Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Suggestion #10: Enhance our nation's (and civilization's) overall resilience

First a reminder: see me on “The Universe” Tuesday night, on the History Channel. Also, see my cover story on Salon Magazine (online), about “Is the Web helping us evolve?”

Again - this is part of a December 2008 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”

== Boosting resilience should be a top priority ==

Restoring our military reserves should be only the beginning. If we are serious about preparing for dangerous times, more should be done to deepen the supply of Americans who are ready to help, rather than be helpless, in future crises.

 This principle holds fast to a basic, grassroots spirit that was the hallmark of the Obama Campaign -- and to traditions that go all the way back through American history.  It certainly ought to be a basic theme of the new administration. Here are just a few (of many) examples that have critical implications for the nation’s defense and (ultimately) survival:

* Admit that the post-Vietnam professionalization of the U.S. Armed Forces may have gone a bit too far.

Nobody denies that today’s military is ultra high tech and few are arguing for a return of the draft. But all previous generations of Americans were called upon, eventually, to augment the “thin blue line,” with waves of volunteers, and we ignore this tradition at our peril.

The services could be encouraged to re-engage this spirit.  Serious attention might be given to shortening recruitment and training ramp-up times, in case of urgent need. A semi-trained corps of “under-reserves” might also be created, with as little experience as a three-month summer camp, especially for people who have badly needed, non-combat skill sets.

(Those who disparage the usefulness of such a “reserve” should consider its psychological value, alone. Never under-rate the effect that raw numbers can have, on the calculations of a potential foe. Note also, a pre-vetted pool of high quality and willing volunteers would be better, by far, than hurriedly trying to ramp up to a draft, in an emergency. Anyway, the “summer camp” option is already on the table, as a way to give millions of young people exposure to many different paths of public service.)

*  Civilians matter, especially on the home front, where first responders can be overwhelmed by sudden disasters.  

Recall that citizens performed every action that proved decisive or effective, on 9/11.  Yet, almost nothing has been subsequently spent on augmenting the abilities of average folk to deal with crises.  For example, today’s modest Citizen Emergency Response Teams (CERT) -- all that is left of Civil Defense -- could be enhanced, preparing millions to be citizen-helpers in an emergency, instead of helpless victims.  No investment might have a bigger payoff, if something terrible ever happens.  And it will.

* Pursue robustness in our communications systems.  

The Internet was originally designed to network messages around areas of devastation, agilely re-routing them anywhere, under any circumstance.  So, why won’t our cell phones work when we need them most, if the nearby cell towers fail in a disaster?  During Hurricane Katrina a quarter of a million people were cut-off, with sophisticated-but-useless radios in their pockets.

Even worse, almost nothing has been done, since then, to correct a potentially devastating design flaw.

But let’s imagine. What if mobile phones were empowered to simply pass along text messages, from one to another, via peer-to-peer packet switching, all the way out of any affected area? (Until finally reaching an intact cell tower.)  This simple bypass capability could ensure coast-to-coast messaging, even during substantial nationwide havoc.  It would cost little to implement and the cell companies needn’t suffer any loss of revenue.  (Not if their billing departments have any imagination, at all.)  In fact, failure to implement such a simple fix could constitute deliberate sabotage, since its potential benefits, during any disaster, are simply overwhelming.

Lack of time and space requires that I forebear listing.many other possible resilience suggestions, for how we could better prepare for an uncertain future, at a tiny fraction of what we spend at the Department of Homeland Security.  But take my word for it, there are plenty that I’ve offered in briefings for the CIA, Defense Threat Reduction Agency and other groups.  In any event, you may notice a common theme, as several of my other suggestions had to do with enhancing the reserves, or empowering citizens with transparency, or reducing our brittle dependence upon just-in-time industrial practices.

One core lesson emerges from all this.

We must rediscover a key role of the state as the principal agent of robustness. 

Economic sub-units like corporations can afford to make rosy, pollyanna assumptions, in pursuit of squeezing the last drop of current-day profits, risking only the equity of stockholders. It’s not their job to plan for just-in-case scenarios of major breakdown.

In contrast, national policy should ensure readiness for the inevitable rainy day.

--Continue to Suggestion #11 Control the Borders


Ilithi Dragon said...

I have long wondered why cell phones can't directly call other phones that are within their transmission and reception range... As you said, they are essentially just sophisticated radios. A little more sophistication (or, really, some tweaks of their existing sophistication), and a cell phone could seek out the number it's calling within it's transmission/reception range at the same time it's connecting over the network (or just over its own range if a tower isn't in range), and then direct connect to that phone if they're within range of each other.

