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.

Collapse

Thanks to Netflix finally appearing on my PS3, I’ve been able to watch all sorts of ridiculous National Geographic documentaries like Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence, and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure. Mixed in with those are some gems, though, like the Inside series (Inside Special Forces, Air Force One, Inside the US Secret Service, etc.).

I saw and decided to take a chance on Collapse: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire Book by Jared Diamond. I should admit that I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but the premise is clear enough. The major factors contributing to our hypothetical demise are a lack of water, food, and oil, all multiplied by the effects of global warming. The story of our collapse is told through the eyes of fictional scientists and researchers in the year 2210 combing the desertified ruins of the globe for evidence pointing to one factor or another (at one point, I think they even recycled five seconds of footage from I Am Legend). This is interspersed with historical reenactments of other collapsed civilizations, including Rome, the Mayans, and the Anasazi.

One-line review: it’s kind of like those Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero ‘documentaries’, but with more anthropology and more science. I mean that in a good way.

But anyways, I was left with two burning questions at the end of it.

The first was where and how did these scientists survive and come to be? Oral tradition alone should explain our downfall, but they have ridiculously advanced technology. Like iPads with the Minority Report interface. And where are they based? They’re exploring the American West and Southwest, along with the British Isles, Southern Europe, and the underwater ruins of Hong Kong. But where do they live? Did New York miraculously escape destruction?

The second has to do with our impending water crisis. I know that we’re on the brink of the first water wars, but for long-term considerations: what the hell are we doing with desalinization?

According to my research, the most intensive barriers to more widespread adoption are the cost of the technology itself and of the power needed to operate the plants. But in most of the Middle East, for example, virtually every new power plant is constructed with some sort of desalination capacity incorporated into it. Current desalinization, though, can start recycling some of its own energy, meaning with a viable renewable energy source – nuclear comes to mind – a plant can be self-sustainable and contribute energy back to the grid.

As is, the costs of desalinization are passed on to end-users to the tune of $3 per thousand gallons. That seems steep, but then again, we buy bottled water, don’t we? Bottled water runs about $7,945 per thousand gallons. Seriously, this seems like a proactive step we could take. Now. To secure our water reserves for a long time to come and maybe, just maybe preserve California’s Inland Empire as a viable place to live while recycling much-needed energy to the grid.

But forget Phoenix, humans seriously have no business living there whatsoever.

Ah, Recursion

It’s a synthesis of everything I love: a makerbot made of LEGO, printing… more things made of LEGO.

The recursiveness is great. But so is the premise. Is that potentially the tipping point for the Maker Revolution? When 3D printers can create copies of themselves? Think about how much easier it would be to get started: a whole community just has to pitch in for one machine. It’ll either revolutionize the already-revolutionary concept, or bring about the singularity. Either way, though.

Cities Under Siege: A Review

It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege.  In the end, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Graham’s book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV (“Car Wars”), autonomous drones and robot warfare (“Robowar Dreams”), the destruction and replanning of cities (“Lessons in Urbicide”), recreated urban training centers (“Theme Park Archipelago”) and the nexus of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.” It’s a mouthful, as is much of this book.

Continue reading

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.

Freedom™: A Review

This author, with Suarez' duology at a London pub, May 2010.

After cruising through Daemon in about 2 days, Freedom™ was even quicker: I blew through it in about 24 hours (back in May). That’s no knock against it, though; rather, I just couldn’t put it down at all.

This review will be brief, even though it’s taken me almost three months to get around to finishing it. Basically, if Daemon was the end of the beginning, Freedom™ is the beginning of the end. Or at least of the next step. It lays out the climactic struggle much more succinctly, a titanic clash between people and business, corporate and individual. I found this particular passage most instructive:

You, sir, are walking on a privately owned Main Street—permission to trespass revocable at will. Read the plaque on the ground at the entrance if you don’t believe me. These people aren’t citizens of anything, Sergeant. America is just another brand purchased for its goodwill value. For that excellent fucking logo … No conspiracy necessary. It’s a process that’s been happening for thousands of years. Wealth aggregates and becomes political power. Simple as that. ‘Corporation’ is just the most recent name for it. In the Middle Ages it was the Catholic Church. They had a great logo, too. You might have seen it, and they had more branches than Starbucks. Go back before that, and it was Imperial Rome. It’s a natural process as old as humanity.

