Jun 202012
 

This is what an EMP explosion would look like from a distance – widespread red air glow and dark clouds.

Those of you in the Seattle area probably associate the letters EMP with Paul Allen’s quirky Experience Music Project at the Seattle Center.  But that’s most definitely not what we’re sharing with you now.

We’re talking, instead, about electromagnetic pulses – a type of radiation burst typically created by the detonation of a nuclear device high above the earth, which creates electrical and magnetic fields capable of destroying just about any and all modern electronics over a huge area.

In today’s society, totally dependent on the ongoing functioning of the electrical and electronic devices that have become essential to every element of our survival, an EMP event would be as close to a total – and instantaneous – doomsday scenario as is anything else imaginable, likely or unlikely.

Let’s talk about what an EMP is, how destructive it could be, and why it is of great appeal to enemy powers and terrorist groups.  A subsequent article will talk about what measures we can take to protect us from the worst effects of an EMP attack.

What an EMP Is

Typically, nuclear weapons are detonated either below ground (bunker busting type bombs), at ground level, or, for generally most optimum results, at very low altitude so as to create the largest blast radius and maximum damage.  That is bad for us if we are nearby at the time, but the good news, for everyone else, is that these events don’t create measurable and widespread EMP effects.

But if a nuclear device is detonated 50+ miles up into the atmosphere, a very different set of consequences flows through to us on the ground.

The good news now is that the blast effects of the explosion may be close to negligible.  But the bad news is that the device will create a massive EMP effect, extending out over a much larger area.

Although we talk of an EMP event as if it were a single thing, there are actually three components to an EMP.

The first component is called the E1 pulse.  When the bomb goes off, it releases a burst of gamma radiation.  This gamma radiation knocks electrons out of air molecules in the upper atmosphere, about 60,000 – 125,000 ft above the earth’s surface.

The electrons start to speed away and generally downwards, away from the force of the gamma radiation.  But these charged particles then interact with the earth’s magnetic field before colliding with other atoms/molecules in the atmosphere.

This interaction with the magnetic field sets up the E1 electro-magnetic component of the overall EMP effect.  This is the part that generates the zapping/electronic destroying effects.

The entire E1 event occurs very quickly, with particles traveling at close to the speed of light (186,000 miles every second).  From start to finish is typically less than one thousandth of a second (and usually so fast – and so powerful – that any protective/overload circuits either don’t have time to respond or are overwhelmed by the strength of the pulse).

But wait, there’s more.

The relatively good news is that the E2 component is relatively mild, and produces effects similar to interference caused by lightning flashes in a thunderstorm.  It lasts up to a second.

The problem with the E2 pulse is the E1 pulse that happened immediately prior to the E2 pulse has probably zapped protective devices like surge protectors, and so whereas the E2 pulse, by itself, would do little damage, when it follows an E1 pulse that has most likely zapped out all the protective devices, it becomes more dangerous.  If anything survived the E1 pulse, it is now at risk of the E2 pulse effects.

And now for the third component, which you can probably guess is called, of course, the E3 component.

This is a much slower effect, lasting potentially five or more minutes.  It is the result of the nuclear blast ‘pushing’ the earth’s magnetic field out of its normal alignment, and then the magnetic field returning back to its normal alignment (we hope!).

This effect is similar to that caused by a solar storm.  The E3 pulse is less dangerous to micro-electronics, but it is a huge problem for devices connected to ‘long conductors’ – think power and phone lines, and damage to power switching substations and the like.

There are other effects too, primarily to do with the atmosphere’s ability to absorb or reflect radio waves, and these can go on for some hours, but are of less direct impact for most of us and provide little long-term harm to anyone or anything.

So add it all up and you have the 1-2 knockout blow from the E1 and E2 pulses to destroy small electrical and electronic devices, and then the E3 pulse comes along to destroy high voltage/high current devices like the power grid’s transformers and other control circuitry.

We end up with no electronics and no power either.

The Range of an EMP

Because an EMP device is detonated way high in the atmosphere, it can ‘see’ a very long way to its horizon – the point where the earth’s curvature protects the rest of the earth from its destructive effects.

An EMP also has a surprisingly constantly strong effect over huge areas.  It isn’t like the effects of a normal explosion that rapidly gets weaker as you get further away from it.  This is because the close in areas to the EMP detonation point are sort of maxed out (due to the atmosphere getting overloaded from all the gamma radiation and ‘shorting itself out’).

The EMP pattern is also not symmetrical, because it interacts with the earth’s magnetic field.  The gamma ray burst out of the bomb is probably symmetrical, but the electromagnetic field created by the electrons released by the gamma rays tend to spread out in a semi-circle directed towards the equator.

One single detonation, about 250 miles above the earth, and at a point more or less midway along the border between North and South Dakota would distribute dangerous levels of EMP pulse across almost the entire US.  California, Florida, and the Eastern seaboard would be in fringe areas, as you can see on this map.

This shows the spread of energy levels from an EMP pulse; the numbers are a measure of electrical strength in Volts/meter.

 

Note that the uncolored outer parts of the map are not free of EMP effects.  Instead, they simply have lesser amounts of E1 and E2 effects, and the E3 component has probably fried the entire country’s electrical grid anyway.

It is probable that an EMP attack would probably have at least two devices detonating, some time apart – one a bit further southeast of the location on the above map to get the eastern part of the country, and the other a bit further southwest so as to be sure to give California a good toasting too.

Here is another graphic which shows another set of suggested radii for EMP explosions at varying heights.  Unfortunately, this graphic is not quite as sophisticated as the one above – it fails to allow for the distorting effect of the magnetic field and we draw your attention to it more to point out that it is incorrect rather than that it is correct, although the general concept of how far an EMP would be felt as related to the height of the explosion is useful to see.

The Growing Vulnerability of Modern Electronics to EMP

The E1 and E2 components of an EMP create a voltage across space.  Think of two wires with a spark going between them.  You probably know that the higher the voltage between them, the stronger the spark, and you probably also know that if the voltage is low enough, there will be no spark at all.

It requires approximately 20,000 volts for a spark to travel one inch.  Or, to put this another way, a one volt difference will spark across a 20,000th of an inch.

Integrated circuits – the ‘chips’ in computers and other solid state controller devices – have shrunk in size down to as little as 10 nanometers between ‘wires’ in the chips, and with some new devices going down as low as 1.5 nanometers.  There are 25,400 nanometers in an inch, so for a spark to travel 10 nanometers would require a potential difference of about 8 volts (in air).

While EMPs don’t create that intensity of voltage (they are projected to run between about 20,000 – 50,000 volts per yard/meter, or about 500 – 1250 volts per inch), it is possible for wires in a chip and other wires connected to the chip to act as ‘antennas’, and just like a radio antenna that magnifies and feeds in the signal of the radio waves to a radio receiver, these antennas can inadvertently and unavoidably magnify the EMP signal and then feed it into the chip, readily allowing voltages much greater than 8 volts to then arc across the circuitry and ‘fry’ the device.

The increasing miniaturization and closer and closer packing of components in chips is reducing the amount of voltage needed to arc across from one wire/component to another, with the arcing damaging/destroying the circuits in the process (as you can probably guess, with computer chips there is really no such thing as a ‘damaged’ chip – it either works or doesn’t work – even a small measure of damage is enough to destroy the device’s overall functionality).

The lower the voltage, the more likely it is that whatever amount of EMP induced voltage there is ‘out there’ that gets carried in to the device will be sufficient to destroy it.

We mentioned, above, that state of the art now involves distances in the order of 10 nanometers (requiring an 8 V potential difference for arcing to occur).  Compare that to the early computers of not quite 30 years ago – the 8088 chip had 3,000 nanometer circuitry – 300 times more widely spaced, and requiring about 2500 V to arc across it.

So in less than 30 years, our computerized equipment has become 300 times more vulnerable to EMP effects.  Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it.

There’s another factor at work, too.  Thirty years ago (we’re using this time period at random – choose any other time period you like and adjust appropriately) computers were still rare, and most devices were ‘analog’ rather than ‘digital’. Cars had points and coils rather than electronic ignition, and had no computer controllers in them at all.  Maybe a 30-year-old car exposed to a high level E1/2 pulse might have part of its coil short out, or arcing over the contacts in its points, but those are minor issues requiring minimal repair work to restore the car to working order.

What happens to a modern car (or bus or truck or plane or boat any other vehicle at all) when its multiple computer control circuits are all fried?  Do you even know how many computers are in a typical car these days?  Typically anywhere from perhaps 30 or so in a basic car up to 100 or more in a fully optioned up-market car.

It isn’t just transportation.  Look around your house.  The same ‘stealth’ proliferation of computers is occurring everywhere.  Even such basic things as your phone has gone from totally analog and mechanical (remember rotary dial telephones?) to computerized, and the same can be said for your stove, your fridge, your heating thermostat, and many other things where you’ve taken for granted the evolution from mechanical controls to electronic controls without even thinking about it.

Derivative Damage Too

The problem of an EMP pulse extends beyond the destruction of much electrical and electronic equipment and control circuitry.  What happens to the devices that these circuits are controlling when the circuits themselves suddenly fail?

If you are driving your car down the road, you are probably okay.  Your engine will fail, you’ll lose your power steering and power brakes, but you should be able to step hard on the brake pedal and wrestle the steering wheel to pull your car over and to a safe stop.

But what if you are in a plane?  What happens when not only its engines fail, but so too do the flight management and control surface computers?

What happens when your freezer fails?  You lose all the food in it.  What happens when the pumping circuitry at the city water supply fails?  You lose fresh water.  What happens when the cool store refrigeration fails?  Up to a year’s worth of apples, potatoes, whatever, all start to rapidly spoil – and, with no working trucks, there’s no way to get them to the markets and for people to do something with them.

What happens when the banking system’s computers all fail?  How does your employer get money to pay you?  What do you do for cash with ATM machines frozen, and bank vaults unable to be opened, and even if the banks could open their vaults, how would they know how much money to give you without being able to access your account records?

Indeed, if you have any sort of job that involves any sort of computerization (in other words, just about every job out there now!) your employer is going to be struggling to remain in business.  Maybe you’ll not have a job any more.

What happens when the computerized equipment used to make medicines fail?  What happens when the control circuitry at the local nuclear power station fails (or starts to give erroneous commands)?  And so on and so on.  It isn’t just the loss of the control functions, but the consequences that impact on the things they were controlling that will be harmful to us too.

