Diverting Apophis: Russia Threatens to Break the Asteroid Suicide Pact

A few days ago, I posted about how international law might affect the earth’s response to a threatened asteroid collision, specifically the threat posed by asteroid 2004 MN4, a.k.a. 99942 Apophis. It turns out I was a bit premature — Apophis is back in the headlines.

Even though the odds of Apophis hitting earth are on par with the the odds of me finding a job the odds of North Korea making it out of Group G alive, Russia is now courageously offering to fund a space mission to protect us from this deadly threat.

It remains to be seen how they plan to do so, however. Scientific American’s blog gets the story about right: Russian space chief makes vague threat to vaguely threatening asteroid.

Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia’s space agency, said today that Russia will consider deflecting the near-Earth asteroid Apophis from its present path, according to news reports. After all, Apophis’s orbit periodically brings the 270-meter asteroid uncomfortably close to Earth, and it has long been on the watch list of nearby bodies that pose a threat (however slight) to Earth. The only problem is that Perminov seems not to have done his homework on the subject.

According to Perminov, “No nuclear explosions [will be carried out], everything [will be done] on the basis of the laws of physics.” And also the law of nations, apparently, as any sort of asteroid-diversion premised upon the use of explosives would likely be in violation of multiple treaties and GA resolutions. Because the expected non-collision is still decades in the future, however, Russia would not need to use nuclear warheads to divert the course of Apophis. Much subtler methods would work as well — I’ve seen some suggestions that even something as simple as painting one side of the asteroid white could change its orbit, thus pushing it farther away from Earth. (Or possibly right into it, who knows.)

Perminov is also quoted as saying, “A scientist recently told me an interesting thing about the path [of an asteroid] constantly nearing Earth… He has calculated that it will surely collide with Earth in the 2030s.”

This is blatantly incorrect, and I cannot imagine that the head of the Russian space agency would be unaware of that. Either Perminov was engaging in some unauthorized bluster, or else Russia has some bigger plans in mind. It is far too early to tell, based only upon the isolated musings of one official, but I do wonder if Russia is thinking of using the minuscule threat to humanity that Apophis poses as a PR cover for carrying out some otherwise objectionable space activities.

On one last note, although usually I use this blog to stretch a science fiction story to show how it can somehow be tangentially relevant to international law, this time I get to do the reverse. It looks like Stargate SG-1 is to blame for how the asteroid got its name:

Apophis is the Greek name given to the Egyptian demon Apep, who was the enemy of light and order, the personification of evil and chaos. Depicted as a giant snake, Apophis/Apep attacked the Sun god Ra as he made his way through the Egyptian underworld during the evening hours. Solar eclipses were thought to be Apep’s few daytime attempts to swallow Ra, who always succeeded in cutting his way out of the snake’s belly. As the enemy of Ma’at, the ancient Egyptian concept of order and law, Apep represented chaos.

However, mythology may not have been the only consideration in naming Apophis. Codiscoverers Dave Tholen and Roy Tucker are fans of the TV series Stargate SG-1. The show’s most persistent villain is Apophis, an alien also named for the Egyptian god. “We considered a number of names, but ‘Apophis’ kept floating to the top,” says Tucker. “Apophis was a very fitting name for 2004 MN4 not only because of its threatening nature, but also because of its evolution from an Aten asteroid to an Apollo asteroid during the 2029 encounter.”

Since this one got to come from Stargate, can we name the next asteroid that threatens human extinction “TARDIS”?


How Much Noopolitik Do You Want For That Realpolitik?: Nauru’s Recognition of Abkhazia

The recognition of a State by another State is usually based upon a mixture of factual and political concerns — factually, does the state meet all the traditional criteria of statehood, and politically, what are the risks and rewards of recognizing or refusing to recognize another sovereign. The tiny island nation of Nauru, however, has shown the potential of a third important consideration: raw financial compensation.

For $50 million, Nauru has effectively sold its vote in the statehood electoral college to the fledgling international entity of Abkhazia. Hat tip International Law Prof.

