Friday, December 19, 2014

Ukraine - 2014 in review

This article originally published in the California Tech November 26 2014.

Ukraine - 2014 in review

Casey Handmer

In November 2013, Ukraine's then president Viktor Yanukovych, playing EU and Russia off each other in an attempt to secure necessary foreign investment to counter nine years of economic stagnation following the 2004 Orange Revolution, reneged on an agreement for stronger economic and political ties with the EU in favor of Russia. Ukraine's capital, Kiev, is located in the more pro-EU western side of the country, and protests broke out.

By February 2014, the Maidan square protests had intensified. A series of violent escalations blamed variously on the U.S., NATO, Ukraine, Russia, and the Illuminati culminated in Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine for Russia, followed by the instatement of a provisional government, the reversion of the constitution to an earlier state, and new presidential elections. Yanukovych's private palaces were opened to the press and public, underscoring Ukraine's ongoing struggle with official corruption and releasing thousands of private records to public knowledge and analysis.

Yanukovych could not be described as a uniformly pro-Russian agent, but his loss in favor of parliamentary power sent shockwaves through the Russian military establishment, particularly since Ukraine's ongoing lease of port facilities in Crimea's Sebastopol are of vital importance to the Russian Black Sea fleet.

This concern led to the shadow annexation of Crimea shortly afterwards. Begun by pro-Russia paramilitary forces, many led by veterans of the Bosnian conflict in the mid 1990s, green-clad troops lacking identifying insignias or names rapidly seeded Crimea.. Their presence catalyzed the peaceful co-option or withdrawal of the Ukraine military presence in the Crimean peninsula, which subsequently declared de facto independence. On March 16, a referendum was held in which residents were asked to choose between aligning with Russia or adopting Crimea's 1992 constitution, in which it was a semi-autonomous state within the Soviet union. The status quo was not an option. In classic Russian style, 79% of residents voted to become part of Russia despite a 38% turnout.

Meanwhile, the far eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (known collectively as Donbass) had seen pro-Russia unrest, culminating in the occupation of several government buildings. At the time, these buildings formed the net total of land administered by the (internationally unrecognized) Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR), but that was about to change. A series of pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine protests occurred but, as in Crimea the general desire was the maintenance of peace. Ethnically Russian and Ukrainian people have lived peacefully side by side in Donbass for decades.

A steady trickle of troops and equipment reinforcing the pro-Russian DPR and LPR arrived across the border. Despite Russia's official insistence that Ukraine's internal issues had nothing to do with them, these troops were less disciplined than the ones now formally acknowledged to have intervened in Crimea, and numerous cases of GPS-tagged Facebook photos show Russian soldiers "on the wrong side of the border." These incursions were opposed by Ukraine's army, and were localized to a few towns and cities within a few miles of Russia's border.

By July 14, the separatists had gotten hold of Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missiles and wasted no time defending their airspace. Over the next few days, they publicly announced shooting down several Ukraine military An-26 aircraft, including one on July 17. Shortly after it became obvious that July 17's shoot down was actually of MH17, making a bad year worse for Malaysia Airlines.

Ukraine's internal struggles now became an international issue. With the international finger pointed at Russia, a series of spectacular backpedals occurred, during which it was claimed MH17 was shot down by Ukraine-operated fighter jets after being deliberately diverted into the conflict zone by corrupted European air traffic control, presumably to frame Russia. As usual, Russia's line is that all the weapons used by separatists were captured from Ukraine's army. Expert analysis has been unable to support these suggestions, finding instead no shortage of evidence that they had never been purchased or used by Ukraine. Russia's national media is every bit as uncritical and parochial as that of the U.S., however, so the deployment of such crude propaganda is still highly effective.

Through late July, separatists continued to lose ground as their promised full-scale Russian invasion force, massing at the border for months, failed to materialize. By mid-August, Ukraine looked poised to crush the last remnants of the rebels. However, by Aug. 23, reporting on MH17 had died down enough that Russia launched a "humanitarian intervention," rapidly retaking and holding roughly half of the Donbass region.

By early September, Ukraine pursued a ceasefire with the separatists, though Russia still officially denied involvement. On Sept. 13, a convoy from Russia arrived uninspected, undermining the already shaky ceasefire. Russia stated the convoy contained humanitarian supplies.

The humanitarian crisis surrounding the conflict is real enough, however. Much of Donbass will have insufficient food this winter due to economic and agricultural disruptions concordant with fighting all summer. For that reason, fighting since has focused on a number of known supply depots. Many countries keep large supply depots at logistic hubs in case of disaster. Luhansk and Donetsk airports are two such cases. Both large, modern international airports were occupied by Ukraine's army. Both airports have since been utterly destroyed by Russian artillery, though Donetsk's ruins are still defended by a band of fighters dubbed "the cyborgs" for their seemingly invincible, death-proof nature. That said, around 5,000 people, mainly military, have died since the September ceasefire at Donetsk airport and a few other hot spots in the otherwise cooling conflict. Mysteriously, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which oversees the ceasefire from white SUVs, seems never to be around when the bullets are flying.