Multiple Dangers

People too often think of how to survive an EMP attack in terms of a ‘single strike’ – that is, of only one EMP detonation occurring.

But if you were an enemy nation or terrorist group, and if you had multiple nuclear devices (it seems that any and every power that has one nuclear weapon has many more than one) why would you content yourself with a single EMP attack?  Wouldn’t it make sense to trigger a second EMP a few days after the first EMP – this second event would then take out all the reserve and protected equipment that had been subsequently deployed and were now being pressed into service.

Maybe also some partially hardened devices had survived the first attack, but in a damaged/weakened form.  Perhaps half the national electricity grid was still operating (very unlikely, but we can always hope).  A second EMP could overwhelm and complete the destruction of devices that were partially impaired with the first EMP attack.

To put it more colorfully, a first EMP could bomb us back to a level of technological deployment similar to the mid/late nineteenth century.  A second EMP truly would take us back to the stone age (okay, so we slightly exaggerate, but you get the point).

The concept of a delayed follow-up attack is already well enshrined in warfare.  World War 2 saw aerial bombing of cities with a mix of regular bombs and delayed action bombs, with the intention being the delayed action bombs, when they too exploded, would take out the cities’ first responder and damage control teams.

But wait, there’s more.  If two, why not three?  Four?  The reality is that as soon as a single EMP attack occurs, we have to plan to live a life that has an ever-present ongoing danger of future EMP attacks, too.

This consideration massively complicates the creation of a comprehensive prepping plan to survive multiple EMP attacks.

The Appeal of an EMP Attack to an Enemy

The most obvious appeal of an EMP type of attack is that it would be more colossally devastating to the US than any other form of nuclear attack.  This is the other side of the coin – the more we expose ourselves and make our country vulnerable to an EMP attack, the more attractive and more likely one becomes.

There are other reasons that also encourage our enemies to consider an EMP attack.  An EMP style of nuclear device is probably the easiest type of nuclear device to construct, and doesn’t need to be very powerful – a country with only a limited amount of uranium could use it to make more EMP bombs than regular bombs.

An EMP style of attack also doesn’t need precise targeting.  A much cruder type of missile can be used to convey the bomb from wherever it may be launched, with CEP accuracy of as much as 100 miles (ie having the missile detonate anywhere in a 100 mile radius of its target point) being more than adequate.  Whereas missiles aimed at hardened targets need CEP accuracy in the order of tens of yards, and missiles aimed at population centers need to have accuracy of perhaps 5 miles or so, an EMP device has no such constraints, making for a massive reduction in the complicated process of delivering a missile to its target.

So if you were a terrorist group, or an enemy state, which would you prefer?  Two EMP bombs that between them would totally wipe out all industry and electronics across the entire US, a loss which would take years if not decades to recover from, or a single bomb that would destroy much but not all of only one major city?

There’s another aspect to this as well.  A traditional nuclear attack on typical targets would damage the country, for sure, but those parts of the country unharmed would be, well, unharmed, as would those parts of our military forces, leaving us with the ability to mount a conventional or nuclear return attack on the attacker (assuming we knew who and where the enemy was, of course).  But an EMP attack would zero out much of our advanced technology, and these days our armed services is all about technologically based ‘force multipliers’.  If our armed services lost all their fancy comms and data and GPS type capabilities, all their night-sights and other gadgetry, they’d be ill-equipped to take on other forces around the world, making our ability to stage a counter-attack much less certain.

It is true that the military continue to research and develop ‘hardening’ capabilities to make some of their equipment somewhat EMP resilient.  But their procedures embody some assumptions about the maximum possible levels of EMP that need to be withstood, and these assumptions may not be fully correct.  Furthermore, the nature of inter-locking dependencies in our modern world is such that, in the armed services and in society in general, failures of just one system may render many other systems inoperable.  A 90% resiliency to an EMP attack doesn’t mean the forces maintain a 90% effectiveness rate; their effectiveness might drop to 50% or even to 10%.

So, selecting an EMP type of attack seems an easy and obvious choice for a terrorist, doesn’t it.  Unfortunately.

As for us as preppers, while we might carefully choose a retreat location so as to be well removed from obvious nuclear targets, there is nowhere in North America where we’d be safely away from the effects of an EMP based attack.

We will write subsequently about what can be done to minimize the impacts of an EMP attack.

Jun 052012
 

The next attack on the US may be via cyber-warfare rather than traditional means.

Here is an interesting two page article on the CNBC website.

It is interesting and also has some irony in it.  The irony is that one of the best known ‘virus hunter’ companies out there, Kaspersky Labs in Moscow, is rumored to be associated with the Russian intelligence services.  Are they really friend or foe – good guys or bad guys?

And even if not controlled by or working in cooperation with Russia’s security services, note also the comment about its passive non-activities when confronting Russian originated cybercrime – and the huge $12 billion a year value of cybercrime at present.

Kaspersky’s call for an international treaty banning cyber-warfare seems naive and would disadvantage us if passed.  Cyber-warfare is, by definition, discreet and obfuscated; and if successful one never really knows what happened, how, or why, and – most to the point – one never knows which nation originated the attack.

An international treaty against cyber-warfare would only constrain ‘honest’ countries – the countries we have the least to fear from, while doing nothing at all to discourage dishonest countries from pressing forward with their cyber-warfare plans.  Unlike the complex industrial processes needed to research and built a nuclear weapon, cyber-warfare research leaves no clues of its presence.  All the attackers need are a few computers.

However, when Kaspersky points out that a cyber-attack could disrupt power grids and financial systems, and wreak havoc with military defenses, he is echoing our concerns, and when he says cyber weapons are the most dangerous innovation of this century, he is exactly correct.  He goes on to explain that a growing array of countries and shadowy other entities (terrorist organizations, organized crime groups, etc) are using ‘online weapons’ because they are thousands of times cheaper than conventional armaments.

He doesn’t say, but could, that cyber attacks are also thousands of times safer for the attacker.

Implications for Preppers

The main reason for our several mentions of cyber-threats recently is simply to point out another area where society is vulnerable to a massive failure that could mean the end of Life as we know it (LAWKI).

As Kaspersky points out, a computer virus could disrupt/destroy our power grid or our financial system, and that’s just the start of a long list of vulnerabilities.  As we’ve said before, we challenge you to mention any essential part of our life today that doesn’t rely on computerization.

The bottom line is clear (at least to us as preppers).  Many people, with both eyes tightly shut, like to think of modern society as invulnerable, or at the least, as ‘fault tolerant’ and resilient.  If something fails in our modern society, these people like to think that it would only require a few minor adjustments to return life pretty much back to ‘normal’.  We disagree.

Modern society is not fault tolerant.  It has a growing series of interlocking dependencies, and with ‘just in time inventories’ and with much less underlying industrial capacity and longer lead times to retool up and create productive capacity to manufacture just about anything and everything, it only requires the failure of one seemingly small part of the total structure of our society to result in the entire edifice crumbling and crashing to the ground.

Many of these vulnerabilities are subtle and are things that we’ve never even stopped to think about – for example, the fire in a single small factory in Germany that now threatens the global automobile industry.  While that is hardly a society-destroying failure, it indicates how small things have unexpected and much larger consequences, and who knows what the next failure or consequence might be.

We can’t prevent such failures from unexpectedly occurring, and neither can we predict what they are and when they might happen and what the outcomes might be.  All we can do is prepare for the consequences.

Our Retreat Systems Are Vulnerable Too

One more thing.  It is wise to maintain a general distrust of all computerized equipment.  Computer viruses don’t just attack what we think of as computers – devices with a screen and keyboard which we can browse the internet on.  They also attack computer controllers – the internal control circuits that are becoming an essential part of almost everything, from automobiles to elevators, from home automation systems to industrial machines, from credit/debit card readers in a store or gas station to stop lights and other traffic management systems, from airplanes to telecommunications, and for sure, the network hubs and routers that are the glue that binds the internet together.

All of these computer controllers can be infected with viruses to disrupt how they control the device they are installed inside, and with many times a very wide range of different devices all using the same internal controllers, the potential for widespread havoc and disruption is magnified.

For example, at your retreat, you may have some electricity generating equipment – maybe a generator, maybe solar panels, maybe even a wind turbine.  And you probably have a bank of batteries to store electricity.  Which means you also have some sort of charging and battery management control system, which almost certainly is managed by a computerized controller.  What happens if the computerized controller starts misbehaving?

It is probably impossible to build an effective efficient retreat without using some computerized controllers, and the risk is that for all you know, the computerized controller has within it a hidden line of code that says ‘On Dec 21, 2012, stop working’ (a terrorist with a sense of humor!).  Of course this is just one example of how a virus could be activated, there are many other ‘trigger’ events that could apply too.

All we are saying is that after you’ve built your first layer of preparations, start to think about ‘what if’ events that could impact on them.  In the case of computerized controls, you need to consider a double vulnerability – not just cyber-warfare, but also to EMP effects too.

May 302012
 

Could an airplane's computers be tricked into misbehaving and causing the plane to crash?

In our recent article about the implications of a war with Iran, we mentioned the potential of Iran to mount a bloodless cyber-attack against us, with their hackers attacking our infrastructure’s computers from the comfort of their homes and offices in Iran, rather than soldiers attacking us more directly.

It is our feeling that few people appreciate the dangers and risks of a cyber-attack, and in the last couple of days there have been a couple of interesting news items that help to put this in context.  We discuss these below.

But, first, as a quick summary about cyber-vulnerabilities, do you remember back to the fuss about the Y2K bug?  This concern happily did not translate to a nightmare reality – but not because the concern was unfounded, but due to enormous efforts (and many billions of dollars) at rewriting and updating software in the several years prior to that date subsequent to people realizing that there was a problem that otherwise would occur.

The concern back then was what would happen if all sorts of computers started to malfunction due to date logic errors – computers as diverse as those that operate lifts, those that operate food refrigeration facilities, and so on.  Think of anything you do in your life today, and you’ll quickly find some sort of computer/controller is directly related to the smooth experience you expect and usually enjoy.  Indeed, we challenge you to think of something that is moderately important in your life which could work if the ‘behind the scenes’ computers malfunctioned.

