Monthly Archives: February 2014

Saving the Elephant: $300 Million

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

Your Biosignature and the Military

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

Living with Nuclear Waste: New Mexico

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

Where? to Place Fukushima Nuclear Waste

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’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 Nigeria v. 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

 

The Malaria Experiment at 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

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 9, 2014

The Nationalization of Internet

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

A Global Criminal Court Only for Africa

The International Criminal Court is to decide whether to suspend its trial of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta because of a lack of cooperation by Kenyan authorities.  Judges said they would hold a hearing in the coming weeks on a possible reprimand for Kenya after prosecutors told the court on Wednesday that “pure obstructionism” was wrecking any chance of pursuing Kenyatta on charges that he orchestrated post-election violence six years ago.

The case is a test of the authority and credibility of the Western-backed court, which has seen several cases collapse, secured just one conviction in 11 years, and prompted bitter complaints from Africa that it is being singled out as a soft target.  The case against Kenyatta has been undermined by the withdrawal of a string of witnesses who prosecutors say have been intimidated or blackmailed, as well as other failures to secure documentary evidence.

In a January 31 court filing, prosecutors said a “climate of fear” had weakened their case and that judges should rule that Kenya was in breach of its obligation to help investigators.  They told the court they needed access to Kenyatta’s financial records, among other things, to see whether he had indirectly paid large sums of money to the perpetrators of the violence, in which 1,200 people died and thousands were driven from their homes.

Kenyatta, who is head of both state and government, denies the charge of crimes against humanity. His lawyers say the prosecution is now merely trying to blame Kenya for its own failure to build a case…

While Western powers led the push to establish the court and are keen to support it, they are also anxious to maintain relations with Kenya, seen as a key ally in the battle against militant Islamism in neighboring Somalia.The case grew more controversial throughout Africa after Kenyatta, the son of his country’s founder, won last year’s presidential election on a joint ticket with William Ruto, his deputy, who is on trial on similar but separate charges.  Kenya says the court risks destabilizing east Africa if it presses on with the charges.

Excerpt, BY THOMAS ESCRITT, Court to decide whether to suspend Kenyatta trial over “obstructionism”, Reuters, Feb. 6, 2014

Conservation Drones Against Poachers

A South African foundation on Wednesday received a 232.2-million-rand (about 21-million-U.S.- dollar) grant for combatting unchecked rhino poaching in Southern Africa.  The grant was donated to Peace Parks Foundation from the Dutch and Swedish Postcode Lotteries. Of the total donation, 217 million rands (about 19 million dollars) came from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, while 15.2 million rands (about 13.7 million dollars) was contributed by the Swedish Postcode Lottery.

“This is the largest single contribution made by the private sector to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime. We welcome this public-private partnership to help ensure the survival of the species,” South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa said.

The South African government and its public entities—South African National Parks (SANParks) and Ezemvelo KZN (KwaZulu-Natal) Wildlife (Ezemvelo), are working closely with Peace Parks Foundation to develop a multi-pronged approach to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime, the minister said.

The main focus will be the devaluation of the horns of live rhino, through a combination of methods, including the physical devaluation and contamination of the horn, as well as the use of tracking and monitoring technology…In particular, the emphasis will be on intelligence gathering and on technology applications such as conservation drones and other specialist equipment. It will also include training and capacity building, as well as incentives and rewards for rangers, communities and members of the public who support the conservation of rhino…The Peace Parks Foundation was established in 1997 to assist the region’s governments in their development of transfrontier conservation areas.

South African foundation receives multi-million-dollar grant for fighting rhino poaching, Xinhua, Feb. 8, 2014

Nowhere to Hide: Panopticon Satellites

From the DARPA website: DARPA’s Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program aims to create technologies that would enable future high-resolution orbital telescopes to provide real-time video and images of the Earth from Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)—roughly 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface. Size and cost constraints have so far prevented placing large-scale imaging satellites in GEO, so MOIRE is developing technologies that would make orbital telescopes much lighter, more transportable and more cost-effective.

Currently in its second and final phase, the program recently successfully demonstrated a ground-based prototype that incorporated several critical technologies, including new lightweight polymer membrane optics to replace glass mirrors. Membrane optics traditionally have been too inefficient to use in telescope optics. MOIRE has achieved a technological first for membrane optics by nearly doubling their efficiency, from 30 percent to 55 percent. The improved efficiency enabled MOIRE to take the first images ever with membrane optics.

