Monthly Archives: March 2018

It’s the Democracy, Stupid

Cambridge Analytica, the UK political consultancy at the centre of Facebook’s election manipulation scandal, ran the campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections, according to video secretly recorded and broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 News.

The news channel said it mounted a “sting operation” in which it said had secretly recorded top Cambridge Analytica executives saying they could use bribes, former spies and Ukrainian sex workers to entrap politicians around the world.  The New York Times and the British Observer newspaper reported on Saturday that Cambridge Analytica had acquired private data harvested from more than 50 million Facebook users to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign. Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told Channel 4’s undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns to run the East African nation…

Turnbull of Cambridge Analytica said: “We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s political party, known as the National Alliance until 2016, and subsequently as the Jubilee Party…

At a prior meeting, Turnbull of Cambridge Analytica told the reporters: “Our job is to really drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else to understand what are these really deep-seated fears, concerns. “It is no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it is all about emotion.”  Cambridge Analytica officials were recorded saying they have used a web of shell companies to disguise their activities in elections in Mexico, Malaysia and Brazil, among various countries where they have worked to sway election outcomes.

Excerpts from Cambridge Analytica stage-managed Kenyan president’s campaigns – UK TV, Reuters, Mar. 19, 2018

The Trash Islands

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports on March 23, 2018, the mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about 1.6 million square kilometers in size — up to 16 times bigger than previous estimates. That makes it more than double the size of Texas.  Ghost nets, or discarded fishing nets, make up almost half the 80,000 metric tons of garbage floating at sea, and researchers believe that around 20% of the total volume of trash is debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The study — conducted by an international team of scientists with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company — utilized two aircraft surveys and 30 vessels to cross the debris field.

Along with nets to survey and collect trash, researchers used two six-meter-wide devices to measure medium to large-sized objects. An aircraft was also fitted with advanced sensors to collect 3D scans of the ocean garbage. They ended up collecting a total of 1.2 million plastic samples and scanned more than 300 square kilometers of ocean surface.  The bulk of the pile is made up of larger objects while only 8% of the mass is microplastics, or pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size.

The patch is so big that last fall environmentalists called on the United Nations to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a country, called “The Trash Isles,” complete with its own passport and currency, called debris…Research scientist Britta Denise Hardesty, who wasn’t involved in this study, said while discarded nets may make up almost half of the findings, the problem may be more nuanced.  It’s estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost to the marine environment each year.

Excerpts from A massive garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now three times the size of France, CNN, Mar. 24, 2017

Well blowouts and Pipeline breakdowns: Who Profits?

Deepwater Horizon rig, April 21, 2010 image from wikipedia

The global oil spill management market size is projected to grow beyond USD 125.62 billion by 2024. Growing incidents of oil spilling in the past along with severe safety and environmental policies are likely to propel the market over the forecast phase (2016-2024). Also, escalating pipeline and seaborne shipping of crude oil and chemicals could positively impact the market further.  The market is fragmented by technologies, techniques, applications, and regions. Technologies are Pre-oil spill and Post-oil spill. Pre-oil spill segment is divided into double-hull, pipeline, leak detection, blow-out preventers, and others. Double-hulling was the dominant segment in 2015 with highest shares.

Marine trade registers for a majority of petroleum products and natural gas transportation. Mounting demand for crude and petroleum products oil in Europe and Asia Pacific will boost the maritime trade growth further. Post-oil spill segments are mechanical, chemical, biological, and physical. Chemical and mechanical containment and recovery are the techniques used in the industry….In 2015, onshore post-oil spill sector was valued close to 60% of the total market demand. Regions such as Norway, U.S, Mexico, Canada, U.S., China, and Nigeria have observed well blowouts and occurrences of pipeline breakdowns. This could be accredited to huge market diffusion in past

Main regions in the market encompass North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa (MEA), and Central & South America. North America was the leading market for pre-oil spill management. It was estimated at 40.1% of total demand in 2015. This region will potentially face lucrative demand due to production activities and increasing oil & gas discovery. Pre-oil spill management shares in Asia Pacific will gain over USD 21,540 million by 2024…  Top companies in the global oil spill management market include OMI Environmental Solutions, Skim Oil Inc., American Green Ventures Inc., and Spill Response Services.