Russia's original goal, stoked by a carefully maintained information bubble around key leaders, seems to have been the rapid annexation of Donbass and surrounding oblasts much like Crimea, totaling perhaps a third of Ukraine. Today, it is thought that the goal is to forge a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, either through or around Mariupol. Mariupol, once broadly pro-Russia, is now heavily fortified. It is clear that in this conflict, however, Russia has all the time, money, and weapons in the world. A rapid or decisive victory is unnecessary. Ultimately, Russia may support the reintegration of separatist regions into a new federalized Ukraine with semi-autonomy under a new constitution that would ensure Russia's ongoing influence in Ukraine's domestic politics. This outcome may be even better than wresting away some contentious and now shell-shocked territory.

Throughout the conflict, pro-Ukraine forces have openly requested military support from NATO and/or the EU. In particular, many U.S. commentators have suggested helping to arm Ukraine's army to provide the firepower needed to oppose Russia's artillery. Cooler heads have wisely suggested that doing so would provide material proof that Russia has needed to support its narrative of persecution by NATO, and thus far Western governments have resisted showering Ukraine with weapons. A less fraught suggestion is instead to shower Ukraine's NATO member allies and neighbors such as Bosnia with U.S.-made weapons so they can sell their Russian-made systems (with which the soldiers are already familiar) to Ukraine at a very reasonable price whilst avoiding accusations of direct interference.

In November 2014, the conflict is still very much ongoing. On Nov. 2, the separatist regions held elections. Ukraine stated such elections were in violation of the Minsk protocol, wherein Ukraine obtained independence at the end of the Soviet Union in return for giving up its substantial nuclear arsenal and permitting the Russian navy base in Crimea. On Nov. 7, NATO reported that Russia has deployed nuclear-capable weapons to Crimea. Current estimates place 7,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, and about 50,000 on the internationally recognized border. Through mid-November around 80 military vehicles (tanks, mobile artillery, etc.) have been moving through the separatist regions. It is unclear how the future will play out, or how well the separatist regions will weather the coming winter.

Maps showing occupied territory on August 15 and August 28 (at end of article).

These pictures are intended to bracket the section discussing the post MH17 Russian military surge. They are sourced from, but the writer is not the originator. They contain attribution information on the bottom, to website: This is the Ukraine government National Security/Defence website. Complete list of maps:

August 15 and August 28.


Film review: Citizenfour moving, unsettling

Review originally published in the California Tech November 8 2014.

Film review: Citizenfour moving, unsettling

Casey Handmer

Films frequently aim to evoke an emotional response. Some of the best thriller or horror films provoke a shocking visceral reaction that stays with the viewer for hours or days. Even in the depths of fear, disgust, or anxiety, it is possible to undermine suspension of disbelief by reminding oneself that the film is, afterall, fiction.

Recently, I saw the documentary thriller Citizenfour. At nearly two hours, the twisted, compact plot unwinds like tightly coiled clockwork. Telling the story of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, suspense builds organically, an inexorable tide of paranoia and suspicion that cannot be wished away. Fiction this is not.

The film was produced and shot by the award winning American journalist Laura Poitras, who, present from the very first, has thoroughly documented the entire saga. Some months after 'citizenfour' first made contact, a still-anonymous Snowden gave Poitras and another journalist, Glenn Greenwald, directions to meet in Hong Kong. Meeting in a hotel lobby, Greenwald and Poitras were shocked at their source's young age. As soon as Snowden's door closed, Poitras' camera began to roll.

For the next hour, the audience is confined with the principal protagonists in the tiny,  claustrophobic hotel room. Scarcely larger than the bed it contains, overlooking a park in the central business district, we first meet Snowden explaining what he is doing and why. Eerily calm, his almost painfully skinny physique curled up on the bed while fielding endless questions from Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, the film is a masterclass in closed-room mystery and paranoia.

Much has been written of and about Snowden, and this is not the place to rehash those discussions. Earning universal critical acclaim, the film has also offered Snowden critics an authentic and first-hand view of the vilified American, delivering deep insight into his knowledge and persona. Despite near certainty that his hours of freedom are likely in double digits, Snowden appears calm and patient, all the more impressive considering Greenwald and MacAskill's astounding level of ignorance when it came to technical matters.

As we now know, Snowden managed to escape Hong Kong only to become trapped in Russia. Nevertheless, with help from Wikileaks he has, unlike Chelsea Manning, retained his liberty and his ability to participate in the ongoing discussion that is tending ever so slightly away from his worst fears of technologically-enabled totalitarianism.