Of course, overreach leads to retreat and retrenchment, et cetera, et cetera. Even if the message seems a little obvious (and by no means subtly presented), it’s an important one, and it’s framed in an interesting new way. It’s that presentation that makes this not only legible, but well worth your time, if not just to see what the traditional cries of anticonsumerism and Adbusters-type activism look like in the digital age.

John Robb’s ‘holons‘ take some big strides here too; Suarez has done an excellent job of envisioning the resilient community concept, and doing so in a way that makes them seem not only possible, but inevitable. A blueprint for the future? Not necessarily. But at the least, a realistic portrayal of the kind of decentralized communities that we’ll hopefully be migrating to in the future. Thanks to Daniel Suarez, they’re more than just a concept.

So read Daemon and then read Freedom. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed. And even if you are, ignore the prose and focus on the message – it’s one we sorely need to listen to right now.

Buy Freedom™ at Amazon.com.

Don’t Date Robots!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This article reads like a serious version of the above cartoon PSA: “Standards are rapidly changing, and within a few years the human race will be in a position in which sexual immorality could exist on a widespread scale.”

It all depends how you define immorality, but I’d like to believe we’re there already. The future is now!

Via The Agitator.

Daemon: A Review

After hearing praise from my various luminaries like John Robb, Shlok Vaidya, and zenpundit, there’s no way I could not read Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. The tagline reads “Michael Crichton for the information age,” and in virtually all aspects the book lives up to such a lofty claim.

It’s hard to really explain the book (I found myself attempting to do just that to a drunk South African, and coming up short), but as simply as I can: super-brilliant computer genius who’s responsible for two of the best-selling MMORPGs of all time dies. He’s left embedded in the internet a program – the titular DAEMON, or Disk And Execution MONitor – that can respond and react to news items (such as said genius’ death, or the abortive raid on his house). Using the interconnectedness of the global economy, the daemon insinuates itself into daily life, capitalism comes up against the resilient community, etc, etc.

Anyways, if it sounds pretty far-fetched…it will certainly seem so at times. The prose is nothing particularly elegant or lofty, but that’s not why you read a book like this. The concepts, technologies, and overall contours of the plot are entirely engaging, and this is really a ‘page-turner’ in the tradition of Clancy or Crichton, though with a clear contemporary bent. While the story may come across as somewhat apocalyptic, that’s sort of the point – and at this point within the realm of comprehension.

In case the technology and concepts of Daemon are a little too mindblowing for the reader, Suarez has handily thought to include a quick rundown of recommended further reading, including John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors, and the ubiquitous Jared Diamond’s Collapse. For the more dedicated skeptic, there’s even a compendium of links at the book’s website directing the reader towards further information on the technologies depicted in Daemon. You can even subscribe to “The Daemon Technology RSS Feed,” which is updated infrequently but with an excellent selection of recent technology links.

In addition to being a great read – it’s always nice to take a break from the really dense stuff and read some fiction – Daemon can also help to understand a lot of the terms being thrown around in the 4GW and milblogosphere, especially in a global economic sense. System vulnerability, swarming and nodes, a global elite class, and 3D printer personal manufacturing all hold a prominent place in Daemon‘s world. Its sequel, Freedom™, deals far more heavily with themes of resilient communities and a new system, but that review will wait for another day. In the meantime, read Daemon right now.

Buy Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, at Amazon.

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?

Minority Report Comes Alive

Pranav Mistry is just awesome. Look at those evolutionary steps to reach an incredible end stage. “We are looking for an era when computing will merge with the physical world.”  So much potential with this kind of augmented reality. For pretty much everything.

Via ThinkTechno.