“Shine On” original and March 2019 TCM song video

Star Sessions featured the Kansas City psych/soul/rock band Instant Karma on Monday, May 21, 2018, hosted by Chris Haghirian live at the Black Dolphin in the Crossroads Arts District. The musicians are Cole Bales on vocals and guitar, Cody Calhoun on guitar, Branden Moser on bass, Zach Harris on drums, and Caitlin Walker and Grace Griffin-Spain on vocals. This song is titled “Shine On.

TCM March 2019 featured the song on their trailer. Below are the trailer from TCM and the video of the band playing song live at Black Dolphin.

Live from the Black Dolphin. 3 minutes 27 seconds

TCM trailer for March 2019. 2 minutes

The beach nobody can touch

This is the story of one perfect beach.

There are hundreds of pristine white-sand beaches along the coast of Thailand, but one tiny bay, almost hidden by limestone cliffs, has obsessed the world.

For years, people would come in staggering numbers hoping to step into “paradise”. One day last year, it was shut down.

In the 1990s a film crew decided that Maya Bay, on the island of Phi Phi Leh in southern Thailand, was the kind of heaven-on-earth idyll where a group of people who wanted to rebuild society from scratch might settle.

The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was released in the year 2000. Based on the book by Alex Garland, it tells the story of a backpacker’s search for a legendary beach untouched by tourism. Obviously things turn sour in paradise.

Since then this tiny, but now iconic, strip of sand has topped bucket lists of people around the world consumed by wanderlust.

Already high, the volume of visitors to the area saw an astonishing spike in 2016 when Chinese tourists started coming in large numbers.

Boat after boat would pull up to the powdery white sand depositing tourists.

Many came to secure that perfect selfie. They expected a serene isolated spot, but what they found was noisy and crowded, bursting at the seams.

Tourists having their photo taken by a guide on Maya Bay before its closure

Tourists having their photo taken by a guide on Maya Bay before its closure

In peak tourist season this 300m-long shore was getting 3,500 visitors a day. More parade than paradise.

Boats lined almost the entire stretch, with more behind waiting to drop anchor. At times there was so little space on the sand that people would just stand around without being able to settle down and contemplate the view. Over time TripAdvisor reviews become increasingly exasperated by the crowds, with Maya Bay condemned as “filthy” and “disgusting”.

In 2018 local tourism operators and officials on Phi Phi island realised the numbers were unsustainable.

Maya Bay lies within a national park, and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation held a crisis meeting.

Despite concern from tourism businesses in the area, authorities successfully argued it should be shut down.

They argued that coral reefs were severely damaged and the ecosystem desperately needed time to recover.

On 1 June authorities imposed a demarcation line that boats could come up to but could not cross, and began patrolling the area so nobody could enter the bay precinct.

View incredible images and more of this article from the BBC.

‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports

The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yogurt containers and other items into recycling bins.

But in the past three months, half of these recyclableshave been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government.

It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse.

The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase ofplumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.

The huge Covanta incinerator just outside Philadelphia, located in Chester City, Pennsylvania, is sent about 200 tons of recycling material every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says.

Some experts worry that burning plastic recycling will create a new fog of dioxins that will worsen an already alarming health situation in Chester. Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to state health statistics.

The dilemma with what to do with items earmarked for recycling is playing out across the US. The country generates more than 250m tons of waste a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with about a third of this recycled and composted.

Until recently, China had been taking about 40% of US paper, plastics and other recyclables but this trans-Pacific waste route has now ground to a halt. In July 2017, China told the World Trade Organization it no longer wanted to be the end point for yang laji, or foreign garbage, with the country keen to grapple with its own mountains of waste.

Hugging the western bank of the Delaware River, which separates Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Chester City was once a humming industrial outpost, hosting Ford and General Motors plants. Since the war, however, Chester has been hollowed out, with an exodus of jobs ushering in an era where a third of people live in poverty.

The industry that remains emits a cocktail of soot and chemicals upon a population of 34,000 residents, 70% of them black. There’s a waste water treatment plant, a nearby Kimberly-Clark paper mill and a medical waste facility. And then there’s Covanta’s incinerator, one of the largest of its kind in the US.

Just a tiny fraction of the trash burned at the plant is from Chester – the rest is funneled in via truck and train from as far as New York City and North Carolina. The burning of trash releases a host of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter, which are tiny fragments of debris that, once inhaled, cause an array of health problems.

“The unfortunate thing in the United States is that when people recycle they think it’s taken care of, when it was largely taken care of by China,” said Gilman. “When that stopped, it became clear we just aren’t able to deal with it.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian website.

Once hailed as unhackable, blockchains are now getting hacked

More and more security holes are appearing in cryptocurrency and smart contract platforms, and some are fundamental to the way they were built.

