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Thursday: Move

Need something easy on the nerves today, something mellow, and yet something that won’t let a listener off too lightly. Guess for today that’s John Legend’s Tiny Desk Concert.

I promised reindeer tales today, haven’t forgotten.

From Anthrax to Zombies

  • First outbreak in 75 years forces evacuation of reindeer herders (The Siberian Times) — The last outbreak in the Siberian tundra was in 1941; news of this outbreak broke across mainstream media this past week, with some outlets referring to it as a “zombie” infection since it came back from dormancy, likely rising from a long-dead human or animal corpse.
  • Infected reindeer corpses to be collected and destroyed (The Barent Observer) — A lot of odd details about anthrax and its history pop up as the outbreak evolves. Like the mortality rate for skin anthrax (24%) and the alleged leak of anthrax from a Soviet bio-warfare lab in 1979. Reindeer deaths were blamed initially on unusually warm weather (~30C); the same unusually warm weather may have encouraged the release of long-dormant anthrax from the tundra.
  • Siberian outbreak may have started five weeks earlier (The Siberian Times) — Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance senior official is angry about the slow response to the first diagnosis; the affected region does not have strong veterinary service, and it took a herder four days’ walk across the tundra to inform authorities about an infection due to a lack of communications technology. The situation must be serious as the Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova has now been vaccinated against anthrax. Reports as of yesterday indicate 90 people have been hospitalized, 23 of which have been diagnosed with anthrax, and one child died. The form most appear infected with is intestinal; its mortality rate is a little over 50%. Infection is blamed on anthrax-contaminated meat; shipment of meat from the area is now banned. Russian bio-warfare troops have established a clean camp for the evacuated herder families until the reindeer corpses have been disposed of and inoculations distributed across the area’s population.
  • Important: keep in mind this Siberian outbreak may be unusual for its location, but not across the globe. In the last quarter there have been small anthrax outbreaks in Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Bulgaria. Just search under Google News for “anthrax” stories over the last year.
  • Coincidentally, anthrax drug maker filed and received FDA’s ‘orphan status’ (GlobeNewsWire) — There have been so few orders for anthrax prophylaxis vaccine BioThrax that specialty biopharmaceutical company Emergent BioSolutions requested ‘orphan status’ from the FDA, granted to special therapies for rare conditions affecting less than 200,000 persons in the U.S. The status was awarded mid-June.
  • Investor sues anthrax drug maker for misleading expectations (Washington Business Journal) — Suit filed against the company and executives claims Emergent BioSolutions mislead investors into thinking the company would sell as many doses of BioThrax to the U.S. government during the next five years as the preceding five years. On the face of it, investor appears to expect Emergent BioSolutions to predict both actual vaccine demand in advance along with government funding (hello, GOP-led Congress?) and other new competitors in the same marketspace. Seems a bit much to me, like the investor feels entitled to profits without risk. Maybe they’ll get lucky and climate change will increase likelihood of anthrax infections — cha-ching.
  • Another coincidence: Last Friday marked 8 years since anthrax researcher Bruce Ivin’s death (Tulsa World) — And this coming Saturday marks six years since the FBI released its report on the anthrax attacks it blamed on Ivins.

Cybernia

  • Facebook let police shut down feed from negotiations resulting in another civilian-death-by-cop (The Mary Sue) –Yeah, we wouldn’t want to let the public see the police use deadly force against an African American mother and her five-year-old child instead of talking and waiting them out of the situation as they do so many white men in armed confrontations. And now police blame Instagram for her death. Since when does using Instagram come with an automatic death warrant?
  • Can GPS location signals be spoofed? Yep. (IEEE) — It’s possible the U.S. Navy patrol boats caught in Iran’s waters may have relied on spoofed GPS; we don’t know yet as the “misnavigating” incident is still under investigation. This article does a nice job explaining GPS spoofing, but it leaves us with a mystery. GPS signals are generated in civilian and military formats, the first is unencrypted and the second encrypted. If the “misnavigated” patrol boats captured by Iran in January were sent spoofed GPS location data, does this mean U.S. military encryption was broken? The piece also ask about reliability of GPS given spoofing when it comes to self-driving, self-navigating cars. Oh hell no.
  • Security firm F-Secure releases paper on trojan targeting entities involved in South China Sea dispute (F-Secure) — The Remote Access Trojan (RAT) has been called NanHaiShu, which means South China Sea Rat. The RAT, containing a VBA macro that executes an embedded JScript file, was spread via email messages using industry-specific terms. The targets were deliberately selected for spearfishing as the senders knew the users did not lock down Microsoft Office’s default security setting to prevent macro execution. The malware had been in the wild for about two years, but its activity synced with events related to the South China Sea dispute.

