Monthly Archives: June 2016

Vaquita and Totoaba–endangered fish as delicacy

fish bladder factory californa

The most recent estimate puts the remaining numbers of vaquita, a porpoise found only in the waters of the Sea of Cortés, Mexico, at just 60, down from 100 two years ago…. The vaquita has been a victim of the shrimp and totoaba fisheries, showing up as bycatch in gillnets.

The totoaba is also an endangered species but its swim bladder is a delicacy in China, selling for as much as US $5,000 per kilogram in the U.S. and a great deal more in China. The matter has been taken up by Agriculture Secretary José Calzada Rovirosa with Chinese officials in an effort to stop the illegal consumption of the bladders.  Vaquitas are not only being killed by totoaba fishing. When illegal fishermen are pursued by the Mexican Navy, they often cut their nets and set them adrift, becoming an additional threat to the porpoise.

Removing these “ghost nets” will be one of the steps taken before the implementation of an assisted breeding program, said marine mammal expert Lorenzo Rojas Bracho from the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

There are doubts about the feasibility of a breeding program as well as concerns about the risk. “We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said vaquita expert Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Excerpt from Assisted breeding for endangered vaquita?, Mexco News Daily, June 28, 2016

Congested and Scary–How to Make Space Friendly for Military Use

asteroid ida wth its own moon. image from wikipedia

From the DARPA website

The volume of Earth’s operational space domain is hundreds of thousands times larger than the Earth’s oceans. It contains thousands of objects hurtling at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The scales and speeds in this extreme environment are difficult enough to grasp conceptually, let alone operationally, as is required for commanders overseeing the nation’s increasingly critical space assets.

Current [US] space domain awareness tools and technologies were developed when there were many fewer objects in space. Only a few nations could even place satellites in orbit, and those orbits were easily predictable without advanced software tools. That situation has changed dramatically in the past decade with a developing space industry flooding once lonely orbits with volleys of satellite constellations. Despite this much more complex and chaotic environment, commanders with responsibility for space domain awareness often rely on outdated tools and processes—and thus incomplete information—as they plan, assess, and execute U.S. military operations in space.

To help address these technical and strategic challenges, DARPA is launching the first of two planned efforts under the Agency’s new Hallmark program, which has the overarching goal to provide breakthrough capabilities in U.S. space command and control. This first effort, the Hallmark Software Testbed (Hallmark-ST), has as its primary goal the creation of an advanced enterprise software architecture for a testbed for tools that will integrate a full spectrum of real-time space-domain systems and capabilities. The testbed would be used to expedite the creation and assessment of a comprehensive set of new and improved tools and technologies that could be spun off into near-term operational use for the Defense Department’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) and Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC).

“For example, an intuitive user interface incorporating 3-D visualization technology would present complex information in novel ways and provide commanders with unprecedented awareness and comprehension. An advanced testbed featuring playback and simulation capabilities would significantly facilitate research and development activities, experiments, and exercises to evaluate new technologies for their impact on space command and control capabilities.”

The enterprise architecture would be the backbone of a long-term testbed, the Hallmark Space Evaluation and Analysis Capability (SEAC), anticipated to be located in Northern Virginia.

Excerpts from Hallmark Envisions Real-Time Space Command and Control,  www. darpa. mil, June 17, 2016

See alsoHallmark Software Testbed (Hallmark-ST)/Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-40, June 17, 2016 Federal Business Opportunities

Creating an Army of Virtual Data Scientists

big data. image from wikipedia

Popular search engines are great at finding answers for point-of-fact questions like the elevation of Mount Everest or current movies running at local theaters. They are not, however, very good at answering what-if or predictive questions—questions that depend on multiple variables, such as “What influences the stock market?” or “What are the major drivers of environmental stability?” In many cases that shortcoming is not for lack of relevant data. Rather, what’s missing are empirical models of complex processes that influence the behavior and impact of those data elements. In a world in which scientists, policymakers and others are awash in data, the inability to construct reliable models that can deliver insights from that raw information has become an acute limitation for planners.