The invidious nature of cyber-attacks is that to defend against them, the computer systems being attacked must be 100% invulnerable and bug-free.  As you surely know, the 100% perfect, bug-free,.computer program or operating system does not exist.  Such paragons of computing perfection may have existed, decades ago, when computers were very much simpler.  But nowadays, with millions of lines of programming in modern computer programs, and many more millions of different combinations of scenarios/events, it is close to impossible to make software bug-free.  As proof of this impossibility, a decade or two ago, software developers rewrote their guarantees and they no longer warrant their software to be bug-free and for sure they disclaim any liability for any problems arising from bugs in their software.

Because we don’t know what, where, and how such bugs exist and can be exploited (if we did know, the bugs would presumably be resolved), it is very hard to safeguard computers from cyber-attack.  Even if we completely disconnect computers from the internet, they are not truly isolated.  The underlying operating system and the even lower-level firmware and BIOS type programming built into the actual hardware all had to come from somewhere – there are plenty of examples of infected distribution disks that people have used to load computer operating systems onto fresh new computers, or infected software direct from a manufacturer, or of actual hardware with ‘back doors’ (see below) deliberately engineered into them.

The vulnerabilities continue.  Every time a person shares a file, there is a chance that there is some sort of infection in that file.  Even a simple safe seeming word processing document can contain programs these days.

An Example of a Current Cyber-Attack

With that as background, it is helpful to see the latest real-world example of a military style cyber-attack.  As we mentioned in our earlier article about Iran, while Iran is one of only five nations known to have a cyber army, Iran is – to date – more notable for having been on the receiving end of cyber-attacks rather than of generating them.  The Stuxnet virus was the highest profile (but not only) example of a cyber-attack on Iran when our article was written, but now news has come out of a newer more sophisticated attack, using what is termed the Flame virus.

Here’s a good article about what Flame is and be sure to look at the graphic that sets out some of the things this virus can do as well.  Amazingly, it seems that the Flame virus has been ‘in the wild’ – ie, out there, infecting computers, and collecting/distributing data – for between two and possibly five years, and only now is being subject to public disclosure.

At present, the big difference between Stuxnet and Flame is that the former was used to destroy equipment controlled by virally infected controllers (here’s an explanation), whereas the latter is currently operating in an intelligence gathering mode.  But who knows what else Flame might be capable of, and also, who knows what other independent infections Flame hasn’t subsequently created in the machines it now inhabits.

Our point is simply this.  If a country as ‘closed’ as Iran, a country that has been subject to past cyber-attacks, can be re-infected again and again with viruses, and if it can take up to five years for these infections to be discovered, who knows what is residing on key computers here in the US already, let alone what might infect them in the future.

Planes Falling From the Skies – An Example of a Potential Risk

Now for something a bit closer to home.  Until recently, all planes were controlled mechanically.  The pilot would turn the control column in the cockpit, and a series of wires would then carry that movement back to the ailerons, elevators and rudder and make them move in direct response to the movement on the control column.  Similarly, moving the throttle levels on the quadrant in the cockpit also directly controlled the engines.

It used to be the same in our cars, too.  In nearly all cases, our brakes are still directly controlled, albeit with ‘power’ boosting systems, and the same with the steering, but most modern cars these days no longer have a physical link between the gas pedal and the carburetor (of course, most cars don’t even have a carburetor now, they use fuel injection instead).

The reason our cars still have direct links between the controls we operate and the wheels is for safety.  There’s much less that can go wrong with a mechanical series of levers and rods and wires.

With planes as with cars, the increasing complexity of modern jet or car engines saw the mechanical linkage between throttle levers and the engines now replaced with computer controls.  Your foot on the gas pedal or the pilot’s moving the throttle lever merely sends a signal to an engine management computer that you want more or less power, and the computer then decides how to interpret that control, not just adjusting the fuel flow but also adjusting timings, compression levels, and possibly gear selections too.  This makes our cars (and planes) run more smoothly and fuel efficiently, and is generally a good thing.

For a plane, moving the flight controls – the control column – also have interactions with the plane’s speed and need for engine power, in a complex and changing relationship depending on many factors, so airplane manufacturers are replacing the previous mechanical linkages to the flight control surfaces on the plane’s wings, rudder and elevator with computerized controls.

Now, when the pilot moves the stick back and to the right, the computer thinks about that instruction and decides how best to interpret it with an optimized combination of engine setting adjustments, and movements to all three primary flight control surfaces, as well as to secondary control surfaces too (trim tabs, air brakes, etc).  The computer is supposed to be more clever than the pilot, and won’t allow dangerous flying commands to be accepted (although usually there is a command mode that can be manually selected where the computer is told to obediently do everything exactly as instructed, even if the computer thinks the command is wrong).  The flying control instruments on a modern Airbus plane are almost exactly the same as the joystick and throttle lever you can buy at a computer store to connect to your computer to play a Flight Simulator game.

Fly by Wire Introduces Vulnerabilities as well as Conveniences

This new type of airplane control is called ‘fly by wire’ in the sense of flying by computer control rather than by direct pilot control.  It is usually considered to be a good thing, although there are possible cases where a ‘miscommunication’ between the pilots and the flight computer may have resulted in airplane crashes (most recently the Air France flight AF447 that crashed in the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009).

However, what happens if the computer that interprets the pilot’s requests and decides how to translate a movement of the pilot joystick into changes in the airplane’s control surfaces and engine power settings deliberately does the wrong thing?  What say the request to the computer to just do exactly what the pilot is asking is ignored?  Or maybe the computer misunderstands exactly what the pilot is asking.  This sounds like the HAL 9000 computer from the movie/book 2001: A Space Odyssey and indeed, that is a great example of the possible outcomes.

The famous ‘blue screen of death crash’ in Windows could be a literal blue screen of death crash on a plane – with a misbehaving computer causing the sea to fill the pilots’ windshield as a plane plunges unstoppably out of the skies and into the ocean beneath (as was what happened with AF447).

It is rather scary that we now risk our lives on planes controlled by computers when we know, from personal experience, that computer ‘crashes’ are common events.  The number of fly-by-wire airplanes is increasing, not only with every new Airbus plane sold, but now with new Boeing planes also being fly-by-wire.

We have been talking about inadvertent errors and logic bugs.  What say the computer controllers were deliberately infected with malicious code that was designed to cause planes to unstoppably crash?  What say, for example, these controllers had a virus in them that said ‘at exactly a particular time on a particular day, move engine power to maximum and set the plane in a crash dive’.  So that at the same instant, all around the world, hundreds (more likely, thousands) of planes all simultaneously went into nose dives and crashed into whatever was below, and of course, in all cases, killing everyone on board.

That could never happen, right?  Wrong!  It is all too easy to see how such a thing could happen.  Maybe while we are protecting our airports and airplanes with metal detectors and scanners to check the passengers, the real threat to our aviation system is something very different indeed – an ‘invisible’ passenger – a cyber threat that the airport security guards have no way of detecting.

For a specific example of a specific vulnerability, please see this article about how one of the control chips in modern military and civilian planes has a ‘back door’ written into it – a way for instructions to be secretly inserted into its control code, bypassing the normal way of doing so and the controls/restrictions placed on that normal way.

Back Doors

Think of this back door as being like a secret passage in an old house.  If you know exactly where to press the secret opening lever, all of a sudden, a wall in the study/library swings open, and you can then roam around the house at will, using secret spy holes to peek in on what people are doing in other rooms in the house, and using other secret doors to appear in other parts of the house unexpectedly.  Other people in the house might suspect there are secret passages, but if they don’t know exactly where and how to press the hidden lever, they’ll never get into the secret passages.

It is the same with computers.  There might be an entire set of instructions hidden inside a computer chip, but when some trigger event occurs, these extra instructions will suddenly start executing.  A similar thing is relatively common for benign purposes – what are called ‘Easter Eggs’ – hidden extra routines in programs that if you know exactly what set of key strokes to enter, you can trigger.  Here is one such list of computer easter eggs to give you examples of what they are and how they appear.

The article also obliquely and delicately points out a vulnerability that impacts on nearly every piece of computer control circuitry these days.  Although the chips may be designed and developed in the US or other ‘friendly’ country, they tend to be manufactured in a third party country outside of our direct control.

What is to stop the chip manufacturer (in this particular case, in China) from deliberately changing part of the specification so as to create an obscured ‘back door’ for future exploitation?  With millions of transistors and other devices on a single chip, and space for thousands/millions of lines of built-in programming, how can such vulnerabilities be completely tested for prior to deployment of each batch of chips?

Implications for Preppers

We’re not saying don’t fly on modern planes.  And we’re not saying turn off every computer controlled device in your home, office, car, retreat, wherever.

We’re simply pointing out that there are unseen and unthought of risks and vulnerabilities in our lives that could suddenly create major havoc in our world as we currently know and enjoy it.  A Y2K bug type scenario might be unleashed upon us by a foreign power, and with even a small part of our computer controlled lives destroyed, our entire lives could be destroyed.  Kill the computers that manage our water system.  Or the computers that manage oil refineries and pipelines.  Or the computers that run the electricity grid.

What would you do if water no longer appeared by magic every time you turned on a tap or flushed a toilet?  What would food processors do without water, too?

If we lost the ability to refine and transport bulk oil/gas products, how would you get to work each day?  No cars, no buses.  If your business has to close down, how will that impact other businesses that rely on its products/services (assuming they haven’t already had to close down too)?  And how would food get to the supermarket without trucks to transport it there?  Even if it got there, how would you go to the supermarket to get the food and bring it home?  And all those oil and gas-fired power stations?  Take those away and our electricity supply starts to crash, even without needing to infect computer control systems for the electricity grid.

Modern society is an example of the old rhyme ‘For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost’.  With all the layers of interlocking dependencies that go into every part of our lives, if a single one of those dependencies should fail, the whole lot might fail.

There’s nothing we can individually do about this. But we can, individually and in our families and communities, prepare for the consequences of a failure.

May 282012
 

One of a series of maps from the CDC showing the incidence of various types of ticks.

In a Level 2/3 situation, the omnipresence of modern medical care that we have come to rely upon will be much less available.  We will be well advised to plan our lives so there will be less need to seek medical help.

One issue to consider when choosing the location for our retreat is the presence of any insect-borne diseases, any particularly dangerous animals, and other such issues.  This involves not just looking at challenges that presently exist, but also extrapolating further to new challenges that might appear.