Anonymous said...

You'd need to re-engineer cell phones to do the peer-to-peer thing. Not just a minor upgrade or firmware fix. Dual-use phones that can double as walkie-talkies wouldn't be too hard to come up with.

Note that you could also toughen cell towers, and give them redundant power supplies. Also give THEM a peer to peer mode to support emergency messaging. If the phone company goes under, they would still act as packet switches and exchanges.

Interesting comic to look up: Warren Ellis's Global Frequency. In times of disaster, or pending emergency, people with special skills who have joined a special corps get a ring on their "global" and are called into service. The episodes are mostly action-adventure stuff, but it is a great concept.

* * *

I can see a lot of resistance to a civilian service corps, or service requirements for youth, from libertarians and many conservatives. (In particular, the type of conservative whose kids spend wars at ski resorts, beaches and elite colleges.) I'd offer them an opt-out for their kids: They could pay the full wages for equivalent time by a paid worker.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Meh... If conservatives gripe about youth service corps or something, point out the Boy Scouts. They're effectively a volunteer service organization, dedicated to training young boys (and girls in other countries) in basic survival, first-aid, community and citizenship awareness and responsibilities, disaster preparedness, leadership skills, etc. to youth, in a structured, pseudo-military environment. I spent 13 years actively involved in the BSA (some of the best times in my life), and I recall getting a lot of support from the 'conservative' side of the 'fence'.

Comentch: Thingch you makech after chelebrating New Yearch, and before paching out.

David Webb said...

I suspect the reason cellphones don't peer to peer would have a lot to do with billing for the service.

Plus, if you build the capability into a cellphone, it's a matter of time before someone cracks it. I don't think the cellphone companies want that.

David Brin said...

Billing oughtn't to be a problem. The phone itself could list and record such calls and report them... and if you hack that phone, what about the others that pass your message along the way? ALL of them might report in!

Heck, even let the mode be turned off if cell towers are active...

I like Stefan's alternative.

Tony Fisk said...

All those who got involved with the OLPC Give 1 Get 1 program...(they finally ran it in Australia!) do you have anyone in mesh range?

(One of my unfinished superstruct tales involved a bit of viral hacking of people's cell phones so they could act as base stations for those not in the average provider's coverage areas.. I called it being 'meshwhacked')

On JIT 'brittleness': thinking about it, it seems to me that the main point of failure is the supply line. The question may therefore become 'how many ways can your goods get to market?'

Oh well, if I don't log on before, have a merry christmas, or whatever.

fenin: a condition whose symptoms include damp ankles

Rocky Persaud said...

dual use cell-phones / two-way radios already exist. They are used at every warehouse and dock.

Anonymous said...

There's a technical reason why cell phones can't call other cell phones directly. My father is a professor of electrical engineering who also works for a company that makes electronics for cell phones.

The problem is that cell phones are designed to transmit one set of frequencies and receive another set. (My father assures me that there is a good reason for this. think it is to reduce interference, but I don't remember right now, and he's asleep.) In order for two cell phones to talk to each other directly, they'd have to add an additional antenna and quite a bit of extra electronics, raising the price, increasing power consumption, and possibly even breaking FCC regulations regarding which devices can broadcast at which frequencies.

In other words, P2P cell phones = not gonna happen.

Alex Tolley said...

While I don't think cellphones can be made to talk to each other, there is no reason why wifi enabled phones could not also have a small router and act as wireless transmitters as a well as receivers.

I've long thought that the FON http://www.fon.com/en/
idea should be integrated into a phone so that at least in city areas, phones could work on an independent mesh network. Battery life would need to be improved to handle the extra load, but I see no problem with this in principle.

David Brin said...

Doug, you skimmed past important stuff.

We are talking short TEXT messages here, not live audio. And packets can be dribbled out at low power in repetition until somebody blips "received and passed along" All that is needed is a very small receive capability alongside the phone's main transmit frequency. Enough to pick up simple ASCII pulses. Any EE ought to be able to do that.

Thing is, if the federal govt simply ordered this built in to all cells, the transition cost would be moderate and quickly amortized across a vast industry.

Cliff said...

A semi-trained corps of “under-reserves” might also be created, with as little experience as a three-month summer camp, especially for people who have badly needed, non-combat skill sets.

That's a pretty great idea. Seeing the recent disruptions on Wall Street, and knowing that more is probably coming down the pike (what with global warming and all), I've been worried about the fact that I have little idea how to survive in conditions any harsher than suburbia or a campground.

Anonymous said...

