Climate Crisis: Solar-Powered Oasis to Feed Desert Cities

https://i2.wp.com/f.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2014/08/3034601-slide-s-6-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgDesertification is one of the biggest threats associated with Climate Change. In places like North Africa and the Middle East, where countries already import up to 90% of their food, the spread of the desert due to increasing temperatures and diminished rainfall is made worse by the fact that cities in the region continue to grow. It’s a situation that is getting more expensive and energy-intensive at a time when things need to be getting more cost-effective and sustainable.

Luckily, a team of architects hopes to create a new agricultural system that could grow and deliver food in the desert. It’s called OAXIS, a conceptual design for a modular set of prefab greenhouses, covered in solar panels, which would extend from a city into the desert. The design of the buildings aims to keep out intense summer heat while the solar panels would power the rest of the building’s infrastructure and send extra energy back into the city.

https://i0.wp.com/a.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2014/08/3034601-slide-s-3-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgConceived by Forward Thinking Architecture, a Barcelona-based firm, the concept seeks to combine flexibility with a minimal carbon footprint. Towards this end, they chose to forgo usual transportation and create a unique conveyor system that would deliver produce without the use of any fossil fuels. The conveyor belt would be underground so it could keep running in a straight line even if buildings were in the way.

Inside the prefab greenhouses, farmers would grow crops like tomatoes, lettuce, and strawberries using a hydroponic system that can reduce fertilizers and pesticides and save 80% of the water used in traditional agriculture, in part by recycling and reusing it. As for where the water comes from, the designers suggest that groundwater could supply the farm’s needs, but many Middle Eastern countries already rely on desalination.

https://i2.wp.com/a.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/inline-large/inline/2014/08/3034601-inline-i-1-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgIdeally, desert populations would be small enough that the region’s sparse rainfall could support local crops. But that’s not the reality. In addition, a small part of the recycled water would also be used to create an outdoor garden for education. As architect Javier Ponce, principal and founder of Forward Thinking Architecture, explained:

We thought it cannot only be a farming-only building, it must have a pedagogical approach and have to be attractive in order to become a biodiversity hub which can be visited by the local people and visitors… The cities should be smaller, denser, and compact, but this is not the current situation for some of the Arabian peninsula cities since they have exponentially grown and attract more people and workers. There has been a rapid urbanization in the area since the middle of the 20th century.

The project, he hopes, could help supply food as climate change makes the situation even more challenging. Already, countries in the worst-affected regions are desperately looking for solutions. For example, Qatar has already invested hundreds of millions in a plan to grow as much local food as possible by 2030. Other countries in the region, like Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, and the desert-locked Saudi Arabia are expected to follow.

https://i0.wp.com/e.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2014/08/3034601-slide-s-7-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgThese regions in particular have felt the pressure brought on by the escalating price of importing food. This pressure is exacerbated due to the disappearance of peak oil, which accounted for the vast majority of this region’s wealth. However, the project has farther-reaching implications, as Climate Change threatens to turn much of the world’s arable land into dry, drought-ridden plains.

At the same time, it takes into account the need to reduce reliance on water and fossil-fuels. As our population continues to skyrocket, a smarter and more sustainable use of available resources are always needed. As Ponce explained:

The OAXIS project is an alternative or complementary way to respond to the food insecurity and water scarcity of the region in a self-sufficient way. It aims to help reduce the food imports to feed part of the people in a nearby future based on renewable energies.

And be sure to check out this OAXIS promotional video, courtesy of Forward Thinking Architecture:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, forwardthinkingarchitecture

The Glucose Economy

hacking-bacteria-fuel-ecoli-670In the long search to find alternatives to fossil fuels and industrial processes that produce tons of waste, several ideas have been forward. These include alternative energy – ranging from solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal – additive manufacturing, and cleaner burning fuels. All of these ideas have begun to bear some serious fruit in recent years thanks to ongoing research and development. But looking to the long term, it is clear that a complete overhaul of our industrial economy is needed.

That’s where more ambitious ideas come to the fore, ideas like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and what’s known as the “Glucose Economy”. Coined by Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American physicist who also had the honor of serving as the 12th Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama, this concept calls for the development of an economic model that would replace oil with high-glucose alternative fuels.

110302_steven_chu_ap_328Chu conceived of the idea while working as a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In short, the plan calls for fast-growing crops to be planted in the tropics – where sunlight is abundant – converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer). The resulting glucose and cellulose would then be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics.

As expected, this would render the current system of converting oil into gasoline and plastics – a process which produces immense amounts of carbon dioxide through processing and burning – obsolete. By comparison, glucose fuels would burn clean and produce very little in the way of chemical by-products, and bioplastics would be far more resilient and eco-friendly than regular plastics, and not just because they won’t cause a terrible disposal and waste problem (see Garbage Island).

