A New Definition of Suburban Sprawl

The atomic bomb was on everyone’s mind quite a bit in the late 1940s. Clearly it was a real city-killer of a weapon, one that worked best when targeted against a dense population system. So what was America to do in the face of such a threat? Simple: spread them out and move all industry underground.

The crux of the issue was to remove everyone from any American city with a population greater than 50,000 people and place them in newly-built communities set out across the country’s landscape (mostly) like a chess board, the towns existing on all of the connecting lines. [As weird as this sounds, the great Norbert Wiener came up with a similarly astounding, untouchable idea using circles.]. The authors proposed to build 20,000,000 new homes, relocate industry (preferably underground), reallocate and redistribute energy supplies and natural resources, and recreate the very fabric of social and economic life in America.

Via io9.

Urban Jungle Warfare

An American solider in Sadr City, Iraq, 2008. Photo: Zoriah.

Geoff Manaugh at the ever-fantastic and always impressive BLDGBLOG has a post up about Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism and urban warfare in general.

The city is obviously going to be the defining social construct of the 21st century, but whether that happens in the benevolent, ‘new urbanist’ way that’s all the rage these days seems increasingly unlikely. From Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums:

The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

One is reminded of John Robb’s take on cities and the coming urban warfare, along with his prescription against urban conglomerations. Cities are immensely important nodes in a country’s system, and taking them down is easier, more profitable, and much more effective than as was practiced in the first half of the twentieth century.The will to besiege a city that continued up through the World Wars at Leningrad, Liege, and Namur is no longer there, but that brute force method is no longer needed. And the material rewards – not to mention the political and social effects of urban devastation – are more promising than ever.

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An Unpronounceable Volcano as Black Swan?

Taken 10 km east of Hvolsvollur Iceland on April 18th, 2010. Lightning flashes and glowing lava illuminate parts of Eyjafjallajokull's massive ash plume in this 30-second exposure.

Way back in 2004, John Robb wrote a piece on scale-free networks:

Scale-free networks are everywhere. The can be seen in airline traffic routes, connections between actors in Hollywood, weblog links, sexual relationships, and terrorist networks. So what exactly is a scale-free network? A scale-free network is one that obeys a power law distribution in the number of connections between nodes on the network [emphasis mine].

Obviously, considering the plight of the airlines right now in the midst of an apocalyptic (yet curiously invisible) ash cloud is particularly fascinating to do in the context of Robb’s networks. In characterizing the nature of scale-free ones, he comes up with a positive and a negative:

  • Scale-free networks are extremely tolerant of random failures. In a random network, a small number of random failures can collapse the network. A scale-free network can absorb random failures up to 80% of its nodes before it collapses. The reason for this is the inhomogeneity of the nodes on the network — failures are much more likely to occur on relatively small nodes.
  • Scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable to intentional attacks on their hubs. Attacks that simultaneously eliminate as few as 5-15% of a scale-free network’s hubs can collapse the network. Simultaneity of an attack on hubs is important. Scale-free networks can heal themselves rapidly if an insufficient number of hubs necessary for a systemic collapse are removed.

Examining the fallout from Eyjafjallajokullin in this light does present an interesting dichotomy. If we consider the entire globe as one big air traffic system, then it definitely is showing resilient capabilities. Flights are diverted around the affected nodes and redistributed to areas unaffected by the ash cloud. It’s as if Europe was a tumor that has been surgically removed from the rest of the airborne world.

Thus, of course most everyone can continue to fly whether or not Europe’s airports are open. The global network is continuing to function.

And in fact, it’s hard to conceptualize European airspace as an isolated network. At this point all air traffic to and from the continent is inextricably bound to the rest of world, and so it’s hard to imagine an inverse scenario in which the rest of the world ceases to fly while Europe muddles on.

However, this picture changes slightly if we consider the voluntary closure of most European airspace as an intentional attack. Robb gives the threshold as 5-15% of a system’s capability. Of the 30 busiest airports in the world in 2009, seven are in Europe, those seven with total passenger traffic of 268 million people a year. If 1.5 billion people travel by plane every year, that’s roughly 18% of world capacity (and that’s before taking into account all the other European airports that didn’t crack the top 30). For the rest of the world, it’s a relatively stable – if infuriating – situation. I suppose the real determining factor is that while the initial closures were shocks to the system, they didn’t begin on a Europe-wide scale, and by the time those in the east started closing, it was no longer a surprise.

