Sunday, 8 May 2011

China, Pakistan, and reverse engineering the stealth helicopter

An interesting fact that has emerged from last week's mission to kill Osama Bin Laden is that the US reportedly used a 'stealthed' version of its Blackhawk helicopter to avoid detection whilst carrying out the operation. This, of course, became known only as a result of one of the helicopters being destroyed during the raid, and fragments of it and the special coating used to baffle radar detection are now in Pakistani hands.

Of course, it may well be that Pakistan simply hands these fragments back to the US, but given past Chinese efforts to reverse engineer US stealth technology, of which I heard evidence first hand, it also seems very possible that some of this material will end up going to China. However, logically speaking, for reverse engineering to have been taking place in 2003, samples of earlier examples of this technology must already be in Chinese hands - perhaps as a result of the shooting down of an F-117 during the Kosovo campaign. It therefore seems that at worst this will give access to newer versions of the same technology.

[Picture: The canopy, ejector seat, helmet, and survival gear recovered from the crash-site of F-117A AF ser. no. 82-0806 "Something Wicked", shot down over Yugoslavia on the 27th of March 1999, on display in the Museum of Aviation, Belgrade. Via Wikicommons]

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden - consumerism junkie

This post over at my brother's place is all kinds of awesome. Money quote:

"A martyr must live a life consistent with at least his own beliefs. OBL wasn't consistent at all.

With one side of his mouth he damned the imperialist, capitalist devil infidels of the west; with the other he chugged Pepsi and Coke and chowed down on Chunky Kit-Kats ("truly a confection fit for Allah himself" he might have mumbled to himself, wiping the biscuit crumbs from his lap and washing it down with some Diet Coke: "Nothing like the real thing". He smiles to himself and leans back, before returning to his Playstation 2). "

I had even thought about it until this had been pointed out, but in its own way, this seems to reveal be the same kind of blazing hypocrisy as was seen in the 9/11 hijackers after it became known that they spent their few days on this Earth getting drunk and partying with strippers. Again and again, zealots turn out to be the very thing they attack.

[Picture: A can of Stars and Stripes Cola. Via Wikicommons]

Monday, 2 May 2011

No tears for Bin Laden . . . . .

. . . . but you have to ask, beyond the obvious meting out of rough but deserved justice to a man responsible for the death of thousands of innocent people, does this matter as much as it might have in '02, when we were still afraid of another attack like that carried out on the World Trade Centre? Given that little has been seen of him in recent years, is he really still a prominent figure in Al-Qaeda, or has he been little more than a figurehead for some years now?

Captured alive he might have given some evidence to debunk some of the conspiracy theories which have been widely disseminated since almost immediately after the 11th of September, 2001. However, since every one of these theories that I am aware of has already been thoroughly debunked, this matters less than it might. Indeed, it seems inevitable now that conspiracy theorists will fix on the details of this operation as yet more 'proof' that the 2001 attacks were an inside job.

It also might have been nice to put him on trial. However, since it is now the policy of the US government to try terrorist suspects captured in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere before secret military tribunals, much of the impact that might have come from a Nuremburg-like trial would have been dissipated. In fact it would have probably served only to highlight the violations of the human rights at the hands of the US government of those held in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

According to the information that has come out about the taking of hostages by Bin Laden's men during the operation, it does appear that the operation was supposed to capture him alive. However, it is unlikely that any of the people involved in planning the operation will be too sorry that he died as a result of it.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Foxconn, again.

According to a report in Saturday's Guardian, two - somewhat oddly named - NGOs, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, have released a study of the working conditions at Foxconn's factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu. Foxconn, where I used to work, has long been accused of poor treatment of its workers.

Amongst the other disclosures in the report:

"■ Excessive overtime is routine, despite a legal limit of 36 hours a month. One payslip, seen by the Observer, indicated that the worker had performed 98 hours of overtime in a month.

■ Workers attempting to meet the huge demand for the first iPad were sometimes pressured to take only one day off in 13.

■ In some factories badly performing workers are required to be publicly humiliated in front of colleagues.

■ Crowded workers' dormitories can sleep up to 24 and are subject to strict rules. One worker told the NGO investigators that he was forced to sign a "confession letter" after illicitly using a hairdryer. In the letter he wrote: "It is my fault. I will never blow my hair inside my room. I have done something wrong. I will never do it again."

■ In the wake of a spate of suicides at Foxconn factories last summer, workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to "treasure their lives"."

My take on this report is that a lot of this is nothing new. The biggest item is the news that overtime limits are still being exceeded, something that Foxconn has pledged to prevent. However, when managers claim that the overtime is voluntary, they are, at least in my experience, speaking the truth.

Likewise, taking only one day off in thirteen to meet a short-term goal is nothing new either. During my time at Foxconn, which admittedly was in the patenting department, I also worked similar periods of time without a day off.

The humiliation of poorly performing workers is not a great surprise, since this kind of punishment by public loss of face is a not uncommon feature of Chinese culture, as well as that of many other East Asian countries, particularly Japan. However, I rarely saw it in my own corner of the company, and it was never taken to the extreme. The same with the self-criticism letter.

In fact, the thing which strikes me most about this report is the degree to which it shows an improvement over those of previous years. The report may pooh-pooh basic pay of 1,350 yuan a month in Chengdu, but it is significantly better that the 800-1,000 paid to people working as waiters, hairdressers etc. 24 people to a room may be considered cramped, but it is significantly better than the 100 to a room reported in 2006. You may even consider that university students in China often sleep 8 to a room and that this is the case for most of the workers I knew at Foxconn. The anti-suicide pledge is strange, but it is hard to see how it is objectionable, nor should even 14 suicides in a year be that surprising in a factory employing more than 500,000 people.

At the very least, there seems little in this report about Foxconn itself to justify the well-intended but somewhat odd editorial in Sunday's Observer, in which Lucy Siegle segues from conditions in Cambodian sweat shops (no doubt appalling) to the suicide of a South Korean man (nothing to do with 'the developing world'). Oddness aside, her central point is this:

" . . . this is a battle for human decency and that if the price of a product is to condemn fellow humans to grab a few hours sleep cheek by jowl in a concrete dormitory for a pittance, that is surely too high a price."

This is fine, but in the specific case of Foxconn, the report which she says "lays bare" conditions at electronic manufacturers in general, no one is 'condemned' to work there. Most Foxconn workers arrive from far poorer condition in the countryside, where earnings of 500 yuan a month are common. They exchange the dead-end lives in the countryside for far better earnings, and accommodation in the main no worse than that in which most Chinese university students live. By Chinese standards, there wages are not "a pittance", nor are their living conditions terrible.

For most of them, Foxconn offers the opportunity to gain new skills which many of them then market to other companies, especially Huawei. I support all constructive efforts to improve conditions for workers in developing countries, particularly those in which no democratic system which might give the workers a forum in which to voice their grievances exists. However, boycotting the products they manufacture will simply impoverish them, and truly "condemn" them to living in poor conditions on "a pittance".