David-Benjamin-and-the-future-of-architecture-01Another benefit of the this new model is the economic development it will bring to the tropical regions of the world. As far as production is concerned, those regions that stand to benefit the most are Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia. These regions are already seeing significant economic growth, and a shift like this would ensure their continued growth and development (not to mention improved quality of life) for many generations  to come.

But above and beyond all that is the revolutionary potential that exists for design and manufacturing, with architects relying on specially-designed software to create multi-material objects fashioned in part from biomass. This unique combination of biological processes, computer-assisted design (CAD), and human intelligence is looking to trigger a revolution in manufacturing and construction, with everyday materials to buildings created from eco-friendly, structurally sound, biomaterials.

bio-buildingOne such architect is David Benjamin, a computational architect and principal of the New York-based practice The Living. Together with his collaborators, Benjamin is conducting experiments with plant cells, the latest of which is the production of xylem cells – long hollow tubes plants use to transport water. These are computer modeled and grown in a Cambridge University lab and studied to create materials that combine the desired properties of different types of bacteria.

In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed. And beyond The Living Thing, there are also initiatives like the Living Foundries Program, a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production.

1394231762-re-making-manufacturing-united-statesNot only would this shave decades off the development process, but also hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s more, Benjamin claims it could take only 8 to 10 years to see this type of biotechnology enter commercial production. Naturally, there are those who oppose the development of a “glucose economy” as advocated by Chu. Beyond the proponents of fossil fuel energy, there are also those advocate nationally self-sufficient resources bases, rather than foreign dependence.

To these critics, the aim of a future economy should be energy independence. In their view, the glucose economy is flawed in that it merely shifts energy dependence of nations like the US from the Middle East and OPEC to the tropics, which could create a whole new slew of geopolitical problems. However, one cannot deny that as alternatives go, Chu’s proposal is far preferable to the current post-peak oil model of frakking, tar sands, natural gas, and coal.

bio-building1And it also offers some new and exciting possibilities for the future, where building processes like additive manufacturing (which is already making inroads into the construction industry with anti-gravity 3D printing, and the KamerMaker House) would be supplemented by using “biohacked” bacteria to grow structures. These structures would in turn be composed of resilient materials such as cellulose and organic minerals, or possibly carbon nanotubes that are assembled by organic processes.

And the amount of money, waste, energy and lives saved would be immense, as construction is currently one of the most dangerous and inefficient industries on the planet. In terms of on the job accidents, it causes some 10,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries a year in the US alone. And in terms of resource allocation and money, construction is labor intensive, produces tons of waste, and is almost always over budget.

hacking-bacteria-bio-light-670Compared to all that, a system the utilizes environmentally-friendly molecules and materials, enhances growing operations, fostered greater development and economic cooperation, and leads to a safer, cheaper, less wasteful construction industry seems immensely preferable. And it does offer a solution of what to do about two major industries that are ailing and in desperate need of modernization.

Boy, it feels like a long time since i’ve done a conceptual post, and the topics do appear to be getting more and more serious. Can anyone recall when I used to do posts about Cool Ships and Cool Guns? Yeah, me too, vaguely. Somehow, stuff like that seems like a far cry from the Internet of Things, Interstellar Travel, O’Neill Cylinders, Space Elevators, and timelines of the future. I guess this little blog of mine has been growing up in recent years, huh?

Stay tuned for more conceptual posts, hopefully something a little lighter and fluffier next time 😉

Sources: inhabitat.com, aspenideas.org, tampabay.com

Cyberwars: U.S. Lawmakers Credit NSA for Uncovering Al-Qaeda Threat

bahrain-embassy-04818864In a statement made this past Sunday, the US State Department indicated that it will be extending its embassy and consulate closures until the end of the week. Offices were reopened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria just yesterday, but another 19 will remain closed until Aug. 10 – including locations in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

These closures were made in response to an unspecified Al-Qaeda threat that indicated that an attack might be coming sometime in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the State Department, the decision to keep the embassies and consulates closed was “not an indication of a new threat,” but simply out of concern for the lives and safety of staff.

embassy-closure-mapAnd according to another State Department source, the credit for uncovering this supposed threat goes to the NSA and the PRISM program – i.e. the extensive new data mining operation that has garnered a great deal of controversy of late. Specifically, it was the agency’s ability to monitor communications on cellphones and emails that was is credited with making the difference.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, he top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed in an interview that “There is an awful lot of chatter out there”. This “chatter” apparently took the form of communications among terrorism suspects about the planning of a possible attack, which he claimed was “very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”

US embassy in Tel AvivNo indication was given as to the nature of the threat or whether or not an actual attack might take place. But Chambliss was very quick to draw the connection between the NSA’s ability to gather information and the warnings his department received.

