Monthly Archives: February 2014

Saving the Elephant: the $300 Million Question

elephant

Six tonnes of elephant tusks and ivory trinkets were destroyed in a tarmac crusher in the factory city of Dongguan in China on January 6th, 2014.  Most of the 33-tonne stockpile of Hong Kong—home to many of the world’s most avid buyers of ivory—as well as those of several European countries will soon meet the same fate. In the past few years ivory has also been destroyed in the United States, Gabon, Kenya and the Philippines.

These scenes lack both the curling smoke and dramatic setting of the vast pyre of tusks burned in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park in 1989. (Most ivory is now destroyed by crushing, rather than burning, to avoid polluting the atmosphere.) But they may prove equally significant in the long fight to stop poaching and save the elephant from extinction.  The bonfire near Nairobi was the prelude to a global ban on trade in ivory, a collapse in demand and a lull in poaching that gave the African elephant population time to recover. But in the past five years poaching has picked up again. An estimated 25,000 elephants are killed each year by poachers, many of them linked to organised crime. In some places the species is close to being wiped out…

Links between ivory traffickers and African militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, a thuggish band of guerrillas that originated in Uganda, have put the issue on the national-security agenda in America and elsewhere. The result is attention from political heavyweights including Bill and Hillary Clinton; John Kerry, America’s secretary of state; and David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister. African governments have agreed to to beef up park patrols, create anti-poaching police units in the states where elephants roam and strengthen anti-poaching laws. The measures have so far been underfunded. Making them stick would cost an estimated $300m over ten years, much of which it is hoped will come from the rich countries at the conference.

Though campaigners welcome the plan they argue that curbing the supply of ivory is not enough. Since 1989 countries with elephant populations have twice been allowed to sell stockpiled ivory from elephants that died naturally under CITES, a global agreement on international trade in endangered species. Before the second sale, in 2008, conservationists warned that it would revive the market in China, where ivory ornaments have long been prized, and make poaching profitable once more. They were right. The ivory bought by the Chinese government is drip-fed onto the domestic market at a rate of five tonnes a year. That comes nowhere close to meeting demand, estimated at 200 tonnes a year. And the sales have coincided with an explosive increase in poaching.

The ivory trade: Up in smoke, Economist,Feb. 8, 2014, at 60

Military Aims to Exploit Your Biosignature

thermal infrared scanner

Human-Centered Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) Leveraged Science & Technology (S&T) Program

The overall RHX (Human Effectiveness Directorate, Anticipate & Influence Behavior Division of the Air Force Research Laboratory) research objective is to develop human-centered S&T that enables the Air Force to more effectively execute the ISR mission…   Current ISR systems are ideal for identifying and tracking entities such as aircraft and vehicles but are less capable of identifying and tracking the human. This research will develop technologies to enable the Air Force to identify, locate and track humans of interest within the operational environment….The scope of human-centered ISR research spans the complete range of human performance starting at the individual molecular, cellular, genomic level and progressing to complex human-to-human and human-to-machine interactions. Human-centered ISR reaches across multiple domains (air, space, cyber) and has broad application to other DoD organizations and the Intelligence Community (IC).  Human-centered ISR research encompasses three major research areas: (1) human signatures, (2) human trust and interaction and (3) human analyst augmentation. The human signatures research develops technologies to sense and exploit human bio-signatures at both the molecular level and macro (anthropometric) level. The human trust and interaction research develops technologies to improve human-to-human interactions as well as human-to-machine interactions. The human analyst augmentation research develops technologies to enhance analyst performance and to test the efficacy of newly developed technologies within a simulated operational environment.

OBJECTIVE 1: Human Signatures

The objective of the Human Signatures Program is to develop technologies to discover, characterize and transition biological-based signatures (biosignatures) to enable effective human and environmental threat detection, identification and exploitation, and operator performance assessment across a variety of Air Force mission areas. Human signatures research seeks to identify and characterize unique biosignatures that can be exploited to identify, locate and track specific individuals or groups of people possessing certain characteristics of operational interest. Bioignatures range from the micro-level (molecular, cellular, genomic) up to whole body physiological signatures based on anthropometric and biomechanical properties and characteristics.