Last month, the security team at Coinbase noticed something strange going on in Ethereum Classic, one of the cryptocurrencies people can buy and sell using Coinbase’s popular exchange platform. Its blockchain, the history of all its transactions, was under attack.

An attacker had somehow gained control of more than half of the network’s computing power and was using it to rewrite the transaction history. That made it possible to spend the same cryptocurrency more than once—known as “double spends.” The attacker was spotted pulling this off to the tune of $1.1 million. Coinbase claims that no currency was actually stolen from any of its accounts. But a second popular exchange, Gate.io, has admitted it wasn’t so lucky, losing around $200,000 to the attacker (who, strangely, returned half of it days later).

Just a year ago, this nightmare scenario was mostly theoretical. But the so-called 51% attack against Ethereum Classic was just the latest in a series of recent attacks on blockchains that have heightened the stakes for the nascent industry.

In total, hackers have stolen nearly $2 billion worth of cryptocurrency since the beginning of 2017, mostly from exchanges, and that’s just what has been revealed publicly. These are not just opportunistic lone attackers, either. Sophisticated cybercrime organizations are now doing it too: analytics firm Chainalysis recently said that just two groups, both of which are apparently still active, may have stolen a combined $1 billion from exchanges.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Blockchains are particularly attractive to thieves because fraudulent transactions can’t be reversed as they often can be in the traditional financial system. Besides that, we’ve long known that just as blockchains have unique security features, they have unique vulnerabilities. Marketing slogans and headlines that called the technology “unhackable” were dead wrong.

That’s been understood, at least in theory, since Bitcoin emerged a decade ago. But in the past year, amidst a Cambrian explosion of new cryptocurrency projects, we’ve started to see what this means in practice—and what these inherent weaknesses could mean for the future of blockchains and digital assets.

Read the complete article at Technology Review.

Florida is drowning.

A potential scenario of future sea level rise in South Beach, Miami, Florida. Photograph: Nickolay Lamm/Courtesy Climate Central

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Studies show that humans don’t respond well to abstract projections. This is no different in Miami, Florida. We overvalue short-term benefits, such as driving SUVs, burning coal and building waterfront real estate. We choose these extravagances even though they impede beneficial long-term outcomes, such as saving threatened species, or reducing the intensity of climate change.

Humans tend to respond to immediate threats and financial consequences – and coastal real estate, especially in Florida, may be on the cusp of delivering that harsh wake-up call. The peninsula has outsized exposure: nearly 2 million people live in coastal cities. On the list of the 20 urban areas in America that will suffer the most from rising seas, Florida has five: St Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach and Panama City. In 2016, Zillow predicted that one out of eight homes in Florida would be underwater by 2100, a loss of $413bn in property.

Aerial views of Miami and South Beach show high density construction on flat, sandy slivers of land. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts Miami streets will flood every year by 2070.

You will see the massive benefits of privilege, and the way it allows a homeowner, particularly a second home owner, to afford the risk. You will see emerging issues like Miami’s climate gentrification, where previously low-income neighborhoods like Little Haiti are rising in value and under pressure from developers because of their higher ground, resulting in the displacement of people and place-based culture. Haitian playwright and bookstore owner Jan Mapou recently told a reporter: “Gentrification is coming forcefully: developers buying the major corners, raising the rents, forcing renters onto month-to-month leases … We’re not against development or modernization … but respect the people living there, their culture, their history.”

“Real estate is a huge economic driver here,” Laura Geselbracht, a senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, said. “And it’s at risk from sea level rise. People don’t want to believe it. That’s a normal human condition – suspension of belief.

“If you’re not a millionaire and you own a property in a vulnerable area, it may be a wise decision to think about moving before the masses think about moving,” Geselbracht said. She also owns waterfront property on a canal in Fort Lauderdale, and is deeply invested in her community, but has cautioned her child not to expect the same lifestyle in the future.

It’s a high-stakes gamble. Consider innovative mitigation in action: raising roads, shoring up sea walls, adding pumps and drainage upgrades, beginning dredging projects, offering complex insurance structures. Proximity to these short-term solutions are not always pluses in a home buyer’s column, but acute reminders of vulnerability.

According to a 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, it’s not just houses that will flood, but also “roads, bridges, power plants, airports, ports, public buildings, military bases and other critical infrastructure along the coast”. Furthermore, the report indicates that financial markets have not accounted for this future downturn. The economic impact will be “staggering” and the window for towns to maintain creditworthiness and build resilience is “narrowing”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian.

‘Bodyguard to the stars’: the man helping Jeff Bezos fight the Enquirer

Gavin de Becker has spent decades protecting the rich and famous. Now he’s helping the Amazon CEO take on a tabloid.

The National Enquirer has his sexts and, it appears, saucy photos. His imminent divorce is the talk of Wall Street.

So Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, announced on Friday that he had turned to a singular figure for help – a “bodyguard to the stars” and Los Angeles-based security consultant named Gavin de Becker.

Bezos and his longtime wife, MacKenzie, are divorcing and the National Enquirer has revealed his extramarital affair with the television personality Lauren Sánchez. Writing on the website Medium, Bezos said the publisher of the National Enquirer had threatened to publish sexual photos he and Sanchez shared if he did not call off De Becker, whom Bezos described as an acquaintance of 20 years. De Becker, Bezos said, is still on the job with instructions “to proceed with whatever budget he needed to pursue the facts” related to the Enquirer’s possession of his communications.

By declaring his troubles so publicly, Bezos was operating straight out of De Becker’s playbook.

In his 1997 book The Gift of Fear,De Becker offered a strategy for dealing with extortionists. De Becker described the case of a client, a young actress, whose ex-boyfriend was demanding $50,000 for his silence about a private matter. He suggested she “kill the threat” by disclosing the matter to her parents so they wouldn’t learn it in “a tabloid’s way”

“Disclosing harmful information oneself is so radical an idea that most victims of extortion never even consider it,” De Becker wrote, noting that his firm has “a few cases” like that each year.

Read the complete article on The Guardian.

Moving to a new host. Followers please read.

Hi folks. I’m moving to a self-hosted site this week. Being on wordpress.com these past 10 years has been wonderful but it’s time to provide more content to my followers.

Current followers won’t receive email notifications of my new posts, unless you also subscribe to my new self-hosted site.This subscription service should be available within a week or so of moving to my new site punzhupuzzles.com

I invite all my followers and readers to come visit my updated site in the coming months. Thanks to all my readers and followers for making these past 10 years fun to post and a pleasure to meet you. Ted.

 

Special Report – Inside the UAE’s secret hacking team of U.S. mercenaries

Two weeks after leaving her position as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. National Security Agency in 2014, Lori Stroud was in the Middle East working as a hacker for an Arab monarchy.

She had joined Project Raven, a clandestine team that included more than a dozen former U.S. intelligence operatives recruited to help the United Arab Emirates engage in surveillance of other governments, militants and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.

Stroud and her team, working from a converted mansion in Abu Dhabi known internally as “the Villa,” would use methods learnt from a decade in the U.S intelligence community to help the UAE hack into the phones and computers of its enemies.

Stroud had been recruited by a Maryland cybersecurity contractor to help the Emiratis launch hacking operations, and for three years, she thrived in the job. But in 2016, the Emiratis moved Project Raven to a UAE cybersecurity firm named DarkMatter. Before long, Stroud and other Americans involved in the effort say they saw the mission cross a red line: targeting fellow Americans for surveillance.

“I am working for a foreign intelligence agency who is targeting U.S. persons,” she told Reuters. “I am officially the bad kind of spy.”

The story of Project Raven reveals how former U.S. government hackers have employed state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools on behalf of a foreign intelligence service that spies on human rights activists, journalists and political rivals.

The operatives utilized an arsenal of cyber tools, including a cutting-edge espionage platform known as Karma, in which Raven operatives say they hacked into the iPhones of hundreds of activists, political leaders and suspected terrorists. Details of the Karma hack were described in a separate Reuters article today.

An NSA spokesman declined to comment on Raven. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment. A spokeswoman for UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment. The UAE’s Embassy in Washington and a spokesman for its National Media Council did not respond to requests for comment.

The Raven story also provides new insight into the role former American cyberspies play in foreign hacking operations. Within the U.S. intelligence community, leaving to work as an operative for another country is seen by some as a betrayal. “There’s a moral obligation if you’re a former intelligence officer from becoming effectively a mercenary for a foreign government,” said Bob Anderson, who served as executive assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 2015.

While this activity raises ethical dilemmas, U.S. national security lawyers say the laws guiding what American intelligence contractors can do abroad are murky. Though it’s illegal to share classified information, there is no specific law that bars contractors from sharing more general spycraft knowhow, such as how to bait a target with a virus-laden email.

The rules, however, are clear on hacking U.S. networks or stealing the communications of Americans. “It would be very illegal,” said Rhea Siers, former NSA deputy assistant director for policy.

Read the complete article on Reuters here.

Now Your Groceries See You, Too

CHICAGO – MAY 25: Coke products are offered for sale at a Walgreens store May 25, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois. Coca-Cola Company today announced it would purchase Glaceau, the makers of vitaminwater, for $4.1 billion in cash. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

 

Walgreens is exploring new tech that turns your purchases, your movements, even your gaze, into data.

Walgreens is piloting a new line of “smart coolers”—fridges equipped with cameras that scan shoppers’ faces and make inferences on their age and gender. On January 14, the company announced its first trial at a store in Chicago in January, and plans to equip stores in New York and San Francisco with the tech.

