Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 - anticipation, disappointment & confrontation

The number 13 is considered unlucky by many and 2013 could also be considered to be a rather disastrous year too. In many ways 2013 was marred by terrorism, war, confrontation and natural disasters.

African turmoil

January saw the French military begin a five-month intervention into the Northern Mali conflict, targeting the militant Islamist Ansar Dine group. Meanwhile in the north of the continent thirty-nine international workers and one security guard died in a hostage crisis at a natural gas facility near In Aménas, Algeria [Wikipedia].

The continuing conflict in the Central African Republic saw President François Bozizé flee to the Democratic Republic of the Congo after rebel forces captured the. nation's capital, Bangui. By November 2013 reprisal attacks on civilians from Séléka's mainly Muslim fighters and Christian militias called "anti-balaka" increased and the UN warned the country was at risk of spiralling into genocide and said it was "descending into complete chaos", while France described the country as "...on the verge of genocide."

North Korean threat 

North Korea once again rattled its sabre conducting third underground nuclear test, prompting widespread condemnation and tightened economic sanctions from the international community. Even China, a staunch ally of the secretive rogue state, criticised the test though they held back from imposing punitive sanctions [Wikipedia].

Only two days later in Russia, some might have thought the end was indeed nigh and that the bomb had indeed been dropped when a meteor exploded the city of Chelyabinsk. It was most powerful meteor to strike Earth's atmosphere in over a century when a meteor hit Tunguska in 1908. The Chelyabinsk  meteor strike was captured by dozens of car mounted dash-cams as well as CCTV cameras. While the strike was significant in that some 1,491 people were injured and over 4,300 buildings were damaged it was a wake up call for the scientific community concerning the Earth's vulnerability to meteor strikes [Wikipedia / tvnewswatch: Russian meteor strike provides a wake up call].

Terror attacks

Terrorism also reared its ugly head once again striking blows in the US and Europe. In April two Chechen Islamist brothers exploded two bombs at the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States, killing 3 and injuring 264 others. Both suspects were tracked down with a few hours one being killed in an exchange of fire whilst the other was placed on trial and convicted [Wikipedia / tvnewswatch: Terror attack in US leaves 3 dead, 100 injured / tvnewswatch: Boston terror suspects identified / tvnewswatch: Boston terror suspect shot dead / tvnewswatch: Hunt over as second Boston bomber arrested].

One month later terrorism returned to the streets of London when two men ran over a British army soldier with a car, then used knives and a cleaver to stab and hack him to death. They told passers-by that they had killed a soldier to avenge the killing of Muslims by the British armed forces and awaited for police to arrive. Both were shot by armed police but survived to stand trial where they were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment [Wikipedia / tvnewswatch: Renewed terror threat needs a pro-active response].

Surveillance revelations

June saw another attack on the west after US defence contractor Edward Snowden disclosed operations engaged by a US government mass surveillance program to news publications and flees the country. The fallout was highly significant in that it revealed how the United States conducts its operations potentially handing its enemies a gift in being able to thwart or defend themselves from surveillance in the future. Some of the revelations published suggested complicity from Silicon Valley's top tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Skye and Facebook, though all denied giving the US government a carte blanche. Nonetheless trust was certainly lost amongst many consumers who remain skeptical as to whether private information stored by the big hi-tech corporations is willingly being handed over to the NSA. As for Snowden he was granted temporary asylum in Russia where he still remains, and the leaks are still flowing [tvnewswatch: PRISM raises more questions than answers / tvnewswatch: Snowden gets asylum amid more leaks & terror threats].

Tech disappointments

2013 proved to be a somewhat disappointing year for technology geeks in other ways too. Despite much talk concerning Google Glass, Google's controversial wearable tech device, it has yet to be released to the general public on either side of the Atlantic. Wearable tech in the form of the smartwatch was also a big disappointment with poor battery life, a lack of features and designs that failed to impress.

The search giant did reveal a few surprises however. It brought out un updated Nexus 7 tablet with faster processing, resolution and a rear facing camera. A much anticipated Nexus 5 smartphone also rolled off the production line in November and while arguably better, or at least comparable with the new iPhone 5 [tvnewswatch: Apple having to Think Different again], it did not wow consumers as might be expected. This was partly due to the fact that the new Android 4.4 KitKat operating system did not bring many new surprises or features. In fact despite all the promotions and buzz around KitKat 4.4 the differences between KitKat and Jelly Bean 4.3 were marginal and for some a disappointment [tvnewswatch: Google unveils Nexus 5 with Android Kit Kat].

