The World Today for February 25, 2019

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Virtual Geography

Estonia might be the closest approximation to a tech utopia that exists on planet Earth.

“Estonia is often described as a genuinely digital society,” wrote Quartz, describing 24/7 online public services and blockchain technology to protect everyone’s privacy. “There are only a few things that you still need to do in the analog world, such as get married and buy property.”

But such technology has downsides.

In the same Associated Press article that praised Estonia as an online voting pioneer – around a third of nearly one million eligible voters will cast votes online – Microsoft warned that Russian hackers might be seeking to disrupt the tiny Baltic country’s e-democracy when voters cast their ballots on March 3.

Estonia has a complicated relationship with Russia. Western powers never recognized the Soviet Union’s decision to annex the Baltic states as republics after World War II. Today, as a NATO and European Union member, Estonia has beefed up defenses on its borders.

“We have a neighbor that guarantees we will not have a boring life,” an Estonian cybersecurity official told Bloomberg.

Estonia has a sizable Russian minority concentrated in cities and towns like Narva, which the Atlantic described as a likely flashpoint in a potential war between NATO and Russia in the future. Radio Free Europe also showed how tensions between majority ethnic Estonians and the minority Russian community are often heated, threatening to provide Russia with a pretext for an invasion if the ethnic Russians ever came under serious persecution.

Russia’s meddling in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic that broke free from Moscow’s control, hasn’t helped. The country is almost always on a war footing vis-à-vis Moscow.

During a recent meeting in Brussels, Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser argued for the European Union to penalize more Russian individuals for their roles in Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine, reported the Baltic Times, an English-language newspaper in the region.

“Sanctions are a necessary tool for influencing the attitude of Russia and hence we wish to expand the sanctions also to those responsible for what happened in the Kerch Strait,” said Mikser. He was referring to Russian forces seizing Ukrainian ships in the strait between Crimea and Russia last year.

Prime Minister Juri Ratas’s Center Party, which hopes to accommodate Estonia’s ethnic Russian minority, is leading in polls. But fringe parties, including nationalists, might receive enough votes to complicate negotiations for a coalition government, New Eastern Europe, a Polish magazine, argued.

Estonia might be advanced in the virtual realm. But it can’t escape geography.



The Backfire

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s latest move to block aid from entering the country looks to be spurring rather than deterring foreign intervention in the political crisis gripping Caracas.

After violent clashes between Venezuelan troops and opposition protesters over the weekend at the country’s borders resulted in at least four deaths and hundreds of injuries, US Vice President Mike Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” to deal with the situation at a meeting with regional leaders in Bogota Monday and later Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, Reuters reported.

Following Maduro’s decision to deploy soldiers at border checkpoints to prevent aid from entering the country, skirmishes erupted in several locations, with government forces using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. As many as 60 Venezuelan soldiers also defected to the opposition.


Breaking Ceilings

Saudi Arabia on Saturday appointed its first woman ambassador, selecting Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud to be ambassador to the United States.

Though the timing is convenient, given the kingdom’s current image problems, Princess Reema’s appointment predated the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi according to a person close to the new ambassador, CNN reported. That would also likely mean it predated 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun’s decision to run away from her family and seek asylum to escape the kingdom’s notorious restrictions on women.

A member of the Saudi royal family, Princess Reema has long spoken out for women’s rights in the kingdom, working to promote women in sports, for instance. In other respects, though, her appointment represents continuity, as her father was also Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005, and she has been critical of western media’s depiction of Saudi society, the National reported.

“You ask us to change but then when we begin to exhibit change you come to us with cynicism,” she said during the last World Economic Forum.


‘A Death Sentence for Millions’

Human rights activists blasted a decision by India’s supreme court that could force more than a million tribal people from their homes in the name of protecting the country’s wildlife.

Survival International, a nonprofit that works for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, called the decision “mass eviction in the name of conservation,” the Daily Mail reported. “This has the potential to be a death sentence for millions,” Survivor International said in a Twitter message.

The court ruling came in response to petitions filed by various wildlife conservation groups, who sought to revise a 2006 law that granted indigenous peoples the right to their ancestral lands, even if they included wildlife preserves and other protected areas. The wildlife conservationists argued that tribal people had illegally encroached on the forest land and asked the court to rule on the validity of their claims, the Guardian explained.

Around 1.1 million claims were rejected as illegitimate, potentially displacing 5-7 million people by July 27.


Be Cool

African bush elephants live on savannas where temperatures average 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The world’s largest land mammals can’t sweat like other mammals, and their skin is very wrinkly and thick – 50 times thicker than human skin.

But the heat never seems to bother them. So how do they stay cool?

Elephants control their body temperature through the intricate process of “evaporative cooling,” thanks to tiny crevices in their coarse skin, National Geographic reported.

Their outer skin is covered in papillae, small protrusions that become thicker and start to crack as the animals age. When an elephant sprays water on its skin, the water flows through the crevices using capillary action – the same way plant roots absorb water from the soil.

The crevices allow the animal to store up to ten times more water than smoother surfaced creatures can, but that’s just one part of their job.

The cracks also store mud and dust, creating a protective layer against sunburn and parasites such as mosquitoes.

Scientists hope that more research on elephant skin can help in finding better treatments for human skin conditions.

Click here to see how the big-tusked beasties stay cool.

Clarification: In Friday’s Want To Know section, we said in our “A Ban By Any Other Name” item that abortion is legal in Germany through the first trimester. In fact, it remains technically illegal during that period but is not prosecutable. We apologize for the confusion.

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