The Darién Gap is a roadless region of tropical rainforest connecting North and South America; the "gap" refers to the gap in the Pan-American Highway in this section of southern Panama and northern Colombia. Since the economic disintegration of Venezuela in 2018, the Darién Gap has also emerged as a primary, if arduous, transit corridor for migrants trying to get from South America to Mexico and the U.S. This article from the New York Times looks at the how the Darién Gap has become a major cash cow, not just for smugglers but also for entrepreneurs and local officials in what is effectively a space outside central government control. Trafficking migrants across the Darién Gap is described as "the only profitable industry in a place that didn’t have a defined economy before.” www.nytimes.com/2023/09/14/world/americas/migrant-business-darien-gap.html
Cantonese is the primary language of southern China, including Hong Kong, and Cantonese has been a tool for anti-regime satire and solidarity since the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. This article from Quartz looks at Beijing's attempts to crackdown on Cantonese publishing outlets and promote the teaching of Mandarin in Hong Kong's schools: qz.com/hong-kong-s-new-public-enemy-the-cantonese-language-1850780591
Geoengineering is the nascent science and movement to engineer the earth's climate by any number of means, including fertilizing the ocean to increase CO2 uptake and scattering particles in the upper atmosphere to deflect solar radiation. This piece from Foreign Policy argues that one of the lessons from Oppenheimer is that geoengineering, like nuclear weapons, needs international "guardrails and guidelines" because of its planetary impact. foreignpolicy.com/2023/08/21/oppenheimer-movie-atom-bomb-climate-change-geoengineering-solar-radiation-modification-srm-regulation/
China recently indicated President Xi Jinping will skip the G-20 economic summit in India later this month. That decision comes on the heels of a new standard map released by China's ministry of natural resources last week that shows India's state of Arunachal Pradesh, in the far northeastern part of the country, and all of the Aksai Chin plateau, part of which is in Kashmir, as Chinese territory. Although the Himalayan border between India and China has been poorly defined, disputed, and the source of military conflict for decades, the new map is viewed with concern as part of a tendency for China to claim territory in print before trying to assert its claims in other ways. qz.com/india-china-border-dispute-map-arunachal-pradesh-1850786461
Cargo shipping has been among the last segments of the transportation industry to find greener alternatives. Earlier this month, a cargo ship chartered by the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill left Singapore bound for Brazil and then Denmark using WindWings technology, "sails" made out of the same material as wind turbine blades designed to generate power at sea and reduce carbon emissions by 30%. qz.com/cargill-pyxis-ocean-cargo-ship-wing-power-windwings-1850756956
The 2023 Global Terrorism Index has been released, showing that Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Sahel, has become the global hotspot for terrorism, with the Sahel now accounting for 43% of all deaths due to terrorism. The U.S. is still #30 on the list, just behind Benin and Sri Lanka, but in 2022 recorded the fewest attacks classified as terrorism since 2012. www.visionofhumanity.org/maps/global-terrorism-index/#/
The tropical storm that delivered record rains to Southern California and parts of the Southwest earlier this week was fueled, in part, by the return of an El Niño weather pattern. This article from Foreign Policy looks at what El Niño means, not just for local weather but also for food security, armed conflicts, disease outbreaks, territorial claims, and other geopolitical concerns: foreignpolicy.com/2023/08/18/el-nino-forecast-weather-season-global-impact-conflict-food-supply-health-disease
Air conditioners now account for 10% of global electricity consumption, and the number of air conditioning units is expected to double by 2050. This article from MIT Technology Review looks at new materials and technologies that hope to make air conditioning less energy intensive: www.technologyreview.com/2023/07/26/1076731/materials-air-conditioning
Just as drones have changed the face of modern warfare, so is 3D printing by civilians. This article from The Economist (UK) highlights DIY munitions-making in Ukraine featuring 3D printers:
"Three months ago Lyosha and a group of friends, working in their homes, designed ... an 800-gram anti-personnel bomb called the “Zaychyk”, or “Rabbit”. The group uses 3D printing to produce the bomb’s casing, before sending it to be filled with C4, an explosive, and pieces of steel shrapnel. ... Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Zaychyk is but one example of the sorts of lethal innovation that have sprung up in Ukraine in the 17 months since Russia’s invasion. Stocks of many factory-built munitions have shrunk as the fighting has worn on. But raw explosives remain plentiful. That has helped create an amateur arms industry devoted to supplying soldiers at the front with improvised weapons to use against Russian troops. Lyosha’s team prints the plastic shells of around 1,000 “candy bombs,” as these improvised explosive devices have come to be known, every week. But the Ukrainian officer who acts as the team’s military contact wants 1,500 a day, says “ADV”, the nom de guerre of a second member of the group. Another set of amateurs, the Druk (“Print”) Army, has churned out more than 30,000 candy bombs in the past four months. “Swat”, their leader, says that the production rate is growing. And still more come from beyond Ukraine’s borders. Janis Ozols is the founder of the Latvia chapter of the Wild Bees, a group of volunteer weaponsmiths from outside Ukraine. He reckons at least 65,000 bomb shells have been shipped from Europe since November 2022. ... "Diuk”, a Ukrainian serviceman in Donetsk, a region partially occupied by Russian forces, says 5kg candy bombs are now killing exposed infantry 20 metres from where they land. Bomb techies hope to extend the kill radius still further. Some “candy shops” use software to model the killing potential of different shrapnel types and mounting angles relative to the charge, says one soldier in Kyiv with knowledge of their efforts. ChatGPT, an AI language model, is also queried for engineering tips (suggesting that the efforts of OpenAI, ChatGPT’s creator, to prevent these sorts of queries are not working). Some candy bombs can even be used against armoured vehicles. ... Ukrainian drone operators claim to be able to destroy Russian tanks by dropping these bombs, which weigh around half a kilo, onto the vehicle’s roof, where the armour is thinner."
It's impossible to avoid the heat and drought stories this summer. This one is about Iran and how extreme water scarcity is shaping political protest, basic livability -- two provinces are expected to run out of municipal water completely by September -- and the geopolitics of the region. www.nytimes.com/2023/07/23/world/middleeast/iran-heat-water.html
This geo-graphic from Statista highlights the world's top net exporters and importers in 2022, with exports continuing to be driven by fossil fuels and manufacturing: cdn.statcdn.com/Infographic/images/normal/18356.jpeg
The U.S. government is racing to find and neutralize Chinese malware "hidden deep inside the networks controlling power grids, communications systems and water supplies that feed military bases in the United States and around the world, according to American military, intelligence and national security officials. The discovery of the malware has raised fears that Chinese hackers, probably working for the People’s Liberation Army, have inserted code designed to disrupt U.S. military operations in the event of a conflict, including if Beijing moves against Taiwan in coming years. The malware, one congressional official said, was essentially “a ticking time bomb” that could give China the power to interrupt or slow American military deployments or resupply operations by cutting off power, water and communications to U.S. military bases. But its impact could be far broader, because that same infrastructure often supplies the houses and businesses of ordinary Americans, according to U.S. officials." www.nytimes.com/2023/07/29/us/politics/china-malware-us-military-bases-taiwan.html
The U.S. sees economic sanctions as a coercive measure short of military force. But a number of other countries around the world are looking at the West's sanctions against Russia, which include freezing access to gold and other assets held in Western banks, and wondering if they, too, might have their assets frozen or seized if they cross the U.S. someday. Some are now repatriating gold held in the West as a hedge against inflation and to reduce their vulnerability to sanctions. www.reuters.com/business/finance/countries-repatriating-gold-wake-sanctions-against-russia-study-2023-07-10/
Despite being slated to host the BRICS summit next month, Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city, is inching ever closer to chaos. Almost half the population is unemployed. The power won't stay on, in no small part because of looting of the electrical infrastructure. Corruption is rife while crime, petty and organized, has soared. www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-06-16/south-africa-s-crime-chaos-and-corruption-make-it-look-like-a-failed-state
Foreign policy think tanks throughout Washington, DC, host dozens of free programs, open to the public, every week on hot topics in international affairs. Tomorrow, for example, the Wilson Center is doing a free webinar (9:30-10:30 ET) on how glacier loss is threatening agriculture in both the U.S. and China. For more information or to register, see us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_6fVulOQGS2CM1MQmGRfjyg#/registration
