Sunday, April 25, 2004

Here are some excerpts from another Mike Davis article. This one raises the idea of the network form as the architecture of resistance to Empire. The excerpt is from The Pentagon as Global Slumlord (located on the site). As usual w/ Mike Davis's writings, the whole thing is very much worth reading, but here's one section I thought was especially relevant to this blog:

'More recently, a leading Air Force theorist has made similar points in the Aerospace Power Journal. "Rapid urbanization in developing countries," writes Captain Troy Thomas in the spring 2002 issue, "results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned."

'Thomas contrasts modern, "hierarchical" urban cores, whose centralized infrastructures are easily crippled by either air strikes (Belgrade) or terrorist attacks (Manhattan), with the sprawling slum peripheries of the Third World, organized by "informal, decentralized subsystems, "where no blueprints exist, and points of leverage in the system are not readily discernable." Using the "sea of urban squalor" that surrounds Pakistan's Karachi as an example, Thomas portrays the staggering challenge of "asymmetric combat" within "non-nodal, non-hierarchical" urban terrains against "clan-based" militias propelled by "desperation and anger." He cites the sprawling slums of Lagos, Nigeria, and Kinshasa in the Congo as other potential nightmare battlefields.'

(The entire article is available here: Slumlords Aerospace Power in Urban Fights)

Cities are networks. Here's how Thomas describes the urban terrain:

"One can understand cities as a set of interrelated elements interacting as whole cities interdependent with the environment- cities are not islands. Rather, they are connected to a surrounding mixed terrain or rural setting through permeable boundaries and LOCs [lines of communication - jd], a fact having much significance to urban airpower strategies, operations, and tactics. With a systemic perspective, airmen should better orient their thinking to relationships and patterns of activity rather than static objects or individual events in time and space." [good advice anywhere - jd]

In his article, it's clear that Thomas's "nonnodal" terrain is really a kind of terrain that does not present the kind of targets that aircraft can hit (e.g., a microwave tower). That is, the terrain isn't really "nonnodal", rather, the nodes just aren't visible. City networks may have a granularity that is not visible from 30,000 or 10,000 or even 1,000 feet -- the nodes are too small or informal to be visible at that distance. Instead, the communications system nodes might consist of walkie-talkies or low-power radio, easily concealed and highly mobile.

"A systems approach recognizes that complex, interacting urban factors, including the relationships of human activity, intersect at key nodes. The more decentralized and unconventional the enemy, the more difficulty in discerning the nodes. The problem is compounded in the sprawling peripheries. The dynamic complexity of cities often means that relationships between cause and effect are difficult to discern and that the effects of aerospace power may be delayed in time."

Under "primitive city" conditions w/ "unconventional forces", air power attempts to achieve "indirect effects".

"Warfare in a primitive city against an unconventional force, however, is more the domain of ground forces conducting tactical engagements. Aerospace power can achieve operational effects here as well, but indirectly, through cumulative attacks on key relationships (such as movement patterns, personal exchanges, and fluid assembly areas). "

"Indirect effects flow out of direct attacks but are delayed in time or removed in space. These effects are more difficult to predict, given the highly complex nature of the connections between subsystems and threats. One can also achieve operational effects indirectly as the result of cumulative tactical effects. One may need to use this approach in primitive cities against unconventional enemies due to the lack of knowledge about subsystems. As previously asserted, both the system and the threat exist outside government control and may actually be nonnodal, featuring unpredictable, inconspicuous relationships." (Thomas)

Saturday, April 03, 2004

This column is referenced in a blog post from August, 2003. Here's the column in full:

Lights out!

Last week's (August 12, 2003) power blackout that hit eight U.S. states and Canada on the surface looks to be a power line failure in Ohio. The failure cascaded from there, affecting millions of people, and costing the stressed economy upwards of $6 billion. But the chain, or rather, the web of causality -- what really caused the problem -- stretches much farther than that.

Our economy, when you get down to it, operates according to a set of very basic laws. I'm not talking about judges-courts-police type laws. I'm talking about the kind of laws or rules that say how the parts of a process interact with each other. The law of gravity, for example, describes how two masses attract each other. Our economy is governed by the underlying rule that a capitalist must maximize profit -- make as much money -- as possible. If a capitalist fails to maximize profit, in an open market, another capitalist will come along and do that. And since capitalism is a competitive system, the successful capitalist will drive the unsuccessful one out of business.

