Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Pacific Gyre and the Reality of Human Waste

Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, which has typically been trumpeted along side William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's work as part of the cyberpunk definitive, explores a world of hyperbolic extremes. Corporate-Tribal-Suburbia. Hyperinflation. Impossibly bureaucratic and irrelevant federal governance, taking the Big Brother-feel of 1984 and then placing it on the scale of your local DMV office. Pirate-esque youth skateboard culture and prolific religious cultism, spread virally. Nuclear-powered handguns.

Stephenson's take on cyberpunk is sometimes criticized as going a little too far, taking the serious technological and dystopian implications of traditional cyberpunk and warping them beyond believability. But, as is all too often the case, what cyberpunk presents in tones of absurdist irony (and Stephenson is rightly noted as having a somewhat comedic take on cyberpunk) sometimes turns to harsh reality.

One of the central concepts of Stephenson's work is the ominous Raft, a community strung together out of garbage floating in the Pacific, all tethered to an abandoned aircraft carrier. In the book, the Raft spins on the Pacific's circular currents, growing into a religious hub and periodically ransacking the localities it drifts by in gouts of violence and thievery. Think vikings meet South China Seas pirates meets the Pentecostals for a relatively correct approximation.

As impossible as the Raft may sound, there is a very similar phenomenon occurring today--in fact, it's been occurring for about the past fifty years. But it's not so much a Raft as a very fine soup. And I'll give you one guess as to what it's made out of...

But hey, that's not so bad right? I mean, how big can it be?

Gigantic, as it turns out.

Yes there are not one but two continent-sized collections of waste, rotating endlessly on those very same currents that Stephenson named as the propulsion of his own idea. Rotating and growing.

The oceans have literally become the world's largest landfill.

And while some may scoff at the tragedy this creates for our lesser aquatic neighbors, there are very real and very serious implications for human beings as well.

By the very nature of the food chain (one might think of it as nature's own karma) human beings are destined to ingest the very same plastic debris winding up in our oceans. Because plastic is photo-degradable, though not bio-degradable, the floating waste, exposed to day after day of uninterrupted sunlight, slowly breaks down, eventually becoming so incredibly small as to be indistinguishable from the seas' plankton--the plains grass of the ocean, and most basic staple of diet for all the smallest organisms in the sea.

In cases of mistaken identity, which is not too difficult given that a water sample from the soup can have a six times greater concentration of plastic than plankton, the plastic is consumed instead of plankton, and there it remains, sitting in the creature's digestive system and poisoning it until it is excreted or the animal dies.

For a great in-depth explanation of just how bad the soup has become, check out this video courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

The plastic ocean is not a myth; it is the terrible byproduct of human ingenuity and wastefulness. People may consider the size and scope of this ecological disaster beyond belief, but human polluting is no new phenomenon. It should not seem so strange now that seafood has become increasingly dangerous and unhealthy to eat to the point that even the Food and Drug Administration may take action. These poisons are not skipping into the food chain by some great mystery... the chemicals appear in our food because we place them in environment and in the animals we eat.

The mistake is that people have come to assume that human-fostered disaster will naturally come in swift, dramatic incidents. Names like, the Exxon-Valdez are what we've naturally assumed to equate with human folly in the environment. This pervasive attitude is what makes the slow creep of phenomena like Global Warming so easy to misconstrue or discount.

Stephenson's Raft, full of vagabonds and robbers, raping and pillaging their way around the Pacific Rim seems like an appropriate metaphor for the insidious growth of our plastic soup. After all, it is our inability to deal responsibly with this element of our society that has lead to the situation we are in today.

Who knows, perhaps one day we can gather it all together and make a zoo for the remaining polar bears once the poles have disappeared. Or is that me being a cyberpunk absurdist?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Cutting Cables: Info Warfare in the 21st Century

By now, it's almost common knowledge that there have been a rash of "incidents" (Thanks, BoingBoing) surrounding the internet infrastructure of the Middle East. Something has managed to disable five separate cables connecting the region to the rest of the world.

The economic implications are already disastrous. Stalled or massively slowed internet has consequences far beyond just the commerce of the Middle East. Any government using the web to communicate is hamstrung; sensitive data being stored in overseas servers is rendered inaccessible. Things. Stop. Working.

Imagine suddenly being unconnected, only it's not just you, but your neighbors, your boss, your company, every company, newspaper, tv channel, and any utilities that have migrated onto the web. I suppose it's a salute to the incredible power and connectivity of the internet that imagining being "disconnected" in this day and age is hard to even fathom. It's almost surprising things don't sound any more dire from over there (but how does one hear them? There's probably a Zen proverb hidden in this somewhere...)

The actual system of cables is so complicated that accurate speculation on the severity of the outage is tricky. The cables connect a great number of countries and the pipelines run to the north-east up into the Mediterranean and Europe and south-west down and around India and into Asia. For a more comprehensive look, The Guardian provides this handy diagram.

However, there are certain statistics which seem frankly indicative of an intended target. At the moment, Iran reads zero response--essentially, nothing coming, nothing going. I will not vouch for the accuracy of the test at the given moment, especially with the haywire atmosphere of the region, but it is an interesting insight.

And then, as one astute BoingBoing reader pointed out, this all comes within days of the Iran Oil Bourse opening. Wow, talk about coincidences, right? With the IOB in place, the removal of the dollar from Iranian oil transactions is essentially complete. This would be a severe blow against the U.S. With the dollar already in a bit of a death-spiral as of late, dollar-based oil transactions have been a pillar of keeping the currency relevant on the open market. Many have already seen Iran's announcement of this move and the U.S.'s subsequent upping of war rhetoric as history repeating itself.

If the conclusion is not already obvious, all of the exaggerated run-ins in the Strait of Hormuz should lead one to an obvious conclusion: the U.S. and possibly its special forces had some hand in this.

The reason I'm taking the time to even bring it up is because I think it offers something unusual to the traditional info-warfare paradigm: normally, cyberwarfare is considered to be the realm of supercomputers, upper-echelon hackers, and powerful coding schemes and virii for infiltrating the enemy's networks and subverting them internally. This sexy-sounding world of high-calculation intrigue has not been without its significant moments as of late, real or imagined.

As it turns out, China and the U.S. have a whole string of incidents between them, moments which often get a brief mention in the press before being forgotten either because of exceeding secrecy surrounding the actual event or the general population's disinterest in the technical nature of the topic. After all, it is so much easier to envision a Cold War played out with thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other, rather than thousands of supercomputers. Mutually Assured Destruction carries a much more obvious meaning than stolen passwords, corrupted kernels, and so on.

But if the cable cutting happening in the Middle East is in fact an act of sabotage, there is a whole new kind of cyberwarfare being played out. And it does not involve geeky Caltech grads compiling code in NSA superbunkers. It's a warfare of the much more traditional kind, probably involving some well-placed naval intimidation, a few submarines, and special forces operatives. Cutting cables may not have the elegance of a well-crafted icebreaker, but it gets the job done, and does so in a way that may prove harder to trace back to the culprit.

It may be that the cyberwarrior of the future will not use superb intellect and precise coding to conduct operations--not when there's a much more obvious and available "off-switch."

Call me crazy but this is one tomorrow that's beginning to sound a lot like yesterday.

Update: Wired has a piece up on the same subject. I tried to take it seriously but then he goes and mentions Al-Qaeda in the first paragraph... Really? The guys who carry their munitions across the mountains on donkeys? Are you kidding me? Are we now waterboarding them to the point they survive crush depths with scuba gear stitched out of Yak-skin? I guess that simulated drowning really is good for something after all.