Demographic information is key to retail shopping. Retailers want to know what people are buying, segmenting shoppers by gender, age, and income (to name a few characteristics) and then targeting them precisely. To that end, these smart coolers are a marvel.

If, for example, Pepsi launched an ad campaign targeting young women, it could use smart-cooler data to see if its campaign was working. These machines can draw all kinds of useful inferences: Maybe young men buy more Sprite if it’s displayed next to Mountain Dew. Maybe older women buy more ice cream on Thursday nights than any other day of the week. The tech also has “iris tracking” capabilities, meaning the company can collect data on which displayed items are the most looked at.

Crucially, the “Cooler Screens” system does not use facial recognition. Shoppers aren’t identified when the fridge cameras scan their face. Instead, the cameras analyze faces to make inferences about shoppers’ age and gender. First, the camera takes their picture, which an AI system will measure and analyze, say, the width of someone’s eyes, the distance between their lips and nose, and other micro measurements. From there, the system can estimate if the person who opened the door is, say, a woman in her early 20s or a male in his late 50s. It’s analysis, not recognition.

The distinction between the two is very important. In Illinois, facial recognition in public is outlawed under BIPA, the Biometric Privacy Act. For two years, Google and Facebook fought class-actions suits filed under the law, after plaintiffs claimed the companies obtained their facial data without their consent. Home-security cams with facial-recognition abilities, such as Nest or Amazon’s Ring, also have those features disabled in the state; even Google’s viral “art selfie” app is banned. The suit against Facebook was dismissed in January, but privacy advocates champion BIPA as a would-be template for a world where facial recognition is federally regulated.

Walgreens’s camera system makes note only of what shoppers picked up and basic information on their age and gender. Last year, a Canadian mall used cameras to track shoppers  and make inferences about which demographics prefer which stores. Shoppers’ identities weren’t collected or stored, but the mall ended the pilot after widespread backlash.

The smart cooler is just one of dozens of tracking technologies emerging in retail. At Amazon Go stores, for example—which do not have cashiers or self-checkout stations—sensors make note of shoppers’ purchases and charge them to their Amazon account; the resulting data are part of the feedback loop the company uses to target ads at customers, making it more money.

Originally published on The Atlantic here.

How to tax the rich

The Economist Magazine published this article on how to tax the rich. Good reading.

How to tax the rich. The Economist magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DURING HIS lesser-known run for president, which began in 1999, Donald Trump proposed levying a wealth tax on Americans with more than $10m. He may soon find himself campaigning on the other side of the issue. That is because Democrats are lining up to find ways to tax the rich. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who wants Mr Trump’s job, has called for an annual levy of 2% on wealth above $50m and of 3% on wealth above $1bn. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent new left-wing congresswoman, has floated a top tax rate of 70% on the highest incomes.

In one way these proposals are a relief. Left-wing Democrats have plenty of ideas for new spending—Medicare for all, free college tuition, the “Green New Deal”—that would need funding. Mainly because America is ageing, but also boosted by Mr Trump’s unfunded tax cuts, the debt-to-GDP ratio is already expected to nearly double over the next 30 years. If a future Democratic administration creates new spending programmes while maintaining existing ones, higher taxes will be necessary.

If revenues are to rise, there are good grounds to look first to the rich. Mr Trump’s tax cuts are just the latest change to have made life at the top more splendorous. Between 1990 and 2015 the real income of the top 1% of households, after taxes and transfers, nearly doubled. Over the same period middle incomes grew by only about a third—and most of that was thanks to government intervention. Globalisation, technological change and ebbing competition have all helped the rich prosper in recent decades. Techno-prophets fear that inequality could soon worsen further, as algorithms replace workers en masse. Whether or not they are right, the disproportionate gains the rich have already enjoyed could justify raising new revenues from them.

Unfortunately, the proposed new schemes are poorly designed. Ms Warren’s takes aim at wealth inequality, which has also risen dramatically. It is legitimate to tax wealth. But Ms Warren’s levy would be crude, distorting and hard to enforce. A business owner making nominal annual returns of around 5% would see much of that wiped out, before accounting for existing taxes on capital. That prospect would squash investment and enterprise. Meanwhile, bureaucrats would repeatedly find themselves having to value billionaires’ art collections and other illiquid assets. Eight rich countries have scrapped their wealth taxes since 1990, often amid concerns about their economic and administrative costs. In 2017 only four levied them.

