November 13, 2018 in words

Russian trolls prey on the toxic way we do our politics

The Kremlin’s target is not the outcome of specific votes, such as for Brexit or the US presidency, but to divide the west

Pictured above: White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 12 August 2017.

To understand the current political frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic, it helps to know Tortuous Convolvulus. Unfamiliar with his work? Convolvulus was a spy, operating around 50BC, a specialist in psychological warfare. He was deployed by Julius Caesar against a stubborn Gallic rebellion, and his methods were not so different to those of Russian cyber-saboteurs against western democracies.

It is worth adding that Convolvulus is a character from Asterix and the Roman Agent, a book known to most English readers in translation by Anthea Bell. The sad news of Bell’s death last month triggered many fond memories and one association with current events: the devious Roman provocateur who initiates a conspiracy theory about Asterix leaking the formula for the magic potion that allows the Gaulish village to defy Caesar’s garrisons. The fake news breeds mistrust and the villagers’ solidarity collapses.

That Convolvulus is a fictional character doesn’t diminish the relevance of his techniques. The point is that there is nothing new in disinformation, and no strategic genius in a campaign to destabilise societies by aggravating their divisions. It is cartoon-level espionage, simple but effective.

The fact of Russian meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election is not in doubt. The scale of complicity with the Trump campaign should soon be revealed by special counsel Robert Mueller. In the absence of an equivalent investigation in Britain, it is hard to know how much energy the Kremlin has put into influencing our own politics, but there are no prizes for guessing which side Vladimir Putin rooted for in the Brexit battle. Maybe Leave.EU’s Arron Banks was invited to boozy lunches in the Russian embassy, and offered privileged access to goldmine investments because of his amiable manners. It is likelier he made the guest list as a financier of anti-EU propaganda.

The US citizens bypassing university to protect their parents from ICE

For fear of implicating their families, US citizens still struggle to receive health care, get a driving license, or receive financial aid.

For children of undocumented immigrants, going to college comes at the risk of outing their parents’ immigration status.

In June of 2017, Erica enrolled in a Florida community college. With its breezy hallways, swaying palm trees and well-lit classrooms, the campus was a far cry from the factory that employs both her and her mother – a place where undocumented migrants continually fear Ice raids.

The factory was a dead end, a place of desperation; campus promised a brighter future. But the exhilaration Erica felt when she walked the campus turned to despair as she filled out her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (Fafsa).

To receive financial aid, she would have to include information about her parents on the form. While Erica – who, like all sources interviewed for this article, requested to be identified by only her first name– is a US citizen, her parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Her mother had long been anxious living without papers, but it all got much worse when Ice picked up Erica’s older brother on their mother’s birthday a decade ago just as he walked out of a local grocery store, cake in hand.

Erica is one of the countless US citizens who face a catch-22 when they apply for federal financial aid: on the one hand, they must provide information about their parents on forms; on the other, they fear that doing so will alert authorities to their parents’ immigration status.

It’s a choice between, as some students put it, “ratting out” their family or giving up on higher education.

Google, Facebook, and Amazon benefit from an outdated definition of “monopoly”


Google was able to buy its main competitor, DoubleClick, and vertically integrate online ad markets by buying advertising exchanges.

A few weeks ago, Italy fined Apple and Samsung €15 million for the “planned obsolescence” of their smartphones. The antitrust regulators allege that both companies pushed users to download software that slowed phone performance, forcing customers to buy replacement phones sooner.

The fines were another blow to big tech companies as the groundswell of skepticism against them rises. These companies have amassed so much power that even Apple CEO Tim Cook has called for stricter regulations to be placed on them. Google owns 92% market share of internet searches, Facebook an almost 70% share of social networks. Both have a duopoly in advertising with no credible competition or regulation. Amazon, meanwhile, is crushing retailers and faces conflicts of interest as both the dominant e-commerce seller and the leading online platform for third-party sellers. Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android completely control the mobile app market, and they determine whether businesses can reach their customers and on what terms.

