Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Biowar: Korea

I have always loved the Winter Olympics.

So I've been enjoying the games in PeyongChang this year. Or as much as I can given NBC's lackluster coverage, but that's a different can of tuna altogether. Regardless, I'm not usually thinking of biowarfare while watching downhill skiing, ski jumping, or figure skating.

It's certainly a possibility, though. After consulting with numerous military and national security officials, Yochi Dreazen wrote a long and dour piece for Vox detailing how much more horrendous open warfare on the Korean Peninsula would be compared to common perceptions. There were a number of surprising conclusions. One of the assessments that sat with me was the likely involvement of bioweapons.

Strategically, most military strategists regard nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as ordinance of last resort. The consensus of experts interviewed in the Dreazen article is, however, that North Korea has a "use them or lose them" mode of thinking after studying the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In other words, these weapons would be used at the onset of war...not towards the end. I've dwelt for decades on the terrifying prospects of nuclear war, but biowarfare is a mode of attack that I have not devoted as much thought to. They're rather messy as weapons go. You have little sphere of influence over them once they are deployed and that's why most military powers are reluctant to use them.

North Korea has no such compunctions.

It is believed that North Korea has stockpiles of weaponized anthrax, smallpox, yellow fever, hemorrhagic fever, and plague. Dreazen quotes Andrew Weber, formerly the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs:

“We would expect to see cocktails of fast-acting biological agents designed to stop troops in their tracks and regular infectious agents that would take more time to kill people...There would be a significant military impact, and a significant psychological one. It’s hard to overstate just how frightening these types of weapons are.”

What has my thoughts churning are the delivery methods for these weapons. As the article says, it doesn't take a missile, it just takes a backpack. It has long been thought that North Korea would be able to deploy teams of special ops covertly into the South at the onset of hostilities. Couple that with bioweapons (BW):

"North Korea has 200,000 special forces; even a handful of those special forces armed with BW would be enough to devastate South Korea. What is alarming about human vectors is that they do not need sophisticated training or technology to spread BW amongst the targets, and they are difficult to detect in advance of an attack. It is theoretically possible that North Korean sleeper agents disguised as cleaning and disinfection personnel could disperse BW agents with backpack sprayers. Another possibility is that North Korean agents will introduce BW into water supplies for major metropolitan areas."

Bacteria or viruses could also be dispersed by drones, causing mass fatalities with little expenditure of effort.

As mentioned previously, these aren't exactly precision weapons. Factors such as wind direction and human vectors all play a part in where the agents end up going. A neighboring nation like Japan could end up being hit with biological "shrapnel," if not direct hits from nuclear and conventional ordinance. Where once I speculated on whole regions of the world rendered unlivable by radiation, I'm now trying to envision swaths and stretches of landscape contaminated by contagion. Would there need to be an exclusion zone? Would we block off entire areas of the world?

At least it's rich material for writers. Any number of writers have dwelled upon such scenarios, most of them of the thriller-of-the-week variety, like Nelson DeMille or Richard Preston. Stephen King wrote perhaps the most recognizable book of them all with The Stand. The zombies of 28 Days Later and the ensuing sequel did not crawl out of the grave, but rather are products of biowarfare contagion. Speaking of such, I believe Max Brooks' World War Z begins in a lab in North Korea, no?

I still remain quite skeptical that hostilities will break out with North Korea and as existential threats go, we've got bigger problems. That being said, I'd be just fine leaving the concept of a post-biological warfare world as the purview of fiction writers.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 15, 2018

American collapse

We are in the twilight years of America. Our society is collapsing.

Such statements garner, to my experience, one of two reactions:

"No it's not! Things are fine. You're just so hyperbolic."
"I know, but what can I do about it, so let's not talk about it, k?"

Last month, a smart thinkpiece posted on Medium made the rounds, stirring objections and reflections. My kinda writing. One of my FB friends posted it on her wall and the title immediately snagged my attention: "Why We're Underestimating American Collapse." In the wake of recent news, I think it bears revisiting. 

