June 1, 2018 in 3,673 words

Data protection laws are shining a needed light on a secretive industry

Regardless of where we live, we all benefit from data protection laws – companies must us show how they profit off our information

When Marc Zuckerberg testified before both the House and the Senate last month, it became immediately obvious that few US lawmakers had any appetite to regulate the pervasive surveillance taking place on the internet.

Right now, the only way we can force these companies to take our privacy more seriously is through the market. But the market is broken. First, none of us do business directly with these data brokers. Equifax might have lost my personal data in 2017, but I can’t fire them because I’m not their customer or even their user. I could complain to the companies I do business with who sell my data to Equifax, but I don’t know who they are. Markets require voluntary exchange to work properly. If consumers don’t even know where these data brokers are getting their data from and what they’re doing with it, they can’t make intelligent buying choices.

This is starting to change, thanks to a new law in Vermont and another in Europe. And more legislation is coming.

Vermont first. At the moment, we don’t know how many data brokers collect data on Americans. Credible estimates range from 2,500 to 4,000 different companies. Last week, Vermont passed a law that will change that.

The law does several things to improve the security of Vermonters’ data, but several provisions matter to all of us.

Last time Mexico put tariffs on the US, American farmers lost $1 billion


Steel tariffs = political points with Trump supporters minus economic losses.

Mexico and Canada warned Donald Trump that letting political slogans dictate trade policy is dangerous economically. But their own responses to the steel and aluminum tariffs going into effect today has been political as well: Shortly after Trump announced the tariffs, Canada and Mexico announced their own politically-targeted taxes for US exports.

Trump has made trade a political issue since he was a presidential candidate. Economists point out that the tariffs defy economic logic. But politically, they are shorthand for the bygone era of American manufacturing might that Trump alludes to with his “Make America Great Again” slogan. That scores points with Trump’s supporters.

What won’t score points with Trump voters? The painful tariffs that Canada and Mexico will use to hurt Trump-leaning states like Wisconsin and Iowa. While Canada and Mexico had been able to largely ignore the president’s protectionist impulses when they were just rants, they are now being dragged down to Trump’s level.

“The US has been the stabilizer of the global economy; now it may be the destabilizer,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president at Council of the Americas, an international business group.

Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study

Groundbreaking assessment of all life on Earth reveals humanity’s surprisingly tiny part in it as well as our disproportionate impact.

A cattle farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil. 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock.

Humankind is revealed as simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth by a groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet.

The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.

The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.

Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk – an eighth – is bacteria buried deep below the surface.

“I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass,” said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth,” he said, adding that he now chooses to eat less meat due to the huge environmental impact of livestock.

How a Tiny Website Became the Police’s Go-To Genealogy Database

“I never expected anything like this.”

Police search the house of the man arrested as the Golden State Killer

Ever since investigators revealed that a genealogy website led police to arrest a man as California’s notorious Golden State Killer, interest in using genealogy to solve crimes has exploded. DNA from more than 100 crime scenes has been uploaded to the same genealogy site. A second man, linked to a double murder in Washington state, has been arrested. This is likely only the beginning.

At the center of all this is GEDmatch—a free genealogy website run by just two men who live 1,000 miles apart, an engineer in his 60s who lives in Texas and a 79-year-old retired businessman turned professional guardian in Florida. The site is—or was—a side project for them.

“I never expected anything like this,” says Curtis Rogers, who started GEDmatch along with John Olson. Rogers, who lives in Florida, had no idea investigators were using GEDmatch to find criminals until he saw the news about the Golden State Killer. “My initial reaction was I was upset,” he says. “I didn’t like this use of our website.”

To track down the suspect, investigators had created a fake profile on GEDmatch and uploaded DNA from a 1980 crime scene, where it matched a distant relative of the man eventually arrested. The weeks after the news hit were a scramble for Rogers: to update GEDmatch’s terms of service, to alert users that law enforcement was searching site, and most of all, to sort out his own complicated feelings on the subject.

Enough people are taking the HIV-prevention drug to finally lower infection rates around the world


Six years after the Food and Drug Administration approved a revolutionary HIV prevention pill known as PrEP, public health officials in select US cities have finally begun to conclude that it is likely taking a bite out of local HIV infection rates.

PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is akin to a birth control pill—only one that prevents HIV instead of pregnancy. The powder-blue tablet, which goes by the brand name Truvada, contains a pair of antiretroviral medications that were first approved to treat HIV in 2004. Truvada works by blocking HIV from replicating in the immune cells the virus infects—and, when used daily as PrEP—from establishing a permanent infection if someone is exposed to the virus. In other words, PrEP harnesses the power of a medication designed to control the virus in people living with HIV to prevent those without the virus from contracting it in the first place. Haven’t heard of PrEP? You like will soon thanks to its first-ever television ad campaign that will debut this month from Truvada’s manufacturer, Gilead Sciences.

When HIV-negative men take Truvada daily, they lower their risk of contracting the virus through sex with men by an estimated 99% or more. This fact holds considerable promise considering that gay and bisexual men made up about 70% of the estimated 38,500 new HIV cases in the United States in 2015—the most recent year for which such a figure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is available. Owing to a less robust pool of related data regarding vaginal intercourse, scientists have a foggier picture of how well Truvada prevents HIV transmission through this route; still, studies indicate that PrEP is at least 90% effective among women.

4 Presidential Scandals Somehow Dumber Than Today’s

It may feel like the office of the president of the United States of America is at its most embarrassing point in history. But the passage of time does cruel things to our perspective. It’s important to remember that in truth, the office of the president of the United States of America has always been embarrassing. Here are several historical examples to prove it.

4. Obama’s Secret Service Was Comically Inept

While preparing for a 2012 state visit to Colombia, the Secret Service made headlines when several agents hired prostitutes after a night of partying. The scandal quickly escalated, since several of the agents were married at the time, the sex workers could have easily walked out of their hotel rooms with classified information, and, you know, they were grown men with a job to do, not freshmen on their first spring break. The scandal eventually prompted a broad look at the hard-partying culture of the Secret Service, which is apparently a thing. But that’s alright, this particular scandal only served to draw attention away from the Service’s many, many other screw-ups during the Obama years.

Like the 2009 incident wherein two random attention-seekers walked off the street and into a state dinner. They even shook the president’s hand, all without the Secret Service bothering to check if they were on the guest list.

And in 2011, someone parked outside of the White House and shot at it, to which the Secret Service responded by … assuming it was a backfiring car. It took four days for a housekeeper to discover broken glass, at which point two and two were very slowly determined to maybe be four.

And all of that was only in Obama’s first term! In 2013, an agent forgot a bullet in a woman’s hotel room (every guy’s been there, right?) and tried to force his way back in to retrieve it. In the course of investigating exactly what the hell this guy was thinking, they found the man had also been sending “sexually suggestive” emails to a subordinate, which got him the boot.

But the worst came in 2014, when a man with a knife hopped the White House fence and made it deep inside the building. How did he manage to get so far without tripping any alarms? Well, he did trip the alarm … which was promptly disabled because the staff found it too loud.

People are joining the gig economy because of a powerful myth


Waiting for a job from the boss.

The gig economy is growing, fast, with nearly 7 million people projected to be working in it in the US by the end of this year, up 26% from 2017. That’s according to estimates from Intuit that were cited in Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report.

The top reason these workers are enlisting is independence. Seventy-one percent of US gig workers say they “always wanted to be their own boss,” according to a survey Intuit conducted in November 2017, and cited in Meeker’s report. A full 91% say a benefit of gig work is the ability to control their own schedule.

It’s the single biggest myth about the gig economy.

Gig work has long been sold as a modern ideal for people who want to earn money flexibly. It’s easy to see the appeal: People who drive for Uber, deliver food for DoorDash, or do household tasks on TaskRabbit can log on and off as they please. They set their hours, and decide when to take a break or a day off.

What gets muddled in this telling of the gig economy is the idea of control. An Uber driver can pick her hours, yes. But is she really her own boss, or is the boss the company’s algorithm? The algorithm, after all, determines where the driver will head next, who she’ll pick up, and how much she’ll be paid for that trip. In other words, many important features of the job are outside the driver’s control.

Copenhagen’s neighbourhood heating system cuts carbon emissions by 20%

Now other European cities are trying the district heating model.