Exploitation of biosignatures also requires development of (1) sensors designed to detect and collect biosignatures; (2) analytics and informatics to process, analyze, fuse and utilize biosignature sensor data; (3) end user systems that integrate biosignatures into the layered sensor network and provide analysis, visualization, and prediction tools to exploit biosignature data.

OBJECTIVE 2: Human Trust and Interaction

The Human Trust and Interaction Program conducts research examining human-to-human interactions and human-to-machine interactions with the focus on developing technological solutions to enhance ISR capabilities and human performance assessments. Research is divided into two major areas: (1) human insight and trust and (2) human language technologies.  The objectives of the Human Interaction and Trust Program are broken down into three subareas. These are: (1) Trust and Suspicion; (2) Trust in Automation; and (3) Social Signature Exploitation. Trust and Suspicion research focuses on the recognition of suspicious activities in the cyberspace realm. The needs include the full gamut of open source data including social media to the more traditional intelligence sources. Trust in Automation is driven by human-machine teams and how humans relate to technology. A key need in this area is the establishment of trust between human operators and the machines/software they are teamed with to complete their mission. Finally, the Social Signature Exploitation theme focuses on recognizing behavior indicators that are based on social and cultural factors to assess and predict military relevant events. The need includes the use of open and closed data resources to assist decision making on the use of force or non-physical actions.

Excerpt  from Human-Centered Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) Leveraged Science & Technology (S&T) Program, Solicitation Number: BAA-HPW-RHX-2014-0001, Agency: Department of the Air Force, Office: Air Force Materiel Command, Location: AFRL/RQK – WPAFB, available online

The Agony of Living with Nuclear Waste: New Mexico

radioactive waste logo

Unusually high levels of radioactive particles were found at an underground nuclear waste site in New Mexico on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2014 in what a spokesman said looked like the first real alarm since the plant opened in 1999.  U.S. officials were testing for radiation in air samples at the site where radioactive waste, such as plutonium used in defense research and nuclear weapon making, is dumped half a mile below ground in an ancient salt formation.

“They (air monitors) have alarmed in the past as a false positive because of malfunctions, or because of fluctuations in levels of radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas),” Department of Energy spokesman Roger Nelson said.  “But I believe it’s safe to say we’ve never seen a level like we are seeing. We just don’t know if it’s a real event, but it looks like one,” he said.  It was not yet clear what caused the air-monitoring system to indicate that radioactive particles were present at unsafe levels, Nelson said.

No one was underground at the Department of Energy Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, in New Mexico’s south east, when the alarm went off at 11:30 p.m. MST on Friday, and none of the 139 employees working above ground at the facility was exposed to radioactive contaminants, he said.  Workers were asked to shelter where they were until the end of their shifts and were allowed to leave the facility at 5 p.m. local time on Saturday, Nelson said. No air exchange with the surface was occurring after the ventilation system automatically switched to filtration, he said…A different part of the site was evacuated this month after a truck used to haul salt caught fire. Several workers suffered smoke inhalation, an agency statement said.

Possible radiation leak at New Mexico military nuclear waste site, Reuters, Feb. 16, 2014

Fukushima Nuclear Waste will Go Here

Okuma, Futaba and Nahara disposal locations Fukushima

Fukushima prefectural authorities have asked the Environment Ministry to reduce from three to two the number of sites it plans for the temporary storage of radioactive debris generated by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster.  Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato on Feb. 12 submitted a request to Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and Takumi Nemoto, the minister in charge of post-quake reconstruction, asking them not to build a storage facility in the town of Naraha so that its residents can return home earlier.  Based on the request, Ishihara said the Environment Ministry will review the initial plan to erect facilities in Naraha, as well as the towns of Okuma and Futaba.

The central government intended to construct intermediate storage facilities in the three towns, all in Fukushima Prefecture, that are capable of storing 13.1 million, 12.4 million and 2.5 million cubic meters of debris, respectively. The smallest of the sites was to be built in Naraha.

