Archives for February 2018

First glimpses of the cosmic dawn

Marina Koren reports:

Near the beginning, not long after the Big Bang, the universe was a cold and dark place swirling with invisible gas, mostly hydrogen and helium. Over millions of years, gravity pulled some of this primordial gas into pockets. The pockets eventually became so dense they collapsed under their own weight and ignited, flooding the darkness with ultraviolet radiation. These were the very first stars in the universe, flashing into existence like popcorn kernels unfurling in the hot oil of an empty pan.

Everything flowed from this cosmic dawn. The first stars illuminated the universe, collapsed into the black holes that keep galaxies together, and produced the heavy elements that would make planets and moons and the human beings that evolved to gaze upon it all.

This epoch in our cosmic history has long fascinated scientists. They hoped that someday, using technology that was calibrated just right, they could detect faint signals from that moment. Now, they think they’ve done it.

Astronomers said Wednesday they have found, for the first time, evidence of the earliest stars. Using a table-sized radio instrument in the desert in Western Australia, the researchers detected radio emissions from the cold hydrogen that interacted with brand-new stars in that stage of the early universe.

Astronomers from Arizona State University, MIT, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, funded by the National Science Foundation, spent more than a decade trying to find this signal, calibrating and recalibrating the technology. Their results were published in Nature. [Continue reading…]

 

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Conservation efforts are failing to address the importance of preserving intact forests

Morgan Erickson-Davis reports:

When it comes to habitat quality and ecosystem services, research has shown that natural landscapes do it best. A new study, published recently in Nature, adds fodder to this argument, describing how intact forests are critically important for mitigating climate change, maintaining water supplies, safeguarding biodiversity, and even protecting human health. However, it warns that global policies aimed at reducing deforestation are not putting enough emphasis on the preservation of the world’s dwindling intact forests, instead relying on a one-size-fits-all approach that may end up doing more harm than good.

Intact forests are large areas of connected habitat free from human-caused disturbance. From the Amazon rainforest in South America to the taiga that rings the Arctic, the Earth’s intact forests provide a diverse array of unbroken habitats for many—if not most—of the planet’s terrestrial wildlife.

But intact forests are disappearing. An analysis released last year found that, overall, the world lost more than 7 percent of its intact forest landscapes in just over a decade, a trend that appears to be accelerating. Zooming in, the analysis reveals bigger losses for specific regions: 10.1 percent in Africa, 13.9 percent in Southeast Asia, nearly 22 percent in Australia. At the country level, Paraguay came out particularly bad, losing almost 80 percent of its intact forest landscapes between 2000 and 2013.

The driving force behind these losses varies depending on location, but agriculture, logging, and road building are global heavy-hitters. And the disturbance doesn’t need to be big in size to have a big impact; research has shown even small logging roads can open up a “Pandora’s box” of destructive repercussions that can threaten the integrity of a once-untouched forest. Such seemingly small, localized deforestation activities have resulted in a situation where the world’s forests have essentially been cut up into an estimated 50 million fragments—which scientists think is closing in on a tipping point at which forest fragmentation may dramatically accelerate. [Continue reading…]

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Glacial melting isn’t someone else’s problem

By Dana J. Graef

High in the Ecuadorian Andes, the peak of Cotacachi was once reliably white. But by the early 2000s, the glacier on top of this dormant volcano, which reaches more than 16,200 feet, had disappeared. This made it—as anthropologist Robert E. Rhoades and his co-authors Xavier Zapata Ríos and Jenny Aragundy Ochoa wrote in the 2008 book Darkening Peaks—one of “the first Andean mountains in the past half-century to completely lose its glacier as a result of recent accelerated global warming.”

As many glaciers throughout the world are retreating at faster rates, they have become powerful symbols of global warming. But glacial retreat is still an abstract idea for many people, which makes it easy to ignore. As environmental historian Mark Carey puts it, “Most people in the United States have never encountered a glacier; nor would they be able to identify one even from close proximity.” Yet due to global interconnection, our actions have far-flung consequences—in unfamiliar landscapes and in places we cannot see.

In communities from the Andes to the Alps to the Himalayas, glacial loss affects people’s lives in concrete ways. In Ecuador, when the last ice crystals from Cotacachi’s glacier melted, a once-reliable source of water evaporated. According to farmers in the area, it also doesn’t rain as much as it used to, Rhoades and his co-authors wrote in Darkening Peaks. The combined effect of less rainfall and drier rivers and streams has made agriculture more challenging, as multiple consequences of climate change intersect.

[Read more…]

Pentagon examines plans for a war against North Korea — ‘the brutality of this will be beyond the experience of any living soldier’

“A classified military exercise last week examined how American troops would mobilize and strike if ordered into a potential war on the Korean Peninsula,” reports the New York Times:

A war with North Korea, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said, would be “catastrophic.” He and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued forcefully for using diplomacy to address Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Commanders who attended the exercise in Hawaii were told that roughly 10,000 Americans could be wounded in combat in the opening days alone. And the number of civilian casualties, the generals were told, would likely be in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands.

