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Archive for June 2013

Pay attention to experience: Do NOT trust government assertions

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Transparency is absolutely essential. Legislators must show their work. Congress must oversee—and use public hearings as much as possible—the Executive’s programs. Whistleblowers who expose corruption or egregious waste or dishonesty or outright stupidity and/or incompetence should be rewarded, punished only if their accusations are found to be baseless and also malicious (i.e., intent).

At any rate, if you had any doubts at all, those programs that they would tell you about but had to be oh so secret? Well, what they told us were lies—lies, lies, lies. Lesson learned: They cannot have secrecy any more, because when they have it, they use it badly. Now we know. No more secrecy. Transparency. Greg Miller reports in the Washington Post:

Amid the cascading disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance programs, the top lawyer in the U.S. intelligence community opened his remarks at a rare public appearance last week with a lament about how much of the information being spilled was wrong.

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on,” said Robert Litt, citing a line often attributed to Mark Twain. “Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of misinformation that’s come out about these programs.”

The remark by Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was aimed at news organizations. But details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have also often been misleading, erroneous or simply false.

The same day Litt spoke, the NSA quietly removed from its Web site a fact sheet about its collection activities because it contained inaccuracies discovered by lawmakers.

A week earlier, President Obama, in a television interview, asserted that oversight of the surveillance programs was “transparent” because of the involvement of a special court, even though that court’s sessions and decisions are sealed from the public. “It is transparent,” Obama said of the oversight process. “That’s why we set up the FISA court.”

A remark by Litt’s boss, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., has perhaps drawn the most attention. Asked during a congressional hearing in March whether the NSA collected data on millions of Americans, Clapper replied, “No, sir.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 8:59 pm

Paper animation: Un-believable!

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Via a post at WebUrbanist, and at that post has a couple more videos worth watching.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Why the Germans do not like NSA surveillance: Experience

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Malte Spitz writes in the NY Times:

BERLIN — IN May 2010, I received a brown envelope. In it was a CD with an encrypted file containing six months of my life. Six months of metadata, stored by my cellphone provider, T-Mobile. This list of metadata contained 35,830 records. That’s 35,830 times my phone company knew if, where and when I was surfing the Web, calling or texting.

The truth is that phone companies have this data on every customer. I got mine because, in 2009, I filed a suit against T-Mobile for the release of all the data on me that had been gathered and stored. The reason this information had been preserved for six months was because of Germany’s implementation of a 2006 European Union directive.

All of this data had to be kept so that law enforcement agencies could gain access to it. That meant that the metadata of 80 million Germans was being stored, without any concrete suspicions and without cause.

This “preventive measure” was met with huge opposition in Germany. Lawyers, journalists, doctors, unions and civil liberties activists started to protest. In 2008, almost 35,000 people signed on to a constitutional challenge to the law. In Berlin, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest data retention. In the end, the Constitutional Court ruled that the implementation of the European Union directive was, in fact, unconstitutional.

In Germany, whenever the government begins to infringe on individual freedom, society stands up. Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced firsthand what happens when the government knows too much about someone. In the past 80 years, Germans have felt the betrayal of neighbors who informed for the Gestapo and the fear that best friends might be potential informants for the Stasi. Homes were tapped. Millions were monitored.

Although these two dictatorships, Nazi and Communist, are gone and we now live in a unified and stable democracy, we have not forgotten what happens when secret police or intelligence agencies disregard privacy. It is an integral part of our history and gives young and old alike a critical perspective on state surveillance systems.

When Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister from 2005 to 2009, pushed for the implementation of the data-retention law, Germans remembered the Stasi’s blatant disregard for privacy, as portrayed in the 2006 film “The Lives of Others.” They recalled their visits to the Hohenschönhausen district of Berlin, the site of the former Stasi detention center.

They were reminded of the stories of their grandparents, about the fear-mongering agents in the Gestapo. This is why Mr. Schäuble’s portrait was often tagged provocatively with the phrase “Stasi 2.0.”

Lots of young Germans have a commitment not only to fight against fascism but also to stand up for their own individual freedom. Germans of all ages want to live freely without having to worry about being monitored by private companies or the government, especially in the digital sphere.

That was my motivation for publishing the metadata I received from T-Mobile. Together with Zeit Online, the online edition of the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit,I published an infographic of six months of my life for all to see. With these 35,830 pieces of data, you can follow my travels across Germany, you can see when I went to sleep and woke up, a trail further enriched with public information from my social networking sites: six months of my life viewable for everybody to see what exactly is possible with “just metadata.”

Three weeks ago, when the news broke about the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata in the United States, I knew exactly what it meant. My records revealed the movements of a single individual; now imagine if you had access to millions of similar data sets. You could easily draw maps, tracing communication and movement. You could see which individuals, families or groups were communicating with one another. You could identify any social group and determine its major actors.

