Israel celebrates but is war with Iran looming?

Simon Tisdall writes:

There were fireworks, concerts, torch processions and parties throughout the country. In Jerusalem the night sky was illuminated by 300 drones that coalesced to form images of favourite Israeli symbols, such as the national flag and a dove with an olive branch in its mouth. The celebrations included a live, televised retelling of Jewish history dating to biblical times. In one scene children with yellow stars pinned to their clothes fled marching Nazi soldiers. Another showed pioneers building the fledgling Jewish state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, helped lead the national extravaganza, despite objections that his presence contradicted the event’s traditional, non-political character. This moment – the 70th anniversary last Wednesday of Israel’s independence, according to the Hebrew calendar – marked the country’s emergence as a rising world power, he declared.

Israel offered the hand of friendship to all, Netanyahu said. But there should be no doubt, Israel was here to stay: “In another 70 years you’ll find here a country that is 70 times stronger, because what we’ve done until today is just the beginning!” Israel’s ability to protect itself was “the essence” of independence, he said.

If Netanyahu sounded defensive, he had reason. Israel has faced many crises since its birth in 1948, including wars in 1967 and 1973, conflicts in Lebanon, and endless confrontation with the Palestinians, for whom Israel’s independence is known as the Nakba (“the catastrophe” or “cataclysm”). It was the day 700,000 people lost what they considered their homeland. Palestinians were not partying last week.

Yet according to Israeli and regional experts, the storm now gathering around Israel’s borders potentially surpasses in severity anything the country has faced throughout its short and difficult history. Whichever way you look, in any direction, trouble looms. At its heart, connecting all the geopolitical Scrabble pieces, is one four-letter word: Iran. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Missile strikes unlikely to stop Syria’s chemical attacks, Pentagon says

The New York Times reports:

A barrage of missiles against Syria by American, French and British forces most likely will not stop President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program, a Pentagon assessment has concluded, despite President Trump’s “Mission Accomplished!” declaration hours after last weekend’s strikes.

The military intelligence report, put out less than three days after the attack, said the allied airstrikes likely set back Mr. Assad’s production of sarin gas.

But it found that the Syrian president is expected to continue researching and developing chemical weapons for potential future use, according to an American intelligence analyst who has seen the document and described it to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.

The military intelligence report indicated that the Barzeh research and development center in Damascus was destroyed, according to the analyst. Most of the missiles were aimed at the Barzeh facility, where the Western allies believed the Assad government was rebuilding its chemical weapons program. It has been closely monitored since the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found precursors for nerve agents there in 2014.

The other two sites — the Him Shinshar chemical weapons bunker and storage facility in Homs — were severely damaged. But the analyst said the report cited surveillance assets that watched a five-ton truck leave one of those sites, the day before it was struck, with a tarp-covered load that could have included equipment or chemical weapons. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports:

Russia’s foreign minister said Friday that the U.S. sought out and respected Moscow’s positions in Syria when it launched its air strikes last week.

Lavrov noted that despite the escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington, the U.S. made sure it didn’t harm any Russian personnel and positions during the strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad following a suspected chemical attack on the town of Douma.

“We told them where our red lines were, including the geographical red lines,” Lavrov told Russian state television. “The results have shown that they haven’t crossed those lines.” [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Earth’s mammals have shrunk dramatically, and meat-eating hominids are to blame

The Washington Post reports:

Life on Earth used to look a lot more impressive. Just a little more than 100,000 years ago, there were sloths as long as a giraffe is tall, monstrous bears whose shoulders were six feet off the ground, and Bunyanesque beavers that weighed as much as an NFL linebacker. But over time, all of these creatures disappeared in a manner so rapid and so mysterious that scientists still can’t fully explain what went down.

Did an asteroid discharge the mega-beasts, similar to the one thought to have snuffed out the dinosaurs? Or was it widespread climatic change or a plague of new diseases? Did our penchant for hunting play a role?

