I had the incredible opportunity to spend the end of last week in Washington DC with the CSIS NextGen Scholars program meeting the US policy makers who define the US policy towards the DPRK.
It was fascinating to see the process has been put in place for weighing the different factors that go into these decisions, and how at the same time there really is truth to the almost inconceivable notion that the best any of us can hope for is that Trump and Kim Jong Un will have a successful summit and be able to make progress based on some unexpected personal trust.
I am hopeful I was able to offer some insight into what life is like in the country, and perhaps was able to offer some sense of the value provided by engagements like PUST.
In the second half of August, 2018, I biked from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa. The road, the G109, is a lifeline for Tibet, with 85% of supplies for Tibet imported along this route. It parallels the primary train line into the region, and was one of the first paved routes on the plateau.
It’s also 1000+km above 4,500m.
My original motivation for the trip was a similar but different route, the G318 road connecting Chengdu in Sichuan to Lhasa. This route is one of the most popular long distance cycling routes in China, and there are a number of posts I found when looking for bicycling adventures in China that were simply incredible. The 318 wasn’t fully paved until 2013, and it wasn’t uncommon to see posts where groups were fording stretches of waste-deep mud. While this adventure lacks some of the romanticism, it approximates what for me is at the heart of the pilgrimage.
We started by flying to Xining, with a layover in Beijing where I redeemed online train reservations for tickets. After a short connection to a night train to golmud, we got our bikes assembled, and I navigated the kuaidi system to ship the extra luggage to a hotel in lhasa.
The first adventure occurred 30km outside of town. After passing signs warning us we’d already entered Tibet (we were still 100’s of km from the official boundary of the TAR, but the G109 road is managed by the Tibetan authority from Golmud), we encountered a road checkpoint that wanted foreigners to be accompanied by a guide, and to have a valid permit for entering the region. I had worked with Extravagant Yak to secure a guide from TuoTuoHe, a town before the first such checkpoint which either of us were aware of. After a couple rounds of discussions between the officers, us, and the tour guides, we were allowed to continue unaccompanied on the first leg, as initially planned. The hesitation and negotiation reminded me of how rare it is for foreigners to be in this area.
The first week was the highlight of the trip for me. A series of low-mileage but strenuous days brought us to the plateau, and the direct, spontaneous interactions we were able to have each day were fantastic. We got water from a local spring, received a warm welcome from returning military convoys, and learned how to operate a coal stove.
Tibet was interesting to finally see as well. I’ve hesitated to travel or interact with the region because of the political sensitivities. I don’t feel like that I was missing too much – my general impression of Tibetan culture and lifestyle has not dramatically changed as a result of the trip, though I do appreciate the direct experience confirming what I had suspected. In broad strokes, the situation of the Tibetan minority does not seem abnormal to that of other Chinese minorities. Like Xinjiang, there are restrictions on movement, a different predominant language, and different cultural norms. The underlying tensions are not unique, increased Chinese driven development is modernizing the society, but there is concern that the uplift is not equitable, and that improvements may mute traditional cultural values.
Regardless, Tibet-the-location is beautiful, and was fantastic to explore.
Task Force Representatives:
I will not be joining the Cuba Internet Task Force, or Subcommittees, because I believe the harm done by the existence of these committees outweighs any potential benefit of the recommendations that can come from them.
In recent years, Cuba has increasingly normalized Internet usage, through expansion and cost reduction of WiFi, through the advent of AirBNB as a major source of tourism revenue, and through growing traffic capacity.
In the scope of my work, I have documented the flourishing community wireless networks operating in tandem with official Internet service from ETECSA. These community efforts already address the “last mile” problem, and it is not hard to imagine the future where they are consolidated or integrated to provide Internet-to-the-home for many more Cubans.
These efforts are hindered by the perception by the Cuban government that the Internet and its associated ‘freedom’ are being forced upon them by the United States. In the wake of the creation of this task force, Cuban media has focused on the implied pressure, and private individuals in the Cuban technology sector have come under increased scrutiny.
