April 16, 2018 in 4,146 words

Unfit to Command

With the president in an agitated state, preoccupied with his legal troubles, this is no time for war.


The weekend news from Washington featured two story lines: the U.S.-led coalition missile strikes against Syrian government forces, and President Trump’s most extreme Twitter meltdown to date. The question for all the world to worry over: How closely are these two story lines interconnected? How and to what extent is the president’s increasingly extreme mental state obtruding on the national security of the United States?

The most important business of the day on Friday, April 13, was to sign off on that night’s planned missile strike against government forces in Syria. The decision was a heavy one, involving risks of conflict with Russia and Iran. It also sharply reversed Trump’s public statements only nine days before that the U.S. would be ending its Syria role soon.

And yet that’s not where Trump’s brain was. Starting at 8 a.m. that day and continuing into the afternoon, the president erupted in a sequence of rage tweets against former FBI director James Comey, demanding that he be prosecuted, calling him a “slime ball,” and congratulating himself for firing Comey.

Yet when the president stepped before the TV cameras at 8 p.m. to announce the strikes, most pundits and most politicians temporarily disregarded that same-day evidence of the president’s agitated mental state. The impulse to rally around the flag seized American elites, even many Trump critics, who saluted the president’s leadership. The strong dormant desire to discover some normality in this most abnormal administration reasserted itself. As happened the last time he launched missiles into Syria, almost exactly a year before, Trump went to bed that night to praise that he had proven himself presidential.

Whatever satisfaction he got from that praise quickly faded.


Tax policy is a bore, until they take your Social Security and Medicare away


President rump America’s Shithead arrives in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on March 23, to speak about the $1.3 trillion spending bill.

Ed. The typo in the caption above is not mine.


Procrastinators race to the post office on Tax Day to postmark their tax returns or file for extensions. Sensible people use Tax Day as a time to consider their financial picture for the year ahead. But this April, in light of how Congress radically rewrote our tax obligations for 2018 onward, Tax Day might also profitably serve as an occasion for citizens to contemplate the tax health of the nation.

This checkup requires examining both taxes and government spending. We quickly see that budget deficits — how much spending exceeds revenues — are extremely large and growing at a disturbing rate. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2019 deficit will be just shy of $1 trillion. That is a roughly 50% jump in the deficit from its 2017 level — extraordinary, considering we’re in good economic times.

Tax cuts do not pay for themselves — not the Trump tax cuts, nor in any other case in modern U.S. practice. So we face only two possible courses of action: Either we tax ourselves more, or we dismantle the social safety net (in particular, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) that protects Americans from destitution or disability. Which is the right direction for our country to pursue?

One political movement has its answer at the ready: Slash the safety net.


Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony showed that a bedrock principle of online privacy is a complete and utter fraud


At his congressional hearings this last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced some tough questions about the company’s terms of service.

  • Companies have been relying for years on the notion of informed consent, the idea that they can dictate the terms of their interactions with customers and do what they want with customers’ information as long as they disclose what they’re doing.
  • But that notion came into serious question at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings on Capitol Hill this week.
  • Lawmakers noted that Facebook’s terms of service are long and filled with legalese, and got Zuckerberg to acknowledge that few users likely read them completely.
  • The interactions exposed just what a fiction the notion of informed consent is.
  • The frustrations raised by the lawmakers could result in regulatory changes.

If Mark Zuckerberg’s appearances before Congress this week did nothing else, they should have made absolutely clear to policymakers of all stripes that one of the bedrock assumptions long made in privacy law and contracts is a complete and utter fraud.

For years now, web services, app makers, and other companies have been operating on the notion of informed consent. That’s the idea that such companies can do whatever they want to with consumer data, or structure their interactions with consumers just about any way they want, as long as they disclose those practices and conditions first.

If consumers click a box saying they agree to those terms, or continue to use a service after seeing a notice about its privacy policy, companies and the the law alike treat them as having been informed about such policies and to have consented to them.