[Those programs] allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter. If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys. This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.

This information-gathering program was one of many aspects of the NSA’s broad surveillance identified by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden in his testimony to major media outlets. So it comes as no surprise that the State Department would be coming to its defense at a time like this.

US-embassy-closures_010And Chambliss and the State Department are hardly the only ones singing the NSA’s praises right now. This past Sunday, several prominent Republicans and Democrats expressed their support for the NSA surveillance program. One such individual was Dutch Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who told ABC’s This Week:

The good news is that we picked up intelligence. And that’s what we do. That’s what NSA does. We’ve received information that high-level people from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack.

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, another Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, characterized the security threat as being based on specific intelligence rather than generalized anti-U.S. threats. While on CNN’s State of the Union program, he said:

This is not the usual type of chatter. It had to be corroborated or come from very reliable sources to take this kind of action.

Mideast Bahrain US Embassy ClosingsNaturally, there are those critics who would claim that the unspecified nature of the threat and the lack of oversight where PRISM is involved means that there is no way to tell if the “chatter” story is in fact real. Citing such examples as the “Orange Alert” controversy of 2004 – when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was pressured to raise the alert status leading up to the election – such critics would remind people that the US government has a history of issuing alerts based on factors other than hard data.

At the same time, it is important to note that the threat information also came ahead of the Eid celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will be occurring later this week and just over a month before the anniversary of Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on a US ambassador and the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. In this sense, the alert may have been motivated by legitimate concern, even if hard data was lacking,

us_embassy_closings_yemenAnd the US is hardly the only nation responding to the warning seriously. The threat also has prompted some European countries to close their embassies in Yemen, where one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliates is based. Interpol, the France-based international police agency, also issued a global security alert advising member states to increase vigilance against attacks after a series of prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.

The advisory prompted Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department to release its own warning this past Saturday for travelers and diplomats in the Middle East and North Africa region. In addition, the Canadian high commission office in Bangladesh was closed on Sunday, since Pakistan was one of several nations outside of the Middle East and North Africa to be named in the advisory.

A few things are certain at this point though: neither the threat of terrorism nor all that’s done in response to it are even close to being resolved. In addition, the controversy surrounding the response and whether or not it constitutes an overreaction or a calculated curtailment of people’s civil rights and liberties, is not over either. Not by a long shot.

Sources: cbc.ca, (2), washingtonpost.com, theguardian.com

 

Climate Crisis: India Flood Death Toll Passes 1,000

india-floodIn recent days, my attention has been pretty firmly fixed on Alberta and the Canadian Priaries, due to the flooding that’s been taking place and forced the evacuation of 175,000 people – some of whom I’m related to. However, this morning I learned that other regions of the world, one’s which are far more accustomed to natural disasters, are also being effected, and more severely so.

This story comes from India, where once again, unpredictable weather patterns are causing a mass displacement of human beings. Every year, people living on the subcontinent are forced to deal with torrential rains – monsoons – which lead to overflowing river banks. However, in recent years, the unpredictable nature of these patterns have become a severe source of death, displacement and property damage.

india-flood4The province of Uttarakhand is home to some of India’s holiest shrines, and is also one of many parts of India where the Ganges river traverses. During the Monsoon’s that come in late summer, flooding is common and even depended on for the sake of farming. Every year, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus make the pilgrimage to Uttarakhand during the summer months hoping to get in before the rains begin.

However, this year the monsoon rains arrived early, catching hundreds of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and local residents of guard. Tens of thousands of people remained stranded in high mountain passes and temple towns after the torrential rains washed away homes and roads and triggered landslides that cut off communication links with large parts of the state nearly a week ago.

india-flood1About 10,000 army and paramilitary troops, members of the disaster management agency and volunteers have taken part in six days of rescue and relief efforts. However, helicopter rescue efforts – which have been an essential part of the rescue effort so far – were suspended when dense fog descended on the Himalayan region this Sunday. Luckily, the army began resorting to building makeshift bridges and people were being rescued by road.

All told, some 80,000 people by road and air, according to a state government spokesman. The exact number of people who died in the heavy downpours and flooding of the Ganges River and its tributaries won’t be known until rescue efforts end. However, the state’s chief minister told reporters late on Saturday that the death toll had reached one-thousand.

india-flood2The rains in Uttarakhand were said to have been the heaviest in nearly 80 years and more rain is expected in the worst-hit districts of Chamoli and Uttarkashi over the next few days. According to meteorologists, an unusual clash of weather systems from opposite directions is to blame, as the monsoon advancing towards the west of South Asia combined with westerly winds for an unusually long time and with an extraordinary intensity, resulting in days of torrential rains.