Nauru, an eight-square-mile rock in the South Pacific with about 11,000 inhabitants, was no pushover, according to the influential Russian daily newspaper Kommersant. In talks with Russian officials, Nauru requested $50 million for “urgent social and economic projects,” the newspaper reported, citing unnamed Russian diplomats.

This is not the first time Nauru has put a price tag on recognition of statehood. Back in 2002, in a somewhat more contentious situation, Nauru switched its recognition from Taiwan to the PRC for $130 million. So in merely 7 years, the price has already fallen dramatically, by $80 million.

This could of course be a case of price discrimination — Nauru knows China can afford to pay a lot more than Abkhazia — or perhaps it could be argued that Nauru’s recognition was more valuable to China as it was not just a vote for them it was a vote against Taiwan. But I think it is more likely that the difference in price can be attributed to a decrease in the service’s value.

State recognition is more art than science, but the specific motivations behind a State’s decision to recognize another State do affect how much weight that choice to recognize is given when it is factored into the overall statehood calculation. Now that we know Nauru is willing to give a vote of statehood to any wannabe sovereign that can meet its price, the significance of recognition by Nauru as an indicia of statehood will be severely discounted. Therefore, the more often Nauru engages in recognition-for-cash sales, the more Nauru’s recognition will decrease in value. Just like the phosphate that once sustained Nauru’s economy, recognition is a non-renewable resource, and will not sustain Nauru forever.

Essentially, for a mere $50 million, Nauru has sold off a portion of its international law making power to Abkhazia.

On the other hand, Abkhazia may benefit from the trade in other ways. Although Nauru’s recognition is worth little in itself, the fact Abkhazia was able to demonstrate its ability to acquire $50 million, engage in international diplomacy with another recognize state, and donate a sum of money as “foreign aid” could signal to other nations that Abkhazia is a serious player after all.

Under Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention, the fourth and final qualification for statehood is a “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” The deal may have been somewhat sordid and tacky, but nevertheless, by acquiring Nauru’s recognition, Abkhazia proved it had the capacity to engage in foreign relations.


Ursula K. Le Guin and the Tragedy of the Copyright Commons

Via TechDirt, Ursula K. Le Guin has resigned from the Authors Guild in protest of their decision to no longer categorically oppose settlement with Google. The Authors Guild was an original plaintiff in the massive class action suit against Google’s book scanning project, and is now negotiating a controversial settlement agreement.

I was sad to see her take such a stance. I was never a die-hard Le Guin fan, but I have very fond memories of checking Wizard of Earthsea out for the first time from my middle school library. Her science fiction is great too, and she is undoubtedly an icon of the genre; I love the fact that, forty years after she invented the ansible, other authors still use the devices in their books, even borrowing the same technological constraints that Le Guin used, as if ansibles were somehow a common heritage of all scifi universes.

That always struck me as a small but delightful example of the benefits provided by a robust intellectual commons — that there can be such spontaneous collaborations between authors, many years apart, and that we can create these common cultural reference points. After all, Sherlock Holmes’ popularity today is not due to the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the only one person who ever got to say what happened to him.

But some authors — or their heirs — try to claim that no morsel of their work rightfully belongs to the commons, and that their ideas should die with them. Recently, Philip K. Dick’s daughter threatened to sue Google for naming their phone Nexus One, in a subtle reference to the Nexus-6 replicants, which were a sixth generation model of androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find it indescribably sad that someone should try to claim a copyright to geek cultural heritage.

As the creator of the ansible, Ursula K. Le Guin could, under her view copyright, prohibit other authors from using ansibles in their works, or else sue those authors who do reference them. I do not think anyone could argue that the world would be better off if authors could exercise such a monopoly over their ideas. But what Le Guin advocates would permit authors to do so.

In her resignation from the Authors Guild, she wrote:

You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

What “principles” are involved, in Le Guin’s view? The principle that authors are entitled to recoup all the welfare benefits from their work, into perpetuity? Because that principle has never been listed under the heading of “concept of copyright.” (You might be able to find it under “shameless rent-seeking,” though.)