However, Sato argued in his request that if collected debris were burned to reduce its volume, the two larger sites could accommodate all the waste.  The governor also proposed that the ministry build a plant to process the ash from debris with radioactive values at 100,000 becquerels per kilogram or lower in Naraha instead…Elsewhere though, many other municipalities in the prefecture have urged the prefectural government to quickly facilitate the building of those facilities because radioactive soil and other associated waste generated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster are filling up temporary storage sites throughout the prefecture. The Environment Ministry estimates that 1.6 million cubic meters of debris was stored across Fukushima Prefecture as of the end of last October.

Excerpt, Fukushima seeks limit on radioactive waste disposal sites, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, Feb. 13, 2014

Madagascar Sells Polluting Rights to Microsoft

madagascar

Madagascar’s government has agreed to sell forest-related carbon credits to Microsoft and Zurich’s zoo, which will help protect the Makira National Park, in the first sale of state-owned REDD+ credits in Africa, according to the group that manages the park.  The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an international charity headquartered in New York City, said the revenues from selling carbon credits generated by avoided deforestation in Makira will finance the conservation of one of Madagascar’s most pristine rainforest ecosystems, while supporting the livelihoods of local people.

The funds will be used by the government for activities under its Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation “plus” conservation (REDD+) programme, and by WCS to manage Makira park. But the largest share – half of the proceeds – will go to support local communities in areas around Makira for education, health and other projects, WCS said.

The Makira forest, which spans nearly 400,000 hectares (over 1,500 square miles), is home to an estimated 1 percent of the world’s biodiversity, including 20 lemur species, hundreds of species of birds, and thousands of plant varieties, some unique to the location. The forests also provide clean water to over 250,000 people in the surrounding landscape.

Jonathan Shopley, managing director of The CarbonNeutral Company, which handled the purchase for Microsoft, said its clients are increasingly looking for opportunities to manage the entire environmental impact of their organisation, driven by the need to make their supply chains more resilient…In Madagascar, burning for agricultural land and extraction of wood for household energy leads to around 36,000 hectares (139 square miles) of natural forest being lost each year, WCS said.

BY MEGAN ROWLIN, Madagascar: Microsoft Buys Carbon Credits From Madagascar Rainforest, AllAfrica.com, Feb. 13, 2014

Bonga Oil Spill: the Nigerian Perspective against Shell

The Director General, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) Mr. Patrick Akpobolokemi has slammed Anglo Dutch oil giant, Shell for the way and manner it handles oil spill in the country, especially in the oil and gas rich Niger Delta region.  He said the response of the foremost oil firm to oil spillages in the country fell short of international standards and practices.  The helmsman of Nigeria’s apex maritime regulatory authority spoke against the backdrop of the Bonga oil spill incident which wreaked havoc in many communities in the Niger Delta region in 2011.

The National Assembly had last week through the House of Representatives Committee on Environment, organised a public hearing over the incident.  Recounting NIMASA’s experience during the incident, Akpobolokemi said that the oil giant tried as much as possible to frustrate the agency’s attempts to move to the site of the spill.  As a stop gap measure, he explained that the agency provided some relief material to some of the communities affected by the spill.  Akpobolokemi flayed Shell for it poor response and nonchalant attitude towards spill incidents in the Niger Delta area and called for an immediate stop to this.

Said he: “The kind of impunity Shell and its allies have demonstrated so far in the Niger Delta area in the past must stop if the future of the people of Nigeria and the environment are to be protected,” adding that in other countries when spills like this occur, the first thing is remuneration, attention to the affected communities and finding ways of reducing the sufferings of the people and restoring the ecosystem, which Shell has failed to do. “Shell fell short of all these criteria and of course it is sad that it is only in Nigeria that we can witness this degree of impunity.

“We in NIMASA see this as a serious infraction to our laws, communities and the damage done to the communities and the ecosystem can be seen as genocide. When a similar spill occurred in the gulf of Mexico, Shell was alive to its responsibilities, they were made to pay compensation to the affected communities but today in Nigeria, any spill that occur, a claim of sabotage or third party claims are the order of the day.” He said NIMASA had made presentations before the House Committee on Environment, asking SNEPCO to pay compensation, not an administrative fee, to the communities totalling $6.5 billion.

