Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 10, 2010

End dependency on fossil fuels by driving on solar panels

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection — by Christopher Bellavita on August 10, 2010

In February, I wrote about a colleagues idea in a post titled “How to create a resilient infrastructure in 20 years for 1 trillion dollars, create millions of jobs, transition to green transportation, and do all of this at no cost to government.” That post is here.

A friend (thanks, George) recently sent a video to me (below) that describes another creative infrastructure idea:

“cover all concrete and asphalt surfaces that are exposed to the sun with solar road panels. This will lead to the end of our dependency on fossil fuels of any kind.

“We’re aware that this won’t happen overnight. We’ll need to start off small: driveways, bike paths, patios, sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, etc. This is where we’ll learn our lessons and perfect our system. Once the lessons have been learned and the bugs have all been resolved, we’ll plan to move out onto public roads.”

(You can read more details about the Solar Roadways project at this link: http://solarroadways.com/vision.shtml

I showed the video illustrating the solar roads project to some engineering friends.  Here’s part of the resulting conversation:

Dr. R — That’s totally cool. I’d need to be convinced that you could manufacture this stuff as cheaply as asphalt and more importantly, that the total cost of ownership is lower. But how cool would it be to have this running up to your house? You’d get rid of all the lines that are there now and run it all thru this.

Dr. T — This is orders of magnitude better than [the idea posted in February]!  But the bureaucracy and red tape cutting to do this is horrendous.

Dr. T — Question: If you charge power and telecom companies to use it, you could not only pay for it but make a return on investment.  But does it work? Driving a million semis over circuits every week is much different than a lab test.

Dr. R — Yea, durability is the key. I won’t be convinced until someone funds a real test case that we can carefully observe for a few years with heavy traffic. Lots of trucks!  Of course, you’ll have the occasional 15 year old hacker who finds a way to spell swear words in the LEDs but that would be cool too.

Dr. T — You can read your email while driving on it! Generally power engineers don’t believe in this idea because they understand the physics of long haul transmission and it isn’t friendly. But I think they [power engineers] have not considered an alternate architecture that incorporates storage. Flywheels, compressed air and batteries are not integrated into their models.

The glass highway project plus storage could change all that, but the grid would have to operate as a store-and-forward network rather than as a big electronic circuit. That is, we need about a decade of research that is orthogonal to current linear incremental thinking about the grid.

Here’s the 4:38 solar roadways video:

August 7, 2010

One day, two dots connected in Pakistan

Filed under: Catastrophes,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 7, 2010

To highlight the screamingly obvious, two headlines from Thursday, August 5, and a few related headlines since.

Over 500,000 to Evacuate from Sindh (DAWN) –  “Pakistani authorities began evacuating half a million people living along the swollen Indus River in the country’s south on Thursday, as floods caused by the worst monsoon rains in decades threatened new destruction.  The floods have already killed an estimated 1,500 people over the past week, most of them in the northwest. An estimated 4.2 million Pakistanis have been affected, including many in eastern Punjab province, which has seen numerous villages swallowed by rising water in recent days.” (Saturday morning the BBC reports that over 12 million are now affected.)

Al-Qaeda in Pakistan Top Threat (BBC) –  “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan and its affiliates in Africa remain the biggest threats to US and its interests abroad, a US government report says. The annual terrorism report states that al-Qaeda encountered setbacks in 2009 but has proved to be ‘resilient and adaptable’.”

Quite often the difference between disaster and catastrophe is a cascade of coincidence.  Cause and effect cannot be predicted because the interaction of events cannot be forseen.  Only in retrospect do we recognize  the straw that broke the back was neither one nor the other (nor the other), but a combination.

I am not predicting anything.  Two dots connecting  — even colliding — do not necessarily cause an explosion.  But without disciplined attention we sometimes seem to miss the obvious.