In 1903, the municipality of Frederiksberg on the western edge of Copenhagen had a waste problem: its population had skyrocketed and the land available for dumping trash had run out. Borrowing an idea from Hamburg, the city’s government decided to burn the waste, and use the byproduct, the energy this generated, to heat its municipal buildings.

That small-scale solution has since developed into a city-wide heating system, known as district heating, that provides clean, cheap heat for 98% of homes in Copenhagen. The idea is basically the same, though the energy source has changed. A network of pipes distributes water heated by the waste energy from industrial processes to homes across the city, saving 200,000 tonnes of oil every year, and through this the 665,000 tonnes of CO2, a reduction of 20% from the levels which would otherwise be released into the air through burning it. The air is cleaner, and households pay lower bills.

Cities everywhere are struggling to keep their air clean and emissions down, and Copenhagen’s system shows that individual cities can make radical and beneficial changes. But experts argue that, for the benefits to be felt, governments have to plan painstakingly, so that individual households don’t bear the whole cost of cleaner heat.

A history of heat

Power stations and factories produce heat as a by-product. Normally this is wasted, but in a district heating system it is used to heat water which is then carried to homes. Instead of each individual household having its own boiler, usually powered by oil or gas, they ‘plug into’ the network, and heat their homes from the collective supply.

Save the kiwi: New Zealand rallies to protect its iconic bird

Experts are battling to save the remaining 68,000 kiwis in a country once home to millions.

Predator-free zones have been introduced to save New Zealand’s national bird.

Below a mottled sky, a lone sea craft cuts across the water towards Kapiti Island. It’s been forsaken by people and gifted to the rare and vulnerable birds of New Zealand to forage undisturbed. Kiwi stepping carefully up the beach at midnight. Kokako waking no one with their shrill calls. And hihi flitting freely through the dense native bush. With no predators allowed, the birds are confident and thriving.

“New Zealanders are a shy and reclusive bunch, the kiwi is a bird we identify with,” says Paul O’Shea, an administrator for Kiwis for Kiwi, a conservation group set up to save the bird from extinction.

“It’s as vital to protect the kiwi in New Zealand as it is to protect the orangutan in Borneo, the sumatran tiger in Indonesia, and the panda in China. Losing these species from the planet might not affect your day-to-day life, but it is a loss to the human experience.”

There are 68,000 kiwi left in the country, and they are declining at the rate of 2% per year . A century ago, there were millions. Outside the predator-free zones, kiwi chicks and adults are killed and eaten by dogs and cats, attacked by possums, stoats and rats, and hit by cars at night.

South Korean apps are outsourcing academic fraud to freelance ghostwriters


Heaps of qualifications required.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded a South Korean app called “Soomgo,” a shortened Korean word for “Soomeun Gosoo,” which means “hidden master.” Soomgo, and its rival Kmong, are Thumbtack for South Korea—a marketplace for matching users with local service providers, such as designers, movers, and English tutors, for short-term jobs.

Both gig economy platforms are very popular—Kmong has more than 25 million users as of April 2018, while Soomgo has clocked up more than 50 million as of March—and they’ve become a new avenue for outsourcing academic fraud, seamlessly connecting students with ghostwriters.

Within a few weeks of signing up as a tutor and English translator, dozens of requests piled up in my Soomgo inbox—and about 20 unexpected messages. They were ghostwriting requests for theses and dissertations. For example, one student offered me the equivalent of $2,000 to write her 80-page thesis on e-learning for Korean language education. Ghostwriting requests have made up more than one-third of the overall inquiries I’ve received.

Ghostwriting has become a lucrative market as more South Korean university graduates go on to graduate school to gain an edge, or buy themselves more time to look for a job in the country’s competitive job market. The number of South Korean graduate students has steadily increased from 296,576 to 326,315 from 2007 to 2017. The country’s youth jobless rate stood at a record 9.9 percent last year, according to government data.

Desire for sugar eliminated in mice by rewiring brains

Researchers identified two specific regions in the brain which respond to sweet and bitter tastes – and altered those responses.

Desperate to kick your sweet tooth? Scientists edge closer to solution.