And while India is no stranger to floods – over 3 million people were displaced when the Kosi river in Bihar burst its banks in 2008 – this year’s came as a shock due to their sudden appearance and intensity. Not only were the rains were six times more forceful than usual, they came on the heels of one of the weakest monsoon’s in 40 years, which left crops stricken by drought. Still, climate change experts are anything but surprises.

india-flood3In its fourth assessment report in 2007, the Inter- Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that more extreme droughts, floods, and storms, would become commonplace in the future, and that these intense weather conditions would follow in close succession to each other, often in the same areas. In addition to this latest flood, several other volatile weather patterns predicted by the IPCC are beginning to show in India.

In the northwest alone, the water table is falling by about 1.6 inches per year, according to the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission. At least half of India’s precipitation comes from the annual monsoon rains, and as they become increasingly diminished and unpredictable, the country faces an imminent threat of extreme water shortages.

Countries_by_population_density.svgChanging rainfall patterns aren’t the only climate- change effect threatening India’s water supply: Himalayan glaciers — the source for the many Indian rivers such as the Ganges — are melting at a rapid rate as a result of warmer temperatures. And the Doni river, whose water many consider no longer fit for human consumption, is gaining notoriety for its unpredictable nature — flash floods one day, barely a trickle the next.

This is just another indication of the effects Climate Change is having around the world. In developing regions of the world, especially those that are closer to the equator, rising temperatures mean weather systems that vacillate between drought and heavy rains, which has a devastating effect on agriculture. The combination of dry weather and powerful storms causes topsoil, the lifeblood of farming, to grow dry and then wash away.

India-Pakistan_Borderlands_at_NightWhat’s more, the majority of humanity lives in this region, which encompasses Central America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa,  the Middle East, South Asia and China. And in areas like the Indo-Gangetic Plain –  the densely-populated river valley that stretches from Pakistan to northern India – the combination of drought and floods will lead to hundreds of millions of deaths and refugees.

Factor in the number of deaths and displacements caused by rising tides and the effect on coastal regions, and you see why Climate Change experts are so very concerned about the problem. Not only is the environment and our way of life at stake here, our very existence is as well. The best we can hope for right now is that this season of crisis abates so we can get to the crucial work of getting our act together and developing cleaner ways of living.

And will somebody please start deploying those artificial trees and other carbon capture operations!

Sources: cbc.ca, bbc.co.uk, time.com

Video Game Review: The Modern Warfare Series

Morning all, or afternoon or evening as the case may be. Lousy time zones! Today, I thought I’d get back to my promise of reviewing video games by tackling a series I’ve been wanting to get into for some time. Like most geeks, and just about all guys, I am a fan of first person shooters. Not the violence for violence’s sake type that emerged en masse after the release of Doom, mind you, but the kind’s that used the platform creatively and intelligently.

Which is one thing I always liked about Call of Duty and similar franchises. During the early millennium, it was one of many WWII-era FPS games that sought to reenact history’s greatest war by giving players a first-person perspective on the whole thing. Over time, the depictions became more and more realistic, and embraced more theaters and battles that aren’t usually addressed in popular culture.

And after three incarnations of WWII, the makers naturally decided it was time to make a game that dealt with combat in the modern era, that took advantage of the all the recent developments in firearms, aerial drones, night vision, thermal vision, and other assorted high-tech devices. In short, they thought it would be cool to have players running around with the latest toys and shooting things up in an up-to-date simulation.

However, in this case, the designers also were required to come up with a modern storyline that would reflect the attitudes of today’s military planners and the situation we know find ourselves in. Unlike the other games, whatever story they came up with would be fictitious and speculative for the first time ever. And, in my humble opinion, this is where they were just the slightest bit weak. Sure, Modern Warfare 1, 2 and 3 do have some rather kick-ass gameplay and an intense storyline to them, but they aren’t exactly realistic.

To demonstrate why, let me get to the first game in the series…

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare:
Released in 2007, Modern Warfare was one of the critically acclaimed and well received games of all time. Whereas the Campaign Mode of the game (i.e. single player) was lauded for its intensity and immersive quality, it was the Multiplayer that really wowed critics and gamers alike. Unlike previous COD games, the additional features, such as the ability to call in air strikes and helicopters, as well as unlocking new weapons and types of camouflage, was entirely new.