While the membrane is less efficient than glass, which is nearly 90 percent efficient, its much lighter weight enables creating larger lenses that more than make up the difference. The membrane is also substantially lighter than glass. Based on the performance of the prototype, a new system incorporating MOIRE optics would come in at roughly one-seventh the weight of a traditional system of the same resolution and mass. As a proof of concept, the MOIRE prototype validates membrane optics as a viable technology for orbital telescopes.

“Membrane optics could enable us to fit much larger, higher-resolution telescopes in smaller and lighter packages,” said Lt. Col. Larry Gunn, DARPA program manager. “In that respect, we’re ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ that traditional materials impose on optics design. We’re hoping our research could also help greatly reduce overall costs and enable more timely deployment using smaller, less expensive launch vehicles.”

Instead of reflecting light with mirrors or refracting it with lenses, MOIRE’s membrane optics diffract light. Roughly the thickness of household plastic wrap, each membrane serves as a Fresnel lens—it is etched with circular concentric grooves like microscopically thin tree rings, with the grooves hundreds of microns across at the center down to only 4 microns at the outside edge. The diffractive pattern focuses light on a sensor that the satellite translates into an image.

MOIRE technology houses the membranes in thin metal “petals” that would launch in a tightly packed configuration roughly 20 feet in diameter. Upon reaching its destination orbit, a satellite would then unfold the petals to create the full-size multi-lens optics. The envisioned diameter of 20 meters (about 68 feet) would be the largest telescope optics ever made and dwarf the glass mirrors contained in the world’s most famous telescopes.

From GEO, it is believed, a satellite using MOIRE optics could see approximately 40 percent of the earth’s surface at once. The satellite would be able to focus on a 10 km-by-10 km area at 1-meter resolution, and provide real-time video at 1 frame per second.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is the prime contractor for the MOIRE program.

Vanishing Electronics: Military

What are VANISHING PROGRAMMABLE RESOURCES (VAPR)?  From the DARPA website

What if these electronics simply disappeared when no longer needed? DARPA announces the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program with the aim of revolutionizing the state of the art in transient electronics or electronics capable of dissolving into the environment around them. Transient electronics developed under VAPR should maintain the current functionality and ruggedness of conventional electronics, but, when triggered, be able to degrade partially or completely into their surroundings. Once triggered to dissolve, these electronics would be useless to any enemy who might come across them.

The Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner. These transient electronics should have performance comparable to commercial-off-the-shelf electronics, but with limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real-time, triggered, and/or be sensitive to the deployment environment.  VAPR seeks to enable transient electronics as a deployable technology. To achieve this goal, researchers are pursuing new concepts and capabilities to enable the materials, components, integration, and manufacturing that will realize this new class of electronics.

Transient electronics may enable a number of revolutionary military capabilities including sensors for conventional indoor/outdoor environments, environmental monitoring over large areas, and simplified diagnosis, treatment, and health monitoring in the field. Large-area distributed networks of sensors that can decompose in the natural environment (ecoresorbable) may provide critical data for a specified duration, but no longer. Alternatively, devices that resorb into the body (bioresorbable) may aid in continuous health monitoring and treatment in the field.

Companies involved IBM: IBM plans is to utilize the property of strained glass substrates to shatter as the driving force to reduce attached CMOS chips into Si and SiO2 powder.

BAE Systems

Saudi Arabia Not Happy Iraq Gets Drones

The report that America’s drone war has assumed frightening proportions under President Barack Obama should surprise no one. It took only three days for the new commander-in-chief to order his first covert drone strike.  On Jan. 23, 2009, a CIA drone flattened a house in Pakistan’s tribal region. At least nine civilians died, most of them from one family. The lone survivor, a 14-year-old boy, had shrapnel wounds in his stomach and a fractured skull. He lost one eye. Later that day, the CIA leveled another house killing between five and ten people

A week after Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, a missile slammed into a hamlet in Yemen, hitting one of the poorest tribes in the poorest country in Arabian Peninsula. At least 41 civilians were killed, including 21 children and five pregnant women.  Not only has the number of drone strikes and the resulting civilian casualties increased under Obama’s watch, but he has also widened the scope of the drone war to include new countries like Yemen and Somalia. Missile strikes from unmanned drones killing unmentionable numbers of people are now the crucial component of America’s war on terror. Across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the Obama administration has launched more than 390 drone strikes in the five years since the first attack On Jan. 23, 2009 – eight times as many as were launched in the entire Bush presidency. These strikes have killed more than 2,400 people, overwhelming majority of them civilians…