For example, the Africanized or ‘killer’ bees that are spreading northwards up from Mexico.  It is far from clear at what point these bees will stop their advance.

Or the spread of ticks carrying various diseases, Lyme disease being the best known but far from the only such disease, some of which can be fatal.  Here’s a recent article about the increasing amount of the country being affected by such things, and here’s a useful map.

At the risk of inviting despair, here’s a series of maps showing the spread of various types of ticks and information on the diseases they can carry.  It would seem that nowhere is safe from some type of tick and disease.

As for other types of animal threats, it is hard to know if they will become more prevalent and severe, or less so, in a Level 2/3 situation.  On the one hand, there may be a reduction in human type impacts on such creatures, allowing them to thrive and increase in numbers.  On the other hand, there could be an increase in human impacts if they are the type of creature that people would choose to hunt for food – we’re just guessing that not everyone will strictly observe the current seasonal restrictions on when, where, and how game can be killed!

We’re also going to guess that not everyone will be wearing bright orange safety jackets in the woods and we’d suggest that the woods could become relatively dangerous places to be in, due to over-eager hunters shooting at anything that moves.

May 272012
 

The Iranian Flag

The war drums are beating ever louder in prelude to a possible war with Iran.  What will this mean for us back in the US?

Although it might seem at odds with our current President’s world-view and values, it is hard to overlook the increasing amount of news stories that are being released or strategically leaked, all of which seem to indicate that we may be initiating war with Iran shortly.

For our part, we don’t understand how it is for year after year after year Iran has so successfully played us for the fools that, alas, our State Department so often truly is on the world stage, while at the same time, inexorably getting closer and closer to having a credible arsenal of nuclear weapons, and research facilities so hardened and so far underground as to be impregnable to anything we might bring to bear.

It is a bit like blackberry bushes in spring.  You can cut them back when they first start to spring up, this being an easy simple process that takes but a few minutes.  But if you delay, each extra day you do nothing makes the eventual task so much harder when you subsequently reach your wife finally insists you attempt to recover your yard and garden from now dense infestations of blackberry bushes.  Iran is getting stronger and more resilient with every passing day.

It is hard to know what Iran’s capabilities are at present.  They’ve been lying to everyone for years, and most countries (many of which would prefer to see Iran succeed than the US) and UN organizations have been happy to accept the lies at face value rather than to confront the ugly and deepening reality of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Just because we’re being told various stories, some contradictory, about the lack of threat Iran currently poses does not mean this is so.  It is interesting to contrast all the publicity surrounding Iran’s nuclear program with the silence with which other countries have developed nuclear weapons.  It seems other countries successfully completed nuclear weapons programs in less time and with less fuss or commitment (for example South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, even Israel).  If these other countries can make nuclear weapons, and can secure support from more advanced nations in their efforts, why not Iran, too?

Until now, our various misadventures in the Middle East have been against countries with no nuclear weaponry, and no ability to project power much beyond their own borders.  And so while we’ve been able to swamp them with our high-tech weaponry and resources, they’ve not been able to fight back, and most of all, they’ve not been able to bring the battle back home to us.

A Quick Backgrounder on Iran

Those issues do not apply quite so directly with Iran.  Iran is the 18th largest country in the world (in terms of its landmass size – slightly smaller than Alaska), and is overwhelmingly Muslim (89% Shia, 9% Sunni).

Iran – formerly known as Persia until 1935, has a population of 79 million.  Since its revolution in 1979, it has a complicated government – think of it perhaps as having way too many checks and balances.  It has a steadily growing albeit somewhat troubled economy – largely oil based – but not much wealth, and an official unemployment rate of at least 15%.

Iran produces 4.3 million barrels of oil a day.  Iraq, in comparison, produces 2.6 million and Kuwait produces 2.5 million.  It is the fourth largest oil producer in the world – Saudi Arabia produces 10.5 million, Russia 10.3 million and the US 9.7 million.

Iran has the world’s second largest proven natural gas reserves, and the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves.

In part because of its oil production and exports, Iran has a massive positive balance of payments and steadily increasing reserves of gold and foreign exchange – $79 billion in 2010, rising to $110 billion in 2011.

The Iranian Military

Iran has a strong military, with 20 million males 18 – 49 fit for military service (and, theoretically, another 19 million women).  Men are required to spend 18 months of military service, and each year, another 715,000 males reach the age of military service.

Leading US generals have described the Iranian military as the strongest in the Middle East.  However, they probably were not talking about its Air Force, which is made up largely of older planes (many of them from the US) and only a few of which seem to be airworthy.

But Iran does have a moderately capable navy, and indeed, in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Hormuz in particular, their ships could fire their anti-ship missiles at US naval targets without leaving port.  The ability of US aircraft carriers to withstand any type of missile attack has never been tested in real life, and there have to be real concerns about their survivability in the event of a massed attack of multiple missiles launched for a simultaneous time on target strike.

As well as surface ships, Iran also has three Russian Kilo class submarines.  These are diesel-powered, but are typically quieter than most nuclear powered submarines when operating on their batteries.

One wonders if the US military command are willing to risk the loss of one, two, or more of their 11 aircraft carriers, particularly when you consider that each aircraft carrier has almost 6,000 personnel on board.  While aircraft carriers are great for effective force projection, their vulnerability is a matter of concerned debate, and the US has been fortunate not to have deployed them – so far – against an enemy with credible anti-ship missile capabilities.

If the US can not use its carriers, and with difficult relations with countries that border Iran (ie Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq – not even Iraq seems to like us much even more) and an always complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and both Iran and the US, the US would not have a lot of places for forward bases to support any operation.  Turkey is another uncertain ally, and Israel – the country with apparently the greatest vested interest – is too far away for practical support purposes, and would require over-flight permission from Jordan and Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

That’s not to say the US couldn’t prevail.  It would almost certainly follow the standard pattern of an initial high intensity surprise attack with cruise missiles to disable as much of Iran’s air defenses as possible, supplemented in this case by an attack on naval targets too.  Once it had control of the skies, it could have ground attack aircraft patrolling the country with impunity, and taking out targets as and when they wished.

But how it could move from there to a ground war is less clear.  Where would it pre-stage 100,000 or more troops, and all the tanks, trucks, and other equipment needed to occupy the ground?

It is helpful to keep in mind that in the war with Iraq, the US was facing a country with less than half as many people and only one quarter the land mass.  In the war with Afghanistan, the US was (is?) facing a country with one third the land mass and 40% the population.  Iran is very much larger in every respect.

On the other hand, the chances are that the Iranian army would be no more effective than the Iraqi army was when faced with the modern capabilities of US forces.

We’re not saying a war with Iran is not winnable at all.  It almost certainly would be, inasmuch as you can consider our war with Iraq was a ‘success’ and the same with our war against Afghanistan.  We could overwhelm the country’s armed forces, for sure, but what about the peace that follows?  That is the bit we’re not quite so good at optimizing!

While there are some opposition elements in Iran, it is hard to see any truly pro-western factions rather than merely different elements but still Muslim oriented and primarily anti-western.  It is appropriate to remember that the 1979 revolution was a very popular uprising by the country as a whole against the US supported previous regime; there is little evidence of any broad base of opposition to the present regime and even less evidence of any pro-western sentiment among the opposition forces that might be present.

Although we probably could win a war with Iran, we do make the point that there may be more damage inflicted on US forces than we’ve experienced in other recent conflicts, and the logistics of supporting an Iranian conflict look to be more complex than supporting the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.  (The US has lost 2000 people in the Afghan conflict so far, and 4500 in Iraq).

Anyway, these issues are secondary to the main topic of this article.  The implications of a war with Iran for us, hopefully safely located back in the Continental US.

Other than a possible increase in ‘one off’ type terrorist attacks that might be regrettable but hardly life changing for most of us, we see three areas of risk to LAWKI.

Risk 1 :  Nuclear Attack

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we’d be totally unsurprised to learn that Iran already has nuclear weapons.  It probably hasn’t tested them yet, but we’re going to say that, other than tightening down the last few screws in the cover and charging up the batteries, Iran is probably in possession of 98% completed nuclear weapons.

This report suggests Iran sort of has enough materials for five weapons already.  Let’s take that number and instead of ‘could build five weapons in the future’ change it to ‘has five weapons now’, just for the sake of this discussion.

The bigger issue, as we see it, is one of delivery.  How would Iran get nuclear weapons to the US?

It seems that its longest range missiles currently can reach no further than 2,000 miles.  So we’re safe, right?  The shortest distance from Iran to the US is 6,000 miles.

Wrong.  Go play on Google Earth and see what places are within 2000 miles of the US.  For example, Washington DC is less than 2,000 miles from the closest parts of Venezuela, and with a dying President there who hates the US, is it impossible to foresee a situation where he agrees to go out in a splash of shared glory with Iran?  The two countries are becoming increasingly friendly and cooperating on a range of different projects.

Alternatively, what’s to stop Iran from forward positioning missiles on freighters and simply sailing the ship to within 2,000 miles of a US coast.  There’s no shortage of tempting targets on either coast.

One other possibility is to smuggle the weapons into the country in shipping containers, or, for that matter, as airfreight cargo in an airfreight LD-3 container.  Isn’t this the ultimate ‘cruise missile’ – a civilian passenger or freight jet, flying on a regular approved flight plan.

So maybe Iran couldn’t conveniently use traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver its warheads.  But it has plenty of other choices.

How/Where to Target Five Missiles/Bombs

What would a country do as part of a ‘suicide’ mission to detonate five nuclear weapons on US soil?  Where would it send the missiles?

A good answer to that question can be seen from the actions of the 9/11 attackers.  While we don’t know if the urgent landing of all airborne planes forestalled other pending attacks (probably not, but who knows for sure) what we do know is that with four ‘weapons’ (ie planes) the terrorists decided to send two to New York and two to Washington DC.

It is almost certain that these two cities would be the prime targets of a nuclear attack, too.  And while one nuclear explosion above DC and Manhattan would be more than sufficient, we’d expect that due to the unreliability of both the weapons and the missiles taking them to their targets, the attacking force would at least ‘double up’ and send two to each target, which would leave a single ‘bonus’ fifth weapon.  That too could be sent to NY or DC, but it might perhaps instead be sent as a ‘bonus’ to a third target; most likely to be another major US city chosen for its iconic status and economic impact rather than for any strategic/military value.

