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This essay was posted previously last year and removed and has appeared in abridged form in the European Space Safety online Magazine and can also be found on Yahoo voices.

Several dates are cited as marking the beginning of the space age. Sputnik, October 4th, 1957, Yuri’s day April 12th, 1961, and the first successful V-2 launch by the Nazis on October 3rd, 1942, to name a few. Some prefer December 21st, 1968, when human beings first escaped the Earth’s gravitational field on Apollo 8. When studying the events that allowed man to leave Earth, future historians may agree on a date not generally associated with space flight. July 16th, 1945 was Trinity, the first nuclear weapon test. Stanislaw Ulam, a 36-year-old Polish mathematician who helped build “the gadget”, visited ground zero after the test. Ulam later conceived the idea of propelling a spaceship with atomic bombs. Near the end of his life the eccentric genius stated the idea was his greatest work.

When considering nuclear propulsion, it must be understood that space is not an ocean, though often characterized as one. The distances and conditions are not comparable. While chemical energy has allowed humankind to travel across and above the surface of Earth, the energy required to travel in space is of a different order. Water, in the form of steam, was the agent of change that brought about the industrial revolution. Fossil fuel, burned and transformed by steam into mechanical work, would radically change the world in the span of a century. What is difficult for moderns to understand is not only how limited human capabilities were before steam, but how limited they are in the present in terms of space travel. The psychological limits of human beings limit space journeys to a few years. Chemical propulsion is not capable of taking human beings to the outer solar system and back within those crew limits. The solution is a reaction one million times more powerful. Nuclear energy is to the space age as steam was to the industrial age.

Space is not an ocean and this was the correct lesson drawn by Stanislaw Ulam after that suddenly bright morning in 1945. While metal can barely contain and harness chemical energy, Ulam thought outside that box and accepted nuclear energy could never be contained efficiently by any material. However, nuclear energy could be harnessed to push a spaceship in separate events to the fantastic velocities required for interplanetary travel without any containment problems at all- by using bombs. An uncontained burst of nuclear generated plasma could be withstood by a surface momentarily before the physical matter had time to melt.

Sixty years after Ulam’s stroke of genius, atomic bomb propulsion still has no competition as the only available propulsion system for practical interplanetary travel. This fact is almost completely unknown to the public. The term “ISP”, expressed in seconds, is used in measuring the efficiency of a rocket engine and chemical rockets have low ISP numbers but high thrust. The most efficient rocket engines, such as the space shuttle main engines, with a listed ISP of 453 seconds are also among the most powerful. Atomic bomb propulsion, thanks to the billions of dollars poured into star wars weapons research, would have an ISP exceeding 100,000 seconds. While other propulsion systems that use electricity have similar or higher numbers, the amount of thrust is trivial and requires months or years of continuous operation to develop any significant velocity. Considering space travel as not only a speed and distance problem, but also a time and distance problem, low thrust lengthens any missions to the outer solar system beyond crew limits. The thrust imparted by atomic bombs can in a short period easily accelerate thousands of tons to the comparatively extreme speeds necessary and then coast. Unlike an electric propulsion failure, a few dud bombs need not doom a mission or crew.

Though an incredible use of awesome power, the obstacles to employing bomb propulsion are not technical as some of the best engineers and physicists on the planet evaluated and validated the concept. A cadre of celebrity scientists also endorsed atomic bomb propulsion, including Werner Von Braun, who was present as a Nazi SS officer at the first successful V-2 launch, and as an American citizen at the launch of Apollo 8. Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan were also supporters. The first serious work on bomb propulsion was done by physicist Freeman Dyson and weapon designer Ted Taylor on the top secret project Orion. Dyson’s son, in his book Project Orion, refers to the classified star wars project Casaba Howitzer. This device focused most of the energy of a nuclear explosion in one direction. Ted Taylor’s specialty was small warheads and he designed the Orion bombs, aka “pulse units.” The “unclassified” state of the art in nuclear weapons can direct 80 percent of bomb energy into a slab of propellant, converting this mass into a jet of superheated plasma. A pusher plate would absorb the blast without melting for the fraction of a second it lasts and accelerate the spaceship in steps with each bomb. Perhaps the closest experience to riding in an atomic bomb propelled spaceship would be repeated aircraft carrier catapult launches. Instead of the ocean- space, instead of supersonic fighters- a thousand ton spaceship.

Project Orion was canceled due to nuclear weapon treaties requiring international consent for using any such devices in space. A parallel to the failure of atomic bomb propulsion may be found in an examination of the industrial age. In The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, author William Rosen theorizes English patent law was the key enabler of the industrial age by allowing inventors to retain and profit from their intellectual property. The atomic bomb originated with a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 from pacifist Albert Einstein- who was afraid the Nazi’s might build one first. With the human race living at the bottom of a deep, damp, and easily contaminated gravity well, atom bombs have never been applied successfully to a peaceful purpose. Stan Ulam, who lost most of his family in the holocaust, held the patent on atomic bomb propulsion. In the space age, nuclear weapon treaties and anti-nuclear activism have had the opposite effect of patent law and prevented atomic bomb propulsion from opening up the solar system to human exploration and colonization. Ironically, the nuclear industry is not safe on Earth- but deep space seems designed for it. There are no contamination or waste hazards, no long-term storage problems.

The problems with space travel are more than just the political barriers to detonating nuclear devices. The space industry is ipso facto a nuclear industry. Not only is nuclear energy the only practical source of propulsion in deep space, nuclear radiation generated by supernova and other celestial sources permeate space outside the protection of the earth’s atmosphere. All astronauts are radiation workers. Most, but sadly not all, space radiation is relatively easy to shield against. Many will argue using atomic bombs for propulsion is unnecessary. The presence of a small percentage of highly damaging and deeply penetrating particles- the heavy nuclei component of galactic cosmic rays makes a super powerful propulsion system mandatory. The tremendous power of atomic bomb propulsion is certainly able to propel the heavily shielded capsules required to protect space travelers. The great mass of shielding makes chemical engines, inefficient nuclear thermal rockets, the low thrust forms of electrical propulsion, and solar sails essentially worthless for human deep space flight. Which is why atomic bomb propulsion is left as the only “off the shelf” viable means of propulsion. For the foreseeable future, high thrust and high ISP to propel heavy shielding to the required velocities is only possible using bombs. The most useful and available form of radiation shielding is water. While space may not be an ocean, it appears human beings will have to take some of the ocean with them to survive.

The water comes before the bombs in human space flight because of the humans. The radiation hazards of long duration human space flight beyond earth orbit are only recently being addressed after decades of space station experience. The reason for this neglect is low earth orbit space stations are shielded from much of the radiation found outside the Earth’s Van Allen belts and magnetic field. An appreciation of the heavy nuclei component of galactic cosmic radiation, as well as solar events, will put multi-year human missions beyond earth orbit on hold indefinitely until a practical shield is available. While vested interests continue to promote inferior or non-existent technology, dismissing the radiation hazards and making promises they cannot keep, radiation scientists studying deep space conditions are skeptical- to say the least.

In the March 2006 issue of Scientific American magazine, Dr. Eugene Parker explained in simple terms survivable deep space travel. In “Shielding Space Travelers”, Parker states, “cosmic rays pose irreducible risks.” The premise of this statement is revealed when the only guaranteed solution to reducing the risk- a shield massing hundreds of tons- is deemed impractical. Active magnetic shields and other schemes are likewise of no use because while they may stop most radiation, the only effective barrier to heavy nuclei is mass and distance. The impracticality of a massive shield is due to first the expense of lifting hundreds of tons of shielding into space from Earth, and secondly propelling this mass around the solar system. Propelling this mass is not a problem if using atomic bombs, however, another problem arises. Even if the bombs could be politically managed, there is still the need to escape Earth’s gravitational field with all that shielding. Bomb propulsion is ideal for deep space but cannot be used in Earth orbit due to the Earth’s magnetic field trapping radioactive fallout that eventually enters the atmosphere. Not only lifting the shielding into orbit but chemically boosting it to a higher escape velocity away from the Earth is thus doubly problematic. Earth is a deep gravity well to climb out of.

