Monthly Archives: February 2013

West Africa Piracy: in full swing

Africa_map_regions

A spike in piracy off Nigeria’s oil-rich coast has shown gangs are willing to venture further afield and use more violent tactics, increasing the risk of doing business in Africa’s largest energy producer.Pirates demanded a 200 million naira ($1.3 million) ransom for the release of six foreigners kidnapped on Sunday (Feb. 17, 2013), the latest in at least five attacks in Nigerian waters this month.

Exxon Mobil and Shell officials said this week that security was a major factor in Nigeria, and it was one of the most expensive oil-producing countries to operate in.  “The recent upsurge in maritime kidnaps off the Niger Delta … has not been witnessed since 2010,” said Tom Patterson, maritime risk analyst at Control Risks.  “It is easy to underestimate the debilitating effect such a situation can have, even on larger corporations,” Patterson added.

Oil and shipping companies have to hire crisis management teams, pay huge insurance premiums and face the prospect of ransom payments, as well as brace themselves for damage to their reputations.  At the same time, pirates are becoming more ambitious.  Three crew members were kidnapped on Feb. 7 from the British-flagged cargo ship Esther C around 80 miles offshore, the furthest pirates have reached in the Gulf of Guinea.  A Filipino crew member was killed when gunmen attacked a chemical tanker three days earlier, in the first confirmed case in Nigerian waters of crew killed on a vessel that deployed a private armed team, security firm AKE said.

“The main problem with the increase in West African piracy is the consequences to the crews,” said Jakob Larsen, maritime security officer with BIMCO, the world’s largest private ship owners’ association.  “Given the more violent nature of the pirate attacks off West Africa, there is every reason to exercise caution when deciding whether to use armed guards or not.”

The prime suspects for most attacks are Nigerian oil gangs, who already carry out industrial scale crude theft, called ‘bunkering’ in the restive onshore Niger Delta swamplands.  Nigeria’s oil minister said this week that oil theft, which can amount to 150,000 barrels per day (bpd), was the work of an international criminal syndicate. President Goodluck Jonathan has asked Britain for help.

Security experts also believe Nigerian security officials and politicians are complicit in oil theft and piracy.  “There are many top people in Nigeria involved in commissioning these attacks and sharing the profits,” said Michael Frodl, head of U.S. consultancy C-Level Maritime Risks.  “It’s obvious to us that they’ve been bringing in people in other nations into the game, and sharing a cut in exchange for tips for tankers and cargoes.”…

“Piracy off Nigeria and West Africa is really much more an extension of the ‘bunkering’ that’s endemic on shore, and we think that as oil prices continue to rise, the potential for making bigger profits by reselling stolen oil will only further accelerate attacks and hijackings,” C-Level’s Frodl said.  The rise in pirate attacks comes as Nigerian forces have been more stretched in the last two years due to an Islamist insurgency in the Muslim north.

Excerpts, Joe Brock and Jonathan Saul, UPDATE 1-Nigerian offshore attacks surge as pirates advance, Reuters, Feb 21, 2013

How to Survive a Nuclear Conflict–DARPA Seeks New Tools

he BADGER explosion on April 18, 1953, as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, at the Nevada Test Site.  Image from wikipedia

The release of nuclear material at the Fukushima nuclear reactor after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake raised concerns regarding U.S. preparedness to treat large-scale exposure of citizens and military personnel to ionizing radiation. The immediate destructive potential of nuclear and radiological weapons, as well as their long-term public health and economic impacts, continue to be of concern to the Department of Defense. In light of the diverse, persistent, and substantial threat posed by ionizing radiation from nuclear and/or radiological weapons, DARPA is requesting information on novel therapies, methods, devices, protocols, compounds, and/or systems to mitigate the dangers that ionizing radiation poses to human health. As part of this investigation, a better understanding of the effects of chronic, acute, environmental, and internal ionizing radiation exposure on mutagenesis, cellular life-cycle, immunology, and metabolism is expected to be fruitful and lead to new areas of research…

DSO [DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office] is seeking innovative ideas that may be used to help inform a potential new program focused on demonstrating novel methods for mitigating the susceptibility of victims exposed to large doses of ionizing radiation over a range of temporal scales.