To free researchers from the tedium and limits of having to design their own empirical models, DARPA today launched its Data-Driven Discovery of Models (D3M) program. The goal of D3M is to help overcome the data-science expertise gap by enabling non-experts to construct complex empirical models through automation of large parts of the model-creation process. If successful, researchers using D3M tools will effectively have access to an army of “virtual data scientists.”..

“We have an urgent need to develop machine-based modeling for users with no data-science background. We believe it’s possible to automate certain aspects of data science, and specifically to have machines learn from prior example how to construct new models.”..

Some experts project deficits of 140,000 to 190,000 data scientists worldwide in 2016 alone, and increasing shortfalls in coming years. Also, because the process to build empirical models is so manual, their relative sophistication and value is often limited.

Excerpts from DARPA Goes “Meta” with Machine Learning for Machine Learning Data-Driven Discovery of Models (D3M) seeks to increase pace of scientific discovery and improve military planning, logistics and intelligence outcomes,  DARPA Website, June 17, 2016

Private Rhino Parks and the US Military

US army soldiers fir a FGM-148 Javelin, 2006. image from wikipedia

A group of American military veterans plans to train rangers at private wildlife farms and reserves in South Africa where rhino poachers have been active.The US military publication, Stars and Stripes, reports that the “small conservation group Vetpaw had previously operated in Tanzania but was ordered to leave, partly because of a video in which a member spoke about killing poachers”.Former US Marine and head of Vetpaw, Ryan Tate, said the member did not speak for the organisation and since the incident he has sought to rebrand Vetpaw.

The name is an acronym of “Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife” and the organisation has as its aim employment for skilled post 9/11 US military veterans….The majority of Vetpaw members have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq...They plan to offer training including marksmanship, field medicine and manoeuvring at night. “People are desperate and want to try any and everything they can,” Peaton told the publication in reference of owners and operators of “private wildlife parks” that lack the resources State-run parks receive.

Earlier this month Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa met with the Private Rhino owners Association (PROA) to discuss rhino conservation in South Africa.PROA said rhino poaching had had “a detrimental effect” on private reserves which held more than a third of South Africa’s total rhino population.

Last week suspected poachers shot and killed a ranger at a private reserve in Bel-Bela before killing a rhino for its horn.Earlier this week two Kruger National Park field rangers were arrested on suspicion of involvement in rhino poaching activities.

US military veterans coming to help in the fight against rhino poaching,  defenceWeb,  June  22, 2016

America Inc. and its Moat

moat

Warren Buffett, the 21st century’s best-known investor, extols firms that have a “moat” around them—a barrier that offers stability and pricing power.One way American firms have improved their moats in recent times is through creeping consolidation. The Economist has divided the economy into 900-odd sectors covered by America’s five-yearly economic census. Two-thirds of them became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012 (see charts 2 and 3). The weighted average share of the top four firms in each sector has risen from 26% to 32%…

These data make it possible to distinguish between sectors of the economy that are fragmented, concentrated or oligopolistic, and to look at how revenues have fared in each case. Revenues in fragmented industries—those in which the biggest four firms together control less than a third of the market—dropped from 72% of the total in 1997 to 58% in 2012. Concentrated industries, in which the top four firms control between a third and two-thirds of the market, have seen their share of revenues rise from 24% to 33%. And just under a tenth of the activity takes place in industries in which the top four firms control two-thirds or more of sales. This oligopolistic corner of the economy includes niche concerns—dog food, batteries and coffins—but also telecoms, pharmacies and credit cards.

The ability of big firms to influence and navigate an ever-expanding rule book may explain why the rate of small-company creation in America is close to its lowest mark since the 1970s … Small firms normally lack both the working capital needed to deal with red tape and long court cases, and the lobbying power that would bend rules to their purposes….