Left, below: BBC Map of Pakistan food zone as of August 5. (More detailed maps will appear in a new window by clicking on the images below)


Right, above: BBC map of Taliban influence in Northwest Pakistan (2009).  Since this map was generated the government has reasserted substantial control in Swat and neighboring districts in the North.  The situation in FATA remains volatile. South Waziristan is occupied by significant elements of the Pakistani military.  North Waziristan continues to be under the control of the Taliban-in-Pakistan and is thought to provide sanctuary to al-Qaeda.

For further consideration:

Hard-Line Islam Fills Void in Flooded Pakistan (New York Times) (Thanks Eric for the link, embarrassed to have missed it.)

More rains hit flooded Pakistan, Islamists step up (Associated Press)

Forecast: More rain, expected to be especially heavy on Sunday (DAWN)

Sunday Update:

Landslides kill more in flood-hit Pakistan (AFP)

Pakistan pleads for help as disaster worsens (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

U.S. assesses own plans after Pakistan floods (Reuters India)

Monday Update:

Pakistan floods could swamp Sindh (BBC) (Note: the flooding is now wiping out much of this year’s harvest in the Indus river valley. Over the next 24 to 36 hours the flooding will peak in the urban centers of Karachi and Hyderabad

Landslides cut off Swat Valley (Aljazeera)

No respite in sight as more rains forecast (DAWN) “With water flows continuing to increase at Guddu and Sukkur, weather pundits have forecast an extended rainy spell, at times heavy, raising fears of aggravation of the ‘super flood’ in the Indus.”

August 6, 2010

Country Reports on Terrorism 2009

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 6, 2010

Yesterday afternoon the State Department released its annual terrorism report.  You can download html chapters or a full  PDF from: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2009/index.htm

The first paragraph of the Strategic Assessment reads thusly:

In 2009, al-Qa’ida’s core in Pakistan remained the most formidable terrorist organization targeting the U.S. homeland. It has proven to be an adaptable and resilient terrorist group whose desire to attack the United States and U.S. interests abroad remains strong. The U.S. intelligence community assessed that al-Qa’ida was actively engaged in operational plotting against the United States and continued recruiting, training, and deploying operatives, including individuals from Western Europe and North America. Moreover, al-Qa’ida continued to try to expand its operational capabilities by partnering with other terrorist groups, with varying degrees of success.

August 5, 2010

Food security: Do economies of scale suppress risk resilience?

Filed under: Biosecurity,Catastrophes,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 5, 2010

In responding to catastrophe — an 8.0 and above earthquake, a thousand year flood, a cascading  biological contagion, etc.  —  right after providing potable water is the problem of food distribution.  In some of Lee Clarke’s worst case scenarios there is a more basic problem of maintaining food production.

This week both of Australia’s leading political parties added food security to their list of policy priorities for the current national election. One member of the Australian Senate writes, “The world has embarked on a dangerous era of food insecurity and imperialism which will fuel conflict and famine if it is ignored. Australia is not immune. Land and water should be treated as strategic resources by us as they are by many in the world.”

The Department of Homeland Security explains that  Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9, “establishes a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. America’s agriculture and food system is an extensive, open, interconnected, diverse, and complex structure providing potential targets for terrorist attacks. U.S. agriculture and food systems are vulnerable to disease, pest, or poisonous agents that occur naturally, are unintentionally introduced, or are intentionally delivered by acts of terrorism.”

Given the obvious importance of food, are there vulnerabilities in the current food system worth particular attention?  Well, as a possibility, help me refine this hypothesis: Economies of scale suppress risk resilience.  

The food system is one context where this hypothesis might be tested. Over the last half century increasing scale and specialization of production and processing have significantly reduced the consumers cost of food as a proportion of overall income.  The source of this savings has, however, also substantially reduced the number, diversity, and  distribution of producers and processors. This narrows the ability of the food system to bounce back from a catastrophic event. 

If this is true for the food system might it also be the case for other supply chains?

I am the son and grandson of grocers.  I grew up working on the farms of downstate Illinois.  In my lifetime I have seen the food system move from what now seems simple, to complicated, to a sort of complexity and — if a catastrophe would occur — to potentially teetering on the edge of chaos.

