Saturday, April 6, 2013

Stuff & Nonsense

I have a job now.  And predictably enough, I have been recruited to write the company blog.  All this leaving much less time for pleasant distractions and acts of personal aggrandizement such as maintaining this weblog in an appropriate fashion.  Maybe I'll figure out an approach that balances all these opposing impulses and demands - shorter posts?  More fooling around, less thinking about stuff? I sure don't know.  I'm just along for the ride.  That said, let's catch up with stuff, shall we?

It appears that Kim Jong Un has decided that the occasional "Predictable Unpredictability" of his late, lamented father was insufficiently annoying to western powers, and has adopted a kind of a John McCain screaming-at-clouds approach to international relations.  This has resulted in this odd escalation in the rhetoric, to the point where he has all but declared war on South Korea, Japan and the US, all without any significant military mobilization, movement or operations.

The previous dear leader's actions could be understood as a negotiation for various accommodations, including aid and respect, where he would ratchet up tensions only to back down in exchange for whatever he could squeeze out of the rest of the world.  But the actions of the current incarnation, on the other hand, are hard to understand in this light as they appear to be calculated to 1.) increase sanctions against and isolation of his country, 2.) infuriate and frighten his only ally on this planet, China, who would find themselves with a gigantic refugee crises and an implacable enemy on their border if the hermit kingdom were to collapse, and 3.) increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation resulting in an exchange of fire that might force Kim the younger to either escalate or back down, neither being acceptable options to him.

Make no mistake - Kim wants war even less that we do, but he's not particularly safe domestically.  On one side he has the Generals, and on the other he has a starving population slowly discovering the things of which they are deprived.  It will be interesting to see how he plays the hand he has dealt.

One and a half billion people are Muslims, and they have a problem.  A problem that is in the process of coming to a head, bringing immediate risks and costs to huge swaths of humanity.  There are basic, fundamental incompatibilities within the Islamic world, and no real institutions to deal with them in a reasonable fashion.  The problem can be seen as two sides of the same coin.  On the one hand, they have sects with a long history of hate, warfare, oppression and even genocide.  These sects, primarily seen as Sunni vs. Shi'a, view each other as apostates and worse, and for many, murder is a perfectly acceptable manner of expressing one's dissatisfaction.  But the same problem can been seen alternatively as a more modern, secular Islam vs. an ancient, hard line Islam.  The modern secularists want democratic governance, modern education and entertainment, equal rights for men and women and a chance to participate in the global economy.  The fundamentalists, like all religious fundamentalists, want a dictatorial theocracy and a brutally enforced canon law that, coincidentally, would result in imprisonment or death for the secularists.

All this is nothing new, you'd say - and you'd be right.  Sort of.  The pressure has been building for a century, but a long history of brutal dictators and vicious secret police operations has kept the lid on and prevented any kind of reckoning between these completely incompatible populations.  Then the US invaded Iraq in 2003, toppling Saddam Hussein and setting in motion the events that eventually lead to the Arab Spring uprisings starting in 2011.  The Arab Spring movements were originally about democracy, freedom and economic opportunity, but no religious fundamentalist worth his holy book can pass up an opportunity to co-opt a revolution and turn it into some kind of holy war.

So we have Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, Mali and even the nascent Palestine fighting over the heart and soul of their respective nations.  Smart, educated, hopeful people trying to find a way to create an inclusive nation with legitimate governing institutions, against an ancient mythology that has been co-opted by people who hate women, diversity and modern culture.  These battles will be fought in the next decade, they will be bloody, and the outcome will determine much about the future of one third of the world's populations.  A global, connected economy based on trade and diplomacy cannot co-exist with blasphemy laws, ad hoc capital punishment and murder in the name of mythology.

Cyber Warfare:
I am now working in the cyber-security field, and it's caused me to focus on the current state of play in information security.  In the macro view, it breaks down like this: attacks from Russia and Eastern Europe are mostly criminal, using cyber exploits to profit from fraud and extortion.  Attacks from Asia, particularly China, are most likely state-sponsored cyber-espionage, using the most advanced malware and social engineering tools and tactics to steal intellectual property and trade secrets.

In the meantime, in a perhaps misguided and regrettable decision, the US and Israel put offensive cyber-war in play with their Stuxnet and related attacks on Iran.  You have to understand, these are not typical network penetrations focused on digital theft or fraud, these are attacks that use Internet and software vulnerabilities to actually break things and hurt people.  This is a game changer, and though we will try to take the position that we can do it but anyone else who does is a terrorist, no one will even hesitate to compete in this realm, one that requires no great investment or access to large-scale universities or laboratories.  The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and so far the team that's winning is the Chinese People's Liberation Army.


  1. I was having dinner with a few of the Robot Kidz after our event load-in, and one of them started talking about the threat of NK. I couldn't help but laugh.

    "Gene" I said, "do you realize that North Korea doesn't even have an electrical grid? That a typical hobbyist in America can make a missile with greater range and accuracy? That their missiles can't even CARRY one of their weak nukes? And that, after all that, if they managed to hit a an available target like China, Japan, or Israel, they get glassified?"

    Sheesh. I know he is a kid, but you haveta learn about relative risks at some point.

    So. Let's talk Robots.

  2. The risk, of course, is the two or so million casualties they can inflict on Seoul before their artillery is neutralized by counter-battery fire and air. If it slips out of control, half a million innocent people are going to die in a week, and that's young Kim's leverage...

    1. Well, that's everybody's leverage, isn't it? How many movies are based on nutzoids who have no compunction about killing some number of people? For that matter, we have one entire side of a two sided political system based on the concept.

  3. You're not wrong, but it tends to tie one's hands...

    1. Right, but the constant dilemma is where is the line of obligation? People get irate when America intervenes, when America doesn't intervene, it's a tragedy. Hindsight is always the POV from which to criticize decisions that have to be made real-time.

      Myself, I pretty much always feel that pulling the trigger on military toys is almost always the wrong thing. But as you point out, when bad actors decide to hold millions of other people hostage, where is there an appropriate level of bringing down a hammer?

      Of course, this kind of thinking ends up in doing things like invading Iraq or the Bay of Pigs, so obviously there isn't a simple answer. The other side winds up delaying America's entry into WWII.

      Back in the real world, the leaders of America remain the only people to have pulled the trigger on nuclear weapons deployed in war. And we can argue about it a lot, but there's no way of telling whether it there was a better decision to be made at that point in time, unless you can steal the Riddled Time Machine and hot-wire it to visit adjacent time streams.

      We are a flawed lot. if you are hitting a 50% good decision rate, you are gifted and doing WAY better than I.

  4. In the meantime, in a perhaps misguided and regrettable decision, the US and Israel...

    I would be shocked, shocked I say! to find that something we do in the Middle East might ultimately turn out to be counterproductive.