For the vast majority of Poitras' audience, my fellow theatergoers, the film is about politics, about trust in government, about oversight, and about the process of modern journalism. For the technically literate, however, I took away a different message. Communications technology does not just appear. It is created by engineers. Caltech students become leaders, innovators, inventors. Today, if there is any capability for ordinary people to avoid dragnet surveillance, it's because today's technical innovators, hobbyists, and developers have created some privacy enabling methods ex nihilo. Today, if we have any idea about illegal classified government activities, it's because technical people with access and conscience have leaked the information to relevant journalists. Scientists are usually trained to think of knowledge and technology as apolitical, but this is only ever the case under the most relaxed assumptions.

Competing in the Physics Olympiad way back in 2005, the then head of the program told the assembled competitors that knowledge, and physics in particular, can be used for evil and it can be used for good. The subtext was obvious. Half the people in the room were the best and brightest from China, Russia, Iran, Israel, the USA, and other warlike nations, and physicists build the best bombs. While explosives are an essential component of a peaceful deterrent force, he insisted we must use physics for good. Science contains the tools of both technological emancipation and technological slavery. When we create new knowledge, it must never be without a consideration for its possible uses.

I know few people who could calmly throw away their entire life for the sake of telling ordinary people about morally questionable actions done in their name and with their tax revenue, but Snowden was clearly one such person. For him, and for anyone else in a similar position, this is by far the most difficult decision that a person will ever face in their entire professional or personal life. It may come tomorrow or decades in the future but, once encountered, cannot be avoided or ignored. Citizenfour is a terrific primer for thinking about that ultimate decision and the sort of created world in which you want to live.

Elon Musk’s twitter: Time to unveil the D

Originally published in the California Tech October 27 2014.

Elon Musk's twitter: Time to unveil the D

Casey Handmer

On Oct. 1, Elon Musk tweeted "... time to unveil the D ..." Unlike previous mysterious tweets, the substance of this one was guessed reasonably quickly. Two years after the release of the revolutionary Tesla Model S, an updated version is available.

D stands for dual motors. The current Model S has only one motor, and the fastest version, the P85+, does 0-60 in a staid, lumbering 4.2 seconds. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that this is embarrassingly slow. More seriously, the dual motor approach is more efficient at a range of speeds and forms an important test of the powertrain for the upcoming Model X crossover.

The new model looks the same but can reach 60 mph from a standing start in 3.2 seconds, pulling an average of 0.9 gs. The number of road-legal cars that can do this can be counted on one hand. There's the Bugatti Veyron and a handful of other supercars which cost in excess of a million dollars. There are a few electric one-offs, including the Wrightspeed X-1 (2.9 seconds), the Rimac Concept 1/Volar E (2.8 seconds) and the White Zombie, a converted 1972 Datsun that reaches 60 mph in 1.8 seconds and dispatches the quarter mile in 10.24 seconds. But none of them seat five with cargo, and none are controlled by a giant touchscreen.

Also, none of them have autopilot. What? Tesla also unveiled their rapid (less than a year since starting) progress with car autopilot. Rather than aiming for complete autonomy, like Google or the DARPA grand challenge, Tesla has decided to pick a bunch of cheaper, more versatile sensors, then gradually upgrade the software that translates their input to car control. Tesla's sensor array includes GPS, forward-looking radar, omnidirectional ultrasound (sonar), and a forward looking camera. In combination, they work well enough to hold or change lanes, perform adaptive cruise control, check for cars or objects in blind spots, recognize speed limits, and automatically brake the car to avoid a collision. It remains to be seen how well this system works in practice, or how effective it actually is in combating driver fatigue and carelessness.

Image courtesy

What's the big deal with Tesla anyway? It's a relatively tiny startup that makes cars. Fancy, shiny, and extremely expensive cars. If there's one thing cities in the US don't need, it's more cars. Given that cars will continue to exist and make modern lifestyles possible, Tesla plans to introduce a cheaper mass market car in 2017, codenamed Model 3. Probably a scaled down Model S, it will rely on mass production and innovative battery construction to lower costs to around the $35,000 mark, which is quite affordable when you factor in reduced cost of ownership. To get there, Tesla is building a battery "Gigafactory" in Nevada. Tesla once chose the 18650 cell to exploit its ubiquity and availability - today producing 30,000 cars a year, Tesla consumes more than 60% of world supply. Getting battery costs below $100/kWh is seen as essential for their wide adoption, and certainly their use in more facets of life is part of the Tesla/SolarCity master plan. Solar generation can be buffered at every scale in a future smart grid with the introduction of in-home battery packs with incredible and affordable capacity.

In the more distant future, electric propulsion has the potential to revolutionize air transport too. Battery energy density need to improve by a factor of 3 to 10, and powering light planes or even long-haul flights electrically is certainly possible. But more than that - electric motors have a much higher power-to-weight ratio than almost any other type of engine. The explosion of toy quadcopters is a testament to this fact. An airplane with a power-to-weight ratio greater than one is capable of vertical takeoff and landing and, with appropriate turbine design, supersonic flight. For the first time, humans may fly in planes that aren't immediately analogous to birds.