The situation changed in March 2010 when NASA reported Mini-SAR radar aboard the Chandrayaan-1 lunar space probe had detected what appeared to be ice deposits at the lunar North Pole. An estimated 600 million tons of ice in sheets a couple meters thick. Moon water would allow a spaceship in lunar orbit to fill an outer hull with the 500+ tons of water required to effectively shield a capsule from heavy nuclei. This would enable an empty spaceship to “travel light” to the Moon and then boost out of lunar orbit using atomic bomb propulsion with a full radiation shield. Parker’s guaranteed but impractical solution had suddenly become practical. Fourteen feet of water equals the protection of the Earth’s air column at an altitude of 18,000 feet above sea level. This would protect astronauts not only from all forms of cosmic radiation but the most intense solar storms and the radiation belts found near the moons of Jupiter. With water and bombs, epic missions of exploration to the asteroid belt and outer planets are entirely possible. The main obstacles are again political, not technical. Bombs work, water works, and the Moon is in range of chemically propelled spacecraft launched from Earth.

There are other challenges to long duration beyond earth orbit human space flight but the solutions have been known for many decades. Zero gravity debilitation causes astronauts to weaken and permanently lose bone and bone marrow mass. The most practical solution, theorized since the early 1930′s, was investigated in 1966 during the Gemini 11 mission. A 100-foot tether experiment with the capsule attached to an Agena booster was successful in generating a small amount of artificial gravity by spinning the two vehicles. Equal masses on the ends of a tether can efficiently generate centrifugal force equal to one gravity. The concept is to “split the ship” when not maneuvering under power so the 500+ tons of shielded capsule is on one end and the rest of the craft of equal mass is reeled out on the other end of a thousand foot or more tether. Looking out through 14 feet of water, the crew of such a spaceship would view a slowly rotating star field. Long duration missions may last close to half a decade and the only option for providing air and water is to use a miniature version of Earth’s ecosystem. Equipment to enable a closed cycle life support system providing years of air and water is now available in the form of plasma reformers and facilitated by tons of water in which to grow algae or genetically modified organisms. With Earth radiation, Earth gravity, and air and water endlessly purified on board, crews can push their psychological limits as many years and as far out into the solar system as the speed of their atomic spaceships allow.

At the time of this writing, in early 2011, the outlook for human space flight is not encouraging. There are zero prospects for funding a long duration beyond earth orbit mission. Using atomic bombs to push minimum spaceship masses of over one thousand tons around the solar system for years at a time would cost as much as several major U.S. department of defense projects combined. Space flight is inherently expensive; there is no cheap. However, there is a completely valid military mission for atomic bomb propelled spaceships. Planetary protection became an issue in 1980 after the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico was assigned blame for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Though overshadowed by the cold war, the impact threat remains. Comet and asteroid impacts are also the stuff of Hollywood movies and this is unfortunate in that a grave threat to the survival of life on earth is viewed as fictional entertainment. The impact threat is not science fiction; it is quite real, as the frequent near misses and geologic evidence of repeated extinction events show. Optimized directional bombs used in bomb propulsion could also be employed to deflect comets and asteroids long before they approach Earth.

While the consequences of ignoring the threat of an inevitable tsunami, earthquake, or hurricane are bad, the consequences of ignoring the inevitable comet or asteroid impact are apocalyptic. It is not only random impacts that could strike at any time the human race need guard against. In April of 2010 renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned of alien civilizations posing a possible threat to humanity. Several large comets purposely crashed into a planet to wipe out the majority of indigenous life and prepare for the introduction of invasive alien species may be a common occurrence in the galaxy. Before readers scoff, they might consider towers brought down by jetliners, the discovery of millions of planets, and other recent unlikely events. It is within our power to defend Earth from the very real threat of an impact, and at this time self-defense is the only valid reason to go into space instead of spending the resources on Earth improving the human condition. Protecting our species from extinction is the penultimate moral high ground above all other calls on public funds. The vast treasure expended by nations threatening each other is not protecting the human race at all. Earth is defenseless. President Ronald Reagan in his 1983 Star Wars speech said, “I call upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace.” President Barack Obama has expressed a desire to reduce the world nuclear arsenal and converting these weapons to propulsion devices would do so. A powerful force of nuclear powered, propelled, and armed spaceships cannot guarantee Earth will not suffer a catastrophe. The best insurance for our species is to establish, in concert with a spaceship fleet, several independent self-supporting off world colonies in the outer solar system. The first such colony would mark the beginning of a new age.

Time line

1939 (August) Einstein sends letter recommending atomic bomb.

1939 (September) Germany invades Poland, World War 2 begins.

1942 First successful V-2 rocket launch by the Nazis.

1945 Trinity, the first atomic bomb is detonated.

1957 Sputnik achieves orbit using a rocket designed to carry an atomic bomb.

1961 Yuri Gagarin orbits Earth.

1966 Gemini 11 mission demonstrates artificial gravity.

1967 Outer Space Treaty restricts nuclear weapons in space.

1968 Apollo 8 crew escapes Earth’s gravitational field.

1980 Chicxulub impact crater revealed as dinosaur killer.

1983 Ronald Reagan gives Star Wars speech.

2006 Eugene Parker explains survivable deep space travel.

2010 (March) Millions of tons of ice are discovered on the Moon.

2010 (April) Stephen Hawking warns of alien civilization threat.


George Dyson, 2002, Project Orion: The True story of the Atomic Spaceship, Henry Holt and Company, LLC

Eugene Parker, March 2006, Shielding Space Travelers, Scientific American Magazine

William Rosen, 2010, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, Random House


American history teachers praise the educational value of Billy Joel’s 1980s song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’. His song is a homage to the 40 years of historical headlines since his birth in 1949.

Which of Joel’s headlines will be considered the most important a millennium from now?

This column discusses five of the most important, and tries to make the case that three of them will become irrelevant, while one will be remembered for as long as the human race exists (one is uncertain). The five contenders are:

The Bomb
The Pill
African Colonies


My previous column concentrated on the Hall Weather Machine[1], with a fairly technocentric focus. In contrast, this column is not technical at all, but considers the premise that if we don’t know our past, then we don’t know what our future will be.

American history teachers praise Billy Joel’s 1980s song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ for its educational value. His song is a homage to the 40-years of historical headlines since his birth in 1949. Before reading further, go to to hear it and to see the photographs that go with each phrase of the song.

Which of Joel’s headlines do you think will be most important, when considered by people a millennium from now? A thousand years is a long time.

Many of the popular figures Joel mentions from politics, entertainment, and sports have already begun to fade from living memory, so they are easy to dismiss. Similarly, which nation won which war will be remembered only by historians, though the genetic components of descendants affected by those wars will reverberate through the centuries. An interesting exercise would consider the most significant events of the eleventh century. English-speaking historians might mention the Battle of Hastings, but is Britain even a world power any longer? Where are the Byzantine, Ottoman, Toltec, and Holy Roman empires of a thousand years ago?

Note that there may be a difference between what most people 1,000 years from now will consider to be the most important and what may actually be the most important. In this case, just because the empires mentioned above are gone doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t have a significant role in creating our present and our future — we may simply be unconscious of their effect.

I will consider a few possibilities before arguing for one headline that is certain to be remembered, rightfully so, ten thousand years from now — if not longer.

The Bomb

First, most thoughtful people would include the hydrogen-bomb. A few decades ago, almost everyone would have agreed wholeheartedly. At that time, the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction hung heavily over every life in the USSR and the United States (if not the world). With the USSR now gone, and Russia and USA not quite at each others throats, the danger from extinction via a full-out nuclear exchange may be lower. However, the danger of a nuclear attack that kills a few million people is actually more likely.

Up till now, for a nation to become a great power and thereby wield great influence, it needed the level of organization that depended on civilization. No matter how brutal their government or culture — such as Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet Union, or Ancient Rome — their organization depended on efficient education, competent administration, large-scale engineering, and the finer things in life — to motivate at least the elite. Even then, some of the benefit would trickle down as “a rising tide raises all boats”. Competent and educated slaves were a key to Roman Civilization, just as educated bureaucrats were essential to the Nazi and Soviet systems.