All of this is possible without knowing the specific content of a conversation, just technical information — the sender and recipient, the time and duration of the call and the geolocation data.

With Edward J. Snowden’s important revelations fresh in our minds, Germans were eager to hear President Obama’s recent speech in Berlin. But the Barack Obama who . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 6:32 pm

A post every parent should read

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Peg Tyre, interviewed on educating your child, recommends five specific books and gives the reasons for each:

The education writer says many parents don’t understand how children learn and so don’t know what to look for in a school. She recommends five books to bring parents up to speed

The Good School educates parents about education. What prompted you to write it?

I’ve been an education journalist for many years and I’ve frequently stumbled on a nugget of knowledge, 10 pages into an academic article, that made me think, “I wish I had known this when I was making decisions about my own children’s schooling.” So I decided to write a book that takes research out of the academic silo and puts it in the hands of the people who need it the most, the parents.

School choice is the basis of a lot of school reform in the United States. Parents are supposed to choose the best school for their child. Money follows the child under state systems so the idea is that good schools thrive and bad schools wither. Improving schools by turning free market forces loose on them was an idea introduced by economist Milton Friedman.

The fatal flaw with that way of thinking is that our educational system is not a rational market. Far be it from me to second-guess Milton Friedman, but we don’t comparison shop for schools the way we do for air conditioners. We know more about air conditioners than we do about education. We don’t know what to look for in schools, let alone how to obtain that information. That’s got to change if we’re going to persist in this idea of unleashing free market forces on schools as a way to improve them.

Your own book is an entertaining introduction to education. The books you’ve chosen could be part of the advanced course. You’ve named five that every parent should read to get smarter about education. Let’s start with Proust and the Squid. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 3:54 pm

What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought

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Tom Englehardt introduces a piece by Peter Van Buren at TomDispatch:

Sometimes, it’s hard to grasp just how our world has been transformed since September 11, 2001. But here’s a little exchange at NBC Nightly News a few days back — just part of the humdrum flow of TV news-chat — that somehow caught my attention.  News anchor Brian Williams and Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell were discussing how the Obama administration was dealing with NSA leaker Edward Snowden, then reportedly somewhere in the bowels of Moscow’s international airport.  Here was the exchange:

“Williams: The U.S. can say whatever it wishes and the press secretary can get angry and so on, what real power does the United States have here?

“Mitchell:  It’s got a lot of leverage against Russia and China. They’re working behind the scenes, but short of rendition — and that’s not going to happen getting him out of Russia — there’s isn’t anything physical that they can do.  So they have to just exert the pressure and hope that diplomacy works, but Vladimir Putin is a tough customer.”

It was that reference to “rendition” — to, that is, the kidnapping of terror suspects by American forces (usually the CIA) off global streets (or highways or backlands) and their “rendering” to the United States, or to U.S. Navy ships in global waters, or to the prisons of allied regimes willing to torture any “suspect” and share whatever information (or misinformation) might be extracted with Washington. For a while, this practice was called “extraordinary rendition,” but it’s now so deeply embedded in our American world that it’s become highly ordinary rendition.  In any case, the implication of Mitchell’s passing comment was that the U.S. wouldn’t “render” someone from an airport in the capital of a major power, but if that wasn’t “going to happen getting him out of Russia,” I think it’s hard not to complete Mitchell’s sentence with something like “it might be a perfectly reasonable option for Washington in, say, Ecuador.”

We are, in other words, in a new world where practices that once would have shocked have become the norm of news and pundit chitchat.  TomDispatch, however, refuses to consider any of this “normal.”  We have over these last years regularly focused on the way Washington’s most oppressive powers have been wildly enhanced and on people we now know as “whistleblowers,” people like Bradley Manning, who saw something truly, unnervingly different in our American world and decided they just had to do something about it.TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren is one of them and today he considers what Snowden might be going through. Tom

Edward Snowden’s Long Flight
What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought
By Peter Van Buren

As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can’t help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn RadackDaniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I’ve never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.

I Am Afraid

Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you’ve uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.

In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. I didn’t expect the Department of State to attack me. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Tom Drake was similarly unprepared. He initially believed that, when the FBI first came to interview him, they were on his side, eager to learn more about the criminal acts he had uncovered at the NSA. Snowden was different in this. He had the example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly never doubted that the full weight of the U.S. government would fall on him.

He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty). He also knew what his government had done since 9/11 without compunction: it had tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it considered enemies into years of indefinite imprisonment, creating isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a pre-trial whistleblower. It had murdered Americans without due process, and then, of course, there were the extraordinary renditions in which U.S. agents kidnapped perceived enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11 horrors.