Instead of attempting to influence the policies of another sovereign nation, I encourage us to reflect more on our internal policies. US government sanctions currently require a wide range of US-based education and reference sites from blocking Cuban traffic. Likewise, limitations preventing Cubans from connecting to US-invested undersea cables are partially responsible for the scarcity and cost of Cuban Internet connections. Reducing these sanctions can allow Cubans to become a market for US companies, and will provide additional incentives for widespread connectivity across the country.
Through a series of unlikely events, I found myself with the opportunity to visit Beirut for a week in early March of 2018. It was a great experience, and challenged many of the stereotypes I had developed about the realities of both the middle east and proximity to conflict zones.
The most impressive aspect of Lebanon to me was the handling and presence of the refugee situation in the area. Lebanon has had a significant southern area of refugee camps for those moving away from conflict in Palestine. More recently, a sizable refugee population has entered the country leaving the Syrian conflict. Today, there are more refugees in Lebanon than citizens, which is a source of conflict and tension in many parts of the country.
Camps, at least the impressive images of dense clusters of refugees we see in western news, do not reflect the reality I found in Lebanon. At least from the portion of the eastern countryside I saw, refugees are situated in small clusters of a few families at edges of existing towns and cities. While shelter construction is rushed, as families arrive and quickly need places to stay, there’s a significant local variability in how much local time and resources are available to construct more livable dwellings. On the ground, the competence and overloaded-ness of the local NGOs and community members is probably the biggest factor in outcome. The structures I saw had power, TVs, and charging android phones.
I was caught off guard in a good way by the urban population center of Beirut. First, Beirut continues to exist as a melting pot of a bunch of different ethnicities and cultures. Second, there was both a general tolerance and liberalism that exceeded what I’ve seen in UAE or Pakistan. Third, that liberalism translated into a much less pervasive security apparatus than I was expecting given the location and strife in the region. I needed to provide a passport as Identification for hotels, but did not need it for travel in the country, and did not need to show ID for access to school campuses of businesses. Part of that is white privilege, but in general there was not infrastructure to support any meaningful restrictions of movement or exclusion of groups from public areas.
I was likewise surprised by the seeming ease with which people were able to travel between Lebanon and Syria. For the demo day of a syrian entrepreneurship bootcamp, a number of spectators traveled to Beirut for the day from Damascus. The general sentiment I heard from several Lebanese was that the country is generally safe, but that as you get towards the edges, it’s preferable to travel with someone from the area who knows people. It’s often non-obvious, but traveling with someone who already has relationships built with those in the region seems to be the accepted way of keeping situations diffused.
In terms of connectivity, much of the stress of the country is that the conflict surrounding it has meant that there are not solid landline connections to the rest of the world. This means most Internet traffic is routed through an undersea cable to Cyprus, which limits the overall capacity for the country. In turn, this leads to relatively expensive fixed-line Internet pricing, with many people opting for mobile Internet. Mobile connections can often be cheaper and faster than the DSL providers. In rural areas, it was noted that there are some cases of communities sharing mobile connections, through hotspots or tethering to a connected phone.
One of the signs I found heartening was that at the makerspace in Beirut, there were members with Tor project and Internet activism stickers on their laptops. The ability openly express support for those causes is a great sign that civil society is able to function without significant pressure on that front.
I’m very excited to have two talks at CCC at the end of the month. The bulk of accepted talks can be seen and voted on at the CCC “halfnarp”.
The first talk is on the Internet in Cuba. It expands upon the recent talk I presented at IMC last month, to provide additional color on what Internet access is really like in Cuba, and what the community there is doing to create LANs and other alternatives to the official but expensive ETECSA service.
The second talk looks again at technology in Pyongyang. Since 2014, there have been a number of talks about the totally closed off tech ecosystem there, but as it ramps up we continue to only get a few glimpses into what’s going on, and it’s getting only harder as the broader tensions ramp up. My goal is to propose a path for getting more rather than less transparency into the picture, because it is a really fascinating place.
The talks should both be recorded, and might even be streamed. If you’re one of the (I hear it could be up 16,000) participants, I hope to see you in Leipzig!