It was by Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab in London. In the thinkpiece, Haque identifies what he calls three "pathologies" present in society:

-School shootings. Haque writes (and bear in mind this was published on 1/25/2018):
"America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society."
It would be difficult to argue against Haque's contention that this is a unique phenomenon among modern nations, indeed industrialized societies in history. What's more, we now treat the news of such shootings as not really news anymore. That is unless it's particularly egregious, as was the case yesterday (which begs the question, what are the criteria to merit "special report" attention?) Otherwise, school shootings are facts of the human condition in America.

-The opioid epidemic. While that's been a popular boogeyman of the current administration, Haque keys in on just why it's uniquely American. Opioids are widely available in many parts of the world in any quantity one wants without a prescription. We should, therefore, see this kind of use and addiction on a global scale. We don't. What is driving Americans to self-medicate to such a magnitude?

-A predatory society. Haque defines that as: "A predatory society doesn’t just mean oligarchs ripping people off financially. In a truer way, it means people nodding and smiling and going about their everyday business as their neighbours, friends, and colleagues die early deaths in shallow graves."
With income inequality and 1% of the population controlling the vast majority of wealth, it is easy to lose sight of how we, the "commoners" for serious lack of a better phrase, view one another. The kind of social conditions already described would be utterly insufferable in other societies with a communal focus.

Other viewpoints might argue that's not a bad thing. It was the American values of "homesteading" and "rugged individualism" that birthed so many entrepreneurial achievements and products. There may be merit to that, yet over time systems can fall out of balance. Claims of indifference among the citizenry may also overestimate human altruism.

I would argue that Haque could also include consumerism as a pathology. I am regularly amazed and unsettled by the American obsession with consumer products. I've recently been inundated with conversations where others lament the closing of brick and mortar stores. I could not help but wonder where we might be if there was half as much concern for American intellectualism as there apparently is for retail. Then again, perhaps Haque did not include this aspect as America is not entirely unique in history in regard to consumerism. We did, however, take it to a whole new level.

Writers are quick to respond to these tectonic shifts. To see the cruel consequences of industrialization, go straight to Dickens. Writers in the UK are already constructing a whole sub-genre of Brexit literature. Sometimes writers are the first to see it coming or at least the potential of "it" happening, such as with Orwell and Huxley. In fact, I would argue that science fiction is at its best when envisioning the future shape of society. What will a collapsed America inspire?

I'm hesitant to suggest it. "Science fiction" carries any unfortunate definition with many, one that reads "that could never happen." The previously described "pathologies" are very real and happening...as are their consequences. As a punky kid, I reveled in all manner of post-collapse, dystopian fiction. Now, however, with a family to protect, utter dependence on steady employment, and a fully grown up sense of what "frightening" means, such scenarios hit too close to home and feel all-too plausible.

Let me tell you about two deadly logical fallacies I learned in 2017.

"People won't let things get that bad,"
"It can't happen to me/us."

The former presumes both competence and good intentions among those in leadership. The latter is an embarrassing cocktail of hubris and naivete.

What to do? I'm reminded of a few quotes from Terence McKenna:

"The nightmare of every government on earth is a million people assembled in the town square of your capital city, demanding that you pack up to Switzerland. no body can say No to a million people on the streets."

"I think if it's out of control then our side is winning."

If any of this intrigues you, you may also wish to read Haque's "The End of the American Experiment."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Yes, we still have winter in a warming world

It happens whenever we have weather like this.

As I write, there is about a foot and a half of snow outside my window. It fell less than a month after a subzero cold snap hit here in Chicago as well as much of the U.S. These days, such winter weather tends to prompt comments that inevitably are variations on this theme:

"It's so cold! I thought the world was getting warmer. So much for climate change!"

In a word, no. The occurrence of winter weather, such as extreme cold, in no way negates the reality of climate change. 

Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate scientist interviewed at the link, explained it this way:

“Steph Curry is, every year, near the top of the NBA free-throw percentages, he makes on the order of 90 percent of his free throws year in and year out,” said Diffenbaugh. “If you turn on the TV and see him miss a free throw, or see him miss two free throws, that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he’s no longer a good free-throw shooter.”

Heavy snowfalls are also likely. Warm air holds more moisture. If the temperature dips just below freezing, that creates a good deal of snow. We may also see more winter storms like the "bomb cyclone" that recently hit the upper East Coast. Warmer sea temperatures help feed such storms. Warmer air means higher winds.