Excerpts from Global Oil Spill Management Market Size is Projected to Grow Beyond USD 125.62 Billion by 2024, Hexa Research Press Release, Mar. 17, 2018

Target Practice on Orangutans

Captive Orangutan image from wikipedia

Estimating the number of orangutans is difficult. Researchers have to extrapolate from the number of nests observed. (The apes build new ones to sleep in each night.) A new study published in Current Biology finds that the number of orangutans on Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, declined by some 148,000 between 1999 and 2015, leaving fewer than 100,000. Within the next 30 years, another 45,000 could disappear. The decline has been steepest, naturally, in areas where the jungle has been razed to plant palm-oil trees. But it is areas that are still forested that account for most of the fall in the orangutan population. This suggests that hunting and crueller activities—carcasses have been found maimed and riddled with airgun pellets—are also taking a bloody toll, says one of the study’s authors, Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute, a research organisation in Germany…

Local officials still push for more palm-oil plantations, mines and roads. But tourism in Sumatra’s Gunung-Leuser National Park shows the value of leaving the jungle, and its inhabitants, alone. A night and two days of climbing and crawling in search of orangutans can cost a visitor around $100…Eco-tourism can benefit orangutans, too, if controlled. But tourists often get too close to the animals, risking the transmission of disease, or leave rubbish in the forest…

Excerpts from Orangutans: Money Swinging from Trees, Economost, Feb. 24, at 2018, at 30

The Balding Forests of Australia

Most deforestation takes place in poor countries. In richer places, trees tend to multiply. Australia is an unhappy exception. Land clearance is rampant along its eastern coast, as farmers take advantage of lax laws to make room for cattle to feed Asia. WWF, a charity, now ranks Australia alongside Borneo and the Congo Basin as one of the world’s 11 worst “fronts” for deforestation.

The worst damage occurs in the north-eastern state of Queensland, which has more trees left to fell than places to the south, where agriculture is more established… Its bulldozers are at present busier than they have been for a decade. They erased 395,000 hectares of forest, including huge tracts of ancient vegetation, between 2015 and 2016—the equivalent of 1,000 rugby pitches a day. As a share of its forested area, Queensland is mowing down trees twice as fast as Brazil.

Australia has lost almost half its native forest since British colonialists arrived, and much of what remains is degraded. For a time, it seemed that the clear-cutting might come to an end: in the early 2000s several state governments passed bills to reduce deforestation. But in the past decade these have been wound back in every state. Queensland’s land clearance has more than doubled since conservatives loosened its forestry law in 2013, allowing farmers to “thin” trees by up to 75% without a permit. Neighbouring New South Wales recently enacted a similar rule.

Conservationists blame powerful agricultural lobbies. These retort that controls on land clearance push up food prices and cost jobs. Family farmers lament that trees obstruct the big machinery needed to keep their land productive. … In 2014 a landowner in New South Wales murdered an environment officer who was investigating illegal bulldozing. (Authorities in the state are examining at least 300 cases of illegal tree-clearing.)

Yet clearing land eventually hurts farmers too because, without trees, soil erodes and grows saltier. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, spurring global warming, and reduces regional rainfall…. Loss of habitat has brought many species, including the koala, to the brink of extinction.

Chainsaw massacre: Deforestation in Australia, Economist, Feb. 24, 2018

Needed: The Prefect Crystal Ball for Gray War

The activity, hostile action that falls short of–but often precedes–violence, is sometimes referred to as gray zone warfare, the ‘zone’ being a sort of liminal state in between peace and war. The actors that work in it are difficult to identify and their aims hard to predict, by design…

Dubbed COMPASS, the new program will “leverage advanced artificial intelligence technologies, game theory, and modeling and estimation to both identify stimuli that yield the most information about an adversary’s intentions, and provide decision makers high-fidelity intelligence on how to respond–-with positive and negative tradeoffs for each course of action,” according to a DARPA notice posted on March 14, 2018.