“The response from Shell was evasive and do not suggest that it is a company that is alive to its responsibility. It believes that the culture of impunity can continue to go on, thereby playing with our legal system. May we use this opportunity to correct the wrong that has been done to the Nigerian environment because of the callousness of this company and we stand by our position that compensation must be paid to the communities.

“What we expect Shell to do is to come to the negotiating table and discuss with the affected communities on the means of payment so that the communities can get back their natural eco-system”.

John Iwori, Bonga Oil Spill: NIMASA Slams Shell, http://www.thisdaylive.com/,  Feb. 14, 2014

Shell Response

The Huge Malaria Experiment at the Comoros Islands

comoros islands

What if it were possible to get rid of malaria? Not just bring it under control, but wipe it from the face of the Earth, saving 660,000 lives a year, stopping hitherto endless suffering, and abolishing a barrier to economic development reckoned by the World Bank to cost Africa $12 billion a year in lost production and opportunity? It is an alluring prize, and one that Li Guoqiao, of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, thinks within reach.

Dr Li is one of the researchers who turned a Chinese herbal treatment for the disease into artemisinin, one of the most effective antimalarial drugs yet invented. Now he is supervising experiments in the Comoros, using a combination drug therapy based on artemisinin, to see if malaria can be eradicated from that island country. If it works, he hopes to move on to somewhere on the African mainland, and attempt to repeat the process there….

Dr Li’s approach is to attack not the mosquito, but the disease-causing parasite itself. This parasite’s life cycle alternates between its insect host (the mosquito) and its vertebrate one (human beings). Crucially, as far as is known, humans are its only vertebrate host. Deny it them and it will, perforce, wither away—an approach that worked for the smallpox virus, which had a similarly picky appetite. In the case of smallpox, a vaccine was used to make humans hostile territory for the pathogen. Since there is no vaccine against malaria, Dr Li is instead using drugs.

To deny the parasites their human hosts long enough to exterminate them in a given area, the researchers administer three doses of Artequick, spaced a month apart. To add extra power, the first dose is accompanied by a third drug, primaquine. Dr Li and his colleagues call this approach Fast Elimination of Malaria through Source Eradication, or FEMSE.

And it works—almost. The Comoros has three islands: Moheli, Anjouan and Grande Comore. Before the experiment started, more than 90% of the inhabitants of some villages on these islands had malaria. Song Jianping, Dr Li’s lieutenant in the Comoros, blitzed Moheli with Artequick in 2007. The number of cases there fell by 95%, though reinfection from other islands caused a small subsequent rebound. In 2012 he did the same thing on Anjouan. There, the number of cases fell by 97%. In October 2013 the campaign moved to Grande Comore, the most populous island. When the process is complete there, nearly all of the 700,000 Comorans will have taken part in FEMSE.

Ninety-five percent, or even 97%, is not eradication. But it is an enormous improvement and creates a position from which eradication can be contemplated. To do that, though, means keeping an effective surveillance programme permanently in being so that those who become infected can be treated quickly, to stop them spreading the parasite…

A more immediate concern is the safety of the drugs. Artemisinin and piperaquine are pretty safe, but primaquine ruptures red blood cells in people with a deficiency of an enzyme called G6PD. That can kill. And a lot of Africans—in particular, 15% of Comorans—are G6PD-deficient….

There is also the question of informed consent to the drugs. Smallpox vaccination permanently protected the person being vaccinated. There was thus an individual as well as a collective benefit to offset any possible side-effects. Prophylactic drug treatment protects only for as long as the drugs stay in the body—which is a few weeks (and explains the need for three rounds of treatment). Dr Song’s results suggest the benefit is real. But it is a collective benefit. That changes the moral calculus. On the one hand, there is the risk of healthy people being harmed by side-effects. On the other, there is the risk of their free-riding, by taking the collective benefits while not taking the drugs themselves.

To avoid such free-riding, a lot of official encouragement to participate has happened—encouragement some people regard as tipping over into pressure and propaganda. In a public meeting in Niumadzaha, a village in the south of Grande Comore, for example, the chief doctor of the local health centre shouted through a megaphone: “This drug is safe and effective. You are not being used as guinea pigs. The WHO would not allow this administration to happen if you were being used as guinea pigs.”