Less of a disappointment was Google's Chromecast, a small HDMI dongle that could potentially transform the way people use the web and their television. The device enables casting of Internet based services such as YouTube and Netfix to the television screen using a phone or tablet as a remote control whilst the Chromecast device simply streams directly from the WiFi itself. Most tech reviews praised the device the only pitfall being the take up by streaming sites in terms of adding the Chromecast facility to their apps. The biggest disappointment was from consumers around the world who at the end of the year are still waiting for a launch date outside the US [tvnewswatch: Google launches new Nexus 7 & TV streaming device].

Tensions in East China Sea

Perhaps the biggest concern of 2013 was not so much whether one would be able to get one's hands on a Chromecast device and stream Internet content on a TV, but whether we'd all be here to enjoy it when it did arrive. With tensions building in the East and South China Seas the potential of a major conflict was becoming more real by the month.

Tensions between China and its neighbours have been growing sometime concerning claims by China over disputed territory. However China upped the anti when it established a new "air defence identification zone" which covered much of the east and south China sea [BBC]. The US ignored it and flew unarmed B52s through the zone without declaring their presence. The US flights were followed soon after by brazen intrusions by South Korean and Japanese aircraft. Though China did not respond directly they subsequently put military reconnaissance flights into operation within the newly declared zone.

In a tit for tat move the South Korean then extended its air defence zone to partially overlap with the zone declared by China [Reuters]. But the most dangerous incident occurred only three days before when a United States guided missile cruiser, the USS Cowpens, was forced to take evasive action as a PLA [People's Liberation Army] Navy vessel neared each other on 5th December [BBC].

Described by some experts as the most serious Sino-US confrontation in the South China Sea since 2009 the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel warned the Chinese action was "irresponsible" and future incidents could "set off some eventual miscalculation" [BBC / NYT].

Certainly some observers, such as Gordon Chang, who penned The Coming Collapse of China, said the threat from China was far more serious than many were suggesting. In an address made in February at the Center for Security Policy's National Security Group Lunch on Capitol Hill, Chang suggested that a slowing and distressed economy, as well as a crisis of political legitimacy would only further nationalism within China which in turn would increase hostility with its neighbours [YouTube].

It could be argued that China is merely barking and asserting its feelings. However any missteps could well lead to a dangerous and widespread conflict. With other tensions existing between India and China over the Arunachal Pradesh region the risks are all too clear. China once again tested its nuclear neighbour when it sent troops into the disputed region on the 11th August before making a tactical withdrawal four days later [BBC].

China has continually tested the US's resolve over the last decade. It has harassed unarmed US Navy reconnaissance vessels most notably the blocking of the Impeccable in the South China Sea in 2009 [Wikipedia / BBC]. In 2001 China forced down a Navy EP-3 in the infamous Hainan incident and in 2006 China surfaced a Song-class attack submarine in the middle of the Kitty Hawk strike group near Okinawa [Washington Times].

So far the United States have resolved such issues diplomatically, but such impotent reactions could be read as signs of weakness by Chinese military strategists. While conflict is best averted, China's arrogance and assertiveness could well lead to a very dangerous year in 2014.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Legal war spreads to Twitter & social media

The UK's Attorney General has declared he will try to rein in those who dare to break the rules surrounding what can be said during an active trial on social media. However, any attempt to do so could have a counter-productive effect.

In reports this week it is suggested that the attorney general Dominic Grieve QC is to publish guidance on Twitter to help prevent social media users from committing contempt of court when commenting on legal cases [BBC / Telegraph].

Grieve has said he "will not shy away" from taking legal action against those who flout the rules. But jurisdiction in such rulings effectively only cover the UK and those tweeting from beyond Britain's shores are beyond the reach of its legal system.

Red rag to a bull

Indeed his turning to Twitter to disseminate advisories that have previously only been issued to the media is likely to act like a red rag to a bull. As John Walsh writes in The Independent there are a great many bulls that might be stirred into action.

"Instantly I see a red rag being waved under the noses of a million bulls, and the words "Court case! Court case with secrets!!" yelled across the Twittersphere. It'll be like (as George Orwell once defined advertising) "the rattle of the stick in the swill bucket" to stir a million busy imaginations into action online," Walsh comments.

And while those tweeting from abroad may have less to fear from the wrath of Britain's legal system, even those in the UK might push the boundaries as best they can. "The owners of the imaginations may realise they're straying into areas of possible contempt, but they will, I guarantee, test that word "possible" to its outer limits," Walsh adds.

Online reaction

The reaction on many newspaper forums were scathing of Grieve's proposal calling it another assault on free speech with some vowing to ignore any advisories [Daily Mail].

The Internet has been described as a "megaphone for gossip" by Lord Justice Leveson, who warned against "trial by Twitter as he called for new laws to curb "mob rule" last year.

