Samuel Johnson once said that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Patriotism, and bad analogies.
For the uninitiated, Godwin's Law is one of the cardinal rules of the Internet. Coined in 1990 by Internet law expert Mike Godwin, the principle -- confirmed by countless contentious comment threads across the web -- is that the longer an online discussion persists, the greater the odds become that someone will make a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler, to the point of near-inevitability. Nothing ends a debate faster than the hyperbolic unsupported counterfactual: "You know who else did [INSERT SUBJECT OF ARGUMENT HERE]? Hitler!"
But Hitler and the Nazis aren't the only recurring straw men used to end debates. Over the past 12 years, it's become clear that the longer a national security debate persists, the more likely it becomes that someone will try to end it by suggesting something -- some policy, some person, some technology -- "could have prevented 9/11."
The implication is that if something "could have prevented 9/11," then it must be justified. It's a trump card, a conversation-ender -- and it's impossible to prove. But that hasn't stopped people from using it -- from FBI Director Robert Mueller testifying on the Hill on Thursday to actor Mark Wahlberg's 2012 tough-guy claims. Here's a brief sampling of the people and policies that "could have prevented 9/11."
Assessments of the 9/11 attacks -- by everyone from members of the independent 9/11 Commission to Bush administration officials -- have time and again pointed out that there was no single point of failure that allowed the attacks to occur, and no "silver bullet" that could have prevented them. But acknowledging that is no way to cut short a debate about national security.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Forget PRISM, the National Security Agency's system to help extract data from Google, Facebook, and the like. The more frightening secret program unearthed by the NSA leaks is the gathering and storing of millions of phone records and phone-location information of U.S. citizens.
According to current and former intelligence agency employees who have used the huge collection of metadata obtained from the country's largest telecom carriers, the information is widely available across the intelligence community from analysts' desktop computers.
The data is used to connect known or suspected terrorists to people in the United States, and to help locate them. It has also been used in foreign criminal investigations and to assist military forces overseas. But the laws that govern the collection of this information and its use are not as clear. Nor are they as strong as those associated with PRISM, the system the NSA is using to collate information from the servers of America's tech giants.
Metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Content of emails and instant messages -- what PRISM helps gather -- is. An order issued to Verizon by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court instructs the company to supply records of all its telephony metadata "on an ongoing, daily basis." Although legal experts say this kind of broad collection of metadata may be legal, it's also "remarkably overbroad and quite likely unwise," according to Paul Rosenzweig, a Bush administration policy official in the Homeland Security Department. "It is difficult to imagine a set of facts that would justify collecting all telephony meta-data in America. While we do live in a changed world after 9/11, one would hope it has not that much changed."
By comparison, PRISM appears more tightly constrained and operates on a more solid legal foundation. Current and former officials who have experience using huge sets of data available to intelligence analysts said that PRISM is used for precisely the kinds of intelligence gathering that Congress and the administration intended when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was amended in 2008. Officials wanted to allow intelligence agencies to target and intercept foreigners' communications when they travel across networks inside the United States.
The surveillance law prohibits targeting a U.S. citizen or legal resident without a warrant, which must establish a reasonable basis to suspect the individual of ties to terrorism or being an agent of a foreign power. In defending PRISM, administration officials have said repeatedly in recent days that the FISA Court oversees the collection program to ensure that it's reasonably designed to target foreign entities, and that any incidental collection of Americans' data is expunged. They've also said that press reports describing the system as allowing "direct access" to corporate servers is wrong. Separately, a U.S. intelligence official also said that the system cannot directly query an Internet company's data.
But the administration has not explained why broadly and indiscriminately collecting the metadata records of millions of U.S. citizens and legal residents comports with a law designed to protect innocent people from having their personal information revealed to intelligence analysts. Nor have officials explained why the NSA needs ongoing, daily access to all this information and for so many years, particularly since specific information can be obtained on an as-needed basis from the companies with a subpoena.
Here's why the metadata of phone records could be more invasive and a bigger threat to privacy and civil liberties than the PRISM system:
1. Metadata is often more revealing than contents of a communication, which is what's being collected with PRISM. A study in the journal Nature found that as few as four "spatio-temporal points," such as the location and time a phone call was placed, is enough to determine the identity of the caller 95 percent of the time.
2. The Wall Street Journal reports that in addition to phone metadata, the NSA also is collecting metadata on emails, website visits, and credit card transactions (although it's unclear whether those collection efforts are ongoing). If that information were combined with the phone metadata, the collective power could not only reveal someone's identity, but also provide an illustration of his entire social network, his financial transactions, and his movements.
3. Administration officials have said that intelligence analysts aren't indiscriminately searching this phone metadata. According to two intelligence employees who've used the data in counterterrorism investigations, it contains no names, and when a number that appears to be based in the United States shows up, it is blocked out with an "X" mark.
But these controls, said a former intelligence employee, are internal agency rules, and it's not clear that the FISA Court has anything to say about them. In this employee's experience, if he wanted to see the phone number associated with that X mark, he had to ask permission from his agency's general counsel. That permission was often obtained, but he wasn't aware of the legal process involved in securing it, or if the request was taken back to the FISA court.
4. The metadatabase is widely available across the intelligence community on analysts' desktops, increasing the potential for misuse.
5. The metadata has the potential for mission creep. It's not only used for dissecting potential homegrown terror plots, as some lawmakers have said. The metadata is also used to help military forces overseas target terrorist and insurgent networks. And it is used in foreign criminal investigations, including ones involving suspected weapons traffickers.
For all these reasons, and probably more yet to emerge, it's the metadata that's of bigger concern. By comparison, PRISM is a cool name, a lame PowerPoint presentation -- and business as usual.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Google's autocomplete algorithm doesn't just enable users to save precious seconds of typing by predictavely filling in the rest of the search. It's also, apparently, the subject of contentious legal cases the world over. The latest example: On Wednesday, a German federal court ruled that libelous autocompletes are a violation of privacy.
As the BBC reports, the case was brought by a businessman (fittingly, he remains unnamed) who was frustrated by the fact that Google.de autocompleted searches of him with "scientology" and "fraud." This week's ruling -- which overturned two previous decisions in favor of Google -- called on the search giant to make changes to its autocomplete function when made aware of an "unlawful violation."
And this is far from an isolated case. The BBC goes on to report:
The ruling could also have a bearing on another case involving auto-complete. Bettina Wulff, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, sued Google because auto-complete suggested words linking her to escort services. Mrs Wulff denies ever working as a prostitute and has fought several legal cases over the accusation. The case against Google is due to be heard soon in a Hamburg court.
The technology blog Techdirt, which snarkily claims to have a "suing-algorithms-for-fun-and-profit! dept" brought us another story last year of an Australian surgeon named Guy Hingston who sued Google for defaming him by implying that he's not doing so well financially. The search:
But as TechDirt pointed out, Hingston may be shooting himself in the foot. His case, in attracting media attention, has made it all the more likely that "bankrupt" will appear next to his name in a search.