There are better ways to raise taxes on capital. One is to increase inheritance tax, an inequality-buster that, though also too easily avoided, is relatively gentle on investment and work incentives when levied at modest rates. Another is to target economic rents and windfalls that inflate investment returns. Higher property taxes can efficiently capture some of the astronomical gains that landowners near successful cities have enjoyed. It is also possible to raise taxes on corporations that enjoy abnormally high profits without severely inhibiting growth. The trick is to shield investment spending by letting companies deduct it from their taxable profit immediately, rather than as their assets depreciate. (Mr Trump’s reform accomplished this, but only partially and temporarily.)

What about income tax? Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s boosters point out that a 70% levy is close to the rate that is said to maximise revenue in one notable economic study. In truth the study is notable because it is an outlier—one that ignores the benefits of entrepreneurial innovation or of workers improving their skills. France’s short-lived 75% top tax rate, which was scrapped at the end of 2014, raised less money than was hoped. America’s top rate of federal income tax is 37%; higher is clearly feasible, but it would be wise to keep change incremental.

Although there is scope to raise taxes on the rich, they cannot pay for everything, if only because the rich are relatively scarce. One estimate puts extra annual revenue from Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s idea, which applies only to incomes above $10m, at perhaps $12bn, or 0.3% of the tax take. Ms Warren’s proposal would raise $210bn a year, her backers say—but they assume, implausibly, limited avoidance and no economic damage. Ultimately, the price of ambitious spending programmes will be tax increases that are also far-reaching. The crucial point about a strategy for taxing the rich is to realise that it has limits.

I urge every reader interested in economics and world affairs to subscribe to The Economist magazine to access professional and thorough news reporting.

Trump’s golf course employed undocumented workers — and then fired them amid showdown over border wall

They had spent years on the staff of Donald Trump’s golf club, winning employee-of-the-month awards and receiving glowing letters of recommendation.

Some were trusted enough to hold the keys to Eric Trump’s weekend home. They were experienced enough to know that, when Donald Trump ordered chicken wings, they were to serve him two orders on one plate.

But on Jan. 18, about a dozen employees at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y., were summoned, one by one, to talk with a human resources executive from Trump headquarters.

“I started to cry,” said Gabriel Sedano, a former maintenance worker from Mexico who was among those fired. He had worked at the club since 2005. “I told them they needed to consider us. I had worked almost 15 years for them in this club, and I’d given the best of myself to this job.”

“I’d never done anything wrong, only work and work,” he added. “They said they didn’t have any comments to make.”

During the meetings, they were fired because they are undocumented immigrants, according to interviews with the workers and their attorney. The fired workers are from Latin America.

The sudden firings — which were previously unreported — follow last year’s revelations of undocumented labor at a Trump club in New Jersey, where employees were subsequently dismissed. The firings show Trump’s business was relying on undocumented workers even as the president demanded a border wall to keep out such immigrants.

Trump’s demand for border wall funding led to the government shutdown that ended Friday after nearly 35 days.

In Westchester County, workers were told Trump’s company had just audited their immigration documents — the same ones they had submitted years earlier — and found them to be fake.

“Unfortunately, this means the club must end its employment relationship with you today,” the Trump executive said, according to a recording that one worker made of her firing.

Eric Trump did not respond to specific questions about how many undocumented workers had been fired at other Trump properties and whether the company had, in the past, made similar audits of its employees’ immigration paperwork. He also did not answer whether executives had previously been aware that they employed undocumented workers.

The firings highlight a stark tension between Trump’s public stance on immigration and the private conduct of Trump’s business.

In public, Trump has argued that undocumented immigrants have harmed American workers by driving down wages. That was part of why Trump demanded a border wall and contemplated declaring a national emergency to get it.

But, in Westchester County, Trump seems to have benefited from the same dynamic he denounces. His undocumented workers said they provided Trump with cheap labor. In return, they got steady work and few questions.

“They said absolutely nothing. They never said, ‘Your Social Security number is bad’ or ‘Something is wrong,’ ” said Margarita Cruz, a housekeeping employee from Mexico who was fired after eight years at the club. “Nothing. Nothing. Until right now.”

To document the firings at the golf club, The Washington Post spoke with 16 current and former workers at the club — which sits among ritzy homes in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., 27 miles north of Manhattan. Post reporters met with former employees for hours of interviews in a cramped apartment in Ossining, N.Y., a hardscrabble town next door, whose chief landmark is the Sing Sing state prison.

Among those workers, six said they had been fired on Jan. 18. They and their attorney confirmed the other terminations.

Another worker said he was still employed at the club at the time of the purge despite the fact that his papers were fake. His reprieve did not last long, however. His attorney later said he was fired that night.

The workers brought pay stubs and employee awards and uniforms to back up their claims. They said they were going public because they felt discarded: After working so long for Trump’s company, they said they were fired with no warning and no severance.

Read the complete article here.