Another factor that may have made profits stickier is the growing clout of giant institutional shareholders such as BlackRock, State Street and Capital Group. Together they own 10-20% of most American companies, including ones that compete with each other. Claims that they rig things seem far-fetched, particularly since many of these funds are index trackers; their decisions as to what to buy and sell are made for them. But they may well set the tone, for example by demanding that chief executives remain disciplined about pricing and restraining investment in new capacity. The overall effect could mute competition.

The cable television industry has become more tightly controlled, and many Americans rely on a monopoly provider; prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past five years. Consolidation in one of Mr Buffett’s favourite industries, railroads, has seen freight prices rise by 40% in real terms and returns on capital almost double since 2004. The proposed merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont, announced last December, illustrates the trend to concentration. //

Roughly another quarter of abnormal profits comes from the health-care industry, where a cohort of pharmaceutical and medical-equipment firms make aggregate returns on capital of 20-50%. The industry is riddled with special interests and is governed by patent rules that allow firms temporary monopolies on innovative new drugs and inventions. Much of health-care purchasing in America is ultimately controlled by insurance firms. Four of the largest, Anthem, Cigna, Aetna and Humana, are planning to merge into two larger firms.

The rest of the abnormal profits are to be found in the technology sector, where firms such as Google and Facebook enjoy market shares of 40% or more

But many of these arguments can be spun the other way. Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon are not being valued by investors as if they are high risk, but as if their market shares are sustainable and their network effects and accumulation of data will eventually allow them to reap monopoly-style profits. (Alphabet is now among the biggest lobbyists of any firm, spending $17m last year.)…

Perhaps antitrust regulators will act, forcing profits down. The relevant responsibilities are mostly divided between the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), although some …[But]Lots of important subjects are beyond their purview. They cannot consider whether the length and security of patents is excessive in an age when intellectual property is so important. They may not dwell deeply on whether the business model of large technology platforms such as Google has a long-term dependence on the monopoly rents that could come from its vast and irreproducible stash of data. They can only touch upon whether outlandishly large institutional shareholders with positions in almost all firms can implicitly guide them not to compete head on; or on why small firms seem to be struggling. Their purpose is to police illegal conduct, not reimagine the world. They lack scope.

Nowhere has the alternative approach been articulated. It would aim to unleash a burst of competition to shake up the comfortable incumbents of America Inc. It would involve a serious effort to remove the red tape and occupational-licensing schemes that strangle small businesses and deter new entrants. It would examine a loosening of the rules that give too much protection to some intellectual-property rights. It would involve more active, albeit cruder, antitrust actions. It would start a more serious conversation about whether it makes sense to have most of the country’s data in the hands of a few very large firms. It would revisit the entire issue of corporate lobbying, which has become a key mechanism by which incumbent firms protect themselves.

Excerpts from Too Much of a Good Thing, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016, at 23

How to Reincarnate E-Waste

In the electronics recycling business, the benchmark is to try to collect and recycle 70 percent, by weight, of the devices produced seven years earlier…. Apple exceeds that, typically reaching 85 percent, including recycling some non-Apple products that customers bring in.

That means Apple will have to get hold of and destroy the equivalent of more than 9 million of 2009’s iPhone 3GS models this year around the world. With iPhone sales climbing to 155 million units in 2015, grinding up Apple products is a growth business.  Apple said it collected more than 40,000 tons of e-waste in 2014 from recycled devices, including enough steel to build 100 miles of railway track.

Brightstar Corp., based in Miami, Florida, TES-AMM in Singapore, Hong-Kong’s Li Tong and Foxconn Technology Group, the most famous manufacturer of iPhones, are part of a global network of recyclers that agreed to more than 50 rules, ranging from security, to insurance, to auditing, in the destruction of the phones.