In 2012, ZDNet wrote about a Hong Kong tycoon who sued Google for similar reasons. As ZDNet noted, "Whether Yeung's name is input into Google Search in English or Chinese, a drop-down option for the search term plus 'triad' [the name for China's organized crime organizations] appears -- a connotation which is unlikely to make the tycoon happy."
And individuals aren't the only parties bringing autocomplete-related lawsuits. In 2012, an anti-discrimination group in France, SOS Racisme, sued Google for discriminatory autocompletes -- in this particular instance, linking "Jew" or "Jewish" with searches for people who aren't Jewish like Rupert Murdoch. Go figure.
With so many loose associations on Google, does it really make sense to hold the company accountable for each one? After all, you could argue that everything from women to countless countries to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have been defamed by autocomplete. Google, for its part, claims little responsibility. Their defense: the algorithm works by filling in blanks based on the frequency of our searches. In other words, we're all kind of slandering each other.
Screenshot [h/t Telegraph Online]
Paul Hansen's image of a funeral procession in a Gazan alleyway on Nov. 20, 2012 is undeniably striking. Two men, their faces warped with grief and anger, carry the shrouded bodies of their young nieces, killed in an Israeli missile strike, while a crowd of men follow behind them. When it was selected as the winner of the 2013 World Press Photo contest in February, the chairman of the contest jury, Associated Press Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon, praised the photograph's "incredible collection of powerful motifs of imagery, that when it all comes together makes for a really strong photograph."
But was it real? And what does that mean at a time when photo software can aid in collecting the very motifs that made the image so remarkable?
On Monday, British tech writer Sebastian Anthony claimed on the blog ExtremeTech that the photograph isn't really a photo at all; according to image analyst Neal Krawetz, it's three photos that were enhanced and stitched together using Photoshop. The proof is in the code, Krawetz argues, which contains a record of the composition. Applying other filters and tools to the image, he writes, shows evidence of additional manipulation including image sharpening and brightening. "Basically," Anthony argues, "Hansen took a series of photos -- and then later, realizing that his most dramatically situated photo was too dark and shadowy, decided to splice a bunch of images together and apply a liberal amount of dodging (brightening) to the shadowy regions."
Hansen, for his part, told news.com.au today that the allegations just aren't true. "In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning," the Swedish photographer explained. "In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range."
As I understand it, Hansen is arguing that his mild image manipulation is the digital equivalent of under- or over-developing select portions of the image in a darkroom. No fancy bells and whistles -- and definitely no composites of other photos. And as news.com.au points out, this seems to be acceptable according to the somewhat ambiguous rules for the World Press Photo contest, which states that the "content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed."
At the end of the day, an image from the November conflict between Hamas and Israel was bound to create controversy. The meaning of another photograph from that bout of violence -- depicting BBC World journalist Jihad Mashrawi holding his dead son in a hospital -- has also been subject to revisions. Initial reports claimed the child was killed by an Israeli attack, while a U.N. investigation found that the death owed to an errant rocket fired by Hamas.
Image manipulation is becoming more and more common in news photography, but many media organizations maintain certain journalistic standards for the pictures they use. Krawetz argues that Hansen's image violates "the acceptable journalism standards used by Reuters, Associated Press, Getty Images, National Press Photographer's Association, and other media outlets." Anthony, however, doesn't seem so certain:
The bigger discussion, of course, is whether Gaza Burial is actually fake -- or just enhanced to bring out important details. This is a question that has plagued photography since its inception. Should a photo, especially a press photo, be purely objective? Most people think the answer is an obvious 'yes,' but it's not quite that simple.... Is it okay for a photographer to modify a picture so that it looks exactly how he remembers the scene?
For what it's worth, the qualities that Lyon, the jury chairman, cited for the award are fundamental to the photograph:
This photo was chosen because it is so powerful.... The combination of the small size of the bodies -- they're very young children -- combined with the variety of expressions of pain and rage and sadness.... This image sums up the story very powerfully, very poignantly.
On Tuesday, World Press Photo told the Huffington Post that two independent experts will be carrying out a forensic investigation of the image file with Hansen's cooperation, and later informed Poynter that it had found "no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing."
Ultimately, Hansen may have edited the picture to emphasize the features that the judges cited in deeming his image the best photo of the year. But what Lyon described in announcing the award goes far beyond lighting in a dark alley.
FREDRIK SANDBERG/SCANPIX/AFP/Getty Images
Here's a new data point to drop into the drone debate: A 9-inch remote-control drone helicopter that spent the last week tangled in the arms of a Lady Justice statue atop a courthouse in Marion, Ohio -- "rest[ing] on the hilt of her sword," as the AP poetically put it -- was finally liberated over the weekend by a man with an extension pole (county officials had previously said they wouldn't spend public resources to retrieve it). The camera-equipped drone had been filming a tourism video for the city when a gust of wind swept it into the statue's arms. On Tuesday, the Marion Star posted footage, above, of the drone's fateful last flight.
It's a story that seems full of symbolism. But how should we interpret it? Here are some conclusions you could draw:
a) The murky legality surrounding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles will ultimately give way to a standardized system of rules and regulations (the swift gust of wind is Sen. Rand Paul)
b) Drones will eventually be freed from legal constraints and set aloft to do as they please (the man with the long pole is Attorney General Eric Holder)
c) Drone use by private citizens is a threat to law and order (Lady Justice represents civil liberty/privacy groups, the man filming the tourism video is Rosa Brooks)
Of course, then there's Marion Sheriff Tim Bailey, who had this to say about the drone owner, Terry Cline:
"Look," the sheriff said. "Let's put this in perspective. He ran a helicopter into county property. It's no different than if someone hit the courthouse with their car. We took a report. We're done."
Think about it.
In a country with a population of just 315,281, it turns out it's not very hard to accidentally hook up with a close relative.
"Everyone has heard of (or experienced) it when someone goes all in with someone and then later runs into that person at a family gathering some other time," writes the website News of Iceland.
Now, there's an app for that.
Three enterprising entrepreneurs have used the information from Íslendingabók -- a website with a geneological database of more than 700,000 Icelanders, past and present -- to make an Android app that allows users to bump phones and find out if their genes are a little too close for comfort before an encounter goes any further (slogan: "Bump the app before you bump in bed").
As the Global Post noted back in 2011, sexual encounters are becoming more anonymous as Iceland becomes increasingly urbanized. Íslendingabók began as a geneological website but has since taken on the additional role of helping couples search for common roots. Presumably, having the site available in app form will make it a bit easier to conduct these incest checks in, say, a bar or at one of those famous volcanic hot springs (couple on the right, above: take note!).
Of course, in Iceland, the question is not whether you're related -- it's how closely. The new technology leaves up to the user the decision about whether hooking up with a third or fourth cousin is too much. But here's hoping for a few less awkward Icelandic family reunions this summer.
OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
There aren't many surprises in the new WikiLeaks document dump -- the organization is calling the collection of 1.7 million documents dated from 1973 to 1976 "The Kissinger Cables" -- but there are a few interesting finds. For example, there's the request from Morocco's King Hassan II for any information the United States had on an unidentified flying object spotted along the Moroccan coast in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 1976.
Four days after the incident, the commander of Morocco's gendarmerie requested a meeting with the U.S. defense attaché in Rabat. In their meeting, the Moroccan officer noted that there had been reports across the country of an object sighted arcing across the night sky, and that the king had taken a personal interest in following up on the incident.
"Reports from these widely separate locations were remarkably similar, i.e., that the object was on a generally southwest to northeast course, it was a silvery luminous circular shape and gave off intermittent trails of bright sparks and fragments, and made no noise," the U.S. defense attaché wrote in his cable to Washington. The next day, the attaché met with another gendarmerie officer who had actually seen the UFO. The officer "described the UFO as flying parallel to the coast at a relatively low speed, as if it were an aircraft preparing to land. It first appeared to him as a disc-shaped object, but as it came closer he saw it as a luminous tubular-shaped object."
"I frankly do not know what to make of these sighting, although I find intriguing the similarity of the descriptions reported from widely dispersed locations," the attaché wrote to Washington on Sept. 25. "In any event, I wish to be able to respond promptly to King Hassan's request for information, and would appreciate anything you can do to assist me in this."
One week later, on Oct. 2, Washington cabled back with the terse message: "Hope to have answer for you next week. Regards." Three days later, the secretary's office followed up. "It is difficult to offer any definitive explanation as to the cause or origin of the UFOs sighted in the Moroccan area between 0100 and 0130 local time 19 September 1976," the cable began, before suggesting that, based on descriptions of its trajectory and appearance, it "could conceivably be compatible with a meteor, or a decaying satellite," though U.S. officials noted that "the [U.S. government] is unaware of any US aircraft or satellite activity, either military or civilian, in the Moroccan area which might have been mistaken for such sightings."
Despite their appearance in WikiLeaks' new cache of documents, the cables aren't exactly breaking news. They were quoted at length in a 1990 book titled The UFO Cover-Up: What the Government Won't Say, in which the authors speculated that the 10-day delay between the initial cable from Rabat and Washington's reply was to allow time for secret briefings, and refuted the official narrative:
Is it impossible for a bright meteor to have been responsible for the sightings? Not really, if one examines the information very generally. A silvery, luminous object giving off a bright trail and sparks is not unlike a description of a meteor. However, the sightings were reported over a span of about an hour. The UFO, according to some witnesses, traveled at a slow speed, like an aircraft about to land. And the southwest to northeast course of the UFO would have brought it in the general direction of Iran, where other activity was ongoing. Coincidence?
Well, yes. It was a coincidence. In October 2012, Canadian amateur satellite watcher Ted Molczan (who was profiled by the New York Times in 2008) posted on a satellite interest site that the trajectory and timing of the incident matches the re-entry of a piece of space junk -- specifically a Soviet booster engine from a rocket launched two months earlier -- in July 1976. While it's true that the UFO was not of U.S. origin, it appears the cable from the State Department was either misleading or not fully informed about the incident. The Soviet rocket debris was tracked by U.S. Strategic Command and cataloged in its Space Track database, where Molczan eventually found the record. So there you go, mystery solved -- 35 years later.
(Hat tip to @arabist.)
Iran, always leery when it comes to espionage, has taken a number of steps to fend off would-be spies. The latest came just yesterday, with the announcement of an "Islamic" alternative to Google Earth -- the ironically named Basir (spectator). But there's one thing Tehran didn't plan on: Dom.
Dom is a U.K. resident who had his laptop stolen from his London apartment two months ago. But luckily for him -- and us -- he'd installed an application that tracks the location of his laptop and even sends back screenshots of it being used.
Where did the computer end up? Nearly two months after the burglary it appeared in the heart of Tehran:
The Telegraph, which identifies Dom as an animator named Dom del Toro, explains that del Toro reported the theft to British police, who claimed they couldn't do anything since Iran was outside their jurisdiction. He then set up a Tumblr blog -- the aptly named, Dom's laptop is in Iran -- where he's been posting pictures of the Tehrani woman currently using his computer.
We learn about her taste in music:
And even her interest in Jenga:
Hidden App claims to work by taking "real time photos of the thief and screenshots of them using your computer" -- all "without them knowing you're watching." Unless, that is, you post the images on the Internet.
Michael Mann -- director of the venerable Al Pacino/Robert De Niro movie Heat and The Last of the Mohicans -- is working on a new film, and its plotline sounds, well, unrealistic.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the still-untitled movie will feature U.S. and Chinese cyber agents -- not duking it out across the Internet, as might be expected, but working together. To stop a hacker. From the Balkans. The film is said to center around a pair of "Chinese hacker siblings"; Mann was reportedly in Hong Kong this week scouting potential lead actors and actresses.
Is this completely implausible? Well, not completely. Sure, there are some hackers in the Balkans. And sure, the United States and China occasionally make gestures toward increasing cooperation on cybercrime. But it is cybercrime from China -- particularly of the state-backed variety -- that is by far the bigger concern for business leaders and policymakers.
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
From the country that brought you the virtual-girlfriend game Love Plus comes the latest breakthrough in dating simulation: Japanese students at the University of Tsukuba have apparently invented the Riajyuu Coat, a jacket that hugs you and comes with a pair of headphones that whisper sweet nothings in your ears. According to the gaming blog Kotaku, riajyuu is slang for "someone who is pleased with their life outside the Internet," which may be wishful thinking for anyone who finds themselves in need of such a coat.
The jacket looks fairly normal but comes with a belt that tightens around the waist, as though your girlfriend were hugging you from behind. When you feel the squeeze, you'll hear a sweet voice in your ears that says things like, "I'm sorry I'm late!" (even coat-girlfriends can't show up on time?!). Here's the promotional video:
The researchers don't seem to be interested in selling the coat so much as just having fun with the idea. But the concept does suggest that Japan's traditionally quirky innovation isn't limited to robots anymore.
There's the FitBit for fitness fanatics, the Pebble Watch for people who think their cell phones are too big, and Google Glasses for fancy sportsmen or irritating entrepreneurs. And now, there are high-tech life-trackers for human rights activists too -- devices that might save their lives.
Designed by Civil Rights Defenders (CRD), these high-tech bracelets -- dubbed the "The Natalia Project" after activist Natalia Estemirova who, in 2009, was abducted from her home in Chechnya and murdered for her activism -- are designed to serve as the first assault alarm system for human rights defenders at risk of being kidnapped or killed, according to a press release published by the organization on Friday.
When triggered -- either by the wearer or by the device being forcibly removed -- the durable bracelet/personal alarm uses GPS and smartphone technology to send a message with the time and the bracelet's location to the phones of colleagues in close proximity and to CRD headquarters in Stockholm. In an interesting social media twist, CRD will also notify anyone around the world who has signed up to receive distress signal alerts via SMS, Facebook, and Twitter. The organization hopes that those who have signed up to monitor the activists' safety will in turn spread the word via social media, raising awareness and putting pressure on those responsible for the attack or kidnapping.