The potential human costs of a war were so high that, at one point during the exercise, General Milley remarked that “the brutality of this will be beyond the experience of any living soldier,” according to officials who were involved.

So, too, would be the sheer logistical enterprise of moving thousands of American soldiers and equipment to the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, senior military officials worry that after 17 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, American troops have become far more used to counterinsurgency fighting than a land war against a state, as an attack on North Korea would likely bring.

But Mr. Mattis also has ordered top Pentagon leaders to be ready for any possible military action against North Korea. Already, ammunition has been pre-staged in the Pacific region for ground units. [Continue reading…]

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Advice for Trump from ancient China

The Huainanzi, a collection of essays of Western Han philosophy and statecraft written over 2,100 years ago, states:

If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will fall into disorder throughout the state, and accomplished officials will struggle.

If the ruler ignores what he should preserve and struggles with his ministers and subordinates about the conduct of affairs, then those with official posts will be preoccupied with holding on to their positions, and those charged with official duties will avoid dismissal by following the whims of the ruler. This will cause capable ministers to conceal their wisdom.

If the ruler is frequently exhausted by attending to lesser duties, proper conduct will deteriorate throughout the state. His knowledge by itself will be insufficient to govern, and he will lack what it takes to deal with the world. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook provided the perfect advertising platform for Trump

Alexis C. Madrigal writes:

Here is the central tenet of Facebook’s business: If lots of people click on, comment on, or share an ad, Facebook charges that advertiser less money to reach people. The platform is a brawl for user attention, and Facebook sees a more engaging ad as a better ad, which should be shown to more users.

This has been true for years. No one inside or outside Facebook has ever hidden this fact. All the dynamics of the News Feed — most classed under the rubric of “clickbait” — also exist in paid advertising, but success (or failure) is denominated in dollars.

And yet, in the context of the 2016 Presidential Election, this way of auctioning advertising — originally developed by Google and normalized in the pre-Trump age — can seem strange, unfair, and possibly even against the rules that govern election advertising.

In a new essay at Wired, the former Facebook advertising staffer Antonio García Martínez lays out what is undoubtedly true: Trump’s ads had far higher engagement rates, which meant he paid less to reach a given number of people.

“A canny marketer with really engaging (or outraging) content can goose their effective purchasing power at the ads auction, piggybacking on Facebook’s estimation of their clickbaitiness to win many more auctions (for the same or less money) than an unengaging competitor,” García Martínez writes.

Trump, of course, was the canny marketer, while Clinton’s team was the unengaging competitor. While most everyone covering the digital portion of the election has known this, the logical conclusion that follows can still feel startling.

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social-media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money,” García Martínez continues. “In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating.”

After the article was published, one of Trump’s campaign staffers, Brad Parscale, posted a link to it and tweeted a chest-pounding follow-up. “I bet we were 100x to 200x [Clinton],” he wrote. “We had CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] that were pennies in some cases. This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for Facebook.” [Continue reading…]

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Predictive policing system made by Palantir has been secretly tested in New Orleans

Ali Winston reports:

In May and June 2013, when New Orleans’ murder rate was the sixth-highest in the United States, the Orleans Parish district attorney handed down two landmark racketeering indictments against dozens of men accused of membership in two violent Central City drug trafficking gangs, 3NG and the 110ers. Members of both gangs stood accused of committing 25 murders as well as several attempted killings and armed robberies.

Subsequent investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and local agencies produced further RICO indictments, including that of a 22-year-old man named Evans “Easy” Lewis, a member of a gang called the 39ers who was accused of participating in a drug distribution ring and several murders.

According to Ronal Serpas, the department’s chief at the time, one of the tools used by the New Orleans Police Department to identify members of gangs like 3NG and the 39ers came from the Silicon Valley company Palantir. The company provided software to a secretive NOPD program that traced people’s ties to other gang members, outlined criminal histories, analyzed social media, and predicted the likelihood that individuals would commit violence or become a victim. As part of the discovery process in Lewis’ trial, the government turned over more than 60,000 pages of documents detailing evidence gathered against him from confidential informants, ballistics, and other sources — but they made no mention of the NOPD’s partnership with Palantir, according to a source familiar with the 39ers trial.

The program began in 2012 as a partnership between New Orleans Police and Palantir Technologies, a data-mining firm founded with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital firm. According to interviews and documents obtained by The Verge, the initiative was essentially a predictive policing program, similar to the “heat list” in Chicago that purports to predict which people are likely drivers or victims of violence.

The partnership has been extended three times, with the third extension scheduled to expire on February 21st, 2018. The city of New Orleans and Palantir have not responded to questions about the program’s current status.