Now, however, we are getting into a situation in which atomic weapons give the edge to the stark-raving mad — anyone who is willing to use them. This situation could be most destructive to prosperous, open, humanistic, and civilized nations, because they may be less willing to give up their comfort and freedom to defend against this threat. It appears very likely that within a decade or less, any ragtag collection of pip-squeak lunatics will be able to level the greatest city on Earth, even if it is defended by the world’s strongest army. This is because the advances in nuclear enrichment technology (along with all technology) will make it easier for pip-squeak lunatics to acquire or manufacture nuclear bombs.

That being said, however, it is also true that really advanced technology — specifically privacy-invasive information technology, perhaps in the form of throwaway supercomputers in a massive network of dustcams — might stop the pip-squeak lunatics before they can build and deploy their nuclear bombs.

In addition, another decade of technological development will result in nanobots. By the way, this isn’t just my prediction (the defense of which is a subject of a future column), but also the opinion of inventive dreamers such as Raymond Kurzweil, and of conservative achievers such as Lockheed executives. The development of nanobots means that cellular repair of radiation damage may also become possible (though the problems of controlling trillions of nanobots and of how to detect and repair radiation damage are additional separate and very difficult engineering and biological issues). Michael Flynn examined some of the nuclear strategic issues of this nanotech application in his short story “Washer at the Ford”.[2]

The problem is that there may be a five year window during which our only defense against nuclear-bomb-wielding pip-squeak lunatics will be privacy-invasive information technology, run by the FBI, NSA, and CIA, and their counterparts around the world. Yes, you should be worried, but probably not for the reasons you may think. The danger is not as much that these government agencies may infringe on your rights, but that the very nature of their jobs means that they won’t be able to apply Kranstowitz’s weapon of openness[3] against those who want us dead. To make matters worse, the U.S. intelligence agencies will likely follow the complex laws[3] that protect the privacy of U.S. persons[4] — to the exclusion of catching the nuclear lunatics. This is one reason that FBI, NSA, and CIA directors get new gray hairs every night.

Another problem is that the pip-squeak lunatics will also be able to buy cheap, privacy-invasive information (and other) technologies. Petro-dollars, peasant-made knickknacks, and mining rights have given ethically-challenged individuals in third-world countries astonishing wealth. Many of the world’s richest men live in the world’s poorer countries.[5] They have also learned cruel and clever means by which to keep their peasants down. The question is whether or not they can run the expensive technology they bought with their wealth and power. Buying cheap technology is one thing, but controlling it requires skilled people, and skilled people are more difficult to control. Can the dictators keep a small cadre of trusty elites to run the technology? North Korea and Iran are interesting (and rather scary) test cases at the moment.

Another wild card is that while some dictatorships have become more totalitarian, there comes a point at which the downtrodden peasants (and students, and factory workers, and shopkeepers) don’t have anything to lose but their miserable lives. Meanwhile, totalitarian governments can’t keep up with technology as quickly as free ones can. This is when the system collapses of its own weight, and that is what happened to the USSR. The cell phone, Facebook, and Twitter-fed revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere also seem to prove this point. Thus far, the Chinese leaders have been smart enough to adapt their economy without adapting their government. The jury is still out as to what will happen to them next (it may not be pretty for us if it ends badly, and there are many ways it can end badly).

Another wild card to consider is that most of the existing nuclear warheads are in the United States, Russia, and China. Americans conveniently forget, but non-Americans are very aware that the United States is (thus far) the only nation that has actually used an atomic bomb to kill people. On the other hand, America doesn’t have highly corrupt officials in charge of our nuclear arsenal (Pakistan), nor is it controlled by a near-dictator (Russia), nor by a totalitarian crazed nut-job (North Korea). In addition, a number of important Japanese leaders have publicly said that that controversial decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the correct one–“It could not be helped.“[6] A similar case might be made for Israel, which is surrounded by overwhelming numbers of Arab nations. Given the tensions in the area, a preemptive strike by Israel seems possible, if not likely. The important question then becomes: Under what grounds, if any, could such usage be justified? Of course, Iranian and other Arab leaders have often called for the total destruction of Israel, and eventually one of them may be willing to try it. On what grounds could they be justified?

Another issue is that once we lose New York or some other major city, Americans will accept any solution — including a totalitarian police state. So will the people of other democratic republics if they lose a major city to nuclear terrorists. But the solution is not necessarily a police state. David Brin has answered the “who guards the guardians” question with a clever answer: “We all do.” Over-simplified, his solution is to kiss most of your privacy goodbye. Either that or kiss your life, your liberty, and property, and your privacy all goodbye. Brin proposes that we should all submit to being on camera most of the time — as long as the camera essentially points both ways so we know who is watching us — i.e. the police, our neighbors, the pervert three blocks away, and our governments will know that we are watching them too. We must all shoulder the responsibility of policing our neighborhoods and our governments. The world will be like big village in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, but it’s OK because we are all accountable for our actions. Given the fact that human beings only behave when held accountable, it is the only real solution.[7]

Some may think it naive to expect that governments would ever allow their citizens to observe them in return for their observing us. On the other hand, between the increasing calls for government transparency, and the fact that even the chief of the IMF can be taken down by an lowly maid (with the help of the rule of law), there is hope. Not only that, but many of us have already given away much of our privacy on Facebook and YouTube. Don’t worry about it. Maybe I’m still a wide-eyed optimist, but look at the fall of the USSR empire. Nobody with two brain cells to rub together could have possibly predicted that it could have been so bloodless.

DARPA will certainly look for technological answers for nuclear bomb-related problems such as the nightmare of screening shipping containers. They will probably find some solutions, but during the critical transition phase towards productive nanosystems, will they be able to make those solutions affordable?

One nanotech solution to stopping nuclear bombs that are hidden in shipping containers is to stop all physical shipping altogether and just trade files over the internet, printing whatever you want on our desktops (BTW, you can build a very large printer in two steps). Our only problem then would be keeping our computer virus detectors up to date so that we don’t print something nasty.

To summarize, if anybody is around 1,000 years from now, then the nuclear bomb will not be considered an important issue.

The Pill

The second historically consequential development in the past 50 years that many people will propose as significant is the contraceptive pill.

Some claim that the Pill is necessary because we have a population problem. When I was in college in the 1970’s, it was “proven” to me, with the aid of computer models, that overpopulation was going to be the reason we were going to have food riots in the United States by 1985. So naturally, I’m as skeptical about overpopulation as I am about the imminent rapture. Everyone probably agrees that overpopulation results when the population exceeds the sustainable carrying capacity of the environment. But what determines that capacity? Technology multiplies it while ignorance, injustice, and war decrease it. On Earth today, there is currently no correlation between standard of living and population density.[8]

That being said, in a closed system, unlimited human population growth could result in a situation worse than simple human extinction. Natural ecosystems have population boom/crash cycles all the time, but other species don’t have access to nuclear bombs and other devices that can obliterate habitats. The overpopulation disaster on Easter Island occurred with a primitive culture. It still has grass, but not much of an ecosystem. Imagine what could have happened with modern technology.