The Authors Guild’s reply to Le Guin’s resignation has a quote that should be underlined, over and over again:

The lessons of recent history are clear: when digital and online technologies meet traditional media, traditional media generally wind up gutted. Constructive engagement — in this case turning Google’s infringement to our advantage — is sometimes the only realistic solution.

Admittedly, for most industries, it seems that “constructive engagement” has meant lobbying the legislature (or in the Google Books case, the judiciary) for restrictive laws that give creators ridiculous rights that copyright was never intended to protect. Even still, engaging in the opportunities that change provides is always a better response than claiming an entitlement to continue living in The World As It Used To Be.

I do have some pretty huge objections to the Google settlement (who doesn’t?), but they are the same objections the DOJ has, i.e., “class action, copyright and antitrust law[.]” (Okay fine, my personal objections include just those last two. Although if I had any modicum interest in class action suits, I’m sure I’d be very concerned about that first one as well.)

Le Guin’s objections to the Google settlement, however, are not about the creation of an unjustified monopoly power, but rather that she is not going to be the beneficiary of one.


One Prerequisite For Being a Totalitarian Dictator Is a Failure to Comprehend Dramatic Irony

The Copenhagen Summit is a complex geopolitical issue, one deserving of critical thought and a careful consideration of the viewpoints of all the parties involved. And where better to find such a nuanced discussion of the topic than an op-ed article written by Fidel Castro?

As television channels have broadcast the footage, the world has been able to see the fascist methods used against the people in Copenhagen. The protesters, young people in the main, who have been repressed, have earned the solidarity of the peoples.

The young people in the main later told reporters, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”

Despite the manoeuvres and unprincipled lies of the leaders of the empire, the moment of truth is drawing closer. Their own allies are increasingly losing confidence in them. In Mexico, as in Copenhagen or anywhere else in the world, they will be met by the growing resistance of the peoples who have not lost the hope of surviving.

I’m not certain of it, but I suspect that Castro copied that last paragraph directly out of Les Misérables.


The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 3: The Economic Apathy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Anarchic Anti-Industrialist

This is volume three of a very-infrequently-updated series. In previous posts on this blog, I discussed the more blatant economic agendas of fantasy and scifi authors Jack London and Terry Goodkind, as well as discussed the function of economics in other speculative fiction books in posts here, here, and here.

Finding evidence of economic systems in scifi and fantasy books is not hard. The use of economics in speculative fiction is not always blatant, of course, and more often than not it is used for world-building rather than to promote an author’s economic view point. But when envisioning their futuristic societies or when creating fantasy worlds, the vast majority of authors do incorporate some form of economic structure.

There is one glaring exception to this rule: J.R.R. Tolkien.

Because economic systems do not exist in Middle Earth.

Tolkien was — beyond all doubt — a god among world builders. But Middle Earth’s intricate mythology was simply that. A mythology. His world was not a functioning, messy, organic society, but a symbolic realm. In many ways, his detailed accounts of the history of Middle Earth are the equivalent of the Bible: the begatting of generations and the successions of kings are all accounted for in exquisite detail, but any accounts of the day-to-day life of Middle Earth’s inhabitants are left skeletal and superficial.

If you doubt that, consider the following questions: Did Gondor tax its citizens, and if not, how did it get its massive armies? Were there lawyers and judges in Rohan? Who wrote the laws in Bree? Did any race or kingdom have schools or systems of higher learning? Was there a mercantile class? Were there trade guilds at all, or tariffs, or monopolies? Could Dwarves or Hobbits or Elves freely choose their careers — and if so, were there career options beyond “farmer,” “miner,” “innkeeper,” and “soldier”? What sovereign minted the coins that occasionally appear in the books? Did people earn wages or were they paid stipends by feudal lords? Why is there no evidence of trade in Middle Earth in situations where in a real world we should expect to see some? What political and economic motives could Sauron’s human allies possibly have? How were the Rangers of the North, such as Strider, funded? For that matter, how was Gandalf funded — surely he needed some sort access to resources to accomplish all his doings? And perhaps most perplexingly, why do women, of all the races, appear to be on the verge of extinction?

No answers. (Well, unless of course the answers happen to be in The Silmarillion, I certainly am not about to read that one to find out.)

