High Technology in the Hermit Kingdom

The Main and Academic Buildings at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

38North (the US-Korea Institute at SAIS blog) has been producing some fantastic reporting lately, and today came out with an article on the new Pyonyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which opened in October.

Its very existence is a contradiction in terms. It is a pool of 160 of the best and the brightest computer and engineering students in North Korea, proud graduates of the Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University. Perhaps most out-of-character for the tightly sealed country, these students will eventually be allowed free access to the internet. At first, only email capabilities will be granted, but eventually their access will open up and students able to venture beyond the Guang Myung internal North Korean intranet.

PUST itself is backed and funded by evangelical Christians, but steps are taken to ensure that no proselytizing takes place on campus. The university is also in negotiations and talks with the Department of Commerce and South Korean agencies, clearing everything from the names of schools to the curriculum itself. PUST’s cooperation is deemed necessary to securing new technology and avoiding dual-use restrictions on tech imports.

School officials have voluntarily cleared curricula with the U.S. government, which has weighed in on details as fine as the name of one of PUST’s first three schools. The School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies, says Park. North Korean officials, meanwhile, forbid PUST from launching an MBA program—a degree too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “So we call it industrial management,” Park says. “But the contents are similar to those of an MBA.”

The school hopes to have 2,600 students by 2012, visiting faculty, and all the other accoutrements of a successful modern research university. But they will also have some unique challenges to North Korea:

Kim Chaek University of Technology had around 500 Pentium 4’s and 5’s connected to the system. He estimates that nationwide, tens of thousands of computers of all types are now linked in. However, it’s not clear how effective Guang Myung is outside Pyongyang, where clunky routers funnel information to ancient machines—remember 386s and 486s? Another major woe is an unstable electricity supply that regularly fritzes electronics. Lee, who has visited North Korea 15 times, says that when he asks what scientists need most, they request laptops, whose power cord adaptors and batteries can better handle electrical fluctuations.

Signs of openness? An attempt to forcibly drag North Korea into the 21st century? A smokescreen for weapons-grade technology imports? Or just an opportunity to drastically improve the lives of a few lucky North Koreans?

It’s hard to say, on the whole, whether this is a good or bad development. The students attending PUST will have more access to knowledge and the broader world than ever before, and depending on whether their contact with ‘normal’ North Koreans is limited, could possibly spread the gospel of the free world. Then again, developments and breakthroughs made at PUST could very well have military implications, despite all assurances to the contrary (indeed, how could Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong Un resist?).

If this really “might nudge the country’s tattered manufacturing-based economy toward an information-based economy,” that should be good for North Korea in the long run. But then again, we’re still feeling the agony of our shift from one to the other, and for a country like the United States that transition was not an easy one to make. I suspect it may be even more painful for the DPRK.

The Output Gap

It seems like good news always comes out when the weather’s bad, and bad news when it’s nice out. But when it’s a grey day to begin with and you look at this series of charts

What the gap between potential and actual production means for employment.

Basically, a recovery could take 10 more years. Or never materialize at all. Given the devastating effects of long-term unemployment on recent graduates, young adults, and the very fabric of society, we have got to do better. And the stimulus was too much?!

At this point, it doesn’t even matter. Make-work, nothingness – anything is better than the worst-case outcome here.

A Vicious Cycle

Wired has officially proclaimed the web to be dead. Not the internet, mind you, but the HTML, browser-driven world of dotcoms this and firefox that. Both us and ‘them’ are to blame, according to Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, but somehow, we’ve come back to the idea of a “curated” internet experience after roundly rejecting AOL and Earthlink less than a decade ago.

But perhaps even more than our willingness to sacrifice control for convenience is the business approach to the web. No longer do we have the frontier mentality, the lawless Wild West where anything went. The top 10 websites accounted for 75% of all web traffic in 2010. But as Anderson reminds us:

This was all inevitable. It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time. [Emphasis in original].

Possibly the one upside to the increasing corporate control of our internet experience – and our complicity in that takeover – is that once the internet is locked down, we can finally start asking “what’s next?” Because that, too, is the story of industrial revolutions.

The Spill

The Deepwater Horizon oil platform burns in the Gulf of Mexico.

As per my standard operating procedure, I should be studying for my final final exam on Russia/Eurasia tomorrow morning but will procrastinate a little more (productive procrastination, that’s my motto). Instead, I have a number of thoughts to offer on the ‘British Petroleum’ spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s worse than we can imagine.

The Oil Drum has had some of the best recent coverage of the disaster from a technical and policy perspective. It also has some of the better commenters I’ve seen anywhere on the internet. Via BLDGBLOG comes a particularly chilling one:

The well bore structure is compromised “Down hole”.

That is something which is a “Worst nightmare” conclusion to reach.
[…]
All the actions and few tid bits of information all lead to one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking.
[…]
What does this mean?

It means they will never cap the gusher after the wellhead. They cannot…the more they try and restrict the oil gushing out the bop?…the more it will transfer to the leaks below.