The Pill fundamentally changed the relationship of men and women, the place of children in a family and, on the macro level, population dynamics. The family is the basic building block of society and civilization, not only because it is an economic unit (you don’t pay your spouse to wash the dishes or take out the garbage), but more importantly, because the family critically shapes the next generation. Therefore, a large change in family structures will have far-reaching effects, at least in the “short run” of five to ten generations. However, to steal from Jerry Pournell and Larry Niven: “Think of it as evolution in action.“[9] The people who embrace contraception as a path to “the good life” will (evolutionarily speaking) remove their vote for influencing their future within a few generations. It is true that for humans, memes may carry as much weight as genes, but the same process applies — as long as meme propagation is kept below a critical level, perhaps by co-traveling xenophobic memes. On the other hand, people who don’t have much of their material resources tied up in children may have more time to devote to meme propagation. However, many studies have shown than the people who have the greatest impact on teens and pre-teens are their parents.[10]

One possible result is that a millennium from now, the Pill will be a small blip, as inconsequential as the Shakers, and for essentially similar reasons. Nanotechnology-enabled life extension techniques will extend that blip for a while, but because the prolific pro-natalists will continue having even more children for their longer lives, more pro-natalists will be born to outvote the anti-natalists. This is why the Jewish Knesset now has a significantly higher percentage of Ultra-Orthodox than when it began,[11] why Utah’s government is almost 100% Mormon,[12] and why the Amish are one of the fastest growing minority in the world, with an average of 6.8 children per family.[13]

The opposing trend is controlled by a number of factors. First, the birth rate goes down as women’s educations go up. This occurs partially because practically speaking, it is more difficult to go to school while being married and raising children. More subtly, however, it is because school is an investment in learning a professional trade — it is a different investment than children. In addition, women and men are implicitly and explicitly taught that a better career is more important than raising more children.

The problem isn’t that women are being educated. The problem is that if they are taught something that results in the extinction of our egalitarian, humanistic, and liberal society by one that is misogynistic, xenophobic, and unjust, then something is wrong.

One weapon of the contraceptive culture is the reeducation of the pro-natalist’s children. Proponents of secularization would call this “giving people free access to all information” not “reeducation”. But when Bibles are banned from the classroom, and students are taught in many ways that they are just animals, it seems like imposition of a secular viewpoint. At least they could teach the debate — and at the end of the semester, the students could try to guess the teacher’s bias (if they can’t, then the teacher presented both views with equal force).

There are more than a million home-schooled children in the U.S., up to two-thirds of whom are there primarily because their parents fear the imposition of our government’s ideas on their children.[14] This quiet protest is so feared by governments that parents are prosecuted for doing this, not only in all totalitarian countries but even in some democratic nations.[15] The alternative is that the governments of open, liberal, and secularized nations (that accept contraception) will decide that the vote of the increasing minority is wrong. Could their right to vote be taken away? Of course it can; it has happened before.

A pessimistic view of this possibility of disenfranchisement is also supported by the prevalence of abortion in liberal democracies. Given the accuracy of ultrasound imagery, if we can ignore the right to life for our most innocent and helpless, then how safe is something as meager as the right to vote? Niemöller’s poem about trade unionists, Communists, and Catholics comes to mind.[16] So do the events in ancient Egypt, during the three or four hundred years between the famines that Joseph ameliorated (Genesis 50:22). The Egyptian upper class used contraception[17], and they felt threatened by the increasing numerical growth of the Jews, who had strict injunctions against it.

Is it good for our country that more than a million children are being taught by their parents? What if rebellious parents are teaching strange and dangerous ideas? How do we decide which ideas are dangerous? Do we censor and suppress them? After all, ideas have consequences.

The answer is that there are limits to what parents can do, but very few — if any — on what they teach. The whole point about freedom of religion is that we can believe what we want, as long as we do not destroy society or individuals with our actions. Our constitution was written not to limit individuals, but to put strict limits on government, since it is inherently more powerful.

The temptation to avoid having children is not limited to any particular culture. The reason is simple: raising children is an expensive, risky, and difficult investment. Parents must be willing to give up fancy vacations, luxury cars, time to themselves, a good night’s sleep, stress on their marriage, and many other things, thus weighing against the pro-natalist agenda. However, the culture that teaches that children are a blessing and a worthwhile investment instead of a cost will overcome those that do not — even if it tends to encourage people to be ignorant, misogynist, racist, and illogical (like two polygamist religions that start with the letter “M“[18]).

Cyril M. Kornbluth’s 1951 short story “The Marching Morons” illustrates another potential downside to the anti/pro-natalist issue by portraying a scenario in which selective pressure resulted in smart people breeding themselves out of existence. It also, despite the derogatory title, provides a warning: the originator of the “Final Solution” (placing all the fertile morons onto one-way rockets to nowhere) ends up screaming futilely as he himself is loaded on one of the last rockets. Kornbluth’s main premise seems logical. People are often willing to trade children for the better material things and higher standard of living, and those with more education are more willing to do so. But is the resulting cost to society worth it?

What will happen when productive nanosystems and advanced software lowers the price of goods and services to very low levels? Many other things will happen at the same time, but in a society of economic abundance, the expense of children will drop significantly — and will be limited only by attention span and desire (and possibly expanded by reproductive-enhancing technologies including parthenogenesis and male pregnancy). Is there a gene for liking children? Or is it a meme that is culturally transmitted? Evolution favors both. Of course, evolution may also favor a “Boys from Brazil“[19] scenario (in which numerous clones of a dictator are grown to reinstate his rule). This strategy may be successful as long as the clones survive to adulthood and can reproduce.

While a contraceptive culture is non-sustainable, especially in the face of a competing culture whose population is growing, it must be noted that a pro-natalist culture is also non-sustainable. Isaac Asimov pointed out that even if we could overcome all technological obstacles, any growth rate will eventually result in humanity becoming a big ball of flesh, expanding at the speed of light (BOFESOL, or BOF for short). At a modest 3% rate, we will reach the initial BOF in only 3,584 years. After that, the speed of light will limit growth.

However, the fact that a contraceptive culture is non-sustainable in a significantly shorter term than the pro-natalist one is why it makes sense for governments to support traditional religions in their efforts to maintain traditional morality and fertility. The difficult problem is finding ways to ensure the survival of a culture without it becoming xenophobic. This is difficult to do when we think that we have Absolute Truth and the One True Religion on our side. But then exactly how do we know that our particular set and ordering of values is the objectively correct one? Note that the denial of the existence of any objectively maximum set of values exists is itself a particular set of values. And note also that sustainability and tolerance are also values that, like all values, must be assumed because they cannot be proven.

Given the contradictory evidence and shifting values, it is likely that equilibrium between pro-natalist and contraceptive meme sets can never be reached. Instead, humanity will likely experience benign (and sometimes not-so benign) boom and crash cycles similar to those that natural ecosystems suffer from. Only for us, our cycles will be constrained by opinions and technological capabilities, not by predators.

African Colonies

A third historical event that may be of consequence a thousand years from now is “Belgians in the Congo”. The Belgian regime in the Congo was about as brutal and inhuman as any the Europeans imposed on its colonies. However, the European Empires spread Christianity in Africa — where it remains a fast-growing religion. This African event may be as significant as when the Spanish and Portuguese spread Christianity in Latin America, and will bring about a fundamentally different world than if Africa had gone Islamic, Hindu, or Confucian. Think of Latin American worshiping the Aztec gods with human sacrifice, or the impact on us if it were an Islamic Civilization. We would live in a very different world.

Then again, Africa may still turn Islamic. After all, Islam generally values large families, just like the fast-growing Mormon and Amish religions do. On the other hand, when Muslims become secularized, they reduce the number of their offspring, just like secularized Christians do — hence their accompanying philosophies will suffer the same fate. The result will be that in order to survive in the long term, future generations must be hostile to secularization, and probably hostile to each other’s religious views also (not a pleasant thought, even if they do share many of the same values). Over the next thousand years, in view of the exponential increase in technological power, which viewpoint will win? The answer depends on science, theology, and demographics.

