support means more insecure or rogue connections to control system
  • Public Information – Manuals on how to use control system are publicly available to would be attackers as well as to legitimate users

The fact that Stuxnet was built and released, while technologically amazing, makes it far more possible that others will start to use cyber weapons (if they haven’t been used already).   If the US and its allies are allowed to use such weapons, than what of other countries and “non-state actors”?   Like biological weapons, cyber weapons can be done far more cheaply than things like nuclear weapons, and they give a great deal of power to smaller and more driven groups.

A cyber attack on the GPS system would make Uber’s valuation plummet (as well as other services that rely on GPS; FedEx, UPS, etc.).  A cyber attack on the electrical grid would cripple the economy, and put many people’s lives at risk.   The lack of a working Internet would make rumors fly, the news suspect, and the ability to interact with people around the world a great deal harder.

Yes, war is hell, and as it was said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”  Humanity, although still savage in some respects, has at least learned that some methods of warfare are too horrible to be used, and have put a great opprobrium on certain kinds of behavior.  The crippling or corruption of our basic infrastructure could range from effects inconsequential to lethal.

Questions:

  • Do we need a Geneva Accords on cyberwarfare?
  • Could we even ban cyberwarfare?
  • What happens when cyberwarfare hits home?  Like drifting chemical gas, a cyber attack on military infrastructure might well drift into the civilian side.  Will it take that sort of event to have a meeting of technologically dependent countries to ban such tactics?
  • Would attacking public infrastructure (such as clean water, sewage plants, electrical distribution grids, traffic systems) be consider an act of war against civilian populations, and war crime?
  • The ‘Internet of Things’ buzzword is all the rage; might we want to think about how a cyberwar would affect these devices, before blindly going off and implementing them?
  • The reason for today’s article was due to the latest saber-rattling (keyboard rattling?) from the current US administration regarding the recent election, and the Stuxnet story has been told in detail in other places.   Sure, the US could perform a ‘cyber attack’ on a another nation’s industrial base.  But, like the nuclear option, this may lead to an escalation that runs wildly out of control.   Does this disturb anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

Jevon’s Paradox – Talking to “Experts”

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons’s_paradox#/media/File:PSM_V11_D660_William_Stanley_Jevons.jpg

Guy McPherson, love him or hate him, has some great comments on hope, and quotes Nietzsche – “it is one of the worst of all possible human emotions, since it prolongs man’s torment.”   Some days, I admit, that I do hope a little bit, especially when talking to supposed experts in a particular field.

At a recent schmoozefest at a renewable energy center, a few folks in the efficiency space were there, talking and pointing out new technologies, sensing devices and ways of making buildings more efficient.   Since their business was efficiency, I’d figure they’d have some knowledge about the history of efficiency campaigns, and the side effects that come with them.   The technical term for this Jevon’s Paradox, and although they called it something else (“rebound” or some such thing), they understood that yes, it did happen.   For example, if it takes a building X units of energy to provide a temperature of 68 F in the winter, and you bring this to X/2 units of energy, it is very possible (and probable) that people will raise the temperature set point to 72 F.  Also, with the energy they save, they will most likely spend it on other things that use energy (or boost the economy), making efficiency a losing battle.

The weird thing about this is that even though my admiration for what they did was sincere, they felt that my raising of the issue was a bit off the mark.  As much as their work was important, I felt compelled to ask them about the limits of their technological solutions.  Even in my own stint in the renewable energy industry, I know that it was going to take more than technological fixes to change the way we lived our lives.  One of the two efficiency folks even gave the classic line, “We didn’t end the Stone Age because we ran out of stones,” and insisted that we’d always find a way to keep going, to keep expanding.  When I mentioned that there were real physical limits (infinite growth on a finite planet was impossible; even Moore’s Law has limits), they just handwaved my comment away (and then said they had to talk to others at the meeting).

Of course, the folks here were engineers (myself included); we love technical solutions, efficiency, and making things work better.  My thought was, however, maybe these folks were ahead of my thinking, since they were so heavily in the efficiency space, and their firm was actively thinking on how to combat Jevon’s Paradox.   For example, if it became fashionable (the word ‘cool’ here is a bit confusing) to wear the warmest but thinnest possible sweater or pullover, or if posting your carbon footprint per occupant on the front of a building became de rigueur, perhaps Jevon’s Paradox could be actively fought against.  But although this was acknowledged, the general feeling was we could have efficiency and a better way of life, plus growth and everything else that went along with the modern world.  Not a peep about how life was going to change for most of us, and how we were all going to have to get used to a different world.

The general mood of this small event had a bit of trepidation in it, given the recent US election, but all in all, the technocrats were still doing what they do best – making the best technological solutions they could muster.

Questions:

  • Have you met any experts (in any field) that seem to miss the forest for the trees?  Doctors who want to “cure” cancer or things like depression without considering our seemingly crazy and poison filled food chain and culture?
  • How do you talk to experts when they are this far gone?
  • Have you had any success in talking to folks like this?   At one event, where a speaker on resources addressed an audience of over 700 folks, it was only afterwards (and after a pint) that the speaker pretty much admitted to me a truth (carrying capacity of the Earth – it wasn’t 7+ billion, but a lot lower).  Do we have to get these folks in small crowds (or one on one) to admit these ugly truths?
  • Jevon’s Paradox has some criticism; are they valid?
  • Are there any “experts” (as a whole), in any field, who are waking up to reality?   The climate change scientists seem to have some cognition that things aren’t going swimmingly.  Who else?

 

 

When we know things have changed, redux

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_500_and_1000_rupee_note_demonetisation

About a year and half ago, the article When do we all know and discuss that things have really changed? was written.   A few responses were given; most notably on hunger (which is an excellent way to for people to take notice).

It is a bit disheartening, in that it takes an empty belly to know that things are different, but probably the most realistic.  There’s always a bit of hopium that exists, perhaps, that people might take notice of things without getting hungry, but hunger really grabs you.   There’s a quote many of you have heard of, “A nation is only five/seven/nine meals away from anarchy,” and it fits.

The odd part of the hunger thing is that it is sometimes brought about by human stupidity – and not just in the management of crops and/or transportation, or by failing to plan for things like weather.  The financial system of country can be driven into the ground, and with it, the ability for commerce to happen (and you get the not-eating/uprising thing again).   This is happening today, in India (as a good amount of cash is declared useless), and it has happened before; a wayward central bank goes bonkers, and then the predictable happens. If interest rates go up in the US, a lot of overleveraged and “overbought” assets can crash to the ground, and we may be in for yet another “rhyming of history.”  Oh well.

As far as non-hunger related wake up calls, the recent US election has done a number on the general punditocracy, of course.   Perhaps the cracks are beginning to show, even without hunger.   Six months ago we brought up a few graphs that showed some interesting data points.   Maybe this is another wakeup call; the graphs are a getting a trifle scarier, at least for those who pay even small attention to such things.

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Questions:

  • Do you think Brexit/the US election has been a wakeup call for the elites?  Is this putting any sort of fear into the folks at the top?
  • Will this new normal be assimilated?
  • If we get down to no ice in the Arctic in a few summers, will this be sufficient to wake up anybody?
  • Will it take the loss of a few cities on the coast in hurricane season?
  • In the final analysis, is it possible that it will only take hunger for people to wake up?