A convoy taking a Yemeni bride to her wedding came under attack on Dec. 12, 2013 causing the biggest single loss of civilian life from a US strike for more than a year in that country. President Bush ordered a single drone strike in Yemen, killing six people in 2002. Under Obama, the CIA and the Pentagon have launched at least 58 drone strikes on the country killing more than 281 people, including at least 24 civilians.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on Dec. 18, 2013 calling on states using drone strikes as a counterterrorism measure to comply with their obligations under international law and the UN Charter. Amnesty International released a report on Oct. 22, 2013 raising serious concerns about several recent drone strikes that appear to have killed civilians outside the bounds of the law. Pakistan High Court Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan issued a ruling on May 9, 2013 declaring the ongoing US drone strikes against tribal areas illegal under international law and saying they amount to “war crimes” when they kill innocents.

But rather than addressing such global concerns, the Obama administration is sending drones to Iraq, adding a sinister dimension to the sectarian strife there. The Iraqi government will get 48 drones this month and 10 surveillance drones in upcoming weeks.

Drone deaths on the rise, Saudi Gazette,  Jan 27, 2014

Organized Crime: rhino horn to waste dumping

[A]ccording to America’s Congressional Research Services,  illegal trade
in endangered wildlife products is worth as much as $133 billion annually. Commodities such as rhino horn and caviar offer criminals two benefits rarely found together: high prices and low risk. Rhino horn can fetch up to $50,000 per kilogram, more than gold or the American street value of cocaine. Get caught bringing a kilogram of cocaine into America and you could face 40 years in prison and a $5m fine. On January 10th, by contrast, a New York court sentenced a rhino-horn trafficker to just 14 months…Organised crime is globalising and diversifying. Mono-ethnic, hierarchical mafias are being replaced by multi-ethnic networks that operate across borders and commit many types of offence. In an ongoing investigation into rhino-horn trafficking, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) arrested Irish travellers using indigent Texans to procure material for Chinese and Vietnamese buyers. Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, estimates that just a quarter of Europe’s roughly 3,600 organised-crime groups have a main nationality, and that some operate in dozens of countries. A third are involved in more than one criminal enterprise, with half of those linked to drug-trafficking.

And though traditional trafficking in drugs, guns and people is still lucrative, gangs are increasingly moving into lower-risk, higher-reward areas—not just wildlife, but fraud and illegal waste-disposal….Gangs in Britain make around £9 billion ($14.8 billion) a year from tax, benefit, excise-duty and other fraud—not much less than the £11 billion they earn from drugs. In America cigarette-trafficking deprives state, local and federal governments of $5 billion in tax revenues annually. The European Union estimates that losses within its borders from cigarette smuggling, tax fraud and false claims on its funds by organised groups total €34 billion ($46.5 billion) a year. But member states bring fewer than ten cases each a year for defrauding the EU, and sentences tend to be light.

According to the FLARE Network, an international group of campaigners against organised crime, criminal groups in Italy make around €14 billion a year from being mixed up in agriculture. In some parts of the country mafias control food production and distribution; Franco La Torre, FLARE’s president, says they also enrich themselves through fraudulent claims on EU agricultural funds. Increasingly strict regulation of waste disposal has created another profitable opportunity for organised crime in Europe—particularly, according to Europol, for the Italian Camorra, ’Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra…

Old-style loan sharks and drug-dealers are finding a new role as distributors for the modern mobsters who manage the supply chains, marketing, finance and human resources needed to move goods, money and people across borders. “The new generation are very talented businessmen and technologically advanced experts,” says Mr La Torre. They prefer invisibility to showy violence. Many also have legitimate business interests.  Clever criminals acting across borders are extremely difficult to prosecute. They profit from gaps in enforcement and regulation, and conceal their illegal acts in complex supply chains. If a network of Nigerian scammers based in Amsterdam defrauds French, Australian and American credit-card holders, where does the crime occur? And who has the motivation, not to mention the jurisdiction, to prosecute?

A commodity such as oil, ivory or fish will be transported on a ship flying a flag of convenience, explains Mr Leggett. The ship will be owned by a holding company registered in a tax haven with a phoney board. Thus the criminals can disguise the provenance of their ill-gotten goods and middlemen can plead ignorance….