It's a life-tracking device that could very well live up to its name.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo's Twitter feed disappeared for about an hour today following an online sparring match with a feed operated by the office of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy over Jon Stewart's impassioned defense of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. When the embassy's feed returned, a tweet linking to the Daily Show clip had been deleted, and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters that embassy officials "came to the conclusion that the decision to tweet it in the first place didn't accord with post management of the site."
There's bad diplomacy, and then there's the Twitter fight that followed this afternoon between the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language Twitter account (@IkhwanWeb) and American radio show host and media personality Rick Sanchez (@RickSanchezTV). The improbable feud started when the Muslim Brotherhood tweeted an Al Jazeera report featuring a comment Sanchez made in 2010 that was widely reported as being anti-Semitic and led to his firing from CNN. The Muslim Brotherhood pointed to the incident as an example of the West's "double standards" about free speech:
The Muslim Brotherhood's confusion about the government-ensured rights of an individual vs. the rights of private employees notwithstanding, Sanchez came looking for a fight this afternoon. Armed with a loose understanding of the situation, Sanchez eagerly began trolling @IkhwanWeb.
The Muslim Brotherhood responded, and from there, it was a good, old-fashioned troll fight. @IkhwanWeb was right that Sanchez didn't have his facts straight, but their defense of Egypt's freedom of speech rang a bit hollow given the circumstances:
.@ricksancheztv Mr. Shanchez, we value freedom of speech, it's what Egyptians fought for & no power can take this fundamental right away— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
.@ricksancheztv perhaps u shld get facts first. He wasn't arrested, but questioned and released re complaint brought by pvt citizen, not us— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
.@ricksancheztv absolutely false, we've nothing to do w investigations, it's a fact & if u ve evidence to contrary plz announce to the world— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
Sanchez then declared victory. Several times.
And that's today's installment of how Twitter is making politics weird. Remember, folks: Don't feed the trolls.
Unless you have been aboard the International Space Station (or maybe its Russian predecessor, Mir), you haven't seen the world like this. This is what the earth looks like from the window of the only inhabited outpost in space, 250 miles above the planet's surface.
As long as there's been space travel, astronauts (and cosmonauts and taikonauts) have taken pictures from orbit, but none has been as prolific or as accessible as the current commander of the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. (Stephen Quick, director of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, has characterized Hadfield as "the spaceman from next door.") Hadfield makes videos about life in space and the experiments aboard the station and uploads them to the Canadian Space Agency's YouTube page, while posting photos taken from the ISS's observatory window to his Twitter feed and Tumblr page. Dr. Thomas Marshburn, the flight engineer on the current ISS expedition, is also posting his photos to Twitter.
The Canadian Centre of Geographic Sciences, meanwhile, has collected the astronauts' pictures in an interactive map, "Our World from the ISS," which can be accessed online here. The images are stunning, from Washington, D.C., at night, to the Euphrates River winding through Ramadi, Iraq, to natural features like Mt. Fuji in Japan and the bizarre Richat Structure in Mauritania. Check out some of the images below:
Euphrates River, Iraq
Mt. Fuji, Japan
Richat Structure, Mauritania
NASA/Chris Hadfield via Twitter
When a 10-ton meteorite exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia on Friday, Feb. 15, it injured more than 1,500 people, caused $30 million in damage, and sparked nearly 3,000 financial aid applications from residents. Now, it seems, Russians -- including government officials -- are trying to get that money back, using the very rock that caused the losses in the first place.
This week, authorities in Chelyabinsk announced a design contest for a memorial to mark the "interplanetary visit," and also unveiled plans to develop a logo that entrepreneurs can slap on calendars, magnets, booklets, and other souvenirs. The region's geography and history museum, meanwhile, has already opened an exhibition on the meteorite that will include photos, videos, and meteorite fragments. "The authorities say they will try to make the memory of last Friday's event a great tourist attraction," the Voice of Russia reported.
Then there's the mayor of Chebarkul, who has himself tried to dig up some meteorite fragments by sending divers into the town's lake, where the meteor crashed. And he recently tried to galvanize his constituents by launching a competition for business ideas that would allow Chebarkul to profit from the global attention. The window may be closing fast, though, since Russian scientists say the fragments will soon be covered by snow or blown away by the wind.
Efforts to capitalize on the meteor strike got underway almost as soon as the extraterrestrial stone blew up, spewing tiny fireballs that buried themselves just inches deep in the ground and quickly cooled into little collectibles. Residents rushed to the scene of the explosion and began to dig up bits of meteorite that were often no larger than a centimeter. Apparently enough people were eager to see the meteor that some locals started taxiing them over for a steep price.
Many of the fragments have made their way onto the Russian classified ad website Avito.ru, where prices range from 500 to 300,000 rubles ($16 to $10,000), though the size of the fragments doesn't vary nearly as much. But meteorite aficionados beware: Many of the space particles for sale are raising some eyebrows, and Chelyabinsk police have already looked into a local man who has sold a few chunks for 15,000 rubles ($492) apiece that they believe could be fakes. Given the uncertainty, you might be better off with a good old-fashioned souvenir.
Chinese government officials considered using an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to target a drug trafficker hiding in Myanmar, according to an interview with Liu Yuejin, the director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau that appeared in Global Times on Monday. The target, Naw Kham, wanted for a drug-trafficking related attack that killed 13 Chinese sailors, was eventually captured last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation in Laos and is now appealing a death sentence in China. Yuejin's comments are an unusual glimpse into China's considerations for the use of drone strikes, a tactic that is no longer used exclusively by the United States.
The proposed Chinese strike would have occurred in Myanmar's restive north, where the Naypyidaw government has struggled to control ethnic conflicts and a thriving drug trade. Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. Similarly, as a violent drug trafficker tied to the deaths of Chinese sailors, China could have justified the potential drone strike under the white paper's loose definition of the "imminent threat of violent attack" against the homeland -- much as the United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored).
The admission that the Chinese government considered a drone strike comes as its relationship with Myanmar has become increasingly strained amid stalled economic projects and new competition for influence with the West. China also appears to have placed special emphasis on their UAV programs in recent months, unveiling new models (that look suspiciously like U.S.-made Predator and Reaper drones) and retrofitting old Shenyang J-6 jets to fly by remote control.
Yuejin told Global Times that the drone strike option was passed over because of instructions to capture Naw Kham alive, but his comments demonstrate that China is weighing targeted killings seriously. When -- almost certainly not "if" -- China conducts its first drone strike, it will join just three other nations -- the United States, Britain, and Israel -- and place itself among the drone powers in the ongoing international assessment of the legality of these operations and whether they abridge international law and the established concept of sovereignty.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
This morning, Russians in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city 950 miles east of Moscow, were jolted awake when a meteor exploded in the sky, producing shockwaves that shattered windows, set off car alarms, and injured at least 500 people. The meteor was traveling at 19 miles per second, according to Russian authorities, before exploding mid-air, likely as a result of the immense heat generated as a large object speeds through the atmosphere.