Topic Area One: Acute Interventions

DARPA is interested in novel approaches to mitigating the immediate, toxic effects associated with exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation. Concepts of interest under this Topic Area include, but are not limited to, the following:

—Prophylactic interventions that can be delivered prior to ionizing radiation exposure that protect against the immediate toxic effects of ionizing radiation to ensure survivability even at high irradiation doses.

—Post-exposure interventions that can be delivered as late as possible following irradiation while still ensuring survivability against the acute effects of ionizing radiation exposure.

Topic Area Two: Long Term Survival

DARPA is interested in novel intervention technologies for ensuring/enhancing survival against the long-term effects of ionizing radiation including cancers attributed to cellular damage and mutagenesis…

With the possibility of new therapies that enable survival in individuals who may have been exposed to doses of ionizing radiation that would normally be considered lethal, it now becomes even more important to understand the mechanisms of injury, including the effects of ionization within cells, mutagenesis and free radical formation that can lead to mortality from stochastic radiation effects.

Technical approaches of interest may address the need to improve our understanding of the contributions of immune system, cellular, and DNA damage to the deleterious effects of ionizing radiation on health, as well as propose novel therapeutic approaches for mitigating these effects. For example, some antioxidants (e.g., superoxide dismutase (SOD), SOD-mimetics, selenomethionine, Hirsutella sinensis, and others) have been shown to produce in vivo activity that can suppress lethality while other antioxidants (e.g., WR-2721, beta-carotene, caffeine and others) can mitigate mutagenesis and/or chromosomal aberrations.3,4,5 Some antioxidants, such as tocopherol-monoglucoside (TMG), produce in vivo activity that may mitigate both the acute lethal effects and longer term mutagenesis and chromosomal aberration effects of exposure to ionizing radiation. Understanding how these compounds act to reduce morbidity and mortality may pave the way to new, more effective therapies and protocols.

Excerpts from Source:  Reducing Ionizing Radiation Risk, Solicitation Number: DARPA-SN-13-24, Feb. 20, 2013

Fracking in Europe: prohibited

horizontal drilling

Shale gas and oil are propelling America to energy self-sufficiency and giving its economy a handy boost. Europe’s shale-gas deposits are said almost to match those across the Atlantic..

The mismatch between the hope and reality for European shale gas was neatly summarised by a deal sealed on January 24th that will allow Shell to probe Ukraine for unconventional gas. Ukrainian politicians talked of a $10 billion investment. Shell took a more cautious line. The firm certainly hopes to find plenty of gas in eastern Ukraine. But it will first do some seismic testing and sink 15 test wells. If the results are disappointing it could, like ExxonMobil in Poland, walk away.

It is too early to tell whether Europe’s shale beds will really prove as bountiful as America’s. Only a handful of test wells have been sunk. Exxon may have quit Poland, the country where exploration has gone furthest, but other firms are having more joy. Determining which countries might enjoy a bonanza of cheap gas is highly speculative, a recent report by Deutsche Bank points out: many things are in flux, including extraction technologies and production rates.

Adding to the guesswork is a host of problems “above ground”, particularly in western Europe. With the exception of Britain, which recently lifted a moratorium on test drilling, progress is slow. The French are implacably opposed to shale gas. French environmentalists have taken a particular dislike to “fracking”, the technique for releasing gas from rock beds that uses a cocktail of chemicals, sand and high-pressure water. François Hollande, France’s president, has promised that a fracking ban, imposed by his predecessor, would last for his entire five-year term.The Netherlands and Luxembourg have also suspended drilling for shale gas. Attempts to do the same in Germany were defeated in parliament in December. But North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most promising region for shale gas, suspended fracking last September pending research on the risks involved. In Austria the cost of complying with environmental regulations makes shale gas uneconomic.

Farther east, public disapproval is not as fierce, although the Czech Republic recently introduced a moratorium, Bulgaria has one in place and Romania only recently lifted its ban. Shale gas offers the promise of jobs and revenues. Even more important, it could mitigate the heavy reliance on gas imports from Russia. Indeed, the country signalled its disapproval—and boosted its reputation as an energy bully—as soon as the deal between Shell and Ukraine was signed. It sent its neighbour a bill for $7 billion for unused gas, arguing that Ukraine is contractually obliged to pay for it.