Teaching software to understand and interpret human intention — a task sometimes called “plan recognition” …has advanced as quickly as the spread of computers and the internet, because all three are intimately linked.

From Amazon to Google to Facebook, the world’s top tech companies are pouring money into probabilistic modeling of user behavior, as part of a constant race to keep from losing users to sites that can better predict what they want. A user’s every click, “like,” and even period of inactivity adds to the companies’ almost unimaginably large sets, and new  machine learning and statistical techniques make it easier than ever to use the information to predict what a given user will do next on a given site.

But inferring a user’s next Amazon purchase (based on data that user has volunteered about previous choices, likes, etc.) is altogether different from predicting how an adversary intends to engage in political or unconventional warfare. So the COMPASS program seeks to use video, text, and other pieces of intelligence that are a lot harder to get than shopping-cart data…

Unlike shopping, the analytical tricks that apply to one gray-zone adversary won’t work on another. “History has shown that no two [unconventional warfare] situations or solutions are identical, thus rendering cookie-cutter responses not only meaningless but also often counterproductive,” wrote Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command, in his seminal 2016 treatise on gray zone warfare.

Exceprts from The Pentagon Wants AI To Reveal Adversaries’ True Intention, www.govexec.com, Mar. 17, 2018

The Scramble for Maldives: US/India v. China

The Maldives archipelago, popular among luxury honeymooners, has become a playing field for geostrategic rivalry as China expands its influence in the Indian Ocean and the U.S. and India push back.

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who has steadily swung his country toward Beijing and away from traditional partner New Delhi, has imposed a state of emergency, jailed opponents and clamped down on protests to weaken his opposition, which is led by pro-India ex-President Mohamed Nasheed.

India and the U.S. don’t want Beijing, already dominant in the South China Sea, to entrench itself in these waters. The island nation sits astride shipping lanes that connect China to the oil-supplying countries of the Middle East, via the Strait of Malacca. The location also makes the Maldives vital to Beijing’s Belt and Road plan to develop land and sea trading routes linking China to Europe.

Chinese President Xi Jinping won Mr. Gayoom’s support for the project’s maritime corridor on a visit to the Maldives in 2014, and China began investing in island infrastructure. A Chinese bridge now under construction will connect the capital city, Malé, to a nearby island where its airport is located. A Chinese company is expanding the airport; another has leased an island close by for development. Chinese contractors are building roads and housing units for locals.

Many in the Maldives opposition have raised concerns that Chinese infrastructure loans will turn into “debt traps,” particularly after a major Chinese-financed port in neighboring Sri Lanka passed into Chinese control last year when Colombo couldn’t repay.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson…called China’s infrastructure-financing deals an example of “predatory economics” that saddle developing countries with unsustainable debt and could undercut their sovereignty.  Mr. Gayoom steered a constitutional amendment through parliament in 2015 allowing foreigners to own land, a change the government said was meant to attract investment and critics in the country said could help Beijing establish a military foothold.

In recent years, China has built a naval base in Djibouti in East Africa; in addition to the port in Sri Lanka, it operates one in Pakistan. A senior Indian navy officer said Chinese submarines and research vessels are visiting the Indian Ocean more frequently.

The Indian military deploys aircraft specialized in anti-submarine warfare to patrol the ocean, and its government is negotiating the purchase of U.S. drones with advanced surveillance features. India also plans to build new attack submarines, and a military upgrade is afoot in its Andaman and Nicobar Islands, whose capital is around 1,200 nautical miles from Malé.

Excerpts from China-India Rivarly Plays out in Maldives, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 6, 2019