Some of my earliest memories are of farmers backing their trucks up to grandpa’s slaughterhouse.   The hogs and cattle — rarely some sheep — were off-loaded into the two dozen wooden stalls attached to the white cinder-block slaughterhouse.

Monday through Saturday nearly everyone listened to the Dick Herm Report on WBYS radio (We Bore You Stiff, the older kids called it).   With the bark of an auctioneer Herm would give the regional and Chicago prices for agricultural commodities. Grandpa paid a few cents less per pound than the Peoria market. For some bigger producers it made financial sense to get more per pound by trucking their livestock to Peoria or beyond. But for others, given the cost of time and gasoline, one of several nearby receiving yards or processing plants did fine.  For most farmers livestock was only one of several products.  When I chored with my friend Jeff we would slop the hogs, feed the chickens, hay the beef cattle, weed the beans, and give the dairy cows grain to eat while we milked them.

My dad’s grocery stores bought dressed hogs from my grandpa’s (and other’s) slaughterhouse.  At each grocery store a butcher would saw the carcass into various cuts of pork and grind the sausage. 

Cause and effect was knowable even by a six year-old.  The livestock were born, raised, slaughtered, packaged, sold, and eaten all within several miles of each other. I knew the farmer, processor, butcher, and buyer. The production, processing, and distribution nodes of the food system — at least in downstate Illinois — were thick and overlapping.  The supply chain was densely redundant, complicated and in some ways complex.

Above, the Cynefin Framework

Today pork production — and most agricultural production — is much more highly concentrated.  In 1969, according to the US Department of Agriculture, 644,882 farms raised 89,296,278 swine.  By 1992 186,627 production operations sold 109,775,439 pigs and hogs.  That’s a shift of 138 head per farm to 588 per farm.  In 2002 the number of production sites had fallen by more than half to 78,895.  In 2002 over half of all swine were raised on “farms” with over 5000 head each.

The geographic range of pork production has also narrowed.  Take out Northern Iowa and Eastern North Carolina and very few of us will have ham for Christmas or even a ham sandwich for lunch.  Pork processing is even more concentrated than production.   Many food products have experienced similar consolidation and concentration.

Today, compared to my early days, the supply chain for food is much more streamlined, specialized, and price efficient.  In 2004 a hog producer with 1000 head spent about $40 per hundredweight.  The same year raising a hog farrow-to-finish cost the producer with fewer than 100 head almost $80 per hundredweight. (See Hogs Lead Way in Transformation)  In 1969 the retail cost of pork chops was about $1.39 per pound.  This week many stores are selling assorted pork chops at $2.49 per pound. At least one regional chain is advertising a “Big Sale” with pork chops at $1.99 per pound. Given forty-one years of inflation that is an extraordinary bargain.

Economies of scale in production, processing, and distribution have contributed to price containment of pork and other foodstuffs.  This is a real benefit.  Is there a cost?

I just came back from several days visiting my parents. Most of the 400 acre  family farms that I knew as a kid have been consolidated.  Except for acreage owned by the Amish and a few small organic operations, corn, soybeans and cattle are what you see again and again stretching over the horizon (and there are long horizons in central Illinois).

Dad has sold his grocery stores and grandpa’s slaughterhouse closed twenty years ago. When I asked the local market’s meat manager (no longer a butcher) about where his meat comes from he laughed and said, “Off the truck, before that who knows.”  Because the supply chain originates far away and draws on unknown sources there is an impression of complexity.   And across these attenuated supply chains there are complex characteristics: lots of filters, need for pattern recognition, and some aspects of adaptive response.

But is the food system “complex” as defined by the Cynefin framework?  The crowd sourcing of many more independent producers and processors has been reduced and standardized.  Open markets have been replaced with much more predictable production contracts.  The entire system has been reengineered and squeezed to maximize every penny-per-pound.  In some ways, with fewer participants and fewer relationships the food system is actually much simpler than four or five decades ago.