Three-year-old boy missing in woods for two days says friendly bear kept him safe

Casey Hathaway told family he hung out with a bear after he went missing near his grandmother’s North Carolina home. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A three-year-old boy who survived two nights alone in the woods in freezing conditions has told police and family he was helped out by a friendly bear that was with him the whole time.

Rescuers responding to reports of a baby crying found Casey Hathaway tangled up in thorny bushes, cold and soaked but safe on Thursday night. He had gone missing on Tuesday in conditions so bad the subsequent search had to be called off.

As it turned out, help – perhaps real, perhaps imaginary but certainly useful – was at hand in those woods in North Carolina, a state that is home to plenty of black bears. Craven county sheriff Chip Hughes said Casey “did say that he had a friend in the woods that was a bear that was with him”.

The claim was reportedly repeated by the boy’s aunt Breanna Hathaway. “He said he hung out with a bear for two days,” Hathaway wrote in a Facebook post. “God sent him a friend to keep him safe. God is a good God. Miracles do happen.”

Read the complete Guardian article here.

Fraudulent Tactics on Amazon Marketplace

A rival had framed Plansky for buying five-star reviews, a high crime in the world of Amazon. The funds in his account were immediately frozen, and his listings were shut down. Getting his store back would take him on a surreal weeks-long journey through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that began with the click of a button at the bottom of his suspension message that read “appeal decision.”

When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the US.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

Amazon is far from the only tech company that, having annexed a vast sphere of human activity, finds itself in the position of having to govern it. But Amazon is the only platform that has a $175 billion prize pool tempting people to game it, and the company must constantly implement new rules and penalties, which in turn, become tools for new abuses, which require yet more rules to police. The evolution of its moderation system has been hyper-charged. While Mark Zuckerberg mused recently that Facebook might need an analog to the Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes and hear appeals, Amazon already has something like a judicial system — one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.

Amazon’s judgments are so severe that its own rules have become the ultimate weapon in the constant warfare of Marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of intricate schemes to frame their rivals, as Plansky experienced. They impersonate, copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even bribe Amazon employees for information on their competitors.

And what’s a seller to do when they end up in Amazon court? They can turn to someone like Cynthia Stine, who is part of a growing industry of consultants who help sellers navigate the ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzantine rules by which Amazon governs it. They are like lawyers, only their legal code is the Amazon Terms of Service, their court is a secretive and semiautomated corporate bureaucracy, and their jurisdiction is an algorithmically policed global bazaar rife with devious plots to hijack listings for novelty socks and plastic watches. People like Stine are fixers, guides to the cutthroat land of Amazon, who are willing to give their assistance to the desperate — for a price, of course.

Read the complete article of The Verge here.

What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell

LawFare has a very interesting article on the Russian investigation and Donald Trump. Here is a very brief portion of the article written by Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books. The rest you may read at LawFare’s site here.

Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt asking me to meet with him about some reporting he had done. Schmidt did not describe the subject until we met up, when he went over with me a portion of the congressional interview of former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who was then my Brookings colleague and remains my Lawfare colleague. When he shared what Baker had said, and when I thought about it over the next few days in conjunction with some other documents and statements, a question gelled in my mind. Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks: collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and potential obstruction of justice by the president, on the other. But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?

Late last year, I wrote a memo for Schmidt outlining how I read all of this material, a memo from which this post is adapted.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that in the days following the firing of James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation of President Trump. It wasn’t simply the obstruction investigation that many of us have assumed. It was also a counterintelligence investigation predicated on the notion that the president’s own actions might constitute a national security threat:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

The following is an adaption of the memo I sent Schmidt. I have updated it in important respects in light of the reporting in the Times’s actual story. The analysis remains, however, tentative; I want to be careful not to overread the threads of evidence I am pulling together here.

The analysis that follows is lengthy and takes a number of twists and turns before laying out what I think is the significance of the whole thing. Here’s the bottom line: I believe that between today’s New York Times story and some other earlier material I have been sifting through and thinking about, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.

Read the complete article on LawFare.

This clever AI hid data from its creators to cheat at its appointed task

Depending on how paranoid you are, this research from Stanford and Google will be either terrifying or fascinating. A machine learning agent intended to transform aerial images into street maps and back was found to be cheating by hiding information it would need later in “a nearly imperceptible, high-frequency signal.” Clever girl!

This occurrence reveals a problem with computers that has existed since they were invented: they do exactly what you tell them to do.

The intention of the researchers was, as you might guess, to accelerate and improve the process of turning satellite imagery into Google’s famously accurate maps. To that end the team was working with what’s called a CycleGAN — a neural network that learns to transform images of type X and Y into one another, as efficiently yet accurately as possible, through a great deal of experimentation.