But as several members of Congress illustrated in their interactions with Facebook’s CEO, when it comes to the social network, that notion is a joke. Facebook’s terms of service document is more than 3,200 words long and includes 30 links to supplemental documents, noted Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. Its data policy is another 2,700 words and includes more than 20 links.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: “I think the point has been well made that people really have no earthly idea of what they’re signing up for.”


Silicon Valley is belatedly acknowledging the value of human beings

HOMO DEUS


Done hating on humans.

Tech companies have long been valued by investors for their ability to replace employees with technology. Now, alongside software and server farms, they are moving at a breakneck pace on find living, breathing human beings to staff their systems.

They’re doing so because of a high-profile series of failures of automation, which have prompted a wave of intense pressure from investors, the public, and governments.

Tesla’s highly automated production line failed to produce cars at the rate CEO Elon Musk promised, prompting questions about the electric-car maker’s solvency. Systems at Google’s YouTube failed to flag extremist and exploitative videos. Russian operatives have worked to influence elections using Facebook, whose systems separately created categories of users with labels such as “Jew hater” that it then allowed advertisers to target.

While companies such as Google and Facebook still insist that they’re just distribution platforms rather than content creators and bear limited, if any, responsibility for most of the content they host, they’re increasingly acknowledging they need to do something to curb abuses. In the short-term at least, that approach usually involves more humans.


Tech Upheaval Means a ‘Massacre of the Dilberts,’ BOE’s Carney Says


Mark Carney in Toronto on April 12.

The Bank of England may be moving toward an interest-rate increase, but Governor Mark Carney has even more global topics on his mind.

Less than a week after comments that addressed climate change — albeit from the financial stability point of view — Carney used a speech in Toronto to address the impact of technology and how workers and the very social structure of the developed world needs to adapt.

He said there are a lot of “routine cognitive jobs,” at risk, in what he termed a “massacre of the Dilberts” — a reference to the satirical American comic strip about office workers.

Technology and the fourth industrial revolution are having untold impact, he said, and it’s going to take huge efforts to make sure workers ultimately benefit. The effect of automation is just one part of the change and examples of the seismic shift can be seen in finance, where many “unglamorous” data entry jobs have already been transformed.


A Powerful New Weapon in the Fight Against Shoddy Statistics

Using the wrong method to analyze a data set can yield misleading results. So one researcher developed an approach that works for everything.

In statistics, abstract math meets real life. To find meaning in unruly sets of raw numbers, statisticians like Donald Richards first look for associations: statistical links between, say, smoking and lung cancer, or the closing values of the New York Stock Exchange one day and the Tokyo exchange the next. Further study can then probe whether one phenomenon causes the other, or if both have common causes.

“Statistics is a way of analyzing data and discovering the inner hidden secrets being concealed by the data,” Richards said over Skype from his home in Pennsylvania in January. “Can we find patterns that tell us that climate change is underway? Can we find patterns that suggest that bitcoin has topped out? That’s what we’re constantly searching for—patterns.”

The patterns can be subtle. However, the search for them is not esoteric, in his view, but rather “the only thing that anybody with brains should be doing with their life.”

In the lilt of his native Jamaica, Richards, 63, describes statisticians as innovators, ever in search of new mathematical tools for finding hidden associations between phenomena, and thus furthering the ancient quest to link causes and effects. How, for example, did people first figure out what they could eat? “In Jamaica, there’s a tree called the ackee tree,” he said. “When the ackee fruit is not ripe, it’s highly poisonous, but [as a deadly search for correlations must have revealed] when it’s ripe, if cleaned properly it can be cooked and eaten.”

Throughout a career that has taken him to the universities of the West Indies, North Carolina, Wyoming, Virginia, and Pennsylvania State University, where he is currently a professor, Richards has derived many new mathematical formulas for use in statistics.