It’s likely that a combination of factors led to a planet-wide demise in sizable mammals as the Ice Age came to a close. But a study published Thursday in the journal Science provides evidence that the major drivers were humans and other hominids.

“We looked at the entire fossil record for 65 million years, in million-year increments, and we asked the question, ‘Is it ever bad to be big?’ ” said lead author Felisa Smith, a paleoecologist at the University of New Mexico. For most of evolutionary history, the answer was no — larger body mass did not make an animal more likely to go extinct, she said. “For 65 million years, it didn’t matter what size you were.”

That is, until a new kind of predator arrived on the scene: Homo erectus. Around 1.8 million years ago, hominids that had long been dependent on plants became hominids that were “heavily and increasingly dependent on meat as a food source,” Smith said.

As these tool-wielding team hunters spread out from Africa, large-mammal extinctions followed. If you’re going to spend time and energy on a hunt, these early humans and their ancestors probably believed, it’s go big or go home.

“You hunt a rabbit, you have food for a small family for a day,” Smith said. “You hunt a mammoth, you feed the village.” [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Music: Oumou Sangare and Béla Fleck — ‘Djorolen’

 

This is a clip from a terrific film, Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart, in which Fleck journeys through Africa tracing the roots of the banjo.

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Palantir knows everything about you

Bloomberg reports:

High above the Hudson River in downtown Jersey City, a former U.S. Secret Service agent named Peter Cavicchia III ran special ops for JPMorgan Chase & Co. His insider threat group—most large financial institutions have one—used computer algorithms to monitor the bank’s employees, ostensibly to protect against perfidious traders and other miscreants.

Aided by as many as 120 “forward-deployed engineers” from the data mining company Palantir Technologies Inc., which JPMorgan engaged in 2009, Cavicchia’s group vacuumed up emails and browser histories, GPS locations from company-issued smartphones, printer and download activity, and transcripts of digitally recorded phone conversations. Palantir’s software aggregated, searched, sorted, and analyzed these records, surfacing keywords and patterns of behavior that Cavicchia’s team had flagged for potential abuse of corporate assets. Palantir’s algorithm, for example, alerted the insider threat team when an employee started badging into work later than usual, a sign of potential disgruntlement. That would trigger further scrutiny and possibly physical surveillance after hours by bank security personnel.

Over time, however, Cavicchia himself went rogue. Former JPMorgan colleagues describe the environment as Wall Street meets Apocalypse Now, with Cavicchia as Colonel Kurtz, ensconced upriver in his office suite eight floors above the rest of the bank’s security team. People in the department were shocked that no one from the bank or Palantir set any real limits. They darkly joked that Cavicchia was listening to their calls, reading their emails, watching them come and go. Some planted fake information in their communications to see if Cavicchia would mention it at meetings, which he did.

It all ended when the bank’s senior executives learned that they, too, were being watched, and what began as a promising marriage of masters of big data and global finance descended into a spying scandal. The misadventure, which has never been reported, also marked an ominous turn for Palantir, one of the most richly valued startups in Silicon Valley. An intelligence platform designed for the global War on Terror was weaponized against ordinary Americans at home.

Founded in 2004 by Peter Thiel and some fellow PayPal alumni, Palantir cut its teeth working for the Pentagon and the CIA in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company’s engineers and products don’t do any spying themselves; they’re more like a spy’s brain, collecting and analyzing information that’s fed in from the hands, eyes, nose, and ears. The software combs through disparate data sources—financial documents, airline reservations, cellphone records, social media postings—and searches for connections that human analysts might miss. It then presents the linkages in colorful, easy-to-interpret graphics that look like spider webs. U.S. spies and special forces loved it immediately; they deployed Palantir to synthesize and sort the blizzard of battlefield intelligence. It helped planners avoid roadside bombs, track insurgents for assassination, even hunt down Osama bin Laden. The military success led to federal contracts on the civilian side. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses Palantir to detect Medicare fraud. The FBI uses it in criminal probes. The Department of Homeland Security deploys it to screen air travelers and keep tabs on immigrants.