In some early results, the agent was doing well — suspiciously well. What tipped the team off was that, when the agent reconstructed aerial photographs from its street maps, there were lots of details that didn’t seem to be on the latter at all. For instance, skylights on a roof that were eliminated in the process of creating the street map would magically reappear when they asked the agent to do the reverse process:

The original map, left; the street map generated from the original, center; and the aerial map generated only from the street map. Note the presence of dots on both aerial maps not represented on the street map.

 

Although it is very difficult to peer into the inner workings of a neural network’s processes, the team could easily audit the data it was generating. And with a little experimentation, they found that the CycleGAN had indeed pulled a fast one.

The intention was for the agent to be able to interpret the features of either type of map and match them to the correct features of the other. But what the agent was actually being graded on (among other things) was how close an aerial map was to the original, and the clarity of the street map.

So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

In fact, the computer is so good at slipping these details into the street maps that it had learned to encode any aerial map into any street map! It doesn’t even have to pay attention to the “real” street map — all the data needed for reconstructing the aerial photo can be superimposed harmlessly on a completely different street map, as the researchers confirmed:

The map at right was encoded into the maps at left with no significant visual changes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the  complete article on TechCrunch here

Turning water into wine: how did simple H2O become a luxury commodity?

 

Fine Waters International Water Tasting Competition, in Machachi, Ecuador Photograph: Rodrigo Buendía/AFP/Getty Images

 

 

Over the last few years, an unusual and conspicuous sight has become commonplace in the cafes and eateries of Sydney’s inner suburbs: Frequency H20 Alkaline Spring Water. The water, which costs AUD$3.30 per 1 litre bottle, proclaims to be infused with the sound, light and literal frequencies of three very abstract “flavours”: Love (528Hz), Lunar (210.42Hz) and Rainbow (430-770THz).

Last year, Love became the first Australian water in nearly three decades to place first in the best bottled water category of the prestigious Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. Its creator, Sturt Hinton (not a typo; he’s ironically named after the desert), meets me in his local vegan fish and chip shop. It’s one of 400 stores he personally delivers his product to whenever stocks run low.

“It’s about lifting the spirits of the world, you know what I mean? And lifting my spirits,” he says. He was inspired to create Frequency H20 after a lengthy bout of crippling depression. “Just bringing delight to people, and it delivers this promise to consumers through having something so high quality and people can taste it. They can feel the difference. It’s clean, it’s light, they just love it. They love the idea. What a wonderful concept. Beautiful water.”

The story of Frequency H20 was enough to pique the interest of Katy Perry (whose management requested it during her recent Witness tour), Paris Hilton (now following @frequencyh2o) and the Veronicas, who share their appreciation online with such vigour they could be unofficial brand ambassadors. Following this year’s Berkeley Springs victory, the Australian government at large even took note, with Austrade selecting it for the official Commonwealth Games showcase. Though he claims to have invested $100,000 in its development, Hinton is unwilling to discuss the unique device he claims he designed (“It’s not like Coke is going to give up their trade secret.”) that produces his water by harnessing “the incredible natural alchemy of energised molecules”. He does acknowledge this nebulous air of naturopathy is central to its appeal. That and the trending but increasingly dubious belief that alkaline water is better for you than regular tap water.

In the luxury water business, a free good is repackaged and resold as aspirational. “I think it’s like the most marketable thing ever invented,” Hinton says.

The core of this concept of “fine water” might seem like a new phenomenon, but in fact it dates back to the Roman empire, where certain aqueducts were preferred, or even considered divine, and natural carbonated water was imported from Germania in earthen jars. The industrial revolution would literally poison the well, as drinking water became a vector for diseases like typhus and cholera. The rich could afford to have unspoiled water delivered from remote sources; poor people simply died until municipal chlorination in the early 20th century helped people live longer.

The story of water, then, is the story of the world – and the luxury industry is cashing in.

Hinton’s frequency-infused industry darlings are just the tip of the iceberg. Some premium waters such as Svalbarði, sold locally for A$115 per 750ml bottle, are literally made from icebergs harvested on expeditions to the Arctic Ocean. Water bottles with crystals in them and crystal-infused water like that of Australia’s Madam Dry (A$49.99 per 12 pack) are trends within a trend, inspired by Instagram’s wilderness of “wellness”, the regimens of Miranda Kerr and there’s that naturopathy again: Madam Dry lists what astrological sign the moon was traveling through when “brewing” commenced. Premium, luxury or fine water has even co-opted much of the wine industry’s terminology – “varietal”, “mouthfeel” “terroir” – as well as introducing some of its own. “Total dissolved solids”, for instance, is a measurement scale unique to understanding why and how a water tastes and even feels the way it does. Water from the Fiji Islands, with its TDS of 222, is said to be smooth and velvety. Water like Vichy Catalan from Spain, with its TDS of 3054, is said to be extremely salty and complex.