The linked article also points out an intriguing phenomenon known as the winter "dipole". This is an odd pattern where the western United States is abnormally warm while the east is abnormally cold. No one's sure what's causing it. It may be related to changes in the jet stream caused by ice loss in the Arctic, which is a condition brought on by...you guessed it...climate change. As I said though, it's still uncertain. While finer points and intricacies such as the shape and behavior of the jet stream are still debated and the nature of the "dipole" is far from certain, there is consensus in the scientific community that the climate is changing and we're causing it. That degree of certainty only seems to grow.

I guess what bothers me most about the "So much for climate change" comments during winter weather is how uninformed it all is. It's indicative of scientific illiteracy and even just plain lazy thinking.

Is this willful ignorance one day to be part of post-climate change literature?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Staying dry: why we may need more skyscrapers

Image is not mine and was found here. 

I remember Steve McQueen laying into an architect. Pretty sure it was Paul Newman.

That's it. It was The Towering Inferno. You know, that movie with O.J. Simpson? Anyway, if I recall correctly, McQueen's character, a fire chief, was complaining that he kept giving warnings but architects keep building skyscrapers taller anyway. That was in 1974 and it doesn't sound like anyone listened in 2017. Last year was a record-setter for the number of new skyscrapers completed.

A total of 144 skyscrapers were finished in 2017 and half of them are in China. This is thought to be reflective of the nation's rapid urbanization. Researchers claim that this massive move of the Chinese population to cities represents the largest migration in human history. I wonder, however, if these towering structures might one day be necessary for entirely different reasons.

Bear in mind I'm merely thinking out loud here...

Most of the educated world agrees that climate change is likely to cause a significant rise in sea level due to the melting of polar ice. This means flooding in coastal cities. If populations are hellbent on remaining in these cities, then buildings would have to be taller. The lower sections of these buildings would be waterproofed and not meant for dwelling. Then again it likely wouldn't be stubbornness keeping people in place. It would be inability to move, due to class, race, or intersectionality. Of course those aren't people likely to live in shiny new skyscrapers.

Or much more likely would be what I'll call the Blade Runner rationale for taller buildings. Flooded coastlines mean less room for urban expansion. If you can't spread outward, then the only place to really go is up. Therefore, buildings get even taller, just as depicted in Ridley Scott's film.

No, I'm still stuck on my half-baked notion of giant buildings sticking up out of water. That might be because I'm ruminating on what might be left behind when shorter buildings or the lower levels of older skyscrapers have to be abandoned due to the high waters.

I remember hearing many years ago about a book called Earth After Us. It was written by a geologist who speculated on what might be left behind by humanity after 100,000,000 years. One point that has stuck with me from the review I read is that if sea levels rise fast enough, then coastal cities might be well preserved below the waterline. What would an archaeologist be able to tell about us by that time? What would they find? That might make for an interesting premise for someone's writing.

The cynic in me just imagines finding copious amounts of plastic and Styrofoam floating about like fruit in a Jell-O mold.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Elon Musk just kicked ass

I feel a glimmer of something I haven't had in a while: hope.

Maybe not all that much of it, but it's there.

Today, Elon Musk's private space firm, SpaceX, launched its Falcon Heavy rocket.

Why is that significant? A few reasons:

-Falcon Heavy is the largest rocket since the space shuttle system. SpaceX, not NASA, not the ESA, not the Russians, now has the world's largest rocket. It is the most capable heavy launch vehicle available.

-The two solid rocket boosters on Falcon Heavy separate and return to ground in a controlled vertical landing. In the test launch today, these rocket boosters landed simultaneously in what looks like a special effect, but it's all quite real. Perhaps you have not seen the footage.

-This is another step towards launching heavy payloads to Mars. Because...

-Falcon Heavy launched a car into space. Seriously. In a milestone in transportation history, Elon Musk launched a car into space. His car. Yes, for the test payload, Musk elected to place his Tesla Roadster, from his own electric car company, at the top of the rocket. The car (pictured above as tweeted by Elon Musk) is now headed into interplanetary space on a trajectory for Mars' orbit. At the wheel of the car is a robot. David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is playing on the sound system on repeat until the battery drains.