In fact, GamePro magazine even compared the multiplayer aspect favorably to Halo 3, a franchise that was yet to be rivaled by anyone! And personally, I think gamers enjoyed the ability to play a game that features weapons and tactics they know to be current and real, and not lasers, BFG’s or antiquated weapons. But of course, there was far more to this game than just the gameplay, which I shall get into now…

Plot Synopsis:
The story is a familiar one, one which has been told many times over since the end of the Cold War. And for the sake of the game, it comes in two separate strands which invariably come together towards the end. In the first, Russia has fallen into a state of civil war with the rise of an ultra-nationalists front who are led by a former communists named Imran Zakhaev. He who wants to return Russia to its Soviet past,

In the second strand, a militant Salafist regime led by a man named Khaled Al-Asad has seized power in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation and is apparently being backed by the ultra-nationalist Russians who is sending them nukes. This is apparently a move on behalf of Imran Zakhaev to divert attention from his civil war, and its works!

Yes, this too is a familiar tale, the kind of thing that Israeli and US policymakers have nightmares about. But like I said, the identity of this nation is never specified. One minute things are taking place near Mecca, Saudi Arabia; the next, in Basra, Iraq. Yeah, not doing much to dispel the notion that all Arab nations are the same, dude!

And so the two threads unfold, with you playing as both the British SAS (Special Air Services), who are busy trying to stop the exchange of nukes. After a failed attempt to stop the shipment of one, you are sent to Russia to team up with with Loyalist forces and rescue a contact named Nikolai, a recurring figure in the MW series.

Things then switch over to the US perspective, where you are a Marine Lieutenant Vasquez who is part of the US invasion of the unnamed Middle Eastern nation. In the initial invasion, your Marine unit searches for Al-Asad in the capitol’s tv station, but is too late to retrieve him. As operations progress in the capitol, the warning comes in that Al-Asad has a nuke and is preparing to set it off. All units begin to evacuate, but your unit doesn’t make it out before the blast!

Back in Russia, the SAS manage to finally track down Al-Asad who appears to be hiding out in a safehouse in Azerbaijan. After working him over, he recieves a call from Zakhaev, and the SAS team leader, Captain Price, shoots Asad and explains who Zakhaev is. Apparently, he performed a “wetwork” mission against Zakhaev back in the early 90’s, shortly after the fall of Communism when Zakhaev was just another revisionist trying to get his hands on nuclear material in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine (outside of Chernobyl). In the course of the mission, Price managed to take down Zakhaev, but instead of delivering the fatal bullet, merely cost him an arm.

Now, years later, it is time to finish the job. With Al-Asad dead, Zakhaev and his forces have managed to seize a major Russian missile silo and are threatening to launch the nukes. When his son, whom the SAS try to seize in order to gain some leverage over him, commits suicide to avoid capture, he goes over the edge and orders the launch. At this stage in the game, you are now part of a joint operation between the US Marines and the SAS and your job is to storm the silo and input the countermand codes before the nukes reach the Eastern Seaboard.

Once that is done, you and your team begin to beat a hasty retreat and are pursued by Zakhaev’s men. The mission then ends with a tense final showdown where you are required to take out Zakhaev with a handgun while he and his men have you cornered and try to finish you off. The good ol’ Russian Loyalists then arrive on scene to medevac you and your friends to safety.

Good Points and Bad:
Like I said already, the gaming experience of this installment in the COD series is pretty badass. Picking up where COD: World at War left off, you have the ability to call in air strikes by “painting” targets with a designator, something that wasn’t available in the first three installments. Second, the use of modern weapons, from M4’s, SAW’s, M203s, RPG’s, AK’s, Flashbangs, Claymores, Suppressors, SPAS-12’s – the list goes on! – is quite cool. Not to mention the scene where you are able to take control of an AC-130 gunship, watching a theater of engagement from above through thermal scopes and be able to bombard targets with either a minigun, a bofors cannon, or a 105mm howitzer.

This idea, incorporating the latest in weapon’s technology, is something which every MW installment adds to in it’s own way, combining the speculative with the current and cutting edge. In this installment, they kind of kept it to the current and tried and true, but it was still fun. As a geek and guy, I was familiar with many of these pieces of kit already, thanks to years of reading up on them and watching TV programs about war. Being able to use them in a gaming environment was pretty sweet!

As for the weak stuff, well I’ve mentioned that already… For one, the story is a kind of predictable and tired one, one which the makers clearly knew the audience would buy into. For almost two decades now, fiction writers and amateur analysts have been saying that it’s only a matter of time before some Middle Eastern regime gets its hand on a thermonuclear device and tries to use it on Israel or US forces. And in every version of this scenario, it’s always Russia that gives it to them, mainly because it’s been theorized that the Russians are not in control of their stockpile of nukes or would be willing to sell them for cheap.

I’m bothered by the reiteration of this story for the simple reason that it’s both stupid and terribly cliched. It’s a well known fact that after the fall of the former USSR, Russia took great pains to make sure it got all its nukes back from its former allies and that those nukes are all accounted for and have been under lock and key for the past twenty years. What’s more, Russia is not run by total freaking morons. They know that if they tried to sell any nukes to a Middle Eastern country, or any regime for that matter, that they would be inviting sanctions, embargoes and even open war on themselves. In the wake of the Cold War economic collapse Russia went through and the rise of a privatized, investor-based economy, this is not something they can afford.