Because many social media platforms remove graphic content, often with the help of AI, images of human rights abuses that might otherwise serve witness and aid prosecution are being removed without being archived, according to the BBC (UK). www.bbc.com/news/technology-65755517
Not only are drones are dramatically changing warfare, the scope of their deployment has grown exponentially. The Royal United Services Institute, a UK think tank specializing in military issues, recently released a report estimating that Ukraine is losing 10,000 drones each month! "The counter-offensive launched by Kyiv's troops on June 4 confirms this, with countless UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] used by both sides to carry out reconnaissance operations, but also to support ground troops or strike at enemy devices. 'Within a 10-kilometer zone, it's common for there to be between 25 and 50 UAVs on both sides of the front line,' said the RUSI researchers. 'Today, there's a whole pile of metal above the Ukrainian battlefield,' said a senior French officer. 'This is a major development, which will force all armies to adapt: There's no going back.'" www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2023/06/18/russia-and-ukraine-take-drone-warfare-to-unprecedented-scale_6033281_4.html#
What makes for a competitive business climate? According to the International Institute for Management Development, it's a mix of 336 variables in four broad categories measuring a country's economic performance, government efficiency, business efficiency, and infrastructure. This year's analysis of 64 country's has just been released, with Denmark on top for the 2nd year in a row and a Middle East country, the UAE, breaking the top 10 for the first time. For more about the rankings and the methodology, see www.imd.org/centers/wcc/world-competitiveness-center/rankings/world-competitiveness-ranking/2023/
Because they often rely on evaporative cooling to keep equipment from overheating, data centers rank among the top 10 most water-consuming industries in the U.S. This article explores the clash between Big Tech and local communities in water-stressed areas of the U.S. www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/04/25/data-centers-drought-water-use/
The hot new idea in hydropower is not damming rivers to turn turbines; it is pumped storage or closed-loop hydropower: moving the same water repeatedly between an upper and lower reservoir, depending on electricity demand. Pumped storage does not depend on access to a major river. This website from the International Hydropower Association explains the process and includes an interactive map showing the status of hydropower projects around the world: www.hydropower.org/hydropower-pumped-storage-tool
North Korea has been cut off from the global banking system since 2017. But its use of hacking, ransomware, and stolen cryptocurrency has accelerated and is believed to provide half the funding for North Korea's ballistic missile program.
"North Korea’s digital thieves began hitting their first big crypto attacks around 2018. Since then, North Korea’s missile launch attempts and successes have mushroomed, with more than 42 successes observed in 2022, according to data tracked by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. ... Roughly 50 percent of North Korea’s foreign currency funding for purchasing foreign components for its ballistic missile program is now supplied by the regime’s cyber operations, [Anne] Neuberger [Biden administration deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology] said. That is a sharp increase from earlier estimates, which had put the figure at a third of overall funding for the programs. U.S. officials say North Korea has built what is essentially a shadow workforce of thousands of IT workers operating out of countries around the world, including Russia and China, who make money—sometimes more than $300,000 a year—doing mundane technology work. But this workforce is often linked up with the regime’s cybercrime operations, investigators say. They have pretended to be Canadian IT workers, government officials and freelance Japanese blockchain developers. They will conduct video interviews to get a job, or... masquerade as potential employers. To get hired by crypto companies, they will hire Western 'front people'—essentially actors who sit through job interviews to obscure the fact that North Koreans are the ones actually being hired. Once hired, they will sometimes make small changes to products that allow them to be hacked, former victims and investigators say. Starting two years ago, hackers linked to North Korea began infecting U.S. hospitals with ransomware—a kind of cyberattack where hackers lock up a victim company’s files and demand payment for their release—to raise money, U.S. officials say. 'It seems like a modern-day pirate state,' said Nick Carlsen, a former FBI analyst who works for the blockchain tracing firm TRM Labs. ... The skill of North Korea’s cybercrime over the past year has impressed U.S. officials and researchers, and some said they have seen the country’s hackers pull off elaborate maneuvers that haven’t been observed anywhere else."
A New York Times investigation finds a fleet of rogue oil tankers are using fake transponder signals to move sanctioned Russian oil, primarily to ports in China. The elaborate ruse seems to be undertaken primarily to maintain the tankers' insurance coverage. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/05/30/world/asia/russia-oil-ships-sanctions.html
It's well known that bitcoin mining uses an enormous amount of electricity, but what does that look like on the ground? In this article, The New York Times, "using both public and confidential records as well as the results of studies it commissioned," puts together "the most comprehensive estimates to date" on the scale of bitcoin mining in the U.S. and the real-world impact of bitcoin's massive electricity consumption.
"Texas was gasping for electricity. Winter Storm Uri had knocked out power plants across the state, leaving tens of thousands of homes in icy darkness. By the end of Feb. 14, 2021, nearly 40 people had died, some from the freezing cold. Meanwhile, in the husk of a onetime aluminum smelting plant an hour outside of Austin, row upon row of computers were using enough electricity to power about 6,500 homes as they raced to earn Bitcoin, the world’s largest cryptocurrency. ... In Texas, the computers kept running until just after midnight. Then the state’s power grid operator ordered them shut off, under an agreement that allowed it to do so if the system was about to fail. In return, it began paying the Bitcoin company, Bitdeer, an average of $175,000 an hour to keep the computers offline. Over the next four days, Bitdeer would make more than $18 million for not operating, from fees ultimately paid by Texans who had endured the storm. ... Each of the 34 operations The Times identified uses at least 30,000 times as much power as the average U.S. home. ... It is as if another New York City’s worth of residences were now drawing on the nation’s power supply, The Times found. ... In Texas, where 10 of the 34 mines are connected to the state’s grid, the increased demand has caused electric bills for power customers to rise nearly 5 percent, or $1.8 billion per year, according to a simulation performed for The Times by the energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. ... “Ironically, when people are paying the most for their power, or losing it altogether, the miners are making money selling energy back to Texans at rates 100 times what they paid,” said Ed Hirs, who teaches energy economics at the University of Houston and has been critical of the industry." ... Of course, other industries, including metals and plastics manufacturing, also require large amounts of electricity, causing pollution and raising power prices. But Bitcoin mines bring significantly fewer jobs, often employing only a few dozen people once construction is complete, and spur less local economic development. ... The [Applied Digital bitcoin] mine [in Jamestown, ND] has 33 employees and uses nearly 10 times as much electricity as all the homes in the 16,000-person town. It is one of three mines in the state that together consume nearly as much power as every home in North Dakota."
Reporters Without Borders released its 2023 World Press Freedom Index earlier this week: "180 countries and territories were analyzed based on five indicators covering political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and safety." This map shows the results: www.statista.com/chart/13640/press-freedom-index/ Worst countries for press freedom: North Korea, China, and Vietnam. Best countries for press freedom: Norway, Ireland, and Denmark.
China dominates the processing of rare earth metals. But increasingly, China is importing rare earth metals for processing as domestic mining has fallen, which is spurring Chinese investment in foreign rare earth mining operations. "Rare earths are a group of 17 metals critical to many high-tech applications. ... After rare earth ores are mined, they have to be crushed and ground up to extract the metals from the minerals. Chemical procesess separate out individual rare earth elements, and further refining and alloying processes produce high-purity metals for use in manufacturing. China essentially has a monopoly on every step beyond the first phase of digging ores out of the ground. This has given it it huge sway over the global rare earth industry. But it also means that it needs vast quantities of ore, which is currently mostly mined in China, Australia, the US, and Myanmar. ... “China depends so much on imports of rare earth raw material from abroad, [and] they are painfully aware that this dependency could be used against them,” said [Thomas] Krümmer [an analyst of the rare earth market]." qz.com/china-rare-earths-raw-materials-shortage-1850232896
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