Tomorrow’s Friday, which means jazz. Guess I’d better start poking around in my files for something good. Catch you later!

Tuesday Morning: Garbage in, Garbage out [UPDATE]

Why’d I pick this music video, besides the fact I like the tune? Oh, no reason at all other than it’s trash day again.

Speaking of trash…

Facebook furor just frothy foam?
I didn’t add yesterday’s Gizmodo piece on Facebook’s news curation yesterday or the earlier May 3 piece because I thought the work was sketchy. Why?

  • The entire curation system appears to be contractors — Where is a Facebook employee in this process?

    “…News curators aren’t Facebook employees—they’re contractors. One former team member said they received benefits including limited medical insurance, paid time off after 6 months and transit reimbursement, but were otherwise excluded from the culture and perks of working at Facebook. […] When the curators, hired by companies like BCForward and Pro Unlimited (which are then subcontracted through Accenture to provide workers for Facebook), arrive at work each day, they read through a list of trending topics ranked by Facebook’s algorithm from most popular (or most engaged) to least. The curators then determine the news story the terms are related to.

    The news curation team writes headlines for each of the topics, along with a three-sentence summary of the news story it’s pegged to, and choose an image or Facebook video to attach to the topic. The news curator also chooses the “most substantive post” to summarize the topic, usually from a news website. […] News curators also have the power to “deactivate” (or blacklist) a trending topic—a power that those we spoke to exercised on a daily basis. …” (emphasis mine)

    I see a Facebook-generated algorithm, but no direct employees in the process — only curator-contractors.

  • Sources may have a beef with Facebook — This doesn’t sound like a happy work environment, does it?

    “…Over time, the work became increasingly demanding, and Facebook’s trending news team started to look more and more like the worst stereotypes of a digital media content farm.

    […]

    Burnout was rampant. ‘Most of the original team isn’t there anymore,’ said another former news curator. ‘It was a stop-gap for them. Most of the people were straight out of [journalism school]. At least one of them was fired. Most of them quit or were hired by other news outlets.’ …” (emphasis mine)

    It’s not as if unhappy contractors won’t have newsworthy tips, but what about unhappy Facebook employees? Where are they in either of Gizmodo’s pieces?

  • Details in the reporting reveal bias in the complainant(s) — So far I see one reference to a conservative curator, not multiple conservative curators.

    “Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project.

    […]

    Other former curators interviewed by Gizmodo denied consciously suppressing conservative news, and we were unable to determine if left-wing news topics or sources were similarly suppressed. The conservative curator described the omissions as a function of his colleagues’ judgements; there is no evidence that Facebook management mandated or was even aware of any political bias at work. …”

    Note the use of “a” in front of “former journalist” and “the” in front of “conservative curator.” (Note also Gizmodo apparently needs a spell check app.)

  • No named sources confirming the validity of the complaints or other facts in Gizmodo’s reporting — Again, where are Facebook employees? What about feedback from any of the companies supplying contractors; did they not hear complaints from contractors they placed? There aren’t any apparent attempts to contact them to find out, let alone anonymous confirmation from these contract companies. There are updates to the piece yesterday afternoon and this morning, including feedback from Vice President of Search at Facebook, Tom Stocky, which had been posted at Facebook. Something about the lack of direct or detailed feedback to Gizmodo seems off.
  • Though named in the first of two articles, Facebook’s managing editor Benjamin Wagner does not appear to have been asked for comment. The May 3 piece quotes an unnamed Facebook spokesperson:

    When asked about the trending news team and its future, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We don’t comment on rumor or speculation. As with all contractors, the trending review team contractors are fairly compensated and receive appropriate benefits.”

I’m disappointed that other news outlets picked up Gizmodo’s work without doing much analysis or followup. Reuters, for example, even parrots the same phrasing Gizmodo used, referring to the news curators as “Facebook workers” and not contract employees or contractors. Because of this ridiculous unquestioning regurgitation by outlets generally better than this, I felt compelled to write about my concerns.

And then there’s Gizmodo itself, which made a point of tweeting its report was trending on Facebook. Does Gizmodo have a beef with Facebook, too? Has it been curated out of Facebook’s news feed? Are these two pieces really about Facebook’s laundering of Gizmodo?

I don’t know; I can’t tell you because I don’t use Facebook. Not going to start now because of Gizmodo’s sketchy reporting on Facebook, of all things.

Miscellany
Just some odd bits read because today is as themeless as yesterday — lots of garbage out there.

Skepticism: I haz it
As I read coverage about news reporting and social media leading up to the general election, I also keep in the back of my mind this Bloomberg report, How to Hack an Election:

As for Sepúlveda, his insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. […] On the question of whether the U.S. presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. “I’m 100 percent sure it is,” he says.

Be more skeptical. See you tomorrow morning!