Also, with every spy agency in the world – the CIA, MI6, the Massad, and the KGB – and countless bodies like the UN, NATO,  and the Atomic Energy Commission watching them, no Russian general who might have access to the nuclear stockpile would ever be dumb enough to try and negotiate a private sale. No matter how much money was in it for them, they would know that to steal a Russian-made nuke would put them in the cross hairs of every “wetboy” (i.e. assassin-spy) on the planet! There would literally be no place in the world where they would be safe. What’s more, the idea that any Middle Eastern regime would become an instant threat if it got a nuke is also ridiculous.

Since 1992, Israel and the US have maintained the position that if Iran, Syria or any other Middle Eastern nation that has not signed a peace treaty with Israel got a nuke, they would attempt to use it. Just how stupid do they think Arab nations are? Israel maintains a stockpile of over 200 nukes and the US has one that numbers in the thousands. Once said Arab regime used this one nuke and took out a single city, they would be nuked several hundred times over, their country completely obliterated in the process. Does anyone really believe that any nation would be willing to watch all of its citizens die just for the sake of some measured revenge? I certainly hope not! The only reason why this notion is taken seriously at all is the fact that decades of inaccurate portrayals, propaganda and bigotry have led many people to believe that Arabs and Muslims are viscous, crazy, hateful people who’ll stop at nothing to kill Christians, Americans and Jews.

And yet, the fiction of this idea persists, mainly because it’s the only way writer’s like Tom Clancy can keep outputting spy novels in the post-Cold War era. His book Op Center was based on this very idea, of a Russian general who sells a nuke to some Middle Eastern terrorist for a small fortune. The plot of The Peacemaker was also built around this very same concept, and in the movie Broken Arrow it is openly said that anyone wanting nukes could just got to Russia, where they would “give you a half dozen for the price of a BMW”. Bullshit, man! If it’s such a plausible scenario, then why hasn’t it happened already? For the same reason that WWIII has not happened, and that is, once again, that no one is willing to risk total annihilation for the sake of politics or ideology.

But I can understand why they took this approach. Again, in the post-Cold War era, there aren’t really a lot of stories that provide the same interest and intensity as the potential for nuclear war. But it does demonstrate just how tired and unrealistic this plot device has become. And the only reason I labor the point is because it only gets more like this the longer the franchise goes. It capitalizes on the fact that the American public really doesn’t know that much about the world or its people, and are willing to believe various doomsday scenerarios because they’ve been so inundated with them by movies and fiction for so many years.

But how else are you going to create a fun and accessible WWIII scenario?  An in the end, it doesn’t take away from the awesome gaming experience that Modern Warfare truly is. Stay tuned, up next, the sequel!

What does Osama’s death mean (part II)?

What is to be done? Well for starters, the US and its coalition allies should withdraw from Afghanistan. If history has taught us anything, its that occupations are a losing battle, especially in places like Afghanistan. That country has made a name for itself grinding up invaders and spitting them back out. It’s mountainous terrain, hardened people and impenetrable network of tribal loyalties have always proven to be the undoing of invaders, no matter who they were or what kind of technological superiority they possessed. But above and beyond all that, it is startling how much Afghanistan is beginning to look like Iraq, which in turn showed the same signs of failure early on that haunt all occupations and foretell their failure. To break it down succinctly, there are five basic indicators that indicate that an occupation has failed.

1. Insurgency: If the population turns against you and begins mounting an armed resistance, you know you’ve lost. Little to nothing can be done at this point because tougher measures will only aid in their recruitment, they have the home field advantage, and can recruit endlessly from their own population. The occupier, no matter how benign their original intentions, can’t allow violence to go unchecked, and so they inevitably play into the hands of their enemy. Already Afghanistan has mounted its own insurgency in the form of a resurgent Taliban that is actively recruiting from the country’s Pashtun majority. Recruits spill over the border on a regular basis from Pakistan, where millions of Pashtuns also live, and there is little the US and Coalition can do about it because the Khyber Pass (the mountainous region that spans the border) is too vast and rugged to keep sealed.

Much like in Iraq, what we’re seeing is a major resistance that is actively recruiting from a major ethnic group that is fighting to regain the power it once enjoyed. In some ways, it worse than with the Sunnis of Iraq, because the Pashtuns constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan with 40 percent of the population, the remaining 60 being made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Arabs, and many other groups. In short, they constitute a larger chunk of the population, and their counterparts are disparate and divided.