Oil companies will send people and equipment where the ride is easiest and the deals are tastiest, which explains why drilling rigs are scarce in Europe. Nearly 1,200 of them scoot around America’s shale beds; in Poland they number only half a dozen.

Excerpt, Unconventional gas in Europe: Frack to the future, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 53

Foreign Creditors are Foreigners; the Icesave case

Icesave logo.  Image from wikipedia

In 2008 Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown chose to invoke anti-terrorism laws to freeze the assets of a failed Icelandic bank…In January 28, 2013 a ruling delivered in Luxembourg by the European Free-Trade Association Court (pdf), dealt with the collapse of Icesave, an online subsidiary of Iceland’s Landsbanki. Before the crisis Icesave had used a European “passport” to open branches abroad and collected deposits in Britain and the Netherlands with almost no oversight from regulators in those countries. One condition of its passport was that it promised that its deposits were backed by a national deposit-insurance scheme in Iceland. Yet when the bank collapsed Iceland’s deposit scheme was overwhelmed. Icelandic depositors in the bank ended up getting their money back; the British and Dutch governments both had to step in to compensate depositors in their countries.

Many observers had expected the court to rule that Iceland was obliged to stand behind its national deposit-protection plan and not to discriminate against foreign depositors. Instead the court found that Iceland was obliged only to make sure that it had a deposit-insurance scheme. The state was not required to pay out if the scheme had no money because of a banking crisis. Oddly, the court also found that Iceland had not breached an obligation not to discriminate between domestic and foreign depositors, even though it made only the domestic ones whole.

The questions addressed by the court may seem anachronistic: European law on deposit protection has been extensively rewritten since the crisis. Yet the ruling is another warning to those who hope that regulators can strike binding agreements on how they will share the costs of a future banking crisis. Supervisors in America are already trying to ensure that foreign banks there operate as separately capitalised subsidiaries, so they do not have to rely on the vigilance of foreign regulators. Hopes that Europe’s banking union will include a mutual deposit-guarantee scheme are in any case faint. This week’s ruling will only weaken confidence in the willingness of countries to bail out foreign creditor

The Icesave ruling: In the cooler, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 64

Dividing the Arctic

Hans Island (dispute between Denmark and Canada).  Image from wikipedia

Singapore has applied for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. This is made up of the eight states that have territory within the Arctic circle: the United States, Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroes), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. But Singapore sits at the equator, as far from either pole as it is possible to be. How can it be interested?

The answer is that in 2012, as the summer ice melted, 46 ships sailed through Arctic waters, according to Arctis, a research group, mostly from Far Eastern ports to Europe. They carried 1.2m tonnes of cargo, a third more than in 2011. This “northern route” could erode Singapore’s position as a global shipping hub. And the melting of the Greenland glaciers could threaten its existence: Singapore’s highest point, Bukit Timah, is only 164m (538ft) above sea level.

Other non-Arctic countries queuing for various kinds of seat at the table are China, India, Italy, Japan and South Korea, as well as the European Union, Greenpeace and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. Their applications—supposed to be ruled on in May—are the clearest signs of the growing geopolitical interest in the melting north. The existing members are wondering whether the outsiders will promote stability or disruption.

Even the current arrangements have attracted excited speculation. According to the United States Geological Survey, the Arctic has 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its gas (the gas estimate is pre-shale, so is probably too high)…Boundary disputes rumble between America and Canada over the Beaufort Sea; between Russia and America in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, and between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island and in the Lincoln Sea. Russia is modernising its northern fleet; America is thinking about putting armed coastguard vessels into its Arctic waters. The South China Sea shows how minor territorial disputes can flare dangerously, especially when natural resources are at stake….

All countries play by the rules. Legal norms are well established. The United Nations Law of the Sea, for example, has put almost all unprospected oil, gas and minerals under national jurisdictions, narrowing the scope for dispute (America has not ratified it, but says it will abide by it). Despite some swagger and stunts in past years, Russia is playing a constructive role, especially on shipping: it wants the “northern route” to be a success. In 2010 it settled a territorial dispute with Norway.