But curbing such platforms are difficult especially given that they are often hosted in other countries. While countries like China curtain such activity by complete blocks of such foreign social media sites, Britain is unlikely to follow such a drastic route quite yet.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Safety concerns raised after police helicopter crash

There have been concerns raised over the safety of the helicopter which was involved in the tragedy which claimed at least 8 lives on Friday [29th November].

According to reports the Eurocopter EC135 Type 2 has been the subject of two recent European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) emergency airworthiness directives.

While it is still too early to determine whether the crash was a result of a mechanical failure, air crash investigators will likely be looking at whether there were problems with the aircraft itself.

Safety fears

It has emerged that the helicopter, which was operated for Police Scotland by Bond Air Services Ltd, was one of dozens of aircraft grounded in 2012 over safety fears. Should a mechanical failure be found to be behind Friday's tragedy it could have far reaching ramifications.

With a cruising speed of up to 254 km/h [158 mph], the twin-engined EC135 has become popular with police and ambulance services. Should they be grounded due to safety concerns it could have a significant impact on how the Air Ambulance Service respond to emergencies and how the police track suspects and monitor situations on the ground.


Eight people died when the twin-engined EC135 fell from the sky and crashed through the roof of the crowded Clutha pub in Glasgow city centre, Scotland. Some 40 others were injured some with serious injuries ranging from broken limbs, head injuries and lacerations.

More than 48 hours after the crash there remained some concern that some individuals might still be buried in the debris.


Safety investigators and firefighters were working to lift the aircraft from the pub on Sunday having already removed the rotor blades and taken them away for forensic examination. Meanwhile the EASA, which has the authority to ground helicopters that are found to have technical design flaws, said the agency is "working closely" with Eurocopter and investigators but has not ruled out grounding the EC135 Type 2. A spokesman told reporters that it is "prepared to take any action based on facts to ensure that the type of helicopter in question continues to be operated safely".

Previous concerns

On 23rd September, the EASA warned of "stiffness" in the "main rotor actuators" of the variant, which could lead to "reduced control of the helicopter". And in May last year, the agency reported a "crack detected" on parts of the "main rotor hub shaft", which could "lead to loss of the helicopter". This problem was first reported on an EC135 aircraft operated by Bond Air Services for the Scottish Air Ambulance Service.

The EASA alert led to the temporary grounding of all the 22 EC135 aircraft operated by Bond Air Services in the UK, including the Police Scotland aircraft that crashed on Friday, then operated by Strathclyde Police.

In early November the transport select committee launched an investigation into the safety of helicopter flights in Scotland. Following the crash, a spokesman for the British Airline Pilots' Association said that the number of number of recent helicopter incidents in Scotland was a "matter for concern" and called for the committee to "look into the circumstances around" the accident.

Other incidents

On 23rd August this year four people were killed when an AS332L2 Super Puma crashed into the sea about 2 km off the Shetland Islands.

Operated by Bond Offshore Helicopters, the aircraft was similar to one which crashed a few miles off Peterhead in Scotland in April 2009 which killed all 16 people on board. Investigators concluded that the main cause of that accident was the catastrophic failure of the main rotor gearbox.

The aircraft was manufactured by EADS, which owns Eurocopter, and the company is concerned that fingers are already being unfairly pointed at it for the Glasgow crash. However the Air Accidents Investigation Branch found that there was no technical fault to blame for the Super Puma incident.

Finger pointing

But with some experts pointing to a possible loss of power in Friday's incident, finger pointing may be the least of concerns. Phil Giles, a former air accident investigator, said, "One of the first things you notice from the images from Glasgow is one of the rotor blades sticking up in the air, which suggests there was very little power on the helicopter when it crashed. So it looks like the engines had probably stopped."

"From everything I've seen, it suggests the pilot had more of a problem on his hands than just a power failure, though, as the aircraft doesn't seem to have entered autorotation, which is the helicopter equivalent of a glide, and it dropped liked a stone."

Financial implications

Police forces and Air Ambulance Services have already been affected by cost cutting exercises. In England and Wales police helicopters in England and Wales, though not Scotland, were reorganised in a £15m cost-cutting measure into a single National Police Air Service. Its fleet now comprises 23 helicopters, including 14 of the EC135 Type 2 aircraft involved in the latest crash.

A grounding of half its fleet could be very costly indeed, especially if it were indefinite. Air Ambulance Services would be even harder hit since they rely primarily on charitable donations and sponsorship rather than funding from central government. Friday's incident may not be good for Bond Offshore Helicopters or Eurocopter and its subsidiaries should their record on safety be further called into question.

[Sky News / BBC / Guardian / Independent / FT / Daily Mail

Pictured: a Eurocopter EC135 Type 2 operated by Essex Police and of the same type that crashed in Glasgow.

tvnewswatch, London, UK