The process starts at hundreds of Apple stores globally, or online, where the company offers gift certificates to lure iPhone owners to sell back their devices….Once Apple’s partners decide a phone must be scrapped, a deconstruction process begins that is remarkably similar to Apple’s production model, only in reverse.

Apple pays for the service and owns every gram, from the used phone at the start to the pile of dust at the end, said Linda Li, chief strategy officer for Li Tong. The journey, consisting of about 10 steps, is controlled, measured and scripted through vacuum-sealed rooms that are designed to capture 100 percent of the chemicals and gasses released during the process, she said…

While some brands salvage components such as chips that can be used to repair faulty phones, Apple has a full-destruction policy.“Shredding components takes more energy than repurposing,” Li said. Li Tong works with other customers to advise on how to design products that are easier to deconstruct, taking cameras from smartphones for reuse in toy drones, and adapting screens from Microsoft Surface tablets to use in New York taxis, she said.  Apple shreds its devices to avoid having fake Apple products appearing on the secondary market.

And once it’s ground into shreds, what becomes of your old iPhone? Hazardous waste is stored at a licensed facility and the recycling partners can take a commission on other extracted materials such as gold and copper. The rest is reincarnated as aluminum window frames and furniture, or glass tiles.

Where iPhones Go To Die ( and Be Reborn), Bloomberg,  Mar. 13, 2016

For Money and the State: the internet

internet advertising. image from wikipedia

Rarely has a manifesto been so wrong. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, written 20 years ago by John Perry Barlow, a digital civil-libertarian, begins thus: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

At the turn of the century, it seemed as though this techno-Utopian vision of the world could indeed be a reality. It didn’t last… Autocratic governments around the world…have invested in online-surveillance gear. Filtering systems restrict access: to porn in Britain, to Facebook and Google in China, to dissent in Russia.

Competing operating systems and networks offer inducements to keep their users within the fold, consolidating their power. Their algorithms personalise the web so that no two people get the same search results or social media feeds, betraying the idea of a digital commons. Five companies account for nearly two-thirds of revenue from advertising, the dominant business model of the web.

The open internet accounts for barely 20% of the entire web. The rest of it is hidden away in unsearchable “walled gardens” such as Facebook, whose algorithms are opaque, or on the “dark web”, a shady parallel world wide web. Data gathered from the activities of internet users are being concentrated in fewer hands. And big hands they are too. BCG, a consultancy, reckons that the internet will account for 5.3% of GDP of the world’s 20 big economies this year, or $4.2 trillion.

How did this come to pass? The simple reply is that the free, open, democratic internet dreamed up by the optimists of Silicon Valley was never more than a brief interlude. The more nuanced answer is that the open internet never really existed.

[T]e internet, it was developed “by the US military to serve US military purposes”… The decentralised, packet-based system of communication that forms the basis of the internet originated in America’s need to withstand a massive attack on its soil. Even the much-ballyhooed Silicon Valley model of venture capital as a way to place bets on risky new businesses has military origins.

In the 1980s the American military began to lose interest in the internet…. The time had come for the hackers and geeks who had been experimenting with early computers and phone lines.  Today they are the giants. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—together with some telecoms operators—help set policy in Europe and America on everything from privacy rights and copyright law to child protection and national security. As these companies grow more powerful, the state is pushing back…

The other big risk is that the tension between states and companies resolves into a symbiotic relationship. A leaked e-mail shows a Google executive communicating with Hillary Clinton’s state department about an online tool that would be “important in encouraging more [Syrians] to defect and giving confidence to the opposition.”+++ If technology firms with global reach quietly promote the foreign-policy interests of one country, that can only increase suspicion and accelerate the fracturing of the web into regional internets….

Mr Malcomson describes the internet as a “global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system”.

Excerpts from Evolution of the internet: Growing up, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016

+++The email said Google would be “partnering with Al Jazeera” who would take “primary ownership” of the tool, maintaining it and publicizing it in Syria.  It was eventually published by Al Jazeera in English and Arabic.