The Arctic Council epitomises this spirit of increasing co-operation. It began in 1996, mainly as a research project and talking-shop, but is fast becoming a decision-making body. In 2011 its members signed their first treaty, on joint search-and-rescue missions, which are too expensive for countries to undertake on their own. A second treaty—on cleaning up oil spills—will be signed shortly. On January 21st the members set up the first permanent secretariat, at Tromso in northern Norway.

One fear—especially in Canada—is that economic development could bring an oil spill that could devastate the pristine Arctic environment for decades. But a bigger question is what effect the newcomers might have on these cosy arrangements. Could China one day decide the northern sea route had become so important that it was within its sphere of strategic interest—meaning Chinese submarines would appear in Arctic waters? Such fears are far-fetched. The driving force of the outsiders’ interest is economic. China and others are backing the established rules and institutions such as the Arctic Council, not undermining them.  Yet worries persist. The insiders are squabbling about the right role for the outsiders. Canada is relaxed about China’s application to join the council, but fears the EU will try to stop its native peoples hunting seals (though the EU has a limited exemption for the Inuit). Russia is happy for the EU to join but is suspicious of letting in the Chinese.

China is also affecting the domestic policies of some Arctic countries, rather as it has in Africa. For instance, Greenland governs its own internal affairs, but Denmark runs its foreign policy. It contains about a tenth of the world’s deposits of rare-earth minerals. China, with a third or more of the rest, wants to build a big mine there to keep control over the global business. Uranium will be a by-product, but responsibility for disposing of that is considered a matter of foreign policy, residing in Copenhagen. Denmark has no experience of uranium recycling, and little desire to start.

Greenland’s government is also backing a $2.5 billion iron mine (by London Mining, the Isua Project) which, if it went ahead, would be worth more than the island’s annual GDP and could attract as many as 5,000 Chinese workers (how? London Mining is to work with). In December 2012 the local government exempted such large projects from Denmark’s strict labour laws. But Chinese workers in Greenland would still need visas, which must be issued in Copenhagen. Denmark could therefore face the unwelcome choice between scuppering a pet project of huge, poor Greenland’s or undermining its own labour laws.  For the foreseeable future China and others are unlikely to challenge the rules that underwrite Arctic stability. But the outsiders’ impact may be more disruptive than their self-restraint would suggest.

Outsiders in the Arctic: The roar of ice cracking, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 49

See also Arctic Council

For the Love of Batteries: Storing Electricity

Districht heating accumulation tower of Theiss, near Krems an der Donau, Lower Austria with 50000 cubic meters volume.  Image from wikipedia

Batteries are a hugely important technology. Modern life would be impossible without them. But many engineers find them disappointing and feel that they could be better still. Produce the right battery at the right price, these engineers think, and you could make the internal-combustion engine redundant and usher in a world in which free fuel, in the form of wind and solar energy, was the norm. That really would be a revolution.

It is, however, a revolution that people have been awaiting a long time. And the longer they wait, the more the doubters wonder if it will ever happen. The Joint Centre for Energy Storage Research (JCESR)...hopes to prove the doubters wrong. It has drawn together the best brains in energy research from America’s national laboratories and universities, along with a group of interested companies. It has money, too. It has just received a grant of $120m from the country’s Department of Energy. The aim, snappily expressed, is to make batteries five times more powerful and five times cheaper in five years…

The first test of any combination of substances that comes out of the Materials Project, or anywhere else, will be to beat the most successful electricity-storage device to emerge over the past 20 years: the lithium-ion battery. Such batteries are now ubiquitous. Most famously, they power many of the electric and hybrid-electric cars that are starting to appear on the roads. More infamously, they have a tendency to overheat and burn. Two recent fires on board Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners may have been caused by such batteries or their control systems. Improving on lithium-ion would be a feather in the cap of any laboratory… McKinsey, a business consultancy, reckons that lithium-ion batteries might be competitive by 2020 but… there is still a lot of work to do. Moreover, pretenders to lithium-ion’s throne are already emerging.

The leader is probably the lithium-air battery…The lithium-air approach has consequently generated a lot of hype. It has problems, though, which will take years of research to resolve. Lithium-air batteries are hard to recharge and extremely temperamental. The chemical reaction which powers them is not far removed from spontaneous combustion. Lithium-air batteries are thus highly inflammable and require heavy safety systems to stop them catching fire. Luckily, the researchers at JCESR have other irons in the fire. One is the multivalent-ion battery….