From whispering sweet nothings to hoping for sweet dreams, sugariness and pleasure have long been bound together. Now scientists studying the brains of mice have revealed why, unpicking the pathways in the brain which result in sweet foods being perceived as nice and bitter foods as nasty.

What’s more, they have managed to tinker with these routes so that mice get a kick out of a tasteless substance such as water, and have even managed to switch off such judgments completely. Researchers say the finding may help with the search for treatments for eating disorders.

“The very concept of sweet, the very word sweet, implies this goodness, this reward, this craving that we link to it, and similarly bitter on the other side has an immediate meaning to it. So we wanted to know, how does the brain encode meaning on sensory experience?” said Charles Zuker, lead author of the research from Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute.

While the work was carried out in mice, Zuker said there could be parallels for the human brain and that understanding the brain circuits involved in taste and our responses to it might eventually open up the possibility of tinkering with our own responses to certain foods – including sugar cravings.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

The small island of Tangier sits 12 miles off the coast of Virginia. It’s a peaceful, salt-of-the-earth kind of place, with only 600 full-time residents, most of whom have known their neighbors—commercial crabbers, watermen, schoolteachers, parishioners—for generations. Shortly, however, that may all come to an end.

As soon as 25 years from now, Tangier is expected to disappear into the sea. The people who live there, along with the residents of similar coastal towns and islands threatened by sea-level rise, may become among the first U.S. climate refugees.

Less than a week before the California primary, Google listed “Nazism” as the ideology of the California Republican Party.

In the “knowledge panel” that provides easy access to information next to search results, Google was showing “Nazism” as an “ideology” of the party as of Thursday morning. The word “Nazism” was hyperlinked to a secondary page that shows “Nazism” alongside other “ideologies” of California Republicans like “Conservatism,” “Market liberalism,” “Fiscal conservatism,” and “Green conservatism.”

California voters have been casting their absentee ballots for weeks ahead of Tuesday’s statewide primary elections, which will help determine the majority in the House of Representative and the potential next governor of the world’s fifth-largest economy.

But voters looking for information by searching “California Republicans” or “California Republican Party” were getting “Nazism” next to their search results until Google took the listing down later Thursday after a query from VICE News.

THANKS to HBO and VICE News for making this program available on YouTube.

Kim Kardashian visits the White House to lobby for the pardon of a convicted great-grandmother, and President Trump grants a pardon to right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza.

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

Citizen Journalist Tim Baltz sits down with female members of the tech industry to discuss the impact of sexism on Silicon Valley.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper for making this program available on YouTube.

As you can see Max loves messing with doors.

Porn’s Uncanny Valley

The San Fernando Valley was once the bedroom community of the adult industry. Now technology hopes to disrupt traditional pornography—and the city it calls home.

“It’s a phantom-limb penis syndrome,” said a tall, British man who goes by the name Adam Sutra. Adam is the CEO of CamasutraVR, a company that makes, among other products, virtual-reality pornography. He was trying to explain to me what it’s like when you’re a man, you’re immersed in virtual reality, and you look down at yourself.

Adam works in a downtown Los Angeles loft that was arranged like any start-up with ambitious goals. High ceilings, concrete floors, and skateboards leaning against a wall upon which hung a poster for the indie rock band Pavement. Outside, there was the clamor of construction in a neighborhood busily gentrifying. Inside, the late-morning sunlight illuminated the room.

On the computer screen before us, a 3-D rendering of a naked man was stomping around a virtual apartment. “I’m now in the body of a black, male performer with a 12-inch penis,” Adam announced. The virtual apartment’s decor was banal: a white coffee table next to a sofa, a bowl of oranges on the kitchen counter, an Oriental rug on the floor. But in the main room, the real porn star Casey Calvert had been digitally scanned and recreated as a digital doppelgänger. She was dancing around a stripper pole, grinding to the ominous chords of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

For the new pornographers like Adam Sutra, technology can erase the material world. In virtual reality, there are no limits, not even when it comes to sex. “If you can meet in your virtual-reality space, anything’s possible,” Adam observed coolly as the man bore down upon the woman, her prerecorded moans filling the air.

Porn wasn’t always like this. It used to be real.

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