An attack on the US would not be designed to win the war.  It would be designed to inflict maximum civilian and economic damage in relation.

Risk 2 :  EMP

This is the risk that really has us worried.  Instead of sending five bombs to DC and NY, which while having a devastating impact on these two population centers, would have little impact on the rest of the country; why not just send one for a high altitude airburst with an EMP that will destroy much of the entire nation’s electronic and electrical infrastructure.

Indeed, with five weapons, why not detonate one, then a second one two days later so as to take out much of the backup systems that may be held in protective storage, then a third one two weeks later to zero out any remaining backed up backups, leaving two more for ‘bonus’ attacks in the future.  Or perhaps, the two spares to Europe to take out the rest of the western world at the same time.  Imagine that :  No US and no EU – two continents instantly reduced to a non-mechanized farming level of subsistence.

With all due respect to New York and DC, and the people living there, the country would survive their loss.  But a staged series of EMP attacks?  That would plunge all of us back to the near-stone age.

Many of us have prepared for some degree of EMP response, although none of us really know how protective our ‘do it yourself’ Faraday cages may be, and even if we did survive the first round and start deploying our backed up equipment, what happens when the second EMP takes out our backups?

This, we feel, is the greatest vulnerability of all – a second EMP strike several days after the first.  It is hardly an innovative idea.  World War 2 saw the use of delayed fuse bombs, with the concept being that the first wave of explosions would destroy buildings, and the delayed explosions would then take out the responders, leaving the area vulnerable to a future bombing attack, due to having killed the firemen, paramedics, etc, and having destroyed their vehicles.  There is every reason to believe that any nation planning to launch one EMP device would choose to launch others subsequently to take out whatever level of backup equipment was being taken out of protective storage and deployed.

We can not overstate the danger of EMP attacks.  They are ‘low tech’ and easy for an attacking nation to stage (assuming it is nuclear capable), and at present our country is massively vulnerable to such an attack.  Using nuclear weapons merely as high explosive devices these days is old-fashioned and no longer the best use of the weapons.  Much better to reprogram their missile delivery systems to activate them at high altitude for maximum EMP effect with a 1,000 mile or greater radius, rather than at relatively low altitude for a blast with a lethality radius of ‘only’ five or so miles.

Risk 3 :  Cyber Attack

Iran is one of five nations known to be developing a ‘cyber army’ – soldiers who do battle not with a gun and bullets, but with a computer mouse and datalink.

This is perhaps only fair, being as how Iran has been on the receiving end of a shadowy cyber-attack itself – the Stuxnet virus intended to destroy its centrifuges that are used to separate Uranium 235 from the regular mix of primarily Uranium 238.

Our nation’s increasingly fragile infrastructure is largely computer controlled.  Real people aren’t standing watch in power stations, pumping stations, distribution points, and so on, with their eyes locked on a battery of gauges and dials, and their hands ready to spin control levers in response to changing indications on the readouts.  Indeed, even if that were the case, the chances are the readouts are digital rather than analog – that is, they have gone through microprocessors prior to appearing on displays, and the controls too are probably ‘fly by wire’ type controls that would just control a computer rather than be physically linked to huge big valves and switches and things.

Anything that harms the control computers can destroy the structures that are being controlled.  It is all too easy to mis-direct control system computers so that they send the wrong instructions to the equipment they are controlling, destroying the equipment in the process (this is, simplistically, one of the things the Stuxnet virus did to Iran).  It is possible to reprogram the logic of the controllers, causing nuclear power stations to melt down, for example.  To overload transformers in the national grid.  To allow turbines to overspeed and break in our hydro-electric power stations.  To over-pressure and rupture our gas and oil pumping lines (or just to open the wrong valves and pump oil or gas into sensitive areas).  To open up floodgates on dams, sending tidal waves of water downstream (and also then emptying the dams of the water needed for regions and their agriculture and people to survive).

Truly, there is no limit to the mischief one can create.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is also increasingly networked and linked up through public internet channels.  Anyone who believes that utility companies and government departments have adequately secured their computer systems to make them invulnerable to cyber-attack needs to do some internet surfing to disabuse themselves of such notions.

For example, look at the case of Gary McKinnon, the eccentric English guy and Asperger’s victim who allegedly penetrated to the highest level of NASA and DOD computer networks.  If one single amateur UFOlogist (ie McKinnon) can gain access to the tightest security computer networks and do damage to them inadvertently, what can military teams of dedicated opponents do?

A cyber attack could be almost as damaging as an EMP in terms of massive widespread disruption to our support systems and infrastructure.  It could not just knock out our power grid and our oil and gas pipelines, but it could also damage their physical structures such as to take years to repair.

Best of all (from Iran’s perspective) the attacking nation doesn’t need any nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.  It just needs a regular computer and a connection to the internet.  Indeed, it is possible to disguise the location where the attack originated from – Iran (or any other country with national hacking capabilities) could destroy our nation’s economy and we might never even know for sure it was Iran who did it.

Summary

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had nuclear weapons, and neither did they have much in the way of cyber capabilities.

On the other hand, Iran may already have nuclear weapons, and definitely has cyber warfare capabilities.  It also has an extremist leadership who views not just our armed forces and our politicians as their enemies, but who views the entire American value system and way of life as an evil to be exterminated and replaced by their Muslim ideologies.  We are all the enemies of these people, whether we are soldiers or not.

It seems likely that if Iran’s leadership felt its future was being credibly threatened, they’d have no hesitation at all in inflicting the maximum amount of damage on the US civilian population and economy.  They wouldn’t even care if this resulted in us abandoning our attack on Iran or not; all that would matter is that they managed to inflict maximum damage on the US.

In our long time stand-off with Russia/the former Soviet Union, the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ worked, because neither we nor the Soviets wanted to risk the certain destruction of our own world as a cost of destroying the other country.  We both feared MAD.

But Iran shows no fear of the concept of MAD.  It almost seems to welcome it.

Iran may or may not be able to mount a nuclear attack or to detonate an EMP device in the US, but it does seem to already have capacity to bring cyber-attacks against who knows what broad range of vulnerable computer control systems across the nation, disabling our supply lines and support systems as a result.

A war with Iran is a high-risk venture, accordingly – not just to our military, but to ourselves back home, too.

May 222012
 

One can only guess at the primary, secondary and tertiary effects if a PHA collides with the earth.

NASA announced this week that it has recalculated the number of PHAs – ‘Potentially Hazardous Asteroids’ for those of us who aren’t rocket scientists (your humble writer included!).  Its earlier estimate of 2350 objects has been doubled, and now NASA says there are probably 4700 PHAs out there.

A PHA is an object larger than 110 yards/330 ft across, and which come dangerously close to the Earth from time to time.  This size means that they would survive passing through the Earth’s atmosphere.  Most objects (which are smaller than this) will burn harmlessly up, leaving nothing more than a brief flash in the sky for their passing, and perhaps a lump or two of space rock as is the case for most asteroids that collide with the earth at present.  But these larger sized objects can be enormously destructive.

Look up the Tunguska meteorite which exploded over Siberia in 1908.  This is believed to have been a few tens of yards (meters) across, and it is estimated to have had the explosive effect of a 10 – 15 megaton hydrogen bomb (1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

So this count of 4700 potentially threatening objects out there starts off with objects three times larger than the Tunguska meteorite.  What would the number be if objects down to ‘only’ the size of the Tunguska meteorite were included as well?

Due to various issues, it is not possible to predict with precision if or when any of these objects might strike the earth, due to their orbits being somewhat irregular, and the objects themselves changing in mass, for example, if a journey around the sun causes frozen gases to be melted and evaporated away.  All NASA can say is these PHAs might, just possibly, hit the earth, and if one of them were to hit the earth, NASA says it would cause damage on ‘a regional or greater scale’.

There’s probably nothing we can do to protect ourselves from having an asteroid land fair and square on our head, any more than the witch could protect herself from Dorothy’s landing on her at the start of The Wizard of Oz.

However, those ‘regional or greater scale’ damages mean that the consequential effects of an asteroid threaten to be massively more than just a few squashed citizens.  And we need to think beyond the immediate effect of the meteorite’s collision with the planet to the secondary and tertiary effects.

For example, if a meteorite landed in the ocean (and 70% of the earth is water, after all) that would be the primary event, and apart from a few bucket loads of fish and any nearby ships and submarines and planes, it wouldn’t be too big a deal.

But, wait.  This would likely trigger an enormous tsunamis that would plunge much further inland than anything experienced so far, on countries all around the ‘rim’ of the body of water.  This would be a devastating secondary effect for people in the path of the tsunami.

Keep waiting.  We’re not done yet.  How about the tertiary effect on people safely removed from the tsunami impact.  We can’t even start to guess what the tertiary effects would be.  However, in most countries around the world, both the population density and the level of industrial development is greatest around the oceans.  So, for sure, there would be huge swathes of industry and agricultural production wiped out by the tsunami.  Maybe a bunch of nuclear power stations would duplicate the problems in Japan after their 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the fallout effects from that can travel for hundreds or even thousands of miles.

There’s another thing that tends to be close to the coast as well.  Oil refineries.  As this article is being written, most of the west coast of the US is seeing their cost of gas escalating, even though the price of gas is dropping around the rest of the country, due to the unexpected closure due to fire of just one of the west coast refineries some months back.  What happens if a tsunami wipes out a bunch of refineries, and the docks/wharves/rail lines to get raw crude to the refineries and finished products from the refineries and on to their consumers?

Alternatively, what say the primary event is the meteorite landing on a populated area inland somewhere?  The secondary event is clearly the death of everyone within maybe 50 – 100 miles of the meteorite impact (depending on its size).  A large-sized event could take out New York City, Washington DC, and everything in-between.

What about a tertiary event?  Think of all the dust – much of it toxic and some of it radioactive too – that would be created by this impact.  We sort of know about the toxicity of the World Trade Center buildings after the 9/11 event; how much worse would it be after an event thousands of times larger in scale?

All that dust would have a tangible impact on the world’s climate.  Whether it precipitated a ‘nuclear winter’ or just a more vague ‘global climate change’ it would sure do something.