UPDATE — 1:30 P.M. EDT —

@CNBCnow
JUST IN: Senate Commerce Commtitte chair sends letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg seeking answers on alleged manipulation of trending news

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME WITH THIS? THE SENATE GOING TO WASTE TAX DOLLARS ON THIS WHEN EVERY. SINGLE. NEWS. OUTLET. USES EDITORIAL JUDGMENT TO DECIDE WHAT TO COVER AS NEWS?

Cripes, Gizmodo’s poorly sourced hit piece says,

“…In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation. …”

Yet the Senate is going to pursue this bullshit story after Gizmodo relied on ONE conservative curator-contractor — and their story actually says an algorithm is used?

Jeebus. Yet the Senate will ignore Sheldon Adelson’s acquisition of the biggest newspaper in Las Vegas in a possible attempt to denigrate local judges?

I can’t with this.

UPDATE — 3:35 P.M. EDT —
The Guardian reports the senator wasting our tax dollars questioning a First Amendment exercise by Facebook is John Thune. Hey! Guess who’s running for re-election as South Dakota’s senior senator? Why it’s John Thune! Nothing like using your political office as a free press-generating tool to augment your campaign. I hope Facebook’s algorithm suppresses this manufactured non-news crap.

Wednesday Morning: Lüg mich an, Lügner

I admit freely my facility with the German language is poor. I hope this post’s headline reads, “Lie to me, Liar.” Which is about as close as I could get to “Lying Liars” because I can’t conjugate the verb ‘to lie.’

~shrug~

It’s not like anybody’s paying me for this, unlike the lying liars at Volkswagen who’ve been paid to deceive the public for a decade. This video presentation featuring Daniel Lange and Felix Domke — a security consultant and an IT consultant, respectively, who reverse engineered VW’s emissions control cheat — is a bit long, but it’s chock full of unpleasant truths revealing the motivations behind VW’s Dieselgate deceptions. The video underpins the cheat outlined in a 2006 VW presentation explaining how to defeat emissions tests.

The one problem I have with this video is the assumption that the fix on each of the affected vehicles will be $600. Nope. That figure is based on how much has been set aside for the entire Dieselgate fix, NOT the actual cost to repair the vehicles.

Because if VW really fixed the vehicles to match the claims they made when they marketed and sold these “clean diesel” passenger cars, it’d cost even more per vehicle. I suspect one of the motivations behind inadequate reserves for a true repair is a reluctance to disclose to competitors how much emissions standards-meeting “clean diesel” really costs.

And of course, avoiding more stringent calculations also prevents an even bigger hit to the company’s stock price, which might affect the pockets of some board members and executives rather disproportionately to the rest of the stock market.

Just how closely that figure per car hews to the agreement with the court this past week will be worth noting, since the video was published in December last year.

But now for the much bigger, even more inconvenient Lügner Lügen: This entire scandal exposes the fraud that is the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Paris agreement.

We know a small nonprofit funded research by a tiny group of academics exposing VW’s emissions controls defeat. We know this set off a cascade of similar analysis, exposing even more cheating by more automobile manufacturers.

But why are we only now finding out from nonprofits and academics about this fraud? Didn’t our elected representatives create laws and the means for monitoring compliance as well as enforcement? Why aren’t governments in the U.S. and the EU catching these frauds within a year of their being foisted on the public?

These questions directly impact the Paris agreement. We’re not starting where emissions standards have been set and where the public believes conditions to be, but at real emissions levels. In other words, we are digging out of  a massive pollution hole.

Our elected officials across the world will avoid funding the dig-out; they’ll continue another layer of lies to prevent removal from office. And we can reasonably expect from them only what they’ve done so far, which Dieselgate has proven to be little.

For that matter, Flint’s water crisis has much in common with Dieselgate, relying on academic research and nonprofit entities to reveal mortal threats to the community. Flint’s crisis showed us government at all levels can be even worse at writing laws, monitoring compliance, and subsequent enforcement.

If the public cannot expect government to do the job it believes it elected them to do over the last several decades, how ever can they expect their government to enact the terms of the Paris agreement? How can we expect third world countries to reduce carbon emissions to save the world from the devastation of climate change while we and our governments continue to ignore corporations’ ongoing deceptions?

No roundup today, gang. I strongly recommend watching the video above. Thanks to BoingBoing for linking to it.

Thursday Morning: It’s Still Morning Somewhere

Fried. I am totally brain-fried after spending the night reading about flavivirus, rubivirus, arbovirus. So a morning post was not in the cards right away today in my time zone.

Things are fried elsewhere, too, as you can see from the global map above. These locations are suffering from drought:

Colombia – Drought has affected hydroelectric generation.