Toward the end of his brief video overview of the Cynefin framework David Snowden warns, “The boundary between simple and chaotic is different from the other boundaries…  If you start to believe that things are  simple — you start to believe that they’re ordered, you start to believe in your own myths, you start to believe that past success means you are invulnerable to future failure — you effectively move to the complacent zone which is the boundary between simple and chaotic and you fall over the edge in a crisis… and recovery is very, very expensive.”

Have economies of scale so simplified the food system that we can now sense it on the very edge of chaos?

(Editorial Note:  Last week John Comiskey encouraged me to apply Cynefin and/or Tara to a prospective problem.  He suggested a cyber threat.  I decided to focus on a network — the food system — that I understand better than I understand most cyber networks.  But it seems to me these issues of consolidation, centralization, simplification, and such might have analogies to the cyber domain.  For now, though, that is only a hypothesis.)

August 4, 2010

Simple and Sensible

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on August 4, 2010

Over the weekend, Peggy Orenstein, writing in The New York Times Magazine, cited a study out of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan that got me thinking about empathy. President Obama has cited this as an important quality shaping his choice of nominees for the two most recent openings on the Supreme Court of the United States. And commentators have suggested that contrasting views of the part empathy should play in judicial decisions (much less everyday policy debates) represents one of the bigger points of disagreement among political partisans. So, I wondered, what does this mean for us in the fields of homeland security and emergency management?

When we think about the plight of those experiencing disaster, we usually think in terms of sympathy not empathy. We are moved to feel and express compassion for their situation, but only occasionally see ourselves in their position and ask what we would do ourselves or expect of others. Doing so would require us to accept our vulnerability, which for many of us suggests admitting a certain sense of powerlessness. But is this really a correct sense of the situation?

I think it is clear enough that we tend to have difficulties approaching troubling topics like our vulnerability to terrorist attacks or natural disasters with a positive frame of mind, that is beyond noting how positive we are that the occurrence of these events is a question of when not if. When we do think about these things, we often find it difficult to get past our deficiencies and shortcomings. After all, who has looked at these problems and not seen opportunities for improvement?

But empathy, unlike sympathy, asks something more of us. It demands that we ask what can we do for ourselves and others to make the situation better. Now clearly there are at least two ways we can answer this question. One starts with an assessment of our resources. This approach asks, “What can I do with what I have to offer?” The other takes a slightly different approach by asking, “What can I learn from this situation that will help make me and others better off now and in the future.” Learning without doing in this instance is inadequate. Practical knowledge requires engagement as opposed to observation and criticism.

The first approach reflects what Carol Dweck of Stanford University calls a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset leaves us prone to defeat and depression when what we have is not enough to get what we want or what we think others expect of us. Too often, the fixed mindset discourages rather than encourages us to act by suggesting anything we do will be too little or too late. The fixed mindset ignores the cumulative effect of many small contributions or the meaning others find in our willingness to give what we can even though it’s all we have.

The growth mindset offers us hope that our example will lead others to help. It affords us the opportunity to exceed our expectations and abilities by extending ourselves in unknown directions. It opens us to the possibility that a little bit of effort can alleviate a lot of anxiety or injustice even if it does not make the world a perfect place to live.

Perhaps more important to our recent discussions, though, the growth mindset insofar as it reflects empathy, embodies resilience. When we engage empathy, we offer ourselves and one another the opportunity to make things better by changing what we can even it it’s not all that is needed.

Orenstein’s article speculated about the reasons for the Institute of Social Research’s noted decline in empathy among college-aged students. She suggested that the superficial hyper-connectedness of social networks like Facebook and Twitter have edged out the sort of genuine engagement that leads to the sorts of lasting relationships that build a sense of community. I’m not so sure I buy her argument, especially in light of the way I see my teen-aged daughters using these tools every day.

Maybe the answer lies in another New York Times article I read the week before. David Leonardt reported on a study that suggested kindergarten produces a pretty big bang-to-buck ratio by giving kids skills they will need throughout their lives. This comes as pretty big news, especially as others begin to question the benefit-cost ratio of sending their kids to college.

