Sunday, February 7, 2016

The coming digital dark age

    The proliferation of information technology in the waning years of the 20th century and the dawning years of the 21st is an undeniable trend. Its benefits are widely praised: the linking of disparate populations, the spread of knowledge, and cultural appreciation. One factor that remains little discussed in the move towards the uploading of all human knowledge to the digital cloud is the longevity and security of this information.
    The trend of closing physical libraries in favour of digital lending libraries is worrying. Books have survived in libraries, archives, monasteries, porcelain jars, and other various places for hundreds and occasionally even thousands of years. A book from the medieval period may continue to be a source of new information to those of us to seek to study the past. Is digital media so durable?
    Many of us are familiar with CDs, a dying but remarkably persistent media format. The life expectancy of a compact disc for example is approximately 20 years; thus, perhaps 30 years after the final CD is manufactured, every bit of information stored on them will become corrupted. Hard drives and other forms of digital storage, though they may last longer, will also die. A computer from 20 years ago, if it has not been already been recycled or demolished, may be in a poor state. Even if the data manages to survive, the ability and knowledge to access it may not.
    One unforeseen side effect of this drive to digitise is denying future historians the information they will need to draw effective conclusions about our society, similar to the drought in historical information from the so-called 'Dark Ages' following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in Europe. Little by little, the historical record of our times will fade away due to lack of preserved hard copies of information which can survive crises and disasters such as social, economic, or ecological collapse. To believe ourselves immune to this would be stunningly arrogant.
    Does the only hope for our civilisation really remain in the uploading of all human information to the Cloud, with backups upon backups? Such a solution denies the physical nature of our existence, and completes the death of such simple pleasures as the smell of an old book, the clack of a typewriter, the vibrations of a musical instrument, and other waning elements of our culture and society. We must learn to appreciate such novelties, and to support our libraries and the timeless purpose they serve.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is the sale of 'jeeps' to the Saudis wise?

      Canada's new Prime Minister responded to the early waves of criticism over his and the Liberal's support for the sale of fifteen billion dollars' worth of London, Ontario-built LAV III armoured personnel carriers by stating that the vehicles were mere 'jeeps', and not true weapons of war. While Canada certainly has vehicles in its inventory that would meet this description - Mercedes-Benz G-wagons, militarised SUVs - the LAV IIIs are not them.

      Don't let the 'light' in Light Armoured Vehicle fool you: LAVs are scarcely less powerful than tanks. Unlike 'jeeps', it has eight wheels, is armed with a French-built 25mm rapid-fire cannon, two machine guns, and anti-tank rockets, has a crew of three and is also capable of carrying six or seven soldiers. Such vehicles proved their great utility in Canadian combat operations in Afghanistan, and while their armour is not invulnerable, it will shrug off small arms fire and more with ease. To put such a vehicle in the same class as a Ford Explorer is laughable.

      The main issue with this arms purchase, both legally and in the public eye, is the Canadian government's stated policy of not selling arms to regimes with poor human rights records. While it was obvious that such niceties meant little to Stephen Harper and his now-exiled Conservatives, many Canadians expected a more nuanced approach to foreign policy from the newly-elected Liberals. Unfortunately, it seems that the same disregard applies with Justin Trudeau's policies towards our good friends in the kingdom of Saud: national interest will take priority over such liberal concerns as human rights.

      The sale has morphed into a public trial on human rights policies in Saudi Arabia, and whether it qualifies as a state that does not respect them. If so, under stated Canadian foreign arms sale policies, we should not be approving this deal. Let us be quite clear: Saudi Arabia is a state that heavily represses its female population, commonly beheads criminals for a variety of crimes from drug possession to apostasy, gives few rights to migrants, and is currently engaged in the quashing of an insurgency in neighbouring Yemen with significant logistical support from the United States. Is it permissible to ignore such blatant human rights concerns simply because they are friends of our friends, exporters of oil, and customers for our defence industry?

      This author is not unsympathetic to those who claim the necessity for such sales in a collapsing global economy and with a sinking currency, that it is necessary to support our domestic defence industry in order to maintain production capability for ourselves. However, if this were simply the case, Canada could cancel the deal and sell them to another bidder, in a similar manner to how France cancelled the sale of Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia. The main difference is that Russia is a geopolitical rival of the United States, and Saudi Arabia is, at least nominally, not.