2. Weak/Crooked Allies: Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who served in the post-Soviet Afghani government, has a long history of allying himself with US interests. During the Russian occupation, he was a secret contact for the CIA and helped run guns and money to the mujahedin from neighboring Pakistan. During the Taliban’s rise to power, he became a vocal opponent, and after 9/11 he became a major ally of the US . It is also rumored that he was a consultant for Unocal, a major oil firm with strong ties to the Bush family. It’s little wonder then why he was installed as president once Coalition forces had ousted the Taliban. Unfortunately, since the invasion, his government has been notorious for its corruption and impotence. In the former category, his election win in 2009 was tainted by scandal and blatant instances of fraud. His family have also thrived under his rule and committed numerous criminal acts, the most notorious of which were by his half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, a prominent drug trafficker and CIA contractor.

In the latter category, Karzai’s political impotence is legendary. In fact, he is often playfully referred to as the “mayor of Kabul” because his power does not extend beyond the capitol. Warlords who owe no allegiance to him or coalition authorities, who were bought off in order to fight the Taliban, are largely responsible for controlling the other regions of the country. Though corrupt and weak, Karzai’s remains an important political ally to the US because of his background and ethnic-ties. He is able to put a Pashtun face on a government dominated by non-Pashtun groups, and is a long-standing enemy of the Taliban which it is still doing battle with. Beyond that, however, he is powerless and fast becoming a liability.

3. Civil War: When the people turn on each other as a result of the occupation, you know you’re not doing a very good job. Iraq is a prime example of this, with the Sunni minority doing battle with the Shia majority and the US and its allies playing the role of arbiter. No one, especially the Iraqi people, can forget the carnage of that episode. But worrying still is how Afghanistan is going in the exact same direction. While the country is no stranger to civil war, it is clear that it has been inching in that direction for years now and another civil war seems inevitable. And when that happens, the general chaos tends to be blamed on the occupation force. Not only is their presence seen as the catalyzing force, which it usually is, but their inability to contain the situation also makes them accountable.

4. Unclear Enemy: While the US and its allies have always claimed that their fight is with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghani people, the reality is quite different. The line between Taliban and Pashtuni’s became blurred sometime ago, with US and Coalition forces now waging war on the dominant ethnic group. This is not a choice position for an occupier to be in. When you can’t tell the difference between your enemy and the general population, you know you’re in trouble. When the line that separates them becomes blurred, and not just to you, you know your mission is doomed to failure. In any failed occupation, this is precisely what happened. What began as a controlled, limited engagement, spilled over and became messy, brutal and confusing. This is what happened to the United States in Vietnam and to the Russians in Afghanistan, not to mention every colonial ruler everywhere. And, inevitably, it backfired… horribly!

5. Criticism at Home and Abroad: When your own people begin to criticize you, not to mention your allies, you know you’ve overstayed your welcome. In any democracy, one cannot prosecute a war without popular support. Dictatorship’s fare slightly better with domestic opposition, but sooner or later, any war effort can be broken because of popular resistance. For years now, public opposition to the presence of US and Coalition troops has been on the rise. Recent survey’s conducted by US news services even went as far as to claim that Afghanistan was becoming “Obama’s Vietnam”. A comparison to Iraq would be more apt, but the existing metaphor has more power.

In addition, Karzai himself has become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of Coalition forces “methods”. In this respect, he is not unlike Nouri al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister of Iraq, who also skirted the fine line between supporting and condemning his US-allies. In time, Maliki even began to go as far as to say that Iraq would demand a total withdrawal of US forces if things continued on their current track. Karzai may not be in that kind of position, he knows he cannot survive without US support for the time being, but he also cannot sit idly by while Afghani civilians are killed and not speak up. In time, as civilians casualties mount, he may very well be forced to choose sides, no longer able to skirt the line between his allies and his people.

6. Widening Conflict: When your conflict begins to spill into neighboring countries, you’ve got a full blown quagmire! Remember the US bombing of Cambodia during the 70’s, which took part because US forces believed the Viet Cong were running guns through that country? Well, the outcome – hundreds of thousands of people killed, no change in the course of the war, and the rise of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – was hardly a success, regardless of what Nixon would say. Much the same is true of Iraq, where Iran began exercising a sizable influence over Shia politics in the south and had to be called in to mediate. Turkey’s border conflicts with the Northern Kurds is another example, lucky for everyone it did not end in an invasion! But in any case, the rule is clear. If you have to widen the scope of the conflict to strike at your enemy, you got a problem and need to examine your options.