India – south – Heatwave coupled with drought cost lives

Malawi – Food crisis declared as crop yields fall off due to drought

Mongolia – Severe winter sandwiched between droughts devastates livestock

Morocco – Wheat crop output fell by 50% due to drought

Mozambique — Floods in the north and drought in the south damaged crops; a “red alert” now issued over food security.

Oceana (S Australia/Papua New Guinea) – Human trafficking reported, with girls sold in exchange for rice in Papua New Guinea due to drought-caused crop failures.

Venezuela – Country experiencing electricity shortages due to drought

Vietnam – Livestock are dying due to drought

Zimbabwe – Country is participating in a co-operative food aid program due to severe drought.

This is only a partial list of drought-affected countries; Mideast and Mediterranean countries, Thailand, more of the African continent, and the southwest U.S. also suffer from drought.

Some drought is due to cyclical trends like the current El Nino event, but much of the drought is deeper than the average cycle, and some of it is simply climate change. Many places are already facing agricultural crises, and others have been facing them for years now.

While the map above doesn’t reflect it, forecasts predict dryer-than-average conditions across the crop-growing region of the middle U.S. as well as a return to dryer conditions in California.

We are overdue for discussions about global food security as climate change worsens. We can start now.

Back to regular morning roundup programming tomorrow — see you then!

Wednesday Morning: A Whiter Shade

She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.’
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be

— excerpt, Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum
cover here by Annie Lennox

I’ve been on an Annie Lennox jag, sorry. I’m indulging myself here at the intersection of a favorite song which fit today’s theme and a favorite performer. Some of you will take me to task for not using the original version by Procol Harum, or another cover like Eric Clapton’s. Knock yourselves out; it’s Lennox for me.

Speaking of a whiter shade and truth…

FBI used a ‘gray hat’ to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone
Last evening after regular business hours WaPo published a story which made damned sure we knew:

1) The FBI waded into a fuzzy zone to hack the phone — oh, not hiring a ‘black hat’, mind you, but a whiter-shade ‘gray hat’ hacker;
2) Cellebrite wasn’t that ‘gray hat’;
3) The third-party resource was referred to as ‘professional hackers’ or ‘researchers who sell flaws’;
4) FBI paid a ‘one-time fee’ for this hack — which sounds like, “Honest, we only did it once! How could we be pregnant?!
5) A ‘previously unknown software flaw’ was employed after the third-party pointed to it.

This reporting only generated more questions:

• Why the careful wording, ‘previously unknown software flaw’ as opposed to zero-day vulnerability, which has become a term of art?
• How was the determination made that the party was not black or white but gray, and not just a ‘professional hacker who sold knowledges about a flaw they used’? Or was the explanation provided just stenography?
• However did Cellebrite end up named in the media anyhow if they weren’t the source of the resolution?
• What assurances were received in addition to the assist for that ‘one-time fee’?
• Why weren’t known security experts consulted?
• Why did the FBI say it had exhausted all resources to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone?
• Why did FBI director Jim Comey say “we just haven’t decided yet” to tell Apple about this unlocking method at all if ‘persons familiar with the matter’ were going to blab to WaPo about their sketchy not-black-or-white-hat approach instead?

That’s just for starters. Marcy’s gone over this latest story, too, be sure to read.

Volkswagen execs get a haircut
Panic among employees and state of Lower Saxony over VW’s losses and anticipated payouts as a result of Dieselgate impelled executives to share the pain and cut their bonuses. Germany’s Lower Saxony is the largest state/municipal shareholder in VW, but it’s doubly exposed to VW financial risks as nearly one in ten Germans are employed in the automotive industry, and VW is the largest single German automotive company. The cuts to bonuses will be retroactive, affecting payouts based on last year’s business performance.

Fuzzy dust bunnies

  • Verizon workers on strike (Boston Globe) — Until minimum wage is raised across the country and offshoring jobs stops, we’ll probably see more labor actions like this. Should be a warning to corporations with quarter-after-quarter profits and offshore tax shelters to watch themselves — they can afford to pay their workers.
  • Facebook deploys bots across its services (Computerworld) — But, but AI is years away, said Microsoft research…meanwhile, you just know Amazon’s Alexa is already looking to hookup with Facebook’s chatbot.
  • Google’s charitable arm ponied up $20M cash for disabled users’ technology improvements (Google.org) — IMO, this was a great move for an underserved population.
  • Judge’s rejects Obama administration blow-off of apex predator wolverines (HGN) — Wolverines, a necessary part of health northern and mountain ecosystems, need cold weather to survive. Montana’s U.S. District Court ruled the administration had not done enough to protect biodiversity including the wolverine. Crazy part of this entire situation is that the feds don’t believe the wolverine warrants Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection and that they can’t tell what effects climate change has on this species, but the species is seen rarely to know. Hello? A rarely-seen species means the numbers are so low they are at risk of extinction — isn’t that what the ESA is supposed to define and prevent?