On the ground in Chelyabinsk, Russians witnessed a scene that must have seemed ripped out of an apocalyptic film, as a bright, flaming object suddenly appeared in the sky, streaked across the horizon, and unleashed a bone-rattling shockwave. The extraordinary developments were captured on video, in part through the automobile dash-cams that are nearly ubiquitous in Russia.
Below, we've compiled a selection of some of the best videos of the meteor shower, along with translations of the reactions of the stunned Russians on the ground.
At 1:40, the speaker says that there was an extremely bright flash going across the sky. Once the blast can be heard he says, "What the hell? ... Something fell. Do you hear? You know what that was? It was supersonic. It must have been an asteroid, and that's the blast wave." At 2:38, the speaker exclaims, "What the fuck?" They look at the broken windows and say it's like something out of the war. Then, another speaker says, "It must have been a rocket or something." While they're cursing up a storm, one of his friends says, "It must have been the Chinese!"
The video below gives a sense of the magnitude of the blast's shockwave.
This video, shot across the border from Kazakhstan about 200 miles from Chelyabinsk, shows how far from the city the meteoroid could be seen.
The blast blew out windows in Chelyabinsk. The closed-circuit video below gives a sense of how many Chelyabinsk residents likely experienced the meteoroid.
This video of a street in Chelyabinsk, which doesn't capture the direct path of the meteoroid, shows how the meteoroid lit up the street, casting a veritable klieg light on an entire city block.
This video compilation shows how residents experienced the meteroid across the city, and includes footage from a Chelyabinsk school right after the explosion was felt on the ground.
The new user-generated Google Map of North Korea unveiled with some fanfare on the company''s blog Monday is a bit less than it initally seems. It isn't the most detailed publicly available map of North Korea. It's not even the most detailed map produced by Google -- that title belongs to the North Korea Uncovered project, produced by Google Earth, which has truly extensive mapping of the isolated country from its dams to its power stations and even its restaurants. (The head of that project, Curtis Melvin, comes off a touch bitter about all the attention the new Google Maps project has received in this Wall Street Journal story).
Where Google Maps does win out, however, is in easy accessibility (North Korea Uncovered requires a few downloads before it's usable). As an added bonus, the user review feature has produced a bit of a snarkfest. Users have left reviews on North Korean landmarks ranging from parks and monuments to gulags and nuclear testing facilities. While some are earnest, the vast majority are decidedly not. Here's a sampling of what's been posted:
Nuclear Test Facility, North Hamgyong, North Korea
Of all the barren, post-nuclear, wastelands I have visited this was by far the best. Of course Los Alamos is the classic, but no where else do you feel the warmth of the radioactive decay take you in its soft embrace quite as vividly as in the Hamgyong Nuclear Test Facility. However, be warned, reservations are required, as Hamgyong, is very exclusive. In fact, it is not uncommon to encounter the upper echelons of North Korean society. Once, I even met the North's biggest film star, Zao Xioping, who has stared in such famous films as, "Glory to the Industrial Proletariat in Their Moment of Triumph Over the Decadent Capitalists," and of course who could forget his appearance in the 2010 classic "Kim Il Sung and the Temple of Doom." If you're visiting the nearby Hamgyong Concentration Camp, the Nuclear Test Facility is a must!!
Whilst it doesn't have the international reputation of Bukchang, Hwasong is certainly worth a visit for any gulag enthusiast.
Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang
I found the fish tacos to be really underwhelming
East Pyongyang Market, Pyongyang
Service is good, but selection is sub-par.
Just a handful of what's out there, and there will surely be more to come
Forget nuclear ducks. This morning Iran revealed its latest science and technology development: a space monkey. According to Iran's Al-Alam TV, a monkey, launched in a Kavoshgar rocket, successfully reached a height of 120 kilometers, before returning safely to earth.
This launch comes on the heels of a tragic failed attempt to send a monkey into space in October of 2011. After having successfully launched a turtle, a mouse, worms, and even a monkey doll into space, Iran's first actual monkey did not return alive.
These forays into space travel have prompted Western concerns that this is all really part of Iran's growing nuclear program:
Western countries are concerned the long-range ballistic technology used to propel Iranian satellites into orbit could be used to launch atomic warheads. Tehran denies such suggestions and says its nuclear work is purely peaceful.
Iran joins a long list of countries who have employed monkeys and other mammals to bravely go where no man has gone before, including the US, China, France, and Russia. Unlike these other countries, Iran doesn't seem to name their animals. Maybe it's better not to get too attached.
It's an odd match, to be sure: a country with some of the most restrictive internet laws in the world (not to mention its other laws), and a company that still claims "Don't be evil" as its motto, and has been burned by authoritarian governments before. But the AP is reporting that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea soon -- possibly as early as this month -- accompanied by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The news comes a day after a rare New Year's Day speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that called for a "revolution" in science and technology in the poverty-stricken Hermit Kingdom. But it also comes just a few weeks after the country received international condemnation for a sneakily-timed rocket launch.
Google didn't officially confirm the story to AP and Schmidt has yet to make a public statement on why he's visiting the isolated country, which does hardly any business at all with U.S. companies. Also, it's not yet clear who exactly Schmidt and Richardson will be meeting with once they arrive. However, Schmidt has been working with former State Department Adviser Jared Cohen on a book called "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," and has long been an advocate of the power of internet access to improve quality of life and openness.
Still, North Korea controls its internet with a far heavier hand than China, which Google has tangled with in the past. Those who have computer access mostly log on to a system known as the Kwangmyong, essentially a country-wide intranet run by a lone, state-run ISP provider (the BBC story linked to above includes the amazing detail that any time Kim Jong Un is mentioned on this intranet, his name is displayed slightly larger than the text around it). Just a few dozen families have unfiltered access to the real thing.
Can the power of "connectivity for the individual" be harnessed in a country where the government still cracks down on cell phones that can dial the outside world? Here's hoping Schmidt speaks up soon so we can hear what exactly he has in mind.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the amorphous hacker collective known as "Anonymous" released a video on YouTube Tuesday warning Egyptian president Mohamed Morsy that he risks cyberwarfare unless he relinquishes his claim to extrajudicial powers.
In the video, titled Anonymous #OpEgypt, a figure wearing the group's signature Guy Fawkes mask threatens cyberattacks against the Egyptian government as well as Morsy personally:
"Dr Morsy has repeatedly shown his lack of care about the core values of democracy...Now, he is gradually grasping more and more authoritarian power in his hands...To Dr. Morsy: Anonymous will not sit by and watch you washing away what thousands of Egyptians got killed and injured for...when you ignore this message, not only will we attack your organizations and websites; Anonymous will make sure you stand exposed against your people as well as the international community...we are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget. Expect us."