Until then, illicit goods will keep coming in quantities too great for governments to stop. One FWS inspector estimates that for all the peering, prodding and chirping, for all the rewards promised and rhino-horn traffickers caught, the agency picks up perhaps 5% of wildlife brought illicitly into America. For criminals, that is merely a light tax on the profits from the rest.

Excerpts, Organised crime: Earning with the fish,Economist, Jan. 18, 2014, at 59

Watering Down Banking Regulations

“It was always the French and the Germans,” grumbles a senior financial regulator, blaming counterparts from those two countries for undermining international efforts to increase capital ratios for banks. Every time the Basel committee, a grouping of the world’s bank supervisors, neared agreement on a higher standard, he says, a phone call from the Chancellery in Berlin or the Trésor in Paris would send everyone back to the table.

Similar phone calls almost certainly inspired the committee’s decision on January 12th to water down a proposed new “leverage ratio” for banks. It had originally suggested obliging banks to hold equity (the loss-absorbing capital put up by investors) of at least 3% of assets. In theory, that standard will still apply. But the committee came up with various revisions to how the ratio is to be calculated, in effect making it less exacting.

The new rule will allow banks to offset some derivatives against one another and to exclude some assets from the calculation altogether, thus making their exposure seem smaller. Analysts at Barclays characterised it as a “substantial loosening”. Citibank called it “significant regulatory forbearance”. Shares in big European banks such as Barclays and Deutsche Bank surged to their highest level in nearly three years on the news.

Leverage ratios have their critics—even outside overleveraged banks. They contend that leverage is a crude and antiquated measure of risk compared with the practice of weighting assets by the likelihood of making losses on them, and calculating the required cushion of equity accordingly. The chances of losing money on a German government bond, the argument runs, are much smaller than they are on a car loan; but a simple leverage ratio makes no distinction between the two. As a result, leverage ratios might actually encourage banks to buy riskier assets, in the hope of increasing returns to shareholders. Officials at Germany’s central bank, for instance, have argued that a binding leverage ratio “punishes low-risk business models, and it favours high-risk businesses.

”Bankers also claim that tough leverage requirements risk stemming the flow of credit to the economy, as banks shrink their balance-sheets to comply. BNP Paribas, a French bank, says this would particularly disadvantage European banks because they do not tend to sell on as many of their home loans as American ones. The full extent of the new change is difficult to gauge, partly because there is still some uncertainty surrounding the rules. Yet a rough calculation suggests that they have been loosened just enough to allow most big European banks to pass the 3% test. Without the committee’s help as many as three-quarters of Europe’s big banks might have failed the test (see chart).

A detailed analysis by Kian Abouhossein of J.P. Morgan Cazenove, an investment bank, suggests that under the old rules big European banks may have had to raise as much as €70 billion ($95 billion) to get their leverage ratios to 3.5%, which is far enough above the minimum for comfort. Yet the new rules alone may improve big European banks’ leverage ratios by 0.2-0.5 percentage points compared with the previous ones, he reckons—enough for most to avoid raising new capital.

That does not mean banks will be able to shrug off the new leverage ratio entirely. Simon Samuels, an analyst at Barclays, expects it will prompt some European investment banks to reconsider their strategies. Some may have to cut lines of business and reduce their assets. That hints at the potency the measure could have had, if the regulators had allowed it.

Leverage ratios: Leavened, Economist,  Jan 18, 2014, t 72

The Slow Death of Rhino: South Africa

The Kruger National Park’s rhino population remains under heavy threat from poachers with no less than 63 carcasses found in the world famous game reserve in the first 30 days of the year…This equates to a national kill rate of 2.8 animals a day at the start of the year while arrests in connection with poaching stand at 21 for the first 30 days of the year…One of these gaps is widely seen to be the ease with which poachers come into and leave South Africa from particularly Mozambique. A proposal allowing for hot pursuit of suspected poachers across the international border has been put forward to the SANParks board and the Environmental Affairs Ministry for inclusion in a memorandum of understanding due to be entered into between South Africa and its eastern neighbour.  The memorandum was originally due to have been signed this month but Mozambique has indicated it is not yet in a position to sign.

Excerpt, Kim Helfrich, Rhino killing continues unabated, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/, Jan.  31, 2014

How to Evade Capital Controls: China

Is capital fleeing China? The recent crackdown on official corruption might suggest that fat cats are busy whisking their money out of the country to avoid scrutiny. That impression is strengthened by the apparently endless flow of Chinese money into luxury goods, penthouses and other trophies in London, New York and Paris.  Lots of money is undoubtedly leaving China, despite the country’s strict currency controls. However, a close look at the official figures suggests that, on balance, more hot money… has been flowing in.