Either way, the system is voluntarily taking at least a fifth of itself offline, which gives rise to an interesting third possibility that Robb doesn’t mention: how much of a system can turn itself off before collapse?

A Peaceful Rise at Home?

From World Military Forum:

BEIJING – A stronger Chinese navy will not seek to build military bases overseas, a retired senior officer has said amid media reports that the country harbors such “ambitions”.

Zhang Deshun, who was till recently the deputy chief of staff of the PLA navy, said a naval force with advanced armaments and enhanced capabilities will contribute more to UN-led anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster-relief missions.

A larger navy with a greater reach does not mean it will seek to play the role of “world police”, said the retired rear admiral, who is a deputy to the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress.

I don’t know how to read this. I see several possibilities, not all of which ascribe ulterior motives to the Chinese. But most of them do. The first would be that they’re serious about this, and genuinely believe that if not now, then in the very near future Chinese naval capabilities will be such that they don’t require any overseas support facilities.

If that is true, their public admission of this could serve a twofold purpose: downplay concerns of a Chinese global power play, and at the same time serve notice to the United States and other maritime powers that China is advanced to this degree. After all, the U.S. operates a network of naval facilities around the world – perhaps Beijing is so powerful it doesn’t have to?

Alternatively, China could be using this to distract from the ‘three island chain’ plan.

The 'second island chain' of Chinese maritime strategy.

By eliminating the ‘third island chain’ – global, blue-water power projection – China’s ambitions of regional hegemony seem much more restrained and reasonable in comparison. But keep in mind that even the ‘second island chain’ in the strategy is demarcated by a line running from southern Japan to Guam through the middle of Indonesia and terminating at Australia. It’s still quite a bit of space.

Am I just being paranoid?

Abdication

The grim future of a world without net neutrality

The government won’t push for it. The existing near-monopolies have no incentive to change. So who steps up? Google, of course. Google’s plan to offer internet services at the blisteringly-fast speeds of up to 1 GB/s could finally revolutionize the American broadband network. As a bottleneck for innovation, the archaic state of internet infrastructure obviously needs improvement. South Korea leads the world in internet speeds, with a 100 Mbps fiber optic line scheduled to come online nationwide this year. The United States didn’t make the top ten – it was 18th in the world with an average speed of 3.9 Mbps.

But no one will act (even though Google’s been prodding telecom companies), and the government won’t push anyone to act.

The risks of lagging behind are comparable to net neutrality in terms of stifling new developments, which is why it may seem weird to call for more regulation. But the regulation that would help only need set a baseline for acceptable quality and service.

This kind of wide push for faster internet service works on a number of levels:

  1. It allows for new growth, research, and innovation.
  2. It keeps the U.S. on equal footing with the rest of the world.
  3. It allows us to avoid ridiculously hyperbolic nightmare scenarios like the “bandwidth caps” Mark Cuban envisions (and I won’t even begin to take apart his prediction of our computerless-future).
  4. New infrastructure work, especially as part of a comprehensive federal plan, will a) allow/mandate simultaneous rural development, always a must in the expanse of the United States, and something any corporation is loathe to take on of its own volition (the per capita subscription rate really can’t justify it, but thanks to equal representation in the Senate is a necessity nonetheless), and b) create jobs. Let’s also not forget those 93 million Americans without broadband access at all, whom Cuban’s market-based solutions have clearly left behind.

As Google is proving though, the federal government has little interest in sweeping technology improvements across the country. A Reaganesque privatization this is not. The government has merely ceded responsibility to the private sector yet again.

SMS Goeben, the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the Coming of the Great War

SMS Goeben

In November of 1914, the once-mighty “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, entered the war to end all wars as a Central Power. Having concluded a secret alliance with Germany against her long-time rival Russia, the conditions for war were met, and on November11 Sultan Mehmed V declared jihad.

As with so many other empires, the jump into war would prove to be the downfall of Turkey as a Mediterranean power, and in fact as an empire at all. The terms of their alliance with Germany pulled the Ottomans into the war, but the real question remains: what led them to sign it? The answers can be found in two places: the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the arrival of the SMS Goeben.

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