In all probability, an asteroid impact would be survivable by the planet as a whole (although it is thought by many that an asteroid impact massively altered the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill of the dinosaurs way back when).  But in equal probability, some of our delicately balanced and finely stretched supply and support systems would be totally fractured, causing for breakdowns in unexpected things in unexpected ways.  Read again the amazing story of how a fire in a small factory in a small town in Germany is now leading to a worldwide problem in auto manufacturing, and ask yourself how many other single points of failure with wide effect there might not be that would be impacted (perhaps even literally) if an asteroid hits the earth.

Modern life is a bit like a set of stacked dominos.  It only takes one or two well placed shoves to knock many of the dominos over.  It is hard to tell how many of our dominos would be toppled by a meteorite.

Depending on the nature of the asteroid strike, and depending on where you currently live would depend on if you were able to survive in place, or if you needed to move to your retreat and hunker down.  However, we’d classify most asteroid strikes as probably being some type of Level 2 event.

We also don’t really know how much risk there is of a large meteorite colliding with the planet.  Smaller ones do so all the time, usually unnoticed (I can relax out on the deck in the countryside and on average will see a ‘shooting star’ pass by once every 20 minutes if the sky is clear and dark).  But a PHA?  Hopefully not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, either.  But if one does collide, hopefully you’ll be prepared.

May 152012
 

A graphical representation of the concept of the internet cloud.

Do you even know what cloud-based computing is, and do you know how much of the things you do on your computer rely on cloud computing?  More to the point, do you appreciate the potential downside to using cloud resources?

If you use a computer for anything (and you’d not be reading this if you didn’t) you need to understand the downsides and risks associated with cloud based computing.  We’ve written this in reasonably non-technical terms, so please do continue reading.

First, a definition.  Cloud based computing is anything that uses resources that are not within your local area network.  These resources might be programs, and/or they might be information/data.  In other words, if you can’t walk across the office or from one room to another in your house and physically touch the box in which the data is located, then we’re talking about cloud based computing.

Here’s one immediate example :  Email.  Most of the free email programs (actually, probably all) are primarily cloud based.  The email interface itself is driven through a remote (ie cloud based) website, and the emails that you ‘receive’, ‘open’, read, and reply to (and the copies of replies you send) are all located somewhere else in the world rather than on your computer, too.

If you’re not connected to the internet, you can’t read, receive, or send emails if you use this type of service.  Okay, so of course you can’t send an email if you’re not connected to the internet – but what about not being able to read your older emails, too?  Did you even know that there are lots of ways that you can still read the stored emails you’ve previously received and sent, without needing the internet connection?

Cloud Computing is Growing

Software and service providers are keen to promote cloud based computing, because they can turn around and charge monthly fees for such things.  Instead of a one time selling price, they can now charge monthly fees for the use of the software, and while it sometimes seems appealing to us to accept a low ongoing monthly cost along with ‘free upgrades’ instead of buying software outright and then buying new versions in the future too, clearly the software providers are betting that, overall, they will make more money from renting software access on a monthly basis – even after deducting all the huge costs of setting up and maintaining responsive internet access for their software.

The proliferation of extremely fast and inexpensive internet makes cloud computing practical for service providers and for us as users.  It is now possible to work with programs and their data almost as quickly if they are cloud based as if they are locally based (and certainly as quickly as if they are LAN based).

Our concern about cloud based computing is not based on financial reasons.  Those are what they are, and you’re free to make your own decisions as to buying or renting, any way you wish.  It is also not based on the end-user experience.  That is perfectly good, most of the time, for most things.

Our concern is based on what would happen if/when your internet access is disrupted, and you can no longer access all the information you have stored online.  Indeed, it isn’t just a case of what happens if the ‘last mile’ of internet access to your home/office and computer is disrupted.  You are also vulnerable to what happens if the company providing the internet cloud service has disruptions to their access too, or if they have any other type of computer problems, and you’re also vulnerable if the internet as a whole has some sort of disruption (unlikely but far from impossible).

Maybe you are prudently keeping backup copies on your own local computer, but what use are those backed up copies if the program to access the data you’ve stored is an online program?

Even a Level 1 event could see temporary loss of access to your cloud data and computing programs.  A Level 2 event could see a much longer term loss of access, and a Level 3 event might see the permanent disappearance of your data.

We’re not just talking abstract theory here.  These things have already happened, and not just the occasional email outage that many of us have sometimes experienced.  Please read on.

How 100 million Users Unexpectedly Lost Their Data Earlier This Year

Here is an appalling example of the vulnerability of cloud data, and one that occurred in a completely non SHTF type situation.

A cloud storage/sharing service, Megaupload.com, grew to become one of the internet’s largest sites, with 25 petabytes of data stored (in case you don’t know what a petabye is, it is 1,000 terabytes, or 1,000,000 gigabytes, so to write it out in full, 25 petabyes is 25,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data).

By January 2012, it was the 13th most visited site on the internet, with more than 12 billion files hosted for over 100 million users.

It seems that its users were a mix of bona-fide ordinary people storing their data on Megauploads servers, and also pirates sharing copyrighted data and people storing/sharing X-rated files too.

On 20 January 2012 Megaupload’s founder was arrested in NZ, and their servers (in the US) shut down, due to claims of copyright infringement.  Everyone who had data on the Megaupload servers were, suddenly and without warning, unable to access it any more.

The US DoJ couldn’t care less about this mass destruction it was causing.  It said that if anyone had a problem, it was their own stupid fault, because Megaupload had recommended people keep local backups of all data on their servers.  Such recommendations were buried in the FAQs and Terms of Service.

At the time of writing (almost exactly four months after the servers were all turned off) legal arguments are continuing as to if people will ever be allowed to access and retrieve the data that is stored on the now inactive Megaupload servers.  The US government has acted without any trial to deny these 100 million or more users, located all around the world, access to the data they had stored in the cloud with Megaupload, and seeks to make this denial permanent.

Sure, some of the users are probably accessing copyrighted data for illegal purposes.  But probably most users are normal people, and they’ve been penalized exactly the same as the others.

Imagine if the police came and arrested everyone in your neighborhood or apartment building, based on their belief that one person, somewhere, had committed a crime.  ‘We don’t know and don’t care who it was, we’re arresting the whole lot of you’.

While loss of data isn’t quite as serious as loss of liberty, if the data that was lost represented a person’s work materials, it could imperil their ability to earn a living, and imagine the tragedy if it was someone’s creative outpouring representing thousands of hours of creativity.  What say you’d spent the last five years writing a book, and now all your materials and the book itself have been taken from you, even though you have not done a single thing wrong, yourself?

Cloud vs LAN vs Local

It is convenient to think of computer data in three forms.  At one end is cloud based data – information that is stored somewhere and which you access ‘invisibly’ through some sort of internet connection.  We say ‘invisibly’ because, as long as everything is working well, you as the end-user probably can’t tell the difference between cloud based programs and data and locally based programs and data.

The two key things about cloud based data are that it is physically remote from your location, and that it is information that you don’t personally control the access to.  Sure, it might be ‘your’ information that you own.  But – as the Megaupload case surely shows – you don’t control your access to your data.

Being able to access cloud based information relies on many things, none of which should be taken for granted :  Your access to the internet, the internet itself, the information host’s access to the internet, and the proper operation of the internet host computers.

On the upside though, if your computer has a problem, you can probably access the cloud based information from somewhere/anywhere else.

Local data is information that is physically located on your computer.  You can unplug your computer from everything except the power cable, you can move it anywhere you like, and when you turn it on, you can access all your local information and programs.

Being able to access local information relies on your own computer working properly.  If the computer has a problem, you can’t access your information until the problem is solved (unless, of course, you have backed up the information, either onto an external hard drive or into the cloud).

Locally stored information also makes bugging out in a hurry much easier and foolproof.  All you need to do is grab your computer.  You don’t need to remember to also bring a NAS device, a router, or any other equipment.  Just your computer.

LAN based data is somewhere in the middle between cloud and local information.  It is information that is stored somewhere close to you, within your business or home network.  (Note, if in a business network, although it appears as a LAN resource it could be located anywhere.)

LAN information may or may not be externally accessible by computers outside your LAN.  But, and certainly this is the case in a home LAN, it is stored somewhere that is within your physical control.  You are not reliant on the internet or anything outside your home to access the LAN based data.  You are reliant on your home LAN, of course, and on the proper functioning of whatever device the information is stored on, but that is all.

What You Should Do

The first thing you need to do is understand where your programs are located, and where the data they work with is stored.

There’s not much you can do about remote websites, of course, although storing offline copies of helpful/relevant webpages and the data on them is an excellent idea.  You can never predict when websites might close down.

Your own data should be kept on your own computer.  By all means, have backup copies in the cloud – indeed, we’d encourage it, so that if something happens to your own computer and the location it was stored at, you might be able to access the data from other computers and other locations.

But you want to ensure that if/when there are interruptions in service, your computer can still work as a freestanding computer with all the information you consider to be ‘your’ data, so you need to keep both the software and data on your computer, not somewhere in the cloud.

For email purposes, you can still keep your Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail or whatever accounts.  You simply need a front end program that will take the email from those accounts and download it all to your computer, probably using the POP3 and SMTP protocols (IMAP4 is good too although a bit more complicated to set up and understand).

We use Microsoft Outlook, which does this very well, but there are plenty of free programs you can use too (for example, Mozilla Thunderbird).

May 142012
 

The H1N1 flu virus as seen through an electron microscope.

Two things make our society massively more vulnerable to what we term bio-risks – anything from deliberately introduced lethal diseases to the results of random mutation of regular viruses and bacteria already in our environments.

But to start with, here’s an interesting fact.  Most diseases don’t like to kill too many people too fast, because they rely on living people for their own survival – as a host to live in, and as a means of passing on their offspring.  If a disease kills too many people, too quickly, they end up harming themselves as well.  So evolution tends to moderate the lethality of most diseases.

Furthermore, in places where there are common diseases, the people develop some resistance to those diseases, meaning the people and the diseases can co-exist in a balanced situation.  That is why we Americans have to take anti-malarial precautions when traveling somewhere rife with malaria for example, even though the local people are living quite comfortably alongside the malaria.

But – and here’s the catch.  Changes in our lifestyles have occurred faster than diseases can evolve to keep up with us.  The two key changes, below, in particular mean that diseases that once posed moderate risks now can pose massively greater risks.