So, what is it kids learn in kindergarten that serves them so well in later life? Well, somebody already wrote a book about that. Robert Fulghum’s whimsical but wise little book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten dominated the New York Times’ bestseller list in 1989 and 1990. His prescription was as simple as it was sensible:

  • Share everything.

  • Play fair.

  • Don’t hit people.

  • Put things back where you found them.

  • Clean up your own mess.

  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

  • Wash your hands before you eat.

  • The list went on, but you get the idea. When I watch my kids relate to their friends on social networks, I see them making efforts to reinforce many of these norms among their friends. And that behavior extends to the sorts of interactions I see them having with their friends when they get together, which is pretty often around our place.

    Now, I am not suggesting that disasters do not involve a substantial degree of complexity. Neither do I suggest that the things we have to do to put things right again do not involve many complicated steps. But I am saying that our ability to resolve this complexity and engage the complicated steps needed to create a better world involve simply accepting that we can make a difference even if we cannot accomplish the whole thing by ourselves. This is what community is really all about.

    Developing the capacity to safeguard ourselves and our communities can be as complex or complicated as we want to make it. Or we can accept that simple, sensible steps can make a difference if we engage others to join us. Applying our kindergarten lessons to life, whether we’re online or face-to-face would be a good start toward seeing this become reality.

    August 3, 2010

    Lee Clarke’s 9 Future Catastrophes

    Filed under: Futures — by Christopher Bellavita on August 3, 2010

    I learned about Lee Clarke’s 2005 book, “Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination,” through a post on the Emergency Management Strategic Foresight Initiative website [registration required].

    There is an engaging interview with Dr. Clarke on the University of Chicago Press website.  That site includes links to Clarke’s list of the top 11 worst case disasters that have already happened, and (reprinted below) his list of 9 worst case future disasters:

    Worst Case Disasters of the Future

    Everything in these scenarios is possible. Many have been discussed in esoteric, scientific literatures. These are certainly scenarios, but they are not fanciful.

    Chicago Catastrophe
    A train carrying four ninety-ton carloads of chlorine careens toward Chicago. It’s out of control because a fire on the train has disabled the speed controls and incapacitated the conductor. No one ever thought that was possible. It slams into another train at the Chicago Clearing Yard, catches fire, and three of the four chlorine cars burst open. The resulting death cloud kills 2 million people. Luckily, it’s the middle of a snowstorm on Sunday, so a lot of people are home. Otherwise the carnage would have been worse.

    Miami Destroyed
    A category 5 hurricane slides up the Florida Keys, wreaking havoc and destruction along the way. Just north of the Keys it stalls over the Turkey Point nuclear power station. The cooling pools that hold its waste are destroyed, releasing a lot of dangerous radiation. Worse, the hurricane reveals that there has been a hitherto unnoticed weakness in the reactors’ containment shells. Workers try valiantly to shut down the reactors in the middle of the hurricane but fail, as do both shells. The hurricane moves into the Atlantic Ocean, regains strength, and loops back onto the city of Miami, creating a storm surge that destroys Miami Beach. Emergency planners say, “Who would have thought that a natural disaster and a technological disaster could happen at the same time?”

    Northeastern Seaboard Inundation
    Scientists have been warning for years that a piece of the outer continental shelf could break off, triggering a tsunami on America’s East Coast. “Stop being so pessimistic,” said the academics, “the chance of that happening is vanishingly small.” But one worst-case day it happens, just as the scientists said, and as a seventy-five-foot wall of water moving at five hundred miles an hour kills millions of people up and down the northeastern seaboard.