Sooner or later, if you’re a whistleblower, you get scared. It’s only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid. Would the Russians turn him over to Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?

Even if he made it out of Moscow, he couldn’t have doubted that the full resources of the NSA and other parts of the U.S. government would be turned on him. How many CIA case officers and Joint Special Operations Command types did the U.S. have undercover in Ecuador? After all, the dirty tricks had already started. The partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden’s story, had his laptop stolen from their residence in Brazil.  This happened only after Greenwald told him via Skype that he would send him an encrypted copy of Snowden’s documents.

In such moments, you try to push back the sense of paranoia that creeps into your mind when you realize that you are being monitored, followed, watched. It’s uncomfortable, scary. You have to . . .

Continue reading.

I’ve commented before that this level of vindictiveness is out of line and shows that some the power structure feels humiliated or threatened or exposed or some such: why else such enormous efforts to punish? Especially when the Administration itself is leaking classified material, as Chris Hayes pointed out.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 3:49 pm

An interview with Mindset author Carol Dweck

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UPDATE: I just found Carol Dweck’s book recommended (along with four others) as something every parent should read. Take a look. Then read the interview below, which will be more interesting.

I mention Mindset a lot, and I just came across this interview with Prof. Dweck:

Challenge-seeking, resilience and the right attitude towards failure are key factors in success, says the researcher and author of Mindset, who tells us about growth versus fixed mindsets, and how to change your brain

Could you describe the key conclusions of the research you wrote about in your book Mindset?

In my work I’ve discovered that people can have different mindsets about their talents and abilities, and that these mindsets make a big difference. Some people believe that their talents and abilities are fixed traits – they have a certain amount and that’s that. We call this a fixed mindset. But other people have a growth mindset. They believe that their talents and abilities can be developed through hard work, perseverance and mentoring.

We’ve found that when people have a fixed mindset they often shy away from challenges. For them, deficiencies are permanent and so they are afraid to reveal them. People with fixed mindsets are also not as resilient in the face of setbacks because, again, they see setbacks as impugning their underlying abilities. Challenge-seeking and resilience are key factors in success. As a result, people with fixed mindsets often don’t achieve as much in the long run.

People with a growth mindset don’t necessarily believe everyone is the same or that anyone can be Einstein, but they understand that everyone can develop their abilities and that even Einstein wasn’t Einstein until he put in decades of dedicated labour. These people see a challenge as something that helps you learn, and a setback as something that ultimately helps develop your ability. For this reason, people with a growth mindset often accomplish more in the long term.

Your work is based on a “meaning systems” approach to psychology. Please explain the theoretical context for your research and how it catalysed your interest in motivation.

Each mindset creates a whole psychological world or a “meaning system” for people. It’s called a “meaning system” because mindsets change the meaning of what happens to us. First, as I’ve suggested, the mindsets change the meaning of challenges. In a fixed mindset, a challenge is threatening because it can reveal deficiencies. In a growth mindset, a challenge is an opportunity to get better at something. Next, mindsets change the meaning of effort. Those with a growth mindset think if you have natural ability you shouldn’t need that much effort. Their belief is that things should come easily to people if they’re really smart. But those with a growth mindset understand that even geniuses have to work hard for their great discoveries and that effort, well-applied, will increase your abilities over time. Finally, mindsets change the meaning of failure. In a fixed mindset a failure is the worst thing that could happen. It discredits your ability, it’s something to run from, something to hide and even, we find in our research, to lie about. But in a growth mindset failure, while not welcome, is something you learn from.  It was fascinating for me to discover that these meaning systems could have such a profound impact on people’s motivation. Once I did, I was hooked.

Your conclusions were based on careful scientific study over many years. Can you please give us an outline of the research that went into your conclusions?

I’ve conducted 40 years of rigorous research, including experiments in the laboratory and large studies in field settings. I’ve done work that looks analytically at people’s reactions to challenges and setbacks, for example students grappling with difficult school transitions and even Israelis and Palestinians addressing their conflicts. I’ve published over a hundred papers; most of them are based on multiple studies. So, all told, my students, colleagues and I have conducted hundreds of studies with many thousands of people. We also have a longstanding line of research on how well-intentioned feedback – such as praise for intelligence or talent – can create a fixed mindset and actually undermine people. That work has had many far-ranging implications that we’ve explored.

Your conclusions upended conventional wisdom about praise and many other aspects of parenting, coaching and human resource management. Why do you think Western society developed some maladaptive motivational patterns? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 1:57 pm

Counterfeit (and often dangerous) foods are not rare at all

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I learned through reading the (wonderful) book Extra-Virginity, that extra-virgin olive oil is massively counterfeited, with hazelnut oil from Turkey for example. And all the major suppliers are actively engaged in making and selling counterfeit EVOO. That’s why, I suddenly realized, that I was able to buy Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil at Whole Foods for $9/liter, when actual production costs require a price more in the $20-$25 range, at least. I now buy only California estate-bottled EVOO: it costs more, but it is extra-virgin olive oil, not God knows what.