This isn't Anonymous' first warning to the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government. In a video released on Nov. 7, the group announced that it would shut down the official Brotherhood website; a threat which was carried out a few days later.
Anonymous played an important role in the original 2011 Egyptian uprising against then-president Hosni Mubarak, when it successfully targeted a number of government websites and provided technical support to activists during a government-instituted Internet blackout.
Anonymous' other recent notable attempt at targeted "hacktivism" in the Middle East occurred during the conflict in Gaza earlier this month, when it claimed to have defaced 10,000 Israeli websites and released the personal data of 5,000 Israeli government officials in a press statement. Israeli officials confirmed that the government had deflected over 44 million cyberattacks, but maintained that only one website was briefly shut down.
Cyberattacks have emerged as a popular form of activism in recent Middle Eastern conflicts, especially the Syrian uprising, which has prompted hacking attempts by pro and anti-regime groups. In August, hackers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad targeted Reuters and Al Jazeera, while an opposition group released what they claimed were over 3,000 personal emails between Assad and his wife in March.
Although it's unclear how much damage Anonymous and other cyberactivists have actually inflicted on the governments and institutions they target, anyone who has ever had their computer freeze at an inconvenient moment can sympathize with what's potentially in store for Morsy. Given the protests currently blazing across Egypt, it's hard to imagine a more inopportune time for him to experience technical difficulties.
The Uprising of Women in the Arab World is not pleased with Facebook.
The group, which advocates for women's rights in the Middle East, issued a press statement on Nov. 7 claiming that Facebook, once hailed as the catalyst of the Arab Spring, was purposefully targeting the organization through censorship. After a member posted a controversial photograph to the group's Facebook page on Oct. 25, group leaders say, the social networking giant reacted by blocking the image and suspending the account of the administrator who posted it for 24 hours.
"The photograph was part of a campaign which asks the members of our Facebook page to post pictures of themselves holding banners that explain why they support The Uprising of Women in the Arab World," Diala Haider, one of the organization's administrators, explained in an interview. "Women from all the Arab countries participated and expressed their demands and outrage at social discrimination and the ways in which women have been marginalized in the public sphere."
This particular photograph was posted by Dana Bakdounes, a young woman from Syria. In it, Bakdounes is pictured with her hair uncovered, holding her passport, which has a photo of her wearing a hijab. She also holds a sign which reads: "I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body."
Haider says that after the first time Bakdounes' photo was removed by Facebook, supporters of The Uprising of Women in the Arab World responded by posting the image to their own Facebook pages and on Twitter. Convinced that the removal of the photograph had been an error on the part of Facebook, one of the administrators, Yalda Younes, reposted the image to the original page. Facebook then allegedly removed the photograph again and suspended her account for seven days. The group filled out a feedback request stating that Facebook's actions were a violation of free speech, and on Oct. 31 the block on Bakdounes' photo was removed. But just a week later, after the organization posted a status update on Facebook asking its supporters to follow the group on Twitter and use the hashtag #DanaWind for solidarity, Haider says Facebook suspended all five of the administrators' accounts and sent them an official notice warning that their accounts could be deleted if they violated Facebook community rules again.
"We've had a lot of religious fanatics and extremists who use offensive and insulting language in reaction to our efforts," says Haider. "They call us infidels for supporting the freedom of women to choose things like whether to wear a veil or not. We've come under attack, but that was expected.... The real surprise was Facebook's reaction to the page."
In a statement posted on Reddit on Nov. 13 and confirmed to Foreign Policy as official by a Facebook spokesman, Facebook explained that the incident was simply an error:
"We made a mistake," the statement reads. "In this case, we mistakenly blocked images from The Uprising of Women in the Arab World Page, and worked to rectify the mistake as soon as we were notified.... To be clear, the images of the woman were not in violation of our terms. Instead, a mistake was made in the process of responding to a report on controversial content.... What made this situation worse is that we made multiple mistakes over a number of days, and it took time to rectify each of these missteps."
Incidents such as the removal of Bakdounes' photo raise questions about Facebook's content moderation system, which has come under fire in recent months. In February, Amine Derkaoui, a Moroccan employee of oDesk, one of the outsourcing firms that Facebook used to moderate its content at the time, leaked internal documents to Gawker detailing the social media site's content guidelines. According to the documents, while "camel toes" and breastfeeding mothers are off limits, "Crushed heads, limbs etc are OK as long as no insides are showing." Facebook terminated its partnership with oDesk in May.
An incident similar to the removal of Bakdounes' photo occurred in April 2011 when a photograph of gay men kissing was removed (and subsequently reposted by Facebook with an apology for its "error"). The site has also been criticized for blocking the New Yorker's Facebook page after the magazine posted a cartoon that depicted female nipples. In October, a group of Navy SEALS claimed that Facebook was censoring an anti-Obama meme when it took down the image and provided no explanation for its removal until after the story was reported -- at which point Facebook issued statements to news outlets apologizing for its mistake.
These episodes begin to make more sense when you factor in the system that, at least until May, Facebook used to moderate its content. Derkaoui told Gawker that he was part of a team of 50 people from across the globe -- many from poor countries -- who moderated Facebook's content from home for as little as $1 an hour. He did not return requests for comment, and Facebook has been tightlipped about which companies it now uses to moderate content, failing to respond to emailed questions sent by Foreign Policy.
Vaughn Hester, who works at Crowdflower, a San Francisco-based crowdsourcing firm that also tasks employees from around the world with moderating content, told The Daily Beast in September that "asking moderators to flag photos that are ‘offensive' can result in very different attitudes in terms of what constitutes offensive content versus permissible content." Given what seems to be the inherent subjectivity of the content moderation industry, as well as the vast cultural and religious differences between employees from different countries, it seems possible that a photograph like Bakdounes', which Americans might not find offensive in the least, could have upset a moderator from another country.
Panagiotis Ipeirotis, an associate professor in the Operations and Management Sciences department at New York University's Stern School of Business, says that there are many ways to identify and eliminate biases in the content moderation industry.
"You might, for example, compare different moderators' work against each other," says Ipeirotis. "So, if you're worried about cultural biases, you can take five moderators from different regions and get blended input on an image."
Ipeirotis says he is unfamiliar with Facebook's content moderation policy, but maintains that the content moderation systems of different companies are only as efficient as the standards they implement.
Haider says that while she understands that mistakes are made, it's important that Facebook take incidents like this seriously because arbitrary acts of censorship aren't compatible with the site's role as a forum for free speech.
"It's only normal that Facebook, which has penetrated the whole globe, hires employees from all over the world with various religious and cultural backgrounds," she says. "This becomes problematic only when those employees favor their cultural and religious biases over Facebook's policy of respecting freedom of expression. This is why Facebook should take serious measures regarding such mistakes. We trusted that Facebook would be a supporter of freedom of expression and the uprising; we have faced the opposite by feeling that Facebook is assisting extremists and misogynists to put us in a corner.... It is disappointing, to say the least."