A handful of nominal Christians destroyed the Aztec civilization, not because of their technology (though that helped), but because the Aztec civilization was based on a great and powerful falsehood — that in order for the sun to rise every morning, human blood needed to be shed — thereby earning the hatred of the neighboring tribes whose blood it was that was usually shed. Islam is not as false as the Aztec religion — otherwise it would not have lasted this long. But the jury is still out on whether it can survive the extreme technological advancement that productive nanosystems will bring. Will fanatical Muslims be able to design and build the nanotech equivalent of 747 jets that they can fly into the skyscrapers of their enemies? Or will they just learn how to use it in unexpected and terrorizing ways? Given the high level of technological advancement in the Muslim empire a thousand years ago, the answer seems to be “yes” to both questions. However, Islam’s ultimate rejection of reason is its Achilles heel, and in the past it helped lead to the decline of the Ottoman Empire after its peak in the 1300s. This is because Islam’s idea of Allah’s absolute transcendence is incompatible with the idea that the universe is ordered and knowable. Psychologically, the problem is that if the universe is not ordered and knowable, then why bother learning and doing science? Meanwhile, Hinduism has many competing gods, and this leads (like in ordinary paganism) to its rejection of the logical principle of contradiction — without which science is impossible. Confucianism seems to be more a moral code than a religious one, so it seems that it could be accommodating to technology — but that didn’t seem to help its practitioners develop it before they collided with the West. Similarly with Buddhism. Meanwhile, the decadent West’s deconstructionism and nihilism is gnawing at its parent’s roots, rejecting reason and science as merely tools of power.

It can be claimed that religious views will keep changing and splitting into new orthodoxies. In that case, the result will be an ever-shifting field of populations and sub-populations with none winning out completely over the others. But as far as I can tell, neither Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, nor Islam have changed any of their core beliefs in the past few millennia. In contrast, the Mormons have changed a number of their major doctrines, and so have the Protestants. This does not bode well for their long-term survival as a coherent organization, though the Mormons do have their high fertility on their side.

At the moment, the whole world is copying the Christian-rooted West, as many of their scientific elite are educated in Europe and the United States. It is difficult to say to what extent they understand the philosophical underpinnings of science. When their own universities start to educate their elite, their cultural assumptions will probably displace the Judeo-Christian/Greek philosophy of the West. Then what? It depends if science, which is the foundation of technological superiority, is simply a cargo cult that works. My claim is that science will only continue working for more than a generation or two if its underlying assumptions come with it — that the universe is both ordered and knowable.

These Judeo-Christian assumptions are huge — though atheists, agnostics, and (maybe) Muslims and Buddhists should also be able to accept them. However, every scientist still faces the question of why the universe is ordered and knowable (and if you’re not constantly asking the next question, especially the “why” question, then you’re not a very good scientist). The theistic answer of design by creator[20] is not too far away from the assumption of an ordered and knowable universe, and from there, one begins skating very close to the concept that we are made “Imago Dei”–in God’s image. Some people think that there is too much hubris and ego to that belief, but you don’t see dolphins landing on the Moon, or chimpanzees creating great symphonies (or even bad rap).

“Imago Dei” is the most logical conclusion once we can explain why the universe is predictable and knowable. And being made in God’s image has other implications, especially in terms of our role in this universe. Most notably, it promotes the idea of human beings as powerful stewards of creation, as opposed to subservient subjects of Mother Nature, and it will pit Nietzschean Transhumanists and Traditional Catholics against Gaian environmentalists and National Park Rangers.


Writing has been around for thousands of years, while the printing press has been around for almost 600. It would seem that the printing press was the one invention that, more than anything else, enabled the development of all subsequent inventions. Television could be considered an improvement over writing, and given that large amounts of video can be subject to slightly less interpretation than an equal amount of effort writing text, our descendants might get a better, more complete depiction of history than they could get from just text or physical artifacts. However, the television that Joel mentioned was controlled by the big three television networks. This was because the cost to entry was so high (currently from $200,000 to $13 million per episode). So the role of television of the 1960s was similar to the role of books in Medieval Europe, where the cost of a book was equivalent to the yearly salary of a well-educated person). For this reason, Joel’s headline will not be considered significant, though he was close.

He was close because television’s electronic video display offspring, the computer — especially when connected to form the Internet — will certainly be significant. It will be as significant as the nuclear bomb and the Pill combined, if and when Moore’s Law ushers in the Singularity. But Joel was writing a song, not engaging in future studies. We might as well criticize him for not mentioning the coining of the word “nanotechnology”.


A few of Billy Joel’s headlines may be remembered 1,000 years from now, but none mentioned so far will really be significant.

I would go out on a limb and say that other than the scientific and industrial revolutions, the American Constitution, and the virtual abolishment of slavery, little of consequence has happened in the last thousand years. There is, however, one significant event that happened in the 1400s. No, it’s not Spain kicking out the Muslims. It’s not even Admiral Zheng He, Admiral of China’s famed Dragon Fleet, sailing to Africa in the 1420s, though we’re getting warmer. As impressive as they were, Zheng’s voyages did not change the world. What did change the world was the tiny fleet of three ships that returned from the New World to Spain in 1492.

Apollo and Star Trek both pointed to the next and final frontier. It is true that little has happened in the American space program since Apollo, and with the retirement of the 1960s-designed Space Shuttle, even less is expected. This poor showing has occurred because the moon shot, as awe-inspiring as it was, was a political stunt funded for political reasons. The problem is that it didn’t pay for itself, and we therefore have a dismal space program. However, with communication, weather, and GPS satellites, we have a huge space industry. It’s all about the value added.

On the other hand, it’s the governmental space programs that seem to make the initial (and necessary) investments in the basic technology. More importantly, these programs give voice to that which makes us human — “to look at the stars and wonder”.[21]

Realistically, looking at the historical records of Jamestown and Salt Lake City, space development will occur when prosperous upper class families can sell their homes and businesses to buy a one-way ticket and homesteading tools. In today’s money, that would be about one or two million dollars. We have a long way to go to achieve that price break, though it helps that Moore’s Law is exponential.

There have only been a dozen men on the Moon so far, but Neil Armstrong will be remembered far longer than anyone else in this millennium. After the human race has spread throughout the solar system, and after it starts heading for the stars, everyone will remember who took the first small step. The importance of this step will become obvious after the Google Moon prize is won, and after Elon Musk and his imitators demonstrate conclusively that we are no longer in a zero sum game.

That is something to look forward to.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel is Research Engineer at Novii Systems.


Many thanks to Andrew Balet, Bill Bogen, Tim Wright, and Ted Reynolds for their significant contributions to this column.


1. Tihamer Toth-Fejel, The Politics and Ethics of the Hall Weather Machine, and
2. Michael Flynn, Washer at the Ford, Analog, v109 #6 & 7, June & July 1989.
3. Arthur Kantrowitz, The Weapon of Openness,
4. United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, 27 July 1993,
5. e.g. Mexico, India, Saudia Arabia, and Russia Also, the petro-dollar millionaires in the Mideast
6. There is an interesting discussion at
7. David Brin,The Transparent Society, Basic Books (1999). For a quick introduction, see The Transparent Society and Other Articles about Transparency and Privacy,
8. Tihamer Toth-Fejel, Population Control, Molecular Nanotechnology, and the High Frontier, The Assembler, Volume 5, Number 1 & 2, 1997
9. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Oath of Fealty. New York : Pocket Books, 1982
10. KIDS COUNT Indicator Brief, Reducing the Teen Birth Rate, July 2009.
11. From a small group of just four members in the 1977 Knesset, they gradually increased their representation to 22 (out of 120) in 1999 ( The fertility rate for ultra-Orthodox mothers greatly exceeds that of the Israeli Jewish population at large, averaging 6.5 children per mother in the ultra-Orthodox community compared to 2.6 among Israeli Jews overall ( ).
12. As of mid-2001, the Governor of Utah, and all of its Federal senators, representatives and members of the Supreme Court are all Mormon.
13. Julia A. Ericksen; Eugene P. Ericksen, John A. Hostetler, Gertrude E. Huntington. “Fertility Patterns and Trends among the Old Order Amish”. Population Studies (33): 255–76 (July 1979).
14. 1.1 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2003.
15. HOMESCHOOLING: Prosecution is waged abroad; troubling trends abound in US
18. I should note that almost all of the people I have personally known from these two religions are trustworthy, intelligent, and a pleasure to meet. Despite what they are taught in their sacred texts.
19. Ira Levin, Boys from Brazil, Dell (1977)
20. There are many question to follow. How did He do it? Why is He masculine? Why did He do it? How do we know? That last question is especially relevant.
21. Guy J. Consolmagno, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, McGraw-Hill (2001)

The Lifeboat Foundation has been on to this guy for years.

