This is not a drill

Not Hawaii (yet)

Nothing to see here, just someone “clicking the wrong thing” and thereby causing the kind of confusion that leads to a nuclear apocalypse:

An early-morning emergency alert mistakenly warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack was dispatched to cellphones across Hawaii on Saturday, setting off widespread panic in a state that was already on edge because of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.

The alert, sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was revoked 38 minutes after it was issued, prompting confusion over why it was released — and why it took so long to rescind. State officials and residents of a normally tranquil part of the Pacific, as well as tourists swept up in the panic, immediately expressed outrage.

The official explanation?

The mistake occurred during a shift-change drill that takes place three times a day at the emergency command post… “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.”

LOL. So what is it? A case of this? Or is there some other explanation?

It’s good that the FCC is investigating. Will the person who did this be identified and held accountable? I’m not holding my breath.

Mr. Rapoza said he did not know if anyone would be disciplined for the mistake. “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public,” he said. “This is not a time for pointing fingers.”

I’m sure the public agrees with that sentiment, and will find it greatly reassuring that no heads will roll, because we all know that putting a better “process” in place is more effective than holding people personally accountable for their colossal screw-ups.

But wait! No need to worry, because it was totally an accident and the employee in question feels really, really bad about what happened. And he will be… counseled. Counseled, I tell you!

A Civil Defense employee is set to be retrained after a shocking blunder on Saturday morning, when a mistaken alert warning of an inbound ballistic missile sent thousands fleeing for shelter.

The false alarm was caused by a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee who ‘pushed the wrong buttons’ during an internal drill timed to coincide with a shift handover at 8.07am. The all-clear phone alert was not sent until 38 minutes later.

Incredibly, officials said the employee who made the mistake wasn’t aware of it until mobile phones in the command center began displaying the alert.

‘This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose – it was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it,’ said EMA Administrator Vern Miyagi in a press conference Saturday afternoon.

Miyagi, a retired Army major general, said the employee had been with the agency for ‘a while’ and that he would be ‘counseled and drilled so this never happens again’ – but stopped short of saying whether there would be disciplinary measures.

Honestly, it’s getting harder to distinguish between fact and fevered imagination these days. Eerie times.

What was this incident so dangerous? In short, first-strike instability:

Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983. American officials have been warning for weeks that they might attack North Korea. Though some analysts consider this a likely bluff, officials in Pyongyang have little room for error.

Social credit system

I used to think that between the two great dystopian novelists, Huxley was more prophetic than Orwell. Not so sure anymore:

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

One early encounter with the system is described by a Chinese journalist who found himself on a government blacklist after he (inadvertently) defaulted on a court fine:

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

More details on that here.

Another example of the nascent system at work:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect system of social control. This is not so much ruling with an iron fist as ruling with a joystick. The largest society in the world is being turned into a video-game simulation.

The social credit system seems perfectly adapted for a Confucian, group-oriented society, which also happens to lead the world in mobile payments and video surveillance. Of course, China is not the only country on the road to socially networked repression.

One possibility that occurs to me is that the government could use this apparatus to tackle China’s demographic crisis by pressuring people to have more babies. This piece in Wired talks about how Alibaba’s Sesame Credit (a potential precursor to the nationwide system) factors people’s shopping habits into an assessment of their character, an example being that “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

What if “a sense of responsibility” was defined to include having two or more children, and the nationwide social credit system linked your “score” to how many children you have and the age at which you have them? I could easily see this being rolled out if more traditional pro-natalist policies fail to boost China’s birthrate to an acceptable level. (Note that China ended its one-child policy in early 2016, allowing all married couples to have two children.) In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been considered.

This all reminds me of the “credit poles” from Gary Shteyngart’s 2011 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story. As he explains:

A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.