So why hasn’t the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) taken action to break up these companies?

I believe that an outdated interpretation of antitrust law is partly to blame. For decades the standard for evaluating whether to break up monopolies, or block the mergers that create them, has been “consumer welfare.” And this consumer welfare standard has predominantly been interpreted as low prices. If companies can show that a merger or acquisition would not impact prices, for the most part, they win approval.

5 Stupid Flight Delays That’ll Fill You With Secondhand Rage

Air travel is expensive and exhausting. But the next time you’re discouraged by your plane idling on the runway for an extra hour, you can at least consider how much worse it could get. You could have ended up on one of these flights.

5. The Terrorism Scare That Happened Because No One Could Recognize Mat

In 2016, a routine flight waited half an hour on the tarmac, but instead of taking off, it ended up returning to the gate, whereupon a 40-year-old man was escorted off the plane. The woman next to him had spotted suspicious activity and heroically warned a flight attendant of the potential threat. Specifically, the man had been scribbling on a napkin in what appeared to be a foreign language, and he had been curt in answering the wannabe Nancy Drew’s questions about himself. Oh, and he had “olive skin and an exotic foreign accent.” We’re going to posit that maybe that was a factor in what would otherwise be an unremarkable tale of a reserved passenger doing some doodles.

The man was interviewed by a security agent, and it was soon determined that he was award-winning Ivy League economist Guido Menzio. And even if you don’t have a notable economist trading card collection, a cursory Google search of his name makes it clear that he’s not in the business of plane sabotage. The writings that had been mistaken for a secret code or one of them Middle Eastern languages were differential equations Menzio was fine-tuning for a presentation he was scheduled to perform at Queen’s University on menu costs and price dispersion. And while that does mean he was armed with the tools to bore his fellow passengers to sleep, there’s no law against flying while being both swarthy and good at math, even if you look like a “terrorist” to the sort of person who gets their news from Facebook pages with “Patriot” in the name.

Menzio was allowed to re-board, and the flight took off two hours late without his accuser on it. Hey, extra elbow room! Score!

“You’re lucky I don’t calculate how much I could sue you for.”

Menzio noted that while everyone involved was polite to him, it was a baffling and frustrating experience with an inefficient and biased security system. We’re baffled too. While high school calculus mostly taught us that we should abandon our aspirations of building a personal space shuttle, who can’t tell math from a written language? If it was a code or calculation to bring the plane down, what kind of terrorist would be committed enough to agree to the mission, but lazy enough to leave all the strategizing until moments before takeoff? And what kind of terror organization would be targeting the crown jewel of potential targets that is the 41-minute hop from Philadelphia to Syracuse? Any plots would be foiled by attendants yelling at the perpetrators to sit back down, because the flight never cruises long enough to turn the seat belt sign off.

Why coming out as working class was harder than coming out as gay

I’ve left the closet twice – as a gay man, and as an academic from a working-class background. The second was at least as hard.

The author with his mother.

Recently a colleague asked me what it was like growing up gay in Arkansas. Even I was surprised to find I didn’t have an answer. After all, I should be an expert on that subject – and, indeed, a couple of horror stories she no doubt expected to hear are true.

However, as an adolescent, my sexual orientation, dormant as I kept it, wasn’t the reason I felt queer. Right after I hit puberty, my mother and I moved to a university town from a small farm community to escape the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, and in the years that followed she had to work too many hours at too many jobs for too little money to make ends meet. Periodically she entered a depression and I, in an attempt to prevent it, strove to be perfect.

Though my efforts to stop my mother’s depression failed, as consolation my perfectionism earned me a subsidized spot at an elite university. This rendered my queerness in even starker contrast, since I was now among a student body primarily from the top 20% of wealthiest families in the country.