UPDATE — 12:10 PM EDT —
From @cintagliata via Twitter:

Back in 1971, researchers observed Zika virus replicating in neurons and glia. (in mice) http://bit.ly/1XvsD4d

I’m done with the pesticides-as-causal theory. It may be a secondary exacerbating factor, but not likely primary. In short, we’ve had information about Zika’s destructive effects on the brain and nervous system for 45 years. It’s past time for adequate funding to address prevention, treatments, control of its spread.

It’s all down the hump from here, kids. See you tomorrow morning!

Thursday Morning: Eye in the Sky

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind

— excerpt, Eye in the Sky by Alan Parsons Project

It’s not like I wanted to haul out all my high school and college music, but they sure seem to work well this week.

Speaking of the eye in the sky…

FBI and DHS circle overhead a LOT
Buzzfeed published its findings after looking into FBI and DHS surveillance flight records, finding a lot of planes circling over mosques. The results also looked at flights immediately after the San Bernardino shooting. You know what would be interesting? Comparing that information against the handling timeline for the Apple iPhone issued to Syed Farouk by his employer.

U.S. dealerships sue Volkswagen – but expand on Dieselgate
Not only are three family-owned dealerships suing VW for its fraudulent use of an emissions control defeat system in their diesel passenger vehicles — they are suing because of VW’s financing practices, which steered money away from dealership’s preferred financing while leaving the dealerships stuck with rapidly depreciated business value. The potential losses to VW just swelled by another magnitude.

Iceland’s new PM expects elections this fall
Rather than dissolving the government, the former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson’s coalition partners negotiated the appointment of Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson as his replacement after Gunnlaugsson’s Panama Papers-driven resignation. Johannsson said the coalition expects elections this autumn while continuing to focus on working on stability. That’s a nice way of saying the Progressive Party and the Independence Party are stalling for time to avoid a likely rout if elections were held today. Polling indicates the Pirate Party would stomp the other three major parties if a vote was held now.

MP and Official spokesperson of the Pirate Party Birgitta Jónsdóttir was interviewed by Democracy Now! about Iceland’s current political climate. Jonsdottir, a possible contender for PM, explained her country’s reaction to the Panama Papers’ revelations:

…What is in particular disturbing about the prime minister’s conduct in this matter is that the day before new laws took effect in Iceland about how you declare and how tax havens are dealt with, because Iceland is a part of a sort of a campaign, international campaign, to stop tax havens being a part of a solution on how to get away from participating in paying tax in your own country. He signed—his sold his wife his share for one dollar the day before the laws took effect. And that, in itself, seems highly dubious. And then, he has actually been using his wife as a shield and saying that people that are criticizing him are attacking his wife. I actually think that this guy is in some sort of meltdown, because his behavior in the last few days has been so outrageous that it seems like we are stuck in a satire by Dario Fo, you know, in a complete theater of the absurd. And I’m just so deeply humiliated on behalf of my nation that this is what the outside world is looking at. …

The feeling of betrayal is palpable. It’s a good read, do check it out in its entirety.

Odd lots

  • Massive breach exposes 55 million Philippine voters’ identities (The Register) — That’s Philippines’ Commission on Elections (COMELEC) *entire* database, which COMELEC claims doesn’t contain anything sensitive. Except for stuff like fingerprints and passport numbers. Oh, and all the information for half the entire country’s population.
  • China’s ‘Great Firewall’ architect reduced to using VPN during a speech (Shanghaist) — Oops.
  • Adobe patching a Flash zero-day (Naked Security) — Again. I know, I know, when will Flash die?
  • Climate change could lengthen Europe’s dengue fever season (Science Daily) — Longer, warmer summers will extend the season for Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito populations, the disease’s key infection vectors. Hey, you know what else might show up for longer periods of time, too? Zika, since it’s carried by Aedes aegypti.

Wow. It’s coffee break time already? Have at it. Catch you tomorrow morning!

Tuesday Morning: Changing the Tenor

Once in a while, I indulge in the musical equivalent of eating chocolate instead of a wholesome meal. I’ll listen to my favorite tenors on a continuous loop for an afternoon. I have a weakspot for Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Correlli, though the latter isn’t one of the Three Tenors.

Speaking of which, this video features a really bizarre event: the Three Tenors performing at Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium in 1994. Poppy and Barbara Bush are there in the audience, too. What a supremely odd venue! And yet these guys did a bang up job in such a huge, open space. Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma at ~1:05 is my favorite cut, but it’s all fun.