Certainly, there is a lot riding on the project. Dr Mhadji says FEMSE will save the Comoros $11m a year in direct and indirect costs (for comparison, its annual health-care budget is $7.6m), as well as preserving many lives that would otherwise have been lost and saving survivors from the brain damage malaria can cause. The eradication of malaria will also, he hopes, make the Comoros more attractive as a destination for tourists.

Others hope to profit, too. Artepharm has high expectations of Artequick and is using the drug’s success in the Comoros in its marketing campaigns in South America, South-East Asia and Africa. Moreover, the arm of the Chinese government that administers that country’s foreign aid, and is thus helping pay for the project, is the Ministry of Commerce—for Chinese largesse is more explicitly tied to the promotion of the country’s business than is aid from most Western countries.

Not that the West is a disinterested party, for Western firms, too, manufacture artemisinin-based malaria therapies. On that point Dr Mhadji has strong views. He dismisses criticism of the experiment as fuelled by competition between Western and Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

As Nick White, a malaria researcher at Oxford University’s School of Tropical Medicine who has been working for years on eradicating malaria, says, “This research is radical. It is controversial. It is led by a very famous Chinese physician and investigator. There are lots of very serious questions here and a lot of unknowns.” Or, as Oscar Wilde more succinctly put it, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Malaria eradication: Cure all?, Economist, Jan 25, 2014, at 66

How to Search the Deep Web: DARPA MEMEX

deep web

From the DARPA website

Today’s web searches use a centralized, one-size-fits-all approach that searches the Internet with the same set of tools for all queries. While that model has been wildly successful commercially, it does not work well for many government use cases. For example, it still remains a largely manual process that does not save sessions, requires nearly exact input with one-at-a-time entry, and doesn’t organize or aggregate results beyond a list of links. Moreover, common search practices miss information in the deep web—the parts of the web not indexed by standard commercial search engines—and ignore shared content across pages.

To help overcome these challenges, DARPA has launched the Memex program. Memex seeks to develop the next generation of search technologies and revolutionize the discovery, organization and presentation of search results. The goal is for users to be able to extend the reach of current search capabilities and quickly and thoroughly organize subsets of information based on individual interests. Memex also aims to produce search results that are more immediately useful to specific domains and tasks, and to improve the ability of military, government and commercial enterprises to find and organize mission-critical publically available information on the Internet…

Initially, DARPA intends to develop Memex to address a key Defense Department mission: fighting human trafficking. Human trafficking is a factor in many types of military, law enforcement and intelligence investigations and has a significant web presence to attract customers. The use of forums, chats, advertisements, job postings, hidden services, etc., continues to enable a growing industry of modern slavery. An index curated for the counter-trafficking domain, along with configurable interfaces for search and analysis, would enable new opportunities to uncover and defeat trafficking enterprises.

The Memex program gets its name and inspiration from a hypothetical device described in “As We May Think,” a 1945 article for The Atlantic Monthly written by Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II. Envisioned as an analog computer to supplement human memory, the memex (a combination of “memory” and “index”) would store and automatically cross-reference all of the user’s books, records and other information.

Excerpt, MEMEX AIMS TO CREATE A NEW PARADIGM FOR DOMAIN-SPECIFIC SEARCH,  DARPA Website, February 09, 2014

The Nationalization of Internet: example 1

emergency switch at nuclear power plant Switzerland. Image from wikipedia

The Swiss government has ordered tighter security for its own computer and telephone systems that could block foreign companies from key technology and communications contracts.  The governing Federal Council’s decision Wednesday cited concerns about foreign spies targeting Switzerland.

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who worked for the CIA at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva from 2007 to 2009, has released documents indicating that large American and British IT companies cooperated with those countries’ intelligence services.According to a Swiss government statement, contracts for critical IT infrastructure will “where possible, only be given to companies that act exclusively according to Swiss law, where a majority of the ownership is in Switzerland and which provides all of its services from within Switzerland’s borders.”

Swiss govt tightens tech security over NSA spying, Associated Press, Feb. 5, 2014