This really is inspiring to me. In the past year, I've begun to think that nothing can ever overcome systems and stupid. Behemoth, monolithic, governing entities reach critical mass and take on lives of their own. You feel small and powerless by comparison, particularly if possessed of excessive amounts of lenity. These monoliths don't care about what's right. For example, they slash any progress towards clean energy like solar or wind. They belittle and dismiss space projects such as Musk's as frivolous and not worth the cost, while others cry that SpaceX wastes time while poverty and homelessness exist (implying a false choice that space travel and social justice are mutually exclusive endeavors).

Then there's stupid, which serves as the monolith's foundation. These are the worst form of UFO conspiracy theorists who no doubt are nitpicking the SpaceX video of the Tesla, measuring light sources in search of "evidence" that the whole launch was faked and this is all a ruse to distract us from the fact that NASA is covering up their possession of alien magnetohydrodynamic propulsion. The Flat Earthers will say it's "fake news" because there's a spherical Earth in the photo.

None of that will stop human innovation. It may slow it down, but it can't stop it. A man like Elon Musk has the vision to see past those limitations, no matter how formidable they may be, and still see what's possible.

Despite all the failures (Musk himself saw a 50/50 chance the rocket would explode today and of course there have been many other losses in space travel), despite all the obstacles, it can still be done.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, February 5, 2018

Snow sketch

It snowed today.

I took a walk in it from a library to my car. Icy fractal flakes accumulated in my hair like swarms of creatures. The wind blew tufts of snow across the sidewalk in wiggling "S" formations, almost looking like snakes or some such biological entity. The gray concrete disappeared before my very eyes as the onslaught of the skies would not relent.

I love everything about winter. I am especially enamored with how snowfall can turn most any landscape pristine and new. I've spent a good deal of my life in urban, industrial tracts full of dirt and oil. After the snow however, covered in a white blanket, the world seemed cleansed.

It also seems alien. I thought so even as a child. We'd have a "snow day," I'd look outside, and see my formerly familiar environs transformed. I would be in a new world. I still feel this way when I take the dogs outside. My coat, my gloves, my boots, my mask, when you walk dogs, you can't skimp on cold weather gear. I feel like I'm suited up to survive a hostile environment. Like I'm on Mars. A white Mars.

Who am I kidding? Dogs or not, I would still stand out there and watch, especially at night. I love how the white of the snow reflects the ambient light and turns the night sky bright with a muted red. I'll watch snowflakes against a street light, looking like someone shook a snow globe. The wind hits and the white flakes scurry and surge in the gusts like silver tracer fire.

A less palatable feature of winter is driving in it. A fifteen minute drive turned into nearly an hour-long slog. Water freezes in drops to the windshield glass, looking like the divots on the sides of a six-sided die.

The clean blanket of snow won't last forever, either. Snowplows will spread salt and auto traffic will drag dirt, grease, and oil across the once pristine canvas. When I walk the sidewalks downtown tomorrow, the snow will have frozen into a treacherous black lacquer.

Maybe that's just my cynicism. That's me these days. I'm sure I come across as rather boring. If I'm not writing my book, then I'm thinking about it. One of my recent comments in my MFA program was: "I hope one day you'll turn your writing talents to something besides Saint Joseph's College."

Right now I can't. Even the snow reminds me of SJC. The campus looked beautiful green but it was equally picturesque once the snow cast its spell.

And I just miss it all the more.

We often associate snow or winter in general with a sense of desolation. Think of journeys to Antarctica, or Himalayan expeditions in search of the Abominable Snowman. All these are things to be "survived."

I understand it now, that feeling of being cast away, exiled to frozen, lunar wastes. Need to make camp. Maybe I can take a shot at crossing the ridge in the morning. Yes, maybe there are warmer, greener lands beyond the ice, the rock, the dark, and the cold. That might be too much effort for me, though. Once I'm in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, I might just stay in it.

I need a fire. Is there any dry wood to be found? Search as I might, I find none.

I may never be warm again.

I can still see home. Just as I remember it. Bathed in the sunlight of morning. Now alone and punished, unable to parse or cerebrate just what my crime was.

"February made me shiver, with every paper I'd deliver..."

Do I bore you? Oh I'd hate to bore you. That's just where I'm at, though. Been that way for exactly one year. I don't like it any more than you do.

Temperature keeps dropping.

Hounds howl in the wind.

"Out of my head as the winter marches on..."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets