October 1, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 101


Topics: UAE and Russia milestones for women in air and space, illegal contraception co-pays in the US, death penalty in Kenya case, Big Ideas in voting and internet technology, Thai government’s food robot. People: Bill, Persephone, Nate. Produced: September 29th, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– The 1st UAE female combat pilot, the 4th female cosmonaut, CVS charging illegal co-pays on contraception, and more
– Big Idea: Could the U.S. use the goal of secure internet voting as a moonshot project to strengthen internet security in general? What interim measures should be taken to make voting easier?
– Why Thailand’s government is trying to build a robot to measure Thai food authenticity

Part 1 – UAE, Russia, US, Kenya:
Part 1 – UAE, Russia, US, Kenya – AFD 101
Part 2 – Big Ideas in Voting Tech:
Part 2 – Big Ideas in Voting Tech – AFD 101
Part 3 – Thai Food:
Part 2 – Thai Food – AFD 101

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

AFD: Russia & UAE: A big week for women in air and space
Gawker: Fox News Host Calls Female Fighter Pilot “Boobs On the Ground”
House.gov: Congresswoman Speier Discovers CVS Illegally Charged 11,000 Women for Contraceptives
AFD: Kenya sentence an urgent reminder of the need for legal abortion

Segment 2

Wikipedia: Electronic voting in Estonia
ThinkProgress: Georgia State Senator Complains That Voting Is Too Convenient For Black People

Segment 3

New York Times: You Call This Thai Food? The Robotic Taster Will Be the Judge


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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

ISIS still moving faster than coalition forces on Kobani; will Turkey enter?

A second round of US-led coalition airstrikes hit ISIS positions around Kobani on Tuesday, but the group had tightened the circle around the town down to two miles (down from about five or so on Saturday, when the first airstrikes hit), according to CNN:

Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, said U.S. airstrikes overnight hit the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

A civilian inside Kobani, near the Turkish border, told CNN on Monday that ISIS was closing in.

The terror group is three kilometers (nearly two miles) east of the town, the civilian said on the condition of anonymity, basically confirming a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group.
When asked why strikes in the Kobani area may appear to be limited, a senior U.S. official said — speaking separately on background — that factors which may make it appear that way include that the United States has no direct reliable intelligence on the ground and that precise and careful targeting is needed to avoid civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Turkish border, Turkey’s government and military still seems to be weighing whether or not to become directly involved militarily in the civil war by crossing into Syrian territory — and perhaps weighing the long-term consequences of establishing and defending an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria — but in any case they edged visibly closer toward intervention.

30 tanks and armored vehicles from a Turkish armored division have arrived at the border crossing with Syria within sight of where ISIS tanks and artillery have besieged Kobani. If the tanks cross the border, this would be the first time a foreign military’s ground forces have entered the fight against ISIS. The Turkish military reported that they fired on Syrian territory Sunday in response to ISIS shells landing on the Turkish side of the border, but so far no substantial action has occurred.

This may change if parliament approves an intervention, which is under discussion … or if ISIS forces directly attack Turkish troops — a scenario raised again this week by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc in relation to the Turkish Special Forces stationed at the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in an enclave near Aleppo. The tomb, guarded by Turkey’s military since 1938 under the terms of a 1921 treaty with France, has been repeatedly and publicly identified by ISIS as a target all year. ISIS may have hesitated to attack the Turkish enclave, given that a direct assault might trigger an automatic invasion of Syria by all of NATO, under Article V. Turkey beefed up security at the tomb significantly earlier in the year (rather than withdrawing), but the troops there are reportedly tenuously supplied due to deteriorating local conditions as the Aleppo region becomes the center of fighting between Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels, the Syrian government, and ISIS.

In another development at Kobani, the Turkish government says they will allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to cross from Kobani into Turkey if forced to cede the field to ISIS, but only without their weapons. This continues the balancing act between humanitarian responsibilities as a refuge and their fear of a disintegration of the ceasefire and peace talks with the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey itself. The Syrian Kurdish fighters are viewed as a potentially destabilizing factor in the effort to make peace within Turkey.
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Zimbabwe: First Lady Rising

90-year-old Robert Mugabe’s 49-year-old second wife (and former secretary, with no political experience) recently “earned” her PhD in just 2 months and unexpectedly became head of the ruling party’s Women’s League. Is she being positioned to succeed the dictator as Zimbabwe’s leader? Is she being manipulated by political factions to undercut rival contenders for the succession?