It also means that the entire reservoir area is growing weaker and weaker underwater, and that (here comes the absolutely terrifying part) “fracturing and a complete bleed-out are already underway. Rumors also suggest a massive collapse of the Gulf floor itself is in the making” [emphasis mine].

That means 2 billion barrels of oil just dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. It means an ecological disaster of biblical proportions as the oil is carried around Florida and up the eastern seaboard. It will end entire industries, ways of life, and…it’s pretty much unfathomable how bad this will probably be. We don’t even have the technology to stop the leak at this point; the best we can do is siphon off as much as possible and pray it doesn’t get worse. Continue reading

Hiding in Plain Sight

Last week, Russian defense firm Concern Morinformsystem-Agat announced it had designed a clever new launch system for cruise missiles: the Club-K. Designed in the form of a standard shipping container, the missiles can then be launched from essentially anywhere: on a train, from a ship, from a tractor-trailer in the middle of nowhere. They use satellite guidance systems. And in case this seemed like yet another cute idea the Russians had, the system makes use of the 3M-54TE, 3M-54TE1, and the 3M-14TE missiles – all of which are tested and proven. The missiles come in two flavors: anti-ship and anti-ground.

This is naturally troubling on a number of levels, though actually not quite so many as one might imagine at first glance. The most immediate concern is that this particular style of camouflage allows a merchant ship to carry enough firepower to knock out an aircraft carrier – a continuation of asymmetric warfare at sea that Robert Gates has been acknowledging quite a bit recently. Asymmetric threats in general stand to gain the most from this weapon; the sheer banality that the missiles are hidden behind (the container looks so normal) is a clever disguise. Watching that video definitely provokes one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Iran and Venezuela are already lining up to purchase the Club-K, and others will soon follow suit. Of course, Venezuela is a highly overrated security problem, but the threat posed by the Club-K is not existential; but one of harassment and annoyance. Iran, on the other hand, poses a clearer danger both itself and through intermediaries. And as Al Sahwa points out:

While it is true that al Qaeda won’t buy this weapon system from CM-AGAT out right, I think we have to recognize that nations like Iran have no qualms in providing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weapons. The primary limiting factor for a terror organization utilizing this system is most likely the satellite navigation system. A non-Nation State organization would probably need access to a Nation State’s satellite infrastructure, although this is strictly a personal assumption.

However, seeing as some of the weakest links in American border security are the ports, we’re at huge risk there. Is it just me or does the Club-K look like it could also be a toy for eccentric billionaires?

“Dead Space” Comes Alive

A perfect example of urban infill, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

Nokisaki.com seeks pockets of “dead space” around cities and converts them into short-term rental property.

In Tokyo, where every sliver of land is at a premium, a few feet of unused private property near the front entrance of an apartment building can be used to sell muffins. A patch of storefront space transforms into an ad hoc vegetable stand for a farmer or a consulting space for a fortune-teller.

Those spaces can be reserved at Nokisaki for short periods of time—starting from three hours—and for as little as $15 total.

This is the exact approach that metropolitan areas need to take, and a great boon to small entrepreneurs and other makers. It certainly cuts through the red tape of zoning laws and the like.

Even in the urban context, these microrentals are not an instance of packing in more people like sardines (whether this would work outside of the hypercrowded Tokyo is up for debate), but rather matching supplies of valuable land with those who need it. Just for a little while.

Via GOOD.

Russian Resilience

Andrei Loshak has an article out on the endemic corruption in Russia. IKEA’s attempts to open new stores there are met with sheer absurdity, the currency of the realm. The absurd is everywhere in a nation of circular logic and Catch-22s, where power is shut off to a store on the verge of opening for no reason at all. “Reason has limited possibilities, whereas the absurd knows no limits.” According to Loshak, society may have reached a breaking point:

When the absurd transmogrified into the lunatic, the system activated the command to self-destruct. The Castle, impregnable from outside, starts collapsing from inside. Two eagle heads tear into each other, only feathers fly. But, strangely enough, the stronger the entropy in the state, the faster everything disintegrates and the easier it becomes to breathe. As if there’s more air. I think that society has lost its fear: the people perceive the government’s inability to keep control of itself as a sign of weakness. Such a state cannot have enough strength for repression. The animal nips of the enraged system have woken people from their hypnosis. Fear and apathy have been replaced by rage.

The Russian state is trying to do too much where it can, and can’t do enough where it matters (see the recent Metro bombings). Between corruption, incompetence,  and contempt, Moscow has managed to alienate vast swathes of its citizens. Overreach – and for no apparent reason other than the power to do so – could end up a catalyst for decentralizing the Russian state.

The further a person is away from power, the better he is. I have seen this for myself in far away Ural villages built by lumberjacks before the Revolution. These villages’ link with civilisation was the only one-track railway in the country. Five years ago the authorities decided to tear down the villages and pull up the one-track railway. People who had been born and grown up in the forests were offered a flat in a high-rise block on the outskirts of the regional centre.