The overview: “We would like the nuclear terrorist Adnan G. El Shukrijumah to be captured. There is a $5 million reward for assisting in his capture” (

Now the AP reports “a suspected al-Qaida operative who lived for more than 15 years in the U.S. has become chief of the terror network’s global operations, the FBI says, marking the first time a leader so intimately familiar with American society has been placed in charge of planning attacks”… that suspected operative? Adnan Shukrijumah.

According to the AP piece, his mother claims that he’s non-violent. If so, that could suggest new directions for al-Qaida; but it seems rather unlikely that al-Qaida will become a charitable NGO if Jose Padilla’s account is to be believed. It’s old news now that Padilla claims to have trained in terrorist tactics using natural gas with Shukrijumah back in the summer of 2001 (

See also:

A. Shukrijumah

[AN INCENTIVE: “You give us Adnan G. El Shukrijumah and in return we will give you rewards. We assure you that all information would be kept secret”, reads a matchbox handed out by the U.S. government, which is offering a $5-million reward. (TARIQ MAHMOOD, AFP/Getty Images)]

Originally posted @ Perspective Intelligence

Two events centered on New York City separated by five days demonstrated the end of one phase of terrorism and the pending arrival of the next. The failed car-bombing in Times square and the dizzying stock market crash less than a week later mark the book ends of terrorist eras.

The attempt by Faisal Shahzad to detonate a car bomb in Times Square was notable not just for its failure but also the severely limited systemic impact a car-bomb could have, even when exploding in crowded urban center. Car-bombs or Vehicle-Borne IED’s have a long history (incidentally one of the first was the 1920 ‘cart and horse bomb’ in Wall Street, which killed 38 people). VBIED’s remain deadly as a tactic within an insurgency or warfare setting but with regard to modern urban terrorism the world has moved on. We are now living within a highly virtualized system and the dizzying stock-market crash on the 6th May 2010 shows how vulnerable this system is to digital failure. While the NYSE building probably remains a symbolic target for some terrorists a deadly and capable adversary would ignore this physical manifestation of the financial system and disrupt the data-centers, software and routers that make the global financial system tick. Shahzad’s attempted car-bomb was from another age and posed no overarching risk to western societies. The same cannot be said of the vulnerable and highly unstable financial system.

Computer aided crash (proof of concept for future cyber-attack)

There has yet to be a definitive explanation of how stocks such as Proctor and Gamble plunged 47% and the normally solid Accenture plunged from a value of roughly $40 to one cent, based on no external input of information into the financial system. The SEC has issued directives in recent years boosting competition and lowering commissions, which has had the effect of fragmenting equity trading around the US and making it highly automated. This has created four leading exchanges, NYSE Euronext, Nasdaq OMX Group, Bats Global Market and Direct Edge and secondary exchanges include International Securities Exchange, Chicago Board Options Exchange, the CME Group and the Intercontinental Exchange. There are also broker-run matching systems like those run by Knight and ITG and so called ‘dark-pools’ where trades are matched privately with prices posted publicly only after trades are done. As similar picture has emerged in Europe, where rules allowing competition with established exchanges and known by the acronym “Mifid” have led to a similar explosion of types and venues.

To navigate this confusing picture traders have to rely on ‘smart order routers’ – electronic systems that seek the best price across all of the platforms. Therefore, trades are done in vast data centers – not in exchange buildings. This total automation of trading allows for the use of a variety of ‘trading algorithms’ to manage investment themes. The best known of these is a ‘Volume Algo’, which ensures throughout the day that a trader maintains his holding in a share at a pre-set percentage of that share’s overall volume, automatically adjusting buy and sell instructions to ensure that percentage remains stable whatever the market conditions. Algorithms such as this have been blamed for exacerbating the rapid price moves on May 6th. High-frequency traders are the biggest proponents of algos and they account for up to 60% of US equity trading.

The most likely cause of the collapse on May 6th was the slowing down or near stop on one side of the trading pool. So in very basic terms a large number of sell orders started backing up on one side of the system (at the speed of light) with no counter-parties taking the order on the other side of the trade. The counter-party side of the trade slowed or stopped causing this almost instant pile-up of orders. The algorithms on the other side finding no buyer for their stocks kept offering lower prices (as per their software) until they attracted a buyer. However, as no buyer’s appeared on the still slowed or stopped counter-party side prices tumbled at an alarming rate. Fingers have pointed at the NYSE for causing the slow down on one side of the trading pool as it instituted some kind of circuit breaker into the system, which caused all the other exchanges to pile-up on the other side of the trade. There has also been a focus on one particular trade, which may have been the spark igniting the NYSE ‘circuit breaker’. Whatever the precise cause, once events were set in train the system had in no way caught up with the new realities of automated trading and diversified exchanges.

More nodes same assumptions

On one level this seems to defy conventional thinking about security – more diversity greater strength – not all nodes in a network can be compromised at the same time. By having a greater number of exchanges surely the US and global financial system is more secure? However, in this case, the theory collapses quickly if thinking is switched from examining the physical to the virtual. While all of the exchanges are physically and operationally separate they all seemingly share the same software and crucially trading algorithms that all have some of the same assumptions. In this case they all assumed that because they could find no counter-party to the trade they needed to lower the price (at the speed of light). The system is therefore highly vulnerable because it relies on one set of assumptions that have been programmed into lighting fast algorithms. If a national circuit breaker could be implemented (which remains doubtful) then this could slow rapid descent but it doesn’t take away the power of the algorithms – which are always going to act in certain fundamental ways ie continue to lower the offer price if they obtain no buy order. What needs to be understood are the fundamental ways in which all the trading algorithms move in concert. All will have variances but they will all share key similarities, understanding these should lead to the design of logic circuit breakers.

New Terrorism

However, for now the system looks desperately vulnerable to both generalized and targeted cyber attack and this is the opportunity for the next generation of terrorists. There has been little discussion as to whether the events of last Thursday were prompted by malicious means but it certainly is worth mentioning. At a time when Greece was burning launching a cyber attack against this part of the US financial system would clearly have been stunningly effective. Combining political instability with a cyber attack against the US financial system would create enough doubt about the cause of a market drop for the collapse gain rapid traction. Using targeted cyber attacks to stop one side of the trade within these exchanges (which are all highly automated and networked) would, as has now been proven, cause a dramatic collapse. This could also be adapted and targeted at specific companies or asset classes to cause a collapse in price. A scenario where-by one of the exchanges slows down its trades surrounding the stock of a company the bad-actor is targeting seems both plausible and effective.

A hybrid cyber and kinetic attack could also cause similar damage – as most trades are now conducted within data-centers – it begs the question why are there armed guards outside the NYSE – of course if retains some symbolic value but security resources would be better placed outside of the data-centers where these trades are being conducted. A kinetic attack against financial data centers responsible for these trades would surely have a devastating effect. Finding the location of these data centers is as simple as conducting a Google search.

In order for terrorism to have impact in the future it needs to shift its focus from the weapons of the 20th Century to those of the present day. Using their current tactics the Pakistan Taliban and their assorted fellow-travelers cannot fundamentally damage western society. That battle is over. However, the next era of conflict motivated by a radicalism from as yet unknown grievances, fueled by a globally networked generation Y, their cyber weapons of choice and the precise application of ultra-violence and information spin has dawned. Five days in Manhattan flashed a light on this new era.

Roderick Jones

Nature News reports of a growing concern over different standards for DNA screening and biosecurity:

“A standards war is brewing in the gene-synthesis industry. At stake is the way that the industry screens orders for hazardous toxins and genes, such as pieces of deadly viruses and bacteria. Two competing groups of companies are now proposing different sets of screening standards, and the results could be crucial for global biosecurity.

“If you have a company that persists with a lower standard, you can drag the industry down to a lower level,” says lawyer Stephen Maurer of the University of California, Berkeley, who is studying how the industry is developing responsible practices. “Now we have a standards war that is a race to the bottom.”