Though I developed many deep friendships at college, the fact of the matter was that I had a set of concerns quite different from those of nearly all my peers. They worried about flawless GPAs and gradations of the Greek system and whether or not their parents would bankroll tropical breaks. I worried about my mom’s financial and emotional survival and how I was going to get to and from Arkansas and whether or not I could find an internship that would simply pay.



I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

At what point does a spork become a toy?

Buried within the playful 80-second teaser trailer for Toy Story 4 is this existential question, along with others worthy of Descartes and Kierkegaard: Are utensils always capable of sentience, or only when someone adds googly eyes to them? Does a spork understand its role in the universe? Does anyone?

Disney Pixar released the first look at the long-awaited Toy Story sequel today, and while it doesn’t reveal much (we see the toys we know and love—Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and crew—dancing in a circle to Judy Collins singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”), it does introduce a new character: Forky the spork.

“I don’t belong here!” Forky (voiced by Veep actor Tony Hale), a spork with a face and pipe-cleaner arms, exclaims in the new trailer. “I’m not a toy!”

Or is he?

Toy Story 4 picks up sometime after the previous film, which hit theaters in 2010 and showed Andy’s lovable group of toys transfer into the possession of the toddler Bonnie. The official synopsis says Bonnie adds a “reluctant new toy called ‘Forky’ to her room,” sparking a road trip for the group as Woody helps him understand “how big the world can be for a toy.” That’s a lot to put on the plate of someone who’s having an existential crisis.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” But considering the culture of corruption inside of his administration, Washington is looking awfully…swampy.

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

Trump can’t decide whether he knows his new Acting Attorney General or not, claims he’s an expert on forest fires and decides to take a rain check on honoring the 100th anniversary of WWI at an American cemetery in France.

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

This meteorologist is calling for rain with a chance of a president who’s afraid to get his hair wet.

During these dangerous and deadly wildfires, Donald Trump is keeping California in his thoughts… thoughts he should probably keep to himself.

Bemoaning the tightening gubernatorial and senatorial races in Florida, the President says we should just go with whoever was ahead on election night.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

Catholic middle school graduate Samantha Bee and TBS are pleased to announce Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s holiday special “Christmas on I.C.E.”! Christmas is a time for all families to be together. And so is every other day.

Join Samantha Bee for a less-godless-than-the-usual-liberal Christmas variety spectacular with all the traditional trimmings: music, laughter, joy, deep rage that the administration is separating migrant families, and gingerbread. And did we mention that the whole thing is on ice? Your move, John Legend! But also, good tidings to you.

Tune in for “Christmas on I.C.E.” on Wednesday, December 19 at 10:30pm ET/PT for a full half-hour of commercial-free cheer.

THANKS to TBS and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee for making this program available on YouTube.

Seth takes a closer look President Trump becoming more lawless amid a power grab at the Justice Department and a recount in Florida.

THANKS to NBC and Late Night with Seth Meyers for making this program available on YouTube.

In spite of my poor graffiti, Maru is happy.(Probably)



You can see the graying of your workforce as a crisis — or an opportunity.

Before our eyes, the world is undergoing a massive demographic transformation. In many countries, the population is getting old. Very old. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than 2 billion by 2050 and those 60 and over will outnumber children under the age of 5. In the United States, about 10,000 people turn 65 each day, and one in five Americans will be 65 or older by 2030. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will eclipse the number of people aged 18 and under for the first time in U.S. history.

The reasons for this age shift are many — medical advances that keep people healthier longer, dropping fertility rates, and so on — but the net result is the same: Populations around the world will look very different in the decades ahead.

Some in the public and private sector are already taking note — and sounding the alarm. In his first term as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, with the Great Recession looming, Ben Bernanke remarked, “in the coming decades, many forces will shape our economy and our society, but in all likelihood no single factor will have as pervasive an effect as the aging of our population.” Back in 2010, Standard & Poor’s predicted that the biggest influence on “the future of national economic health, public finances, and policymaking” will be “the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”

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