And:

The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what’s called RateMe Plus technology. Let’s say you walk into a bar; it says, “OK, you’re the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating,” things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else’s ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

Life imitating Shteyngart…

Bomb North Korea, says Luttwak

Busan, South Korea (Oct 2017)

A good rule of thumb is that when Edward Luttwak has something to say… you should listen. I wish he commented on current events more, because unlike most pundits, the strategist known as the “Machiavelli of Maryland” always seems to have a surprising, original and deeply informed perspective on everything he writes about. Like bombing North Korea:

One mistaken reason to avoid attacking North Korea is the fear of direct retaliation. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly claimed that North Korea already has ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach as far as the United States. But this is almost certainly an exaggeration, or rather an anticipation of a future that could still be averted by prompt action. […]

It’s true that North Korea could retaliate for any attack by using its conventional rocket artillery against the South Korean capital of Seoul and its surroundings, where almost 20 million inhabitants live within 35 miles of the armistice line. U.S. military officers have cited the fear of a “sea of fire” to justify inaction. But this vulnerability should not paralyze U.S. policy for one simple reason: It is very largely self-inflicted. […]

When then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to withdraw all U.S. Army troops from South Korea 40 years ago (ultimately a division was left behind), the defense advisors brought in to help — including myself — urged the Korean government to move its ministries and bureaucrats well away from the country’s northern border and to give strong relocation incentives to private companies. South Korea was also told to mandate proper shelters, as in Zurich for example, where every new building must have its own (under bombardment, casualties increase dramatically if people leave their homes to seek shelter). In recent years, moreover, South Korea has had the option of importing, at moderate cost, Iron Dome batteries, which are produced by both Israel and the United States, that would be capable of intercepting 95 percent of North Korean rockets headed to inhabited structures.

But over these past four decades, South Korean governments have done practically nothing along these lines. The 3,257 officially listed “shelters” in the Seoul area are nothing more than underground shopping malls, subway stations, and hotel parking lots without any stocks of food or water, medical kits or gas masks. As for importing Iron Dome batteries, the South Koreans have preferred to spend their money on developing a bomber aimed at Japan.

[Shaking my damn head]

Even now, casualties could still be drastically reduced by a crash resilience program. This should involve clearing out and hardening with jacks, props, and steel beams the basements of buildings of all sizes; promptly stocking necessities in the 3,257 official shelters and sign-posting them more visibly; and, of course, evacuating as many as possible beforehand (most of the 20 million or so at risk would be quite safe even just 20 miles further to the south). The United States, for its part, should consider adding vigorous counterbattery attacks to any airstrike on North Korea.

Fair enough, and a case could be made that, assuming a mass evacuation of the city, the destruction of a large portion of Seoul is a price worth paying to prevent Kim Jung Un from joining the nuclear ICBM club. However, I imagine most South Koreans would argue that such a price is definitely not worth paying. Unfortunately, they are not the only people with skin in this particular game, as it is also Japan’s cities, and, potentially, America’s too that hang in the balance.

Complicating matters, South Korean resistance would make an American attack on the North much harder, as George Friedman argued last September:

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

A dangerous game that only seems to get more dangerous, at least until this week’s encouraging news of the first intra-Korean talks in over two years.

Tycoonarchy

Asia’s financial hub is dominated by a handful of hoary plutocrats:

Many of Hong Kong’s richest families are preparing for a generational changing of the guard. Unfortunately for the UK colony turned Chinese “special administrative region”, the sons and daughters who will inherit Hong Kong’s biggest fortunes will continue to dominate an economy defined by rent-seeking monopolies. […]

As the old saying has it, the hardest million dollars you will ever earn is your first million. Hong Kong’s next generation of tycoons never had to earn their first million, let alone their first billion. The city’s property, ports, electricity and supermarket sectors, to name just a few, have been locked up by just eight families.

Hong Kong’s monopoly madness extends far down the economic food chain to its licensing systems for taxis and public minibuses. The number of taxi licences has not increased since 1994, while those for minibuses has been frozen since 1976.

Or, as a remarkable Time Out Hong Kong article from 2012 that was apparently spiked and later reinstated put it:

Here is your typical day in Hong Kong: after buying your groceries from Li Ka-shing, you hop on to one of Cheng Yu-tung’s buses to take you back to your Kwok brothers’ apartment to cook your food with, you guessed it, gas supplied by Lee Shau-kee. […]

Hong Kong was originally founded to serve the interests of business, not of its population. Government ownership of land was aimed at keeping taxes low. The tycoons did not devise this system; they have simply milked it (with a vengeance) while the government has done little to counterbalance their growing domination or address the broader impact on the economy and society. Since the 1997 handover, the government has been noticeably more proactive in serving the tycoons’ interests.