Population is More Densely Crowded

In our modern world, if someone coughs onto a door handle, 100 people might touch that same door handle in less than an hour.  If someone sneezes on a bus or train or plane, the germs carry instantly to 20 or 30 people within a dozen feet of them.

When people lived in rural areas, what happened in one homestead or one small town rarely impacted much beyond that, because people weren’t crowded together for much of every day.  A person would get sick, and stay at home, and their family would largely stay close around them, with only limited interactions with other households.  And if they did travel somewhere, they’d probably be traveling by horse or open carriage, not infecting hundreds of fellow travelers as they did so.

Non-farm employment was typically in small businesses rather than huge office complexes.  There were no such things as shopping malls with thousands of people going in and out of them every day.

The ability of a disease to pass from person to person, within a local area, was much more restricted than now.

People – and Things – Travel Further, Faster, and More Often

The ability of a disease to travel long-distance was even more constrained, 100 and 200 years ago.  100 years ago the fastest method of transportation was the train (at about 40 mph) or boat (less than 20 mph); and 200 years ago, it was the horse at perhaps 10 mph or a boat at 5 mph or less.  In other words, infected people would simply die before they got too far out of their home area (or, perhaps, recover – either outcome meaning the disease was no longer being passed on).

Today we have planes that can fly nonstop, halfway around the world, in less than a day.

The person next to you on the bus might have just flown in from a far away country yesterday, bringing who knows what foreign disease with him.

Or, in the airport, on your way from San Francisco to Chicago, you pass a person who has just landed from London, and who was seated next to someone from Ghana.  He caught an infection from the Ghanaian (who continues to infect more people on his travels), and the man you met is now about to infect people in San Francisco, including you at the airport, and you’re about to now go to Chicago and continue the spread of the disease, infecting someone on your flight to Chicago who travels on to New York, and so on and so on.  Give it a day or two, and the disease is everywhere that has an airport.

It isn’t just people who travel.  So too do things.  Much of the food you eat has come from hundreds or thousands of miles away.  As we sometimes find out to our cost, contaminated meat from one packing plant can impact on people all across the country.  Unwashed lettuce containing a dangerous hazard might start its journey in another country, and fan out all across the country, infecting people semi-randomly across the US.

A crate packed full of clothing made in South East Asian and airfreighted here might also have one or two dangerous disease bearing insects that escape into the greater Los Angeles area upon arrival at LAX.

In the past, people obviously didn’t travel as much, and they also traveled more slowly, meaning that by the time they came down with a disease, they had not had a chance to get far from home, limiting the disease’s spread accordingly.

To return to our earlier malaria example, 100 and 200 years ago, malaria was not a problem outside its prime areas of existence, because people and mosquitos with the disease didn’t travel far away from the prime malarial regions.  But today, a mosquito or a person can be in one part of the world in the morning, and many thousands of miles away by the evening.

Diseases which are not crippling risks to the local acclimated population can become lethal when suddenly introduced to a different population with no built-in resistance.

We Are Less Disease Resistant To Start With

Some credible studies have suggested that our clean healthy lives are actually weakening our immune systems.

When children used to literally eat worms and dirt at the bottom of their garden, when food wasn’t always thoroughly cooked or safely stored, when children would regularly fall over and get cuts and scrapes, people exercised their immune systems and built up a more resilient and healthy system in general.  Exercise, healthy living and healthy food with fewer chemicals and additives all helped too.

Today we have so cocooned ourselves in cleanliness that trivial infections can become more serious.  But – not to worry, because we nowadays have sophisticated antibiotics to protect us from most bacterial infections, right?

We Are Destroying Our AntiBiotic Effectiveness

Alas, no.  Doctors are colossally over-prescribing antibiotics, partially due to pressure from anxious patients (and their anxious parents) and are sometimes now prescribing them even for non-bacterial infections, even though they are useless for such things.

Why do doctors do this?  Two reasons.  First, liability.  They reason ‘Well, the illness is probably not bacterial, but maybe it could be, or maybe there will be a secondary infection that might arise, and if I don’t prescribe the antibiotic, I might subsequently be sued; it costs me nothing to write the prescription, so why not’.

Second, in response to pressure from their patients.  Few doctors develop the close relationship that family doctors formerly had with their patients.  They have become the slaves of their productivity studies; they don’t even have their own friendly warm consulting room.

Instead, they flit from room to room, where their patient is waiting for them, already having been prepared, vital signs checked, history recorded, by nurses and nurse-assistants.  Rather than asking the patient what the problem is, and chatting with them to elicit more information and to relax and build a rapport and trust while doing things such as taking temperature and blood pressure, they read the notes in the computer, then start diagnosing and prescribing almost without interacting with the patient at all.

The former 20+ minute patient visit is now more like 5 minutes.

So in their rush to complete their consultation, it is easy to accede to a patient request, and there is always the hope that the placebo effect may assist the patient, even if the antibiotic itself doesn’t.

The next part of this problem is that patients often don’t take the antibiotic as directed.  As soon as they start to feel better, they stop taking the antibiotic, particularly if the antibiotic has or threatens to have any type of side effects.  This is a very dangerous thing to do, because at this point there are still some bacteria in the patient – hardy bacteria who are slower to die from the antibiotic.  If the poisonous antibiotic stops attacking them, these resistant bacteria recover, and become more resistant for next time and next time.

Furthermore, there are so many antibiotics being prescribed – and for animals as well as people (not because the animals are sick, but to make them grow faster) – that much of the water and ground is now contaminated with low levels of antibiotics, which allow for bacteria to become acclimated to the antibiotics and develop resistance to them.

The result is the appearance of increasingly resistant bacteria.  Here is a terrifying article about the latest developments in antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Read it and be definitely afraid.

How Many Times Can We Win at Russian Roulette?

Remember SARS?  Swine Flu?  Bird Flu?  These – and many other viruses that don’t get such prominent news billing – all credibly threatened to become global pandemics.  In each case, the threat did not become a reality, but it was not due to any particular clever/appropriate response by society.  It was due to good luck and the viruses being not quite as lethal/infectious as initially thought.

But the viruses continue to mutate.  The good thing about mutations is that 98% or more of all mutations create weaker rather than stronger viruses.  But some small percentage of mutations create more lethal and/or more infectious viruses.

With our society the way it is now, the conditions are ideal for a lethal infectious virus to spread like wildfire, across the entire world.  It doesn’t only have to be an influenza type virus.  It could as likely be an antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Good luck has meant this has not happened to date, but as soon as our lucky streak ends, we will be in for a life-changing event.

The Effects of a Pandemic Today Would be Greater than Ever Before

Our vulnerability today in the event of a pandemic is much greater than ever before.

The last major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.  Back then, continents were linked by slow ship rather than fast plane, and only about one person in five lived in a city.  Most of the population were in low density rural areas, and each city dweller (who did not make his own food) had as many as five rural residents who could make food for him.

Life, back then, was ‘low intensity’.  Electricity was a convenience, but not integrated into every part of our lives.  Wireless radios were just starting to come out.  Television didn’t exist (and at the risk of amazing our younger readers, neither did the internet, either).

In this low intensity world, it is estimated that 25% of the US population came down with the Spanish flu, and 10% of those who caught the flu died from it.  What would the numbers be like today, in our much higher intensity world?

Initially, governments were slow to acknowledge the Spanish flu and the danger it posed, and preferred to refer to the pandemic as ‘only the flu’ so as to prevent panic.  But, whether ‘only the flu’, or not, social disruptions became increasingly extreme.  Restrictions were placed on public gatherings (including funerals and even store sales) and on travel.  In San Francisco and San Diego it became compulsory to wear gauze masks in public, and one town made shaking hands illegal.

Desperate shortages of health care professionals existed, and similar shortages affected other service industries – in some cities, there were not enough phone operators to allow for normal phone service.  There were also shortages of coffins, morticians and grave-diggers, such that mass graves were dug by steam shovel and dead bodies buried en masse.

To put the impact of this flu outbreak in another context, 25 million people have died of AIDS in the first 25 years of this disease.  In comparison, 25 million people died of flu (in a world with a much smaller population) in 25 weeks (many more died in total, over a longer period).

Now think about what would happen today.  And instead of a shortage of phone operators, maybe there’ll be a shortage of public works employees.  We might lose our water or our power or our sewer services.

These days we have many fewer hospital beds than we had then, because people spend much less time in hospitals, and fewer healthcare workers in general.  We have less ‘surge capacity’ to accommodate a massive outbreak of anything – we don’t have the hospital beds, or the hospital space of any type, or the healthcare workers, or the medical supplies needed to manage a sudden outbreak affecting maybe 50 – 100 million Americans.

And those restrictions on public gatherings and store sales?  What happens if you can’t go to buy more food for a week?  For that matter, what happens if 25% of the people who deliver food to the stores are off sick, and 25% of the people who prepare the food are also off sick, and so on?

Does a 25% reduction in manpower mean a 25% reduction in services, or a lesser amount – or, perhaps, a much greater amount?  Does a 25% reduction in police mean a 25% rise in crime, or a doubling in crime?

Talking about the reduction in police, it is probable the police would also need to be retasked to all sorts of additional duties, and just as we’ve seen in past rioting events (eg Los Angeles in 1992)

Here is an excellent three-part article series about our vulnerability to pandemics and what to expect and do.

Terrorist Bio-Attacks

The other new dimension of our ugly world today is the potential for terrorists to release some form of bio-attack into our communities.  Anthrax, botulism, or any of dozens of less well-known but equally deadly evils could be seeded into a small part of our country and then be quickly spread around the country by unknowingly infected individuals.

By the time the authorities worked out what was happening, and decided on what to do about it, much of the country would already be compromised.  There comes a point when the concept of quarantining no longer makes sense, because most of the country would have to be in the quarantine zone!

Unfortunately, all the amazing new tools and knowledge of geneticists and biotechnologists can be used for evil as well as for good.  The totally lax security concerns of researchers who develop dangerous strains of germs and who like to share them with each other, while making good sense in a benevolent world and enhancing the sharing of knowledge and research, are incredibly dangerous and alarming when one of the people receiving the shared knowledge and the lethal research strain of some bug is someone keen to use the knowledge for evil rather than honorable purposes.

Creating and inserting pandemic-causing diseases into our society is dismayingly easy, and does not require nearly the degree of technology and visible infrastructure that is required for developing or delivering nuclear weapons.