Facebook outlines some of its guidelines for acceptable content on its community standards page while maintaining that it attempts to balance the need for a safe online environment with its commitment to freedom of speech.
"Facebook gives people around the world the power to publish their own stories, see the world through the eyes of many other people, and connect and share wherever they go," the page reads. "The conversation that happens on Facebook -- and the opinions expressed here -- mirror the diversity of the people using Facebook. To balance the needs and interests of a global population, Facebook protects expression that meets the community standards."
Despite the removal of Bakdounes' photograph, The Uprising of Women in the Arab World's Facebook page has over 66,000 likes, and Haider acknowledges the important role that social media sites such as Facebook have played in mobilizing activist groups such as hers.
"We wanted a forum that can provide a free space for women and men from around the Arab world to meet and voice their concerns and propositions for a better reality for women within the transforming Arab societies," she says. "In this sense, Facebook helps break the borders and helps in sharing real experiences and awareness with the least possible costs."
They're at it again. The BBC reported on Monday that Al Jazeera was the latest media outlet to feel the wrath of the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad hackers who have recently been running amok in cyberspace. This time, the Qatar-based news station's Arabic SMS service was compromised, and three fake texts were sent to all subscribers. One reportedly announced that Qatar's prime minister had been the target of an assassination attempt while another added that the wife of Qatar's emir had been wounded.
Last Tuesday, Reuters reported that Al Jazeera Arabic's home page was hacked by another pro-Syrian group calling itself "al-Rashedon." The hackers posted a Syrian flag and a statement denouncing the station for its ‘‘position against Syria (people and government) and for special support of the militant terrorism" underneath a large red stamp with the word "hack."
Reuters may have been relieved that they weren't the targets this time. As Foreign Policy recently noted, the British wire service was hacked three times during the month of August. The hackers sent fake tweets from the Reuters Twitter account and also put up false posts on one of its blogs.
Also in August, Amnesty International's blog Livewire was targeted by another pro-Assad hacker group that accused the rebel army of committing massacres that have been linked to government forces. The attack, which was not claimed by any specific group of hackers, included a false blog post lamenting that "it is clear the Al Qaeda affiliated rebels are not going to stop their crimes. And with no accountability and a steady supply of weapons, why should they given they have come this far under NATO protection?"
Another one of the false posts was titled "Amnesty Calls on UN to stop the US, Qatar and Turkey funding and arming Syria Rebels," and created the impression that Amnesty International was condemning NATO and the US for meddling in the Syrian civil war. Sanjeev Bery, Amnesty International's USA advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, explained the attack in an article published on the group's website:
"It's entirely possible that, given that we've been so forthright in criticizing the Syrian government for its crimes against humanity; that could conceivably make us the target of some kind of campaign."
As the actual war in Syria continues to spiral out of control, the long and dirty cyberwar between hackers loyal to Assad and those who support the rebels shows no signs of slowing. News organizations across the world are likely buttoning up their security systems and wondering who the next victim will be.
Reuters has been scrambling to tighten its Internet security since Friday, when one of its blogs started spontaneously featuring "inaccurate and unauthorized" reports of rebel forces gaining ground in Syria. As if that weren't enough, one of its Twitter feeds was apparently targeted by pro-government hackers on Sunday. The hijacked account was hastily renamed and immediately began falsely tweeting about a rebel collapse in Aleppo, then went on to accuse the White House of arming al Qaeda militants in Syria in an effort to undermine the regime.
Reuters played down the impact of the cyberattacks in an article published on Tuesday:
"While some of the false blog posts were at least briefly shared via social media by readers who believed they were honest reports from Aleppo, it is far from clear whether anyone in the embattled city itself ever saw them."
Cyberwarfare has been utilized by both sides of the Syrian conflict since its early days. Reuters mentions another incident that took place on Monday, when a fake Twitter account claiming to belong to a senior Russian official sensationally tweeted that President Bashar al-Assad was dead. An Italian schoolteacher later claimed to be the perpetrator of the hoax. Reuters even admits, rather sheepishly, that it was caught up in the "flurry of speculation and telephone calls" prompted by his tweets.
Reuters is not the first news outlet targeted by cyberattacks since the beginning of this conflict, either. Al Jazeera suffered a similar embarrassment in July, when one of its Twitter accounts was infiltrated by the pro-Assad hacker group, Syrian Electronic Army. That Twitter feed accused the Qatari television station of fabricating civilian casualties in Syria.
In March, an opposition group called Supreme Council of the Revolution hacked into Assad's private email account, releasing correspondence that allegedly took place between Assad and his wife Asma.
The regime in turn reportedly used social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to track members of the opposition, sending them tainted links containing spyware and creating fake accounts in an attempt to ferret out their identities.
Although it's not clear how much impact these cyberattacks have had on either side, they are an interesting manifestation of the long and bloody conflict taking place on the ground.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has been attacked by malware once again.
In a letter made public on the company's website, an unknown Iranian scientist from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) contacted Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer of Finnish security company F-secure, with an unusual complaint:
I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.
According to the email our cyber experts sent to our teams, they believe a hacker tool Metasploit was used. The hackers had access to our VPN. The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down. I only know very little about these cyber issues as I am scientist not a computer expert.
There was also some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing 'Thunderstruck' by AC/DC.
Though Hypponen emphasized that he could not verify the attacks upon the Natanz Uraniam enrichment facility in central Iran and Qom, a research facility in an undisclosed section of southwest Tehran, he confirmed that the message was sent from the AEIO.
This sort of thing isn't new. Music was central to 1989's Operation Just Cause, in which U.S. soldiers attempted to coerce Panamanian President Manuel Noriega from his refuge in the Vatican embassy by blaring loud music at the building. In documents acquired by the National Security Archives, U.S. SOUTHCOM admitted U.S. military DJs took requests, blaring a playlist that ranged from Paul Simon's 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and, an apparent favorite, AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long.
More recently, U.S. Psychological Operations Company (PsyOps) admitted to the use of heavy metal in Iraq as a mechanism to break uncooperative prisoners' resistance. Similar use was reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross as part of the "cruel, humane and degrading" treatment of Guantanamo inmates. Though the use of heavy metal as a interrogation technique incited some record companies to warn that the United States may owe royalty fees, military officials were unrepentant. As one officer told Newsweek, "Trust me, it works."
Though hackers have been known for their peculiar brand of humor -- see Stuxnet's hidden biblical references -- the use of music in cyber warfare is certainly a new development. Start planning your requests.
Sara Johannessen/AFP/Getty Images
The furor over the Saturday night train crash last weekend in eastern China that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 192 has left the Chinese government scrambling to control public reaction. But its efforts may be doing the ruling Communist party more harm than good. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting bits coming out about the crash:
Official reports from earlier this week said the crash was caused by a lightning strike. Today, however, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency is reporting testimony from the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau at a meeting of the central government's State Council saying that the blame lies with design flaws in the railway's signaling system. The revelation confirms questions aired publicly by a number of Chinese railway experts wondering why safety mechanisms didn't kick in after the lightning strike to avert disaster (Caixin, Wall Street Journal).