And then I read an article that listed the most commonly counterfeited supermarket foods, and high in the list was pomegranate juice, and I suddenly realized why the Whole Foods pure pomegranate juice was $4.50, while a bottled pure pomegranate juice was $10—and another brand, also bottled: $9.50. I now buy the expensive brand. When something is an incredible bargain, maybe it isn’t.

So I was very interest in this NY Times story by Stephen Castle and Doreen Carvajal:

GREAT DALBY, England — Invisible from the roadway, hidden deep in the lush English countryside, Moscow Farm is an unlikely base for an international organized crime gang churning out a dangerous brew of fake vodka.

But a quarter of a mile off a one-lane road here, tens of thousands of liters of counterfeit spirits were distilled, pumped into genuine vodka bottles, with near-perfect counterfeit labels and duty stamps, and sold in corner shops across Britain. The fake Glen’s vodka looked real. But analysis revealed that it was spiked with bleach to lighten its color, and contained high levels of methanol, which in large doses can cause blindness.

No one knows the harm done to those who drank it — or whether they connected any illness with their bargain vodka — but cases of poisoning have been reported throughout Europe, including in the Czech Republic, where more than 20 people died last year after drinking counterfeit liquor.

The Europe-wide scandal surrounding the substitution of cheaper horse meat in what had been labeled beef products caught the most attention from consumers, regulators and investigators this year. But in terms of food fraud, regulators and investigators say, that is just a hint of what has been happening as the economic crisis persists.

Investigators have uncovered thousands of frauds, raising fresh questions about regulatory oversight as criminals offer bargain-hunting shoppers cheap versions of everyday products, including counterfeit chocolate and adulterated olive oil, Jacob’s Creek wine and even Bollinger Champagne. As the horse meat scandal showed, even legitimate companies can be overtaken by the murky world of food fraud.

“Around the world, food fraud is an epidemic — in every single country where food is produced or grown, food fraud is occurring,” said Mitchell Weinberg, president and chief executive of Inscatech, a company that advises on food security. “Just about every single ingredient that has even a moderate economic value is potentially vulnerable to fraud.”

Speaking at a recent conference organized by the consulting firm FoodChain Europe, Mr. Weinberg added that many processed products contain ingredients like sugar, vanilla, paprika, honey, olive oil or cocoa products that are tainted.

Increasingly, those frauds are the work of organized international criminal networks lured by the potential for big profits in an illicit trade in which most forgers are never caught. The vodka gang boss, Kevin Eddishaw, was — but not before he had counterfeited liquor on an industrial scale, generating profits to match, according to investigators, who estimated that his distillery produced at least 165,000 bottles costing the British government £1.5 million, or $2.3 million, in lost tax revenue.

“He was living a very nice lifestyle,” said Roddy Mackinnon, criminal investigation officer for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, “a couple of properties, nice cars: a Range Rover, a Mercedes.”

Here at Moscow Farm, the gang used the production techniques of a modern-day factory equipped with at least £50,000, or $77,200, in equipment (while ignoring safety rules). Gang members bought bottles from the supplier of the real makers of Glen’s vodka, saying they were destined for Poland. When forged label prototypes printed in Britain were deemed unpersuasive, higher-quality ones were brought from Poland. The gang faked duty stamps on boxes.

“They tried to do as much as they could to replicate the real thing,” Mr. Mackinnon said. “They were very professional, there was attention to detail.”

So well was the secret plant hidden that it was detected only when someone suspected in another case led investigators there in 2009.

Though Mr. Eddishaw worked through intermediaries and used pay-as-you-go cellphone numbers, investigators tracked his calls, proving from the location where they were made that the phone belonged to him and linking him to a fraud that brought him a seven-year prison term.

The plot fits a pattern, identified by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, which says organized crime groups have capitalized on the economic downturn. . .

Continue reading.

Not to point it out yet again: Corporations will do absolutely anything to increase profits, and that includes killing people—not personally, of course, but in full knowledge of the product’s effects (e.g., the Ford Pinto’s exploding gas tank, cigarette manufacturers, counterfeit spare parts, credit default swaps, …  well, maybe that last one didn’t kill people). Notice how little differentiates the Mob from Corporations.

There is a reason we have to have regulatory agencies—and the Congressional oversight to make sure that they are getting the funding that they need and that they’re doing their jobs aggressively. Not this Congress, of course, and maybe not any Congress, but probably that’s what we should be aiming at, as a nation. Assuming we’re still interested in that sort of thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2013 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Business, Food, Law

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