    Avian Flu Decimation
    Flu kills a lot of people on a regular basis. The Z+ strain of H5N1 (a kind of bird flu) is a monster. The question is not if, but when. When it finally happens, 1 billion people fall ill, vastly eclipsing previous predictions. Poor countries are written off. The American public health service, operating on wrong assumptions, vaccinates the very young and the very old. But the Sickness, as it is called, slams young adults and the middle aged, as happened with the 1918 pandemic. Governments shut their borders, because decision makers often panic, which is catastrophic for the United States because very little flu vaccine is actually produced there. With travel shut down, airlines throughout the world go bankrupt, in the early steps of a string of events that bring the world’s economy to a standstill. In the United States, the rich, and high-level government officials, hoard what vaccine they can get, while military officials–understanding that the 1918 flu shaped military operations–consider overthrowing the government so they can secure the vaccine for their soldiers.

    Power Grid Goes Down for Three Months
    The U.S. power grid suffers a series of breakdowns and terror attacks. There is no electricity anywhere in the country for three months, starting at the end of November. People flee the cities, because there is no food or water there. They leave the sick and old behind. Government decision makers move to Europe, and the country devolves to the early 1800s. Small farms survive, but large ones struggle mightily. People also flee the north, trying to find warm weather. After the country finally recovers, two-thirds of its population has died and the world is locked in economic depression. The United States becomes yet another a third world country with nuclear weapons.

    Manhattan Not Worth $24
    In Manhattan most of the buildings are unreinforced masonry, exactly the kind of buildings that fall down when earthquakes happen. New York City didn’t require builders to use earthquake codes until 1996. Geologists have no idea why earthquakes happen in places that don’t have big faults. Imagine that a magnitude 7 earthquake shakes Manhattan to pieces in 2050. Five million people are living on the island, and 2 million are killed as buildings collapse. Among the buildings are the city’s old firehouses, although there is so much debris in the roads that fire trucks can’t get to the raging fires anyway. During the week following the New Great Earthquake, the fires consume most of the city and render it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The tunnels are flooded and structurally unsound. Engineers don’t trust the footings of the bridges. Although a lot of buildings on Wall Street are still standing, bankers are talking about moving all operations out of New York.

    Yellowstone Eruption Kills the Northern Hemisphere
    Yellowstone National Park sits on one of the largest volcanoes in the world. A supervolcano. The last time it blew in a big way it spewed eight thousand times more ash into the air than Mt. Saint Helens did in 1980. The probability that it will erupt is low, as it is with most worst cases. In 2200 the unlikely happens, and Yellowstone erupts and throws so much magma into the atmosphere that it obliterates sunlight over the Northern Hemisphere. Cities depopulate. Agriculture collapses. South American countries become the new superpowers.

    The New Jersey Graveyard
    For years the chemical industry has claimed it can safely self-regulate. This, notwithstanding numerous security breeches over the years. There are a handful of facilities in New Jersey that store some of the most dangerous chemicals you could imagine. Terrorists can imagine them just fine, of course, because they think in terms of worst cases. One day they mount multiple attacks on major facilities in the state. Only one succeeds, however, because a furniture-truck driver notices something suspicious on the turnpike and interferes with the plot. Still, the one place where they do succeed puts 12 million people at risk of death or injury. What is the worst that can happen? Only the imagination can limit that.

    Asteroid Explosion over Pakistan
    Astronomers tracked the killer asteroid for a long time, but then lost sight of it because Congress cut funding for the Program to Avoid Near-earth object Impactor Collisions—PANIC, as politicians derisively referred to it. Few people, other than worst-case thinkers, worried about the object, however, because even if it struck the earth it would most likely fall into an ocean. But it explodes over Karachi, with the force of a five-megaton nuclear weapon. Five million people disappear in the blink of an eye. Since they were in the middle of yet another dispute with India over Kashmir, Pakistani military officers think that India has launched nuclear weapons against them. Millions of people are incinerated in the ensuing five-minute war.

    August 1, 2010

    Contra-heresy in English on YouTube

    Filed under: Radicalization — by Philip J. Palin on August 1, 2010

    According to the New York Times, “Nine influential American Muslim scholars have come together in a YouTube video to repudiate the militants’ message. The nine represent a diversity of theological schools within Islam, and several of them have large followings among American Muslim youths.”  The video is about 5 minutes in length.  Select the link and the video will open in a new screen.

    « Previous Page