Whatever the reason, the barely suppressed outrage at her rapid promotions, even within President Mugabe’s own ruling party, is threatening to open the floodgates to open dissent and criticism of his leadership. Then again, it might be the case that he has already become so isolated and afraid that he could only trust his wife.

Thailand’s food-robot army is nearly ready

Pre-coup and post-coup, Thailand’s leadership can agree to remain committed to one thing: Shaming overseas restaurants for insufficiently authentic Thai food. And now their food-tasting (killer?) robot is doing well in testing and may soon be sold to high-end restaurants in southeast Asia and beyond:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. [...] But there does seem to be some agreement on one point at least: Bad Thai food is a more acute problem overseas.

Thais, who can establish an immediate bond discussing where they will get their next meal or the merits of particular food stalls, complain that Thai restaurants overseas cater to non-Thai palates by pulling punches on spice and not respecting the delicate balance between sweet, sour, salty and four-alarm spicy.

For designing and building a robot from scratch, the project has a very low price-tag overall and will supposedly be earned back by sales of the robot.

Anyway, the way it works is that it performs a rapid chemical analysis of a food sample, teasing out both the constituent ingredients used and the ratios used, and then it compares it to a database of ingredients and ratios used in a sample “ideal” recipe for that meal — with the ideal as determined by the ratings of a small research study with a hundred or so ordinary Thai people (not food critics).

But I’m pretty sure we all know it’s going to end up chemically analyzing mankind and find us insufficiently spicy to remain alive. And just as Thailand was one of the few countries in the world to resist Western colonialism (more or less), Thailand’s robots will no doubt be the first to take on humanity successfully.


Video released of John Crawford’s execution by police

WARNING: Below is the silent surveillance video showing an unarmed John Crawford being gunned down by the police last month in an Ohio Wal-Mart.

The video is not graphic. It is just the grainy, abrupt, and unnecessary extinguishing of an innocent human life on camera. Moreover, it corroborates everything we knew about the circumstances that led to John Crawford, a Black man, being summarily executed by White police officers on the false statements of a serial liar (full background at the link). It depicts everything the family told us it did and appears to match the account of his conversation on the phone at the moment he was shot.

At no point did Crawford pose a threat or attempt to threaten anyone, least of all the police, whom he apparently did not see or hear before they opened fire. Nevertheless, as the video shows, he is shot multiple times — first from down the length of the aisle, and then again at close range as he attempts to “surrender” (though he was of course unarmed the whole time).

(Apologies for any ads that play. This video clip was posted by the website of the area TV news.)

As alerted by a reader of mine, I encourage folks to listen to the ten minutes of Crissle and Kid Fury’s reaction (1:09:40 – 1:19:20) to this video on their podcast “The Read.”

And as an additional update to the story, the county coroner has ruled a homicide the death of 37-year-old Angela Williams, a customer who died of a heart attack related to a heart condition as she attempted to flee the store during the panic that followed the police opening fire.


Coalition airstrikes hit ISIS outside Kobani, but only slow the attack

The northern Syrian border town of Kobani and surrounding villages — predominantly Kurdish — recently came under siege by ISIS tanks and artillery, as discussed previously on this site. This collapsing Kurdish enclave quickly turned into a mass exodus of at least 150,000 Syrian Kurdish civilians in a matter of days, as Turkey warily opened its border to avoid total pandemonium (and the possibility of a massacre happening so close to the border that it would probably appear on Turkish evening television news).

As U.S. airstrikes in Syria had not yet started but were increasingly seeming inevitable, I suggested that this ISIS armored unit closing in on Kobani and its relatively pro-American Kurdish population was probably going to be an early target:

Depending perhaps on Turkey’s views on the potential future threat posed by the now-beleaguered YPK [Syrian Kurd] fighters and the Kurdish villagers they are trying to protect, as well as whether the influential Iraqi Kurdish leadership is concerned about the situation — both of which have a significant voice in setting American military priorities in the region and are much friendlier to Syrian Kurds after months of ISIS advances into Iraq — ISIS tank units attacking Kurdish areas in northern, central Syria seem like a pretty tempting target for American-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS forces in Syria, once those begin in the coming weeks.