Meanwhile, five days after the crash, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally made a public appearance today in Wenzhou to address the disaster. He blamed his earlier absence on an illness, which knocked him out of action for the last eleven days. His explanation didn't sit well with a number of users of the popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, who circulated official press photos showing Wen up and about with visiting state leaders between July 18 and July 24. But the confusion may boil down to a simple reporting error; the original Xinhua report appears to have misquoted Wen in saying that he had been in the hospital, while the premier said only that he was sick and in bed.
Whatever the reason for Wen's absence, his appearance means that the central government is taking seriously the crash -- and not a moment too soon. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has come under fire from citizens, journalists, and even fellow government officials for its handling of the crisis. At a press conference on Monday, MOR spokesman Wang Yongping elicited howls from journalists with his efforts to explain why initial state reports about the cleanup were proven false (see item #13). Meanwhile, stories from the Wenzhou City News and the Beijing News describe how Wenzhou officials clashed with MOR officials over cleanup at the crash site. One local security official told the City News how he disobeyed orders on Sunday afternoon to bury the trains (translation by China-watching blog Shanghaiist):
The Saturday night train crash in eastern China that killed around 40 and injured around 200 (different reports give different figures) has provoked a firestorm reaction on the Chinese internet. A number of locals have accused the Chinese government of burying the trains to cover up evidence. The accusations were picked up and circulated on the Chinese microblogging site and rumor hub Sina Weibo, and even official state outlet Global Times has quoted family members of the accident victims questioning the official death toll.
Official reports have said that the crash was caused by a lightning strike. If so, it's at least the second time in the last three weeks that thunderstorms have caused malfunctions on high-speed rail trains. The first of these incidents occurred on July 10 on a train traveling the newly opened Beijing-Shanghai rail line, though a subsequent investigation from the Shanghai Oriental Post (translated here by the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project) cast doubt on this explanation.
Chinese state media outlet Xinhua says that the government has recovered the "black box" from the latest crash, so an updated report on the cause of the accident should be forthcoming. But a report from Chinese muckraking magazine Caixin argues that the accident would have been "entirely preventable" had the train's automated data collecting system been functioning properly.
When U.S. President Barack Obama visited China last December, he and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao issued a joint statement promising "the initiation of a joint dialogue on human spaceflight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit." But don't expect space to be on the agenda when Hu comes to Washington this month, according to Reuters' Jim Wolf:
Hu's state visit will highlight the importance of expanding cooperation on "bilateral, regional and global issues," the White House said.
But space appears to be a frontier too far for now, partly due to U.S. fears of an inadvertent technology transfer. China may no longer be much interested in any event, reckoning it does not need U.S. expertise for its space program.
New obstacles to cooperation have come from the Republicans capturing control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November 2 congressional elections from Obama's Democrats.
Representative Frank Wolf, for instance, is set to take over as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the U.S. space agency in the House. A China critic and human rights firebrand, the Republican congressman has faulted NASA's chief for meeting leaders of China's Manned Space Engineering Office in October.
"As you know, we have serious concerns about the nature and goals of China's space program and strongly oppose any cooperation between NASA and China," Wolf and three fellow Republicans wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on October 15 as he left for China.
It's hard to look at space and not see an example of American decline. While China has launched two moon orbiters and conducted a space walk in recent years and plans for a moon rover by 2012, the U.S. is now forced to hitch a ride on Soviet-era Soyuz rockets in order to maintain the international space station.
Five tourists have been attacked by sharks (with one killed) over the past week in the waters off Egypt's Red Sea coast, a vacation area especially popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. And nobody knows what to do.
Despite the frequent depiction of the cartilaginous fish as terrifying man eaters, these kinds of attacks are actually very rare. The Egyptian government has brought in experts from around the world to help solve the shark crisis. So far no one has arrived at a definitive conclusion, but possible explanations include over fishing in the Red Sea, an excess of resorts along the coast, and the effects of climate change.
There's another theory floating around, though: Israel's infamous intelligence agency is behind the attacks. Ahram Online reports (and refutes):
Speaking on the public TV program "Egypt Today" yesterday, a specialist introduced as "Captain Mustafa Ismael, a famous diver in Sharm El Sheikh," said that the sharks involved in the attack are ocean sharks and do not live in Egypt's waters.
When asked by the anchor how the shark entered Sharm El Sheikh waters, he burst out, "no, who let them in."
Urged to elaborate, Ismael said that he recently got a call from an Israeli diver in Eilat telling him that they captured a small shark with a GPS planted in its back, implying that the sharks were monitored to attack in Egypt's waters only.
"Why would these sharks travel 4000 km and not have any accidents until it entered Sinai?" said Ismael.
Earlier today, General Abdel Fadeel Shosha, the governor of South Sinai, backed Ismael's theory. In a phone call to the TV program, he said that it is possible that Israeli intelligence, Mossad, is behind the incident and that they are doing it to undermine the Egyptian tourism industry. He added that Egypt needs time to investigate the theory.
The shark attacks have the potential to do some real damage to Egypt, where tourism is pillar of the economy and an important provider of jobs. But the idea that Israel (which is currently dealing with its own Nature Channel-worthy crisis) is behind the attacks is pretty farfetched.
ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Last night I went to one of those quintessential Washington odd-couple events, where Bianca Jagger in a floor-length leopard-print sheath said some words about research and rainforests and presented a trophy to President Obama's national advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists. The take-home gift for guests was a reprint of the 1946 bestseller, One World or None, a collection of essays penned by scientists warning of the coming nuclear age.
Holdren talked a bit about the role of science and technology in the Obama administration. He noted the happy uptick in intellectual capital over the Bush years, pointing to the multiple Nobel laureates at the helm of federal agencies, and the administration's increasing willingness to examine the role of technology in achieving other priorities, such as healthcare delivery and development assistance. But even so, darn it's hard making progress, he said, in this political and economic environment. Not many big concrete, accomplishments to brag about. No projections on future climate or carbon policy.
Yet, one passing remark gave me some hope: When Holdren took the job, he had expected much of his role to entail educating the president. However, Holdren found, as he put it, "When I go in to meet with the president, I almost never have to explain to him how the underlying technology works. We go immediately to the question of: 'What should we do?'"
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Makers of the video game Medal of Honor announced today that they were removing the option of being a Taliban soldier in online multiplayer. Electronic Arts had come under fire for the insensitivity of creating a virtual world in which gamers could act as virtual Taliban and shoot virtual U.S. troops.
Of course, EA isn't actually removing the option of playing as Taliban, they've merely renamed them to "Opposing Force." Wow, a game set in Afghanistan, an opposing force -- hey, EA's letting you play as al Qaeda, too!
It also should be noted that gamers have long had options of playing as terrorists long before Medal of Honor came around. The issue was ignored because ultimately there were a lot more pressing problems.
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