A new study by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a research firm, highlights one popular way illicit flows enter the mainland.   It claims that well over $400 billion has poured into China since 2006 outside the official channels, with inflows in the first quarter of 2013 alone topping $50 billion. GFI believes exporters on the mainland exaggerate the prices of goods sent to Hong Kong in order to evade China’s strict currency controls and bring back pots of cash.  Why would they bring money into China? One reason is to take advantage of a steadily appreciating yuan. Once punters sneak money into China, eye-catching if risky investments beckon in the overheated property market and poorly regulated shadow-banking sector.

Another explanation relates to the prolonged period of low interest rates in America. GFI notes that flows of hot money into China surged when the Federal Reserve began trying to suppress rates by buying up government bonds and other securities. Now that the Fed is “tapering” its asset purchases, it is reasonable to ask if the flow of hot money will slow or even reverse.  Chinese regulators have noisily complained about the illicit inflows. In December they promised a crackdown on over-invoicing and other such scams.

Chinese capital flows: Hot and hidden, Economist, Jan 18, 2014, at  73

Covering Up Weapons Sales: Germany

Germany… exports a lot of weapons: more than Britain, France or any other country besides America and Russia. Some German makers of military gear are part of civilian industrial giants, such as Airbus Group (which has dropped its ungainly old name, EADS, to adopt the brand of its commercial-aircraft business), and ThyssenKrupp, a steelmaker. But the biggest German company known mainly for weapons, Rheinmetall, is just 26th in the world league of arms-exporting firms. And Krauss Maffei Wegmann (KMW), which makes the Leopard 2 tank, is 54th.

Germans are, in general, proud of their export prowess. But although foreign sales of weaponry bring in almost €1 billion ($1.4 billion) a year, they are a delicate subject, and lately beset by bad press. Several German firms are accused of bribery in Greece. A former defence official there has said that of €8m in bribes he took, €3.2m came from German firms, including Wegmann (now part of KMW) and Rheinmetall. On January 3rd KMW’s alleged middleman was detained after a court hearing. The firm itself denies any bribery. Atlas, a maker of naval weapons owned jointly by Airbus and ThyssenKrupp, is under fire too. A former representative in Athens has reportedly admitted to bribery; the company says it is investigating the matter.

On another front, the industry faces criticism over the countries it sells to—most recently over a deal to sell Leopard 2s to Saudi Arabia. Arms sales to anywhere other than NATO and “NATO-equivalent” countries are in principle forbidden. But the Federal Security Council, headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, can approve exceptions when foreign policy dictates, as long as they do not harm human rights.

Peace campaigners fear that the exceptions are becoming less exceptional. NATO countries’ budgets are being squeezed, so Germany’s armsmakers are looking farther abroad. Rheinmetall, for example, has a target of 50% of exports outside Europe by 2015. Asia is a growing target: Singapore recently signed a €1.6 billion deal for ThyssenKrupp submarines.

German small arms are also popular. Heckler & Koch’s G3 rifle (together with its variants) is the world’s most popular after the Russian AK-47….But Germany’s arms exports are probably in little danger, since they have the same reputation for reliability as its cars and other industrial goods.

Moreover, there are ways to lessen the controversy of selling things used to wage war. For example, making guns for a fighter jet assembled elsewhere is less visible than selling a German-made tank. Military transport, logistics, surveillance and protective equipment together account for five times as much of German defence firms’ output as weapons and ammunition—and are less likely to be blamed for civilian casualties. Stephan Boehm, an analyst at Commerzbank, sees such non-lethal materiel as a bright spot for German exporters. The flagging fortunes of Rheinmetall, in particular, should be restored by strong sales of the armoured transporters it produces in a joint venture with MAN, a lorry-maker.

Critics say the government is too willing to let arms firms export to dodgy regimes. The Federation of German Security & Defence Industries argues that strong exports are crucial to spread the development costs of the equipment Germany needs to defend itself. This would be less of a problem, the lobby group admits, if Europe’s fragmented defence industry were consolidated; it says the government should not have vetoed a proposal last year to merge EADS with BAE Systems of Britain. Weapons account for less than 1% of Germany’s exports. But it is a 1% that it, like other countries, is loth to give up.

German weapons firms: No farewell to arms, Economist, Jan. 11, 2014, at 56