5 US Government Screw-Ups That Are Funny Yet Terrifying

It’s a fact of modern life that the government is watching our every move. But as scary as that can be, you at least assume that Susan, the FBI agent watching you through your webcam, is good at her job. How much scarier would it be if she were an idiot? What if you got put on a hate group list for flashing the “OK” sign? Believe it or that, that exact thing has happened. Well, maybe not that exact thing. But …

5. The FBI Left Its Doors Unlocked Because Burglars Asked Them To


When most people picture trying to steal stuff from the FBI, they imagine a heavily trained group of black ops specialists, hardened muscle criminals, and a buttload of lasers. The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI — a group of peace activists determined to break into FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 — was nothing of the sort.

Their plan sounds like something a character in a movie would come up with to signify that they’ve been legally declared stupid. They figured they’d just pick the locks. When that didn’t work, their next bright idea was to stick a note on a door requesting that it be left unlocked that night. When they came back hours later, presumably expecting to find it locked as usual so they could loudly conclude that they gave it their best shot and go out for drinks instead, they found that … someone actually left it unlocked. By a miraculous stroke of luck, whoever was working security at the office that night was even dumber than they were. The burglars were so happy that one of them proposed leaving a thank you note, but in the end, they decided caution was the order of the day, not cheekiness.

Better not to specifically taunt a guy with no personal restraint whatsoever.

It’s not like this was some lowly lackey’s office, either. They made off with classified documents revealing everything from illegal surveillance of peace activists to plans to drive Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Not only did they never get caught, they revealed themselves in a press conference in 2014, after the statute of limitations on their crimes had passed.


The courts are deciding who’s to blame for climate change

Oil companies? The government? The public? All of the above share the blame.


An ice sculpture fashioned by protesters, to demonstrate their view of how the company’s policies are affecting the environment, slowly melts outside an Exxon Mobil shareholders meeting in Dallas in 2006.

There are numerous ongoing legal challenges in an effort to determine who’s responsible for climate change. Exxon is under investigation by state attorneys general, cities are suing oil companies over sea level rise costs, and Our Children’s Trust is suing the federal government for failing to protect their generation from climate change. At the heart of these legal challenges lies the question – who bears culpability for climate change and liability for its costs and consequences?

Like Exxon, Shell Knew

Exxon has been a prime target of these investigations and lawsuits since Inside Climate News’ investigative journalism revealed that the company’s internal climate science research warned of the dangers posed by human-caused global warming since the late 1970s.

Recently, Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent unearthed internal documents from Shell that began warning of the dangers associated with human-caused climate change 30 years ago. The company’s 1988 report titled “The Greenhouse Effect” warned,


by the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation.

And, particularly relevant to Our Children’s Trust’s lawsuits, Shell’s 1988 report warned of the climate consequences for future generations.

Similarly, in a 1991 film called Climate of Concern, Shell warned,


Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.


Royal Dutch Shell’s 1991 film ‘Climate of Concern’


Atlantic Ocean Current Slowing Down Due To Global Warming: Here’s What Could Happen


The conveyor belt of the ocean regulates global temperatures, which means the slowing down of the Atlantic Ocean current could have devastating effects. Here’s what could happen with weak AMOC circulation.

Findings of two new studies, have revealed that the Atlantic ocean current has significantly slowed down and is currently at its slowest pace in 1,600 years.

Ocean Currents And Global Warming

The researchers attribute the slowing down of the current known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation to global warming.

“This weakening is revealed by a characteristic spatial and seasonal sea-surface temperature ‘fingerprint’,” Stefan Rahmstorf, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and colleagues wrote in one of the studies published in the journal Nature.

“We find this fingerprint both in a high-resolution climate model in response to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and in the temperature trends observed since the late nineteenth century. ”

Effects Of A Weak AMOC Circulation

The so-called “conveyor belt of the ocean” plays an important role in regulating global temperatures and the phenomenon is feared to have serious consequences. AMOC transports heat around the globe and if this movement stops, the heat would not be distributed.