For more than a year a European consortium of companies called the International Association of Synthetic Biology (IASB) based in Heidelberg, Germany, has been drawing up a code of conduct that includes gene-screening standards. Then, at a meeting in San Francisco last month, two of the leading companies — DNA2.0 of Menlo Park, California, and Geneart of Regensburg, Germany — announced that they had formulated a code of conduct that differs in one key respect from the IASB recommendations.”

Read the entire article on Nature News.

Also read “Craig Venter’s Team Reports Key Advance in Synthetic Biology” from JCVI.


When there is a catastrophic loss of an aircraft in any circumstances, there are inevitably a host of questions raised about the safety and security of the aviation operation. The loss of Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil with little evidence upon which to work inevitably raises the level of speculation surrounding the fate of the flight. Large-scale incidents such as this create an enormous cloud of data, which has to be investigated in order to discover the pattern of events, which led to the loss (not helped when some of it may be two miles under the ocean surface). So far French authorities have been quick to rule out terrorism it has however, emerged that a bomb hoax against an Air France flight had been made the previous week flying a different route from Argentina. This currently does not seem to be linked and no terrorist group has claimed responsibility. Much of the speculation regarding the fate of the aircraft has focused on the effects of bad weather or a glitch in the fly-by-wire systemthat could have caused the plane to dive uncontrollably. There is however another theory, which while currently unlikely, if true would change the global aviation security situation overnight. A Hacked-Jet.

Given the plethora of software modern jets rely on it seems reasonable to assume that these systems could be compromised by code designed to trigger catastrophic systemic events within the aircraft’s navigation or other critical electronic systems. Just as aircraft have a physical presence they increasingly have a virtual footprint and this changes their vulnerability. A systemic software corruption may account for the mysterious absence of a Mayday call — the communications system may have been offline. Designing airport and aviation security to keep lethal code off civilian aircraft would in the short-term, be beyond any government civil security regime. A malicious code attack of this kind against any civilian airliner would, therefore be catastrophic not only for the airline industry but also for the wider global economy until security caught up with this new threat. The technical ability to conduct an attack of this kind remains highly specialized (for now) but the knowledge to conduct attacks in this mold would be as deadly as WMD and easier to spread through our networked world. Electronic systems on aircraft are designed for safety not security, they therefore do not account for malicious internal actions.

While this may seem the stuff of fiction in January 2008 this broad topic was discussed due to the planned arrival of the Boeing 787, which is designed to be more ‘wired’ –offering greater passenger connectivity. Air Safety regulations have not been designed to accommodate the idea of an attack against on-board electronic systems and the FAA proposed special conditions , which were subsequently commented upon by the Air Line Pilots Association and Airbus. There is some interesting back and forth in the proposed special conditions, which are after all only to apply to the Boeing 787. In one section, Airbus rightly pointed out that making it a safety condition that the internal design of civilian aircraft should ‘prevent all inadvertent or malicious changes to [the electronic system]’ would be impossible during the life cycle of the aircraft because ‘security threats evolve very rapidly’.Boeing responded to these reports in an AP article stating that there were sufficient safeguards to shut out the Internet from internal aircraft systems a conclusion the FAA broadly agreed with - Wired Magazine covered much of the ground. During the press surrounding this the security writer Bruce Schneier commented that, “The odds of this being perfect are zero. It’s possible Boeing can make their connection to the Internet secure. If they do, it will be the first time in the history of mankind anyone’s done that.” Of course securing the airborne aircraft isn’t the only concern when maintenance and diagnostic systems constantly refresh while the aircraft is on the ground. Malicious action could infect any part of this process. While a combination of factors probably led to the tragic loss of flight AF447 the current uncertainty serves to highlight a potential game-changing aviation security scenario that no airline or government is equipped to face.

Comments on Hack-Jet:

(Note — these are thoughts on the idea of using software hacks to down commercial airliners and are not specifically directed at events surrounding the loss of AF447).

From the author of Daemon Daniel Suarez:

It would seem like the height of folly not to have physical overrides in place for the pilot — although, I realize that modern aircraft (especially designs like the B-2 bomber) require so many minute flight surface corrections every second to stay aloft, that no human could manage it. Perhaps that’s what’s going on with upcoming models like the 787. And I don’t know about the Airbus A330.

I did think it was highly suspicious that the plane seems to have been lost above St. Peter & Paul’s Rocks. By the strangest of coincidences, I had been examining that rock closely in Google Earth a few weeks ago for a scene in the sequel (which was later cut). It’s basically a few huge rocks with a series of antennas and a control hut — with nothing around it for nearly 400 miles.

Assuming the theoretical attacker didn’t make the exploit time-based or GPS-coordinate-based, they might want to issue a radio ‘kill’ command in a locale where there would be little opportunity to retrieve the black box (concealing all trace of the attack). I wonder: do the radios on an A330 have any software signal processing capability? As for the attackers: they wouldn’t need to physically go to the rocks–just compromise the scientific station’s network via email or other intrusion, etc. and issue the ‘kill’ command from a hacked communication system. If I were an investigator, I’d be physically securing and scouring everything that had radio capabilities on those rocks. And looking closely at any record of radio signals in the area (testing suspicious patterns against a virtual A330’s operating system). Buffer overrun (causing the whole system to crash?). Injecting an invalid (negative) speed value? Who knows… Perhaps the NSA’s big ear has a record of any radio traffic issued around that time.

The big concern, of course, is that this is a proof-of-concept attack — thus, the reason for concealing all traces of the compromise.

From John Robb - Global Guerillas:

The really dangerous hacking, in most situations, is done by disgruntled/postal/financially motivated employees. With all glass cockpits, fly by wire, etc. (the Airbus is top of its class in this) it would be easy for anybody on the ground crew to crash it. No tricky mechanical sabotage.

External hacks? That is of course, trickier. One way would be to get into the diagnostic/mx computers the ground crew uses. Probably by adding a hack to a standard patch/update. Not sure if any of the updates to these computers are delivered “online.”

Flight planning is likely the most “connected” system. Easier to access externally. Pilots get their plans for each flight and load them into the plane. If the route has them flying into the ground mid flight, it’s possible they won’t notice.

In flight hacks? Not sure that anything beyond outbound comms from the system is wireless. If so, that would be one method.

Another would be a multidirectional microwave/herf burst that fries controls. Might be possible, in a closed environment/fly by wire system to do this with relatively little power.


There has been continuous discussion of the dangers involved with fly-by-wire systems in Peter Neumann’s Risk Digest since the systems were introduced in the late 1980s. The latest posting on the subject is here.

Investigator: Computer likely caused Qantas plunge

An unmanned beast that cruises over any terrain at speeds that leave an M1A Abrams in the dust

Mean Machine: Troops could use the Ripsaw as an advance scout, sending it a mile or two ahead of a convoy, and use its cameras and new sensor technology to sniff out roadside bombs or ambushes John B. Carnett

Today’s featured Invention Award winner really requires no justification–it’s an unmanned, armed tank faster than anything the US Army has. Behold, the Ripsaw.

Cue up the Ripsaw’s greatest hits on YouTube, and you can watch the unmanned tank tear across muddy fields at 60 mph, jump 50 feet, and crush birch trees. But right now, as its remote driver inches it back and forth for a photo shoot, it’s like watching Babe Ruth forced to bunt with the bases loaded. The Ripsaw, lurching and belching black puffs of smoke, somehow seems restless.

Like their creation, identical twins Geoff and Mike Howe, 34, don’t like to sit still for long. At age seven, they built a log cabin. Ten years later, they converted a school bus into a drivable, transforming stage for their heavy-metal band, Two Much Trouble. In 2000 they couldn’t agree on their next project: Geoff favored a jet-turbine-powered off-road truck; Mike, the world’s fastest tracked vehicle. “That weekend, Mike calls me down to his garage,” Geoff says. “He’s already got the suspension built for the Ripsaw. So we went with that.”

Every engineer they consulted said they couldn’t best the 42mph top speed of an M1A Abrams, the most powerful tank in the world. Other tanks are built to protect the people inside, with frames made of heavy armored-steel plates. Designed for rugged unmanned missions, the Ripsaw just needed to go fast, so the brothers started trimming weight. First they built a frame of welded steel tubes, like the ones used by Nascar, that provides 50 percent more strength at half the weight.