If you've heard about the woman who is being sued for pulling a friend out of a wrecked car that the rescuer thought was about to explode, consider this: We'd need to protect undertrained reserves against lawsuits. If the people being helped by these troops are accidentally injured, the courts will be overloaded after the emergency.

Matt DeBlass said...

I'm reading the Salon article right now. So far so good.

By the way, I had the rather surreal experience yesterday of going to Wikipedia finding my own name cited in the references for an entry.

One thing I wanted to add as far as citizens' groups go, is the decline of the volunteer fire department.
With the rapid advance of technology, combined with an even more rapid advance in liability and legislation, to become a volunteer fireman takes more and more training.
The amount of time required, and the inflexibility of training schedules, is discouraging people from joining (myself included).
Membership in a lot of departments has seen a steady decline over the last two decades, and along with the the role of the firehouse as a social center of the town.

"slousn" an infestation of small arachnids that feed on fermented grain.

David Brin said...

Wages Soar as Stock Market Tanks

You probably didn't see this in the newspapers, but real wages rose at an incredible 14.8 percent annual rate over the last three months. The basic story is straightforward, while nominal wages have continued to grow at a modest 3.2 percent annual rate, prices have plummeted, hugely increasing the value of the paychecks of those workers luck enough to still have a job.

This pattern is not likely to continue. Price declines will almost certainly slow, and rising unemployment will dampen nominal wage growth, but the nature of this wage gain presents an extremely important economics lesson.

Put simply, real wages rose because house prices and stock prices crashed. The collapse of the housing bubble destroyed more than $6 trillion of housing bubble wealth, while the plunge in the stock market eliminated more than $8 trillion in stock wealth.

This means that more than $14 trillion of paper wealth (@$46,000 per person) has been destroyed in the last couple of years. This paper wealth gave its owners command over the goods and services the economy produces.

The elimination of this wealth has the same impact on those of us not directly affected as the elimination of $14 trillion of counterfeit money. The economy still has the potential to produce the same amount of goods and services, but the owners of housing and stock have much less claim over this output. That means more for the rest of us.

The more for the rest of us part of the story shows up in the form of lower prices for a wide range of goods and services. The most obvious item on this list is oil, as weakened demand, combined with speculation on both sides, has pushed the price of oil below $40 a barrel from its peak near $150 a barrel. This has allowed drivers to buy gas for less than $2 a gallon, as opposed to the $4 plus prices faced earlier during the summer.

It is not just energy prices that are falling. New car prices have fallen at a 6.9 percent annual rate over the last quarter, while used car prices have plunged at a 22.9 percent annual rate. There is an enormous glut of cars on the market right now and sellers are forced to slash prices to reduce their inventories.

There is a similar story with hotel prices, where a large number of empty rooms are forcing price reductions. Hotel prices fell at a 7.1 percent annual rate over the quarter.

In short, the loss of a massive amount of wealth by stockholders and homeowners has produced real dividends for those who had little wealth in stock or housing. Of course, the resulting falloff in consumption from these stockholders and homeowners is throwing the economy into a severe recession, which will threaten the jobs of almost everyone.

However, this just points to the urgency of a large government stimulus package. We need to replace the consumption of stockholders and homeowners with some other form of demand. The government has the capacity to spend enough money to replace this demand (as Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said, we can always print more money), the only question is whether it will have adequate political will.

The real lesson that the public should learn from recent experience is how the income of one segment of society is a cost to others. The wealthy understand this point very well, which is why they design policies (for example trade and immigration policies) that are intended to depress the wages of less-educated workers.

If they can get low-paid workers to tend their gardens, serve them meals in restaurants, paint their homes, and serve as nannies for their children, it raises their standard of living. The wealthy, along with the highly educated professionals who are largely sheltered from international competition, directly benefit when most workers are forced to accept lower living standards.

In the same vein, when the rich lose wealth it is a gain to everyone else. In short, they have our money. We don't need them to spend, since the government can spend just as well as rich people do. Unless they can show how their actions are increasing the productive potential of the economy as a whole (that would be quite a joke with regards to the Wall Street gang), the rest of us made better off when the rich have less.

In this particular episode of downward redistribution, tens of millions of middle class people took a big hit also, as their wealth was also tied up in the housing bubble and to a lesser extent the stock market. This is unfortunate (some of us did try to warn them), but it was an unavoidable part of a inevitable correction. Hopefully these folks will get better investment advice in the future.

-- This article was published on December 22, 2008 by The Guardian Unlimited. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2008/dec/22/us-economy-prices-goods]