Preparing for Bio-Doom

In terms of duration, a pandemic will probably be a Level 2 event.  The Spanish flu attacked the US in three major waves, spanning a good twelve months.  This was in part due to the movement of troops from Europe back to the US at the end of World War 1, and in part just due to natural factors.

New pandemics will spread at a faster rate, for sure, and might therefore last less time in total (but also might extend on at least as long).  The impact on society is unclear, and may be mild or might be severe – in other words, can you survive in place, or do you need to bug out to your retreat?

The end of the epidemic will occur when one of two things occurs.  One possibility is when population densities have reduced to a point where it is no longer being readily transmitted, and where the remaining people will either be survivors who now have immunity after their earlier infection, or naturally resistant people who are not susceptible to the disease to start with.

The other possibility is that our medical scientists will come up with a vaccination or cure for the ailment, enabling people to quickly terminate any infection.  This is the medical equivalent of a ‘Hail Mary’ pass, however.  The lead-times required to first come up with a solution to a new threat, and then to develop enough of the drug that resolves the problem, could be way over a year or more.

Needless to say, it would be very nice to have the option to bug out if possible when confronted by a pandemic.  It is a bit harder to decide when you should do this, though – on the other hand, the good news is that the lack of an obvious defining event means that the entire population of your city region won’t all take to the freeways to evacuate the city simultaneously.

Clearly, you need to keep appraised of the latest bio-risks and the Pandemic ratings given by WHO and CDC to any new threats.  At some point prior to being surrounded by a pandemic and probably infected yourself, you’ll need to shut off contact with the outside world and let the pandemic pass you by.

If there is no threat of social disorder, it probably makes sense to stay where you are.  But if the threat of social disorder starts to increase, and if your normal residence starts to lose essential services such as water and power, then you might want to consider making an orderly departure and moving to your retreat.

During the period of ambiguity as to if an outbreak will become a pandemic or not, you’ll want to become very careful at controlling your exposure to germs.  Washing your hands becomes essential prior to any potential transfer of germs from anything to your hands and then on to anything that could end up in your mouth or nose or eyes.  And gently reducing the time you spend in concentrated crowds of other people is a good thing to do, too.

May 132012
 

Initially it will be ‘other people’ and ‘bad people’ rioting and looting. But within a week or two, it will be your neighbors, too.

We came across an interesting article on a survivalist blog.  The writer said he believed that too many people are being too negative in terms of their projections about what will happen after TEOTWAWKI.

This writer spoke about his belief in the basic goodness of the American people, and offered up various high-minded platitudes to this effect.  As well as platitudes, he also described in some detail a scenario that he believed would apply.

Basically, it was the ‘neighborhood watch on steroids’ concept, where the residents in a neighborhood all banded together to defend themselves against roving gangs of looters and rioters.

A mean-minded person would point out that his reference to roving gangs of goblins already acknowledged that cities would become lawless to a greater or lesser extent.  But let’s not score points through rhetoric, and let’s concentrate instead on the viability of smaller neighborhood communities managing to keep law and order within their own cul-de-sac or apartment complex or gated community or whatever.

He added the comment ‘around where I live, there are more rifles than people’; that may or may not be true about where you live, but it doesn’t really matter and obscures an appreciation of the issues that do matter.

Let’s simply agree with this optimistic view of the future – that you and your neighbors have lots of weapons, are decent honest people, and you all effectively band together harmoniously and create your own micro-community and safe zone, keeping the goblins away.

Bravo.

But….

What happens next?

By this we simply mean, what happens when food starts to run low in your little micro-community? We see three breakdown events occurring in the days after the creation of your neighborhood cooperative.

First Breakdown

The first level of breakdown will be when your tiny self-defense cooperative is first formed.  What’s the betting that part of the deal will be the organizers saying ‘We need to join together and pool our resources for our shared common good’.  Now that all sounds fine and dandy when they’re saying ‘We all need to take turns watching out for raiders and repelling them’ but the chances they are also saying ‘And let’s pool all our food and other survival resources’.

So right from day one, you’ll be under pressure from your fellow law-abiding neighbors to share away everything you have to help them.  In return for this, they are offering additional security – ostensibly from others outside your neighborhood, but the unwritten unstated ugliness is you’re also getting security from them, too.

However, let’s say this is not a problem.  Maybe you are all equally prepared, so redistribution of all your supplies has little effect.

Second Breakdown

But now for stage two.  Some people in your community have strangely used up their share of the pooled community supplies much faster than others.  Are they secretly hoarding food?  Eating twice as much as anyone else?  Or just being wasteful?  Whatever the cause, your community and you now have your second social crisis.  Do you reward these people’s bad behavior and give them more food – especially because, at this point, everyone’s supplies are now diminishing.

With any measure of remaining civilization, this is almost certainly what will happen, because not only will some people be lobbying for more food, half the other people will also be looking ahead to the point where they too will be needing support from anyone who still has surplus food.  So they’ll support the concept of daily redistributions of food based on need, because they see themselves becoming net beneficiaries of the policy, too.  A bit like taxing a few wealthy people to feed the many poor people, right?

Besides which, while you might have had to shoot at and maybe even hit looters attempting to attack your community, they have all been strangers at a distance, and there’s been a life or death, them or us, element to the encounter.  But are you to let one of your neighbors starve in front of you?  And will they just passively starve while you continue to eat, or will they fight you to get your food?

The outcome of this second breakdown is almost certain – you give up still more of your own prepared supplies in exchange for a little bit more peace and safety within your community.

Third Breakdown

Now for stage three, and this is the point where we feel we must surely ‘win’ the argument (we use quotes, because we wish we were wrong, but we fear we are right).

You’re now at the point where everyone in your community group has exhausted their food supplies.  What do you do now?

Your choices are starkly simple.  You stay where you are, and slowly starve to death, or alternatively, you do whatever it takes to get additional food for your friends, your families, and yourselves.

This is the point where all community members, of all communities, have no choice but to become ‘lawless looters’ – except that it won’t just be empty stores you’ll be smashing into to steal food from.  The stores will already have been emptied, days or weeks ago.  The only places where you can get food now are places where people still have food and are protecting their food from people like – yes, from people like you.

What do you do when your polite request for a gift of food is rebuffed?  What do you do after you’ve offered to pay them with money, with valuables, with anything at all they care to ask for, and they’ve still refused to sell/exchange even a single food item?

Most people will manage to become morally outraged at this, and so will then see what happens next not as their own transition to a lawless looter, but instead, they’ll see themselves as morally empowered to fairly redistribute the remaining food and to stop selfish people from illegally hoarding more food than they could ever truly need.

These people will not see themselves as killing the current lawful owners of whatever food remains.  They’ll see themselves saving the lives of many others when they secure the food and redistribute it.

Indeed, what passes for the remaining lawful authorities will probably pass urgent laws making it illegal to keep more than a day or two of food in one’s house, requiring ‘hoarders’ to give up their food, and authorizing any necessary level of force to take it from these demon selfish ‘hoarders’.  (Do we need to add that the people passing such laws are very unlikely to be preppers?)

The Life or Death Question That Has Only One Answer

We agree with the person who wrote the positive heartwarming article.  Many communities will band together to create isolated pockets of safety where the rule of law prevails.  Maybe even entire towns and cities will do so.

But what happens when the food runs out?  Let’s assume there’s less than a week of food for the community.  Maybe on half rations, that will keep people reasonably healthy and comfortable for two weeks.  But if there’s no clear sign of food resupply coming any time soon, at some point people will be forced to choose between taking food by force from wherever they can find it, or passively dying of starvation in their dwellings.

A starving person has no choice – they have to do whatever it takes to find food.

How Fast Will the Collapse Occur

Probably the total collapse of society doesn’t occur instantly.  Depending on the nature of the Level 2/3 event, it may take some days or even weeks for a clear understanding of the changed world to be broadly accepted.

Maybe the authorities will succeed in maintaining order to start with.  But police and national guardsmen have to eat, too, and so do their families.  This sets in place another no-win situation.  Either the security forces are given food while the rest of the population starves, or else the security forces starve alongside the population as a whole.

In the former case, the alienation between the communities and the security forces will grow to the point where ordinary people will no longer feel inhibited at revolting against uniformed officers with guns and badges.  In the latter case, the security forces won’t hesitate too long to join in the lawlessness themselves, because if they don’t, they’ll die.

Things might slowly decay over the course of a week or two – maybe even three or four, but if populations can’t eat lawfully, they’ll do whatever it takes to get food, any way they can.

And because of the very nature of cities and our country today, there is no way that urban concentrations can become self-supporting.  Some cities have a million or more people, and little or no food growing resources within 100 miles.

Do you know how much food a typical person needs to eat every day?  Let’s say, on low rations, they need half a pound of solids (plus lots of water).  That is 500,000 lbs of solids every day – 250 tons of food a day to support a million people.  Where will 250 tons of food a day come from?

People can’t start planting gardens today and harvesting enough food to live tomorrow.  Apartment dwellers can’t do it at all.  People with yards would need seed, fertilizer, and patience – what say the Level 2/3 event comes just after the end of a growing season, with perhaps 200 non-growing days now to wait through before seed can be sown and crops started?

Without the promise of adequate resupplies of food, there is no avoiding this outcome.  Level 3 events, by definition, imply no resupply for over a year, Level 2 events for somewhere between some weeks and a year or so.

The collapse will come, at a rate determined by the remaining supply of food and the certainty of future resupply.  The cities will become totally lawless and anarchistic, and the former city dwellers will necessarily stream out from the cities in their essential quest for food.

These people will stop only when they find food or die.

What You Must Do

Prepping for a Level 2 or 3 event must start from the decision that you will abandon your urban residence and flee to a safer retreat, far from urban concentrations of people.

Stockpiling food in an urban location will only result in it being taken from you and you finding yourself no better equipped to survive than the unprepared people all around you.

You must develop a plan to leave the city and to live in a place where you have stockpiled food and where you can transition to a self-contained and sustainable lifestyle.  City living does not, will not, and can not allow for this.

Are We Being Too Optimistic?

You might think this article is negative – perhaps even too negative.  So please now consider reading an article based on comments from a veteran police officer, but if you don’t have the time to read the entire article, its title will give you a clue as to what it says :  Cities Will Collapse Even Sooner Than We Fear.