Predictive policing technology has proven highly controversial wherever it is implemented, but in New Orleans, the program escaped public notice, partly because Palantir established it as a philanthropic relationship with the city through Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s signature NOLA For Life program. Thanks to its philanthropic status, as well as New Orleans’ “strong mayor” model of government, the agreement never passed through a public procurement process.

In fact, key city council members and attorneys contacted by The Verge had no idea that the city had any sort of relationship with Palantir, nor were they aware that Palantir used its program in New Orleans to market its services to another law enforcement agency for a multimillion-dollar contract.

Even James Carville, the political operative instrumental in bringing about Palantir’s collaboration with NOPD, said that the program was not public knowledge. “No one in New Orleans even knows about this, to my knowledge,” Carville said. [Continue reading…]

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China deploys big data analysis to enable ‘predictive policing’

Human Rights Watch reports:

Chinese authorities are building and deploying a predictive policing program based on big data analysis in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said today. The program aggregates data about people – often without their knowledge – and flags those it deems potentially threatening to officials.

According to interviewees, some of those targeted are detained and sent to extralegal “political education centers” where they are held indefinitely without charge or trial, and can be subject to abuse.

“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights, but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People in Xinjiang can’t resist or challenge the increasingly intrusive scrutiny of their daily lives because most don’t even know about this ‘black box’ program or how it works.”

Human Rights Watch said Xinjiang authorities in recent years have increased mass surveillance measures across the region, augmenting existing tactics with the latest technologies. Since around April 2016, Human Rights Watch estimates, Xinjiang authorities have sent tens of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to “political education centers.” [Continue reading…]

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One-man rule in a one-party state

Kerry Brown writes:

For all the West’s unease about a one-party state having such dominance at the moment, because of the stability it gives over such a crucial region, the Communist Party’s total control of China is something Western leaders buy into and support.

Their mouths might say one thing, to appease critical constituencies back home. But their heads know that a China following the path of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s would be a catastrophe.

It would destabilize a region already worryingly febrile because of Pyongyang’s antics, cause economic calamity and add to their woes back at home through impact on capital and goods flows.

Xi Jinping might find surprising sources of opposition within China — groups and people inside and outside the party that we, and he, might not know about. But one thing is almost certain. Western leaders will not be the ones he needs to fear. Strong, stable, predictable leadership in China is key for them. And to achieve this, at least as far as they are concerned, he can rewrite as many parts of the Constitution as he wants. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times notes:

Authoritarian leaders now act with greater impunity — or at least less worry about international isolation. Aspiring authoritarians like Viktor Orban of Hungary in turn seem enticed by the kind of power Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi wield, untroubled by the need to compromise or consult or, in the case of corruption and cronyism, to answer for evidence of misrule and malfeasance.

President Trump’s critics say that while he may not yet have eroded democracy in the United States, his populist appeals and nativist policies, his palpable aversion to the media and traditional checks on power, and his stated admiration for some of the strongest of strongmen are cut from the same cloth.

The trend toward authoritarianism, while specific to each country’s history, is rooted in insecurities and fears afflicting the world today: globalization and rising inequality, the stunning and scary advances in technology, the disorienting chaos and extreme violence of civil wars like Syria’s, separatism and terror.

The institutions of the post-Cold War — which reflected the bedrock values of Western liberalism — no longer seem able to cope. Countries that once were beacons for others are consumed by the same anxiety and weakness, and internal strife. [Continue reading…]

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As China reduces its domestic reliance on coal, it’s building hundreds of coal-fired power plants overseas

The New York Times reports:

Across a narrow channel from this historic port town, where baobabs tower over the forest and tiny crabs skitter in and out of the mangroves, Kenya could soon get its first coal-fired power plant, courtesy of China.

The plan’s champions, including senior Kenyan officials, say the plant will help meet the country’s fast-growing demand for electricity and draw investment. Its critics worry that it will damage the area’s fragile marine ecosystem, threaten the livelihoods of fishing communities and pollute the air.

The battle over the project, which is frozen pending the outcome of a court case, reverberates far beyond Lamu, a 700-year-old Indian Ocean port town of coral-lime houses and carved wooden doors that has been designated a Unesco world heritage site.

The plan embodies a contradiction of Chinese global climate leadership: The country’s huge coal sector is turning outward in search of new markets as coal projects contract at home. A Chinese multinational is tapped to build the $2 billion, 975-acre project, and a Chinese bank is helping to finance it. The project is among hundreds of coal-fired power plants that Chinese companies are helping to build or finance around the world.

It represents a test for Kenya as well. While its leaders describe the Lamu plant as a source of cheap, reliable electricity, the country is also seeking to become a renewable energy hub, with huge solar and wind projects in the works and a promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Coal could upend those goals. [Continue reading…]

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