Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reinventing the Middle East ... and more

Hmmm... Ralph Peters has an interesting concept of what a future Middle East could look like. Among other things, he proposes new nations like an Arab Shia state, "Free Baluchistan," and "Greater Kurdistan," and the "Islamic Sacred State;" significantly enlarged Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Yemen; and significantly shrunken Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Some of those things make sense, some don't.

Truthfully, I've thought along those lines, too. Being a map buff, I've played with maps of the tribes and languages in that area to craft an alternate Middle East, and it shares a few points with Peters. For example, I also came up with Kurdistan and Baluchistan, but his vision of a mega-Afghanistan makes no sense culturally. That nation even as it is today is a mess of peoples that don't function as a nation. It's Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Kyrgyz & other groups often don't share linguistic or cultural heritage. Some of them have significant numbers of their tribe in neighboring nations (namely, Pashtuns, who are also numerous in Pakistan, and Tajiks & Kyrgyz, who have their own countries), while others are seriously discriminated against (namely, the Hazara).

He leaves a rump Pakistan that has little cultural history at all -- the only reason Pakistan exists today is that it defined itself by its Muslim majority in the 1940s, after British India threw off London's yoke and Gandhi got assassinated. A real split based on cultural lines would eliminate Pakistan entirely, giving some (mostly the western regions) to other countries (above) and unifying the bulk of its people into what was, before and somewhat during British rule, a resurrected state of Punjab, which would include part of NW India.

Speaking of India, I think it's interesting that Peters only targets MUSLIM nations for dismemberment. Hindu India is the world's biggest polyglot nation, with literally hundreds of linguistic minorities and a history of being divided into many co-existing (and sometimes warring) nation-states. The nation's disunity stretches back millennia, to the days the first Indo-European tribes migrated from the north and settled in the Ganges valley, but left a large Dravidian population in the south.

To be sure, India has been unified numerous times in its history, but that unity was often a surface unity only, with urban areas (especially the Ganges Valley) accepting whatever the current imperial dynasty was but tribal areas (especially in the south) rejecting him. A great example is Ashoka's Empire, possibly the greatest Indian emperor. The top map is how his realm is typically depicted in historical atlases, but the bottom shows how puzzle-like it really was.

The fact that India is today a functioning democracy is largely despite those centrifugal pressures, but we still see them emerge at times. Today's most notable example is the Tamil Tiger revolt in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese Buddhist majority is trying to prevent the Tamil Hindu minority from slicing off the nation's NE third. Those Tamils have a significant presence on the Indian mainland, being a large majority in the state that bears their name, Tamil Nadu.

In some respects, I think Peters' proposal is merely a reflection of the current trend away from big nation-states and towards more ethnically-homogenous entities. Although he's unfortunately correct when he says that 5,000 years of experience shows that ethnic cleaning works, as we've seen in the Balkans and Iraq, I don't think a resurrection of tribalism or regionalism HAS to involve mass murder, as the mostly peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia and the USSR proved.

In some cases, such breakups would probably be beneficial in the long run. Take Turkey: Why does Ankara WANT to keep the fractious Kurds in the country? Why not let them form their own nation and wash Turkish hands of the problems caused by the feuds with PKK & similar groups? The primary reason is probably a vestige of Turkish memory of imperial glory, since the Kurds are the last remnant of the dozens of nationalities the Ottoman Empire ruled for centuries. But the more practical reason I can think of is water -- the Kurdish population resides in the highlands that spawn the Tigris & Euphrates rivers, while most of Turkey itself is semi-desert. An independent Kurdistan would be a major regional player for that reason (not to mention oil wells near Kirkuk & Mosul).

At times, I think this concept should be extended to the US, too. As time goes by, it seems like the liberal, cosmopolitan Northeast and Pacific coasts seem to be sliding away from the conservative, more segregated South and central states in attitude, education, religiosity, dialect, and various other factors. Are we seeing the development of new cultures? Probably; every major state in history (except maybe China) has given birth to new societies rooted in the old one. Many of those spin-offs happened violently, either by invasion or revolution, but we can't afford that today.

Instead, maybe it's time for the people of various states and regions to consider whether their interests are truly best served by being part of a federal America, or whether democracy is best served by having several countries and maintaining friendly contact via modern communications technology and family ties, but not political ones. There's no reason the US couldn't be similar to Europe, with several independent nations linked together by economy, geography, shared interests, and more-or-less open borders to travel and commerce. I think smaller states enable people to watch over and participate in government more easily and are therefore able to be more genuinely small-d democratic. Since this is likely to happen in time anyway, we might as well manage it consciously so as to ensure as much as possible that the outcome is peaceful and orderly. Otherwise, history shows it's very likely to be bloody and chaotic.