I had the chance to visit China last week and tag along with the tail-end of a longer trip organized around various Makerspaces around the region. This is the first time in several years that I’ve spent a prolonged amount of time in the dense population areas of Beijing and Shanghai, and it was fascinating to watch the evolution that continues in this majority of Chinese life.
The most noticeable change from my perspective is that Beijing and Shanghai are effectively almost cashless. The use of Alipay and wechat pay are ubiquitous, to the point that you feel that you are creating an imposition to shop keepers by paying with cash. While funding your account on either of these services requires a chinese bank account (which itself requires a mainland cellphone number), the process can be short-circuited by making an unofficial exchange with someone willing to send you a personal transfer within the systems. It remains easy enough to find people at hostels, (as well as localbitcoins, I hear) who are willing to trade.
The systems themselves are fascinating to use. Payment to a merchant will automatically cause you to follow the merchants account, typically leading to messages about member cards and discounts. These messages seemed to only be pushed directly in response to a purchase, and weren’t overly intrusive. It seems to be the realization of the business-to-consumer engagement systems facebook and google have been struggling and so far failing to build in the US. Smaller vendors often operate directly as individuals – you type in how much money the bill is, and send it as a direct transfer to an account specified by the waiter or merchant.
This payment structure has resulted in a secondary industry of android-based devices dedicated to sales and scanning QR codes for these systems, as well as receipt printers that turn app orders into printed requests for food or similar.
Apart from the payment evolution, it is really interesting to watch China modernize. Life there now is much more comfortable from a western perspective than it has been in the past, with both a larger presence of foreigners visible and more english available to help navigate. Some distinctive characteristics remain, including a self-interested approach to queuing and different expectations of personal space. Prices in Shanghai have reached parity with those in the west, although cheaper options remain if you look for them.
In terms of Internet connectivity, I was surprised to find that connectivity remained quite similar to what I had experienced in the past. An SSH tunnel to a foreign server was sufficient to maintain email access while I was there, and disruptions I experienced seemed to be much more a function of over-loaded local networks than of more restrictions for international traffic. I talked with a couple different people who mentioned that Astrill continues to not be blocked, and seemed surprised that something so well known continues to operate without disruption.
Internet access in Cuba is severely constrained, due to limited availability, slow speeds, and high cost. Within this isolated environment, technology enthusiasts have constructed a disconnected but vibrant IP network that has grown organically to reach tens of thousands of households across Havana. We present the first detailed characterization of this deployment, which is known as the SNET, or Street Network. Working in collaboration with SNET operators, we describe the network’s infrastructure and map its topology, and we measure bandwidth, available services, usage patterns, and user demographics. Qualitatively, we attempt to answer why the SNET exists and what benefits it has afforded its users. We go on to discuss technical challenges the network faces, including scalability, security, and organizational issues. To our knowledge, the SNET is the largest isolated community-driven network in existence, and its structure, successes, and obstacles show fascinating contrasts and similarities to those of the Internet at large.
The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) has shown up in a recent New York Times article, and I’m mentioned at the end.
A couple notes on the article:
While the school may have 250 acres if the affiliated cooperative farms are included, the actual campus is much smaller, with ~10 buildings built around two sports fields.
The supposition of leverage is, I feel, more nuanced than expressed in the article. Detentions of Americans have and continue to occur across the different engagements. While PUST got unlucky this time, it provides no more benefit to the regime in that regard than the tourism or other ongoing aid projects, which have also experienced similar actions in the past.
PUST is not even close to the largest foreign community in the country, as stated, that honor goes to the Chinese
Projects like PUST are an opportunity to put a human face on Americans in the minds of the next generation of educators and empowered thinkers in Pyongyang. It’s hard to overstate the value of that engagement.
When I was in Pyongyang a few years ago and had access to a cell phone, I recorded a bunch of the prerecorded messages that you hear when dialing or mis-dialing numbers. I found them to be an interesting glimpse into the view of technology seen in that corner of the world, and helpfully they were translated into English for my edification. I’ve put them up here, and reconstructed the phone tree you get when dialing 999, so that the different messages can be heard in context.