The government’s attempts to ouster the good citizens of the small village went from gentle cajoling to scorched-earth, smoke-’em-out tactics. But people may be starting to fight back. The state’s attempt to overmanage in the Urals is met by a particularly resilient community.

First the trains stopped going there, so food and pensions were not able to get through. There were people in the villages who hadn’t seen money for several years. They baked their bread, fed their cattle, shot game in the hunting season and wanted only one thing: for the state to leave them in peace.  When their electricity was turned off, they used locally improvised materials to build their own hydroelectric station on the river…

As a rule the spectacle of total degradation is depressing, but the people who lived in these autonomous forest villages were completely different. The men were strong – their children had grown up and they were determined to die in the place where they were born. In spite of the hard living conditions, their wives had somehow managed to remain neat and womanly.  Doors were not locked here, as there had been no thieving in these forests for many years.  People moved from one village to another in railcars, a cross between Minsk motorcycles and wagons, on a narrow gauge railway, a construction that was as exotic as it was dangerous.  I was told confidentially that one of the men was on probation. Representatives of the regional administration had come to take up the railway and he had fired a warning shot and then one at their feet … These people were full of dignity. You don’t often see people like that in the cities.

Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of people like that anywhere. I’m not trying to call for revolution or mass uprising, nor do I even want to approach the Teabagger argument that the guvmint is a’comin’ to take away our guns and liberties and force us all into abortions and gay marriages. But nevertheless, something’s on the horizon, and as my new mantra goes: the future is coming, for better or for worse.

Mexican Standoff

Gunmen killed an American consulate worker and her husband in Ciudad Juárez. Their baby was found in the back seat.

News comes that the cartels in Ciudad Juarez have finally started targeting U.S. nationals, murdering three last night. One was a pregnant consulate worker and her husband, the other was the husband of another consulate employee. I’m suprised only that it took so long (and that only now is the violence in Mexico “provoking an angry reaction from the White House”).

If we don’t end the War on Drugs, the impetus and justification for organized crime and narcotics trafficking will only increase, as will the profitability of murder. As the Times reminds us, “more than 2,000 people were killed there last year, giving it one of the highest murder rates in the world.” American students are arriving in Acupulco now for spring break. And for the cartels, the risk-reward benefit right now is too large to ignore.

But violence itself isn’t the only thing to fear here. The cartels and gangs (this particular shooting was blamed on Los Aztecas, who only get more impudent) have effective control over much of northern Mexico. The crippling government weakness is now affecting the very legitimacy of the Mexican state. The catastrophic death toll has:

prompted the government to shift course after three years of its military-led crackdown on drug cartels and acknowledge that it has to involve citizens in the fight and deal with the social breakdown fueling the violence. [emphasis mine]

For now, those efforts will be government-coordinated. But in the future, who’s to say that the citizenry won’t take matters into their own hands, like in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro? Chirol thinks that the future of the border patrol will be a similiar, civilian, militia-style solution, at least on this side of the border. The key, though, is probably fixing that whole ‘social breakdown’ thing. Restore faith, restore legitimacy.

At least the problem is finally back on the radar again.

Another Canary

Smoke billowed from a seven-story building after a small private plane crashed into a building that houses an office of the federal tax agency in Austin, Tex.

The Metro Gunman – John Patrick Bedell –  who shot two policemen at the Pentagon metro station on Thursday, is the second anti-government terrorist to attack in as many weeks. Joe Stack was the first. While their respective manifestos differ in focus, they share a number of common elements that indicates there is more to come. Bedell is more of a conspiracy theorist (particularly harping on James Sadow, the marine killed in 1991) and wanted to establish “the truth of events such as the September 11 demolitions.”

We haven’t reached critical mass yet, but we’re getting there. Stack and now Bedell are each a “canary in the coal mine,” as John Robb puts it. He lays out three main drivers for this kind of terrorism: extreme frustration/hopelessness, few mitigating influences, and rage and a loss of government legitimacy. And while Stack and Bedell do have their differences, the crucial part is that they both came to the same conclusion.

Continue reading

Airwaves? What Airwaves?

Just ahead of Oscar night, word comes that Disney is pulling the ABC channel from Cablevision – affecting about 3 million subscribers in the New York-New Jersey area. ABC is, of course, scheduled to broadcast the Academy Awards tonight.

I’m in no way affected by this, be it living in New York, a Cablevision subscriber, or a religious Oscar aficionado, but this is still pretty outrageous. If you subscribe to cable, you’re now denied access to a theoretically public access channel. ABC may no longer broadcast in analog, but it still does in digital – across frequencies in the public spectrum, which have been leased from the public (and which existing analog broadcasters were able to obtain licenses for without an auction).

Of course, the former obligations that stations using public airwaves were held – such as the “fairness doctrine” – have been allowed to lapse. No one is required to do much of anything anymore, save not broadcasting ‘filth’ and ‘obscenities’. But worse is that millions of people are denied access to a station in the public spectrum over a billion-dollar dispute. I know, I know, theoretically everyone could go out and buy an over-the-air broadcast converter, but how many of those do you think are in stock in the New York metro area?

Nobody at all wins here.