Thanks to Kelly at Singularity for the tip.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

When media muddy the waters

Last night, I caught the last half of 20/20's special "The Last Days of Earth." Much of what they said was pretty accurate, albeit seriously lacking in depth, detail, and source citation. The problem I have with the show, however, is that even I as a layman could see some things they said (or, more often showed) did not help the cause of good science.

If you didn't see it, you can probably guess what it was about by the title and the fact I'm writing about it on this blog -- various forms of apocalypse. They looked at seven, but I can't remember them all and only caught the last four: asteroids, nuclear war, global pandemic, and climate change, ranking the last as the most serious threat.

Common sense says all of those things are in fact real threats; but I'm not sure I'd give them the same order. To me, the most serious in terms of what it can ultimately do to humanity and nature is nuclear war, because, in a very real sense, it combines many of the effects of the other three. The combination of megadeaths plus long-term radiation plus a massive smoke pall plus other "synergies" would very likely destroy human civilization for a very long time and cause major changes in the genetics of human and natural communities alike.

Admittedly, I rank that a little higher than asteroids because, while a really big asteroid can actually sterilize Earth and I don't think we can nuke Earth into sterility, if a nuclear war happens it's our fault. Asteroids are impersonal; nuclear war is not.


Anyway, I'm digressing. 20/20's section on asteroids was simplistic but truthful about the prevailing theory that asteroids wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving mammals a chance to take over the reptiles' ecological niches. But the "reporters" then argued that an asteroid of the same size hitting Earth now would burn the crust to a depth of 60 miles. Obviously, that's crap: there's no way our mammalian ancestors would have survived such a strike. They lived semi-nocturnal, semi-underground lives, but not that far underground. The only lifeforms that have ever lived that far down are extremophile bacteria.

You can test the effects of various sizes of asteroids here or here.

It mentioned that people have found around 100,000 asteroids, but didn't mention that we occasionally lose some, are constantly finding some only when they cross Earth's orbit, and suspect there are countless more out there. Chances are, if one hits us, we won't see it until it's too close to do anything about.

Of course, they could be right about the one they mention specifically -- an asteroid that's due to make a close (within the Moon's orbit) pass in 2029. They don't say that will hit us -- general consensus is that it won't -- but that the near-miss might alter its orbit just enough to cause a hit the next time around in 2037. What they don't mention is just how small the risk really is: 1 in 26,000 in 2029 and cumulatively just .00023% chance between now and 2054, during which time it'll have three close approaches. The show doesn't identify that chunk of rock, but astronomers know it as 2004 MN4 or Apophis.

The show's discussion of what people are likely to do if faced with a probable direct hit was kind of interesting, but also fairly predictable. It's pretty safe to assume chaos would reign as the time drew near as people try to do things they'd never before attempted (for good and ill). Nobody said they'd go out and commit crimes (obviously, they wouldn't say it on national TV even if they would do it), but a few said they'd want to have children. Excuse me?!? How can someone be so supremely narcissistic as to bring children into a world they knew was going to get walloped by an extinction-level-huge asteroid?

What was equally troubling was what the show didn't mention -- the probability that some people would try to organize a major space effort to keep humanity alive off-world. Such an effort may well be the only thing that could prevent such widespread chaos, and I've said before that I believe we need a good global space program as insurance against just such a catastrophe.


The section on nukes was woefully vague and much shorter than the subject warranted. It didn't say anything about radiation or various other ill effects, although it did point out (accurately, I think) that the nuke threat from places like Iran and North Korea is being blown out of proportion to the risk caused by the thousands of nukes the US and Russia still have on "launch on warning" status. It failed to mention, however, that both nations are trying to create new, smaller, more mobile nukes, especially the U.S. Add that to the simmering problems in the Middle East, and it may be time to revisit the Doomsday Clock's setting of 7 minutes to midnight, which hasn't changed since 1992.

The one really questionable assertion they made was that "an exchange of just 20 missiles would cause nuclear winter for several years." The problem here is that the number of missiles is irrelevant, what matters is the number and strength of the warheads and where they explode -- urban or rural, airburst or groundburst. Burning cities are significantly more likely to spew the toxic smoke into the sky that can block sunlight and cool the land, especially if hit by warheads that explode close enough to the surface for soil and debris to get sucked into the fireball. Even the TTAPS study of the early 1980s predicted a 5,000 MT threshold for nuclear winters, which requires significantly more than 20 missiles.