Now let’s change the tenor…

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates sides with FBI against Apple
Gates isn’t the best salesman for this job, promoting compelled software. Given Gates’ role as technology adviser to Microsoft’s current CEO Satya Nadella, how persistently invasive Windows 10 is, and Microsoft software’s leaky history, Gates comes off as a soldato for USDOJ. Do read the article; it’s as if Gates was so intent on touting USDOJ’s line that he didn’t bother to read any details about USDOJ’s demands on Apple.

UPDATE — 10:25 AM EST — Poor Bill, so misunderstood, now backpedaling on his position about Apple’s compliance. This, from a Fortune 100 technology adviser…~shaking my head~

Gates talks out of the other side of his face on climate change
Unsurprisingly, Bill Gates also looks less than credible when he pleads with students for an ‘energy miracle’ to tackle climate change. This is shameless: first, guilt-tripping minors in high school, second for the blatant hypocrisy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continues to hold investments in ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell because of their yields. Not exactly a commitment to alternative energy there. How’s that investment strategy working for you now, Gates?

Fossil fuel-based industries: wall-to-wall bad news
Speaking of crappy investments in dirty hydrocarbons, conditions are just plain ugly.

Office of Personnel Management’s CIO steps down
Donna K. Seymour stepped down from her role, the second OPM management team member to leave after the massive hack of U.S. government personnel records. She was scheduled to appear before Congress this week; that hearing has now been canceled by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Jason Chaffetz. Huh. That’s convenient. Wonder if she would have said something that reflected badly on a previous GOP administration? This bit from the linked article is just…well…

FBI Director James Comey called the hacks an “enormous breach,” saying his own data were stolen. U.S. authorities blamed China, which strongly denied the accusation before it said in December that it had arrested several “criminal” Chinese hackers connected to the breach.

Wow, I wonder what China could do if they had access to every U.S. government employees’ iPhone? Anybody asked Comey what kind of phone he carries?

That’s a wrap. I’m off to listen to something sung in a sweet tenor voice.

Friday Morning: Thank a Goddess

[image: Frigg Spinning Clouds, c. 1900, by John Charles Dollman via Wikimedia.org]

[image: Frigg Spinning Clouds, c. 1900, by John Charles Dollman via Wikimedia.org]

Yeah, you can thank Frīġe for her dæġ — Friday is her day. Frigg, Frea, or Freyja, has been lumped into sky-and-weather-goddesses category though I don’t recall running across a folktale about her actually doing weather-y stuff.

Hope you were prepared for snow if you live in eastern U.S.; Frigg won’t be as much help to you as a decent snow shovel. Same with keeping the kids busy on a snow day. Maybe you could coax them into writing a story about Frigg calling up a snow storm, replete with drawings?

Speaking of weather…and climate…
These news stories suggest snowpocalyptic events here in the U.S. aren’t the only unusual conditions affecting the way we do business today.

  • South African’s wine production will be affected by recent wildfires. Wonder if Australia’s will be, too? Oh definitely, by too much rain as well as drought and bushfires.
  • Milder than usual weather hurt retail spending in UK. Lucky for our former British overlords we’ve exported our Black Friday to give them a temporary boost in sales.
  • The worst drought in two decades spurs Zimbabwe to seed clouds. Ugh. Not good. If they’re seeding there, what happens to rainfall in Mozambique, Malawi, and Madagascar?

Note: My spell check app offers “snowpocalypse” and “snowpocalypses” after I wrote “snowpocalyptic” — even spell check insists mega-sized snowstorms are now a regular occurrence.

Dutch tech firm Philips’ sale of Lumileds division halted
No specific details were shared, but the Senate Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) blocked the sale of Philips’ California-based lighting component manufacturing subsidiary. Note the article refers to “Asian buyers,” and mentions further down the story that Chinese firms were involved in the buyers’ consortium.

Seems odd this sale was blocked by CFIUS, but not that of chipmaker OmniVision Technologies last May, or Freescale Semiconductor in March (though perhaps the previous owners of Freescale may have been a factor).

Military vendor for AV and building systems sold devices with backdoor
Not only a hidden backdoor, but packet sniffing capabilities found in the AMX brand NX-1200 model building controls device.

But backdoors are a good thing, right? No?

That’s a wrap on this week. Hope those of you along the east coast expecting heavy snow are prepared with ample alcoholic beverages for what appears to be a long weekend. Make an offering to Frigg and see if it helps. Offer another to the person who shoveled your snow.