Police and sheriff’s departments in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles have also used it, frequently ensnaring in the digital dragnet people who aren’t suspected of committing any crime. People and objects pop up on the Palantir screen inside boxes connected to other boxes by radiating lines labeled with the relationship: “Colleague of,” “Lives with,” “Operator of [cell number],” “Owner of [vehicle],” “Sibling of,” even “Lover of.” If the authorities have a picture, the rest is easy. Tapping databases of driver’s license and ID photos, law enforcement agencies can now identify more than half the population of U.S. adults. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Leaders worldwide are falling for a ‘deadly illusion’

In an editorial, the Washington Post says:

Although his audience was the European Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron articulated truths on Tuesday that resonate for the entire globe. Nationalism and authoritarianism are on the march. Democracy as an ideal and in practice seems under siege. The United States, traditionally a beacon for freedom, has dimmed the light, at least for a time.

Mr. Macron filled the gap with a thoughtful and bracing warning.

He declared that Europe is being torn by the rise of “national selfishness and negativity” and a growing “fascination with the illiberal.” In particular, he warned of the kind of anti-migrant authoritarianism on display recently in the Hungarian elections and fashionable among far-right parties in Europe.

But his words also apply more broadly to the surge of illiberalism in Turkey, Egypt, Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, the Philippines and Venezuela, among other places, where leaders have actively snuffed out civil society, suborned or faked elections, asphyxiated free expression, ignored rule of law, and repressed basic human rights. Leaders in such countries learn from one another as they refine methods to crush democracy, by banning or restricting nongovernmental organizations, creating laws to single out independent voices as “foreign agents,” imposing censorship on the news and social media, and, most tried and true, jailing those who dissent. They also echo one another’s claims that their imposed order offers a viable alternative to democracy, which can be so unpredictable and messy. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals set to be unchecked for first time since 1972

The Guardian reports:

The US and Russian nuclear arsenals could soon be unconstrained by any binding arms control agreements for the first time since 1972, triggering an expensive and dangerous new arms race, a group of former officials and experts from the US, Europe and Russia has warned.

In a statement to be published on Wednesday, the signatories point out that the 2010 New Start treaty limiting the deployed strategic warheads and delivery systems of the US and Russia, will expire in February 2021, unless urgent steps are taken to extend it.

Meanwhile, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement is in danger of collapse, amid US accusations of Russian violations of the pact with the development of a new land-based cruise missile, and the Trump administration’s threat to develop a similar weapon in response.

Both Vladimir Putin, in recent statements, and Donald Trump, in his administration’s nuclear posture review, have declared plans to modernise and upgrade their arsenals involving new nuclear weapons capabilities.

The threatened return to an arms race between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers comes at a time of high tension in relations between Washington and Moscow, when US, Nato and Russian forces are operating in close proximity in eastern Europe and Syria. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

The Kremlin vs Telegram

Enrique Dans writes:

After a hearing lasting just 18 minutes, on April 4, Russia’s Federal Service for the Supervision of Telecommunications, known as Roskomnadzor, ordered the immediate blocking of instant messaging application Telegram, created by the controversial Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, along with its removal from Apple and Googles app stores.

Aware that growing numbers of people were evading the blockade through proxies or VPNs, the government agency has begun to stifle all ways of connecting to Telegram, wiping out more than 17 million IP addresses from Google and Amazon’s servers (you can see the number grow in real time here), in the process, while disrupting all types of services from online games to mobile apps or cryptocurrency exchange pages. Roskomnadzor’s attempts to block Telegram amount to a denial of service attack on the Russian internet: many sites and services unrelated to Telegram are now blocked as part of this Soviet-style exercise in censorship. Nevertheless, says Durov, Telegram continues to operate with relative normality and the company has not detected a significant drop in user activity in Russia. A relatively small company has left the Kremlin with egg on its face and highlighting concerns for the future of the internet in Russia.