      Despite current economic difficulties, many might prefer Canada purchase these vehicles themselves, and use them to equip and expand our armed forces, suffering the financial penalty in the process. Such concerns may be preferable to having blood on our hands from selling weapons of war - which, in this case, we assuredly would. If the Saudi campaign in Yemen continues, Canadian-built weapon systems could end up in combat. Far more than simple 4x4s, in aggressive hands LAVs would be capable of causing great destruction.

      While  the Rt. Hon. Mr. Trudeau seemingly made such remarks out of a simple lack of knowledge on the subject rather than an attempt to dismiss criticism, this is the reason why our leaders have advisors, and their failure to properly inform him on this sale and perhaps other issues is simply shocking. Fortunately however, this controversy may have ensured that the Prime Minister will take greater care in the future when making remarks on military subjects; I expect he will not be using the word 'jeep' again anytime soon.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A reevaluation of Canada's national security strategy

      Canada has rarely been a great military power on the world stage, with the notable exception of the immediate post-war period, when it featured the world's fourth-largest airforce and third-largest navy. Then demobilisation hit, and our military might was packed up, mothballed, sold off, and scrapped. Aside from this brief moment of power, our military has been typically quite weak, inadequate for the massive variety of tasks assigned to it. Before the First World War, when the Canadian armed forces comprised a couple of regular infantry regiments, a slew of disorganised militia, and a handful of ships, the only task asked of it was token resistance against a theoretical invader before expecting our allied overlords to save our bacon. It seems this is the default Canadian national security strategy: expect someone else to help us.

      To be fair, in the dystopian reality of Earth after the end of the Cold War, too many members of NATO have become complacent in their national security, content to allow the United States with its overwhelming military might to save them; Canada is hardly alone in this. Yet the fiction of our ability to influence world events and effectively fight modern wars is part of the national mythology. The era of peacekeeping, defined by poorly equipped troops standing in the middle of dormant conflicts, somehow became part of our national identity despite the ineptitude of the United Nations which oversaw them and all too often dropped the ball on the people they were meant to protect. The Rwandan genocide exposed the harsh truth of peacekeeping: unless your country has strategic value to the great powers through location, resources, or the threat of aligning with a rival, nobody cares about you.

      To those educated in the realist school of foreign policy and world affairs, none of this is new. States will only act and expend precious resources if doing so behooves their national interest. The Canadian assumption that someone will save them in a moment of crisis simply because the whole world loves them is a naive, ignorant, and dangerous attitude.

      One might ask what the solution to this conundrum is. It is the realisation of harsh truths: Canada should not waste countless billions producing modern warships at home simply to dole out political pork and create a blue-water navy that it does not truly need. The Royal Canadian Navy would be better served by a small fleet of new, foreign-purchased submarines that actually work. The RCAF does not need the latest, greatest, stealth jets in the form of the F-35; rather, a large number of cheaper, widely dispersed, camouflaged, and protected aircraft accompanied by effective aerial defence would do the job of home defence far better. Essentially, Canada is not the United States, and spending untold sums to replicate its strategic tasks in miniature only serves to further weaken a country with massive stretches of undefended coastline, and neighbours who come across as increasingly hostile.

      However, the blind production and ownership of weapons of war is one of the most pointless endeavours humans have ever engaged in. Canada is not and never will be a war-mongering nation. My proposal is this: turn Canada into a giant Switzerland, a neutral country capable of defending itself viciously that nobody would dare to invade due to the massive cost involved. In many ways this requires spending more money than before, but virtually any effective defence policy would cost more than we currently have, and much of it could be achieved by redistributing funds earmarked elsewhere.

        Many are watching the dark clouds making up the gathering storm waiting once again to envelope the globe and unleash its fury. The parallels with the 1930s and the leadup to the Second World War are all too obvious. Canada can be an effective ally by building its defences, expanding its militia, and abandoning expensive projects that serve only to pour taxpayer dollars down gigantic procurement holes. Anything less will see to it that when the shit hits the fan, the cards are on the table, and the ranked masses arrayed against one another, we are simply unprepared for the reality ahead.

FMC 04/01/2016