The second transformation, besides electric cars, that better batteries might bring about is what is known as grid-scale storage. If this could be done cheaply enough it would revolutionise the economics of wind and solar energy by making the main problem with such sources—that the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow—irrelevant. To this end, Argonne’s researchers are working on what are known as flow batteries…Unlike batteries based on cells, flow batteries can be made very large indeed, so they can store vast amounts of energy. Hence the idea of using them to collect surplus power from wind turbines and solar panels and squirrel it away for use later. But their water-based electrolytes limit their potential…

A battery-driven world, then, would electrify parts of the economy, such as transport, that have been recalcitrant, and would encourage the shift from costly (and polluting) fossil fuels to “fuels” such as sunlight that cost nothing. As a manifesto for a revolution, that takes some beating. The question is, will the revolutionaries win, or will the ancien régime prevail?

Excerpts, The future of energy: Batteries included?, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 67

Watching your Internet Fingerprint

fingerpint

The current standard method for validating a user’s identity for authentication on an information system requires humans to do something that is inherently difficult: create, remember, and manage long, complex passwords. Moreover, as long as the session remains active, typical systems incorporate no mechanisms to verify that the user originally authenticated is the user still in control of the keyboard. Thus, unauthorized individuals may improperly obtain extended access to information system resources if a password is compromised or if a user does not exercise adequate vigilance after initially authenticating at the console.

The Active Authentication program seeks to address this problem by developing novel ways of validating the identity of the person at the console that focus on the unique aspects of the individual through the use of software-based biometrics. Biometrics is defined as the characteristics used to uniquely recognize humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioral traits. This program focuses on the computational behavioral traits that can be observed through how we interact with the world. Just as when you touch something with our finger you leave behind a fingerprint, when you interact with technology you do so in a pattern based on how your mind processes information, leaving behind a “cognitive fingerprint.”

This BAA addresses the first phase of this program. In the first phase of the program, the focus will be on researching biometrics that does not require the installation of additional hardware sensors. Rather, DARPA will look for research on biometrics that can be captured through the technology already in use in a standard DoD office environment, looking for aspects of the “cognitive fingerprint.” A heavy emphasis will be placed on validating any potential new biometrics with empirical tests to ensure they would be effective in large scale deployments.

The later planned phases of the program that are not addressed in this BAA will focus on developing a solution that integrates any available biometrics using a new authentication platform suitable for deployment on a standard Department of Defense desktop or laptop. The planned combinatorial approach of using multiple modalities for continuous user identification and authentication is expected to deliver a system that is accurate, robust, and transparent to the user’s normal computing experience. The authentication platform is planned to be developed with open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to allow the integration of other software or hardware biometrics available in the future from any source.

The combined aspects of the individual that this program is attempting to uncover are the aspects that are the computational behavioral “fingerprint” of the person at the keyboard. This has also been referred to in existing research as the “cognitive fingerprint.” The proposed theory is that how individuals formulate their thoughts and actions are reflected through their behavior, and this behavior in turn can be captured as metrics in how the individual performs tasks using the computer.

Some examples of the computational behavior metrics of the cognitive fingerprint include:

− keystrokes

− eye scans

− how the user searches for information (verbs and predicates used)

− how the user selects information (verbs and predicates used)

− how the user reads the material selected

• eye tracking on the page

• speed with which the individual reads the content

− methods and structure of communication (exchange of email)

These examples are only provided for illustrative purposes and are not intended as a list of potential research topics. The examples above include potential biometrics that would not be supported through this BAA due to a requirement for the deployment of additional hardware based sensors (such as tracking eye scans).

Excerpt from, Broad Agency Announcement, Active Authentication, DARPA-BAA-12-06, January 12, 2012

On Feb. 12, 2013, two groups announced related projects. The first is an industry group calling itself the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance. It consists of the computer-maker, Lenovo, the security firm, Nok Nok Labs, the online payment giant, PayPal, the biometrics experts, Agnito, and the authentication specialists, Validity. The second is the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), a research and development arm of the Defense Department.

Excerpt from DARPA, FIDO Alliance Join Race to Replace Passwords, CNET, Feb. 12, 2013