Why is the Kremlin putting all these resources into blocking Telegram? The official version is that Telegram refused to provide a backdoor to decipher conversations on the service. Why would Telegram do that, knowing what was at stake? Aside from its commitment to user privacy, the simple fact is that no such backdoor exists. Every Telegram conversation is encrypted by means of a randomly generated code, and the company doesn’t have them. WhatsApp faced a similar situation in Brazil last year, although that was largely due to ignorance and stubbornness of a judge. In Putin’s Russia, the policy is to block any means of communication that escapes government control. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

China’s great leap forward in science

Philip Ball writes:

I first met Xiaogang Peng in the summer of 1992 at Jilin University in Changchun, in the remote north-east of China, where he was a postgraduate student in the department of chemistry. He told me that his dream was to get a place at a top American lab. Now, Xiaogang was evidently smart and hard-working – but so, as far as I could see, were most Chinese science students. I wished him well, but couldn’t help thinking he’d set himself a massive challenge.

Fast forward four years to when, as an editor at Nature, I publish a paper on nanotechnology from world-leading chemists at the University of California at Berkeley. Among them was Xiaogang. That 1996 paper now appears in a 10-volume compendium of the all-time best of Nature papers being published in translation in China.

I watched Xiaogang go on to forge a solid career in the US, as in 2005 he became a tenured professor at the University of Arkansas. But when I recently had reason to get in touch with Xiaogang again, I discovered that he had moved back to China and is now at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou – one of the country’s foremost academic institutions.

For Xiaogang, it seems that America was no longer the only land of opportunity. These days, Chinese scientists stand at least as good a chance of making a global impact on science from within China itself.

The economic rise of China has been accompanied by a waxing of its scientific prowess. In January, the United States National Science Foundation reported that the number of scientific publications from China in 2016 outnumbered those from the US for the first time: 426,000 versus 409,000. Sceptics might say that it’s about quality, not quantity. But the patronising old idea that China, like the rest of east Asia, can imitate but not innovate is certainly false now. In several scientific fields, China is starting to set the pace for others to follow. On my tour of Chinese labs in 1992, only those I saw at the flagship Peking University looked comparable to what you might find at a good university in the west. Today the resources available to China’s top scientists are enviable to many of their western counterparts. Whereas once the best Chinese scientists would pack their bags for greener pastures abroad, today it’s common for Chinese postdoctoral researchers to get experience in a leading lab in the west and then head home where the Chinese government will help them set up a lab that will eclipse their western competitors. [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.

Why the human brain is so efficient

Liqun Luo writes:

An important difference between the computer and the brain is the mode by which information is processed within each system. Computer tasks are performed largely in serial steps. This can be seen by the way engineers program computers by creating a sequential flow of instructions. For this sequential cascade of operations, high precision is necessary at each step, as errors accumulate and amplify in successive steps. The brain also uses serial steps for information processing. In the tennis return example, information flows from the eye to the brain and then to the spinal cord to control muscle contraction in the legs, trunk, arms, and wrist.

But the brain also employs massively parallel processing, taking advantage of the large number of neurons and large number of connections each neuron makes. For instance, the moving tennis ball activates many cells in the retina called photoreceptors, whose job is to convert light into electrical signals. These signals are then transmitted to many different kinds of neurons in the retina in parallel. By the time signals originating in the photoreceptor cells have passed through two to three synaptic connections in the retina, information regarding the location, direction, and speed of the ball has been extracted by parallel neuronal circuits and is transmitted in parallel to the brain. Likewise, the motor cortex (part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for volitional motor control) sends commands in parallel to control muscle contraction in the legs, the trunk, the arms, and the wrist, such that the body and the arms are simultaneously well positioned to receiving the incoming ball.

This massively parallel strategy is possible because each neuron collects inputs from and sends output to many other neurons—on the order of 1,000 on average for both input and output for a mammalian neuron. (By contrast, each transistor has only three nodes for input and output all together.) [Continue reading…]

Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.