Monday, January 31, 2011

New and Noteworthy (Enlightened Economist, Video Games and Intelligence Analysis, Himalayan Glaciers)

In today's edition, the last for the month of January 2011:

* A round-up of new books from The Enlightened Economist, including the "first batch on the BP oil spill, and a number of books offering some much-needed skepticism about what Evgeny Morozov (the author of one of those books, The Net Delusion) has characterized as the cyber-utopianism of the widespread expectations that social networking technologies will generate meaningful social change.

* From the Wired Danger Room, a brief item discussing the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency's Sirius Program, which has as its goal the development of "Serious Games" that will (according to the solicitation on the web site of the Federal Business Opportunities web site) "train participants and measure their proficiency in recognizing and mitigating the cognitive biases that commonly affect all types of intelligence analysis."

* The response from Nicholas Berini at the web site Skeptical Science to the much talked-about revelation of the error in the International Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report regarding the rate at which the Himalayan glaciers are disappearing (and why the celebrations among greenhouse "skeptics" misrepresent the facts).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New and Noteworthy (100% Renewable Energy by 2030, Not-So-Clean Natural Gas, Pirates)

In today's edition:

* Mark A. Delucchi and Mark Z. Jacobson recently published a two-part article in the December 2010 edition of the journal Energy Policy, "Providing All Global Energy With Wind, Water, and Solar Power," which is getting a fair amount of publicity for its argument that it is possible to meet 100 percent of the world's energy needs through renewables by 2030 (a case I find plausible). The article is presently behind a paywall, but it can be previewed at the journal's web site.

* By way of Energy Bulletin, Abraham Lustgarten's much-needed reminder of the overstated climatic benefits of natural gas, highlighting the massive role that natural gas plays in methane emissions (all too often overlooked by those concentrating solely on carbon emissions as the problem).

* Finally, on the heels of the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre's annual report on the problem of maritime piracy, Spencer Ackerman in the Wired Danger Room offers a piece on its big-picture impact, as calculated by a recent working paper from the One Earth Future foundation's Oceans Beyond Piracy Project. The economic damage done by the phenomenon may be running into the range of $7-12 billion per year when ransoms, raised insurance premiums, the expenses of ship rerouting and security equipment, costs to the economies of piracy-afflicted areas, the expenses of international naval forces and criminal prosecution and the like are taken into account. However, given the scale of overall maritime economic activity, observers have noted over the years, even these elevated expenses have a small enough impact that more decisive action about the problem is anything but assured.

Piracy in 2010

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Piracy in 2010

The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre has just released its report on piracy during the year 2010. As anyone who's followed the issue might guess, it was another record for maritime violence, continuing the trend toward more attacks (up 10% over 2009, and the fourth straight year of increase), and especially more ships (53) and hostages taken (1,188), with the locus of activity still the waters off the Horn of Africa, particularly where the more serious attacks are concerned.

Until the spike in activity off Somalia, hijackings were a very rare occurrence, even as piracy increased through the 1990s and early 2000s (developments in which Somalia was also prominent). Now they occur almost weekly, and involve unprecedently large prizes (like supertankers, where '90s-era hijackings involved freighters displacing just a few thousand tons), events which far exceeded the most dramatic projections I remember encountering when I first looked at the issue a decade ago.

This all goes on in spite of widespread awareness of the problem and precautions taken to avoid it, as well as the presence of a massive, active international naval force in the area. It is the position of the Centre's Director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, that the force has deterred a still larger number of attacks, and it is worth noting that incidents in the Gulf of Aden fell off by half in 2010 (down to 53 from 117 the year before)--as well as the fact that the pirates are venturing further out to continue their business:
In December 2010, they reached as far south as the Mozambique Channel and as far east as 72° East longitude in the Indian Ocean, an operating range IMB says is unprecedented.
Put another way, they are capable of operating (to some extent) all over the whole western half of the Indian Ocean, and the intensity of their operations is something not seen since the nineteenth century.

A significant factor, of course, is something about which naval patrols do very little--namely, the situation onshore. Pirates operating on any scale (let alone the formidable scale that permits attacks on ships 1,000 miles away from home, and the holding of dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors for ransom at once, as has become routine) simply can't function without bases onshore. In recent years, pirates have generally found bases where states situated along strategic sea lanes have collapsed. Just as the turmoil Indonesia went through in the late 1990s had much to do with a spike in piracy in its region, the collapse of Somalia (a country with a nearly 1,900 mile-long coastline at the southern end of the Red Sea) at the Cold War's end made the country a locus of piratical activity. Unfortunately, a stable, functional Somalia still seems quite a ways off--while the pressures that drive states to failure seem likely to get worse in the years to come as demographic, resource and climatic pressures weigh all the more heavily on the international system.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New and Noteworthy (New Security Beat, Parallel Computing, Wired Danger Room)

In today's edition:

* First off, another year-end round-up, this one from the New Security Bea. (One piece I missed earlier which is certainly worth a look is the discusses India's Maoist insurgency, which is all too often overlooked in Western discussions of security on the subcontinent.)

* Jeff Hecht's article for the New Scientist last month, discussing a recent report from the U.S. National Research Council, The Future of Computing Performance: Game Over or Next Level? on the limits to growth in computer power. Simply put, it may be that the growth in computing power we have come to take for granted will hit a wall in the next decade--the leveling off of clock speed circa 2005 just the beginning, with multi-core processors likely to offer only so much more improvement. The report accordingly suggests that "Future growth in computing performance will have to come from software parallelism that can exploit hardware parallelism" (p. 78). (So much, it seems, for the promises about exotic hardware designs--photonic computers, quantum computers--transcending the constraints of semiconductors and extending the growth in computer speed indefinitely. We still have some years to go before the crunch arrives, of course, but somehow I don't think we're going to have radically new machines on our desks in ten years.)

* The Wired Danger Room on Defense Secretary Robert Gates's proposed cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, as well as Vice-Admiral Jack Dorsett, the U.S. Navy's chief of intelligence, on China's hugely publicized ASBM, and its J-20 fighter, which is a useful corrective to the hype about these two systems (though I'm also doubtful about the more spectacular developments the item mentions as likely to be of greater moment).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010 in Review

Welcome to 2011. May it prove to be a better year than 2010.

In today's first posting of the year, I present two year-in-review pieces. The first is Noah Shachtman's round-up of the past year's top stories from the Wired Danger Room. It's fairly sensationalist and shallow, but fun in a gonzo sort of way.

The second is Time magazine's list of the fifty "Best Inventions of 2010." It's the usual hyped-up round-up by editors who don't seem quite sure what constitutes an "invention" seen in previous years (in discussing the Martin Jetpack as this year's invention, it actually acknowledges the invention of the jetpack in 1961, fifty years ago, refuting its own claim, and I'm not sure how the Responsible Homeowner Mortgage Program makes the list either), but just as with Shachtman's piece, there are just enough items of interest mentioned in it to make it worth a glance (though anyone looking for the least bit of depth will have to go elsewhere).

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