Delia Oppo, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and one of the authors of the other study that was also published in the journal Nature, said that a complete disintegration of the AMOC is unlikely but the ocean circulation system will likely continue to weaken.


The billion-dollar, Alibaba-backed AI company that’s quietly watching people in China

FACE VALUE


God view.

Most Chinese consumers have likely never heard of SenseTime. But depending on where they live, it might be looking at their faces several times a day.

If a person goes shopping at Suning, one of China’s largest electronics retailers, it’s possible that a camera in the store is tracking her behavior using SenseTime’s software. Later, if she opens Rong360, a peer-to-peer lending app, she’ll be asked to login using facial recognition—powered by SenseTime. She might send a video of herself to her friends on SNOW, a Snapchat-esque chat app, donning animated sunglasses built by SenseTime. And if she finds herself approached by police officers in the subway, it’s possible SenseTime helped identify her.

SenseTime is one of a handful of companies at the forefront of China’s artificial intelligence (AI) boom, which is heavily supported by a government that has vowed to turn AI into a $150 billion industry by 2030. Founded in Hong Kong, the company has hundreds of customers from around the world and counts on investors like US chip designer Qualcomm and Chinese real estate developer Dalian Wanda. Last week e-commerce giant Alibaba announced it led a $600 million investment round into SenseTime, taking the AI firm’s valuation to about $3 billion.

Few companies, if any at all, in the United States have reached billion-dollar valuations solely on the back of facial and image recognition. SenseTime’s rapid journey to becoming one of the world’s most valuable AI startups highlights how factors unique to China have facilitated a surge in artificial intelligence-backed recognition that’s still in the early stages.


4,000 toddlers are listed as UK business owners

FRAUD FIRM LTD


UK prime minister Theresa May hangs out with a group of potential mini-moguls.

Last week, crypto-watchers noticed something strange: According to the UK registry of companies, Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov appeared to have founded a new company, named it after his widely-used chat app Telegram, pumped it with £800 million in capital, and become a British citizen.

After online magazine The Calvert Journal reported the news, the real Telegram tweeted out what many suspected—the company, and all the information about it in the national registry, was fake. Durov had not magically become a British citizen, had not registered the company, and the £800 million in shares had not been paid out. Someone else must have filed official registration forms using his name and other fictions; nevertheless, at time of publication (April 13) the sham company was still listed on the UK government’s Companies House registry as “active.”

It is surprisingly easy to fraudulently create a company in someone else’s name and go undetected by UK authorities—a flaw that potentially helps criminals and kleptocrats hide their identities from law enforcement and the public. That’s thanks to a significant loophole in the way Companies House works, says Nienke Palstra, a campaigner at Global Witness NGO.

No verification checks

Companies House was created to offer transparency into who really owns and controls UK companies. Yet its vetting of information is limited; Companies House has previously said they accept everything “in good faith” and that “there is no verification of the documents we receive as long as they have been correctly completed.”

That means there are no regular checks on whether the people listed as the company’s directors or owners actually exist, or that the person filing the company is who they say they are, which is what happened in Durov’s case.


INTERNET FANDOM IS RUNNING HOLLYWOOD

AT YOUR SERVICE


All they need now are the pitchforks.

How would you react if the creators of your favorite TV series offer to just tell you everything that will happen on the show?

Fans of Westworld were faced with that question this week when showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy went on the HBO show’s Reddit page and made a bizarre proposition. If their post received a certain number of votes, they said, then they’d spoil the entire upcoming second season of the robot western, with a video laying out its plot points.

The offer turned out to be a stunt: a “Rickroll” joke followed by 22 minutes of a dog sitting at a piano. But the Westworld Reddit community didn’t know that at, and was predictably roiled up by Nolan and Joy’s modest proposal. In the hours after they posted it, the Reddit page filled with earnest debate over whether TV creators should spoil their own storylines, and much pontificating about the solemn responsibility of the fan community to determine whether or not they would.