That last question should be a particular tip off, though. How can you know a civilization in any level of detail when fully one half of its citizens are essentially unmentioned?

Tolkien’s apathy towards the economy and social infrastructure of Middle Earth was by no means the result of simple oversight. It was a deliberate attempt to construct a world that conformed to his views of the human condition. Tolkien did not believe that human societies required regulation in order to function — and so Middle Earth went unregulated. In referring to his own views, Tolkien stated that,

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anyone who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind).

When creating Middle Earth, it is apparent that Tolkien had, shall we say, an eye for detail, and it would be an insult to suggest he simply forgot to factor in economics and politics. As Tolkien wrote in a letter describing the hobbits’ arrival in Bree at the Prancing Pony Inn:

The landlord does not ask Frodo to ‘register’! Why should he? There are no police and no government … If details are to be added to an already crowded picture, they should at least fit the world described. (Tolkien, letter #210).

And the world described in the Lord of the Rings is one where economics does not exist.

Continue reading

International Law is an Asteroid Suicide Pact

On Volokh, the possibility of ‘AsteroidGate’ is discussed. Although the asteroid 2004 MN4 was originally suggested to have a 1 in 300 chance of hitting earth in 2029 (why worry? Everyone knows the earth is going to be destroyed long before then in 2012), it appears now that the true risk is closer to 1 in 250,000. I’m pretty comfortable with those odds myself — and even Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine is clearly uncalled for, at least in the case of 2004 MN4.

However, a Wired article linked to on Volokh, Saving Earth From an Asteroid Will Take Diplomats, Not Heroes, brought up a few key points on why international law will have a big role to play in saving the world, should a big chunk of space debris ever head our way.

In the movie Armageddon, nuclear warheads are placed on an incoming asteroid to make it explode and miss earth. In real life, this never would have happened — nukes in space are clearly a violation of international law, and there is no “eminent extinction” exception provided for. In addition to the prohibitions contained in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, there is Article VI of the Space Treaty, which provides that:

States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

As AsteroidGate illustrates, it would be naive to assume that something as insignificant as the human race reenacting the dinosaurs’ extinction would be enough to cause mankind to join together to defeat a common threat. If, tomorrow, an asteroid were discovered that was a couple years away from impacting earth, I imagine the conversation would go something like this:

United States: Hey, UN, there’s this asteroid headed towards earth. Just to be on the safe side, we’re sending some nukes up into space to blast it to smithereens.
Rest of the World: Like hell you are. Do you really think we’re dumb enough to fall for the old “we’re all going to die if the U.S. doesn’t get to use nukes” routine again?
U.S.: No guys, I’m for serious. Here, check our facts. There is .2% chance that the earth will utterly perish in world ending explosion, and a 3% chance that it will only give us a glancing blow, only causing 75% of the human population to die off.
Rest of the World: You just made these numbers up. Let me guess, these figures come from the same research agency that found WMDs in Iraq? And besides, even if you didn’t make them up, our 3% odds with the asteroid are way better than the odds the earth would have once countries started launching nukes into orbit.
China: I think the U.S.’s idea sounds great! We’ve got some nukes we’ll send into space to help too, everyone cool with that?
U.S.: Oh, hmm, well this is a little bit awkward. Listen, China, thanks so much for the offer, but we were kind of thinking we’d be the only ones sending up nukes to kill the asteroid. You know what? Why don’t you just sit back and relax. Out of our deep feelings of generosity towards the UN, the United States will volunteer to cover all of the expenses of the Nukes-In-Space program.

In short, if an asteroid was discovered a few years away from hurtling into the earth, it’s a close call about which happen first, the international community deciding who and how would get to send up nuclear weapons, or the asteroid finally hitting us.

Nuclear weapons are not the only theoretical way to avert an asteroid impact, but there is no option that will not require extensive international coordination to implement. The B612 Foundation, for instance, proposes a long-term slow diversion of the asteroid:

Our preferred solution to deflecting an incoming near Earth asteroid (NEA), for reasons that are clarified below, is to rendezvous and “dock” with it at either its North or South Pole, realign the asteroid’s spin vector to a preferred direction and then push it (gently and for a long time) until we’ve changed its speed enough to miss the Earth.