US-led coalition airstrikes began in Syria this past Tuesday, primarily focusing on military and administrative targets in Raqqa, the so-called ISIS “capital,” to the south (see map below). But on Saturday — day six of coalition strikes in Syria — the first sortie to relieve Kobani and the besieged Syrian Kurds was initiated.

According to the New York Times reporters on scene just across the border in Turkey, this first action appeared to have only a small effect, apart from slightly slowing the pace of ISIS shrinking its perimeter in the half-circle it had established around the town and up to the border; ISIS artillery still reached range to hit the town itself for the first time later on Saturday:

The Pentagon said on Saturday that it had conducted its first strikes against Islamic State targets in a besieged Kurdish area of Syria along the Turkish border, destroying two armored vehicles in an area that has been the subject of a weeklong onslaught by the Islamic State.
After days of pleading for air cover, Kurds watching the fighting from across the Turkish border west of Kobani were gleeful as jets roared overhead and two columns of smoke could be seen from the eastern front miles away. They hoped it meant that American warplanes had finally come to their aid.
Nearby, Syrian and Turkish Kurds cheered from hilltops dotted with fig and olive trees and army foxholes as Kurdish fighters scaled a ridge and fired a heavy machine gun mounted on a pickup truck at an Islamic State position less than a mile from them. Islamic State fighters could be seen moving from a nearby village, but seemed to be shifting tactics in a hedge against airstrikes, moving one vehicle at a time rather than in a convoy.

The fighting took place just a few hundred yards inside Syria, clearly visible from hilltop olive groves in Karaca, a frontier village on the Turkish side of the border. They fought with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns west of Kobani, the central town in the region.
On the eastern front, a Kurdish activist, Mustafa Ebdi, said from Kobani that an Islamic State command post, a tank and a cannon had been hit by the American strike. Still, hours later, Islamic State shelling hit Kobani’s main town for the first time, killing at least two people.

In a statement, the United States Central Command said that strikes around the country had been carried out with forces from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — it did not specify which aircraft hit which areas — and that “all aircraft exited the strike areas safely.”

We can probably expect more coalition airstrikes in the coming days, if the situation is not too fluid to hit from the air. The fact that ISIS positions are now visible from across the border may also make it easier to get accurate enough intelligence to target the attacks.

There is also extensive discussion — following heavy lobbying by the Obama Administration this past week — that Turkey may be about to join or support the military coalition directly attacking ISIS within Syria’s borders. This would at least involve providing air bases, if not bombers, or possibly even ground troops tasked with establishing a hypothetical refugee safe zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

The latter, far more expansive and ambitious option — which should raise a lot of questions and red flags all around — is probably less likely than some level of supporting the air operations. Those operations would probably become significantly safer for coalition pilots by dramatically shortening the flight distances required over hostile territory and Syrian air defenses.

[Our update for September 30, 2014: "ISIS still moving faster than coalition forces on Kobani; will Turkey enter?"]

Click to enlarge: Detailed conflict map of Northern Syria and Northern Iraq, September 26, 2014, including Kobani / Ayn al-Arab. (Adapted from Wikimedia)

Click to enlarge: Detailed conflict map of Northern Syria and Northern Iraq, September 26, 2014, including Kobani / Ayn al-Arab. (Adapted from Wikimedia)


Kenyan sentence an urgent reminder of the need for legal abortion

A nurse has been sentenced to death in Kenya after being held responsible for the death of a young woman or girl who tried to get an abortion, back in 2009. He maintained that she had first tried to get one from unsafe source and then sought help from him as she developed complications but died anyway. The last death sentence in the country was applied in 1987.

Judge Nicholas Ombija said the court had established “that the accused caused the death of the deceased” and convicted him of murder.

Abortions are only legal in the country to save the life of the mother, and 120,000 women are treated annually for complications from failed attempts to obtain one illegally. The defendant is to be hanged for his role in the young woman’s death. Due to pressure by religious leaders, the law that really killed her is not expected to be changed.

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