Elsewhere Sagan (as cited by Alan Phillips), notes it could happen with as few as 100 warheads if the targets are predominantly oil refineries and associated structures. Obviously, we don't know for sure... and sane folks don't want to. There's some controversy over the TTAPS calculations, sparking some of the theory's supporters to acknowledge that there needs to be more research done in this area. We've got better climate-study technology and computer simulation capability than we did in the 1980s, let's target it on this threat.

Desmond Ball of the Australian Nat'l University argues even more specifically that even a full-scale war hitting both cities and strategic weapons sites, which Ball estimates at 4140 to 4650 MT, would throw up less smoke than Sagan's nuclear winter threshold of 100 million tons, largely because of where those missile silos are -- in farmfields and tundra, not forest.

Obviously, I'm not citing him to downplay nuclear war's horrors. Even without nuclear winter, it would be by far the worst calamity to have ever hit mankind, and for that reason, I'm still in favor of banning the bomb.

My guess is that a full-scale nuclear holocaust would actually leave most people alive in the short-term, but hundreds of millions, if not billions, would not survive the social, economic, and agricultural disruption, radiation, temporary loss of the ozone layer, diseases, and other problems that can reasonably be expected after such a catastrophe, even if the temperature change is minimal. (Imagine what shape Europe or Japan would've been in for years after WW2 if the US had not created the Marshall Plan. That's the catch -- global nuclear war isn't likely to leave anyone untouched, even nations that don't get bombed, simply due to the nature of fallout and our world's high level of economic interconnectedness.) But I suspect humans will still be here long term, reduced in numbers and cultural complexity and possibly permanently unable to regain today's level of technology, science, and the possibility of reaching the stars.


I can't claim to have anything resembling detailed knowledge of this subject, since I'm not a doctor and have no medical experience of any sort. But as a layman with some knowledge of history, I noticed a couple of things that seemed a little out of whack. In one place, they claim the 1918 Flu Pandemic "killed only 3% of those who caught it." That figure didn't ring true ... but it was. If anything, it was higher than the actual percentage (I came up with about 2.5%). The New England Journal of Medicine reports that "the pandemic of 1918 and 1919 killed 50 million to 100 million people" worldwide. NPR adds, "About 25 percent of the population was infected, with perhaps 650,000 people dying from the virus." At that time, US population was about 104,550,000.

According to the same NEJM article, "more than half the deaths occurred among largely healthy people between 18 and 40 years of age and were caused by a virus-induced cytokine storm (see diagram) that led to the acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ...If we translate the rate of death associated with the 1918 influenza virus to that in the current population, there could be 1.7 million deaths in the United States and 180 million to 360 million deaths globally."

The show also notes that smallpox & other germs could be used as weapons. In its present state, the show said, smallpox kills about 30% of its victims -- a significantly higher rate than the 1918 Flu. Under some circumstances, it's even more deadly -- some evidence suggests the death rate among the biologically unprotected Native American population exceeded 65%.

Climate Change

This was an unfortunate mixture of mostly good spoken fact and grossly misleading imagery. Most obvious was when they spoken of sea level rising if Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt -- 20 feet individually, 40 feet together. That's a pretty severe rise, one that would (as their sources, which includes climatologists and Al Gore, said) inundate south Florida, southern Louisiana, Bangladesh, parts of Manhattan and possibly London, and many other coastal areas. but teh graphics shown at teh same time exaggerated the flooding immensely: they showed blue covering over half of FLorida, huge stretches of the UK, and even mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and Africa far from the coasts.

As TV studios know quite well, people pay far more attention to images than words, a fact that makes such a presentation a major league disservice to the work the scientists are doing. By so exaggerating a threat that is serious enough on its own, it only provides ammunition to the very naysayers the show largely (and accurately) discounted verbally.

Instead of hyped up graphics of biblical proportions, they should have taken the time to show realistic maps of the potential sea level rise, scenery from areas that are already seeing problems, etc. Among those available are these ones from the EPA (note that they only show a 3.5 m rise), or go to places like this (USGS) or any decent topographic map of seashore regions and figure it out yourself from the contours.

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10+ years and little change...

I came across the article this links to while doing some research for a story at work. It's a little old (1995), but much of what it says hasn't changed significantly. If you're concerned about protecting public education and the transmission of secular ideals, please read it.