The Great Transformation Part 9: The Rise of Fascism and Conclusion

Previous posts in this series:

The Great Transformation: Mainstream Economics and an Introduction to a New Series

The Great Transformation Part 1: The Market

The Great Transformation Part 2: More on Markets

The Great Transformation Part 3: Neoliberalism Before It Got Its New Name

The Great Transformation Part 4: Reaction and Counter-Reaction To Self-Regulating Markets

The Great Transformation Part 5: Polanyi on Marxian Analysis

The Great Transformation Part 6: Labor as a Fictitious Commodity

The Great Transformation Part 7: Land as a Fictitious Commodity

The Great Transformation Part 8: Money as a Fictitious Commodity
karl-polanyi
Chapters 17-19 of The Great Transformation discuss the increasing strains in society brought on by the self-regulating market through the 1920s. In the wake of WWI, the dominant industrial nations attempted to restore the institutions of the self-regulating market, including the gold standard. The demands of maintaining the gold standard in the face of rapid economic growth in some of those countries culminated in the Great Depression. I won’t discuss this part in detail, but two points. First, the central feature of the debacle was the impact of the gold standard, which prevented nations from acting to protect themselves and their citizens from deflation. Second, Polanyi does not discuss one of the most important causes of the debacle, the astonishing level of corruption and fraud in financial markets, levels that were not reached in the US economy again until the George Bush administration.

In Chapter 21 Polanyi tells us:

Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function. Hence, it was worldwide, catholic in scope, universal in application; the issues transcended the economic sphere and begot a general transformation of a distinctively social kind. It radiated into almost every field of human activity whether political or economic, cultural, philosophic, artistic, or religious. And up to a point it coalesced with local and topical tendencies. No understanding of the history of the period is possible unless we distinguish between the underlying fascist move and the ephemeral tendencies with which that move fused in different countries. P. 248, emphasis added.

The socialist solution was to apply human thought to the organization of society, trying to enact legislation and rules to control some of the worst effects of the self-regulating market, including fraud and corruption, and to increase the power of labor as a counterweight to corporate capitalism. This worked more or less in the US, where eventually the Great Depression wore off, leaving a superstructure of regulatory power that protected society from the worst excesses of capitalism. Of course, the US never adopted socialism, and the elites continued to work to reduce the power of labor and of the working people generally beginning immediately after WWII with the Taft-Hartley Act.

Polanyi says the fascist solution was to restore the market by means of rooting out democracy and democratic institutions and replacing them with totalitarian government. The citizens of fascist countries were stripped of their role in government and society, and became mere tools in the operation of the totalitarian movement.

This reeducation, comprising the tenets of a political religion that denied the idea of the brotherhood of man in all its forms, was achieved through an act of mass conversion enforced against recalcitrants by scientific methods of torture. P. 245.

There were fascist movements in most countries, regardless of religion, wealth, level of industrial development, form of government or any other factor. Whether they were successful, as in Germany and Italy, or not, as in the US, depended on a number of factors specific to each country. Polanyi says that the first signs of a movement towards fascism were:

… the spread of irrationalistic philosophies, racialist aesthetics, anticapitalistic demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the “regime,” or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic setup. P. 246.

In retrospect, these were symptoms of the crackup of the 19th Century global order and of the damage done to citizens and society through self-regulating markets. Polanyi says that Germany under Hitler was the first to recognize that the global structures created under the banner of the self-regulating market were falling apart, and set about helping in that destruction. Germany armed itself, and rejected all its obligations, both financial and under treaties, created under the previous global system. The other nations of the world, especially England, strangled themselves trying to restore that dead system. Among other things, Polanyi points to cuts to the army and navy, justified in the name of fiscal responsibility. It’s a fascinating story.

There is no point in discussing Polanyi’s conclusion, that in the wake of WWII there would be a great transformation from the dead structures of the 19th Century into a new form of world relations, one not based on markets. That didn’t happen, and we are still living under a system based on what Polanyi called the self-regulating market, Keynes called Lasissez-Faire, and Milton Friedman called classical liberalism. Today we call it neoliberalism.

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I’ll conclude this series with a couple of thoughts. First, it’s easy to compare Polanyi’s conditions supporting the rise of fascism in the early 30s to the changes in US society in the last 35 years. Several of the conditions are rampant in the US and other countries, encouraged by a large number of media, religious leaders, and political sources. For those of us who spend too much time reading this stuff, it is unnerving on its own, and Polanyi’s theory just adds to the upset.

Second, the neoliberal goal is to reduce citizenship to consumerism. The individual is stripped down from a participant in a society, with a role to play in government and in planning for the future. This is remarkably close to Polanyi’s statement about the reeducation of the citizen away from ideas about the brotherhood of man, which in turn bears an elegant but ugly similarity to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society. Even in context, Thatcher’s denial of the importance of relationships beyond home and family, her denial we citizens bear a joint responsibility for the shape of the future, is just as chilling as Polanyi’s description of reeducation into fascism.