Ripsaw: How It Works: To glide over rough terrain at top speed, the Ripsaw has shock absorbers that provide 14 inches of travel. But when the suspension compresses, it creates slack that could cause a track to come off, potentially flipping the vehicle. So the inventors devised a spring-loaded wheel at the front that extends to keep the tracks taut. The Ripsaw has never thrown a track Bland Designs

Behind the Wheel: The Ripsaw’s six cameras send live, 360-degree video to a control room, where program manager Will McMaster steers the tank John B. Carnett

When you reinvent the tank, finding ready-made parts is no easy task, and a tread light enough to spin at 60 mph and strong enough to hold together at that speed didn’t exist. So the Howes hand-shaped steel cleats and redesigned the mechanism for connecting them in a track. (Because the patent for the mechanism, one of eight on Ripsaw components, is still pending, they will reveal only that they didn’t use the typical pin-and-bushing system of connecting treads.) The two-pound cleats weigh about 90 percent less than similarly scaled tank cleats. With the combined weight savings, the Ripsaw’s 650-horsepower V8 engine cranks out nine times as much horsepower per pound as an M1A Abrams.

While working their day jobs — Mike as a financial adviser, Geoff as a foreman at a utilities plant — the self-taught engineers hauled the Ripsaw prototype from their workshop in Maine to the 2005 Washington Auto Show, where they showed it to army officials interested in developing weaponized unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). That led to a demonstration for Maine Senator Susan Collins, who helped the Howes secure $1.25 million from the Department of Defense.The brothers founded Howe and Howe Technologies in 2006 and set to work upgrading various Ripsaw systems, including a differential drive train that automatically doles out the right amount of power to each track for turns. The following year they handed it over to the Army’s Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), which paired it with a remote-control M240 machine gun and put the entire system through months of strenuous tests. “What really set it apart from other UGVs was its speed,” says Bhavanjot Singh, the ARDEC project manager overseeing the Ripsaw’s development. Other UGVs top out at around 20 mph, but the Ripsaw can keep up with a pack of Humvees.

Over the Hill: Despite the best efforts of inventors Mike [left] and Geoff Howe, the Ripsaw has proven unbreakable. It did once break a suspension mount — and drove on for hours without trouble John B. Carnett

Back on the field, the tank has been readied for the photo. The program manager for Howe and Howe Technologies, Will McMaster, who is sitting at the Ripsaw’s controls around the corner and roughly a football field away, drives it straight over a three-foot-tall concrete wall. The brothers think that when the $760,000 Ripsaw is ready for mass production this summer, feats like this will give them a lead over other companies vying for a military UGV contract. “Every other UGV is small and uses [artificial intelligence] to avoid obstacles,” Mike says. “The Ripsaw doesn’t have to avoid obstacles; it drives over them.“

NewScientist — March 10, 2009, by A. C. Grayling

IN THIS age of super-rapid technological advance, we do well to obey the Boy Scout injunction: “Be prepared”. That requires nimbleness of mind, given that the ever accelerating power of computers is being applied across such a wide range of applications, making it hard to keep track of everything that is happening. The danger is that we only wake up to the need for forethought when in the midst of a storm created by innovations that have already overtaken us.

We are on the brink, and perhaps to some degree already over the edge, in one hugely important area: robotics. Robot sentries patrol the borders of South Korea and Israel. Remote-controlled aircraft mount missile attacks on enemy positions. Other military robots are already in service, and not just for defusing bombs or detecting landmines: a coming generation of autonomous combat robots capable of deep penetration into enemy territory raises questions about whether they will be able to discriminate between soldiers and innocent civilians. Police forces are looking to acquire miniature Taser-firing robot helicopters. In South Korea and Japan the development of robots for feeding and bathing the elderly and children is already advanced. Even in a robot-backward country like the UK, some vacuum cleaners sense their autonomous way around furniture. A driverless car has already negotiated its way through Los Angeles traffic.

In the next decades, completely autonomous robots might be involved in many military, policing, transport and even caring roles. What if they malfunction? What if a programming glitch makes them kill, electrocute, demolish, drown and explode, or fail at the crucial moment? Whose insurance will pay for damage to furniture, other traffic or the baby, when things go wrong? The software company, the manufacturer, the owner?

Most thinking about the implications of robotics tends to take sci-fi forms: robots enslave humankind, or beautifully sculpted humanoid machines have sex with their owners and then post-coitally tidy the room and make coffee. But the real concern lies in the areas to which the money already flows: the military and the police.

A confused controversy arose in early 2008 over the deployment in Iraq of three SWORDS armed robotic vehicles carrying M249 machine guns. The manufacturer of these vehicles said the robots were never used in combat and that they were involved in no “uncommanded or unexpected movements”. Rumours nevertheless abounded about the reason why funding for the SWORDS programme abruptly stopped. This case prompts one to prick up one’s ears.

Media stories about Predator drones mounting missile attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are now commonplace, and there are at least another dozen military robot projects in development. What are the rules governing their deployment? How reliable are they? One sees their advantages: they keep friendly troops out of harm’s way, and can often fight more effectively than human combatants. But what are the limits, especially when these machines become autonomous?

The civil liberties implications of robot devices capable of surveillance involving listening and photographing, conducting searches, entering premises through chimneys or pipes, and overpowering suspects are obvious. Such devices are already on the way. Even more frighteningly obvious is the threat posed by military or police-type robots in the hands of criminals and terrorists.

Military robots in the hands of criminals and terrorists would pose a frightening threat.

There needs to be a considered debate about the rules and requirements governing all forms of robot devices, not a panic reaction when matters have gone too far. That is how bad law is made — and on this issue time is running out.

A. C. Grayling is a philosopher at Birkbeck, University of London

From CNN:

MUNICH, Germany (AP) — Iran’s nuclear program is not a threat to Israel and the country is prepared to settle all outstanding issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency within three weeks, its top nuclear negotiator said Sunday.

Ali Larijani, speaking at a forum that gathered the world’s top security officials, said Iran doesn’t have aggressive intentions toward any nation.

“That Iran is willing to threaten Israel is wrong,” Larijani said. “We pose no threat and if we are conducting nuclear research and development we are no threat to Israel. We have no intention of aggression against any country.”

In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev dismissed Larijani’s comments, saying Iran’s government was trying to convince the international community to believe that their intentions are benign. “The fact is that they have failed in this attempt and there is a wall-to-wall consensus that the Iranian nuclear program is indeed military and aggressive and a threat to world peace.”

Iran insists it will not give up uranium enrichment, saying it is pursuing the technology only to generate energy. The United States and some of its allies fear the Islamic republic is more interested in enrichment’s other application — creating the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

The IAEA, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, has said it has found no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. But the U.N.‘s nuclear watchdog agency has suspended some aid to Iran and criticized the country for concealing certain nuclear activities and failing to answer questions about its program.

“I have written to Mr. ElBaradei to say we are ready to within three weeks to have the modality to solve all the outstanding issues with you,” Larijani said at the forum.

Some of you may be wondering, “why are you focusing on geopolitical stuff with Iran and North Korea when we all know that the future risks from biotech, nanotech, and AI are so much more significant than these present-day squabbles?” Several reasons: 1) These issues affect us today. The medium-term future (5−20 years) will be shaped by what happens in the next 5 years. Look at the impact that 9–11 had. (Lifeboat Foundation originally formed as a response to 9–11.) 2) If the world ends in some way before UFAI, it will likely involve military nanotechnology. A military nano arms race, if one occurs, will likely be launched based on some geopolitical precedent. The seeds of which could very well be seen in the headlines of today. 3) Focusing on the present gives us a bit more credibility. What kind of organization would Lifeboat be if we only looked at the future, and never the present or the past? Some enthusiasts may be comfortable focusing almost exclusively on the future, but in mainstream punditry, this is just not done. No need to sideline ourselves unnecessarily.