Understanding this simple rule explains a lot about our economy. The electrical system is no exception. Maximizing profit has driven the deregulation of the power system. With no government rules, the basic law of capitalism can freely operate. For example:

"Unregulated utility affiliates and independent power companies built power plants far from their home markets, in parts of the country where demand is high or where there are plentiful supplies of natural gas -- to produce power -- as well as regulators likely to grant the necessary permits... This put an additional strain on parts of the transmission system." (Wall Street Journal, 8/18/03)

To complicate things, in deregulated markets, power companies have an incentive to run their generators at full capacity, loading up the transmission system since electricity can't be stored. And companies can seek out whatever electricity provider is offering the cheapest price at any moment, no matter how far away. This makes the links in the network -- the power lines and substations -- even more critical in tying together the huge regional electrical grids. But stringing new transmission lines isn't as profitable as making electricity. So electricity demand is up 35% over the past 10 years; but the carrying capacity of the country's high voltage electrical lines is up only 18%, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry group. Can you hear the Final Jeopardy music swelling in the background? Or is it the theme from Jaws?

The Republicans and Democrats are falling over each other to cut taxes and regulations and transfer more money to the already rich (another way to maximize profits). Public services are privatized; and government oversight is cut back or eliminated -- let the market take care of it. The systems that we all depend on are put entirely in the hands of private capitalists. In turn, capitalists must obey the iron law that profit must be maximized. So private power companies set about cutting costs and moving money to places where the bucks are easiest to make. In the most deregulated markets, a crisis can be entirely driven by unrestrained capitalists, as in the Enron-manufactured California power crisis of 2000 - 2001.

So the conditions are set for disaster. Where and when disaster will strike exactly is impossible to predict, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that something bad will happen. Like they say about complexity theory: deterministic, not predictive. The interconnected system means that local problems, given such conditions -- selfish self-interest, deregulation, aging and overloaded infrastructure -- will cascade to global failure.

In the September, 2003 Wired: "Power Up! Twenty years from now, the whole world will be sharing electricity through one grid." Welcome to the future.

Jim Davis
Cells have been described as networks of interacting proteins (see e.g. Vogelstein, Bert, David Lane and Arnold J. Levine. 2000. "Surfing the p53 network". Nature 408, 307 - 310 (November 16, 2000)). But the cell as a living thing -- that metabolizes, reproduces, reacts and evolves is more than the sum of its molecular parts. The network in this case is much more that its parts.

Sharon Begley's Science Journal column on April 2, 2004, Researchers Exploring 'What Is Life?' Seek To Create a Living Cell (may need a subscription or to register) describes various efforts by scientists to construct a cell that reflects the qualities of "life".

"One of the deepest mysteries in biology is how molecules that are no more alive than the tip of a pencil can form a reproducing, metabolizing, evolving organism. If you plop a droplet of any of the molecules that make up living cells (fats, amino acids, water, DNA, other organic molecules) onto a glass slide, it just sits there. No one would mistake it for a living thing. Yet when the right ingredients assemble in the right proportions, the result comes alive, as it did on Earth some 3.8 billion years ago.

"The transformation is so profound that most scientists until the 19th century believed in the theory called vitalism. This holds that living things possess a mysterious "vital spark" that endows them with life, and that life cannot be explained by mere chemistry and physics. But today, harnessing no more than thermodynamics, electromagnetism and chemistry, scientists are taking steps toward creating a living cell."

Researchers have constructed self-replicating vesicles that function like the cell membrane, others have gotten amino acid molecules to chain together into synthetic RNA molecules. Others have discovered that clay, of all things, "can speed up the conversion of little clusters of molecules into vesicles, making the formation of a cell membrane even easier. Inside the vesicle, the clay particles grab hold of short bits of RNA and assemble them into a long strand. Voila: a little sphere containing genetic material able to grow and copy itself." ("But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.", Isaiah 64:8)

"The missing ingredient in this cell wannabe is metabolism, but Steen Rasmussen of Los Alamos National Lab thinks he can provide it. He and Liaohai Chen of Argonne National Lab have designed a microscopic container with metabolic molecules and genes whose electrical properties drive metabolic reactions. The scientists have demonstrated experimentally that this micrometabolism can produce exactly the molecules the container is made of (so the system would be able to grow)."

Begley concludes: "If researchers manage to create living cells from scratch, their mastery of the machinery of life could blur the line between alive and not-alive. Combining the traits of artificial cells with nanotechnology, Dr. Rasmussen and colleagues wrote in a recent issue of Science [Transitions from Nonliving to Living Matter, Science 2004 303: 963-965], could produce machines that 'would literally form the basis of a living technology possessing powerful capabilities and raising important social and ethical' questions."

The network transcends even the interactions of its parts to exhibit amazing new qualities.