Nolan and Joy haven’t said whether they intended to make some broader point about TV fandom or spoiler culture. It’s highly possible that the whole thing was simply a marketing stunt to stir the pot two weeks before the show returned from hiatus. But intentional or not, this odd Westworld affair revealed something deeply, dangerously true about modern entertainment.

Fans control it all. The inmates are running the asylum.


Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Marquez Jackson is serving a juvenile life sentence at Bon Air Correctional Center in Virginia for second-degree murder. Jackson lives in the maximum-security side of Bon Air. “I get locked in my room every night,” he says. “Everything is about security here. I get searched every time I move.” Jackson will be at Bon Air until he turns 21. “The thing that makes me happy is just visualizing what I could be doing if I was home.”

This VR series from The Atlantic is part of a larger reporting project on juvenile justice reform in Virginia. As the population of incarcerated young people has declined, the state has closed all but one center, Bon Air Correctional Center. Approximately 200 inmates are serving out their sentences there, many of them far from their families and communities. Follow The Atlantic for more, including an inside look at Bon Air and perspectives from inmates, staff, and advocates.

These three VR films explore firsthand experiences of three young people in the system. Blending interviews with 3-D animation, each film presents a perspective from a different stage in the detention process. For an optimal viewing experience, watch the film in VR180 with a VR headset.

Read more on The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/projects/…


Zhacori Bates served a two-and-a-half year sentence in a Virginia juvenile-corrections center for a crime she committed when she was 17. Now, she’s returning to her neighborhood, where she faces challenges reintegrating with the community and getting back on her feet.

This VR series from The Atlantic is part of a larger reporting project on juvenile justice reform in Virginia. As the population of incarcerated young people has declined, the state has closed all but one center, Bon Air Correctional Center. Approximately 200 inmates are serving out their sentences there, many of them far from their families and communities. Follow The Atlantic for more, including an inside look at Bon Air and perspectives from inmates, staff, and advocates.

These three VR films explore firsthand experiences of three young people in the system. Blending interviews with 3-D animation, each film presents a perspective from a different stage in the detention process. For an optimal viewing experience, watch the film in VR180 with a VR headset.

The Atlantic was not able to independently confirm the details of her case because her criminal record is sealed.

Read more on The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/projects/…


CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Many of America’s largest corporations shift a surprising portion of their profits overseas to avoid paying taxes. Even more surprisingly, that’s a legal thing to do.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: “Like thinking that ‘dipping a badger in fudge would create jobs.’”

THANKS to HBO and Last Week Tonight for making this program available on YouTube.


Mark Zuckerberg appears before Congress to testify about Facebook’s use of personal data.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.


Max got to enjoy the sunroom Saturday afternoon.

Today is another story. Its cold and lots of rain again.


FINALLY . . .

The generation gap is back – but not as we know it

There is an ideological conflict brewing between ‘woke’ millennials and an older generation, a conflict where neither understands the other.


It’s not about style. It’s not about about taste in music It’s about language and battles over inclusivity, diversity and power structures.’


For a while there, in the first part of the new millennium, the generation gap was pretty much assumed to be dead.

People in their 40s shopped in the same clothing stores as people in their 20s, and listened to the same sort of music.

If you were on the left, you all cheered for Obama, and everyone from those in university dorms to the corner office had the Shepard Fairey posters of HOPE, and all ages were engaged in common political struggles (No invasion of Iraq! No blood for oil!).

You’d go to a Bloc Party concert and there’d be a finance dude there in his 40s wearing the same Urban Outfitters jeans as the kid in their 20s, and at dinner parties people in their 30s were taking MDMA, and everyone from the 19-year-olds to those high 37-year-olds leaving the dinner parties would end up at the same late-night bars.

According to an article on the merging of generations in 2006 in New York Magazine: “This, of course, is a seismic shift in intergenerational relationships. It means there is no fundamental generation gap anymore. This is unprecedented in human history. And it’s kind of weird.”

For the younger generation, how to rebel? How to mark yourself as different? Did age even mean anything anyway?


Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?