For many years now, this has been the problem in Afghanistan. The conflict has been spilling over the border into Pakistan, due in part to the fact that Osama found refuge there, but also because the shared border region, which remains unsealed, is heavily populated by militants, most of whom share ethnic and cultural ties to Afghanistan Pashtuni population . The US began conducting Predator strikes in the area in 2008, and has since expanded its involvement to include special forces and CIA operatives. While the death of Bin Laden is certainly a symbolic victory for this expansion, it cannot be expected to make the war in Afghanistan itself any easier. In the long run, its more likely to destabilize Pakistan’s already shaky government and create a permanent haven for Islamic militants, much like Cambodia became a radical communist regime.

So, since the war in Afghanistan possesses all of these things in abundance, I would argue that the time has come to pack up and leave. In addition to it being a potential disaster, and that its really not making life any better for those affected, there is also the fact (as stated in my previous article) that it ceased being about Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden some time ago. Now that he is dead and his whereabouts confirmed, perhaps this is just the justification that’s needed to put an end to the last war in the “war on terror.” I doubt anyone would buy it, but what can you do?

What does Osama’s death mean?

I did not start this blog with the intention of getting into politics. There are few things more subjective and divisive than where one stands on various issues, political parties, or where they fall in the big spectrum. However, once in awhile something comes along and you just have to take to whatever forum you have available and comment on it. And so I come here, to my webpage where I usually do reviews, to comment on this groundbreaking story.

Yes, it finally happened. After ten years of obscurity and unconfirmed whereabouts, after years and years of being told “we think he is in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Bin Laden was not just found, but killed. And the big question that seems to be on everyone’s lips is, what happens now? Obviously, 9/11 was a turning point in history. Whether or not you agreed with the assessment that it “changed everything”, you had to admit that it was what Gibson described as a “nodal point” in our history. It changed many things, for better or for worse, including but not limited to how the world thinks of terrorism, how the US executed its foreign policy, what that policy entailed, and had a huge impact on international relations. It also put a face on global terrorism, again for better or for worse. And with Bin Laden’s escape from the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq and torture controversies, many people have been left wondering about the course of the whole “war on terror” and whether or not it was even worth pursuing anymore.

And now, ten years, and two inconclusive wars later – not to mention some “enhanced interrogation techniques”, hundreds of thousands dead, and a whole lot of unanswered questions – the man responsible for 9/11 and this detour in our history is finally dead. But the question remains, what now? Does Bin Laden’s death mean anything for the “war on terror”, even though the term has been dropped, and will it effect the fortunes of Al-Qaeda or US foreign policy? Second, and perhaps of equal importance, is a question I asked myself today. How will future generations look at this period in our history? Will they see it as an aberration, like we do Vietnam, or will they see it as something that began with tragedy and ended with triumph, albeit with some bumps along the way?

Personally, I think the answer to the first question is a resounding no. While Bin Laden’s death is certainly a symbolic victory, and definitely a victory for Obama (if he exploits it just right), his death really doesn’t change things vis a vis the bigger picture. Why? Because the war on terror ceased being about Osama many years ago, shortly after Afghanistan was invaded in fact. Which I think helps to answer question two, but one thing at a time! As it stands, the US is still engaged on a number of fronts with its former “war on terror”, and its enemies go far beyond Bin Laden and his small band of people. Whether it’s the resurgent Taliban, Islamic militants in Pakistan, or the possibility of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the US finds itself committed to war on several fronts. And they aren’t going so well!

On the plus side, the US has pulled out of Iraq after seven disastrous years of occupation. The long-term effects that it will have on the region are also unclear. But one thing is for sure… after years of insurgency, civil war and most areas of the country still living in fear and dire poverty, things couldn’t get much worse. Any hopes the neo-cons have that something good will come out of the Iraqi war, hence saving Bush’s legacy, cannot be taken seriously anymore. There are those who predict it will get even worse, that the sectarian violence is nearing phase two, the current government can’t possibly control the country, and that some kind of fundamentalist autocracy with strong ties to Iran is inevitable. Some think there’s nowhere to go but up, but even many of them believe that it was the withdrawal of the US that now makes this possible – i.e. that nothing good could happen so long as the occupation continued, the Iraqis needing to “build democracy” on their own.

So realistically, Osama’s departure from the international scene is really not a decisive factor anymore. At least, not in my humble opinion. And this, like I said earlier, goes a long way towards answering how this whole episode will be viewed by future generations, provided I’m right of course ;). Given the fact that the US can’t use this as a pretext to pull out of Afghanistan, stabilize Iraq, restore the US’s tarnished reputation in the Middle East or amongst it allies, mend fences with Russia, end North Korea and Iran’s defiance, or bring back the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis or Afghanis, future generations are likely to see this whole campaign as a resounding failure.

So indeed… what now? What can be done to salvage the situation that 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, and the “war on terror” has left us with? What can we do, short of turning back the clock and killing him back in 2002 when the opportunity first presented itself, thus avoiding all the crap that happened between now and then?