The phenomenon isn’t particularly new. In 2005, “water sommelier” Martin Riese caught the attention of the media when he created a water menu at Berlin’s First Floor restaurant after a guest complained about the taste of the water on offer. By 2008 he’d published Die Welt des Wassers (The World of Water); in 2010 he was certified by the German water trade association; and in 2013 he landed in Los Angeles, after receiving an O-1 visa for his “extraordinary knowledge of water”.

As the country’s first certified water sommelier, he launched a 45-page water menu at Ray’s & Stark Bar. Two days later, he was a national curiosity, covered on Good Morning America, Fox News and CNN, and even interviewed by television science presenter Bill Nye. He opened a $100,000 bottle of water for a tasting with Diplo and 2Chainz. He appeared on late night host Conan O’Brien’s show in September 2013.

“Pretty much every day, I have people rolling their eyes when they hear the words ‘water sommelier,’ and when I even tell them that I can match water to food, more eye-rolling starts,” Reiss says. But, he stresses, he is driven by a loftier goal. “I want to give value to water. When people understand that water is not just water, they might rethink their use of water.

You may read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper here.

What Foods Are Banned in Europe but Not Banned in the U.S.?

The European Union prohibits or severely restricts many food additives that have been linked to cancer that are still used in American-made bread, cookies, soft drinks and other processed foods. Europe also bars the use of several drugs that are used in farm animals in the United States, and many European countries limit the cultivation and import of genetically modified foods.

“In some cases, food-processing companies will reformulate a food product for sale in Europe” but continue to sell the product with the additives in the United States, said Lisa Y. Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety advocacy organization.

A 1958 amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits the Food and Drug Administration from approving food additives that are linked to cancer, but an agency spokeswoman said that many substances that were in use before passage of the amendment, known as the Delaney amendment, are considered to have had prior approval and “therefore are not regulated as food additives.”

In October, the F.D.A. agreed to ban six artificial flavoring substances shown to cause cancer in animals, following petitions and a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other organizations. The F.D.A. insists the six artificial flavors “do not pose a risk to public health,” but concedes that the law requires it not approve the food additives. Food companies will have at least two years to remove them from their products.

Here’s a short list of some of the food additives restricted by the European Union but allowed in American foods. Most must be listed as ingredients on the labels, though information about drugs used to increase the yield in farm animals is generally not provided.

These additives are commonly added to baked goods, but neither is required, and both are banned in Europe because they may cause cancer. In recent years, some American restaurant chains have responded to consumer pressure and removed them from their food.

Potassium bromate is often added to flour used in bread, rolls, cookies, buns, pastry dough, pizza dough and other items to make the dough rise higher and give it a white glow. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers it a possible human carcinogen, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the F.D.A. to ban it nearly 20 years ago. The F.D.A. says potassium bromate has been in use since before the Delaney amendment on carcinogenic food additives was passed.

Azodicarbonamide, or ADA, which is used as a whitening agent in cereal flour and as a dough conditioner, breaks down during baking into chemicals that cause cancer in lab animals. It is used by many chain restaurants that serve sandwiches and buns. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has urged the F.D.A. to bar its use. The F.D.A. says it is safe in limited amounts.

The flavor enhancers and preservatives BHA and BHT are subject to severe restrictions in Europe but are widely used in American food products. While evidence on BHT is mixed, BHA is listed in a United States government report on carcinogens as “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen.

BVO is used in some citrus-flavored soft drinks like Mountain Dew and in some sports drinks to prevent separation of ingredients, but it is banned in Europe. It contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, and studies suggest it can build up in the body and can potentially lead to memory loss and skin and nerve problems. An F.D.A. spokeswoman said it is safe in limited amounts, and that the agency would take action “should new safety studies become available that raise questions about the safety of BVO.”

These dyes can be used in foods sold in Europe, but the products must carry a warning saying the coloring agents “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” No such warning is required in the United States, though the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the F.D.A. in 2008 to ban the dyes. Consumers can try to avoid the dyes by reading lists of ingredients on labels, but they’re used in so many things you wouldn’t even think of, not just candy and icing and cereal, but things like mustard and ketchup,” marshmallows, chocolate, and breakfast bars that appear to contain fruit, Ms. Lefferts, the food safety scientist, said.

The F.D.A.’s website says reactions to food coloring are rare, but acknowledges that yellow dye No. 5, used widely in drinks, desserts, processed vegetables and drugs, may cause itching and hives.

The European Union also bans some drugs that are used on farm animals in the United States, citing health concerns. These drugs include bovine growth hormone, which the United States dairy industry uses to increase milk production. The European Union also does not allow the drug ractopamine, used in the United States to increase weight gain in pigs, cattle and turkeys before slaughter, saying that “risks to human health cannot be ruled out.” An F.D.A. spokeswoman said the drugs are safe.

Source: The New York Times article here.