But, as the Wired article above points out, this causes its own set of problems:

That’s a major geopolitical problem, Schweickart said, because it requires temporarily increasing the risk to one population — in the example above, Venezuela, or Russia — to eventually eliminate the risk for the entire Earth.

“It’s going to be slowly dragged across the Earth. That is a binary decision,” Schweickart said. “You don’t have the option of dragging it down through the Antarctic.”

Who gets to decide which way the asteroid is dragged away from an impact with Earth? The United Nations? The United States? Russia? Some independent body of astronomers and space agencies?

“What deflection technologies are OK and who says they are OK?” Schweickart asked. “Who accepts liability? How do you decide that it’s OK to endanger the people of Venezuela or the people of Kazakhstan?”

True, Siberia is in many ways an ideal place to risk an asteroid impact — they got hit by one last century, and it took a couple decades before anyone even noticed — but I do not expect that Russia would be too amiable to the suggestion. I suppose you could attempt some sort of economic solution, i.e., the countries that accept a small increased risk of being asteroided will not have to contribute to the cost of the asteroid diversion program, or maybe even receive payments from the countries not put at risk. Of course, this might very well be held up as an example of the developed countries, once again, putting the developing nations at risk to save their own hides.


Settlers of Catan is the New Golf

The Wall Street Journal had an article today on tech industry executives socializing over cut-throat games of Settlers of Catan: An Old-School Board Game Goes Viral Among Silicon Valley’s Techie Crowd.

I object a bit to the article’s title — can a board game that came out only in 1995 really be described as old school? — but entirely approve of its subject.

Auren Hoffman, chief executive of search start-up Rapleaf Inc. (no relation to LinkedIn’s Mr. Hoffman), regularly hosts Settlers shindigs at his San Francisco home. He recently held a Settlers night with Internet company StumbleUpon Inc. Facebook Inc. was scheduled to hold its own Settlers tournament on Wednesday, its second of the year. Mark Pincus, CEO of social-gaming start-up Zynga Game Network Inc., says he plays Settlers at his company as a way to meet new employees.

“Settlers is definitely the new live networking for our crowd,” says Mr. Pincus, whose start-up makes online games such as FarmVille. “It’s like our kind of golf game — none of us have time to play 18 holes of golf, but we can handle a pizza and a board game.”

I’m not sure that last statement is accurate, as, to be fair, I’ve had rounds of golf that were shorter than some Catan sessions. But, like golf, Catan gives people an excuse to gather together for a game that also has convenient lulls in the action, to allow the participants to talk or network between moves. And, unlike golf, you’re actually required to interact with the people you’re playing with, either to form (usually very temporary) cartels or to engage in extortionate trading. I’d be highly in favor of the legal industry adopting Settlers as the new networking event, anyway. Particularly as my Settlers skills are very much superior to my rather basic golfing abilities. (Also I am immature enough where it would secretly make me laugh to hear a bunch of attorneys repeatedly asking, “Does anyone have any wood?”)

At least for the Silicon Valley crowd, playing Settlers of Catan seems to be an effective business strategy:

When Glenn Kelman, chief executive of online real-estate start-up Redfin Corp., began raising venture-capital funding in September, he landed a meeting with venture firm Greylock Partners. Knowing that LinkedIn’s Mr. Hoffman — who is also a partner at Greylock — would be there, Mr. Kelman says he decided to say the “three magic words, Settlers of Catan,” in the hopes that it would help “form an incredible bond.”

Bingo. At the meeting, both men say, Mr. Hoffman’s face lit up when Mr. Kelman mentioned Settlers. Two months later, Redfin announced it had raised $10 million in venture funding, with Greylock as the main investor.

If it works in California, why not in D.C.? So hey, who knows, maybe in a couple years lobbyists on K Street will be inviting Congressmen over to try playing their new Cities & Knights expansion set. Now, if only I could convince some law school or firm to host a Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game networking event, I’d be set. I call shotgun on Starbuck.