Third, in several places in The Great Transformation Polanyi acknowledges the material benefits that have come from industrialization, and recognizes that the miseries previously inflicted on humanity as a whole in the frantic transition cannot be undone. That does not mean that we are prisoners of the elites, that we have to accept their demands for specific changes or for immediate change. It does not mean that we have to continue to inflict misery in search of more capitalist growth. We always have the option to choose other paths to the future. For Polanyi, writing in 1944, slowing the pace of change might have sufficed. Today there are more important things than the pace of change, such as global warming, which requires a completely different approach to our production system. It’s more important to our interests as a species than the accumulation of more wealth in the hands of the fabulously wealthy. But finally:

It’s hard to miss the optimism in Polanyi’s book. He is convinced that society can heal itself, ameliorating the damage done by unrestricted economic growth. It’s really hard to feel optimistic today.

Ten Billion: A Kick in the Ass We’ve Needed

[Note: You can join Professor Stephen Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST.]

If we learned a cataclysmic, extinction-level event was hurtling toward our planet, how would we respond? How should we respond if we know we can minimize the threat?

This is in essence the question asked of us by Ten Billion, a film based on Professor Stephen Emmott’s eponymous book. The film premieres this Saturday at 22:00 UTC on SkyTV.

I was fortunate to screen Ten Billion recently. Crafted by director Peter Webber, it deftly evokes Koyaanisqatsi (1982), its name based on the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” Ten Billion similarly shows us a world even more off kilter, its resources relentlessly consumed by humans. Where Koyaanisqatsi‘s Philip Glass score was reflective and elegiac, Ten Billion‘s Alex Heffes’ score underlines the mounting urgency of crises.

These crises are many, pegged directly to population growth and its corresponding rate of consumption. The film’s use of a timeline depicting past and future projections of population are effective, like watching the tipping point of a virus infecting its host.

Effective, too, are comparisons between recent and archival photos depicting the changes wrought by humans. Evidence of glaciation loss is horrific, as one example.

Photos of earth from the International Space Station remind us that we are all in this together. There is no escape, no way around this; this is home, and we must work together to save it.

My sole critique is about the diversity of “climate migrants” — so-called in the film, but we know now that many who flee political instability are really “climate refugees.” Ten Billion depicts the plight of peoples affected most by climate change. Most live closer to the equator, and are therefore darker skinned. They have been too easily ignored by light-skinned northern cultures. We see that now with the response to Syrian refugees, whose home country began to fall apart due to severe drought long before overt military action began against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS.

We also see the same blindness in western response to world-record typhoons Bopha, Haiyan, Hagupit, Koppu hitting the Philippines year after year; cyclone Pam nearly wiping away Vanuatu this past March; and the combination of severe drought and catastrophic flooding affecting Chennai, India even now. There is little if any news coverage here in the U.S., and a nominal amount in the U.K. and EU, as if Asians and Pacific Islanders don’t even exist though they number in the billions. We ignore our role in exporting not only manufacturing jobs but associated air pollution to India and China.

Ten Billion would have been more effective holding a mirror up to the pale faces of northern climes, forcing them to see they, too, are affected. Whites fled both New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ahead of hurricanes like Katrina. They fled the coast of New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy — some who stayed and returned to the affected area are still dealing with post-storm damage years later. There will be more internal climate refugees again whenever the next Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits U.S.

And there will be refugees from drought, when the need for water in states like California finally exceeds the ability of other states to sell and ship enough to meet the shortfall. We are not prepared to deal with this generation’s version of the Okies fleeing a new Dust Bowl.

Until the west — especially the U.S. based on its consumption habits and political reach — realizes its own pale skin is invested in these crises, it may continue to look the other way while making idle greenwashed gestures like COP21 in Paris this week.

I am on the fence about Emmott’s understatement about his own background in this film. If he had been more explicit about his role as a scientist, would the public take his plea in Ten Billion more seriously?

It’s important to note this film may be part of a growing trend — scientists bypassing the suffocation of politicized corporate media, in order to reach the public.

We’ve seen this recently with the op-ed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech senior water scientist Professor Jay Famiglietti, warning California only had one year of water left in its reservoirs. Famiglietti didn’t wait for a report issued from either NASA or academia to filter its way into the stultifying news reporting process. He cut out the middle men and wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times to convey urgency and effect immediate action.

Some will criticize this film as expository and hortatory, failing to provide solutions to the crises we’ve created. This is not that film. This is not meant to guide us toward help, when so many other scientists have already told us for decades what is wrong and what action we must take to minimize the threat to our planet and ourselves.

This film is meant to be a much-needed kick in the ass, to propel us to action appropriate to a cataclysmic, extinction-level event.

Because as Emmott says, in concise terms familiar to civilians and scientists alike, we’re fucked if do not take immediate, appropriate action.

You can join Professor Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST. Emmott also has an op-ed today in The Guardian.